Rebel Cause

 A Terry Thorne Story

(Contains one brief scene with explicit sexual content)

By Kazlynh

 

 

Someone was calling his name...

And there was something important - something that he knew he ought to remember...

For a long moment he floated on the darkness, trying to remember. But the details remained elusive, slipping out of reach as he tried to catch hold of them. Finally it was a soldier's instinct, deep in his subconscious, that warned him that he should listen to the voice, that he should wake up. But he was tired... and it was comfortable here... Couldn't he just stay here for a little while longer...?

They were calling his name again, insistently, the urgency pulling him up through the warm, comforting darkness...

And then the pain hit him, ripping through him and slamming him back into oblivion.


"Thorne!" the man called again. The Englishman's eyes fluttered and he moaned softly, almost as if he were trying to come round. But then the breath shuddered slightly in his chest, his fingers twitching, and his face relaxed as he slipped back into unconsciousness. Mikhail looked across at the woman kneeling on the floor at Thorne's other side, holding a wad of cloth against his back.

Lara met Mikhail's gaze, shaking her head, telling him, "He's still losing blood. If we move him now he will die."

Mikhail swore softly. The Englishman had taken a bullet in the back. It had glanced off his ribs and deflected up and out of his shoulder. His breathing seemed okay - there was no tell-tale rasp of fluid in his lungs - but Mikhail was more than slightly concerned that they hadn't been able to stop the bleeding. They were hiding in little more than a shack, with almost nothing in the way of medical supplies. Thankfully the last shepherd to use this snow shelter had left blankets, but they had a long cold night ahead of them...

He looked across the semi-darkness of the hut at his other companion, who was standing at the door, searching the area with infra-red goggles, looking for the first movement that would signal soldiers or the Police moving in. "Pasha?" he asked. "Anything?"

The man shook his head, "No. Nothing... I think we may have lost them. I should have seen something by now."

"Mikhail!" Lara cautioned, "this is stupid.  Let's leave the Englishman and get out of here!"

Mikhail shook his head, "No. I have too much blood on my hands already..."

"Damn it, Mikhail!" Lara exploded, "We are fighting a war!"

"Yes!" he agreed. "A war that neither Patrick O'Donnell or this man asked to fight!"

Lara made a small sound of disgust, "Shouldn't you have thought of that before agreeing to take O'Donnell from his hotel?"

Mikhail said nothing for a long moment. She was right of course. But it was too late now to have any remorse over their actions. They had taken Patrick O'Donnell, a wealthy American businessman, and held him hostage for one hundred and fifty thousand American dollars - a fortune in his own currency and money his brothers in the fight for freedom desperately needed to buy not only munitions but food. The man lying wounded and bleeding on the floor had stepped into the negotiations and subsequently arrived with the agreed eighty thousand dollars. Only, the State Police had turned up and it had all gone horrifically wrong.

And now they were sitting in a shack as it was getting dark, hunted by the government, with the Englishman possibly dying - and all the money they had ever dreamed of... Money that could do nothing to save their dead comrades. Or Thorne. Or O'Donnell.

Finally he told Lara, "You and Pasha are free to leave any time you wish, Little Sister. But I am going to stay with the Englishman."

She opened her mouth to object, but he lifted his hand, hushing her, "He brought the money to us. He followed through with his end of the bargain. It is not his fault that Yuri was stupid enough to let himself be followed back to the farmhouse."

"But..." she tried again.

"Lara," he interrupted, "you saw yourself! The Police didn't care who they caught in the crossfire. I will not leave him to them! They will kill him then apologise to his embassy, just as they will apologise to the American embassy."

He reached over, taking her free hand, "Even if it wasn't them who fired the round that killed O'Donnell, he is dead. Yuri is dead. The others...?" he shrugged, "perhaps. But we have the American's money. We have everything we set out to get..."

"Then keep him!" Lara countered, pulling her hand away and stabbing a finger at Thorne's unconscious body. "Make demands for him! Get more money!"

"Having murdered our last hostage?" Pasha commented softly from the window. "They'd laugh in our faces!"

Lara snorted in disgust and reached for another strip of torn blanket, her face sullen. Her brother glanced down at Thorne, "All we have to do is keep him alive long enough to contact his people. Then they can arrange to have him taken out of here."

"There's a farmhouse on the other side of the valley," Pasha informed them quietly.

Mikhail pushed himself to his feet, crossing to the door, "Where?" Pasha pointed out the faint glow of a lit window, two or three miles further down. If they'd kept going they would have reached it.

"Want to chance it?" Pasha asked.

"We need to, otherwise the Englishman won't last the night. And I, for one, could use a good loaf of bread. Stay with them, I'll go." He turned, "Lara, stay here with Thorne." Then he turned back, slapping Pasha gently on the shoulder. "I'll be back as quickly as I can," he assured him, then slipped out of the door and disappeared into the darkness.


Awareness returned slowly. Warm and comfortable, he drifted for a long time in the half reality between consciousness and oblivion, content simply to listen to the sounds around him - unaware, at first of the nagging ache along his back and in his shoulder... until it began to intensify.

The pain brought with it an image that pushed obstinately at him, demanding attention - a sandy-haired, ruddy faced man stumbling backwards as if some invisible giant fist had hit him in the gut, before falling to the ground. A name floated into his mind...

Daniel...?

No... Donald...?

Donel...?

O'Donnell...

Shit!!!!

Reality slammed home. The memories of the negotiation hit him. Terry Thorne opened his eyes, trying to move, trying to get to get to the American. But agony ripped through him, freezing the breath in his lungs, darkness rushing in from the edge of his vision. Then he was breathing again, ragged gulps of air as he tried to stay conscious through the pain. He squeezed his eyes shut, clenching his teeth as beads of sweat broke out on his forehead.

He was aware of footsteps on the floor beside him. And then someone was wiping his face with a cool, damp cloth. He opened his eyes, blinking in an attempt to see. "Thorne..." a man's voice told him, "stay still, don't try to move. You'll open the wound again..."

"O'Donnell..." Terry rasped.

"Is dead," Mikhail told the Englishman bluntly.

Terry turned his head as the pain dropped to a bearable level, looking up at the dark-haired, heavily bearded man, recognising him as one of the Rebel soldiers who had been at the farmhouse where they were supposed to have exchanged dollars for O'Donnell. "Where are we?"

"Safe... For the moment." Mikhail turned, "Lara, some water!"

Terry closed his eyes... Christ... What a bloody mess... What a bloody awful mess...

Everything had been going fine until the police had turned up... And now... now...

Another thought hit him. Now the hostage negotiator had become the hostage... One of the risks of the trade... Shit! Shit! Bloody, stinking shit!

With a heavy heart he opened his eyes. A young woman was handing a bowl to the bearded man, turning and walking away again. "They won't..." Terry tried. But his throat closed over the words.

The bearded man hushed him, "Save your strength, Thorne. Here!" He held a small spoon to Terry's lips, feeding him water, the cool, clear fluid easing the dryness in his throat. Finally the man sat back, "Are you hungry?"

Terry nodded. The man grinned at him, "Then you are getting better. We have soup."

Mikhail turned, holding out the bowl to his sister, "Lara, bring some soup, please. You will enjoy this, Thorne," he continued as she walked across taking the bowl. "Made by the old mother," he went on, turning back to the Englishman, "at a farm not far..."

He trailed off. Thorne's eyes were closed, his face relaxed in sleep. Mikhail nodded, pleased. Sleep was the best thing for the Englishman at the moment. Pushing himself to his feet, Mikhail turned, walking across to Lara and Pasha.


 


The Englishman made a small sound, almost like a sigh. Lara glanced over at him as his eyes fluttered open. The late evening sun flowed in through the open door of the hut, flooding the floor with a reddish gold light, turning his hair a coppery red and bringing colour to his face that she knew wasn't there. She rose to her feet, walking over to him and dropping to her knees by his side. Placing a hand lightly on his thigh, she warned, "Don't move, English. Let me check the dressings first."

He nodded, saying nothing as she folded the blanket down and gently began to pull the pad away from the exit wound on his shoulder. He clenched his teeth against the pain, refusing to make any sound as she cleaned it and redressed it. Then she moved across him, kneeling behind him. "You are lucky, English," she told him, removing the dressing on his back. "The bullet went through..."

"I'm not English," he informed her quietly, through clenched teeth. "I'm Australian..." The word ended in a soft moan.

Lara frowned, saying nothing for a moment, concentrating on tending the wound. Finally finished, she pushed herself to her feet, walking across to the small fire. "Australian..."

"Yes..."

"Jason Donovan," she offered, turning to look at him. "Surfing."

He smiled tiredly, nodding, "Yes..."

Lara considered him for a moment. The sun was dropping behind the far mountain, the floor now darker in shadow, the sunlight having crept up the wall. The reflected light on his face made him look even more drawn than he was, accentuated the dark circles beneath his eyes. "I don't like Jason Donovan!" she informed him, finally.

