Not everyone is comfortable with the notion of a beast living among them, even a tame beast.
The fever broke the next day, leaving Solenne weak and listless. The headache lingered, making it impossible to read. Her foot kept her immobile, even though she hobbled about the room and thought she was being secretive leaning heavily on furniture for support. Her pride prevented her from asking for help to the toilet and he’d let her keep her pride.
Charlotte visited frequently with her notebook of wedding ideas that grew at an alarming rate. “We’re not upset, are you? Alek said you wouldn’t be. And why should you be? I have Lionel and you have your Aleksander.”
“Is it the fever or the headache, but I don’t remember agreeing to a double wedding with Charlotte and Chambers,” Solenne said. He patted her hand and opined about the virtue of knowing when to go accept defeat.
So, that happened. A double wedding, just like in a novel.
Luis kept them updated on the werewolf that attacked her. The beast had been trapped in Chambers’s barn and burned to death, so that situation reached its conclusion. Not enough of it remained for Luis to say if it was the one that attacked her and Miles on the full moon, but everyone agreed that it must be.
Alek made himself a constant fixture, of course. He only left her bedside to fetch a tray of food or more tea. She was beyond tired of tea. One morning he disappeared for a few hours, returning with the smell of woodsmoke and charred flesh. The beast that attacked her had not warranted a burial, instead it had been hacked into pieces and burned until only ashes remain.
Godwin failed to visit, not even once. He resisted the urge to ask Luis about his mood or how he took the news of their engagement. The worried look in Luis’s eyes was enough. When Solenne asked him what they would do if Godwin proved impossible to live with, he told her to rest and focus on getting better. He’d figure it out.
“Better? Bed rest is insufferably boring,” she complained. Alek knew what Solenne would never admit: tith nothing to do and unable to read, her mind spun in circles, worrying about the problems she knew of and the problems she had no means to anticipate. To give her the diversion she needed, Alek read aloud until she fell asleep, sometimes continuing on until his voice rasped. He chose the most worn, well-loved books, figuring that had to be among her favorites.
After five days, Doctor Webb declared her fit enough for short excursions. No long, rambling walks about the countryside. No running from monsters.
“I really don’t plan for such things,” she said. “Now take me out of this wretched room. I can not abide it one second longer.”
Alek took her to the stone circle on Boxon hill for an outing. Invigorated by the cool fresh air and sunshine, her energy quickly lagged, requiring him to carry her to the top, where she found Luis and Miles waiting with a picnic lunch spread out on a blanket.
“This is marvelous. Thank you,” she said, accepting a plate.
A bright, clear day, the prairie rolled out westward from the hill in waves of grass, turning gold after a long summer. Autumn and the harvest would be upon them soon, along with cold rains, snow and dreary gray days. From this vantage, Alek could not tell which were native grasses and which were planted by humans. At this distance, it all looked the same.
This was the edge of civilization. Humanity had settled further west but the untamed wilderness pushed them back. It was hardly an inspirational story, but practical. Humans had not been on the planet long, in the grand scheme of things. Humans planted their seeds, bred their animals transported as frozen embryos—he had no idea what that meant or how it worked—shaped the landscape and still the land rejected humans. It was beautiful and wild.
“Is it true you went into the West Lands?” Luis asked. “How far did you make it? Did you reach the mountains? The city in the mountains?”
Luis continued to pepper Alek with questions until Miles interrupted to remind him it was time to return to the forge. “I’m making my own armor,” Luis announced with pride. “Isn’t that amazing?”
Solenne leaned her back against Alek. “Tell me I do not wear that ridiculous expression when I look at you.”
“Do not ask me to lie,” he replied. She elbowed him. When he regained his breath, he asked, “Are you well? Do you need to return?”
“Not yet. I missed the sun. The thought of returning to my bedroom feels confining,” she said. Though she would not admit it, Alek could tell that the short excursion drained her energy. “Is it true about your grandfather? Tell me again.”
“All I know of Maksim, I learned from your father. If there’s more, we have to ask him.”
Solenne frowned, clearly disliking the notion of speaking to her father. “I like that way you said we.”
“You’re my anchor.” His arms tightened around her and the thread that bound them together sang with happiness. “You can’t get rid of me.”
“What are we going to do? Charlotte is planning this wedding and I have no idea how we can afford even half of it and my father is… Well, Papa is Papa.” Stubborn. Inflexible. That went unsaid. “If we stay, he’s always going to order you around like a servant.”
Godwin did that now. “We can’t live under his roof and avoid him forever.”
“We can try. It’s a big house. He’s managed to avoid me for the last few days.”
“It’s a bit easier when you’re immobile.”
