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Feb 27

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By the Frost of a Northern Night

1140.

SummaryWerewolves are being flushed out of England by the hundreds due to wolf manoth, and many of them have found refuge in Scotland. The local wolves find their resources running low due to the recent flood, so Sidheag of Pack Hadley accepts a contract on the life of Lady Arietta, Marquise of Innes. Sidheag has killed before, but when the two women finally meet face-to-face they begin a chain of events that could change them both forever.

 

She could hear them at night, when the commotion of the castle died down enough for the howling to echo across the hills. Wolves that had been run out of England by the king’s knights found refuge in the Scottish highlands. Wolf manoth did what it could to thin their number but there always seemed to be a thousand more of the blasted things hiding in the marshes. They were demons, plain and simple. Wild beasts with the ability to mimic man, woman, or child. They were evidence enough that evil walked the Earth, and it was invading her homeland.

Lady Arietta, Marquise of Innes, tried to shift her focus the letter on her desk. It was the third in recent weeks, delivered by messengers who came north to warn her of English assassins. Her land was in a prime location and, as she had no clear heir, her death would leave it vulnerable. She never ignored warnings that her life was in danger but she also refused to let it rule her life. She folded the letter where the paper had been creased and set it aside.

In the distance, another wolf bayed. Was it a true wolf, or one of the cursed people who walked on all fours when the moon was high? She went to the window and clutched her robe righter around her throat as she scanned the countryside beyond the curtain wall. She could see and even hear the guards walking the bastions. If any assassin attempted to breach their fortifications it would be known in short order. She was confident that no one, man or beast, would get close enough to cause her harm this night.

Arietta removed her robe and began undressing for bed. Her aides told her that the threats on her life could be eased if she simply had a child. Any number of men would be willing to provide her with the seed necessary to create a line of succession. The problem wasn’t with a lack of suitors. She knew there were people within her court who would gladly “make the sacrifice” to lay with her. The problem was that her sacrifice would be far greater.

The tapestry across from her bed shifted as if caught by the breeze. Arietta paused at the foot of her bed, one hand holding her shift up so that her breasts weren’t exposed. After a moment the woven image shifted again and was lifted out of the way to reveal a torch-lit passage. The woman who stepped through the rough doorway was red-haired and pale-skinned. The green of her eyes was evident even in the darkness of the room. She was eighteen or so, and incredibly lovely.

Arietta smiled and let her clothes fall, leaving her nude in front of the nervous young maid. “Were you ordered here,” Arietta asked in a soothing and melodic voice, “or did you ask to come?”

“I asked, milady.”

“Good. What’s your name?”

“Ishbel.”

Arietta held out her hand. “It’s a very cold night, Ishbel. Will you come keep me warm?”

The girl swallowed nervously before she crossed the room and took the marquise’s hand. Arietta drew her close and looked down into her eyes. She tilted her head to one side and brushed a stray scarlet curl away from the girl’s cheek.

“Have you ever done anything like this before?”

Ishbel shyly averted her gaze, but she nodded. “I have.”

“Then you know what to do.” She kissed Ishbel on either cheek, then rested her hands on the young woman’s shoulders and gently pushed her down to her knees. Ishbel knelt, and Arietta twisted her head so that her hair fell down her back instead of over her breasts. She gripped one of the bedposts to keep her steady and buried the other in the thick red curls of Ishbel’s hair to guide her forward. She gasped when Ishbel began to use her tongue and closed her eyes to fully appreciate what was being done to her.

Ishbel was one of many girls in the castle and surrounding countryside who shared Arietta’s proclivities. She knew all her enemies had to do in order to steal her land was reveal her Sapphic tendencies. She didn’t stand to risk the same punishments as a sodomite, but they would never allow her to stay in power. She gasped as the girl’s tongue curled against her clit and said a silent prayer that she could trust the network of women who kept her secret safe. She gasped as Ishbel shed the nervous teasing and moved her tongue against Arietta’s sex like a wide flat brush. Her eyes opened to focus on the ceiling, her lips curling into an eager smile.

Sometimes it was very good to be the marquise.

 

#

 

Sidheag of Pack Hadley speared the hunk of meat with her knife and brought it close to her face for inspection. It was relatively fresh, superbly bloody, and cleanly killed. The steak had touched fire but only briefly. She could smell the char, the ash, the burnt flesh of meals past that had transferred to her meat before the cook pulled it from the grill. Even if she would have preferred it to be completely fresh, beggars couldn’t be choosers. She tore into the glistening red flesh and tore off a chunk, aware of the blood dripping down her chin as she chewed.

The tavern was mostly empty save for a few men gathered in the corner with a stein by each man’s right hand. The men had moved away from the bar when she came in, so the stools on either side of her were empty. Sidheag straddled the center one, her knees sticking out to either side with her feet hooked under the rung. The men could sense that she was different even if they didn’t know why. She wore slacks that were tied together with thick leather laces that ran up the outside of her legs and a loose-fitting shirt that was open at the collar. Her boots had thick soles to protect her inadequate human feet when she went off the beaten track into the woods.

A late arrival entered the room on a wave of freezing air. Everyone in the room save for Sidheag, who barely paid it any attention as she took another bite. The new arrival wore a thick coat and a fur cap pulled low over his brow. He scanned the room without pausing on Hadley and approached the men gathered around the table.

“Sid-hag?” he muttered under his breath. “Sid-hag?”

She rolled her eyes and took another bite, chewing it as she examined the meat. It was a good cut. Tender. She would have to ask the cook if there were any more left in the herd. She wanted to see if it tasted as good when it was completely fresh.

After being denied by everyone at the table, the new arrival approached the bar. She looked sideways at him. “Chee-ak.”

He gazed at her. “I don’t speak the language.”

“Obviously. The name is pronounced Chee-ak, not Sid-hag.”

Now she had his attention. “Do you know where I can find him?”

She chewed another bite of her meal.

“Oh.” He was British, that much was obvious. She could almost smell his irritation with her gender, but she didn’t care. His coin had paid for her meal, so she was coming out ahead in the matter even if he walked away. Finally he sighed and drummed his fingers on the wooden surface of the bar. “I’m Wilkin. The men I spoke with said that I should come find you for some… red work that needed doing.” He looked at the smears of red on her plate and the splattering on her sleeves where it had dripped. “I suppose they sent me to the right person.”

