He did not fear the forest. He was, both literally and figuratively, the lord of this land. William stood in the stirrups, stretching his legs. His horse, a pretty gelding, huffed out a breath and bent his head to snuffle the grass. When William clicked and tugged the reins, the gelding lifted his head. William dropped down in the saddle, adjusting his seat and turning the gelding with his heel. The horse picked its way along a wide path through the woods. The ground was soft and William wouldn’t risk the horse’s legs by having him run. The path they traveled ran along the chain-link fence that circled the deer park. William could see a few deer amongst the trees, and when the path led them out of the wood onto the open manicured lawn he could see more deer fearlessly nibbling the grass.
He clicked his tongue and his horse broke into a trot. Posting in his saddle, he kept one eye on the deer. They’d acquired a new buck. He’d been hit by a car and, after the vet at a local wildlife hospital treated the animal for a broken leg, he’d been brought here, where he would live the rest of his life on protected lands.
William trotted up to the horse stable between the fence of the deer park and back gardens of the servants’ houses. The gamekeeper, a man named Edward whom William had known all his life, came out of the stable. Andy, Edward’s young nephew, held William’s reins as he dismounted.
“Afternoon, my lord,” Edward said. “Did you enjoy your ride?”
“I did, thank you, Edward.” William patted the gelding’s neck as a reward. The horse was standing perfectly still as Andy removed the bridle and slipped a leather head collar in place. William kept his eye on the young man, who hadn’t been on the estate long. William did not like new people on his property. Andy led the horse to the hot walker to cool down, the bridle and reins looped over his shoulder. The horse, who stood at almost sixteen hands, towered over the boy.
“How is young Andy?” he asked Edward.
“He’s doing well and loves the horses. I must thank you again for letting him come. And of course for helping my Ed.”
“Ed will be a fine doctor,” William said, stripping off his gloves and slapping them together. William had funded a scholarship to send Edward’s son of the same name to university. Young Ed had been the horse caretaker, and Andy had come to live with Edward to take Ed’s place.
With a nod at his servant, William climbed into his Land Rover and returned to the manor house, using the track along the edge of the deer park before cutting across the grass. He skirted the walled, manicured garden and bounced onto the drive that led to the house. He could have picked up the road that passed in front of the stables and his servants’ houses, but then he would have had to stop and open the massive gates that guarded the start of his long, winding driveway. It was quicker to come across the grounds, though no one but him was allowed to do such a thing.
William slowed, coming around the last curve. The trees that lined the drive, which was winding rather than straight, hid the house until this last curve when it rose up, pale and mighty. It wasn’t an old house, dating back no more than a few hundred years, but it stood on the ruins of a fortress William’s ancestor had built in support of William the Conqueror.
The house was large and square, with symmetrical rows of windows. It was built around a central courtyard, where once merchants would have assembled to sell their wares to the lord. He drove through the large arch in the front wing, parking on the stones that had once been the floor of the fortress.
He climbed out of the car and headed into the house. His boots echoed on the black-and-white tile floor of the foyer, the sound changing to thumps as he started up the dark wooden staircase that wrapped majestically around three walls of the two-story tall foyer. The portraits that graced the cream plaster looked down as he climbed. At the top of the stairs he passed a mirror and stopped.
He was grinning.
He never grinned. It wasn’t becoming of the Lord of Eahrington.
William wiped the smile from his face, letting it return to its normal stoic lines, but as he turned away the grin returned.
Tomorrow they would arrive. He would take his place in the history of his family. He would not make the mistakes his father had made—he would never forget that they were animals, even if they masqueraded as humans.
* * * *
Christoffer watched from the trees as the dark-haired man dismounted his horse and slid into a car…a very nice car. When the dark-haired man drove off, Christoffer slid down the tree, lean muscles flexing under pale skin. The deer lifted their heads, scenting the wind. They took off, fleeing the scent of a predator, haunches flexing as they ran.
Christoffer stiffened, his body rigid with the need to chase. He knew what it would feel and taste like to have a deer’s haunch between his teeth. The herd—it must have been fifty deer—disappeared into the trees.
He relaxed, tension draining away. As it did his weight rocked back onto his heels, his hips cocked at an angle. He rubbed his temples, trying to rid himself of his headache.
Remembering what had caused the headache had Christoffer grinning. It had been years since he’d been to London, but the clubs were as good as he remembered. Drunk Englishwomen and Englishmen were great fun. Last night he’d partied with a pretty Scottish boy with an accent so thick Christoffer had been able to taste it.
Maybe they hadn’t been able to understand each other—the Scottish boy thought Christoffer’s Norwegian accent adorable but hard to decipher—but they’d had a very good time.
The lord, for that is who the dark-haired man must have been, was nice to look at too, though he didn’t seem like the kind to drink enough to be fun. Christoffer made his way to the place where he’d left his bag. It was a good thing he’d had his fill of fun last night. This place was a two-hour walk from the closest club. The tiny pub he’d seen in the village didn’t count.
The seat of the Lord of Eahrington, situated in the picturesque English countryside, would be a miserable place for someone of Christoffer’s disposition to live. No fun, no excitement—just trees and grass and some deer that he probably wouldn’t be allowed to kill. Luckily he didn’t plan to be here long enough to suffer real boredom. He’d serve his time, pay lip service to the lord and then sneak away.
The whole thing was barbaric. Maybe in the past his pack had needed the protection the Lords of Eahrington had provided, but those days were long dead. The tradition of paying tribute was ridiculous.
It had been five generations since his family had been called on to offer the tribute. It should have been Christoffer’s sister. She’d been raised knowing it was her family duty, and she’d studied England, its literature, its history to prepare. But then she mated and got pregnant. She couldn’t leave her cubs or the man she’d taken to mate.
It had fallen to Christoffer to give up his life and offer himself as payment for continued protection.
He settled onto the forest floor, closing his eyes. He was as safe in the middle of the woods as he would have been in his own home. Even as a human he smelled like wolf, the apex predator in most of Europe.
Christoffer smiled to himself as he thought about his family’s tearful goodbyes. His father and grandfather’s lectures on what a sacred duty this was had fallen on deaf ears. His pack didn’t need this lord or his protection anymore, but rather than argue with his family he’d agreed to come, knowing it would be a great adventure and a chance to visit London on his father’s dime.
Very few things really needed to be taken seriously. Christoffer had lived his life believing this, and so far it had served him well. With a smile he lay back, looking up through the trees. This was a nice enough place, even if it was quiet. He’d enjoy taking a run through the deer pen.
After an hour-long nap in the warm sun, he woke up and stretched. Deciding it was time for some fun, he stripped off all his clothes, carefully removing everything he had on including a silver ring with his family’s crest—a snarling wolf head, of course—and stored it in his bag.
Crouching on hands and knees, he called forward his beast. He called forth the loam of the forest floor and the bite of cold wind on the nose, the hot scent of the chase and the burn of tired muscles.
A wolf with pale-blond legs that darkened to a gray back and muzzle stretched, his front paws flexing, nails digging into the soft ground as he lowered his chest and raised his haunches.
The wolf lifted his nose, scenting the wind.
* * * *
Mirela held her head steady as her aunt affixed the crown to her head. Pins dug into her scalp. She winced.
“Are you scared?”
Mirela looked at the reflection of her cousin’s face in the mirror. “No, I’m not.”
Mirela saw her aunt exchange glances with Mirela’s second cousin, who was packing Mirela’s small trunk.
