Copyright © 2010 R. F. Long
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
The Wolf’s Sisiter
Mina was dead. Mina Roh, her guardian, who had watched over her all her life. It left a hollow place inside her, a place she never imagined could be emptied so easily.
“Who are you?” Jeren asked.
“Shan,” he told her. “You can call me Shan.”
She shivered, sick with loss. “They were all dead? You’re certain? I travelled with a woman, a lady…”
“Your companion broke her neck, little one, when your carriage left the road.” Her eyes were unaccustomed to darkness, and it hid him from her. It would have been easy to start a fire, but he hadn’t done so. Why?
Oh, but what did it matter now? Mina was dead.
She pulled her arms closer around her chest. “She…she’s dead. You’re sure?” In her own voice she heard the desperation of a child.
“Yes,” he replied simply. “Had I left you there, you would have joined her. Men were coming to kill any survivors.”
Her body tensed. Maldrine’s men? Who else would dare? Suddenly she found herself eager to hear of vengeance. “Did you kill them? Are they dead?”
“No,” he said. “I took you and left. Thus, we are both alive. Anala thought I was a fool to get involved.” The timbre of his voice resonated through her, tainted with pain. That wasn’t a good sign, Jeren thought. It wasn’t good at all. He’d been wounded saving her. And yet, he hadn’t saved the others. Mina was dead. She shook aside her concern for his obvious pain as an irritant in the way of her anger.
“You should have killed them. You should have stayed like a man and fought.”
He wasn’t annoyed. He seemed more curious than anything else. “For what purpose? To defend a pile of corpses?”
“You’re young to speak of death in such a way. There’s no honour in fighting without reason. Why do they want you dead?”
Jeren retreated into herself, recoiling without moving. How could she tell him the truth? The best scenario would be that he would hold her hostage. River Holt would ruin itself in order to win back Lord Gilliad’s little sister. Gilliad wouldn’t even have to enforce the collection of the ransom.
“I…I’m Jeren…” she began slowly. When he gave no reaction, she drew in a wavering breath. If he didn’t recognise the name, there might be a chance. Although she’d always been taught not to lie, she now had no choice. But could she look into the shadows where he nestled and spin falsehoods to the man who had saved her? At least she didn’t have to look into his face, his eyes. That would be impossible. She hung her head and continued, “I’m servant to the Lady of River Holt, Lord Gilliad’s sister. She was with me, in the carriage…”
He surged forwards as if to leap to his feet, but then fell back, with a gasp of pain. His anger came out in his voice. “She looked nothing like him!”
Jeren shied back again. He moved so fast, even wounded, and his voice held such hatred. She nodded slowly, biting down on her lower lip. “You know Lord Gilliad?”
Of course he did. There could be no other explanation for that reaction.
The seed of madness had lurked within Gilliad all his life. Even as a boy, her brother had cared for nothing but his own pleasures, and everyone had quickly learned to deny him nothing. Except for Jeren and their father. Her father had recognised the trait and sought to curb it. He had failed, as she had failed.
But who would believe her if she told? The River Holters’ loyalty to the Scion of Jern was as much a part of them as their skin. Shan must have seen it firsthand to react in such a way.
“I know he’s a curse to the world,” said Shan, “as are all True Blood. The magic in their veins makes them serpent-born.”
Gods, was that what he thought of them? She closed her eyes, thinking of her gentle father and the way he had held her, spun her around until she was dizzy and laughing. The image shifted in her mind, to Gilliad watching her with jealous eyes, to Gilliad as he had become, his grip on her arms when he had turned her around to face Maldrine. How wrong was Shan, if of all her family, he only knew Gilliad?
Jeren’s voice cracked as she spoke, deadened with exhaustion, though she took care with her words. “He’s the Lord of River Holt now. His sister was to marry the Lord of Grey Holt’s nephew. But Gilliad became reluctant…recently his behaviour…” She struggled to find a polite way of saying Gilliad was spiralling towards madness. It was too hard to express that, even to one who clearly hated her brother. After all, she was a River Holter too.
“Small group for a wedding party, wasn’t it?” he asked. His voice sounded sharper, as if he sensed the further concealment within the lie. She glanced away, hiding her secrets. However he took her silence, she didn’t know, but he conceded, his voice gentling. “Jeren, I wasn’t lying when I said you should rest. In the morning, you can decide what to do.”
