Authors: Jess Raven,Paula Black
She met his eyes, throat bobbing in a nervous swallow, but she didn’t resist. He couldn’t help her if she wouldn’t let him.
The smile that curved his lips was admiration and, with a wink that shot heat between her thighs, Mac knotted the fabric at the back of her head, blotting her vision to black. Fingertips brushed her cheek.
‘Breathe … relinquish your fear … in order to attain control, you must first let go.’
Tears knotted her words and she was grateful for the silk catching the few that escaped. ‘I’m afraid.’ Her control was rarely relinquished. It kept her together. It had protected her for so long, she found it difficult to hand it over.
‘Reach inside yourself, Ashling. Find your place, your serenity.’
‘My place? I don’t ...’ Honestly, there wasn’t a place she could think of that was serene for her. Her life had been lonely, or nightmarish, or hectic with overwhelming passion, and she couldn’t think. The smoke was making her drunk, a fog in her head that barely took the edge off the unnerving sensory deprivation he’d wrapped her up in. He didn’t speak but she could feel him on the peripheral of her senses. She focussed on that as her anchor, while the rest of her body floated.
Breathe, don’t think, relax.
Her eyes closed behind the blindfold and she exhaled, blowing away the fog in her head and finding a clear gap in the haze.
Huh, am I tripping right now?
Because the mist gave way to a circle of stones that was all too familiar. She even had a guide. Ash lurched forwards in her dream-space on unsteady legs, her hands sinking into silver fur as the large mutt waiting on the outskirts of the graves bounded into her. His slobbering tongue felt real, his coat silky, bunched around her fingers.
She was dead, or she was glimpsing heaven, her mutt attention-seeking with a damn gnawed sock hanging proudly from his jaws. But he didn’t want to play. He nosed at her hip, pushing her forwards when she would have halted just to pet him. He yipped, and, bemused, she looked to where he’d crouched, tail wagging in the air like a flag. Beyond him … Ash staggered. What was in the centre of those stones was surely a hallucination. At the epicentre of this place her brain had conjured from the drugging smoke, Connal was laid out on a marble slab, surrounded by the graves, like a very male equivalent of Snow White, dead but not dead.
Of course, he would be her serenity.
Her knees buckled at his side and her hands clutched desperately at the lapels of his jacket, lips meeting lips in a tender crush to his cool mouth. He didn’t awaken, no fairytale magic infused him with life. Her heart twisted in her chest, a pain so deep she didn’t think she could ever surface from it.
Shhh … it’s okay Little Red ...
Ash’s head whipped up, red-rimmed eyes shooting to Connal’s face. It was his voice, but he hadn’t stirred.
She choked, breaking up her words. ‘No, it’s not okay, Big Bad. I’m sorry, Oh God, I’m so sorry. I lead you to your death.’
And there it was. The truth, the guilt, that she’d killed the man she loved and she’d never got to say she was sorry. That she loved him more than she’d been able to tell him. They’d never even had a chance before they’d been thrown into hell.
No sorries, mo ghrá. Everything happens for a reason.
God, she’d missed his voice.
are my reason! It wasn’t supposed to end like this.’ The flats of her palms pounded his chest.
I don’t believe in happily ever afters, Little Red,
he still didn’t move,
but I would go happily into the ever after, knowing I finally did something right. We are so right together, Ash.
She quivered, holding back the grief that threatened to tear her from this moment.
Her voice was soft, breathed to his mouth. ‘I’m so alone, Connal. I’m afraid. Don’t leave me, please. I love you.’
She was clinging to his motionless form, as though her presence alone could bring him back. She wanted to see his eyes open, to watch his mouth shape the words that were so clear in her head.
I am never, ever letting you go, Little Red. You need to fight. Whatever it takes to survive, Ash. You are stronger than you know.
‘You are stronger than you know ...’ The words were distorted, layered, Mac’s voice superimposing itself over Connal’s.
