“Solenne, he reminded himself. No one else. That knowledge pleased the bestial part of his nature.”
This is a long one. Enjoy.
Chapter Five – Aleksandar
The horses gave a startled cry and the carriage lurched precariously to one side. Wood groaned and Alek shifted to the far side to act as a counterweight, as if that would help. The horses reared back, hooves thrashing as the driver snapped his whip. The wheels on one side left the earth and crashed back down. Alek tumbled against the carriage door. Glass shattered.
Dazed, he pulled himself upright. Broken glass dug into the calfskin leather of his gloves but did not pierce. Wetness trickled down the side of his head. Using a handkerchief that had once been grand but now was in tatters, he pressed the cloth to the head wound. Feeling the chill of the cold spring air, he pushed open the door and stumbled out of the carriage.
The driver limped badly but stood on his own two feet. The horses reared and flailed their hooves, panic in their eyes. The carriage was in worse condition with a snapped axle.
“The horses were startled, sir,” the driver said, his voice panicked.
By the time he grabbed the horses’ reins, he had himself under enough control to coo soft words. Gently, he stroked their necks and his calm demeanor eventually soothed the animals.
“What startled them?” Alek asked.
“A great furry beast. It darted out of the forest, bold as brass.”
Alek rolled his shoulders. He had a week until the next full moon but he could already feel the pull of the Veil the closer he got to Boxon. The area had always made his skin sing with awareness. Now it felt amplified. Undeniable.
A growl came from the tree line. The horses whinnied and stamped, nervous.
Yes, that pull again. A creature of the nexus was near.
“Do beasts often attack this road?” he asked.
“Sir?” The driver blinked. “No, sir. It’s never happened before. Only when the moon is full.”
And the Veil thin.
Alek retrieved his box from the back of the carriage. The contents were a jumbled mess. His fingers brushed over a wooden box but did not open it to check on the contents. Perhaps the bottles of wolfsbane tonic survived. If not, he had a week to make more. At the moment, there was a beast stalking them in broad daylight. Time was of the essence.
Strapped to the inside lid, the war hammer waited. Dedicated use had rounded the silver head of the hammer. The claw end curved wickedly backwards, gleaming in the early afternoon light. Inlaid silver decorated the handle. It was a bit extravagant, but Alek had never regretted the purchase. The hammer had a comfortable weight and felt as familiar in his hands as an old friend. This was his preferred weapon and nothing outperformed it for close combat.
The coachman’s eyes went wide at the sight of the hammer. “What do you have that for?”
Alek spun the hammer, tossed it in the air, and caught it with ease. The weight felt good, like it belonged in his hand. He barely felt the sting of silver through the calfskin gloves.
“Four or two,” he demanded.
“Was the beast on four legs or two?”
“I cannot recall. It was a blur,” the coachman said, stumbling over his words.
“Stay here,” Alek said.
“We’re not going anywhere until the horses calm down.”
They weren’t going anywhere until he dealt with the rogue wolf.
Alek moved away from the mud of the road to the marginally less trampled grass alongside the road. Once the roads had been paved with a black substance that poured out like liquid and cooled to a rock-hard consistency. Concrete was used in the larger towns and cities but the constant expanding and contracting with the weather, it degraded too quickly for the more rural routes.
He could have taken a boat down the river. Many people preferred to travel via canal and rivers than deal with a bumpy, dusty coach trip. Wanting to keep himself away from crowds as much as possible, he chose the less desirable coach on an infrequently used road.
More fool him.
He should have found a horse and rode the entire way. Alone. No nosey coachmen looking through his trunks or making eyes at his weaponry.
Carefully, he picked his way across the forest floor, tracking the wolf’s clumsy trail. Tracks in the mud and disturbed undergrowth gave no doubt which direction the wolf fled. But did it leave? Or was it stalking?
Creatures came through the Veil only on the full moon. A cursed wolf, however, could lose control in the days leading to the full moon. With a week to the full moon, the cursed monstrosity had no control. The Marechals were right to beg for his help.
Solenne, he reminded himself. Solenne wrote to him. No one else. That knowledge pleased the bestial part of his nature. It wanted her to claim him, to mark him as hers, if only as her pet creature.
A twig snapped under his foot. He paused, listening.
This could be an ordinary wolf. Boxon was still two days’ journey away. For this to be the same creature that injured Godwin required it to have considerable territory. Alek disliked that prospect. However, the alternative of it being a different cursed wolf was worse. That meant there was a master wolf, creating a pack.
A growl sounded, shifting through the dense foliage.
Alek answered with his own rumbling, “Beast, come out now.” Cursed creatures, especially ones who could not hold their true form, had no patience to stalk their prey.
He did not have to wait long. A heavy weight landed on his back. He rolled and laid prone, one arm holding back the wolf and the other gripping the hammer.
