Karal burst open the door to my room with such force I tore the page of my journal with the tip of my pen, “Queen Myriana! There’s a wolf at the gate, I think it’s him!”
Coming out of my chair ready to lay into him, I was stopped by his words, and only managed to snarl, “who?”
“Him!” he repeated, coming further into my bedchamber. “The one you’re always pining over when you think we aren’t looking.”
“What are you…?” The question died on my lips. My men were not stupid, nor unobservant. “What makes you think that?” I demanded.
“He has the tribal mark. The one you doodle when you daydream. The water clan mark on the left side of his neck. If it’s not him, then it’s a clansman. Either way, I thought you should know as soon as possible.”
Stunned, I tried to compose myself. It couldn’t really be him. Not after so many years. Surely a clansman. Perhaps a brother? I didn’t wish to think it could be a son.
“Where is he now?” I asked, and noticed the strength in my voice had diminished. I didn’t want Karal to notice how affected I was. But Karal knew me, and so, even if I had managed to tame the emotions that spread across my face like wildfire, he’d have still known exactly what I was feeling.
Proof was in the way he softened his voice. His hand shot up quick before slowly and carefully coming down to rest on my shoulder. “He’s injured, Myriana. Bad. I don’t think he can shift, and his wounds look ugly… they aren’t healing. I had the healers summoned. He should be in the infirmary by now.”
“Those leech bleeders?!” I howled. “Why didn’t you just shoot him at the gate?” The words exited like bullets and there was no shying away from the impact with which they hit Karal. I’d have to apologize to him later.
I knew how to control my impulses, trust me, I did. You don’t hold a throne by getting your panties in a wad every time someone gets hurt. Worse, when that someone should mean nothing to you. Even worse, when that someone is a past you never thought would find his way into your future. A past that should not find his way into your future. Too old. Too broken. Too unpredictable.
“Myriana!” Karal’s voice was stone. The rough edges of an untouched cliff. He needn’t say more to make me feel like gum on the bottom of a traveler’s boot.
“I don’t know why I said that. My healers are the best in the realm,” I answered, by way of apology. It wasn’t a lie. The people I had in charge of the sick knew what the hell they were doing. Even more so, they knew more about male anatomy than I did- and that was a claim hard to beat.
“See to it, then,” Karal said and I did as he suggested.
As soon as I was in the hallway, my composure disappeared, and despite appearances and position, my legs began running as fast as my thoughts.
Why did he come here?
What kind of injuries could keep him from shifting or healing?
Why now? After all this time, why now?
By the time my feet touched the stairs I was reckless; frantic. I no longer scolded myself to control my emotions, or told myself it couldn’t be him - not the wolf who took my heart, so long ago.
Boot falls on the stairs behind me announced that Karal was on my heels. He was my first, and extremely protective. Of course he would follow.
The thought of how my actions affected Karal pounded against my heart just as hard. My men satisfied me and that was a truth without question or doubt. But even then, I couldn’t shake the part of me that cared about Fen, the wolf who I knew little to nothing about. The wolf who I longed for some nights more than I longed for breath.
At the bottom of the stairs, my second, Bryce, was waiting, watching me descend, looking as though he was memorizing my every motion; more likely he was tensed to catch me if I tripped.
At the floor I didn’t pause to acknowledge him, which was rude. Particularly rude to do to Bryce, and I made a mental note to have him in my chamber tonight to make it up to him. One of the few Bull Shifters, Bryce was sensitive, and frequently moody when treated poorly. Treated well, he was loyal to a fault. Loyalty for Karal, on the other hand, was a fragile term, as it was with most Bear Shifters, I was learning. It wasn’t that Karal was disloyal - not at all. Everything is tenuous with Bear Shifters. They have no sense of ‘forever’. He had been with me for eight years. Eight good years. He did what he said he would do, protected me with his strength and with his heart. Always. Always.
