"You're sick, no' thinking clearly. You canna be out in the snow; you need to be abed."
"Please, just go back inside and doona worry over this. I'll return anon."
She snatched his arm and yelled over her shoulder, "Dugh! Come out here! Now."
Will heard two sets of footsteps stomping down the stairs into the main hall. Da and Munro.
Desperation boiled up inside him. "I've got to go!" He flung his arm free, shoving against his mother.
Mam tripped, falling down into the hard-packed snow. She gaped up at him, her eyes watering. "Will?"
He was horrified. He would rather die than harm her. "I'm so sorry! Have I hurt you? The babe?"
Her hands went to her belly as if to protect the wee girl. Protect Isla from me?
But then Mam's tears dried. Her inner beast began to rise, her eyes turning ice blue. Never, never, a good sign. Shite!
"You've no' hurt me, boy," she growled, her fangs lengthening. "Best worry for your own hide."
Just as Da and Munro made the doorway, she snapped to Will, "Hie your arse inside. Now!"
Da helped Mam to her feet, glancing from her to his son with his jaw slackened. "Have you lost your bluidy mind, Will?"
Aye! Will glanced over his shoulder toward the Woods of Murk, imagining the relief, the end of this pain. He whimpered-
Da's massive hand clamped Will's neck. "In you go!" He squired Will to a seat before Conall's great hearth fire. After getting a better look at his son's face, he added another log to the flames.
With his tall form outlined by the flickering light, Da looked even more intimidating than usual. Will swallowed, darting a glance at his twin.
Munro's slow nod and steady gaze seemed to say, We'll get through this. Keep your head. It helped.
Their mother crossed to sit close by her mate. Mam and Da were always near each other, as if their beasts were tethered with an invisible leash.
Her ire was clearly fading as she stared at Will's sweating face. "Dugh, we need to send for a physic."
"I fear I know what's wrong with him." Da turned to him. "Where were you going, son?" He seemed to hold his breath.
Will couldn't lie to his face. And more, he had to trust what he knew of his father's character-and Lykae law-over Ruelle's overwrought predictions. No Lykae will harm another's mate. "I was going to see my female, a woman who lives in the Woods."
Silence reigned. His words seemed to hang in the air.
When Da exhaled a stunned breath and Mam looked stricken, a marked unease stole over Will.
Ruelle had predicted that they wouldn't understand; she'd never mentioned that they'd be disgusted.
Turning to Da, Mam muttered, "Too young, ah gods, he's too young." She rose unsteadily to gather a blanket. Wrapping it around Will's shoulders, she said, "Warm yourself, lad. You've a long night ahead of you." He noticed with dread that her eyes watered once more.
"Why am I too young? Humans wed when they're no' much older than I." Of course, he'd prepared these arguments, fashioning them from those he'd heard Ruelle say.
"Humans must!" Da began to pace. "In these harsh lands, they scarcely live longer than your age! But you, Will, you can potentially live forever. In any case, you're far too young to be in the clutches of one like her."
This was his mate they spoke of! Surely she was.
"Do you no' know what she is?" Da spat the words: "She's a succubus."
"Ruelle told me this, right off."
"Aye, but do you understand what the word means, what her kind do?"
Will's eyes darted. "It means that we are so connected we'll suffer without each other." After three nights of mating a succubus, a male would take on her essence, her mystical venom, binding himself to her until death.
Mam said, "It means she's a parasite." Her tears fell. "One who sank her claws into my lad." He'd never seen his mother cry before this eve. "She's envenomed you. 'Tis why you have sickness."
"Then I need to reach her. It's been three days. If I'm feeling this way, then so is she."
Da shook his head. "Unlike you, she can take another. I'd be shocked if she does no' have a stable of lovers. Even in the Woods, she could lure others."
Impossible. Ruelle loved Will alone.
Da finally sank down beside Mam. "How long have you been seeing her?"
In a tone brooking no disobedience, Da snapped, "How-long?"
Forcing his shoulders back, Will answered, "I first went to her cottage four years ago."
Da shot back to his feet. His mother pressed the back of her hand against her mouth to stifle a retching sound. Had there been a glimmer of rage in Da's eyes? A glimpse of his beast? Never had Da unleashed it before them.
