Come, the croaking raven doth bellow
for revenge. ~ William Shakespeare
Donegal Lands, Scottish Highlands
12th Century AD
The raven flew high above the earth, her keen vision spying five Donegal hunters in the forest below.
The red and black of their plaids peeked through the trees, leaving no doubt to the true number, but she could only hear three of them. Two were silent as they stalked their prey. Even her raven hearing honed sharper than her talons could not detect the sound of their movements.
They had masked their scents as well, showing they had better control of their Chrechte nature than the others. These two Faol of the Chrechte were dangerous.
No wolf could be trusted, but one who mastered his beast was one who must be watched most carefully. He would not be easily taken in by the tricks of the Éan. It was good her raven family had set her to this task. Another, less seasoned fighter, could fail too easily with wolves such as these.
Sabrine had been protecting her people since her fifteenth summer, a long seven years past.
She circled lower, preparing for her landing. This had to look natural, but she did not relish taking human form merely to fall through a few tree branches. She was still a good distance from the men, though closer to the earth when an agonizing pain pierced her left wing.
Her first instinct was to pull her wing to her body, but she forced herself to keep it expanded so she could coast lower rather than spinning out of control. She would not die before saving her people from the wolves’ treachery.
As she neared the earth, she let her raven fall away, taking on her fully human form, just as she had planned to before the foul arrow had pierced her wing. Tree branches scratched at her body as she tumbled toward the ground.
She ignored the minor pain for the larger purpose. She would use the wolves’ thirst for blood against them. Their own actions would make way for her to find welcome in their clan.
As a helpless human female.
Dark amusement rolled through her with the pain of her landing. She grabbed the arrow, broke off the tip, gripped the other side, and yanked it from her arm.
As her world turned black around the edges, she threw the offending weapon as far from her as possible.
Barr’s big body spun silently at the sound of an arrow leaving its bow. Rage rode him harder than an Englishman’s seat on his horse. No visible sign of the wild boar, there was no damn excuse for using the weapon.
Muin’s attention focused on the sky, not the forest where it was supposed to be, the youngest in their party stood with his bow still lifted as if prepared to shoot again.
It would be easier to train the English, Barr thought with a snarl he made no attempt to suppress. He’d known Chrechte cubs with better hunting instincts.
“What the hell was that, boy?” Barr demanded in quiet tones meant to get his anger across but not to carry.
“I saw a raven,” Muin whispered fervently. “My gran-da says they’re bad luck and to kill them on sight.”
“Oh? And did your gran-da also teach you how to hunt?” Barr demanded with barely retrained wrath. “Did he teach you to warn our prey of our approach?”
“The boar would not have heard the arrow.” Muin’s attempt at defense carried no distance with Barr.
He moved so he towered over the beardless boy. “What happens when you kill a bird in the sky?”
Muin swallowed, his face twitching despite the fact he so obviously tried to hide his nerves. “It falls to the earth.”
“That is right. Do you suppose the bird will show us the courtesy of landing without sound?”
Not for the first time since coming to the Donegal clan as acting laird and Chrechte pack leader, Barr wondered if he had the patience for the task. Muin wasn’t usually one of the idiotic ones. That was the only thing saving him a hard knock to the ground.
The young clansman’s face took on a hue as ruddy as his plaid. “I uh...”
“Acted without thought. I would agree.”
“I’m sorry, laird.” Muin ducked his head, the shame he felt a palpable taste in the air around them.
“Do it again and I’ll toss you like a caber.”
The youth raised his face to meet Barr’s gaze. Barr had to respect the courage it took to do that. He didn’t usually frighten grown men like his brother Niall, mostly because he knew how to smile — not that he’d had reason to do so lately. However, his size intimidated many among the Donegal clan, Chrechte and human alike.
“Yes, laird?” Muin asked.
“We are Chrechte. We respect all life. We hunt for food, not for sport.”
“But the birds, they’re bad luck.”
“They’re birds. Only old men who remember their yesterdays better than today and cubs believe a bird brings or takes luck. You are a warrior. Act like it.”
Muin straightened, pulling his shoulders back. “Aye, laird.”
