A wolf on the run from his demons. The one man who can tame his wounded heart.
None of it was Cai’s fault. Or so he’s told himself for years. Only, it no longer holds the scent of truth.
With guilt nipping at his heels, Cai flees as far north as he can. By the time he stumbles into a barbarian hunting camp, he’s nothing but fur and bones and a death wish.
It’s just his luck that among the strangers are a small girl with strength to spare and a man whose sure hand sparks an unsettling instinct to obey.
Raised by a brutal despot, Agravain is determined to be a better father to his daughter. He has enough problems without adding this pathetic excuse for a wild wolf to his burdens.
But he doesn’t count on his lass’s quick attachment to the beast, nor how helping the wolf mend eases the loneliness of their island home.
And he can’t explain at all why the creature seems to understand him better than anyone else.
Meanwhile, a surprise visitor to Arthur’s shifter compound could corner him into finally accepting a few truths that have dogged him for over a decade.
Tropes: on the run, secret identity, alpha/omega, found family, redemption
Content Notes: killing in defense of self and others, injury, intimacy in shifted forms, terminal illness (secondary character), suicidal thoughts, mention of murder, mention of infanticide by drowning, mention of past partner/parent death
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The wolf could smell his own despair.
Among other things. Frost. Dead grass. Tannic water somewhere near. And dung; deer, fox, hare.
Some old instinct in the wolf paused at the evidence of life. Of food. Was he hungry? He stood on the flat and stared at the forest ahead. Shelter, rest, sleep. His legs quivered with wanting them, more than food. When was the last time he had slept? Once, he had counted suns. Then moons. Now neither, though they both circled endlessly. In the trees, at least, the wolf wouldn’t see them. Or the fucking stars.
But forest also meant danger. Sharp beaks like pincers. Hooves that bruised and tusks that tore flesh. Squealing screams that made the wolf’s skin flinch under his fur. The scar under his ribs began to burn. Real or memory? The wolf couldn’t make himself risk a step for several bloodbeats, could only breathe in air (winter, winter on the wind) then watch it drift away in wisps.
Then he smelled smoke.
His bones seemed to lock in place, and images arose—old ones, ones that made the wolf quake from nose to tail. Fire. Sparks. The strike of metal on metal, the smell of hot iron. More scents, of sweat, of food cooking. The shush of skirts, and boots scuffing on a dirt floor. A voice, teasing, cajoling.
The wolf lifted his snout and inhaled. Stepped forward, ignoring the fresh chill of frost under his pads. The smoke was coming from the forest. Not a natural fire. An intentional one.
The skirt, the voice. Sit, brother.
Above the trees, a pair of hawks appeared. They traced circles in the sky above the forest, their wingtips flared broad as they looked for prey.
He rose and crept toward the trees.
Halt. Pain. Danger. But his legs moved as if on their own, pulled by the smoke. Sun and sky became limb and leaf, and the textures under his paws grew softer, richer of scent. Warmer. The wolf heard the sounds but couldn’t stop until he had breached the small clearing. He drew to a halt and swayed.
Flames, licking. Fat, dripping and sizzling. Pale faces turning. The wolf’s legs gave out, finally, and his chin hit the needle mulch. It smelled loamy, sleepy.
Boots scuffed, and the wolf dragged his eyes open. A skirt, of a sort. Short, with trousers underneath. The footfalls were light. Voices, blunt and stony, rang from the fire, but the small boots came on, heel to toe, heel to toe. Then, slowly, the edge of the skirt whuffled down to the earth, and the wolf looked up.
Dark eyes gazed back, and the wolf’s heart shivered. Too dark, those eyes. The hair, too, in its plaits like burnt ropes.
Not Mora. And the wolf…not anyone who needed memories. Not a man. Not anymore.
Only a wolf.
The girl was murmuring something, or maybe that was the wolf’s blood, sluggish and lurching. Fingers rose before his snout, curled and dirty in their mitts.
A bark from the fire. The harsh song of iron in cold air.
