The Wolf’s Destiny, an excerpt for the holidays

Hope everyone is having a wonderful holiday. As a bit of a Christmas present, and perhaps for some post breakfast/lunch/dinner reading, here’s the opening of The Wolf’s Destiny, book three of A Tale of the Holtlands. In The Wolf’s Sister, Jeren and Shan met when she fled her brother Gilliad’s realm, fearing his growing insanity. In The Wolf’s Mate they fought to stay together among his people, the Fey’na, and battled against their ancestral enemies the Fell’na, cementing their relationship and facing two divergent prophecies – one which predicted their separation, the other spending their lives together. And now, in The Wolf’s Destiny, prophecy and their past come back to haunt them, threatening to tear apart everything they have built together.

Two lives, one love, one destiny.

Chapter One

 Scrolls and parchment piled high on Jeren’s desk, curling riotously, rolling off the edge. More letters had been delivered this morning, more than ever. Letters of desperation, letters begging for aid, letters requesting or demanding that she return home. Drawing her ancestral blade, Jeren stood very still, staring at the mess, wondering if there was any way she could just set fire to the lot of it and run.

Instead, she laid the sword across the pile of papers, holding them down in place so she wouldn’t lose any of them. Kneeling down in front of the desk, she slid the first one out and broke the seal. It came from South Holt. A long way across vast and often hostile territory, to reach her here in exile in the far north of the Fey’na ruled province of Sheninglas. Up here, where humans had no place, where she and those who followed her were making a home among the other race they had once feared and reviled. So she could be with her Fey’na husband. So she could find some peace.

A thread of sunlight penetrated the gap in the tent flap, a summons to a new day. Jeren tried to ignore it, squinting at the spidery handwriting. A breeze stirred the papers and she scowled, as much at the things she read of as the interruption.

“That sword is a Fey’na-forged channel for magical power. It is not meant to be used as a paperweight,” said Shan solemnly.

She snorted briefly at her husband, hearing the hidden tone of his amusement. Anyone else might miss it. But Jeren knew, and loved, Shan far too well.

“Maybe it’s more use this way.”

He moved silently as ever, placing a bowl on the table before her—right on top of a demand from the High Temple of Al-V’Annin that she appear before them and explain why she fled her home—and knelt behind her.

As she moved, Shan’s arms—pale as marble, skin like silk—slid around her.

“You should eat,” he told her.

It wasn’t that he was bossy, not really, but he was always trying to protect her. She ought to be used to it by now, although for years she’d let people do that without a fight. Having finally broken free of it, she wasn’t eager to return. But this was Shan. She wriggled in closer against him, turning her face to his chest. The scent of him filled her nostrils, sweetly seductive. “Is that the porridge-thing again?”

“It’s made from rega-berries, if that’s what you mean. And it’s good for you, a Fey’na speciality. And you don’t eat enough, especially in the morning.”

“Yes, my love.” She stretched to press her lips to his neck and smiled against his skin. She felt like teasing him this morning. Just to pretend that things were normal. “But not rega-berry porridge.”

“And why not?”

“Because it tastes like sawdust. Come to that, why do Fey’na delicacies have challenge the taste buds? Aren’t your Sh’istra’Phail warriors fearsome hunters? Can no one track down anything so exotic as eggs?”

Shan growled, the deep rumble in his throat reverberating through her. “Maybe I can distract you with something else?”

Jeren breathed out, every fibre of her being agreeing with him. There was nowhere in the world she would rather be than here with her husband, her mate. Outside his embrace the world was hard and evil, everyone wanted something of her. But Shan wanted only this.

Here, within the span of his arms, here was freedom.

Jeren frowned, her teeth nipping at the inner flesh of her lower lip. She shouldn’t. There was so much to do. Her father had taught her to deal with things from the first to the last, not to procrastinate in her duty. He would never have turned his back on those in need, hidden away here in the northern expanses of Sheninglas in this way. It didn’t feel right to lie low like this.

But she didn’t want to know what Gilliad had done now. Every tale was worse. Dear god and goddess, after the last reports, after burning temples and slaughtering innocents in the streets of River Holt, seizing people in their homes, people who had never been seen again—

Jeren forced the thoughts from her mind. She just wanted some time to be herself, to be with Shan. For once.

