Was this death? A shiver tore through Marshall Zuni, sowed a world of hurt in her belly. Sunlight and shadow chased pink and gray across her closed eyelids.
Nearby, someone grunted.
Her world dipped and bucked as something heavy landed in the wagon next to her. Wood planks scraped her back. Not death then. She was alive.
Tears stung her eyes.
Death would be too merciful.
Marshall had failed her people. The ‘Viders under her leadership were dead. She’d seen their corpses strewn in the valley below where she’d collapsed. Thank the Great Spanner her second-in-command hadn’t killed her.
The bastard had nearly succeeded.
Despite the gash to her gut, she wouldn’t die. Not yet.
The Great Spanner was not finished with Marshall.
The truth of it settled deep in Marshall’s frozen bones. Warmth spiraled through her—the Great Spanners’s thirst for revenge. Marshall would be the instrument. She would heal, run to the main ‘Vider clan and destroy the pathetic tribute that had dared harm the chosen people.
“Well, well, well. What have we here?”
Marshall’s eyes fluttered open at the man’s voice. Who was this?
“Looks like I got me a ‘Vider in my wagon.” Menace crowded his vowels, drew them out like a knife along young flesh.
A sour taste hit the back of her throat. Not fear. Viders didn’t feel fear. Others feared the ‘Viders. And she was the Head ‘Vider.
He loomed over her, blocking the light with his rectangular shoulders. Bruises sunk his eyes into dots in his round face. Yellow teeth snapped behind cut lips. “I’m gonna enjoy killin’ you slow. Real slow.”
He shoved aside the flaps of her shirt. Delicate strands fluttered from the cloth.
Marshall’s fingers spasmed. The other had ruined her shirt, sliced it open to attend her wounds. She hated him for that. All those Tributes scalped, their hair painfully cleaned then woven into fabric. And now the symbol of her leadership was ruined.
The man whistled low. His gaze fastened on her exposed breasts and he licked the blood from his lips. “A woman ‘Vider. Ol’ Wayne has a use for you.”
Wayne scrambled over the side of the wagon.
Marshall slid along the planks. The rough wood clawed at her back. Splinters pierced her skin. Yet, she felt no pain. Was this the Great Spanner’s plan or something else? Marshall jerked her head to the right.
The man, who’d attended her injuries, lay sprawled in the wagon bed next to her. Broken glass lay near his still hand and liquid stained the wood. Blood ran from the gash in his head down his cheek and puddled under his mouth.
Her stomach growled and her arm jerked toward the blood. Sweet nectar of the Great Spanner. How she wanted to taste it, drink it before it congealed, soured.
Wayne knelt at the foot of the wagon, shoved apart her legs and reached for his waistband. “You’ll make me rich. There’s lots of folks who pay to fuck over a ‘Vider bitch.”
Pathetic tribute. Ignoring the blood, Marshall curled her fingers into a fist. She would shove his nose through his brain, then dine on him.
Dropping his trousers, he crawled up her body and stared down at her breasts. “Gold with a side of revenge. Today, is my lucky day.”
She threw a punch. Her hand went limp the moment her fist connected to his temple. No! Great Spanner give her the strength to punish this puny Tribute.
“That’s it. Fight back, bitch. The customers will want a little sport for their gold.” Wayne jabbed the blood-stained bandage around her midriff.
Stars blinked in the darkness crowding her vision. Gathering her receding strength, Marshall formed a tight fist and swung again.
“You’re not much of a ‘Vider.” He caught her wrist and stilled. His gaze remained fixed on the strawberry birthmark on her forearm.
Her stomach tightened. No, no one must see her shame. She yanked on her arm.
He held tight. With his free hand, he squeezed the raised raspberry colored skin. “Well, I’ll be damned. That’s the mark of a Lake.”
Her mouth dried. He knew! This vile Tribute knew. “I’ll kill you.”
His swollen lips pulled back from his teeth. “You’ll try.” He punched her injury.
Marshall gasped for breath, ran from the black night hunting her.
“Damn bitches, always talking.” He punched again and again. “Not giving a man a chance to think.”
Crimson flowered on the white bandage, spread ever-widening petals over her stomach. She must fight. Punch him. Gouge out his eyes. Her arms lay useless at her side and oblivion swallowed her down.