Ranealya smelled death. It called to her from the body of an old man lying in the road ahead, over-powering the stench of unwashed bodies that clung to most humans. She approached it with caution and stared into its dull blue eyes. Freshly dead. The corpse remained in pristine condition otherwise, signaling she was the first person to stumble across it.
Her stomach growled, reminding her she hadn’t eaten in days, but she refused to feast on the bounty before her. Let the other beasts have him. There were far more civilized ways to scavenge.
She sniffed the air and surveyed her surroundings, making sure she was alone before she shifted. The thick fur of a wolf melted from her body as she took a familiar form, one of a middle-aged man, and dragged the corpse deeper into the woods. The icy wind prickled her bare skin, and she cursed humans once again for their lack of hair.
A search of the body’s possessions revealed a change of fresh clothes in his pack, a small dagger, and enough money to buy her a hot meal and a night in an inn. Just in time, she thought as the first flakes of snow started falling. Winter behaved like a spoiled child in this part of the kingdom, moody and unpredictable. The only reason she stayed here was because the remote location offered protection from those who hunted her. Staying on the fringes of society had allowed her to survive this long, even though the isolation ate away at her soul as the years passed. But she could endure it. She had for centuries.
While she dressed, she tested her voice to find the right pitch to go along with her disguise. Weeks of dormancy made it sound gravelly, but after a few sentences, her vocal cords loosened up.
Once she finished taking all she found useful from the old man, she began walking to the nearest town. A new scent caught her attention after she’d travelled about a quarter of a mile down the road, and she froze. An icy chill raced down her spine. She wasn’t alone.
“Hello, traveler,” a voice cried out from the trees.
She stared at the figure that appeared out of the lengthening shadows. As much as she wanted to avoid any human contact, running away would only rouse his suspicion. “Greetings.”
“Headed into Poole?”
She nodded, hoping he would accept her answer and leave her alone as she continued on her way.
“Mind if I keep you company the rest of the way?”
She gritted her teeth, but shook her head. As long as she made it clear she wasn’t in a talking mood, maybe he wouldn’t discover what she truly was.
“It looks like there’s a nasty storm brewing. Might shut down the roads for a few days.” The lanky, grizzled man fell into step beside her and studied her through narrowed eyes. “You’re not from Poole, are you?”
“Just passing through.”
“So your appearance here has nothing to do with the reports that there may be a shape-shifter in the area?”
She fought to control her emotions, to keep her voice flat while she feigned disinterest. “Shape-shifters are just a story made up by the elves to frighten humans.”
The man pulled a pipe out of his pocket and packed it with tobacco. “They ain’t legends—they’re true. My grandfather participated in the Great Hunts. And there’s one in this area. I’ve seen proof of it—tracks that change or disappear without explanation, normal animals acting strange when it’s around.” He lit his pipe. “Pray you never run across one.”
Ranealya’s jaw tightened. This man knew a little too much for her comfort. “How could you distinguish a shape-shifter from an ordinary person or animal?”
“Look ‘em in the eye. They’ll never have normal looking eyes, no matter what form they’re in. Even when they pretend to be human, their eyes are still wild.”
She lowered her gaze and rubbed her arms, trying to shake out the ice forming in her veins. She could still smell the burning flesh of the murdered shape-shifters. Her companion needed to be silenced before he revived the madness of the hunts from half a century ago. “You seem to know a lot about shape-shifters.”
He lifted his chin. “Some people refuse to believe the legends, but they’re real, I tell you. Dangerous, too. People would rather forget what they don’t see.”
She nodded and came closer, her hand wrapping around the hilt of the dagger she stole from the corpse. “Maybe it’s better they forget.”
“King Anilayus believes in them. He even sent out the Azekborn to find it. The area’s been crawlin’ with them lately, but I’m gonna catch it before they do. The King’s even increased the bounty set during the Great Hunts. Soon, there won’t be a non-human left in the realm.”
