There. No longer would he hide himself from Godwin. If it meant a silver knife in the back, well, it’d go nicely with the silver tipped arrow he put there last night.
This is a long one. Secrets are out. And the characters are no longer following my outline. Usually this is were things start to get interesting.
A sharp prodding insistently in the ribs woke him. “Get up, all ready,” Godwin grumbled.
“Is it dawn?” Bleary eyed, Alek stretched and ignored the ache in his shoulder from a long night of sleeping upright. A pale gray light crept through the window at the end of the hall.
“Close enough.” Godwin handed Alek a steaming mug.
Inhaling deeply, the warm, spicy scent helped to shake off the remnants of sleep. He wanted a long soak in a hot bath, preferably with a soap that would not strip off a layer of skin, and then he wanted an enormous breakfast. Warm bread, dripping with butter and honey. A half dozen eggs, at least, and he’d take them any style the cook served them. And a slab of beef, still red and juicy in the center, the blood oozing out on the plate.
Alek licked his lips, fantasizing about a chunk of meat that a man could sink his teeth into. The bloodier the better. Occasionally he indulged the beast and hunted during the full moon. In the early years, concern about maiming an innocent person kept him confined under lock and key, but that captivity made the beast restless. It was better, he discovered, to ease his grip on his control, seclude himself in the middle of nowhere, and let the beast hunt a rabbit or deer.
His stomach rumbled, and he was not sure if that was because of the dream of a hearty breakfast or the taste of a wet, warm rabbit liver.
He glanced up to find Godwin watching him, a keen look in his silvery gray eye. He recognized that look. It was the look that shortly proceeded with a solid thumping during practice and a lecture on how to improve his technique. The older man leaned on a short staff like a walking stick, no doubt intending the staff to be the instrument of the thumping. “I will not apologize for guarding her door,” Alek said.
“Nor should you. The house was breached and unsecured.”
Alek nodded, as if that was the reason he stayed outside Solenne’s door. “Any luck last night?”
“I would thump you for suggesting I require luck to track a beast, but this one is a slippery devil. No. We found no trace of it, just a few prints in the mud.”
“I found this.” Alek dug in his coat’s inner pocket and removed the cravat. Dirt and Alek’s own bloody, smeared fingers stained the cloth. “No signs of Chambers or Parkell, otherwise.”
Godwin hummed, as if reevaluating his opinion of his neighbor. “The blacksmith?”
“Stable, she said, but that was some hours ago.”
Alek raised his fist to knock on the door, but Godwin grabbed his wrist. “Leave them be. How is your shoulder?”
“I’ve had worse. Maybe next time hit the beast.”
The shrew look returned. “I hit the target.” He thumped the staff against the floor. “Come along. Let’s see if they made it home safely or if we have to build them a pyre.”
With a quick stop in the kitchen for a thick sandwich of yesterday’s bread and cheese, they headed out into the already warm and humid air. Alek pointed them in the direction where he found the discarded garments. A few tracks in the mud let down the hill, into the trees.
“I forgot how quickly it gets hot here,” Alek said, losing the collar at his throat. Warm, he nearly removed the coat. The shirt, stiff from dried blood, clung to his damp skin.
As if sensing his thoughts, Godwin said, “If you have not noticed, we’re unconcerned about fashion here. Remove your coat if you wish. A bit of dirt and blood won’t ruffle my delicate sensibilities.”
“I’m fine,” he lied.
“Whatever puts you at your ease,” Godwin said, waving his hand magnanimously. The man had been so stern, so serious when Alek arrived that he forgot Solenne learned her sarcastic delivery from him. “I will confess that I’m curious about how the wound is healing. You barely flinched when the arrow hit. Did it hurt?”
“Yes, it hurt.” Alek took a larger than necessary bite of the sandwich, flashing his teeth and chewing aggressively.
“But is it still bleeding? You never know with your kind.”
With his kind.
Alek finished the sandwich because whatever was about to happen would, doubtlessly, require him at full strength and both hands empty. He had been hungry enough in the past to never waste a perfectly good meal. “Same as you, I’d expect,” he said, cautiously.
“I had hoped you’d draw out the beast. Like calls to like.” Godwin continued on, using the staff to part brush and low-hanging branches.
