“Our men’s blood is falling like rain upon parched soil!” Reardon McAlator raised his sword, and iron clanged against iron as he fended off yet another opponent. The earth beneath his feet had soaked in too much of his army’s blood. Too much of his own blood. A gouge in his forearm burned as if it’d been seared with a heated blade. Normally, Reardon cut into other people. He wasn’t the one to be cut.
“We have no chance of winning this,” his brother, Jaemus, hollered, though his words could barely be heard over the battle cries, the moans of the wounded, and the crash of swords and shields.
Reardon slashed at the arm of an enemy soldier as he was about to gut Jaemus then swiveled around to stab his sword into the chest of another assailant. The strikes kept coming and, though his army was only outnumbered by a few, they were getting crushed. The Spanish king had hired Reardon and his company of warrior mercenaries to defend his lands. On most occasions this worked out to be a profitable deal for Reardon and his men. They fought mercilessly, dropping body after body, losing none of their own, then collected their payment. They’d become rich lads by killing—something each of them excelled at. They roamed from place to place, did as they pleased in between battles, and generally enjoyed their brutal way of life.
Until today when the tides had turned against them.
“If we don’t retreat now, there’ll be none of us left to bury our dead,” another of Reardon’s kin, a cousin, Kole McMannus, yelled as he cut into a man’s neck with his sword, blood spilling out in a warm, crimson wave.
“Aye!” Reardon held his sword up in the air and waved it around in a tight circle—his company’s signal for retreat. “To the woods, lads!”
As one, the army bolted for the forest past the river. They sloshed through the shallow water and stomped through the brush until they were far enough away from their opponents.
Reardon often forgot the enemies they fought were never truly their enemies, but other men they’d been paid to fight. That was what they did. Waged war for a price. A high price. Was it all worth it? He questioned that on a daily basis, but he and his men were only good at one thing.
If you didn’t count today, of course.
“They fight like beasts.” Shawn McMannus, Reardon’s other cousin and brother to Kole, bent in half, resting his palms on his knees and taking in a few deep breaths. His hands and muscled arms were bloody and bruised like everyone else’s, and his light brown hair was darkened by dirt, sweat, and more blood.
“Fighting like beasts is usually our job.” Erik Rheagan rested his sword against a tree and flexed his hands. Two of his fingers were definitely broken, bent at odd angles. His face was smudged with blood and his armor was dented in several places.
“I think we’ve finally met our match.” Jaemus gestured back to the battlefield where the sounds of the enemy’s rabblerousing carried to them on the wind.
Reardon let out a growl. His men had been sought after mercenaries since he’d assembled them. Legends were written about them. They never lost battles. They never retreated. Victory was always theirs.
Looking over his men now, his fists curled as he took in their injuries, their blood, their defeated expressions. No soldiers under his command should look like this.
“Get some sleep, brothers,” he said. “They have not claimed victory yet.”
The men broke off into smaller groups and settled in amongst the trees as the sun slid below the horizon to end their worst day. Reardon, however, went off on his own into the darkness. When he believed himself to be far enough away from the others, he glanced around and stripped off his clothes.
The change came so easily to him now. He’d lived with the ability for years and it was second nature. As normal as his heart beating, his lungs breathing, his eyes blinking. He didn’t have to think about it. In the early years, the transformation had been painful and scary. Today, it was neither of those. He simply closed his eyes and pictured his other form.
His wolf form.
Soon he was running on four huge paws, his fur as black as the night. His keen green-gold eyes saw everything from the tiniest waver in the leaves hanging from their branches to the miniscule insects crawling over tree bark. He smelled the moist earth, the other night creatures hiding in the dark, and sadly, the blood of his lost men, slain under his command.
Reardon wasn’t accustomed to feeling guilt. Victory did not bring on such an emotion. His men never appeared to regret their decision to join him because who would lament when the prizes were so vast, the glory so encompassing, the lasses so willing to please men who fought bravely? No one. He’d made legends of his men and himself. Every man wanted that.
Today had shown him the other side of the coin, however. He’d been responsible for losing a large part of his ranks by accepting this contract with the Spanish king. Right now, too many of his loyal soldiers lay in pools of their own blood, motionless, never to take another breath again. No more glory would come upon those men.
And who would mourn them? Only Reardon and the surviving men would, for each had turned their backs on their families, choosing fighting, fame, and riches over love. Reardon had his brother, his cousins, and a few of the other men who were kin in some way, but that wasn’t the same as true family—one that started with the soft curves of a woman and grew with heirs.
