Three months had passed since Nehemiah’s death, and yet I mourned the loss of my infant son as if he had rested in my arms only the night before, as calm as a sleeping angel. The pain that wrenched my heart the day of his death had never eased, and I wondered if it was due in part to the fact that I had refused attending his burial. It had been too much to ask of me at the time, too hard a consequence to bear. Perhaps because of this, I would never find the peace that accompanies rituals meant for closure.
I was beginning to seriously fear this was the case for me.
To add upon my misery, the detest I normally harbored for our village leader, Thaddeus, had somehow distorted into a strange, unrecognizable emotion that also caused me distress. The coward had failed to save my boy’s life, but he had snatched the still body from ravaging wolves before they could devour it—a selfless deed entirely uncharacteristic of the man whom for years I had grown accustomed to loathing. But now, because of this act of bravery on my behalf, I felt a stir of something not entirely repulsed when our eyes happened to meet. It made me queasy—the primary reason I had taken to avoiding him.
For the most part I spent my days in solitude, thinking, either curled up by a warm fireplace in my grandmother’s hut or nestled in a shadowed crook on the rooftop of our town hall where a crumbling chimney nearly met the bordering walls of Tarishe. Only a narrow alleyway below separated the two structures. There were things I felt needed clarification; things bothered me regarding the events that had occurred during last Hallows Eve. It went beyond pained emotions. I was troubled by details that didn’t entirely make sense—actions more puzzling than Thaddeus’ incomprehensible moment of decency.
Days of mourning had transitioned into weeks of mentally reliving portions of that hellish night, stewing over what I could recall even vaguely. Now weeks had turned into months of wrestling with a troubled mind, a troubled soul. I wasn’t sure. I knew something didn’t sit right, and the answers my grandmother offered failed to appease me. Not that I doubted my dear grandmother, but age had likely, conceivably, affected her memory. And anyway, she had not been present at the ambush—that moment when the werewolves had attacked me as a pack. I would never forget the pain I suffered when the teeth of that awful umber wolf dug into my ankle and he dragged me into the forest. He and his loyal demons had pinned me to the ground and caused me to dispel my silver sword into oblivion. They had held me defenseless.
So how in the world was I still alive?
“The good men of Tarishe went after you, Catherine,” my grandmother had said in answer to the question. “They found you alone and unconscious. It must have been the threat of an armed mob that chased those mongrels away. Lucky for you, dear.”
“Yes,” I had agreed. “Lucky for me.” But my head had communicated disagreement in a subtle sway back and forth. It just didn’t make sense. Those dogs were swift, large, able killers. Had we swapped places, I would have snapped the neck of my enemy before tearing away from a mob I recall being at least a minute detained. Even seconds would have sufficed, enough time to rid themselves of the sword bearer who meant to wipe them out of existence. Those wolves couldn’t possibly want me alive—it would be foolishness. So why was I still here, even now in possession of a werewolf-slaying blade?
I stood up next to a rock-and-mud chimney when voices carried over the wall. A returning hunting party was visible far below, just exiting the woods, having embarked for the third time this winter in search of meat. They had gone without me—without my enchanted sword. I had neither been in the mood to hunt nor acquired a decent appetite in months. But the wolves hardly ever bothered us aside from All Hallows Eve. Rarely did I glimpse a set of large, ochre eyes peering out of the darkness on any other day.
Lithe and noiseless as if on padded paws, I sprang from the rooftop and landed on a high walkway that encircled the inner side of our surrounding fortification. It was my intent to climb down and meet up with the returning hunters. At least I believed such was my intent. But after descending the attached ladder and finding myself concealed by a late afternoon shadow, I froze. As if the wall possessed a gravitational pull of its own, I shrunk against it, clinging to the wood as quietly as a ghost. Thaddeus failed to make his customary appearance where he normally took credit for the hard-earned spoils meant to sustain villagers in the upcoming weeks. This seemed odd, yet opportune. No one appeared to notice when I slipped between the open gates and tore off for the woods, turning to squat behind a tree—watching, waiting for a soul to follow.
It was a violation of the law for anyone to leave Tarishe without armed escorts. In all my hunting years, I had never traveled without company. Yet here I was, alone, hunkered against a tree trunk, staring at the high, shielding walls of my village as the gates creaked closed. The locking board made a pounding echo when driven into place from the inside.
My heart thrummed in my chest. What in the world was I doing? Refusing to consider any answer to the question, I rose from my crouch and turned toward a thick congestion of foliage….and stepped forward.
I didn’t allow a rationale to form in my mind for what instinct was leading me towards, but I was aware it was reckless. I was breaking laws! Disregarding my grandmother’s strict warnings! Putting my life in jeopardy, not to mention the lives of all who occupied our village if the sword at my side were to end up in the hands of werewolves! A gruesome image flashed through my mind of my fellow Tarishians lying lifeless and mangled; it caused my steps to falter. As I wobbled on the balls of my feet, hesitating for a brief moment, a shiver crawled like a spider up my spine and drove me forward again. I broke into a run as if attempting to escape the imagined spider, but it was sanity I was truly fleeing. Whatever it was I meant to do could be nothing short of sheer madness. But months of raking my brain over unresolved questions was driving me crazy, more so than risking an attempt at finding out the truth—a truth that eluded me inside sheltered walls.
I ran without a clear destination; however, my gait indicated confidence that some inner compass guided my blinded mind. I had no idea where to go, and yet I knew where it was my hurried steps raced to—a place I was certain they would find me. My breathing grew loud, not necessarily from the exertion of a steady sprint, but from anxiety swelling within my bosom. The smell of mosses thriving in the damp forest infiltrated my nostrils. Sunlight penetrating the woods stole in at my back, lighting my path effectively. I barely had time to dig my heels into the soil and stop myself from running into a tall figure when he appeared out of nowhere.
A man with golden-brown eyes stared at me, standing at an angle just feet away. He looked ready to move into a run, his weight slightly shifted in the same direction I had been traveling before my abrupt stop. When I failed to move, so did he. We gawked at one another, both wide-eyed and on guard.
I sized him up quickly—broad, athletic build; angular features; muscled legs; big, empty hands—ascertaining the threat he might pose. Thick strands of wild, dark hair reached in every direction around his face to just below a slackened jaw. His clothing was a simple wrap. He looked as surprised to have come across me as I was to have nearly trampled over him. A swarm of questions circulated in my head, fighting to reach my tongue, but the stranger spoke up first.
My eyebrows pinched, conveying confusion, but I answered him. “I come from home.” His mouth closed, a small move that made me feel he was unhappy with my answer. I quickly asked what I needed to know, what I was already certain of. His eyes seemed too familiar. “Are you a werewolf?”
After a long moment of hesitation, he answered with a nod, his gaze fixed on my reaction. I had none but the slightest palpitation of a rapid heartbeat. My hand moved instinctively to hover over the sword at my side.
“I’m no threat to you, Duvalla.”
Again, my eyebrows pinched. “I’m not Duvalla. My name is Catherine.”
“It is not,” he refused with a snarl. His brow furrowed in angry lines while his fingers curled into tight fists.
In response, I withdrew my sword from its sheath and with a quick inhale assumed a fighting stance. “I know who I am, werewolf.”
The man’s irritation dissolved as quickly as it had formed. His head lowered, and for the first time he broke eye contact with me. I felt something wrench sharply inside my chest, a stronger emotion than I was prepared to endure. For some unfathomable reason it felt like every portion of my being wished to run to this mongrel in human form—to console him—unable to do so only because my stubborn sanity kept both feet planted in the soil. I raised my sword like a shield, not as a threat to him but a warning for me to resist whatever wicked magic he was using to try to seduce me. He looked up sideways, his ochre eyes miserable. My heart nearly burst through my chest wanting him.
“No,” I breathed to myself.
“We would never harm you,” the man said softly. “I promise, you’re safer here with us than in that awful place you mistakenly call home.”
I didn’t fail to catch his use of the word “we” and turned about in one complete circle, scanning the surrounding trees for evidence of others. They made no attempt to hide themselves any longer and emerged from shadowed cover—a small pack of longhaired wolves. I brandished my silver blade, letting its bloodthirsty song ring through the air as a warning. My eyes stole a glance upward in search of a patch of sky and evidence of an early moon.
“But it’s not a full moon,” I noted.
“That’s a myth,” the man said, understanding my confusion. “We can take on either form at any time, although, it has never been wise to appear as a wolf in front of humans. Only under a full moon can we not keep a man’s appearance.”
It was a detail I hadn’t known, but one of no importance. I returned to my reason for entering the woods alone, determined to ask my questions before time ran out.
“You were there,” I said, “on Hallows Eve. You attacked me, bit my ankle and dragged me into the woods. Why—?”
He responded before I could finish. “To protect you.”
The nonsense of his claim made me stammer over the rest of my question. “But…no, no, why did you…I mean, why didn’t you kill me? Why let me live? I’m your sworn enemy wielding the power to destroy you, so why am I not dead?”
His face fell forlorn as if he had insight into the ending of my story, one that could only be labeled a tragedy. I was certain such was the case; I would most likely die here at the hands of the same monsters who had taken my offspring. But I would not go to the grave without first understanding this mystery. When moisture appeared to glisten in his eyes, the sight was excruciating to me, so I averted my gaze and stared at his legs—waiting.
“Duvalla,” he began.
My eyes flashed up resentfully.
“I will not call you by any other name,” he insisted.
Again, I dropped my gaze at the intensity of his look—a gesture he mistook for consent. I allowed it; it seemed a trivial thing.
“You are not who you think you are, Duvalla. You’ve been bewitched by a creature whose blood is infected with vengeance. This Catherine character you suppose yourself to be was created to torture you—to punish us. She doesn’t exist. You are not—”
I cut him off, refusing to deny my own existence. “I am the huntress, Catherine! Can you not see me standing before you, holding the same weapon I have possessed for years? I am Catherine, protector of Tarishe! Slayer of werewolves!”
I was certain that verbalizing the last title was a mistake, but a glance around found no dogs ready to test my words. A woman’s voice brought my attention forward again. I watched her appear from the woods in human form and step up gracefully to the man whose head hung low.
“If that were so, we would have killed you years ago.”
A fiery bolt of jealousy shot through my body as this gorgeous creature placed a gentle hand on the shoulder of her companion. They were a beautiful pair, both dark-haired with golden flecks in their eyes. My knuckles paled as all ten fingers clamped tighter around the hilt of my sword. It trembled in my grasp. This unexplatinable reaction was frightening to me, so I forced myself to exhale in a controlled attempt to dampen such strong emotion. Why should I care if she touched this man—this beast?
“She doesn’t understand,” the woman whispered, leaning in to her companion’s ear.
He whispered in return, so close to her face. “She never does. And I grow tired of explaining, repeating the same awful story.”
The woman combed her fingers through his dark tangle of hair, consoling him. “I know, I know.”
My nostrils flared. It was all I could do to keep myself from charging forward to cut her heart out. What cursed magic possessed me?
As if he understood my struggle, his ochre eyes turned to me, assurance swimming in their glistening stare. “She’s my sister, Duvalla. Don’t you remember? Sarti, my sister? Your friend?”
I repeated the name, finding no recollection attached to it, yet noting how the knowledge of their relationship as siblings seemed to squelch my insane jealousy. The whole thing vexed me.
“You….you killed my child!” I accused, determined to hate these creatures but draw answers from them nonetheless.
They straightened up instantly, denying my charge with adamancy. “No, no—!”
I would not hear them. “My son is dead and buried because of you! I saw him, his lifeless form bundled like a mummy…. just a baby!” I choked on a swell of tears at the poignant memory and struggled to keep my emotions dammed.
“You never saw your son dead,” the man insisted. He made an approaching move, and I backed away, maintaining the distance between us.
“I did!” I argued. “My grandmother saw him too. She was the one to place him in my arms. The hurt it must have caused her.”
“Then she lied to you. Everything she tells you is a wicked lie.”
I shook my head at his words.
“You’re being deceived, and I can prove it,” the man boldly announced. “Nehemiah is alive.” He turned to the one he called sister. “Go get the babe.”
The woman spun around without delay and raced off.
My feet moved forward, wanting to follow her, before reason forced them to a standstill. “You….you have my son?” I squeaked. Incredulity, outrage, confusion, and hope all hit at the same instant.
The man opened his palms to the sky as he spoke to me, explaining. “I told you we would never, ever hurt you. We’re sworn to protect you, Duvalla, and your children.”