“You promised to teach me some of those scouting skills,” she said hopefully. “Let’s go. Just you and me.”

He grinned at the thought. “We’d have to be quick though. New refugees came in early this morning and they—”

“Want to gawk at me?” She tried to make her voice light, no mean feat when it felt like a millstone plunged to the pit of her stomach.

“Pay their respects perhaps?” He brushed his fingers down the line of her cheekbone and she shivered.

“Same thing, isn’t it?”

Shan laughed a little. “We’ll treat it as a test of our stealth.”

They picked their way along the back of the tents, skirting the training grounds. It was like a game, one which should have made her laugh inside. But they had to steal time together more and more these days and it didn’t seem funny anymore. With her hand in Shan’s like a pair of naughty children instead of members of an elite group of warriors, they neared the edge of the camp. Not that she could imagine Shan as a child. He moved like a great hunting wolf, all hard muscle and sleek lines beneath skin the colour of alabaster. Not like her. Or her people. The Fey’na were as far from human as wolves were from a noblewoman’s lapdog.

Shan knew all about wolves. When he thought she wasn’t looking his eyes still scanned the horizon for the grey wolf who had been his companion. More than a companion, more than his friend, his totem animal. Part of his soul, he’d said, that was the only way he could explain it. Anala had given her life for them both.

The moment was a frozen in her memory, eternally held there, unshakable. Running through the woods outside of Brightling’s Dale, her breath trapped in her throat with her pounding heart, the shouts of the men pursuing her ringing through the trees. She fought with everything she could, fought and fought, but they were too many. And all the time the same thing ran through her mind… wishing… praying…

Drop out of the sky, Shan. Please, drop out of the sky and save me.

Shan had come for her, with Anala the wolf at his side. And saved her, just as she asked. Even though they should have been enemies, even though her brother had murdered his sister. He’d rescued her, comforted her, held her close.

Until her brother found them. Gilliad’s guards had killed the wolf, right in front of them. All in a moment the world tilted to horror. They’d been taken prisoner, Shan tortured for Gilliad’s entertainment and Jeren only just managed to rescue him. A nightmare. One that still returned no matter how much time had passed.

Giving up a life of privilege she already hated to be with him didn’t seem like much of a sacrifice compared to all he’d lost.

Jeren wondered if Shan regretted saving her in the first place, plucking her out of the shattered carriage at the foot of the cliff and carrying her to safety through the snow. Had it been worth it? Or did he wish he’d left her to the assassins pursuing her. It was a dark and ungrateful thought, but she couldn’t help herself. Stress and constant demands made her irritable, short tempered, and often as not he bore the brunt.

It would be good to get away from everything if just for a while. Good to be alone with him.

They almost made it.

“Shan, Jeren, there you are.”

Jeren bit back a curse. Shan didn’t manage quite so well. He turned on the source of the voice with a snarled word. Indarin, the Fey’na Shaman, raised one eyebrow. “Really? I don’t believe that’s physically possible, little brother.”

 

***

 

With a respectful bow, deserving of his brother’s position as Shaman, Shan bit back other words that he longed to say.

“We were just—” It didn’t really matter. He wasn’t going to apologise for wanting time with his wife. “What is it, Indarin?”

All Fey’na were born with magic. It flowed through them with their blood. Few used it, however. Magic corrupted. One glance at their evil cousins the Fell’na confirmed that. The Seers were taught to control it, to live in peace and focus on healing. But Seers could not fight. That was the preserve of the Sh’istra’Phail, the warriors, and sometimes magic was necessary. Indarin’s ability with magic manifested itself late. He was already a warrior and couldn’t change his course—or wouldn’t, Shan suspected. After their sister’s murder, they’d both faced dark and terrible grief where rage was the only outlet. So Indarin became instead a Shaman, the warrior magician, the healer in times of battle, the teacher of those like him.

Those like Jeren, whom the Seers shunned. Holters had business here, they said, no place learning Fey’na ways. Luckily Indarin thought differently.

“Jeren,” said Indarin, solemnly. “Kindly remind your mate that you have many roles in this life and you are not his alone in all matters?”