He laughed softly, wincing as the movement pushed pain through him, "Neither do most people back home..."

Not expecting that reaction, having been trying to goad him, she frowned. Then watched as he closed his eyes and clenched his jaw, the pain writing itself across his face despite the fact that he didn't make a sound. Instinctively she moved towards him. But his eyes were opening again, his body beginning to relax as the wave of pain subsided. Despite herself, she found that she was beginning to respect this man Thorne... The muscle tone of his body as well as the easy way he was dealing with his pain hinted that he was possibly a soldier and not just some Fat Cat's money man.

Maybe her brother was right... She crouched beside the fire, reaching for a bowl, "Are you hungry, Australia?"

He nodded again, "Yes..."

A flock of birds flew up suddenly from a nearby tree. Lara froze, her stomach flipping as she reached for the rifle that lay behind her. And then she heard the familiar bird call that told her that it was only her brother and Pasha who had spooked the birds. She picked up the bowl and and began to spoon the soup into it. Moments later the two men walked into the hut.

Mikhail grinned as he saw that Thorne was conscious, unslinging a sack from over his shoulder, "So! You are awake, English!"

"Only just!" Lara told her brother, walking across to the Australian. "Pasha, help me sit him up... And he's not English. He's Australian."

"Australian?" The big, bearded man laughed, dropping into a crouch and opening the sack as Pasha moved towards Thorne. Terry gritted his teeth, unable to stop the small grunt of pain as slowly, carefully, Pasha and Lara helped him sit up. The world spun for a moment, tilting slightly as he sat up fully. He closed his eyes against it, fighting it, trying to remain as much in control as he could.

Mikhail produced a huge loaf of bread, a roasted chicken and a sealed pitcher of goat's milk from the sack. Lara sat behind Thorne, supporting him, careful of the wound on his back, holding the bowl for him and handing him the spoon. Pasha crossed back to the fire, scooping up the pitcher of milk and breaking the seal.

Tearing off a chunk of bread Mikhail dropped back against the wall of the hut, watching Thorne in the failing light as he ate a few spoonfuls of the soup. Finally Mikhail told him, "The farmer is going to try to reach or comrades further into the mountains. With any luck you will be able to contact your people within a few days... a week at the most."

Terry looked at him, frowning, "You want me to negotiate for my own ransom?"

Mikhail shook his head, poking at the embers of the fire with a stick, "We have what money we need. It is unfortunate that O'Donnell died, it was not intended. You will contact your people and arrange for them to take you out."

Suddenly, terribly tired, the soup lying uncomfortably in his stomach, Terry looked at the big man, confused, his mind not taking in what had just been said, "What...?"

"You will contact your people," Mikhail repeated, "and get them to send someone for you. You are not a prisoner, Thorne. We simply took you to keep you alive. O'Donnell was already dead and the police were not particularly concerned about who they killed."

Terry blinked at him, still not quite believing what he was hearing, "I'm free to go...?"

Behind him, Lara laughed softly, quipping, "The bullet has affected his hearing! Yes, Australia, you are free to go!"

Her voice seemed to come from very far away. Terry tried to turn, to look at her, but the world tilted and his stomach finally rebelled against the soup. Aware that the spoon had fallen from his hand, knowing that he was collapsing sideways against the woman, but powerless to stop it, he threw up. Darkness rushed in. He knew that she had dropped the bowl, knew that she had caught him and was lowering him gently back onto the floor...

Pain flared in agonising brevity... And then the darkness wrapped itself around him completely, smothering him and dragging him down into a black void of nothingness.



 
 


He opened his eyes. It was dark, the wind whistling around the door of shelter they were in, the sound of even, peaceful breathing telling him that at least two of the others were asleep. Movement from the door proved that one of them was standing watch. He closed his eyes.

When he woke again, the pain in his chest and shoulder had faded to a nagging ache. He opened his eyes. It was dusk, or pre-dawn. The woman was lying on the floor, trying to blow life into the fire she had just lit. The thinner of the two men was sitting against the far wall, stripping and cleaning an SLR. The big, bearded man was missing. Terry turned his attention back to the woman as the flames suddenly sparked and started to burn.

Pasha looked up, aware that they were being watched, glancing across the room at the Australian. Grinning, nodding an acknowledgement to him, Pasha turned his attention back to cleaning the rifle.

Mikhail pushed open the door, slipping inside. He walked across, unslinging another bag of food and handed it to Lara who opened it and starting to rummage inside. Mikhail turned, checking on the English... the Australian and grinned as he saw Thorne watching him. "Ah, you are awake again!"

Terry smiled, "So it would seem..."

"You are hungry?

"Thirsty..."

The big man grinned again, scooping up a jar and pouring water into a cup. Then, lifting a spoon, he walked across to Thorne. He sat cross-legged beside him and offered him the water, spoonful by spoonful. Terry sipped it, relishing the taste of the cool, clear liquid.

"The old mother and the daughter from the farm," Mikhail told him, "left yesterday morning for the nearest town. By now they should have contacted our comrades in the North. You should be able to get word to your people in three days, four at the most."

Terry considered him for a moment. There was no doubt in his mind that this man was sincere about letting him go. But he had no idea how high up the Rebel soldier was in the chain of command. And he had been involved in enough hostage negotiations to know that a situation could change drastically simply because someone else stepped in to take control. Quietly, he asked, "And what happens if your comrades don't agree with you and decide not to let me go?"

"I doubt they will." It was the other man who had answered, "The last ransom attempt cost us more than it gained..."

Mikhail glanced round then turned back, looking straight into Thorne's eyes, "We had no wish to see O'Donnell die. He was a decent man..."

Terry simply nodded an acknowledgement, biting back the caustic reply that sprung to his lips. He had no right to judge them. He had no idea what they had had to endure. They were fighting for the independence of their country from an oppressor... And in their situation he would probably have done exactly the same thing.

But that didn't change the fact that O'Donnell was dead...

And if it hadn't been for the police turning up at the farmhouse, he would still be alive and safely back with his family in Texas.

This big Azhdarcheynian was sincere in his regret. He was being told the truth. Whatever had gone before, Terry had complete faith that both of these men would do their damnedest to see him get safely back home. The woman, on the other hand... There was something about her that he found hard to trust...

"Do you feel strong enough to sit?" Mikhail asked.

"Yes..."

"Lara...? Help me." She moved across and together they helped him to sit up. He didn't feel as light-headed this time, the room staying firmly where it should. Lara rolled a blanket into a pillow, holding it against the wall to cushion his back as Mikhail helped him to slide back and sit against it.

The effort left him drained, but he was glad to be sitting up. The ache in his back and shoulder had intensified... but it was worth it. The big, bearded man grinned at him, "Perhaps you can keep some soup down now, yes?"

Terry grinned, suddenly appreciating how hungry he was. "Hell, yes."

"Good!" He stuck out his hand, introducing himself. "I am Mikhail!" Terry took the strong grip, shaking the big man's hand. "My quiet friend in the corner is Pasha"

Pasha nodded to him and Terry smiled back. "And this," Mikhail finished, "is Lara."

She turned, looking at him, saying nothing. Terry smiled then looked back at Mikhail, "Terry. Call me Terry."

Mikhail's grin faded, "I am truly sorry, Terry. It was not supposed to be like this. The police must have followed Yuri when he brought you to the farmhouse."

The Australian nodded, saying nothing for a moment, then asked, "What have they said about O'Donnell's death?"

Mikhail shrugged, "I have no idea. There has been nothing on the radio or television. And in this part of our country there are few enough telephones, let alone personal computers. It is hard to get access to the internet." Lara had walked over and handed Terry a cup of milk, giving Mikhail the pitcher and a bundle of cloth. Terry sipped from the cup, enjoying the chalky aftertaste of the goat's milk. Mikhail swigged from pitcher then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, "But in a few days we will know more. Perhaps even later today when the old mother returns."

"How were they going to make contact?"

"You ask too many questions!" Lara told him, stabbing at the fire with a stick.

Mikhail glanced at her, then turned back to the Australian, grinning again. "You must forgive my little sister, Terry. She has much distrust in her heart!"

Lara gave Mikhail a venomous glare as Pasha smiled at her. Then she shoved herself to her feet and stormed out of the hut. Pasha rolled his eyes at Terry. Putting down the SLR he climbed to his feet and wandered out of the hut after her. Mikhail shook his head with a sigh, unrolling the dark green shirt. "She is like our mother," Mikhail explained, "All fire and passion!" He held the shirt out. "The farmer gifted you this!"

"Tell the farmer, thank you!" Terry said, as the Azhdarcheynian dropped the shirt over his head and helped him into it. Then, wanting to find out as much as he could about his three rescuers, he pressed gently, "Has she a reason to mistrust?" Even with the best of intentions things had already gone awry. The more he knew about these three, the better prepared he would be.

