Jared licked his dry lips. “What if you couldn’t . . . what if there’s no relief, no release?”
Blaed didn’t have to ask who Jared was talking about. “He never gets aroused. Never. But the rut has to be siphoned off somehow.” Blaed shuddered. “I think it’s best not to think about how he does it.”
“We’re running,” Jared said. “You know that.”
Blaed nodded. “We’re being hunted. I know that, too.”
“One of us serves Dorothea SaDiablo.”
Blaed digested this and nodded again. “At least one of us.”
Jared narrowed his eyes. “You’re thinking of Garth?”
“Hard not to.”
Jared scanned the countryside. Then he opened his inner barriers enough to make a strong psychic probe.
Nothing. Not even a pocket of emptiness that might have indicated a psychic shield. A lighter-Jeweled psychic shield, he amended. If there was a Red Jewel out there, he might not be able to sense it. But a Red wouldn’t go up against another Red. Not alone.
“Whom do you trust among us?” Jared asked suddenly.
“Besides Lia? Thera. Thayne because we grew up together. You.”
Jared hesitated but had to ask. “Do you trust Thera because you’re attracted to her or because you truly believe she’s not a danger?”
“Oh, she’s a danger,” Blaed replied, “but not to Lia.” He paused, then chose his words as if he were picking his way over rough ground. “Even when they were both trying to deceive everyone with those illusion spells, I think they recognized something in each other, something that made them friends despite the deception. Hell’s fire, Jared. Right from the start, they quarreled like friends who just couldn’t see eye to eye. So, yes, I trust Thera. Besides, I think she’s the kind of witch Dorothea would see as a rival, not a tool.”
Jared thought that over and, reluctantly, had to agree. “What about the children? Do you trust them?”
Blaed shook his head. “Too vulnerable. Useful as a weapon against us, though, unless you can hold Lia down during an attack.”
“What’s in our favor is that Dorothea’s pet has to be in a constant cold sweat by now.”
“Why?” Jared asked, curious.
Blaed made that amused snort. “Jared, do you know where we’re making camp tonight?”
Jared thought about it for a moment and huffed. “No.” Then he started to sweat. Hedidn’t know. Lia wandered off the main roads for no reason he could figure out, sometimes wandered off the roads altogether for a little while whenever the terrain permitted. Always heading north or northwest, true, but this was rolling countryside, sufficiently wooded to provide plenty of hiding places for a pedlar’s wagon and a small group of people. If a man didn’t know where to look for her . . .
He’d assumed he’d be able to catch up to them if he left for a few hours. He’d assumed he’d be able tofind them.
“Have we got any spare rope?” Jared asked.
“We’ve got the leads we were using for the saddle horses. Why?”
“I’m thinking of tying one end around Lia’s waist and the other end around mine.”
Blaed chuckled. “Better make sure it’s long enough for her to go into the bushes by herself.”
“Maybe,” Jared growled.
Blaed’s laughter stopped almost before it began. The roan mare snorted and danced as his hands tightened on the reins. Something predatory flickered in his eyes.
Jared started probing, searching. “What’s wrong?”
“Thayne,” Blaed said through gritted teeth. “He says Thera and Lia are snapping at each other. Everyone’s uneasy.”
“Damn!” Jared dug his heels into the gelding’s sides a second after Blaed kicked the mare into a full gallop.
*Blaed,* Jared said a minute later as they charged up the hill and swept past an anxious-looking Thayne. *We’ve got two lead ropes.*
Blaed bared his teeth. *That suits me just fine.*
Yes, Jared thought as he and Blaed dismounted and strode toward the quarreling women. That would suit both of them just fine.
Jared picked up a fist-sized rock and threw it as hard as he could. The midday meal he’d eaten an hour ago felt as hard as that rock in his stomach. Even the honey pear, ripened to perfection, had tasted bitter.
Fool. Thrice-times fool!
What was he doing here? He could have been with his family now. He could have talked to Reyna. He could have beenhome instead of walking along another of these excuses for a road.
He could have been in his mother’s house again and, if she’d been willing to forgive him, could have felt her arms around him, easing the hurts and worries like she used to do when he was a boy. Mother Night, how he’d missed being held by Reyna.
He threw another rock.
Lia hadn’t expected him to come back. He’d seen it in her eyes before she could hide it. She’d expected him to grab the chance of a little distance, catch the Winds, and disappear.
That’swhy she had given him all those marks.That’s why she had intended to send him alone.
What would she have done when he didn’t return? Ride into the village herself to buy whatever she could with the remaining marks?
Had Thera guessed? Was that why she’d insisted on Blaed going with him? So that Blaed could return with the gelding and supplies?
Well, if Lia was going to let one male slip the leash, why not all of them? They wouldn’t assume it was because he outranked her. Any man who had worn a Ring of Obedience knew how well it could control a darker-Jeweled male. Or would they assume he’d been able to slip the leash because he wore the Invisible Ring?
Which was the point, damn it!He wore a Ring . So it wasn’t the Ring of Obedience. She’d placed a Ring on him, and even if his body couldn’t feel it, his heart did—and that Ring got heavier with every step he took away from a fast journey to Ranon’s Wood.
But it wasn’t the Invisible Ring that held him back. The fact that she had expected him to escape was proof enough that she didn’t intend to use it to control him. What really kept him here was the debt he owed Lia—his strength on the journey in exchange for the freedom she’d purchased.
And, damn her, she had hurt him. The witches who had owned and used his body had never been able to hurt him as deeply as she had.
He watched Blaed canter toward him. He must have fallen so far behind someone had started to worry. Not Lady Ardelia, of course.