Estelle is a logistical expert, show her a problem and she can solve it. When she is drugged and enslaved, she looks for a way out, sending messages with every outgoing slave and hoping that one will get her plan to the Alliance in time. The escape is on, but she has been shackled to her breeding partner that very evening, linked by a chain they lead the escape until one partner goes on alone. Survivors are offered a place on an Oefric colony world. The shape shifters have a separate town from the arena survivors, and that is where their hospitality ends. Steel leads the charge to design a working village, and since she conveniently made it into the survivors and not the Alliance specialist designation when she landed, let the fun begin. Wyanic is eventually persuaded to look in on the growing village, and imagine his surprise when his true mate greets him when he thought her dead on the ship.
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Chain A Terran Times Novella
By Viola Grace
Chapter One don’t require a female at this time.” Wyanic scowled as the handlers shoved him under a shower and stripped him. If his hands hadn’t been cuffed in front of him on a chain that led to his ankles, he would have given them more than snarled words. “Your needs are not our concern. The female is receptive and the management wants her bred. They have missed her other heats and this time, they are not going to let the opportunity pass.” Wyanic tensed as they scrubbed his genitals until the skin was almost raw. The water was turned off and blasts of air dried him. One of the handlers tied a short leather covering around his hips and the other attached a heavy chain to his waist with extra loops hooked up to dangle from it. “What is this for?” He had had several females brought to him over the last three months, but they had never put a chain on him. “Well, she is biologically receptive but physically resistant. Management wants a child off her and you will not be unshackled until she is pregnant.” The handler tugged him out of the grooming area, past the entrance to the arena and down a hall. Wyanic looked around him. He had never been down this hall before. “This is the breeding area. Only women live in this space.” The wail of an infant sent a shiver through him.
Viola Grace “Well, women and their offspring until the children are sold.” Wyanic’s muscles tensed at the image his mind presented him with. He had been captured four months earlier and had spent every other day fighting for his life for the entertainment of others. They were on a travelling station, a warship that had been repurposed to hold sentients for a darker purpose. Wyanic had been travelling to get some equipment and supplies for his colony as well as some staff specialists. One drink at the wrong bar and he had woken up in the bowels of this ship with no idea how much time had passed. From that point on, survival had been his prime concern. “Here she is. She has been restrained, but once you are locked together, we will release her. From what I have heard, you should be able to subdue her at close range.” He had no idea what he would be facing, but the milk-skinned woman with a river of chestnut hair and fully dilated pupils was not it. Her form was exceptionally pleasing to his eyes—her breasts were high and very full, her waist narrow and her hips nicely rounded. The sparkling tattoo across her abdomen denoted her as a newer race to the Alliance. “Easy, lass.” The handler hauled him forward and kept a grip on his chains while tilting the female upright on the giant X station she had been strapped to. This close to her, with the stink of his fights washed off, he could smell her heat. A teasing musk that drew him closer to investigate the source. She bared her teeth in defiance and hissed angrily as the chain links from his waist were tied around her own. They were less than three feet apart and he could feel the heat from her skin against his. This pale rose had been in the dark for some time. Her 2
Chain eyes were looking up at him, almost blind in the weak lighting of the breeding chamber. The sudden freedom of his wrists had him reaching for the woman before the handler had left the room. Without a word, he unfastened her from the X and helped her regain feeling in her hands. Her words were quiet, “Thank you.” Suddenly, Wyanic felt nine feet tall. The thanks from this delicate creature meant more to him than all his victories in the arena and that feeling shook him to the core. “We don’t need to do anything.” The pale woman smiled weakly. “Yes we do. If we don’t, they come in with shockers and spend five minutes torturing me. Then they will do it for ten after the next time they come in and we haven’t copulated.” She pressed her fingers to his lips when he leaned in for a kiss. “Wait, what species are you?” “Oefric.” He mumbled it against her fingers and she smiled, lighting the high cheekbones with a touch of colour beneath the skin. “Good. You are on my list.” She leaned up to press her lips against his and he was lost in a sea of sensation that he had never felt before. Part of his heart sank while the rest rejoiced at finding his mate. This was an unsure situation and getting out alive was not a sure thing. He pushed thoughts of the future away and simply enjoyed something he thought he would never feel. His true mate in his arms. **** When he came through the door, Estelle froze in place. She ignored the handler who latched the chain around her waist after she gave him the expected hiss. She didn’t want them to 3
Viola Grace expect an easy or unchallenged contact. They were monitoring all of her actions and the shot that they had given her in medical was rippling through her system with a violence that shocked her. The man with the midnight hair and bronze eyes was pissed at being confined, probably even more than she was. With her limbs fastened to four points, it was awkward to have her blood surge in anticipation and she kicked herself for letting her hormones take over, even if they had chemical help. The metal was cool against her skin, the large links rubbing together as the handler wrapped it tightly and sealed it into place. She knew about those links, they were not coming off without a fight. The brighter lights in the breeding pens impaired her vision. Estelle had become used to the almost total darkness of the women’s quarters, being sniffed out as being in heat had come as quite a shock, but the new scanners that they had planted in the women’s area had paid for themselves, pointing out women whose biological signals were primarily internal and less obvious. What she could see of her new companion was that he had dark hair, metallic eyes and a well-muscled physique in a colour a few shades darker than his eyes. The rest was a bit of a blur. Only the striking colours and the heat from his body burned into her mind. She asked him his species and sighed in relief when it was one on her top-twenty compatibles list. She would not suffer from acid or an unknown spike in the penis with an Oefric. Strictly vanilla mating. Her blood surged in reaction when she leaned up for a kiss and thankfully, his aim was true. She paused. “I have been kept in the dark for a while. I can’t really see that well, even in this light.” 4
Chain “I guessed as much. Tell me if there is any discomfort, your skin seems very delicate.” His hands ran down her back from shoulder to the chain, skimming over it and then down to her hips. As he pulled on her hips until she was mashed against him from groin to knee, his lips sought hers again for a kiss. A fine tremor ran through his hands as he touched her, the short leather skirt of a fighter the only impediment between them. She fell back as he pressed on her shoulders, tumbled to the surface of the wide pallet that was there for this purpose. His mouth became his weapon of choice on her as her nipples were sucked to aching points and her navel treated to a series of slow licks that made her squirm. He parted her thighs with his shoulders, widening the space as he dove to suck and lick her clit with abandon. Her cries echoed on the walls and a chuckle from the doorway flushed her skin a hot pink. At least the handlers were not going to use the shock sticks this time, but as her companion surged up her body to bury his cock into her, she lost her concern for their audience. His cock was thick, wide and just long enough to make her feel full without striking her cervix. She revelled in the tug and pull of the flared head inside her as it worked against her muscles and the tight clasp of her channel. His thrusts grew faster and harder as he started a low growl that rattled her nerves and sent a spike of lust to the most sensitive spots in her body. The chain between them pressed against her clit with a cold shock and she heard her own cries torn from her body in a rush that preceded her companion’s cries by a dozen thrusts. His roar shook the walls. His flesh under her hands felt like it was shifting shape for a moment before it stabilized. He slumped over her and caught his breath. While she 5
Viola Grace closed her eyes against the bright light, he nuzzled her neck and jaw. Sweat cooled between them and when she looked over his shoulder, the handler left with a nod. “They will leave you with me for a day or so,” she whispered into his ear and at this range, she admired its point, almost hidden in the wealth of his black hair. “Good. I have a few questions I want to ask you.” She ran her fingers through his hair and smiled. “There may not be time for that.” He reared up and stared into her eyes, confusion marking his features. That confusion remained as the lights went out. “Up you get, since I am tied to you and this escape has been planned for months. We are on our way out of here.” She pressed on his shoulders and winced as he slid out of her. Her body had enjoyed the warmth of his and now she felt cold and alone. He got to his feet and asked. “You are serious? This is an escape?” “Coupled with an Alliance raid. Come on, we need to get to the rendezvous point.” She could see the tilt of his head easily in the darkness. It was her new realm. “How could you have planned this?” “It was easy. I simply had to have something to do while I was waiting for the slavers to notice I was going into heat. They were bound to notice eventually.” She tugged on the chain and led him through the unlatched door, into the hall. Estelle had been planning this for months. The clue that it had been enacted was the lights going down while the hum of the engines remained stable. She had provided nine sold slaves with details to send to the Alliance and finally, one had made it through. She whistled and the doors in the breeding pens opened. Only one other woman was chained to a male and they were 6
Chain working as a unit. With her eyes wide, she led the way down the halls, her companion keeping up on soundless feet. It was time for this escape to get up and running.
Chapter Two houts were coming from the darkness ahead of them. The sounds of fighting rang in the air. Estelle’s companion made his way slightly ahead of her and when the handler came charging down the hall with night vision lenses and a stunner, he disarmed the man in a second. He stripped off the lenses and placed the goggles on his own head. “I am gathering that you don’t need these.” She chuckled. “You gather correctly. They keep the women’s quarters dark, so I have acclimated over the last few months.” The growing crowd behind them clustered tightly together as they eased around each corner. Blasts were shaking the ship, causing groaning of tearing metal that made the escapees more nervous. “Steel, how far?” Estelle turned her head to the side, “Less than half a kilometre. Not far now.” The sounds of battle were getting closer. It was unlikely that the Alliance staff was this deep in the ship already, but the women’s quarters were nearby and it was a guess that some of those women were ready to fight. Each corner brought them closer to the safe space that she had identified over months of scanning the ship designs. It was surrounded by the thickest baffles that she could spot and would provide the best cover for the weak and
Chain vulnerable. “Where are we going?” “The arena. It is the best-defended piece of the ship and the large fight space will make it easy for the weak to be defended by the strong. The Alliance will meet us there.” They joined a group from the women’s quarters and those women clutched makeshift weapons. “Hska, can you use your pry bar on this chain?” The scaled woman nodded and drifted toward her through the silent crowd. Pressure on the links made her wince, but she let the woman keep trying as they walked. Her companion spoke in low tones, “You will not be able to break the links without a cutting blade or the sealer that they used to connect it.” “Thanks, Hska.” The lizard woman nodded and faded back into the crowd, her pry bar raised and ready. “How many of the women do you know by name?” “All of them, even the ones in the breeding pens.” “Why?” “I am just funny that way. Now shush.” They came around the corner to face the open floor of the arena. It was empty with a few exceptions. As a group, they poured into the open area and waited. Estelle kept close to her companion, she didn’t want to be tugged and pulled. A few of the male fighters were poking their heads into the arena with the noise of the raging battles around them. Several grabbed weapons and went out in search of a fight. Her companion picked up a blade and tested the chain with it. He was selecting another to make an additional test when a cry rang out. “Wyanic! You dishonoured me in front of my owners.” The creature that was approaching was enough to give 9
Viola Grace Estelle nightmares. It was black, silver, slimy and eight feet tall with several sets of horns. It was also armed with two long blades. “Khass. This is not the time.” He was arming himself, pushing her behind him. “This is the best time. I will know that I killed you and no one will be the wiser. The Alliance rescue has begun and I am a simple slave.” Khass cackled, exposing teeth that rivalled a shark’s. Wyanic stepped forward and the tug brought her in front of him. Khass lunged as Wyanic shoved her back and the searing pain crossing her ribs, belly and hip drove Estelle to her knees. “Steel!” Hska was at her side in an instant, holding in her belly with splayed hands. Estelle looked down and wished she hadn’t. A slice started under her breast and ran across her belly to her right hip, blood was pooling furiously. Hska made some frantic noises. Estelle heard a roar coming from a distance. Sounds of fighting broke through her pain-induced haze and she shuddered as more women gathered, some pressing hands on her and others giving her what energy they could spare. She knew of at least three contact healers in the group, but two had been sent to the breeding pens and if their breeding was successful, their talents would be subdued. “Come on, Steel. Stay with us. The Alliance crews are here. They will take care of you.” Hska’s voice was relieved and Estelle had to smile. She had already lost a fatal amount of blood. It was only up to her body to realize it. “It’s fine, Hska. How is my breeding companion doing?” “His kind is holding him back. We told him there was nothing he could do here.” “That’s the truth. I do wonder if I would have had a boy or a girl.” Her voice was wistful as she faded off. Darkness came 10
Chain to her and she left with the knowledge that she had done what she set out to do. She loved it when a plan came together, even if she had to be the casualty. **** Hska looked down at her friend and absorbed her last words. A baby, she thought she might be pregnant. “Where is that medic?” “There is nothing I can do.” The man looked vaguely uneasy. “She’s dead.” “S’sran! Get over here. We need a transport.” Hska grabbed the medic by the front of his uniform and stripped the location of his ship from his mind. “Tahsh, Vendu, keep your hands in place.” The other women nodded grimly and held tight as the l’nal, S’sran, lifted them in her multiple arms and transported them to the location in Hska’s mind. The medical bay was preparing for the influx, but the arrival of three nude women, one corpse and a l’nal froze some of the less experienced in place. “We need a doctor, now!” Hska and her friends moved Steel to an exam table and held her belly shut as a woman wearing Citadel Healer’s robes came forward. The woman examined her patient and nodded, placing her hands on Steel’s chest and starting the pulse. “Is there anything I should know?” “She might be pregnant. Very recently, tonight, in fact. Is there anything you can do to save it?” Hska blurted it out, rubbing her own scales nervously. Steel had gotten them moving in the same direction in the women’s quarters, sharing food and watching for guards. She couldn’t die like this, marks of the mating chain still on her. “Get an incubator, bipedal humanoid type. Now.” The 11
Viola Grace healer moved quickly and started the heart before closing the veins, arteries and blood vessels. She wove the tissue back together with a slow and even concentration. Hska watched in amazement. She had heard of healers of this calibre, but never saw one in action before. A stumbling attendant rushed up to them and the healer looked down. “Put tank fluid and nutrients in it. Heavy on the protein supplement.” The attendant nodded and quickly measured and assembled the fluids with shaking hands. “Calm down, we need to do this right. We have one chance and one chance only.” The incubator that they had obtained was a cylinder two hands wide, six tall. With the fluid inside it, a slight flick of the power button and it began to burble in a most disconcerting way. The healer looked up and with a serious expression asked Hska, “Do you think it will matter that she will be losing an ovary for this? I need to build a compatible womb and her tissue is best.” “If you can save the child growing in her, she will take what you can give.” Hska felt odd making that choice for Steel, but it was a choice that she could live with if her friend would live at all. The healer nodded, “Attendant, get a massive fluid dump ready. Two litres and two drips. I will keep her stable, but it needs to be administered immediately.” Hska had to ask, “Why don’t you stabilize her, then withdraw the baby?” “If we give that mass of fluids to her and she goes into shock and she will, she will start to abort while her body fights to save itself.” “Oh.” The healer pressed her hands to the abdomen of their 12
Chain friend and Hska and the others watched while those hands lifted a chunk of flesh, forming it into a ball that she gently placed in the incubator tank. Alarms were bleeping, at the healer’s nod, the injectors were wired into the Terran’s body and the healer closed the opening she had made in Steel’s womb. The next few hours were touch and go while Steel fought for her life and the healer fought to keep her stable. Hska kept her gaze on her friend as Steel arched and her body shook in the grip of a massive reaction. Officers came to claim them and S’sran and the others went. It was time to determine where the survivors would live. Who would want those who had been sold into slavery by their own family and friends? Only Steel had bothered looking past the rejects and turned them into a community. Hska was not leaving until she knew that her friend would survive. **** Wyanic was cold. He had felt the moment that his mate died and Khass had died an instant later. The damned chain had pulled her back into harm’s way and he had forgotten all about it until she had snapped into Khass’s way. The sight of that blade slicing through her flesh and cleaving steel was a sight he wished he could remove from his memory. She had fallen free of the chain and as the puddle of blood grew around her, the women from the breeding and women’s quarters had gathered around her. The Alliance medic wouldn’t touch her and that alone let him know that she was dead, the fading brightness in his mind was the other confirmation. He went mad. None of the other marauding males were 13
Viola Grace getting at the women that she had given her life for. He stood between the women and the slowly arriving gladiators with the urge to kill burning through him. Anyone foolish enough to challenge him ended up at his feet, the chain around his waist with its bloody end a reminder of what he had come close to having. The security officer for Barkesh colony was the familiar face that stopped his rampage. Davol came to him and disarmed him, the sympathy in his green eyes undoing Wyanic as he turned to view the corpse of the woman he could have loved. She was gone, his true mate, and he didn’t even know her name.