Mikhail gave him an appraising look then nodded slowly, "Her husband was a policeman, married more to the job than to her. He handed over our little brother to the authorities when the troubles first began."

"Oh," was all that Terry could find to say. Then after a moment he told Mikhail, sincerely, "I'm sorry..."

"Don't be," Mikhail grinned. "Our brother is still alive and fighting for the cause. The policeman, on the other hand, had his throat cut."

Terry hesitated for a moment, then hazarded a tentative guess, "Lara?"

"Lara," Mikhail confirmed, laughing softly.

Terry grinned, "Fire and passion..."

Mikhail laughed again, nodding, "Just like our mother!"

The door flew open, Pasha rushing in, "Soldiers in the valley! The grandson was sent to tell us. He met Lara on the path."

Mikhail was already on his feet as Lara ran inside, a tousle-haired youngster hard on her heels. "Two trucks," she told her brother, "heading up to the farm! It may be nothing..."

"But we can't afford to take the chance!" Mikhail turned to the boy as Lara dropped to her knees and began to shove the food back into the sac, "How far away were they when you saw them?"

"At the end of the valley, just turning into the road. They'll be at Papa's by now."

Mikhail turned towards Thorne. "We cannot put these people in any more danger," he told him. "We will have to go. Do you want to come with us, or do we leave you here?"

"He'll slow us down!" Lara protested.

"Then he slows us down!" her brother snapped back at her. "Well, Australian, what is it to be?"

Pasha had slung the SLR over his shoulder. Now, he reached out, ruffling the boy's hair, "Go back home, little one."

The boy shook his head. "Papa said to stay with you... There's another place... I have to take you there."

Instinct warned Terry Thorne that he was safer going with these men than taking his chances with the platoon of unknown soldiers who were more likely to shoot first and ask questions later. A brief image flashed in his mind - of O'Donnell slamming backwards as the police bullet hit him in the gut. Holding out his good hand, he told Mikhail, "I'll come with you."

Lara made a small sound of disgust. The big man nodded, then bent down, catching hold of the Australian beneath the shoulders, hauling him to his feet. Terry bit down on the wash of pain, but Mikhail heard the small sound. Pulling Thorne's good arm over his shoulder he helped the hostage negotiator towards the door.

Pasha was already outside, rifle held at the ready, looking through the trees towards the farm. The branches screened any sign of movement, but by now Pasha knew that the soldiers would be climbing down from the trucks, the farmer moving to greet them. The boy had taken off up the hill, Lara following. She was right, the Australian would slow them down. But deep inside Pasha was glad that Thorne had made the decision to stay with them. His chances of survival were better with them than with those sordid sons of whores down there!

And there had been too much innocent bloodshed already... He stood for a moment longer, then he turned, following the others up through the trees.

Terry swore silently, willing his body to obey him. But he was exhausted after only a few meters of the uphill climb, the pain expanding out from his chest and shoulder into his lungs and up into his head, the milk sitting uncomfortably in his stomach. He forced himself to move on, pushing one foot in front of the other as the big Azhdarcheynian soldier helped him climb. But after only a few more minutes his world had narrowed into a corridor of agony, the breath burning in his lungs, the pain thumping through him.

Cursing, he stumbled, crying out softly as Mikhail steadied him. The big man let him pause for a moment to get his breath. But when they started upward again, they made it only a few steps. Then Terry's knees buckled. Mikhail caught him, taking his weight easily.

Pasha saw the Australian collapse against Mikhail, saw the black stain of blood spreading out across Thorne's back and knew that it meant the wound had opened again. Swearing, he put on a spurt of speed, rushing up the few meters to where Mikhail held Thorne. Mikhail threw his SLR at Pasha then bent forward, grunting as he hauled Thorne over his shoulder.

Pasha waited until his friend had the Australian settled across his shoulders, then told him, "I'll slow them down."

"Ok. And find out how far this place is." Pasha turned, running up the hill as fast as he could to catch Lara and the boy. Slowly, carefully, Mikhail began to climb.


The rush of the water down the cliff was almost deafening, crashing down across the mouth of the cave into the river a few feet below. But the cave ran uphill slightly and deeply enough into the hillside that here the thunder was muted to a deep, echoing roar. This far into the back of the cave it was also dry - if cold. They hadn't dared to light a fire. But the boy had brought a small, battery-operated lamp that gave off a dull glow, staying off the blackness of the night. And by tomorrow they would be able to move... if Thorne was up to it, which she doubted greatly.

There was another way into the cave that would have kept them all dry, but the boy had said that it involved crawling through tight spaces and there was no way they would have been able to get the unconscious Thorne through. So she and the boy had climbed through the forest and come down that way with the blankets and what little supplies they had, while Pasha and Mikhail had carried Thorne down to the river and scaled the waterfall with him.

They had stripped off their wet clothes and wrapped themselves in the warmth of the blankets while she had removed Thorne's clothing as carefully and as quickly as she could- leaving him the dignity of his underwear. Then Pasha and the boy had sorted through the food as she and Mikhail had tended to Thorne's bullet wounds and then tucked him under blankets.

She had said nothing to her brother, but she hadn't liked the look of the wound on Thorne's back. The bleeding had finally stopped but Lara had a nasty suspicion that the wound was infected. She had agreed to take first watch, worried about Thorne, praying that he wouldn't develop a fever...

Lara glanced across at her brother, watching his chest gently rise and fall as he slept. Carrying Thorne from the shack and then hauling him into the cave had drained the last of Mikhail's reserves. He had chewed on chicken, swigged from the milk pitcher then dropped into an exhausted sleep. Pasha, too, was curled asleep in blankets on the soft sand of the cave floor, as was the boy.

Movement from the corner of her eye caught her attention and she turned back to Thorne, crawling across the sand towards him. He moved his hand, as if reaching out to stop something, a frown brushing across his forehead. He muttered something in a language that she couldn't understand. Lara sat beside him, gently running her hand up and down his good arm, talking softly to him over the dull roar of the water. He frowned again, moaning softly and his eyes fluttered open.

He looked at her for a moment in bewilderment, not recognising her, still caught in the afterimages of the nightmare. The dream world receded, reality beginning to reassert itself. He looked beyond her at the semi-darkness of the cave then took a breath, asking, "Where are we?"

She frowned, tilting her head to one side in confusion. For a moment he was at a loss. Then he realised he had spoken to her in English and that she didn't understand. But he was tired... and his mind wouldn't work... He couldn't remember what country he was in...

Lara saw the bewilderment in his eyes. "I don't understand," she tried.

Her words brought the language back to him. Relief washed through him. He asked again, "Where are we?"

His voice was weak, barely more than a whisper, but she kept the concern from showing on her face. "Safe," she told him. "A cave in the mountains."

He nodded, saying nothing, his eyes sliding closed as he lost consciousness again. She sat looking at him in the dull glow from the lamp. In the semi-darkness he looked like a small boy, the pain and the hurt swept from his face by sleep - apart from the small frown that brushed his forehead every now and then. She found herself wondering about his life, wondering why he had come here to negotiate the ransom for the American. Had it been a one-off? Was it simply because he was a soldier? Or was there something else driving him, something that pulled him into such dangerous situations...?

Did he have a woman back home in Australia? Had he left her with an embrace and a promise that he would be back soon - never suspecting that he would end up lying on the sand floor of a freezing cave with a bullet wound in his back?

Had she ever simply sat and watched him sleep? Did she even know what he did? Or was she completely oblivious to the danger he had put himself in?

Lara glanced at the time. She would have to wake Pasha soon for the second watch.

Thorne moaned softly and shivered. Lara's stomach flipped. She lifted her hand from his arm, touching his forehead with the back of her fingers. His skin was damp with sweat and warm to her touch. She swore softly, closing her eyes.

She had dreaded this, even though she had been sure that it would happen... because, weak as he was, she wasn't sure if Thorne could survive a fever. And they had no medical supplies that could help... All they could do was keep him warm.

With a heavy heart she pushed herself to her feet, walking across to Pasha and shaking him gently awake. He woke with a start, reaching for his SLR then grinned as he saw her. "That time already?"

"That time," she confirmed. Then she told him, "The Australian has a fever."

She stood up as Pasha rolled to his feet, asking, "Bad?"

She nodded then told him, "It's going to get worse." Pasha turned, walking across to Thorne and Lara followed him, "We need to get some medical supplies. Or at least gather the right herbs..."

Pasha dropped to his knees beside Thorne, checking for the fever with the back of his hand on the Australian's forehead. He swore softly then turned to look up at her, "Get some sleep. I'll do what I can for him."


Mikhail frowned, worry etched on his face. The fever had deepened. Thorne was restless, soaked in sweat, mumbling soft incoherence. "There's grandmother's recipe," Lara offered, "if I can gather the plants. We can make a poultice for the wound: draw out the puss and the poison... But we still need dressings..."

