Disclaimer See Part 1
The characters in the story are a product of my own imagination and hopefully have no resemblance to any living persons.
Sex: This piece is rated 18 and contains sex. Please, if you are not old enough to read this, move on to something more appropriate.
Acknowledgements: Thanks to my overworked beta rleef. Thank you for making the time, Bright One. A special thank you to my Muse too. I just wish she would let me in on where we're going with this story.
I would also like to apologize for the long pauses between postings.
Constructive criticism is greatly appreciated, so feel free to drop me a line or two at email@example.com or chat with me on Facebook.
Sterling stared into the flickering flames of the small fire as the fingers of her right hand unconsciously rolled the wedding band on her left hand. Was she a fool to believe the word of a stranger over that of her mother? Many of the soldiers had corroborated her mother's story of what had happened that night.
She recalled the fear she saw in their eyes as they told her of wolves that were as big as horses and with teeth that could tear through the toughest armor. When they came to the part of what had happened to her wife, the men refused to make eye contact as they talked about how Orla had single-handedly taken on a large wolf only to succumb in the end when the wolf had dragged her body off into the night. Apparently no wolf carcasses or any bodies were left behind. Each and every one was dragged off by the wolves. Afraid to leave the circle of fire, the soldiers had waited out the night before they went in search of Orla. After five days of searching the area they ended up empty-handed and that's when Cybralle gave the order to return to Kemble.
One little detailed had nagged her about the men's as well as her mother's accounts were the fact that no one actually saw Orla being killed. The only proof they had to that effect was Orla's torn and blood splattered leather breastplate that was left where Orla had last been seen. In the distance a wolf howled and Sterling reached for her sword. When her mother warned her about taking as much silver weaponry with her as she can, Sterling wondered at the coincidence of Orla gifting her with silver armor and a silver sword. It was almost as if Orla knew that she would have to come in search of her one day.
The hair at the back of her neck prickled and she turned. There was no one there, but just as she was about to look away, the shadows shifted and Rom stepped out. His footsteps faltered for a moment as his eyes moved to a spot behind the fire circle. Sterling watched him carefully. It seemed as if Rom quickly pulled himself together and held up two rabbit carcasses. He dropped them next to the fire. As he walked past her Sterling caught a whiff of his scent. It wasn't unpleasant, but still it caused the hair on her arms to spike. She turned thoughtful eyes on him as he began to skin the carcasses. Her eyes dropped to the knife in his hands as it skilfully dissected the animal. Something about how the carcass looks made her look at the second one. She quickly shifted her gaze away and continued to look in the fire.
After a while she unsheathed her dagger and reached for a piece of wood which she slowly worked over with the blade. Rom, having finished skinning the carcasses, pierced them with sharp sticks. All the while Sterling carefully studied him from under hooded eyelids. Rom shuffled to the fire where he poked at the fire until he'd collected enough coals to fry the meat over. Satisfied, he sat back and looked at her. His dark blue eyes appeared darker in the glow of the fire.
“This might not be what you are used to, milady, but I can assure you that out here this is by far the best you will have.” He gave her a friendly smile before returning to his side of the fire to lounge on his bedroll.
“You forget that I spent most of my life on the battlefield. I eat what my men eat.”
She saw a flicker of admiration in the man's eyes before it was gone. “Your mother was the best female warrior I have ever met, but even under her command we could not quell the Wasteland wars. You seemed to have done that—twice. It will appear you are quite a force to be reckoned with. No wonder you were not worried of accompanying me alone.”
Sterling looked away, not knowing what to say to that.
“At the risk of offending you, milady, I have but one question to which I hope you can grace me with an answer.”
The juices from the meat dripped on the coals, the hissing sound it made was the only sound that hung in the air. After a long silence, Sterling looked at Romulus.
“If I have an answer for you I will give it to you.”
Romulus sat up. “Of all the women in the kingdom, what drew you to your wife, a simple blacksmith?”
Just the thought of Orla made heart ached. She stabbed her dagger into the ground and pulled her legs up so that she could hug them to her. She fixed her eyes on the now smouldering coals. “She is my soul mate. I knew it the moment I caught sight of her.” Sterling turned her gaze on Rom. “I love my wife very much.”
Sterling saw the smile that came over Rom's handsome face. “There is no better reason.” He moved over to the fire where he turned the meat and poked at the coals. “She is fine. I promise you.”
Hearing that, Sterling bowed her head. An unexpected tear trailed down her cheek and soundlessly fell to the ground. The more Rom said that the more scared she became. She was scared because she couldn't feel Orla anymore. She'd always thought that with such a great love between them their hearts would always have a link. But she felt nothing.
Rom moved closer to the fire and removed the one half-cooked carcass. Sterling met his eyes when he looked to her. “I like my meat slightly cooked. I will leave yours on a while longer.”
Rom went back to his bedroll and began to tore into the bloody piece of meat. Sterling's eyes narrowed as she studied the way Rom ravaged the small carcass, tearing long strips from the bone which he swallowed fast. A blood trail ran from his mouth to his chin and a shudder went through her when Rom wiped it up with his finger and brought it to his mouth. She returned her gaze to the fire, replaying the conversation she had with her Cybralle.
“Be vigilant and question every strange thing you see mentally.” That was what Cybralle had told her. At her blank look, Cybralle had looked at Romulus. “There are things on this earth which have been named, but still remain unknown to most of mankind.” She had pulled her in a tight embrace and whispered in her ear. “Remember the story I told you about the Ulvs when you were little? Keep that at the forefront of your mind as you take this journey.”
Taking her mother's advice to heart, Sterling had kept her eyes open. There were a lot she had noticed, questioned and not been able to rationalize. As inconspicuous as he was, Romulus had given her a wealth of reasons to sleep with one eye open. Every night for the three days they've been travelling companions, Romulus did the hunting for food. As was the case tonight, she had not noticed any knife or arrow wounds on their dinners. The carcasses usually looked as if they'd been mauled thoroughly. She's began to wonder if he actually scavenged the carcasses off some other predators. There was also the howling that started a few minutes after he disappeared into the darkness. Upon his return he smelt strange, wild and untamed, with his veins swollen and visible even from where she sat across from him.
The fire popped and Sterling looked up quickly. She was a little spooked to find Rom's eyes on her. He averted his eyes and returned to picking the carcass clean. Sterling moved to the fire and pricked her dinner with her dagger. When there was no blood showing, she turned it to the other side.
“You are an exceptional hunter, Rom. These are the fattest rabbits I have ever seen.”
Rom grinned at her, but continued to eat. He was so intent on his dinner, savouring each bite that Sterling decided to not interrupt him any further.
“Have there been any sightings?”
“Yes, milord, but I have forewarned everyone to not approach her at all or if they do to do so with caution.”
Gentro put his hand on the man's shoulder and gave it a squeeze. “Thank you for keeping her safe, Clemes.”
“Will there be anything else, milord?”
Gentro looked around the room that had until a three weeks ago been his daughter's cell. His daughter? Just the thought of that made his heart yearn for her.
“Do you know how often she shifts?” He turned his gaze on the man and saw the answer on the man's face even before he voiced it.
“She has not been human for a very long time. I have asked around and everyone I met could only describe her wolf form. I apologise for being the bearer of such distressing news.”
“No need to apologise, Clemes. You are a great help to me already. One more thing though.”
“Ridat. Does he know about her?” Gentro genuinely feared this particular answer. His cousin was a vengeful beast and would think nothing of using Orla to get to him.
“I do not think so, milord. However I doubt we will be able to keep it a secret anymore. Ridat's spies have infiltrated our ranks.”
Gentro knew the man spoke the truth, his logic irrefutable, but to think that that vile creature could think he could best him, made him furious. He felt a tingling in his mouth, a sign that his Ulv was stirring, taunted by his anger. He turned to leave the cell. Outside he took huge gulps of the crisp air to calm himself. He heard Clemes move behind him.
“I am fine, Clemes. Just keep an eye on her and keep me informed. I would also like to know as soon as Rom returns.” He turned and walked down the pathway which would lead him to his palace, when the soldier spoke again.
“Romulus has been seen camping in the valley for the past two nights. I personally hunted with him the one night.”
The nobleman swung around, his pale eyes sharp. “Then why does he not come here directly?”
“He mentioned that he needed more time to break the news to the Princess about the Ulvs before compromising our safety.”
Dear heavens, the Gentro thought, the woman actually followed a stranger into a strange land where two wolf clans feud. She must really love his daughter very much. He was suddenly eager to meet this woman who had captivated her daughter so, that she decided to give up humanity so she could hide her loss behind the slowly disappearing memories when in beast form.
“Would you like me to accompany you, milord?” Clemes' voice broke through his reverie and Gentro blinked at the man before he remembered the question.
“No need, but thank you.”
Gentro slowly made his way down the path. At the place where it split, he came to a stop. His head turned just in time to see the large dark shadow bearing down on him.