“Give me a name and a price. I’ll tell you if it’s possible.”

Wilkin looked around as if wary they were being observed. She could have warned him that people went out of their way to ignore her in public, but he would need to confirm it for himself anyway. So she chewed her meat, took a swig of her drink, and looked down at the coin he had put on the bar. She didn’t allow herself to react to the size, but it was much more than she usually asked. It was more than she would usually get for two or three jobs in point of fact.

“The Marquise of Innes.”

He stared at her. “You’ve been approached before?”

“No. But that much money could buy you a title. And there’s only one title worth killing for up here. Lady Arietta.” She slid the remainder of the steak from her blade and tore at it with her fingers. “Do you want her to look murdered or do you want her to look dead?”

“What possible difference is there?”

“Dead, people don’t look for a killer. Murder, everyone knows someone made her stop breathing. You’re being sneaky, so I assume you want dead.”

Wilkin said, “Just make her stop breathing. I don’t bloody care how you do it.”

He reached for the money, but Sidheag grabbed it before he could. “Money is first. That way I can give it to my people in case I don’t come back.”

“If you don’t come back then you will have failed. I don’t pay for failures, Sid-hag.”

Sidheag slipped her arm under his, flattened her hand on the back of his head, and shoved it down onto the bar. Before he could react she buried the point of the knife in the wood directly in front of his face. All he could see was the reflection of his wide eyes on the keen edge of the weapon.

“Chee-ak,” she pronounced slowly. “Say it.”

“Sidheag.”

She bounced his head off the wood again and waited a heartbeat longer than necessary before she let him up. She retrieved her knife and tucked it into her belt, palming the sack of coin as she walked toward the door. She spoke over her shoulder without looking back at him.

“The job will be done, one way or another. Either by me or my people. You’ll get your money’s worth, Mr. Wilkin. You have my word.”

The night was at least ten degrees colder than when she’d entered, but she didn’t shiver or move to cover her exposed skin. On the contrary, she undid the tightened laces and walked along the edge of the building until she reached the darkest corner. She tossed the clothes aside, bit down on the blade of the knife, and used one of her laces to tie the coin around her left wrist.

She rolled her shoulders back and turned her face toward the river of stars above her. Bones cracked and her skin rippled as the muscles underneath pulled and twisted her frame into a new shape. Thick fur as dark as the new moon spread across her face, her chest, running down her legs as she dropped to her hands and knees. Her hips popped to allow her to stand on all-fours, her claws digging into the rich soil. The wolf tore through her frail human shell and stepped out into the night. The thrill of transformation passed through her until she was on the verge of orgasm, but she held back, restrained herself even though it was agony to do so. Her sex throbbed as she lifted her head and scented the air to orient herself.

Her pack was to the north. She used her teeth to secure the coin strapped to her forepaw, picked the knife back up, and started running. When she returned home she would tell her pack about the target, she would find someone to fuck out the excess arousal running through her, and then she would find a way to breach the castle and kill the Marquise.

Payment had been offered and accepted. She had never failed and she had never been forced to return a coin of payment once she took an assignment. This job, she knew, would be no different.

Arietta would be dead within the week.

 

#

 

Her chief guardian, Lennart Falk, warned Arietta against leaving the safety of her keep when warnings and threats were still being delivered at a rate of one per week. She wouldn’t hear of it. If she became an absent and invisible leader who hid in her chambers all day, she might as well slit her own throat for all the good she would be doing. She donned a heavy velvet cloak and drew the hood up over her hair, donned a pair of riding gloves, and reluctantly accepted Falk’s request to surround her with guardsmen. She needed fresh air and exercise but more importantly she needed to see her people. And they needed to see her. Arietta would not hide from the shadows that lurked around every corner. She would not be a cowardly ruler.

Her intention was to meet with as many of her people as possible, and that included those who lived outside the security of the castle gates. She could sense Falk’s reluctance but he remained quiet. He knew when to pick his battles and he knew which fights he would lose. She compromised by riding in a carriage rather than horseback, and she was flanked by armed men on every corner.

Arietta opened the curtains as they left the castle grounds. The sun was out but the temperature was still cold enough that she could see her breath. The wind was just strong enough to blow the powdered snow off the highest branches of the trees so it looked as if it was still snowing. Falk rode up beside the carriage, his broad chest making him look as if he was a barrel strapped to the horse’s back. He was small and short-limbed, but he was quick and dexterous in a way that his opponents rarely anticipated.

She smiled at him as he scanned the road ahead for signs of ambush. “You’re sweet to worry about me, Lennart. You should relax. I’ll be fine.”

“Everyone is fine until the moment they’re not, Marquise.”

Arietta began to reply, but she was interrupted by a call from the lead guardsman. It wasn’t a cry of alarm, so Falk rode closer to confer with him. After a moment Falk shook his head and returned to the side of the carriage.

“The men require a brief stop to answer the call of nature.”

Arietta’s grin widened. “I can hardly deny them that. We can wait here.”

Falk cast a nervous glance toward the woods on either side. “As you wish, my lady.” He signaled the men, and two of them dismounted and trudged off into the trees. The others remained to stand guard until it was their turn. Falk dismounted and drew his sword, pacing closer to the trees for a better look. Arietta reclined against the padded cushion of her seat, hands folded in her lap, and listened to the birdsong overhead. It was peaceful, and the cold had just enough bite to be invigorating. She closed her eyes and felt drowsiness settle over her as she waited for the men to return.

The birds were the first indication something was amiss. Their song stopped so suddenly that the silence was alarming. Falk noticed at the same time Arietta opened her eyes and peered out the window at the trees. Birds were taking flight so quickly that the passage of their leaves shook the branches and sent down torrents of wet snow.

“Stay in the carriage,” Falk warned as he ran to the two remaining guardsmen.

He was still giving them orders when the wolves burst through the underbrush. The first one was airborne as soon as it emerged from cover, fangs flashing for barely a second before they were sunk into the lead horse’s throat. The animal whinnied in fear and terror, rising on its hind legs in an attempt to escape the predator. Its rider was dumped onto the ground and was therefore helpless when two more wolves pounced on him. He was fairly covered by his armor, but there was enough exposed skin for the wolves to do irreparable damage.