Mikhail sighed, shaking his head and walked away towards the mouth of the cave. Lara went to go after him but Pasha stopped her with a hand on her arm. She glanced at him and he shook his head. Lara nodded and made no further move to follow her brother, watching him as he walked away.

Mikhail stared at the veil of water as it rushed past. It had all gone so wrong, fallen apart so completely. It wasn't supposed to have been like this. The American was supposed to be home, having dinner with his family... Thorne was not supposed to be lying here dying.

But he was! And the American was dead. He couldn't change those things. All he could do now was try to keep Thorne alive. And the Australian was making it so damned difficult!

Mikhail sighed heavily, cursing the militia, cursing the oppression, and cursing himself for having gotten mixed up in the whole kidnap in the first place. His conscience had warned him not to get involved! He should have listened...

But regret and remorse weren't going to change anything. Lara was right; they needed dressings for Thorne. They needed to get some supplies. They needed to find out if the grandmother had been able to deliver the message to his people in the North... All of which was going to be difficult if the soldiers were still at the farm. And until they went back they wouldn't know.

Pasha would go back with the boy, he decided. Lara would go to find the plants she needed and firewood while he would take care of Thorne...

In truth Mikhail knew that, still exhausted from the journey yesterday despite the long sleep, he would be no use to anyone if they had to make a run for it. His legs ached and his shoulders were stiff. Later, when Lara came back, he would go hunting for food. Decision made, he turned, walking back to where the others were standing.

"Pasha, go back to the farm with the Little One. See what help they can give us and find out if the grandmother was able to deliver the message."

Pasha nodded, ruffling the boy's hair, "Okay. Let's go!" The boy grinned up at him and led him towards the fissure at the back of the cave.

"Lara, go find what plants you need and some firewood. I'll stay here with Thorne. When you come back, I'll go hunting."


Terry knew that he was dreaming. He could feel himself floating, swept along on the waves of pain that crushed through him with every heartbeat. There was a soft roar in his ears that should have reminded him of something... but he couldn't think what it was. He wanted to open his eyes, to see what was happening... and yet he was too tired... It was too much effort to drag his eyes open. So he lay still, letting the images play out against his eyelids...

They were jumbled, incoherent, confused...

He saw his wife on their wedding day, only it wasn't his wife, it was a dark haired Azhdarcheynian girl that he knew he should recognise but somehow couldn't place, her name slipping from his grasp as quickly as it came to him... his son ran towards him across the rugby field... only it wasn't his son - he was watching himself, running across the grass to where his father stood at the edge of the pitch, arms open and then he was himself again, reaching down to pick up his baby son, throwing him up in the air and listening to the squeal of childish laughter... he was in a market, dragging someone to safety because a bomb had just gone off... the American O'Donnell stepped out in front of him, smiling at him for one, brief second before something hit him hard in the back and he looked down to see the blood splatter outward from his chest and he was falling forward, unable to stop himself as he landed in a heap on the ground... a dark haired Azhdarcheynian girl was smiling at him, offering him something...

Pain exploded suddenly, engulfing him, tearing at his strength. He screamed and tried to move, to get away... but he was trapped... he couldn't get out...

Mikhail held the Australian still and Lara ignored the long cry of pain, continuing to clean the wound in Thorne's back and the stinking, swollen flesh surrounding it as best she could with clean water. For the moment it was only the entry wound that was infected and with any luck it would stay that way. Still, she had made poultices for both wounds. Her brother glanced at her as he stopped the wounded man's pitiful attempts to get away from what ever was causing the pain. It wasn't until Lara placed the hot poultice against his skin that the fragile scream faltered and Thorne's body relaxed. Mikhail let go of him, checking his neck for a pulse. It was there, weak and thready, but it was there.

Live! Mikhail willed. Damn you, Thorne! Don't die on us now!

Gently, they pulled Thorne into a sitting position. Mikhail held a poultice in place against the wound on Thorne's shoulder. Lara held the other one against the bullet hole in his back and slowly began to bind the pads in position with strips torn from one of the blankets, wrapping them around the Australian's chest and up over his shoulder. When she was finished Mikhail eased him back down onto his side. Thorne was pale; his skin hot to the touch... and Mikhail knew that it was going to get worse before it got better. All that they could hope for now was that the Australian's heart was strong enough to survive the fever.

They covered him in the blankets and while Lara stayed with him, Mikhail went to make some hot tea. She brushed the damp hair off Thorne's forehead, stroking his cheek, talking to him gently. Tears threatened but she swallowed down the constriction in her throat, refusing to admit how much his lifelessness scared her, not wanting to explore why it suddenly mattered to her so much that this man survive...

It was nothing to do with the spark in his eyes when he smiled, the way the smile lit up his whole face... It was nothing to do with the panic she had seen in those eyes the previous night when he had been lucid for a time... She told herself simply that it was because he was a soldier... and she had seen too many soldiers die already...


A small voice deep in the back of his mind warned Terry Thorne that he was dying... The darkness beckoned to him, promising him release from the agony that crushed through him every time he tried to breathe. He was tired, so very tired - too tired to fight any more... He started to let go, drifting on the pain.

Slowly, floating through the shadows, Terry became aware of the soft murmur of someone's voice - far away, just beyond his understanding.

And then he heard his name... Someone was saying his name...

Intrigued, he tried to concentrate, to catch hold of the words, listened to the soothing lilt of the accent... There were two voices... talking about him. Except they kept calling him the Australian, the word strangely out of place against the rest of the words.

The darkness began to fade... He panicked... He didn't want the darkness to go... Without the darkness there was only pain... Without the darkness there was no escape...

But it was too late. Reality pushed insistently at the edges of his consciousness, drawing him further up towards the voices. He cried out, trying desperately to turn back towards the security of the darkness...

Then he felt someone take hold of his hand, stroke his face - heard her voice so close that he could almost touch her words. And the words somehow comforted him... even though he didn't understand them...

He dragged his eyes open.

Lara watched as Thorne's eyes fluttered open. They glittered brightly in the lamplight, full of pain. He took a long, faltering breath then opened his mouth, trying to speak but she placed her fingers on his lips. "Ssh," she smiled. "Save your strength... Talk when you are stronger."

He looked at her, saying nothing. Gently, she ran the back of her fingers down his cheek. His grip on her hand tightened for a moment. Then it relaxed as his eyes slid closed.


 



The light beyond the fall of water was beginning to fade. Lara turned, grabbing the SLR and aiming it towards the fissure at the back of the cave as small stones bounced down from outside. Heart in her mouth, she waited, gripping the rifle. But it was only the boy returning, dragging a sack. She placed the rifle on the blanket, pushing herself to her feet and rushing over to help him. He grinned at her, "Grandmother got the message to your people!"

"Were the soldiers gone, Little One?"

The boy nodded, "They stayed only until yesterday evening then moved on. Papa says that they made no mention of you."

That at least was good news. And with the grandmother getting the message to their comrades in the North, this whole situation could be over by the end of the week - Terry Thorne safely back in Australia. "Where's Pasha?"

"He said he would climb the waterfall. He has the things that might have broken against the rocks."

She smiled, lifting the sack and carrying it over to the small fire. A breeze drew the smoke along the tunnel towards the falling water, dispersing the thin trail enough that it washed away with the water and didn't give away their position. "But," the boy continued, "Grandmother got angry with Pasha when he told her about Thorne." The words came out in an excited rush. "She said that it was ridiculous and that she would go back to town and that your people could just come down here that there was no way you were carrying the poor boy all the way to the North."

Lara grinned at him, "How did Pasha take it?"

The boy grew serious. "He got angry. And called her "old woman" and grandmother hates it when Papa calls her that so she slapped him and told him that..." He lifted his finger, wagging it at Lara in what she assumed to be a very good impression of his grandmother, "she had been fighting for her country before his grandmother could talk!"

"She slapped Pasha?" Lara asked incredulously.

The boy nodded enthusiastically, "And called him young pup!" He flashed her a grin then glanced across at Thorne, "How is he?"

Lara shook her head, continuing to empty the things from the sac, "He's very ill."

"Worse than yesterday?"

Lara glanced across at Thorne. She had already cleaned the wound three times today. The infection had deepened, strengthening the fever and leaving him delirious. And she had no idea if the poultices were working. The wound was still as angry and foul smelling every time she changed the dressings. She nodded, "Yes. Worse than yesterday."

"Oh!" the boy replied, obviously troubled by the news. Then suddenly remembering something he reached into his shirt, pulling out a small canvas bag that was round his neck, lifting the string strap over his head. He handed it to Lara, "Grandmother said to simmer a little of this in water and make him drink it. She said it would help ease the pain."

Lara took it from him, fingering the precious packet. "I can finish here if you want to make some now..." the boy offered, looking from her to Thorne and back. Lara smiled, reaching across and ruffling his hair before turning towards the fire. She already had tea on the boil; she could put some of the herb in that...