This army was the most family these men were going to get. The time had come to make their bond tighter, more powerful, and less susceptible to defeat. Reardon knew of only one way to do that.
He stopped running and meandered back toward where his men slumbered. Sniffing around until he found a patch of muddy earth, he pressed his front paw into the wet dirt. When he retracted the paw, a perfect print was left behind.
Reardon shifted back to human form in the shadows of the trees and quickly dressed. His armor was dented too, his garments torn and bloody.
That will only make us look fiercer in our new incarnation.
He took a cask to the river and filled it. After coming back to the paw print, he filled it with water and squeezed a few drops of his own blood from the nearly healed slash on his forearm into it. He mixed it with his index finger and chanted words, hoping they would achieve the desired result. He’d never done this before. He wasn’t sure anyone had done this before.
Canis faelad, wolf soldier. Brothers of the pack. Bound by blood and the full moon’s silver light. Enter the beasts, behold the power, harness the strength. Canis faelad, wolf soldier.
He drew the water back into the cask, held it up so the moonlight embraced it, and set about offering each of his four closest, fiercest men a drink. When the moon reached its zenith in the black curtain of the night sky, he’d have the champions he needed.
Reardon rolled to his back, a sharp rock jutting into his spine. He shifted to sitting and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. A glance around the darkness found his men sleeping on the forest floor as he had been. His keen vision could make out their shadowy forms scattered about, and his exceptional hearing detected those that were in pain. He heard each quiet moan on inhales, each strained groan on exhales. Clenching his teeth, he peered up at the full moon, the great white eye staring down at him.
“I had no choice,” he whispered.
Still the moon drilled her light straight into him.
Reardon grunted and lowered back to the ground. He shifted to his side, aiming to catch a few more hours of sleep, but an agonized cry ripped through the night, and he launched to his feet. Sure the Spanish king’s enemies were upon them, he drew his sword and scanned the area with his enhanced sight.
No opponents crashed through the brush.
Another wail of pain rose up, followed by another, another.
When the forest immediately surrounding him was full of strangled screams, Reardon knew what was happening.
“Forgive me, brothers.” He’d made the right decision though. It was the only way his army could continue its reign of success. This was the power boost they needed. The four men in charge just below him would recognize that simple fact. They’d thank him for what he’d done to them. Their loyalty would increase tenfold.
I will be even more powerful as a leader with these warrior werewolves carrying out my orders. My glory will know no bounds.
“What is happening?” Kole asked from Reardon’s left. His voice was more a raspy growl than human.
“My body hurts… everywhere.” Shawn was on all fours, his breathing labored.
Jaemus stumbled to his feet, his arms wrapped around his mid-section as if trying to hold himself together. His brother’s golden brown eyes met Reardon’s with instant understanding.
Of course Jaemus would know.
Reardon’s brother was only a year younger and knew of the ceremony—the rite of passage all Seventh Sons born under the December full moon underwent. Jaemus had been lucky not to be that son, but the look in his golden brown eyes now told Reardon his brother knew his luck had run out.
“What have you done, Reardon?” Jaemus took a few unsteady steps toward Reardon then fell to his knees, cradling his head in his hands. “What have you done?”
Reardon sheathed his sword. “As leader of this army, I did what needed to be done.”
“You’ve damned all four of us.” Jaemus pitched forward, his forearms pressing to the ground as he writhed in pain.
“What is he talking about, Reardon?” Kole supported himself on a nearby tree, his hands clawing into the rough bark and his teeth clenched.
“Don’t be afraid, lads.” Reardon knew he had to take control quickly, or after their first change these men would be tearing each other apart. They had to save that fight for the Spanish king’s enemies so they could collect their payment and be on their way to their next contract. “Relax yourselves. Let the change happen.”
“Change?” Erik swiped his hand across his sweaty forehead, his skin a dull shade of gray. “What change?”
“I’ve given you four a rare ability—an ability that will make us unbeatable.” Yes, he’d given them a… a gift. Only he’d never considered being able to transform into a wolf a gift. It was unnatural. A man should be a man. A wolf, a wolf. The two should never have been able to coexist within one body.
And now he’d passed this on to his most trusted soldiers. His loyal comrades. His brethren—the only brethren he knew. All in the name of wealth and glory.
