When he found me I was near death, bleeding out in the dark of an alley with my face turned to the sky. Snowflakes fluttered around me, ghosting over my skin, peppering my tearstained cheeks with cold kisses. When he spoke I thought I was dreaming. When he spoke I thought he was death come for me at last and I didn’t open my eyes or in any way acknowledge that I’d been addressed.
It was all so terribly strange, the situation in which I had found myself, robes once white stained with red that grew darker and darker still. I had long accepted that everything I knew about the life I had led was wrong, had all been a lie told to keep me on their side, and the very second they had suspected I might be thinking differently…
My breathing had been shallow and I was slumped against the wall, one hand resting on the worst of the wounds weakly. When it had happened, so quickly and so surprisingly, I had fought back and escaped, clutching tightly to my side in a feeble attempt to stem the blood flow and to keep myself alive. The night had dragged on and no one had shown any sign of wanting to help me; it had grown so much colder and my hands grew red and shaky until, inevitably, I had been unable to go on.
His hands were warm on my pale cheeks, his arms strong as he lifted my cold and tired body from the snowy ground. I was aware enough to hear him tell me I was safe but I was too weak to tell him that it didn’t matter – I would never be safe, not until I was dead.
I drifted in and out of consciousness for the next week or so, aware only of loud voices by my bedside and in the hallway neighbouring my room. Even in the state I was in I could tell I was the cause of the disagreements and when eventually I woke, I was surprised I had at all.
A fire burned bright and hot in the hearth, warming the extravagant room in which I had found myself, and when I slowly pushed aside the thick covers I felt suffocated under, it was to see my wounds cleaned and dressed and my bloodied assassin robes disposed of.
My weapons were nowhere to be seen, though I supposed I hardly had need of them now anyway, as useless as they were when I had been stabbed in the back by those I had called ‘brother’ and ‘sister.’
Sitting up was a chore, so careful I was not to strain myself, and while I had been mercifully alone upon opening my eyes, I was quick to keep hold of my emotions when the door swung open and I came face to face with my rescuer.
Though seeing him there, dressed in black and red, heavily armed and scarred, I thought he was not so much my rescuer as executioner.
Perhaps that was why he helped me, I considered, clutching tight to the covers and readying myself for the worst. To give himself the satisfaction of the final blow.
I had heard stories of Shay Cormac, after all, Assassin turned Templar, who took delight in seeing my brethren suffer. He wanted us wiped from the Colonies and from existence itself and while once he might have agreed with the principles of the Brotherhood, now I was sure there was nothing I could say to convince him to spare me should I have need to try.
“Assassins and Templars are born enemies,” Yves had told me once, back when I was naïve and new, and I hadn’t felt the need to press my elders – and betters Yves always loved to remind me. “This fight will be everlasting. So long as there are Templars, there will always be Assassins ready to stop them.”
The idea of a never-ending fight was far from appealing and while I had been young, young and prone to believing the nonsense I was fed, I think a part of me knew even then that there was something very wrong with the ideals and plans of those I followed. The Brotherhood and my mentors has strayed from the teachings set before us by others that came before, the teachings of Ezio Auditore and Altaïr Ibn-La’Ahad.
Discussing this openly as I had somehow made me seem a traitor and my reward for open thinking, for open consideration with those I used to care for, had been knives in the dark and in my back.
“How d’you feel?” asked the traitor Shay Cormac but calling him such seemed silly, I think in hindsight, because the assassins now believed me to be the same when my only crime had been free-thought.
I shrugged wordlessly in answer, expecting a knife in my throat if I opened my mouth to speak. In truth, I felt well, better than I had been when last I was conscious and I was sure that was what he was waiting for. The second I told him I was healthy once more would be the very second Cormac would finish what the assassins started.
I think he knew what I was thinking for he didn’t press me to say anything else. He nodded kindly, in a way all too unfamiliar to me, unlike the stories I had heard about the cold hearted killer.
“I’ll have some soup brought up,” he told me, his voice and words soft beneath the gentle lilting Irish accent. “You’ll be hungry, I imagine.”
He sat with me as I ate, a silent guardian I almost wanted to think, and while the soup was delicious – and un-poisoned, Cormac was quick to assure – I was still alert and waiting for any sign of death approaching.
Instead, he drew his chair near – but not so near as to startle me – and fixed me with a patient and gentle stare.
“I know this might be difficult,” he told me, “but I need to know what happened to you.”