She lifted the pot off the flame, pouring some of the scalding liquid into a tin mug and put the pan back. Then she carefully opened the little packet the Grandmother had given her, spooning a little of the contents into the mug. She sat the mug at the edge of the fire, folding the packet and sticking it in her back pocket. Then she lifted a long, whittled stick and gently stirred the liquid in the mug. After a few moments, curiosity pricking at her, she picked up the mug, sniffing at the contents. It gave off a pungent odour and she wrinkled her nose, putting it back down at the edge of the small fire. She didn't care what it smelled like... As long as it helped Thorne...

He cried out softly again, rambling in a strange tongue, trying to turn over. Lara had made pillows from spare blankets, placing them against his chest and back to prevent him from rolling over. She frowned and moved the mug away from the fire to let it cool then pushed herself to her feet, walking across to him and dropping to her knees at his side. She had been forced to put a belt around his waist, tying his hands to it and also tying his ankles. It had been the only thing she could think of to stop him flailing around in the fever, knocking the blankets off and trying to rip at the bandages around his chest. But now she was concerned that he would rub his wrists and ankles raw. Lifting the blankets, she checked his hands and then his feet, satisfying herself that he hadn't done himself any damage... yet.

Then she walked back across to the fire, lifting the tin mug and turning to the boy, "I'll need your help to sit him up, Little One."

The boy nodded and scrambled to his feet, walking across to Thorne with her. Together they lifted him gently. He made a small sound, calling out softly. Lara manoeuvred herself to sit cross-legged beside him to cradle him in one arm, careful of the wound in his back, his head resting in the crook of her elbow. The boy waited until he saw that she was settled, helping to arrange the blankets over Thorne then he skipped back across to the fire. Lara cautiously placed the mug against his lips, carefully tipping some of the hot liquid into his mouth. He swallowed reflexively. A frown brushed his forehead and he murmured something that she didn't understand.

Lara waited until he had quieted then carefully tipped some more of the liquid into his mouth. Some of it spilled down his chin but he swallowed it again. She tried a third mouthful then put the mug down, reaching for a discarded bit of blanket. Still cradling him she gently mopped the sweat from his face and neck. He moved his hands, as if trying to catch something. She caught them, holding them, talking softly to him.

His eyes fluttered open and he looked at her. But his expression was glazed, focussed a million miles away - or deep inside himself. Not even thinking about what she was doing, Lara bent down, kissing him on the forehead like a child. Fight this, Thorne! she willed silently. Fight this thing and live!

She let his hands go, reaching for the mug and started to feed him the rest of the liquid.


Mikhail hauled himself into the rock tunnel, rolling away from the freezing torrent as fast as he could then turned to draw in the rope to which were attached four fat rabbits. They would at least eat well tonight. Darkness had fallen. He had had reservations about scaling the slick cliff face beneath the waterfall in the dark. But it was possible that Pasha and the boy hadn't returned and he was reluctant to leave Lara alone with Thorne any longer. The Australian may be weak from the fever but he still put up a good fight when his wounds were being cleaned and earlier Mikhail had been forced to hold the Australian still while Lara tended to him.

As he walked deeper into the cave, shivering, he heard the sound of Pasha singing a ribald song about a young woman being fought over by two men. Mikhail smiled, listening to the song and cheered by the sound of the young boy's laughter as Pasha changed voices to match characters.

The boy saw him in the glow of the torchilight and scrambled to his feet, grabbing blankets for Mikhail to dry himself. Pasha turned then reached for the pot on the small fire, pouring steaming tea into a mug. Mikhail dropped the rabbits by the fire, stripping off his shirt and boots before accepting the tea from Pasha as the youngster laid a blanket over his shoulders. The liquid warmed him and he slowly stopped shivering. He looked across at Lara, who was cradling Thorne against her, a mug at his lips.

"How is he?" Mikhail asked, looking at Lara as Pasha began to unfasten the rabbits from the rope.

She glanced up then returned her attention to Thorne. "The grandmother gave us vinegar to clean the wounds and some sort of herb to ease the pain. This is the second dose I've given him since Pasha and the Little One returned. He's still fevered. But he's quieter..."

Mikhail nodded, turning back to Pasha and sipping the scalding tea. "Did the grandmother get the message through?"

Pasha sighed and nodded. The young boy laughed. Mikhail gave Pasha a long, level look, "What happened?"

"The grandmother," Pasha told him, concentrating very hard on untying the rabbits, refusing to meet Mikhail's gaze, "over-ruled you. She says that we are to stay here and she'll get word to the men up North to come here."

Mikhail looked at him, aghast, "But that's far too risky..."

"That's what I told her," Pasha confirmed.

"And?"

"She slapped me."

Mikhail's mouth dropped open... "She what?"

"She slapped me!" Pasha retorted, in an obvious ill humour about the whole thing.

The boy grinned from ear to ear. Mikhail looked at him, lifting an eyebrow in question. The youngster giggled, "He called her `Old Woman` and she hates that!"

Mikhail started laughing, a deep infectious sound that soon had even Pasha smiling. "Oh, my friend," Mikhail said finally, brushing the tears from his cheeks, "you haven't lost your touch with the ladies! I wish I had seen that!" He shook his head, asking, "So what has the grandmother decided we're doing?"

"We've to stay here until our comrades arrive."

Someone was laughing... Terry Thorne struggled up from the darkness, trying to catch hold of the laughter... And then he was aware of something being placed against his lips, warm liquid tipped into his mouth. He swallowed the fluid greedily, fighting to stay with the laughter as darkness threatened to engulf him again. Something was different, but he couldn't work out what it was...

The laughter had stopped but someone was talking now, quietly, a deep resonant voice that he recognised... "Mikhail..."

Lara saw Thorne's lips move and then his eyes fluttered open. He looked up at her, his eyes focussed and alert and her heart flipped in her chest. She smiled at him, "Dobro vecher, Australia."

Terry looked at the smiling woman with the mass of dark curls caught back from her face. Her eyes were dark, dark brown... But they had never smiled at him before... Her name floated up from the depths of his memory.

"Lara..."

Her smile widened, and she nodded, "Da!" Then she rattled something else off at him, but its meaning was lost as he struggled to think in Azhdarcheynian. He frowned but she had turned her head, looking over at someone else. The language flooded back and by the time she had turned back to him he understood her. "How do you feel?" she asked. "We have given you something to ease the pain."

And suddenly he realised that that was what was different. The burning fire in his back had numbed to a bearable ache, the crushing agony only a mild discomfort as he took each breath. "Better..."

But the effort of talking, of staying awake, was exhausting. The darkness pushed insistently at him, dragging at his strength. He fought to listen to what she was saying, knowing that it was important - something about them staying here until he was well enough to move. But the shadows were stronger than he was, drawing him slowly back down into the blackness.

Lara watched his eyes drift slowly closed. For a long moment afterwards she held him, suddenly scared that if she let him go she might come back to find those blue eyes open and lifeless... But finally she eased herself onto her knees, lowering Thorne gently back onto the ground. She arranged the blankets then stood up, crossing to the fire.

Mikhail looked up at her. Perhaps it was the torchlight but she seemed tired, the dark shadows around her eyes more pronounced than usual. She dropped into a crouch, knocking the dregs of the herbs into the fire then sat back, cross-legged. "I'll wait for a little while, let the herbs begin to work. Then we can clean his wound again."


Even with the pain-numbing herbs he cried out, a thin scream, as Lara cleaned the puss from the wound in his back. Mikhail held him still, but it was easier to hold him now. He had grown a little weaker each time and now Mikhail began to doubt whether the Australian had the strength to survive the infection, despite his earlier moment of lucidity. His face was flushed, the cheeks hollow, the sweat still pouring from him. And the stink from the wound made Mikhail want to throw up.

Lara seemed unaffected by the smell or the sight of the wound. She peeled off the poultice, removing the puss with water before cleaning the wound with a vinegar-soaked rag. It may have been her imagination but the puss didn't seem quite as bad this time... The boy walked over, carefully carrying the sharp blade they had just sterilised in the fire. She smiled at him, taking it from him and carefully began to cut away the dead skin that surrounded the wound in Thorne's back.

This was going to leave a bad scar, much worse than the others that dotted his body here and there. But she knew that it would be a small price to pay if he was strong enough to fight the fever and live through this. Would he remember, she wondered, the dark haired Azhdarcheynian girl who had cared for him? For some reason the thought that he would forget her troubled her...

Again, she found herself wondering if he had a woman back in Australia, a wife who had no idea of how closely he was flirting with death, who was at home watching TV while Terry fought for his life. Would he tell her? Would she ever know how close she had come to losing him? Did she realise that every time she said goodbye to him, she might never see him again?

