Brand woke not long after dawn with Alice on his mind. It wasn’t unusual for his first thought to be of her. He dreamed variations of how he’d found her almost every night. In the heart-wrenching twist of events his subconscious had created tonight, she’d died in his arms. To still the frantic thumping of his heart, he forced himself to remember.
A whimper had drawn his attention to an uneven mound in the ditch beside the road. The shape shifted a fraction of an inch and then ceased. He closed the distance and knelt in the mud where she’d been discarded.
The blond hair was the first detail he noticed, curly and tangled. She lay on her side, her bare back facing him. One pale shoulder shuddered when she groaned. The curve of every rib in her emaciated torso was visible, and half-healed, sinuous cuts ran from her shoulders to her waist.
He pulled off his jacket and placed it over her. She was small enough that it covered her from shoulders to knees. He moved his hand to her forehead and felt the energy of her wolf buried under the unconscious mind. She was not powerful, but she was certainly one of the brood. He maneuvered his hands under her and lifted her into his arms. She weighed very little. Her bones protruded from her skin everywhere he touched her.
Her head lolled against his shoulder. Bruises darkened her jaw, and red lines from fingers marked the much too white skin of her throat. Dried blood from her nose and mouth covered the delicate curve of her cheeks.
That image of Alice so broken in his arms, before he’d even known her name, was the one that haunted him most. He’d held her hand for hours, uncertain she’d survive, using his empathic ability to calm the fear that terrorized her even as she slept.
His cell phone rang from the living room, where he’d dropped his clothes the night before. Relieved to have a momentary distraction from the memories, he ran down the stairs. The number on the display was unfamiliar. “Yes?”
“You are looking for Arnbjörn.”
He recognized the cold female voice at once and suppressed a groan. Ingrid. Quite simply, he didn’t want to deal with anyone less as the moon approached full. “I am. Have you seen him?” He rubbed his forehead with the pads of his fingers. Whatever she wanted in trade for the information would be difficult and likely painful.
“Come to my lair at dusk.” The phone clicked when she disconnected.
Brand sighed. Dealing with her melodramatic insanity was exhausting and he was not looking forward to an evening in her company. A low note, like the strum of a cello string, vibrated at the back of his skull. Every second the moon crept closer to full, and he was beginning to feel the tug of it.
He started to dial Alice’s number, since she was still on his mind, and then glanced at the clock. He was reluctant to wake her so early. He tossed his phone onto the couch and climbed back up to his loft to try to get a few more hours of sleep before he began his search for Arn again.
* * *
As Brand lifted his hand to knock on the door, he heard Ingrid call in Norse, “Enter, Brandúlfr Geirson.”
The air in the small cabin was pungent and thick. Many strong scents hit him all at once when he inhaled. Human blood, wolf urine, and deer musk were the strongest, the combination almost revolting enough to make him wretch. After he subdued his gag reflex, he said, “Have you been kidnapping human girls again? You know Erik doesn’t approve.”
The female had an array of noxious substances smeared over her naked skin and tangled in her golden hair. Beneath the filth was a harsh beauty, though nearly impossible to discern. She held a teacup in one hand, sipping delicately and watching him over the rim. Her eyes glowed iridescent silver in the dimness of the room.
“Eiríkr’s approval does not concern me.” She paused, and a small grin curved her lips. “Betimes, your approval does. Does it bother you if I kill human females?”
Brand struggled to keep his expression neutral, and his voice unworried. “Yes.”
She snorted, an amused, dismissive sound. “You never used to be so stuffy, Black Sword.” She spoke his nickname in Norse, her tongue trilling over the syllables like a caress.
“Don’t call me that.”
“I’ll call you whatever I like. Your father was the Black Spear when he was king. You shall be the Black Sword.”
“I will never be king.”
She sat on a rough-hewn stool, crossing her legs at the knee. “You never did explain what your objection was to taking your proper place.”
He ignored her inquiry. She knew better than anyone why he couldn’t be king. “You said you know where Arn is.”
A calculating smirk played over her face. “I did.”
“Are you actually concerned for me? How gallant. Surely, you realize there is no need.” Her laugh was light, yet edged with cruelty. “Even you could not best me, unless I wanted you to.”
Her eyes glowed like molten metal, and he felt his beast straining to meet the challenge she offered. She watched him with an amused expression.
After a pause, he said, “Tell me where Arn is.”
She made a clicking sound with her tongue. “I don’t offer such information freely.”
He suppressed a sigh. Her requests were always difficult. “What would you have of me, Ingrid?”
She stood and put the teacup on the stool she had vacated, then turned to regard a pile of incongruous objects on a table beyond her. “Nothing that would be onerous for you.” Her eyes wandered over him in a slow glance. “An offspring of your line.”
At first, he was sure he had misheard her. When he realized that he hadn’t, he still couldn’t formulate an answer. He stared at her for several seconds and then turned to go. Before his hand closed on the door handle, she spoke again. “Brandúlfr, I gave you no leave to go.”
He rounded on her, his fists clenching at his sides to avoid crossing the room to throttle her. “I’m well aware you’re insane, but I had no idea you’d broken quite so much with reality. There are no offspring of my line by my choice, and I’m not about to change that with you.”
Brand had spent years bound to her sadistic whims after his sire delivered him into her care. Memories of their time together haunted him still. She knew how to manipulate his empathic sense to make the agony of a moment last forever.
“You were always a difficult pup to lead, no matter the collar around your neck.” She came toward him, the epitome of calm, each foot precisely placed to maximize the swing of her hips. “Geir understood you well.”
Comments (0)See all