She cried out a protest as the hallucination broke under the lash of the whip. It snapped over her skin and she lost her hold on Connal. The animal moved beneath her skin and she torqued in the restraints.
You are stronger than you know
… Latching onto Connal’s words, Ash reached deep and tugged at the leash, holding back the violent tide of the change. Breath ragged, a sweat broke on her flushed skin as she forced the blaze into retreat, her bones realigning, fur subdued.
Mac’s howl was joyous and she could only imagine how he looked, watching her fight the transformation. ‘Yes, Ashling! Excellent. You are a quick study.’
Her growl was not entirely human. ‘You bastard. You’re getting off on this aren’t you?’
His answer was to strike again, the fall of the whip cracking across the curves of her ass. She yelped, bearing claws and fangs at the bite of pain.
He laughed, deep and throaty. ‘Maybe, just a little. And so are you. You smell of sex.’ He ran the butt of the whip down the curve of her spine. She arched instinctively, cursed herself. Cursed him.
Once more, Ash beat back the change. It helped if she imagined holding Connal, protecting him from her own reactions. She didn’t want to claw him. And she damn well wouldn’t give Mac the satisfaction of seeing her lose control. ‘Go fuck yourself,’ she spat blindly at him.
‘I’d much rather fuck you.’
Ash held herself in check, refusing to rise to the bait. ‘You’re not half the male your brother was.’ She said it quietly, but the sudden stillness on the other side of the blindfold told her he’d heard. She could feel the stinging impact of her words in the shift of his breathing.
He got guttural.
She was beyond caring. ‘You could never satisfy me the way Connal did. Is that why you killed him? So you could claim top dog? Well, guess what, Mac. Born a runt, always a runt.’
The king’s breaths became ominous rumblings. MacTire was beyond words.
She laughed and it was a little bit smug and a whole lot mocking. ‘Aww did I pull your trigger, Mac?’ Dripping sarcasm, she fed his words back to him. ‘Just breathe … relinquish your fear … in order to attain control, you must first let go.’
A whining snap crackled through the air and she flinched, bracing for the punishing flay of the whip.
But it wasn’t the whip that hit her.
Before she could utter another word, Ash collided with rock and was overwhelmed by a mass of fur and muscle. The giant beast snarled at her neck, canines clamping a possessive grip, threatening to puncture her exposed skin. The leash was out of her hands.
She let go.
A roar all her own ripped from her throat and was buried in his pelt as her teeth sank through tendons in a Pitbull grip. Violence raged her head with growls. The blindfold snapped. She felt like she was exploding. Her jaw locked in the wolf’s throat, trapping its jugular, and she relished the howl that shuddered the mammoth beast against her body.
Everything was amplified, his heart rushed in her mouth, kissing her tongue with frantic beats that only clamped her jaw harder and tore growls from him. Rage and power and lust became who she was, what she was, and it opened the gates for him to get through. Ash had no defence when Mac’s massive jaws clamped her shoulder, fighting for what was inside her, biting deep. Ash screamed, raking her claws down the heavy, furred spine. The vines snapped free, no match for her newly powerful limbs. Her body splintered in an orgasm so vicious, so complete, that she swore she died.
Their howls mingled and seconds later, fur and fangs melted away to rough-grinding muscle, sweat-glistening skin on skin. Mac leaned into the contact, his forehead pressed to hers, panting heavily, a breath from her lips. His eyes were glassy, blissed-out and high on something other than incense.
Ash was molten, crushed up to his chest, hips plastered to his. He’d been right. His pants hadn’t survived the shift. She couldn’t look up, couldn’t look down, kept her gaze on the rings glinting through his nipples. She sickened herself. The wet heat between her thighs filled her with disgust. Her inner muscles flexed with an orgasmic aftershock and she whimpered. He’d brought her to her knees with not much more than a bite. Then again, he’d fallen first, and by the look on his face, he’d fallen harder. Enough was enough.
