Brand spat a mouthful of blood onto the frozen ground. The sharp flavor coated his tongue. He rolled to his feet, favoring the cracked rib from the blow that had sent him flying. The heavy tread of his sire’s approaching footsteps brought up his head. Though fear tightened his chest, displaying weakness would likely mean death.
Geir glared down at Brand, disgust evident on his hard face. “This tiny, frightened pup is not worthy to be called my offspring.”
In his shadow, Brand felt small indeed. His mother had told him he would stand taller than his sire one day, but he found it hard to believe. Geir was a giant of a male. His powerful body swelled with every enraged breath.
Brand curled his hands into fists at his sides. Keeping a tight hold on the panic twisting his gut, he stared up at Geir. “I’m not scared of you.”
With a motion too quick to follow, Geir locked his hand around Brand’s throat. “Then, you’re an idiot, and I should cull you for the good of my bloodline.”
Pain shot through his neck as Geir’s fingers tightened and lifted him off his feet. He clawed at the hand holding him aloft, but the stone-like grip didn’t loosen. He couldn’t draw a breath.
Geir stared into Brand’s eyes, on a level with his own. The almost-black irises glowed. “I’m going to snuff out your pathetic life right now.” His voice sounded as if he were enjoying a meal rather than strangling his first-born son.
Anger surged, pushing away Brand’s fear. Rage roared through his body. A furious presence howled to life within him and wrested control of his body; he was too weak to resist.
With his consciousness pushed aside, the pain faded to a distant annoyance. Pressure built in his chest until he thought his ribs would burst. His ears rang with a low rumble like thunder, but after a few seconds, he recognized his own growl.
His wolf had roused. The dormant beast shouldn’t have woken yet. Brand was years too young. Panicked, he scrambled to regain control, but with every attempt, he lost more ground. Deep within, a barrier gave way. A rush of power flooded through him.
Confusion narrowed his sire’s eyes. With a curse, Geir released him. He fell heavily, the impact jarring his teeth.
Muscles and bones shifted under Brand’s heated skin as he flailed. All over his body, countless stabs of pain pricked his skin. A yowl of anguish escaped his lips, and the wolf clamped his mouth shut.
The agony continued in waves as he convulsed. Sheltered from the worst of the sensation by the wolf, he wondered how much suffering the beast could endure before it broke. He concentrated on each tremor, willing himself to survive.
Several minutes later, he lay panting on his side. Beneath him, the ground was icy cold. The wolf maintained control, but Brand could sense the precariousness of its grip.
A gentle hand patted the fur covering his head. Though his eyes were closed, he recognized his mother’s scent at once, a honeysuckle meadow after a rain.
His mother pulled the front half of his wolf body into her lap. “Easy now. He’s gone, and you made it through.” Her power radiated into him, lessening the lingering pain in his exhausted muscles.
He strained to regain control, and after a brief struggle, the wolf relented. His fear eased. Falling under the thrall of the beast wasn’t as common as dying in the throes of the first change, but it did happen. He nuzzled into his mother’s warmth and opened his eyes.
Her amber gaze filled with worry, she looked down at him. Her lips curled into a soft smile that made her face all the more lovely. “There you are. Can you shift back? It’s not wise to provoke him further.”
He tried to puzzle out her meaning while he took stock of his newly transformed body. Like his sire, he was large, with coal-black fur. He’d hoped for the tawny coloring of his mother’s line.
In principle, he knew what was required to make the return transformation, but everything seemed so different in the wolf’s body. His senses felt sharper, and a strange thrumming he couldn’t identify vibrated at the back of his skull.
“It’s the moon,” an annoyed voice said from beside him.
He lifted his head to look at the female who had spoken. While it was rumored Ingrid could read minds, he’d never believed it.
She stared at him, her mouth set in a severe line. “The moon is new. That is what you feel. Now shift back before he decides he should kill you while you pose no threat.”
Brand realized why they were concerned. No other among the Broods of Fenrir could shift at the new moon, and he had done it his first time. Even his powerful sire had a difficult time shifting past the half moon. Individuals who surpassed his sire in any way soon found themselves bleeding out on the frozen ground.