Lara knew what was happening. She was aware that she was falling in love with this man who had risked his life to take an American he had probably never even met, back to the United States - and his family. But she was too grounded in real life to acknowledge it. She was, in every way, the complete opposite if everything he stood for. She was a revolutionary, a terrorist who had murdered men - including her own husband - for the sake of a cause, in the fight for the freedom of Mother Azhdarcheynia and her people.

Nothing could ever come of her feelings for Terry Thorne. He had no idea who she was or what she had endured during her twenty-five years of life. So she tucked away her feelings... refusing to acknowledge them.

She finished cleaning the wound, motioning to the boy who brought across the scalding poultice. Thorne made no sound as she placed it against his skin and wrapped the bandages around him. Finally satisfied, she helped Mikhail ease him back onto his side and cover him with the blankets.


 



Lara slept fitfully, her dreams filled with images of all the dead comrades she had fought with... and the fiasco at the farmhouse. In the nightmare she relived the American being thrown backwards, sliding lifelessly across the mud of the yard; seeing Thorne stumble forward to collapse onto his knees and fall face first into the mud and, just when she had though him dead, she saw him begin to crawl towards the American.

Then the dream shifted back in time to the night she had killed her husband, slitting his throat with a kitchen knife as he lay sleeping in bed. Except that when she stepped away from the blood-soaked covers, when she stood back to look down on the body of the man who had betrayed her family... it was the Australian, his dead blue eyes looking up at her in wonder. She dropped the knife, opening her mouth to scream...

And slammed awake, sitting bolt upright, gasping for breath.

Pasha looked across at her. Concerned, he questioned softly, "Lara?"

"Bad dream," she rasped, the last vestiges of the nightmare disappearing.  "How's Thorne?"

Pasha grinned at her, "Come see."

She threw off the blankets, crawling across the sand to where Pasha sat beside the Australian. He was so still that for one horrifying moment she thought he was dead. Then she saw the small rise and fall of his chest. She reached out, checking his fever with the back of her hand then turned, looking at Pasha, who was still grinning.

"I haven't had to mop his sweat for two hours," he told her. "And he's slept peacefully since then."

Lara threw her arms round Pasha, hugging him. The fever had broken! Thorne's fever had broken! She pulled away, climbing over the Australian, "Help me check the wound."

Pasha helped her to sit him up, holding him as she undid the bandages and pulled away the poultice. It was almost dry. There was hardly any puss. She grinned, reaching for the vinegar and a rag, telling Pasha, "It's almost clean!"

Terry Thorne moaned softly, the burning pain in his shoulder pulling him up from the depths of darkness. Strong arms held him, a warm voice warning him gently, "Stay still, Australia. We need to clean the wound."

Wound? What wound?

But he obeyed the voice, trying not to move, enduring the pain as the seconds dragged past and, slowly, the memories of the past few days flowed back to him. By the time the bandages were being pinned into position around his chest he remembered almost everything. As they helped him lie back down on his side, covering him with soft, warm blankets he looked round the cave. He couldn't remember being brought here... The last thing he remembered was the shepherd's shack in the mountains.

"How are you feeling?" the voice asked again.

Terry looked at the tall, thin Azhdarcheynian and smiled, "Tired... Sore..."

The man returned his smile, assuring him, "We have something to ease the pain. Lara is brewing it now."

Terry nodded, letting his eyes slide closed. He was tired, bone-wearily tired but his soldier's instinct started to kick in and he found himself opening them again, looking at the man, asking, "How long have I been out?"

"We've been here since the day before yesterday. The bullet wound in your back went bad. You've been fevered since yesterday morning. Are you hungry?"

Terry nodded and Pasha grinned, "We have soup..."

"First," Lara told them, walking across from the fire, "he drinks this!" She knelt down behind the Australian, putting the mug on the ground. Then she helped him sit up, handing the cup to him as he leaned back against her, "It may not taste as bad as it smells..."

Terry sniffed at it, pulling a face before taking a sip of the liquid. It tasted as bad as it smelled. But the liquid felt wonderful against his parched tongue and he sipped it greedily, not caring about the taste. Pasha grinned at him again, pushing himself to his feet and scooping up the SLR. "We need more meat," he told Lara, walking towards the fissure in the back wall. "And Mikhail needs to sleep..."

Terry tried to look round at Lara as Pasha disappeared into the rock face, but his shoulder protested. He frowned against the pain, turning back and asking, "Your brother is ill?"

"No," Lara told him, her voice so light he could almost see the laughter in her dark eyes, "he's exhausted from carrying you all the way here..." She tutted at him, "You must be heavier than you look, Australia."

He laughed softly, sipping the pungent liquid before answering, "One hundred percent pure bred Australian muscle!"

"From surfing with Jason Donovan, yes?" she quipped.

He laughed, a sound that made her breath quicken in her chest. She fought the impulse to run her hand down his arm as he replied, "Actually, I hate surfing. The only surfing I've ever done is on the web."

"You are a computer nerd?"

Terry laughed at the undisguised disgust in her voice. "No," he told her, "I'm a soldier. Always have been, always will be..."

Just as she had suspected! But if that was the case there was a question that had been bothering her since she had first heard his accent at the farmhouse. She frowned, asking, "Why do the Americans send an Australian soldier to negotiate?"

Terry swallowing another mouthful of the potion, wondering how to answer the question without giving too much information to her. "They don't exactly," he told her finally. "I'm part of an organisation who specialise in hostage negotiation world wide. The family of the American asked if we could help free him."

She considered this information for another, long moment. Then she asked, "Have you freed many hostages?"

"Yes."

"And do the militia in those countries cause as many?" Mikhail's deep baritone asked from the depths of his blanket on the other side of the cave.

Terry looked across as the big Azhdarcheynian sat up, rubbing the sleep from his face. "People fighting for many different things," Terry tried, diplomatically.

Mikhail grunted admiring the Australian's tact, pushing himself to his feet, "It is good to see you awake, Thorne."

"It's good to be awake." Terry grinned, "Although I gather that you had to carry me much of the way here."

Mikhail grinned at him, "And got a soaking for my troubles!" He lifted the pot of tea, pouring some into a mug, "My people are coming here. They should be here within the next few days. Then you can go home, yes?"

Terry nodded, "Then I can go home..."


Pasha and the boy had gone back to the farmhouse to find out if anything had been heard from the comrades to the North. Mikhail had gone with them, knowing that this was probably the last time they would have contact with the farmhouse and wanting to thank the old mother for putting her life at risk to help them. Lara cleaned and rebuilt her SLR, glancing across at the Australian, watching him sleep. He was growing stronger almost by the hour and could now walk all the way to the waterfall and back without having to rest.

He stirred restlessly, making a small noise in the back of his throat. Lara put the rifle down on the blanket, pushing herself to her feet and walking across to him. A frown brushed across his forehead and he turned onto his back, opening his eyes. He smiled sleepily as he saw her and she returned it, greeting, "Good morning, Australia."

"Good morning... What time is it?" he asked, running his hand through his hair before sitting up carefully.

"After nine. You would like breakfast?"

"That," he told her, flashing her a grin, "would be marvellous!"

"There's tea made and some chicken left." Lara turned, walking back towards the fire, "How is the shoulder?"

"Better."

She dropped to a crouch beside the fire, pulling what remained of the herb from her back pocket, opening the small packet and emptying the dregs into a mug. Then she lifted the pot, pouring tea on top of it, stirring it, "I'll change the dressing once you've drunk this."

"Thank you..." He looked round, "Where are the others?"

"Gone to the farmhouse." She looked across at him, quirking an eyebrow, "We may have bread for tonight!"

Terry laughed at the expression of longing on her face. It was amazing how the smallest things became a luxury... Sometimes it was the hardest part of the job - seeing the poverty that surrounded him in the places where he had to go. She walked across and he took the mug she offered him, sipping the unctuous liquid as she dropped to her knees behind him and started undoing the bandages around his chest.

"So," she asked, "what is the first thing you are going to do when you get back to Australia?"

He grinned, laughing slightly, "I'm based in the UK now..."

"An Australian, working in UK, coming to Azhdarcheynia to free an American..." she quipped.

He grinned again, "Sounds crazy..."

"Many things in Azhdarcheynia are crazy, Australia."

He heard the pain and the bitterness in her voice and asked, "Do you have any family, apart from your brothers? Mikhail mentioned that your husband was dead."

"My husband," she told him coldly, "was a pig!" Then she sighed softly, "I thought he was a good man. But when it mattered most, he betrayed my family..." She peeled away the poultice from the wound on Thorne's back, smiling as she saw that it was not only clean but beginning to heal. She lifted the vinegar and a clean rag, telling Thorne, "This will sting."

Carefully she cleaned the wound, pulling back only once when he hissed in pain. She left it open to the air, letting it dry and moving round to kneel in front of him, inspecting the wound on his shoulder. She smiled at him, "You are healing well."

The smile he gave her lit up his face, sparking in his eyes, "All thanks to you."