She shrugged off his possessive drape, ducking under his arm while he came to his senses. He turned to her, agape. She’d taken control, and he knew it. Black eyes gleamed at her, brightening with the realisation.
Ash bent to pick up the discarded robe and closed it around herself with as much dignity as her arousal drenched panties could afford. Her glance raked his nakedness, head to toe, and she took on his smirk. ‘Guess you’re not the one wearing the pants anymore, huh Mac?’ Ash took pleasure from his expression. He was turned-on and working up from blissed to pissed off. ‘I think, maybe,' she laughed, 'you’re going to need stronger restraints next time.’
‘Wake the fuck up, Sleeping Beauty.’
The voice sounded like a possessed
Speak and Spell
on dying batteries, and something was kissing him, a soft press of skin against cracked lips. The something moved in rhythmic undulations … an alien sensation, like no mouth Connal had ever tasted. His heart rate spiked. Cold, it was so damn cold his numb limbs refused to cooperate beyond a teeth-chattering shiver. Forcing crusted lids to part, the space warped in and out of focus. An amorphous shadow hunched over him. It thrust what looked like a weapon towards his face and Connal jerked back instinctively, only to struggle against the crude hogtie holding his wrists and ankles.
The move was a mistake. Pain ripped through his chest like shrapnel, expelling the air from his lungs on a grunt. His body curled in, trying to protect itself, but only succeeded in straining the ligatures tighter. With the hurt, at least, came a clarity that brought the world, and a face his recognised, into crystal-sharp focus. The
doctor loomed large before him.
‘The girl?’ Connal croaked.
He probably should have been more concerned about waking in a world of pain, trussed-up like a pig, and with Doctor Death for a cellmate, but his first thought, his only real thought, was for Ash.
‘The girl,’ he growled at Madden’s vacant expression, ‘Ashling. Did she make it?’
The doctor hunkered down, getting eye level with Connal’s view. His unshaven face was pale in the half-light, more gaunt than Connal remembered. ‘I don't know,' he said, 'MacTire took her.’
'What do you mean you don't know? You're the King's fucking physician.' Connal’s glare was murderous. He arched back against the binds, teeth bared, cheek ground into the dirt as he fought to get free. Bottling his frustration, he exhaled, a pain, more than physical, bracketing hard lines around his mouth. Letting his head fall back against the rock, he tested his binds again for good measure. Not budging. ‘You couldn’t just kill me?’ He rasped drily. Funny, he hadn’t credited his half-brother with the patience for cold-blooded revenge. But whatever they did to him now was irrelevant, as long as Ash was alive.
The doctor’s eyes narrowed. ‘You think I haven’t had my hands around your thick fucking throat a hundred times? You’ve been out for days,’ his voiced trailed to a whisper. ‘That’s a lot of time to fantasise about killing a man.’
Alarm spiked through Connal’s initial suspicions. Something about this situation was way off. His question was directed at MacTire’s men in general, not the doc in specific. Why send a
to finish him off? Matter of fact, what was the doctor doing in this cell with him, and wearing nothing but a ragged, unbelted robe?
‘This isn’t MacTire's prison, is it?’
Madden shook his head slowly and sat back a safe distance. ‘She was breathing when they took her, that’s all I know,’ he said.
Connal snarled, bared the whites of his eyes and kicked back against the rock.
Madden backed up, like he was putting what little space he could between his life and the rabid anger directed against it.
‘You brought me here?’ Connal spat the words like teeth. Slowly, little shards of memory and simple deductions were falling into place. The Doctor was acting alone. But ... ‘Why?’
‘Before you die, I want the truth, about my sister.’
‘Your sister?’ The adrenaline kick was wearing off rapidly, and Connal’s lids hovered at half-mast, the shake in his limbs now so amplified that it threatened to keel him over.
‘It can wait,’ Madden grunted. ‘You need to eat, you’re dehydrated, you’re suffering from hypothermia, you’ve lost a massive amount of blood. I don’t even know how you survived what they did to you.’
