(This is the first part of Chapter 1.)
I don’t think I’m dead, but f*ck, this hurts…
The young woman took a shallow breath, allowing her lungs to expand like sticky plastic bags filling with cool, damp air. It was a bit too much, and a dry, gravelly cough made her roll over and curl into a little ball. Every part of her body was in agony, the sort of agony she’d only felt once after being in a serious car accident, and her head throbbed in tune to her heartbeat. The steady, constant thumping made her wonder if a blood vessel wasn’t about to explode. She took several more shallow breaths and heard a little moan of agony escape her throat.
The air around her moved, and she heard deliberate, careful footsteps. Footsteps meant someone was there, and at the moment, she had no idea where she was. The last thing she could remember was sitting on the grass in the warm sunlight of a midsummer’s day, thinking about her father and missing him so much. Now, she was dumped on the hard ground in a cold, dark place that smelled like a mouldy cellar. What the hell had happened?
She felt fingers touch her neck, hopefully looking for a pulse.
“Please…don’t…” she rasped, but another dry cough stopped any more words from escaping her mouth.
The hand removed itself, but the presence remained. “Who are you and what, by all that’s holy, are you doing here?”
It was a male voice, and he sounded irritated.
“I don’t…” She managed to move her arm and cover her face with her hand, her fingers rubbing her parched and aching eyes. If she didn’t get those tears going, her contact lenses were going to retaliate. “I…I don’t know.”
“You don’t know who you are, or you don’t know what you’re doing here?” He hovered silently for a moment, and when she made no response, he added in mock glee, “Perhaps it’s both!” He groaned, shuffling his feet. Twigs and leaves snapped, and stones crunched as he adjusted his position next to her. “Wonderful,” he whispered under his breath. “Good gods…just wonderful. Exactly what I need tonight…”
She hadn’t wanted to anger him, but every part of her was screaming leave me alone. Nevertheless, she was now sure he was trying to help. “My name is Gabrielle,” she said quietly, and her eyes fluttered open. She blinked several times, making sure her lenses weren’t going to pop out unexpectedly, and she allowed her vision to adjust in the dim light. Moving her fingers away from her face, the young woman focused on her new acquaintance’s feet or, more specifically, his boots. They were brown, battered and unlike any fashion she’d seen outside of a history book. She trailed her gaze up to his dark breeches and jacket – clothes that looked like they belonged in the Victorian era – and stopped at his face, her throat constricting and cutting off her breath.
He wasn’t human. He was…well, she wasn’t sure. The voice in her head squeaked, Oh shit – he’s a werewolf, but she couldn’t believe it.
“Gabrielle,” he repeated in perfect English, his speech so clear and unremarkable that nothing would have led her to believe he was anyone but some guy down the street or a fellow student in her Psych 101 class. “And can you explain how you got here?”
She opened her mouth, but still nothing came out.
“If I wasn’t so horribly late for a very important engagement, I might find this whole situation amusing. I’ll take you back to Rhoenglasz, and you can have as long as you’d like getting your story straight. Come on.” He gently and firmly grasped her under the arms like a rag doll and began lifting her to her feet with amazing strength.
Her mind was in shock, but her body was in pain. She cried out and tried with little success to push herself out of his grasp. “Let go of me, please!” she uttered, welcome tears welling in her eyes. “Please…don’t eat me.”
“Eat you?” He paused in his effort, but he didn’t let her go. With surprise and distaste in his tone, he stated, “Madame, I’m no cannibal.” He sighed and shook his head, adding in a more level fashion, “We must go, but you have to help me. If you’re hurt, we have to get you to a doctor. It’s getting cold, and dangerous creatures are waking up hungry.” His stern, lupine face softened, and the corner of his mouth even lifted in a bit of a smile. “I think I’d rather have an evening meal than become one. What do you say?”
Gabrielle took several quick breaths to steady her nerves, and nodded her head with a little moan of agreement. As he said more, she noticed a slight hint of an accent in his speech, almost Eastern European like her grandmother, but not quite. She looked over the wolf-man’s shoulder and realised that this space smelled cold and damp because it was actually a cave, the ground strewn with forest litter that had blown in from the outside and the rough stone walls glistening with trails of seeping water.