Jeren cast Shan a regretful glance, and he saw the resignation in her eyes. “You’re fortunate to have such a wife,” she said solemnly, in formal tones that belied her disappointment. Her duty always came first. Though he knew, and loved that about her, it stung when he was the one to lose her to it. Once he’d told her she was too obedient, too willing to put others before herself. But how could he recommend that his perfect wife become more selfish? Especially when he was the selfish one, wanting her to himself?

“A party from River Holt wishes to pay their respects to you, Jeren. They’ve been waiting quite some time. Shan,” Indarin’s voice hardened, stopping Shan’s departure. Just enough that one who knew him would hear the urgency. “I need to speak to you.”

“Very well,” said Jeren. “I’ll go now.” Her shoulders tightened with determination and Shan’s heart surged with sympathy for her as he watched her leave. He knew she didn’t want this, any of it. When he turned his attention back to Indarin, however, his brother’s stoic gaze quelled the anger in him.

“All things considered, I haven’t seen you so happy in years, brother,” said the Shaman. A different voice from Indarin’s, it seemed—cautious, thoughtful, deliberate.

“I doubt I’ve felt so content in all that time,” Shan replied, curious as to where this was going. “And yet—” He sighed. A weight of foreboding settled over him, drawn by Indarin’s dark mood perhaps. Or of the thoughts that came unbidden of how much he had to lose now. “I still fear the future.” He picked out Jeren’s form as she crossed the Fey’na part of the camp. “I fear I’ll lose her. And if I do…”

He couldn’t say the words. Bad enough to even think of losing her. That night at the Vision Rock she’d seen two futures, one with him and one alone in River Holt. Either was possible. Both… he couldn’t see a way.

But Indarin wasn’t to be put off.

“And if you do?”

Shan shook his head. He didn’t want to answer, but he couldn’t lie to Indarin. “If I do, I’ll lose not just my mind, but my soul as well.”

Indarin snorted, disgust and laughter intermingled. “Better you keep her safe then. Such melodramatics ill become you. She’s a fine student, Shan, perhaps the best I’ve ever encountered. She marries the sword and her own magic together with hardly any effort at all. She will, I think, survive should Gilliad’s power pass to her.”

That was his fear. His greatest fear. Once he would have given anything to take Gilliad, Scion of Jern’s life. It had been his whole purpose, it drove him forwards as surely as his heart beat. Gilliad had trained with them, one of the Sh’istra’Phail warriors, a brother in arms at Shan’s side.

Fa’linar, Shan and Indarin’s sister, had loved the boy. She’d adored the pale and faltering Holter. Since it was her wish and her choice, Shan had tried to be happy for her. Until the previous Ariah decided Gilliad didn’t belong there and tried to send him home. Perhaps she’d sensed his sanity slipping. Perhaps she caused it. Whatever it was, he murdered Fa by the holy pools of Aran’Mor and fled.

“Once,” said Shan to his brother, “all my being was dedicated to killing Gilliad of River Holt. Until I found Jeren, and then despite everything—losing Anala, our capture, all the deprivations and our battles with the Fell’na—all that mattered was keeping her safe. Which meant keeping him alive.” If her brother died, if the magic that eroded his increasingly fragile sanity should invade her mind as the foremost Scion of Jern and the Lady of River Holt, if she lived—all these things were his constant fears.

Indarin’s hand closed on his shoulder. “The magic their ancestors stole is not like ours. It became a curse, a punishment. But we know that it does not overcome them all. Gilliad was flawed to begin with.”

“And Fa paid the price,” Shan muttered darkly.

“We all paid the price. Jeren too. You must not forget what she sacrificed. Her duty was part of her. A vital part. To walk away from it, to leave her brother ruling her people, even though she knew what he was… I think it would have broken her heart if it had not been for you.”

Shan gave a brief snort. “Me. I should be so much more for her. I wanted to kill him, Indarin. I wanted to so much.”

“But you didn’t. And you have given Jeren time to grow into herself, to know the small power she has and control it. You’ve given her love and a people, and something of a purpose again. Isn’t that enough, Shan? That she has time to prepare should Gilliad die without an heir. The curse of magic that falls on her will be terrible, it will threaten her mind and her soul. But I truly think she will survive.”

“Survive,” Shan echoed, dubiously. “Survive unchanged?”

“Change is a part of life. Nothing is unchangeable.”

“I don’t need the spiritual guidance at the moment, Indarin. What did you want to talk about?”