They didn’t believe her. She was pitied by everyone in her family. To most of the Romany there could be no worse fate than leaving their people. Her family was more reclusive than most because their magic set them apart. Prejudice against them ran high, even in these times people called modern. The Romany communities were scattered, insular and always suspect. The safest place was with family, with the community, but Mirela had to leave them, to go out among the people who wouldn’t understand her.
The persecution of her people was a part of every culture in Europe, and many Romany families had been lost—especially those who, like her family, were not entirely human. Her family had been called witches, burned at the stake, sold as slaves and nearly become extinct.
But many years ago, more than a lone man could count, they’d found a savior, an English lord who’d come to their defense. Her father’s mother’s version of the tale said the lord defended them because a Romany woman saved his daughter from a wild boar by swooping from the sky and gouging out the boar’s eyes. Her mother’s mother said the lord loved the Romany woman because the English both love and fear those things they don’t understand and cannot name.
That protection had saved them from extinction—Romani and Travel families had been and still were hunted. Those who were human could, if they had to, find ways to exist in the cities. Mirela’s people could not. They needed places to make camp away from prying eyes, and where they could fly without fear of hunters. The Lord of Eahrington owned land all across Europe that they used, traveling from protected space to protected space. But it was not free. Her kind paid in flesh and breath, because each Lord of Eahrington was given a member of the family as tribute. Even now the English didn’t have a name for what her family was. They would say impossible, and use their science as a shield between their minds and the truth. There had been a time when a young child of no more than ten would have gone, but as laws changed they couldn’t do that without attracting the attention of authorities.
At the age of twenty, Mirela was to be this generation’s gift. From the time she was small she’d known her fate. While other girls tittered behind their hands and imagined what it would be like to marry, Mirela had known she would never have that.
The gifting ceremony, which was now only a few hours away, would be the closest she would ever come to a wedding. Her parents had given her a dress much like a wedding dress. The tight bodice showed off her breasts and tiny waist while the giant skirt rustled with each step she took. A tiara of rhinestones sat atop her head and her makeup was heavy and dark.
But unlike a normal wedding gown, hers was the darkest black instead of brilliant white.
Her little sisters and cousins all wore pink dresses, made just for this ceremony. Her whole family had traveled from the south of Spain, where they’d spend the winter, to England. They were staying in a small country inn. As far as the innkeepers knew they were preparing for a wedding.
“You’re beautiful,” Mirela’s mother said, resting her hands on Mirela’s bare shoulders.
“Thank you, Mama,” Mirela replied, speaking the Romany dialect of her mother’s people. Her mother was Kalo, the traveler or Romany people of Wales, while her father’s people were from Spain. Mirela’s parents’ marriage had been arranged, a way to settle an argument between her mother’s and father’s peoples. Mirela’s mother’s and father’s families possessed powerful magic and many years Mirela’s father’s family had been paying the blood tribute to the Lord of Eahrington.
Her father’s family grew tired of bearing the cost alone, and Mirela’s mother was sent to marry one of the men and give birth to a girl who would be the tribute payment to the lord—Mirela.
The years had etched lines in Mirela’s mother’s face. It was the way of their people that the woman left her family to join her husband, but for most that was not a far trip because extended families stayed together. For her mother it had been different. Her mother’s pale-cream skin and red hair had made her an outsider. Maybe she was not as scared as one of her cousins would be because Mirela knew, through her mother, what it was to be far from home, and to be different. And she would never really be away from home. Her home was the sky, and as long as she had that she would be happy.
She laid her cheek carefully against her mother’s hand, reaching up to hold the tiara in place.
“You want to fly,” her mother said, stroking her cheek.
“Yes. The sky is calling.” Two birds flew past the window. They were high in the sky but there was no mistaking the sharp-tipped silhouette of those wings. The falcons rode a current of air, swooping and dipping with a speed and freedom creatures of the land would never understand.
“You will love the skies here,” her mother whispered. There was longing on her face. She’d often spoken of mountains and deep-green valleys, unlike the golden hills of the Mediterranean or the black forests of Eastern Europe Mirela knew.
“Do not worry for me.”
“I do not. You have always been more of the sky than the land.”
There was a rap on the door and Mirela’s father called out for them to come, the cars were there.
It took the assistance of three people to get Mirela and her huge skirt down the stairs. The innkeeper’s eyes widened when he saw the black dress, but he didn’t say anything.
Mirela climbed into a carriage drawn by four horses and her aunt stuffed her skirts in. The carriage started out and Mirela leaned sideways so she could see the sky through the window.
She was not afraid. She’d been raised to know her duty. She did not feel deprived because she would not know a man or bear children. She did not see anything desirable in the relationship between men and women.
All she needed was the sky.
* * * *
William stood on the gravel drive in front of the house. There was no sound save the twittering of birds and the occasional rustle of leaves. The servants had strict instructions to stay away from the house today. The groundskeeper wasn’t allowed to do any gardening.
Standing there, wearing a sword older than the house, William could easily imagine he was in a different time.
He’d wondered in his rare fanciful moments if he hadn’t been born in the wrong era. He was ill-suited for the niceties of this world. His silence was taken as rudeness, his desire for control as aggression and his commanding presence as arrogance.
He was better suited for a time in which might made right and strength of arm was valued.
Perhaps that was why he so anxiously awaited the arrival of the falcon and the wolf.
They were a reminder of a time long gone. They would know him, understand him, because they would have been told what his family was capable of and, by extension, what kind of man he was.
The Hunting Pair. That was the title his family used for the falcon and wolf each Lord of Eahrington possessed. In medieval times the ownership of a falcon of uncommon intelligence and command of a fierce wolf had earned the Lords of Eahrington reputations as master hunters. No one knew that the reason the communication between hunter and beast was so good, or why the animals seemed so intelligent was that they were not just animals.
The falcon would be a woman, as a male falcon was useless for hunting, but the wolf could be either man or woman. His father had possessed a female of each. Thinking about his father’s wolf brought a bad taste to his mouth so he pushed the memory away.
The crunch of gravel broke the silence. William straightened, resting his left hand on the handle of the sword he wore strapped to his side. He wore jeans and a black button-down shirt. There was a knight’s tunic in a trunk in the house that tradition dictated he should be wearing. It had been carefully preserved and at some point reinforced with new fabric, but William was too big for it. He had to make do with modern clothing, trusting the sword at his side would be enough to remind the gypsies what was at stake.
A carriage rounded the last bend in the drive. There were five carriages in all, and cars behind that. The carriages stopped in the drive and men, women and children piled out.
They were elaborately dressed, in outfits that would at best be described as trashy. He knew more than most about the Romany people. His family was, after all, a patron of the Romany. At times when the prejudice against them was strongest, the Eahrington lands had been a sanctuary.
They were a strange people, full of contradictions. The women were chaste, guarding their virginity with a vigor that was entirely missing from the modern world, yet he saw vast expanses of flesh bared by their skimpy outfits.
There was a moment of discomfort as he saw a man in a suit climb out of the most decorated of the carriages. The girl’s father. They treated this like a marriage, and the father would have spent thousands of pounds organizing the event—but it was not a marriage. The girl was William’s property, not his wife.
A giant black meringue climbed from the carriage.
William blinked and blinked again, astonished by the size of the girl’s dress. They lined up, processing up the drive to the house. Small girls in hot-pink dresses scattered rose petals in the gravel, then moved off to the side.
William kept his eyes on the girl, who was covered by the large skirt and a concealing black veil.
