The trail of blood was leading the hunters straight to him.
Normally, he would have outrun them long before now, but with his right flank wounded by the shotgun blast and with him unable to rest or transform in order to heal quickly, he was simply losing more blood, more energy, and slowing.
He tried to sense his brethren but they weren’t near. They weren’t due for hours.
He’d arrived early, too early.
Something had drawn him to this forest, so much as called out to him.
And, as usual, he followed his instincts.
He’d gone early and transformed so his senses would be sharper in order to seek out whatever it was.
Therefore, he’d been distracted, and if he was honest with himself, cocky. He’d smelled the hunters but he’d never expected they’d be a threat. Humans rarely were.
As he ran, he sensed it again…out there. It was close, whatever it was, and the pull of it was so strong, it made him momentarily lose focus.
This cost him. He wasn’t watching where he was going. He wasn’t scanning the landscape.
He skidded to a painful halt, the snow blossoming out in white wings at his sides. A sheer rock face in front of him. A dense forest of pine trees—difficult to maneuver especially injured—to his right. Hunters at his back and to his left…
Wearing a pink hat, scarf, boots, and mittens and a navy coat, her long blonde hair falling down her shoulders.
Her green eyes were on him.
She couldn’t be more than five, maybe six, alone in the snow in the forest in the dead of night.
What the fuck? he thought
She had to be lost. Her need for rescue was what he must have sensed.
But he could feel no fear from her, not even of him, and in this form everyone and everything feared him.
But obviously not her.
She was gazing at him calmly as if she took moonlit strolls regularly, and further, as if she could see him plainly in the dark.
As if she was one of his own.
Impossible, he thought.
First, she was blonde. There were no blondes of his kind. None. Not in history.
Second, he’d smell it and she smelled starkly human.
He considered transforming. However, even if the cold couldn’t kill him, he didn’t relish the idea of transforming into a six foot six inch naked man with a gunshot wound to his thigh in front of a child. Not to mention, the hunters, who were gaining and who he could far more easily attack as a wolf (which was not forbidden, but frowned upon even if there was no alternative as it seemed would soon be the case).
But it was forbidden to change in front of a human who didn’t know about their secret culture.
Even for him.
He heard the hunters crashing through the snow and branches, getting ever closer. He turned swiftly and growled low.
It was his vast experience there were two different kinds of human hunters.
There were those who took what they called their “sport” seriously and behaved, in their way, honorably.
These, he knew, were not those kind of hunters. Therefore, if they weren’t careful (which they would not be) they could hurt her.
He couldn’t allow that.
In fact, he’d die to stop it.
The force of this knowledge startled him but he knew it instantly and instinctively straight down to his immortal soul.
The hunters burst through the trees into the clearing where he stood and leveled their shotguns at him.
He growled again and advanced, giving them their target.
Surprisingly, so did the child and she did so rapidly.
“No!” she shrieked, taking the hunters’ attention, and before he could move a muscle, she slid to a halt in front of him. She threw her arms wide as if to shield him with her body.
He tore his gaze from the hunters and stared at her in stunned surprise.
“My puppy!” she cried. “You hurt my puppy!”
“Get away from that animal!” one hunter bellowed, the barrel of his gun moving subtly, aiming away from the child.
“Jesus,” another muttered. “What’s a kid doin’ out here?”
“My puppy!” she shouted again, turned, and lifted up on her toes so she could wrap her arms around his neck, pressing her face into the thick fur there. “You hurt my puppy!” she repeated on a wail as if her heart was torn apart. Then, not detaching her arms from his neck, her head rounded on the hunters again and she yelled, “Papa is going to be so mad.”
“Kid, I said, get away from that animal,” the first hunter ordered.
She ignored him. “Papa went all the way to Alaska to get my puppy for me and he got out tonight. He wouldn’t come when Papa called and called and whistled and called and we were so worried, so, so worried, we couldn’t get to sleep. We were looking for him, looking all over. Papa is just out there…” She took an arm away to point vaguely in the direction from where she came. “We were looking for him and Papa is going to be sooo mad that you shot my puppy!” She ended on a shriek, throwing her arm around his neck again, holding on tight, and pressing her face into his fur, her body beginning to shake with false sobs.
Bloody hell, but she was a cunning little human, and as a wolf, if he could laugh, he would.
Unfortunately, he could not.
Instead, he shifted his furry bulk into her and without delay she pressed closer.
“Fuckin’ A,” the third hunter mumbled, his eyes narrowed on the girl as he lowered his gun. “Is that Senator Arlington’s daughter?”
“Fuck!” the second hunter hissed, lowering his own firearm. “It is.”
“Kid—” the first hunter started in a soothing tone.
She pulled her face away from his neck and glared at the hunters. “Go! Go now! If you go now, I won’t tell Papa it was you.”
They hesitated, all their guns lowered now, their feet shuffling.
