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Ilexa watched more warriors carry a young man in on a stretcher. Even from a distance, she could tell that he needed critical care. Why in all the hells had they brought him here instead of to a hospital?

Two men dressed in loincloths—loincloths—and with tattoos reminiscent of Thane’s carried the litter past the tables to the sunken area in the center of the great hall. They lay the wounded man down beside the roaring fire and knelt by his side.

Ilexa skirted the long table and tried to approach the litter. If one could call him a man. He barely looked old enough to shave. Thane caught her upper arm in a bruising grip and shook his head at her. She glared back.

“That boy needs a hospital,” she snarled.

Thane shook his head at her again. “He has chosen to pass through the veil rather than live as a cripple.”

“His arm can be reattached.” She struggled to free herself from his grip.

“Possibly, but if not, he will be forced to live out the remainder of his life as an object of pity. The claws of a culia contain a poison that causes muscle and tissue necrosis,” Thane explained. “Instead of living without his arm, he has chosen an honorable death.”

“Honorable? There is nothing honorable about dying for no reason.”

“He incurred injury hunting in the tradition of our ancestors and chooses to join them rather than forgo life as a warrior. His choice is most honorable.” 

“You don’t actually believe that?” she demanded.

The Malkia approached the young man. “Tafari, you have been gravely wounded and brought to the heart of your tribe. What is your request?”

“I’ve lost my arm,” the boy managed in a hoarse whisper that the room’s acoustics amplified. “I choose to join the ancestors as a warrior.”

Rhys approached the litter, a naked sword in his hand.

“I can save his arm,” Ilexa shouted, wrenching free from Thane’s grip and running across the great hall before her mind could process her actions.

“This matter doesn’t concern you, outsider,” Rhys snarled, stepping between Ilexa and Malkia with the blade still in his hand.

“I can save his arm,” she insisted. She shoved him out of her way, not breaking stride, desperation lending her strength. If the situation hadn’t been dire, she would have found the stunned expression on the man’s face as he fell on his ass hilarious. Instead, she stumbled, tripping to a stop and landing on her knees. She glared up at the Malkia. “I can save his arm and his life. He will still be a warrior.”

It was a bold claim, especially given that she hadn’t examined the patient. What’s more, this was not the type of injury that would normally receive her healing gift. The injury could be repaired with traditional medicine, surgery and physical therapy. Her old master would have her head if he ever learned of this. But it was a case of life or death, and Ilexa would bend the rules until they broke if it meant she could save the youth’s life.

Her eyes clashed with the glowing green gaze of the most revered woman of the Hakimu tribe. Something flickered in the depths of those green eyes. Something Ilexa couldn’t name, but hope flared in her chest. The Malkia didn’t want to end the young man’s life. Infusing her voice with as much confidence as possible, Ilexa repeated, “I can save him.”

“You swear your life on this?” the Malkia asked.

“No,” another voice shouted, enraged. A warrior with a wild, tawny mane of hair and eyes so brown they appeared black stormed towards Ilexa and the litter. “This outsider seeks to deny my son an honorable death. I won’t allow it.”

The wounded warrior’s father drew his sword, and Rhys, the warrior she’d knocked on his ass, took a defensive position before her. Great. Now she owed the man an apology. Assuming he managed to stop the enraged father from killing her—and his son.

“Hold, Gerund,” the Malkia’s voice rang with authority. “She has sworn her own life. Her honor is entwined with his. I will allow her to heal his arm. Should she fail, he will still have the choice of joining the ancestors.”

“But as a cripple, not a warrior,” Gerund spat.

“In that event, her spirit will answer to the fury and vengeance of our ancestors.” The Malkia turned her glowing gaze back to Ilexa. “You may heal his arm.”

Ilexa swallowed against the nerves dancing in her throat. In truth, she had no fear for herself. If the young man died, he’d take her with him. She felt the heavy weight of all the eyes in the hall. Even without looking, she sensed the disbelief, the doubt that she had the strength to save him—the fear for the young man whose life she held. She feared their disappointment more than her death.