He didn’t say so to Fila, but he knew she knew it too. For the thousandth time he cursed his stupidity for ever bringing her here. The idea that he could protect her—help her—seemed truly laughable. He’d become a shell of himself. Weak, hurt, sick—dying. And Fila had been put through the wringer again.
The worst of it was he’d been nothing but a burden to her. Fila—scared, traumatized kidnap victim—had had to save his life. Several times now. She’d probably hate him for bringing her here. She’d probably run away as fast as she could the minute they made it back to Chance Creek.
If they ever made it to Chance Creek. Maybe he’d just die and save her the trouble of having to run.
He coughed long and hard, the searing pain in his lungs almost worse than the pain in his leg. This is what he’d come to. The sum of his worth. He was helpless. Useless.
Good for nothing.
“Tie him up tight,” he said to Fila. “Use all the rope you have.” The puppy licked his hand and he tried to pet it. “Good dog,” he told it. It licked him again.
Fila took his advice and trussed the stranger to the pillar up like a pig on a spit.
Now all they could do was wait. Half a night lay ahead of them, then a full day and another night before they could begin to look for a rescue. He prayed to God for the first time in years that his family would question his absence—especially given Fila was with him.
The adrenaline that had enabled him to move and speak was fast leaving his system, rendering him aching and struggling to breathe once more. He closed his eyes just for a moment.
And slipped into sleep.
She’d beaten a man within an inch of his life.
She’d become the very kind of monster she’d fled from Afghanistan to escape.
What would her Taliban captors think now? Is this what they’d wanted all along? To turn her into a killer and set her loose among her own people?
As the seconds ticked by, the house was silent except for Ned’s labored breathing and the softer inhalations and exhalations of the killer tied to the post near the kitchen. She wanted to drag him outside and leave him in the dark and cold to die, but then she’d truly be a monster and there’d be no coming home after that.
All she’d wanted to do was protect Ned. When the man had leaned over him, fist raised, her vision had blurred and her mind had sharpened to a single point. He had to die. She’d acted on that impulse, saved her friend, but nearly taken a life.
What kind of woman was she?
She knelt next to Ned and smoothed his blond hair away from his handsome face, trying to remember who she’d been before she went to Afghanistan.
Before they’d twisted her into this caricature of a woman she was today.
Once upon a time she’d loved to sing. She had no training, other than the school choir, but she sang all the time—in her bedroom along to the songs on the radio, at school with her friends, in the shower, when she walked in the neighborhood.
She’d rarely sung in the last ten years. And then only to whisper the Afghan songs along with the others, so as not to draw attention to herself.
The old Fila sang. The new Fila was silent.
She had once loved bright colors, too—oranges and pinks and lime greens that set off her dark hair to perfection. She’d dressed like a peacock, her mother used to say, but she could get away with it in a manner her friends couldn’t. Dressed in faded castoffs and a covering burka in the village, she’d wanted merely to blend in. Now she chose practical clothes. Muted clothes.
The old Fila gloried in color. The new Fila preferred beige.
Most of all, once she had loved life in all its permutations. She loved people, dogs, cats, lizards. She loved catching fireflies and letting them go. She chased butterflies, watched birds through binoculars. Her curiosity about the living world made her days a bright parade.
If it has fur it will follow Fila home, her father used to say, and he was right. She’d rescued several stray cats. She often wondered what became of them when her family disappeared. In the village, pets had a purpose, and none of them belonged to her. She had no food to give them. Nothing to call her own.
The old Fila loved animals. The new Fila…
She dug her fingers into the folds of the comforter she was smoothing over Ned. The puppy lifted its head from where it had rested it on Ned’s shoulder. She reached over to pet him, shyly. She still loved animals. That hadn’t changed just because she’d been stolen by the Taliban.
She still loved color, too. Even if she didn’t have the courage to wear it. Yet.
She still loved music. Singing. Even if she didn’t dare to open her mouth and sing along. The Taliban had made her afraid, but they hadn’t changed her. Not at the core.
Not where it counted.
She straightened, taking in Ned’s prone form and that of his assailant on the other side of the room. She would have fought to protect a friend like Ned just as hard before she’d ever boarded a plane to Afghanistan. The Taliban hadn’t made her into a monster. She’d always come to the defense of those she loved.
No one had changed her. She was still Fila Sahar. Singer. Lover of beauty. Lover of life. Protector of her friends.
A tear leaked down her cheek. Then another. And another until she couldn’t staunch the flood. But these weren’t the hysterical tears she’d cried when she’d first come home, still overwhelmed with terror. These were tears of letting go—of the pain, of the fear, of the years she lost, of the family that was gone forever.
As she cried herself empty, she realized that starting over might be as painful as leaving it all behind had been. She knew what she loved, she knew what was important to her, but she had no idea how to take up the threads she had dropped a decade ago and weave them into a brand new life.
The only thing she did know was that she couldn’t stop trying—not when she’d come this far.
A noise at once familiar and wholly out of place woke Ned. Opening his eyes he saw light spilling into the cabin. The fire in the stove was low and the air around his face was cold. The rest of him was heaped with blankets.
He took a breath and winced at the rattle his lungs made. The air seared his throat and he fought against the urge to cough, knowing he’d only jostle his leg and bring himself more pain. Still, the noise held him awake. Tense. He tried to sit up.
Fila lay beside him curled in a ball, only a single woolen blanket pulled around her. He cursed the stubbornness that must have kept her from joining him under the covers. He frowned. What was that bruising on her forehead?