Shan retreated further into darkest part of the cave. Jeren closed her eyes and closed off the world outside. The last thing she wanted to do was dwell on her own situation, to think about Gilliad and Maldrine, or the deaths of her only friends. She hated lying to Shan, though she could not say why. Perhaps, if he knew her true identity…
No. Now was not the time to think on such things. Instead, she focused on Shan and, as she always did when distressed, she allowed the magical faculties she inherited from her father to surge to life, sensing him out, feeling what he felt.
Like a firefly in the darkness, Shan’s body filled with shimmering light. His emotions were laid clear to her. Unused to pain, or to bearing physical damage, he would endure it, but deep down, he was afraid. And that was also alien to him.
“You’re hurt.” She struggled to bring her abilities under tighter control. Opening her eyes, she could almost see him now. Sunrise started to filter in from the outside. She welcomed its arrival at last. She longed for a new day to put the horror of the last one behind her, for warmth and light to drown the shadows clinging to her heart. “Let me help, Shan. I studied with the Holt’s healers and helped them on a number of cases.”
“You’re a healer now?” He shuffled farther away from her.
“What are you so afraid of?” she persisted.
His voice came out harsh with false bravado. “I’m afraid of nothing, least of all you.”
“Then why hide?”
Sunlight crept through the cave mouth. Anala scrambled to her feet at their raised voices, her claws scratching at the bare stone. The owl cried out in alarm at the sudden movement. Light stretched across the floor, illuminating his finely crafted, well-worn boots of soft grey leather. She could see the dried blood caked on his calf and fresh blood staining the soft fabric around the arrow shaft. Its broken stub projected like a jagged tooth.
Jeren stilled as the sun revealed yet more of him. He wore a tunic of the same grey-white suede. Even his skin was pale. His fingers, long and elegant, curled helplessly at his side.
Jeren’s jaw fell open. A cry of alarm came stillborn to her lips as she looked on skin as fair as one snow-touched, the veins a tracery of blue, like lines in marble. His white-blonde hair was finely braided, each strand no thicker than a child’s bracelet. His silver eyes slanted beyond those of a human and his long lashes were the same white gold. Paler than an albino, as handsome as the images of her god, this Fair One warrior had saved her life. He was younger than Ha’ledren, broader in the shoulders, but just as pale and beautiful, heart-wrenchingly handsome—and just as unapproachable.
The image of what her brother had done to the captive warrior burst like wildfire in her brain—his ruined face, the snarl of his mouth, the monster behind just such an austere mask of perfection.
“Jeren,” Shan whispered. In his musical voice she could now hear more than pain, she could also detect the first hint of panic. “Jeren, remember they’re close…little one, please…”
She couldn’t help herself. His endearment was the final straw.
Her scream pierced the spell, and she burst from the cave, running as fast as her exhausted body would allow.
Suddenly men were running towards her. The primal part of her soared with relief before she recalled why she had been hiding.
They weren’t going to help her…
The Wolf’s Mate
As they crested the ridge Jeren drew in a sharp breath of wonder. The world spilled out beneath the mountain, not the lush green of the Holtlands she knew, or the snow plains in their endless grey and white. Not quite farmland, not quite wild, the pastures below were speckled with wildflowers, little dots of swaying colour, and the forests were knots of trees, rich tangles of shadows.
“This is what you meant,” she said, unable to tear her eyes off the vision below, “when you described your home? It’s beautiful, Shan. I had no idea.”
The warrior drew level with her, a towering presence, her only comfort. He entwined her fingers in his pale hand, the strength of his touch pouring into her. “Yes. This is Sheninglas. You’re standing on the very mountain raised over the site where the gods battled in the dawning time. Our haven.”
“Ours?” she asked. “Or your people’s?”
Shan smiled, squeezed her hand affectionately. “Hopefully both.”
He didn’t sound terribly convinced. As he led her down the narrow path over the high pass, he kept checking behind and ahead. Not for an ambush or pursuit. No one followed them, of that she was certain for Shan had allowed a relaxed place on their journey north. He had made every effort to help her to recover, to make sure she did not rupture the barely healed wound in her side. No, Shan wasn’t checking for assassins. Checking was habit, and every time he did it, she saw the shadow of pain in his eyes, of loss. Anala the wolf would never come running after them again.
