“Vengeance would have us
assault an enemy's pride to beat him down. But vengeance hides a dangerous
truth, for a humbled foe gains patience, courage, strength, and greater
“Vengeance would have us assault an enemy's pride to beat him down. But vengeance hides a dangerous truth, for a humbled foe gains patience, courage, strength, and greater determination.”
For hours I endured hanging from the hooks of a giant bat.
He and his companions kept on a straight course eastward until the full moon crossed overhead and began sinking at our backs. My arms ached to the point of suffering phantom needle pricks, but eventually numbness set in. My hold on the bat’s legs slipped early on when luckily I discovered that his claws held me securely by both wrists. As I hung like a stringed puppet, I tried to keep from looking down. Fear of heights made it difficult not to imagine death on impact with the ground, leaving me a shattered skeleton inside my skin.
It was within the inner cliffs of a mountain chain that our journey came to an end. I was dropped onto a rocky ledge where I chose to rest for a moment, unsure of whether or not my arms were capable of movement. When my body turned, my deadened limbs followed. An attempt to sit up on an elbow proved successful, and with slow moves I managed to rise to my feet, rubbing at pulled muscles.
Just past the spot where I was dumped, five large vampire bats touched ground and transformed into human shapes—three men and two women—all stunning creatures as sleek and unblemished as porcelain. Each had long, dark hair ranging in color from raven to sepia. The eyes that flashed my way glinted crimson. They turned to the individual who had carried me all this way when his rich voice hit the air. Though serious in tone it had a charming appeal.
“Carry on and meet up with the others. Don’t expect us until tomorrow. If we fail to show within two hours of sunset, continue home.”
“This isn’t right. At least two of us should stay here with you, Jovani.”
“No. I don’t trust him.”
“Which is exactly why you need backup.”
Their leader looked over at me, his flawless lips in an even line, his nose chiseled to a point like an arrow aimed my way. Raven waves fell away from big eyes exhibiting more alertness in their stare than any animal or human naturally possessed. Despite how defenseless I knew myself to be, I refused to show him fear.
Jovani turned back to the four members from his clan. “I won’t need backup, Percival, I have a priceless bargaining chip.”
From the way the others eyed my form, I understood it was me he considered his negotiating leverage. I felt somewhat confident this meant I was more valuable alive.
“This stinks,” one of the lady vampires complained.
“No, Concetta, that’s just the dog.”
A perky nose sniffed in my direction as they shared a trill of amusement at my expense. All but Jovani.
“The four of you get on your way. Evander, you have the crown until I return.”
“Indeed.” The selected vampire bowed his head in a show of sober reverence. I could tell he considered it an honor to be chosen. The others nodded their acceptance of Jovani’s choice for a leader in his absence.
“Now go. The moon will soon set with sunrise blistering its heels.” Jovani made direct eye contact with the second female. She brought to mind an exotic, island princess whose skin had never been kissed by the sun. “Araminta, keep him well.”
“I will. Be safe, Jovani. Bring Evadine home.”
One by one the four vampires altered shape and beat their stretched wings against the air. Jovani watched the sky far past the point where I could distinguish any outlines against the stars. He glanced at me with wild, red eyes before crouching down to scoop up the fur blanket discarded by one of his clan. He threw it at me and then disappeared into a dark cavern behind the rocky ledge. I remained standing in my same spot, feeling a false impression of safety further away from the bloodsucker. For warmth, and perhaps a sense of comfort, I wrapped myself in the black fur tossed at my feet.
It was eternally quiet. The air felt as cold as a mountain stream. It smelled like rain and tasted of tiny specks of moisture. I shivered—waiting and fretting and wondering. At long last I dared to verbalize a question, assuming the vampire, Jovani, watched me from somewhere within the cave.
“Who are we waiting for?”
Silence was my only reply. I paused for a long moment before asking again, “Who is to meet you here—and why?”
This time a velvety voice rose from the blackness like a soft hiss in the wind. “Do dogs have no memory? I answered your question earlier, pet.”
I thought back to the brief conversation exchanged between the vampires in my presence but failed to recall mention of any rival or ally. Jovani had never spoken to me directly—no that wasn’t true. I had almost forgotten the growled command in my ear when he had snatched me away from Thaddeus. I recalled the words that had caused me to cling to a vampire without question: “If you wish to see your dog mate again, grab onto me and don’t let go.”
My heart leapt, hopeful. “Kresh? Is he coming here?”
A low grumble chilled me deeper than the dampness. “For your sake he’d best make an appearance.”
I was concerned, but for my husband’s safety more than my own. “I won’t let you hurt him. I’ll jump off this cliff before you can use me in some manipulative…”
I stepped nearer to the brink—close enough to swing a foot out over open air—when I found myself caught up in icy arms and jarred within a blur of movement. I was inside the walls of the vampire’s cavern before comprehending the not-so-gentle maneuver that planted me on a large boulder for a hard seat. My abductor melted into the darkness as swiftly as he had transferred me, his hiss rising from somewhere at my back.
“Don’t. Move.” The order alluded to consequences if challenged.
I began where I had left off, but remained seated. “I won’t let you use me…”
“You have it all wrong, pet. It’s not your life or his or that pathetic pack of stinking mutts that I have an ounce of interest in.”
He refused me an answer to this question. I pressed for more, trying to solve the puzzle with what I knew.
“The witch let you have me—to kill or to use as leverage against the werewolves.”
“Wrong again, pet.”
I was confused. “But she invited you to that phony wedding—”
“Oh, but it was in every way a real wedding. You were married to her son by a veritable man of the cloth. It was the witch’s desire to have the union take place.”
I refused to accept his lie. “The whole ceremony was a sham.”
“No, pet. But it was meant to cause outrage—to wound your pack, especially the mutt called Kresh.”
I considered my original fears. “She expected him to react, to try and stop the wedding.”
“Yes. The witch anticipated him coming to your aid, but not in the way he did.” The words were grumbled, simmering in bitterness.
I took a guess. “You were to fight him, but he failed to show.”
“I was to kill him.”
My pulse spiked, anxious. “And do you still plan to go through with it?”
There was a moment of hesitation. “Not today, pet. But don’t think I would turn my back on a moment of opportunity.”
