Sep 23 2013 12:30pm
The horde is coming.
Salvation is surrounded, monsters at the gates, and this time, they're not going away. When Deuce, Fade, Stalker and Tegan set out, the odds are against them. But the odds have been stacked against Deuce from the moment she was born. She might not be a Huntress anymore, but she doesn't run. With her knives in hand and her companions at her side, she will not falter, whether fighting for her life or Fade's love.
Ahead, the battle of a lifetime awaits. Freaks are everywhere, attacking settlements, setting up scouts, perimeters, and patrols. There hasn't been a war like this in centuries, and humans have forgotten how to stand and fight. Unless Deuce can lead them.
This time, however, more than the fate of a single enclave or outpost hangs in the balance. This time, Deuce carries the banner for the survival of all humanity.
Get a sneak peek of the final book in Ann Aguirre's Enclave series with an excerpt of a selected scene from Horde (available October 29, 2013).
“I can do better than that,” I answered, as an idea struck me.
From what I understood of his problem, being touched made him remember everything the Freaks had done to him and the pain came back, along with the shame and revulsion. “What do you mean?”
“Think about the best thing you ever felt, the moment you were happiest. Fix that in your mind and don’t let it go.”
Fade studied me, a frown gathering. “It’s not that easy.” “Try. It can’t make things worse while I bandage you up.” “True enough.” With a deep breath, he closed his eyes. “Do it.” For the first time, he didn’t flinch when I touched him, but I still did the job quickly, cleaning, smoothing on the ointment, then wrapping up the wound. He pushed out a breath as my hands dropped away. His gaze met mine, something new present in his dark eyes—hope.
“Was that any better?” I asked, sitting back.
“Incredibly, yes. I mean, it wasn’t good, but I could stand it. The memories flickered at the edges, and I kept shoving them back with that one bright moment, like you said.”
“What did you—” I cut the question, fearing the answer.
But Fade knew what I was going to ask. “The night after the cherry blossom festival. Holding you, kissing you. When you said you loved me...that was the happiest I’ve ever been.”
My heart compressed. “Love. Not loved. Nothing’s changed.”
“Not in any way that matters to me. I’m sorry you’re hurting, but even if I can never touch you again, it won’t change how I feel.”
“It won’t come to that,” he said with sudden determination. “I’m not letting the Freaks get the best of me.”
Deep down I was delighted to hear him say that. The Fade I knew didn’t accept defeat; he’d always fought—and won—against unbeatable odds. But I didn’t feel like I could put a limit on him or say the way he was acting was wrong when I hadn’t suffered the same pain. I could only stand by him and offer a shoulder, whether he took me up on it or not.
“It will take time,” he warned. “I can’t wish this away. Believe me, if I could, I would.”
“I know. And we got by before, just thinking about touching.” Or I had, anyway. I hadn’t been bold enough to stroke his hair down in the enclave, but I’d spent a lot of time watching him and wondering what it would be like.
“The thinking might do me in,” he muttered.
It took me a few seconds to process what he meant, then heat washed my cheeks. So he missed it, too. “Well, maybe that’s a good thing.”
“I was dreaming about you. When they took me.” Since he was talking about it—when he’d said he would only tell the story once—that had to be good. “It was warm and lovely, and I half roused, thinking you were coming to me in the night. Since Frank was there, I was afraid to make any noise, afraid we’d both get in trouble. I was wrong, and then it all turned to pain.”
“I should have heard something,” I said, clenching a fist. “Don’t blame yourself. You weren’t on watch.”
“But I knew there was a problem with the sentries. I could’ve stopped it. But I think you were right...neither of us can change what happened. We can only move on.”
“You know what bothers me most? I didn’t smell the one that took me. I’ve gone over every moment, and I should’ve scented the Freak. Why didn’t I?”
“We all should have,” I said, frowning. “But there was no stench the night one of them crept in and stole our fire, either.”
“So what does that mean?” Fade asked.
“Nothing good.” I was too tired to speculate this evening.
I didn’t bother asking where we could sleep. Answers might require waiting longer than I could stay awake. My body demanded I get prone at once. If I didn’t listen, I’d collapse, and though I might not be a Huntress, I didn’t want to be seen as weak, either. So I found a quiet corner near the back wall, away from the wounded clustered in the center. Fade and I would be fine on the floor with a roof over our heads; we’d slept in worse places.