She was so swathed in fabric he couldn’t tell anything about her.
“My good and kind Lord Eahrington!” her father shouted, coming to a stop.
William bowed in acknowledgement, then said, “My good tinker, welcome to my lands, may you always find sanctuary here.”
“Thank you. You do my people a great service.”
William nodded slightly. The father opened his mouth, then closed it and looked away. Again, William felt a pang for this man. Among his people, girls were given away in marriage but they would never be far away. It was rare for a child to really leave, as his daughter was about to.
“My, ahem, my Lord Eahrington. In acknowledgement of the service your family has done mine, and in hopes that we might continue to know your favor, I offer you a tribute.”
The man’s voice, already thick with an Eastern European accent, grew harder to understand as emotion filled his words.
“I offer you flesh of my loins, blood of my veins. I offer you my daughter, a beautiful woman and a fearsome flier.”
He pulled back the blusher that covered her face and William caught his breath.
She was heart-stoppingly beautiful.
Her face was a pale oval with almond-shaped eyes fringed in dark lashes. Her breasts swelled from above the bodice of the overly sequined dress and her waist was so tiny he was sure he could have wrapped his hands around it.
Her lids were lowered, hiding her eyes. The silence stretched as William struggled to find his voice. She looked up, a question on her face, and he was caught by her stare. Her eyes were the blue of a deep lake and as captivating as the glitter of a sapphire.
“I-I—” he stuttered. William shook himself and looked away from the girl. “I offer you my thanks for such a tribute. It is with pleasure I welcome one of the Romany into my house.”
He drew his sword. He held it with the tip pointed down. Slowly she came forward, moving away from her father. The girl was supposed to kneel and kiss the crossbar of the sword. As she was about to kneel William caught her elbow. A shock as sharp as if he’d licked a battery zipped through him when his hand made contact with her bare skin.
He raised the sword, bringing it to her lips rather than making her kneel. She smiled, a dark thing of wonder that made her eyes glitter. She kissed the sword, then dipped her head and backed away.
The women in pink gathered around her as if they were a flock of radioactive flamingos and escorted her back to the carriage. The men stayed in the clearing, waiting.
He hadn’t expected to have this kind of reaction to her. His father’s falcon had been a dark-skinned, dark-haired woman who laughed too loud and ate too much—nothing like this beautiful girl.
One of the women ran up to the girl’s father and whispered in his ear. He nodded.
He approached William, who shook himself to return his attention to the present.
“My Lord Eahrington, enjoy your gift and remember the Romany.” He handed William a thick leather glove. William slipped it on. The inside had been lined with sheepskin, the leather beautifully tooled with patterns of the cosmos.
The girl’s father stood there for a moment, poised as if he would say something more, but he didn’t.
Instead he motioned for one of the other men to bring forward a trunk, which was set at William’s feet.
The Romany were all looking to the sky. William tipped his head back, knowing what was to come but excited nonetheless.
She appeared from among the tops of the trees. She was sleek and beautiful, darting through the sky effortlessly.
The falcon rose high into the air until she was no more than a speck, then dove, wings drawn in slightly to increase her speed.
With his heart in his throat, William held out his arm. He had eyes for nothing but the peregrine descending from the heavens. The falcon dipped so low he worried for a moment she would hit the gravel, but she pulled up, wings spread to break her progress, and landed with a heavy thump on William’s outstretched wrist.
The falcon turned wide, round eyes on him, regarding him with an intelligence that could be mistaken for nothing but human.
Tentatively he stroked her back, whistling softly. The falcon dipped its head.
He’d imagined this moment for so long, yet his imaginings were nothing compared to the wonder he now felt.
When he looked away from the falcon the drive was empty, the Romany gone.
The falcon too looked around the empty driveway. Her beak parted, wings lifting but she did not fly away.
William opened his mouth to say something to her but realized he didn’t know her name. He looked at the trunk at his feet and wondered what it carried. Carefully balancing her, he knelt and flipped it open. Jeans, shirts, makeup, a brush, underwear. Blushing, he quickly shut it and stood.
The falcon was watching him. He could see the shadow of cool blue eyes in her black stare.
Perhaps his grandfather had been wrong. Perhaps there was no need to treat his Hunting Pair like animals. William’s carefully laid plans for dealing with the falcon and wolf were fading under the enchantment woven by the beautiful falcon-woman.
Her head turned, cocked to the side. Her wings spread, one slapping against William’s face as she took flight. He fell back a step, hand on his cheek. The falcon pulled a tight circle around his head, then flew to the house. She landed awkwardly on a window ledge, looked back at him and then took flight. Again she circled him and flew back to the house.
William didn’t understand she was warning him until he heard the growl. By instinct he reached for the sword in the scabbard at his side, but he didn’t free it in time.
The wolf’s leaping attack knocked him down, trapping his sword arm across his body. It snarled, teeth inches from his face.
The snarl stopped, the wolf’s tongue lolled from its mouth. William’s heart was beating so loud he could hear it. The wolf licked his cheek.
“Ugh,” William said.
It made an odd chuffing noise, then casually got off William. Was the wolf laughing at him?
The wolf loped away, around the back of the house toward the forest. William stood and lifted his hand. The falcon, who’d been circling the drive, settled on his wrist, head bobbing.
“It appears my other tribute has arrived,” he told the falcon, “with much less ceremony than you received.”
She cocked her head and William wondered if she could understand. Falcon hearing was different, more precise, than that of humans. His grandfather had told him that neither the falcon nor the wolf could understand the words of humans when they were animals, but that they could read lips.
William considered saying it again, more slowly, but decided to wait.
A blond man, tall and lean with arms roped in muscle and a quicksilver smile, appeared from the forest. He carried a duffle bag and a leather coat.
With a mocking smile, he dropped the bag and bowed.
“From your, ah, furry friends,” he said in a deep Norwegian accent. “Don’t let the bad men shoot us, and in exchange you get me.”
He couldn’t be more than twenty-five, and looked younger when he grinned and swept his long, blond hair back from his pale face. So this was the wolf.
The werewolf cocked his head and looked William up and down in a decidedly lustful manner.
Wonderful, William thought sourly.
The man leaned toward the falcon, taking a deep breath. His pupils dilated briefly and he snapped at the bird, who jerked back, nearly falling from her perch on William’s arm. Her talons dug into his arm, painfully pinching his flesh through the glove. He reached for her with his other hand and the falcon snapped at him, her sharp beak gouging a piece from his arm.
“Stop,” William barked, tone reverberating with command.
Perhaps his grandfather had been right. For all they could look human these two were animals. The soft feelings that had blossomed when he’d seen the girl were ruthlessly uprooted.
These creatures were his property—nothing more.
“You will return to human,” he told the falcon. He lifted his arm and she flew into the sky, disappearing into the trees that lined the drive.
“You are the wolf,” he said to the blond man.
“Christoffer, my lord.” He bowed mockingly.
William would teach the boy to respect him. He blotted at his bleeding arm with a handkerchief. Christoffer grabbed his arm and began to lick the wound. William pulled his arm away. Disgusting.
William’s teeth clenched in mounting anger. The situation was slipping from his control and he would not have it.
There was a rustle and William and Christoffer both looked to the trees. The girl, completely naked, tentatively stepped onto the gravel.
Her hair hung to her waist. She’d pulled it forward to cover her breasts and had one hand spread over the apex of her thighs. Her gaze was lowered, a painful-looking blush covering her cheeks.