Ridat loved being in wolf form. With the change all inhibitions and reason bleed away leaving an euphoric sense of freedom. He lifted his nose and sniffed the air. He caught a faint whiff on the breeze and a soft whine escaped his lips. The females will soon be in heat. Over the years he'd found himself a mate and have added greatly to the expansion of his Pack. Sadly, none of his offspring have inherited his Ulv gene. They were all shapeshifters and could move between wolf and human form, but that was it. It was rather saddening that they would never be able to assume the majestic bipedal Ulv form. Brainless dogs! That's all they were. As a result many of his sons were not here today. They were killed off during battles. Strange, but he didn't really feel anything when they died. He was more relieved than anything to be rid of the insult and ridicule they brought them.
He shook his fur and slowly made his way down from the ledge to where a group of wolves were playing. Although he knew it was part of the wolf nature and a favourite group activity, seeing it, irritated him immensely. One particular wolf trotted over and mad a play bow before him, inviting him to play.
Without any warning Ridat's claw shot out catching the unsuspecting wolf under the chin and flinging him a few metres away. He wasn't like them. He was different, superior. He commanded respect at all times. Maybe it was time to refresh their memory again. With his head held high, his ears forward, and his tail raised he made his way over to the injured pup. The pup rolled over to expose its belly, its paws folded across his chest and hind quarters lifted off the ground.
For a few seconds Ridat stared down at the male and then he lowered his head. A grunt escaped his lips as his body stretched, his snout bulging out as his eyes grew larger. When the shift was complete, Ridat stood over six feet high on muscled hind legs, his arms hanging like tree trunks at his side. He threw back his bulbous head and let out a mighty roar. When he lowered his head to look at the pup, he could smell the sharp sulphuric scent of urine.
His planted his paw on the smaller wolf's belly, physically pinning it down while his eyes skewered the pup. With a quick movement his claw slammed against the wolf's head, ripping its head off. Lost in the sudden craving for more blood, Ridat continued to rip the wolf's carcass to shreds. Only when his blood had cooled down to simmer, did he let up. By then there was only a bloody mass of tissue strewn around him.
He turned his gaze to the other wolves only to find them all crouched in a submission posture, their ears flat against the heads. Those who were still in human form were shaking so bad, he could hear their teeth clattering. A lesson so long overdue , he thought. He roared again and lowered himself until was on all fours. Now it was time to take them all for a run. The Pack has been idle for too long and he had missed his Ulv so much.
The night was quiet, too quiet. Sterling slowly opened her eyes and scanned the area around their campsite. Rom was lying on his back, his head turned away from her. He appeared to be fast asleep. Sterling's eyes moved back to the darkness around the fire.
Something was there. She could feel it. Feel it watching her. She carefully tightened her grip on her sword, its presence a definite comfort. Her eyes roamed the perimeter outside the firelight again and this time she swore she saw movement.
“Rom,” she whispered softly.
“I saw it too.”
“What is it?”
“I am not sure.” This time she heard a little concern in Rom's voice. “Just be ready. We might have to leave here in a hurry.”
Mesmeria jerked awake with a scream on her lips and her hands clawing at the air.
“NO! NO! NOOOO!!!” She fought harder when she felt two arms curl around her.
“Easy, my love. It is just me.”
At the sound of Cybralle's voice she threw her arms around her wife's neck and climbed into her lap. When the tears came it was deep wracking sobs that made her feel as if her insides were torn apart.
“Shush now. It was just a dream.” Cybralle whispered close to her ear. “I will not let anything happen to you.”
At hearing that, the sobs deepened. “Ster … Sterling …” she gasped between sobs.
“Oh love …” Cybralle's arms tightened around her and even in her state she swore she could feel a shudder go through Cybralle's body.
Since Sterling had left Mesmeria had been restless. The thought of her daughter accompanied by a stranger into an area where giant man-eating wolves roamed freely was not the most assuring thought for a mother. Cybralle had asked her countless times over the past three days if it would settle her anxiety if she were to march a battalion of soldiers across the border and bring their daughter back. Even as her heart screamed ‘yes', she had refused to place the lives of innocent men and women in danger. Her duty as Queen was first to her subjects and then her family. As painful as it was, it was the truth. She couldn't risk her army on a personal quest not knowing if whom they went in search for was alive. As the days had passed, her nights had become unbearable. Every time she closed her eyes, she saw Sterling's torn and broken body lying abandoned somewhere with buzzards crawling all over her.
As she relived the dream, she tightened her hold even further as she sobbed into Cybralle's neck. Mesmeria didn't know how long she'd been sitting in Cybralle's arms, crying, but the tears had slowly subsided after a while. Her arms though were still locked around her wife's neck.
“How are you feeling?” Cybralle asked gently as she brushed her hand over her hair.
She could only nod. Her throat was a little tender from all the crying. Cybralle pressed a kiss to her ear and lifting her off her lap and helped her back under the covers. Mesmeria frowned when Cybralle swung her legs off the bed and stood. She grabbed for her clothes and began to get dress.
“Where … where are you going,” she asked. Her voice sounded hollow to her own ears.
“To get our daughter,” Cybralle answered with stern determination.
“I will not risk any more men than is necessary.”
“Then I shall go by myself. But I will not stay here and watch you die a little every day.” Cybralle walked to the door with purposeful strides.
“My mind is made up, woman. I leave within the hour.” Cybralle left the room.
Still a little stunned it took Mesmeria a while to process what Cybralle had said. She was going to go after Sterling alone! She exploded out of the bed and dressed quickly. She had to stop Cybralle for this was suicide.
She found her in the armory being helped into her silver armor by one of the men. One look at her wife's stony face told her that no amount of begging or reasoning would make her change her mind. Instead she nodded and made her way to the palace kitchen to make up a food parcel. Her hands were shaking as she went through the pantry. If she didn't think about why she was making up the parcel, her apprehension was less. In less than a week she could lose the two women who meant the world to her.
Mesmeria stumbled back against the wall of the pantry as a sob tore through her. She couldn't remember a time that she was ever so scared. Cybralle was always there to vanquish any and all threats. But Cybralle was willing to go on her suicide mission to save their daughter. As a mother herself, Mesmeria had no right to stand in the way of Cybralle's quest. She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and pushed away from the wall. She will be strong for them both, especially for Cybralle. This was a great risk she was taking but this was not for country and honor, but for love. She deserved her support. And she would get it. Mesmeria reached for a hunk of cheese, apples, and two loaves of bread, a leg of smoked pork and a wineskin. She wrapped it all in a cloth and rushed out of the kitchen.
As she rounded the corner of the training yard, Mesmeria came to an abrupt halt. The yard was packed with men—close to five hundred by quick estimation. She could see even more shadows coming down the cobbled streets towards them.
“Cybralle, what is this?” She pushed the food parcel into her wife's arms. Not caring about her informal dress, she turned to the men. They all bowed deeply. “As your Sovereign, I strictly forbid any of you to accompany the Royal Consort on this trip. This is not your fight and I will not have any of you risk your lives for this. Go back to your families and let my family deal with this.” Her voice was hard and authoritative. “Now be gone with you lot.”
Instead of moving the men all sunk onto one knee and stayed that way. Rattled by their blatant defiance, she turned to Cybralle.
“Your Queen has spoken,” Cybralle barked. Still the men remained motionless. For a moment Mesmeria wondered if she'll have to call in her Royal Guards. Just then one of the men climbed to his feet.
“Permission to speak freely, your Majesty.” The man looked nowhere near the age to be in the army, but his eyes held the look of one who had seen many battles. Out of curiosity she decided to grant his request.
“My name is Inhard Weller. A few years ago I was severely wounded in battle against the Hurians and left for dead. The Princess refused to leave me behind and carried me for over five miles to safety on her back. With your permission I would like to take this opportunity to show my gratitude, Your Majesty.”
Before Mesmeria could respond the soldier's request, another rose to his feet. “Wilon Gress, Your Majesty. Two months ago the Princess took an arrow in the side to save me. Ten minutes later she was back on her horse and fighting alongside me again. If I have to risk my life, it would be for her.”
Mesmeria could only stare at the soldier, completely at a loss for words. Oh Sterling …
“Alky Minder, Your Majesty. A month ago we were stranded in the Hurian desert and fast running out of rations. All the men here can attest to how the Princess refused to be served unless all the men had been served first. Some days she even went without so we could eat.”
A sudden ‘aye' sounded from all the men, startling Mesmeria.
The soldier continued. “Each and every one of us has a personal reason as to why we would lay down our lives for the Princess, Your Majesty. We beg you to grant us your blessing to bring the Princess back.”
Mesmeria didn't know when the tears had started. It was only when a tear slid down her cheek that she realized she was crying. She quickly wiped them away. Was this the daughter they'd raised? She glanced at Cybralle only to find her wife blinking hard to keep the tears at bay. When their eyes met, they both smiled. Pulling herself together, Mesmeria returned her attention to the waiting men. “I grant you my blessing and send my prayers with you.” She tried to make eye contact with as many of the men as she could. “Thank you.”