“Rest well,” I said softly, and Fade replied with the first real smile I’d seen in days.
He bedded down a small distance away, just out of arm’s reach, and I rolled up in my blankets, facing him. His familiar features comforted me. Over my time at the outpost, I had developed a soldier’s ability to turn off my brain and snatch sleep when I could, but it was a light doze. I roused at a touch, and half pushed myself upright, expecting to see someone who needed my help. Instead, I found Fade pressed up against me, still wrapped in his covers. I squeezed my eyes shut for a few seconds, startled by the urge to cry, just from the welcome pressure of his arm across my waist. It meant everything that he was drawn to me like this. There were problems in his waking mind, but when he dreamed, like he’d said, it was of me. I couldn’t resist. Gently, I touched his hair, stroking my fingers through the tousled strands, and he puffed out a contented sigh. It wasn’t enough to wake him.
I drifted off happier than I had been since before they took him. Drowsily I decided the last time I’d felt this good was the night of the festival; it was my golden moment too. In the morning, I woke to light slanting into my eyes. Fade was still wrapped around me, sleeping, and I didn’t stir, even though I needed to for various reasons. I feared waking him and seeing the conflict in his eyes.
I braced for it; and when he shifted, bumping against me, I was surprised by what he must be dreaming. Or maybe there was no mental aspect needed. For all I knew, males might wake up in the morning, ready to breed. I had little information on such matters, but as he moved, my breath caught. I had no idea what to do, whether to encourage him or wake him before he really craved what was currently impossible for all manner of reasons.
“Deuce,” he whispered drowsily.
That made my confusion better, more worthwhile. “I’m here.”
His hand drifted to my hip to pull me closer, and I didn’t struggle. From the angle of the light, I didn’t think anyone else was awake. That didn’t mean I should encourage this, but it felt so good to be close to him. Love surged through me in a drowning rush; it took all my self-control not to wrap my arms around him as tight as I could and beg him not to go away again.
Stay. Stay with me. Just like this.
But wishes were empty thoughts, cast down a dark hole. They didn’t come true unless you worked for them. I’d learned that about the world, if nothing more.
Fade nuzzled his face into my neck, his lips warm on my skin. My heart pounded like mad, and it was an effort to remain still and soak up whatever affection he offered in his sleep. I touched a fingertip to my tingling mouth, wanting a proper kiss. Maybe if I’m slow and careful...I warred with myself about the right way to manage the moment, whether I should wake him.
In the end, selfishness won. I threaded my fingers in his hair and shifted back until his lips were near mine, our breaths mingling. His eyelids fluttered, then he pressed in. It was a delicate butterfly of a kiss, as if he’d never touched me before. Then possibly his dream changed and the flavor of the kiss did too. It gained layers and heat, hunger and ferocity. Dazed, I responded in kind, thinking this was what he wanted in his secret heart and had been afraid to show me. I was swept away by his need, then it became mine, until the moment he woke—and remembered.
Fade shuddered. I started to draw back, but he set a hand on my arm. “Don’t move.”
“I know. I came across the space toward you, not the other way around.”
“Is it awful?” I asked in an anxious whisper.
“No. I want you too much to feel anything else right now.”
I took that to mean he was extremely interested in breeding, a fact I could confirm through our double sets of blankets. “What’s the solution?”
“I just...need a minute. Then I’ll go find some cold water to dunk myself in repeatedly.” The wry amusement in his tone made me smile.
As promised, he rolled away, but without any of the prior repugnance he’d shown before. He was too preoccupied with minimizing embarrassment, I thought. In the brightening dawn, his cheeks were touched by high color, and Fade ducked his head as he crept out of the granary, presumably to find the icy bath he’d mentioned. I lay in my blankets for a few seconds, torn between discomfiture and quiet pride. It wasn’t something a Huntress would be pleased with, but the girl inside me was glad he wanted me enough to seek me in his sleep—and it was more than a physical need, I suspected.
