Are you ready for this one?
A lot happens here, some of it might be tough to read but stick with it.
Thank to everyone who's stuck with this series from book 1, and thanks to the new readers too.
The others didn't so much as look my way as I screamed into the air. Clawing at my leg as I shifted back into my skin, the pain blinded me. I writhed and gasped for breath, a shudder wracking through me until all I could do was lie there and pant.
My leg was broken. I knew it was. The deer had kicked it so hard, I'd heard the bone snap. Adrenaline had helped me run but there was only exhaustion now, exhaustion and pain.
I'd warned them this had been a bad idea. We'd been foolish to go up against a pack when we were weak and tired but starvation had made desperate wolves of us all. I'd gone along with their plan until our leader had decided to do more than steal food but attack the pack itself. We'd been beaten easily. Most of us hadn't come back and their bodies would belong to the earth.
The wolves I'd been travelling with were talking in hushed tones and I felt their fear. That pack would come after us to finish us off, to make us pay. I'd seen one of their wolves fall to the ground but it had been the antlers of a deer that had injured him. They'd seek revenge.
"We must run," Valdis, our leader spoke and the others all nodded their agreement.
I whimpered when they began to shift, clawing my way towards them. Valdis growled, making me still, and he shook his head. "You cannot travel. We can't have you slowing us down."
"You can't leave me," I hissed, grabbing onto his leg as if that could hold him back. He shook me off easily and I slumped back against the rocks by the bank of a fast flowing river. Fear of the water had me dragging myself forward again.
Tears of desperation slipped down my cheeks. They couldn't leave me behind. I would either die of starvation or the pack would find me, either way I was dead. I couldn't hunt with a broken leg, the bone would mend but it would heal displaced if they didn't help me.
Valdis grabbed my wrists roughly in his, always so rough. My skin was covered in bruises left by him. He thrust a dagger into my hand and grunted as if he'd done me some huge favour. He turned without a word and started running and not one wolf looked back at me as they followed.
A scream of frustration burned my throat raw and I cursed them all. I tried to push myself up to follow them but the world tipped and my vision blacked out. My leg was throbbing, an agony I couldn't escape nor think past.
I should have known those bastards wouldn't care about me. Years we had travelled the wilderness together but there was no love between us. It was survival. We needed each other to be safe. Fear had been all I'd known really. It was a normal part of my life and Valdis had treated me better than the wolves I'd traveled with before. He'd still rutted me through my heats whether I wanted him to or not, and I wasn't the only one that suffered through his bouts of rage, but he'd always made sure I ate when we caught food. And still, he'd left me here to die.
I eyed the dagger that my hand limply held and wondered whether he'd left it so I could defend myself or if he'd left it so I could end my own misery. Death by my own hand seemed a more honourable way to go than from dying of infection or at the teeth of a damned pack.
Swallowing, I forced myself to sit up. The site of my leg made me queasy. Already the skin around the break was bruising deep shades of black and blue. There was no point in my suffering, I decided, and held the blade up to my chest. Would I be strong enough to thrust it deep enough to pierce my heart? As my hand began to tremble, another question became more important. Was I brave enough to take my own life?
There was scraps of meat and berries in the cave where we'd been hiding the last week. My leg might heal badly but perhaps enough that I'd be able to hunt small animals. If I skulked around the pack of wild wolves and avoided the Wulvers, there could be a chance of snatching more scraps.
A rustle from behind me and I nearly fell over in gratitude, spinning round and expecting to see that Valdis had come back for me. It wasn't Valdis that came out of the trees though.
The grey wolf with an almost red tint to his brown eyes was a stranger to me but I somehow knew he was from the pack. His lips peeled back to show me sharp white fangs. Death had finally come for me. I gripped the knife and shifted onto my knees, keeping weight off my left leg. I shoved myself up so I was standing unsteadily and growled at this big male.
His eyes were darting around but it was only me here. The air around him shimmered and he shifted to skin so swiftly, it didn't sound like it hurt at all. How odd. It always caused me great pain and time to shift between my skin and fur.
"Where are the rest of you?" the male demanded, untrusting eyes still scanning his surroundings.
I was too busy staring at the strange swirls that covered his skin. He was covered in black patterns and odd symbols, I could even pick out the faces of a bear and a deer over his chest and side.
I flinched as his voice boomed towards me, feeling my wolf cower at the power that radiated from him. I couldn't let him know I was scared. Valdis had warned me what pack wolves did to my kind. They hunted us down, tortured us, he'd eat my flesh and play with my bones.