Chapter Three verything hurt. “Why aren’t I dead?” She opened her eyes to dim lighting and her fingers found a set of goggles on her eyes to protect them. A low voice and a soft laugh drew her attention. “You were. I restarted your engine. That Pishin friend of yours is very persistent.” “Hska. How did they get me here?” “From what I observed, a l’nal teleported. Your friends were in the huge spider’s grasp, so they came along for the ride.” “S’sran. I bet Hska mugged one of the medics for transport details.” She fumbled around until she could lift off the hospital bed. It was a relief to look around her and see Alliance personnel and only a few serious injuries from the slave quarters. “And I have someone here you need to meet.” The healer moved to the side of the bed and wheeled out a cylinder filled with liquid with a mass about the size of Estelle’s fist floating there. A thousand thoughts ran through her mind, but she focussed on the tank, “What is that?” “It’s a girl. Your friend, Hska, insisted that you wanted it, so we sacrificed your right ovary for the honour of hosting the little one as a sculpted womb. This isn’t a full-strength incubator, so you might have to wait a year instead of your normal nine months.”
Viola Grace A kernel of wonder bloomed inside her. “It’s my baby?” “Yes. Half-Terran, half-Oefric and perfectly healthy despite her initial trauma. About the size of a tealeaf right now. A dry one.” The healer laughed again. “What is going on with the survivors?” She didn’t take her gaze off the small tank. “Well, since they were all sold into slavery by their own people, some as penal offences, others as trade, it is more difficult than just returning them home. Small colony worlds have been contacted and there is a lead on a few of them. Currently, for most of the bipedals, there is an Oefric world, Barkesh, that will allow them to start a small village provided that they use only locally obtainable tech.” “I was supposed to be posted on Barkesh. I was on my vacation between assignments, got a drink at a tavern and woke up in the women’s quarters on that station months ago.” “Estelle Vargas, Terran Volunteer. You have been killed in the line of duty and are now free to live where you will. Would you like to be on the colonist roster for Barkesh?” The healer was grinning with an evil look. Estelle looked down at the incubator. “I can’t. This is a high-tech gadget and I am pretty sure that what is left of my womb right now is not hospitable.” The healer rubbed the back of her neck. “I hadn’t thought of that.” “I am all about the logistics.” “Are you interested in being on Barkesh? If so, I can make this happen.” “If they can provide for my little one, I will be happy to offer my skills to the new colony as a carpenter and mechanic.” The healer smiled and nodded. “I know. I read your file and I believe that it is of vital importance that you get your 16
Chain butt to Barkesh.” “Are you a seer as well?” Estelle reached out and put a hand on the small tank containing her daughter. “No. Just nosey.” With a rush of robes, the healer bowed and left her alone with the tiny cluster of cells that, hopefully, would grow into a healthy daughter. **** “There is a request for a time-limited dispensation for an electronic device to be allowed for the period of one year.” Davol was trying to interest him, but Wyanic was still grieving for the woman he hadn’t even known for more than two hours. He straightened his tunic and scowled at his security officer. “What kind of device?” “An incubator.” “Allow it. Allow two years for any incubators and power supplies needed. Those women have been through enough without separating them from their young.” Wyanic remembered the tense faces of the women leaving the breeding area. Some had cradled gravid bellies, a few had held infant offspring. Those women needed to be safe and protected. Just because his life could not improve did not mean that the survivors of the ship could not have a brighter future. **** The goggles and deep hood protected Estelle’s eyes as she worked her way into the sunlight. Most of the women were still light sensitive and wore the voluminous protection that the Alliance had offered. 17
Viola Grace An Oefric colonist was on hand to lead them out of the shuttles and over to the emergency housing that had been assembled for their use. The Oefric town was four hills over. Close enough to share resources if it came to that and far enough to keep the survivors from becoming dependant on the shapeshifters. The town and village were not to mingle except in forms of trade. That was fine with Estelle, she knew the women that she was dealing with and knew what they were capable of. Their village was going to kick ass if Estelle had anything to say about it. “It’s so bright.” Hska was supporting her, her arm around Estelle’s waist. “It is.” Estelle smiled. Her child was growing slowly but measurably, supplies were being offloaded for her and she would have a place of honour in the clinic under the watchful eyes of the healer from the Alliance warship. Healer Neeva was a Wyoran with golden velvety skin and a wicked sense of humour. She had met a Terran on her home world and now considered herself a friend to any that she met. Neeva had enjoyed her time with Estelle so much that she was joining the colonists. Estelle heaved a mental sigh of relief when no other Oefric were present beyond the male giving them orientation. His name was Davol and Neeva and he seemed to have a mutual fascination that made even her hardened heart soften. “Steel, look over there!” The housing was high on a slope and the location made Estelle smile as much as the nickname did. Estelle in Pishin was the maker and Vargas was steel. So, she was the maker with steel. Steel for short. It hadn’t been long before all of the women called her Steel. “Well, Steel, what do we need to do first?” Tahsh and 18
Chain Vendu closed in on her, their eyes bright and claws flexing. While hobbling to see the interior of the first hut, she was knocked to the side by some of the gladiators. “That isn’t going to do.” She raised her voice. “Ladies, appropriate three of the houses. Defend them by any means necessary. After we arrange for a meal, we will discuss our options.” “Does that mean a communal meal?” Hska sounded downright enthusiastic as the gladiators tried to make another lunge for a shelter and had to face the fangs and claws of pregnant females. “Yes, Hska, you get to hunt.” Hska got her into the shelter and to the back of the room in under a minute, scampering outside with her hunting spikes sliding out from under her skin. Chuckling, Steel settled on the bunk furthest from the door. Other women came up to her and asked about everything from water to waste processing. Her study of the manifests was complete and she answered the questions until her exhaustion was overwhelming her. The sun was dimming outside Hska came in with three small carcases. “I left the larger one outside.” Laughing, Steel went out with the ladies to take a look at Hska’s kill. A full-sized ruminant was lying on the downward slope and several of the other ladies were splitting logs with wedges of stone and hammers made of wood. The few ladies with spurs and blades made of bone sliced up the smaller saplings for firewood. A gathering of men were grouping on the outside of the invisible fence that the women were creating with their attitudes. It was time to start the next phase of the village. Steel walked up to the alpha of the group, a male who was older than the rest and covered with scars. This man was a 19
Viola Grace survivor and he had a wary look in his eyes as she approached. “Yes, what can I do for you?” He licked his lips lasciviously. “Well, it seems that your men are going to be doomed to eating rations until they run out. Now, our hunters have brought back more than enough for this evening. Do any of the men here want to enjoy a hot meal?” She finished the last sentence with a raised voice. Several men stepped forward. She nodded to them. “Many of these women have been bred against their will. No woman here will be subjected to that again or our entire community will take action. Is that clear?” The men shifted from foot to foot, some of them concerned, some of them angry and a few took defensive postures. “You, oldie-locks. Do you agree to work as a unit, to form a village that will make the Oefric gnash their teeth with envy?” He gave her a considering look, as if she was something different from the woman who had walked up to him. “What are you, miss?” “You may call me Steel. I am a Terran Volunteer, carpenter and mechanic. I wish to create a self-sufficient village and I need all of the people working as one. We can’t afford to have anyone not chipping in. I need to know that before we let the men in, they will pull their own weight.” He cocked his head and Steel could see him looking over her shoulder at the gutting of the animal that was being executed with the help of a sapling and belts from the tunics of the women. “May we court the women?” Steel grinned at the man who spoke. “You may, but if she declines your attentions, you must wait three months before 20
Chain trying again.” She qualified the last statement, “Unless she is in heat. Then you may press your suit until she gives you a definitive no. No means no.” The male nodded and several of the other men smiled eagerly. “What is our first goal?” “A longhouse. A communal eating centre.” She turned and walked forward while talking, the men drifted along with her. “How do you have all of this knowledge in your mind?” the older male asked. “It is my talent. I had an interest in knowing how to start from nothing. It became an obsession, so I am familiar with farming, hunting, basic construction to level three on the technological scale and assembling basic mechanical devices like windmills and lumber mills. It is why I was allowed to leave my world with the rest of the volunteers. Apparently, this level of obsession becomes a talent after the first five years.” He laughed. “I am Vullo, by the way. Pleased to make your acquaintance. I apologize for my earlier behaviour. When you spend enough time with only males, your competitive drive becomes everything.” “I understand. I confess that it has been a little trying for me. My baby isn’t due for a year, but it was conceived on the day of the escape. I don’t have any interest in any of the men around here, I can tell you that.” She chuckled and watched a flicker of understanding. He would find out later that her child was growing in the clinic. The ladies stood with bloody spikes, blades and pointed sticks. “Ladies, these males have agreed to join our efforts. They have also agreed not to infringe on your personal preferences in a mate. Each of our groups will have to elect a 21
Viola Grace representative and each of those reps will be responsible for dealing with issues brought to them. That can be handled in the morning.” She yawned and gestured for the men to come forward. “We are attempting a fire, so if you would be so kind as to assist, that would be lovely.” She stumbled to the side and was caught by caring hands. “Oh, hey, Neeva.” “Steel, what are you doing out of bed? You were supposed to be in bed for another three days.” The healer draped Steel’s right arm over her shoulders and headed to the clinic building. Vullo made a noise and lifted Steel from Neeva’s embrace. “Where do you want her, healer?” “In the clinic. Next to her baby.” Vullo stood by as Neeva lifted her shirt to examine the angry red stripe on her belly. “What did that?” “Khass. He came at my breeding partner during the escape and tried to kill him. My partner shoved me back for safety, but we were chained and I bounced back.” “Ouch.” “You have no idea.” She looked over at the small bundle of tissue growing in the tank. “This is my daughter. One year from now, I will be able to hold her in my arms. That is the day I want the village ready for.” Neeva pressed her hands on Steel’s abdomen. “You forgot to tell him about dying.” “Dying?” The man’s jaw opened. “I don’t remember much about that. I was gone, then I was back.” She shrugged and winced as Neeva’s talent repaired minor damage. “She woke me after my friends teleported me here.” Vullo’s expression became even more impressed. “That’s right, Vullo. We have a very competent healer on our hands.” 22
Chain He looked from Steel to Neeva and back again. A grin crept over his face. “What is the smirk about, Vullo?” “When they offered me a chance to come here, I was worried the Oefric were just going to use us as slave labour.” His grin got wider. “Now, I realize that I am in very good hands. That we are all in very good hands.”