Her pulse increased. Years of being a huntress had sharpened her senses. He seemed so caught up with telling her what he planned to do with the bounty that she couldn’t smell any fear on him. Now was her chance to act, before he realized what she was. She slid her blade from its sheath and hid it in the folds of her cloak, ready to silence him permanently. For a second she hesitated, wondering if she could get away with scaring him into silence. Too much blood had been shed between humans and shape-shifters over the last century.
He jerked to a stop and pointed to her face. “Your eyes!”
She laughed softly as her body slid into its natural form. After all, he should see a real shape-shifter before he died. Fur rippled down her arms, and her fangs grew long enough to press into her bottom lip. She reveled in the few precious seconds she was allowed to be herself, to strike fear into a human and not worry about hiding her true nature. “You were saying?”
His eyes widened, and his Adam’s apple bobbed up and down several times before he found his voice again. “I’ll kill you and collect enough money to make me a rich man.” He drew a hunting knife that dwarfed the small weapon in her hand.
Survival instincts took over, and the blade of her knife sliced through his vocal cords, preventing him from uttering another sound. She stepped to the side to avoid the blood spraying from the severed neck arteries. A twinge of regret passed through her chest as his body collapsed in the middle of the road. Would killing ever become easier? But now there was one less human who knew her secrets, one less human who would hunt her. Survival always came at a price.
The blood gurgled from his throat and stained the surrounding snow. She cleaned the knife on his trousers and stood. The sound of riders approaching sent a trickle of paranoia through her veins. Her heart skipped a beat from the smell of brimstone that followed. There was no mistaking scent of the King’s servants. The outlines of three figures raced toward her.
Ranealya fled into the trees, sure they could hear her pounding heart. That’s just my luck, she thought as she tore off her clothes. As much as she hated running away, attacking three Azekborn alone would be suicide. It had taken hundreds of casters to drive the drae into another realm, and those drae didn’t have the demon-infused powers the Azekborn did. Her body shrank into a skinny mutt, never breaking stride as she ran.
Even the thick snow couldn’t muffle the heavy gallop of hooves sounded behind her. By the Goddess, will they ever stop chasing me?
The sound of rushing water filled her ears. The river was close, flowing between the walls of a steep canyon it had carved out the land centuries before. She could cross it without a bridge, but they couldn’t. She turned toward the sound, darting between trees in an effort to throw them off her trail.
A dark figure jumped in front of her, followed by the hiss of a blade through the air. Ranealya tumbled head first into the snow, shifting into a snow leopard as she regained her footing. If they wanted to play rough, then so be it. Her tail twitched as she crouched close to the ground.
The Azekborn lifted his sword and charged after her. Her sides heaved, but that was the only motion she allowed until he was almost on top of her. She sprung, fearing only a coward’s death. The bitter, black blood of the Azekborn filled her mouth, and they tumbled to the ground together. Her jaw locked, sending her fangs deeper into his sword arm. A cry filled the air when she pulled the flesh from the bone.
She lifted her head just in time to see a crossbow bolt embed itself into her prey’s chest, barely missed her cheek. She backed away, the Azekborn’s arm still clutched in her teeth. She tossed the limb at the other two hunters. Who’s next?
The standoff dragged on for several long seconds. Behind her, the rush of the river sang a song of escape, if she could only reach it. She growled and continued to back away, already beginning her next shift. Feathers replaced her fur, and her body shrank. In less than a blink of an eye, she was up in the air, flapping her wings to quickly gain altitude. The leopard’s snarl morphed into the shrill call of a hawk that echoed off the canyon walls as she flew toward her freedom.
A crossbow bolt whizzed toward her from behind and buried into her wing. Her body stiffened in pain. The sharp rocks below raced toward her. With one final flap of her wings, she propelled herself forward and crashed into the trees on the other side of the river.
Her feathers melted away as she shifted back into her normal form and pulled the bolt out of her shoulder. The effort sent waves of pain throughout her body. She bit back a scream.