“But you took him…”
“For his protection.”
His fingers reached for a moment, as if offering me assurances. “No, no. From the witch who blinds you. From her and her son who would kill your offspring if they ever suspected the truth about them.”
His words launched an avalanche of questions, only one powerful enough to break through first. I choked on the preposterousness of my crazy hopes, able to verbalize only one word to ask the entire question. “Natasha?”
He nodded before telling me, “Natasha is here; your daughter is safe.”
If the monster had meant to debilitate me, he had done it effectively and by means of a simple, irrational promise. My eyes flooded with tears as a hand rose to cover my trembling lips. I staggered from weakened knees, barely able to keep from collapsing. When the bearer of such cruel lies moved at me in the pretense of offering a stabilizing hand, I lifted my sword to prevent him, noticing only then that I held up an empty, clenched fist. My silver blade had slipped to the ground. He halted merely a stride away as I dropped to my knees to scoop up my weapon. With sword in hand, I didn’t bother threatening him or the surrounding pack of wolves. No one had made a move to overpower me, despite the presented opportunity.
After an eternal moment of peering into ochre eyes that looked down on me with the sweetest patience, my focus shifted to a blur of movement in the background. Sarti was returning in a hustle, followed by a small group of human figures. I assumed they were all werewolves, all but two—the babe in her arms and the raven-haired girl clinging to her skirt. The girl looked the right age, six years old nearing seven. My heart quit beating long enough to catch in my throat. Too unsteady to stand, I remained on bended knees.
Sarti slowed her pace as she drew near, coming to a stop beside her brother. The others remained a distance behind, excepting the young girl who still grasped her chaperon’s skirt with one hand. I swallowed hard, my focus pinned on a pair of big, brown eyes that sloped in the same fashion as my own, fringed by black bangs as limp as my hair had always hung. The child examined me with as much curious interest as I eyed her. But there was no way to tell for certain that this adorable creature was indeed my offspring.
Nehemiah, however, I would know.
Sarti glanced at her brother before reaching out to me, offering the swathed form of a baby. The same dread that had afflicted me not so long ago upon sight of a similar bundle returned with horrific pangs until the blanket of tawny fuzz wriggled with life. Carefully, I accepted the bundle and cradled it in my arms. I melted at the warmth of an infant, and my heart dissolved at his soft, cooing sounds. Quickly, my fingers parted the covers from his face. Dark eyes blinked before finding me. The child kicked in my hold. I smiled when a tiny, free hand waved in the air as if he recognized me as I did him. This baby was indeed my son.
I rained a shower of tears upon my boy. Believing then that the girl blessed with my eyes was indeed Natasha, I held my free arm out, inviting her to come to me. She came willingly, the word “mama” voiced in a hopeful manner.
“Yes, baby, yes,” I assured her.
I didn’t care where my silver blade had fallen or whether my enemy had seized it. If I were to die in the moment, it would be with pure joy permeating every susceptible fiber of my being. I was a mother who had buried her children and by some farfetched miracle had found them alive and well and warmly in my arms once again. The man who had summoned them for me bent down to one knee and tried to explain. I could tell his words came carefully; he paused after every outlandish claim. It was hard to accept what he said, yet hard to deny him given the miracle he had just managed.
“Things—people and circumstances—are not what you believe them to be, Duvalla. Your mind….it’s been affected. A witch begrudges you….us….for the death of her son.”
I questioned him with a look, open to hearing his story. I clung to my children as he related the tale of a family of werewolves ambushed and killed for human sport, and how the survivors had responded to this cold-blooded murder of their children by seeking out and destroying the hunters—Tarishe men. One victim, however, had turned out to be the eldest son of a truly wicked witch.
“She tracked us down with the intent to seek revenge. But it wasn’t our lives she demanded, it was torture…misery…our suffering and agony as compensation for her loss. The beautiful, black wolf who once stood proudly as our queen was transformed by sorcery into a huntress bent on destroying her own kind. The witch painfully marred one foot by the touch of a blade forged to kill us—the very silver sword you wield. A curse keeps our queen in human form every day of the year but one—All Hallows Eve—when by magical means a red, full moon hovers over Tarishe. That is why we come to the village on that night, Duvalla. We come for you. It is the curse that keeps you from remembering.”
His story swirled in my head like a murky nightmare, one I felt unable to awaken from. I voiced what he was carefully trying to tell me.
“I’m the ebony beast. I’m the Queen of Werefolk.” It made sense now that my eyes had never beheld the silver-pawed queen. How could I if she were me?
The man nodded. Seeing the struggle in my face he reached for me, his hand landing on my cheek. Warmth rushed to meet a touch I had never felt before, and yet my body reacted as if it were deeply familiar. When I shied away, still leery, his hand moved to gently clasp my daughter’s arm.
He went on to speak of my children. “Natasha and Nehemiah are well-guarded by the bravest of our warriors. Don’t worry, they are safe here. I believe the witch truly thinks they were among the casualties. If she were to suspect your werewolf children still lived…”
I cut him off right there. “They’re human children; they’re not mongr—” Feeling guilty over my degrading choice of labels for the first time, I stopped short.
The man didn’t show any sign of offense. He looked to my daughter with a softness in his eyes that affected me, and then he kindly said, “Show your mama, Natasha. Show her with me now.”
I held my breath and watched as the girl placed her small hand in the palm of this werewolf whom she clearly trusted. At first I watched her eyes as they smiled at him, but my focus fell on their hands when a sudden growth of umber fur spread up one arm—black, glossy fur coating the smaller of the two. Clawed paws touched where human fingers had stretched.
I fell back on my rear, hugging Nehemiah possessively close to my chest where his mouth searched franticly for his mother’s milk. I glanced at him, saddened that I had none to give, and then moved my wide eyes back on hands no longer covered in fur.
“How did you—?” I asked, anxious and bewildered.
“It’s okay, it’s okay,” the man said. I could see by his expression, and that of my daughter’s, he was not only concerned about my reaction but the possibility that I might inadvertently hurt Natasha’s feelings.
I tried to compose myself, attempting to force a smile. The man smiled weakly in return.
“She can take on wolf form at any time, Duvalla. Nehemiah will grow to do the same, just like his sister—just like his mother once did before a Tarishe curse was uttered.”
I looked at my free hand as if searching for the trigger to change it. My son squirmed in my arms, once again moving his mouth in search of milk, so I gave him a finger as a temporary pacifier and wondered where his nourishment came from in my absence. It was disheartening for me to imagine a dog…a werewolf…nursing my boy. It was harder still to imagine him as one.
I closed my eyes and shook my head in a desperate attempt to wake from what could only make sense as a wild and crazy dream.
A familiar touch warmed my cheek for the second time, and I pressed against it. My eyelids didn’t open until Nehemiah began fussing, impatient to be fed. I rocked the babe and shushed him, not ready to let him go. A gentle bouncing motion seemed to appease him.
Looking up at the lead werewolf, I asked the only question left to ask.
“How do I break this curse?”
“Someone must kill the witch.”
I nodded my head. A sensible, straightforward solution. “Where is she?”
All watching eyes seemed to glance at one another as the man frowned. It was clear he didn’t care to verbalize the answer.
With apprehension, I rephrased the question. “Who is she?”
He sighed audibly and attempted to gradually make me see. “The witch has sought a twisted revenge, delighting in the anguish of her enemies. The spell she cast not only caused our queen to turn against those she loves, but it has made her love the one who, if reason had not been robbed from her, she would naturally bitterly despise.”
I pondered his riddle. I had turned against the ones I love—the werewolves. How many kindred souls had I slain? How many had I harmed whom I should have loved? Anguish wasn’t a descriptive enough word to suit the type of pain that stabbed at me. But the only way to stop this was to kill the witch, the one whom justifiably I would despise. But he was suggesting the witch had made me love her. I loved her? Who?
“Grandmother?” My face screwed up in a contortion of appall and disbelief. Surely, he wasn’t suggesting that my dear, sweet, frail and innocent grandma……an elderly soul who had done nothing but counsel me and nurse me through grief-stricken tears over the loss of…
Held too tightly against my chest, Nehemiah let out a cry. He was hungry and tired, needing mothering. I had no way of giving my baby what he needed. The turmoil roiling inside me made it difficult to think, to deal. I put the child on the ground. Sarti started forward until I grabbed my sword, left untouched where it had fallen, and held it firmly in front of me. No doubt she was the one who had taken my place nursing my child. I was jealous, bitter, hurt, angry, incensed—all of it! This was all wrong!
“You liars,” I hissed, narrowing my eyes as they darted from one observer to the next. “You’re all liars!”
I gasped in shock, my attention slamming to Natasha—my daughter—as she hugged the leg of the lead werewolf who had risen from his knees. I was the only one on the ground now but remedied that swiftly. Nehemiah’s cries intensified at my feet. No one moved to comfort the babe.
I pointed my blade at the imposter. “You are NOT her father!”
Natasha squeezed more tightly onto him, moving to hide behind his muscled legs. His hand reached rearward to rest tenderly on her head. My eyes widened watching this, daring him to explain.
He nodded with his lie. “She is our daughter, Duvalla. Nehemiah is our son. You know there is no one else.”
My face paled at his words. How could he know of my shame—that I was unable to recall those intimate moments of conception? I had always assumed one-night affairs that were the result of inconsolable grief drowned in the rare indulgence of alcohol. No man had ever stepped forward to claim paternity. Until now.
It felt as if the forest had suddenly petrified, every living soul motionless, and every sound mute but for the babe now wailing at my feet. His tiny arms flailed desperately, wanting a warm embrace and sustenance.
It was more than I could handle. I turned and ran.
Sarti called out a name at my back that nearly made me crash to the ground in my sprawling attempt to twist back around.
“Kresh!” She was pointing at me while already crouched low, prepared to scoop up my infant child.
The name echoed in my head, hitting some subconscious part of my brain with avid force. Though I had never heard it before, intense recognition made me search for the one who owned it. I prayed she would say it again.
Sarti made a rounded gesture for her brother to hand over Natasha. Nehemiah, still crying, wriggled in her other arm. She ordered her brother, “Go, go! Go after her, Kresh!”
The name gripped me. Its owner frightened me.
Our eyes met for a second before I spun around and tore off for home.
I didn’t get far before a presence was on my heels. Though he begged me to stop, I raced faster, determined somehow to lose him. It was alarm that put a halt to my sprint, over a claim hollered past my shoulder.
“She will erase your memory again! Duvalla, listen! You’ll forget your children! You’ll forget they’re alive!”
When I turned to face him, my sword swiped level to maintain a distance between us. He was panting from the sprint but spoke up right away, spitting out his words hastily; perhaps he was concerned that I might flee again before he could say what he wished to say.
“I know this is hard for you to accept, but you can’t tell anyone what I’ve told you.”
“Because you lie!”
“No—no, I haven’t. Think about it, Duvalla, why would a loving grandparent hand you a dead child if it wasn’t yours? Why would she tell you your son had been mauled by wolves when he clearly wasn’t? Who’s really lying to you?”
I searched my brain for an answer. “Maybe…..maybe the body was too clawed up to identify. He was wrapped in rags when my grandmother handed him to me. She didn’t know; she didn’t see his face.”
“Yet a woman who claims to care for you would let you endure the unspeakable agony of losing a child without knowing for certain he was yours?”
I thought again. There had to be an explanation. “Someone else must have wrapped the body. Someone she trusted.” Who else had been there that night? “Thaddeus! Thaddeus was there—yes, yes, he knew!”
“You mean the witch’s son?”
My eyes bulged wide with incredulity. “No. No, no, not Thaddeus. You said I…we killed him…her son was dead.”
“You took the life of her eldest boy, not the youngest. What that witch never learned was how her eldest son savagely slaughtered all three of our boys—our entire family at the time.”
I couldn’t speak after that. My throat closed up at the mental image he painted—Kresh and I, a family with young sons. Three children slayed by the brother of…….of Thaddeus? I harbored no kind feelings toward that gritless, craven swine. Perhaps he was the true witch, a fiend I could cut down without an ounce of remorse.
Kresh drew me from my thoughts with continued beseeching. “Please, just consider my words before you act on your doubts. If you let it be known that you’ve visited us again, she will…”
“Again?” I cut in, speaking over him.
“Yes. You’ve come twice before. I tried to convince you of the truth both times, but you ran back to Tarishe and confronted that awful hag with everything you had learned. She used her enchantments to erase your memory of the incidents. They’ve not let you wander off alone since the second occurrence.”