ix Months Later…
A wave of nausea rippled through him and he lost the contents of his stomach…again. “Wyanic, you are still losing weight, you can’t stop throwing up. You need a healer.” Davol scowled at his friend and superior. “I will be fine, just get me some dry flatbread.” Wyanic splashed water on his head. “It’s in the other room. Come on.” He gave into his friend’s insistence and joined him in the front room of his quarters. He passed the mirror and looked at the tattoo he had placed there in memory of his true mate. A broken chain that wrapped around his bicep reminded him every day of the woman who died because he wasn’t able to protect her. The flatbread was welcome to his upset stomach, the roiling settled swiftly and he sighed in relief. “Come to the survivors’ village with me.” It was the twentieth time that Davol had asked him that very thing. “Why?” “Because there is nothing to do until harvest and you need a good run. We may even get a spot of hunting in.” The thought of blood trickling down his throat did appeal to him. “Fine. I suppose I should do more than send you to check on them every week.” 24
Chain “Excellent. Come along, you need a solid run and you might even enjoy meeting the headwoman at the village. She is truly a thing of golden muscle and lithe beauty.” He waggled his golden brows at Wyanic and sighed. “You know that my true mate died, Davol. This isn’t something that can be replaced.” “Fine. Don’t replace her, but you will eventually have to find a female or face a life desperate and alone.” “Just what I needed to hear. Let’s go.” He picked up his travelling pack and headed to the door with his jubilant friend yapping at his heels more like a puppy than the jungle cat he used as his favourite form. He removed his clothing on the main floor of his domicile, opened the door a crack and then stuffed the clothes into the travel pack. His arms went through the loops while an elastic belt surrounded his waist. Wyanic shifted into his large black feline form, his eyes and hair colour staying true no matter what form he took. The backpack was a funny feeling, but if he wanted clothing when he arrived at the village, he would have to take it with him. Davol shifted into a golden and spotted feline beside him, his pack in place as well. Together, they ran through their town and turned northward to the survivor village. The green grass felt wonderful under his feet, his toes dug into the grass with each stride and it was less than an hour before the scents of the village came to them. Wyanic was confused. They should not have been nearly as advanced as the scents were indicating. He smelled wine, leather, wood, wool and any number of other industries that his own people were barely able to engage in. How had the survivors done it in six months? Davol trotted next to him as they made it over the hill to look at the expanse of the village on the other side of the 25
Viola Grace divide. Wyanic shifted back to his natural form and stood on two feet, the panorama in front of him amazing rather than appalling. “Who taught them to do this?” “Our specialist. She was captured and enslaved with the others, never making it to our colony. If she had chosen us over them, we would be the ones with the brewery and the weaving house.” Davol clapped him on the shoulder. “You knew. All this time, you knew that they were making such strides and didn’t think to tell me.” “I tried. You weren’t interested. You were so busy wallowing in your grief that you didn’t want to see the world around you.” “Let’s get dressed. I want to see more.” A chuckle from downwind made them spin around. “Geez. I want to see less. How are you, Davol?” The speaker ended her question on a squeal when Davol lifted her and spun her around in a hug. “Neeva is waiting for you. Get dressed and don’t keep her waiting. I will deal with him.” Davol shrugged, but jumped into his trousers and vest, holding his boots in his hand as he sprinted across the low-lying meadow toward the clinic. Wyanic stood shocked as the golden woman approached him. Her skin gleamed, her eyes darkened and her hair was streaked with gold. The cropped vest of her garb showed him the proof that his other senses were denying. His true mate was alive, was here and was standing in front of him. **** Steel looked him over. His body was more beautiful in the bright light than it had been in the dimness. She had hesitated in announcing herself to them, but preferred the 26
Chain confrontation to take place here on the hill, rather than in the village. “You might want to put some clothing on, too. I am going to be taking you on the grand tour and it would be best if we didn’t pass the sausage maker with you naked.” She leaned on her spear and let her gaze devour him. He pulled trousers on over an erection that threatened the structural integrity of the fabric and yanked a sleeveless vest over the expanse of his chest. “You look thin, Wyanic. Are you ill?” “No. It is just every morning, sometimes evenings the nausea overwhelms me.” His laces fought his fingers and she drifted closer, looking up at him through her lashes, she wove his laces into their proper places and tugged on them lightly. There was something on his arm that she didn’t remember. “What is that?” “The mark of my broken link with my true mate. You died.” The flat devastation in his voice shook her and filled her with guilt. “I did. I got better. My companions transported me to the medical bay when the Alliance medic wouldn’t treat me and they demanded a doctor. The healer, who agreed to be here, Neeva, healed me and prepared me for a massive infusion.” She touched the chain on his arm, following the links with her fingers. He caught her fingers and pressed them flat against his arm. “Your touch feels wonderful.” She smiled up at him and was caught by surprise when he swept her into a kiss that was as desperate as it was enthralling. His hand nested in her hair, holding her head as he plundered her mouth, tasting her all over again. She tasted tears in their kiss and didn’t know if it was him or her, so she cupped his face and stroked his temples as their mouths met, clung, parted and sought each other again. 27
Viola Grace Her nipples were pressing against the inside of her leather vest when they separated and his chest was heaving as he fought to regain control of his breathing. Steel flinched as his fingers caressed her scar, now a pale pink. His fingers trailed over the mark from one side and nudged her trousers aside on the other. “I can’t believe you survived.” “Put your boots on and come along. I will explain anything you ask as we walk.” She took a few steps back and gestured for him to get dressed. **** With a grin and a heart that was lighter than it had ever felt, he sat to tug his boots on and took the hand she extended to him to stand up. He didn’t release her hand when he stood up. He wasn’t going to let her go again.
Chapter Five ith her hand held by Wyanic and her spear in the other, she led him down into her domain. “Welcome to the village.” She couldn’t help the pride in her voice. There was wonder in his tone. “I can’t believe a bunch of refugees pulled this together in six months.” “Highly motivated refugees with strength and health on their side.” “What is that?” He gestured to her pride and joy and she smiled as she pointed to it with her spear. “The longhouse. We get together there for one meal per day. There is always soup and bread available, with the longer-cooking meats held for dinner. Since we have started the communal meals, morale has been on an upward spike.” “May I see it?” “Of course. I told you, a full tour.” She was a little self-conscious about the calluses that had not been there the last time she touched him, but he wasn’t reacting to her roughened skin, so she hauled him along with her. The door to the longhouse swung open easily. Neat rows of wooden tables and benches lined the expanse of the floor. “It is built into the side of the hill?” “Yup, warmer in winter, cooler in summer. Most of the buildings are built with this version of environmental control. It’s a very efficient manner of passive heating.” Wyanic nodded, but his attention was split between her
Viola Grace and the information she was giving him. The far end of the hall held the fire pit and the cooking pots. Hska was busy adding the final touches to the day’s soup. “Hska, what is on for today?” “Weasel and root vegetable soup. We really have to get some better names for this stuff.” Hska’s pregnancy had expanded her pouch, the scales widening over the lump of her belly. “Can I taste?” Steel snuck up behind her and propped her chin on her friend’s shoulder. “No. Who is the male? He looks familiar.” “This is Wyanic, head of the Oefric colony and my mating partner.” Hska whirled around to face them so fast her belly pushed Steel into Wyanic. “Watch where you are aiming that thing.” “Sorry. So, you are the one. I thought you looked familiar.” Her reptilian face split into a grin, her huge gold eyes with the slit pupils were dancing as she reached for his hand. Wyanic looked surprised at the warm welcome, but he shook her hand with his free one. “You can let go, you know. I am not going anywhere.” She looked up at him and part of him eased. “There is also no knife wielding maniac here, so chances are good we will get through the day intact.” He reluctantly let her hand go and she sighed but wrapped her loose arm around his waist. It was much easier than constantly being tied to him by flesh. “Have you shown him…” Steel sighed with a small smile. “The clinic will be the last stop on the tour.” “Good.” Hska nodded and went back to stirring the soup. “It smells good. Do you take turns with the cooking?” 30
Chain Hska smiled. “We will after I have hatched this one. For now, the baby and I love the heat and humidity of cooking. The baking is done elsewhere.” He nodded. “It was nice to be formally introduced to you. I remember you from that day. You attended her after she was injured.” Steel smiled at her friend. “And she watched me and made sure that the Alliance healer attended me. Imagine, three nude women and a l’nal holding a corpse teleporting into a medical bay on a warship using a location ripped from the mind of a medic.” “Is that what happened?” “Yes, immediately after Hska sent you away.” She squeezed him in comfort and felt his tense muscles relax slightly. “Come along, there is much to show you in the village.” Hska turned back to stir her soup and called over her shoulder, “Steel’s Rest.” “The village. This way.” She led him through the longhouse and back out into the light. He watched her as she raised her face to the sun and he smiled. “It must have been quite the change from the dark of the ship.” “You have no idea. The men thought we were insane, but our nocturnal hunters never came back empty handed. The leathers I am wearing—my first midnight kills.” Wyanic had an expression of horror on his face. “You went out in the forests, at night?” “It was the best time to catch some of the ruminants for the farm, but those were all taken from the flatlands.” She laughed at his expression. “It is on the tour. We have a small dairy and cheese-making operation in place. Nothing much, but in a few months, we may be able to repay some of the metal work we have had done.” 31
Viola Grace “Did you? I have been a little under the weather since I lost my mate and starting every day with a vomiting session that has my doctors baffled. I am in perfect health otherwise.” “We will skip the tannery then. It’s over there.” She extended her spear to the right, showing him the building on the edge of the forest. “The butcher is right next to it. Some of the gladiators found their knife skills had additional uses and they have created an amazing sausage and ham selection.” He was blinking in surprise. “Is your stomach okay enough for a trip to the butchers?” She started leading him across the way, waving at a few of her people as they went. “I cannot believe you did all of this when you arrived with a bunch of misfits and minimal supplies. We came fully equipped and ready for our new location, but we have accomplished a third of what you described and almost none of the morale.” “The Oefric are a proud people from what I have heard. Some folks don’t keep trying when they fail.” She grinned in memory. “The first soup Hska made had all of us on the ground and running for the lavs. Her use of a weed that she could digest was not a good idea for the rest of us. Communal food had to be discussed and agreed upon from that point on.” “You still let her cook.” “She loves it, she’s good at it and even in the heat wave, she thrived. Not a combination that any of the other women could even come close to. S’sran, the l’nal, is our farmer. She has a delicate touch with the young that makes your heart weep to see it.” “Show me. I want to see all of it.” His arm came around her waist and she gave him what he asked for. She showed him everything. 32
Chain He recognized one of the butchers from the arena and they shared a manly clasping of arms. The variety of meat hanging intrigued him and the butchers proudly showed him which meats were best received by which species. “I like the weasels. They are small but really tasty if you get the scent glands on the first try.” She chuckled and grinned at his appalled look. “I am guessing you have munched down on one and it went off.” His face indicated that he had. “You say that they are actually good to eat?” “Yup. The only really dangerous things out there are the birds and some flora. We have tried just about everything in the area.” Vin, the butcher, nodded in confirmation. Aton picked up the cleaver and hacked at the limb of a small goat. “Salt was the biggest problem, but Steel was able to come up with a solution for that as well.” She shuddered. “It was temporary and you know it. Now that we have found the deposit, we don’t need to do that anymore.” Wyanic looked at her. “I am guessing that there is something behind that expression on your face.” Vin grinned. “Blood salt. Using the concentrated minerals in the animals meant we had to be an abattoir for a few weeks. The animals had to be captured live and brought back for slaughter. They were drained and we added an anticoagulant that Neeva found, then we processed the blood for salt and mineral content. It tasted kind of dark, but was better than nothing.” Steel shuddered. It had not been her finest impulse, but salt was key to survival and blood contained many of the minerals that they needed. The salt deposit had been a find, but it took two days to get there and return. “Do you have any questions for the butchers?” He grinned. “No, I can come back another time.” 33
Viola Grace That one sentence sent a thrill of anticipation down her spine. She shivered and led the way out of the cooler air of the butchers, past the path to the tannery and across the divide to the bakery. The ladies and gentlemen kneading, baking and racking up loaves grinned when she came in. “Does everyone here wear leather?” “So far. S’sran has promised to teach a larger weaving class later, but for now, we can only make enough cloth for immediate needs. Leather wears better.” She grinned. “Welcome, stranger, to Steel’s Rest Bakery.” Tahsh smiled, her auburn skin wrinkling with amusement. The two males kneading the bread snorted in amusement. “I told you to stop saying that.” Wyanic raised an eyebrow and introduced himself. “I am Wyanic, head of the Oefric colony. How are you enjoying Barkesh?” Tahsh and Vendu introduced themselves and their mates, Rollo and Sogar. They were a rotating quartet of Nihinian extraction, their deep red skin giving them a demonic appearance. Family members had sold all of them into slavery. They had become the first devoted grouping and had obtained the first housing. Their bonding had necessitated the first ritual on Barkesh and a wedding plan had been worked out with the first plentiful collection of foods and wood. A new planet, new traditions and a new quartet. It had been a wonderful day and as a result, almost all of the males had bonded with a female. The only problem resided in the fact that the women outnumbered the men and due to their previous confinement, the women wanted mates that could defend them. They also wanted one man that would be theirs alone. Several of the women had joined polygamous gatherings, but it was not the logical choice for many. 34
Chain “Why do you call it Steel’s Rest?” That snapped her out of her reverie about weddings. Tahsh grinned. “We got together to name the village, but this was the only one we could agree on. We figured by the time Steel rested, this would be a completely self-supporting gathering. She won’t rest until it happens.” A fresh batch of flatbread was spilled from the oven and Vendu tossed her one like a Frisbee. “Here, Wyanic. This will settle your stomach.” He grinned and tore into the bread with teeth that were pointed and deadly. His eyes rolled as he ate and Tahsh reached into a barrel and pulled out a small crock. “Here try this. Butter from S’sran’s dairy.” With a grin, Steel ripped a chunk of bread off the bottom of the round and spread the butter on it. “Oh, that is good.” She held the buttered bread up to Wyanic. “Try it.” He bit into her offering, his bronze eyes glowing from within. When the taste burst across his tongue, he closed his eyes and smiled. “That is excellent. Where does the milk come from?” “I will show you the dairy next.” “Thank you for visiting Steel’s Rest Bakery. Please come again.” “Shut up, Tahsh.” The laughter that followed them out of the bakery warmed her heart. It had taken a lot of effort to come up with something that all four of them could do together. She grinned when she realized that Wyanic hadn’t asked her about the flour. It hadn’t been an issue with the ration packs, a series of grains had been tried after the scouting and collection missions had come back with them. Working up a wild yeast culture had been difficult, but within three months, they had a functioning leavening agent. The ability to make a weak beer with it had been a bonus that 35
Viola Grace they were all happy with. “Where to next?” He was happily munching on the flatbread. “The farm and dairy, I think. We will be able to see the seed farm from there. We are trying to replace the fast-growing trees we used to build the village with seedlings.” He blinked. “Seriously?” “Yes. Repopulating wood is something my planet has been dealing with. If we can use trees that re-grow within five years to the size they were when we got here, our impact on the grounds will be minimal. Best to start smart.” “You mentioned a farm. What is the impact there?” They walked up the hill to the edge of the forest where the land spread into a cross between meadows and the standing trees. One of the Alliance emergency shelters was the centre point to a series of enclosures made of wooden posts and the thickest silk. “Is that…” Steel grinned and started to pick out her name on the closest silk strand. When the nine-foot spider rushed at them, she put herself between Wyanic and harm.