The second guardsman let loose two arrows before a wolf bit down on his leg. Falk raised his sword to bring it down on the beast’s head, but another wolf barreled into him from behind. He landed face-down in the snow and the wolf held him there. Arietta screamed as she saw red blood spray across the frozen ground. She knew there was no safe harbor, but remaining in the carriage was no longer an option. She threw open the door and took her chances on fleeing.

An ungodly howl rose up from the woods, shattering the serene atmosphere that she’d so recently been enjoying. Her hood fell back off her head and her cloak billowed around her as she ran. The cloth caught and tore on the branches and rough bark of the trees she passed. Her face burned from the cold and from exertion. She had no idea where she was going or how she planned to elude the wolves. This was their home, their world, and she had no hope of outwitting them here.

Something snagged her dress and she shrieked as it held tight. Her forward momentum caused her to fall hard onto the frozen ground. The wind was knocked from her chest when she hit, and she placed a hand against her sternum in the hopes the bone hadn’t broken. She rolled onto her side as a massive wolf with ink-black fur skidded to a stop a few yards away. Breath steamed from its muzzle and rose like tendrils on either side of its lowered head. The creature’s sides bellowed out and sunk in with every heavy breath. Its yellow eyes locked on Arietta and she knew she would never be able to outrun the monster.

“Please,” she whispered.

The wolf made whimpering, chirping noises as it swayed on its forepaws, sizing her up for attack. Arietta didn’t dare move, worried that even a placating gesture might be seen as a form of aggression. She looked into the wolf’s eyes and saw something she hadn’t expected: intelligence. Suddenly fear was crowded out by curiosity.

“You’re one of them, aren’t you? You’re one of the varulfur.” She rolled onto her back and pushed herself up into a proper sitting position. “I know you can understand me. I know what you are. If you were sent to kill me, then give me the dignity of facing my killer.”

The wolf’s body heaved with every breath. It moved to the left in an attempt to skirt around Arietta, but she never broke eye contact with it. Now that she knew she was dealing with a human brain cloaked by animal instincts, she felt as if she had a chance. The wolf bared its teeth and rocked back on its hind legs. Arietta thought it was going to pounce, but then something remarkable happened.

The wolf reared back on its hind legs like a horse, only it remained upright as its chest expanded outward. Something under the skin snapped and the fur began to recede from mid-chest outward. One leg popped and snapped in a way that had to be painful, but the wolf didn’t seem affected as it planted one now-human foot on the snow.

Arietta took the opportunity to get back onto her feet, backing up against a tree as she watched the animal reshape itself into a human before her eyes. She kept her hands behind her back as she pressed her shoulders against the flaking bark of the tree. The wolf had become a nude woman in a flash, her lack of clothing meaning that every muscle twitch and every bizarre alteration to her frame was easy to see. The wolf had become a beautiful woman; athletic and lean, her olive skin shining with sweat and her full breasts rising and falling with each breath. Her hair was center-parted and fell on either side of her head, shading her face so that Arietta couldn’t read her features.

“It’s nothing personal, my lady,” the beast said. Her voice was like gravel in a waterwheel; rough but without catching on itself. It was the way Arietta imagined a wolf should sound if it was granted speech. “This is all just a job to me.”

“So you will regret it?”

A flash of teeth as the animal smiled and tossed its head to one side. “Well, I wouldn’t necessarily go that far.” She crouched in a way that allowed her to keep her eye on Arietta as she unlashed the knife strapped to her ankle. Arietta supposed it had been tied to the wolf’s hind leg before the transformation. She twisted the handle against her palm as she stepped closer. “A job is a job. I don’t regret my job because they put food on the table.”

Arietta tried to back up further, pieces of bark falling onto her shoulders and catching in the rough material of her dress. The wolf crowded against her and pressed the cool blade against Arietta’s throat.

“Any last words for your people, Marquise?”

“Tell them I fought for them.”

She tightened her grip on the stone she had picked up when she rose off the ground. She brought her arm up and smacked it against the wolf’s temple hard enough to knock the beast back. As soon as the knife was away from her throat, Arietta stepped down hard on the wolf’s bare foot. Blood matted the wolf’s hair where the rock had hit it. Arietta grabbed a handful of the thick hair and used her body as a fulcrum to swing the wolf around. It slammed into the tree hard enough to send snow cascading down on them both. When Arietta let go of the bloody hair, her own hand smeared with vivid red stains, the wolf collapsed motionless to the tangled roots.

“Better yet, I’ll tell them myself.” Arietta picked up the fallen knife and dropped down on one knee. She grabbed the wolf’s hair again to lift her head, readying the blade to slit the blasted creature’s throat. Her blood boiled and her veins throbbed, she could feel the tremor in her hands and the drum of her heart against her ribs. The knife shook where it rested against the wolf’s skin, and she ached to spill its warm blood onto the ground. She wanted to see it steam.

That last thought was enough to horrify her into dropping the weapon. Arietta rose and stared down at her fallen opponent. There was a chance the blow to the head had already done her in. She would not kill a defenseless animal or an unconscious person, and she had just come very close to doing both. She looked at the blood smeared on her hand with disgust, wiping it on her cloak as she backed away from what was nearly the scene of her greatest sin. She didn’t take her eyes off the wolf until she was well out of sight, and only then did she turn and break into a run.

Enough snow remained on the ground for her to follow their footprints back to the road. There she found a bloody and chewed-upon Falk resting against the side of the carriage, wrapping his wounds with careful movements. His eyes widened when he saw her approaching. She looked at the carnage all around: dead guardsmen and dead wolves, one dead horse, and blood everywhere.

“My lady,” Falk said. “I thought you were lost for certain.”

She knelt beside him and finished tying off his bandages. “The wolves?”

“I managed to get both of them pretty good. They’re off licking their wounds. What about the one that went after you?”

“I hit it with a rock. Can you stand?”

“I can do better than that. I can ride.” He grunted and groaned as he got to his feet. “Get in the carriage. We’re returning to the castle at once. Do me a kindness and don’t argue this time.”

For the first time that she could remember, she didn’t want to argue.

 

#

 

The throbbing in her head was agony. She stumbled twice on her trek back to the road, and the world seemed unable to keep itself steady from one step to the next. She balanced against trees when she could and stopped to rest more than she cared to admit. The pain was exquisite, sharp, and a constant reminder to never let her guard down. The cold kept her alert, so she remained human-form and nude as she returned to where she had last seen the members of her pack.