“I’m sure I do not know—”
“Don’t insult me, Hardwick. How long have you hid the bite? It must be a few years now. You didn’t even shift last night.”
“Which hurt worse than your arrow in my shoulder,” Alek said.
“Thank you for doing us both the courtesy and not denying it. Now, how long?”
“Seven, maybe eight years. How did you know?” He had been careful to mask the symptoms of his curse. Obviously not careful enough. He thought back to when he first arrived at the Marechal’s home and his encounter with Godwin at the front door. At the time, Godwin seemed cagey, but Alek had chalked that up to being protective over Solenne.
That tricky bastard.
“You knew when I arrived,” he concluded.
“I’ve only one working eye. I’m not blind,” Godwin said tersely. “You dared to come to my home, in your condition—”
“Then you should have shut your door to me!” His shout echoed through the trees. Enraged, his claws popped, and he needed to rend and tear.
With a snarl, he sank his claws into the nearest tree, scouring the surface. The bark and woody pulp underneath had a satisfying give, not as good as flesh or a still thrashing rabbit, but good enough.
Alek turned to the man, fangs dropped and his mouth crowded with teeth. His top lip curled, displaying the sharpness and the potency of his bite.
There. No longer would he hide himself from Godwin. If it meant a silver knife in the back, well, it’d go nicely with the silver-tipped arrow he put there last night.
“Would you have honored a shut door?” Godwin asked, voice cool and unimpressed.
“You welcomed me into your home. You were so desperate that you’d accept anyone’s help, even from me.” Alek slurred around the extraneous teeth in his mouth, his voice more snarl and growl than civilized communication.
“End me now,” he demanded. He threw his coat to the ground revealing his shirt, stained a deep magenta from his dried blood, a color as unnatural as himself. Spreading his hands wide, he said, “Eight years I’ve been more beast than man. Finish me.”
“Not while you are of use to me, Hardwick. Pull yourself together. If you can not control yourself, then I will gladly put a knife in you.” Godwin shook his head, then scratched at the edge of the eye patch, as if the healing skin itched. “I knew what you were when you were a child. I should have left you there, in your own piss and filth, but Maksim saved my life once. I owed him a boon.”
Godwin’s words shook Alek to his core. The beast receded in surprise. He swallowed roughly. Shifting teeth was a sensation he’d never grow accustomed to. “What? What do you mean?”
The older man brushed his fingers over the marks left on the tree. “How much do you remember about your parents?”
“Enough.” The truth was Alek’s memories of his parents grew faded and less distinct with each passing year. He had been eight when a beast invaded their home and tore his parents apart. Alek had only survived because his mother locked him in a steamer trunk and covered that with a heavy quilt to muffle his frightened sobs. He could not be sure how long he spent locked in that hot trunk—hours, possibly days—until Godwin Marechal found him.
Sometimes he dreamed of them. The vivid memories came back with heartbreaking clarity, and he remembered all the details that time eroded. His mother smelled of herbs and washing up powder. His father always had a bit of boot polish under his nails that he could never seem to scrub away. His mother’s smile and how she would sing while her hands were busy with sewing or other work, but only if she thought she was alone. He and his father would sit outside the door and listen.
“She’s my keystone, she ties me to this world and I’m nothing without her,” his father said.
When Alek woke, the memories evaporated, only leaving behind the sense of loss.
“Hmm,” Godwin said, the enigmatic bastard.
“Are you telling me I was bitten as a child and you, what? Took me to your home, trained me up and waited for me to turn into a mindless monster?”
“You were not bitten as a child. Are you telling me your father never spoke about his father? Your grandfather?”
“No. Perhaps. I can not recall,” Alek said, growing frustrated. His grandfather had died before Alek’s birth. That was all he knew.
“We’ll discuss this another time. Now, tell me what you thought of the beast ignoring your silver blade? It acted as if you were attacking with a butter knife.”
“No, we will discuss this now. What about my grandfather?”
The two men faced each other, both stubborn with their shoulders squared and feet in a fighting stance.
The breeze shifted, rustling the leaves overhead and bringing with it the scent of smoke from cooking fires. The house was starting the day. The sooner they located the missing men, the sooner Alek could have his feast and hot bath.