I knew he wasn’t unaware of my prior allegiances and I gathered he had put the pieces together himself; my acceptance of death and bloodied robes, the crest I had ripped from my sash and launched across the alley before I’d slumped to the snowy ground.
I had to clear my throat twice before I could speak. “I was betrayed.” I swallowed and turned away, unable to concentrate with his dark eyes intently watching me. “They left me to die.”
“I’m sorry,” he said sincerely but my frustration had reached its peak.
“No you’re not,” I retorted sharply and my hands clenched the covers tightly. “Why would you be? Just one more assassin you don’t have to worry about.”
“That’s irrelevant,” said the Templar. “No one should have to suffer being betrayed by those they trust most.”
He spoke like a man with experience - of which I knew he was. The story of Shay Cormac was one largely spread around the Homestead, morphed and disfigured and transformed into a horror whispered behind hands and out of earshot of the mentors. Cormac had become a story to scare the younger initiates with; if you don’t learn and learn fast, the Hunter will take you away. Nightmares were frequent among the younger ones but sitting as closely as I was to the infamous Hunter himself, I felt that there was much the mentors had not told of us of his story.
He seemed only sad when I looked at him and his words to me had come from a place of pain and experience.
I chose my words carefully. “You seem to know how that feels.”
“I think you know that I do,” he said in a low voice. He scooped up the empty bowl on the nightstand and left the room without another word.
I saw much of him as I recovered, as eager as he was to see me returned to full health.
I couldn’t be sure what about me had encouraged the Hunter’s interest and care but so long as he wasn’t holding a blade to my throat, I was willing to overlook it. He often sat by my bed as I ate and checked my wounds as I drifted off to sleep. I couldn’t forgive him for his allegiance to the Templars but as time went on, I found he was the least of my problems.
We were similar, after all, our circumstances so familiar it hurt me to think about it.
I was an assassin once and so was he, both of us betrayed for trying to do the right thing. I now had my own choice to make, my own path to pave, but I wasn’t confident that I could make the same choice he did.
I’m not sure if it was my own feelings on the matter – perhaps I was feeling depressed and unconcerned with what he and his Templar allies might choose to do with me – but I found myself allowing Cormac to encourage me to join him on walks around his large manor. It was quite a magnificent place, upon the waterside where his beautiful ship the Morrigan was docked. I had only ever seen vessels like the Gerfaut and the Mentor Adéwalé’s, both splendid ships of large size and power but I had heard stories of Cormac’s ship and found that, like her captain, I should not underestimate her.
“Perhaps one day I’ll take you out on her,” Cormac told me as he led me down the docks towards where the Morrigan was anchored, “show you for yourself how truly remarkable she is.”
He sounded like a man in love. I told him so.
He barked a laugh. “Aye,” he said agreeably. “I suppose I am.”
The pace he set was slow, far more careful than he needed to be with my wounds that were healing quicker than I expected or anticipated. I began to fear that they would heal too quickly and Cormac would throw me from his welcoming and warm home and to the streets where he found me. I began to fear he would leave me alone again. I began to fear that he would feed me to the wolves and leave me to die.
I couldn’t quite tell where my fears had stemmed from or when my reluctance to leave the Hunter had started to become so prevalent. I saw him every day, chatted and walked with him every day, and I suppose looking back that it was inevitable I would grow close to him.
I hesitated to ever say I trusted him, part of me still so sure that the very second I did would see me dead and bleeding out on the polished floors of the manor.
(I found out later that the manor, as I kept referring to it then, was actually called Fort Arsenal. The name rang bells with me for all the wrong reasons; it was once an Assassin stronghold, the name of which was familiar only because many of my friends had died when it was claimed by the Hunter. I refused to allow myself time to dwell on this.)
Cormac led me to a bench in the gardens of the fort and allowed me a moment of unnecessary rest, my hand still tucked in the crook of his elbow – placed there by the Hunter himself when we left my room – but my attention was drawn to the flowers in bloom around me and the fountains trickling water that sparkled and caught the sunlight. It was a glorious day in the beginning weeks of spring, so different from the couple of months before when I had been found bleeding out in the snow.
“Are you ready yet?” Cormac asked me gently, when I turned my head and found his eyes fixed on my own. “To tell me what happened.”
I answered honestly. “No.”