Barr shook his head and turned to continue their pursuit of the wild boar, for all the good it would do them. If their hunting party returned with a kill, he’d revise his opinion of these young Donegal Chrechte.
Earc would still have the boar’s scent at least. The other Sinclair warrior who had come with Barr to train the Donegal soldiers and the Chrechte among them never gave up on a hunt.
And he had not on this one, but he looked puzzled by the path the boar took through the forest. “It’s running from us,” Earc said in a voice no human would have been able to hear.
“You think it smells our younger Chrechte?” They had not yet mastered the ability to mask their scents for long periods of time.
“I dinna ken. Something has it spooked. ‘Tis running without thought for direction I’m thinking.”
“Circin and I will get ahead of it and chase it back to the rest of you.”
Shifting into his wolf form, Barr followed the boar’s scent, determined to bring down their prey. Circin, the other Chrechte who had control of his change, followed suit. The others that did not, followed at a faster run than most humans could manage.
The scent of something besides boar teased at Barr’s wolf’s senses, demanding his attention with subtle power. Something tantalizing and different. Something his wolf could not ignore. Even more imperative than prey, it insistently drew his wolf’s attention from the hunt.
The boar all but forgotten, the wolf strained to follow the new scent, causing his canine body to twist with preternatural grace. Never breaking the pace of his running, and not waiting for approval from his conscious mind for the change in course, the wolf followed where the inner beast demandingly led.
Barr’s human mind tried to decipher what his senses were telling him, but he had never encountered a scent quite like this one. Nor had he ever reacted to smell alone with this impossible-to-deny need.
A need so basic, it found acceptance in his beast, while his human mind remained mystified.
Was the smell that of a human? He raised his snout to sniff the air more fully. Pine. Loamy earth. Sunshine. A rabbit. A squirrel. Dead leaves and dried pine needles. And the scent. Undeniably human, undeniably more.
And female. Not in heat, but with the subtle fragrance of her sex. Though no wolf’s musk mixed with the other smells.
If not a wolf, she must be human. His sense of other had to come from her unique scent.
For, if not wolf, what else was there?
Mothers told their cubs tales of other shifter tribes, but those were just fairy stories told to entertain little ones. Wolves were the only Chrechte he or anyone in the Sinclair clan had ever known. If other shifter races existed, the wolves would be aware of them. They were too territorial not to be.
He broke through the trees and came skidding to a halt, his claws scrabbling at the ground for purchase. He had been running too fast. Not since he was a cub, had he approached an unknown situation with such lack of restraint. More than troubling, if his brother or his former laird could see him now, they would fall on their asses laughing.
Even that assurance of humiliation barely found purchase in his mind, his attention too focused on the source of the scent.
She lay on the ground, her raven black hair covering one breast, but the other one completely exposed to his gaze. Though not overly generous, it was perfectly formed and tipped with a rose pink nipple that begged for his lips and tongue to wake it. From the shape of her delicate feet, to the feminine slope of her hip, to the gentle curve of her shoulder, and all bits in between, she was just as perfectly formed to engender carnal hunger in Barr and his beast.
The black curls gracing the juncture of her thighs glinted with a blue sheen under the sunlight just like the long tresses covering her head. ‘Twas truly like the ravens of the air. Carrion birds they might be, but they had an elegance of color and form not to be ignored.
Barr spared a quick but sincere hope Muin had missed with his ill-timed arrow. The thought of loveliness such as this, even in the mere form of a bird, destroyed for mere superstition sickened him.
Barr’s naked woman, continue to lay unconscious on the forest floor. Her fragile beauty called to his protective instincts, touching a part of his wolf that had never before come to the surface. Though tall for a female, she would still be puny beside his human body. He wanted to put himself between her and any potential threat.
‘Twas not a feeling he usually experienced for any but those he called clan, and never had he felt it to this depth.
Her current state only made the need to protect grow, until his wolf snarled with it. Her lovely, pale skin was marred by numerous small scratches, as if she’d been running through the bushes. Perhaps another wild boar had found her bathing and she had been forced to flee?
