The Cursed Kingdom

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NINETEEN

~ FUR-DEEP ~

If there was one thing Tylem and Taylium humored themselves with when they weren't too busy getting themselves into trouble, it was telling highly disturbing and descriptive tales, some they heard from travelers and others they fabricated out of their own unnerving thoughts.

The reason they did this was not because they enjoyed being creative or scaring people, although they enjoyed doing both greatly, because the only time they shared these stories was if I was there to hear them. Not Oriana or their sistersβ€”meβ€”because the sole purpose of making their tales so grotesque was to see my facial reaction.

According to Oriana's explanation, the combination of my nose scrunching up, my eyebrows furrowing until they were almost touching, and lips gaping only enough to see my top row of teeth was so entertaining that they made sure to reserve their stories for my presence only.

Out of the hundreds they must've told over the years, there was one story that always stuck with me. While usually their plots were centered around bloodthirsty monsters that lurked in the dark, the one they told on a dreary summer day was about a serial killer who was too human for comfort. They'd explained his background in great lengths, how he'd been raised a normal kid on a farm and eventually descended into madness the older he got.

"He wore his victims' skin. Even his own parents'," Taylium had said, his eyes widening in that excited and almost crazed ten-year-old-way. He'd lost his front teeth not long before that, leaving a large, empty square in the middle of his smile.

"And their hair!" Tylem, who'd been quietly encouraging his brother to continue from his spot in the corner, spoke up.

The image that entered my brain of a grown man wearing a human skin suit paired with a wig designed out of human scalp and hair made my skin crawl. It caused the famous look of disgust to appear on my face and their grins noticeably widened.

"That's stupid," Oriana retorted smartly, sounding almost disappointed by the topic of their story, as if she'd expected something different or better.

"Nuh-uh!" Taylium cried defensively, leaning more forward in his seat. Lightning flashed outside, followed by its angry roar. "Dad told us soβ€”Didn't he, Ty?" Tylem nodded so quickly that I couldn't tell if his response was actually genuine. But I hadn't cared enough at the time to question it. "He even told us how he'd kill them: a stab through the stomach and then he'dβ€”" He speared the air with an invisible dagger and followed it with a twisting motion with his fist, almost as if he was turning a doorknob. With his mouth, he tried to imitate a ripping sound.

"That's not true! He said it was the heart!" Tylem argued.

Now shouting back and forth across the room, the boys were too busy arguing over the murder's killing method to notice I'd given the look again.

Oriana had enough and covered her ears, her eyes screwed shut as she shouted the words, "Stop! Stop!" until the twins finally went silent and still. The rain, however, kept pounding and pounding against the window like an oblivious, unwelcome visitor.

Although their story had ended and life went on, its impact remained. I couldn't get the thought of being stabbed out of my head, something that never should've entered a normal eleven year old girl's mind let alone stayed. But it had. And I couldn't get rid of the perception I'd created of what it felt like: the excruciating pain of a freezing blade sliding through warm skin and shredding any organ in its path. Every time I thought about it, I clutched my stomach and grimaced as if I was feeling it first hand. My vivid and gruesome imagination prohibited me from sleeping for weeks, too paranoid to even close my eyes for more than a second.

But, no matter how many times I'd reimagined the pain of being stabbed, nothing could've prepared me for the excruciating pain I felt as I awoke, gasping for air, almost seven years later.

In the split second it took between waking up and opening my eyes, I feared that my nightmares had finally come to take their rightful claim.

I hissed through grounded teeth as another throbbing blow of torture slammed into my gut, debilitating me into lying helplessly on the bed like a fish trying to function without water. Sweat trickled along my hairline and my upper lip, my skin feeling like it was on fire. When I looked over, tears of frustration, fear, and a touch of anger emerged when I realized the other side of the bed was empty.

I was alone.

My heartbeat sped up and feverishly thumped its ugly beat against my temple. I reached down to clutch my dagger-less stomach, throwing the covers off my scorching body in the process. The pressure from me pressing my hands down onto my abdomen helped only a little but not nearly enough. I'd almost hoped that there was a weapon of some sort lodged into my skin. It would've given me a clear answer or at least a reassurance that my suffering would be over soon. But no. I wasn't even granted that. Just more debilitating pain.

