First: Running in the Bear Empire
I did try to kill you.
“It would be nice to not be reminded of that,” Deline muttered. She held up her hands in his direction. “I suppose it’s hard for you to forget it.”
“The funny thing is, in most situations, it would be easy as anything to forget. You’d be dead. Your head would have been turned in. The bounty would have been collected, and I would be on to my next job.” He huffed, almost a laugh. “I didn’t think much about what I was doing – I mean, I thought about the hunt. I learned early on not to think about the deaths. They come, they go – sometimes they haunted me, but most of them just… they passed on.”
He held up his wrist. “You’re not the first one to trap me, but you’re the first one to catch me and hold me like you did. You’re the first one to bind me.”
“I’d have to be, wouldn’t I?” She caught his wrist and ran her fingertip around the Bear-stone bracelet. It vibrated faintly to her touch, singing as it knew who had cast the binding. The magic was old stuff, far older than she was. She’d used it in a hurry, not thinking it through nearly as much as she ought to.
Well, she’d be home soon. She could read up on the thing to her heart’s content.
“Well, I,” he looked at the wrist, than at her, then back at his wrist. “To catch me like this, I guess, I guess you would have to be the first one. Nobody’s bound me to a promise or sold me into slavery or nearly killed me before, either.” He wrinkled his nose. “I guess I was getting sloppy.”
“Well, you came closer than anyone else has to killing me.” She didn’t know why she’d said that. Somehow he was feeling bad about being caught and that made her – what? Feel bad about catching him? “If it’s any consolation, I mean.”
“I’m – not consoled.” He huffed. “I’m -”
“Do you even know what you’re trying to say?” It came out sharper than she’d thought she meant.
“No.” His shoulders slumped. He looked up at her and then back down at his wrist, then repeated the gesture. “No.”
“That – well, that makes two of us.” She smiled at him crookedly. “So at least we have that.” She caught his hand and squeezed it.
He coughed, something she thought was probably supposed to be a laugh, and looked at the path in front of them. “I guess we ought to keep going. To get you back to – back to your home.”
She didn’t bother to say our home this time; it wasn’t his home yet.
“We should,” she agreed. “Why don’t you tell me something about your skills while we walk?”
“What, like, aside from the fact that I can’t hunt your ridiculous Bear Empire deer?”
“No, I mean -”
“You mean what can I do, if I’m not a bounty hunter.” his voice was less dry than she’d feared it would be.
“Yeah – yes. That’s what I mean.”
“Well. Ah.” He cleared his throat. “I think you know my chief skill that might be useful-” He winked at her broadly enough that even if she had been very dense, she’d have gotten his meaning.
She rolled her eyes. “Don’t get me wrong, that’s a very nice skill and I’m quite glad that you have it. And that you’re more than willing to employ said skill with me.” She couldn’t help but add a wink of her own to the end of that sentence, which left her feeling like a schoolgirl again, talking around subjects you could watch any two mammals heading straight at.
“Aw, and here I thought that’s why you’d captured me. You hear stories, you know. of the things the Empire does with its captives.”
“I’ve heard a few of them,” she admitted. “I’ve also heard that we eat our captives, and I assure you, I have no desire to have you for dinner – at least not literally.” Now she was blushing, which was ridiculous. She was a Claw, a woman married, an adult!
“Or sacrifice me to the Bear? I’d prefer to avoid that one, too,” he admitted.
“Nor sacrifice you to the Bear,” she agreed. “I’ve never heard of anyone actually eating a captive unless times were ridiculous tough, but I imagine all it takes is once.”
“I notice that you don’t mention whether or not you’ve known people to sacrifice their captives to the Bear.” He didn’t look worried, but he did look less than amused. She supposed she couldn’t blame him.
“Not in recent -” Something ahead caught her attention. “Hsst.”
He froze. She strained her ears, but the noise had passed. Cautiously, she gestured him forward.
He took one step, then another. The path came up to a boulder twice as tall as she was and wrapped around, leaving them exposed to anyone who was waiting.
Deline took a breath, readied her slingshot, and stepped up next to him.Want more?