The road was an abattoir. The marquise had left her dead men and their horses behind, and Sidheag knelt beside one of her fallen pack members to bury her face in his fur. His skin was still warm, though his blood was mostly frozen to his coat and to the ground. After mourning her fallen brothers, she stood and smelled the air. The other members of her pack were nearby and alive, but wounded. Tracking them was simplicity; she’d known their scents all her life. She found them almost a kilometer away by a frozen pond in human form, tending to their wounds. They were wearing the clothes of the guardsmen they had killed.

“The marquise?” Glenna asked.

Sidheag gingerly shook her head. She reached up to touch the wound on her temple. “She ambushed me. Knocked me out with a rock. What happened to you?”

Cade sneered. “The rotund guard, the senior member. We thought he was dead. But when we turned our attention to his comrades, he attacked us. He killed Marden and Odile.”

“He will be made to pay for that,” Sidheag assured him. She put down her hand as Glenna approached and examined her wound. “The marquise will pay as well. The deaths of our kin won’t go unpunished.”

 

#

 

Word of the attack spread throughout the castle as soon as they returned. Much was made over how the wolves knew exactly when the caravan would be vulnerable to an orchestrated attack. None of the guardsmen had survived other than Falk, and he was respected enough that no one suggested he might have been feeding the wolves information. The rest of the guard quickly prepared to ride out and find the pack to take revenge for the men they had lost. Ten remained at the castle to ensure Arietta would not be left unprotected. Despite her assurances that he didn’t have to go, Falk insisted on leading one phalanx.

“I know what these dogs look like, my lady. More importantly, I remember the face of the one that attacked me. I won’t give any of my men the satisfaction of killing that one.”

She touched his sleeve. “I hope you will give me the same honor. The wolf that attacked me had thick black fur, yellow eyes, and a wound on her right temple. She may also be carrying a knife strapped to one of her legs. Bring her back to the castle alive if it is at all possible.”

“You’ll have her in chains by dusk, my lady. I swear it.”

Arietta stepped back and watched the men spur their horses onward. The group sounded like thunder as they departed through the southern gates, the metal of their armor chiming like bells that echoed off the stone walls. As soon as the last man was through, the gates were closed and secured. No one had ever breached the castle walls and she doubted a pack of wolves had any hope of being the first. Still, she found herself almost hoping the wild creature she’d encountered in the forest would make an attempt.

 

#

 

The first men returned well after dusk, riding slowly and nursing their wounds. Arietta left her chambers as soon as she heard the gates being opened, so she was present when the highest ranking guardsman gave his report to the captain of the guard. “…stole the gear from our men that were killed in the earlier attack and left it outside a cave.” He looked up as Arietta approached, but she nodded for him to continue. “We knew it was a trap, but we went in anyway. Falk told us to show caution, and we did. They were waiting for us inside, sir. Half of them wolf, half of them human. They led us to a bottleneck where they could pick us off one at a time.”

Arietta grimaced. “How many were lost?”

“Three men down, my lady.”

“This time, everyone goes,” Arietta said. “We will not rest until these wolves–”

“Marquise, you don’t understand. Three down, but we were victorious today. Falk and the rest of the guard are bringing the surviving wolves in as we speak.”

Arietta smiled. “Wonderful news. The black wolf, with the head wound?”

“Aye, she was there. Falk took her down personally. Last I saw he had her in chains.”

She reached up and clutched the man’s forearm. “Splendid news. See to your wounds and those of your men. You’ve earned plenty of recovery time, and I shall see that you receive as much as you need. To the infirmary. Now.”

“Yes, my lady.”

She turned to the captain of the guard. “When Falk returns with the wolves, put them in the catacombs. I want the one with black fur in the tower holding cell.”

“It shall be done.”

Arietta waited in the courtyard until another call went out and the gates were opened wide to admit the rest of her guard. Falk led the way with a chain wrapped around his left wrist. Six wolves in human form were walking behind him with the chain wrapped around their torsos. Their wrists were bound and their heads were covered with hoods. Arietta couldn’t resist smiling as she approached him.

“You are late, Mister Falk. You promised me dusk.”

“A thousand apologies, my lady.”

She patted his leg as she passed him and went to the first wolf. She tore the hood from its head and saw a blonde woman with a dirty gag wrapped around the lower half of her face. One eye was swollen shut with a dark gray moue, and she glared hatefully at Arietta as she walked past her to the second woman. She took off that hood and saw her friend from the woods.

“Hello there,” Arietta cooed. “Nice to see you again.”

The wolf had dark and expressionless eyes that somehow still managed to convey pure hatred. Arietta turned to the guard and motioned for the dark wolf to be unchained. “Take the others to the catacombs, but lock this one in the tower. Make sure she’s restrained so she can’t transform.”

The guard who had begun releasing her paused. “How are we to make certain of that, my lady?”

“Figure it out. Don’t worry about her comfort.”

“As you wish.”

Arietta and the wolf stared at each other for a long moment. Arietta maintained her smile even after she realized there was no fear, no anger, no surrender in the wolf’s eyes. If anything she would say that it looked… content. She refused to let the wolf see her waver, so she turned her back and walked back toward the castle.

“Let me know when the wolf has been secured. I’d like to have a little chat with her.”

 

#

 

Arietta called for her favorite maid Duana to draw her a warm bath. It would take some time, but she didn’t mind. The wolf could wait in its chains, growing weary and exhausted after a lost battle, while Arietta arrived for their meeting refreshed and wearing a laundered gown. She undressed and wrapped herself in a thin sheet for the walk to her bathing room, where Duana was sitting on the edge of the sunken tub to test the waters. The girl stood and offered Arietta her hand to guide her into the water.

“Is the temperature to your liking?” Duana asked.

“It’s ideal,” Arietta said as she kissed the girl’s knuckles. She removed her wrapping and handed it to Duana, then knelt down so that the water would rise to mid-abdomen. Duana folded the sheet and put it aside before she undressed and joined the Marquise in the water. She put one arm around Arietta’s waist and used the other to draw a handful of water up to Arietta’s shoulder. She tipped her hand so the water poured down over the swell of Arietta’s breast. The nipple tightened and became erect, and Duana brushed it with the back of her hand as she kissed the side of Arietta’s neck.