He loped forward, sniffing at her with his enhanced senses. Perplexed in both mind and instinctual memory, the elusive sense of otherness continued to tease at him. But something else was there too. Blood. In greater amounts than the scratches would account for. He had not perceived it before because that other scent had so confused him. But blood it was.
A killing rage hazed the usually sharp grey and white images his wolf’s eyes saw. The wee one was wounded, her perfect, milk pale skin obscenely marred by a hole in her upper arm, still oozing sluggish rivulets of red.
He quickly examined the area around them, but saw no sign of what had made the injury. However, it did not appear to be from a stray tree branch. The wound did not have the jagged edges of an injury inflicted while running, by something as innocent as a tree branch in the wrong place. He nudged her arm with his snout so he could see the other side.
Whatever had pierced her had gone all the way through, leaving a matching tear in the skin opposite.
Had she fled from attack, not by a wild animal, but something much more dangerous? A human.
There were no clans to the north of them from this side of the Donegal holding. It was all wilderness and Barr could not decide where she, much less her attacker, had come from.
A soft moan slipped from between her small, bow-shaped lips, the hand of her uninjured arm moving restlessly as if reaching for him. He had transformed back to human by the time a set of alluring brown eyes flickered open.
Dark pools of confusion stared up at him as she blinked slowly once and then twice. A small furrow forming between her brows, she went to move, but then fell back with a gasp, pain marring her beautiful features.
“What happened?” The words came out in a whisper as if speaking was difficult.
The sense of otherness disappeared as if it had never been. He was so startled by it and by her asking him the question he burned to have her answer, he took a moment to speak. “I do not know.”
“Who are you?” Her voice was a little stronger, but not by much.
He could not dismiss the feeling she was used to having her queries answered quickly and completely though. Unless she was a queen, which he very much doubted, ‘twas odd for human woman in their world. Whether man or beast’s instincts, he did not know, but he was certain he was right, however.
“I am Barr, laird of the Donegal clan, on whose land you now find yourself.”
“Barr?” Shock dilated the pupils of her dark brown eyes, making them look almost all black, like those of an adult raven. “Laird?”
He had birds on the brain. “That is right.” Though why the news should shock her, he could not imagine. ‘Twas not as if he did not look like a laird.
No man in the Donegal clan even came close to being as intimidating, but then she could not know that.
“I...” Her mouth stayed parted, as if words trembled to come out, but none did.
The sound of running footsteps nearby drew Barr’s attention, making him realize how intent on the woman he had been. He should have heard the approaching Donegal clansman much sooner.
Muin ran right up to them, stopping only when he was barely a foot from the human female. The youth’s eyes went wide and his face turned red for the second time that afternoon, but he did not look away from Barr’s mysteriously naked woman.
“Earc and the others are still hunting the boar. He sent me to join you in case you needed assistance. Do you need assistance, laird?”
Barr’s wolf growled at the other man’s obvious interest in the wounded woman’s nudity. He covered the blatantly possessive action with a barked out, “Look at your laird when you address him, Muin.”
The Donegal soldier jumped back at the sound too low for human ears, his gaze immediately moving away the raven-tressed female.
The woman paled and flinched, filling Barr with immediate concern. She must be in pain.
“Laird, who is this?” Muin asked, with a furtive glance at the woman.
“Look away.” Barr’s voice rolled across the air with fury, causing a physical flinch and further stepping back of the young hunter. “Retrieve my plaid and dinna get your scent all over it.”
“Follow my scent if you can,” Barr instructed from between clenched teeth.
“Yes, laird.” The man ran.
In a belated show at modesty, the woman pulled her hair forward over her shoulder, so both breasts were covered, one leg coming up to block his view of her tantalizing triangle of black curls. “You must be laird; he obeyed you without argument.”
“Did you think I’d lie to you?” Humans could be odd, and though he’d known this one for mere minutes, he suspected he would find her even more incomprehensible than most.
Disgust flickered over her face, but it went so quickly, it could have been a trick of the afternoon light. “The Faol of the Chrechte sometimes do.”