I nodded. The law now asserted such control, enforced by strict punishment. “It was Thaddeus. He insisted a law be instated to protect hunting parties from werewolf attacks. He said they’d grown more brutal and frequent. My grandmother was concerned; she forbade me to go anywhere alone.”
Kresh grimaced. “We never attack without cause.”
Both stories couldn’t be true. “One of you is lying.”
He nodded in agreement. His dark eyebrows drooped over eyes that implored me to believe his claims. I wanted so badly to trust him.
“I have to go; I have to think,” I said, moving away.
“Please, Duvalla, please keep these things to yourself until you realize the truth.”
I nodded, acquiescing, and took a step as if to leave.
Kresh augmented his appeal. “I don’t want you to forget me. I don’t want you to forget that I love you.”
I froze for a moment, hardly able to glance at him. I didn’t know what to say. The same devious magic that had made me want him all this time was wreaking havoc inside me. I had to get away from him.
With my sword returned to its sheath, I continued through the trees, running as if speed held the power to alter both time and reality and thus restore life as it should be. My ears picked up every twig that snapped beneath my tread as well as every labored inhale and exhale. I swallowed the smell of moss and a coldness that was setting in with the night. But I didn’t detect the werewolf keeping pace off to my side until a flash of fur caught my eye.
The umber wolf glanced at me, meeting my spotting gaze. I didn’t slow at the sight of him, not until the walls of Tarishe became visible through dwindling foliage. Then I walked, panting, headed for a collection of boulders assembled in the open area outside the gates.
Before clearing the final line of trees, I was forced to the ground by a heavy body. When I moved to defend myself against this perceived attack, the umber wolf slipped off me with his head lowered, whimpering.
“What was that for?” I asked, confused by his actions.
His snout gestured toward the gates where a watchman could be seen pacing the inner catwalk, scarcely a helmeted head in view bobbing along the top of our fortification.
“Oh,” I breathed, remembering that I couldn’t be seen unless I cared to face a penalty for breaking another of Thaddeus’ inane laws.
I crouched behind a wide trunk and waited until the watchman turned his back my way to advanced down another length of walkway. Swiftly, I scrambled out from my hiding place and crept up to the wooden wall. It seemed twice as tall and twice as daunting from up close. I had no plan for successfully sneaking inside.
When a wet nose nudged my arm, I realized the umber wolf had shadowed me clear to the gates.
“You can’t be seen here,” I scolded him in a firm whisper. “I thought you didn’t want anyone to know I was with you.”
He stepped around me, skirting the wall in the opposite direction the watchman had gone. When he paused to look back at me, I frowned but agreed to follow him. We stole silently to the dark side of the village, stopping at a stretch of wall where surrounding foliage had grown closer to Tarishe than at any other point. I made a note of how the overgrown branches provided extended cover and concealing shadows for approaching enemies. Thaddeus would want them cut back.
While thus preoccupied, my werewolf companion bumped into my calves, causing me to fall backwards onto him. In an attempt to stop from meeting the ground, I grabbed a handful of his hair and pulled myself over, somewhat resting on his back. He shifted to force my legs on either side, effectively straddling him. The moment he lifted his paws onto the fortress wall, standing on hind legs, I released my hold and jumped off.
He dropped to the ground beside me, growling deep in his throat. His ochre eyes scrunched into disapproving slits.
“What are you doing?” I squeaked in a hushed yet objecting manner.
He pointed his snout at the high wooden planks. I glanced at the wall from under knitted eyebrows, and then returned my unwitting gaze on him.
Once again, he motioned toward the wall, this time placing a paw on the timbers. Thick, hooked claws scratched the smooth surface.
My eyebrows scrunched lower, and I gave the wolf a look that easily translated into “you’ve got to be insane.” I rubbed my hand over the surface. “This is flat, dense wood, the height of at least five large men. You can’t possibly climb this thing!”
When his claws actually pierced the reinforced boards, and he managed a few feet off the ground to prove me wrong, I immediately understood that if the werewolves had ever truly wanted to breach our stronghold and devastate us, they had possessed the ability to do so all along.
I gawked at this giant, hairy monster as he jumped back down to the ground. He ignored my complete state of shock, stepping over to squeeze his head between my hip and arm. I understood his desire, and grabbed hold of his fur, lifting a leg to straddle him once again.
“Are you sure you can hold me?” I asked, a little worried.
He gurgled a low growl as if chiding my lack of faith. With both arms around his neck, I intertwined and locked my fingers, just in case.
To my great astonishment, the umber wolf managed to scale our high buttress with me clinging to his back. He stopped his climb just below the guard rail and whimpered quietly as a sign for me to pull myself up the rest of the way. I did so without a sound, checking in each direction before hurdling over onto the inside walkway.
“Thank you,” I whispered across the wall. I couldn’t help but reach down to stroke the fur on his head. His course hair slid between my fingers, eliciting an emotional stir in my chest. Kresh nudged my hand with his wet nose and then disappeared into the dark abyss below.
Long, dancing shadows suggested fires were ablaze in the open streets of Tarishe, providing light after sunset. Oil lamps produced dark silhouettes of obstructing huts and sheds. From my crouched position I could see the streets nearly empty—most villagers retired to their homes for an evening meal and a night of earned rest. My grandmother would be expecting me.
I followed the catwalk to where I could leap across the alleyway and onto the rooftop of our town hall. Then I clambered down, sticking to the shadows in a rush to get home.
From within my grandmother’s hut, a murmur of voices drifted to reach my ears. I paused to listen, able to hear bits of dialogue from just outside the door. The speakers were familiar to me. Hoping to overhear a remark that would either condemn or clear my dear grandmother’s good name—for it was a trial to imagine the frail woman as anything but my loving kin—I moved to the rear of the house and managed to sneak in through a bedroom window. Curled up on the floor next to a partly open door, I eavesdropped on the conversation taking place in the next room.
“Frankly, I think she’s avoiding me on purpose. I’ve looked everywhere. She won’t even answer to the call of her name.”
“Did you ask around?”
“Of course. A few say they’ve spotted her on the rooftops doing nothing useful at all—just staring blankly out at the woods.”
There was a heavy sigh breathed by my grandmother, followed by a moment of silence. “It concerns me, Thaddeus. She spends more and more time outside our watch.”
“Because she’s a self-absorbed irritation who believes herself to be above the rest of us. She’s unwilling to lend a hand with menial chores yet refuses to join a hunt where the sword she carries would be advantageous. And she neglects you as well. With no child to care for anymore and no man in the house whose needs must be met, she squanders her time uselessly. She’s a lost cause if you ask me.”
“The girl is suffering, Thaddeus. Her decline into solitude is to be expected. She may be uncooperative, but she is a resource for you nonetheless.”
“She’s a drudgery—a volatile lunatic who’s become near impossible to control.”
“Not impossible. Not if you handle her correctly.”
“You do know she wields that sword against others besides those hairy mongrels. She’s an unruly menace!”
I silently returned Thaddeus’ aversion for me and wondered if our pathetic village leader wasn’t whining because of the disagreeable encounter that occurred between us during last Hallows Eve. He probably had no clue as to how close I had actually come to slitting his throat that night.
“It’s clear she doesn’t respect you—an unfortunate error. Your position alone should demand a reasonable amount of regard…”
“Yes, it should! It should!”
I rolled my eyes at the man’s immaturity.
My grandmother groaned. “I’ve more important things to worry about than the conflicting relationship between you and Catherine.”
Again, it fell silent. Thus far, there had been nothing incriminating said—nothing to suggest the old woman who had raised and cared for me was indeed the witch Kresh accused her of being. Not once had she referred to Thaddeus as a son. My ears perked up when her voice suddenly seemed to smile with an idea.
“Or perhaps……yes……perhaps that is exactly what we need to remedy.”
I wondered what in the world she meant. Thaddeus asked the question for me.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean….I believe you’re right, Thaddeus.”
I could sense him grinning like a drunken fool without actually seeing the smugness painted on his face.
“Catherine should learn to respect her leaders.”
“And she has become more of a challenge to look after, what with the way she disappears all the time.”
“And this is a worrisome thing, not knowing what sort of trouble might find her.”
“But, as you pointed out, there’s nothing to keep her at home. Nothing to prevent her moping about. No child to look after, no man to please…”
Hesitation preceded the predictable response. “Um, yes, that’s true.” My brow crinkled with the same concern I detected in Thaddeus’ voice.
“If we were to remedy that, our concerns would be resolved.”
“What exactly are you proposing?”
“I am proposing that you, Thaddeus, propose to Catherine.”
I had to cover my mouth to keep from protesting as vehemently as Thaddeus immediately did. What in the world was that woman thinking? I would never, never agree to marry that witless, spineless, pathetic excuse for a swine, let alone a man!
“No, no, no, no, I have no interest in an unmanageable lunatic who opposes me at every opportunity.”
“As your wife, she would have to listen to you. She would be subject to her husband’s law.”
Thaddeus made a scoffing sound that communicated my feelings exactly.
“She is young and beautiful and available…”
“Because no one will have her!” Thaddeus cut in. “She has a reputation as a hoar! Two children out of wedlock! Not one but two! And no man has come forward to claim them, which makes the women in this village wonder if it isn’t one of their husbands she cunningly seduced. The only reason she hasn’t been publicly censured is because of her usefulness as a huntress and her ownership of that blasted sword!”
“All the more reason to make an honest woman of her. It is for the better good, Thaddeus.”
“No. I refuse.”
“Propose to Catherine, or I will do it for you.”
The air fell dead quiet after those stern words. I waited with baited breath for a stronger argument from Thaddeus, but he failed to deliver. The next thing I heard was my grandmother calling out to him as if he had crossed the room to leave.
“You will convince her, Thaddeus. Remind her of how you saved poor Nehemiah from being devoured by those savage werewolves.”
A door slammed, and I realized he was gone. I rushed to the window and scrambled outside before my grandmother could discover me in the room. I waited for Thaddeus to stomp off—far off—and then rounded the house, summoning the courage to enter. A slumped form appeared heavily weary before a dwindling fire. Upon sight of me, my grandmother raised a hand to her heart.
“Thank goodness, my child, where in the world have you been? I’ve lost years imaging what evil might have befallen you.”
I muttered an apology. “I’m sorry, Grandmother. I’m fine.”
I tried to step past her in hopes of reaching the back room where I could slip into bed, but she stopped me with conversation.
“Thaddeus was just here asking about you. He too has been concerned by your absences and gray moods. He tried searching you out this evening, but with no luck. Where were you, Catherine?”
I looked at my hands. “Nowhere really. On the rooftop; I can think more clearly up there.”
“Oh, I see. You haven’t stepped foot outside the gates?”
“No,” I lied.
“Good. To do so unaccompanied would be foolishness—a violation of the law.”
I nodded my understanding.
“You’ve simply been ignoring us then. I think it a civil courtesy to respond to your name when you’re summoned, child. At least let people know you’re……around.”
I nodded. “You’re right. I’m sorry.”
I tried unsuccessfully for the back room again. Grandmother patted the stool she was seated in before I took two steps, a sign that she desired to have me come sit on the floor beside her. I really didn’t want to, but it wasn’t in my nature to disrespect my elders.
“Catherine, dear, I have something important to discuss with you.”
“I too have something important to talk about,” I said, lowering to my knees in front of her, “and I’d like to go first if you don’t mind.”
She gave me a tight look of wonder and nodded her permission.
“Grandmother.” I felt a strong connection voicing the word, unconvinced that she was anything but my loving family. “Could you tell me why it is we stay here year after year in Tarishe? Why do we live here?”
She seemed confused by my question, so I tried to expound on my thoughts. I took her thin, bony fingers in my hand and expressed my feelings. “I’m tired, Grandmother. I’m tired of fighting for a peaceful, safe existence. The werewolves continually harass us, depleting our numbers…”
“As we do them,” she interjected. “We are not defenseless, Catherine, we fight back.”
“Yes, I know, but…….but for what purpose? So we can stay here, locked up behind high walls that fail to keep the enemy out year after year? What’s left in this place for us? My babies are gone and all freedom to roam anywhere but strictly within this confining, dungeon fortress is nonexistent! So, why? Why do we live here?”
“Because it is our home. It has been my home since I can remember. I have lived nowhere else.”
