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Chapter Fourteen

Rage fuelled me as soon as Fendrick’s name was uttered. The dungeons became suffocating, causing me to storm out. I knew something was off about the Thane of Lorcan, had a gut feeling that he was not someone to trust from the very beginning! I wanted to scream, get all my anger out but already the residents of Mirk were watching me as I marched my way back to the house. All I could do before entering those doors was keep calm.

As I rounded a corner, I was knocked to the ground. My head cracked against the cobbles, vision blurring as something heavy landed painfully on my right shoulder. Glaring up, I prepared to take out all my frustrations on the idiot who crashed into me before having my breath hitch in my throat as a gust of rotting breath blew over my face and a ferocious snarl instantly froze my body against the ground.

Standing above me was a member of the Dark Army. Its face was like a mutated Pitbull’s, the fusion of the skull visible under the ash-coloured flesh. High, prominent cheekbones hollowed out to reveal the slight outline of teeth under the skin. Canines stuck out from both top and bottom jaws, saliva dripping down off them onto my chest. Wrinkles formed around its ears like worry-lines before giving way to sparse thickets of fur as a thick forest of the tough-looking grey whiskers bushed out on its shoulders and back. Its heavy paw pushed down on my shoulder as its face came closer to mine. Glancing at its eyes, they were a piercing gold.

“Get off, you’re bloody heavy,” Muttering, I tried to wriggle my arm free. The beast tilted its head slightly as it leaned forward to sniff my neck and face. Shutting my eyes, I steadied my breathing before feeling the weight of the paw slowly lift off my shoulder. Opening my eyes, I hesitantly sat up as the beast moved to lay on its stomach, head still raised above its giant paws. Scars laced themselves over its shoulders and the tight skin over its ribs while new gashes scabbed black were just before its hind leg.

Huffing, I stood up and dusted off my pants and shirt while keeping an eye on the creature. It looked familiar, but the gashes were irritating me for some reason, my side paining like someone had inflicted those cuts on me too.

“You were the one who woke up first, weren’t you?” Cautiously, I moved closer so my fingers could gently ruffle the fur on its broad shoulders. A deep growl-like purr began resonating from within its throat.

“Harper!” Levi’s voice caused the beast to flatten its ears as the purr changed to a menacing snarl and it jumped to its feet as Levi rounded the corner. He stopped in his tracks, hand spasming in indecision above the grip of his sword. “Harper...?”

“It’s okay, both of you can stand down.” Smiling, I placed my hand fully on the beast’s shoulder while extending my arm out to Levi. He slowly came forward to take ahold of my hand, gripping it tightly as he allowed me to pull him closer until the beast could rear its giant head to sniff him.

“Where did it come from?” Levi whispered, stiffening as the beast nudged his chest.

“The cave. This one was the one who saved me from that mercenary,” I stated. My anger peaked again as I remembered who had sent those men. “Did Colt say anything else after I left?”

“Yes, but I’m in two minds to grant him his wish of freedom.” Levi sighed, catching me off guard. The beast growled at my discomfort. Levi glanced at it before rubbing his face with his free hand. “The kid turned on his own people when Kit was killed and guarded my back. You would not know it, but Colt has gotten the least bit of torture compared to the other guy yet he looks like he’s been there for months. Something is not adding up.”

“He still attacked us with those men and countless others before us,” I snapped, frowning as I let his hand go. “Why are you going so soft on him?”

“Because he was a prisoner, unlike the others. You can see it, or at least I can,” Levi admitted, staring up into the sky. “Maybe I have a soft spot or something for him, but it does not feel right leaving him in there. Can he not prove himself trustworthy as I did?”

“Levi, you are different...” Muttering, I studied him. He was desperate, eyes holding back all his emotions and thoughts just like the day we first met. Sighing, I rubbed at my eyes, feeling fatigued. Reaching for his hand, I grasped it and let out a breath. “I’m tired and hungry, let’s go back to the house and inform the others.”