“You have won a great victory, my lady.” Her hand moved under the water to stroke the hair between Arietta’s legs. “It is my honor to give you pleasure as a reward.”

Arietta smiled and reached back to touch Duana’s sex. “The victory belongs to Falk and his men. But I will gladly take your reward.” She turned in Duana’s arms and kissed her, walking her back toward the edge of the bath. The water lapped against her hips as she lifted Duana up onto the edge. Water dripped over the curves of her lower body and Arietta bent down to lick up the tiny droplets with the flat of her tongue. She ran her lips over the swell of Duana’s stomach before easing her thighs apart and kissing the skin there. Duana put her hands in the water and then threaded her dripping fingers through Arietta’s hair.

“Please, my lady,” she whispered.

Arietta used her finger and thumb to part the dark hair that covered Duana’s sex. She loved exploring a woman’s intimate folds with her lips and tongue, and she used her thumb to tease the clitoris from its hood. Duana curled her fingers in Arietta’s hair and released a quiet whimper of longing. Arietta smiled and took pity on the girl. She used her middle two fingers to tease inside while her tongue explored the sensitive outer lips, drawing them into her mouth to work them with her tongue. Soon she had the younger woman trembling with desire, lifting her hips off the cold tile as she pushed Arietta’s head down against her center.

The door to the bathing room opened and Falk entered. “Lady Arietta, the… wolf…”

Duana looked over her shoulder at him. “My lady… requires a moment.”

“I can see,” Falk said. “She is ready for interrogation at your leisure.” Falk bowed, watched for half a second longer than necessary, and left the room.

Arietta lifted her head and smiled up at Duana. “Are you embarrassed at being seen?”

“No, my lady.” She brushed her hand down Arietta’s cheek. “I only…”

“Only what.” She brushed her face against Duana’s thick, fragrant hair.

“I wish it had been Zuzana.”

“Tonight when I call for you, before I retire, bring Zuzana with you. We can ask if she would like to watch… or play along.”

Duana’s face flushed red. “I could never.”

“Then I’ll ask her for you.” She kissed Duana’s clit and was rewarded with a full-body twitch. Arietta took pity on her and pushed her over the edge of climax. Duana leaned forward over Arietta’s body, hugging her head. Arietta kissed and licked Duana’s stomach before making her way up to the dark nipples. She circled them with her tongue and moaned as Duana squirmed.

Afterward she kissed Duana’s thighs and pushed away from the curved wall of the tub. She treaded water as Duana closed her legs and rested her hands on them.

“Will you allow me the honor of giving you pleasure as well, my lady?”

“In time,” Arietta promised. “For now I need to prepare for my encounter with the beast.”

“Be safe, my lady.”

Arietta nodded and dismissed the girl, watching the water drip from her smooth skin as she stooped to pick up her clothing on her way out the door.

Her toes touched the bottom of the tub, so she placed her feet on the slick tile and leaned back to flatten herself against the water’s surface. She tingled with arousal and desire. It had taken every reserve of self-control to send Duana away, but she wanted that edge when she spoke to the prisoner. She knew that a heightened libido would make her hold herself differently and would make her voice deeper. If she was going into a battle of wills with a feral predator, she needed a weapon of her own. She knew that her lust could give her the edge she needed.

She finished her bath after another twenty minutes. She toweled off and applied powder to her skin before she used the towel to dry her hair. Duana returned and helped her dress while Keitha braided her hair. Normally she didn’t bother with jewelry, but today she wanted her rings. She wanted the beast to see her as a ruler.

Once she was dressed she met with Falk and his men to hear their version of events. She wanted to be fully informed, and getting a detailed account meant the beast would have to wait even longer before she saw it. But finally she ran out of delayed tactics and allowed Falk to escort her to the tower room where the wolf had been secured. He gripped the hilt of his sword when she stopped outside the heavy wooden door.

“I should be in there with you.”

“I want to her to see I’m not afraid. But thank you, Lennart.”

He nodded and stepped to one side. Arietta unlocked the door and stepped inside. The air was fetid with sweat and the copper stench of blood. The cell had never been used while Arietta was in power. It was reserved for particularly troublesome prisoners, those with associates who might be able to arrange an escape from the underground prison. It was a hexagonal space with three diamond-shaped windows too narrow for anyone to fit through.

The wolf was kneeling in the middle of the space. A rope was wrapped around its neck, down to its wrists and ankles with a loop of it crossing her torso in an X. Over the ropes, she had been bound by two chains that were secured to opposite walls. Arietta examined the bonds and realized that if any of her limbs changed length, they would pull the rope around her neck to cut off her oxygen. She would have to remember to praise Falk on his ingenuity.

“Hello, wolf. Does your kind have names, or do you simply recognize one another by smell?”

The wolf’s head was hanging, her face obscured by limp hair. “I am Sidheag of Pack Hadley. And I will be the one tearing you apart once I am free.”

Arietta couldn’t resist smiling. “Do you really believe you’ll ever be free? I’ll keep you here until the next full moon, and then I’ll have you and the rest of your pack executed in the courtyard. However many of your kind remain in the woods will be certain to receive that message. The people of Innes will never again have to worry about your ilk.”

Sidheag lifted her head and smiled. “But you will. I’m just the one who took the money this time. There will be another, and another. After I’m gone there will be more. So many more. Dozens of armed men and women descending on this castle. Eventually one of them will succeed. You will die. You think I failed? Maybe I did. But I’m just the most recent to try.”

Arietta offered her a snide grin. “My guardsmen stopped a pack of ferocious varulfur. Whoever hired you may have difficulty finding anyone else willing to take on the job.”

Sidheag laughed bitterly. “Half your men lie dead in our woods. Your best man limped back to the safety of the castle. In one moon’s time, he’ll die painfully.”

Arietta lost her grip on the haughty exterior she was trying to portray. “Falk? His injuries will heal.”

“He was bitten by a wolf,” Sidheag said. “The infection is in him. He’ll fight it, but soon he’ll have no choice. The wolf will burst free, and he will not survive the transformation. And once he is gone, you will be left with only a handful of guards. I only wish I could be alive to see your death.” She thought for a moment. “The full moon is over a fortnight away, isn’t it? Hm. Maybe I will outlive you yet, Marquise.”