“Catherine, dear, those mongrels have not always troubled us. And you possess the power to eradicate their kind for good. It was a gift granted to you for a reason. This is where you belong, child. You cannot run from your destiny.”
“But, Grandmother, please understand…….I’m so tired of killing. I’m tired of nothing but bloodshed and violence and grieving over lost lives—”
“Because those demons will not leave us be!”
“Neither do we let them alone,” I argued. “I have pursued them into the woods under many full moons, slaughtering their kind under a flag of retribution.”
“It is in defense of your village—your home and family!”
“Perhaps,” I said, although my head shook, doubting. “But, Grandmother, have you stopped to think that maybe the wolves retaliate because we’ve taken so much from them?”
Her eyes grew large at my question; I could imagine them dropping from their sockets onto the ground, rolling up beside the stone hearth to gawk at me.
“What? You think we have robbed them?”
I pled with her to consider another viewpoint. “Have the wolves not lost numbers as we have? Have they not mourned over their own dead? Why can’t we just leave them be? Why not move on to some place free from constant threat and misery?”
She continued to stare at me wide-eyed, so severely I felt a shiver of unease crawl up my spine.
“That is enough rubbish, Catherine! Those filthy dogs are nothing more than cold-blooded killers that invaded my home and murdered my family! I’ll not allow them to seize what is left! I am too old to change my ways let alone be uprooted from my home. And I will not let you run away from conflict because you’re suddenly afraid!”
“I’m not afraid,” I insisted, slightly affronted.
“Then it is settled. We are Tarishians. We will stay and fight for Tarishe against any evil to threaten her gates, mongrel or otherwise.”
With bowed head, I quietly agreed. “Yes, Grandmother.”
I remained silent as she took a moment to compose herself, breathing more evenly before speaking up with a forced air of gladness.
“Now, dear, I have good news to share. I believe this may be exactly what you need, something to cheer that unhappy heart of yours.”
I tried to squirm out of the conversation, knowing what was coming. It would in no way sit well with me.
“I’m especially tired tonight; my eyelids feel as heavy as lead. Perhaps if it were to wait until morning…” I stood up with my words, but the lean fingers I had been cupping took a firm hold of my hand and refused to let go.
“Be seated, Catherine.”
Again, I attempted to delay the discussion. “I haven’t eaten for hours. I’m faint of head and heart.”
I was given a look of insistence, and the grasp on my fingers tightened.
Reluctantly, I dropped to my knees. Grandmother requested my free hand which I willingly gave. She sandwiched both between her own.
“My poor, sweet, child, there was another reason Thaddeus stopped by this evening—another reason he was desperate to search you out tonight. Our fine and fetching leader had hoped to ask you something of the utmost importance.”
My forehead tightened with concern. “Then I shall go see him first thing in the morning,” I said, hoping to put off her dreadful news.
She patted my hands. “No need. He gave me full permission to speak for him. Perhaps he fears you’ll disappear early on and avoid being found as you have for the past few weeks. It is a legitimate concern.”
“But I wouldn’t…”
“Nevertheless, good news should not wait to turn sour.”
“But if it’s considerable enough to warrant searching me out, wouldn’t it be best for him to deliver the information himself?”
My grandmother grimaced, but still I persisted.
“I would very much like to hear it from the horse’s mouth.”
“And you shall, dear,” she said grinning crookedly, “but I would have you prepared to receive his news well.”
I swallowed hard, determined to argue my case.
Her skeletal fingers reached to trace along my jawbone as she cushioned her announcement with justifications. “You are a beautiful creature, child, but the harsh truth is that you are not getting any younger. And having given birth to two babies out of wedlock has dissuaded many would-be suitors.”
I couldn’t help but drop my eyes in shame. She was right.
“That does not make you entirely undesirable, however. There are forgiving hearts here in Tarishe, one in particular willing to offer you a chance at redemption. Thaddeus, our revered village leader, has asked your hand in marriage. He would make an honest woman of you, Catherine, and give you shelter, protection, companionship, and a good name in our community. With him as your husband you would face a promising future, including the opportunity to mother children worthy of a father’s care.”
“Natasha and Nehemiah were more than worthy…”
“They were inferior, bastard children.” Her derogatory branding stung like a blade to the heart.
“They were not!” I contended.
“Oh? Tell me then, Catherine, where is your husband? Who was their father?”
Wounded tears watered my eyes. I couldn’t answer those questions.
“Now, now, cease with the self-pity; I’ve allowed it long enough. I understand the pain you feel at the loss of those babies, every mother does. But this may turn out to be for the best. You will marry Thaddeus, and any further children you bear will be his—legitimate and blessed by the influence of two loving parents.”
I choked on my emotions but managed to speak. “I cannot marry him.”
“You can and you will.”
“No. No, I won’t.”
My grandmother’s pointed fingertip pressed beneath my chin, forcing my misty eyes up to meet hers. “Catherine, dear, it is in your best interest to set aside all selfish, petty narrow-mindedness and think for a moment about not only your future but your posterity. Your children deserve a home with both father and mother to look up to. They deserve a life free from the shameful stigma of bastard child. Now forget your trivial concerns and listen to your aged grandmother. I have lived many long years, enough to know that stubborn pride will benefit you nothing.”
“It’s not because of pride I refuse,” I tried to tell her. “It’s because I don’t…I can’t respect the man. And I don’t love him, nor do I believe for one moment that he feels anything but abhorrence for me.”
My grandmother frowned—a displeased look. “That is your biggest problem, Catherine, you give too much weight to meaningless sentiment. Thaddeus is willing to marry you and that is enough. Whether or not you appreciate it, this union will benefit both of you. Therefore, you will marry the man, and I will not hear another word on the matter.”
I begged with desperation. “No, please, Grandmother, please not him…”
It felt like razors slicing against my cheek when her hand made contact with my face. I was stunned and silenced. Her eyes fell on me as cold as ice.
“I have not raised an insolent grandchild.”
I lowered my head and nodded, whimpering like a puppy.
“Get out of my sight.”
Finally making it to the back room, I slipped into bed and wet my pillow with tears. This day had placed too much on my shoulders. Was I a dog, blinded by a cunning witch who purposefully meant for my life to be an eternal hell? Did I have a werewolf mate who loved me—a loyal pack who had sacrificed lives for my children and myself? Or was I human as I appeared—as I felt? Was my grandmother simply seeing to what she considered my best interests? Despite my own loathing for his personal character, Thaddeus was of high standing in Tarishe, respected and supported by most villagers. It was because of him that many overlooked my infidelities.
Unable to think straight, I succumbed to self-pity and cried myself to sleep.
The next day appeared brighter only because the sun shone unobstructed through my window, landing directly on my eyelids. It was late morning when I was awakened in this manner. I quickly washed and changed, weaving two rows of black braids around my face to keep all but a layer of long bangs away from my eyes. Hearing no signs of life in the front room, I pulled the door slightly ajar and peeked through a narrow opening. The house appeared to be empty. A more thorough check verified that my grandmother was gone. With my sword in sheath belted tightly to my side, I grabbed a dry strip of salted meat to appease a grumbling stomach and then took off into the streets.
There were many busily about, despite the chill in the air. I steered clear of most, avoiding eye contact as well—not abnormal for me. Keeping to myself had always felt natural. It was my place, my preference. I smiled half-heartedly at the butcher who made an extra effort to find my gaze. Then my eyes zeroed in on a bit of commotion up ahead where a small crowd had gathered in the street, many lugging weapons. Curiosity attracted me to the group until I realized Thaddeus was a central player. In the act of slinking off, my name was loudly mentioned. I froze.
“Alas! Catherine’s here! Perhaps she’ll join us today?” It was Dompier speaking, a big fellow who had already led two hunts this winter. I caught a glimmer of hope in his eyes.
All heads twisted about until everyone was staring at me. I heard Thaddeus speak up next, although he kept his distance.
“Catherine…” He paused with a new awkwardness about him. “Your skill at tracking game would benefit our village—that is if you’re finally feeling up to a hunt.”
I hastily nodded my answer. Returning to the practices of daily existence might be exactly what I needed.
Dompier flashed his yellow teeth and raised his fists high, making guttural noises of jubilation, an action copied by nearly every member of the group. Their approval made my heart feel momentarily lighter—until the decrepit form of my grandmother appeared, along with her voiced objection.
“My granddaughter is not ready to accompany you just yet; her head is not in the hunt. You all know that one member distracted could prove detrimental when hungry werewolves lurk in wait.”
“I’m fine, grandmother,” I argued. “I’m ready. I want to help.”
“Then you can help right here. There are logs to split, meat to cure, tools with dull edges, coats in dire need of mending…”
There was no sense arguing, so I bowed my head and submitted to her wishes. Dompier’s large presence felt warm as he grabbed me by the shoulder and leaned in to whisper, “Next time, Cat. It’s good to see you right again, though.”
I nodded, accepting his kind words.
My grandmother hobbled off without further comment.
From a shadowed place under rafters, I watched Dompier and five other capable men equip themselves for the hunt. An eye of envy remained on them until the last man vanished outside Tarishe gates. Then I went to locate a hatchet, determined to chop up more than my share of firewood.
I was leaning against the chimney on the roof of our town hall, eyeing a crimson sunset over my shoulder, having done my best to avoid Thaddeus all day. It hadn’t proved a difficult task. It seemed he was desirous to steer clear of me also….and my wild axe. The hunters were running late in their return, a fact that worried me. I was watching for them, scanning the tree line between glimpses at a colorful sunset, when a weak cry caught my ear. I swore the voice of the sufferer belonged to Dompier.
I rose to my tiptoes, squinting past our high fortress walls to spot a lone figure crawling out of the forest, his face and clothing died red. It was a safe assumption that he was badly wounded. I bounded to the catwalk and nearly slid down the ladder in time to meet Thaddeus and a small band of watchmen at the gates.
“Are you certain he’s alone?” Thaddeus questioned his men before allowing the locking board to be removed.
“Yes,” I snarled with impatience. “I saw him, it’s Dompier. Now open the lousy gate!”
I was the first to squeeze through the exit, quick to fall beside my large friend who had collapsed in the open area surrounding our walls. I shoved him onto his side and wiped streaks of blood from his eyes. Red streams flowed from a wound on his head, impeding my efforts. I ripped off a strip of his shirt that was already hanging in shreds and used it as a bandage, applying pressure to the gash on his forehead. I noticed long, deep scratches on his forearms—identical cuts peeking through his torn apparel.
“You’re home, you’re okay now,” I assured him. “It’s going to be okay.”
“What in the name of—?” The others stood over us, gawking, shocked by the evidence of a brutal attack on their fellow Tarishian.
“What happened to him? Where are the others?” Thaddeus demanded to know.
“Who or what kind of monster—?” someone else asked.
I ignored them all, concentrating on the man whose head now rested in my lap. “Dompier. Dompier, can you hear me? You’re going to be okay; you’re home now.”
His eyes fluttered open and I helped him along by washing his lids clean. I tried my best not to look as horrified as the men looming over us.
“Cat?” He recognized me. I nodded like mad.
“Yes, yes, it’s me, Dompier. Do you know what happened to you? Where are all the others?”
His eyes turned to the darkening sky, and his face contorted into a wretched look of anguish. This grown man began to cry like a child. “They’re dead, Cat. They’re all dead.”
“What?” I squeaked. Those were my friends he spoke of—my companions and comrades. “How?”
He closed his teary eyes, reliving the nightmare in one uttered word. “Werewolves.”
“No,” I breathed. I was dumbstruck. “Are you….are you sure?”
Dompier tried to nod his head beneath my hand. He sputtered up blood, wincing at the pain it caused him. “The big one….their leader,” he began, drawing in a ragged breath, “he came down on us. No warning—no mercy.” Raw fingers clamped around my wrist as he struggled to look directly into my eyes. “We needed your sword, Cat. We needed you.”
Not much else could have pierced me as deeply as the guilt I experienced just then. My heart cried out for vengeance, yet I was desperate to be certain. “Are you sure it was werewolves, Dompier? Did you see them clearly? Could it have been…?” I couldn’t think of any other creature a trained hunter would mistake for a werewolf. I swallowed hard, bile rising in my throat as feelings of betrayal and reprisal swirled inside me.
“It was him, that dark, red-brown wolf….and four or five more.”
“Did you do something wrong—something to provoke them?”
The man bleeding in my arms screwed up his face in answer, blinking narrowly through the pain. Of course it was a stupid question; I knew better.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered. “Forgive me.”