The doctor shuffled forward to thrust what Connal now saw was a stick towards his chapped lips. On the end of the branch something pink, bulbous and slimy was skewered alive. Its undulations told Connal it was the same creature that had kissed his mouth to consciousness. Eyes peeled wide, his hollow gut retched, lips clamping into a thin line as his trussed body lurched a retreat across the rocky ground. He didn’t get far before his skull cracked back against jagged stone.
‘What the fuck is that?’ he muttered, eyeing the giant maggot-thing and its serrated, sucker mouth with revulsion.
‘We call them fleshworms. They burrow underground, live on … well, the name is self-explanatory. They taste like shit, but they’re surprisingly nutritious.’
Connal shuddered. ‘Think I preferred MacTire’s torture.’
Memories flashed across his cortex, of being strung up between the rocks, of the blade butchering through his rib-cage, of rough hands ripping the organs from his chest, of the last breath he kissed to her cold mouth before Ash was dragged from his arms, the black veins of death still vining her skin, limp in the arms of that varg.
If she hadn’t made it, there would be no reason to go on.
The echoes of agony brought tears to his eyes. Living through it hadn’t been on the cards for Connal. He’d burned all his bridges. But what if she’d made it? Hope didn’t dare poke its head above the trench, for fear of being shot down.
‘These fleshworms are the only thing that’s kept you alive,’ Madden lifted the forked stick to regard its impaled victim with clinical curiosity, ‘you could show some gratitude.’
‘My compliments to the Chef,’ Connal replied drily.
Jesus, if he took a bite out of that thing, Connal was going to puke, and if he was telling the truth, that he’d been feeding him those things while he was out cold, then those were some vile cookies he had no desire to see. The guy was certifiable. But Looney Toon or not, he was clearly trying to help. He tentatively rolled his shoulders. The skin pulled tight across his back, and everything ached like a mother, but his organs definitely weren’t inside out and, the best he could tell, there were no open wounds.
‘Maybe they weren’t the only thing keeping me alive? You patched me up?’
‘Just call me Dr. Frankenstein.’
‘Why would you help me?’
‘I told you why,’ he bit out.
‘Your sister, right,’ Connal nodded. ‘How did I get here?’
‘I cut you down and dragged you. I did what I could, with what I had: a makeshift bone needle, silk thread from this ... thing,’ he tugged at the ragged lapels of a once scarlet robe, now grey with dust, ‘a botched job, even for field work, I’m not proud of it. There will be scars, ugly ones. They broke you bad, Savage, and I’m not all the King’s horses nor all the King’s men. If
find us, eating fleshworms will be the least of our problems.’
‘You betrayed MacTire?’ Connal’s lids flared with a mixture of disbelief and reluctant respect. ‘You’ve seen first hand what he does to turncoats.’
‘It wasn’t on your account, Savage. Trust me.’ Madden glared back at him, blood suffusing his hollow, scruffed cheeks.
‘Connal. I’ve gone by the name Connal these past centuries.’
‘Your name could be Lassie for all I care. I really don’t give a fuck.’
‘I prefer Cujo myself.’ Connal’s dry laugh turned serious. ‘Thanks, all the same,’ he said quietly, ‘for what it’s worth.’
Madden grunted.‘Yeah, well, you know what they say. No good deed goes unpunished.’
‘Speaking of good deeds, I suppose untying me is out of the question?’ Connal asked. With sensation returning to bound limbs, cramps were setting into every unnatural angle of his contorted body.
‘Sorry,’ Madden shook his head, lips tight, avoiding eye contact, ‘I can’t do that.’