William took a step forward, intending to go to her, but Christoffer loped over to the girl. She shied away, her hair falling away to reveal one pert breast. William ran over. He grabbed Christoffer, pulling him away from the girl. He was surprised at the younger man’s strength, as he wrapped his arms around Christoffer’s chest and struggled to hold him.
“Dress,” he barked at the girl. She winced as she made her way across the gravel to the trunk. William released Christoffer.
“She smells good.” Christoffer leaned in to William’s shoulder and sniffed, then pulled back sharply, his eyes wide in surprise. “You smell…” He shook his head and said something in what William assumed was Norwegian.
“You will speak English from now on,” William said tersely, tugging the hem of his shirt. Christoffer smiled, showing his teeth.
William turned his back on the boy, though his shoulders prickled. Instinct bade him keep the wolf in his sights, prevent a sneak attack, but he knew better than to show that he was rattled.
The girl was now clothed in a pair of low-riding jeans and a tight shirt made of some fuzzy fabric in a horrid lime-green color. Travelers were not known for their modesty or good taste, for all their “purity laws”.
“My God, what is she wearing?” Christoffer propped his elbow on William’s shoulder.
William pushed his arm away. “She’s Romany,” he said, knowing it wasn’t really an explanation.
“Sigøyner?” Christoffer barked out a laugh. “She’s a gypsy. No wonder she dresses like a Czech hooker.”
“You’ll show her respect,” William commanded, feeling protective of the girl. Christoffer raised his brows and, for a moment, William doubted himself. Had he shown weakness by defending her? No. She was his property, just as Christoffer was, and he would have to teach Christoffer to respect her because of that.
Christoffer snorted and wandered away to pick up his duffle bag. William moved to the girl, whose head was bent, her hair falling around her face. She was still blushing. Christoffer walked up and she lifted her head.
“You will watch your words,” she said, voice tight. Christoffer’s eyebrows rose in surprise.
“The little bird is angry with me,” Christoffer said to William, rolling his eyes. He grinned and turned to the house, dismissing her.
“You cannot run faster than I fly. You cannot weave through trees quick enough to protect your eyes from my claws. I am Kalo and you will respect me, you filthy, butt-licking dog.”
Her eyes sparkled, her chest rose and fell with each panting breath and William realized her face was tinged pink with anger, not embarrassment. Christoffer’s mocking façade slipping for a moment. His shoulders hunched forward, his knees bent and his eyes narrowed. The laughter was gone and what remained was a predator. The girl’s fingers curled into claws.
Animals. They were animals.
It was time to assert himself. The girl’s beauty and Christoffer’s unconventional arrival had thrown him, but no more. He was William Fitzwilliam, Lord of Eahrington.
William grabbed Christoffer by the back of the neck and forced him down. Christoffer fell to his knees, his shoulders tense. He reached back to push William’s hands away but William transferred his hold to Christoffer’s hair, forcing the boy’s head to bend and exposing his neck. Tension radiated off the werewolf and William stepped closer, looming over him. He pushed away fear, knowing the wolf would be able to scent it.
You are mine. I am your master, he chanted to himself, exuding dominant energy.
Christoffer relaxed, his body going limp and his head falling forward, further exposing his neck. William grinned in savage satisfaction. He turned his attention to the girl.
“You will not harm him,” William told her, his hand still fisted in Christoffer’s hair. “He is my property—as you are, and to harm him would be to disrespect me.”
The girl immediately nodded her understanding. She moved to William’s side and dropped to her knees, leaning into his leg.
William placed his free hand on her head. Her hair was wondrously soft.
As he looked down at the creatures that knelt at his feet, satisfaction such as he’d never known swelled within him. He was powerful, strong. He was complete now.
The Hunting Pair had arrived.
* * * *
Christoffer stared at the gravel of the drive, heart pounding. This man was not what he’d expected. He’d imagined the lord would be commanding—he was rich and landed, which always came with some authority—but he had not expected real dominance. When the lord had forced him to his knees, forced him to expose his neck, Christoffer had slipped easily and quickly into the submissive role.
The lord was Alpha, the way Christoffer’s own father was. The minute Christoffer had felt and scented that dominance he’d had no choice but to obey. His veins hummed with calm expectation. Calm because a leader was there, and a leader meant guidance, security. Expectation because Christoffer must be ready to obey the Alpha at any moment.
The calm and expectation were the properties of the wolf. The human side of him was shivering in fear. This man was not what he’d expected, not what he wanted. He wanted someone soft and pathetic, someone he could push and goad by being outrageous so that when he left, betraying the agreement between the lord and the wolves, the lord would not seek retaliation. He’d agreed to be the tribute, but he had no intention of truly giving his life away.
Panic, creeping as the forest’s shadows, stole into Christoffer’s heart.
* * * *
With a sigh of pleasure, Mirela leaned against the man’s leg. He was a strong man—that was good. He could control the wolf, which lessened her fear. She did not know much of or like people who were not Romany, and the lord seemed different than other regular people, easier for her to understand.
She was not without worry. She’d seen the blood dripping from his arm where she’d caught him with her beak, but it had been an accident. Perched on his arm, if she fell she would not be able to spread her wings fast enough to take flight, and a fall to the ground could mean a damaged wing, which she could not bear.
She was glad he’d taken control of the situation with the wolf, who was a very strange person. There was no great quarrel between wolves and falcons, as they were both master predators of their respective niches, but there was no doubt that while on the ground the wolf was the more powerful.
She would protect herself if needed by taking to the sky, but she would much prefer that the lord control him. She dismissed the wolf from her mind. Her only concern was the lord. She would have to train him to hunt properly with a falcon, as she did not want an inept handler, but other than that she would have very little to do with either the man or the wolf. Her home was the sky.
* * * *
“Rise,” William said, taking his hands from their heads. They climbed to their feet, the girl standing straight, calmly meeting his gaze, the boy keeping his face averted. The situation, which had briefly gone awry, was back under his control. He could now follow the plan he’d spent months crafting and outlining.
“First I will allow you to eat. Then I will show you to your quarters. Follow me.”
He pushed between them and started toward the house. Halfway there, he still hadn’t heard footsteps. He turned. The falcon was struggling to lift her trunk, the wolf watched with a smirk.
“Leave that,” he barked. “And you, leave your bag. You won’t need it.”
The wolf narrowed his eyes but slowly lowered the bag from his shoulder. The falcon immediately started forward and her compliance was deeply satisfying. William passed through the opening in the front wing, their footsteps moving from the crunch of gravel to the muted slap of stone. He opened the door, leading them into the foyer.
“Very English,” Christoffer said. William ignored the insult in the tone. The falcon was looking around with an appropriate level of awe. She stepped toward a tapestry. It was nearly five hundred years old and incredibly fragile.
“Don’t touch that—” His teeth snapped closed as he realized that he didn’t even know the falcon’s name. It was better that he think of and refer to them as animals, but a name was most likely necessary.
“What is your name?” he asked the falcon, who whirled away from the hanging.
She fisted her hands behind her back and murmured something.
“What was that?”
“Mirela, my lord. Mirela Cooper.”
“Mirela, thank you.” He couldn’t pronounce it in the rolling way she did, so clipped off the syllables. “Follow me this way, please.”
Christoffer, who was halfway up the stairs, though William hadn’t heard him move, bounded down the steps, landing with bended knees. “So does this place come with a formal dining room, morning room, a sun parlor?” He chuckled at his own joke.