On the opposite side of the canyon, the two Azekborn stopped at the edge. She glared at them with satisfaction. Once again, she’d escaped them, but not completely unscathed this time.
Blood flowed from the wound in her shoulder, and the surrounding skin burned like hundreds of burning splinters had been buried into it. Hykona leaves would draw the poison out if she could find them this late in the year. Casting one more glance at her would-be hunters, she ran deeper into the snowy woods.
An irritating trickle of moisture streaked down Gregor’s back. He shook his cloak out in frustration. Somehow, he missed the sapling in front of him, and its branches showered him with their freshly accumulated snow when he’d collided with it. He brushed the flakes off his book and resumed his simultaneous reading and walking.
Ahead, a large gray dog with loose wrinkled skin bounded through the drifts, his tail wagging with excitement. To the normal ear, the dog only barked, but Gregor could hear the dog’s thoughts. “Snow! Snow! Snow!”
Although he looked forward to his daily hike through the woods, the wind grew icy after half an hour. With a sigh, he closed his book and began to turn back to his house. He whistled for his dog to follow him, but Duke stood still in front of a small cave. “What do you see, boy?”
“Deer-not-deer,” came the gruff reply.
Gregor took a few steps forward, puzzled by the dog’s cryptic response. “What was that?”
Duke bounded over to him and yanked on his cloak. “Deer-not-deer. Hurt. Come see.”
Gregor stumbled forward. His toes had gone numb, and all he wanted to do was finish his translations in front of a nice warm fire. If he could somehow prove to the King that the Clearances could be harmful to the realm, maybe he could save both lives and knowledge. He couldn’t care less about a wounded deer.
What he found in the cave, however, was not what he expected. Fine fur like a doe’s covered the figure from its neck to its hands and feet, but the face and body were human. And the nude body was undeniably female. His face grew warm as he covered her breasts with his cloak and kneeled closer to examine her.
For a moment, he feared she was already dead, but he felt a weak pulse at her wrist and saw the shallow rise and fall of her chest. She was only sleeping. The wound on her left shoulder had bled profusely for a while, judging by the mounds of red-tinged leaves beside her. Hykona leaves with blackened edges protruded from the opening.
Duke licked her face, and she moaned. “Take deer-not-deer home?”
Gregor pushed his glasses up and leaned back on his heels as he studied her. She was unlike any other creature he’d ever seen. Her face was human with smooth skin, but a pair of distinctively elvan ears protruded from her wild tangle of brown hair. He peered closer. Were those feathers in her hair? He hesitated when he saw the nails shaped like claws on otherwise normal human hands. They could be dangerous weapons if she was truly as wild as she appeared.
Duke whimpered beside her. “Deer-not-deer hurt,” he reminded him.
“Yes, I can see that.” Gregor wished for once he couldn’t hear the dog’s thoughts. She needed help, but he worried about how she came by those injuries. And if what he’d read was correct, he was almost certain he’d found a shape-shifter. He’d been led to believe they’d been hunted to extinction decades ago. Would learning more about her race be worth the risk she posed? He’d almost faced the ax before for defying the king’s orders, and helping her would definitely earn him a death sentence. He rubbed his hands together to warm them as he pondered his options.
“Well, I can at least heal her.” He reached over the wounded shoulder. White light flowed from his palms in iridescent threads, but the wound didn’t heal. He frowned. This was unexpected. The only time he had ever seen a wound not healed by magic was when a person was already dead. He checked for her pulse again and found it still beating.
She moaned and reached for her left shoulder, eyes still closed. The gracefulness of the action mesmerized him. It surprised him that despite her wild appearance, there was something very regal about her. If he ignored the rest of her body and focused on her face, she was actually quite lovely in an odd sort of way. Her cheeks were soft and smooth, her lips full, although pale from her recent loss of blood. Thick lashes cast shadows under her eyes.
But the beauty of her face was marred when she parted her lips and revealed razor-sharp canines, destroying the warmth that had briefly flowed through his veins.
