Chapter 22 - Striker
Marcus returned with a hide container and several dead rabbits. Striker shouldered past him to reach Rowan, and she gingerly sat up to prevent the blanket from revealing her naked form.
She touched his nose to reassure him, allowing him to sniff her hand like a dog. Striker made small grunting noises and nickering gently as he blew his breath against her hand, almost as if he spoke to her. Rowan kissed his velvety nose and whispered quiet things to him that only he heard. The horse calmed at her touch and became gentler. She rubbed his ears, his jaw, and face until he almost nodded off on his feet.
“Now go outside into the other cave,” Rowan ordered, and with a flicker of his ears, he sighed heavily with disappointment, nuzzled her shoulder one more time and obeyed.
“One day you must tell me the story of that horse,” Alena asked with amused indulgence, and she didn’t even realize she spoke as if Rowan would remain with them. This didn’t elude Rowan.
“I don’t think it is a story you want to hear,” Rowan warned with reserve, and Alena’s became sober in response to the tension she sensed in Rowan.
“Let me guess, our father,” Alena wagered, and Rowan didn’t have to respond.
“Let’s just say it wasn’t intentional,” Rowan admitted, and Alena spotted a sadness in Rowan at the mention of Victor, but less anger.
“He’s gentle,” Marcus said with a frown, but it sounded like a question.
“Around me, yes. Striker doesn’t like human males, he’s less hostile to females, he loves children, but their parents don’t trust him, and, usually, he has a thing about vampires,” Rowan admitted with a puzzled frown.
“How do you keep him from killing them?” Alena asked, meaning humans.
“I can’t. He seems to know the difference between friends and enemies without being told. It’s when you run into frenemies that the trouble starts and dissuading a thousand pounds of vampire horse not to kill? Difficult, even for me,” her steady gaze watched them absorb this, and then some memory made her smile.
“There was this pig that used to nip him around the ankles when he was a foal, and he prefers them to anything else,” Rowan said sheepishly, and Marcus laughed.
“That explains the wild boars, and I’m glad he likes me,” Marcus pretended to gloat, and Rowan shook her head.
“Traitor,” she teased Striker in a loud stage whisper, and as if he understood, a loud, grumpy, whinny answered her.
Both vampires noted that her manner had become milder. They knew she would never completely trust them, but taking her background into account, and what they learned of her past, they understood her attitude. They knew her better than she realized, and with the knowledge they gained, their view of her changed. She picked up on the difference and struggled with an uncomfortable awareness that she may have said things in her fever dreams that would give them an unfair insight into her mind.
A small insistent voice niggled at the back of her thoughts as if something bothered her, but with the return of her strength, it grew fainter until she barely noticed it.
They were all forced to adapt their prejudices to a degree, but the possibility existed that long-held opinions and beliefs will not easily alter or be erased. For now, they got along, and if they wanted to work together, they would have to tolerate the differences between them.
The veneer of civilization might be thinner than they hoped, and the world saw them as monsters, but what reaped the night were monsters worse than anyone could imagine. Their leader could even turn out to be the greatest monster of all time.
Without the three of them, nothing stood between it and the oblivion of the entire human race, and only one of them still refused to accept that this might well be the end of the world: for vampires and humans alike.
Perhaps what she refused to accept was that if she believed in this mythical monster, her fate and theirs would irrevocably intertwine. Despite their care of her, a lifetime of pain taught her caution.
In Rowan’s head, trust and pain operated together. Every person she ever entrusted with her feelings, life or heart, had betrayed her.
It was not something people like Alena could fully understand or imagine. They grew up with family, and as dysfunctional as Alena’s life had been, her people loved, cared for, protected and respected her. These were things Rowan briefly experienced, and the guilt which resulted from that exposure to normality had tainted even that.
Rowan understood and accepted that life damaged her. Her instinct had become to protect her soul from a world which offered her no real mercy and taught her little about love, but much of hate.
Marcus and Alena didn’t see her as damaged. It was a testament to the strength of her character that her life hadn’t turned her into some soulless monster, uncaring, and without feeling or regard for others.