“Go!” she screamed, her child’s voice piercing the brittle air.
“Maybe we could talk to Senator Arlington,” the third one whispered his suggestion. “Explain things.”
“Yeah?” the first hunter asked sarcastically, turning angry eyes at his friend. “Do you want to tell Senator Arlington how we were out at night and you shot his precious daughter’s dog? Do you, Gary? Hunh?”
“That ain’t no dog,” the second hunter said, his eyes never leaving the beast. “That’s a wolf.”
“Don’t look like no wolf I’ve ever seen,” the third hunter noted and his voice turned greedy. “He’s huge. A beauty. Got to be a hundred pounds heavier than any wolf—”
“He’s a wolf, ain’t no dog,” the second hunter pressed.
“Jesus, Lloyd, you ever see a wild wolf stand calm next to a kid with her arms wrapped around his ruff?” the first hunter, clearly the brains of the crew, threw out.
“He’s a rare breed!” the child snapped, sounding adorably impatient, making it clear their squabbling was highly annoying and she had far better things to do. Her arms tightened as she continued, “That’s why Papa had to go all the way to—”
“All right, kid,” the first hunter cut her off, taking a step back while throwing his arm out to indicate his friends should follow suit. “Promise you won’t tell your pa you saw us?”
“Promise you’ll stop hunting wolves in this region?” she shot back shrewdly, not sounding five or six but much older.
“Kid—” the first hunter started.
She interrupted him angrily. “Since you know you’re not allowed.”
The hunters stared at her in shock.
“They said she was weird,” the third hunter, having moved back several paces, whispered in a voice that he thought only he could hear.
“I’m not weird!” the child snapped and he swung his canine eyes to her in further surprise because he, of course, could hear. Even in the form of a man he had heightened hearing, but he’d never known a human to have that kind of range.
The third hunter started then mumbled again, “Weird.”
The child’s body grew stiff with hurt affront.
The wolf growled.
All the hunters stared at the beast.
“Promise!” she demanded.
They were silent.
“I’ll tell my papa…” she threatened.
“Okay, kid, we promise,” the first hunter assured her, moving back again.
The wolf and child stood still and silent, watching the hunters retreat. A pace, two, three, four, then they turned and made their way swiftly through the wood.
“Silly men,” she whispered irritably as she let him go and looked at him, her astute green eyes moving the length of him to his flank then she murmured, “Poor puppy.” She patted him on the neck. “Papa will fix you, he’s good at that. Let’s go home.”
She started walking away and he stood still, watching her, uncertain, even with his experience of all things human, inhuman, and beast, what to make of the child.
She turned back.
“It’s okay, puppy,” she told him. “You can trust me. I’m not weird. Promise. It’s just…” she paused and quirked her head to the side. “Animals understand me. Papa says it’s a special gift.” She patted her thigh with her pink mitten. “Come on, we’ll take good care of you.” She lifted her hand to her heart, made a cross, and grinned an immensely adorable grin the sight of which he felt in his gut. “Cross my heart.”
She turned again and marched away.
Not because of her promise she’d take care of him.
Instead, because he needed to protect her.
It wasn’t far, maybe a five minute trek (but annoyingly painful and lumbering for him), when they came upon a log cabin in the trees. Warm, welcoming lights flooded from its windows, a sparkling Christmas tree shown in one.
“That’s home,” she told him, her voice reverent. “We have another home in the city, but Momma and Papa and I like this one way better. We come here every Christmas.” She turned to him and smiled a bright smile. “Come on!”
She ran the rest of the way, throwing open the door and turning again in its frame to pat her leg.
Limping less but still limping, he followed.
He entered the cabin and could see exactly why she’d prefer this place to any other.
It was small but it was homey, rustic, warm, and friendly.
He could live his life there.
She was busy rushing around the cabin and he stood in the door watching her.
“We’ll get you all warm and you can rest. Momma and Papa will be home soon and he’ll know what to do. Papa always knows what to do,” she babbled as she bunched clean sheets on a rug before the fire with her still-mittened hands and then she turned to him and patted her leg again. “Come on, puppy. It’s okay.”
He cautiously limped to the sheets.
She pulled off her mitten and ran her fingers down his head. “Good puppy,” she murmured.
He collapsed with a canine groan to the sheets.
“There you go,” she whispered, crouching beside him to give him a rub.
Then she ran to the door, closed it, and pulled off her hat, mittens, scarf, and coat, throwing them efficiently on the couch.
She took a fluffy throw from a chair and brought it to him, tossing it on his body and arranging it carefully as he felt the healing in his flank sharpen.
No longer running, the wound would be mended within half an hour.
She sat down behind him and whispered, “I’ll just lay here with you until Papa gets home.” He felt her settle and press her little body down his back. “Keep you warm and safe,” she mumbled, her voice turning sleepy. “Then Papa will take care of you.”