I groaned, bit my chapped lip, and thrashed my head side to side, trying to distract myself from the agonyβ€”to do anything to get my thoughts somewhere else other than my body. Focusing on how the burning throb in my abdomen synced with each brutal bang of my heart against my ribcage only seemed to make it hurt worse. It wasn't long after I'd begun my helpless floundering that suddenly my mind registered another sensation that had my body stiffening, my teeth gritting, and my tongue cursing like a sailor.

The bile rising quickly up my throat suddenly had my legs working again and they were swift in throwing me off the bed and running to the bathroom, where I barely made it in time before all the contents of my stomach revealed themselves and splashed into the toilet bowl. My chest violently moved up and down with each brutal heave, barely allowing me enough time to breathe.

Once my body was finished, my shaking and breathless form cradled the toilet seat for support, brushing the wetness between my thighs off as sweat since the same liquid drench my underarms and forehead. But finally I got the urge to look down, and when I did, I nearly toppled over from the shock and the pure horror I that took possession over my being.

Blood.

There was blood everywhere.

Thick and crimson, it was all over my legs and what used to be a pristine white nightgown was gone and replaced by something out of a horror novel. It eerily reminded me of my friends' blood against the snow and I felt my eyes fill with tears for them and myself. We had all lost our lives that day, one way or another. But it was about time that I joined them in both spirit and body.

I closed my eyes, hissing at the pain and its promise of an end.

There was at least one thing I'd imagined correctly when I was a child and that was the chilling realization a person gets what they're about to die. It first appears at the base of the spine, just above the tailbone, and slithers like a snake into the chest and lungs until finally it reaches the mind, wrapping its body around the organ and smothering the air and all thoughts except one right out of you.

Before the scream that was bubbling in my throat could come out, more vomit erupted out of me and I was left helplessly sobbing and heaving and heaving and sobbing until everything burnedβ€”my face, my throat, my stomach, my heart, my eyesβ€”everything. The bathroom walls and marble floors echoed every sound I made straight back into my ears like they were mocking me, mocking my suffering and my fear.

You're going to die, a voice hissed and beckoned me with a curling finger and a wicked grin from deep inside my mind. The lights above me flickered, although I had not touched the light switch, and there was nothing to hold back my scream that time, loud and shrill for all of the palace, and perhaps even all of Trellomar, to hear.

And then the phantom was gone and the voice followed.

I heard a bang outside, my fright putting a halt on my breathing, crying, and heaving. The chandelier gave one last, fleeting flicker before it went off for good, letting the darkness consume me once more. The small taste of calm only lasted a second until the pain in my stomach brought me back down to reality and I doubled over, digging my elbows into my stomach to try to relieve some of the pain.

"Raena!" I could hear Henrik's booming, frantic voice from the hallway loud and clear. "RAENA!" He sounded closer and suddenly even my human ears could detect fast approaching footsteps.

I began crying out of relief and did not startle when I heard the unmistakable bang of his bedroom door being thrown open or when his half-shifted appeared in the doorway, truly half man and half beast. His body racked with violent breaths and he growled lowly, his head moving side-to-side while his glowing eyes searched all over and his nose tested the air. For the first time ever, I found comfort in seeing his elongated jaw, nails, and teeth. I felt protected.

"Henrik," I whispered pitifully, the taste in my mouth bad enough to make me want to heave again. After he was confident there was no other person in the room, he came towards me, his body shrinking smoothly with only a few soft pops of his joints back into his human form. "I'm dying," I sobbed, having the urge to vomit and curl up in the fetal position all at once. His towering form eyed the toilet and then the blood that covered me, his eyes ablaze, before he finally looked down at my face. "I'm dying. I'm dying. I'm dying." My weak, frantic voice finally broke him from whatever trance he was in and he knelt down next to me, slowly and cautiously, one knee at a time, while shaking his head.

"Henrik, is everything alright?" a concerned and muffled voice that I instantly recognized as Evander's called from outside the bedroom.

Not having the strength to care about sanitation, I rested my temple against the cool toilet seat, sighing at the slight relief it gave to my heated skin. From this position I looked up at Henrik's chiseled face, suddenly feeling very insecure about how I must've looked and smelled, considering his enhanced senses.