Arietta began to circle the wolf, careful to avoid the chains. “Anyone who comes into this castle to kill me will surely kill you as well. You’re a monster. A filthy animal who wears the skin of a person. You’re profane.”

“We were on this island long before your people found it. Perhaps you are the aberration, the broken things that are forced to keep a single shape their entire lives. I pity you.”

“The feeling isn’t mutual. Living in caves or mud huts? Running naked in the frozen forest? Killing hunters and their children just to feed your mongrel pups?”

Sidheag came alive at that, rattling her chains and nearly choking herself in an attempt to look over her shoulder at Arietta. “We never eat children! And we only kill those who attack us first.”

“My men did not attack you.”

“That was a job. A service performed in exchange for a fee. The money I received to kill you and your men would have fed my pack very well. We take what we need to survive just like anyone else. We take livestock, not children. And never more than we need. If we are attacked then we will fight back, but we do not hunt for sport.”

Arietta stepped in front of the wolf again. “This will be the last room you ever call home. You will see the rest of your pack members killed in front of you before I let you die.”

Sidheag sniffed the air and smiled. “Mm. What color was her hair?”

“What?”

“The girl you fucked before coming in here. I can smell her on you. I can smell her quaint on your lips. You made her spill, didn’t you, Marquise? I bet you had the sweet little thing screaming.”

Arietta’s hand shot out and closed around the wolf’s throat. Sidheag bared her teeth and widened her eyes, breathing heavily even as Arietta squeezed.

“As you said,” Arietta growled. “The full moon and your last night fouling this planet with your presence is more than a fortnight away. You will be granted food only at my discretion, so I would advise you to remain in my good graces.” She released the dog’s throat and stepped away before it could snap at her fingers. “You will be brought bread and water tomorrow morning.”

Sidheag made a sound in her throat that was almost a bark. “Save it for your whore. I need red meat. Bloody.”

“Then your last meal is certain to disappoint. Good night, beast. Try not to throttle yourself in your sleep.” She turned and stepped out of the cell, slamming the door behind her. Falk must have overheard the majority of what was said in the room but, to his credit, he said nothing as he led her back down the stairs.

“The creature was lying,” Arietta said when she reached the landing. “She was only intending to frighten me, nothing more.”

Falk looked at his bandaged arm. “Sure. But you do hear stories of men who were bitten by those things. Terrible stories.” She put her hand on his shoulder and he smiled. “I shall arrange for guards to stand watch over her. No fewer than three men will be posted outside her cell at any given time.”

“I thank you, Mister Falk. Pleasant dreams.”

“And to you, my lady.”

They parted ways, and Arietta found herself hoping what she’d said was true. The wolf was definitely lying, spinning a tale intended to frighten her captors into letting her go. She wouldn’t be fooled. But still, she whispered a silent prayer to any gods that might be listening that her friend would be spared a horrible death.

 

#

 

The first night was the easiest. Sidheag knew it would get progressively worse, so she used that night to ready herself for the pain to come. She focused her breathing and found her center. The wolf tended to get upset if she penned it in for too long, not that she’d ever really tested what would happen if she refused a transformation. But she knew how to center herself, how to draw into herself so the wolf would know it was a matter of self-preservation. She clenched her fists so that the nails dug into her palms and focused on the pain.

If I transform, you will die. The pain and stress you feel from being imprisoned is necessary to save your life and mine.

She didn’t sleep, afraid that if she did the wolf would try to break free or that she would slump forward and choke herself to death. She could feel her kin down in the other section of the castle and wished she could howl out to them. If she could get to the window she might have tried it even though she knew the Marquise would likely have her punished. The rest of her pack had gotten away. They’d lost the battle, and she would be mourned along with the five being held underground, but the war was still raging. Pack Hadley would not allow themselves to be defeated so easily.

Sidheag closed her eyes and maintained her breathing. There would be no honor in dying accidentally in her cell. If she was to be executed, she would walk up to the chopping block with her head held high. She would let her enemy see the defiance in her poise and her grace as the blade came down. She would win in her final moments even if she had to lose overall.

I’m sorry, she said to the wolf. But your brothers and sisters will avenge our deaths, just as we would avenge theirs.

Even if the wolf understood the need to remain quiet, even if it chose to remain suppressed, there would come a time when the need to change would be overwhelming. She just prayed she was strong enough to fight that urge when it arrived.

 

#

 

Each morning Falk sent his men out in search of the remaining wolves from Pack Hadley, and each evening they returned with nothing. Arietta was disappointed but not surprised. The wolves had a way of remaining unseen. It was how they had managed to thrive for so long. She knew it was only a matter of time before she had them all in custody. She hoped they had rounded up more by the next full moon but, if they didn’t, she would be satisfied with five executions.

More worrisome was Falk. He had fallen ill the day after returning with his prisoners, and the apothecary couldn’t find anything that helped his pain. Arietta visited him on the fourth day and tried not to react when she saw how pale and drawn he was. His skin was gray and covered with a thin film of sweat, his eyes were sunken pits, and he could barely summon the strength to lift his hand when she sat beside his bed.

“This is just unfortunate coincidence,” he said.

“Of course.”

He tried to smile, but it immediately turned into a grimace. “Feels like my insides are twisting…”

Arietta’s strong front collapsed. She tightened her grip on his hand. “I swear, I will make the beast pay for what she’s done.”

“Full moon.”

“No. If your condition worsens, I will execute her as soon as possible so you can see her die. The wolf will not outlive you, Lennart, you have my word.”

He chuckled, coughed, and patted her hand. “Your father would have been proud of how you turned out, my lady.”

“And yours would have been ashamed of himself for doubting your abilities,” Arietta said. “You have shamed his performance in every way, and he would not dare show his face within these walls unless you gave him leave to appear.”

He closed his eyes. “Thank you.”

She rose and pressed a kiss to his clammy cheek, smoothed down the curls of his hair, and turned before he could see her crying. On her way back to her chambers she made the decision that she would indeed move up Sidheag’s execution. She wanted Falk to see her head roll and she feared he was not long for the world. Waiting until the full moon seemed nigh impossible, and even waiting for dusk was a stretch. She braced herself against the tears threatening to fall at the thought of losing her friend and pushed through the door of her chambers.

Before she could even enter the room, an alarm went up from outside. She could hear it echoing off the stone walls as she turned to see a guard rushing toward her.