“Deer-not-deer waking up?” The dog began licking her arm.
“Let her rest.” Gregor rose from his desk and tugged on the loose skin around the dog’s neck, trying to pry Duke away.
She groaned and turned her head in their direction.
Gregor froze. He should have known better than to expect anything normal about her. Golden irises covered most of the visible surface of her eyes like a hawk’s. When her gaze focused on him, the pupils constricted into slits, becoming more reptilian. A feral growl emanated from deep within her chest, and she curled her lips to flash her fangs.
He held her gaze as she scrambled back to the wall of the cave. She tensed, ready to pounce if approached, but her face grew more ashen with each breath. She didn’t have the strength yet to put up much of a fight, and some of his fear eased.
“I’m sorry to wake you,” he said, tightening his grip on the dog.
She never blinked when he spoke.
“I’m Gregor—Gregor Meritis. I—well, Duke here, actually—found you here.” His tongue flopped around in his mouth like he was an awkward youth asking a lady to dance for the first time. Why should I fear her? I am a master mage, after all. Once he tapped into his magic, his confidence returned. “I was trying to heal the wound on your shoulder.”
When he reached toward it, she lashed out with her right hand, swiping her claws across his arm. Another growl rose from the back of her throat as she scrambled up the cave wall to a standing position only to collapse in a crumbled heap before she took her first step.
Duke wrestled free from Gregor and ran to her limp form. She didn’t move as he nudged her with his nose.
Gregor examined his arm. The claws had drawn blood, but the wounds weren’t deep. Kitten scratches. “That went well.”
Duke looked up and thumped his tail on the cave floor.
“I suppose we should put her back in bed.” He lifted her off the ground and arranged her gangly limbs on the bed of leaves she’d made for herself in the cave, smoothing his cloak around her shoulders. She wasn’t so intimidating now. “Let’s hope she’s in a better mood the next time she wakes up.”
Next time? He shook his head at where his thoughts were travelling. He should leave her as he found her. Everything about her screamed trouble.
But when he saw her wince in her sleep, his heart softened. She was hurt, and he knew how to help her. But first, he needed more hykona leaves. Judging by the mass of blackened leaves in her wound, she’d been hit by something tipped with poison, and he wouldn’t be able to heal her completely until he removed all traces of it.
He stepped back and surveyed the cave. She’d probably appreciated a fire, some warm clothes and maybe some food, too. A mental list formed in his mind, and he repeated the items under his breath over and over again on the way back to his house so he wouldn’t forget them. It wasn’t a commitment. Just give her a few things until she got on her feet again. Then she’d go back into the wild.
But a small sliver of his mind hoped she stayed a bit longer.
Night had fallen when Ranealya opened her eyes. Dancing flames illuminated the sides of the cave walls, and the smell of roasting meat turned her stomach into a growling beast. She sat up and let the fur blanket fall to her waist. Then she tested her left shoulder, cringing when she moved it. It hurt less than before, and the image of white magic and a man’s face flashed across her mind.
A log crackled in the fireplace, and she flinched. Her gaze darted around the area, looking for any signs of movement. A man sat across the fire, the same one she thought she’d dreamed up earlier. The one who called himself Gregor.
He feigned a yawn. “I guess it’s time for me to go home.” When her gaze never wavered, he began to squirm under scrutiny. “There’s some leftover quail here, if you’re hungry. I mean, I’m sure you’re hungry—but if you want something to eat—” He ran his fingers through his hair. “No one knows you’re here, and I’m sure you prefer to keep it that way, so don’t make too much noise or attack anybody or anything like that.”
His rambling amused her to no end. He was trying so hard to be brave in front of her. As if she could harm him. She couldn’t shift as long as the Azekborn’s poison flowed through her veins, and she was too weak to kill him. But he’d seen her in her natural state. Surely, he wasn’t so dense as to not know what she was. And as such, she needed to silence him. But why did the idea of his lifeless hazel eyes staring back her cause a deep ache in her chest? He was just a human, after all.
