Woods of Murk, Scotland
CENTURIES AGO . . .
In a dark forest, in a dour land, stood an enchanted cottage. Within it, Uilleam MacRieve was about to bicker with his mate, Lady Ruelle.
As the blizzard outside gathered its strength, Will sat on the edge of her bed, wearily preparing for battle.
"Just once more, my love," Ruelle sighed, letting the silk cover dip to reveal her bare breasts.
In the past he'd have stared agog at that generous flesh; now he scowled at her antics. "You know I canna stay." Always with these antics. Could she not tell how deep she'd already drawn from him this eve?
" 'Tis hours till dawn." She rose up on her knees to purr at his ear, "I needn't keep you long." Her words were accented with the flavor of distant realms.
In these northern lands of the Lykae, Ruelle was a rarity, a foreign female who dressed in lace and silks and had no skill with a sword. She lived alone here in the Woods of Murk-a place of fairy rings and curses, of portals to different planes and creatures of old that even Lykae feared.
Only a dare from other boys had coaxed Will's feet into that eerie forest the first time.
"Once more?" He rose to wash, doubting that he had another bout in him. Nay, not a bout-that would imply two contenders. "And after that, you'll demand yet another." Even if he was physically capable, he needed to get back to Conall Keep before his family realized he was gone. "Already I've yielded to your wishes."
At her basin, he gazed into her oversize mirror-his Ruelle could be a tad bit vain-and spied her behind him. In the firelight, her hair appeared burnished, her cheeks and lips rouged to match, the colors stark against her milk-white skin and gray eyes.
She pouted prettily. Everything she did was pretty, even lovemaking-unlike the trollops his older cousins routinely tupped in the hayloft.
Afterward, those wenches would be heavy-lidded with satisfaction, even as they looked like they'd just gone to war in the hay: faces and chests flushed from exertion, hair and clothing disheveled.
Ruelle never looked like that. With a pang, he admitted to himself that she had never been completely . . . fulfilled when he'd left her.
She often cajoled him to mate her again and again until he was exhausted. "Look at you-who can blame me?" she'd ask, explaining that his kind was like catnip to her, that his face alone made her sigh. One time he'd jested that she was trying to kill him, and she'd grown cross.
Sometimes being with her was like a swim in chill water-enlivening, until the deep threatened to pull you under. On occasion, he struggled to breathe when she had him beneath her, his lungs seeming to shrivel up.
Which was a shameful weakness. Ruelle was beautiful and sensual-any lad would count his blessings to be in her bed. And she was his mate. They were both sure of it.
"You could eat again." She waved to indicate the banquet she'd prepared for him, sweets and delicacies that were rarely allowed at his home. He shook his head, had already eaten his fill.
In the beginning, she'd gotten him to glut himself. With a laugh, she'd pinched his slim fingers and declared him underweight.
Now he said, "Ruelle, nay. I'm leaving."
" 'Tis your own fault for being so tantalizing." She ogled him as he washed thoroughly. Early on, she'd warned him that his family could smell her on him.
"You're the one insisting that we keep this secret. If I could tell my da-"
"No! That's not possible." She paled beneath those tinted cheeks. "They will never accept what's between us."
"Then I must be there for chores." He had work to do at sunrise, and his twin brother, Munro, was already suspicious of Will's sneaking away late every other night.
"You come from one of the richest families in the land-the Sentinels, for gods' sakes-and still your father makes you work like a serf?"
"Da believes it builds character," Will said, pulling his tunic over his head. The garment was tight, hugging his chest and arms. He and his twin were both growing like weeds, too fast for the harried seamstress at Conall.
He gazed at his own reflection and ran a hand over his lean face. Still no whiskers though?
"Ah, Dughlas MacRieve, the great Lord of Conall, says it builds character? Your father is mistaken-your character is already built! And finely too. You are a man in your own right."
"I know I'm a man," he averred, while thinking, I might no' yet be a man.
Nay, of course he was. Whenever Will and Ruelle quarreled, he comprehended that he was truly maturing-a grown Lykae. Adults bickered; they had concerns and cares that the young did not.