"Yes! Tell Healer Ingrid to come straight awayβ€”now!" Henrik yelled back, his volume making me wince and another traitorous tear escaped my eye. "My love, what happened?" Henrik lowered his voice in a way only reserved for me. He placed his hand softly on my cheek, moving back strands of my hair to see my face. Whereas usually his touch would make me feel warmer, this time it cooled me. It was as if it in itself knew everything I needed.

"I woke up and I justβ€”there was this pain." I pressed my palm against my lower abdomen and his eyes followed the movement, calculating it. I winced as another wave of nausea and torture flowed through me, making me let out a sob I tried to muffle through my pinched lips. Henrik shuffled closer, looking uncertain and yet determined to something.

"Is this because you were out in the cold last night?" Henrik asked slowly, looking unsure and desperate for an answer.

I shook my head, confirming what we both knew already, that this was no result from me merely being under the weather.

From outside the bathroom, his bedroom door opened and was closed again. Quick and soft feet padded their way to the bathroom and their owner swiftly turned on the bathroom light switch, allowing her to clearly see the mess before her.

"Oh my..." Ingrid trailed off and paled at the sight of the blood between my legs. Ingrid had been a healer for over a decade, which involved dealing with all kinds of injuries and illnesses, so her reaction frightened me.

"Ingrid," Henrik barked impatiently at the healer, snapping his jaw in annoyance. His squared, tensed shoulders gave the impression that he was ready to reach and drag her over if she didn't get herself together fast enough.

At the sound of his voice, Ingrid quickly shook herself out of her shock to come forward and help me, sending an apologetic looked to the both of us while kneeling down between Henrik and I. She was still in her modest nightgown, which reached just above her ankles, and draped around her shoulders was her green jacket which wasn't even buttoned. Small pants left her mouth as if she'd ran all the way there and parts of me wondered if she had. It wouldn't have surprised me.

Ingrid asked me to sit straight up, which I did slowly, before she placed a hand on my forehead while her other went to my abdomen and pressed down. She closed her eyes and I gasped, my widened eyes looking over at Henrik's stoic face for comfort of some sort, as two invisible tentacles, buzzing and very much alive, began weaving their ways through me from where her hands made contact with my skin. It felt as though they were prodding things within me, testing parts of myself I hadn't known existed, until they made contact just below my belly button and stopped. With the opening of Ingrid's blue eyes, her energy disappeared from within me as if it'd never existed.

Realizing I had underestimated the length of her powers, I stared at my friend in a new light, one full of awe.

"Raena," her eyes flashed to Henrik with uncertainty, but only for a split second before they returned to me. She cleared her throat and adjusted her weight on her knees as she reached up to flush the toilet. "Raena, when was the last time you had your menstrual cycle?"

Henrik's eyes widened in understanding and his shoulders visibly slumped with relief, like a great weight was lifted off of them. Ingrid no longer had that worried look about her, meaning that none of us had anything to fear after all.

I furrowed my eyebrows from both discomfort and confusion, going through my fuzzy brain to find what Ingrid was asking for. The pain made doing so even harder because all I could focus on was that. "I..." I kept searching, deeper and deeper into the forgotten sections of my mind. When I finally found the truth, it startled me, as if it was something I myself hadn't known until that moment either, and I was almost embarrassed to respond, especially with Henrik right there: "I don't think I've ever had it before."

Ingrid was clearly stunned by my revelation, her thin eyebrows nearly reaching her hairline. I wasn't the only one who'd noticed it.

"Is that concerning?" Henrik asked, sounding very worried and very protective. I could see his fingernails turning into claws again and his whole body became tense yet again, ready to leap into action. Whatever that required.

"Well, I mean, it's very uncommon," Ingrid mustered out, her words sounding very forced. "But I suppose since you," she was talking to me again, "were malnourished before you came here it could make sense. It could also explain why you're bleeding so much." Her reasonings sounded more like questions than actual answers and I wondered if she believed me when I told her that I'd never had a period before.

"Please," I begged through teary eyes, my shoulders curling into my body as another massive wave of agony began. A tortured sound reverberated off the walls. "Just make the pain go away."