Chapter Six ’sran. This is Wyanic, head of the Oefric colony. He is here to check on our progress and see what ideas he can take back to his town.” The furious clicking made Steel cough. Isn’t he your mate? Are you going to go home with him, or should I eat him to keep any difficulty from arising? “That won’t be necessary, S’sran. May we tour your farm?” Of course. Did you try the butter at the bakery? The new glaze on the crocks is making quite a difference to the cohesion. “The bakers are also storing it in icy water. Smart on their part in that heated environment.” I suppose. Cklaff did a wonderful job on the pots though. Come on in. “Thank you. We won’t be long.” She admired the large arachnid in the daylight. “Your markings are coming in very well. You look lovely.” The chittering was more random, but a very pleased l’nal scuttled away. “Whew. You know how it is. L’nal are very formal creatures. The traditions have to be upheld.” She smiled and opened the gate. “Did she connect all these fences?” “Yes. She takes the safety of her charges seriously while they are with her. She understands the importance they hold as a food source, but while they are with her, they get the best
Viola Grace of protection.” Wyanic snorted and followed her. “I was going to ask about the proximity to the forest and the predators, but I guess that is not a concern.” “Not particularly. We have also cleared about two kilometres of the woods of predators. We don’t yet know what the migratory paths are, but we are prepared for any eventuality. I hope.” He whistled in surprise. “You really think of everything.” “No, I just think of a situation and can compile what is needed to overcome it or adapt to it.” She sighed and led him over to the goaty things that were the source of the butter. “This is the source of the butter. The six legs are hard to get used to, but once the fourth eye blinks at you with those long lashes, you will be head over heels.” “Those are amazing. Where did you find them?” “There was a flock of them five miles west. We got them all.” She grinned. “There is something to be said for having several pregnant female predators on hand when it comes to hunting for new food sources.” He grinned back after leaning into the pen to stroke the fluffy wool of the passing creature. “The wool sticks to the webbing.” “And S’sran picks it off and cleans it for spinning. It is a pity that we don’t have any carding tools. The one thing we haven’t been able to manage is a smithy. Even though we have bog iron on hand, there is no way to smelt it.” “Perhaps we could arrange an exchange of services for instruction.” He leaned on the fencepost and his pose was so casual, it looked forced. “If you consider it a worthy idea, I think the people of the village would enjoy a little more stimulation. How are your population levels?” “We have slightly more males than females, why?” 38
Chain “There were many more breeders than males. Now, we have only three-quarters of our population paired up in one way or another. A few extra males around might make some of the women perk up.” He cocked his head. “I thought one of our agreements was no comingling.” “That goes for bakers and tanners. By the way, do you want to see how we make the flour?” He gave the goat thing a final pat and offered her his arm. “Does this get filed under comingling?” She smirked as she took his arm and led him out of the yard. Watching S’sran milk the goats was not for the faint of heart and the bleating cries coming from the pens told Steel that the time was almost nigh. “You know that finding you means I will have to rewrite the villages’ agreement. The rush I feel just having your arm on mine is not something that I will let slip away again.” A happy bubble started to well inside her chest. “I suspected it.” They walked toward the field and she was quiet for a moment. When he stopped in shock, she started laughing. “Welcome to our grain crop.” As far as the eye could see, golden grain seedpods covered the ground. “How…” “Tahsh and Vendu. They are both capable of accelerating growth in vegetation. We found a seedpod that would grow in the meadow, was digestible in one form or another by the vast majority of the villagers and they grew it. Then they grew it again while we lived on random harvest from the foragers.” “How many foragers did you have?” “Everyone did it for a few weeks, those that catalogued the items and locations went out the following week. It was a 39
Viola Grace working rotation. Some were more suited to going out constantly, so they did.” “I can’t believe…you have enough here to last you a whole season.” “Or enough to trade. Do your people prefer flour or grain?” She grinned again. Pride was in every inch of her body and he could see it. “I will talk to our supply manager. He will no doubt rush out here to see for himself.” “We will use the emergency shelters for grain storage. Most of the couples have already built small cabins and moved in. Oh, and if any of your folk come here, we do have wraps for the males and females. They do not need to pack clothing, simply come to the clinic first. Neeva keeps the extras in the clinic.” “Need we worry about the hunters?” “Not if they come to the clinic first. If one of yours comes straight for the village and goes to the clinic, they won’t be attacked. If they sneak in from the woods, it would not be wise.” “I will inform them. You make an excellent point.” Smiling, she looked over the field for a moment. “We need to go to the clinic.” “Are you unwell?” “No. Just—Come with me.” She kept her mouth shut, a fine tension running through her muscles. Steel had no idea what sort of reaction he would have to this. It wasn’t like sex with her had been high on his priority list when they were both enslaved. Her baby was growing just fine. Neeva wouldn’t admit it, but Steel had moved in to the clinic, giving her home up to the furniture makers. It gave her a warm and safe place to be with her daughter. As the clinic loomed, she walked faster, trying to pull the 40
Chain bandage off in one sharp jerk. A solid tug on her hand stopped her. “Steel, I don’t know what you are going to show me, but you are my true mate, nothing can break that bond.” “Tell me that in five minutes.” She led him into the clinic, nodded to Neeva and Davol as they were restocking the supply cabinet with items he had smuggled to them from the town. “You didn’t see anything, Wyanic.” She kept hold of his hand and hauled him into what she privately termed the nursery. She stopped in front of the tank on a shelf at waist height. “Steel, what is this?” “Wyanic, this is our daughter.”
Chapter Seven ow could you not tell me?” He was on his knees with his hands on the sides of the tank, a posture that made Steel nervous. “We didn’t know if she would survive. Neeva removed a large chunk of me to build her an artificial womb and the incubator wasn’t built for this kind of prolonged usage. She still has six more months in there.” “Why so long?” There was a thickness to his tone and she noted the tears welling and running down his face. “The incubator works slowly.” “She was the exception to the contract.” “She was, is.” “Do you visit her?” A low voice spoke to them, “She lives here with her daughter, Wyanic. Every day she comes and reads stories from her home world to her little growing child. The books are under the bunk there.” “Enough, Neeva. I think I will leave him alone with her for a moment. She seems to enjoy his voice.” Steel pressed her hand to Wyanic’s shoulder and left him with his daughter. She walked into the lobby of the clinic and breathed deeply. “You okay, Estelle?” Only Neeva called her that anymore. “Fine. It was just harder than it should have been to share her after all this time. While he is here, can you check Wyanic for some kind
Chain of illness? He seems to have a problem with nausea and faintness.” Neeva gave her a gentle pat on the arm. “I will. He won’t leave here until we know what is going on.” Two hours later, Steel peeked into the room to hear Wyanic reading her favourite story in low tones. “…and then the princess was whisked away to medical by magical fairies and she was brought back to life by a good witch. When the fairy Hska was asked if there was something else, she told the good witch that the princess thought she was pregnant and she would do anything to save her baby. The good witch made a special bubble for the baby and put it into a tiny tower where it could grow and grow until it could be in the arms of the princess as a beloved baby. “The prince was far away and under a spell that only the princess could break. She waited for the moment, but she didn’t know when to break the spell and she decided to wait until her own tiny princess was in the world and could help her make that choice. “So the princess waited and waited and is waiting still…the end.” He closed the book that she had written for her daughter and looked up into her eyes. “That is a fascinating story. How does it really end?” “I suppose that the cursed prince leaves his people for a day and finds the princess right under his nose. She ends his curse, but has no idea what comes next.” She leaned against the doorframe and put her insecurity into her eyes. “This is one situation I can’t think of a fix for.” He put the book down and tucked it back under the bunk. “We need to talk but not today. I have been overwhelmed with information and barely know if I am coming or going. I will be back tomorrow.” Neeva appeared in the doorway next to Steel. “Not until I 43
Viola Grace have given you a once over. Orders of the headwoman of Steel’s Rest.” “Stop calling it that.” “Then take a day off.” “No.” “Steel’s Rest it is.” Neeva grinned and ushered the bemused Wyanic into her exam room. Fifteen minutes of nail biting later and a sheepish Wyanic emerged with a highly amused Neeva. “What, what is it?” “I have morning sickness. It comes with pregnancy for some men if their partners don’t feel it.” He was scowling at her like she was to blame. “Hey, I sacrificed an ovary for her. I have done my motherly duty by making her my only child.” “Neeva told me. She also said that other children are possible once our little piece of joy in a can appears. Your system is holding off on oestrus until you are holding her in your arms.” Steel grinned. “I know. It has been the most hormonally free I have ever been.” Davol returned to the clinic from his run to the bakery and butcher shop. “Is everything okay?” “More or less. Is that lunch?” “Afternoon tea. We have to be going soon, but we don’t need to do it on an empty stomach.” Davol pulled out an exam table and put the food on it in a lovely display. They had a snack in the clinic and Wyanic pressed her against the wall before he left. “I will be back tomorrow. Trust me on this. Arrangements need to be made, but I will be back.” His kiss ravaged her, elevated her heart rate and sent a full-body ripple of heat through her skin. She slid her fingers through his midnight hair and lifted 44
Chain her right leg to wrap it around his hips, pulling him into her. He groaned, shaking and pulled back. “Tomorrow. Definitely tomorrow.” He ripped himself from her grasp and was out the door before Davol could do more than bow to Neeva. He may be seeing the healer as regularly as he could, but he was still bound by the fraternization restriction that held the Oefric on their side of the settlement. Exhausted, aroused and feeling oddly alone, she looked to the healer. “That went better than I expected.” Neeva grinned and came over to give her a hug. “You are working for the greater good here, Estelle. If he repeals the fraternization regulation, I may actually get a date.” Sighing, she leaned into the support and accepted it gratefully. “Yes, Neeva, I know this is all about you.” “I am glad you have realized it, Estelle.” The laughter separated them and Estelle rubbed her neck to relieve the tension. “I am going to go check on her and then head off to check on Hska. She was looking a little pink.” Neeva hissed in sympathy and tidied up the remains of their tea. Her daughter was floating happily in the tank, kicking randomly and sucking her still-webbed hands. “Hey, Junior. How is it going? Did you meet your daddy today?” She sat next to the tank on the bunk, closing her eyes as she breathed in Wyanic’s scent. She had forgotten just how hard his scent had hit her that eternity ago. Her fingers absently traced the scar on her belly that she had forced Neeva to leave as a reminder of a bond lost and freedom found. She tried to keep the hope within her up and bright, but doubts as to her future crept in. When she was no longer of use to the settlers, they may not enjoy her company. She had 45
Viola Grace never been welcomed before once her job was done. The previous towns and cities had not offered her a place to stay after they had sucked her brain dry. Experience was a harsh mistress. This was a different situation—very different people and a place that no one was prepared to deal with. She was making things up as she went along and with Junior’s decanting looming in the future, she had to start getting herself sorted now that the village was evolving on its own. “I think he is a nice and stable fellow. What do you think, Junior?” The baby kicked at the sound of her voice. “He has morning sickness because of you, you know. He may have thought I was dead, but part of him knew you were not. You have to admire those instincts.” The movement continued and Estelle settled in to read a story to her daughter. She was halfway through Cinderella when there was a knock on the door. Finailiac stuck his head through the doorway and had the grace to look embarrassed. Not an easy feat for a man nine feet tall and three feet wide. “Yes?” “Sorry, Steel. We need your expertise at the mill. The underground stream is a little faster than we anticipated.” She smiled and closed her book. “I will finish the story tonight, Junior. Play nice with Aunty Neeva.” The book was placed onto the immaculately folded bedding and she followed Finailiac out to the construction site where the mill was being set up to not only grind grains and corns, but also to create a power source for the lumber mill. Currently, their processes in slicing the boards involved animals on treadmills. If they could get the gearing system for the mill working, they could reduce the amount of goat power required as well as improve the processing speed when they needed it. They 46
Chain were currently running on a project-by-project basis, barely keeping up with the building that they were doing. Thankfully, the housing was almost complete. The majority of lumber that was being taken now was for expansions to the farm and the fencing did not require much processing, merely a stripping of the bark. The mill project was her pride and joy, the means by which the villagers were fed. The goats on the treadmills were working on their daily duty of steadily plodding and grinding the grain. While lovely steel pipes would have been nice, the polished wood of the geared connectors did the job just fine but had to be replaced more than their metal counterparts would have. The wheel connected to the waterwheel whirred at an alarming rate. She laid out the plans on a large table, the vellum crackling as she pointed to the source of the problem. “We need to get the big one, right here.” “Damn. I was hoping we wouldn’t need it.” “We need it. Where is it?” He flicked his fingers to the corner. “I’ll call in the crew.” Humming softly to herself, Steel looked at the wheel. It had upright pegs on a thick wooden base and would take more strength than she possessed to lift. The pegs were nice and tight, nothing had worked loose. She smiled as she remembered the class for her woodworking students where they had asked her why the fit had to be so tight, the placement so exact. Now those students were filing in, brawny males and two brawny females who lifted the wheel and started down the narrow steps into the hole that housed their waterwheel and the underground stream. Steel kept her mouth shut as she watched them slow and lock the flywheel, lifting it out of the water to make sure it 47
