Authors: Jess Raven,Paula Black
He turned her in the circle of his powerful arms until she was face to face with the wolf branded into his chest. The exact replica of Connal’s, seeing it again, on another man’s skin, engulfed any lingering desire in a wash of sadness. Her lashes were wet when she blinked, throat knotted. If she ignored his face, she could almost imagine it was Connal. He even had the nipple rings.
Bundling her small hand in his, Mac rested the flat of her palm to his beating heart. ‘Connal and I were brothers once,
Bonded until death. He turned against me, and against us all, Ashling. He was a traitor to his own people. You must see, I had no choice. He knew it too. He brought you here, in the end, to me. I believe it’s what he wanted.’
‘It is?’ Her voice was so very small, confusion near tangible, a tangle in her head. There was no telling truth from lies, no fact from fiction, there were too many pieces of too many puzzles and Ash couldn’t see straight enough to put them together. Her exhale was broken, and when Mac wove his fingers through hers and led her away from the orgy, she didn’t resist.
‘You saw them,’ his voice interrupted her thoughts.
She didn’t turn her head but her fingers twitched around his. She was listening.
‘It’s instinct for the males of our race to work in pairs. Brothers share everything, just as Connal and I should have. We were brothers once.’
Ash’s head snapped up, eyes colliding with the pitch night of his gaze. Oh yeah, she was listening.
‘Connal was ruined.’
A flinch shied her away from his words.
‘No, Ashling, listen.’ His thumb stroked over her knuckles, back and forth as he led her through the tunnels. ‘We were fated to rule together, to love together, side by side. That is the way of our people. Blood brothers live one life.’ He paused, allowing her silence to think.
She knew this part, Connal told her as much, but he’d been far less forthcoming when she asked if he had a brother. His distraction techniques had been incredibly effective.
‘Why was he ruined?’ she asked.
‘Connal’s father was king before me. Bres was his name, and his félag, Vise, was my father.’
‘But you said you were brothers.’
‘Born of the same mother, yes. We shared our mother’s womb, but were sired by different fathers.’
Ash could see the sculpture clearly in her head, the yin and yang babes curled against one another in their mother’s stone womb. This is what Connal had meant. The branded males shared one mate, and accepted all offspring as their own. The sculpture must have hurt him. He’d lost his brother and his pack. He had a brand and one side of himself, a half-life, if anything MacTire said was true.
‘Our mother gave birth to us in a war camp, far from home,' he said. ‘While our fathers were away fighting, marauders attacked the camp. They returned to find her murdered in her bed and Connal gone. I was behind an overturned table, swaddled in blankets, asleep. The King blamed himself. He refused to believe his son was dead, and he was right, though it took him ten long years to track the boy down. By then it was too late.’
Ash hadn’t thought Mac capable of talking in anything more than grunts, but his gruff voice was proving her wrong with every syllable he uttered. ‘What do you mean he was too late? He found him ...’
‘Connal fell into human hands and was raised by them. He was never taught control as we are.’
Ash lifted a brow in question.
‘Fomorian children study under the
Masters from infancy, to contain their stronger, animal natures. Not that there have been any children for centuries ...’
The awkward silence that fell was a separate entity. What the hell was she thinking, getting soft on him when he had her set up to be the new mother of the race? That’s what he really wanted: an incubator for his hellhound babies. And she was not thinking about what would happen afterwards. Well, she was, but she had no plans to be around long enough for him to pass her on to the sexual animals he ruled. Nuh uh. She was getting the fuck out of the Rocky Horror Porno Show, pronto.
‘Take heed of how the vargs took that
. She was overcome by ecstasy, was she not?’ His tone dropped, huskily rasped to the curve of her throat. Heat flared where his words touched and her head dipped in agreement.
‘Now picture the scene were their beasts given free rein.’
She didn’t need to picture it, it was something she saw when she slept, a blood stain on her memories. Red Shoes would be ripped apart, like her mother was.
Great beasts tearing at her flesh until there was nothing left but viscera. Blood, bone, screams.
She’d witnessed what the loss of control could do, first hand.
