And probably cut her throat.
Hauk cradled her against his chest, amazed at how little she weighed. Especially given her height. She was a lot taller than the average human woman. Andarion females were normally well muscled and stout. They had a nice heft when you picked them up, and like the other males of his species, Hauk preferred a female he didn’t fear crushing. One who would be physically able to enjoy and return the fierce passions of an Andarion male. Underneath her poncho and loose pants, she must be as scrawny as Kiara or Thia.
Careful not to hurt her more, he carried her back to camp, where the kids were waiting.
While it was the Andarion way to argue over any little thing, he’d spent enough time among humans or alone that he now craved a modicum of peace once in a while.
Silence would be even better.
As soon as he entered his tent, Thia opened his pallet so that he could lay the woman down. “I already got the medical pack and water.”
“I told her not to waste supplies on someone so pathetic they couldn’t protect themselves. But she didn’t listen.”
Thia shoved at Darice.
He shoved back.
“Stop it!” Hauk snapped at them.
The scent of blood, combined with that of their anger, had the lorina growling and unsettled. Hauk held Illyse off the woman by her red collar. “Take her outside and tie her up.”
Thia immediately obeyed.
Hauk pulled the medical pack to him so that he could go through it, and see if they had something that could help their unknown “guest.” How he wished Syn was here. His friend and ally was a doctor well versed in human medicine. Him, not so much. What little he knew about human anatomy was how to apply tourniquets to those injured in battle until a medic could relieve him.
And what vital organs he needed to disable or puncture to kill them.
“She’s human?” Darice curled his lip at the sight of her blond hair.
“Don’t start, D. Like Thia said, she needs our help.”
Darice scoffed. “She’s human,” he repeated. “She wouldn’t help us if we were the ones hurt.”
“You don’t know that.” Hauk pulled out an antiseptic cloth. “Go start lunch.”
Sheepish, Darice glanced away.
Dread consumed Hauk over that look. “What?”
“We didn’t catch anything, after we dressed. In case the woman wasn’t alone, Thia wouldn’t let me keep hunting while she came back here for you.”
“Good for her.”
Darice curled his lip in defiance. “What could humans do to me?”
Oh to be that naive and stupid again.
He cupped the back of his nephew’s head and forced him to meet his gaze so that he could see how serious he was. “They could make you wish you were dead. Never underestimate an enemy. No matter who or what they are. That is a special kind of stupid arrogance no one can afford.”
Darice inclined his head.
“Now, go. I have emergency rations in my pack near the water. You can rehydrate it and warm it.”
Darice scooted away and left Hauk alone to tend the woman.
He cleaned the obvious wounds first then looked for more torn clothing to show him others. As he pushed the sleeve back on her arm to wipe off a scratch there, he froze at the words that had been viciously branded into her flesh.
Kill or be killed.
Shit. He knew that mark. Intimately.
Clenching his teeth, he pulled at the neck of her poncho until he had her left shoulder blade exposed. Sure enough, there was her League dagger tattoo. He cursed again.
The harita is an assassin.
Fury darkened his mood. She must have been caught unawares by a wild animal while sighting him. But for a freak accident, she’d have killed him, and left Thia and Darice alone to fend for themselves in the harsh wilderness.
What kind of woman could do such a thing?
An assassin, dumbass.
So much for human compassion. Darice had been right. They should have left her out to die.
Just kill her and get it over with.
It was so tempting. But he’d never murdered anyone. Killing a fully armed soldier who was fighting him was one thing. Cutting the throat of an injured, unconscious woman, even an assassin, was another. That, he couldn’t quite manage.
His mother would be so disappointed in him for that mercy, especially given that the spared female was human.
Nothing new about that. He’d been disappointing her since he popped out of her womb as an underweight preemie and almost killed her.
If he wasn’t the last of his prestigious military line, his parents would have disinherited him when he’d been dishonorably discharged from The League during training.
Hauk winced as he remembered his father’s sneer the day he’d found out. He’d slammed his fist straight into Hauk’s chest and spat in his face. You disgust me, and you dishonor your noble ancestors. It should have been you who died on Oksana. Not my one, true son you killed with your incompetence. How dare you humiliate our bloodlines so!
Even now those words cut him soul deep. Neither of his parents, Darice, nor Dariana ever let him forget the fact that he, the lesser son, had survived by a miracle of twisted fate, and not by any skill he possessed. They used every opportunity to throw it in his face.
But it wasn’t his fault Keris had died. He’d done his best to prevent it, and had almost been killed himself trying to save his brother’s life.
Shaking his head to silence their condemnation and the memories that tore him apart, Hauk forced his thoughts away from the past. No need to dwell there. He couldn’t change it.
And right now, he had something a lot more important to focus on. This was a trained assassin who had been sent to kill him. One who’d almost succeeded, and she wouldn’t stop coming for him so long as he breathed. While assassins usually worked alone, they didn’t always. If there were more League assassins behind her, he needed to know. They still had four more weeks before they were in satellite range again and he could call for a pickup.
The whole point of Endurance was to survive as if they’d crashed on the planet and had nothing save one survival pack of minimal supplies to sustain them. There was no one to call for help. No backup.
Completely alone, they were supposed to climb to the top of Mount Grenalyn, pluck a feather or bone from the nest of a sparn, and return to their drop site. It was a bonding experience that was usually shared between parent and child. A once-in-a-lifetime adventure designed to teach the teen confidence, self-reliance, and everything he or she needed to know in the event they should ever be on their own in a hostile environment.
And it didn’t get any more hostile than to have an assassin on your ass.
