Excerpt: Willing Sacrifice, Chapter 3

Willing SacrificeTorr woke up inside a dimly lit hut with Brenya’s face hovering only inches above his. Even this close he couldn’t tell her age, but she looked older than when he’d last seen her, and more tired.

Movement within her eyes caught his attention, reminding him that this woman was not Sentinel or human. She was Athanasian—an ancient race of beings who’d birthed his kind as well as the Sanguinar and Slayers.

She didn’t blink, and he swore her irises looked exactly like leaden waves kicked up by a storm.

Like all the Athanasians he’d met, there was an unearthly quality to her—a kind of power that radiated out of her that he could only imagine possessing.

The disorientation cleared, and the spinning in his head slowed until he remembered where he was. “Did I kill the lizard?”

“Yes. We will eat well tonight,” she said, easing back out of his personal space. Bits of fur and feathers were laced through her long silver hair. It swept over his bare chest as she moved, and the branches of his lifemark—the image of a tree embedded in his skin—trembled in response to her power.

Torr stomach heaved, and he wasn’t sure if it was the thought of eating the giant lizard, the concussion, or Brenya’s nearness that caused it. He swallowed down his nausea. “Is everyone okay?”

“Yes.”

“Even Grace? Is she alive?”

Brenya paused, frowning as if searching for the right words. “Parts of her are.”

He was stunned silent for a moment, trying to figure out if he was hearing her correctly or if his concussion was playing tricks on him. “Parts?”

“It is too complicated for someone of your limited abilities to understand.”

His mind went to a dark place where Grace’s body had been ripped apart, the pieces harvested for organs.

While he knew that someone as selfless as Grace would have wanted no less than to save others in her death, the idea infuriated him.

His voice came out cold and edged with steel. “Then use small words.”

The older woman pressed her lips together in irritation, as if dealing with a whiny child. “I tried to restore her. Make her whole. But she had given too much of herself to heal you, and there was nothing more I could do.”

Nothing more . . . The words were a bleak echo in his head.

“Is she . . . dead?”

“In part.”

This was not the time to be fucking with him. Frustration, grief and fear prowled under his skin, too close to the surface to hide. His voice was a cold whip that lashed out at her. “You’d better start making sense. Fast.”

Irritation tightened Brenya’s mouth until tiny lines formed. She was silent just long enough to remind Torr that he held no control here.

“Some of the woman you knew lives on. Some of her did not survive my efforts to heal her and are lost forever. And some of her lingers between life and death, struggling for survival even now.”

What the fuck did that mean? “I want to see her.” Maybe if he did, he could make sense of what Brenya was telling him.

“No.”

He tried to sit up, but the spinning in his head had him thinking twice about the move. The last thing he needed was to show weakness and convince Brenya that he couldn’t handle the truth of what had happened to his Grace.

Brenya pushed him back down, and the instant she touched his skin, the crescent-shaped mark she’d left on him a few months ago burned.

“Why the hell not?” he demanded.

“You will want to be her heart, but the parts of her that loved you are gone from her. She will not know you.”

“Not know me? Of course she’ll know me. She nearly died to save me.”

“Memories of you are one of the many things lost to her.”

“You don’t know that. Not for sure. She hasn’t even seen me yet.”

“I do know. The healing I did bound us inextricably. I’m part of her now, as she is of me. I know her mind. And you, young warrior, are no one to her now.”

Those words, delivered without warmth or pity, hit him harder than any wound he’d ever suffered. His voice cracked with pain. “You’re wrong. Let me see her and I’ll show you how wrong you are.”

“What will you do if you see her? Confess your love? Demand that she remember a man who is no longer a part of her mind? Grace is still weak. All your words can do now is damage her more.”

“I’d die before I’d hurt her.”

“Then give me your words. Pretend you do not know her. Speak nothing of her past. Stay silent until you see that what I say is true.”

“Whatever you want. Just let me see her.” He had to see her with his own eyes, to know she was safe. And no matter what Brenya thought, the bond that he and Grace had went deep. She’d been willing to die for him.

She nearly had. No matter how much she’d changed, she couldn’t have forgotten him.

“Vow it,” demanded Brenya, the stormy waves in her eyes rising.

“I swear. I won’t say a word to her until you allow it.”

As soon as the words left his mouth, the weight of the vow he’d given bore down on him, making it hard to pull in his next breath. Even if he wanted to speak to Grace, the magic binding him to his word would make it impossible.

“Lie still,” ordered Brenya. “I will bring Grace to tend your wounds so she will not question why she is here. If you do anything to upset her, I will fling you back to your world and never call on you again. Grace will live out the rest of her years here, never to see you again. Do you understand?”

“I do. I promise I’ll be good.”

Sadness made Brenya’s strange eyes tilt downward. “I wish that goodness could be repaid by something other than disappointment.”

“Grace has never once let me down. She’ll remember me.”

“That Grace—the one you think you know—is gone. The sooner you accept that, the less pain you will suffer.”

He didn’t care how much pain he had to endure. Grace was worth whatever price he had to pay to have her back again. And this time he wouldn’t squander the gift she was. Nicholas was right that her human life would be only a brief moment of time to Torr, but he would relish every second and spend what time there was making her the happiest human who’d ever drawn breath.

Brenya let out a long, sad sigh. “I had hoped you would have chosen the easier path. I see the folly in that now.” She stepped across the room and sat on a stone stool. “Brace yourself, young warrior.”