Deep-seated hatred erupted in my chest, magnified by the fact that some part of me had found reason to believe in those awful, demonic creatures. Why? Why had I imagined those animals capable of anything but murder and lies? Why had they done this without any provocation? Why had that umber wolf preserved my miserable life only to hurt me in this way? Why?
It slammed to the forefront of my mind that Natasha was one of them. I had seen her transform, at least partially, with my own eyes. My heart faltered in my chest. What were they teaching my daughter? What were they endeavoring through blood-stained teeth to convince her of? What heinous plans did those fiendish dogs have for my children?
This developing whirlwind in my head somewhat dissolved at the appearance of four men hauling out a crude stretcher for my suffering comrade. I whispered that help had arrived—pretending only calm concern over the severity of his wounds.
“You’re going to be okay,” I said as the others moved in to lift and cart him inside.
The moment they reached the gates, I turned on my heels and tore straight for the trees. Thaddeus hollered at my back, demanding my instant return.
“You will listen to me, woman! I am your superior and your soon-to-be husband! You will obey me, Catherine!”
His preposterous command was too much for me to ignore, and I paused long enough to turn around, refusal evidenced in my face, stance, and reply.
“You will never possess the balls to be my true superior, and heaven help you, Thaddeus, if you honestly think you’ll last long as my husband.”
His upper body leaned rearward as if he were dodging my verbal blow. “It is against the law for you to run off on your own, Catherine. Are you so bold as to place yourself above the law?”
My nostrils flared, eyes scrunched tight, staring, refusing him an answer.
He turned to the watchmen at his sides for help. “Do you see her outright defiance? She is entirely unmanageable!”
The men glanced uneasily between the two of us.
“What would you have me do, Thaddeus?” I asked. “Should I run inside with my tail between my legs to cower behind wooden logs that have never stopped those ruthless werewolves from depleting our numbers? Should I be like you—a weak, spineless, cowardly pigeon? Because I will not! I have my own demands which consist of retribution for the brave and valued souls stolen here today! I will not let those mongrels get away with this!”
The watchmen hesitated, first eyeing the rigid finger pointed at me, and then glancing at one another before finally looking to the accused as if seeking my consent to be restrained.
“What are you waiting for?” Thaddeus griped, stamping a temperamental foot in the dirt. “Go now! Go get her!”
I turned and disappeared, confident that no one possessed the ability or the resolve to trail me.
I dashed through a darker environment than the night before, a waxing moon clouded over in the sky. My feet traveled with little hesitation, steered by memory through a low-lying mist. The smell of moss grew strong in my nostrils, assuring me my course was accurate. I felt the coldness touch my arms and nose, yet the burn in my gut fended off any real chill. It was an impression at first that I wasn’t alone before the subtle detection of padded paws hit my ears. The wolves were running at my flanks, in line with every step, concealed by night but not invisible to me.
I slowed and withdrew my weapon before deciding to halt entirely. There I waited to be confronted. It didn’t take long. Kresh appeared as a man in my presence, his features somewhat lit by slivers of moonlight. For the most part we were black shadows facing off.
“Where are my children?” I demanded to know. I would learn their whereabouts first.
The portion of his face I could actually see seemed to smile. “You remember?”
I nodded once, brusquely, determined to fight whatever magic he had used to sway my emotions the night before.
“Where are they?” I repeated more severely.
His smile faded at my tone. “They are fine, Duvalla.”
“Don’t call me by that cursed name.”
His expression tightened, wary and concerned.
“Bring them to me now!” I ordered.
“They’ve been moved. It’s not safe here anymore.”
I lifted my blade to a position that would pierce his heart if he stood near enough. Sensing movement all around me, I readied for an attack.
“We won’t harm you, Duvalla, you know that.”
I scowled at his insistence to address me by a werewolf name, but considered it trivial compared to the matter at hand. “I want to know where my children are. What have you done with them? What are your plans for them?”
“Our children are—”
“My children,” I strongly corrected him. The silver blade in my grip lifted higher.
He frowned before continuing, voicing his words with quiet patience. “Natasha and Nehemiah, along with all of our young, have been relocated many miles from these lands. Like I said, it is not safe here at the moment.”
My heart sank understanding I would be denied my babies tonight. “Why do you say it’s suddenly not safe?” I was certain that in some distorted way his explanation would include a reason for the attack on our Tarishian hunters. I was determined to see through his lies, although I was truly taken off guard by his offered excuse.
“Vampires were spotted near the Tarishe village last night—Jovani’s clan.”
It took a moment for my mind to wrap around what he was saying.
“They are natural enemies to both men and werewolves.”
I knew that—for mankind, anyway. “Why have they come here?”
“That’s just it, we don’t know. I’m not sure if a small faction of Jovani’s clan simply wandered this far from their native hunting grounds or if they traveled here for a reason. Either way, our children are not safe where vampires hover. Those cold creatures lack any conscience. They have no qualms about attacking defenseless youngsters.”
I tried to tie this news in with the strike on my comrades. “So you killed a group of Tarishe hunters because you were confused? Is that it? You mistook humans with warm, beating, caring hearts for cold stone vampires? Did you really think I would buy such a pathetic excuse for your savage and deadly attack on my friends?”
Even under shadow I could see the shock on his face. He was a good actor, I would give him that.
“Don’t you dare pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about.”
“But I don’t, Duvalla, honestly. I’ve come across no…”
“Liar! You murdered my friends! Dompier teeters on the brink of death because of you! I saw for myself the claw marks that ripped through his skin—bloody scars rendered by wolves! He was the only survivor, did you know that? Or did you assume you had killed them all?”
He continued to stare at me, half of his features black as night, the other a mask of confusion and turmoil. His head began wagging back and forth in a sign of denial.
“Dompier told me assuredly it was you and your fiendish followers who attacked his huntsmen—without cause or provocation—knowing full well their weapons possessed no power against you. You told me yesterday that you steer clear of such confrontations. You lied to me! Why, Kresh?”
I wished I hadn’t uttered his name, for the sound of it was power enough to affect my emotions. I fought to feel nothing toward this imposter.
“I swear I have not lied about anything. I can’t explain why the man believes he saw me, but it was not me. I promise you, Duvalla, it was not me.”
“Who then?” I asked with strong skepticism in my voice. “Who could he possibly have mistaken for you? Was it bears? Or hairy goblins? Or perhaps your imaginary vampires dressed in fur coats?”
He moved to approach me but stopped at the insistence of my sword. I noticed then, as he crossed a beam of moonlight, that his body was half-naked. He had probably shifted from werewolf form and had little to drape around him. I squeezed my sword tighter, angered by how effectively the simple sight of his bare skin stirred my passions. As expected, he attempted to be convincing.
“Jovani and his clan are not imaginary, and they are not to be taken lightly. The vampires are a threat to all—especially you, Duvalla, because of who you are and because you refuse to believe in yourself.”
“I believe in myself, dog.” I could tell by his lowered eyes that I had hurt him with my insult. I hated how it pained me to see it.
“Do you believe you are a queen? A revered queen who rules over the loyalist werefolk to ever roam this forest. And do you believe you are a dear mother to five beautiful children, three of whom left this world far too young? But most importantly, Duvalla, do you believe you are a wife who once called me husband—a woman in love with a dog who even now after fourteen hellish years of being forgotten by his one and only mate remains entirely devoted to you? Do you believe this is who you are?”
I could form no words to reply.
“Because if you don’t believe it, then you deny your existence.”
Feeling myself swayed by him, I tried to reestablish my resolve. “You slayed my friends in cold blood.”
“No—no I didn’t. I don’t know who did or why they went to the trouble of making it appear as if werewolves were responsible, but I and my ‘followers,’ as you say, had no part in it.”
Why was I so desirous to believe him? Again, I struggled to rekindle my enmity towards the one who had so brutally injured poor Dompier. I couldn’t dismiss that my hunting companion had recognized his attacker. “If you’re not responsible, then explain to me what happened to those men. How can it be that your claw marks scar his skin if you’re as innocent as you claim?”
He shook his head unknowingly.
“I demand an explanation!” I snapped. “I want a reason for the savage murder of my friends!”
“It was pinned on us,” Kresh said, thinking. “It was an act meant to cause outrage, to excite your hatred toward us.”
“Why?” I was willing to hear him out if he could establish another motive—a deceptive twist. “The whole village knows how I despise the wolves; I’m your sworn enemy. I wield a deadly blade against you at every opportunity. I’ve given no reason for anyone to doubt my resolve, and even so, who would be evil enough to kill innocent men just to rouse my anger against you?”
Kresh looked to me with the answer in his eyes, but he wouldn’t say it.
I breathed the obvious. “You think it was the witch.” I struggled in my heart to vindicate my grandmother, but evidence of her guilt was forming in my head. I listed the proof out loud as it came to me, recalling our conversation from the evening before.
“I spoke with her last night about how tired I was of killing, of futilely fighting the wolves. I communicated compassion towards your losses, comparing them to our own. I said I wanted to leave Tarishe.”
My brow tightened as I recalled my grandmother’s reaction—her appall at what she considered fear and cowardice. “She insisted we couldn’t leave, that my duty was to defend our home from werewolves and all else who might come against us.”
There was more. I wilted by degrees as the puzzle came together before my eyes.
“I meant to join the hunt today, but my grandmother showed up out of nowhere, for no reason but to deny my participation. I tried to insist that I was ready, but she told them my head wasn’t in the hunt. She purposefully prevented me.” My eyes flashed up at Kresh. “She didn’t want me to be there for the ambush. To her it must have appeared I had lost my motivation, and she meant to rekindle it….violently.”
Tears pooled in my eyes as I realized the truth. “The witch did this. She killed all those good men…”
“…manipulating their sight with a spell, leaving one witness to point the blame at us.”
“…knowing I would not stand idly by. She knew I would seek revenge.”
“A pattern you have proven in the past.”
My form slumped in the darkness, and I wept. Only one word fell from my lips seeking forgiveness, help, and comfort intertwined. “Kresh.”
I was instantly in his arms, wrapped up in his warmth. He was everything familiar, and yet I couldn’t bring to mind a time I had ever been this close to him. Some part of me was aware we had shared more intimate moments, and though I yearned to remember, that history evaded me.
Looking up into his ochre eyes, I saw our shared sadness blended hauntingly in a reflection. His fingers lifted to wipe at my tears—another familiar gesture alien only to my blinded mind. My heart beat as rapidly as his, for I could feel how his chest hammered against me. I couldn’t bring myself to step away from this stranger, only closer to a presence my body clearly recognized as safe and desirable.
I let my sword slip to the ground, and for the second time I stood unarmed in the presence of werewolves.
Kresh put his lips to my forehead, and my skin burned beneath his kiss. When his hands repositioned to take me by the waist, my breathing—already shallow—ceased entirely. Then his lips fell on mine and I was suddenly everything he claimed me to be—his mate, his wife, his world.
The taste of him seemed mysteriously new and old at the same time. Every bit of tension eased as if internally I had come home again, and yet a sense of foreignness made our connection a sweet venture. My breast was afire as he continued to grasp my hips, keeping me close. I burned for him as if vampire venom were coursing through every inch of me.
The man was a constellation of suns in my desire, unlike Thaddeus who hardly equaled a speck of stardust. The thought of that coward reminded me of grim news. It took every bit of willpower I possessed to tear my lips away from what they craved, and yet I remained a submissive puddle in this werewolf’s arms.
I smiled when his lips pressed against my hair.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “Perhaps I overstepped my bounds, but I miss you.”
I nodded against his chest, letting him know I understood.
He squeezed me tenderly. “I just wish you could remember how many times we’ve been together this way. How beautiful our relationship once was.”
His words tinged my heart a solemn gray. As much as I wanted the world to waste away and forget us entirely, I was aware that my longer absence from the village would demand more to account for upon my return. I looked up to meet Kresh eye to eye. He could tell by my expression I had something unpleasant to say. I placed my hand against his whiskered cheek and then let it fall before speaking.
“The witch intends to marry me off to Thaddeus.”
I paused to let my words sink in, but Kresh seemed unable to comprehend. He asked me to repeat myself. “What? What did you just say?”
“I’m to be married to her son, Thaddeus.”
He continued to look down at me as if I were speaking in tongues, so I continued. “It was her idea, not Thaddeus’. He hates me nearly as much as I loathe him. I tried to refuse, as did he, but Grandmother insists…”
“She is not your grandmother,” Kresh snarled.