The look Indarin turned on him reminded him uncomfortably of their mother. It had a lot to say about wilfulness, arrogance and disrespect. But the words didn’t come. The tirade of anger and resentment never transpired. His brother was not their mother, after all.

“The Ariah feels that we should agree to support Jeren’s claim to River Holt, that she should indeed take her brother’s place as its ruler.”

He hid his shock behind a mask as smooth as marble. “Even if Jeren makes no such claim herself?” She expressed no wish to lead the rebellion everyone expected of her, not even in private. Quite the contrary. But revolution simmered among the Holters. They only needed her to embrace it too and they’d follow her anywhere. She only had to say yes once.

“Should she do so. And I believe she will eventually, Shan. No matter what she says now. Something will push her to it, some act of violence and desecration. This cannot go on. Gilliad is too dangerous and he hates us.”

Shan stopped in his tracks. “You’ve had news.”

“Yes. Grim news from the south. And grim news from the Ariah herself.”

 

***

 

“Lady Jeren! Lady Jeren!”

Their voices ranged from hushed whispers to shouts of joy. Devyn Roh, her self-appointed bodyguard at such times, though he was only a boy, appeared like a shadow through the crowd and took his place beside her. Still too thin, but taller than her now, his dark eyes scanned the crowd with a frightening clarity.

“Haven’t seen this many before,” he muttered. “Should I send for my da? Get them back a bit?”

“No. Not yet. It’s fine,” she whispered the words to him, keeping her voice calm. The Roh family—the few of them who remained—took their duties as servants to her line far too seriously for Jeren’s comfort. From bodyguards to ladies in waiting, she had always been surrounded by Rohs. Following her escape from River Holt, Gilliad had accused them all of treachery and by his actions made the survivors even more devoted to her. She couldn’t just dismiss them. They’d laugh at her if she tried. A Roh was born, not made.

Jeren allowed her gaze to sweep over the newest wave of refugees. Many were here because they’d encountered one of Vertigern’s raiding parties, still launching guerrilla-style raids along Gilliad’s borders and sending all who needed to flee north to Sheninglas. Ostensibly answering to her, but really… really just attacking wherever they could. Getting people killed.

“Go to Lady Jeren and the Fey’na. They will help you. They will keep you safe.”

Safe. Get them killed even more quickly, most likely.

Jeren straightened her spine and let them sweep her along, aware all the time of Devyn’s presence beside her, his warning glares that made people pull back if they got too close. She nodded and smiled. She shook hands and told people not to bow or kneel before her. They didn’t listen.

All of the refugees watched her, some covertly, some with open amazement. Awe, one might say. To be honest, she had grown used to the disbelief she saw in their eyes, at her outlandish clothes, her hair tied in the fine braids of the Sh’istra’Phail warriors. How savage she must look to the cultured people of the Holts.

But what did she care what they thought? Their hopes, their demands, all they wanted from her—she had given that life up. And yet, still they came.

Perhaps they thought sheer force of numbers would change her mind.

Perhaps, she feared—as more sick and exhausted children took food from their Fey’na hosts with pitiful gratitude that outweighed their inbred fear of the other race—they were right.

Eventually, having heard more tales of woe and desperation from children, old women and young men whose eyes burned with a need for vengeance, she managed to excuse herself. She strode back towards the Fey’na section of the camp where she and Shan made their home. A little patch of safety. The newer the arrival, the less likely they were to tread on Fey’na ground, regardless of their charity. Jeren looked back, watching the people who had followed her here, on only a hope.

“We don’t deserve them,” said Devyn. She followed his gaze to where three Sh’istra’Phail warriors were letting a group of children peer in wonder at their braided hair. They sat still as statues, apparently lost in discussion with each other while two girls and a boy crept up behind them. Neither Jeren nor Devyn were fooled. No Sh’istra’Phail would let anyone get that close without their knowledge.

“No,” she replied. “Sometimes I think we never will. How’s your sister?”

“It’s just a fever, Mam says. Nothing to worry about.”

Jeren frowned. Fevers could be nothing in a child, but they could just as quickly worsen. “I’ll come and see her nonetheless. We can’t risk her. You five are the only Rohs left to me now.”

Last of a line, the Body Servants of Jern. Their families had been entwined since the first True Blood lords took power. Gilliad had almost wiped them from the face of the earth for imagined disloyalty.