The male must have known I wasn't going to give him anything because suddenly he was coming for me. I panicked, so very aware that I was no match for him. When he picked up speed, I did all I could think to do. Fighting past the pain, I lowered into a crouch and quickly sliced up when he came into range. I wasn't a killer, I didn't know how to use a blade but it drew blood and the male grunted. Falling to my knees, I used his momentum to then tip him over my body. He flipped over and into the water and I scampered in the direction of the cave only to collapse once more.
My body was exhausted, pushed to its limits and I debated giving up as I watched the male climb out of the river. Fury burned in his eyes, drenched hair leaving drops of water trailing down his heaving chest as his hands fisted. Once more, I made myself stand, holding my left leg up a little. The cut on his chest was bleeding slowly but he didn't seem to even feel it. I swallowed, taking up a defensive stance. And then, much to my horror, more wolves appeared from the trees.
They wouldn't get the better of me. I refused to let them. My only chance of escape was to jump into the water but no amount of wolves would make me do that. Even as I glanced over my shoulder at the rushing current, panic flared. It was face these wolves and die honourably, or allow them to take me captive and do horrific things to me.
Taking up a defensive stance, I bared my teeth at them all. But I was no match for the male I'd gotten into the river now that he was ready for me.
My head was pounding as I tried to open my eyes. Groggy and disorientated, I frowned when I couldn't seem to move my arms. A face came into view, the brown eyed male from the river. I snarled and threw myself at him, only to yelp when my shoulders strained. Tilting my head up, dread filled me. My wrists were bound together, tied to a wooden post.
In my panic, I began to tug again, snapping my fangs at the male who was still too close. I didn't care that the rope burned my wrists as I wriggled and fought to escape. I didn't care that I could barely think over the agony every inch of me seemed to be in.
It was the dreaded presence of an Alpha that eventually had be admitting defeat. His growl froze me to the core and I curled in on myself so I was as small and insignificant as possible. I'd heard stories about Alphas. They took what they wanted and cast out or destroyed what they didn't.
My gaze darted around the pack I found myself in, hating that they were all watching me. The dark haired female that had been amongst the wolves that surrounded me at the river had a look of pity on her face. I was stuck. There would be no escape for me. Only gruesome torture and eventual death at the hands of these wolves.
When the Alpha demanded I obeyed, I submitted. I withdrew into myself, hiding away as I settled myself against the post. He told me a healer was going to fix my leg, why would they do that? Why would they heal me if they were only going to kill me later? It was true, everything I'd heard, these wolves liked to play games. And I was the mouse for the cat.
The blue eyed Alpha crouched in front of me but I couldn't bring myself to look at him. He kept his distance, keeping out of reach of my good leg.
"Nobody here wants to cause you any harm," he said gently.
"We'll fix your leg and make sure you get something to eat. Then I will come back and we can talk properly about what's going to happen. You look like you've seen and been through a lot that you shouldn't have." His voice was a little firmer now, as if sensing that I didn't believe him.
I ducked my head and shrugged my agreement because it was never good to anger an Alpha. Alphas killed and destroyed. He walked away and left me with that scowling male with the patterned skin. When another male approached, I swore I was going to be sick. But there was something strange about this one. Blond hair flopped over his eyes and he grinned as he approached.
"Caught a stray did you, Beta Bjarke?" he asked my guard.
Was that his name, I wondered, Bjarke? And he was a Beta. I inwardly cringed. No wonder he was so furious. The cheerful male that smelt of herbs and honey knelt beside me and I flinched when he reached out to touch me. A growl from the Beta reminded me of the Alpha's warning but hated people touching me, especially in my skin.
"I'm Madden, I'm the healer. I need to look at your leg." But his eyes weren't on my legs, they were trailing over the bruises, handprints, and bite marks that littered the rest of my skin.
I bared my teeth, a small rumble of warning bubbling up. If they killed me, so be it. I didn't care. I'd lost the wolves I'd run with, Valdis had left me, there was nothing left for me here. Madden looked mostly unconcerned at my angry sounds and began to inspect my leg. I tried to stay still through the pain that deafened and blinded me. I was calm until a pair of firm hands gripped my shoulder and the broken shards of my leg were forced back into place.
The sound that left me was somewhere between a scream and a howl. The healer barely got the chance to wrap my leg up before I was squirming out of the Beta's hold kicking at him with all the strength I had left. Madden blinked in surprise then yelled when I managed to sink my teeth into his good arm. Fingers in my hair and my head was yanked back, scalp stinging as I flopped exhausted back into the mud, my hands hanging above my head and now burnt raw by rope.