“Good,” he smiled warmly, his eyes twinkling like stars in the waning light. “We’ll go more slowly, but time is of the essence. Can you walk?”
She tried taking the full weight of her body on her legs, and although the pain still seared through every muscle and joint, she stood and put her hands on his chest for support. “Wow,” she sighed with a ragged breath. “I think I can manage.” He looked impressed, if she was reading his expression correctly, and that gave her the extra boost she needed to fight through the agony and take one step at a time, like a wobbly child learning to walk.
“My name is Aeoulys,” he volunteered as they came to the mouth of the cave. “Judging by your current state, I’ll wager you’ve never seen a szukar, so please don’t be afraid of Resky.”
The young woman winced and leaned more heavily on Aeoulys’s arm as the cave floor sloped up and out into the forest. “A szukar? Resky? What are you…oh my God.”
She didn’t have to finish her question, as the answer was standing before her. This szukar creature was slightly larger than a Clydesdale horse, but its features more closely resembled those of an elk or deer. It had beautiful spiralling cream horns, ridged and lightly speckled with a slightly darker colour. The beast’s coat was chestnut brown, dense and short along most of its body, save for the feathering along its neck and from its knees to the tops of hooves that were unlike any Gabrielle had ever seen. Instead of a single hoof, or even a single cloven hoof, this creature had double cloven hooves on each foot. Its eyes were set more closely than those of a horse or deer, and small tusk-like teeth protruded from its mouth.
“Don’t move too suddenly,” Aeoulys said in a hushed tone. “They can become aggressive if they feel threatened while riderless.”
All Gabrielle could do was reply with a hysterical giggle. “They feel threatened?” she repeated. “I swear it looks like it’s going to take a bite out of me or something.”
Aeoulys laughed for the first time, and the warmth of the sound eased Gabrielle’s nerves a bit. “Give me your hand, and trust me. Don’t move until I tell you to do so. He’s not going to hurt you.” And then Aeoulys spoke in a language that the young woman had never heard. “Resky, piorshu domnie. Ta nova zanoma…doru bonch donie.”
Gabrielle stood still as stone, and Resky approached her with movements that were graceful and light. He swayed his long, full tail like a silken ribbon dancing on the breeze. As he brought his velvet muzzle to the young woman’s hand, Gabrielle watched the creature’s expression and was sure Resky was about to open his mouth and speak. But he only breathed in her scent and snorted in an accepting fashion, then locked eyes with Aeoulys and made an unusual purring trill.
“You have his friendship for life,” Aeoulys grinned and released Gabrielle’s hand.
She inhaled and exhaled deeply, unaware that she’d nearly forgotten to breathe during her encounter with this wondrous animal. “Can I touch him?” she asked quietly, rubbing the place on her hand where Resky’s warm face had touched her.
“Short of pulling his tail,” Aeoulys stepped toward Resky, “you can do whatever you like. And he would probably even allow you to do that.” He clapped the creature lovingly on its neck and began checking the straps of the ornate saddle on Resky’s back.
“Pleasure to meet you,” she said quietly, forgetting her own discomfort. She placed her hand on Resky’s silky neck and gently stroked his chestnut fur. Again, she heard him make the odd purring noise, and this time he looked at her and half closed his eyes. “You are gorgeous,” she looked up at him with wide eyes, putting her other hand on his neck and soaking up the creature’s warmth. The temperature was dropping quickly, and Resky was like a big alpaca blanket. She wanted to snuggle up against him, but she figured Aeoulys might not appreciate her getting too touchy with his mount.
“He’s smart, too,” the young male smirked. “He knows exactly how to get a lady’s attention, the rotten mongrel.” The lupine male opened a compartment on the saddle and pulled out a cloak-like garment. He secured the compartment and returned to Gabrielle’s side. Unfurling the cloak in one brisk movement, he held it open to her. “Something to keep you warm for the ride back. It’s something of a distance, and the weather still isn’t balmy, as you can appreciate.”