“Wolves?” she guessed.

“No, my lady. Men on horseback approaching from the east. I’ve been ordered to take you to the keep until they’ve been turned back.”

Arietta thought about the men guarding the prisoners, and those who had been lost in the past few days. “Do you have enough men to guard me, the prisoners, and protect the castle?”

He hesitated.

“Go! I’ll fend for myself. Protect the castle so I won’t require your guard.”

He nodded and ran off to man his station. Arietta ran to the closest wall with eastern exposure and peered out. She saw a handful of men atop the wall, archers and spotters for the men on the catapult in the courtyard, but there were nowhere near enough to provide full protection. If there were more attackers flanking from the west, they would meet with little to no resistance. She had little hope that her remaining guardsmen would hold the barricades against a larger force, and without Falk at their head, they would be without direction.

Her men would die. The castle would be taken. The responsible thing to do would be surrendering immediately. She would offer her own life to save the lives of those sworn to protect her. If her death was a foregone conclusion anyway, what possible good could come from sacrificing her men? She was fully prepared for the inevitability so it came as a shock when her mind presented another option. She stopped dead in her tracks and considered the downsides, but if she was looking at death no matter what happened then she had literally nothing to lose.

She ran up the stairs to the tower cell. The guardsmen at the door were obviously anxious to join their brothers on the wall and she dismissed them. She slowed down only to take the keys from one of them. He looked at her with unease, aware of what she planned to do, but she didn’t intend to explain her reasoning even if she’d had the time. He ran to join the other guards while Arietta unlatched the door and stepped into the wolf’s cell.

It had been four days since the wolf had been chained here and the room reeked of things she didn’t dare identify. She brought up one hand to drape the sleeve over her nose and mouth as the wolf lifted its head to glare at her. The woman’s skin was ashen and slick with sweat, much as Falk’s had been. Her eyes were a sickly yellow-black. Her entire body was trembling from some inner turmoil, and her hands clenched into fists when she saw who her visitor was. Arietta drew a knife and wrapped her fingers around the hilt.

When the wolf spoke, it sounded as if each word was being etched on a stone. “Sounds… like you have… guests…”

“Looks like you’re not long for this world,” Arietta said.

Sidheag grinned. “That makes two of us. Looks like neither of us will see the full moon.”

Arietta said, “That doesn’t have to be true. I bet you’re aching to let the wolf out. I can see it in your face.” The sentiment was almost literally accurate; the skin was darker and tighter around her cheeks, as if it had been stretched over the wrong skull. “You want to set it free. What if I let it out?”

Sidheag sneered. “You aren’t… suicidal.”

“I’d let you go for one reason and one reason alone: to protect this castle.”

Sidheag threw back her head and laughed. The rope pulled taut against her throat.

“I’m serious.”

“If you release me, I will tear your head from your shoulders.”

Arietta said, “And your job will be complete. But tell me something… the man who hired you to assassinate me. Did he strike you as the sort of man who should be in power? And if he takes my place in this castle, or if someone of his choosing were to rule, what do you think he would do to the rest of your pack? They’re out there, as you’ve said time and time again. How many? Six? A dozen? More? Once you have served his purpose, do you really believe he’ll allow you to roam free on his land?”

The humor left Sidheag’s face. “What… do you pro… pose…?”

“A truce between our two peoples, to be formalized with a treaty should we survive this day. You and your wolves will replace the men you killed in guarding this castle. In exchange you will be given food. You won’t have to endanger yourselves stealing, or risk killing men in self-defense. We will coexist, or at the very least try our damnedest to understand one another.”

Sidheag stared at Arietta and tried to read her face. Arietta knew what she would see: desperation, hope, and maybe a bit of madness.

“Why?”

“Because we both want the same thing. We want to protect our people, no matter the cost. If that means I have to make a deal with a wolf, then I am willing to make that sacrifice. If you agree I will release your fellows in the catacombs and you will lead them in the defense of this castle. You will stand alongside our remaining guardsman until the last man falls. Your answer, please. Time grows short.”

Sidheag considered a moment longer. Outside Arietta could hear the sounds of combat. Their attackers had reached the front gates, and she tightened her grip on the knife in anticipation.

“Let me loose.”

“Do I have your word?”

“Let. Me. Loose.”

Arietta took a chance. She stepped forward and unlocked the chains from the wall. She didn’t have the time to waste undoing all the knots Falk had tied, so she sliced them free. Sidheag growled either with relief or in anticipation of the pain she would endure by transforming. She pushed herself up and grunted as her legs threatened to give out beneath her. She was a filthy creature, completely soiled and weak from lack of sleep and being forced to sit in such an unnatural position for so long. She turned to face Arietta, who realized at that moment that the wolf was between her and the room’s only exit.

“I gave you my trust,” Arietta reminded her.

“Yes. You did.” Sidheag moved quickly, slapping aside the knife and crowding up against Arietta before she could use it as a weapon. Her mouth crashed against Arietta’s in something that was more bite than kiss, and Arietta yelped in surprise. She felt the wolf’s tongue become flatter and wider in her mouth and pushed the creature away. Sidheag tore off her clothes before she dropped onto her hands, her legs already reforming themselves so her haunches were tight against her sides. Arietta still could barely believe the transformation even when it was finished.

The wolf looked up at her with eyes that were vivid and alive. It seemed as if all the pain and exhaustion from a moment ago had been entirely forgotten.

“We’ll release the rest of your people from the catacombs. They have to see us together so they’ll know of our accord.”

Sidheag chuffed and moved quickly to the door. Arietta followed her and the two ran down the stone steps together. As they crossed the vast entrance hall to the catacombs entrance, a guardsman on his way outside spotted the wolf and stopped in his tracks.

“My lady! Protect yourself!”

Sidheag dropped into a defensive crouch and bared her fangs, but Arietta stepped forward. “Save your anger for the men outside! Tell the guards that the wolves will be fighting for us this day.”

He stared at her in disbelief. “My lady?”

“You have your orders! Go!”

He continued on his way outside and Arietta motioned for the wolf to start running again. She didn’t lie to herself about what she was getting herself into. What she had set in motion was a disaster that had a miniscule chance of working out for everyone involved. The only thing she knew for certain was that leaving the wolves in their cells meant certain doom for everyone in the castle. Given the choice between certain death and a tiny glimmer of hope, she would take the glimmer every time.