Henrik's hard gaze turned to Ingrid, demanding her to do as I said.

Ingrid nodded, looking apologetic as she offered me a small smile. "Of course. But first you need a bath."

* * *

"She needs to take two of these every four hours, preferably with something on her stomach." I watched Ingrid hand Henrik a vial full of pills that resembled tiny white pearls. The small glass container was practically engulfed by his large hand and a nod was the only response he gave her before the duo turned to me.

I closed the bathroom door behind me as soon as I crossed the threshold, feeling awkward in the long, black nightdress Henrik had sent for me and the bulky piece of cloth in my underwear Ingrid instructed me to change and soak it in cold water every hour until the bleeding completely stopped. My hair was still damp from my bath and drenching the back of the dress with cold water, causing my whole body to give a violent shiver.

"How are you feeling?" Ingrid asked with a smile, trying to be upbeat for my sake.

My eyes swayed over to Henrik's bed and noticed that all the sheets had been changed except for the brown fur comforter on top. Instantly, my ears started to burn out of embarrassment. Thinking back to how much blood had been just on myself, I couldn't imagine the scene I'd made on the bed. I didn't want to.

"Better," I sort of lied. Yes, the pain was better, but only because in the past hour since I'd first woken up I'd learned how to deal with it. But even as I stood there, the urge to bend over and clutch my stomach was the only thing going through my mind. In an attempt to hide this, I gnawed on my inner cheek and discretely squeezed my thighs together as close as possible, the pressure only helping a little.

"Good." There was an awkward pause and I questioned what exactly she and Henrik had been discussing before I'd entered. Their muffled voices on the other side of the door were the only things I could focus on the entire time I was soaking in the bath, which was at least ten minutes. Surely they hadn't been conversing about one medication for that long. I knew they hadn't. "Well, I'll be off now," Ingrid announced, saying this part to her king, whose approval was the one she needed.

"Yes. Thank you, Ingrid," Henrik said curtly, seeming his best to try to brush her away now that her job was done.

She curtsied and then turned to me, her concerned eyes lingering on my face as if she was searching for something. "Call for me if you need anything," she told me, securing to her belt the straps of the small bag she carried around wherever she went. "And I mean anything," was the last thing she said before she walked out, her hands still fumbling with the buttons on her jacket. As soon as both her feet were over the threshold, the door was shut behind her by Henrik.

"Food will be here soon," he told me and I nodded shyly, again eyeing Henrik's new silk sheets, which were a different shade of grey than his old ones had been. My insides churned.

"I'm sorry for causing so much commotion," I blurted out and saw him tense, his eyes narrowing at me. "It won't happen again."

There was a pause and I watched in silence as Henrik shrugged off his jacket and draped it over the footboard of the bed. The fire Ingrid had started, whose purpose was to heat the two bags of rice that would help relax the muscles in my stomach, was already starting to release its warmth to the rest of the room. I was just beginning to admire the fireplace again and the two merpeople carved on its front when Henrik surprised me by speaking.

"I could feel you," he said, staring thoughtfully down at the bed. Not understanding what he meant, I furrowed my eyebrows in confusion. "The mate bond," he elaborated without looking at me. "It allowed me to feel your fear." He seemed amazed by this revelation, his voice wistful, raspy, and quiet like his mind was in another world. "It slowly got stronger until finally I recognized it for what it was and immediately hurried this way. I'd just made it up the first flight of stairs when I heard you scream. It sounded almost the exact same as the one you'd released in the forest. For a moment, only a moment, I thought of the worst. I thought..." He looked over at me and stared. I held my breath. "I thought I'd failed you." His face was unreadable but his eyes and tone said it all: I, a lowly human, had managed to invoke fear in the all powerful Cursed King because, for a moment, we'd shared the same belief that I was going to die.

"I'm sorry," I repeated, not knowing what else I could say or if I should speak at all.

Henrik just stared.

A knock at the door startled me and Henrik growled, his jaw clenching at the unwelcome noise. His nose went up into the air and flared and he seemed to relax at whatever he scented, rolling back his shoulders that strained against the thin material of his button down shirt.