She stepped back and let Aeoulys drape the garment about her shoulders. Pulling it close around her, she groaned as the muscles in her back and arms reminded her that all was not cheery. “Thank you,” she turned around, genuinely grateful for his evolving kindness. Although the light was nearly gone, she took a moment to assess his features for the first time since their meeting. Aeoulys was just over a head taller than her, and there was nothing wrong with his physique: from his strong arms to his broad shoulders, he was a fit and well-proportioned male. A male with a wolf’s head and big teeth, she mused. His eyes were the colour of pale honey, and his gleaming fur was amber brown. A black nose and black fur rimming his eyes like Egyptian kohl completed his elegant presentation. Gabrielle had to admit that for a non-human, he was quite handsome – canine teeth, tail and all. He’s got five fingers, though…
He suddenly cleared his throat and licked his lips. “I think we’d better get going.”
Gabrielle felt a warm rush to her cheeks. I hope he didn’t notice me checking him out, she prayed. She already felt embarrassed enough to have been found in a crumpled mess on the ground, like some drunk in an alley. The only difference was that she’d done nothing to get herself into that situation. Tugging the cloak around herself even more tightly, she nodded took a deep breath. “Lead the way, kind sir. What would you like me to do?”
Aeoulys chuckled and took hold of Resky’s reins. “Can you get in that saddle?”
Of course you’re riding, you idiot, her inner voice chided. How did you think you’d be getting to where you’re going? Gabrielle silenced her inner critic and looked up to the top of the saddle. She’d only ever ridden a horse once, and the horse had really been more of a…well, a small pony. Her stomach twisted in knots, and she noticed her head still aching and her muscles still burning. But she didn’t want to look like a coward, and the opportunity to ride a creature like Resky was beyond her wildest fantasies. With fear losing the battle to curiosity, she smiled and squeaked out, “Um…yeah.”
“Excellent.” Tossing the reins over the szukar’s neck, Aeoulys bent forward a bit and entwined his fingers together. “Step here with your left foot, and I’ll help you up. Grab onto the pikra if you need to.”
“Pikra? I’m sorry, what’s that?”
“That thing on the top of the saddle,” Aeoulys said, rolling his eyes and shaking his head.
“Oh,” Gabrielle mouthed, noticing the crescent-moon shaped protrusion where a pommel would normally be. Of course…
The young woman grasped the edge of the ornate saddle and clenched her teeth together. “Mmm hmm,” she inhaled deeply, wishing she could close her eyes but knowing it would be supremely stupid to do so.
“Up you go, and leg over the top,” he instructed. In one smooth, effortless move, Aeoulys lifted her and she scrambled over the top of Resky’s back into the saddle. To his credit, Resky stood perfectly still, neither shifting under her weight nor complaining about the inept fashion with which she’d mounted him. Aeoulys looked up at her with raised eyebrows and a barely-contained grin as he stroked the szukar’s neck. “You all right up there?”
Gabrielle clutched the pikra with shaking, white-knuckled hands. “Yeah, I’m good,” she squeaked. “You’re coming up?”
“Of course,” Aeoulys chuckled, stepping around and tapping Resky’s back right leg gently with the inside of his boot. Resky lifted his foot off the ground, creating a step for Aeoulys. Taking hold of the saddle’s edge opposite to Gabrielle, he bounced deftly off the ground with his right leg, pushed off Resky’s foot with his left, and hoisted himself with effortless ease into the generous saddle space behind Gabrielle. He slipped his arm around the young woman’s waist and pulled her close against himself with one hand as he gathered up the reins in his other. She felt his warm breath on her neck as he whispered, “Pardon me.”
She stiffened at the unexpected intimacy of his touch. Her mouth opened to say something, but her mind was blank. After all, what was she going to say? Get your hands off me? Great idea, the narky inner voice quipped, because you’ve ridden a szukar before and can totally hang on all by yourself! Why don’t you just do a little jig up here while you’re at it? She kept her mouth shut and relaxed a little, happy for the cranky wisdom of her intuition. Besides, Aeoulys was warm and solid against her back, and she didn’t mind the scent of him… outdoorsy and masculine, like a mix of camping and nice cologne.