I didn’t doubt it; however, things still weren’t adding up. If Jovani was a collaborator with the witch, if his purpose had been to assist her in a fight against the werewolves, why had his clan rebelled and attacked her? And why was Kresh coming here to meet this hateful vampire?
“You mean to use me somehow to bribe the werewolves. That’s why you called me a bargaining chip.”
“Again, you’ve got it wrong, pet.”
His nickname was grating on my nerves. “Stop calming me pet. I hate it.”
“Are you not a dog?”
“Are you not a rat with wings?” I countered nastily.
I swore he chuckled lowly over my shoulder. My skin crawled, ill at ease with how invisible he remained at such close proximity. Twisting my neck, trying hard to see in the dark, I demanded one vital piece of information. “Are you allied with that wicked witch or not?”
He answered me with a question of his own. “Can you ally yourself with the dead?”
Another question caught my ear, traveling in from outside. My heart reacted to the voice.
“Are you certain the old hag is dead?”
“Kresh!” I said his name without needing to discern his outline against the graying sky. A hint of pending sunrise vaguely lessened the night behind him. I went to slip down from my boulder seat, but an icy hand stopped me. Jovani proceeded to deliver a report to the werewolf who stood in human form at the mouth of the cavern. It was disclosure that began to clear things up for me.
“I’ve done all that you asked. The witch is assuredly dead. She was overcome by a mob of vampires excepting myself and four others who helped in the deliverance of your precious pet.”
Jovani set me on my feet and shoved me forward as if tentatively offering me to Kresh, yet he retained a firm grip on my wrist. “Now keep your end of the bargain and return what is mine.”
Kresh’s eyes scrunched tight with skepticism. “Not until I’m convinced the witch is dead.”
I was yanked back beside the vampire whose voice, though fluid, grew irate.
“I put lives on the line to do your job, dog! We attacked without warning; she is dead!”
I confirmed Jovani’s words. “I saw it, Kresh. They all fell on her at once. I heard her screams.”
“There, you see?” Jovani said, with a note of victory. “Now give me Evadine.”
The werewolf ignored his demand and turned his attention on me. “Duvalla, do you remember me?”
“I do,” I replied without delay, grateful that a wedding hex hadn’t erased my memory.
Kresh smiled the slightest bit. I could see him more clearly with each passing minute as the sky outside shifted to lighter shades of gray. “But do you remember us—our past together. Do you remember our three boys?”
I thought hard, not wanting to disappoint him, but a curtain remained drawn between my past and present. My head shook before I admitted I could not recall the faces of my lost children.
“I’m sorry, Kresh.”
He stepped into the cave and took my hand, placing it overtop his own. Jovani didn’t try to prevent it.
“Duvalla, can you change form?”
I watched as his hand contorted, enlarging into a clawed paw beneath my palm. Umber fur sprouted all the way up to his elbow.
“Try, Duvalla. Do it with me.”
I couldn’t remember how.
I shook my head—worried, disheartened, realizing what Kresh surely had concluded. His somber sigh pained me, and I watched his fingers return to slender extensions that resembled my own.
“The witch is not dead. You’ve failed to keep your part of our agreement. Until you finish the job, I will not come thru on my end.”
I was thrust aside as the vampire stuck his pointed nose in his rival’s face. To me they appeared equally matched—at least in stature.
“You can’t do this! We did all that you asked!”
“Not all, the witch still lives.”
“You can’t know that for certain.”
“I can. The spell is unbroken. If the hag were dead, the curse would be done away.”
“Perhaps it doesn’t work that way.”
“You know it does. Sorcery dies with the sorcerer.”
“There is nothing more I can do for you. I already sacrificed the welfare of my clan…”
“…who apparently failed.”
“I saved your mate, now give me mine! Give me Evadine!”
Because of the desperate way Jovani cried out, I feared he might resort to violence. I was disturbed by what evidence suggested the werewolves had done.
“Give her back to him,” I said. My words drew both sets of eyes on me. I measured the anguish and aching in Jovani’s bright stare before looking at my husband. “Kresh, please, return Evadine to him.”
The vampire stepped aside as if allowing room for me to plead his case. He regarded me strongly—uncertain and distrustful, yet exceedingly hopeful.
My husband shook his head, facing me. “Duvalla, I can’t do that. You don’t understand. It’s because we trapped her that the vampires attacked the witch rather than us. He would do anything to save his mate, including sacrifice friends.”
“So you used his love for Evadine against him.”
“I had to. The witch meant for the vampires to fall on us and wipe out our pack if possible. My actions saved our family.”
“I know. I understand.”
“Then you must understand he is our enemy.”
I nodded. “Yes, but…”
“Denying him his mate only serves to protect us.”
“It did, Kresh, yes. It did protect us. But you have to ask yourself, how long would you keep this up? How long would you deny them each other? For a week? A year? Fourteen dreadful years? Would you do to them what has been done to us?”
“Those vampires would destroy us, Duvalla! They’re the enemy!”
“Are those not the exact words the witch uses to justify tormenting us?”
“It’s not the same thing.”
“Isn’t it?” I waited a moment for Kresh to struggle with his conscience. He was a good man, I knew that. “Jovani did what you asked of him—he stayed his hand against us and turned on the witch, very likely at great cost to his clan if she still lives. And he saved me, Kresh. He brought me back to you.”
“They were supposed to kill that wretched hag and break the curse.”
“I know. But I witnessed with my own eyes how they honestly tried. I can’t comprehend how she managed to survive.”
“She will continue to hunt for you…for us.”
“And now Jovani’s clan as well. Kresh, he doesn’t deserve cruelty at our hands. You more than anyone know how miserable it is to be separated from the one you love. Would you purposefully put another soul through that? Please….release Evadine. Let them be together.”
Silence took over as my words were contemplated. I took the opportunity to approach the vampire who waited on the edge of hope.