 

#

 

The howl of wolves caused men on both sides of the conflict to stop in their tracks, eyes wide with fear. In that moment they were joined in terror until word began to spread among the guardsmen: the wolves were on their side. The attackers wore uniforms without insignia, hiding their fealty like the cowards they were. The men on the rear flank turned and watched as a pack of wolves emerged from the woods in response to the call. Another howl went up from within the castle walls. It had a higher pitch, and some men had the distinct impression that it was conveying orders. Their skin had been overheated from adrenaline and riding from the coast in heavy armor, but now they turned cold.

The wolves paused on the edge of the trees, some of them swaying while others lowered their heads and heaved thick plumes of white fog from their nostrils. Another chorus of howls went up and the invaders were forced to make a decision.

In the end, it was hardly a choice. They couldn’t turn their back on a group of ravenous wolves. The sergeant called for his men to about-face as the wolves raced forward. The horses reared back in terror as the predators descended upon them like a black, brown, and gray wave of teeth and claws. The gray afternoon light caught on their swords as the men awkwardly swung at beasts that hugged the crowd. Horses went down and wolves pounced on the fallen riders. Devilishly sharp teeth and curved claws slipped under the armor and tore at tender flesh.

In time, the few remaining soldiers called a retreat. No one knew who broke away first, or if the man who called for them to surrender was of rank; all they knew was that their options were either to run or die. Those fortunate enough to still be mounted or capable of running did so. Some of them were swept up onto the back of a fellow soldier’s horse while others were left to flee on foot. A few wolves pursued, but the rest remained in front of the castle gates to finish off the wounded.

Arietta watched from the highest level of the castle, scarcely believing her eyes as the invaders fled. She had men who were dead or injured, but far fewer than she’d feared when the attack first began. The wolves had done their job and ended the attack in a matter of minutes. The siege was complete.

She heard claws tapping on stone and turned to see Sidheag transforming a few feet away. She was sweaty and breathing hard, and she pushed her hair out of her face once she was standing on two legs. She eyed Arietta warily and lowered her hands, showing the palms as if to indicate she wasn’t armed or that she wouldn’t attack. Arietta took the knife from her belt and laid it on the windowsill.

“We held up our side of the bargain, Marquise.”

“So you did. I cannot promise you full freedom, you understand. You killed many of our men in an attempt on my life. I am willing to forget that, but others may not be so easy to forgive.”

Sidheag said, “Right.”

“It seems we have much to discuss. Lead the way, Sidheag.”

The wolf paused. “You said it right.”

Arietta only nodded, and Sidheag found herself respecting the other woman a fraction more.

“Perhaps before we talk, you can find me something to wear.”

Arietta looked at the wolf’s backside as she fell into step behind her. “Don’t go out of your way on my part…”

Sidheag grinned and added a swing to her hips as she led Arietta back down the stairs.

 

#

 

Falk died two days after the Innes Treaty was signed. His pain became so great that he asked to be put out of his misery. Arietta was able to say goodbye to her old friend, and he told her to keep herself safe and remain strong. After the deed was done, he was burned on a pyre with the surviving members of the guardsmen standing watch. Many of them had misgivings about Arietta’s arrangement with the wolves, and some bluntly told her that they would not remain in service to her if the wolves remained. Arietta heard their complaints and wished them well on their future journeys.

The wolves were not released without punishment. As per the treaty, they would not harm any citizen of Innes. In return, the people of Innes would not harm a wolf. Several members of Pack Hadley were enlisted to serve as guardsmen. No one was overjoyed at the arrangement; it was all too clear that the wolves were filling positions of men they had killed only a few days earlier. The pack, on the other hand, found it unsettling to be in charge of defending the very people they had so recently been hell-bent on destroying.

But in the end they all knew they would make it work. The guards knew the wolves were excellent defense against anyone who attacked the castle. The wolves were more than willing to work for their food, and they had proven they were willing to protect the castle walls. It was quickly decided that as long as the wolves followed orders and took the oath to heart, there was no reason to deny them a place on the wall.

Sidheag suffered the most binding punishment. She was the one who accepted the money to kill Arietta, and she was the one who signed the treaty between their two camps, so she served as liaison between the camps. She was also technically in Arietta’s custody for a period of time no less than ten years for her part in the death of Lennart Falk. Her sentence was to take Falk’s place as Arietta’s personal guardian.

Arietta was in her chambers when Sidheag hesitated on the threshold and rapped her knuckle against the open door. She was still uncomfortable in the finery of her uniform. It was a fitted gray serge with red cuffs and collar, but it was nothing compared to living in the castle. She was expected to bathe every week, and her hair had been tamed into a braid that fell over her right shoulder. Arietta looked back and saw her standing at the doorway and smiled before motioning for her to enter.

“Have your men had any reports, Missus Hadley?”

“Yes, Lady Arietta. Wilkin Chandler has been found and summarily… dealt with for the crime of arranging your murder.”

Arietta smiled. “Thank you, Sidheag.” When the woman lingered, she looked back at her again. “Was there something else?”

“No, my lady. Although…” She glanced toward the bed. “I was wondering if you required anyone to be sent to your room tonight. It is supposed to be quite cold once the sun sets.”

“That won’t be necessary, Sidheag.”

Sidheag nodded and turned to leave.

“However… if you were to come by to make sure I’m not too chilly… I would be greatly obliged.”

“As you wish, my lady.”

Sidheag tapped her heels together, bowed at the waist, and left the room. She did occasionally enjoy being proper, especially when it came to arranging her trysts with the Marquise. She had never expected that development. When she kissed Arietta before the battle it had been pure instinct. The wolf had taken over and its base instinct was to reward the woman who had granted it freedom. She didn’t know if she would have been so bold, but at the time she’d been on the verge of a mental breakdown. The wolf had been closer to the surface than ever before, and it had been easy for a primal urge to take over. Now that things had settled down, and now that so many lives depended on a good relationship between them, she wanted to be a bit more cautious in her advances.

Still. She knew the Marquise’s proclivities and she knew it was only a matter of time before she was officially invited into the lady’s bed. It might even happen that evening. She was positive that she would be able to tell when the Marquise was ready for her; she could smell the other woman’s arousal. The door would open soon enough. She just had to be sure she was ready to walk through it when it did.

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