Viola Grace did not accidentally engage. Safety was paramount. While Neeva could heal a lot, getting out of that hole and to the clinic across the way was not a situation that they wanted to go through again. With her breath alternately held and gusting out of her, she watched as they switched out the large gears, installed the rotating shaft with another gear on the top and reset the wheel in a slow ballet of trial and error. When all six of them exited the maintenance hatch, they surrounded her where she was slumped on the floor and applauded. “What is that for?” “For keeping your mouth shut and letting us do it ourselves.” Finailiac grinned and pulled her to her feet. “We have enjoyed learning, but it means more that we can do it for ourselves.” One of the ladies shifted to work on connecting the newly connected post to the small grinding stones and as the upper stone started to move another round of applause broke loose. “Tell the goats they can have some time off.” Steel smiled at the pride and enjoyment that the faces around her held and felt a new sense that she had heirs to parts of her knowledge. A low gong was coming from the longhouse, so as one, they all tramped through the fading light and entered their communal feeding centre. The village had had a long day and the people needed to rest. She took the position she had been forced to at the head of one of the tables and ate first of every dish, a practice that made her feel more like a poison detector than the headwoman of the village. It had been useful several times when new food preparations had been offered and ever since the first time, Neeva ate with her while the villagers rotated watching Junior. 48
Chain “Who’s watching her today?” “Moracha. She needs some practice considering her little bundle of joy will be with us in the next two months.” Neeva waited until Steel had tried everything and then she gave the nod for the mass meal to begin. Hska slid into her chair next to Steel and arched the scales over her eyes. “How is it? I tried that new herb that was brought in.” Steel paused with her wooden spoon an inch from her lips. “The minty one or the diuretic?” “Um. Mint I think. I gave the other one to Neeva for her medical use.” She sighed and relaxed slightly, tasting cautiously. “Good. That was a scary few hours I don’t want to relive.” Getting sanitation working had been made easier with the rain collectors and lavs that were part of the emergency shelters. Composting toilets were the most common of the new construction, but on the day that the herb came in, Steel had gotten up close and personal with one of them for several hours. When the feeding frenzy had settled into a lull, Neeva returned to her clinic and Hska supervised the washing of dishes, after she made sure that the babysitter had a meal selection put aside. Hska’s attention to the food requirements of each person was enabling them to cook very close to the edge of the consumption level. Little to no leftovers had started appearing since Hska took over the kitchen. Bread and cold meat were always available, now that they had ready sources of both. And many of the pairs and families preferred to do their own breakfasts, but everyone came together for dinner. With the spaces on both sides of her cleared off and Steel herself in a mellow and relaxed mood, the disputes began. Life still had its petty disappointments here and as soon as 49
Viola Grace there was some time to work up a good mad, people did it. Tonight was light. A query to the millers for a finer or a rolled grain so that the children could have a softer cereal. Finailiac was agreeable and he swore to get Steel to design a rolling millstone the following day. Preparing for children was everyone’s concern. The babies that had been carried onto Barkesh were in developmental stages now. Some were even starting to walk. S’sran had taken to weaving baby snuggies and with the rate of pregnancy in the primarily female population, she was busy. There was a domestic issue to settle and that one was easy. “Plant decorative flowers, Nalu. Martrush will feel feminine again and you will be allowed back into the bedroom. Won’t he, Martrush?” At the mention of flowers, Martrush’s face softened. “That would work. I know I can lift more than he does, but I want to feel like a female now and then.” Steel smiled and wished them good luck. No one else had any questions or concerns, so she called it a night, walking to the door and lifting a crystal in a sliding case. She leaned down, exhaled rapidly onto it and walked to the clinic by the light of the carbon-reactive crystal. It would glow for hours, but she would return it to the longhouse when she popped in for breakfast the next day. Back in the clinic in her private room with her baby, she read the last of Cinderella by the light of the dwindling lamp. When it went out, she said her goodnights to Junior and Neeva, then waited for morning to bring Wyanic back.
Chapter Eight oft lips and cool hair were trailing over her face. She squirmed and reached up to press her lips more firmly to the ones over hers. “Steel, brush your teeth.” She groaned and opened lids that were weighted with sleep. Wyanic was inches above her, grinning like a madman. “Good morning, now get up, brush your teeth and have a shower. We have much to negotiate.” He helped her sit up and gave the tank a kiss. She glared at him through the tumble of hair that had come undone from her customary braid. “Your morning greeting leaves something to be desired.” “I know, but it seemed the best way to cool us both down, now go and take a shower. I will be here when you get back.” Grimacing, she flipped the bedding back and reached under the bed for her bag. A set of clean clothing in her hands, she walked to the clinic’s main bathroom and showers. She unravelled the rest of her braid, stepping under the shower to get her thoughts together. No matter how she tried to work out what might happen today, nothing came together in her mind. Wyanic was an unknown element in her world and she needed to find out what he had planned as quickly as she could. Her hair squeaked from the soap she was using and Steel made a mental note to see how the development team was doing on conditioners and body creams. If the winter on this
Viola Grace world was dry, her skin was going to flake. When she had dried her skin and put on fresh leathers, it was time to face her demons. The demon in question was lounging in her unmade bed and reading to their daughter. Cinderella. His low tone rumbled across her skin and she leaned in the doorway, just listening. When the princess danced with the handsome prince and ran away at midnight, she smiled, meeting Wyanic’s gaze as he closed the book. “These are wonderful. They are all handwritten.” “It was a personal project. We needed to work on writing materials, so I learned to cook and drain wood pulp to make the paper. The ink will probably fade with time. It’s the by-product of certain crushed flowers. You let the juice oxidize and it darkens to a deep purple.” She swallowed as he put the book away and stood in front of her. “Your hair is wet.” He took a hank of her waist-length hair and lifted it to his face, rubbing his cheek against it. His chain tattoo almost throbbed on his arm, his eyes glowed a hot bronze and she was suddenly a lot less sure of her ability to figure him out. Steel swallowed heavily. “Side effect of taking a shower. It will dry fast enough as we walk around.” “I have not had breakfast yet. I was hoping we could eat together.” He released her hair slowly and she edged around him to straighten her bedding. “That sounds nice. You behave for Neeva, Junior.” She stroked the cylinder with her fingers and quickly tugged on her boots. “You have named her?” He followed her out the door and into the sloping meadow in front of the clinic. “No. I just needed something to call her. Junior simply means the next generation with the same name or daughter.” “What is your full name by the way?” 52
Chain “Estelle Vargas, Volunteer of the Alliance Protectorate of Terra.” She lifted her hair to catch the breeze and led the way to the bakery. “I was supposed to be assigned to Barkesh as a logistics specialist, to help you get your colony up and running. Plans change.” “You. That was you?” He seemed more rueful and less surprised, as if she could not shock him anymore. “It still is, but with the restriction between our people, I can’t really help you with your town. If I recall, we can trade but not exchange personnel.” “That is why I am here today. I called an emergency session yesterday and we discussed a number of possibilities. After communicating with our home world, our surplus males agreed that they would like the opportunity to pursue a female if she was amenable. With our shifter abilities, no species is out of our range.” He smiled impishly. “Does our village have any say in this?” “I say we put it to the question. If they want additional manpower in exchange for instruction in their craft, we have those who are interested in apprenticing here at Steel’s Rest. Why are you called Steel by the way?” His words were casual, but he was determined. Everyone in her village would be asked a question today. “Hska named me. Vargas is the Pishin word for steel. You are serious? Your people want to learn what we have learned?” “They do. I have another proposal, but it will have to wait until later. Now, I want to begin by asking your bakers what they think and then we will go to the longhouse and discuss a few details.” She shook her head but merely requested two of the sweet morning loaves when they faced the flour-encrusted bakers. The bakery was busy. Over a dozen of the three hundred residents were there getting morning loaves for them and 53
Viola Grace their spouses. Vullo nodded to her as she waited for Wyanic to finish asking the bakers if they were willing to take on additional help of the Oefric persuasion. The four frazzled people dealing with the morning rush agreed quickly and dismissed him. “That is two of my people placed. Only forty-eight left to go.” He dusted his hands with satisfaction and she shoved the loaves at him. “Carry these. I am going to grab some of the glow lights to return to the longhouse. Come along.” “Yes, dear.” He pattered along after her and they took their seats in the sparsely populated longhouse. “Why are there so few people here?” “Most prefer to eat in their private houses.” “Then why the line for the loaves?” “The bakery has the only bread oven we have built so far. Bread has to be baked hot and fast. Bricks were hard to make, but in the end, we got them made so that they don’t explode when you heat them.” “How many exploded?” “Over the first three months, around one hundred and thirty-four. We did small batches and test fired them. They exploded.” She shrugged and sipped at the tea that Hska brought. “How was your sleep, Hska?” “The little one is giving me trouble. Squirming constantly.” She sat with them and rubbed her stomach. “Is the oil helping?” “With the skin pain, yes. But the stretching is distracting.” Her point was proved when an elbow pressed from within and skidded along the width of her belly. “I am sorry, Hska. I would take it on if I could.” “I know. Don’t worry, Steel, I enjoy it even though I 54
Chain complain. At least the child is healthy and alive. I have no idea what happened to the father.” She shrugged. “There was only one Pishin in the gladiatorial quarters and he died four days before the escape and rescue.” Wyanic was looking concerned. “Don’t worry, he wasn’t particularly kind. It has simply been traditional to name our children after their father to denote parentage. This baby will simply take on a version of my name. Hskeel has a good ring to it.” “Hskeel? Really? That is simply fascinating.” Steel was looking at her lizardy friend through narrowed eyes. “It’s a good name. Shows a solid background and influence. Ah, Steel, can you rub my belly for me?” Steel looked to her food for a moment, cracked off a corner and wedged it into her mouth, chewing as she headed to the spice cupboard to get the heavy oil that Hska needed rubbed into her skin. “Pivot and hand me some more of that loaf.” With Wyanic watching in amusement, Steel slicked up her hands and started rubbing Hska’s belly. “Now, be nice to your mum, Hskeel. She has gone through quite a bit of difficulty to get you here safely and she needs her sleep.” She could feel the motion, the sliding, slipping of the baby beneath her hands. The child fluttered in response to her voice as it always did. Steel knew that she was the father that the baby had been named after, but she and Hska took care of each other. Even with Wyanic there, there was no reason not to continue to keep an eye on Hska and her child in the future. The skin between the scales relaxed as she rubbed and the baby’s movements became slower and less frenzied. “You have to keep on with the rubbing, Hska. You were squashing the little fellow.” “I forget. I would far rather do something else with my 55
Viola Grace time. Plus, you are better at it than I am.” The grin was disturbing but endearing. “Stop smiling, I am rather cross with you.” Steel covered the small pottery jar with its waxed-fabric cover and returned it to the spice shelf. She washed her hands in the bucket provided for that purpose and returned to her breakfast. “I did make you tea.” “You did. But rubbing your abdomen when you hike your tunic is worth a few tea deliveries.” Wyanic wasn’t silent for her sake. While she had been giving Hska a rub down, he was off asking the other villagers if they would accept apprentices. “You are right. Why are you still living at the clinic?” “Because I want to be close to her.” “What will you do when she is here?” “I hope to have a plan by then. You know how I love a plan.” She picked her loaf apart and dipped it into her tea. It was lightly sweet, very grainy and reminded her of oatmeal crossed with whole wheat and honey in a bread form. “Why do I have a feeling that the Oefric will throw a twist into your plans?” Wyanic was standing behind Hska when she spoke. When he replied, she jumped. “Because he plans to.” The Pishin didn’t do more than rapidly blink her eyes before she asked him bluntly, “When are you going to build her a house? She won’t build one for herself.” He tilted his head and looked over at Steel. She blushed under his regard. “That isn’t true. I have a house.” “Really? Where?” She blushed harder. “It is being used as the carpentry workshop.” “So, you have nowhere to stay except the clinic.” He scowled down at her. 56
Chain “I can stay with Hska if need be, but I like being close to Junior.” She was a little defensive, but the last was true. “I may be able to help there. I will find you for lunch. For now, Davol and I are running around to find the folks in the industries that we are interested in.” “So, you roust me from a sound sleep only to leave me?” He came around the table, threaded his hand in her hair and tugged her head back until her throat was exposed. A very vulnerable position that he took advantage of, using his lips, tongue and teeth, working his way from the base of her neck to leave a scorching kiss on her lips. “I have my methods. Now prepare to have Davol find you for lunch.” She was still getting her breath back and her pulse to return to its undisturbed state when his well-shaped backside left the longhouse. “This is going to be one very long day.” She crossed her arms on the table and very slowly banged her head on the wood. Hska’s laughter did not help at all.