But the wolf couldn’t move. The girl’s fingers came to rest on his head, and his eyes fell shut, leaden, as she murmured and stroked. Heavy footfalls made the earth shudder under his body, but the wolf was tired of fighting. This time, he would let the danger take him.
Maybe then, he could finally forget.
Pushing his nose against the girl’s knee, the wolf inhaled the soothing scent of lanolin and waited for his world to end.
~ ~ ~
“Lura!” Agravain charged toward his daughter, ax drawn and ready to hack the wolf apart. Pulse beating in his ears, he hooked an arm about her and dragged her out of range of its teeth.
“Go to the fire.”
“Stop!” She darted back, wedging her small body between his and the wolf’s. “It’s sick.”
“Could be diseased. Go sit by Jorri.”
“Lura,” Jorri called. “Come here, child.”
Lura looked toward the fire and frowned. No: scowled and then braced her boots in a recalcitrant stance and crossed her arms.
One of the men behind him chuckled.
Agravain eyed the wolf. It lay on its side, eyes closed. The creature looked most of the way to dead. He knelt and met his daughter’s stubborn gaze. She had just five summers to her, but it was like trying to stare down his own mother. “It’s a wild beast, Lura, and may be injured. What danger do injured beasts pose?”
Her jaw set in mutinous silence.
He checked the wolf again. Still unconscious, for now. “Answer me.”
“Sometimes they strike,” she muttered. “But it’s too weak to bite—”
“You don’t know that.”
“But it came to us. It wants help.”
“It wants food. Your food. Are you going to give up that rabbit you snared?”
He realized his mistake as her entire demeanor shifted to one of excitement. “Aye! I will. It can have my rabbit. Then it’ll get its strength back.” She started toward the fire, but he caught her arm.
“First of all, daughter, that’s my rabbit, too. We set the snare together.”
“Did not—I tied the—”
“And second, why would we want it to regain its strength? So it can rip out our throats?”
“Wolves only do that when they’re threatened.” Her eyes bore into his. “You said so.”
Did all fathers face this sort of rebellion as often as he did? If he’d crossed his own father this way, Lot would’ve beaten him until he lay as unmoving as this pathetic excuse for a wolf.
He was not Lot. “I did say that, and it’s true. But every animal must die in its time—”
“—and it looks to be this wolf’s time.” He turned her to face the creature.
To her credit, she studied it for a few breaths before defying him again. “It’s only napping.” She turned back to him. “I propose a bargain.”
Another chuckle from the fire.
Agravain sighed inwardly. I’ll take her with us, he’d told himself. It was to be their final hunt in the highlands before winter set in and made the crossing from their home in the Orcait too perilous to risk. I’ll keep her close and teach her our ways, he’d thought, and then, because he hadn’t yet deluded himself completely, She won’t bother anyone.
No one but her father.
He leveled his stoniest stare at her. “A bargain?”
She lifted her chin, narrowing her brown eyes at him. Gods, she truly was her grandmother’s granddaughter. “I’ll set a bit of my share near it. If it doesn’t move, we leave it alone. To die,” she added with obvious reluctance. “But if it eats, we leave it alone then too. To live.”
“It would be better to kill it now, lass. If it’s dying, we might ease it on its way.”
“But if it’s only tired, it isn’t dangerous.”
The beast was in its last hours, he was certain. The bones of its ribs and pelvis stood up under its ragged pelt. It was as likely to attack as to rise into the air and fly away.
Lura was watching him at his thinking. She’d always been a keen observer. Even on the day they’d lit her mother’s pyre she’d watched the proceedings closely and asked him about them later. Why was the smoke dark? Why did it rise and where did the sparks go when they winked out? Where did her tears come from, and why did they taste like the sea, and why didn’t he have any?
She was curious and willful and knew her own mind, and his love for her would be his undoing.
“Fetch your portion, then.”
She grinned and ran to the fire pit. Jorri pulled a haunch from the roasted rabbit and handed it to her. As she scampered back, the fellow smirked at him.
Agravain glared back, at all of them. They could keep their opinions to themselves. She was his only daughter—his only fry at all and likely to remain so—and he would teach her to use her brain. If she chose to give up half her dinner for this exercise, he would let her do it.