Artek by Honey Phillips
Artek stood on a rocky outcropping overlooking the mountain valley and nodded with satisfaction at the ranch below. It had come a long way since they had arrived here two years ago. The herds of cattle grazing across the valley floor looked healthy and well fed. The fences had been repaired or replaced, even though keeping up with them was a daily chore. More food animals grazed on the lower slopes of the mountains, white dots from this distance, but he knew that they too were healthy and the size of the flock was increasing. The barns and stables had been repaired and were weather tight once more. The ranch house was still almost as decrepit as it had been when they arrived, but he and his men had slept in far worse. Still, it was time to begin on that project, especially if the idea he had been considering came to fruition.
The scrape of gravel made him tense, his hand automatically going to the weapon he still kept holstered at his hip, but he relaxed as the source of the disruption came into view. Callum, his former second-in-command, and a male he had known for almost his entire life. Callum had started out as his weapons tutor, but when the call came to serve, to protect their planet, Callum had not hesitated to follow Artek into combat. Useless combat, as it turned out, he thought bitterly, then shoved the thought away with the ease of long practice.
“Surveying the ranch?” Callum asked as he dismounted. The animal he was riding was called a horse—a hybrid developed by the humans who had also settled on this backwater planet. They were sturdy, usually placid animals, although they responded better to some of Artek’s brothers than to others. This one, large enough to carry someone of Callum’s substantial size, nudged noses with Artek’s mount, then dropped his head to search for fodder amongst the rocks.
“I was seeing how far we have come over the past two years.”
Callum nodded as he joined him. “I am satisfied, but there is still much to be done. We need to run irrigation ditches from the river to the fields. The fruit stock we planted is not doing as well as I would like. I will send Gilmat to take a look at it. And—”
“And the ranch house needs to be repaired,” Artek interrupted.
Callum followed his glance to the sprawling, dilapidated building. It had been intended as a grand showplace by the original owner of the ranch, but that owner had retreated within its walls and let it fall to ruin long before they had purchased the ranch from his estate. Callum shrugged.
“We have lived in worse,” he said, echoing Artek’s previous thoughts.
“But it would not be suitable for a female.”
Artek tried to keep his voice casual, but he wasn’t entirely successful. Callum turned into a frozen statue next to him, but Artek waited patiently for him to speak. His second liked to consider matters first.
“We agreed on no females,” Callum said at last.
“I know. When we arrived here, we were all tired and bitter. All of us wounded, even the ones whose wounds didn’t show,” he added.
Callum was one of those with unseen wounds. The losses they had experienced had chipped away at even the experienced warrior’s normally stoic temperament.
Artek waited again, and finally Callum jerked his head in reluctant agreement.
“We have found a new life here. We have worked hard and are building a future.” He looked directly at the other male. “I want to share that future with someone, with someone other than the six of you. I want a mate—a wife, as the humans say—and a child. Someone for whom to build this legacy.”
He wasn’t sure that he deserved that type of happiness, but he longed for it nonetheless and had finally decided to take the chance.
“I understand,” Callum said finally. “But it will not be for me.”
Artek didn’t question him. He knew there had been a tragedy in his past life.
“I respect that. Can you respect my decision?”
Callum rubbed his temples, a weariness he did not usually show in the gesture.
“I can. But what about the others?”
“I’m not sure,” he said honestly. “I suspect Drakkar will look down his nose at me and Gilmat will nod, then disappear into the greenhouse for hours. Benjar and Endark I think will be in favor. I suspect that they are both beginning to hunger for mates, although I do not think that either one of them knows how to woo a female.”
“Especially a human female?” Callum asked, raising an eyebrow. “Since the only females anywhere close to us are humans, I assume you have a human bride in mind.”
“I have been considering it.” Much more than just considering it.
“And what of Frantor?”
Artek sighed. Frantor had been one of the ones to suffer the most wounds, both mental and physical. It had taken him months to stop hiding from his brothers in arms. Would he be able to cope with a strange face, especially a female face?
“I don’t know. I hope that my bride might convince him that he is not as terrible as he thinks. As well as teach the younger males more… civilized behavior.”
Callum nodded again, then shot him a penetrating look.
“Do you have someone in mind?”
“Yes.” He did his best to keep his expression composed and his voice neutral. “I thought the shopkeeper’s daughter, Nelly. She is a sensible female, and I believe she will be of great assistance in restoring the ranch house.”
He didn’t mention the fact that her face haunted his dreams and that he was becoming increasingly obsessed with knowing what lay beneath her shapeless clothing. Even her eyes fascinated him, changing from golden brown to green depending on her mood. From the hint of amusement on Callum’s face, he suspected he had not entirely successful in concealing his feelings.
Callum nodded gravely. “And not in the first flush of youth. She will undoubtedly be grateful for the offer.”
“What do you mean by that? Any male would be lucky to have her.”
His fists clenched at the insult to his female before he realized that Callum was raising an eyebrow again at his reaction.
“As I suspected. Have you spoken to her about this?”
“You know that we have had only the briefest interactions.” Enough to know that she had a low, melodic voice that soothed his war stressed nerves. Enough to see the intelligence and humor in her eyes. Enough to feel the desire that simmered between them.
“Do you know whether or not she will be agreeable to your proposition?” Callum persisted.
“I don’t know,” he said honestly. “I do know that her male relative does not treat her with sufficient respect. And I suspect that she is not happy with her current life.”
“And you think she would be happy here?” Callum’s gesture embraced the entire ranch.
“I will make her happy,” he said, more to himself than Callum.
The vow was so quiet that he wasn’t sure that Callum even heard him, but a big hand descended on his shoulders.
“Then I suggest we talk to the others and prepare to make a trip to town.”
|August 23, 2022
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