Anxiety and excitement buzzed along Torr’s veins. The pain of his wounds was still there, but none of that mattered. Grace was alive. Nothing could diminish the relief that gave him. Even if she was weak from risking her life for his, even if she was no longer quite herself, he didn’t care. She was still his Grace, and the side effects of her sacrifice for him could not possibly make him love her less.

Torr found the strength to push himself upright just as the door opened, letting in dusty shafts of sunlight. He refused to squint at the sudden brightness. He didn’t want to wait even one more second to see her again.

“You summoned me, Brenya?” Grace asked in a quiet, sweet voice he would have recognized anywhere.

He still couldn’t see her from this angle. She was standing outside of the doorway, blocked from view. Still, his entire body became alert, every cell standing at attention in response to her nearness.

The need to see her—to see proof with his own eyes that she was alive—nearly drove him to his feet. Only his worry that he might topple over and embarrass himself kept him pinned in place.

Brenya waved toward him. “This man was injured slaying the beast. Tend him.”

“Yes, of course.”

Grace stepped into the hut. The door shut. His eyes adjusted to the dimness almost immediately, revealing a slight glimpse of the side of her face.

Her hair was longer now. Much, much longer. Soft black curls fell nearly to her waist.

There hadn’t been time for her hair to grow that long, had there? She’d only been gone for seven months.

Some bit of stored knowledge tickled the back of his mind, but his head was throbbing too much for him to grasp the thought.

Her arms and legs were bare beneath a short leather tunic, showing off muscles he was certain hadn’t been there before. His Grace had always been softly rounded, with curves that made him pant with need. The leaner, harder body he saw now was proof that she had changed.

Maybe food was scarce here. Maybe that was why Brenya had seemed so pleased about a giant pile of lizard meat.

Just the thought of Grace going without the basic necessities was enough to make a sudden wave of anger swell in his gut.

Never again. So long as he lived, Grace would never go hungry again. And even though his vow was silent, its weight was as solid and real as if he’d spoken the words aloud.

She turned to face him then, and he was struck breathless. Her beauty was so brilliant and glowing it made him feel the need to shield his eyes. Those sweet brown eyes of hers, always so filled with sincere concern, were just as he remembered. Her skin was a bit darker from sun exposure, but still as flawless and smooth as in his dreams. Her hands were adorned with intricately knotted fiber rings and bracelets, but her slender, gentle fingers had touched him too many times for him not to know them instantly.

Had he not given Brenya his vow of silence, he would have still been struck speechless. Endless days of wondering if she was safe—if she was in pain—were finally at an end.

His Grace was alive, and everything inside of him wanted to rejoice.

He gripped the side of the cot he sat on, hoping to prevent himself from sweeping her up in his arms.

He’d told Brenya that he would never do anything to hurt Grace, and he meant every word. No matter how hard it was for him to restrain himself, he would find the strength to pretend he didn’t know her.

She offered him a tentative smile that showed no hint of recognition. “The village hero. I’ll have you patched up in no time. Where do you hurt?”

Torr remained silent and glanced at Brenya.

“He can’t speak, child. His throat was injured. I’ll see to that later. You tend the wounds you can see.”

Grace’s gaze swept over him, taking in his cuts, burns and bruises. Her visual journey slowed as she saw his lifemark, then again as she noticed the crescent-shaped mark Brenya had burned into his skin. She studied his face, brushing his hair away from a shallow wound across his forehead.

Sympathy warmed her brown eyes, and her touch was so gentle it nearly brought tears to his eyes.

He hadn’t been able to feel all those times she’d touched him before, seeing to his care as he lay trapped inside his paralysis. He’d lived for the times she’d shaved his face or trimmed his hair, reveling in even the slightest contact he could actually feel.

Now he was whole, feeling everything, because she had saved him. Surely that had left some kind of mark on her—some connection that even Brenya couldn’t predict.

Torr kept waiting for her to show some sign that she knew who he was—some tiny spark to light her eyes the way it used to whenever she’d come into his suite back at Dabyr—but that sign never came.

Brenya was right. Grace didn’t know him anymore. She’d sacrificed herself to save him, and yet he was no more to her now than a stranger.

She crossed to the far side of the hut and began opening wooden boxes, taking out strips of cloth and other supplies. Something hot and vital shriveled in Torr’s chest. He tried to fight back the swell of grief and rage that rose up within him, but it was a lost cause.

He’d gone through every scenario he could conceive, imagining her whole and healthy, running into his arms, unconscious as he’d last seen her, paralyzed as he’d been. He’d even pictured her dead when he could no longer control himself enough to keep that image away. He’d suffered through countless strings of chaotic emotions that each daydream and nightmare had caused. But never once had he thought that she wouldn’t know him, that he would mean nothing to the woman he loved.

A low, animalistic moan of pain escaped before he could stop it.

Grace dropped what she was doing and rushed to his side. Her warm fingers settled on his bare shoulder, and every fiber of his being rose up in welcome.

He would have known her anywhere. By her touch, by her scent, by the sound of her voice and even by the taste of her lips. She was a part of him that went deeper than anyone else he’d ever known, which made her stranger’s gaze feel like a betrayal.

Torr covered her hand, pinning it in place so she couldn’t move away. He stared into her eyes, silently willing her to see his soul. To see his love for her.

All he got in return was more of her tender concern—the kind she would have given to anyone she met.

“You’re in pain, aren’t you?” she asked. “Let me go and I’ll get you something that will help.”

Nothing could help him now. The Grace who’d loved him was gone, just as Brenya had said, and no painkillers were ever going to make that okay.