“The house is outfitted in a manner becoming the Earldom,” William said. He led the falcon and wolf not to the dining room, but to the kitchen. The large room was outfitted with a butcher-block table and benches. The kitchen appliances were state of the art, and had been paid for by a movie company that had used his home for the setting of a film about a chef who retires to the country to raise his child. William had never seen the film, but his housekeeper and chef had been delighted at the improvements.
Laid out on the long work counter were platters of bread, meat and cheese. There was a bowl of egg mayonnaise, green salad, muffins and a tart for dessert.
“Please help yourself to refreshments.” He indicated heavy stone-colored plates he used on a daily basis. He’d debated having the housekeeper pull out china, but considering what he had planned for them it seemed disingenuous.
The wolf picked up a plate and piled it full of meat, bypassing both bread and cheese. The falcon picked out a few lean pieces of meat and a nice wedge of cheese. Rather than using the bone-handled cheese knife, she put the entire block on her plate. She hesitantly took a seat on the bench across from the wolf. William made himself a ploughman’s sandwich and pulled a chair up to the head of the table.
They ate in silence for several moments. William carefully noted what foods they’d selected and how much they ate. This meal was not really a welcome into his home, but rather a fact-gathering experiment.
When he found himself staring at the falcon, watching the way she scooped her hair behind her ear, the rise and fall of her breasts, he jerked his gaze away. Christoffer, who’d been watching him watch her, smiled, baring all his teeth.
“She’s gorgeous,” Christoffer said, voice echoing in the hush of the kitchen.
Mirela’s head jerked up and she put down the chunk of cheese she held.
“Are you going to fuck her?” Christoffer asked William. “I always wondered about that. You get a pretty young girl, why not fuck her? I will say, I think it’s only fair that if you fuck her, you fuck me too.” He planted an elbow on the table and leaned toward William. “From what I can tell after last night, Englishmen like to be fucked, not do the fucking. You want me to fuck you, my lord?”
Mirela winced away, flushing dark red, and William could feel the heat rising in his face also. “Enough,” he said, pushing away from his half-eaten sandwich. “You will moderate your language. What I plan to do to either Mirela or yourself is my choice and mine alone. Do not forget who is the master here.” He stared Christoffer down. The boy’s face drooped, and for a moment he looked younger that his words had made him seem.
“Come with me. I will show you to your quarters.”
Mirela rose and followed him, abandoning what was still on her plate, but Christoffer hung back. William led Mirela through the mudroom attached to the kitchen to an exterior door. Christoffer hadn’t followed them out. With a sigh William started to return indoors to fetch him, but Mirela put a hand on his arm.
He looked down at her pale fingers resting against his sleeve. The sword, which he still wore, pressed against her leg. “Yes, Mirela?”
“Are you going to do…what he said?”
Her eyes were wide, her lips parted. If not for the wrinkle of concern between her brows he would have thought it was desire writ upon her face, but it was fear.
“What were you told about your service to me?”
“I was born to be yours,” she said quietly. “My mother was given to my father so her family could share the burden of payment to you. I am the oldest girl, and so from the time I was small knew what my life would be. They said that the lord, that you, would demand hunting by the falcon and quiet obedience from the woman.”
“And was that obedience to include sharing your body?” William lifted her fingers from his sleeve and cupped her wrist, stroking the hollow of her hand with his thumb. She drew in a deep breath and they were standing so close that her breasts brushed his chest.
“I-I don’t know. They never told me. I thought to die untouched. I thought the lord would already be married. No falcon has ever returned to the family to speak of her time here.”
“None have returned?” He snorted in disbelief, though he could understand that Mirela wouldn’t have been told that tale. “What you were told was neither more nor less than the truth. I will demand obedience from you, perhaps in all ways.”
He kept his words strong, fighting the public school manners that demanded he reassure her and promise to leave her alone. Perhaps a kiss would calm her. He cupped the falcon’s neck and tilted her head up.
“I knew you were going to fuck her,” Christoffer said, closing the mudroom door with a bang.
“Christoffer,” William growled. Mirela pulled away, her fingers twisting together. William wanted to take her in his arms and carry her to his bed.
He would have to consider the ramifications of having sex with her. A sexual relationship had been low on his list of concerns. After all, what if his falcon was like his father’s? But now that she was here and so heart-stoppingly beautiful, why should he deny himself?
He did not have to decide immediately; after all, she couldn’t leave.
“This way,” William said tersely, looking at Christoffer.
Christoffer’s gaze was on the clearly visible erection in the front of William’s pants. William met Christoffer’s eyes and something passed between them, something William would have called attraction if that weren’t so ludicrous. Though he had to admit the boy was handsome.
William took them across the manicured grass to the edge of the woods. Once at the tree line he turned, not right toward the place where the fence of the deer park cut through the trees, but left to the outbuilding he’d had retrofitted for this purpose.
“Where are we going?” Christoffer asked, jogging a few steps to walk beside William.
William debated responding, but said, “This is where you will live now.” The corner of the building was just visible through the trees.
“Ahh, can’t let the freaks live in the main house?” Christoffer sneered.
William winced but didn’t respond. What he was doing was necessary. He’d lain awake many nights telling himself that what he planned wasn’t cruel or degrading but prudent.
The building, whose original purpose was forgotten due to age, was made of rounded gray stone. It was newly mortared, and for all its age appeared solid and steady.
As they drew closer William’s heartbeat sped up.
He stopped at the heavy wood door. He stared at it, gathering his courage. William looked over his shoulder at them—his Hunting Pair—and opened the door.
* * * *
Mirela was the first to enter, ushered in by a gesture from the man. William, she reminded herself. It did not seem appropriate to continue to think of him only as “the man”.
The building he’d brought her to was made of stone, with low ceilings except for the center, where the angling of the roof gave it more height.
The floor was stone to match the walls, though the floor was of large flat rocks rather than the smaller round rocks of the walls. The walls had been lined on the insides with heavy vertical bars. The bars were spaced close together and painted gray, so at first they seemed to blend with the stone.
She took a few more steps into the room. A table and stools, a plush armchair and several trunks filled the high-ceilinged center of the rectangular building. To her right a set of bars cut across from one wall to the other, sectioning off about a third of the total interior space.
To her left there was another wall of bars, again sectioning off about a third of the space, though there was an additional wall of bars running perpendicular to the first, dividing the space in two.
There were many carpenters in Mirela’s family and a few stonemasons, so she knew something of building and remodeling old structures. Whoever had put in these bars to support the building had been very stupid. It was very ugly.
The wolf walked up to one of the bar-walls and rattled it. The sound was loud in the quiet building.
“What the fuck is this?” he growled.
Mirela’s skin prickled with fright. The wolf’s tone was dark and dangerous. She took a step back, accidentally running into the man—William. He was warm and solid at her back, and when he put his hands on her shoulders she felt safe.
“Mirela,” William said, “please put this on.” As he spoke he released her and went to one of the trunks. He pulled a key from his pocket and used it to unlock the trunk, pulling out two brass-colored things before closing the trunk again.
He handed her one of the two things he held.
Mirela took it with a murmured, “Thank you.” It was a necklace, so stiff that it held its shape on its own. It was made of thousands of small filigrees braided into threads that were braided into ropes and finally braided into one large piece, capped by disks printed with the image of a bird in flight.
She loved it.
The necklace was weighty and beautiful, archaic in look and feel. She ran it between her fingers, the exquisite craftsmanship alluring to one such as she who had grown up surround by skilled artisans.