A loud cheer split the air when Cybralle pointed to the armory.
“You have an hour.”
Mesmeria's sight was blurred by tears as she looked up at Cybralle. In the predawn light, her wife looked even larger in her armor.
“Did you hear that?” she asked as she cupped her wife's face. “We managed to get it right the first time.”
“I have never been so proud to be a mother,” Cybralle leaned into caress and Mesmeria smiled into her eyes. “She is twice the Commander-in-chief I was and she will get even greater as she grows older.”
Mesmeria pulled Cybralle's head down and pressed a soft kiss to her lips before she rested her forehead against her wife's. “You were a great example for her, my love. I just wished we were wise enough to have had another child.”
Cybralle chuckled softly. “Did you forget that your mother threatened to kill me if I ever got you pregnant again?”
“Oh, how can I forget?” With a playful leer Mesmeria's hand slipped around Cybralle to gently pinch her butt. “I told her you were an impressive specimen and that the baby was likely to be big. We just never expected Sterling to be that big.”
“And seeing that big baby coming from your small body almost drove me insane with fear. As joyous as the occasion was it was also my single most terrifying experience.”
Mesmeria grinned. “The Spear of the Gods has not been used since. What a pity?” She laughed as she saw Cybralle's pupils dilate. “Come back to me and I will see if we can get the Priestess to allow us to use it one last time. This time without any lasting repercussions.”
This time it was Cybralle who leered at her. “I will definitely come back for that too.”
A short silence fell between them and Mesmeria swallowed hard. All this talk about family was what she wanted Cybralle to take with her into battle. She wanted her to remember what she was leaving behind and what she would be coming home too. She stood on her toes and gave her wife a deep, loving kiss.
“I will wait for you. Now go and bring that stubborn girl back with you.” With one final look into those brilliant silver eyes, she turned and walked away. Just before she entered the palace doors, she chanced a final look and smiled when she saw that Cybralle still stood were she'd left her. She gave her a small wave and walked on.
Now the hardest part would begin—waiting.
Gentro's eyes flickered open and almost immediately he sat. A sharp pain through his head made him groan softly, but he pushed through it and took in his surroundings. He frowned as his eyes darted around him. He appeared to be in some sort of a run-down, windowless cottage. The interior was dusty and smelled of decay. The place was bare except for the crude fur pallet he sat on and a crudely constructed fire pit.
Where was he? And how did he get here? He retracted his steps and surged to his feet, ignoring the pain the swift action caused him. Something had attacked him. He sniffed the air, picking up a familiar scent.
The door flew open and Gentro was surprised to see daylight streaming in. How long had he been unconscious? His eyes narrowed as a dark silhouette filled the doorway. Clever , he thought. Pushing the door open and stepping to the side was a fine ploy to draw him out if he was to attack. Will he ever stop to be amazed by her?
“Why did you bring me here?” He wished she would come closer so he could see her face. With the sun behind her face was shrouded in darkness. “You know that I am not the enemy?”
She rolled her shoulders and Gentro almost smiled at the gesture. He liked doing that to. It just helped him relax to do that. He took a step closer to her, eager to have a peek at her face.
The word uttered quietly and in a non-threatening way, but Gentro had experienced her strength before. She would not need to resort to threats. She was quite powerful. He hadn't seen her in Ulv form, but he was sure she would be magnificent.
“I simply want to gaze upon your face. I will not attack you,” he said soothingly.
“You would lose.”
Gentro marvelled at the deep, rich sound of her voice. It winded itself around him and brought a warm smile to his face. “You are quite sure of yourself.” When she didn't respond, his smile faltered a little. Rom had told him that she wasn't very talkative. “So, why am I here, Orla?”
He saw her hands curl into fists. “Why did you bring her here?”
For a moment he didn't know who she was referring to. Then it struck. “I thought you might want to see her again.”
“You thought wrong.” This time there was a noticeable edge of menace in her voice.
“But you love her.” He was a little unsettled by her statement combined with the slightly threatening posture. “You need her to grow into full power.”
Orla took two steps and Gentro was stunned by how fast she moved. There was something that he was missing here. The girl had evolved too soon, too fast. Close up he could now see her face. Achingly familiar pale eyes looked back at him.
“Do you really think that she would want to be with a monster?”
She wasn't screaming at him, but Gentro could sense her rising anger. If even possible, it seemed to make her appear even larger than the last time he'd seen her. He slowly held up his hand in a non-threatening way.
“Not a monster. You can never be one, not even if you tried.” He took a hesitant step closer. “If you will allow me, I would like to tell you more about yourself.”
The ice blue eyes hardened. “You do not know me.”
“Oh, but I do. I was there the day you were born. I hid in the stables. When your mother fell into a deep exhausted sleep, I snuck in and picked you up. You were the most beautiful baby I have ever seen.” His voice caught. It was such a wonderful experience to have held his daughter in his arms while gazing down at the sleeping face of her beloved. “I was there when you took the position of blacksmith. I was also there when you got married. I only looked on from afar, because I knew that if I had been in the Cathedral, I would have wanted to sit next to your mother and hold her hand while we watched you pledge your heart to another.” As he spoke he had watched her closely. He could see all the different emotions flitting over her face. “I have made it my duty to be there at the most memorable moments in your life.”
Orla shook her head. “The why did you make me into this?”
“Come and sit and I will tell you everything I know.” He saw the distrust and anger warring in her eyes as she looked at him. When after a few seconds she still haven't move, her gently coaxed her closer. “It is a great tale and I am sure you would want to know more about your heritage.”
It worked. Curiosity seemed to have won the epic battle in her heart, because Orla moved over to the opposite side of the cottage and slid down the wall until she was sitting flat on the floor.
“That night I took you, your Commander told you a little about the Ulvs.” He saw her eyes widen in surprise and smiled. “Yes, I was listening too. You actually sensed my presence that night. But let me not divert from the story. Everything she said about the Ulvs was true. Except for the part where she said we became man-eating demons at full moon that preyed on our subjects. That is so far from the truth.”
There was still a lot of talking to do and he wished for a drink of water. But if he didn't make use of this opportunity to tell Orla about her Ulv side, he doubted he would get another one. The water will have to wait for now.
“We were given godlike power and status by the gods to rule and protect their subjects. This power enabled us to be able to shift between human, wolf, and Ulv form. The Ulv is rarely exposed unless the threat is great and a risk to mankind. Over the ages many immortal beings have surfaced, putting the existence of mankind in great peril. As the keepers of the mortal realm, the Ulv had fought and won many epic battles.”
“The first ever Ulv was Hark who was the first King to the modern human race. He had three sons Berth, Minos, and Elan. All three of the boys had inherited their father's Ulv-gene. So when the boys came of age they, by stipulation of the gods, had to find and mate with the purest souls they could find. This would ensure that the gene stays pure as it was transferred and it would also initiate the gene, allowing them to be able to change into Ulv form.” Gentro was happy to see Orla was listening attentively. “The sons each travelled the world and managed to find the purest souls and married. For generations boys and girls were blessed with the gene and as the older generation stepped back into quiet hibernation, the younger generations ruled over the mortals.”
Gentro took a long breath and smiled when he saw a flash of impatience in his daughter's eyes. She was definitely hooked. “All went well for many, many centuries until the birth of two boys, Besk and Tart. Both Princes inherited the gene, but when it came to finding mates, it proved a bit difficult. Mankind had begun to evolve and lesser and lesser humans believed in the gods. People were now easily corrupted by power, greed, and physical urges. Finding a pure soul in this maelstrom of depravity made the search more taxing for the Princes. Tart travelled to the cold Northern climes and found his mate. Besk, after searching the earth for many years, returned home without a mate.”
“In the meantime Tart and his wife produced an heir—me.” He almost laughed at the shocked look on Orla's face. “You, my dear, are part of the oldest Royal House in existence. You will not believe how great my joy was when you found your mate and married into a respected Royal House.”
Gentro watched again as a kaleidoscope of emotions washed over Orla's face. Her innocence was endearing and very refreshing. If he was ever to see Lima again he would want to thank her for this great gift.
“Just when Besk had given up on finding his mate and made peace with the fact that his Ulv will remain dormant, he met a woman.” Orla's eyebrows shot up and Gentro found that he simply liked having her as an audience. “The woman was a servant girl working in the Royal Palace and one who had her sights on the throne for a long while. To blind the lonely Prince's eyes and heart, she solicited the help of a witch. Impatient and scared that her treachery would be discovered she enticed Besk to her bed. Unfortunately this act coincided with a predicted lunar occurrence and the woman fell pregnant. With the knowledge that she was carrying an Ulv heir, she dropped her façade and her revolting character surfaced. The reigning king, Helm, your great grandfather, banned her from the kingdom.”
“What happened to the baby?” Orla was not even trying to hide her curiosity anymore. Gentro smiled warmly at her.