Chapter Nine oday feels a little weird, S’sran. Too quiet.” Steel had wandered over to the farm and helped the l’nal with her chores. Feeding and raking the paddocks had a certain quiet harmony that she enjoyed. Currently, she was working on sketching out a farm expansion that wouldn’t hamper the hunting paths. I like quiet. Do you think that design has enough room for all the little ones? “Pretty sure. If not, the farm may have to be moved back into the heart of the meadow.” They won’t like moving. It took some getting used to, but S’sran’s clicking eventually took on a soothing tone. “I know. But we want to settle in for future expansion. How is the loom design?” It is getting closer. Can you take a look at it and make some adjustments today? “It’s why I brought my tool belt. Come on, I don’t want to scare the goats out of their daily milk.” The goats in question had adapted easily to the frightening aspect of their keeper, but two-legged predators still freaked them out. Excellent. Let me get the milk and I will meet you in the shelter. S’sran shared her shelter with her charges. It seemed counter-intuitive that the goats would find a meat-eating, acid-squirting predator comforting. Maybe it was a body-hair thing. Steel hiked along with her satchel of tools banging against
Chain her leg. The interior of the emergency structure was lined with skeins of wool that S’sran had already prepped for weaving. The only hold up was the loom. It was the most complicated piece of machinery that Steel had ever tried to assemble. L’nal weaving was normally done on the most technologically advanced looms to accommodate their six weaving limbs. “What needs to be done?” S’sran began to outline the lifting and angling of levers and Steel got to work. When there was a heavy beam that had to be held, she called the l’nal over and within two hours, they had the majority of the alterations to the confusing wooden structure completed. “You are going to have to tell me if this works, it’s your design.” It should be enough for me to test it later today. Thank you for your help on the feeding and cleaning. It frees me up to set the warp into the loom. “Fantastic. I hope it works for you. Those small handlooms you designed are working well and several folks are weaving belts.” Excellent. I have designs for larger looms that you two handers can use. “I look forward to discussing them.” And I look forward to seeing you soon. Funnily enough, not many of our village come by to visit. S’sran perked up and held perfectly still for a moment. I spoke too soon. There is someone at the gate. Steel didn’t have a chance to speak. S’sran was out the door in a flash of black and brown fur. She packed up her tools as she waited. The saws, files and hammers fitting into their proper places within her kit. The low rumbling tone of a masculine voice was familiar. Wyanic was here and he was talking earnestly to S’sran. He doesn’t understand me. Does he have any Oefric who speak 59
Viola Grace l’nal? “Hello, Wyanic. Do any of your people speak l’nal? If you have any, she will teach them whatever you want them to know.” “Steel, I had no idea you were here.” “It was a quiet day and I like to spend those with S’sran, working on her loom.” He eyed the mammoth creation with admiration. “I have not seen one of those made of wood. I have to ask, how have you been able to cut so much wood in so little time.” She nodded her head to S’sran who was picking up spindles to rig her loom. “Like most l’nal, she spits acid. During our first sweeps, S’sran was at the head of the logging community. Not only could she weaken a tree to the pushing point, she could haul the largest of trees with very little difficulty.” “Does she mind being here alone?” “She was bound up and sold by her husbands. She has very little urge to put herself in a vulnerable position like that again. I believe that her maternal urges are satisfied by the goats and their breeding, as well as maintenance.” “So, she wouldn’t mind an apprentice or two?” A small nod from S’sran’s head followed by her blinking four of her eyes and Steel responded, “She won’t mind. But they have to speak l’nal. That is her only criteria. It becomes frustrating for her when no one is listening to her and then the biting starts.” In a graceful move, Wyanic stood in front of the giant spider and bowed. “Thank you, lady. Sharing knowledge is one of the greatest gifts one can give.” S’sran made a l’nal chuckle. He is very good. You will have your hands full with this one. “I know.” She hefted her tools to her shoulder and patted S’sran in farewell. “I will be back to check on the loom 60
Chain tomorrow. Make notes of any additional changes you want.” Wyanic said his goodbyes to the spider and followed Steel out the door. They walked in silence back toward the village. Steel cleared her throat when they neared the carpentry workshop. “Have you eaten lunch?” “No. I lost track of time. Would you show me where I can get something?” She smiled. “Sure. Just let me drop my tools in the workshop and we can head to the butchers.” Steel expected to see the dozen workers fashioning home furnishings when she entered the carpentry shop. The place was empty. Her curiosity was up, but she put her thoughts aside as she grabbed her knives and utensils. “Let’s go. I have a place I like to go to get some silence. Does that sound like it interests you?” “If you and a meal will be there, I will follow wherever you lead.” She tried to hide her pleased blush, but he pressed a kiss to her heated cheek and wrapped an arm around her waist. Only one male was on duty at the butcher shop and Steel was getting suspicious. “Vin, where is Aton?” “He is out doing something else today. He needed a day off.” Vin gave Wyanic a meaningful look and a suspicion began to grow in Steel’s mind. “Fine. Do you have a weasel?” “Of course. Here you are.” He handed her a leather-wrapped parcel. “I included some of S’sran’s cheese. She finally got the hang of the coagulation of the curds.” “I look forward to trying it.” She smiled weakly. The first few attempts were still burning in her memory and the part of her stomach that felt permanently scorched. Steel led the way into the forest, moving confidently through the woods. Her path was well known by the 61
Viola Grace villagers. They had been known to haul her back in emergencies, but this one spot was kept for her use alone. The waterfall was only one foot tall, but the pool had a soothing ripple on the surface that calmed her turbulent thoughts the moment she stepped into the clearing. “Why isn’t everyone here? This is beautiful.” Wyanic found her pile of firewood and started a small blaze in the ashy hollow of stone. “I asked for it and they agreed that I needed a place to be silent occasionally.” She took a branch and put the weasel on the spit, arranging it over the hollow in the fire pit. The light rubbing of herbs on the flesh made her smile. Each day the villagers put more into their arts. “I am honoured that you asked me here.” “I needed to ask you some questions. This seemed like the only place we would not be interrupted.” She rinsed her hands in the pond and sat back against one of the nearby trees. “What do you want to know?” “What do you expect from me? What do you want from me? How will we be able to live with the distance between our homes? What about when Junior is out in the world, how will that work?” “Steel, you are my true mate. An Oefric only has one per lifetime. With the blessings of my people, I will be moving here as soon as we have a stable exchange between our communities. My people have more advanced tools, but the skill levels here are developing at an astronomical pace.” He sat next to her and lifted her hand to his lips. “I won’t be far from you, ever again.” Shivers started to move from the warm press of his lips, up her arm and across her breasts, tightening her nipples to hard points from that simple caress. Not one touch in the last six months had stirred a hormone and here, with one kiss, 62
Chain her body was spinning into a riot. Back on Earth, the idea of only one person able to stir you after you had met them was ridiculous, but here, it seemed all too true. “What is entailed in true mating?” “Nothing except a feeling of incompletion when you are away from your match. That and a binding genetic attachment. Once you have a true mate, no one else stirs you or can successfully breed with you. It means a life alone without family if you are not with them.” His tone was matter of fact as he started kissing his way up her arm. With his free hand, he started to unlace the neckline of her shirt and her breath was coming in short pants. If she opened her mouth and said the wrong thing, he would stop, so she bit her lower lip and closed her eyes as he peeled the leather from her inch by inch. “Do you want me?” His words vibrated against her throat and it took her long seconds to process. “I don’t think I have ever wanted anyone else.” The honesty of her words sent a bolt of blinding clarity through her. It was true, from the moment he had been hauled in front of her, it had been him. Only him. His harsh groan started a flurry of tugging and pulling as the leathers were removed and she knelt naked in the grass next to the pool. She quickly turned their meal so it wouldn’t burn and by the time she turned back to him, his boots were off and his trousers were undone. Steel reached for him, releasing his cock from its confinement. She examined him closely, noting the flared head, the dark flush of skin along the shaft and the wet pearl of precum emanating from him. Her tongue flicked out and she lapped at the head for a moment before taking it between her lips and sucking lightly. She slowly moved him deeper into the moist recesses of 63
Viola Grace her mouth and pulled back in a slow rhythm that sent a pulse low in her belly and caused a slick response between her thighs. “Steel, stop. This is not the joining for that kind of fun.” He pulled away from her with a groan and she stared at him in a daze. His trousers fell onto hers and naked, he hauled her to her feet and held her against him. “Are you sure?” “I am sure.” No other words were necessary. He knelt at her feet with his cock pointing up in demanding invitation. His fingers slipped between her thighs and stroked her into a writhing frenzy before he pressed the backs of her knees to drop her onto him. He cupped her buttocks and lowered her into position with her legs looping around his hips. She arched her back and held his shoulders as he forged into her until the backs of her thighs were flat on the tops of his and they both were panting for control. She looked up into his eyes and they kissed slowly as he started to lift and lower her in a hot and drowsy beat. The world around them spun away and there was nothing between them but the pleasure that the slow and heady motions generated. Steel felt her body tightening with tension and she ruthlessly fought her release when it would have overwhelmed her. “Let it come, Steel.” “No. Not yet.” She leaned forward and pressed her lips to him, licking and kissing the salty traces on his skin. The muscles of his chest jumped when her lips closed over one nipple and he gave a harsh groan when she shifted to the other side to attack the other one for the same treatment. He lifted and dropped her harder, his pelvis striking her clitoris and the hard pressure had her digging her nails into his shoulders and cries started coming from her throat hard 64
Chain and fast. A moment away from release, Wyanic leaned down and sank his teeth into the joint of neck and shoulder. He groaned and pumped into her furiously as she screamed and shattered with the pleasure-pain rippling out from the centre of her being and echoing through her limbs. Wrung out and dripping with sweat, she pressed her forehead to his cheek. He released her neck and licked the punctures closed. His lips tasted of blood and lust and when their joining kiss was over, she leaned against him revelling in the feeling of completion. “We need to attend to lunch. It’s smelling very done.” She laughed and regretfully pried herself off him, the musky scent of his seed coming to her the moment she stood. The weasel was almost scorched, but she was in time with a practiced rotation to keep the cooking relatively even. It was high enough that the meat was being cooked by the hot air and not the fire itself. “I think a bath before lunch is in order. I still smell a little like goat.” She grinned and jumped into the rippling pool. She didn’t see him shift, but when a large black cat was suddenly paddling around next to her, she knew it was her lover. “Very nice. I thought cats didn’t like water.” She chuckled to herself as she sluiced the water against her folds until the remains of their mating was removed and the pounding heat was cooled. Shivering, she left the pool and attended to the cooking meat, drying herself by the fire as a pleasant side effect. She was turning to dry her back when a hissing sound began from the forest. “Wyanic, if you have a weapon, draw it now.” A dark shadow moved between her and the sound. A huge cat with armoured scales. “Nice. It spits venom.” 65
Viola Grace He glanced back at her and flicked a secondary lid over his eyes. He waited between her and danger until the hissing ceased. The attack was as sudden as it was ferocious. Steel ducked and took the food with her behind a covered outcropping. She could hear the battle, but until the triumphant howl, had been unsure how well Wyanic was faring. A momentous splash told her that he was bathing off the blood and venom, restarting her heart. For a moment, she didn’t know if it would ever beat again.
Chapter Ten hat was that?” “Forest lizard. We haven’t seen one in a while, but since the hunters avoid this area for the sake of my privacy, it must have moved into this territory.” She held up their meal and winced at the splattered blood and venom that had thankfully missed their clothing. Flinging them to the side of the pool had been fortunate. The lizards hated water. Naked and barefoot, she picked her way to the clothing carefully. “You hold this while I dress and then I will hold it while you do.” “Why get dressed?” “The venom is kind of acidic for my skin. I don’t react well to the contact and the whole place is now covered in it.” She smiled as she took in his physical perfection, then frowned as she saw the gouges along his side. “It got you.” “Nothing deadly. My immune system adapts just like my body does. Hand me the weasel.” He held out his hands and she put the spit in them, the nicely finished meat smelling wonderful. She tugged on her clothing with only a few hard jerks when the leather stuck to damp skin. She dusted the soles of her feet with her palms before she put her boots on and then she took the meat back from him so he could dress. Watching carefully, she noticed the signs he was wavering and in pain. The moment he was done, she picked up her knives and silently led him back to the village.
