Runa, alone, survives the massacre.
But a traitorous mage has captured her king’s essence—his vital energy, linked to a long line of wolf-shifter rulers. Unless Runa can recover that power by dawn, the mage will command not only her, but also her kindred. Yet Runa is the weakest of the pack. Her quest will fail unless she finds help, and the dark winter woods is deserted but for a small dog and a young soldier.
Prince Paolo is eager for adventure and stirred to action by Runa’s ordeal. As they learn to respect each other’s unique skills, attraction blossoms. But the mage is a trusted figure from Paolo’s past. And he’s filled his lair with marvelous steam-powered machinery and ambitious plans for the prince’s future. Paolo can’t help but have second thoughts about Runa’s story and must choose between his promise to Runa and the life he’d hardly dared to envision.
Can Runa recover the king’s essence and protect her kindred? The answers lie in the wolf’s very heart.
Targeted Age Group:: adult
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
An image came to mind on a frozen Valentine's Day: a heart hangs from a tree in a snow woods. Add a wizard's tower full of dangers inspired by tarot cards and a steampunk sort of fairy tale in which the heroes must save each other, and I had a story.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
I was interested in two unlikely heroes teaming up, both suspicious and attracted to each other. Each has skills the other one devalues, but turns out to be needed to overcome the villain.
Runa dragged herself under a sickly yew, its dry branches spread low—“Shield me, friend”—and flattened her wolf-shape against the frozen ground. Her white fur melded with the frost-flecked grass. She licked blood from her wounded flank, chest, and paws.
It was late afternoon, judging from the long shadows that crawled across the landscape. Had she been captive in the stronghold an entire day? She gazed at the expanse of dead, clipped grass, precise shrub borders, and scattered clusters of young trees, bare and wizened. Beyond them rose a thick pine forest, marred by large swaths of tree stumps, evidence of clear-cut logging. A snow-covered road meandered through the woods and up the hill toward her. She sniffed the air. Trolldomr—evil sorcery—was at work.
A veil of snow covered the ground, and Runa smelled more snow to come. Fat clouds slid down the mountains from the west, encompassing the sky, and fog hugged the ground under the dead saplings. The fog might provide some cover if she asked nicely but taking shelter among the trees felt perilous. She knew in her heart that she must escape this place while she still had the strength. Yesterday, no, two nights ago, the drott—her high chieftain—had led the troop of warriors into an ambush. She’d be of no use to Drott Ulf if she were dead herself. No, she must heal, find help, and come back.
Bolting from the yew’s cover toward the possible safety of the largest grove, Runa was but half the distance across the lawn when a tall figure, dark against the snow and fog, appeared from the copse. She knew him. Andries. A whimper escaped her lips as she retreated a few steps. Don’t be a fool, she chided herself. Don’t show weakness. she advanced, growling, “Let me pass, traitor.”
“Runa, you know me.” Andries sauntered across the frozen grass toward her, “I’m your friend. Let me help you and your people.”
Her people—the kindred. How had she, weakest of her clan, alone escaped? What had he done with the drott and the earls?
He held his open hands out to his sides. “As you can see, I’ve no weapons. I could never defeat someone like you without a blade. You’ve always had the advantage over me, though too timid to use it.”
Andries had convinced the kindred he was an honest man with useful metalworking skills, merely lost in the mountains. They’d taken him in, treated him as their own. But now he reeked of perverse sorcery.
“Where are the others?” Runa lunged, knocked him to the ground, and pounced on his chest.
Andries didn’t fight. He smiled as she swiped and snarled at him, his breath a warm stirring of air against her fur. “My, you are in a bad way, aren’t you?”
“Don’t laugh at me.” She managed a blow, but it glanced off his jaw.
He pursed his lips, his face a mask of false concern. “That’s it? Your best attack?”
A memory intruded: screams and blood and a pile of pelts. Bile burned her throat.
“I’m entirely in your power. Kill me now,” he said, “if you’ve the will. After all we’ve meant to each other.” He embraced her, stroking her fur.
She snarled and aimed to sink her teeth into his throat but bit his cloak instead.
“Or,” he said, “let me tend your wounds.” He pushed her off his chest and nestled her on the ground. “Brew you a healing draught.”
She struggled to escape. “I’ll kill you.”
“I beg to differ. I’m rather hard to kill now; your drott’s quiddity—his very essence— roots itself in me.”
“I know you can discern what I say is true. I am your liege lord, your drott, by the laws and customs of Frekigard.”
Runa sniffed. Andries certainly smelled of Drott Ulf. Yet unnatural sorcery tainted the scent of the old king. Would Ulf have willingly yielded his marrow to Andries? No, this sorcerer must have stolen it, in some perversion of the ritual. “You . . . you’re . . . wrong.”
With a smirk, Andries patted her head and sprang to his feet. He took a strange object from his pocket—a long, thin box.
She crouched in the snow, curious, but more intent on which direction she should run. He slid the box lid back and forth, never actually opening it, his face twisted in concentration.
Her eyes darted across the horizon. Forest to the south and east. Tor formations—piles of massive boulders, rounded over centuries of wind, rain, and snow—to the north.
She’d just decided to take cover among the trees when a corrupted version of the rune Sei?r rose from the box. It wafted on the mist, then flared and hissed against the huge snowflakes that had begun to fall.
Andries scooped the symbol off the air and caressed it against Runa’s throat. She yelped and leapt back: The rune was as a white-hot poker.
“Hush, hush. I’m sorry.” He knelt before her, gathered her in his arms, and licked the burn on her throat. “Where else are you wounded?”
She scrambled away and ran into the forest beyond the park of dead trees and flower beds.
“Go now. You’ll be back,” Andries called after her. “Our fates are intertwined. In fact, you’ll do me a great service this day. I’m your drott—will be at dawn, anyway. Like it or not, my will rules your heart.”
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