“It is very beautiful,” she said, looking up with a smile. “Thank you.”
William nodded stiffly. “Put it on please.”
He took the necklace from her, pointing out the hinges, then handing it back. Mirela slipped it around her neck and carefully closed it, scared of catching her hair in the clasps. When the falcon disks were an inch apart the necklace snapped closed, as if the disks were magnetic, startling a yelp from Mirela.
Her vision went blurry, the ground wobbled beneath her. She cried out, asking what was wrong, what was happening, but the words came out a garbled mixture of English and Romani. She sank to the ground.
Christoffer backed away from the falcon, who’d fallen to the floor.
“What did you do to her?” he barked, looking up. The spot where William had been standing was empty. Christoffer took another step back and smacked into William, who’d snuck up behind him. Christoffer whirled, dropping to a crouch. He could smell the damp undergrowth of the forest as he called forward his wolf. William’s nostrils widened and he fell back a step, in surprise or fear.
Christoffer hoped it was fear.
He didn’t know what the lord had done to the falcon, but he didn’t want it done to him. He’d been the last one to enter this little chamber of horrors, and only shock had kept him from turning tail and running. He couldn’t believe William intended to keep them in cages. The arrangement between the wolves and the lord was a civil one, nothing more than a formality after all these years.
William shook his head as if to dispel the scents of the forest and reached for Christoffer, a collar much like the one around the falcon’s neck in his hand.
Christoffer scrambled back awkwardly as the wolf was upon him, causing his bones to twist and pop as his body changed. He was at his most vulnerable when he changed. He snarled, the sound echoing, but the lord did not retreat. He slipped around to Christoffer’s side and reached for his neck, the collar open. Christoffer batted William away with enough force that his bones, weak from the change, rattled within the thin confinement of his skin.
With an animal’s whimper, Christoffer bent his head, breathing through the pain. There was cold against his neck, a quiet snap and then he knew no more.
* * * *
William watched as the wolf returned to full human. He would not soon forget the look of him mid-change—back bulging, face distorted, skin rippling. He wished it hadn’t happened like that but it was clear that after he saw Mirela fall, Christoffer would not passively accept the collar.
William went to Mirela and Christoffer in turn, shifting them so they lay more comfortably. He checked their pulses and breathing and they seemed fine. He hadn’t expected the collars to knock them out, but wasn’t totally surprised. The collars were powerful tools.
William dropped down to sit in the armchair and looked at his Hunting Pair. This was it, the moment when he decided just what kind of lord he would be. There was a war raging within him—a war between the horrors of his past and his duty, between his father’s civility and his grandfather’s mastery.
This building, with its barbaric cages and prison atmosphere, was a tool, same as the collars. It was a tool he could choose to use, or choose not to.
A good man, a civil, rational man, would take the Hunting Pair back to the house, give them rooms and wish them well. A good man would care for them and protect them, but would politely ignore the other half of the agreement, the part that stated that in service for protection of the clans the Hunting Pair would serve and obey the lord. After all, this agreement had been made when a falcon and a wolf were necessary parts of a household, and servitude and slavery were common.
A good man…a man like his father.
And if he treated them as his father had treated his pair, William would have no one but himself to blame if disaster struck.
William took a set of keys from his pocket and opened the cell doors. He would keep them separate, though the space had been designed for them to live in the two smaller side-by-side cells. He placed the wolf in the single larger cage, dragging him carefully across the floor by the arms. William hefted him over to the camping cot and was able to lift him enough to lay him down.
Christoffer looked so young. William carefully moved the boy’s head so it wasn’t at an awkward angle. It was startling enough that the werewolf tribute was a man—he’d been expecting a female. William stroked the boy’s high cheekbone, ran his palm along the stubble on his jaw.
What was he doing?
Shocked with himself, William left the boy, locking the cage door behind him. He unlocked one of the smaller cages, then lifted the falcon in his arms and carried her to the cot, again struck by her beauty.
Setting her down, he indulged himself by running his fingers along the skin that showed between the bottom of her shirt and her jeans. He carefully pulled her long hair from beneath her and adjusted the collar so it wouldn’t press against her jaw.
He wanted to pull her shirt up, to see what sort of bra she was wearing. William rose quickly to his feet, stifling the impulse. He felt like a young man—awkward and hopeless with women.
Locking her cell behind him, William turned off the lights and left the converted shed, which he’d mockingly nicknamed “the pen”. Twice on his walk back to the house William turned around. The impulse to go back, to check again that they were well, to let them out, to beg their forgiveness for putting the collars on them, was strong.
But each time he forced himself to turn back again. He’d made his choice. They were creatures of another age—one where magic existed and might made right. They were stuck in this modern world, as he was, but that didn’t mean they were going to play by modern rules.
* * * *
She awoke in the dark.
Mirela rubbed her eyes, opening and closing them several times. She had a moment of panic, thinking she was blind, but then she picked out a faint strip of light. It wavered, as if the light were dancing. She laid her head back—on a surface that was not hard but not soft either.
Had she dreamed what had happened?
Her fingers crept to her throat, finding the necklace there.
But it was no necklace. It was a collar. He’d collared her as if she were a dog. She twisted her fingers around it and pulled.
Try as she might she could not get it loose. She remembered the way the collar had snapped together.
Panic scurried up her spine on little mouse feet.
Reaching her hands out, she oriented herself then sat up. Pressing her face against her knees, she chanted quietly. After a few moments she was calm enough to lift her head.
The light, which had seemed to waver, was really a thin strip of daylight showing beneath what had to be a door. There was no other light, meaning no windows.
That gave her a moment’s panic, but Mirela reminded herself that at some point the lord would have to come back, and when he did she would fly out.
Standing now, she moved around the bar-walls of her prison. Along two of the walls she could push her hands through the bars and touch stone. She carefully passed her hand over them, feeling for air that might indicate a shuttered window. Nothing.
It did not matter a great deal, because only as a falcon could she fit through the bars.
How foolish she’d been to believe the lord was anything but a monster. She could see now why her mother and sisters had wept at her fate. Had they known this was what he intended to do to her and, knowing that, sent her here anyway?
That was an unfair thought, because she knew that if her mother had the choice she would have kept Mirela from this fate.
She turned back to the strip of light. What time was it? What day? She didn’t know how long she’d been unconscious. Would the lord be returning soon?
Either way, she wanted to be ready to escape when he came back.
Mirela backed away from the bars she’d been leaning against, crouched and spread her arms. The cold bite of high air, the scent of sun-warmed leaves and wind-caught flowers surrounded her.
But the scent faded.
With a frown, Mirela lowered her arms. She’d never before failed to call her falcon.
Raising her arms, she tried it again.
She stopped to clear her mind, counting to one hundred in several Romani dialects, then tried a fourth time.
Her falcon would not come.
“No, no,” she chanted, jumping to her feet and pacing back and forth across her prison. Panic came again, though this time it was like a wave, drowning her. “No. I need the sky. No.”
“Can’t change, can you?” The voice came from the dark, warm and rich. Mirela thought she smelled the forest, musky and wild.
“Who’s there? My lord?” Her heart beat wildly.
“No, he’s gone.”
“Try not to sound too enthusiastic,” he said, voice dry.
“Can you get me out of here?”
“Then why should I care about you?”
Silence filled the dark and a part of Mirela was aware of her rudeness, but she was too panicked and scared to care.