With no idea what he looked for, he searched for a switch he knew must be inside him. A few seconds later, frustrated with the effort of fruitless probing, he grumbled.
His mother rubbed his side and spoke in a soft voice. “You have to relax. You’re trying too hard.”
Ingrid snorted. “You’re coddling him, Kolla.” She knelt next to him and grabbed the ruff of fur behind his neck. Her eyes glowed like molten silver. “Breathe in as deep as you can. Where you feel tightness, push.”
He inhaled, pulling the winterberry and earthy scent of Ingrid all the way into his chest. At once, he understood what she meant, and pushed at the odd tension under his breastbone. He convulsed as pain once again lanced through his body.
The second transformation took less than half the time. Afterward, he lay on the ground exhausted and shivering. The pain had been much less, but still enough to make him wish he’d left the wolf in control a while longer.
His mother covered him with the clothing that had slid off when he shifted to wolf form. She rested a hand on his forehead. “He tried to kill you.”
He closed his eyes. “I couldn’t let him hurt you again.” His parched throat hurt when he spoke.
She smoothed his hair away from his face. “You mustn’t intercede again. Next time, he won’t hold back. Killing a newly transitioned wolf would be seen as an act of weakness. That is what stayed his hand.”
He opened his eyes and looked up at her. The concern on her face made his stomach clench. “I’ll do what I can to protect you, no matter the danger.”
“You’re a stupid, arrogant fool,” Ingrid said in a harsh whisper as she stood. “One day you’ll be a match for him, but not today.”
“I don’t care. I will no longer stand by and watch him brutalize every female in this brood. It’s barbaric.” Anger shook his voice.
Ingrid turned her attention to his mother, a frown drawing her face tight. “Take him somewhere out of sight and talk some sense into him. I’ll see that Geir gets enough mead to keep him from reconsidering his decision, at least for tonight.”
After Ingrid walked away toward the center of the village, his mother helped him to his feet. She groaned under his weight. “I think you’ve gained weight since you transformed.”
Looking over himself, he thought she might be right. His chest seemed thicker, as if his muscles had rearranged themselves into a bulkier alignment. “Is that normal?”
She patted his arm. “I’ve never seen it happen so fast, but your first transformation marks your turn into adulthood. You’ll get bigger and stronger than you ever imagined.” Her smile warmed him.
Strong enough to protect her, he hoped. Strong enough to defeat his sire and make sure he couldn’t hurt anyone again.
A high-pitched scream rent the cold night air. His mother shuddered and drew her shawl closer.
Brand turned, pulling away from her.
Ingrid struggled in the grip of one male while shrieking curses at another who writhed on the ground at her feet. She kicked at him, connecting once with his head as he dragged himself out of her reach. Blood streamed from her neck where he’d bitten her, coating her bared breasts.
His sire strode toward her across the path in front of his longhouse, his face a harsh mask of annoyance. Ingrid shifted her stream of profanity to him. Irritation gave way to wrath as he lifted one hand to her jaw, shutting her mouth so all that emerged were muffled grunts. He spoke too softly for Brand to overhear, but when he was done, Ingrid’s eyes were wide with fear.
Geir pulled a knife from his belt and drove it into her right shoulder. His hand stifled her scream. The stab was obviously calculated to wound and weaken, not kill. Geir had used that move before to subdue her for the worst of his brutality.
Unable to bear the thought of what his sire would do to Ingrid, Brand headed toward them. His mother’s hand on his elbow stopped him.
She pitched her voice low, and he had to strain to hear it. “There is nothing you can do for her. He will kill you and then do it anyway.”
He turned back to his mother, about to tell her how much the outcome didn’t matter to him, as long as he wouldn’t have to hear Ingrid’s pain throughout the interminable winter night.
Tears rimmed her light brown eyes, and her expression implored him to come away. He was her only offspring. If he died, she had nothing. Without him, there would be no one to protect her. He let his mother lead him away from the anguished cries that grew louder with each moment. He hated himself more with every step.
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