She felt herself beginning to blush and pushed herself to her feet, telling him, "It was nothing!" as she stepped round to kneel behind him again.

"Thank you anyway."

She frowned, saying nothing, cutting cloth to cover the bullet wound, holding it in place as she began to wind the bandage around his arm and chest. "You didn't answer my question."

He glanced back at her, "What question?"

"What is the first thing you're going to do when you get back home?"

"Have a hot bath," he grinned.

Lara laughed, shaking her head, instructing, "Here, hold this until I pin it." She moved round to sit in front of him again, carefully pushing the safety pin through the layers of bandage to secure it in place. "And your woman will scrub your back, yes?"

He looked at her, "I don't have a woman."

Surprised, she quirked an eyebrow. "No one to miss you back in UK?"

He looked down at the liquid left in the tin mug then admitted, "My son."

She heard the slight undertone in his voice and knew that Thorne had to be missing him. "He is strong?" she asked. "Like his father?"

He grinned, nodding, "He has a damned good rugby tackle!"

"Rug-bee tackle," she frowned, "I do not know this rug-bee tackle."

"Rugby's similar to soccer, but the ball is oval and you run with it or kick it. And the goals are H shaped," he drew the shape in the air, "with no nets..." He trailed off and laughed slightly, shaking his head and pulling a face, "And it's nothing like soccer really..."

She grinned, "And UK are good at this game?"

He laughed again, "Better than they are at soccer."

"You miss him, yes?"

"Yes." Thorne sighed deeply, wincing slightly as the movement irritated his shoulder, "I don't see much of him..."

He looked at her, not really sure why he was divulging so much of his personal life to her. Somehow he felt comfortable with her, as if she were a close friend that he had known for years. Perhaps it was simply because he had spent so much time with her over the past few days and time was something he never usually had a chance to share with anyone unless it was a client's family. How often had his own son seen him over the past few years? How often had he managed to get to a school play or a sports' day or a prize giving...?

It suddenly hit him that he had almost died here. And if he had, how much of him would his son remember? A fleeting figure who turned up infrequently, usually to apologise for not being able to share the important days in his son's young life? He could have died here without ever truly knowing his son's likes or dislikes... He could have died here without ever truly knowing his son... And suddenly that hurt more than the pain from the bullet wound.

He swallowed down the unexpected constriction in his throat, feeling the tears springing unbidden to his eyes. He blinked them away.

Lara watched the emotion wash across his face and stood up, moving across to the fire to heat some soup, leaving him alone for the moment with his memories. She had no idea when she had last seen a man's tears and it disconcerted her. In truth she had no idea when she had last cried herself. Her world had no time for tears and very little time for grief. It was a world of opposites, fear mixed with laughter, happiness tinged with hate. She was a soldier!

And yet so was Thorne. A soldier who risked his life to save people he had never met - at the obvious expense of spending time with his son.

Did that make it wrong for her to be so hard...?

She glanced across at him. No, she decided. Hers was just a different way of coping, a different way of fighting. His was a different background. He would do his job then leave, returning to the plush existence of the UK, giving no more thought to the people he left behind. He did not have to live under the constant threat of torture and death...

Yet he had willingly walked into a situation when she had had no choice but to be there...

Confused, she shook her head, stirring the soup.


 

When Mikhail and the others hadn't returned by the time darkness had fallen, Terry had persuaded Lara that he was well enough to stand a watch. His shoulder was stiff and nagged slightly but he could lift the weight of the SLR now. Lara had said no at first. But his continual nagging coupled with his earnest-little-boy look, had finally won her over and she had handed over the rifle, instructing him to wake her in four hours. Within moments of wrapping herself in the blankets she had been asleep.

Now he picked up the SLR and moved closer to her, frowning slightly as he heard her whimper in her sleep. She moaned softly, a frown brushing across her forehead. Then she settled again. He stood for a moment longer, watching her face in the glow of the firelight, wondering if her dreams were haunted by her husband or if it was some other nameless fear...

He turned, walking away towards the rush of the waterfall to relieve himself. With any luck, in a few days time he would be using the bathroom in some plush hotel somewhere in the capitol. Or, better still, back in his own flat in London... just before he sank into a long, hot bath! Towels on the radiator, bottle of beer in his hand as he planned where he could take Henry for a weekend... Maybe to Alton Towers? Or Disneyland in Paris...

He sighed, shaking his head and quirking an eyebrow wryly. London was a world away from here...

Finished, he wandered back towards the fire, wondering what his bosses back there would say when they found out that he was alive. Had they told his ex-wife that he was MIA? Had she told their son?

His heart constricted at the thought of Henry's small face, trying to be so grown up, trying to be so manly, trying desperately to hold back the tears as he heard that his Dad was missing. No, Terry decided, she would wait. She would wait until she knew something definite before she said anything to Henry. He held no love for her any more, but she was a good mother and she would spare Henry if she could.

He sat down beside the fire pulling the blanket more tightly round his shoulders, back against the rock face, SLR across his knees. God, but he needed a cigarette!

Lara turned over onto her back, muttering something, the blankets falling away. Terry smiled and pushed himself to his feet, remembering the nights when he had gone in to check on his toddler son to find the blankets kicked off and the tiny body curled around a Pooh Bear. Propping the SLR against the wall he walked round, dropping to his knees beside her and reaching across to pull the blankets back over her.

She snapped awake, reacting to the "hostile" looming above her. She slammed him backwards, rolling to her feet. He fell, landing heavily as he tried to protect his shoulder. But pain ripped through him as he tried to roll away, slowing him down. He saw the kick coming on towards his ribs and knew that he wasn't going to be able to move in time. He took it then twisted round, adrenalin rushing through him, kicking out and sweeping her legs from beneath her.

Lara realised who he was an instant to late to stop the kick connecting with his ribs. Then she was suddenly lying on her back, winded as he took the feet from her. Stunned, she lay for a moment then turned over. Thorne lay curled in the foetal position, unmoving.

"Australia?" she called, crawling over to him, "Terry?"

"Christ, woman!" he berated through clenched teeth.

"Stay still!" she warned, clambering over him to check the dressing on his back. Fresh blood seeped through the material. But not much... Sighing in relief she scrambled for a clean blanket and the vinegar telling him, "Don't move. You're bleeding."

The pain thumped through his shoulder down into his chest with every beat of his heart. But it was easing, growing more bearable. He cried out through gritted teeth as she helped him sit up, closing his eyes as she unwrapped the bandage from his chest and carefully cleaned the re-opened bullet wound. Then she cut another piece of padding, holding it in place as she wrapped the bandage back around his chest and shoulder.

Finished, she moved round him, pinning the end in place.

He opened his eyes. And looked straight into her worried, remorseful brown ones. "I'm sorry, Australia!" she told him.

He shook his head, "It was my fault. I should have thought."

She was so close and she smelled so good... How could she do that? How could she smell so good? And then he realised that it was the scent of wood smoke in her hair and on her clothes. But right here, right now, it was more alluring than the most expensive French perfume. And suddenly he found that he could not look away from those, huge, dark eyes.

Lara felt her heart thudding in her chest, astounded by the realisation that she wanted to kiss him. No... she wanted more than that... She wanted to feel his hands on her... She wanted to feel his mouth on her... She wanted him to make love to her...

She swallowed, lost in his eyes... Then slowly, tentatively she leant forward, kissing him lightly on the lips. She pulled away, looking back into his eyes. He lifted his hand, slipping it behind her head and pulled her towards him, kissing her deeply.

Lara moaned softly, pushing him back onto the ground, breaking away as she heard the small grunt of pain. But he caught hold of her, stopping her. "Your shoulder..." she tried. But he shook his head, pulling her back down, "I need to feel alive. Make me feel alive!"

She let him draw her head down to kiss her, his tongue probing her mouth as she undid the buttons of his black fatigue pants and pulled down the zipper. He groaned softly as she slipped her hand inside, rubbing his arousal gently, feeling it harden beneath her hands. He wrapped his hand in her hair and she responded by kissing him more brutally, desperately. Then she pulled away and he let go of her hair as she crawled down him, lifting his hips as she slipped the fatigues and his underwear down onto his thighs, releasing his arousal.

She dropped her head, taking him into her mouth, her tongue licking and stroking as she moved up and down his length, one hand reaching below to gently scratch at the soft sac of his balls, teasing them.

He groaned her name, biting his lip as pain mingled with pleasure and the tightness in his groin built under the assault from her mouth and her fingers. Then she lifted her head, taking hold of him in one hand, gripping him tightly, beginning to work him in agonising slowness that had him crying out in frustration. Only to have her move faster and faster until he lost himself completely in sensation, the climax building to an almost unbearable level. His orgasm smashed through him, leaving him breathless as he spilled his seed over her hands. And then she was kissing him again on the mouth.

Finally she pulled away, grinning down at him, "Do you feel alive, Australia?"