“Alek, I’m serious. I don’t think I can live with him after what he said, what he planned to do.”
Yes. Marrying Solenne off to the highest bidder while keeping Alek chained to her side, unable to leave his anchor.
“Hardwick House is standing,” he said.
“With four walls and a roof?”
“I noticed you failed to describe it as habitable.”
“It was empty for a long time but it is habitable. The groundskeeper kept it repaired. No broken windows and the roof is solid. There are a few tenant farmers, but they are used to looking after themselves,” Alek said. The Hardwick’s ancestral home was not as grand as the Marechal’s house, but it produced some income. Since the curse forced him to flee back home to hide, he had cared enough to make repairs or upgrades to the property. Now he regretted his lack of action. “It has—had—a library. Nothing as extensive as yours, but the mice have not chewed up every book to pieces.”
“How long would it take to travel there?”
“Three days direct but five by coach.” It was not an easy journey with no direct road, requiring frequent coach changes.
“Oh. I don’t suppose it matters. It’s not like I’ll be a frequent visitor,” Solenne said.
He heard her grief at seeing her brother infrequently, if ever, and that hurt him. “Fallkirk needs a hunter. It is a few hours by coach.”
“But your house—”
“Has done well without it’s landlord in residence and will continue to do so. The charter was granted to another after my parent’s death.”
Solenne made no reply, staring off into the distance. The sun neared the horizon, giving them perhaps an hour before it grew dark. The days were growing shorter and the equinox would arrive soon. He wondered what that cycle would be like with his anchor firmly in place. Before Solenne had been an idea, a hope, that gave him the thinnest possible tether back to his humanity. Maintaining control had always been a struggle. He felt stronger now but also stable, like shifting forms would be a choice not an inescapable burden.
“I’m sorry my father is so difficult,” she said, breaking the silence. “Call it guilt, depression, or grief, he’s… I’ve been making excuses for his behavior for years and I’m tired of it. When I came back from university, the house and the finances were in chaos. Papa was stinking drunk most of the time. The tenants left, except for the shepherd. Thank heaven, because while the sheep mostly take care of themselves, we do need a shepherd. We’re barely holding onto the charter. Charlotte told me that the village council is considering taking it away.” She gave a weary sigh. “And I can’t get Papa to care. At least he’s not drunk all the time now.”
He understood what she refrained from saying explicitly. She felt obligated to remain to care for her father, Luis and the household. “Your kind heart is one of the many things I love,” he said, kissing the top of her head.
“But you don’t know why I’m so devoted to Papa,” Solenne replied.
“That’s a polite way of saying he’s an asshole.”
“He did rescue me after my parents were killed.”
“Because he thought you would be useful, which you are.”
“See, complicated. No one’s action can be strictly black and white.”
She twisted around to face him. “Please stop making excuses for Papa. I won’t live in a house where you’re merely tolerated. We’ll go to Hardwick House. I want to see it.”
“It’s not much, truly.”
“Your grandfather lived there. Perhaps there’s a secret journal hidden in the floorboards. It could answer some questions.”
Just like in one of her novels.
“I highly doubt it but yes, after the wedding, we can visit. It won’t be much of a honeymoon,” he said, already mentally preparing the letting to have the house made ready for their arrival. The exterior needed a new coat of whitewash, as did all the interior rooms. Fresh paint would make the rooms seem brighter but the furniture shabbier. New furniture then, at least for the master bedroom. Perhaps all the work would turn up a secret journal, however improbable.
The unlocked door called to her. Dim light flickered at the bottom of the stairwell. For days, Godwin had avoided Solenne and she had not sought his company.
“You’re being childish,” Luis said, before pushing her forward.
“He does not want to desturbed.”
“Talk to him.”
“I can not guarantee I will be civil.” She grabbed onto the door frame, refusing to be bullied into a conversation with her father.
“Oh no, my delicate sensibilities,” Luis said drily. “Be an adult and talk to Papa. I’m worried. He hasn’t been eating and you know how he gets.”
She did indeed, and refrained from commenting on the irony that Godwin’s child had to be the adult in the relationship to take care of him.
“Please. You know him better than me.”
“You know Papa.”
Luis ran a hand through his dark curls. “I mean, you’ve seen him day-in, day-out for years. I only ever saw him on holidays from school and then he was on his best behavior.”
“Holiday Papa,” Solenne said, repeating the moniker she and Luis gave Godwin’s jovial mood.
“Exactly. What I saw was upsetting. I’m worried about him.” Luis somehow made his eyes larger and silently pleaded with those enormous eyes.
It was unbearable.
“Fine. Stop pushing me or I’ll fall down the stairs.” She switched on the solar powered lantern to navigate her way down the stairs. Shadows hid the steps, so she made her way down cautiously, one hand on the shaky rail and the other holding the lantern aloft. The light was just enough to illuminate the cobwebs but not much else.