“Lady Jeren, I—” He stopped abruptly and lowered his eyes to the ground.

The tone surprised her. “What is it, Devyn?”

“I wanted to ask—I want to join the militia, Vertigern’s men.”

“You want to leave?”

“I want to fight.”

Her heart might have stopped beating. Oh gods, she had dreaded this. She’d known it had to come eventually but she’d thought there would still be time. He was so young.

She pushed her fears and dismay to the back of her mind. “I see… What do your parents say?”

He snorted. That told her everything. Well, she could imagine what Doria had said, no doubt in the most strident tones possible.

“Devyn, you know that you’re important to me, don’t you? If anything happened—”

“Nothing will happen up here. Neither for bad or for good. We’re just sitting here, Jeren—my lady,” he added hurriedly. “We sit here as the days unfold and he does one terrible thing after another. People are vanishing all over River Holt lands. They say even the prisons are empty now, the poor quarters deserted. You know what he’s doing to them, where they’ve gone.”

Yes, she knew. It wasn’t too hard to guess anyway. He voiced her own fears. But if she stood against him, it would be war. And if it came to war, who knew how many would die?

Jeren looked up at the new group again. Not enough made it here. Nowhere near enough. One old man bent over his pack, adjusting the straps, intent on his task. Gilliad didn’t need the infirm or the poor. He needed those who could work and those who could fight. He tended to dispose of things he no longer needed with alacrity.

She hardly needed to ask the question, where? They already knew he was somehow working with the Fell’na, had given them Devyn’s entire family to feed upon. The shadow creatures had captured Shan and the sect mother Ylandra, had almost killed them. The dark cousins of the Fey’na, long corrupted by magic and the blood they spilled for their dark god, had almost killed them all.

The old man looked up, as though aware of her eyes upon him. His worn face stiffened, as if in pain, and he finally opened the pack, never taking his gaze off her.

“Devyn,” she said as some kind of primal alarm stirred at the back of her mind. “Do you know that man?” Devyn shook his head, more interested in his own affairs that those of the refugees. Keeping her voice low, she tried to convey the sudden concern seizing her. “I need you to go and get one of your parents. Whoever’s nearest. Quickly, but without rushing, do you understand?” The quiet urgency in her voice got through to him. He was, after all, a Roh, loyal to the core.

The old man muttered to himself, his lips moving rapidly. Jeren’s uneasiness grew. Something was wrong here, very wrong. She took a step forward, then another.

The air sparked with static, with the heightening sense of magic. Jeren felt its call, her blood quickening in response. A lump formed in her throat. Shan was within shouting distance, but he’d never get there in time. Whatever the old man was doing felt dark, dangerous. So very wrong.

Jeren slid her hand around the hilt of the sword. It went icy cold. She couldn’t move quickly enough, her feet dragging as if through mud. She saw him pull out the knife. Sprinting now across the cluttered campsite—too slow, too slow—she knew she wouldn’t make it either. He fixed his eyes on her, his lips still moving, tears streaming from his eyes making his face glisten. The air between them thickened, heated, charged.

Jeren screamed for Shan.

And the old man slit his own throat.

Blood gushed from the wound, a glossy sheet flowing down his body and onto the pack he had opened.

On to whatever was inside.

The magic writhing in the air between them detonated in a silent explosion of power and darkness. It took Jeren’s legs from under her, throwing her back like a leaf in a hurricane.

Read more – The Wolf’s Destiny is available for Kindle here (UK, US) and on Smashwords. The Wolf’s Sister and The Wolf’s Mate are available as ebooks, or in the print volume Songs of the Wolf. Find out more about the whole series here – A Tale of the Holtlands.

In the wild north of Sheninglas, Jeren and Shan have finally made a home together. But the Holtlands are not finished with them yet. When an assassination attempt claims innocent lives, Jeren can stand it no longer. She must make a stand against the tyranny of her brother Gilliad before it is too late. Shan meanwhile struggles against the seed of darkness planted in him by the Fell’na sorceress and the growing knowledge that no matter what he does, he is losing his beloved wife. All their efforts to stay together just seem to tear them further apart, underlining the differences between them. When Jeren declares her intention to go to war, Shan makes one terrible mistake which changes everything.

Their destiny is written. How can it be changed again?

 

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