More tormented cries rose up, filling the night, tearing at Reardon’s soul. The noise was too much to take. He cupped his hands over his sensitive ears, trying desperately to muffle the tortured sounds, but they echoed in his head just the same. His first shift had been the epitome of suffering, but that was nothing compared to watching his faithful men twist in agony, cry out in pain as their bones cracked and reformed. Faces elongated, backs arched, hands and feet became massive paws with sharp claws. Bright white, razor-sharp teeth glowed in the moonlight and eyes flared like candle flames.
By the time the metamorphosis was complete, a pack of four large, muscular wolves stood before Reardon. The rest of the army—still human—looked on in shocked silence, almost as if they were waiting to be torn to shreds.
Reardon was about to shift to defend himself against the newly turned wolves, but a moment later, in one unified motion, all four of them lowered their heads to the ground in a show of submission. Silence permeated the forest. No more cries of pain. No more questions. No more accusing glares. Just an allegiance as strong as any blood bond. The human soldiers, as if in a trance, bowed as well just behind the line of wolves.
One word flashed in Reardon’s mind.
One word erased the overwhelming guilt that had threatened to consume him only seconds ago.
One word united his new army.
They recognized him as the leader of this newly formed pack and something swelled in Reardon’s chest. All this time he’d been alone in his ability to shift. A man and yet not a man. Now part of his army was exactly like him.
A large silver-furred wolf was the first to raise its head and approach Reardon. The golden brown eyes were unmistakable.
“Jaemus.” Reardon reached out a tentative hand and breathed a sigh of relief when the wolf nosed his fingers.
His men were still his men despite the choice he’d made without their consent.
“We still have a contract to fulfill,” he said. “What say you?”
At their howls of agreement, Reardon partially shifted. His legs, arms, and torso were that of a man, but his head had become a wolf’s, with teeth thirsting for enemy blood. His fingernails had lengthened to deadly claws perfect for gutting a man.
Around him, Jaemus, Kole, Shawn, and Erik shifted in the same manner and picked up their swords and shields as did what remained of his human soldiers. One glance at them and Reardon knew they had become an invincible fighting force. The image of them alone was enough to send men running.
And men running made perfect prey for wolves.
With a roar, Reardon led his army out of the forest and to the river. They crossed easily in the dark night with their enhanced vision. Even the human soldiers appeared to be enhanced though they had not been changed by the rite. When they reached the enemy camp, most of the soldiers were asleep, their weapons close by.
But not close enough.
The descent upon the lambs was flawless. Brutal. Primal.
By the time dawn came, only one army was still standing.
“You’ve done well. I knew I could trust your skills.” The Spanish king accepted the sword of the slain enemy chief from Reardon with a grin of approval. “We never would have succeeded without your assistance.”
“It is our calling.” Reardon bowed his head, accepting the king’s praise. He and his men had left no survivors, so any reports of wolfmen attacking died on the battlefield. His own human soldiers hadn’t cared how they’d won. They just wanted their riches. Reardon’s secret weapon was still secret.
“Allow me to deliver the agreed upon compensation for your services.” The king motioned to ten servants nearby who scurried forth, pairs of them toting large, ornately decorated chests which they set at Reardon’s feet. The vessels themselves would fetch a high price regardless of the wealth they contained. “I hope you find this satisfactory.”
Reardon lowered to one knee as Jaemus, Kole, Shawn, and Erik moved in closer behind him. He lifted the lid of one of the chests, his eyes drinking in the sight of gold and jewels heaped high—their largest bounty yet. In all his thirty-eight years, Reardon had never seen so much treasure in one spot.
“Aye, this will do quite nicely,” he said to the king. “You know how to find us should you require our services in the future.”
“I do, and thank you.” It was the king’s turn to bow his head to Reardon and his four most trusted soldiers.
Each of the men easily hefted one of the chests—increased strength among their new abilities—and followed Reardon out of the palace. They doled out the earnings fairly then headed for the ships, the sweet shores of Ireland awaiting their homecoming. When the journey was complete, the first stop was at the nearest tavern where much of the riches were spent on food and drink.
The only problem, however, was the thirsts of the men who had been changed didn’t appear to lessen as the drinks were consumed. In fact, throats burned. Mouths remained parched even after jugs and jugs where tossed back. Kole and Shawn attempted to distract from their thirst by eating the juicy legs of lamb the tavern was famous for serving, but their hunger was insatiable.
Frustrated by this strange development, the four men grew agitated, belligerent, aggressive. The owner of the tavern, usually a friend happy to see Reardon’s army, suggested they leave. When the tavernkeeper’s request was met with saliva-ridden snarls, Reardon stood and took control.
“Lads, we have spent enough time here.” He scratched at his left ear where the tip was missing, sliced away in battle a few years ago. “Let us get some fresh air into our lungs.”