“I am aware that in the eyes of werefolk and vampires alike, we are the gravest enemies. And I’m not suggesting the disdain between us will ever change. But it seems to me that we now share a more powerful enemy than either one of us can defeat alone. That witch will seek us out, and her intent will be to exact a miserable revenge. I ask you, Jovani, to consider uniting with us for this one purpose—to destroy a mutually distressing enemy. You can run, as can we. You can try fighting her alone, as we have tried. The fact that she survived your clan’s attack proves she is a formidable force to be reckoned with. She has reason now to hate you, to seek your destruction as she has sought ours. But I have reason now to favor you.”
The vampire didn’t trust me, and he had only one motivation for considering an alliance. “My mate—I want her returned to me.”
I looked to Kresh for his cooperation.
“I don’t think it’s wise, Duvalla. I would strongly advise against handing over our only means to control these bloodsuckers. However, the decision is ultimately yours.”
I nodded my understanding and returned to the vampire.
“Jovani, I promise Evadine will be returned to you regardless of what you decide.”
His thin eyebrows dived as low as they could manage to furrow over a look of serious skepticism. He seemed to be measuring my sincerity.
“I want her now,” he demanded. It was clearly a test.
I turned to Kresh and gestured for compliance. He stepped out of the cave and disappeared. In the interim, I took the opportunity to reiterate how truly desperate both of our situations were.
“Jovani, that witch is a brutal demon. She will toy with you—break your heart and destroy your will and then keep you alive only to inflict additional persecution. She will turn your loved ones against you, or you against them. It has never been her interest to deliver a quick, vengeful death sentence, but to cause her victims years of suffering and agony. She must be destroyed if either of us hope to find rest. We need each other, Jovani, you must see that.”
“What I see is a dog’s mess we have been made to step in.”
“If it’s true that you meant to attack the werewolves, how could you expect them not to utilize a prime opportunity to defend themselves? What Kresh did ultimately saved lives.”
“Your lives! Not ours! If the witch still lives….”
I understood what he couldn’t seem to verbalize. “I can’t say what’s happened to your clan, but I am sorry for whatever losses you suffer.”
Jovani’s face hardened, and once again he seemed to be gauging my sincerity.
His crimson eyes darted toward the cavern’s entrance, now a soft-gray shroud of mist, when a handful of figures blocked off what little light preluded the dawn. I watched his expression grow anxious at the sight of his mate surrounded by guard wolves.
Evadine was an exceptional beauty, even by vampire standards. All legs and lengths of red-brown curls that produced the sexiest, tousled look any female ever possessed. Her red lips were like a poisoned apple that matched the fire in her eyes.
She looked to her mate for help and voiced his name in a wind-blown kiss.
Jovani looked to me.
“Let her go,” I ordered the wolves.
Evadine stepped away from her captors and growled a low threat as she glided past me. “You’ll soon pay for this, dog.”
I heard Jovani’s response to his mistress as he took her in his arms. “Not her, love. I owe the pet a favor.” Then he looked to my husband and the wolves in his company, wrinkling his nose distastefully. “Him, however, I owe a heartless disservice.”
The vampires turned to me, still wrapped in each other’s arms.
“Leave us,” Jovani said. I understood that with daybreak upon us they would be stuck in this cavern until nightfall.
Before allowing them their privacy, I asked one last time, “Please, at least consider my request.”
Evadine questioned her mate with a look, but his eyes remained fixed on me. His answer was a barely-perceptible nod.
When I went to leave, I grabbed my fur blanket from off the boulder and carried it out. Only Kresh remained at the cavern’s mouth waiting for me. He took my hand, and we walked along the mountain’s edge where a natural footpath declined by degrees. A hint of apricot color bled into the gray sky, outlining a row of distant rocky peeks.
“Thank you, Kresh,” I breathed to break the silence between us.
He turned his head sideways to see me. I stopped our walk to hear what he would say.
“I love you, Duvalla.”
I gestured that I knew as much.
“I had hoped today would be our day of deliverance—the witch dead, the curse gone, your memory restored, and our family reunited at last without any further need to fear the future.”
My face tangled up, feeling his pain and disappointment. I hugged the black fur against my chest, hurting. Kresh mirrored my miserable expression. His hands went to brush along my cheekbones where his fingers intertwined in the hair on either side of my face. He moved in to meet my lips, showing me greedy affection in a shower of hard kisses. I let my security blanket fall to the ground and wrapped my arms around this man for whom I felt such strong desire. How I wished to recall just one intimate moment with him! He took hold of my hips, and I could feel how he wanted me, my body craving the same passions. I envied the private cavern occupied by the reunited vampires.
As his lips planted kisses along my accommodating neck, I asked where home was.
Kresh stopped to fix his sober eyes on mine. “It’s quite a distance away, actually, and the pack is anxious for your arrival.”
“They can wait,” I said, my heart still racing with expectancy.
He grinned the tiniest bit. “We can wait.”
Was my husband honestly denying me? I forced myself to agree with him, and leaned down to swipe the fur blanket I had dropped at my feet.
“What is this?” Kresh asked, feeling at the black fur.
“A lost soul,” I breathed, feeling sorrow once again for the lives stolen because of that awful witch.
I was met with a puzzled look.
“It’s werewolf hide,” I uttered, caressing the fur. “Thaddeus killed a wolf at the gates of Tarishe.”
Kresh shook his head. “No, he didn’t.” A smile widened on his face, an expression I found insensitive considering the circumstances.
“Well, even if Thaddeus didn’t kill the wolf, someone did.”
Kresh strangled a laugh. He continued to grin crookedly at me.
“What?” I asked, terribly confused by his unfitting reaction.
“It’s bear skin, Duvalla.”
Kresh bit down on his lips to keep from laughing at me. It was a kind gesture and an apparent struggle. “Bear skin, not werewolf,” he whispered in my ear.
I groaned and tossed the fur to the ground. “That stupid pigeon.”
All at once my husband was a giant wolf at my side making beastly noises I was certain translated into werewolf amusement. I lifted my white skirt and straddled his back, grabbing two handfuls of umber fur that felt comparable to the coarse coat of a grizzly bear. We started down the mountain having every intention of joining the pack.
I wasn’t sure how far we needed to travel, but I could tell by our hurried pace Kresh was anxious to get to our destination as soon as possible. It took only minutes to meet up with the few werewolves who had escorted Jovani’s vampire mistress to the appointed cavernous meeting place. These large wolves kept a distance at our flanks as Kresh snaked through wooded terrain, carrying me on his back.