Shooing maids and servants out of the way and shouting for the guards to open the doors, I got outside to find Adian, my third, lifting his arm to point toward the hospital building with all the enthusiasm of an empty wind blowing down a dry riverbed. This was typical of his White Tiger attitude toward just about everything, except hunting and sex. Both of those he engaged in with the focus and zeal that gave his species their fierce reputation. Once Adian was sure his message had been seen, he turned and walked toward the stables in the opposite direction. Unlike my other two men, he would keep tabs on me by paying attention to the sounds of the township, and the actions of others. It was always shocking how much he could discern from such things at distance. But then again, this is what his type was bred for. I say bred, because there’s no better term for his existence.
At some point in our history, medical science had reached such a peak that serious research had begun in the area of immortality; something close anyway. I’m not exactly sure how close, but what I do know, is that my men are the result of this research. As are the zombies – again, not a term that was one-hundred percent accurate, but there wasn’t much of a better name for them.
The creatures we called Zombies were an experiment in immortality gone wrong. A thing called a retrovirus turned them into what they were. This was in the time of my great-great grandmother. Only four generations ago, and yet most of the knowledge of what happened is lost.
As I continued my frantic search for the wolf, my mind strayed to these undead creatures. And the question of whether the zombies got the best of him, wasn’t really a question at all. Fen, the lone wolf, the man who unknowingly carried a piece of my heart, he could defeat a thousand-armed men with the sole brutality of his muscles. He could rip shifters like himself to shreds without breaking a sweat. Zombies? He’d defeated them too. But still, they remained the only likely enemy to take him down. Senseless, fearless, creatures.
My feet propelled me forward, my mind spinning like a windmill in a storm. An image of Fen, covered in blood, gasping his last breath through gritted teeth pushed me to go just that much faster. It is said that a wild imagination is a good thing, but in the moments it took me to get to him, I cannot attest to the goodness of such vivid inventiveness. My mind was searching far and wide for whatever it was that ailed him, making guesses when I knew nothing of his condition. My legs pushed and pushed and pushed, wanting to go faster than they were capable of going. Needing to get to him, as though I could make a difference. Which, perhaps I could.
I’m assured that my library is one of the best in the realms, and while I’ve certainly not read everything in there, all of it has been read by someone in this realm. I knew, that if it came to it, I’d flip through every book to save the wolf. I hoped it wouldn’t come to that. But then again, there were a lot of people who had hoped things wouldn’t get the point that they’ve gotten to. And look at where we are now.
In the face of all that challenges us- zombies, raiders, wild mutations, weather systems and at times, famine -only our children ensure our survival. I wondered if this was what Fen was doing when he wound himself such a terrible fate. It wouldn’t be unheard of. He’d protected me years ago when I was just a child. Guarded me with his life.
I pushed through another set of doors with enough strength to send them crashing into the wall.
The medical people didn’t need the noise of the collision to know that I was coming. The way was pointed out and cleared as I walked swiftly through the halls and into the emergency area. My mind jumbled, jumped and darted around until I saw him lying on the table.
My heart beat hard. Even with the gouge down his forehead and across his eye turning the deep blue to milky sky, I recognized him. His fangs were long, his head oddly shaped, as if he were caught inside his change, and could neither complete nor return. But it was him. I didn’t need to see the tattoo on his neck.
“How is he?” I asked. My voice was desperate, my breaths short and sharp.
One of the doctors, Alexis, stepped forward. “We’re not sure yet,” she said, but didn’t meet my eyes. “He lost consciousness on his way here. I’m not sure what attacked him or how many. He looks strong, so I’m tempted to suggest one of his own kind. I can’t imagine the zombies doing this to him. Not before he got away from them. They aren’t fast enough.” So I was wrong, which didn’t make the matter better or worse. Fen was still here, on that table, looking nothing like a man who was going to live.
Coming closer I could see that his chest and thigh were also rend and clawed in several places. “Why isn’t he healing?”