"Go lie in bed," Henrik told me, a mix between a request and a command, neither softly nor harshly. Whereas normally I would've been stubborn and fought with him just to prove a point, the pain in my abdomen had gotten unbearable again and along with it so had the simple action of standing. So, without a word or hesitation, I dragged myself over to the bed and sighed when I sat down on the edge of the mattress.

I'd only just pulled the covers over myself when Henrik opened the door and whispered something in a bitter tone to the person on the other side. Holding my breath, I went as quiet as I possibly could in an attempt to understand what they were saying. I wondered in moments like those if Henrik forgot I didn't possess his crisp Lycan hearing or if he deliberately used this fact to his advantage when he wanted to hide things from me. The latter idea made me frown.

Closing the door with his free hand, Henrik balanced a full tray of plates with piles of different types of food expertly with one hand as if it weighed nothing. Henrik then stalked over to the wooden table in his sitting area and picked that up by the pedestal base with his free hand. He turned and carried both heavy objects over to me, my eyes anxiously watching the tray to see if there were any indicators that it'd topple over. But none ever appeared.

I let out a sigh of relief when he set the table down next to my side of the bed and then sat the tray on top of it.

"Do you not have faith in my ability to carry things?" Henrik asked as he walked away to grab a chair. He looked at me over his shoulder with a wicked look in his eye and a smirk playing at his lips.

I'd been so unprepared for him to ask me a question that I responded with the first word my startled brain could muster. "What?" My voice sounded more like a squeak.

"Don't act coy, mate. Your heartbeat was erratic." He chuckled to himself as he placed the chair down by the table and seated himself on it.

I tore my eyes from him, let them take in all the delicious food before me, the smell making my empty stomach give a hollow growl. Without hesitation, I reached over to grab a perfectly reddened strawberry when a growl stopped me, my hand only halfway across the tray. I looked up, my eyes wide.

"You're unwell," Henrik told me as if he was chastising a child, grabbing a cloth napkin from beside the plate with three omelettes. He unfurled it quickly and stretched out towards my chest, making me gasp when he got so close to my breasts. I'd just about slapped and screamed at him before he started tucking the napkin into the neckline of my nightdress, making me realize that he had not, in fact, been trying to grope me. My body still frozen from my moment of panic, I watched him pick up the strawberry I'd been reaching for and bring it towards me.

"Is this really necessary?" I asked, annoyed and practically crossed-eyed as I stared down at the strawberry hovering only an inch away from my lips.

"Eat," Henrik growled and I sighed, starving and too physically exhausted to fight. I parted my mouth reluctantly and Henrik took the opportunity to place the fruit inside. Instantly, as I watched his face, I regretted my decision as my lips wrapped back around the fruit to take a bite. What we were doing felt too intimate for comfort and suddenly it wasn't the fire making me warm but his eyes as they stayed transfixed on my lips, a predator hungry for his prey.

I made sure to avoid the strawberries the rest of morning, indulging myself in the omelettes and glazed ham. Henrik fed me every single bite and when I complained of being too full, he used the same fork he'd fed me with to eat my scraps, which still could've easily satisfied three mortal people. He finished it off within seconds.

"Thirsty?" He gestured with his eyes towards the half glass of apple juice whose ice cubes were almost completely melted.

"No, thank you," I responded and ended it with a wince, the pain slowly but surely returning to its full intensity. I pressed my hands down on my stomach on top of the covers, trying to relieve whatever I could.

Seeing this, Henrik pulled out from his front pants pocket the vial Ingrid had given him, popped off the cork, and placed two of the pills on the tray next to the juice. "Take these," he said and stood, walking with long, rushed strides over to the fireplace. I'd just swallowed the first pill when he returned, a warm cloth bag of rice in hand. Once I was done taking my second, I allowed him to pull back the covers and gently place the bag on my lower abdomen, where the pain hurt the most. The muscles in that area almost instantly relaxed from its heat and I sighed in relief from the pressure it placed on my stomach as well. "Better?" Henrik asked, hope in his eyes as he tucked the covers back over my shoulders.

"Yes, much," I responded, a small, genuine smile tugging at the corners of my lips. He gave a smile back. For some reason, the action had me remembering something and I rolled my head back, groaning. "I was supposed to meet Destry to go to the greenhouse," I said, feeling awful about not being able to go through with our plan. There was no way I could deal with how I was feeling and I doubted young, innocent Destry would want to spend his day with a hormonal woman anyway.