The basement held many relics from an age of wonder, all broken. The most dangerous–weapons her ancestors brought with them from the old world–had been locked away in a vault. Presumably they held enough power or ammunition to be dangerous because Solenne could not see how the decrepit relics were dangerous now, unless she hurled them or used them as a bludgeon.
The bits of technology that worked were used until the very end, then patched together and pressed into service again. Hence, the flickering lights. The aging solar panels no longer captured enough energy to meet the needs of the house. Replacement panels were beyond the household budget. Solenne remembered scavenging panel parts with her mother. Too young to understand, she had thought it a grand adventure exploring empty buildings in abandoned villages.
The short corridor opened into a large workshop. To one side, the Nexus batteries sat stanked on shelving units. Small readout screens glowed with violet light. Godwin perched on a stool by a workbench, bent over a device. Light pooled on the wooden surface around the lantern. The overhead lights flickered, casting strange shadows and illuminating very little.
His hair was a tangled mess and his clothes dusty, but Godwin hardly looked emaciated and near death. Luis had drastically overstated the problem.
Solenne turned to leave, until Godwin spoke.
“Your mother had the patience for this.” He pushed away the device.
“What is it?”
Godwin held up an ancient tablet, the screen a blank gray and the back removed. “It’s a reader, so my father claimed. It worked when he was a child. Contains hundreds of books in the memory banks, if we can get it to power on.” He set it down, looking sheepish. “I thought you might like it for a wedding gift.”
Solenne’s anger softened. Her father spoke with actions rather than words, but she needed to hear the words. “An apology would also do.”
He cleared his throat, voice gruff from disuse. “Yes, I suppose that’s in order. I worry about losing you. Amalie was everything to me and you and Luis are all I have left of her.” He rubbed his chin, the bristles there more silver than Solenne remembered. “But you were correct. The tighter I hold on to you, the move you’ll slip away. I’m sorry for not listening. I apologize for keeping Alek’s true nature from you. I thought I was protecting you.”
To keep from looking directly at her father, she inspected a shelf cluttered with bits and bobs, old cardboard boxes stained with dust and damp, and tools set down to never be put away in their proper place. Bits of shattered glass littered the shelf and she realized with a jolt that she was looking at the detritus of the explosion that killed her mother. No one ever cleaned the workshop. Would she find bits of shrapnel in the walls? Blood on the stone floor?
“Solenne,” Godwin said, grabbing her attention.
“Thank you,” she said, not ready to forgive. Godwin’s lack of an apology for his ugly words had not escaped her notice. If his actions changed, then yes. Her anger would dissolve.
She lined up boxes on the shelf. Labels, written in Amalie’s neat hand, had faded with age. “I’ve been reading the handbooks. Older werewolves have absorbed more nexus energy, making them stronger and more resistant to silver.”
“Yes, that’s what the book says.”
“The books never mention an anchor.”
“No, I don’t suppose they would,” Godwin answered slowly.
He scrubbed a hand over his chin again. “Politics, I imagine. The first editions discussed anchors. What we have are later printings, after mention of anchors were purged.”
“Yes, Solenne, politics. Not everyone is comfortable with the notion of a beast living among them, even a tame beast.”
Her shoulders pulled back, ready for a fight. “Do not call Alek a beast.”
Godwin held up his hands to placate her. “Maybe people and–what did you call him, a werewolf?–lived peacefully together in the beginning but that changed. The mutations couldn’t be contained. Entire settlements were lost in the West Lands. A few accounts of werewolves losing their anchors and destroying an entire village and people decided that they wouldn’t tolerate any beast, anchored or not.”
“So a purge.”
“These notions are hard or unlearned. Wherever you go, if people find out about Alek’s nature, he’ll turn on him.”
“His true nature, Papa, is a decent, caring man.”
“Who turns furry and howls at the moon.”
Father and daughter stared at each other.
“It’d be best if you stayed. People know him here. They’ll be kind,” Godwin said.
Still controlling, even when trying to make amends. The subtle digs at Alek, she didn’t know if she could tolerate. No, correction. She refused to tolerate it and she did not know if the protection Godwin reluctantly offered to Alek would be worth it.
“Thank you for the reader. I’m sure it’ll be marvelous when you get it working,” she said, retreating back up the stairs.
Copyright 2020 Nancey Cummings
Getting closer to the end!
Coming December 26th!
Hunted by Moonlight has a new name and a new cover!
The final version will be available in all the major stores on December 26, 2020.
Additional scenes (yes, the sex scenes) will be included, especially what happened on page 72!