“It was boy and yes he also inherited the gene as the mother planned when she seduced your uncle on that specific night. But the gene in the boy was tainted. He grew into a cruel, depraved man.”
Orla pursed her lips. “What happened to him? Where is he now?”
Gentro was quiet for a moment. “When I heard of the Karas Kingdom, which is one of only a handful of Empires that still practice dual religions and still pay homage to the gods, I decided to come here to look for my mate. I found your mother and fell deeply in love with her. By the time your mother fell pregnant, I had decided to wait until after your birth before I asked her to accompany me to meet my family.” He sighed deeply. “That was when I leaned that Ridat had followed me here. I knew he would try to harm, even kill, the both of you. So I followed Rom to war. When Rom was fatally injured I bit him and turned him. We have been together since, watching you and your mother from afar. Occasionally we would travel the battlefields of the world and find honest souls on the brink of death. We would offer them the opportunity to live forever. That is how I managed to put together such a well-oiled army.”
“What happened to Ridat?”
“Ridat on the other hand, began slaughtering humans. Unlike the pure gene, his tainted one released his Ulv immediately not needing to be initiated by the purity of true love. The wolves that attacked the Arnati troops and then later your group were Ridat's spawn. He would send out his men to attack villages and turn innocent farmers into brutal monsters.”
He watched, puzzled as Orla left the cottage. She was back in a few minutes, with a pail of water and a hastily roasted rabbit carcass. Gentro's stomach growled at the sight of the food. He hasn't eaten since midday yesterday. When Orla handed him the rabbit, he shook his head.
“What about you?”
“I had breakfast.”
Gentro held her eyes for a moment. “Thank you.” He took the meat from her and tore into it. His eyes almost rolled back in their sockets when he tasted the slight smokiness of the blood. She prepared it just the way he liked it and he told her so. She blushed and looked away.
“I like it that way too. My mother always squirmed at the bloody mess it left in my plate.”
At hearing that Gentro stopped eating and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He sat back slightly and studied her for a while. He only looked away when Orla began to squirm under his gaze.
“May I ask you something, Orla?”
The pale eyes were wide when she turned to look at him. “You seem to know everything about me already. I doubt I have anything more to tell you.”
“Believe me, I know of you, but I think there is still a lot I can learn about you.” He smiled warmly, but Orla looked away. “May I ask you now?”
Orla shrugged. “Yes.”
“When did you begin to feel the change in you?”
Orla was quiet for a while, her blue eyes fixed on him. “I think right after my wedding night.”
Gentro nodded and resumed his eating.
“Why do you ask?”
Gentro finished swallowing the mouthful. “Because I am amazed by how fast you have evolved. Many of us had to wait a while longer before our Ulvs manifested itself.” He took a small bite and chewed slowly as he watched her. “That first night three weeks ago when you left the palace dungeon I saw claw marks in the room and the furniture were completely destroyed. Your Ulv revealed itself quickly.”
Orla dipped her hand into the water pail and took a sip of the water. Gentro could see through her nonchalant attitude to the concern she was trying to hide. When she spoke again, he knew he was right.
“What does that mean?”
He shook his head quickly. “I do not know, but I also do not think that it is something bad.”
Orla grimaced. “Something bad, you say. I personally do not think that turning into a wolf is normal at all.” She took another sip. “Is … Am I a danger to humans?”
“No. Your gene is pure and thus you have an ingrained responsibility to protect humans.” He saw her look away. “You will not be a danger to her at all. As a matter of fact you can still have a fulfilling life with her.”
Orla didn't know how she felt at that very moment. All she knew was that confusion, anger, and fear were warring for supremacy inside her. She had stayed in wolf form for the past three weeks since her escape to avoid all these warring emotions. She preferred that state, because the wolf's senses where so overwhelming it almost drowned out her human thoughts and emotions.
But it changed two nights ago.
While she was out running, which she did quite often, she'd picked up a familiar scent. Her first instinct was to run away, thinking it was Gentro's men trying to capture her again. Curiosity had pushed her through the woods to the place where the smell was stronger. As she came closer, she could see a figure sitting at a fire. She stood there rooted to the spot, as she pushed aside her wolf senses to shift her human memories for this familiar looking person. She was still trying to place the person when the redhead turned and she caught sight of the face. She had stumbled back in shock, her eyes hungrily moving over Sterling's face. It had been more than eight months since she'd last seen her wife. She stared at her, wanting to imprint her face on her mind. For a moment she was tempted to rush over to her. The urge to kiss and hold her was so strong. When realization struck it was like a physical blow to her system.
She was a monster now. A beast that didn't deserve to be around her. Sterling was sure to go for her weapons were she to try and approach her. The thought of her wife looking at her with horror in her eyes was too much to bear. Even if Sterling's presence here meant that she came looking for her, Orla Peron was dead to the world.
Orla was abruptly startled by the appearance of a man. Her hackles rose immediately. The newcomer had carried the scent of an Ulv. Thinking that Sterling could be in trouble, she'd readied herself to defend her mate. The man must've sensed her presence for he turned his head and stared straight at her. It was Rom. She could see the surprise in his eyes as he looked at her. Because nothing about his demeanour broadcasted violence, Orla had backed down. Rom knew who Sterling was and if he was a friend as he'd said, Sterling was safe with him.
That night she'd sat there in the dark, watching as Rom prepared food for them. It was only when the smell of the roasting meat became too much for her to resist that Orla ran off to go in search of her own supper. She returned a while later to keep silent vigil over her wife.
The next day she'd returned to the rundown cottage she'd annexed three weeks ago. She crawled into the darkest corner of the cottage where she slept the day away. She didn't shed her wolf form, scared of the dreams which she was sure would pounce on her now that she'd seen Sterling again.
As soon as the sky began to darken she'd stolen to the palace. This time she was in human form and dressed in a stolen cape so she'd blend in well. Strolling through the small village which were surrounded by impenetrable rocks, she'd kept a careful eye on the guards and the wolves patrolling the palace on the inside and the outside.
Her relief was great when she'd seen Gentro leave the palace, unguarded. He was the reason she was here. She was sure that nothing happened in his territory without his knowledge. Orla was surprised to find him making his way to the dungeons were she was held three weeks ago. She'd waited outside and had knocked him unconscious, when he walked past her, obviously lost in thought.
Gentro moved over to the water and began to scoop water into his mouth. Orla took the change to watch him closely. There was no doubt in her mind that he was her father. They looked very much alike. They had the same hair, eye colour, and almost the same build. She remembered him in wolf form. Even then he resembled her. She thought back to their earlier conversation. She, Orla Peron was a descendant from the oldest and longest-living monarchy in existence. She was so fascinated by Gentro's story that it hadn't really sunken in that she was not the lowly blacksmith she thought she was anymore.
Gentro leaned back against the wall of the cottage and looked around. When his eyes caught hers, she raised a dark eyebrow.
“Why do you not come to live with me in the Palace? It must be more comfortable there than here.”
“I like it here. I also like the solitude.”
“I am worried about you. If Ridat was to find out about you he will come for you.” Gentro said softly and Orla could actually read the fear in the man's eyes. “I have given up so much already to keep you safe. I would hate for it be in vain, Orla.”
“You need not be concerned about my safety. I can take care of myself.”
Gentro swallowed hard. “I know, but it is a father's prerogative to worry, daughter.”
Orla looked away. Daughter . She wasn't sure if she was ready to accept Gentro as her father yet. He was in fact still a stranger to her, albeit one who looks like her. She knew now that he didn't desert them and she believed him. She didn't see why he would want to lie to her about it. Now that she knew that he was alive, she wondered what that would mean for her mother.
Gentro was once again nibbling on the rabbit carcass. She had been so angry at him before that she hadn't really cared one bit about him. Now she felt embarrassed that she'd acted that way towards him. Having heard the story now, she knew why he brought Sterling here. As an Ulv your partner plays a vital role in keeping you grounded and keeping the dark allure of the power away. She still had misgivings about her and Sterling's future.
“What about my mother now?”
If she hadn't been looking at him so closely, she would've missed the pain flash in the pale eyes. Gentro blinked and the look was gone. He rubbed over his chin. “I would like to be with her again, but I do not want to put her in danger. As long …” He lowered his gaze. “It would kill me if something was to happen to her.”
Orla sensed the pain coming from him and she slowly came to her feet to come and sit next to him. Gentro's eyes turned dark as he look at her and Orla saw a small smile break over his face at her proximity. That was all he'd wanted it seems. Orla placed her hand on his arm and Gentro quickly dropped the meat to rest his on hers. They both gasped when a strong current rushed through them. The link has been made, it seemed. They would be bonded for life. Momentarily distracted from their topic, they sat there in silence, absorbing the other's nearness. Orla softly cleared her throat.
“Between the two of us, we will make sure that she is safe.”
“That might work, but would she want me back? I will be fine as long as I know she's alive.”
Orla realized then that Gentro was scared of confronting her mother. She suddenly wondered if he had found someone else in the meantime. The idea was painful, considering her mother was still mourning him. She lifted her hand off his arm and saw him looking at her fearfully.