The wolf snapped, teeth yellow and diseased. Hot, fetid breath wafted over him. To call the monstrous creature a wolf was a kindness. It was a half-finished thing, stuck between a transition from wolf and man. Not half of either and not wholly itself. A snarling muzzle distorted a human face, holding far too many teeth.
The body walked on two legs, despite a wolf’s haunches and paws, and defying every law known to nature. Violet-tinged fur coated the body, taller and more massive than a man’s. The hands were distorted into grasping talons. The eyes were the worst, still retaining their human shape but glowing violet. What stared out of those eyes was a brutal beast, inhuman and unfeeling.
Alek recognized his own kind.
This thing had been a person, once.
A second snarl, coming from the left, distracted him. He turned to glimpse a second wolf, large and so pale a lavender if nearly glowed in the dim of the forest.
Claws slashed across his stomach. The fire of pain flared and burned. Teeth sunk into his arm, piercing the coat. Rich and metallic, the scent of blood, even his own, set Alek craving to bite.
His mouth watered as his teeth descended. He forgot about the second wolf. All he could hear the wolf’s heart thudding and pounding. It would be nothing to bite just under the jaw and sink his teeth into the beast’s throat. He had not had a hunt in so long, locking himself away during the full moon.
His blood sang. Inside him, an insidious voice whispered that it was not such a huge step to partially shift, to let his claws extend. His strength kept the wolf from seriously injuring him, but he’d be stronger if he was in his other form.
His true form.
The hammer crashed into the wolf’s skull. It squealed and lurched away.
Alek rolled to his knees, ignoring the pain in his gut, and grabbed the wolf’s back leg. It turned, snapping at his hand, but he refused to let go. Clutching tighter, tighter enough that his claws extended and dug through the beast’s fur, he brought the hammer down again.
It was not an elegant, efficient maneuver, like the ones he had been taught. The fight was brutal and vicious, beast against beast. He should not have enjoyed it quite at much as he did as his corrupted, cursed nature rose to the surface, but he did.
The leg cracked with a wet squelch and a whine.
Alek shuffled forward on his knees, one hand holding his stomach, until he loomed over the beast’s head.
Another blow ended the beast. The ethereal glow diminished until it ceased to be altogether.
The wolf’s body seemed to shrink, to dwindle as it lost whatever power it leached from its connection to the nexus, but Alek knew that was an illusion. The wolf would be the same size and weight as it was in life. It would not shift to its human form, as many believed. Whatever strange power that allowed the creature to shift between forms had left and its final form was, in fact, just that. Final.
He listened for the second wolf. Now would be the ideal opportunity to attack. He was weak with blood loss. The curse that caused a man to change into a beast affected the mind but a wolf’s instincts would be to attack vulnerable prey.
He waited, aware of his heart pounding in his chest. Every thud affirmed his unnatural existence.
Alive. Alive. Alive.
He did not know for how much longer. Adrenaline coursed through his veins, but he knew he lacked the strength for a second fight.
Birdsong returned. The wolf had left.
He relaxed, even though the wolf’s ability to resist the temptation of wounded prey worried him. The wolf was clever and potentially rational. Was it older? How long had the person been cursed that they had so much control over their beast? He disliked any possible answer. He had lived with his curse for years and control remained a flimsy thing for him.
Alek attempted to clean the hammer with an unsullied corner of his shirt and did a piss-poor job of it. His shirt was soaked through and smeared around the matted bit of fur and brain.
The wounds were not deep but he had lost a considerable amount of blood. Honestly, his hand hurt worse than his stomach. It stung with every motion, not to mention the beast ruined a pair of expensive gloves that Alek would not be able to easily replace.
Hissing with pain, he lifted the wolf to carry across his shoulders and rose to his feet. He wobbled for a long minute. A good meal and a solid night sleep, and his wounds would heal overnight. It was the only benefit of his curse.
He followed the sound of the coachman and the horses until he broke through the trees.
The coachman shouted in surprise, causing the horses to stamp their feet nervously. “Sir—”
Torn, the front of his shirt gaped open, exposing the fresh slashes.
“Do not be concerned. They are not deep. What is the nearest town?” he asked.
“And does Fallkirk pay a bounty?” He did not wait for an answer, instead lashing the wolf to the top of the coach. The spilled luggage had been secured back in place.
Alek considered retrieving a shirt from his trunk, but his wounds still bled. He could not afford to ruin another shirt. Instead, he stripped down and wrapped the old shirt against his abdomen. The bleeding would cease soon enough. He felt the coachman’s eyes on him, watching him with alarm.
“I am tired and want a hot meal and a bath,” he said in a crisp tone that did not invite further questions.
Food. Sleep. Those were his priorities. Tomorrow he’d collect the bounty on the wolf and find a horse to finish the journey on his own.
Copyright 2020 Nancey Cummings
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