‘Figures.’ Connal gave a short nod, under no illusion that this was all some Good Samaritan act, but whatever the Doctor’s motives for keeping him alive, he couldn’t bring himself to resent them. With the tables turned, he’d have done the same. The doc would take what he needed and then put Connal out of his misery, or die trying.
without the power to turn wolf was no match for a full-blooded varg, even an injured one, and a scrimpy knot of silk could never restrain the beast. That he was still bound meant the wolf had stayed at bay, though, and Connal had a disturbing theory as to why that was. Not that he was in a sharing mood. Let the doctor sweat that one out for himself. ‘If you won’t untie me, I need a distraction from the pain, Doc. You said you wanted answers? So ask. Who’s your sister?’
Madden had no appetite for sadism. Tying the male while he still had the upper hand was simple self-preservation.
a voice chirped up, and he stabbed the stick further into the squirming maggot. It burrowed into the hard rock for an escape, and got nowhere.
I know how you feel, buddy.
Immortality, lived out in this claustrophobic crawl space, had seemed a grim enough prospect. Being locked in with a vicious animal added a whole new dimension of fear.
The King’s men had done a real number on Connal Savage, sliced him like sushi and carved his lungs into something that wouldn’t look out of place adorning a plate of Chinese food. Still, he didn’t trust the tie of his robe to keep that male restrained. Even in his debilitated state, the Savage was a specimen of power, and if he turned varg? … Well, there would be no such thing as a safe distance.
What the hell had he been thinking, hiding himself in a cave with a self-confessed genocidal maniac? No food, no water, no fucking way out. With the Raveners screeching overhead and MacTire’s men guarding the only way back to the surface, it was a prison of his own idiotic making. In the cold light of starvation, imprisonment, and the imminent threat to his life, discovering the truth seemed a paltry reason to die. But he had to know.
His jaw tipped up. ‘My sister was Aoife, consort of MacTire and Queen of the Fomorians.’ He fisted the robe, anchoring the tremor that had drifted into his voice. ‘She was amongst the first slain on the night of the Blód-Samhain. She and her son, and every other man, woman and child too weak to flee the horde of untame
set upon them.’ Madden’s brow was etched with the pain of ancient memories. His chest shuddered. Tousled hair fell into his eyes as he kicked the flailing fleshworm into the dust and it squirmed away. ‘She died by your hand, you son of a bitch.’
‘I did not kill your sister, Healer.’ Connal’s otherworldly eyes shone crimson across the gloom of the cave.
Madden’s hands tightened into fists, bloodless skin wrapped tight to the knuckles. ‘Perhaps not with your own hands, but you unleashed those creatures on helpless innocents, on a night when every fighting male was away from the longphort. They never stood a fucking chance.’
Connal drew a long breath. ‘I’ve had an eternity to regret what I did that night.’
Madden’s body was shaking, eyes glassy in the half-light. His breathing had taken on a strange, hitching rhythm that rose in jagged exhales to a crescendo roar that reverberated off the walls of the cave and scattered the raveners to the skies.
In that moment, something snapped inside him, more wolf than
, all humanity stripped away, he bared his teeth and the whites of his eyes gleamed with a manic fury as he launched himself at Connal. Fists cocked back, he rained down his grief in a volley of uppercuts and body blows that the Savage was utterly powerless to defend against. Hog-tied and pinned against the rock, Madden used him as a living, breathing punch-bag to absorb his rage.
Connal’s already broken body only resisted for a brief time, but still the meaty pound of knuckles to flesh, and the fresh crack of recently knitted rib fractures gave Madden a horrible satisfaction, venting the pressure that had mounted inexorably since his obscene humiliation at the hands of MacTire’s men. For centuries he’d lived with the black shadow of vengeance on his shoulders. Centuries prostrating himself at the feet of that son of a bitch MacTire, hoping to throw off the infernal vows that bound him, allowing himself to be abased at the hands of creatures who growled and drooled and howled at the fucking moon, and yet had the gall to call
genetically inferior. Everything came pouring out in a violent tirade, beyond the point where Connal could even feel the blows and beyond the limits of Madden’s own ability to feel.