“Have you taken another mate?” She hadn't meant for it to come out quite so harsh, but it did. Gentro flinched as he looked at her.
“No, I would never. Anyway it would not be possible; because wolves mate for live and even if I had wanted to I could not.”
Orla cocked her head at that. “Are you telling me that you have not been with anyone for almost twenty years?”
Gentro nodded. “I only ever wanted your mother, Orla.”
Orla smiled broadly and took his hand in hers. “She also refused to take another. I think we will have to do something about that.”
Orla came to feet. “We need to hunt Ridat down.” She held a hand out to Gentro and helped him to his feet. He swayed a little and she held him until he'd steadied himself.
“What did you use to knock me out?”
Orla blushed. “I am sorry about that, but it was the only way to get you here.”
“Next time try to ask me instead,” Gentro said with a smile. Orla returned the smile. She might still have some leftover feelings about her situation and the role Gentro played in it, but was finding that she rather liked the man. Even if he gave her an abnormal gene, she was willing to work through that with time. She was simply glad to know that she was not the only one with this strange gift.
Gentro followed her out the door and she saw him squint in the bright sunlight. She hadn't realized that they had been talking for so long. She looked up at the position of the sun. It was already past the midday hour. She looked at Gentro and found him looking at her.
“There is something else I need to tell you.”
Orla couldn't help a feeling of foreboding at the Gentro's grave tone. “What is it?”
“We can capture Ridat, but we cannot kill him.” Gentro took her hand in hers. “We are of the same blood and it is prohibited for us to take the life of anyone from the bloodline.”
“What should we do then?”
“We need an ancient from our bloodline to destroy him.”
“And who will that be. Are they even still alive?”
Gentro smiled at her and squeezed her hand. “King Hark is still very much alive, but he is quite old now and rarely leaves the kingdom. We could try and get hold of Minos. We are direct descendants of him. You look a little pale. Are you okay?”
“I … I will be,” Orla said with a weak smile. She was completely stunned by the news. If King Hark was still alive after all these, it meant she too might one day grow that old. She found Gentro's concern gaze on her. “I rarely take on human form during the day.”
“I know that is why I have shared so much with you,” Gentro gently rubbed the hand. “But you will be fine. Now come to the Palace with me. We will have to send a messenger to Minos.”
Orla held up her hand. “You go ahead. I need … ? She gave him a pleading look. “I need … ?
Gentro nodded, a gentle smile on his lips. “You need time. I understand. Take as much time as you need. I will be waiting for you when you are ready to talk again.”
Orla watched in rapt fascination as a shock of black hair sprouted on Gentro's arms. It took but a few moments and the shift was complete. Before her stood a huge black wolf, watching her with intelligent ice blue eyes. Orla took a careful step closer and pushed her hand through the wolf's shiny black coat. She was awed by the magnificence of the beast before her. Was this what she looked like when she took on wolf form? The wolf moved its head and Orla giggled when it licked her hand. The wolf shook its massive body before it turned and trotted off.
Orla watched until her father disappeared into the distance. The Palace was quite a distance from here, but in wolf form, it would take Gentro less than ten minutes to reach it.
She turned around and walked into the forest.
Ridat tore the last piece of meat off the bone and tossed it away from him. The previous night's outing had been invigorating. He had worked up a ravenous appetite and had been gorging on the meat of a wild boar he had caught early in the morning. He sat back and took a long sip from the cool sweet wine. Who would've known that running through the woods would be such an energizing effect. He hadn't done that in many years. Maybe he should do it more often, The Pack had enjoyed themselves tremendously after the gloomy spell when he had to kill the pup.
They were especially forgiving when he managed to take down two boars and a deer. They do not eat that much every day, but he knew that for the next two days the Pack would be sufficiently fed. Maybe he would make use of their good spirit to launch a small expedition into Peron's territory. It was time that he shook up things again. His cousin was growing too complacent.
For twenty years he'd watched and waited for Gentro to do something—anything. But the lily-livered fool had tried to live amongst humans at first. Imagine a god living amongst humans as a lowly soldier. It must've become too much for even him, because in the end he upped and left civilization behind. That was twenty years ago and still he was loitering around, waiting for who knows what. He'd expected Gentro to return to Greece after a few years when he hadn't found a suitable wife. He wondered what he was still doing here. With a throne awaiting him back home, the idiot built himself a small fortress in-between two kingdoms instead — for what he would love to find out.
There was soft shuffle of footsteps and Ridat turned his gaze to the entrance of the cave. He beckoned the man inside. It was his new general.
“Any news, Fenri?” He saw the astonished look on the man's face. Ridat was in a great mood and could afford to be nice today.
“Yes, milord. Our patrol stole into Peron's territory last night. They found two humans camping close to the border. One of them was Romulus and the other are as yet still unknown. But we know she is human. I am awaiting word from our spies to confirm her identity.”
Ridat shrugged. “So Peron's lapdog took himself a human mate. I do not see any reason for us to waste resources trying to find out who she is.” Ridat was slowly losing his good mood. He abhorred incompetence.
The man suddenly looked as if he was standing on hot coals. He shifted from the one foot to the other.
“Good heavens, man, what is it that you are not telling me?”
“It is still not confirmed, but one of the guards is convinced that the woman is the Crown Princess of Karas.”
This titbit of information had Ridat surge to his feet. Could it be? Was that the reason really the reason why Peron had been hiding out here? He walked over to the man, so caught up in his thoughts, that he didn't even see the man flinch at his proximity.
“I want you to have her identity confirmed before midnight. If she is indeed the Princess, I want us to move in as soon as possible and capture her.”
“Yes, milord.” The man mumbled and practically rushed out of the cave. The moments ticked away and still Ridat stood rooted to the spot. Peron had finally found himself a mate. A cruel smile formed on his lips.
Things were looking up for him once again.
The rhythmic gait of the horse was slowly lulling Sterling into a light doze. They haven't slept much last night after they'd spotted the wolves circling their camp. Even Rom looked a bit worse for wear. After a quick breakfast of leftover rabbit, they'd packed up and began their journey. She looked up at the tree tops and brought her horse to an abrupt stop. Something was not right. She slid of the horse and looked up again. The longer she stared, the angrier she got. She heard footsteps behind her and found Rom standing behind her, his face turned up.
“What is it?”
She swallowed to contain her rage before addressing him. “You really want to know?”
Rom blinked at her, having picked up on her anger. “Uh … yes.”
Sterling drew her sword and Rom took a quick step back. “What were you hoping to gain?”
Holding up his hand, Rom shook his head. “Maybe if you tell me what it is I have done I could tell you.”
“Did you seriously think I would not notice?” She took a threatening step closer, her sword gleaming in the afternoon sun. “You have been taking me in circles for the past few days.”
She saw Rom's eyes widen slightly. “I assure you if that is the case it was not deliberate. I — ?
Sterling was shaking with anger now. “Why, Rom?”
When he didn't answer, she took a stab at him and saw sheer panic in his eyes as he danced out of reach. His reaction made Sterling frown. Five days ago she had a blade to his neck and he didn't even flinch.
“I was embarrassed to tell you that we are lost.”
“I do not believe you.” She swung her sword again and this time Rom put a greater distance between him and her weapon. “I demand the truth, Rom. Are you taking me to my wife or do you have an ulterior motive for having dragged me out here?”
“Please, milady, I promise you that my intentions for bringing you here is honourable. Your consort needs you and that is why I brought you here.”
Sterling took another step closer, causing Rom to back away quickly. “Then where is she, Rom. Your action makes you look guilty of foul play.” She tightened her grip on her sword and took a swipe at Rom.
“Fine …fine...fine…” finally conceded. “I am not at liberty to give you the answers, but my Prince can.”
His Prince? This was the first time Rom mentioned a Prince. Could it be that Prince Halen of Arnat was hiding out here somewhere? She had trusted Rom to a certain extent over the past five days, even when she had her misgivings about him. But having caught him in an untruth, she wasn't so sure if she really wanted to spend one more night with him. Especially not when her senses have been dulled by exhaustion.
“Just point me in the direction of your Prince and I will find my way to him…alone.”
This time Rom's face registered pure panic. “No… please… it is too dangerous for you to be out here alone. Let me take you to the Palace.”
Sterling shook her head. “I can take care of myself.”
Rom took a careful step closer. He didn't even flinch when she held sword up to warn him off. It seemed his concern for her overrode his own fear.
“Please, you do not know what you are up against. I cannot let you go off alone, your Highness.”
The time was ripe to test her theory. “Are you talking about the wolves?” She saw a strange look flash in Rom's dark blue eyes. “Or are you referring to the Ulvs.”
This time Rom looked shocked. “What… what do you know about the Ulvs?”
“Enough to know how to protect myself.” She swung up on her horse. “Now tell me which way to your palace.”
Rom looked close to tears almost. “You will never reach it before nightfall.”