Exhausted, he grinned back at her, "Very much alive... But you were a little left out..."

She giggled, "I have not pleasured a man for far too long, Australia." Then she grew serious, "And I have no wish to hurt your shoulder any more than I have already done." She smiled, "Call it my way of saying sorry..."

"Apology accepted," he told her.

"Do you need help to dress yourself?"

He shook his head, but asked, "Help me stand up?"

She helped him to his feet, leaving him to it as she went to wash her hands in the freezing water of the waterfall. Terry eased himself back down onto the ground, sitting with his back against the rock face, intending to talk with her when she returned. But in the few minutes she was gone he fell asleep, head resting back against the rock.

She grinned, reaching for the SLR and settling herself beside him.


 

Early morning sunlight shattered into rainbow diamonds against the fall of water at the mouth of the cave. Lara sat, watching the sparkle, mesmerised by the beauty of it. A small fall of rock fragments in the fissure at the back of the cave warned Lara that someone was climbing down. She rose to her feet, throwing a glance at Terry who was still asleep, curled into a tangle of blankets.

Lifting the SLR she walked forward, waiting. With any luck Mikhail would have some ham or some cheese...

Some sixth sense made her turn. Her eyes went wide, horror stabbing through her. She dropped to one knee as the soldier advancing from the waterfall fired. The bullet flew harmlessly over her head, ricocheting off the rock face. In one fluid movement she had brought the rifle to bear and fired. The soldier flew back as if punched by an invisible fist. She took aim again, firing at a second soldier who was just emerging from the rush of the waterfall. He screamed silently, falling back through the curtain of water.

Terry slammed awake, the gunshots echoing deafeningly around the cave. Lara turned, risking a glance behind her towards the fissure, but no one had appeared there. She saw Terry scramble to his feet. "Down!" she screamed at him, taking aim at a third soldier, "Get down!"

He obeyed, dropping flat on the sandy floor as she fired, the soldier spinning backwards through the waterfall. But a forth took his place, a fifth and a sixth following. Dear God! How many were they going to send...?

She took aim.

Terry saw the booted feet appear in the fissure behind her. Everything seemed suddenly to move in slow motion. By the time he had pushed himself up, the soldier had dropped down, already bringing his rifle up. Terry screamed at Lara, launching himself forward to push her out of the way, ignoring the pain that stabbed through him as his shoulder protested.

Lara saw him move and looked at him, seeing the expression on his face and knowing that there was someone in the fissure. She turned, firing as the soldier took aim. His body bucked and slumped to the floor.

Something hit her, hard, in the back, pushing her off balance. And then Terry was barreling into her, dragging her with him as her rolled her out of the line of fire. Terry held her, breathing through the burning fire in his shoulder, covering her body with his, not daring to make a move as more soldiers appeared down the fissure, their guns trained on him.

"Australia..."

The word was weak, no more than a whisper. He moved carefully, looking down at her.

"No..." he breathed, dread winding icy tendrils through his stomach. There was blood everywhere. Then he realised that her breath was coming in sharp, agonised gasps. The burning pain in his shoulder no longer mattering, he shook his head, refusing to believe what his eyes told him. But even as he watched, she coughed weakly and a tiny trickle of blood coursed down her jaw from her mouth. "Lara! Oh, Christ! No!"

She smiled at him, her mouth moving as she tried to speak.

A calm swept down through him, the detached serenity of a soldier dealing with death, numbing his emotions until there was a time and a place to deal with them... He forced himself to smile back at her, wiping the blood away with his thumb, running the back of his fingers down her cheek, "Lara..."

More soldiers were flooding into the cave. They were yelling, ordering the two figures on the ground to stay still, to stay where they were, rifles aimed, fingers brushing the triggers. Lara's eyes flickered towards the soldiers then looked back up at Thorne. Terry was aware of the soldiers but kept his attention on the dark haired, dark eyed woman. "Lara...?" he repeated softly.

The soldiers were moving in slowly, step by step, sights trained on the man and woman lying on the floor of the cave, still yelling at them to stay still...

Lara swallowed, taking a breath, "I... I would very much..." She trailed off in a moan of pain, closing her eyes. Terry ran his hand across her forehead, pushing back an errant curl, waiting for the pain to pass, unable to do anything more for fear that he would cause her more pain. She opened her eyes again, "I would... very... much have liked... you... to... apologise to... me."

Understanding what she meant, the smile he gave her was warm and genuine. "Later!" he lied to her, "Once we've got you to a doctor..."

She smiled again, closing her eyes, believing him even though she knew it was a lie. She was dying. She couldn't feel her legs... "Cold..." she whispered.

Terry felt the cold muzzle of a rifle pressed into the back of his neck and saw her eyes flicker up to the soldier above him.

"I know, love," he told her, caressing her face.

She sighed softly.

Hands reached down to grab him. "Lara?" he called quietly. "Lara?"

But even as he was dragged off of her he knew that she was dead. The soldiers pushed him into the dirt beside her, ordering him to put his hands on the back of his head. The muzzle of a rifle hard against his spine, he obeyed, turning his head, his training taking over. "I'm Australian!" he shouted at them calmly in English. "I'm an Australian! Don't shoot! I'm Australian!"

Another voice barked orders and suddenly the rifle was removed and he was being helped to his feet. A man wearing Captain's insignia stepped forward. "Mr Thorne?"

Terry nodded, pain washing through him in waves, "I'm Terry Thorne."

The man smiled, "Your people are most worried about you, Mr. Thorne. We have a helicopter waiting to take you to the capital..."


 

Terry lay in the bath, soaking in the hot water, towels warming on the radiator, a bottle of beer in his hand. In the living room Rammstein pounded through the speakers. He hadn't quite adjusted yet, things still seemed strange at times, but he was getting there. He took another mouthful of beer, closing his eyes, slipping further into the water and resting his head on the rim of the bath, memories sliding back...

He had made it out of the cave. But as they strapped the harness round him so that they could winch him up to the helicopter that hovered above them, he'd passed out, his wound bleeding again and the pain suddenly too much. He'd woken up between clean cotton sheets, groggy from anaesthetic, not quite taking in everything that the company rep had tried to tell him. The militia had turned up at the farmhouse without warning. Pasha and Mikhail had made a run for it but Pasha had taken a bullet through the back. The militia had threatened the farmer, and the old grandmother had told them everything. Pasha was dead but Mikhail had disappeared back into the mountains.

The explanation had been clinical and to the point. But Terry felt Pasha's death like another blow, realising finally just how involved he had become with the three freedom fighters who had dragged him out of the gunfight only a few days previously. And when the company rep had gone, he had broken down, silent tears running unchecked down his cheeks until he'd slipped into an exhausted sleep.

The company had flown him home by air ambulance as soon as he was fit to be moved and he'd spent the next three days in hospital in London...

But he had talked to Henry on the phone. He was going up to the school on Friday to collect him and spend the weekend with him. He had suggested Disneyland and Alton Towers but Henry had asked quietly, "Could we go riding, Sir? I haven't had a chance to wear the boots you bought me for my birthday..."

"Of course we can go riding," Terry had assured him, smiling down the phone as he heard the enthusiasm in his son's voice, "if that's what you want..."

A light voice echoed in his mind, and he could have sworn that he caught a whiff of wood smoke... And he is strong? Like his father?

He opened his eyes, taking another mouthful of beer. Did Mikhail even know, he wondered, that Lara was dead? He remembered the big man's hearty laugh, "She is like our mother! All fire and passion!"

The music had changed... Dire Straits "Brothers in Arms", the quiet voice mourning, "And though they did hurt me so bad - In the fear and alarm - You did not desert me - My brothers in arms..."

Do you feel alive, Australia?

Call it my way of saying sorry...

"Well the sun's gone to hell - And the moon's riding high - Let me bid you farewell - Every man has to die..."

Every woman has to die, Terry reflected. And Lara had died doing what she believed in. There was no doubting her hard ruthlessness. She had been a soldier, first and foremost. But she had also been a woman... all fire and passion...

"We are fools to make war - On our brothers in arms..."

I would... very... much have liked... you... to... apologise to... me

He smiled, holding up the bottle in salute, "Lara, love, I'd have had one hell of a time apologising to you!" He drained the beer, dropping the bottle onto the floor and pushed himself out of the bath, careful of his wounded shoulder. Padding across the bathroom he flipped a towel off the rail, wrapping it round his waist.

He had the debrief tomorrow with the company directors. He grinned, wondering just what they would say if he started off the debrief with, "First of all I would like to apologise to Lara..." Mikhail and the others had been in the wrong, he knew that. But Terry Thorne was going to make damned sure that everyone knew that they weren't responsible for what had subsequently happened. He owed it to Mikhail. He owed it to Pasha. And he owed it to a dark haired, dark eyed Azhdarcheynian woman who had made him feel alive...

 

BACK TO LIBRISCROWE


The End