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"Shalandra, join me at my fire tonight?" Daren asked her as she walked by.
"Every night you ask me that, and every night I give you the same answer: No!"
"Come now, Shally, give old Daren a chance," Varn said returning from sentry duty and recognizing the usual charade. "We know you want him as much as he wants you."
"That, my good Varn, is not true. Your friend Daren could just as easily find another girl to bother with his male urges." Shalandra smiled pleasantly at Daren, who lounged by his fire, his handsome features set in an honestly hurt expression. Shally knew there was no truth in it.
But this time instead of accepting her refusal, Daren stood and blocked her path. She made a move to pass, but his well-muscled body swiftly barred her way. Almost irritably he pushed back the lock of blond hair that constantly fell in front of his eyes.
"What are you going to do, Daren? Force me?" she said furiously. His cold expression gave her pause. This wasn't the jesting young man she knew; the laughing blue eyes now boiled with anger.
"Enough, Shalandra, I'm not going to let you spit on my name any longer. Maybe in your eyes I'm not the perfect man, but neither is any other man in all of Enor. You call me troublesome when all I want is to talk to you and get to know you better. You act as though you're better than everyone else and that every man lusts for you. You shouldn't assume so much, Shalandra."
Mouth agape, Shalandra watched as Daren stormed off. She was torn between following him or tramping off in the other direction. Typically, she did neither.
"He must really like you. I've haven't seen him like that since he was 16 and fell in love with the miller's daughter," Varn said.
"And what became of this miller's daughter?" Shalandra asked.
"She was killed in the war," Varn shrugged.
Her mouth curved into a delicate A0'. Shalandra felt as low as horse dung. How could she have judged Daren so wrongly? As she made her way to her tent, she avoided the gaze of the other soldiers. In the solitude of her tent she unbuckled her sword belt and lay upon her bedroll staring at the canvas ceiling. She didn't mean to hurt him. Shally did like Daren and found his nature oddly compelling. But she didn't believe she was the only one he wanted and she wasn't prepared to be with a man as carefree with the girls as he seemed. Could he be that different from the way he appeared?
There was no chance to mend the broken hearts on the morrow. The cultists following the evil god, Raivan, made their move. Daren and Shalandra were both in the squad of Mear, the second in command next to Taldrien, their Commander of War. Normally the huge Mear had a jest or two for his troops, but today his face was sullen. Shally took that as a bad sign and prepared to meet her death like so many others in this endless war. Oh good Mieras, protect your children, she prayed as they charged on their horses, joining the melee of fighting.
In the midst of the battle, Daren and Shally found themselves separated from their companions and surrounded by a group of cultists. Daren looked into her green eyes, wordlessly expressing his farewell. Shally thought she saw something else, something she had never seen before in his blue depths. He seemed strangely complete for the first time. But Shally had no time to ponder further; the cultists were closing in.
With a war cry for Mieras they fought side by side for their lives. After twice as long as Shally expected to live, she heard Varn's yell rise up and answered him with her own. Frigid pain shot up her arm under her mail. Her attacker's sword grated in a hideous screech against the bone in her shoulder. He sneered as the blood oozed from her mortal wound. Shally didn't have time nor strength to parry his next blow and prepared to embrace Mieras' deadly mistress. But the arcing sword never made its mark - with a foul oath, Daren killed her attacker. Shally's horse's knees buckled; another cultist had driven his sword deep into its chest.
"Jump!" Daren's panicked cry cut through her hazy, pain-filled conscious. She leaped to Daren, her sword somewhere on the ground had fallen from her senseless hand. Already she felt the poison the cultists used searing through her veins. Clutching Daren's waist, Shally tried to concentrate only on staying on his horse.
By now, she noticed through her failing vision, Varn had hacked his way to them.
"Thank Mieras you're here!" Daren said looking back at Shalandra. His breath caught in his throat as she looked back at him, her face pallid and eyes glassy and dull. "Varn! I've got to get her back. He had a poisoned blade." His voice rose to a hysterical shriek. He plunged toward the camp, blindly slashing at the enemy. When he reached the camp, Shally was fighting a losing battle for consciousness. Tears streaming down his face, Daren laid her on a healer's cot and yelled for help.
Shally looked up at him at his face smeared with blood and tears.
"Daren" her words broke into a cry as the healer began to remove her mail. She fainted before she could say more.
The room slowly came into focus. For a moment she was disoriented. Then with a moan she remembered everything.
She turned to see a stil-dirty Daren holding her hand. He gently stroked her red hair. "Dear Mieras, I thought I'd lost you."
"And that would be a bad thing after the way I treated you?" Shally laughed, which was a mistake, the pain making her gasp.
"You dolt! You'll reopen the wound," Daren said, leaving the question unanswered.
"Sorry. Don't you ever take a bath?" Shally commented, her hand going to his soiled face. His hand held hers to his cheek.
"We tried to make him sleep, but he's stubborn. We got him to eat, though it only took three of us and the commander," the healer giggled as she left the tent.
He smiled, caressing her cheek. His touch sent delightful shivers up her spine.
"Next time, tell me when you're about to let a cultist hack off your head," he whispered. Shally closed her eyes enjoying the unexpected sensations his delicate fingers produced. She felt soft, moist lips upon hers. He moved his mouth to her ear. "Because I love you, Shalandra." Shally answered in the only way her pounding heart and constricted throat would allow at the moment.
"Never again, Beloved." Her eyes sparkled to match his. Her missing piece was in place. 1