Chapter 1

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"There's only one way out of this."

Bound to a post in the middle of the shed, the rancher tugged at the ropes chafing his wrists, twisting this way and that to try to slowly ease them apart. He kept his eyes on the doorway, the only way out of the shed he'd been tossed in, and started to pull harder. The blood oozed from the burn marks, getting it slippery enough for him ease one rope down just far enough to ease his finger through. But there was no going further and, with a groan, he settled back to wait.

Jacob Grul was an old rancher, had been on his lands since he'd first come over. He'd fought his way through land claims, water claims, and more troubles that after all these years he'd long since forgotten. This was nothing. He just needed a few minutes.

Only a few.

There had been worse moments in the past year alone.

Flicking his tongue to the side of his mouth, he licked at a trickle of blood before he pulled hard at his wrists. This time the strain of them felt closer to breaking this time and he ignored the warning ache in his fingers. There was a snap when the finger he had wedged between the ropes cracked and broke and he had to stifle down the urge to scream.

"Been through worse," he gasped, voice gruff and low with pain.

There was no budging the ropes, and now his hand was forced between the heavy straps.

His head bowed and he wiped his nose against his shoulder. He smelled the heavy odour of cattle manure, leather, and sweat mixed together, and could taste blood on his tongue. At this rate he knew he was lucky to be able to see the shadows crawling across the hardwood floor with his eyelids swollen to the size of crabapples.

Damn deals.

His ranch had been fine long before the Five Circles started encroaching on his property.

"Gods in Heaven," he muttered, "what I wouldn't give for a little bit of good old fashion gun fighting instead of this sneak attack."

He heard the low squeak of the door behind him opening, the slow fall of someone's stride moving over wood and dirt, and he leaned his head back. The smell of grease from fat burning soon overwhelmed the small space and he felt his stomach turn over hungrily. Judging by the way the sun had been passing through the tiny window to his left, he figured it had been two days since he'd been thrown in here.

"Dear Gods in Heaven, hatred be thy purpose," a soft voice murmured, sexless and mocking. The footsteps behind him did a strange pattern, like a dancer turning, and he tried harder to squirm his wrists free. But the broken finger was snagged, hooked just enough that he couldn't yank his hand away. "Thy thorn-ridden kingdom come... thy self-righteous will be done."

"Heretic," Jacob muttered, spitting out on the hardwood. A hand grabbed his long grey braid and yanked his head so far back that his neck cracked. Out of the corner of his bruised and bloody eye, he saw pale skin and curved lips. Hard to tell which one of them it was.

"Sweet talk me, darlin'. Makes this fun." The hand shoved forward and Jacob groaned when he bit into his tongue. The voice continued, "As Erstwhile's is Nowhere without Heaven's Despair."

This entire ranch reeks of heresy, Jacob thought, so shouldn't be surprised that this simpleton thinks it funny to mock faith.

"What, gonna kill me?" He spat out again, this time a great gob of snot and saliva out the side of his mouth. It only managed to hit his shoulder, dribbling down the dirty leather disgustingly.

"There's no need for that." The hand on his head trailed down into the spit on his shoulder and scooped up a hunk of it. Then it was smeared across his cheek, warm and gross, and he winced. "Boys did a number on you."

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