There was a moment of brief silence. Although it only lasted for perhaps a breath, it was enough for me to sense that tension had somehow slipped through the cracks of my words. "I hadn't realized you were interested in such a thing." Henrik frowned, his eyes fearfully pensive. "Why didn't you mention anything?"

"You were gone, remember?" I looked up at him just in time to see him begin to glower but I did not regret what I'd said. No matter what Henrik claimed, he'd been avoiding me. He and I both knew it. "Besides, I like Destry. He's very sweet."

Henrik rolled his eyes and growled, facing off to the side. "Well, I'm here now. So I will take you," he bit out, jaw clenched and veins bulging.

"And what if I want Destry to take me?" I retorted, now getting angry. Henrik's scorching eyes snapped to mine in a second, his breath coming out in heavy bursts through his nose.

"I'm taking you and that is final!" Henrik snarled, snapping his jaw in my direction and showing off his extended teeth, his face getting so close to my own that I was sure for a moment he would use them on me. So I flinched back into the pillows, my face turning away from him to close my eyes in the other direction of his hot breath against my cheek. Almost as soon as I'd done that, his growling ceased and I felt his hand on my shoulder, gently trying to encourage me to roll back over. "Raena..." he sighed at the same time my begrudging eyes fluttered open to make contact with his. He appeared relieved to see them. "I'm sorry," he told me and lifted his hand to my cheek, the one he'd been so close to scraping with his teeth that I could still feel the way his lips had brushed against my skin.

I looked up at him and took everything about him into consideration, the small, single freckle under his right eye, his defined Cupid's bow, the subtle green tint around his pupils, and eventually to the scar that marred his face. It was definitely the most prominent thing about his appearance. But as I stared at it then, I'd realized I hadn't actually noticed it for a long time, not like I had when I'd first met him at least. Over time I'd learned there was a lot more to Henrik than some meager scar.

"I was only twelve when I'd gotten it and had just recently shifted," Henrik began, noticing where my stare had settled. At the mention of his age, my focus snapped up to his eyes while I did the math in my head of how long ago that was. "I was my mother's only son and she refused to let me go out and hunt on my own. And, of course, I hated that. So one night I snuck out and went hunting by myself." He drew a circle on my cheek bone with his thumb, leaving sparks in its trail. "I came across a grown bear, a beast too large for my small form, and it wounded me so badly that my father found me the next morning passed out in a pool of my own blood."

I couldn't help but scoff and Henrik gave me a look that was in between a scowl and a smile. "What? So you're telling me that that," I pointed at his scar, "was because of a bear? So no tragic battle story? Really?" There was laughter in my tone. The glow in Henrik's eyes diminished and my smile was weighed down by regret at his sudden change, realizing how my words could've easily wounded any person's pride. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean it like that. I justβ€”"

"No, no, it's not that," Henrik replied, a weird look on his face. "It's just you didn't let me finish my story. Once I was healed of my injuries, my father was disappointed to see that there were no scars from my act of disobedience to remind me of my mistake. So he gave me one himself. That's how I got this one." His free hand trailed down the middle of his face as if feeling the scar for the first time.

My eyes widened with horror and my hand came up to my mouth in shock. "Your father did that to you?" I asked slowly, watching his face for any indicators that I'd misheard him and an encounter with a bear was what had in fact given him his facial deformity.

He nodded, not appearing phased by what he'd just told me in the least. "Don't be upset, Raena," Henrik told me with a smile I didn't believe. "It was just how things worked back when my father ruled. Besides, it's not a sad story really." He patted the brown fur comforter, which suddenly now felt very heavy on top of me as I stared at it in recognition of exactly what animal it'd come from. "Everyone got what they deserved."

"Henrik..." I whispered and lifted my hand to his cheek, watching him instantly lean into my touch. His skin vibrated and tickled my palm as he let out a low, satisfied growl similar to the one I'd heard him make the night before. And when the Cursed King opened his eyes and maneuvered his head to place a lingering kiss on my open palm, I felt my traitorous heart unfurl its dust-covered wings and take flight into the vast unknown.

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