We traveled in silence for hours, hearing woodland sounds transition from chipper morning songs to squawks, squeals, and the pitter-patter of scampering forest creatures by midday. It took a loud rumbling from my stomach to get Kresh to break long enough to hunt for a quick meal late in the afternoon—raw rabbit flesh which my human aversion urged me to decline. Believing the werewolf inside me would not hesitate to devour a fresh kill, I forced myself to eat it. The meat tasted sweeter than expected and served to satisfy my hunger.
We hurried on our way again, continuing our travels after the setting of the sun. I watched an all-but-full moon rise from behind the mountain peaks and cross overhead until my eyelids grew heavy and I nearly dozed off on Kresh’s back, rocked by the steady shift of his silent steps. I asked for another break, announcing I had grown weary to the point of sleep. Kresh slowed, and in a brief guttural growl communicated to the other werewolves our intent to stop for a while. Within a tight cluster of trees, on a carpet of thick underbrush, he hunkered low so I could slip off his back. He turned into his human form at once. My eyes naturally shied away from his nakedness, a bashful reaction he found humorous enough for laughter.
“You’ve seen me unclothed on numerous occasions, Duvalla, as I have seen you.”
My face flushed warm, and I turned to keep the red in my cheeks hidden. “That may be true, but I recall none of those times.” I feigned interest in a patch of tree moss as an excuse to keep my back on the naked man now chuckling at my expense.
Being his wife, there was no reason to divert my eyes, and yet I couldn’t seem to look at my husband, his grinning face included. For me to feel so terribly self-conscious was downright out of character, but this werewolf somehow held the power to fluster me. I forced myself to pivot and face him, only to find him directly in my face. His hands fell on my shoulders as his lips engaged mine before I could utter a word. My body instantly relaxed. After kissing away the awkwardness, Kresh moved his mouth to my ear.
“Rest awhile, Duvalla, before we set off again. I’ll send two scouts ahead to announce our arrival. We’re not far from the pack.” He helped me to the ground, behaving as if he would leave me. I held onto his hand.
“Stay,” I said.
He smiled tenderly down at me. “I’ll return in a moment. I want to double back a short distance to be sure we’re alone.”
I guessed at his actual concern. “You think we’re being followed?”
He shook his head in denial, but a frown tugged at each corner of his mouth, betraying his thoughts. “I just want to be certain,” he said.
“Who do you think it is? Not the witch….oh, please, no!”
“No, no,” he said, patting at the night air, trying to assure me. “Most likely no one is trailing us, but if someone is on our heels, I would guess vampires.”
“Why do you think that?”
His lips skewed to one side, more of a scoffing expression than humored. “I can smell the leech. However, he did handle you—it could be his lingering scent I’m breathing in.”
I sniffed at myself, catching no unusual odor, and shook my head. “What does a vampire smell like?”
Kresh’s brow puckered as he thought of a suitable description. “It’s a pungent stench that smothers natural odors. Their stink is stale and metallic, like the air deep inside an ore mine but stronger. It’s typically mixed with the smell of human blood.”
I sniffed at myself again, concentrating. I could detect nothing but a whiff of floral from the oils I had bathed in the evening before—and perhaps a bit of perspiration.
“You think I stink?” My nose scrunched with the question.
“No, no, of course not,” he quickly replied. “It’s the dress; I wouldn’t mind if you shed it.”
“You want me to take off this dress?” He and I both knew it would leave me as naked as him. I pulled down on a sleeve as if complying, tempting him with a bare shoulder. “And you have no other intentions but to rid me of a foul vampire stench only you seem able to detect?”
“Believe me, Duvalla, if not for the witch’s curse you would have no trouble recognizing it.”
I was certain he was right.
Kresh reached to rub at my bare shoulder, caressing it tenderly. He seemed to struggle with desire—as did I—but again he denied me. “I’ve no other intentions tonight, Duvalla.”
“Oh,” I breathed as disappointedly as I could manage. I pulled up my sleeve. “In that case, I’ll leave the dress on.”
Kresh laughed aloud, undaunted in his task. “Rest, my love. I’ll return shortly.” He kissed me and then added in a private whisper, “As soon as I get you within the safety of the pack, I’ll remove that smelly garment myself.”
I laid my head back on the soft, forest floor and closed my eyes, smiling. Drifting off, I dreamed of him doing exactly that.
It was still dark when I was jostled awake, drawn from a pleasant dream. The foggy awareness of lingering bliss thinned my lips. I breathed in slowly, my eyelids fluttering open, until recognition hit me with unforgiving force.
Gasping at an unexpected presence, I attempted to scoot backwards. My long skirt prevented me, as did the hand that closed around my wrist. I stared with big eyes at the only figure I could make out in the dark, keeping my mouth shut for fear my words would condemn me. This was wrong. Where was Kresh?
“Catherine, it’s okay—it’s alright. You’re safe now. Those scheming mongrels can’t hurt you now.”
“Wh…what?” It was the only safe word I could stutter. I yearned desperately to know what I couldn’t ask—where was Kresh?
Thaddeus pulled on my wrist in an attempt to draw me closer to him. It appeared he meant to help me up, but I resisted. Again, I tried to ask without verbalizing an incriminating word.
“Wh…where? How? What….what’s happened?” My eyes begged for an explanation.
“You’re okay, Cat. That’s all that matters.”
My brow pinched at the nickname he had no right to use. I fought to gain my composure, scanning the murky woods while getting to my knees. Thaddeus kept a hold of my wrist—a gentle but firm grip. His gaze was tight and constant, clearly evaluating my behavior. With my wits returning, I began to ask more coherent questions.
“How did you manage to find me?”
“It wasn’t difficult.” He was evading the question.
I glanced around again, futilely seeking eyes in the darkness. “You’re…..alone? No, you can’t be….you’d never….you can’t. Who helped you?”
Thaddeus grimaced at the implicit insult, but I didn’t believe for one minute he possessed the capacity or the courage to pursue me on his own. I scanned the woods again, certain there had to be others. Where in the world was Kresh?