“Then I will have to camp out here for one more night. Now will you tell me or should I find it myself.”
With hanging shoulders, Rom pointed in a south-westerly direction. Sterling gave him a poisonous glare.
“If the Palace is in that direction, why were you leading me in the opposite direction?” She kicked her horse into a trot. “We will meet at the Palace.”
An hour later, Sterling admitted to herself that she was lost. She looked around the dense forest tress and threw a concerned look upwards. It was getting dark quite fast in this area of the woods. The hair at the back of her neck rose slightly and she quickly rose a hand to her sword. The place was spooky with its eerie soundlessness. It was as if there were hundreds of eyes following her progress—waiting. Camping for four nights in these woods, she wasn't sure if she'd be able to survive another night out here, especially not alone.
She reached for her water skin and almost dropped it when a caught a sudden move on her right. She relaxed immediately when she met two large dark eyes. The deer gave her a curious look, almost as if it wanted to warn her. After an odd moment of staring at each other the deer snorted and disappeared amongst the thick foliage. Sterling eased Aria into movement. She wasn't sure why, but it seems that staying stationary in this place was not a good idea. There were too much happening on a level she couldn't see, but that she could feel. She suddenly remembered the water skin which was still clutched in her hand and pulling out the stopper with her teeth she lifted it to her lips. Dismayed, she lowered it again. She rarely if ever allowed herself to run out of water. She would need to refill if she was going to want to spend the night here.
The deer! They rarely stray too far from water. There should be a source around here. She steered Aria in the direction the deer had gone and kept her eyes and ears open for the familiar sound of rushing water. With her hand not straying too far from her sword, she manoeuvred her way deeper into the forest. The deeper in she went, the more quiet it became. It could only mean one thing. This territory has been claimed.
Sterling knew this because when she was fourteen years old, Cybralle had taken her on a hunting trip. The warrior had kept a low running commentary of the area—its sounds, sights and even the sensations it gave to her hunter. They had entered a part of the forest, which she found to be very quiet and unsettling. Cybralle had given her a proud smile and whispered that they had stumbled into the territory of the largest beast in the area. Everything that was smaller than this beast was almost scared to breath when it was near, plunging the area into silence.
Sterling's grip on her sword tightened and she loosened her tight hold on the reins so she could reach for her crossbow too depending on what would jump at her. She brought Aria to a stop and listened intently. Yes, there is was—the sound she'd been listening for. There was a river nearby. Not dropping her guard, she made her way toward the sound.
She had travelled but few hundred meters when the foliage began to recede. Out from under the canopy of trees, Sterling was surprised to find that it wasn't as dark as she'd thought. There were still a few hours of daylight left. The rays reflected on the rushing swells of water, blinding her momentarily. Sterling scanned the area from the one end of the river to as far as she could see. She didn't want to be ambushed while replenishing her water skin. When she was sure that it was relatively safe to dismount, she slid of Aria and led the horse to the water. She stood watch as the mare drank, her throat convulsing with every sip. Once the horse had its fill, she untied her water skin from the saddle.
The dark, soundless vacuum she found herself in was wonderful. It helps to relieve the pressure of her thoughts and memories. Had she been in wolf form she would have taken a long hard run, not stopping until her lungs felt like they wanted to explode. She'd done that so many times over the past three weeks and it had worked wonders. It kept those haunting silver eyes from overrunning her dreams.
Setting her filled water skin aside; Sterling scooped a few handfuls of water into her mouth. Next to her, Aria was happily munching on the sweet soft grass growing on the bank of the river. She didn't want to disturb the mare, but it would be completely dark in a few hours and she wanted a camp sat up by then. She squinted over the water. The river seemed to run deep in the middle. She wouldn't want to get stuck between whatever ruled this territory and the river. She came to her feet. It was time to get out of here. Just as she was about to reach for Aria's reins, she heard a soft plopping sound, scanning over the water, she watched and waited. The plop sounded again and this time Sterling caught sight of a glistening trout. Her mouth watered at the thought of supplementing her diet of rabbit with the soft sweet-tasting flesh of trout.
“Well, girl, it seems I will dine like a princess tonight.” She quickly took off her boots. “Wait here for me. I will not be long.” She waded deeper into the water, closer to where a few large rocks protruded from the liquid landscape. Once she was knee deep in the water, she reached for her dagger. Two fat trout swam by and with a practiced flick of her wrist, she threw her knife. Triumphantly, she dug into the slower current and grabbed the impaled fish.
Something felt different. Blue eyes snapped open. A pinkish streak passed before her eyes. Alarmed, she surged upward, water streaming down her face and body. They immediately fell on a dark clad figure, but a few feet from where she'd lain submerged in a deep pool surrounded by big boulders. The figure spun around.
Orla drew in a sharp breath.
Sterling didn't have long to celebrate her triumph, because an unexpected large splash behind her caused her to spin around. She raised the dagger, with the plump trout still attached to the blade, in defence. It all happened in a few seconds, but the first thing she noticed about her attacker was the size and with a quick practiced glance she looked for weapons. When she spotted none, her eyes flitted to the face.
She heard a sharply drawn breath even before she met pale blue eyes. The air got stuck in her throat and the dagger slipped from her nerveless hand. She stared and stared… her eyes not straying once from the face she'd dreamt of seeing again. She was so intent on committing the features to her mind that the need to breathe faded from her mind. She stared, until the beloved image began to swim. She stared still when black began to stain the image.
“Sterling!” Her name sounded like it was called from far away.
Orla stood as still as a statue as she looked at Sterling looking at her. Seeing the woman before her, made Orla realize that she was fighting a losing battle if she'd thought she could forget this woman. Her eyes raked over her wife. Sterling was thinner and had dark circles around her eyes. She may look gaunt, but it was still the most beautiful sight Orla had ever seen. She noticed that Sterling was steadily growing paler. She quickly searched her chest area. Sterling was not breathing.
She quickly sprang into action when the silver eyes rolled back into their sockets and Sterling's knees gave out.
The water was slowing her down, making her movements sluggish. Before she could reach Sterling, her wife's unconscious body was slowly being carried away by the current. Orla's heart was thumbing in her chest in terror. Sterling was floating face down and once she got caught in the stronger current, she was going to drown for sure. With only a split-second to make a decision, Orla threw her head back. She'd only done this twice before, but she knew now the perfect moment to release her Ulv.
Orla floated with the current as let the change wash over her. By the time she had reached Sterling's body where she had just about been tugged on by the stronger current in the middle of the river, Orla stood almost at 7ft. Her huge arms grabbed Sterling and with powerful strides she began her trek back to the riverbank. She looked down at Sterling's still chest and lengthened her strides. As soon as she was in the slowly flowing water, she began her transformation again. She laid Sterling down on the bank. In the space of a few minutes, the current had swept them a few yards from where Aria stood. The mare was clearly confused by the predatory scent she'd picked up when Orla shifted.
She pressed down on Sterling's chest as she'd seen the Palace healer do once when young Jino, the son of the cook, had fallen into the stream that ran behind the palace. She opened Sterling's mouth and blew air down her throat. She repeated the pressing movements, her heart thundering in her ears every time Sterling didn't respond.
“Come on, Sterling,” she whispered desperately. “Please do not leave me. I cannot lose you again.” She once again blew air down Sterling's airway. “Come back to me.”
She pressed on Sterling's chest again. This time a weak cough sounded and Orla turned Sterling on her side. She watched anxiously as the reddish whimpers fluttered slowly before silver eyes were revealed. They were bleary and Orla waited patiently for them to focus. When they did, Orla held her breath as they grew larger. Please don't let her faint again. She leaned back a little wanting to give Sterling some breathing space. Sterling tried to sit up and Orla gently helped her up. She gasped softly when Sterling's hand lifted and she touched her cheek.
“It is…” Sterling's voice came out in croak and she softly cleared her throat. The silver eyes were intense as they looked into Orla's. “It is really you. I cannot believe that I found you.”
Orla leaned into the caress. “And I cannot believe that you came for me.” Orla's eyes shot full of tears. “Thank you for finding me.”
Orla knew Sterling would never understand the gratitude she felt at that moment. Already, she could feel a change in her. It was as if the pressure in her veins were lessening. She felt so light and free. Gentro's words rushed over her: ‘You need her to grow into full power.' After his explanation of the importance of finding a mate and the role they played in an Ulv's life, she'd been intrigued. Experiencing this potent surge of euphoria inside her was more than she could've expected. It was as if Sterling had reached inside her and lit a candle. She felt invigorated.
Sterling's eyes began to droop and Orla place a soft kiss on her brow. She had looked so tired before and now with trauma of her near-drowning her body simply had enough. She gently lifted her wife in her arms. The cottage was not far from here. She turned with her precious load only to cringe when she was met by large teeth aiming at her face.