Yet if he was grown, why couldn't he satisfy her? A flare of anger took him by surprise. "If you have call to criticize my da, you should do it the Lykae way: to his face." As soon as the words left his mouth, he regretted them. Her species was made to love, never to fight.
The idea of Ruelle openly criticizing someone so much stronger was laughable.
As if on cue, her gray eyes misted with tears. She even cried prettily. "You know I cannot do that, can never show my face to them. They will kill me, just for what I am."
His parents wouldn't necessarily welcome her into the pack with open arms, but surely Ruelle exaggerated about their reaction. "No Lykae would ever harm another's mate. We revere matehood above all things."
"What if they don't believe what we know to be true?" She pulled the silk covers over her breasts defensively. "Why do you continue to argue with me?"
"Because keeping this secret for so long sits ill." Lately it'd been weighing on him more and more, but he'd at least wait until after his mam gave birth to her bairn before revealing his secret. She was a couple of months along, just starting to show. Her "three braw lads"-as she called her husband, Will, and Munro-all sensed she carried a daughter and were ecstatic about the fact. Mam wanted to call her Isla.
A wee lass to spoil? Even now Will's lips curled with anticipation. He and Munro could scarcely wait until she was old enough to learn how to hunt, to fish.
Aye, his family needed no tumult now. Best to get back. He quickly donned his boots. "We'll speak of this in the future."
"No, we will not." Her gray eyes flickered to jade green, usually the only sign that her emotions were running high. "If you can't respect my wishes in something so important, then do not return for four nights."
Will froze. The fire in the hearth crackled. The wind whipped snow against the windows. "You doona mean it."
"Four!" he bit out in disbelief. "You'd punish me thus?" The longest he'd gone was three. He'd barely survived the sickness.
"I wish that you hadn't forced me to."
"I forced you?" Everything was always his fault. When he'd panicked during their first time making love and wanted to wait, she was not to be denied-and it was his fault for being "irresistible" to her. He'd wanted to bring home all the gifts she'd given him-mainly to lord them over his twin-but she'd refused: "Your parents will suspect; it's not my fault that you were born into a closed-minded family."
And now he was to go the better part of a week without returning. At the thought of the agony he'd soon experience, his Lykae beast stirred. Though his da, uncles, and older cousins were training him to harness that wild force within him, Will unleashed it each time Ruelle mated him.
"One day, Ruelle, you will push me too far."
"Oh? And then what will you do?" she asked with a triumphant look, for they both knew the truth.
He was bound to her for eternity. Doubly so-not just because she was his Lykae mate, but because of the tie he'd willfully borne after three visits to her bed.
He was fettered to her for the rest of his life. Or for the length of hers.
"But before you go, my love, I truly do need once more."
With a painful surge, his exhausted body reacted against his will, readying for her to take. He grimaced, panic setting in, his breaths shallowing. "You told me you'd no' use your strew again!" It was how she'd gotten him to mate her in the beginning. He shuddered to remember those times. A sickly feeling roiled in his gut as he struggled to withstand her, knowing how futile it was.
"Why fight me?" Eyes glowing green, she dropped the sheet. "Any male would kill to be with me." She traipsed over and embraced him, pressing his face against her breast, against scented white flesh.
He couldn't get enough air. "I canna-Ruelle, nay!" Already his beast was rising, protectively.
She pulled back, grasping his chin, hard. "Your eyes turn blue," she said with a satisfied smile. "Your beast and I will take care of everything. Just as we always do."
"You promised me!"
She pressed him down on her bed, then rose above him, the position she chose without fail. "Look at you, my love. Who could possibly blame me?"
And the deep dragged him down. . . .
Conall Keep, Northern Outpost of the Woods of Murk
THREE NIGHTS LATER
All day the sickness had grown worse until Will's body was a mass of pain. By midnight, he felt like his bones were breaking. Outside, the storm gusted winds, but the great Conall Keep was indifferent to them.
He wrapped his arms around himself, rocking over his damp sheets, praying he wouldn't be plagued with hallucinations this time.
No use fighting this. He would go to Ruelle tonight.
The idea of running for leagues through a blizzard in this condition made him shudder. Not to mention that he'd be entering the Woods alone, weak, in the middle of the night.