Regardless of the fact that she was clearly a gifted child, like any child she was dead asleep within minutes.
And he lay beside her, letting the healing work and thinking, even though she clearly adored her father, he would be having words with a man who’d let his child—gifted or not—stay alone in a remote cabin and wander the forest in the dead of night. He didn’t give a fuck that she was obviously quite capable or if she did, indeed, have a way with animals.
No good human parent did that.
He was whole again and he sensed them well before they arrived.
He carefully moved away so as not to waken her, had transformed, and was standing beside her wrapped in the throw she’d placed over him when the door opened.
His brethren glanced at him then the child then his brother Calder threw him his pants.
He pulled them on as his father walked close.
Too close to the child.
Unconsciously he straightened, pants still half unbuttoned, and moved to stand in front of her.
His father, Mac’s eyes slid away from the girl and caught his.
Then he watched Mac’s face gentle.
“Callum,” Mac murmured softly.
“She’s Senator Arlington’s daughter,” Callum announced, his voice low in deference to her sleep but rumbling because he was pissed way the hell off.
“I know,” his father replied.
“I’m uncertain of an allegiance with a man who’d leave his daughter unprotected,” Callum went on.
Callum watched something flash across Mac’s face and what he saw made him brace.
“It matters not,” his father said softly, and when Callum opened his mouth to speak again, Mac lifted a hand. “Senator Arlington was assassinated tonight. His wife with him.”
Callum’s head jerked toward the innocently sleeping child and he felt his gut clench painfully at the thought that she, especially she, would lose her mother and clearly beloved father on Christmas Eve.
“She was here for her safety,” Mac continued and Callum’s eyes cut back to him as he carried on, “You were here for it as well.”
“I—” Callum started, surprised at this announcement and getting pretty fucking tired of surprises.
Mac got closer. “It was a test.”
Callum’s jaw grew tight.
He had endured a fair few of his father’s tests in his very long life.
He watched Mac look back down at the girl with an infinitely gentle expression and he knew his father wasn’t finished.
He wasn’t wrong.
When Mac’s eyes came back to Callum, he went on, “As ever, you passed.” Callum watched his father smile and something oddly joyous shone in his eyes before he murmured, “And so did she.”
“Would you like to tell me what you’re on about?” Callum suggested.
Mac didn’t hesitate. “Tonight, my son, the connection has begun.”
Callum felt his body go solid before his eyes sliced down to the girl.
He looked again to his father, his voice coated in angry disbelief. “She’s human.”
Mac took in a breath through his nose, hesitated, opened his mouth, closed it, then opened it again to say, “She is.”
“I can’t be connected to a human,” Callum clipped.
“The oracle has spoken,” his father declared.
Callum heard his brethren pull in shocked breaths.
Mac moved even closer and his voice grew lower when he asked, “You felt it?”
He felt it.
It was bigger than him, bigger than his brethren, bigger and more important than anything.
He’d die for her.
She was, in a very important sense, his reason for being.
Hell, he’d even moved to protect her against his own father—a wolf he knew wouldn’t harm a living soul unless forced to do it.
“Fuck!” he bit out.
“She’ll be protected until the time is right,” Mac assured.
Callum narrowed his gaze on him and growled, “She bloody better be.”
Mac glanced to the side. “Ryon, see to it, our best men.”
“But, Mac, we can’t—” Ryon began and Callum watched his father’s eyes narrow.
“See to it,” Mac ordered.
“We’re at war!” Ryon hissed. “We need every brother we have. We can’t afford—”
Mac cut Ryon off by repeating, “See to it.”
Callum watched his brethren shift and glance at each other.
Then their gazes moved back to him with dawning realization.
Callum had the same thought they did and he felt his body grow tight.
He looked back to Mac and asked with extreme unease, “She’s my queen?”
He watched his father nod and anguish tore through him. But he didn’t allow it to show, instead, he lifted his chin.
“When?” he demanded to know.
“It matters not,” Mac replied.
“You’re my father and you’re my king, it fucking matters that you’re soon to die,” Callum ground out.
Mac didn’t answer.
Callum leaned forward. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I have my reasons,” Mac responded.
Jesus but Mac could be mysterious and in the three hundred and fifty years of his life it never failed to piss Callum off.
“Mac—” Callum began but his father lifted his hand and placed it on Callum’s shoulder.
“We’re at war and this war will not end under my reign. You and she,” he glanced down at the girl before his eyes moved back to his son, “will lead our people to peace.”
Callum didn’t know what he was feeling because there was too much to feel.
What he did know was that he didn’t like any of it.
His eyes leveled on his father’s and he promised, “If they bring you down, it’ll be a fucking bloody peace and only on my fucking terms.”
Mac leaned close as his fingers tightened on Callum’s arm.
Then he whispered in his son’s ear, “I’m counting on that.”