I corrected myself. “I mean the witch insists…”
“No,” he growled over me. “I’ll not allow this.” His arms held me tighter.
“I could stay here—with you,” I offered. My heart beat wildly at the prospect. “Together we could run and hide. Maybe she would give up trying to track us down.” When he didn’t answer, I looked up to find his eyes closed over a hard frown. Anger, hurt, and despair seemed to compete for a place in his expression.
“She’ll never give up. Our only hope is to find a way to destroy her. But to get close enough is virtually impossible. You don’t know how many times we’ve tried.”
I understood that the obvious candidate to kill the witch was me, yet I could hardly imagine myself laying a harmful hand on this illusion of a loving grandparent I had been bewitched to esteem. My mind fought against the persuasive adoration planted in my heart. It was a false emotion, but it was strong nonetheless. I wasn’t confident I wouldn’t hesitate striking in a moment of inner conflict—an error that could prove detrimental.
“I don’t know if I can do it, Kresh.”
“I’m not asking you to. In fact, I would ask you not to. If you were to fail, she would purge your memory and poison you against us again.” His hand moved to cup my face where he stroked the skin with a gentle thumb. “I know my motives are selfish, but it’s been so long since you looked at me with honest recognition like today. I just don’t want you to forget me.”
I placed my hand over his, savoring his caress. “I never want to forget any of this.”
“Then let me handle the witch. You be careful with what you say. Don’t let on that you’ve spoken to me. Don’t give her reason to suspect you know the truth.”
I nodded against his touch.
“When is this insufferable ceremony supposed to happen?”
I shook my head. “I’m not sure. I don’t think any plans have been made yet.”
“So I still have time…”
Far off, a chorus of howls rose like a siren in the air. Kresh and I both turned our eyes toward the sound of wolves.
“What is it?” I asked, knowing he would understand their cry.
“I have to go.” Stepping away from me, he paused with last-minute instructions. “Get back to Tarishe. Go quickly and be careful. Remember, you haven’t seen or spoken to me.”
“Why do you have to go?” I asked, concerned by his rushed manner.
“Nothing for you to worry about. Just hurry back to the village. You’re safest there.”
“Is it the vampires?”
He hesitated in a sigh, which told me my guess was correct.
“What do they want?”
“I don’t know, Duvalla.”
The air rang once again with a chorus of summoning howls. Kresh twisted his neck to look in the direction of his brothers.
“I have to go.” He took my face in his hands and kissed me hard on the lips. “Be careful,” he whispered.
“You be careful.”
He nodded he would do his best. “And one last thing,” he breathed, narrowing his eyes into smoldering slits. “Don’t let that worthless spawn of a witch have you.”
When he turned away, his shoulders fell forward, large hands reaching to meet the ground. Every inch of him from head to toe was covered in a thick, umber coat by the time his paws hit the soil. He howled his reply to the night before vanishing into it.
I retrieved my sword from where it had slipped from my grasp and hurried home, though not quite as quickly as I had fled.
It wasn’t too far from the edge of the woods that a stream of light spread from a tiny, yellow flicker. The way in which it danced suggested candlelight. Probably a lantern. I crouched and observed how the glimmering flame didn’t sit still, but traveled a few feet at a time. Attentive ears picked up periodic sighs of frustration. Like a starved hunter, I stole up to my prey, watchful for a drawn weapon and a sign of this fool’s identity. It was no shock when the light raised up to illuminate Thaddeus’ profile peering nervously into the dark woods ahead. Idiot. On the other hand, I was surprised to find him outside the protective walls of Tarishe alone.
Positioning myself in his path, I hunkered down. When he passed by me, near enough that my sword could have decapitated the fool, I put out his candle and scrambled backwards. He screeched like a hellcat, barely avoiding a tumble to the ground in his haste to dart about in indecisive circles. The dimwit was clearly blind and scared out of his wits! It was all I could do to keep my laughter contained.
“Who’s there?” He demanded after finally realizing panic would get him nowhere. “Reveal yourself this instant, or I shall…..do something………dreadful!” I nearly died of amusement when he held the black lantern up to his temple as if it would help him see into the night.
“You’ve got to be the thickest fool….or the luckiest. I swear, Thaddeus, it’s a miracle you haven’t been gobbled up by a dozen predators stalking you simultaneously.”
He growled a note of irritation, although I could tell by the change in his breathing that he was relieved to know it was just me acting as his tormentor.
“Catherine—I should’ve known. Come out where I can see you.”
I stepped out of the brush and walked right up to him, my head high, daring a critical word. He lowered the dead lamp to his side once he saw me, our silhouettes dark shades of gray under an arch of luminous moon. I still couldn’t believe the pigeon was out on his own.
“What in the world are you doing in the woods, Thaddeus?”
He grumbled his reply unhappily. “It was your grandmother’s asinine idea that I come find you. If you had not run off in the first place….” He didn’t bother finishing his thought but jumped right to questioning me.
“Where exactly have you been all this time?”
“Where do you think?”
He frowned at my sassiness. “Well, did you find the werewolves or not?”
“Or not,” I answered, keeping up the brazen attitude that grated on him so effectively.
He gave me a narrow eye, tight with suspicion. “Why were you gone so long?”
“Because, Thaddeus, I’ve been dodging trees in the darkness and hiding in the underbrush hunting for werewolves. But had I known you intended to lure them to you with a bright beacon, I would have just stayed here and ambushed the dogs after they had their way with you.”
He wrinkled up his nose with a mix of offense and disgust. “You think you’re so smart.” Murmuring under his breath he added, “You’re more the fool than you can begin to know.”
The insult actually stung with my new awareness. “I’m smart enough not to light a candle in a forest full of watchful, hungry eyes.”
“But not smart enough to obey the law and keep yourself from being arrested.” He moved with sufficient quickness to clasp onto my wrist. Thinking it best not to make my situation any worse by knocking our oppressive lawmaker to the ground, I allowed him to take hold of my other wrist as well and tie a length of rope around the two. He then grabbed me by the arm, scooped up his cold lantern, and led us away from the sinking moon. I walked with him a short distance before speaking up.
“If you intend to take me to Tarishe, you might want to turn around. If, however, your goal is to feed us both to the wolves, then we’re probably headed in the right direction.”
With a harsh yank on my upper arm he corrected our course. It was a quiet walk to the village where a cell awaited me as punishment and lodging for the night.
I awoke to achy muscles protesting the coldness. My body was curled up in a tight ball to preserve what little heat I owned. My eyes opened to a row of metal bars where Thaddeus stared at me from the other side, his black curls falling over his shoulders. Glancing around for a blanket, I found none. I sat up and questioned my jailor.
“Are you planning to freeze me to death? Is that what you do to werewolf slayers nowadays?”
He stared at me a moment longer and then turned away. I was somewhat grateful when he picked up an armload of firewood and threw it in a barrel stove against the wall where dying embers had nearly smoldered to ash. When a decent flame burned in the pit, Thaddeus returned to the spot where he had stood to watch me through the bars.
I tried my best to ignore him, leaning back against a cold, stone wall with my eyes shut. I kept my knees close, hugging them for warmth.
“What exactly do you want?” I finally snapped when his eerie scrutiny persisted. I was compelled to look at him when he didn’t answer. Our silent stare-down ended with him glancing away. His refusal to speak had me resting my head against the wall again until his voice at long last cut through the coldness.
“Your grandmother wishes for us to be married in two week’s time.”
I neither opened my eyes nor allowed the panic to show in my face. Drawing in a deliberately slow breath, I asked a simple question. “Why so soon?”
“She’s invited guests—old acquaintances. She wants the ceremony to take place in the red bulrush meadow south of the forest, an evening ceremony. It’s to be a full moon.”
My first thought was that the werewolves would be unable to take on human form that night. I wondered, “What does it matter if there’s a full moon or not?”
“Your grandmother wishes for our wedding to be a memorable occasion ‘lit by a magnificent snow moon.’ Her words, not mine.”
“Her wishes, not yours.”
Thaddeus exhaled loudly through his nose.
I rotated in my spot a degree to face my suitor, questioning and pleading with him. “I don’t understand this, Thaddeus, why don’t you refuse her? I know how you hate me, how we hate each other; it’s no secret to anyone. So why let her make it sound as if this is your proposal? Why agree to go through with this insane union when we have to be the least compatible couple alive?”
He glanced away, deepening his frown, thinking. His answer was a pathetic string of reiterated excuses. “Your grandmother wishes for you to be wed. She would like to see you made an honest woman, but your reputation, Catherine, not to mention a more mature age—these factors have diminished your prospects. Apart from, well….me….you’ve had no other propositions. And the truth is, I’m not exactly a young rooster myself. I believe I could benefit from the aid of a wife.”
“Aid? Is that what you’re seeking—a live in cook, a maid, a stable girl?”
He looked flustered by my accusation. “And….and companionship too,” he inserted.
“From me?” I squeaked, communicating without qualms the absurdity of the idea. “Is this because after all these years you’ve secretly come to adore our heated arguments and combative encounters? Who do you think you’re kidding, Thaddeus? My company is the last you honestly want, and on a constant basis it could very well prove lethal for one of us.”
The pigeon stretched his neck high, rounding his shoulders in a huff. “After we’re married, all that will change.”
“Like hell it will,” I groaned.
“I can be very persuasive, Cat.”
My upper lip curled unattractively, conveying serious doubt while simultaneously objecting to his utterance of a nickname only few friends had earned the right to use.
I watched his eyes squint in return, bushy eyebrows forming a low line as he took me in with the same deep scrutiny I had awakened to. This time the hint of a wry smile accompanied his eerie stare. “You must learn to have faith, beloved. As soon as we’re family I do believe you’ll come to see me in a whole new light. You may even find my charms…..irresistible.”
I brought my knees up close again, squeezing them protectively tight at the suggestive way he eyeballed me.
“Yes, Cat, I think I will very much enjoy taking advantage of our close relationship after your little—change of heart.”
I was suddenly terrified. It was all I could do to try and hide it. I spat with disgust on the ground. “I will never change my mind about you.”
He turned away long enough for me to strangle my nerves. I heard a few more logs get tossed into the hot, barrel stove. On his way out of the building, Thaddeus dared to wink at me. “I wouldn’t want my future wife to catch her death of cold before our wedding night.”
Left alone, I fell to pieces.
There was no misunderstanding that filthy swine’s insinuations; I had heard him loud and clear. His mother, that awful witch, meant to cast a spell again, this time causing me to fall in love with her son exactly as she had made me love her. Not only would I forget my children and my ties to werewolf brothers and sisters, but Thaddeus would take advantage of my hazy mind and prove me unfaithful to my true husband, Kresh! No, no, no, I couldn’t allow this to happen! I had promised Kresh I would never let that spawn of a witch have me! But how could I stop him?
The answer was obvious. Kill the witch.
I shivered at the thought. An unnatural appeal for her prevented me from a firm resolve. Would this cursed enchantment thwart my willpower? If opportunity presented itself, I would have only one shot. Only one. But Kresh had asked me not to try. He wished to handle the witch himself. Was there another way? Perhaps to manipulate this sorceress at her own game.
I thought long and hard, having nothing else to do while in confines. Thaddeus was my only visitor as the day past—stopping by long enough to revive the fire and offer me food and drink. I did my best to avoid meeting his gaze, glimpsing only smug, shameless desire in his stare. Having nothing but a spoon in my possession, I imagined using it to carve his lewd eyes out of their sockets. The imagery did little to comfort me, knowing a potent enough hex existed to make me fancy the imbecile.
As the hours grew dark I became increasingly restless. My thoughts jumped from one concern to the next: wondering about the welfare of Kresh and our children, fearing a dreadful future, and hating an enemy who had managed for years to manipulate my heart and mind in order to use me as a weapon against my true family. My deliverance would require caution and cunning, or once again I would find myself an unwitting pawn in a deadly game of retribution.
Tormented by my troubles, I found it difficult to fall asleep until late into the night. It was the sweet call of wolves that lulled me enough to drift off, imagining Kresh nearby, his howl an assurance that our nightmare would soon be over.
I awoke the next morning with a fur-skin blanket draped over my body and the skin-prickly feeling I was being watched. As grateful as I felt for the warmth supplied by the fur hide, it did nothing to ease the knot in my stomach at picturing Thaddeus silently watching me again. On the bright side—I was certain I had not been bewitched yet, as repulsed as the thought of him still made me. It was truly surprising when my eyes opened up to an unexpected visitor.