“Indeed, why should you or anyone care?”
He fell quiet and the only sound was her footsteps. Mirela stopped pacing long enough to try to call her falcon, but again failed.
She sank to her knees, throat tight with panicked tears. “I cannot live like this.”
“Yes, you can.” His voice was hard and angry.
“I cannot,” she wailed into the dark, tears now spilling down her cheeks. “I need the sky.”
“Please don’t cry,” he said, the anger gone from his voice. “I hate it when girls cry. I’m very macho in that way, though I try not to be so guy-like.”
“Guy-like?” she asked, confusion briefly distracting her from her tears.
“Not to say that I’m not all male.” His voice was lazy, as if he were talking to himself. Perhaps his brain was addled.
“What else would you be?” she couldn’t help but ask.
“Could you really be that innocent? I heard gypsy girls were virgins until the wedding but you dress like prostitutes, so I figured that was a lie.”
Mirela jumped to her feet. “Do not talk about my people like that. I am not gypsy. I am Romany, you ignorant, stupid man.”
She spit at him through the bars, knowing she wasn’t close enough to hit him but wanting to strike out.
There was a scrape of shoes against stone. “Hissing and spitting like a kitty? How very grown-up.”
“You are stupid.”
“Is stupid the best you can do? Didn’t they teach you any real swear words?”
Mirela cursed at him in the Romani dialect of her father’s people. She let venom slip into her words. He wouldn’t know that only a few of the words could be considered swear words.
“Ahh,” he said, talking over the top of her tirade. “You can’t curse in English. Perhaps you don’t know English that well.”
“I know it well enough,” she countered, reverting to that language. “Perhaps you do not know it well. You are not from this country.” The last bit was a guess, but Mirela was fairly sure his accent, so different from the lord’s, indicated he was foreign.
Thinking of the lord reminded her of her situation, and Mirela put her back to the bars and slid down them until she was seated on the floor.
“You’re worrying again, aren’t you?” His voice was gentle, and Mirela realized something.
“You said those things to make me angry, didn’t you?”
“Yes. I really don’t like it when girls cry.”
“Oh.” She pondered that for a moment. “Thank you.”
He laughed and it sounded like a dog’s bark. “You don’t have to thank me. I was an ass to you.”
“You really don’t know any good curse words, do you?”
“No. What is an ass?”
“Ass,” he said, his footsteps echoing slightly as he moved about, “means butt, rear end, posterior. I think it’s also a donkey or something in English, but I don’t know for sure.”
“To be called an, an ass is a bad thing?”
“The lord is an ass.” She whispered it, unsure of the word.
“Don’t whisper, shout it out. And you’re right. He’s an ass. An arrogant English ass, whom I underestimated.”
Mirela’s back was beginning to hurt from the bars, so she moved to the cot and lay down again.
“I should not say such things,” she said. “You should not either.”
“Why would you defend him? He just locked us up in here.”
“But that is his right,” she said.
“Yes, we are his to command. He is our master, our lord.”
“If that’s what you really think, then why were you crying and screaming?”
“He’s taken away my falcon,” she said, words heavy in the dark.
“You mean you cannot change.”
“I must have the sky. It is all I ask. I will fly from his wrist at his command, as long as he leaves me free to fly whenever I please.”
“So really you’re not so obedient as you pretend. You want your freedom, same as I.”
“I don’t know what you want, but I want to be able to fly. I need the sky. It is my home. I will serve him however else he commands, but he must let me fly.”
“However he wants? Are you going to have sex with him?”
The rude question startled Mirela. “I don’t, I haven’t… Do you think he’ll want that?”
“He wants you,” the wolf said, sounding wistful. “He’s a handsome man, though he seems a bit stiff, probably no good in bed. Though if he offered I wouldn’t say no.”
“You would sleep with him?” Mirela propped herself up on one elbow and turned to look at the wolf, though she could not see him.
“But you are a man. And he is a man.”
“Ahh, didn’t pick that up, did you?” There was a smirk in his voice.
“You talk to me as though I am stupid. I am not. You’re the one who doesn’t make any sense.”
“I’m saying that I like men.”
Mirela blinked once, then again, then lay back. She’d heard about men who liked other men, though it had been through whispered conversations. She’d certainly never met a man like that, and her father and uncles, when alluding to the depravities of people who were not Romany, warned that such people would be evil.
The wolf didn’t seem evil, though perhaps that made him all the more evil.
“Are you evil?” she asked.
“Because I like men? No. Let me guess, you grew up with a Bible at your bedside.”
He made it sound as if that were a bad thing. “You have not answered. Are you evil? You must not lie.”
“No, I’m not evil. And if it makes you feel better I like girls too.” There was laughter in his words.
“It’s called bisexual, or bi. That’s your second new word for the day.”
“You want to marry both women and men?”
“Marry, no. Have sex with, yes.”
“It is a sin to have sex before marriage.”
“Then what are you going to do if good old William comes here demanding your virginity?”
“I will grant it to him. He is my master.”
“You went through some good brainwashing.”
“I am not brainwashed. I know my place. And I know that I like boys, not boys and girls. It must be very confusing to be you.”
There was a beat of silence and then he laughed. It was not the short barking laugh of before but a deep belly laugh like a child’s. It made her smile. She’d never talked with a boy like this. Boys and girls were kept separate until marriage, and most marriages were arranged, so there was very little contact with the boy before the wedding. Mirela had never really cared about talking to boys, though her sisters and cousins were forever trying to sneak into their company. She’d always been more focused on the sky, and since she would never marry, no one cared that she would rather be flying than sneaking off to a fair.
“You have a nice laugh,” she said. “I like it.”
“You are far more interesting and fun than I thought. I imagined you’d be mousy.”
“Mousy? That is a silly thing for a wolf to tell a falcon.”
“True, and we’d better stop talking about it because it’s making me hungry.”
Her stomach rumbled in response to his words, and once more she was forced to examine the situation in which she found herself. She could tell from the silence he was doing the same.
“Your name is Christoffer, yes?”
“And you’re Mirela. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mirela.”
“I am happy to meet you, Christoffer.”
This time the silence was not as sad nor as long.
“It is the necklace, isn’t it?” she asked.
“That’s stopping us from changing? It must be. Though we should probably call it a collar rather than a necklace.”
“Collar, yes.” She stroked hers with two fingers, remembering with a grimace how she’d admired it and then willingly placed it around her neck. “There must be very powerful magic on it.”
“I’m just hoping this isn’t leaching away our power forever.”
Mirela’s breath caught. It had never occurred to her that this necklace might be permanently stripping her of her falcon.
“I have to get it off!” She jumped from the cot, fingers digging between the collar and her neck. She ran to the bars and began throwing herself at them, face turned to the side so that the collar hit the bars.
“Mirela, stop it! Whatever you’re doing, stop.”
She staggered in pain when she misjudged and hit her cheek on a bar. “I must have it off. It is killing my falcon.”
“No, it’s not.” She could barely hear his words over the clanking of metal. “Mirela, stop. Your falcon is there.”
Clang, clang. “I would rather be dead than live without my falcon.”
“I understand, believe me, but you have to stop.”
Her elbows were bruised, her face hurt. Mirela leaned her forehead between two of the bars, panting.
“I would rather be dead,” she whispered.
“You can still change. Your falcon is still there.”
“How do you know?”
“Try to change, you’ll feel the magic is still there.”
Mirela stepped back, crouched and spread her arms. Again the scent of flowers carried on the wind filled the dark, but faded gently.