He asked me again three weeks later, after my wounds had healed up some and I was feeling strong enough to walk around Fort Arsenal on my own. He sought me out after returning from town, blood still on the pommel of the sword hanging at his hip and anger still burning in his eyes, and when I had stopped referring to him as simply ‘Cormac’ I couldn’t tell.
“Shay,” I greeted him cautiously, worriedly, my eyes roving over him quickly and with concern. I was on my feet and reaching for him before I realised what I was doing. “What happened?”
“You’re being hunted,” he told me bluntly and without pause, clasping my hands tight in his own and leading me indoors.
He didn’t stop moving until we were safely locked inside his study and the dark curtains had been drawn, plunging us into near darkness. I could see him moving swiftly, lighting candles all around the room, and when he finally stopped I saw he was breathing heavily, bent tiredly over his large desk with his back to me.
My fingers had just brushed the cool leather of his shoulder, the design of the Templar cross there so very familiar to me now, when he twisted to look at me, his expression haggard.
“I need you to tell me what happened.”
I told him all of it, from my worries of the direction the mentors were taking us to my expression of these doubts and, finally, to the knife in the dark are the betrayal that left me for dead in the snow. He listened with rapt attention, searching my face and seeing my trepidation, and he reached for my hand, gripping it tight in his own. Only then did I realise I was shaking.
“They want to finish the job,” I said aloud, breaking the silence because he wouldn’t.
He nodded curtly, darkly, and answered, “Aye.”
My throat burned as I fought tears and I all I could say was, “Shay,” quietly and hopelessly, waiting for his words of comfort, waiting for what I had come to depend upon in my months here. I needed his strength now even though I had tried to scorn it in the beginning. I needed him to help me despite how much I had hated him for it when I was trapped in that bed.
He swept me into his embrace and I clutched him tightly, my fists clenched in the leather at his back while I buried my face in his neck. The terror I felt was far more real than I wished it to be but the smooth leather and the smell of gunpowder was grounding, and exactly what I needed.
“I’ll kill them all,” he said surely, “every last one of them. None of them will get to you while I yet draw breath.”
Something about the surety in his words, the remark said so tonelessly, broke something inside me and my cheeks flushed as heat pooled in my stomach; desire, I realised breathlessly, desire for Shay. I had never felt anything like this for him in the time I had been at Fort Arsenal and its appearance was surprising while at the same time not at all.
I had no doubt that Shay would kill them all before they could lay even a finger on me.
He wanted me out of harm’s way regardless and the next afternoon we had boarded the Morrigan and were set on our way to Boston.
Shay wouldn’t tell me what was in Boston for a long time, not until we were only days away and alone in the dimming light of his cabin. He trusted his crew with his life but not with mine, he told me, and had bid me pleadingly to stay in his cabin with him for the duration of the journey. The glow of the candles provided me with a different side to the Hunter than what I’d become used to, a side I’d glimpsed only for a brief second in his study in Fort Arsenal.
I could clearly see the Hunter in him here, the darkness that surrounded him seemed a weight he bore heavily on his shoulders. I had not broached the subject of his betrayal of the Assassins, not in the same way he had asked me to reveal the circumstances behind my own deflection.
(Although, I reflect now, I hadn’t ever truly deflected from my brethren so much as survived and paved my own path.)
“What’s in Boston?” I braved asking him as he lay beside me in the bed. “Why will we be safe there?”
Shay took my hand and, while his thumb traced circles on my skin, I ruminated on our situation; the two of us alone in his cabin, sharing the same bed, and while I knew Shay would never do anything to harm me – not after everything he went through and was still going through to ensure my recovery and survival – I couldn’t help but consider what we must’ve looked like to anyone else. I found myself grateful there were no women on board – I wasn’t sure I could listen to the gossip and whispers behind hands without hitting someone.
The mutters that I was Captain Cormac’s whore were far easier to deal with, especially when I could not deny my desire for the man any longer.
“You will be safe there,” Shay told me, and he drew my hand to his lips, pressing a chaste kiss to my palm. “I am going to hunt.”
I couldn’t quite pin the exact moment our relationship had grown to this, to Shay caring enough to whisk me away from the safety of Fort Arsenal and to whatever was in Boston. I hadn’t wanted to leave New York and I had fought and argued ardently with Shay against removing ourselves from Fort Arsenal when we both knew it was near impenetrable.
He had bitten back words he had seemed desperate to say and instead had coldly informed me I was still his prisoner and therefore inclined to do as I was told.