I hustled to my feet, smoothing out my appearance in the process. It was maddening when my mind caught up with the initial emotions that moved me. I felt humbled and embarrassed by my circumstances, concerned about the opinion of this motherly figure whom I adored. But wait….no! How could I suffer such intense love toward my enemy? I hated the hag! At least intellectually I did; I was supposed to. My heart, however, was drawn to the elderly form like a babe to his mother’s breast. This inner conflict made me tremble as I stood alone and mortified.
I wilted at the way my grandmother….the witch….shook her head while appraising my bedraggled appearance. “Oh, Catherine,” she sighed disappointedly.
I reminded myself that her death would release me from a sensitivity toward her, including this unwarranted shame that engulfed me at the mere sight of her disapproval.
The old woman continued to frown, regarding me with antipathy. “I cannot understand why you find it so difficult to keep yourself out of trouble, child. Must you continue to sully your reputation at every opportunity?” Her bony hand grasped at her coat, covering where a heart would be located had she possessed one. “My own granddaughter behind bars!”
I felt a need to defend myself. “It was for Dompier’s sake that I ran off. He’s my friend; I wanted to hunt down the monster that injured him.”
“Nevertheless, it is against the law for anyone to leave the borders of our village alone. Noble intentions or not, you aren’t excluded from the law, Catherine.”
“But I’m the only one able to confront those werewolves,” I argued. “No one else wields a blade deadly to them.”
My hand automatically went for the sword of which I spoke before remembering it had been seized at my arrest, leaving me unarmed. I continued my argument, understanding the importance of maintaining a pretense—a charade to protect my memory.
“Why would I ask others to follow me into danger, knowing they would be as good as defenseless against those wolves?”
“The men of Tarishe are able warriors, Catherine. Their purpose as escorts is to look out for you.”
“They would end up further victims. How many more dead do you wish to see?”
My question seemed to affect her. It was a moment before she spoke again, dodging the issue with a question of her own.
“So, Catherine, did you track down those horrid mongrels and avenge poor Dompier?”
I shook my head, lowering my eyes for fear of this sorceress seeing the truth in them. “The wolves were long gone. Thaddeus found me upon my return, hence my present accommodations.”
“And justly so. You did violate the law.”
Again, a pang of disgrace at her censuring. I hated how her skeletal fingers seemed to squeeze at my heart.
“How is Dompier?” I asked. It was something I wanted to know but had been afraid to ask.
“The man is healing. I believe he will recover.”
I breathed a deep sigh of relief, happy for my friend. “Thank goodness.”
“Yes. He was a fortunate soul.”
My jaw clamped shut to keep from spewing out condemning words the hag deserved to hear. How dare she call him fortunate when it was at her vile hand he had suffered such brutal injuries!
“Well, I cannot stay, Catherine, there is much to be done in the next few days. I understand Thaddeus has spoken to you about the upcoming ceremony?”
I nodded, unable to show any sign of gladness.
My grandmother….the witch…..smiled for me. “It will be a beautiful wedding, child. Utterly unforgettable. Imagine yourself in a grassy meadow, standing beside your new husband, the two of you and all your guests illuminated by a full, snow moon. It will be a dream, my dear!”
I had to ask, “Why an evening wedding? It will be cold. Why not under the warmth of the sun?”
She forced a grin that appeared slightly agitated. “The ambiance, of course. And my attending friends happen to have a sensitivity to light. I wouldn’t want to be a thoughtless host.”
“But a full moon means werewolves.” I tried to sound worried. “Don’t you think it an unnecessary risk to put all those guests in harm’s way? Especially after the savage attack on Dompier and the other huntsmen?”
The old woman groaned deep in her throat, rolling her dark eyes up toward the ceiling. “I can see right through you, Catherine. It is exactly as Thaddeus told me—you have cold feet and would use any excuse to avoid a marriage that only stands to benefit you. My child, you are in need of a serious turn-about.”
Her words alarmed me, and yet all of a sudden my salvation rested in them. I saw a way to prevent her need to conjure up a spell, if only I could act it up convincingly enough.
“Oh but, Grandmother, I have had a change of heart, I have!” I exclaimed. “There has been nothing else for me to do all these long hours locked up in solitary, nothing but contemplate my upcoming marriage to Thaddeus. And while it is true he and I have clashed on many occasions, I understand that his proposal, albeit frightening to me at first, is the only one I’ve been presented with in a great while.”
I seemed to have the old woman’s full attention, so I went on with my performance.
“I’ve been considering all night the many factors playing into this decision apart from my initial hesitance. As you and Thaddeus have both pointed out, there is my age to consider and the mistakes of my past which few would overlook like Thaddeus is apparently willing to. He is of high standing in Tarishe—with comfortable means, able to provide. I’ve come to realize how dim my future actually appears as a lonely, shunned spinster.”
The eyes so keenly fixed on me scrunched as if doubting my sincerity. I swallowed my pride and tried appealing to any scrap of sentiment my audience might possess.
“Grandmother, I do want to be happy, but even more so I want you to be pleased with me. I’ll admit Thaddeus is not my first choice for a husband, but I can see now that he may be my only option. I don’t wish to be alone all my life; therefore, I am willing to set aside our differences and attempt to find common ground between us. I do yearn to be looked upon as a decent woman with morals and integrity worthy of the forgiving warmth of my fellow Tarishians. I wish for a reputation that would earn your approval. If this is the only way for me to have these things, then I am truly of a changed heart. I will cheerfully marry Thaddeus.”
The witch smiled at me. “That is right, Catherine. It does me good to hear how you’ve come to your senses. Perhaps there is hope for you yet, child.”
She went for the door without approaching me.
“Wait,” I called out after her. “Haven’t you come to take me home?”
“Oh, no, no. You must serve your sentence.”
“For how long?”
“Most likely until the wedding.”
I was seriously concerned. “But…” I was cut off abruptly.
“Consequences, Catherine, dear. You should know by now you cannot dodge the consequences of your actions.”
As soon as she left, I sat on the floor and worried, wrapped in the fur skin left for me. How could I possibly get word to Kresh about the wedding—so soon, too soon, under the next full moon? The witch was doing this for a reason which had to include the werewolves somehow. Perhaps her aim was to keep them from appearing as men and mingling with her mysterious guests. And since when did she have friends from far off places? I had never heard mention of old acquaintances or living relatives. And we had never, ever traveled to visit anyone. I wondered at the peculiarity of these guests having an aversion to sunlight. Why not perform the ceremony indoors then, safely within the walls of Tarishe? Unless……could it be that sunlight caused more than an allergic reaction for these secretive guests? Was it more like…….a poison? A deadly poison. As would be the case with….
“They’re vampires!” I gasped to myself.
That’s why the werewolves had spotted Jovani’s clan so far from their native hunting grounds—the fanged devils had been invited here by my grandmother! The whole thing was adding up, amounting to something awful. But were the vampires meant to keep the werewolves at bay? Or was she planning a forced battle under the protection of nightfall out in the open meadow? And what compensation had the witch offered for the cooperation of vampires? The blood of innocent men?
“Oh no,” I worried in a whisper. “Kresh, where are you? How can I tell you what I’ve learned?”
I did my best to hide the fret that gripped me when someone entered the room. My eyes darted over to the door in time to catch a skeptical eye cast on me by my jailor.
“I just spoke to your grandmother,” he said.
I assumed his tight eyes were to convey doubt about her passed-along message. I had nothing to say.
“She tells me you’re now looking forward to our wedding.”
I chose my response carefully, knowing it might mean the difference between losing or retaining my precious memory. “‘Looking forward’ may not be exactly what I said. ‘Suffering less displeasure’ is more like it.”
“Hmm.” He continued to regard me suspiciously.
“Look, Thaddeus…” I had to swallow hard to spit out what was necessary. “Since you are unwilling to refuse my hand, and because my grandmother feels so strongly about this union, I’ve chosen to look on the brightest side possible……as dim as it may be.”
“She said you’d come around.”
“I have.” I wondered how believable my words were, snapped at him the terse way they came out.
His thick eyebrows rose to create a look of doubt.
“I’m sorry,” I breathed. “I’m just tired and cold and irritable because I’m stuck in a cage like an animal.”
“A very pretty animal,” he offered.
The compliment completely blindsided me and I reacted with a laugh.
“What?” he asked, taking offense to my amusement.
“It’s just…..you’ve never said anything kind to me before.”
“I most certainly have.”
“You most certainly have not.”
He crumpled his brow as if trying to recollect a time. “Well, I have now.”
I attempted not to choke on a returned kindness. “Thank you.”
He paused for a moment, then mumbled, “You’re welcome.”
We both sighed audibly as if our polite transaction had taken every ounce of effort either one of us possessed.
He gestured at me. “Do you like the blanket?”
I nodded. “It’s warm.”
“I made it. Well, actually, I didn’t skin the animal, but I did kill it….after the others pinned it down. It’s werewolf skin.”
My heart faltered; I gripped at a wad of black fur.
“I slayed the beast for you, Catherine. I used your sword. It was your grandmother’s idea, actually. A wedding present. You mentioned how chilly you get.”
“You didn’t slay a werewolf,” I breathed before repeating the words louder. “You did not slay a werewolf, Thaddeus.”
“Oh, but I did. I took a band of huntsman with me and we tracked one down. A smaller one, mind you, not far from the front gate…”
“You did not!” I contended more strongly. Why would one wolf have separated from the pack? Why outside our walls?
“Yes, Catherine, I did,” he insisted.
I shook my head disbelieving. “You’re not capable—”
“I am so.”
I wanted to cry. I wanted to protest, but to do so meant giving away my knowledge of the truth. Without knowing what else to do or say I changed the subject.
“The fire’s gone out.”
Thaddeus turned his head to check. “You’re right. I’ll see to it.”
He fed the barrel stove until a healthy blaze was roaring. Finding me no longer a decent conversationalist, Thaddeus left with a promise to return soon with food and water. Unobserved, I gathered up the fur hide of a lost soul and curled into a ball, hugging it close to my chest.
I cried silent tears and mourned for this unknown werewolf for days.
It was early afternoon on the day of my wedding when Thaddeus showed up to release me from jail. I folded up the fur blanket he had given me, intending to save and treasure it always. Thaddeus seemed pleased by the way I hugged the skin. He would never know the real reason why.
He was my escort across the village, clear to the front room of the small hut I normally shared with the imposter called Grandmother. Few words passed between us other than his awkward attempt at a thoughtful gesture.
“I had water heated for a bath. I’m sure you want to clean up—I mean, not that your smell is offensive or anything, but after two weeks in detention you can’t be expected…...anyway, I’m sure you’ll enjoy the bath. It’s warm, you know, not cold.”
I nodded and forced a kind smile. The poor fool truly seemed to be doing his best to accept the idea of me as his wife. In a strange way I felt sorry for him.
He kept talking in his graceless retreat out of the room. “They had a dress made for you. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m told it’s lovely—white and flowers and lace—probably not your taste, although I’m sure you’ll look quite nice in it. Not that you don’t look fine right now, but considering the occasion……I’ll, um, see you in a few hours.”
I watched him stumble out the front door. Then I turned to face the woman whose vengeful passions had orchestrated our deplorable wedding. More depraved, however, were her ulterior motives. I wasn’t certain how she meant for this night to play out, but most likely the end would result in considerable suffering and death. Of that I had little doubt. I worried for Kresh and for my werewolf family, and I agonized over the possibility of not remembering them at this night’s conclusion.
With so much weighing on my mind, it was difficult to concentrate on pretending.
My grandmother—the witch—helped me prepare for what she professed was my big night. She helped me bathe, pouring scented oils into the warm water that produced a sense of pleasant ease when breathed in, overwhelming me from head to toe. I wasn’t entirely sure if it was the result of a minor spell or the natural effects of a long-overdue bath, but my anxieties seemed to call a truce for the duration I soaked myself.
Once clean and dry, she brushed my long hair and then presented me with a full, flowing gown that appeared more heavenly in whiteness than anything I had ever laid eyes on. My reaction was unfeigned.
“Oh! It’s beyond the most beautiful dress I could imagine! Where did you find material so white?” My fingers rubbed greedily over a silken texture like cream and butterfly wings on my skin.
“No matter the effort, Catherine, you ought to look your best on your big day. Thaddeus will be smitten upon first sight of you.”