At the sound of his voice—their Alpha’s voice—the men abandoned their empty mugs and half-eaten meals and preceded him out of the tavern. Reardon sent the tavernkeeper an apologetic glance before stepping out into the warm night. He led the men to the shore where their ships still bobbed.
“My skin feels wrong,” Kole said, scratching at the back of his neck as he walked.
His brother, Shawn, nodded. “As if it can no longer contain my insides.”
Erik grunted his agreement, and Reardon regarded his comrades, guilt tiptoeing back to him, squashing the high of victory he’d been enjoying.
“It is the change, my friends,” he said quietly.
“What do you mean?” Kole asked.
“He means your intellect is no longer in control.” Jaemus folded his arms across his chest. “Our wolf selves are closer to the surface. Our needs are more feral. We are part animal now.”
Reardon didn’t miss the glare in his brother’s eyes. Of all the men, Jaemus had been the least vocal since their alteration. Reardon knew for a fact that a quiet Jaemus was an angry Jaemus. As youngsters, whenever he and Jaemus had a brothers’ spat, Jaemus would always stalk off to be by himself before seeking Reardon out again to unleash his fury. Being the older, larger brother, Reardon had always been able to handle Jaemus.
The expression on his brother’s face right now, however, represented untamed fury, volatile and abundant.
“Riches, drink, food,” Jaemus continued through teeth already lengthening, “are not enough anymore. We crave other things now.”
“What other things?” Shawn asked as he raked his clawed fingers through his wild hair.
“Flesh.” When Reardon had shifted that first time after the ceremony, his father had been ready with a freshly slaughtered cow. He’d greedily torn meat from bone, not quite able to get his fill. Over time, though, his hunger had lessened and he’d learned to control himself. He’d show his men how to do the same.
“We trusted you, Reardon,” Kole said around a low growl.
Guilt was done tiptoeing. It now marched directly over Reardon and punched him. Repeatedly. Kole was right. His men had always trusted him not only to find the lucrative contracts, but to protect them both on and off the battlefield.
And he’d betrayed that trust by making one decision. He’d like to think it wasn’t a selfish decision, but hadn’t he been angry about possible surrender? Hadn’t his pride been poked with sword tips? Hadn’t he acted only to preserve their record of victory, their fame?
All egotistical reasons for what he’d done.
“You can control your wolf sides,” he said.
“We shouldn’t have wolf sides,” Jaemus said. “You’ve set us on a path to Hell.”
Reardon clenched his teeth, a sudden spark of fury awakening his own wolf. “What happened to the loyalty in battle you all displayed in Spain?” They had been willing to accept him as their Alpha. They’d heeded his suggestion to leave the tavern only moments ago. Why the sudden change?
“Wolfmen make sense in the heat of the fight,” Erik said. “When we don’t have swords in our hands and enemies in range, we are no more than savages.”
Reardon marched up to Erik, a vein in his neck pulsing as his anger grew. “We were already savages, Erik. Think about what we do.” He stepped back and threw his arms out to encompass the gathered men. “We kill for profit. We fight simply because kings tell us to and can pay us handsomely. Then we are able to close our eyes at night and sleep as if we hadn’t taken human lives. If that is not savage, I don’t know what is. I merely gave you extra weapons to do the work we do. Claws, teeth, animal instincts. You are better soldiers because of what I’ve done.”
It was a good speech, but not one Reardon entirely believed. True, he’d given these men something, but was it something they’d wanted? No. He hadn’t wanted it when he was a boy crossing the threshold to manhood.
Or wolfhood as it were.
“Can’t you take what you’ve done back?” Kole asked. “Undo it.”
Reardon shook his head. “I’m afraid once the transformation has occurred, it can’t be undone.”
“So we are destined to be like this for the rest of our lives?” Kole rubbed his temples as if an ached plagued him there. Headaches were common in the beginning. Reardon’s headaches had sent him deep into the woods in search of dark places to recover after he’d first changed.
He opened his mouth to reply, but a near-blinding flash of light caused all of them to shield their faces.
A moment later, a powerful female voice echoed through the night. “Reardon McAlator, your gift was not yours to share like this.”
Despite the incredible strength resonating in the voice, Reardon fisted his hands by his sides and yelled, “Gift? More like a curse!”
Another bolt of light crashed down among the men, causing the human soldiers to flee.
“Now you question me? I am Flidae, goddess of wild things, and you’ve made a grave mistake, wolf!”