A slightly manic laugh slipped past my lips as the healer glared at me and I was pleased to see the bite I'd given him was bleeding. I smiled, making sure he could see his own blood on my fangs. If they wanted a feral wanderer, I'd give them one. I had no qualms about making this as difficult for them as possible. They wouldn't get a submissive female from me no matter how much they talked softly and offered help.
My body was lifted, arms coming around my waist to pin me against a hard chest. I couldn't get free no matter how hard I struggled and the Beta was happy to let me wear myself out. I screamed and cursed, jerking furiously until all I could do was whimper pathetically. I went limp in his hold, frustrated tears rolling down my cheeks.
"Now, Madden," the Beta grunted, his arms like a vice around my middle.
I barely flinched as the other male finished fixing my leg. He cleaned it of blood and dirt, smearing a paste over open flesh before winding a clean fabric tight around it. I settled, watching his every move. He really was helping me. The paste he'd applied had a soothing effect that numbed the pain enough that I could breathe easily once more. It was when he started checking over the rest of me that I began to growl again.
There were yellowing bruises on the inside of my thighs from Valdis' and others hands, cuts and gashes from fighting for food. The healer's fingers brushed over a bite mark on my breast and my whole body froze. Blue eyes lifted to my face and he frowned. I didn't like the expression he wore, the way he seemed to be able to read the story that was written on my skin, so I tossed my head back. The Beta swore as his nose crunched and his arms fell from around me. It had hurt me too and my visions went in and out of focus.
The Beta knew what was coming next though and rolled out of the way before I could cause anymore damage. Blood was dripping down his face as he stood next to the healer.
"The bite on her chest is infected," Madden murmured to him, still frowning. His Adams apple bobbed. "I've never seen wounds like that before."
I scooted back to rest against the post, tucking the knee of my good leg under chin to cover my body. What was the healer even talking about? Life was hard, wolves took what they wanted and often I couldn't fight back, of course my body would show that. It was these wolves that looked wrong.
The healer sat before me again and I eyed him warily.
"Did the wolves you were with hurt you?" he asked gently.
I snorted at such a question. Was that not the way of all wolves? At least the others had never tied me up like a dog. Closing my eyes, I tried to get comfy so I might find some peace to sleep. I'd need time to heal and build energy if I was to get away. One of them sighed heavily and I heard the healer get back to his feet.
"They aren't just wounds from infighting?" The Beta asked and I could feel him look at me.
"No," the healer murmured, a sad edge to his voice. "They're not."
These wolves were demons. Magic wielders. Beings to be feared. I knew that well after only two days. They'd left me tied to the post but they lengthened the rope so I could rest my hands on my lap and move around a bit. It was always shortened again when they brought food over or when the healer worked on my leg and smeared paste over the infected wound my chest. They'd learned lessons too, that I would take any chance I had to inflict pain.
The Beta would ask me questions as he fed me but I was so exhausted and lost in my own head, I couldn't properly comprehend what he was saying. I sunk in and out of consciousness often, never able to eat more than a few bites of spiced meats and sweet vegetables.
There was nothing to do but sit and watch so I learned all I could about this pack. The dark blond male was son of the Alpha pair and his mate was the slim, dark eyes female that often watched me. She'd been busy today, working quickly amongst her pack and my eyes followed the pendant that hung around her neck.
When they sat to eat, she was accompanied by a golden eyes pup but this pup wasn't hers. She belonged to the brown haired female with the rounded belly. The pup would soon be a sibling.
The sky grew darker and the pack gathered around where they'd laid down furs and blankets. I watched with interest, feeling the anticipation in the air.
Picking at loose strands of rope, I watched the bonfire being lit and shuddered in delight when its heat reached me. I'd been offered furs during the night but I'd be damned if I accepted anything from them. But that heat turned to ice when the ancient male, a male older than I'd ever seen before, began to speak.
Ghosts crept out of the shadows to listen and the sensation of magic made my skin crawl. I curled up tighter and squeezed my eyes shut, trying to ignore the sounds of eerie snarls and the smell of blood that wasn't real.
The sounds faded to be replaced by a mournful song and when I opened my eyes, I was hypnotised. It was the female I always caught staring at me, the mate of the Alpha, who was singing now. I wished she'd stop. The sound made my chest feel tight and tears threatened to fall. I let out a strangled cry of frustration, gnawing uselessly at the rope around my wrists, desperate to be free.
My jaw ached and all I'd managed to do was cause a few frayed edges.
I fell asleep, freezing cold and terrified. Hopefully they'd finish having their fun with me and I could become a ghost as well.