I was rubbing the sleep out of my eyes and trying to mask a yawn when everyone was settled around the stone table. All of them except Mal were weary of the beast resting its head in my lap. Levi came to stand by my side, hand touching my shoulder before he jumped into explaining what we had found out. His grip on my shoulder seemed like a lifeline for him.

“I ne’er liked the man, but the boy is not innocent, my King,” Mal began. She had raced her fastest horse here, cutting a trip of four hours to two after receiving the messenger bird’s letter. “Ya cannot excuse his actions so lightly.”

“I’m not excusing them, just understanding them. This boy, Colt, is special somehow like he is meant to be here,” Levi explained. “All I am suggesting is he redeems himself by exposing Fendrick and the network behind the bastard.”

“My King, Fendrick took over Lorcan’s title as Thane when your father was killed in battle. Who would replace him if he is removed?” Bronte asked, his arms crossed over his chest, tail gently thumping the ground.

“I have a man in mind,” Blaze cut in, glancing around. “Known him for a long time and he is reliable, quite known amongst the troops.”

“We should not be looking at Fendrick’s replacement, but his removal as that is the problem right now,” Yuki stated. “He, if exposed as a traitor to the crown and its people, is a chink in the kingdom’s armour. Even though the Dark Army has been awakened, any disadvantage is an advantage to Wylan’s enemies.”

“Agreed,” Niven muttered while playing with a dagger. Sighing, I leaned back in my chair.

“How then do you suggest Colt expose Fendrick’s betrayal?” I asked, feeling all eyes on me as I slowly braided the beast’s fur. The adrenaline from earlier had left me fighting to stay awake, even the small two-hour nap I managed to take was not enough to replenish my energy. “You know Fendrick has to still feel secure in his position, needs to think we are not on his trail. So, how does he do it?”

“Queen Harper has a valid point,” Isla stated, touching her slim finger to her painted lips. “But I have an idea for just that.”

I was sunk low in the cooling bath water trying to absorb every bit of warmth left. Winter was on its way with bitter temperatures and the thoughts of battle. Not even a handful of months as Wylan's queen and I was already thinking of war. Laughing at the absurdity of it, I stepped out of the bath and dried off before pulling on a freshly washed nightshirt. The beast watched with drooping eyelids. It too had gotten a good scrub much to its horror. Smiling, I went to open the door.

"Harper?" Levi asked tentatively, standing up from his side of the bed. His hair was still damp from his own bath. "You're okay, right? You took a long time and I-"

"Worried for nothing." Sighing, I came to stand in front of him. Gently touching his cheek, I went on my tippy-toes so I could kiss him. Levi's arm came around my waist as he deepened the kiss. When we pulled apart, we were both breathing heavily.

"You think it will work?" He asked voice husky and heartbeat loud under my ear as he held me close. Keeping quiet, I closed my eyes and thought over it.

Isla was smart and her plan was brilliant, however, it relied heavily on Colt and him not knowing anything besides the reward at the end if he performed correctly. So much weight on that kid's shoulders made me uncomfortable and doubtful that he would be able to pull this stunt off, let alone come out alive.

"I want it to, but if it fails... Levi, we would lose everything." Pressing my forehead against his chest, I could feel my heart grow heavy as he sighed and placed his hands on either side of my head before stepping back to kiss the top.

"I won't let anything happen to you, Harper, not one little thing that could hurt you or make you cry."
"How can you make such a big promise and hope to keep it?"
"Because I like you a lot, and I just can. I'm king, aren't I?"

He smirked, canines flashing in the candlelight. The cockiness from our first meeting was back, causing me to giggle before trying to hide a yawn. He chuckled before picking me up and plopping me down on my side of the bed. He then pulled the thick blankets over me with a warm smile.

"You get some rest, I'll join you soon." He leaned down to peck my lips as prison alarms began to blare. He glanced at the beast which earned him a raised ear. "Scruffball, look after my woman while I'm gone. We don't need unplanned surprises."

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