Aeoulys gently squeezed Resky’s flanks, and the szukar sprang into a lively trot. He heard Gabrielle gasp, and suppressed a snicker. She was really something else, this human female, he thought. Afraid but brave, fragile but tough…unexpected. Well, unexpected in more ways than one… When Resky insisted on stopping at the cave, Aeoulys had been furious. Then, upon finding the unconscious female, anger switched to irritation. But riding along with his arm around her, he was rather happier than he’d been all day. “Do you feel all right?” he asked.
She didn’t reply straight away. “I’m ok,” she eventually stated in a tone that suggested otherwise.
“Still in pain?”
Again the pause. “Not as much.”
Suddenly it clicked, and Aeoulys held her a little tighter as a grin spread across his face from ear to ear. “Opened your eyes yet?”
The breath caught in her throat. She sat silent for several moments. “Um, I…I-I will, um, s-s-soon.”
It was Aeoulys’s turn to take a deep breath, inhaling the fragrance of her. She smelled different from other females he’d known, sweet and lightly musky. She was also shorter than most of the females he knew, but he liked the look of her. She had a very pretty heart-shaped face, and her large eyes seemed oddly familiar. “Take your time; there isn’t much to see around here. Trees in the dark aren’t my idea of great scenery. Hey, how would you like a song? I’m told my voice is rather good.”
“I’d love that.” Gabrielle wrapped the folds of the soft cloak about her hands. They were going numb from the chilled night air rushing past as Resky quickened his pace.
Aeoulys cleared his throat and hummed a tone. Then, in an unexpectedly beautiful tenor, he began to sing in the language he’d used to speak to Resky. Gabrielle relaxed against him, listening to the lilting refrain and wondering what the cheery tune meant. It sounded like something she might have heard at the pub the other night…the night before she’d gone looking for closure and ended up…where?
The song ended on a long note, and suddenly Aeoulys fell silent. The only sounds were Resky’s feet quietly tapping along the ground and the wind rushing past Gabrielle’s chilled ears.
The young woman opened her eyes and smiled. “I didn’t get a word of what you said, but that was incredibly beautiful,” she murmured, turning her head. “I mean, you have an amazing voice.”
“Thank you,” he replied hesitantly. “I, ah…well, I can never tell if I’m genuinely entertaining others or if they’re simply suffering my wailing.”
“Oh no, Aeoulys,” she frowned. “I can’t believe you’d think that. You have a gift. Whatever you do for a living, quit right now and go into singing. You are that good.”
He laughed, the sound deep and genuine. Composing himself, he nodded and said, “Thank you, truly. I will most definitely consider it, although I can’t make any promises.”
She felt good that she’d made him laugh, but between his beautiful song and Resky’s smooth, rocking pace, she found her eyes growing heavy and her body becoming quite weary. She wanted to let her eyelids drop again, but not because she was afraid of anything this time. The darkness, the swiftly moving trees, the warm embrace…they were better than a cup of warm milk or a shot of good whiskey. “Hey, how much longer before we get to where we’re going?”
“Still a bit of a distance, I’m afraid.” He looked down at the young female in his arms and loosed his grip on the reins in his left hand as he held her soft body more securely against his own. “Look, you’ve had a very odd experience today. Feel free to sleep if you’d like…I promise to keep you safe. It’s even my sworn duty to do so, so you have my word twice over.”
Gabrielle had no idea where she was, and her aching head was so full of questions that she had no idea what to ask first. But above all else, she was tired…so very tired. And there was something about Aeoulys that made it easy to trust him. “I think I might do that,” she said quietly, “if it’s not too much trouble.”
He held her snug against body, giving her permission to relax. “It’s no trouble at all.”
“Could I…could I ask you for one more favour?”
“Anything in my power to give,” he said in a bold and happy fashion.
She giggled. “Would you mind singing another song, something to help me get to sleep?”
Aeoulys felt his chest swell with pride, and he could barely suppress his mad grin. “It would be my greatest honour.” Composing himself and his thoughts, he scoured his brain for just the right tune that would help her rest. “Ah, I know,” he whispered, and clearing his throat, he began a slow, bittersweet melody in his native tongue.
Same as before, Gabrielle didn’t know what it meant, but it soothed her and made her want to cry at the same time. She closed her eyes, and nestled her head into Aeoulys’s shoulder, letting his song and Resky’s rhythm lull her exhausted mind into restful slumber.