Should Will be denied his mate just because he and Ruelle were born in differing times? How could his parents react so violently to something that was natural? They were not usually judgmental.
Will hugged the blanket tighter, struggling to hide his shudders. Pain was like a drum inside him, beating him, breaking him. His bones . . .
"My precious lad," Mam choked out, rising to her feet. " 'Tis a vile perversion," she told Da. "I doona understand how he survived her hungers when so young! He's far from his immortality."
Survived? Could he have died? All Will had done was bed a beautiful woman.
"His beast is stronger than most, a pure alpha," Da said. "Like Munro's. I've spoken of this before."
Will remembered. Da had sounded both proud yet fearful at the same time. The beast could be a blessing and a curse, lending strength but robbing reason.
"Did your beast rise up when you were with her?"
Will absently nodded.
"Otherwise, she would've killed you-a fact she well knew, son."
Nay, 'twas not true. Nothing could make him believe Ruelle had ever jeopardized his life. She could be demanding, pushing him to his limits, but only because he was strong and could take it. He was strong for his age. She'd repeatedly said so.
"Look how our son shakes even now. Her venom's work. This must be answered!" Mam declared.
"It will be, love. I set out for the Woods at dawn. I'll petition for entry. The Elders will grant it before they let a pup suffer."
Answered? Will still didn't quite comprehend their crime. His older cousins were forever tumbling females, and they'd started when they were not much older than Will was now.
But I started earlier still. He glanced at Munro, seeking an ally. Munro cast him a baffled look.
"Nay, Dughlas!" Mam's own beast was rising once more. "I know her kind! She'll be winsome and manipulative, and she'll twist you too. The men of this pack have said for ages they would run her out of the forest, and naught comes of it."
"They're no' our woods to patrol!" Da ran his hand over his face. "And she's never targeted our young before! She's never envenomed any of our males. Our lad will be free of this by tomorrow eve. The day after at the latest. I vow it."
"Free of this?" The only way out was Ruelle's death. "I-I need to see her. Just tonight." He and his mate could run.
Leave behind my family?
A lifetime of drowning . . . ?
"Nay!" Mam bared her fangs. "Over my dead body! You will never see her again!"
Da wrapped his arm around her shoulders. "Take a moment, love. Just . . . take a moment. Collect yourself. Think of the babe."
"If I canna protect the bairns I have, I doona deserve the gods to give me more!"
"Whisht, love! I will talk to him, and tomorrow we will end this. Go take your tea and calm yourself."
She lurched from the room, casting a look over her shoulder. The rage in her expression changed to something like . . . pity when she met Will's eyes. "Never one like her, my Uilleam." Then she was gone.
Pity? Realization struck. I've done wrong. I've hurt Mam.
Before, he'd wanted to tell the world about Ruelle; now he felt shame, even though he didn't quite understand why he should. He'd been mating a beautiful female, his female, so why did his skin feel like it was crawling?
His nose burned, vision blurring. Tears? He was sick of tears-had shed them aplenty in the first year he'd been with her. His voice broke as he said, "I dinna mean to do wrong, Da. Are you angrier about my age or about what Ruelle is? How old should I have been?"
"You are no' there yet, son. And, as your mother said, never with one like her."
"But she's my mate."
His father snapped his fangs, as if Will had blasphemed. "No-she's-no'!"
Will had never seen his da this angry. Still he asked, "How do you know?"
"Because she's sick in the head!" He shoved his fingers through his thick black hair. "If she were yours, your Instinct would ring loud and clear, telling you that she was. Has that happened?"
Will's Instinct, the guiding force all Lykae possessed, was usually quiet with her. But it hadn't been at first, had warned him not to enter the cottage, had whispered of peril within.
Peril from a delicate beauty like Ruelle? The idea had struck him as ridiculous.
"Think, son-if she were truly your mate, you would have felt the overwhelming need to mark her neck. You would have gotten a babe on her after all this time. But I know you have no' done either."
Will shook his head, muttering, "Ruelle must be mine for me to feel this way."