A cold shadow slinked in, blacker than the night, and I lifted my eyes to watch a figure emerge behind Thaddeus that produced goose bumps on my skin. I couldn’t say his name out loud for fear of what listening ears might deduce. It didn’t matter—the pigeon said it for me.
“Catherine, this is Jovani—one of your grandmother’s friends from our wedding. He volunteered to help search for you. It’s lucky he did or I might never have tracked you down. Imagine my surprise when we found werewolves circling my sleeping bride like scavengers! Had it not been for Jovani, you would have been a victim of those dreadful beasts!” Thaddeus smiled, twisting his neck to look up at his companion. “Thank you, friend. You are indeed an expert tracker and huntsman.”
“It was my pleasure, Thaddeus.”
I glared for a split second at the back-stabbing vampire. Kresh had been right about him. Regretting my naïve attempt to partner with the devil, I jabbed a finger at the air and pointed straight at Jovani. The parasite didn’t so much as flinch.
“He was the one who dragged me away from the wedding, Thaddeus—you saw that! You saw him transform into a bat-like creature and fly off with me! He’s no friend; he’s a spiteful, blood-sucking vampire!”
Thaddeus’ features contorted as if I had gone mad. He glanced up at the double-crosser who drifted in close enough to stand over us. “Is this true, Jovani?”
The liar made a scoffing noise. “Of course not. She must be delirious. Inspect her for werewolf bites.”
Thaddeus pulled my arm straight, checking. Idiot. I freed myself from his grasp with a solid yank.
“Don’t touch me!” Bunching up my skirts in each hand, I jumped to my feet and dared to stand nose to nose with a vampire. Rage roiled in my eyes. His reaction was bemusement carved in stone.
“What have you done?” I said in a growled whisper.
His reply wafted in my ear, too quiet to be overheard. “I’ve protected the few remaining in my clan. The witch is your problem now, not mine.”
I could hear Thaddeus getting up from the ground and dared another whispered question. “Where is Kresh?”
There was no verbal answer. I searched Jovani’s ashen face for a telltale expression, but his red lips remained a thin, even line. His crimson eyes failed to grow or shrink. Perhaps he didn’t know.
I almost dared to believe Kresh had evaded our enemies when the pointed nose of that devious vampire slowly turned to gesture over his shoulder. My eyes followed a suggested line past brush and timber silhouettes to where the outline of a small hill stood blackened by the night. I couldn’t make out what it was, and yet my heart faltered at a horrific imagining. A tremulous hand went to cover my mouth.
Thaddeus touched my shoulder. Instinctively I moved away from him, forward and nearer the dark mound. My feet paused briefly and then took me even closer. I had to know—to see the truth with my own eyes. Tears formed before the gruesome reality came into focus. My progression stopped at that point, grief raining down my face at the sight of werewolf bodies piled lifeless in a heap. Thaddeus placed a hand on my shoulder again. I couldn’t move to avoid him.
“A glorious sight, isn’t it? More of those worthless mongrels dead, no longer a nuisance to our village. You can thank Jovani for it. He proved himself proficient at wielding your sword.”
My sword—the silver blade deadly to werewolves—had been left in Thaddeus’ hands.
“No,” I breathed in a faint exhale. I was devastated by the understanding that these loyal members of my pack, tossed in a heap like discarded rags, would never ever recover from their wounds. My sword had put them to sleep…..permanently.
Jovani was to blame.
That double-crossing vampire had rejected my offer to ally forces, instead returning to Tarishe where he had apparently made amends with that wicked witch. She must have insisted he finish the job he had been summoned to do. But had the task been accomplished entirely? Had he overpowered the werewolf I loved?
My eyes scanned the mound of fur coats saturated in blood, seeking the umber color I would recognize even in the dark. My footing faltered when I spotted Kresh among the dead near the bottom of the pile. Thaddeus kept me from hitting the ground, pulling me to my feet with his arm about my waist.
“Catherine, are you alright?”
I wasn’t alright.
I would never be alright again.
Feeling my will to live exhausted, I abandoned carefulness and let my words spill freely. Turning to Jovani, I held nothing back. I cared naught if the bloodsucker killed me.
“Why did you do this?” I screamed in his face. “You killed him! You killed him!” My tears flowed in a constant stream; they wouldn’t stop.
The vampire stood still and erect like an ivory statue, watching me, offering neither an explanation nor a readable expression. I shoved hard at the monster’s chest, unable to move him yet causing his eyes to scrunch the slightest bit. Thaddeus tried to make sense of my anger within the bounds of my supposedly blinded mind.
“Catherine, calm down! What does it matter who killed the beast? What’s important is that the job is finally done. I know how much you wanted the satisfaction of slaying that umber werewolf yourself, but your children’s deaths have been avenged nonetheless. You should thank our friend…”
“Shut up, you fool!”
My eyes persisted to glare hatred at Jovani. I didn’t need to look aside to be aware of the outrage washing over Thaddeus’ face. I could sense his form stiffen, taking offence.
“You will not talk to me in such a manner, woman!”
“I will talk to you however I choose.”
The pigeon’s fingers tried to grab at my shoulder, but I jerked him off. My narrowed eyes flickered to him for a moment. “Don’t. Touch. Me.”
It was an honest shock when Thaddeus clutched onto my arm, squeezing it like he would wrestle me if necessary to keep ahold. I yanked as hard as I could to detach him, but the coward had grown a spine sufficient enough to maintain a firm grip on me. I moved at him abruptly—a threatening lurch that he naturally leaned away from—yet he kept attached to my arm.
“You are my wife now, Catherine, which means you are subject to my law! You will obey me!”
I spit at the ground, sickened by his claim. “I am no more your wife than that fiendish vampire is a friend!”
“But we were married by a man of the cloth! It is a done deal; your grandmother desired it. Would you break her frail heart?”
I couldn’t prevent my lips from twisting into a sneer. The words formed by my tongue were growled bitterly. I no longer cared about consequences.
“If that witch you mistakenly refer to as my grandmother were here, I would cut out her black heart and chop it into a dozen pieces to feed to the remaining werewolves!”
Thaddeus let his fingers slip from my arm. He backed up, staring fretfully at me. His countenance paled as he mouthed the words…
I confirmed his concerns through gritted teeth. “I know everything, you lying son of a witch.”