“Calm down, Aria,” she quickly soothed the irate horse who was trying to protect her mistress. At the sound of Orla's voice the horse neighed and shook its head. It gave her another sniff and shook its head again. “It is me, girl. You know I will not hurt her.” She made strong eye contact with the horse as she spoke. The mare showed her teeth again, but backed off, albeit reluctantly. Orla knew it will probably take the horse a while to get used to her new scent. When she looked down at Sterling, she found that she was sound asleep.
Clucking at Aria, the horse snorted. Orla really didn't want the horse out here after dark with wolves running around. The other wolves rarely came into her territory, but she had caught sight of a few crossing through on hunting trips. An unprotected horse out here can become a quick meal—especially with the females ready to go into heat. She didn't know much about wolf culture but she could pick up the scent of their near-readiness in the air. It has made her body bristle with lust on those few occasions she came into contact with another female. But for all that heat, she felt, she knew instinctively that nothing would come of it. She already had a mate and no other would suffice.
It was getting darker now. She needed to get to the cottage, secure Aria and prepare a meal for Sterling for when she woke up.
“Come on, Aria, follow me.” The horse snorted and pawed the earth with her front hooves. “Do not let me come back for you. You might not like the form I will be in when I return.”
As if she understood, Aria snorted one last time and stepped closer. Orla turned and walked into the dark forest. Every now and then she listened for Aria's hooves.
Cybralle removed her helmet and combed her fingers through her short hair. They had crossed into Arnat about two hours ago and wasn't far from the place where the wolves attacked them two months ago. She turned to the men. They had gathered large stumps of wood as they rode through the Karasi countryside. Sunset was but half a candle mark away.
“We need to make a circling fire and keep it burning throughout the night... Whatever you have heard from the others about what happened here, is true. Keep that in mind and do not stray too far from the camp. We have less than twenty minutes to offload the wood en get the fire going.”
The men quickly jumped into action with Cybralle working every bit as hard as them. She measure off the space where the fire line will run, leaving enough space to manoeuvre in case a wolf crossed over the line like the last time. No tents were set up and the men all placed their bedrolls in the centre of the large circle.
A quick meal of bread and cheese were distributed and everyone began to settle down. Cybralle went to sit amongst the men. A few men were placed as sentries in the trees above, something that they haven't thought about the last time.
“I want to tell you what I think we are up against.” She wiped her mouth with back of her hand. The men gathered even closer. “Have any of you heard the story about the Ulvs?”
One of the men chuckled. “My grandmother used to scare me to bed with those stories.”
“Well,” Orla's eyes were sombre as she looked at the man. “They are not only stories after all. I have seen them with my own two eyes the last time we were attacked. The wolves were so big that they can look a grown man in the eyes. Some stood on the hind legs towering over us as they fought with us.” She took a small bite from her bread. “I will repeat. What you have heard from the others is true. What we all saw was too indescribable to exaggerate so we all stuck to the truth.” Some of the faces she scanned registered scepticism. “Yes, it may sound like an exaggeration to some of you, but take my word for it. It is all true. I want you to be prepared for a sight that will put the fear of the gods in you and I will expect from you not to freeze and to fight bravely.”
The men were quiet and Cybralle allowed them the moment to let it all sink in. She had to admit that she was not keen on seeing these monsters again, but she wanted to get to her daughter. She was more than willing to hack her way through a pack of Ulvs to see her daughter alive again. It killed her to think Sterling was somewhere in this dangerous dense forest with these bloodthirsty beasts roaming after dark.
“I have heard that some of the beasts fought on our side. Is it true?”
Cybralle was slightly startled by the question. She had completely forgotten about that. It was true. For the short duration of the fight, there had been a temporary truce between her men and the wolves. She remembered the huge wolf who had fought the others off, while at the same time serving as a shield for her men. On the outside of the circle more wolves drove the others back as they valiantly held the fort. With Orla gone she had forgotten about that. And the wolves all left soon after the battle were over, taking all the wolf carcasses with them.
“Yes, there were a pack of wolves that fought on our side.”
“Does that mean that we could have allies in this place, Commander?” The soldier sounded hopeful.
“It could be, but I must admit that I could not make the difference between the good ones and the bad one. Thus, we can easily be duped by either group.” She scanned the faces of the men. “For that reason alone I want us to keep on believing that we are alone here. Each of us only has the man next to him to depend on. Is that clear?” She injected steel in her voice. She didn't want them to become complacent. If possible, she wanted to take all of them home when they find Sterling.
“Good. Now be on your guard. Keep your weapons close and your ears open. If and when there is a breach of the circle, I want everyone to form a circle in the centre, our backs to each other.” She took a deep breath. “Now let us try and get some rest.”
When the camp settled down, Cybralle was still wide awake. Her thoughts were plagued by worry about Sterling. Where was she and was she doing fine? Did she find Orla? Was Orla even alive?
Ridat's body thrummed with excitement as he sniffed the air. When his man came back with confirmation than the human was indeed the Crown Princess of Karas, he'd immediately readied a group of his most cunning hunters. The woman was not a threat in any way, but Romulus was. Although so much younger than his own ninety seven years, the man was a celebrated warrior and as an Ulv he was not to be underestimated. His pack would keep the woman contained and assist with Romulus.
His eyes scanned over the area, taking in the fire pit. They had camped here last night. This was where his men saw them. He had split up the group and had sent them out to find a trail. In the meantime he would wait right here and relish the impending confrontation with Romulus. His blood thickened at the thought. He hadn't had a worthy adversary in over fifty years.
Once he had killed the girl, he would return to Greece with his Pack and challenge his father for the throne. It was expected of Gentro to find a mate and return to Greece to take over the dual throne from his father and uncle. As the only pureblood it was his inheritance. But without his mate he would be weaker, just like his own father, Besk. Without a mate at his side, the man was weakened. His Ulv rarely revealed itself. That was what he had planned for Gentro.
He gave a soft chuckle. He had to give it to Gentro. The man was clever. All the princes before had found full-grown women to take as their mates. Who would've thought that Gentro had already found his mate and waited twenty years for her to be ready to accept him? That was very clever indeed. It also explains why the man had remained here.
It would all be over soon.
The silver eyes flickered open. Not remembering how she ended up asleep, her training kicked in. Lying still, she let her eyes roam around her, taking in everything. She was lying of a straw pallet in a crumbling cottage. A few feet away, a fire burned lustily in a makeshift fire pit. Her stomach growled at the sight of the plate filled with fish and bread where it was placed near the fire to keep warm. She listened for any other movement, when there was none. She sat up and reached for the plate. Looking at the trout, memories rushed through her. She was fishing when suddenly there was someone else in the river too. Oh my…The plate dropped from her hand. She spun around, her eyes shooting full of tears. She had found her. She looked around. Where was she? She was alone in here. Oh, please don't let this have been a dream. She would die if that was the case.
“Orla…?” Her voice caught and she felt two fat tears roll down cheeks. “I know it cannot have been a dream. It was too real. I touched you.” She swallowed to control the sob that wanted to escape. “Orla?”
The doorway was suddenly filled by a large shadow. Without thinking, Sterling stumbled over and grabbed the woman to her.
“It was not a dream…It was not a dream…It was not a dream,” she chanted as she buried her face in Orla's chest.
She inhaled deeply wanting to commit the familiar scent to her memory. Orla stilled smelled the same, except there was a slight spicy underlying aroma to her wife's usual scent. She had smelt that before. She looked up into Orla's vivid blue eyes. She reached up to kiss her, but Orla turned her head away and held Sterling at an arms breadth.
“The Orla you once knew is no more, Sterling.”
“What do you mean? You…you are here. You are alive.” She reached up to touch Orla's face, but her hand was grabbed in a gentle hold.
“I have changed. I am not what you…what you would want anymore.” Orla's gaze slipped away from hers and locked on something behind her.
“I will always want you, Orla. No matter what happens.”
Orla took a step back from her. “You do not know what you are saying. It hurts to say this, but I think you will have to go back to Karas and…” Sterling shuddered at the pain she saw in the blue eyes when they met hers again. “You have to forget about me.”
“No…no…no…” Sterling reached for Orla but the woman took another step back. “I died inside the day I came back and was told that you were…you were gone. I have lived most of my life out of responsibility and duty, but it changed when I met you. I began to live for you, for our love, for our future.” Sterling roughly wiped at her tears. “I will not leave this place knowing that you are alive and not with me. I would rather stay here and petition you give our love another change. I will stay even if I have to spend my whole life trying to win you back.”
Orla turned away. “I cannot let you do that. Sterling, I am doing this because I love you and I want only the best for you.”
Sterling took a careful step closer. “Then we have a big problem, because you are the best there is and ever will be for me.”
Orla turned to look at her again. “One day you will understand why I had to do this. You will be safe here for the night. Tomorrow I will take you back to Karas.” Orla turned back and sprinted into the dark, dissolving like a mist in dark vegetation.
Sterling stood there, her lungs pushing out short breaths as she tried to keep herself from giving in to sobs which were threatening to let loose. This couldn't be happening. In every scenario she'd had about meeting Orla again, if she was to find her, Orla would be overjoyed to see her. They would rush into each other's arms and hold on for dear life as they kissed and kissed until their lungs was near collapse from a lack of air. What just happened now was confusing and painful.