Smothering a smile, I crawled out of my pallet and rolled my blankets tightly, then stowed them in my pack. I checked to be sure I still had the splendid legacy of Longshot’s folio, containing the map of the territories with all his notes learned over long years on the trade runs. Thus reassured, I tiptoed over to Tegan, who was stirring on the other side of the room. As I knelt, she sat up, shoving the dark hair out of her face.
“Let’s find some breakfast,” she said.
I nodded. With quick fingers, I subdued my hair in the braid Momma Oaks had taught me to create, ladylike, but also good for fighting. I tied the tail with a scrap of leather, then trailed Tegan out of the building. She followed her nose to what looked like the barracks from Salvation, only bigger.
Inside, the room was swarming with soldiers, all in grungy green. Some looked more alert than others. All were in various stages of breakfast. There was a food line, and with a puzzled look at Tegan, I joined it at the end. There was a place for us to get plates and cutlery, so we went through, telling men with spoons what we wanted. Most of it looked disgusting, cooked in such huge quantities, and a few items I’d never seen before, especially a dish that was lumpy, white, and brown. It looked filling, though, so I indicated it along with a thick hunk of bread. I also found some apples, so I took one of those as well.
A glance across the room told me no tables were vacant. As Tegan came up beside me, I picked one at random with a few empty seats. The men shoveling their food down didn’t look up as we sat, merely kept eating with a single-minded focus that seemed unnatural to me now. I had gotten used to small courtesies in Salvation, I supposed, as down below, we devoured our meals as fast as we got them, fearing somebody might decide we didn’t merit that much food after all.
Tegan cocked a brow at me. “It must be good.”
“It’s terrible,” one said. “But edible, and we know better than to dally in the mess.”
I repeated the last three words with a question in my voice. “Short for mess hall,” another man clarified.
That didn’t help me, but Tegan made the connection. “Is this a military facility?”
The question earned her a strange look, but the soldier proved willing to answer. “A long, long time ago, it was just a small town. After the first outbreaks, the army stationed men here, provisioned a base to receive and support survivors.”
“Outbreaks of what?” I asked.
Before the man could answer, a bell went off. I tensed—had my knives in my hands and was on my feet before anyone else at the table responded. Tegan just looked worried, but she still had her spoon halfway to her mouth.
Then someone laughed. “You’re skittish, girl. That’s just the signal that breakfast is over and those of us on duty need to get on with training, the work roster, or patrols, depending on what we’ve been assigned.”
“Good to know,” Tegan murmured, going back to her breakfast.
Once the room cleared out, I said, “It sounds like they know more about what happened than the townsfolk did in Salvation, something more real than religious stories.”
“No history is ever unbiased.”
I considered that, eating a bite of the brown-and-white lumpy food. It wasn’t horrible, but it seemed like it needed something else, so I spooned some onto my wedge of bread, then took an experimental bite. Better.
“What do you mean?”
“It’s been a long time, but my mom used to teach me, before people got sick. There were books all over the university, and she read to me, explained things as best she could.”
“And she said history is biased?” I wasn’t positive what a bias was. From school, I knew history was the study of things that happened in the past, but I couldn’t understand what Tegan was getting at. Surely something was either true, or it wasn’t.
“Not on purpose. But people see things differently. So I might see a blue flower growing below an apple tree and write all about the blue flower whereas you might see only the apples. Your account would contain information about the fruit, never mentioning the flower.”
“Because the food would matter to me more,” I said in sudden comprehension. “So it’s not that the people in Salvation are trying to lie. They just include the part of the stories that they care about.”
“Exactly. Since they’re devout people, they interpreted the terrible things that happened in the world as punishment from God for their sins. I don’t think we’ll find that bias here.”
Now I understood. Thoughtful, I ate my breakfast in silence, considering all we might learn in Soldier’s Pond.
First, though, we had wounded to tend.
Copyright © 2013 by Ann Aguirre.
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Ann Aguirre is a national bestselling author with a degree in English Literature; before she began writing full time, she was a clown, a clerk, a voice actress, and a savior of stray kittens, not necessarily in that order. She writes urban fantasy (the Corine Solomon series), romantic science fiction (the Jax series), apocalyptic paranormal romance (the Ellen Connor books with Carrie Lofty), paranormal romantic suspense (as Ava Gray), and post-apocalyptic dystopian young adult fiction.