The wolf was right, her falcon was still there.
“I smell flowers and leaves,” Christoffer said as Mirela rose to her feet.
“My falcon is still there.”
“Sorry I scared you. I wasn’t thinking.”
“How can you be so calm?”
There was a beat of silence, then, “There’s always a way out.”
“You’ve been in this situation bef—”
A key rattled. The door opened.
* * * *
William threw open the door, letting sunlight spill into the chamber. He heard Christoffer whisper, “Stay calm.”
They were finally awake. He breathed a sigh of relief. It had been almost four hours since he’d left them and he’d come back to check every hour. He closed the door, locking it and putting the key in his shirt pocket before flipping the light switch. The lights were set to illuminate each of the cages and the area he thought of as his “training” space.
Both the wolf and the falcon flinched when the lights came on, and William had a brief pang of guilt.
“I hope you rested well,” he said quietly.
“There’s a difference between sleeping peacefully and being knocked unconscious,” Christoffer said.
William ignored him and turned to the falcon.
She really was lovely. She sat on the cot, chest curled down to her knees, hair hiding her face. The light created a halo around her.
She looked up, hair hanging over half her face, then rose to her feet and came to the bars. He wanted to apologize, wanted to open the door and bring her back to the house. He wanted to reassure her that everything was okay—but he didn’t know how to say it. Even in his own head the words seemed stupid and weak, so he retreated behind a mask—retreated behind the persona of the all-powerful and commanding lord of the manor. Later he would make it up to both of them. This horrible building, the training they were about to embark on, were needed only until he knew he could trust them.
“It is time for us to begin training together. I want for us, all of us,” he looked over his shoulder at Christoffer, who lounged on his cot, “to become a seamless unit. I know you are used to living with others of your kind, so I am going to teach you how to behave here.”
“And how do you want us to behave?” Mirela whispered.
“Loyalty. You must be totally loyal to me. That is the only way I’ll be able to trust you—if I know you’ll do my bidding.”
“You’ll domesticate us?” Christoffer asked.
“If that is how you’d like to see it.” William smiled at Mirela, who seemed hesitant. He put the key in the lock and twisted.
Her head jerked up at the noise, a falcon-quick movement.
He pushed the door open and stepped back, gesturing her out. She took one hesitant step, then sprinted out, running as far from her cage as she could get. She stopped with her back pressed against the other bars. Christoffer leapt off his cot and came up behind her. He touched her shoulder and put his lips to her ear, whispering something William couldn’t hear.
“Mirela, come here,” William commanded, heartbeat speeding up. She seemed wilder than before, wilder even than when she’d been a falcon on his wrist.
She stepped away from Christoffer, who backed off, his face set in grim lines.
“You are to stay away from her,” William told him, worried as to what the wolf might have been saying to her. He took Mirela’s hand and pulled her toward the open space in the middle. He seated her in the armchair and then took a seat on the trunk across from her. He’d filled the trunks with various provisions. There were even some items of his grandfather’s, things used to “break” a wild animal—though William had no intention of using them.
“Today, we will start simply. You are to change on my command, and then change back, again on my command.”
He reached beneath the collar of his shirt and pulled out a carved bit of wood.
“Lift your chin please.”
She obeyed, her hair falling away from her face. One cheek was red and swollen.
“What happened to you?” William demanded. He looked at Christoffer, who lifted his hands and shook his head. It couldn’t have been the wolf, he’d been safely locked up.
“Mirela, who did this to you?”
She turned her face away.
“She did it to herself,” Christoffer said. Mirela whipped her head around to glare at him and, as before, the movement was falcon-quick.
“Why?” William asked. Her cheek was swollen and red. It needed ice, maybe a doctor.
“Do you really need to ask?” Christoffer replied.
William cupped Mirela’s chin and turned her face to him. “Why did you hurt yourself?”
“I was trying to remove this cursed thing.” She turned her head, her chin slipping from his fingers as she indicated the collar.
“Lift your chin and I will take it off you.”
Mirela looked at him, then eagerly lifted her chin.
William fitted the icon he wore around his neck carefully between the falcon disks. The collar popped open. Before he could lift the collar from her, Mirela took it and flung it away. It skittered across the floor.
“Careful,” he admonished. He frowned at her, reevaluating his plans. Patience, he reminded himself. Having the collar on was probably a terrifying thing, though they were inside a building and it wasn’t as though she would have been able to fly anyway.
Her eyes were closed as she ran her fingers along her now bare throat. William’s thoughts shifted from concern over her attitude to concern for his own mental health. It was simply ridiculous to be so distracted by a pretty girl. He wanted to trace her throat with his tongue as he thrust into her. William shook his head to dispel the fantasy.
He put his hands behind his back.
“If you are to earn my trust I need to know you will obey me. You must learn to respond to my commands without thought or argument. I am your master and you must obey without hesitation.”
Christoffer snorted. William ignored it. He’d been rehearsing this speech all afternoon.
“The most important act of obedience will be to change on command. We will practice this until I am satisfied that you will change when and if I command.”
“If?” Mirela asked. The question was quiet. “We will only be allowed to change if you ask us to?”
“If I command,” he corrected.
Mirela bowed her head.
William’s chest swelled with satisfaction, this was going to work. “We begin. Mirela,” he said, deepening his voice, “your master commands you to take the form of the falcon.”
Christoffer let out a bark of laughter.
Mirela stood, tucked one foot behind her and curtsied. “Yes, my lord.” She looked up and her eyes were bright and sharp. William’s heart leapt and he fought the urge to fall back a step. The look in her eyes… Was that hate? No. It couldn’t be.
She crouched and spread her arms.
William licked his lips, his brief moment of fear forgotten in anticipation.
A sharp wind began to blow around his legs. He looked over his shoulder to see if the door was open but it was still closed. This was it, this was the magic of the change.
Her hair whipped around her face and the wind carried on it the smell of winter cold and summer flowers. The walls echoed back the sound of bones popping and skin splitting. Bile rose in William’s throat but he swallowed it back and made himself watch as her skin rippled and her body shrank. There was a moment when she wasn’t recognizable as either human or falcon—but in the next breath her body had re-formed as the falcon. The bird of prey hopped out of the tangle of clothes she’d left behind.
“Beautiful,” William said. The light caught the patterns of her wings, the subtle colorings of cream and brown. One large black eye regarded him. It—no, she, for this was Mirela, his falcon—spread her wings.
“Ah, can I say something?” Christoffer had a white-knuckled grip on the bars of his cell.
“No.” William didn’t need any more biting comments from the wolf. His pride was smarting from the way the boy had laughed at his speech.
“Mirela, don’t be stupid,” Christoffer said. He paced down his cell to be closer to the bird. She was opening and closing her wings softly. “Mirela, be calm.”
“Stop talking to her,” William said, frowning. Was Christoffer taunting her?
Christoffer was crouched, whispering to the falcon, who’d taken a few awkward steps closer to him.
“I said stop.” William walked toward them.
Mirela spread her wings, beak opening. She made a strange hissing noise.
He took another step and his foot hit the collar she’d kicked away. He picked it up. “Mirela, change back, now.”
The falcon opened her beak again, and this time let out a piercing cry. She spread her wings and took off. She flew in tight circles around the limited space.
“I command you to change back,” William said, struggling to keep his voice calm.
“Look out!” Christoffer shouted.
The falcon streaked toward him, razor-sharp claws spread.
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