Though weeks had passed, Shan never stopped hoping for the she-wolf’s return, her appearance. Anala was so familiar to him, such an expected sight on his journeys. She was a part of him, part of his heart, his totem animal and his beloved companion. And she was gone, killed by the same man who had wounded Jeren when they escaped from her brother. The same man the ghost of the wolf had in turn killed.
Overhead a cry broke the silence, piercing. A snowy owl swooped low, a flurry of white and dapple grey wings, breaking Jeren out of her thoughts. Her own totem animal.
“You should name her,” said Shan. “It’s only fair.”
“I don’t know what to call her.”
He shrugged. “Her name will come to you eventually. When she decides to tell you.”
“Then I wouldn’t really be naming her, would I?”
He laughed, a deep infectious laugh that rippled through her body and made her heart join in. “Always quick with an answer, little one. Come, it’s less than a day’s walk to the Spring Camp. We should be there by nightfall.”
Somewhere inside her the laugh failed. His sect’s camp had been their chosen destination ever since their escape. But they had no guarantee that his people would accept her. Given her birth, her heritage, her innate magic, it was unlikely in the extreme.
But where else could they go?
Jeren swallowed hard and fell into step beside him. Was it her imagination or did he hold her hand a little more tightly?
As the sun dipped lower in the western sky and the long shadows swallowed up the hollows in the land, so Shan’s mood grew darker, as sombre as the silent landscape.
“There are no birds,” Jeren remarked as they made their way through the edge of an area of woodland. Everything around them lay still and calm. Even the air was silent.
“Something is wrong. We should have found them by now.”
“Found them? You don’t know where they are?”
He let out a breath in a long hiss. “The Spring Camp moves while on patrol, Jeren. That is the nature of the Fey’na world. But there is a traditional route and that does not vary unless something has happened to change it.”
He scrubbed his hand against his scalp through the fine braids of his white blond hair, scanning the deep shadows of the woods and the distant landscape beyond. His sight far exceeded her own, as did his hearing. She waited calmly, hoping his news would be better.
“We should make our own camp tonight,” he told her at last. “We’ll see what morning brings.”
She should have felt disappointed. The Bright Lord knew she could hear it in Shan’s voice, but if she was honest, all she felt was a sense of relief. It was a reprieve. As soon as they found the Fey’na warriors, the explanations would have to begin and she would be forced to lay bare before Shan’s people who and what she was.
That was the moment she
A noise in the night woke her. Only cold air met her when she rolled over. There was no sign of Shan, just a faint outline in the furs and blankets where he had lain. Beyond the shelter of the tent, the fire had dwindled away to a dull red glow and the chill in the night made her shiver.
There was no answer. Her side ached as she sat up, reminding her to move slowly and with care lest the wound rip open again. Twice now she had done that and Shan had drilled into her the need to protect it.
“Shan?” she tried again.
A hand touched her shoulder, a cold hand like that of a corpse. Jeren turned with a cry and found herself looking into the face of Mirrow, the handsome young guard who had once been her friend and companion, who had died before she met Shan.
Terror killed the words in her tight throat. Mirrow raised a finger to his lips. “Shh…” His icy breath struck her face and her body stiffened in alarm. She stared at him.
It was him, in every detail. His thick brown hair, the little scar on his chin and the lopsided grin. She had found it endearing, a little rakish. Once, before she met Shan and truly knew the emotion, she had thought she might love Mirrow. A childish infatuation. She knew that now.
“You’re dead,” she told him in a tiny voice, though whether to remind herself or impart the truth to him, she couldn’t say.
His eyes glittered darkly. Not the coppery warmth she remembered but endless black, two windows on the void.
Jeren’s mouth opened but no sound came out. She heard thunder, fierce and loud, and only after a moment did she realise it was her own heart.
“Kiss me,” said Mirrow, leaning closer. “You always wanted to kiss me. It wasn’t fitting though. That’s over now. Kiss me.”
She jerked back, but his arms closed about her like iron, his touch so cold it drained what little warmth she had left. She needed help. She needed Shan.
“Ah,” came the sigh of realisation, of understanding. It flowed around her, chilled her. “Not this face. Not anymore. How fickle you mortals are. Something else then, something more like this.”
Transfixed, she watched Mirrow’s features flow and change, colour draining away, his close-cropped hair growing and twisting itself into braids. Tiny braids of silver-white.