Fantastical creatures teemed in that forest, bloodthirsty beings from other realms.
Munro stirred in his nearby bed, as if sensing his twin's distress, even in sleep. Will envied Munro, who could remain snug in his bed, warm and safe within the impervious keep of their ancestors.
This place had been built by them for future Sentinels of the Woods, the warriors tasked with making sure the creatures of Murk never strayed beyond its boundaries-and that Lykae never ventured within.
When Will rose to dress, stabbing his legs into trews, Munro roused and sat up. "Where are you going?" He lit a candle, illuminating the room they shared.
" 'Tis no concern o' yours."
A flash of hurt flickered in Munro's golden eyes-eyes exactly like his own, only . . . graver. Despite being identical twins, he and Munro had opposing personalities. Will was oft called impetuous like their mother, Munro solemn like their da.
"You used to tell me everything, Will."
Ruelle had warned against that. She'd helped him see Munro's jealous nature. Munro was envious of his twin, simmering with hatred toward his slightly older brother, the heir.
I'm much more mature for my age, and Munro knows it, canna stand it.
In fact, she'd helped Will see the faults in all his friends.
"Are you going into the Woods?" Munro asked, pulling on his own breeches. "To see that female in the odd cottage?"
A stark contrast to the dreary woods, Ruelle's home was brightly painted, with intricate eaves and spindles, as if from a fey's dream. And Munro had never even seen the inside! It was not only fantastical, but mystical-she'd told him it had been standing for centuries, immune to decay.
"What do you know of her?" Will asked, struggling to focus his vision as another wave of pain hit. The tunic he'd just donned was already moist with sweat.
"I know the tales surrounding her."
"That she's a hideous old crone who lures youths to their doom? That she fattens them up, then feeds on their flesh? The rumors are false." The fact that Ruelle cooked feasts for him and then used his body for nourishment wasn't lost on Will. "Are you going to tell Da?" Or, gods forbid, their mother. No she-wolf could be fiercer than Ailis MacRieve.
'Twas one thing that Will had found his mate in a different species; 'twas another that he'd been lying to all of them.
"No need," Munro said quietly. "Mam and Da already suspect you've been sneaking out."
"Because you told them!"
Again came that flash of hurt, like a creature kicked in the flank. "You ken I would no' do that, brother."
Will . . . believed him. At these times, when Munro continued to prove loyal to him, Will couldn't reconcile all the things Ruelle had told him.
His beast was cut from the same soul as Munro's; it longed to run beside his brother's forever. Surely Munro felt the same way?
"What has happened to you, Will? Why do you never talk to me? Why do you never play or laugh anymore?" Munro looked wary and vulnerable-a mere boy.
Do I look so young? "It's complicated. Just let me handle this as I need to, and I'll be back soon." Will finished dressing. "Mayhap we'll talk then."
Without a backward glance, he hastened from the room to descend the main stairs and head out into the blustery night. He'd just felt the first crunch of snow beneath his boots when he heard, "And where might you be off to, Uilleam Andriu MacRieve?"
Mam. Oh, shite. He turned to face her, trying to disguise how bad his shakes had gotten.
She emerged from the shadows, joining him under the swirling snow. Her cheeks were pink, her doe-brown eyes narrowed. "You were too ill to come down for meals today-or to do your chores-and now I find you stealing away in the middle of the night?"
He had waited too long, should've made a run for Ruelle's last night. If Mam kept him from her tonight . . . Much longer, and he'd grow crazed. A hallucination danced at the edges of his vision, the dark closing in. He shifted his weight from one leg to the other; both felt like they'd snap at any second.
She tilted her head. "You go to meet a lass, no doubt. Thirteen is too young, son. Your da will tell you the same."
"I know, Mam. I'm sorry." Ah, gods, my bones.
She cupped his clammy face, her eyes going wide. "Ach, my Uilleam, you're burning up!"
"I have to go!" He could almost scent Ruelle's perfumes. Could almost taste the rouge with which she adorned her skin.
He could all but feel her milk-white arms wrapping around him. "Can you no' trust me, Mam?"