"No, she's entranced you-it's their way. Grown males are swayed by them, trapped by their wiles and their strewing; at your age, you stood no chance."
Da was making her sound like a sorceress or worse, a witch. Just like the rumors . . .
"You have doubts. I see it in your eyes. Do you no' ken, son? When you find your mate, it feels like the hands of gods have reached out to touch you, like your soul's been branded. There is no doubt. And there is no way you could willingly part from her, as you've obviously been doing with the succubus for years. Will, heed my words: where your mate goes, you follow."
Will grimaced as a sharper surge of pain hit. Da continued talking, clearly aiming to distract him. He told Will and Munro all about the first time he'd met Mam, a tale they'd heard before. But tonight it highlighted aspects of Will's own meeting with Ruelle.
She'd lured him to her cottage with sweets. He'd been reluctant, half terrified of her, half fascinated. When he'd tentatively entered, she'd lavished gifts on him, complimenting him, as if she were . . . taming him.
Or trapping him?
The firelight had just begun to dim when Will's Instinct suddenly commanded -SAVE HER!-
Da and Munro must've received the same warning. They shot to their feet.
"Ailis?" Da crossed to the hallway with long strides. "Come join us."
"Love?" His father tensed, lifting his face to scent the air. Will and Munro did the same.
Mam was gone. Will didn't scent her anywhere in the keep.
There was only one reason she would have left home in this storm.
Like a shot, Da charged for the front door. Will and Munro followed him out into the blizzard, sprinting through the snow as he tracked Mam's scent and footprints toward the forest.
With each step, Da was turning, his Lykae beast surfacing. His fangs and black claws lengthened, his face angling into a more wolven shape. His muscles burgeoned, the shadow of his inner wolf rising to hover over him: a vicious, towering creature with maddened white-blue eyes.
Will could see his da struggling to keep the feral beast at bay, to think clearly, to reason.
To best protect his mate.
Will and Munro began to lag behind their desperate father's pace. Two young Lykae in the Woods at night. They had not reached their immortality yet, couldn't regenerate from injury.
As the storm strengthened, shadows closed in on them, snow swirling, trees shuddering. The winds howled, disrupting Will's hearing and sense of smell. Gusts brought confusing scents all the way from the sea he hadn't yet beheld.
His teeth clattered. Pain throughout his body had merged until he couldn't distinguish one area of agony from another, his aching bones from his splitting head. . . .
Will squinted through the snow as they ran, barely making out Da as he closed in on Ruelle's cottage. Between painted shutters, the windows glowed, softly lit and fogged.
Da barreled through the door. Even over the winds, Will heard his roar.
No! Ruelle couldn't have hurt Mam. Will's mother was a she-wolf in her prime, fierce as this storm. Ruelle was weak and helpless.
The brothers burst through the splintered doorway and froze at the sight before them. With a sheet secured around her, Ruelle stood trembling behind a terrified lad who looked not much older than Will.
Their natural enemy. Here, this far north? Will had never seen one, just knew he needed to kill the creature.
The leech was brandishing a bloody sword to protect Ruelle against Da-whose beast was completely risen. It shadowed over him, monstrous and shocking even to Will.
No wonder the vampire was terrified. But why was the male half-dressed? Whose blood coated his sword? Where was Mam?
Will edged deeper into the cottage. Behind a settee . . . he saw her.
Part of her.
Shock robbed him of breath and muted his thoughts. Dimly, he wondered, Where is my mother's head?
Da roared, shaking the cottage until dust rained from the rafters.
The vampire could have traced away, teleporting to safety in an instant. Yet he seemed bent on protecting Ruelle-as if he loved her. With a broken yell, he attacked, tracing around Da, landing blows that the older immortal didn't seem to feel.
The leech disappeared again and again, until Da predicted where he'd appear next. With one swipe of Da's flared claws, the vampire was no more.
When Da turned on Ruelle, she backed away. As if from a well-pump, her tears flowed at once. "We had n-no choice. She attacked us, had come to destroy me."
As Da stalked her with a murderous look in his ice-blue gaze, Ruelle eyed the vampire's sword, could have reached it; instead she clasped her hands to her breast, pleading to Will, "My love, help me! He will kill me!"