I nodded, suffering an adverse reaction in the pit of my stomach. I wondered about Kresh—where he was, what he and the others were enduring. Did he know that the witch meant to marry me off today? And if so, would it be better for him to show or to keep a safe distance?
“Are you nervous, child?”
I admitted so in a single motion.
“You look pale. Don’t tell me you’re getting cold feet again.”
I quickly denied her concern with a lie. “No, no, that’s not it at all. I’m excited to be moving forward with my life. I’m sure Thaddeus and I will adjust to one another’s company. I’m just nervous about what to expect.”
“Expect the best…..and the worst. You will find both in any relationship.”
I nodded and purposefully changed the subject. “Have your friends arrived yet? I’m surprised none of them are here to meet me.”
“They’ve been here for some time now, helping with preparations and all. I’m too old and too slow to do everything myself these days. But don’t worry, dear, they will be in attendance tonight. I guaranteed them an unforgettable event.”
I could only wonder what she meant.
Nervous and afraid of uttering an incriminating word, I kept quiet while seated on a stool, dressed in the most luxurious garment that had ever touched my skin. The old woman hummed to herself as her skinny fingers tied flowers in my hair at varying lengths. A fresh circlet made of white petals was placed on the very top of my head like a halo, and I felt even more the pretender resembling an angel.
“All done, child.”
I stood up, forcing a pleasant expression as I turned myself around. “How do I look?”
A somewhat bleak smile tugged on the wrinkles of the hunched figure assessing me. “You’ll do for my Thaddeus,” she muttered.
I was certain the witch had slipped up just then. “Your Thaddeus?”
But she covered it up smoothly. “As you accept him as a husband, I in turn accept him as a son.” Her lips spread into a wide grin as if mocking me. I could only look away.
I scooped up my folded fur blanket, preparing to exit the house.
“No, child. Leave that filthy thing here.”
“But I want to take it with me.”
“No, no.” She tried to tug the werewolf skin free of my hold, but I gripped the blanket tighter.
“It was my wedding gift—from Thaddeus.”
Despite the disapproval readable on her face, the old woman ceded. We left Tarishe together, and on horseback made our way to the red bulrush meadow where I predicted nothing short of a nightmare to transpire.
The moon was bright white seated low on the horizon, magnified by the thicker atmosphere. To me it looked like an illuminated portal inviting me into another world—an escape from this dark hell if only I could ride hard and fast enough to meet up with it and pass through. I imagined my true family waiting in the light for me. The surreality of the thought painted a moment of happiness on my lips. I heard Thaddeus address me just then.
“I knew white would look beautiful on you.”
I cast my eyes down from where I sat on horseback and found the man who would be my husband. He was fancifully dressed in black and violet with a white, lacy shirt flaunting gold buttons tucked beneath. Even his dark curls had been groomed—pulled away from his face and clamped behind his head. He looked to grow increasingly nervous at every passing second of my silent scrutiny.
“Thank you,” I managed to say.
Replying with a nod, he approached my horse. “Here, let me help you—”
I slipped down myself before he could lend a hand, keeping the fur hide in my possession. “I’m not suddenly incapable because I wear a dress, Thaddeus.”
“I wasn’t suggesting….” Wisely, he let the issue drop.
Lifting an arm, he offered it to me. That’s when I noticed my sword in sheath belted to his waist.
“That’s mine!” I declared, reaching for the hilt.
Thaddeus managed a quick side-step. He hardened his jaw at my look of incredulity. I would only wait momentarily for an explanation.
“I know the sword is yours, Catherine, everyone knows that. But you’re too beautiful tonight to ruin that radiant look with an ugly, leather belt strapped about you.”
I was starting to think the man was using compliments as a weapon to defend himself against me. It did work to temper my anger somewhat.
“I brought the sword as a cautionary act, just in case those nasty werewolves show up. Seeing how I’ll be standing beside you all evening, the blade will be at your disposal if needed.”
I accepted his reasoning and stood down.
“Besides,” Thaddeus added, apparently feeling safe, “what’s yours is mine now anyway.”
I glared at the fool. “That works both ways, you know.”
He rolled his eyes and shrugged. “If it must.”
Again, he offered me his arm which I grudgingly accepted. As we turned away from the giant moon, I noticed an audience gathered across the meadow. A smaller group stood separate from the main body, distinctive from the rest. Their uniqueness wasn’t something initially obvious. They were pale-skinned, but it seemed the luminosity of the moon was responsible for bleaching them this unusually pallid tone. It wasn’t until I skimmed over recognized faces from Tarishe that I realized my friends retained their color and blemishes, unlike the flawless, pearly faces of those segregated guests. Upon further observation, I noted how they kept as still as statues—hardly moving, scarcely blinking, and only just breathing. I diverted my eyes when I realized the majority of them were staring at me.
“Who are those people?” I asked Thaddeus, certain he would know to whom I was referring. We continued towards the gathering, arm-in-arm.
“They are your grandmother’s friends.”
“But who are they? What are their names? Where are they from?”
“I believe they’ve traveled quite a ways to get here—from the DelVanporia homeland, I believe. I only know a few names.” He listed them off in pairs. “Fallon and Tinder, Talmadge and Miriam, Traïsean and Vada, Evander and Araminta, Percival and Concetta, Jesaray and Althea, Jovani and—”
“Jovani?” I repeated with recognition. It was just as I had suspected; those pearl-skins were vampires!
“You’ve heard of him?” Thaddeus asked, looking down at me.
“Um, no, no. It’s just an odd name.”
He laughed once. “Aren’t they all?”
I glanced again at the dangerous group only to find every vampire sharing the same narrow gaze, each one pinned on me. A couple things occurred to me at that moment: I was right about the witch’s mysterious guests being vampires. I may, however, have been wrong about the reason they were invited.
Skimming past the meadow at the surrounding trees, I looked for the tiniest reflection from gleaming eyes that would suggest my werewolf family lay in wait. Kresh’s words came back to me as I failed to glimpse any sign of him. “Jovani and his clan are not imaginary, and they are not to be taken lightly. The vampires are a threat to all—especially you, Duvalla, because of who you are…”
I had assumed the vampires were after the werewolves. It had never crossed my mind they would be invited here to destroy me. Perhaps, after fourteen years of vengeful games, the witch had finally grown tired of toying with me. Given her taste for cruel irony and severe brutality, what more twisted way existed than to end my life on an occasion meant as a new beginning? Her warped ruse was unraveling with every step drawing me closer to it. Here on my wedding day she had promised the Queen of Werefolk as a gift to the vampires! And here was more irony—under a brilliant full moon I would stand incapable of changing shape to defend myself. All dressed in the purest white, they would drench me in my own crimson blood! I had walked right into my own graveyard with no one to save me and no way to save myself.
“I’m dead,” I whispered. I froze in place, clinging to Thaddeus’ arm. He stopped beside me and looked down with concern.
“Your face is white. Catherine, are you alright?”
I peered into his eyes, searching, wondering. Did he know? Was he in on this too? Surely, he had to be. He was her son, her offspring, she would have told him. And he hated me.
I dropped my hold on his arm and hugged his wedding gift to my chest. I wondered if the misfortunate werewolf who once owned this black fur had been sent to warn me—cut down before having the chance to deliver his message.
Thaddeus moved to block my view of Jovani and his clan. He grabbed hold of my shoulders and shook me gently.
“Catherine? Cat, what’s the matter?”
I looked at him again, tears forming in my eyes. I wasn’t afraid to die, but to die this way…..and without saying goodbye to Kresh and my babies.
“Catherine, talk to me!”
Thaddeus pled with me in expression more than in words. I wondered if it was possible he was truly clueless. Could he be as much the fool as I? I took a chance. What did I have to lose now anyhow?
“Thaddeus, I think I’m…” I hesitated. What if he wasn’t to be trusted? Either way I was dead. “I think I’m in danger.”
He looked genuinely concerned. The tears began to rain from my eyes, and he compassionately brushed them away. It only made me cry harder.
“You’re not like her,” I muttered.
I shook my head.
“Catherine, you’re not making any sense. What has you so upset? Why do you think you’re in danger?” He patted the weapon next to his thigh. “I have your sword ready to fight off any dogs.”
I reached to stroke the hilt of my blade. “I’m not worried about the wolves.”
My head continued to shake back and forth. I was too unsure to verbalize my fears. My wet lashes lifted as I stole a glance past Thaddeus, observing how the vampires continued to stand like stone pillars, calmly staring at the prize they had been promised.
Thaddeus twisted his neck to follow my eyes behind him. He seemed unable to comprehend any threat. When his face turned back, he looked at me in the kindest way. I was staggered.
“Catherine, no one here is going to hurt you. It’s alright, I promise. You’re safe. I swear, you’re safe with me.”
He returned to my side and wrapped his arm around mine. Patting my hand, he urged me forward again. Either he was sincere or he was a fine liar. I had never before felt as utterly defenseless, even pinned under a pack of killer werewolves.
The witch met us in front of her guests. All crooked and shaky, she looked deceptively frail. A blade through the heart would put an end to her, but a mental paralysis prevented me from trying. Such an attempt would probably bring the vampires down on me anyway.
Her knobby finger pointed to a circle in the grass made from the heads of white lilies. I understood we were to step into it. Thaddeus dragged me into the circle. A man in black took his place in front of us and opened a book from which he began to read. It was muttered gibberish delivered in a monotone voice. My eyes flickered repeatedly to the vampire clan positioned just off to my side now. Hopeful glances at the surrounding woods caught no sign of Kresh. I heard nothing of the ceremony until Thaddeus bumped me with his elbow. He looked at me expectantly, then finally spoke to the man in black.
Again, there was a mumbled question. “I do,” Thaddeus replied. His words were surprisingly confident. I stared at his profile, wondering who in the world this man really was. He turned to smile at me when the preacher’s concluding words hit my ear.
“—I now pronounce you man and wife. You may kiss your lovely bride.”
This was all wrong; it wasn’t supposed to go this far. I felt terror and panic and confusion conglomerate into one emotion that numbed my brain. I couldn’t breathe.
Thaddeus slipped a hand behind my neck and lowered his head. He moved in cautiously for a kiss. I wanted to hit him in the jaw, to draw my sword and keep him at bay, to swipe the pigeon’s feet out from under him, but all I could do was clutch at my blanket and close my eyes.
An arm that felt like solid steel wrapped around my waist and wrenched me out from under the near kiss. All at once, the meadow was a confusion of screams and blurred motion. I could hardly focus on anything that was happening. The rock-hard arm held fast, hauling me backwards, when a voice growled sternly in my ear.
“If you wish to see your dog mate again, grab onto me and don’t let go.”
I was then shoved to the ground. Without stopping to think, I clamped onto the legs of my abductor with both hands. Thaddeus hollered my name in a horrified manner.
I looked up and met his eyes, as wide as my own. He reached out to me, but I was unexpectedly lifted off the ground, rising higher and higher over a scene of pandemonium. Men and women fled every which way to escape the meadow. They scattered like a herd of deer stalked by lions. But those pearl-skinned vampires failed to chase after the humans. They had remained as one army all converged upon a single enemy. My enemy. The witch. Her cry of horror pealed through the air, making the trees and the fleeing Tarishians and even the moon cringe. That wicked hag was attacked and crushed by her own mysterious guests.
Ascending higher into the sky, my eyes darted to Thaddeus far below crying out for his mother. He reached for her as he had reached for me, but his feet didn’t budge from the circle of white lilies. He didn’t dare approach the vampires.
Keeping a tight handhold, climbing higher and higher into the night, my eyes dared to glance above at the creature carrying me away. He was solid black from his pointed ears to the great claws that trapped my wrists. The moon illuminated his form perfectly, and I awed over the widest wingspan I had ever witnessed on a bat.
A real vampire bat.
I noticed two others at his flanks and two more bringing up the rear. Their wings were great, taut sails negotiating the air. One held in his claws the fur skin I had dropped in my haste to lay hands on my abductor.
I had been saved from the witch. That knowledge was worth the sigh of relief I breathed. But whether my captors meant to let me live or die at some other location was yet unknown.
"Enemies may unite to eliminate a common threat,
but never without a wary eye fixed on their ally."
— Richelle E. Goodrich
#theTarisheCurse #fantasy #Halloween #suspense #werewolves #vampires #witches #HalloweenStories #RichelleGoodrich
Copyright 2013 Richelle E. Goodrich
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