He approached her with caution slowing his movements, carrying fresh hykona leaves, water, and a soft cloth in his hands. He knelt beside her. When he removed some of the blackened leaves stuffed in her wound, she flinched and grabbed his arm, digging her nails into his flesh.
To his credit, he didn’t scream. His face tightened for a second before he drew in a deep breath and exhaled. “I need to clean the wound out,” he explained in a surprisingly calm voice. “The hykona leaves are black now.”
Her grip loosened, and her eyes flickered to her wound. So, he knew about healing. Perhaps he would prove useful after all. She could always delay his death long enough for him to finish healing her. A few seconds passed before she released him. Then she turned her head to the side, allowing him full access to the wound.
“So, you’ve finally realized I’m not trying to hurt you.” He removed the remaining leaves in one saturated clump, causing her to gasp. “Sorry, I—” He sponged the edge of the wound with a damp cloth, but she tensed further, waiting for the burning to ease.
He sighed and sat back on his heels. When she peeked back at him, his mouth formed a perfect circle. What did he find so fascinating about her? Then he shook his head and wiped his hand across his face. “Do you trust me to use magic on you? I can try to take the pain away, but I may end up causing you to fall asleep.”
She said nothing but loosened her grip on the fur blanket she’d been clutching the whole time.
His hand shook as he reached across her. At this angle, she could easily rip his throat out if he tried anything. Misty white light flowed from his fingers to the injured shoulder. The pain vanished, and a purr of appreciation vibrated deep in her chest. By the goddess, she hadn’t felt this relaxed in years.
He withdrew his hands and reached for the cloth. This time, she allowed him to work without interruption.
“What injured you?” When she didn’t answer, he continued, “Did you get into a fight?” He packed the wound with the leaves. “What kind of poison is this? Where did it come from?”
She snarled in response, and Gregor jumped back. He was asking far too many questions. The less his kind knew, the better.
“I think I may be able to heal it tomorrow, though.” He stood and held out a tunic. “I ask that you please—um—wear this. Even though you seem more animal than human, I can still tell that you’re a female, and…”
His cheeks flushed in the firelight as he struggled to find the right words without embarrassing himself further. Despite his efforts, his eyes kept returning to her body. Did he really find her fur covered breasts attractive? When was the last time he saw a naked woman? Judging by his appearance, quite a while. Stubble covered his thin cheeks, and his pale brown hair hung loose, curling around his shoulders in a somewhat tangled mess that matched his wrinkled clothes. But underneath it all, he had a handsome face, as far as humans went. And the fact he didn’t find her repulsive almost made her feel sorry for what she needed to do to him eventually.
He draped the tunic over her body and shook his dog awake. “I suggest you put that on while the spell is still working so it isn’t too painful. Duke and I will be back in the morning to check on you.”
He paused at the entrance of the cave and muttered something under his breath. A flash of blue filled the opening, leaving behind a filmy curtain in its wake.
Ranealya’s gut twisted. Just when she was beginning to think she might have found a human worth trusting, he locked her in this cave with a magical barrier. He probably wanted to keep her prisoner here until he returned with the Azekborn.
She waited until she could no longer smell him before approaching the barrier. Sparks crackled on her fingertips as she raked them across it. When it didn’t waiver, she pressed her palm against it and leaned closer. The barrier was as solid as a dungeon door. She had become his prisoner.
Ranealya sighed and pressed her head against the damp cave wall. Dawn was approaching. She was still too weak to shift into any intimidating form, although she might be able to try something small, and there was nothing in this cave she could use as a weapon if he attacked her. Part of her knew she would have to kill him for seeing her in her natural form—humans should never have that kind of knowledge of shape-shifters—but she hesitated. If he knew what she was, why had he gone through all the trouble to heal her?
Complicating matters was the way he stared at her as if she was a normal woman and not a fur-covered monstrosity. Even members of her own family had turned their backs on her when they saw what she’d become, calling her the cursed one. When she remembered the intensity of Gregor’s gaze, though, it almost took her breath away. No man had ever had this kind of effect on her. Why him?