Shock gripped him and would not let go. She knew he was a wolf? And why had she used the ancient name so few remembered even in their spoken histories?
“You are surprised.” Her head canted, birdlike, to one side. “Why?”
A ridiculous question, and yet he answered it. “Only the Chrechte and some of the humans related to them know of our wolf natures.”
“But you shifted from your wolf form in front of me.”
“You were not conscious.”
She muttered something that sounded like typical wolf. “Clearly, I was.”
“So, are mated to a wolf?” The thought made his hackles rise, though he could not say why.
The look of utter revulsion once again stayed on her face for less than a second, but this time he had no doubts it had been there.
“You hate the Chrechte,” he said in a flat voice, shocked once again — both by that truth and how deeply it bothered him.
Turbulent fury turned her eyes into a brown lightning storm. “I do not hate the Chrechte.”
Her vehemence was undeniable, so was the sense there was more she wanted to say, but her lips remained firmly closed, going bloodless she pressed them so tightly together.
He guessed, “You have Chrechte family, but you were born without the ability to shift into a wolf.” It was not a rare story and for some, the situation caused bitterness.
“I cannot shift into a wolf,” she said, her tone implying that was no great loss to her.
Barr would never forget how the brother of the Balmoral laird had been impacted by his inability to change. Ulf’s own father had rejected him because of it and that had twisted Ulf so he lost his sense of honor and compassion.
Clearly, Barr’s charge felt some sort of ambivalence toward her Chrechte family as well. Though he doubted very much it would lead her down the path Ulf had taken. If for no other reason than because she was a human woman and fragile.
“What are you doing here?” He asked, wanting the answer before Muin returned.
She looked around them. “In the forest?”
“On Donegal land.” He barely restrained rolling his eyes. He had no doubt she knew exactly what he meant and had chosen to play at misunderstanding.
“I do not know.”
She did not look like she was jesting , but she had to be. “I am hurt,” she said as if that should explain everything.
It did not. “Yes, you are.”
“How did I get that way?”
“Shouldn’t you tell me?”
“But I don’t know.”
Funny, there was no scent of a lie and yet, he hesitated to believe her. That had never happened to him before. “How can you not know?”
She merely looked at him.
“The wound in your arm looks like it came from a human weapon.” It was too isolated to be a bite or claw mark.
“Were you attacked?”
“I must have been. By a violent knave with no conscience.” Her voice was filled with loathing, too much so not to know her attacker.
“Who was it?”
“I do not know him.” This rang with absolute sincerity, but did not match the near hatred in her earlier tone.
‘Twas a puzzle to be sure. “Little one—“
“My name is Sabrine.”
That was something at least. “What clan are you from?”
“I don’t know.”
“How can you not know?”
She pressed her hand to her forehead, like she was trying to push thoughts inside. “I should know, but I don’t.”
“Did you fall and addle your brains, I wonder.”
“It must have.” She tried again to sit up. This time she succeeded, though the pain in her expression said it cost her dearly to do so. “I do not like the idea of my brain in a muddle.”
Again there was no scent to indicate a lie, but the words did not ring with full truth all the same. It must be her confused state perplexing his wolf’s senses. “I am sure you do not.”
“What will I do?”
That was one answer he did have. “Until you remember where you are from, you will return to the Donegal holding with me.”
The urgency his wolf had felt to be near this woman had lessened since she woke, but it was not gone completely. It was as if it was still there. Only hidden from him, which made less sense than Sabrine’s inability to remember her own clan, while able to remember about the Chrechte.
He had hidden nothing from his wolf since his first change, and vice-versa; they couldn’t. Man or beast, they were one in the same.
Had she been Chrechte, he would have guessed she was masking her scent and distracting his wolf’s senses, but even doing so could not completely mask the wolf nature. And she had none. Muin returned with Barr’s plaid before he could finish pondering this oddity and determine what it meant.
Keeping his body between the young Donegal clansman and Sabrine, Barr used his plaid to cover her nakedness, careful not to jostle her arm, or her clearly tender body. He then gently lifted her into his arms.
And something fundamentally both wolf and human settled inside him at the rightness of it.
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