Viola Grace By the time they reached the village, Wyanic had his arm around her shoulder and an increasing weight on her shoulders had her making a beeline for the clinic. “Neeva!” The healer rushed out of the clinic doors and paused as she took in the pallor of her patient. “Room two. Forest lizard?” Steel steered him through the doors of the clinic and aimed him at the exam room. “Yup. How did you guess?” “You were the same colour when you got hit.” With a groan, he tumbled to the exam table and Steel saw his colour for the first time since the pool. Green and bronze were vying for control of his skin. Neeva sent her for the poultices needed and laid her hands over the wounds to help Wyanic keep the infection at bay. Steel muttered to herself as she collected the jars from the shelves, set water to boil and scuttled back to Wyanic’s side. “Stupid. I should never have dragged you into the woods without proper weapons.” He looked up at her and smiled. “I distracted you and I am glad I did. What will happen to the carcass?” “Well, if I can send the tanners out to fetch it, it will be made into leather for belts or purses, depending on how badly you slashed up that hide.” “It was pretty tough. I got in under the jaw line.” He was regaining his colour, but Neeva’s gaze told her to keep him talking while she worked. “Do you think Davol should go with them when they go to collect it?” “Yes, I think he would be favourably impressed at what a man with morning sickness can do. He hasn’t stopped teasing me about that.” “Well, you have to admit that there is a certain amusement factor it in. It will be a great story to tell Junior.” 68
Chain “I am still not sold on the name Junior. What about Estelle Liaka?” He winced as Neeva put the poultice on. “What does it mean, Liaka?” Neeva looked up, “Glowing heart.” Steel looked down at Wyanic. His colour was getting better by the second. “So, between Pishin and Oefric, she will be the maker of the glowing heart? That is a fairly heavy name for such a little thing.” “She will grow into it. I am sure of it.” He raised his hand and took hers in his grip. “So, will you try and make a life with me?” “The village needs me.” “So? I can move. In fact, after a suitable adjustment period, many of the Oefric are interested in becoming one with your village.” “How could they make such a quick decision?” “It was easy. Joining the colony, they swore to do whatever they could to create an anchoring presence on Barkesh. Right now, you are more anchored than we are, so it is join you or fail in our assignment.” He winced as Neeva changed the poultice. “You aren’t serious? What happened to keeping us apart?” He looked embarrassed. “Our colony elders thought your people would fade away in a few generations. That does not seem to be the case, so they have adapted to the new realization that you are a thriving colony and we need to join you.” Steel shook her head. “That must have been one hell of a meeting.” “You have no idea. Not all of the colonists are interested, but a seed has been planted and now, with your permission and as space becomes available, more Oefric will come here and join your village.” 69
Viola Grace Neeva kept her head down, “Steel’s Rest.” He grinned. “Correct, they will come and become citizens of Steel’s Rest. It was part of the questions that I asked when I ran through town and spoke to all of your people today. They seem downright enthusiastic.” She narrowed her eyes with suspicion. “What did you promise them?” “Only our help in rendering and creating creams and cosmetics. It was the first thing one of our specialists focussed on.” He grimaced. “Which specialist?” “My sister, Havva. She asked me for some tech-specific equipment a few months ago and that was why I was on the station when I was taken. I was on a trading mission.” He grunted when Neeva started to wind a bandage around his waist. “So, that is why you were off Barkesh at all. You were shopping.” She started to laugh. “I was on holiday and trying to use every last second of freedom. Too bad I didn’t know how going to that tavern was going to turn out.” “Drugged?” “Yup.” “Me, too. We have a tremendous amount in common, which is funny considering how unlikely our meeting would have been if you were simply the logistical specialist. Davol would have been your keeper until your assignment was completed and you would have left the moment the town was running smoothly.” She nodded in acknowledgement. “What are the future plans for the colony? I can’t imagine the small population spreading over the surface in less than a thousand years.” “Once we have a generation of healthy children, other races will be invited to join our settlements. We are looking for a ten percent population increase before we invite other 70
Chain species in.” “So, why did you invite the survivors?” “They needed a home and with you dead, it brought me closer to you, knowing that you gave your life to free them.” His sincerity was blazing in his eyes and then his lids started to droop. “Ah.” She couldn’t reply through the lump in her throat. She held his hand until he fell asleep and then moved the gurney he was on into her room. She let Junior watch over him while she returned to help Neeva tidy up. The used poultices were thrown into the fire and the smoke vented outside. “I am going to talk to Vullo.” “I will keep an eye on him.” With her lips tight and shoulders locked, she jogged to the tannery. The smell was appalling, but the result was wonderful. Vullo and his kind took care of the skinning with their one vital talent. They lacked a sense of smell. “Vullo! Are you here?” She didn’t pass the marks on the floor from where skins were dragged across the floor. Getting slapped in the face with a goatskin once was quite enough. As if her thoughts had conjured it, a hanging skin went whipping through the entryway. Vullo was behind it. “Steel, how nice to see you.” “Nice to see you, too, Vullo. Are you interested in a lizard carcass?” He gave her a smile. “Don’t tell me you killed one and didn’t even get bloody.” “No. Wyanic the Oefric killed it near my meditation pool.” “How near?” Eagerness lit his eyes. “Well, right there. Next to the pool. About…” She turned and checked the sunlight. “Three hours ago. It should still be relatively scavenger free.” 71
Viola Grace “Thanks, Steel. I will let you know if we manage to find and retrieve it. I will have to round up the Jendar to grab it and help with the processing.” He was fidgeting as if he couldn’t wait to be somewhere else. “Fine. Go. It was quite large so bring at least four men.” “Definitely. Off you go. You will want to attend to your mate.” She frowned at him, but left the tannery, breathing the sweet air of the outdoors the moment she had cleared the building. That was one more thing off her list. Steel scowled as she noticed one of the carpenters running with a saw and two hammers. He noticed her and turned to sprint down the lane. Curious, she followed him at a distance of a hundred feet. He headed over the hill toward the Oefric colony and scooted to a collection of about fifty people by Steel’s count. They were building a house and no one had invited her to help plan it. She felt left out, turning and walking back to the clinic with confusion swirling in her mind. With Wyanic on one side of her and Junior on the other, she started reading. “Once upon a time, there was a princess on Terra and she wanted to leave her home to see the stars…” **** Wyanic listened to the pleasing pitch of her tone. Finally, the words sank in. She was telling the story of her trip into the Alliance and all the planets that had refused her a new home. He opened his eyes and looked down at the top of her head, the ripple of rich brown hair with golden highlights cascaded over her shoulder and down the sweet curve of her breast. 72
Chain “It’s a good story.” His voice was harsh to his ears. “It needs a better ending.” He sat up, the tenderness in his side far less than the searing burn that had followed the lizard attack. “You are awake.” She observed, then bit her lip. “How are you feeling?” “Tender but rather hungry. We didn’t have lunch. What is the chance that we can have dinner?” He waggled his eyebrows beseechingly. She smiled at him in relief. “Neeva is grabbing her meal and as soon as she is back, we will go to the longhouse.” “Do you normally wait for her?” “No. I normally have a babysitter for Junior though. Tonight is different. I had to stay here for you anyway.” She grinned and patted him on the hand. “She will be back shortly. The bell rang an hour ago.” “Will there be food left?” “Yes. We use a headcount system. You can always count on a basic meal if you need it, but I am pretty sure that Hska has kept something aside for us.” He sat up, his head spinning for a moment before it settled. “You know, since discovering that Junior is alive and well, my sickness has almost completely faded.” “I am glad to hear it.” She looked like she was going to say something else when Neeva poked her head through the doorway. “You are awake, good. Hska is holding dinner for you and she just fed me because Junior needs a babysitter.” He boosted himself to the floor and stood still until he stabilized. “Come along, my dear. We need to get some nourishment in me to stop my feeble condition in case there is need to defend your very attractive self again.” She closed the book and slid it beneath her bed. “Fine. Let’s go. I am a little hungry as well.” 73
Viola Grace Steel sidled up to him and he breathed in her scent of wood, oil, steel and female. It was so right that his knees trembled. Casually, he draped his arm over her slender shoulders and steered her out to the door, pausing so that she could hyperventilate into a lantern, lighting it with her breath. He admired the cold, glowing light and the twenty-foot pool it cast. “You are going to have to explain that to me one day.” “And you are going to have to explain how you have a sister who can send you to other worlds to fetch makeup supplies.”
Chapter Eleven he longhouse was full and all eyes turned to them the moment that they entered. Steel led him to her seat and put him in Neeva’s spot. Hska and those on serving duty began their rounds immediately. When the plate landed in front of him, Wyanic looked down with suspicion. “What is it?” “Weasel.” She sniggered and dug in, starting a ravenous feeding frenzy throughout the hall. “Why were they waiting?” He dipped some of the bread in the gravy, raised his eyes and dug into the food with enthusiasm. “They waited for me. I have been eating most of the experimental food first since we landed. It went from a self-preservation thing on their parts, to a tradition after a few weeks.” Her shrug said it all as far as she was concerned. He paused for a moment and nodded, then he looked around, identifying several people who looked away when she turned to see who he was looking at. When the meal was no more and she had her tea in front of her, Wyanic stood up. “Excuse me, please, everyone.” The room fell silent with a happy anticipation. “Thank you. Steel, as you know, many of the people here feel they owe you their lives and they have decided to give you something. As of today, a great house is being built for you just on the other side of the hill, making your home the
Viola Grace first stop for anyone from our town and giving you a bit of privacy once our daughter is with us.” She blinked in surprise. “A house? I have a house.” “You have turned it into a workshop and you know it.” Vin and Aton stood. “Accept it, Steel, and be quiet. You have managed to be at our beck and call these last months, it is only fair we put our appreciation into action. Be gracious and simply accept it for a change.” Steel opened and closed her mouth several times before simply nodding. “Thank you.” The applause that erupted startled the few babies and surprised some who were dozing at their tables. When the room was quiet and conversations began to ebb and flow, she looked over at Wyanic. “You started them down this path.” “Yes. You and your daughter need a place to live. With me. We need a home and they owe you more than a simple domicile.” “They owe me nothing. I did this because I wanted to. I have Junior because Hska insisted on it and because Neeva could do it. I owe them.” Hska stood behind her. “We are friends. We don’t owe each other, we go forward.” Wyanic nodded. “Excellent point. And excellent food by the way.” “Thank you. I do try to make something palatable every day.” She moved her pregnant belly slowly, settling into her seat with a heavy exhalation. “Hska, are you sure that your timing was right? You seem to be even larger than you were yesterday.” “Well, I may have been pregnant already when they bred me the last time. It is hard for my race to tell until the child gains enough size.” She shifted uncomfortably. “I will have Neeva check me.” 76
Chain Under Steel’s amazed gaze, the top of the bulge split and Hska keened as the baby simply crawled upward. Pishin were dexterous at birth. “Someone grab some meat.” Vin and Aton came to her rescue as the baby crawled up to Hska’s collarbone. They handed her a sliver of raw meat and watched as she teased the little one into snapping at the slice. “More. Come on, short stuff.” She lured the baby off Hska and onto her, keeping her fingers out of reach as the little one snapped with hard gums and needle teeth. Wyanic was helping Hska and someone had sent for Neeva. The baby had a dark red crest of hair starting at its forehead and running down its spine. “Hello, Hskeel. Welcome to the world.” The child looked at the noise she made with large lavender eyes. She fed it more strips of meat until it refused to take more. Neeva came through the doors at a run. She skidded through the crowd and knelt at Hska’s side. “There you are. Everything is fine. You just weren’t expecting it, so it shocked you.” Her voice was low and murmuring. “Wyanic, can you carry her to the clinic?” “Of course.” “Steel, follow with the baby.” “Will do.” She rocked Hskeel and held the child close. Now that it was out of the pouch, it would suffer hypothermia if it didn’t get back into Hska’s pouch. They walked under guard, thirty villagers alternately carrying lights and weapons in case the smell of the birth brought a predator. Hska was ensconced in the warmest room of the clinic and Neeva took care of her pouch, clearing out all of the birthing residue to make a new, safe home for Hskeel. “Come here, Wyanic.” With her mate next to her, she 77
Viola Grace pressed the baby lightly between them, sharing their body heat until Neeva pronounced Hska ready. Her friend was finally coming out of her birthing shock. “Where is it? Is it healthy?” “It’s had its first meal and was waiting until you were ready. Do you want it?” Hska stretched out her scaled arms. Steel took the hint and gave her friend the small, scaly child. “Ah, little girl.” Steel didn’t know how she could tell, but she supposed it was a Pishin thing. “And a wonderful crest.” “Hskeel, come on, little one.” With a move that was so fast it made her blink, the new mother tucked the child back into its pouch. “I guess the ladies are on breakfast duty.” Hska giggled. “Actually, Vin and Aton have the first round. I will be there to help them, I hope.” Neeva smiled. “Congratulations. You and the babe are both healthy and it has already had its first meal so it should be sound asleep for ten hours or so. It’s a good thing you taught Estelle about Pishin birthing.” “I didn’t.” Everyone turned to look at Steel and she blushed. “It seemed like the thing to do. My stupid talent flaring its head.” She nodded at Junior’s room and smiled. “Wyanic, you are welcome to stay the night and if you need anything, Hska, just call.” Neeva grinned. “Do I even live here anymore?” “Yes, but only until Davol moves in and sweeps you off your feet. And we both know it.” She breezed into Junior’s room and knelt next to her child. The door closed and she looked up to see Wyanic. “I was wrong. She isn’t a chain. She’s merely a link. Just like Hskeel’s birth is a link, the lizard is a link, sharing dinner is a 78
Chain link. We are bound by more and more as each day passes.” He grinned down at her and lifted her to her feet, hugging her tight. “We are linked. We have been since that moment and will continue to be as the future stretches out before us.” “A future. Together. That sounds kind of nice.” Happiness bloomed inside her and as they tangled on the cot and their clothing fell to the side, she contemplated the links that were still to come and welcomed each possibility.