Sterling was not going to leave it there. Her future was irrevocably linked with Orla's and she was going to fight for that future. She had found herself lying in her tent at the Wastelands, dreaming about a dark-haired baby sucking hungrily at her breast, staring up into her eyes with adoring pale blue eyes. She wanted that and she was going to fight for that. She dashed into the cottage. Her eyes frantically searched the interior until she located her saddle and her weapons. She grabbed her weapons and left the cottage.
Orla's body was raked by deep sobs where she knelt in the slight opening surrounded by trees. That first time in the Palace dungeon, when her rage at being kept away from Sterling had prompted a shift, Orla had gone on rampage. Her rage completely forgotten, she had thrashed the place driven by pain and shock. Pain and shock because she knew that Sterling was completely lost to her. How could she go back to Sterling knowing that her wife would recoil at knowing she was a beast? It had been a little easier since to live with the choice, because Sterling was not there and would not come looking for her.
Tonight the pain was paralysing. Tonight she had to look into Sterling's eyes and put her decision in words. Even as she'd said the words, her heart had rebelled against them. At that moment she had known that her love for Sterling was even greater than before. But she had to protect Sterling. It would be selfish of her to expect Sterling to accept this…this thing she was…this thing that hid inside her. As noble as her heritage was, it was still not normal. Sterling deserved better and Orla knew Gentro would disagree.
Orla's head snapped up and she cocked it to the side to listen better. She surged to her feet, her eyes burning with anger. She'd hoped it wouldn't come to this, but she'd underestimated Sterling once again. The woman had followed a total stranger into a dangerous territory on a quest to find her. What had made her think that Sterling would stay at the cottage simply because she told her to? She turned to find Sterling standing at the edge of the clearing. The silver eyes swam in tears.
“You should not be here.” Her voice sounded gruff from all the crying. “You should return to the cottage.”
Sterling took a few steps closer, but stopped when Orla backed away. “You are hurting.”
Orla swallowed. “It is not important.”
Sterling jutted out her chin. “You are my wife and if you hurt it becomes my problem.”
Ignoring Sterling's words, Orla turned her back on her wife. “It is not safe for you to be out here.”
There was a short silence. “And what about you? You are also in danger if you stay out here.”
Orla inhaled deeply. She didn't want to do this, but it seemed it was the only way. “I have warned you.” Orla felt the now familiar burning sensation in her blood. “Now you leave me no other choice.”
She turned to face Sterling and called her wolf to the surface. She doubled over as her organs began to move rapidly, preparing for the change.
“Orla?!” Sterling's sounded scared and concerned at the same time. Orla lifted her head just in time because Sterling was making her way over to her. Orla pinned her with a feral gaze. The Princess stopped and backtracked so fast, she fell over her feet. “Sweet heavens! Orla! Oh no…no…no…”
Sterling's wailing registered vaguely as Orla completed the shift. When she was done, she gave a deep threatening growl. The tip of her tail wagged slowly in warning as her eyes fixed Sterling with a cold stare.
Sterling felt nauseated as she looked in horror at the sight before her. Her stomach was rolling in shock and fear as she looked at the giant black wolf standing in the place where Orla had been a few moments ago. Cybralle's words came to mind. ‘They are dangerous and you should prevent a bite at all times' . Everything suddenly made sense.
The foreign scent she'd got from Orla earlier. Rom had smelled that way too. It smelled like something wild and untamed. She met the cold pale stare and felt her eyes fill up with tears again. This was the reason Orla was sending her away. Her eyes studied the huge canine as it wagged its tail slowly, its fur bristling slightly. She knew enough about wolves to know that the beast was readying itself for an attack. Prevent a bite at all times; Cybralle's words rang through her mind. She met the cold eyes again and was struck by the intelligence she saw in them.
Orla was still in there, even in that form.
Sterling remembered hearing the heart-wrenching sobs she'd heard as she pushed through the dense growth to find Orla. It was obvious that Orla was hurting too. This was a sacrifice her wife was willing to make to protect her. Orla loved her and must love her greatly to want to give up on their love so great and which only came once in a lifetime.
Sterling took a shuddering breath. It was her turn to make a sacrifice too.
Had she not been in wolf form, Orla's jaw would surely have hung in shock as Sterling stretched out on her stomach and slowly began to crawl towards her. What was wrong with the woman? She snarled and adjusted her body to make her stance more threatening. When Sterling simply looked up at her with a tear-stained face and resumed her crawling, Orla barred her teeth. Strings of saliva dripped from her open mouth to the ground. Still the stubborn woman advanced on her. Orla could smell her fear and she gave a mock-charge. Sterling simply covered her head with her hands and lay still for a few moments. Then she lifted her head and revealed fear-filled eyes. Orla barred her teeth again and gave a warning growl. The redhead lowered again and to Orla's surprise, Sterling resumed her crawling. For a brief second, Orla was tempted to nip her on the butt for being so infuriatingly stubborn.
Sterling had to bite hard on her jaw, to prevent her teeth to clatter from sheer terror. The wolf looked even bigger up close, its growl so deep that she could feel it reverberating through her own body. She found herself a few centimetres from powerful front paws and slowly rolled over exposing her throat and stomach in a submissive pose. The pale eyes were glacial as they pierced her. The wolf bared its teeth again and Sterling heard her own teeth clatter in fear this time, she quickly averted her eyes. She gasped when a string of saliva landed in her cheek and trailed down her neck to disappear underneath her clothing. She lay like that for a long moment, waiting for the wolf to make the first move.
Orla stopped her growling. It was not as if it had worked anyway. Sterling lay before her, her eyes turned away and her stomach and throat bared. She sat back on her haunches and pinned the human with a hostile glare. When it sunk in that her growling had stopped, Sterling turned her head to make eye contact. For a moment they just stared at each other. Orla wondered what the infuriating woman had planned now.
She didn't have to wait long, because Sterling slowly rolled onto her stomach again and pushed herself to her knees. With hands placed on her thighs, she sat and looked up at her. Orla gave a soft growl and snapped at Sterling's shoulder. Sterling quickly averted her eyes. Orla was now genuinely curious. She had growled at the woman, almost took a nip at her, mock-charged her, and drenched her in saliva. Sterling had endured all that just to get closer to her. Now that she was here, Orla wanted to see what her next move would be.
Sterling's head lifted and she threw a quick glance at her. Orla's ears lifted as she looked down at Sterling, who appeared rather small from the great height she was looking from. The redhead began to slowly push herself to her feet, keeping her eyes averted. With Sterling standing upright, they were on eye level. Orla noticed how Sterling was shaking as she stood before her.
“I know you are in there,” Sterling spoke unexpectedly. “You were willing to sacrifice our love to protect me from what I do not know. I love you, Orla, and I will do anything for you—even wet myself to make contact with your wolf persona.”
Sterling lifted her head and her silver eyes held a look of determination. “I want you to listen carefully. You will only be out of reach from me when you are dead. Being an Ulv will not get you to forsake our wedding vows. I will chase you to the ends of the earth to fulfil my wedding promise to you. I will love you in sickness and in health and forsake all others till death do us part.”
With a badly shaking hand, Sterling stroked the hair on her Orla's neck. “I will be scared again later, if you want me to be, but for now I just need to be close to you. I need to feel for myself that you are indeed alive.” Sterling took another step closer until she was leaning into Orla. Her arms slowly circled around her neck and Sterling pressed herself tight against her furry body. “You have no idea how wonderful it feels to hold you again.”
Orla wished she was in human form to say something back, anything. With those last words, Sterling had just expressed to her that she was accepting Orla in any form. A soft whimper escaped her lips and Sterling leaned back to look into her eyes. The silver eyes were warm.
“I love you.”
The joy inside her was too much to retrain and throwing back her head, she let out a deep mournful sounding howl. She must've startled Sterling because she clung to her, shaking even more than she did before. By way of apology, she bumped her snout against Sterling's shoulder. She threw her head back again and howled again. This time her ears perked as a sweet slightly off-key voice joined in. She looked down to see that Sterling had thrown her head back too and was howling, or rather doing a human interpretation of a howl.
When she realized that Orla was not howling anymore she looked at her with sparkling eyes and a slight blush on her face. “That was so liberating. We should do it again.”
Orla's tongue shot out and she surprised Sterling with a long wet lick over her face. Sterling gasped and giggled as she tried to protect her face from another attack.
“My…my…what a happy reunion,” a strange voice said suddenly. Orla shot to her feet bumping Sterling over in the process. With the princess sprawled out on the floor, Orla stepped over her, shielding her with her body.
She bared her teeth at the newcomer. He was tall and skinny with light blonde hair caught in a ponytail at his neck. He looked rather unassuming, except for his eyes. They were solid black— evil eyes.
“Why, cousin, you look surprised to see me.”
Orla felt her blood run cold.
To be continued...
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