If Godwin refrained from planting a knife in him, that was.
“Very well. Your grandfather was cursed. Maksim knew. We all knew. I studied with Karl for a year. He had such an iron will,” he said, admiration creeping into his voice. “I’m not sure how he wrestled control over the beast. He never shared those secrets with me, but I’m sure he passed them along to Maksim, as sure as he passed on the curse to his blood.”
“My grandfather was like me?” Karl Hardwick had been a respected hunter and lived an honorable life. The village still sang his praises, decades after his passing. “And my father?”
Godwin scratched at the red skin around the eyepatch again. “I suspect not but I don’t know for certain. Perhaps it would have happened in time. Perhaps he had yet to encounter the right trigger.”
“I went to the West Lands,” Alek said, remembering the arid heat of the wild plains and the gruesome snapping of breaking bones as his body reformed into something alien. Monstrous.
The idea settled in his mind and felt right. “The bite—It happened almost instantly. The books say it takes a month, possibly even a season, but I shifted that night.”
Godwin nodded. “I know you have questions. I’m not sure I have answers.”
“Fair enough.” He suspected that no one would be able to answer his questions about his family history. Did grandfather Karl leave a diary? Journals? So much of the Hardwick home had been destroyed in the attack that killed his parents, and Alek had not been a good caretaker. He patched the roof but left most of the rooms untouched. Perhaps there was a trunk full of journals in some dusty corner, if the mice had not used the paper for nesting material.
“The beast was immune to silver. Not like you. You tolerated the arrow, but it hurt.”
“Were you hoping I would lose control and shift?”
“With Solenne and Luis in the room,” Alek whispered, disbelieving the man’s callousness.
“Nothing went as planned,” Godwin said, almost sounding rueful. “I thought for sure that the beast would be drawn to you, to defend its territory against a challenger. Instead, it went to the house. Perhaps the instinct to protest its territory is not as strong as I thought.” Then, almost as an afterthought, he asked, “What happened to the beast who turned you?”
“I tore its throat out.” With his newly descended fangs, but he kept that detail to himself.
“You were in the West Lands? Yet Solenne wrote to you at Hardwick House. Did you not stay in the West Lands? You killed the beast. It was your territory.”
The trees thinned, and Alek could see the road ahead.
The days and weeks immediately after his transformation were a haze. Survival instincts controlled him, prioritizing food and hunting. When he finally emerged from the shift, he found himself coated in sticky blood with feathers in his teeth. As far as he could determine, his victims had been mostly pheasants and other small animals. Every full moon after, Alek took pains to isolate himself so he only hunted game, not people.
He shivered, despite the humid heat, unable to say what he would do if he ever lost control and attacked a person.
“I stayed for a season but home called to me,” he finally said, even though that was not the entire truth.
Solenne called to him, but he knew he could not return to the Marechals, so the abandoned Hardwick house served as his prison.
“The immunity worries me,” Godwin said, changing the direction of their conversation once again.
“As well as it should. The beast is old. I’d estimate he’s suffered the curse for a decade.”
“And he will not be alone.”
Unsaid between them was the knowledge that older beasts often formed packs. Those newly cursed had little control over themselves or the urge to destroy. Young beasts often fought each other to the death. That instinct to claim territory, to be a solitary creature, made a hunter’s job easier. Those that rose above their base instincts and craved a pack were extraordinarily dangerous.
“On my way here, I encountered a pack. I eliminated a younger beast, but the other escaped,” Alek said.
“It could be our trouble.”
Or not, which was worse. A region infested in with beasts actively making packs was potentially more trouble than he, Godwin and Luis could handle.
They crested a slight hill. The road curved to the left, but a large house constructed of warm cream color stones sprawled on the far side of an expansive lawn. Glass gleamed in the morning sunlight, and the pastel green shutters gave the house a picturesque quality. White crushed gravel stretched in an elegantly adorned wrought-iron gate. Everything about the house’s presentation announced the inhabitants’ wealth and their impeccable taste.
Godwin turned off the main road for the gate.
“This is Chamber’s?” Alek asked.
Wealthy enough, Solenne had said. Very wealthy, if he was to judge by the house’s appearance.