Now Shan was holding her.
Jeren gazed into his eyes. The sorrow was gone. For the first time since she had known him there was no trace of pain. No shadow of the past. No scars left by her brother’s blight on his life. Dazed and confused, she struggled to focus. Her mind dragged its way sluggishly to accommodate this change. Had she been dreaming?
“Whatever were you thinking?” he asked.
“Shh…” He brushed his long fingers down the line of her jaw and her skin shivered beneath his touch. Her lips parted in a gasp of surprise as the tip of his forefinger played across her bottom lip.
In the back of her mind, some instinct struggled wildly. This was wrong. Shan’s smile never looked so hungry, quite so ravenous as this. If anything, this smile reminded her of her brother Gilliad, and her subconscious mind rebelled to see it on Shan’s handsome face.
Then he kissed her.
Shan’s hand closed on the back of her neck, tangling her hair in his fingers so she was trapped. In his strong grip she couldn’t help but let him have his way. And this kiss was far more than his chaste and respectful kisses. Even they stirred every sense she possessed. This time he sent her desire out of all control.
She clawed at his shoulders, hungry for him, desperate despite her discomfort or fear. It wasn’t right. She knew that. Her heart hammered against her ribs as all the time he held her in check, pushing her relentlessly back down onto the soft furs. This was wrong. Shan wouldn’t act this way. His honour was everything to him. And his honour would not allow him to do this to her, not without vows exchanged, a handfasting at the least. But this new, dark-eyed Shan was different. His mouth consumed hers, his kisses tearing away some vital part of her pitiful resistance.
Jeren opened her terrified eyes wide as the first jerk of energy within her snatched away her remaining breath. Now his lips devoured not just her own, but her very life force, tearing her soul and her very essence out with his kiss. Her body sagged, helpless under the enchantment, and her consciousness flickered like a candle in a gale. This wasn’t Shan. Couldn’t be Shan. But then, where was he?
The light in her gutted once more and went out.
The sight of the grey wolf drew Shan through the night. Fluid and beautiful, she crossed the snow without leaving a trail. As she looked back, her glance beckoned him on. It was almost too late when he realised his mistake. Anala would never deliberately draw him away from Jeren. The wolf’s ghost had brought them back together, had helped them to escape.
Dismissing it as another animal, albeit one almost as beautiful as his former companion, he turned his back. As he did so an alien movement caught the corner of his eye and the wolf was gone. Dull dread beat hollowly inside him as he looked instead to find a woman standing in the snow. Her eyes glistened, completely black without iris or white, and her long hair trailed behind her, as black as the smoke of a funeral pyre. Beneath the wolf skin draped around her shoulders she was naked, her pale skin both a lure and a warning.
“What are you?” he asked on a hitched breath.
She smiled, her lips parting to reveal sharp canines. “Am I not your desire? Both woman and wolf?”
Shan frowned and curved his left hand on the hilt of his sect knife, the right one against his sword. Both weapons felt cold, but wholly real. The only real thing about the scene before him. He acknowledged it to himself, swallowing hard on the lump in his throat. “You are not Anala’s ghost.”
“No.” She stepped closer and her features shifted subtly, her hair paling and rearranging itself in a thousand slender braids. Now his sister stood before him and yet he knew it was not, if only by the deviant gleam in her unnaturally black eyes. It could not be her, for Fa’linar would never look at her own brother in that way.
Shan slid the sect knife free. It formed a comfortable weight in his hands, his anchor in reality.
The woman’s gaze darted down to it for the briefest moment and when they returned to his face, her features had changed again. Her hair was brown, the deep glossy chestnut of Jeren’s hair. She flinched back from him.
“Shan? What’s wrong?” Her voice rang out in the night air—definitely her voice, every nuance correct. “Don’t you know me?” She reached out with trembling hands. But her eyes were still wrong. So desperately wrong.
Shan shook his head, trying to clear the image, but it remained before him, the human girl he loved, scared of his sudden aggression. Her face paled and she bit on her lower lip, as she always did when unsure.
He almost dropped both knife and sword. His eyes lingered on her face, then dropped down her nubile length. The perfect curve of her side. Without even the trace of a wound. Not even a scar. Flawless.
She stood no more than two feet away from him when he slashed out with the blade of his sect knife.