I watched him shift through a range of expressions as color again seeped into his cheeks—transitioning from alarm to unease to calm acceptance. But he rested on a disturbing note, appearing darkly humored.
“You know everything,” he repeated. “How sad for you that it won’t last long.”
I glanced at the man’s hips in search of my sword at his belt. Not finding it, I turned to seek my blade in Jovani’s possession. The vampire had vanished. Looking outward, I noticed how silhouettes of the woodland were graying. The lighter hue signified dawn preparing to breach the night. Most likely, the bloodsucker had gone to seek shelter from an impending sunrise. I cursed under my breath, envisioning the implications of vampires controlling a weapon lethal to my pack—my children.
The thought of Natasha and Nehemiah made my heart react, suffering a sting of regret for my impulsive articulation of hateful words. All memory of their existence would be erased if I were dragged back to Tarishe. But if Thaddeus meant to accomplish this task on his own he would fail. The pigeon had never proved a physical match for me. Again, I searched him with my eyes for a sign of my silver sword. I would swing it like an axe and cut down the coward given the chance, but evidence of my enchanted blade continued to evade me.
My eyes shot up to catch Thaddeus contemplating me strongly across the distance he had put between us. An abnormal aura of self-confidence seemed to change his image in subtle ways. This was reason for concern.
I considered fleeing but was unsure if we were truly alone. For him to suppose he could manage me single-handedly seemed an unusually stupid plan—even for Thaddeus. I watched the night behind him lose its blackness as we faced off. The sun would soon stage an appearance. Dew drops that had formed overnight spilled off the underbrush, wetting my dress and skin. I suffered a shiver of cold which drove me to speak up first; I didn’t want the pigeon to think he had caused me a tremor of fear.
“Go back to the web you came from, Thaddeus, and let that black widow you call my grandmother know she succeeded in carrying out her revenge. My true husband is dead and buried beneath the corpses of his brothers, thanks to her murderous vampire ally. There is nothing more she can take from me now, so go on—leave me. The witch has won. It’s over!”
“Oh, dear Catherine, I’m afraid you are mistaken about the facts. This affair is far from over. And revenge was never the goal. You see, revenge is a dog’s game—one my mother has permitted you the opportunity to play from each side of the fence. She’s been generous in providing you with an effective tool to ensure many glorious moments of victory…”
“Where is that cursed sword?” I cut in, demanding to know the whereabouts of the tool of which he spoke.
“Why such desperation, Cat? Would you wield a sword against your own husband?”
Revulsion warped my expression. “You are not my husband.”
“We were indeed married. It is binding.”
I pointed in the direction of the werewolf who would forever own my heart. I meant to speak of my beloved, but Thaddeus raised his voice and talked first. “That mongrel is dead! And it’s a good thing to, for the law does not allow a woman to have more than one husband. He had to be exposed of.”
I scrunched my eyes, disbelieving. “Are you saying your mother sent those murderous bloodsuckers here over concern for marital laws?”
His only answer was smug silence.
I spelled out the truth for him. “Your mother—that vile witch—doesn’t care about anything but vengeance! She’s obsessed with seeking retribution from me and all werewolves loyal to me. This is no game, Thaddeus, but an extreme and deadly fixation which that mad woman refuses to end!”
“She seeks justice, Cat. Only justice.”
“Does justice demand countless lives?” I screeched. “How can so much death possibly be warranted under the guise of justice? And for what?”
He looked at me quizzically as if I should know. “For the death of her firstborn son, of course.”
“Her son. You mean that ruthless hunter who murdered all three of my sons?”
Thaddeus’ form stiffened. He appeared perplexed by my news—even bothered. Ultimately, he refused my allegation. “My brother did no such thing.”
“He did. And without provocation. They were youngsters, Thaddeus, merely cubs! So I might ask you—where is my justice? How many lives should I demand for the loss of three sons?”
“It’s no lie, Thaddeus, it is what started all of this. The needless slaughter left me distraught….tormented….scarcely able to cling to sanity. And so I sought payback for the loss of my children and others among my pack. I ordered an attack on Tarishe to claim the lives of those huntsmen who had fallen upon us without warning—without cause. I took your brother’s life to avenge the lives of my sons. It is an act I sorely regret.”
“As you should.”
I dropped my eyes from his hard features. My heart ached. “Your family and your vampire allies have taken everything from me. I have nothing left. Nothing. There can be no justice for me, and neither will there be for your mother. Additional deaths won’t bring back the children we’ve lost, and it will not make the losses any easier to bear.”
I listened to Thaddeus draw in a breath and hold it, pausing to think. He exhaled loudly through his nose. “Quit referring to Jovani and his clan as our allies—that’s another error in fact you’ve made.”
I glanced up, confused. “But he follows your mother’s orders. He’s in line with her.”
A crooked grin dimpled Thaddeus’ cheek, painted there by malice. “The fool came back begging for mercy, rattling out some excuse as to why the werewolves were to blame for the chaos that ruined our wedding. Mother was still too weak from the attack or she might not have held back to hear the fool out. She’s using Jovani, letting him devastate the werewolves before she makes his clan pay for their treachery. The fool believes his debt is satisfied, that his clan no longer stands in danger of retribution. But that is far from the truth.”
“Are you saying she means to double-cross him?”
“The leeches will pay for turning on her.”
I should have felt no concern for the bloodsuckers….but I did. I looked hard at Thaddeus.
“And do you call this justice as well?”
“Jovani’s clan would have killed her had they been able. She will kill them all but Jovani, and she is unquestionably able. An eye for an eye, Catherine. That is justice.”
“She’ll allow him to live merely to suffer the loss of everyone he loves. That is pure vengeance, nothing more. It has been the witch’s game all along.”
There was neither a sound of warning nor stir of movement to alert us to what happened next. The assault came from above in a blur of black—large, stiff wings batting frantically in the air—falling only on Thaddeus. There were several aggressors, the actual number impossible to determine. I backed away, seeking safety, unable to tear my eyes off the cloud of vampire bats encircling their victim. I knew vampires had exceptionally keen hearing. Apparently, Jovani and members of his clan had been near enough to hear Thaddeus admit his mother’s foul intent.