Regardless of anything else, she was indebted to him for saving her life, and the idea left a bitter taste in her mouth. She may be little more than a beast, but she still remembered the code of behavior she’d followed before she’d been changed into what she was now. If his life was ever in danger, she was obligated to defend him.
She would spare him for now and see what he did. Yes, it may be breaking the rules to watch and wait but if he meant what he said about not wanting others to discover her, though, her secret might be safe with him. If he told others, his life would forfeit.
But she refused to remain his prisoner.
The dark clouds in the distance forecasted a possible storm within the next few hours. Gregor pulled his cloak tighter around him and trudged back to the cave with the wounded shape-shifter inside. Sleep had evaded him most of the night. Every time he closed his eyes, he saw her. The sensual curves of her body. The haunted glow of her eyes. The way she alternated between being a fierce huntress to a showing him a glimmer of trust. She still puzzled him. He wondered what she would do now that her injuries were healed. Despite her odd behavior and the risk she posed, he wanted to know more about her and hoped she would stay in the area a bit longer.
Duke continued his usual routine of digging in the drifts and running through the trees, unfazed by the cold wind or the falling snow. He paused at the barrier of the cave and wagged his tail, appearing almost as eager as Gregor was to check on the wounded shape-shifter.
He lowered the barrier and expected to find her where he left her. Instead, an empty cavern greeted him. The fire had burned down the embers, leaving an icy chill to permeate the space. The woman had vanished.
Gregor knitted his brows together and rubbed his chin. How could this be possible? The barrier should have kept her here. The mystery of the wounded wild woman widened threefold. Only a Master Mage could disrupt the barrier he cast last night, and even then, it would take hours to do so. She could barely stand when he left her.
Duke’s barking interrupted his thoughts, followed by a flutter of wings that came close enough to Gregor’s head to tousle his hair. Duke chased after whatever flew out of the cave, leaving him to stumble through the drifts after the dog. When he came to the tree Duke was barking at, he saw an owl high in the branches. The wind ruffled its snowy feathers as it watched from above, unmoved by the dog below. “It is just an owl, Duke. Leave it alone.”
“No. Different owl.”
Gregor took a second look at the owl. A sudden chill that was not due to the wind raced down his spine. Yes, there was something different about this owl. Something about the eyes. He focused his mental energy and asked the owl what it was doing. Its silence only added to his unease. Most animals responded to his questions. Instead, the owl flexed its talons and hissed at him.
He grabbed Duke by the loose skin on his neck and pulled the dog away. If it was his wounded shape-shifter, she was making it very clear she wanted to be left alone. “Time to go home.” His voice sounded calmer than he felt. “Leave the owl alone.”
He could not escape the feeling that he was being watched the entire journey back to the house. Every time he looked over his shoulder, though, nothing was there. Unease seeped into his veins and coiled in stomach. His pace increased with the beating of his heart. He was running up the stairs to his study by the time he returned home.
Ranealya landed on a tree branch outside of Gregor’s cottage and shook with silent laughter. And here she worried that the form of an owl wouldn’t be enough to spook him. Obviously, he’d been told too many tales of the evil shape-shifters as a child.
Good. That will keep him from telling anyone about me.
Her shoulder throbbed, reminding her that her wounds hadn’t completely healed. She glided down to the ground and shifted back into her normal form. The wound appeared almost closed on the outside, but it would probably take another day or two to form a pink scar across her flesh. Wounds from the Azekborn always took longer to heal than ordinary ones.
She sniffed the air for the scent of brimstone, offering a quick prayer to the goddess Elios that the Azekborn wouldn’t find her until she had fully recuperated from her injuries. When she discovered no traces of them in the immediate area, she turned her attention back to the problem a few hundred feet away. Gregor Meritis knew what she was, and until she figured out what to do with him, she had no plans on leaving the area.