With speed and dexterity far beyond any mortal, she twisted aside and all her pretence fell away.
“You’re not my Jeren!” He kept the knife between them, and fear clawed at the back of his throat, though he used everything in his power to push it down.
The creature laughed, her illusions tumbling to the snow like the spring thaw.
“No. And soon your Jeren will be our Jeren and you, Shan’ith Al-Fallion, will be mine.”
“Never.” The word was a low growl. “You’re Fell’na. You’re everything my people despise.”
She turned away, her body twisting to smoke and shadows, but her voice lingered on the breeze like a taint. “So is she.”
Shan sprinted back to the camp, the knife heavy in his hands, the sword dragging at his arm with every step. He tore over rocks and through deep snow, reckless in his haste.
The dark form of a Fell’na cradled her, leaned over her mouth like a lover. But instead of kisses, it stole her life itself. Jeren’s arms hung limp at her side, her eyes stared vacantly at the skies overhead, and a thin covering of frost glistened on her perfect skin and twisted through the strands of her chestnut hair.
“No! Jeren!” Shan tore the creature off her and held it so it could not dissolve into mists and shadows. His knife flashed moonlight for the second before it bit into the darkness. The Fell’na cried out in a tongue close enough to his own that he recognised a curse. Then it sagged in his grip, nothing more than deadweight. He dropped it and pulled Jeren from the ground, gathering her in arms that suddenly felt weak, helpless.
Her body hung from his grip, so cold, dangerously cold, and her heart fluttered like that of a wounded bird.
“Curse it, Jeren,” he whispered, trying to rub some warmth back into her body. “Can I not leave you alone for a moment?” The feeble attempt at humour to rouse her fell sickeningly flat. He kissed her unresponsive lips and his heart plummeted when she remained still and cold as stone.
“She’s ours now,” a teasing voice carried on the breeze and he jerked his head up to meet the threat.
“No. I’ll keep her from you, Enchassa, Sorceress, Witch!” He rubbed Jeren’s arms furiously, trying to will her stolen life force back into her while the Fell’na Enchassa laughed.
“If you had the fire of the desire you claim to hold for her, that might do you some good. But it isn’t proper is it, Shan? You can’t save a lover with your love alone unless she’s your wife. That would shame you. And so would mating with a creature like that.”
“You won’t touch her.” He slashed towards the figure as it coalesced from the darkness. But her smile didn’t fade, no more than she did.
Beautiful as night, her skin like water under a moonless sky, iridescent waves of hair tumbling down her back, she moved towards him, each step more bewitching.
“She’ll be our thrall. Her magic ours to use. And so will you.” She laughed, the noise ripping through the air to caress his skin, setting the sensitive hairs vibrating with alarm and unwilling desire. “Ah yes, you can feel it too, Shan. Part of you even wants it. Come with me now and spare your people.”
“My…my people…” A fog drifted over his mind, the Enchassa’s power falling over him. He knew it even as he failed to shake it off.
“She’ll bring ruin to you all.” A fingertip slid down the length of his arm, leaving ice and terror in its wake. “This I prophecy. And though you think you love each other now, that will never endure. She lives for but a moment next to us. She is a brief light and at best you’ll spend countless years in mourning once she is gone. Her home will draw her back and I see only blood there, blood spilling all around, blood covering her, drowning her. And the blood of the Fey’na will stain the ground. Your blood, your people’s blood billowing through the pools beneath the Vision Rock. And all drawn because of a sword, a sword like a grasping hand reaching out from River Holt.”
The Enchassa’s grip closed around his throat. “Let’s end this, you and I,” she whispered, her breath like the first warning of a snowstorm.
“Don’t forget me,” Jeren hissed, her voice brittle from beneath them. She seized Shan’s hand and thrust the knife he was still holding right at the Enchassa’s heart. With a howl of rage the Fell’na threw herself back, turning to avoid it, and the blade sliced along her forearm, trailing a smear of tarry blood behind it.
In a flurry of snow and shadows, she was gone.
Breathing hard, Shan let the cold wash through him, out of him. Jeren was a limp bundle in his arms, too light, too chilled to be safe there. He sucked in another breath, held it, let it go. Too close. That had been far too close. Fool that he was, he had let the Enchassa touch him, had fallen beneath her spell like a child. Only Jeren had saved them. Everyone underestimated her.
Sometimes even himself.