Hell, his Blond Assholishness still bore the marks of her own lack of control. Even now, it was writhing inside her, stretching aggressively. She may have it leashed, somehow, but the animal force stirring inside her was no lapdog, docile and happy to obey. No, she had a Great White on the end of her leash, and it gnashed its jaws with every wave of emotion.
MacTire guided her down another endless corridor. ‘The King put Connal in the fighting pits, hoping to purge his human weakness, but the experiment worked too well. Without the balance of training, Connal became untamable. I should have killed him, and saved us all the misery that followed, but out of respect for his father, he was allowed to live.’ A growl leaked the pain of old wounds into his voice. ‘We even went through with the sham of the branding, just to please the old man. The King was a sentimental fool,’ he scoffed, ‘and it destroyed us all. Connal escaped and massacred our people.’
Throat bobbing with a swallow, Ash looked up from her feet, only half-noting that rock had turned to fine grains of slate black. The big brute knelt and sifted his fingers through the sands. Torch-flames flickered in the black of his eyes like starlight and she couldn’t look away.
‘You see this, Ashling? These are the bones of your ancestors, females, babes, warriors, turned to dust by the Savage and his hatred.’
He flipped her hand and poured the charred remains into her palm. She gagged, but the grip on her wrist wouldn’t allow her to dispel the dead sand.
‘Connal destroyed us. We live in a world built upon the bones of our own people, their lives the foundation, their blood our water. Can you see?’
She could see. The wasteland of Fomor spread out before her was a world without life. It was a canvas of desolation.
, he’d said. The King considered her one of them. He was sharing his world with her.
‘How could one man bring down so many single-handed?’ she asked. It simply wasn’t possible, even for Connal. She’d seen the aftermath of the fight against Brandr and Fite. Mac’s fingers loosened and she tipped her hand, brushing at the particles clinging to her skin. She wiped it on his shoulder, disgust in the curl of her lip. He laughed, twining their fingers again as he rose from his crouch in the sand.
‘I never said he was alone, Ashling. He had an army of untame at his back.’
‘Haven’t you wondered why we have this duality of man and beast?’
He turned her with a guiding hand to the small of her back and she moved with him, brow knitted. She’d never really thought about it. Her head hurt with the fragments of information rammed inside.
‘Fomorian biology wasn’t exactly covered in any of my classes.’
His lips pulled into a grin, a bark of a laugh letting her glimpse the sharp, white tips of his canines. ‘It would be my pleasure to teach you.’
And wasn’t that something to say. Ash’s body had no trouble interpreting that for it’s own needs.
Mac smirked, as though her thoughts were his and then he was teaching, veering off a path through a doorway with her in tow.
‘Our people were once pure beast.’ Mac’s voice ricocheted off the rock as he led her deeper into the warren of tunnels. They were narrowing and he had to half-turn to fit through the gaps. Ash was barely avoiding catching herself on the jagged edges of the rough-hewn passage. ‘We roamed Ireland, wild and uncivilised, until settlements of men encroached on our world. They brought ancient gods with them, a powerful force that defeated the Fomorians and banished them beneath the black sea. But some of our ancestors found a way to escape, by binding their souls to those of human men and women.’
They were body-snatchers?
Ash snorted, but forced herself to sober. They’d taken the bodies of innocents.
Ash was pretty sure the King was leading them down into hell, the bowels of some darkness she may never climb back out of. The bone sand had already creeped her out, and now her freak-out level was ratcheting up. As a macabre tour-guide, Mac could rival the best. If she encountered the pit of primordial ooze the mammoth wolf things had crawled from, she’d fight tooth and nail to get away and hide under Mac’s bed. But for now, Ash had borrowed some steel balls. ‘Who were they? The people you violated?’ she asked.
‘They were Viking invaders, a band of Norsemen and the straggle of male and female slaves aboard their longboats. They moored on the Dubh Linn, oblivious to its dangers, and on the night of Samhain, when the moon was full, the Fomorians were reborn as the men you see today: human in form, but not human. Beast, but partially tamed by humanity.’
His fingers toyed with the ends of her hair where they curled against the base of her spine and her flesh shivered. She looked down to see the floor had given way to rugged steps, dropping into darkness. She tentatively took the first one.
