Shana peered into the stone cell, where a black wolf lay on the floor. Two penetrating yellow-gold eyes stared out through the iron bars. A chill prickled up Shana's spine. The intelligence in those eyes was unmistakable.
Slowly, the wolf rose to its feet, rattling the chains that held it. Dark lips wrinkled back from long, white fangs, and Shana took a step back.
"Don't worry, milady," said Brun. He stood beside her, large and solid, his familiar presence reassuring in the darkness of the dungeon. "It can't get through those bars. Just don't look in its eyes, or it'll try to mesmerize you."
The wolf was almost as big as a pony. Thick, shaggy fur covered its body, not quite hiding the ragged wound in its side. Blood dripped to the stone floor. "Hasn't that wound been treated?" Shana asked.
Brun raised an eyebrow. "Would you want to go in there? Anyone who sets foot in that cell risks a messy death. We've tried giving the beast drugged meat, but it won't eat, so we're just waiting for it to weaken. We figure a few days without food will take the fight out of it."
"What then? What are they going to do with him?"
He combed his fingers through his thick, reddish beard. "Let the alchemists vivisect it, I imagine."
Shana shuddered. The wolf's eyes were still on her. "Is it true that they can assume human form?"
"Oh, yes. That's what makes these wolf demons so dangerous. They can pass for human, live among us undetected." Brun held up his lantern, illuminating the wolf's face. Light shone on the golden irises. "You can recognize them if you know the signs, though. They all have those yellow eyes, even in man-form. And a dog can smell the difference. That's how your mother's hunters caught this one." He rubbed the bridge of his nose. "Quite a struggle, I'm told. The hunters had to fill him with arrows before he even slowed down."
A low growl rose from the wolf's throat. Shana's gaze drifted back to the wound in its side. "Why does he have to stay locked up like this? He hasn't hurt anyone, has he?"
"Demons kill folk all the time."
"But surely they aren't all bad."
He frowned. "I know you've a soft heart, milady, but your compassion is wasted on this creature. Demons are demons."
Shana bit her lower lip, staring at the wolf. Its eyes locked with hers and widened. Pointed ears twitched and swiveled forward as the wolf stared at her intently. She couldn't move, couldn't breathe. Her heart pounded in her throat as her skin warmed and tingled.
A deep, male voice spoke in her head. Can you hear me?
She gave a start.
The wolf's gaze never left hers. You can, can't you? Do you know who I am?
She barely heard Brun's voice. She couldn't look away from those eyes. Nothing else existed. Goose bumps rose on her arms and breasts, and her nipples stiffened until they felt sharp enough to cut paper. That voice sounded so familiar. Where had she heard it before? It made her think of dreams she'd had as a child -- dreams of running free through the forest, far from the confining walls of her home, with wind in her hair and soft, cool grass under her bare feet. Those dreams had grown less and less frequent as she grew older, but now she ached for that sense of freedom. Her tongue crept out to moisten her lips, and she took a step toward the bars.
"Shana!" Rough hands gripped her shoulders and turned her sharply away from the cell.
She blinked up at Brun's face as her eyes slowly regained focus. "What?"
He peered into her eyes. "Are you all right?"
"Yes, I'm fine," she said, surprised at how normal her voice sounded. Her heart galloped, and her skin still tingled with a strange warmth.
He frowned. "I think you'd best go. The dungeon's no place for a young lady."
She nodded, dazed. As the guard led her down the dimly lit hall, away from the cell, she cast one last look over her shoulder, at the demon. Its eyes still watched her, unblinking and golden.
Brun led her up a twisting stone staircase, to a huge oaken door, and pushed it open. Shana blinked at the sudden bright sunlight.
"Are you sure you're all right, milady? You're pale."
She managed a slight smile. "I'm just a little shaken, that's all. It's the first time I've ever seen a demon up close. I'll be fine."
He frowned. "Would you like me to walk you back to the main house?"
"No, thank you." She stepped through the open door, into the grassy field outside the windowless stone building that housed the dungeons. The door creaked shut behind her, and the lock clicked.
Shana crossed the grassy lawn and slipped in through the mansion's main doors. She looked around, then crept inside. The hall was silent, sunlight spilling in through the tall, arched windows. Her boots clicked softly against the stone floor as she made her way toward the stairs.
A sharp voice stopped her in her tracks. "Shana."
She turned slowly.
Lady Olivia stood behind her, a tall, thin form in a dark gray dress, her long, brown hair tied back in a tight braid. Her moon-pale face was expressionless and cool, as always. Shana couldn't remember the last time she'd seen her smile. "Yes, Mother?"
"I saw you leave the dungeons. What were you doing in that place?"
Shana tensed. "I was just curious. Everyone was talking about the demon, but no one would tell me anything. I don't see anything wrong with just wanting a quick look."
She knew immediately that she'd made a mistake. Olivia's eyes widened. "You saw the demon?"
Shana bit her tongue.
"By the gods, Shana, do you have any idea how dangerous those creatures are?"
"They had it locked up," she said, but her voice was more subdued now. Her cheeks burned. "There was no danger."
"Of course there was danger!" Olivia clenched her fists, inhaling slowly, as if to bring her emotions under control. Her face flushed brick red. "Shana, demons are not natural creatures. Some of them can read minds, or enter a person's dreams, or even..."
"There have been stories of possession. Of demons inhabiting a person's body."
Shana blinked. "Surely you don't think I'm possessed."
"Demons are extremely clever. He might have slipped into your mind and hidden himself. He may be lying in wait for the proper moment to seize control. You had better report to Alchemist Sedric and have him examine you."
Shana bowed her head, feeling subdued and a little frightened. Perhaps she had been foolish to visit the dungeon, after all. "Yes, Mother," she said quietly.
"One more thing," Olivia said, and withdrew a small black velvet box from her pocket. "A messenger brought it this morning. It's from Alan."
Shana winced, took the box, and opened it. A gold bracelet glittered inside. "It's lovely."
Beneath it lay a note.
To my betrothed.
How cold. But at least he was honest. Calling her darling or beloved would have been a lie.
"He also left a message. The date of the wedding has been set. It will take place in two weeks."
"Two weeks?" Shana's eyes widened. "So soon?" She heard the fear in her voice, but couldn't hide it.
"Alan is a good man," Olivia said, her expression neutral. "He will keep you comfortable and provide for your children."
Shana stared at the floor. Alan of Fyrden was a dour man with bushy, scowling gray eyebrows and a voice like the growl of a sleepy dragon. He was old enough to be her father, or even her grandfather. Shana's fingers tightened on the bracelet. "It's just -- I hardly know him. Do you really think this is necessary?"
Her mother sighed. "You must be realistic, Shana. Our family fortune has dwindled considerably, and noble blood doesn't put food on the table. You and Alan will grow to care for each other. That was how it was with your father and I, may his soul rest peacefully."
"But I'm not attracted to Alan," she blurted out.
"There are more important things in this world than passion." She laid a hand on Shana's shoulder and smiled, though her eyes held a shadow of sadness. "You'll come to understand that as you grow older."
Shana lowered her gaze. She knew there was no handsome stranger on a white horse coming to carry her away. Only silly little girls believed in such things. She was twenty, too old for fairy tales. Yet a deep and bitter ache filled her heart. "I understand, Mother." She turned away to hide the tears in her eyes.