I was about to turn and run when again I was surprised by the unexpected.
It appeared in flashes of blue-lavender lightning that erupted beneath the swarm of bats. A bright burst threw the winged creatures in every direction. They crashed into trees and brush, transforming into their humanoid forms in the process. Thaddeus laughed wickedly, lifting an open hand in the air. His fingers were wrapped in a web of blue lightening. The vampires scattered and vanished.
Being nowhere as swift as Jovani’s people, I froze—dumbstruck—staring wide-eyed at Thaddeus’ glowing hand. His eyes fell on me. For the first time ever, I was afraid of the man. The lightning he seemed to command snuffed out, and he responded to the look on my face.
“I am the son of a witch, as you like to say. And as such, Catherine, what would that make me?”
I couldn’t find my voice to reply. He did so for me.
I stared for a moment longer at the uncharacteristic confidence exuding from him. I found use of my voice enough to stammer out bewilderment.
“B..but you’ve always behaved so…”
I nodded. It was true.
“Bored to death is more like it,” he groaned.
“You’ve been……acting?” I asked. “Hiding this…this…” My fingers flailed as both hands waved in the sky to sign lightning. I was rattled. Worried. Frantic to assess his true character and his actual capabilities. Never in my wildest dreams had I imagined Thaddeus possessing any true power. But he was the son of a witch—an accursed warlock! Why had the remote possibility never crossed my mind?
“You’re a warlock,” I breathed to myself. It was a challenge to fathom. “But how can that be? I’ve never seen any evidence…”
“Of course not,” he snapped over my mutter of disbelief. “It’s not a fact you were meant to know—and one you will soon forget.”
I swallowed hard, realizing I had further concern. Thaddeus quite possibly possessed the power to force me back to Tarishe, if not the power to erase my memory himself. I was fairly certain he wouldn’t steal that opportunity from his mother. He wouldn’t dare oppose her.
Thaddeus glanced around, perhaps looking for a shifty vampire. My eyes scanned the trees as well, noting a touch of rosy light slipping in between the timbers. Sunrise was underway—no vampires would be about.
“We have over a day’s journey ahead,” Thaddeus began, gaining my attention again. He stepped toward me, and I naturally backed away. I considered running into the trees, wondering what he might do. The smirk on his face made it look like he could read my thoughts.
“We can do this the hard way if you like. As infrequently as mother allows me to cast spells, I’m a bit rusty. You just might manage to get away.”
It was a dare I couldn’t resist. Surrender without a fight wasn’t in my nature.
I ducked around a tree and tore off into the forest. An explosion of violet light sizzled behind me, and I heard the popping crack of tree bark followed by a booming echo as the fallen timber collided with the ground. A mental image of being blown to bits by a bolt of warlock lightning made me run harder. Thaddeus played me like a mouse in a maze, laughing at every flash explosion that caused me to turn tail in a different direction. Not once did I manage to throw him off my track.
It was boredom that finally ended the game. I found myself in a choke collar and leash the very moment my tormentor desired it. Every struggle to break free, including attempts to strike at Thaddeus, resulted in the choker strangling off my airway.
Thaddeus insisted I lead the way back to Tarishe. A couple strides at my rear, out of arms reach, he held tight to the end of the magic leash. He found pleasure in hearing himself mock me aloud.
“Would it be awful of me to remind you of a previous time we played this game of cat and mouse? This makes two wins for the tomcat—that would be me, in case you were wondering. Ironic isn’t it—that your nickname is Cat and yet you’re obviously the mouse?” He laughed boisterously, exhibiting a ridiculous glut of humor at his own stupid joke….followed by another.
“That’s nearly as ludicrous as you being a dog named Cat!” Again, the forest rang with excessive laughter.
I tried jerking on the leash only to be choked uncomfortably. Thaddeus tsked his disapproval of my show of anger.
“It’s highly unladylike for you to constantly be losing your temper, Catherine. I say it’s an undesirable trait in a wife.”
“I’m not your lousy wife,” I growled lowly.
“Ahhh, but you are, my dear, you are! Luckily, that hostile attitude of yours will soon be tamed. And the good news is—a tame dog doesn’t require a leash.” He tugged on the line connecting us, making me stumble for my footing. The cruel snickering that escaped his lips I ignored.
“All these years I’ve loathed you for what you are—for the curse you’ve been to my family. I’ve found satisfaction in our arguments and fights, yearning at times to put you in your proper place. But no. It was against mother’s wishes. She meant for you to love her like a granddaughter. Over time I grew used to you and the hostile wall built between us. It was appropriate, don’t you think?”
I kept silent during the time Thaddeus paused, waiting for him to go on. His voice fell low and tight this time.
“I thought the old woman had gone mad suggesting I actually marry you—a filthy mutt; the hated queen of werefolk; our lifelong enemy! But, after stewing it over, I’ve come to terms with the idea. I will indeed miss our heated tiffs. It was a perfect way to vent my feelings toward you. However, I do see an upside to having you subject to my law, catering to my every whim, preparing my meals, heating my bath, rubbing my feet, providing a warm body for long nights of erotic pleasure…”
“Thaddeus, stop….just stop,” I said, nearly begging for the nightmare to end.
I imagined him smirking behind my back. “Don’t worry, my love. As a changed person, you’ll enjoy every minute I take advantage of you. You might even beg for more.”
I wanted to swivel around and beat the man senseless, but I suppressed the urge, knowing I would be the only one to suffer from the attempt. Tears stung my eyes, building up so much pressure I let them fall unhindered. I thanked the maker of the rising sun that my tear-stained face was concealed from the tormentor who walked behind me.
We hiked the entire day through a forested valley bordered by parallel mountain chains. The sun rose and set at each open end. Thaddeus mocked me for a long while, attempting to incite a reaction—a feat he found some success at. I paid with near suffocation the time I turned to strangle him over the cruel mention of my “bastard babies” whom he assumed to be dead. Though I tried, it was hard to ignore him. I couldn’t help but wonder how much of what he said regarding my past was actually true. What awful, shameful things had I done and forgotten because a witch’s curse clouded my memory?