Dr. Alexis looked over her shoulder at her patient, and then shook her head. She looked apologetic, sorry for me, as though she felt the pain that fired daggers into my chest. “I don’t know. I’ve never seen this before. As you know, we have little medical information on the shifters. We’re not even sure of their origin, and they keep mum what they know about themselves and others. This is the first time I’ve had one in this hospital.”
I nodded to this, and it didn’t surprise me. I’ve personally seen shifters heal from dreadful injuries in less than an hour. Injuries that would have killed a human no matter how strong or healthy.
I walked up next to him and looked at the mark on his neck. It was the same as I remembered. Karal had called it the symbol of the Water Clan, but that was news to me. Fen never told me what it was, although I asked several times. That was his name, this injured wolf at my door. Fen. Short, concise, but still capable of stealing every breath from my lungs.
“Will he live, Alexis?” I asked, not wanting to hear a dark truth.
“They are strong, but this is not normal. My belief right now is that he’s been subjected to some kind of poison. Perhaps a strong infection could also be at work. While I can test for bacteria, I’m not sure how to identify a poison inside a blood type I’ve never worked with before. And I have no clue what to look for.”
Instead of barking at her to do the impossible, I pressed my lips together. This man saved my life. He had no reason to, and asked for no reward.
“Do you know him, my queen?” the doctor asked.
“Yes,” I told her. “His name is Fen. I don’t believe he is with a queen or realm. At least he wasn’t when we met, and he said he had no interest in belonging to anyone either.”
“That’s shit,” Bryce said from behind me, his bull voice deep and disgusted.
I turned to Bryce’s voice. Disbelief sat tight on my face. Anger pitched my tone to a level that wasn’t necessary. “What?”
Bryce’s deep brown eyes and handsome young face met mine, unapologetic. “His name is not Fen, it is Fenrir. That’s not the mark of the Water Clan on his neck, and their marks are on their backs, not the neck. It’s the mark of the Wolf of Destruction.”
Then I couldn’t breathe because a hand was around my throat, and I was being lifted up on my toes from behind. The look in Bryce’s eyes became deadly, and Karal came out of his chair ready to charge. Neither moved closer though, and their eyes focused on the one who had me by the throat.
“Easy big men,” a deep voice growled near my ear. “Not going to hurt her, just going to borrow her for a time. You’ll have her back by morning, if you don’t follow us. If you do, all you’ll find is her body. This I promise. By morning she’ll be inside these walls, safe, and even grateful.”
The hand loosened slightly, allowing me to breathe. I can’t describe the look on my face or the ache that ripped through my heart at that moment. But what I know for certain is that it most certainly matched the looks Karal and Bryce displayed.
“You’ll never get outside the fence,” I growled.
“You insult me princess,” Fen whispered near my ear. His breath was hot. His scent familiar. His deceit, on the other hand, was completely foreign. “You think I don’t know about your pets? Your tiger? Your guards? You think I came without knowing everything first? Just relax. If you do, you won’t pull a muscle or twist a limb.”
Then I was moving backward. Fast. Too fast. The speed felt impossible. My body shifted, twisted and then I was cradled in his arms, and flying. The guard walls outside were eight meters high. How were we outside so fast?
Shifting me to one arm, Fen caught the top of the wall with the other and launched us over. I didn’t scream, didn’t groan, didn’t complain. If I said I breathed, I’d be lying. Shifting me back, cradling me with both arms again, he landed, cushioning the impact with his knees and waist. Then we were running through the woods. I don’t even recall crossing the clear cut area, which was forty meters wide.
He had me curled into his bare chest, smooth, hot and solid as polished oak. The Kind normally wore loose shirts and loincloth covers for their nethers, or kilts. Of course, the doctor would have cut his shirt off as soon as she reached his table to examine his wounds.
Glancing at his face, I saw he was healed, all of his wounds were gone, and his right eye was bright blue again. His teeth perfect. His hair blown back, much longer than his shoulder line. Could he control his healing? The mark on the side of his neck looked the same as it did back then, when I was twelve, and separated from my mother and the guards during an attack. Was this really the same man? Why the hell was he doing this?