How had she found him? No one knew where they were. That, too, was part of the training. The only one who was supposed to have their coordinates was the pilot who dropped them off – the primary reason why it was always a trusted family member.
Chayden would die before he gave them up. As would Fain.
It made no sense.
And that, too, concerned him.
Hauk narrowed his gaze on the woman. “You better live.” He had to have answers from her. And if she was here to kill him, she had a ship nearby. One he might be able to use to get the kids to safety before anyone else came after him.
“Are you all right?”
He looked up as Thia returned to the tent. “What?”
“That expression on your face… it’s terrifying, Uncle Hauk. I’m used to my dad looking like he’s about to kill someone all the time, but not you.”
He softened his features for her and smiled. “Better?”
“Kind of. But I think I’ve been emotionally scarred. For life.”
He lovingly scoffed at her words. “I hope it takes more than my grimace to emotionally scar you, little one.”
“Says the male who has no idea just how bloodthirsty and cruel he appeared a minute ago. It’s one thing to be told your beloved uncle is a fierce warrior, it’s another one to see it firsthand.”
That was true. Because of his massive size, especially compared to Thia, he’d always gone out of his way to smile and be gentle and soft-spoken around her. When she’d first moved in with her father, she’d been absolutely traumatized by her violent stepfather, and the lunatic animals who’d worked for him. Animals Aksel had had around Thia since the moment of her birth. Not to mention the fact that the sadistic bastard had beaten Thia to the brink of death, and then brutally murdered her mother in a fit of rage.
Back then, understandably, the girl had been terrified of her own shadow.
The first time she’d officially met Hauk, Thia had burst into tears and run off to a closet to hide. It’d been a good three months before she’d finally stopped trembling in his presence. Almost a year before he could hug her.
And he’d sworn to her that he would die for her protection.
He held his hand out toward her to reassure her that his anger was under control, and would never be directed at her. “You know I’d never hurt you, baby.”
She moved to hug him. “I know.” She gave him a fierce squeeze. “Love you, Uncle Hauk.”
“Love you, too, precious.” He kissed her cheek. “Why don’t you go oversee Darice while he attempts to poison us?”
She laughed. “I’ve never seen anyone more inept at food preparation. It’s really quite impressive… in a very sad sort of way.”
“Yes, it is.” He watched as she left him alone with his hostage.
And while he would never say or do anything to hurt or scare Thia, this assassin didn’t fall under his protection. Wounded or not, she would answer his questions or feel the full wrath of the warrior who wouldn’t hesitate to make her bleed until she spilled her guts to him, or he spilled them at her feet.
Sumi came awake to the sound of female laughter. For a mere instant, she was again a girl at home with her sister, lying on her bed while they traded stories of hopes and dreams.
But as her gaze focused on a tan cloth wall, she realized that she wasn’t at home. She was in a strange tent. And that wasn’t the sound of her older sister’s voice.
Omira was long dead, and she…
Her eyes widened as the pain in her body hit her and she remembered what she’d been ordered to do. Why she was here.
She’d been assigned a target, and had been attacked by something huge.
The laughter outside ended in a fierce curse. “I swear, Darice, if you don’t learn to pick up your dirty underwear and stow it properly, I’m going to choke you with it! I mean it! You’re so disgusting! Ugh!”
What in the Nine Worlds?
Sumi ground her teeth against the pain and rolled over. But as soon as she realized she wasn’t alone in the tent and her gaze focused on the other occupant, she froze in stark terror.
Holy gods. He was absolutely huge! While she’d seen that on the monitors, seeing it and being close enough to be dwarfed by him was an entirely different experience. He practically took up the entire tent.
No male should ever have shoulders so broad. Nor a scowl so fierce. For that matter, one of those beefy biceps had to be bigger around than her entire waist… and she wasn’t skinny. Dressed in the black and brown leather of an Andarion desert nomad, he made a ferocious sight with his braids pulled back from his face and secured by a leather tie at the nape of his neck. From the short leather epaulettes of his shirt, thick leather straps were wound around both arms and held more weapons than she’d ever seen on a dozen soldiers, never mind one male. His large hands were covered with black leather fingerless gloves, and an ancient Andarion battle sword was sheathed and strapped across his back.
I am so dead…
Another thing the commander had failed to warn her about was how much Dancer Hauk favored his brother Fain.
Every bit as muscled and fierce as Fain, Hauk took second to no one. His dark brows arched over a pair of eerie, piercing white-and-red eyes that glared a hole straight through her. There was no doubt she was on his menu, and he was already barbecuing her butt in his mind.
I am so dead, she repeated again.
Trembling uncontrollably, she did her best not to show her fear. But she was pretty sure he saw it. He’d have to be blind not to.
His gaze followed every move her hands made as if he was waiting for a reason to kill her. And still he didn’t speak. He just watched with a deeply unsettling intensity. If she didn’t win him over fast with guile, she would be a stain on the ground at his feet.
With perfectly sculpted features, he’d be pretty if not for the lethal aura and well-trimmed goatee and mustache. But there was nothing feminine about this gorgeous warrior.
He was simply horrifying and bloodthirsty.
“Before you lie to me,” he finally growled in a low, feral tone that was thickly accented. “I know who and what you are, assassin. Why you’re here.”
She swallowed hard at the underlying threat. “Then why am I still alive?”
“Uncle Hauk? Can you please tell your monkey that —” The female’s voice broke off as she entered the tent with a plate, and saw them. A friendly smile spread across her beautiful, innocent face as she met Sumi’s gaze. “You’re awake! I’m so glad you’re not dead.”