Ultimately, I succumbed to a heavy heart that labored to beat inside my chest. Despair set in like an illness. I could see nothing in my future to look forward to. Remembering meant being aware of lost love; it meant seeing Kresh and our dear boys in my mind’s eye being cut down by a vengeful, sorcerous family. To forget under an enchanted spell meant to live an ugly lie in married bondage. There would be one benefit of amnesia—loss of the pain I felt for my shattered real life.
After hiking in silence for an hour—watching a sunset saturate the sky in deeper shades of red—Thaddeus tugged on the magic line that kept me from killing him and ordered a campfire be made. I was shocked when the collar at my neck vanished, leash included. One tapered glance at Thaddeus had him warning me of dire consequences for unruly behavior.
I started a campfire from gathered wood and sat beside it while the warlock pigeon watched. The snap-and-pop flickering of orange flames stole my focus as I rubbed at my neck. I was certain red chaffing scarred my skin from the tightness of that accursed collar. When Thaddeus bent down beside me, squatting as if considering planting himself there, I stiffened. Conflicting instincts struggled to move me: either grab a burning log and clobber the pigeon, hoping my reflexes were faster than his magic, or scoot well away from him to make known my detest, and then wait for cover of night to chance a silent slip into the forest. I chose the latter, fearing the choke collar would return to vex me all night.
Thaddeus pretended not to notice how I put the length of a horse between us, nor did he react to the nauseous groan that accompanied my move. He dropped onto the dirt and then lay down sideways, fully facing the fire. I flashed a glance at him, observing how his thick, black curls touched the soil, effectively concealing the arm and hand holding up his jaw. It occurred to me that one drifting red ember would swallow up that mane in flames.
“I’m hungry, wife.”
I ignored the complaint. Neither one of us had eaten all day. Only water had been provided by a running creek. Thaddeus continued to gripe about his empty stomach—annoying me.
“I’m starving, woman. Feed me. That is your duty…”
“Is it not your duty to provide the food?” I snapped in retort. “I see no game to prepare for a meal.”
My would-be husband laughed out loud, amused. “And would you cook for me if I were to provide the meat?”
I took a moment to glare at his humored face. “No.”
My attention returned to the fire where the forest beyond glowed a deep crimson. I witnessed the final breath of sunset before the world turned black. My eyes naturally lifted to gaze at stars, searching a clear sky for constellations familiar to me. At the sound of Thaddeus stirring on the ground, I looked sideways. He was rising to his feet, holding something in his hands. He approached as I squinted to try and make out what his fat fingers grasped on each end.
It was a loaf of bread.
“Where did you get that?” I asked, suspicious of the way he freely offered it to me.
“What does it matter?” He held out the bread, waiting for me to take it. It smelled divine—freshly baked—and tempting. I regarded the gift-bearer warily.
“Take it,” Thaddeus urged, crouching to my level. His thick eyebrows rose, questioning my hesitance. “I know you’re hungry.”
“So what? Why would you care?”
“Is it not a husband’s duty to care for his wife?” he asked.
I turned away from him, letting my long hair fall as a curtain between us. “I’m not your wife.”
I listened to him draw in a breath and sigh loudly. My hands were fast to catch a half a loaf of bread tossed into my lap. It had been torn in two.
Thaddeus rose and returned to his spot on the other side of my imaginary horse. From the corner of my eye I watched him rip off small chunks of bread to place in his mouth. After witnessing how he swallowed a few bites, I broke off a piece of bread and set it on my tongue. It was soft like cake and melted like butter—delicious.
After that, I took big bites from the chunk of bread, figuring there were more creative ways for a warlock to harm me than food poisoning. I tried unsuccessfully to ignore Thaddeus when he attempted to start up conversation. His mood had changed, calmed by the night perhaps.
“Tomorrow will be another long day of hiking. I’ll consider forgoing the leash if you promise to behave.”
I said nothing. I would make no promises.
“We should be back inside the gates of Tarishe tomorrow evening. There will be many relieved by your return, including your grandmother…”
“That witch is not my grandmother,” I interrupted in a hiss.
“Dompier—he’ll be happy to see you. Your comrade wanted to lead a rescue party in search of you, but I refused to allow it. He’s barely recovered from the ghastly wounds he suffered in that werewolf attack.”
I made an appalled sound and corrected the story. “His wounds were not administered by werewolves. It was your mother who cut those men down. She killed those hunters and made it appear like a wolf attack. Dompier was allowed to survive only to tell the story.”
Thaddeus stared at me, distrustful and yet wondering. “They were our best huntsmen; she would never do that. You lie—I know you lie.”
“She sacrificed them to incite my anger against the werewolves.”
His eyebrows scrunched low showing outrage. “You certainly lie! Your curse ensures hatred of the wolves excepting one night a year!”
“Yes, and I have hated the wolves for years and years, but my feelings were changing—not necessarily toward them, but toward our way of life. I made the mistake of voicing my doubts to your vengeance-driven mother. I told her I was tired and that I wanted to leave Tarishe.”
“Why? Why would you want to leave our home?”
My shoulders slouched, my demeanor wilting, as I implored the witch’s son. “Because I’m tired of all the death, Thaddeus. Aren’t you? Is this to be our lives? Forever killing? Slaughtering those we deem enemies until eventually there’s no one left standing?”
His brown eyes seemed to draw in the question and consider the miserable image it painted. I watched him contemplate our future until my attention was drawn to the black sky above him. It seemed odd that no stars shown where they had a short time ago. As quickly as the curiosity occurred to me, the sky fell on us without noise or warning.
I sensed flutters in a sudden breeze, and then my arms felt a pinch of pain. Thaddeus vanished beneath a living shroud of rats with wings, an image that grew progressively smaller as I was carried off in flight, drawn away under the cover of night.
High in the air, I witnessed a dazzling display of blue-lavender lightning explode in a spherical vortex. I could hear my name being called out by the warlock whose hand glowed blue in the darkness. His shouts were frantic.
“Catherine! Catherine! Caaa~thriiiin!”
But I was apparently invisible to him, and for the second time in my life, I hung by the hooks of a vampire bat whose intentions I could only speculate.
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Copyright 2014 Richelle E. Goodrich
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