“Let’s see if Chambers and his nephew made it home last night,” Godwin said, opening the gate to the gravel drive.
The door was open, and the house buzzed with activity. Servants hurried through the hall, purpose in their steps, doors slammed and voices shouted.
Godwin stamped his feet to knock away any mud clinging to his boots. The polished floors gleamed in the morning light, and the scent of lemon and wood oil hung in the air. A few pieces of simple furnishings sat at the side, speaking of quality and quiet dignity. The place made Alek feel grubby, not just because he was—and he was—but grubby in a soul-deep way that could not be scrubbed away, no matter how he tried.
“We need to speak with Chambers,” Godwin said, grabbing a passing footman who carried a stack of folded linen.
“I’m sorry, sir. There’s no time,” the servant said, pulling away.
“Marechal! Don’t stand there. Come in,” a voice boomed from the top of the stairs.
“Chambers, explain why the devil did you run off in the middle of the night,” Godwin replied.
A middle-aged man with salt and pepper hair descended, looking younger and far more fit than Alek expected. He had dark circles under his eyes and looked haggard, like he had not had a wink of sleep. Beyond the exhaustion and rumpled clothes—which Alek shared—the man had an air of vitality about him. This was no retired military man come to play at being a gentleman farmer.
“It was Jase, my nephew Devil knows what got into him, but he dashed out the door and practically straight into the maw of the beast.” Chambers ran a hand through his hair and gave a weary sigh. “My apologies. I’m not a fit host at the moment. Jase is injured. A bad break in his leg. I’ve been with him all night.”
“I’ll send for Solenne,” Godwin said.
Chamber shook his head. A servant approached, carrying a tray with three steaming mugs. “Please,” Chambers said, accepting his own mug. “Solenne has remarkable talents, but the doctor is here. I’ve sent to Founding for Jase’s doctor, seeing as I won’t risk moving him, and I need to fetch my sister. I’m afraid I must leave immediately. There’s no time to waste.” Another sigh. “My sister will have my hide. She sent Jase here for the fresh air. His lungs are weak, you know.”
Another servant appeared at Chamber’s elbow—how many did the man have?—with a coat and hat. “Your horse is ready, sir.”
“No rest for the wicked,” Chambers said, hat in hand. “Give my apologies to Miss Marechal. I’m afraid I must cancel the dance.”
Godwin plucked the hat from Chambers’s hands. “Don’t be ridiculous, man. You’re ready to fall over. I’ll fetch the doctor and your sister.”
The wrongness of the suggestion struck Alek immediately. Godwin’s injury did not make him incapable of riding a horse, but it left Luis and Solenne alone so soon after the beast had breached their home.
“I can’t possibly ask that of you. Founding is too far to go on an errand and to leave your family unprotected,” Chambers said, echoing Alek’s own thoughts.
“This is an emergency, not an errand.” Godwin leaned against the short staff as he considered the options. “Send Alek. He has the youth and energy to make the journey and back again.”
Chambers turned to Alek, as if noticing him for the first time. Sun spilled through the opened front door and flashed on his eyes. “It’s too great a task and Christiana does not know him.”
Alek looked from Chambers to Godwin. He did not want to leave Solenne—his mate— unprotected. Godwin would not take it well if Alek voiced how the beast refused to leave, whether at the implication that Godwin could not protect his family or at Alek’s claim.
Last night his actions made his true feelings perfectly clear, as well as his condition. She was in his blood. He had never thought he could have a mate and yet his grandfather had suffered the same curse, had a family and an illustrious career.
He needed to think. Time on the road would be helpful.
“I insisted,” Alek said, ignoring the nudge Godwin gave him. “A letter of introduction from you would suffice and answer questions your sister may have.”
Chambers held his gaze for a long moment, as if measuring Alek. “Very well. You may have use of my horse. I’ll cover your travel expenses, of course. Send for a change of fresh clothes while I write to Christiana and the doctor. Blast that foolish boy.” Somehow the words sounded empty, like Chambers had not planned for his nephew to be injured on the full moon, but he would not pass by an opportunity to send Alek away.
A quick scrub with a bowl of scalding water, a meal—finally—and Alek was on his way to Founding.
Copyright 2020 Nancey Cummings
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