A punch of human instinct hit her with a warning. The fist of pressure halted her so hard she tripped onto the step below. Mac snatched her to him before she tumbled the rest of the way down and Ash clung on gratefully.
Haunting, a symphony of cries worked up the spiralled staircase to knot in her throat until she choked on the sounds. She glanced at Mac, but his face was cautious.
God, she was screwed. She was going to get eaten.
'This is your idea of a history lesson?' she asked nervously. She'd take her sleep-inducing professor any day over this.
He coaxed her forward and the darkness enveloped her, stroking around the flickering light of a solitary sconce. The howling from below was thunderous. How had she not heard it before? Mac seemed unaffected, and so she pressed on.
When her bare feet touched the bottom step, silence reigned. Not a sound, not a whimper or growl, the sounds just cut off. It was so very dark. Not even her glow-in-the-dark eyes could adjust to the cluster of pitch black. Her skin pricked with sensation, like fur just under the surface. Power stretched inside her and perked up, lurking, wary and curious. This room had her attention. Or something inside it did.
‘What the hell are you keeping down here, Mac?’ she whispered, backing away from the eerie sound of breathing that seemed to encircle the room. The air was stale, with a scent reminiscent of wet dog.
'Strange, I've never seen them so subdued.'
'Them?' Mac's confusion did nothing to reassure her. There was a flash of movement and the sound of stones skittering across rock. ‘Not that I don’t love the dark, Mac, but could you please hit the lights?’
Light flowed as Mac removed the torch from its bracket and cast the flames in the direction of the stirring. Thick bars climbed up from the cavern floor, illuminated in the pool of the torch’s rays. Inside the bars, spheres glimmered into existence, hundreds of them, soft red on a black canvas, twin floating beacons. She lifted a hand and the orbs shifted. She waved and the motion was tracked by laser sights. They were eyes.
The fire spluttered and Mac stepped away, re-igniting the torch on the flinty ground. It sparked off like a match to a dynamite fuse, speeding on an invisible track that circled the centre of the cavern. Ash squinted, adjusting to the brightness. Behind the metal, massive furred bodies prowled, sinuous and lean, walking the semicircle of their cage. And every eye-shining gaze was fixed on her.
Ash bit back a scream at her nightmares come to life. These were the things she saw when sleep took her. Living, breathing … Death. Heart in her mouth, she backed away, throwing a terrified glance Mac's way.
‘The untame are what remain of the original of the species,' he said quietly. 'We keep them contained, here, in Fomor. They have no conscience, they are pure animal, and work on basic survival instincts.’
'Can they get out?'
Mac shook his head. 'You're perfectly safe. Besides, I think they like you.'
Ash was close to losing it and the bastard was smiling.
'What do you mean?' she asked.
'Look at them, clamouring for your attention.'
She dared to look. Pressing forward, the shaggy monsters slipped thin muzzles between the bars, swiping purple tongues in her direction. Ribs showed through thick fur, brown and mottled grey. They were beautiful, in their own terrifying way, wildly different to Connal, and yet so similar.
'They don't play puppy like that for just anybody,' Mac said.
She couldn’t speak, just stood blinking dumbly at him until he stretched from his lean against the wall and unfolded his arms. He moved off the bottom step and the wolves exploded against the bars, battering themselves against the cage with snarling, snapping jaws. Ash nearly choked on her own heartbeat as she jolted away from the bars, terror a cloying thickness on her tongue. She wanted to claw at her own skin and hide, would have bolted for the exit if Mac wasn't solidly in the way.
'You see? They are trying to protect you, from me.' The King stepped back from her and the beasts calmed.
The rigid chill up her spine did not.
'Fite is wrong,’ Mac said, ‘you are one of us. The untame recognise their own.'
She narrowed her eyes at him, voice steady despite the tremble in her bones. 'I am not one of them.' She protested, but something inside her, the thing with claws and fur, begged to differ. 'What is this, some kind of test?'
'No Ashling. I only sought to show you ... perhaps this was a mistake.'
She shoved him aside and went for the steps. 'No shit, Mac. Get me out of here.'