Huffing for days had done nothing but bring me grief and loneliness, especially when sharing the same room as the man who had appeared so kind and gentle to me while still being capable of being so irate and frosty in the next breath. Conversation from me had been icy at best in the beginning as I tried to bring myself back into his favour enough to stave off my grief.
And now here we were, lounging side by side on his bed in his cabin, with Shay pressing kisses to my wrist and upwards towards the crook of my elbow.
“How long will this hunt take?” I asked. I had to fight to keep my voice steady as he rose to his elbow, peering down at me curiously as his thumb returned to its earlier administrations. “Will you be gone long?”
“Not too long, I should think,” he told me. “You’ll be safe in Boston.”
I still wasn’t convinced. “What’s in Boston?”
I watched him closely, watched him lower his eyes from my face and fix them instead on our intertwined hands. His Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed nervously.
Finally, he said, “The Templar Order.”
My world seemed to have fallen out from under me. I ripped my hand from his and stumbled to my feet, feeling light-headed and nauseous, and I didn’t realise how close I had come to fainting until Shay reached my side and steadied me. I threw myself backwards from him as quickly as I was able, shaking my head and close to tears, and I couldn’t understand why he would betray me so.
I thought we were close, certainly closer than we had been when he rescued me so long ago, and the very idea that I was being led to my death by a man I trusted was inconceivable. What had I done to warrant this change of mind? He told me I would be protected yet here he was leading me straight into the wolves’ den.
“Now, I know what you’re thinking,” Shay said, reaching imploringly for me. I danced out of reach, tears stinging at eyes as hot as the betrayal I felt burning through me.
“Do you?” I demanded, swatting away his hands again. “Do you?”
He grasped my hands before I could smack his away again and pulled me close to him, gentle but insistent, taking hold of my chin to encourage me to meet his eyes.
He said, “You think I’m leading you to your death, don’t you?” My silence was all the answer he needed. He continued, “Christ, is that what you think of me, after all this?”
Shame burned hot on my cheeks but my mentor’s words were prevalent; he is a Hunter. He has killed dozens of our own.
I had spared no thought to the idea I might be an exception to this.
“I’m sorry,” I mumbled and I offered no excuse, regardless of how fearful I felt.
Shay swept me into his embrace again, his hand stroking my hair soothingly while he whispered nonsense in my ear, stilling the nervous shakes that had started once more. I reached for his free hand and gripped it tight in my own, searching for and receiving freely the comfort from before.
Shay led me back to bed and we settled on it once more. Everything was different now; now we lay facing each other, one of my hands gripping his while the other traced patterns willy-nilly on the collar of his shirt. He’d removed his jackets and weapons in the cabin and his boots lay abandoned at the foot of the bed.
I barely made a move when his fingers traced the length of my collarbone, the callouses upon his skin rough against my flesh as he brushed aside the fabric of my shirt. My fingers danced a jig on his collar while his warm breath fanned across my lips. I knew what he wanted without having to shift my gaze to his and I gave it willingly.
He breathed my name in between kisses and I was struck quite suddenly by the idea that perhaps he ached for me as agonisingly as I did him. His hands started to work on unbuttoning my shirt while my fingers fumbled with the buckle of his belt. A nervous churning started in my gut; I’d had a few dalliances before, whenever I’d been able to find someone I trusted, but they’d been few and far between.
He caught my lips in his own again, tugging gently as he drew back, and his hands hovered over my shoulders, shaking with the effort to wait for my consent. I understood then if I chose to, if I said the words, as difficult as Shay would find it, he would leave me be. Perhaps it was then I decided I loved him more than any other man I had ever known.
I shrugged out of my shirt, drawing my hands through the sleeves and tossing it aside, baring all to him. My nipples hardened as the suddenly cool air in the cabin caressed my skin and I heard Shay inhale shakily as the pads of his fingers ghosted along my ribs. My fingers reached now for his shirt, wishing to see him as I’d never known, wishing to see his scars bared to me like mine were now to him.
As I pushed his shirt from his shoulders, his forefinger traced the line of risen and pink flesh; the wound that had almost killed me. His brows furrowed into a troubled frown that had no place in the coupling we were about to undertake and I lifted my hand to brush along it, trying in vain to smooth out the creases that drew his thoughts to darker places.
“You saved me,” I murmured, pressing forward until we were close enough to share breaths. “I’m here because of you.”