ix months later…
The beeper started flashing and Steel yelped with excitement. “Wyan! It’s time.” He dropped the table that he had been moving into their new home and she clambered over it after she had grabbed her baby bag. They sprinted together to the clinic, their new house fading behind them and the village gleaming ahead. Their headlong run into her facility shocked Neeva who looked at the flashing beeper in surprise. “Now?” “Now.” “But it’s Survivor Day, our anniversary here.” “And Junior wants to be here for it.” With her bag at the ready, she went into Junior’s room and Wyan lifted the lid of the unit and set it aside. Neeva wheeled in a gurney and set out her instruments on a small tray. She nodded sternly but with a hint of excitement in her manner. Using the sterilizing solution, Steel scrubbed her arms to the elbow. “Is everybody ready for this?” The baby in the tank kicked impatiently. Steel plunged her hands in to the elbow, lifting the slick sack out of the liquid and placing it on the table. Neeva moved quickly and slit the sack so that Junior’s face was exposed to her parents for the first time. 80
Chain Her umbilical cord was clamped and she was lifted free of the sack that had been crafted from her mother’s body. Wyanic rubbed her down with a drying towel and then handed her to Steel. Her baby. The tiny little rosebud of a mouth opened and a startling purr rang in the room. “I think she’s hungry.” Neeva laughed and Wyanic was smiling foolishly. Steel had the feeling that she had the same expression on her own face. Her breasts ached and she unlaced the front of her shirt to allow the noisy little mouth to find her breast. Four weeks of drinking a tea made of weeds that spurred lactation were finally worth it. If Junior didn’t like it, there was always goat milk. She seemed to enjoy it just fine, so Steel walked into the front office to sit on one of the chairs. That was much better. When the tugging pull ceased, she lifted the naked darling and burped her. Grinning up at Wyanic, she extended their baby. “Here you go. I will get the diaper ready as well as the little booties and everything else S’sran thinks she might need.” They had made it through the first four-month winter with only two deaths. Men who had gotten drunk and passed out next to the brewery on the coldest night of the year. Their wives were now wed to some very cheerful Oefric. S’sran was instrumental in everyone’s survival. She had woven enough blankets out of the wonderfully insulating wool to cover the whole village. After that, finer cloth had followed. Those blankets were part of their winter garb, several folks turning them into voluminous cloaks. When S’sran realized that Junior was imminent, she had provided Steel with a baby pack. Blankets, diapers, booties, 81
Viola Grace hats, dresses and tiny mittens were all ready for the tiny one. Wyanic followed her into the delivery room and he walked softly. “She is so small.” “They are small. And helpless. And teeny. Now come over here. We need to wrap that tush before it goes off.” Steel laughed at his now-wary expression and took their daughter back to get her dressed in her festival-day finery. A sling was in the pile of soft stuff and with a few errors that had Junior’s dark blue eyes glaring at her, she got the baby settled against her breast and she threw the leather pack with the rest of the clothes over her shoulder. “Neeva, this is Junior. I mean, Estelle Liaka.” “Pleased to meet you, Liaka.” Neeva reached into the snuggie with her hand and touched the tiny hand. “Estelle Liaka, this is your Aunty Neeva. You will meet a lot of aunts, uncles and cousins today, but this one is one of the two most important. Without her, you wouldn’t be here.” Noon was rapidly approaching, so they drifted toward the town square outside the longhouse. A stage had been erected and a dance floor was in place. Today was a day to party. A few folks stopped her on her way to the longhouse, but Wyanic said that the baby had to obey protocol and they let them pass with grins. The longhouse was firmly back under Hska’s control. There had been a few very exciting dinners until she was back on duty. A light illuminated her, casting her in the halo of a scaled angel. “Hska, Hskeel, there is someone you need to meet.” As she turned around, her daughter clung to her chest and a light of surprise came to her eyes, followed by laughter. “She picked today?” “She picked today.” Steel fished Junior out of the sling and showed her to Hska and Hskeel. The six-month-old Pishin reached out to touch before 82
Chain withdrawing her hand with a giggle. “Soft.” “Very good, Keelie. This is Estelle Liaka. Estelle Liaka, this is Aunty Hska and cousin Hskeel.” “Welcome to the world, Junior.” Hska winked at Wyanic. Her lizard hands took the baby for a moment before returning her to her mother. “She doesn’t weigh much for all that waiting.” “She is heavy enough. Keelie will be hunting before Junior is even walking.” She tucked her back into the sling and wrapped her arm around Wyanic. “I think we need to change for the festivities, or S’sran will injure me.” He wrapped her in his arms. “We will do whatever you wish. Today is the day our family became complete.” They walked back to their house, the new member of their family waking periodically to look at the world through deep blue eyes. A diaper change and a slow rock in the cradle later and Steel rushed to Wyanic in an excess of emotion. They left the room and she chuckled at the dizzy release of endorphins. With a rush of enthusiasm, she pressed him to the floor and with only a few strokes of her hand, had him hard enough to put inside her. He rolled her to her back and stroked deeply into her, bracing his hands on her shoulders so that he did not shove her down the hall. He cried out softly and she joined him, muffling her shriek with her hand. Panting, still inside her, he asked, “What was that about?” “Our family isn’t quite complete yet.” “What?” “In seven months, I am going to present Junior with a little brother or sister.” His stupefied grin snapped something inside her. She couldn’t contain any more happiness and she started to laugh and cry at the same time. 83
Viola Grace “Dearling, we need to get to the festival. That means I can’t spend any more time inside you. Well, this afternoon anyway.” His grin stopped her bubbling laughter and she stopped with a hiccup. The baby started to wail and he sighed. “I will get her, you get dressed. I won’t be able to contain myself if I watch you disrobe.” He lifted off her and helped her to her feet, the trousers she was wearing had to be tugged up over her hips and she went to the master bedroom, quickly tidying up before putting on the brilliant violet wool outfit that S’sran had prepared. Her hair was partially up in a loose coronet and she looked at herself in the mirror. She looked damned good. Wyanic whistled in appreciation when she walked into the hall and turned so he could admire S’sran’s handiwork. “Your turn.” She took their long-awaited prize in her arms and sang a soft song with no real words. Her voice must have been familiar to Junior, her little eyes widened and she sucked her fist while she was rocked in her mother’s arms. When Wyanic was ready, she put on the sling again and tucked Junior into it. “Did you want to carry her?” “Not yet. When she is a little bigger.” He looked a little uncomfortable. “Will you move the cradle into our room tonight?” “Of course.” A crowd was gathering and they stopped and showed the tiny pink face to anyone who wanted to see her. Davol clapped Wyanic on the shoulder as if he had done something amazing and Steel had to admit, Junior was indeed amazing. Steel was supposed to make the opening speech to the festival and she realized that Junior might not like it. Ah well, 84
Chain she would find out. Vullo lifted her onto the stage, careful not to squash the baby. With three hundred faces that she had known for over a year and a hundred faces she had known for six months, she was surprisingly calm. The Oefric were mixed into the crowd and that spoke volumes. “Welcome one and all to Survivor’s Day here at the village on Barkesh!” “Steel’s Rest!” She didn’t know which voices had shouted it, but soon the crowd took on the chant. “Fine. Welcome to Survivor’s Day at Steel’s Rest.” The hooting was tremendous. “For those of you who were on the ship, I am glad we survived and made it to this place where a future wasn’t certain, but it was exactly what we made of it. We had a few casualties along the way, there were some errors in judgement, but we who stand here today are proof positive that survival isn’t only possible, it is an absolute if you really want it.” A cheer woke Junior, so Steel began to sway. “None of us are the same folks who landed here. We are better, stronger and we work as a unit. Yes, in the future, people will leave, but they carry the surviving spirit with them that we celebrate here today. “My thanks to Hska and the ladies and men who created the feast and prepared the beer for this festival. Congratulations to S’sran for training twenty weavers, setting up an industry that will allow us to trade woven goods with the Oefric town. Thank you to the tanners, butchers, dyers and cosmetic makers who have made life here much more pleasant. Thank you to the millers and the bakers who give us the bread we eat daily. “Thank you most of all to Neeva, the healer who left a nice, stable job as a healer on an Alliance warship to come 85
Viola Grace here and take her chances with a bunch of misfits. It is her dedication to her art that gave me a chance to stand here and say the next thing. “Thank you to Wyanic who knew I was his true mate even though he was not pleased to see me that first time. Thank you for our daughter, Estelle Liaka, or as most of you know her, Junior. She has decided that her birthday will never be forgotten and she is here to prove that sometimes, even if you don’t deliberately try, you will survive.” The crowd gave a silent cheer and with a laugh, she realised they didn’t want to scare the baby. “Happy Survivor’s Day. Let’s have a party!” She stepped down from the podium and let the silent cheers swell her chest. Pride was blooming out of every pore and she was sure that everyone could see it. Wyanic helped her hide her tears and he simply pretended to fuss over their new child. “Are you all right?” “I will be fine. I just wasn’t expecting all this.” “No one could have expected it, but destiny is a fickle bitch and fate likes to play.” “Sounds like an Oefric saying.” “I have no idea. Come along. There is cake.” Wyanic’s sister Havva came along to look at her niece and her face took on a fatuous look. “I think I need one of these.” “Not out of a mate bond you don’t.” He was all-scowling big brother in that moment. “We will see.” She tickled the baby and then drifted off to pick up her instrument to play for the dancing. The proud parents carried the child into the throng and the party swirled around them. Junior was sleeping next to her, her fist curled against her face, the dark fuzzy hair on her head, irresistible. “I can’t believe she’s asleep. She was up most of the day. I 86
Chain thought she would be far crankier.” “She takes after her mother. All good nature.” “Hah. Your elders don’t think so. Do you think they will every ask me to visit the town again?” “That’s a doubter. Calling the headman of the town an ass hat probably didn’t help much either.” “You can’t blame me for that. He was trying to get them to develop all industries at once. You can’t do that.” “As you told him. And this is why one-fifth of the colonists are now here at Steel’s Rest.” She grunted and played with Junior’s free hand. “What is it?” “Do you think I will be a good mother?” “I think you will be an excellent mother. Read her a story.” She grinned and kissed him for his wonderful idea. With Wyanic watching Junior, she retrieved the books and opened one, smiling at the contents. Wyanic lifted the baby against his chest and Steel started to read. “Now, let’s see. When I last read this to you, the princess was hiding from the prince. Well, the princess allowed the prince to visit her tower and spent every day waiting for his visit. He had a way of lightening her heart and giving her good advice as well as defending her from rampaging lizards.” She smiled at Wyanic and continued. Steel read until the nervous energy in her had drained away. When she finished the story, she was leaning on his shoulder and blinking with fatigue. “So the prince and princess’s baby finally joined them in the world and met all of the survivor’s from her parents’ ship. All welcomed her, for all of the villagers were tired of the princess fussing over the impending baby. They gave her gifts and clothing, making sure that she would want for nothing. 87
Viola Grace “And so the prince and the princess lived happily ever after with their baby and her brother or sister on the way. The end.” Wyanic put the baby in her cradle and tucked Steel beneath the covers, taking the book from her limp fingers. He pressed a kiss to her temple. “And a good beginning.”
Author’s Note About the races in this book. The only ones who have appeared before are the Terrans, the Oefric (Encode, Enforce) and the Wyorans (Gift of Wyora, Wyt and Wild). I am sorry about the fairy tales, but it just suited the book. I think of Estelle (Steel) as Cinderella, running from her prince once she had an easy out. Steel chose the hard thing and there is something admirable in those who choose the difficult thing for the greater good. The plot for this book came out of planning for the zombie apocalypse. This plotting is a fun game engaged in by those who imagine how to survive if the world starts all over and they can know then what we know now. It seemed to be a good talent for a Terran to have. Viola Grace [email protected]
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About the Author Viola Grace was born in Manitoba, Canada where she still resides today. She really likes it there. She has no pets and can barely keep sea monkeys alive for a reasonable amount of time. Her line of day job tends to be analytical which leaves her mind hopping to weave stories. No co-worker is safe from her character analysis. In keeping with busy hands are happy hands, her hobbies have included cross-stitch, needlepoint, quilting, costuming, cake decorating, baking, cooking, metal work, beading, sculpting, painting, doll making, henna tattoos, chain mail, and a few others that have been forgotten. It is quite often that these hobbies make their way into her tales. Viola’s fetishes include boots and corsetry, and her greatest weakness is her uncontrollable blush. Her writing actively pursues the Happily Ever After that so rarely occurs in nature. It is an admirable thing and something that we should all strive for. To find one that we truly like, as well as love.