My eyes were drawn to the wound over his heart, whitened flesh from a bullet wound I’d heard stories about – a bullet shot at him from the back that travelled straight through. The shock of the wound had condemned him to the icy sea and forced the Assassins for a time to believe that he was dead. Perhaps if Chevalier’s aim had been true, that would be the case. If Chevalier’s aim had been true, I would be dead with him.
Shay’s fingers traced over other scars, older and newer, white and fresh pink, and he removed his hands only to tug himself free of the shirt I was insistently pushing from his body. In the low light of the cabin, his hard toned and well-muscled chest was revealed to me, littered with scars both large and small, narrow and wide, and as I felt myself growing wetter at the side of him, I hastily started to rid myself of my breeches.
Shay’s hot mouth attached itself to my breasts, suckling and nipping as I soundlessly moaned. The fabric of his breeches was rough on my thighs, the leather of his belt smooth against my navel, and when he pushed me gently back to lie on the bed, I went easily.
I yearned for him, more ardently than anything else in my life. When his fingers found me, sliding into my wet folds as easily as though they belonged there, my breath caught in my throat and I could do nothing more than gasp noiselessly. I reached for him, wrapping my arms around his neck and drawing him to me, kissing every inch of skin I could find; his neck, his jaw, his brow, his nose, his lips, over and over in a vain attempt to distract from the heat pooling in my belly. His thumb danced over my clit while his fingers slid achingly slowly inside of me. Our breaths mingled as I gasped against his lips, begging wordlessly and knowing that any words I attempted to say would be babbled nonsense.
He unlaced his breeches, agonisingly slowly I found, though if it was his intention to toy with me or completely accidental, I never found out, and revealed himself, long and hard, and I grew wetter at the sight of him. I wanted nothing more than to have him inside me, nothing more than for the connection I felt between us to grow ever stronger with this act, but he hesitated, his eyes trained on my scars and unable to look at my face.
“Shay?” I questioned uneasily, my arousal taking a back seat for a moment as his dark eyes finally lifted to fix on my face. They darted often to my lips and more often still to my breasts, rising and falling as I panted and struggled to catch my breath.
It seemed an eternity had passed before he spoke. “Are you sure?”
I felt relief wash over me like a tidal wave, as awful as it sounds for me to admit it, but I had started to fear something was amiss. I had started to wonder if he was having second thoughts about our coupling, if there was something other than first time jitters at play, and it was relieving to find Shay as human as any of the other men I had been with.
“I am,” I told him, my voice just shy of a whisper. I pressed a kiss to the corner of his mouth. “I trust you.”
I couldn’t think of anything else then; I could think of nothing but Shay’s hands travelling down my ribs, ghosting over the goose pimpled flesh and coming to rest on my hips, his length just millimetres away from entering me.
He did so slowly, ever aware of my comfort, and I felt as though there were a million fires burning inside me all at once, their flames licking at my skin from places I couldn’t reach. His tongue tangled with mine once more, sweat gathering on our skin as Shay started to move, setting a leisurely pace he could not keep for long. I wondered in hindsight if he had hoped to move slowly for my sake, to show me his care and affection and attention to my worries.
Instead, I did not mind that his pace quickened, his thrusts turning hard and fast as I clutched at his back, my fingernails raking along his skin. His mouth returned to my breasts, mouthing at the flesh and tonguing my nipples, and a strangled sound escaped my throat. His thumb rubbed circles over my clit and I could feel my release within reach, a tightly coiled spring in my gut as Shay worked me over.
His pace became urgent as my vision whited out and I saw stars as my mouth opened in a soundless scream. Shay hammered his hips into me, lifting his mouth from my breasts to my collarbone, to my neck, to my jaw, peppering me with kisses, nipping at the skin. He groaned into my skin as his thrusts slowed, emptying his seed into me, and I clutched him tighter, burrowing my face into his neck.
He pulled free of me and collapsed on the bed by my side. I had single alarming thought that he would catch his breath and leave me, that he would lace up his breeches and retrieve his shirt and returning to captaining his men. Our sweat cooled on our skin as his strong arms encircled my body and drew me close, pressing gentle kisses along my shoulder and towards the back of my neck. Relief flooded through me once more, a tidal wave of emotion that brought tears to my eyes.
I leaned into his touch, closing my eyes against his gentle kisses, and slept soundly with the Hunter I had once feared at my back.