Something pursued her through the forest, an unholy creature, a thing of blood and claws. Her hair whipped her face as she ran, and she craned her neck again and again to catch glimpses of black between the dark shadows of the trees. It was folly to look back, she knew, but she could not help it, could not tear her eyes from the sight of the beast gaining ground. Something caught her foot, a root, a branch, it mattered not, and she crashed to the forest floor. The creature covered her, smothered her in its stinking matted hair and the scent of death.
Spitting the fur from her mouth, Aurelia struggled from beneath the heavy pelt that covered her and kicked her legs over the side of her bed. A ragged winter wind blew through the shutters, left carelessly open by the same serving girl who'd come in to lay out Aurelia's kirtle, she had no doubt. In the courtyard below, horses nickered in agitation. Aurelia understood their anger, for she was not pleased to be leaving today, either.
Her nurse entered the bedchamber, a length of clean cloth over one arm and a copper pitcher of steaming water in the other. "Up, up, child!"
On a usual morning, Aurelia might have bristled at being called a child, but she'd seen tears shining in the old nurse's eyes the night before as she'd helped her charge ready for bed. It would not do to wound the woman at the end of her long years of service.
"I suppose this day was meant to come, eventually," Nurse chattered away as she pulled the nightgown over Aurelia's head, exposing night-warm flesh to the chill air of the room. "Though it might have come sooner."
As Aurelia, herself, had thought it might. For nineteen years, she'd waited for the day when her father would finally find a reason to trade away her hand. Not because she longed for marriage or the duty of bearing sons, but because she longed to be free from the cold prison of her father's castle.
Instead, she would leave Northwood for a draftier, colder northern keep, to be bride to Sir Roderick Canis, son of Lord Abelard Canis, leader of the free wolves of England. The thought raised hairs on her arms. She'd heard of the fierce wolf-men who fought in chains for King Edward. Those who fought well earned their freedom. Those who'd already earned their freedom won other favors. When her father, Sir Edmund Winterborne, had called upon Lord Canis for help with a minor border skirmish, that favor had been Aurelia's hand in marriage.
Nurse scrubbed her clean with the scalding water, and for once Aurelia did not complain. It was said that the free wolves lived no better than animals, in dirty hovels of castles with crumbling walls, infested with fleas and decay. Who knew when she would receive another bath, if all she had heard told at her father's table had been true?
After Nurse dressed her in what was unquestionably too much clothing, even for a journey north, and brushed her hair to gleaming and set a thick cape of musty fur about her shoulders, Aurelia hurried to the great hall to meet the men who would be her escorts to her new home. She ticked off their names on her fingertips as she lighted down the wooden stairs. There would be Sir Raf, son of Lord Canis, and two knights greatly esteemed by Lord Canis for their valor and loyalty, Sir Jeoffrey and Sir Clement. Margaret Lackey, a woman warrior from Lord Canis's clan, would ride with them, as a chaperone and extra protection.
Aurelia had not forgotten her betrothed in her accounting, for he would not ride with them. His life was too precious, Lord Canis had explained in a letter full of commands disguised as pleasantry, and the politics of wolves far too complicated and dangerous a game to explain to mere humans. The way he'd written, as though he truly imagined his wolf-men were of higher station than normal humans, good people who followed the teachings of Christ and who did not turn into beasts to make war... Aurelia had been appalled.
She was no less so when she observed the group awaiting her in the great hall. Her father stood, his back to the fire, his posture stiff. Her lady mother stood beside him, the corners of her mouth turned down as though she smelled something unpleasant and could not be pressed to name it. The three men and one woman who awaited her appearance stood even straighter, looked less pleased than her parents.
"Daughter." Her father's expression was pinched. She knew he did not like giving her over to these men. He thought it a waste of expense, when her marriage might have bought him a fertile holding or a grander title. "Your escort has arrived."
Margaret Lackey was the easiest to place. The woman stood, nearly as tall as a man, broad of shoulder, her golden hair braided tightly and coiled about her head. A cape of black fur spread over her shoulders, black leather armor shielded her body. Under her arm, she carried a battered helm, and in her fist she brandished a long spear with a barbed tip.
The woman's stern expression grew darker, and Aurelia realized how openly she stared. With a serene smile to disguise her unease, Aurelia nodded gracefully, and turned her attention to the men of the party. Sir Jeoffrey and Sir Clement may as well have been twins, for the way they were dressed, all in mail, with tabards bearing the ornament of the house of Canis upon it. One man--she did not know which--had a ruddy face and a ginger beard. The other, weathered creases on his brow and the dark shadow of black stubble upon his cheeks. That left only Sir Raf, son of Lord Canis, brother to her betrothed, and it took only one look for Aurelia to know she wished to look no more.
It was not that Sir Raf was unhandsome; his sandy gold hair fell to his shoulders, framing a strong, square jaw shaved clean and a face with a kind, if weary, expression. He wore a doublet of studded brown leather and braies that were almost too long for fashion. He stood as tall as the men beside him, taller if he straightened, Aurelia guessed. He could not, though, hunched as he was over a gnarled wooden crutch. Where his right knee should have been, an iron rod took the place of his leg.
She cast her eyes down. They had sent a cripple to fetch her? She saw now the insult Lord Canis had done her father. Not only had he demanded Sir Edmund's only daughter in exchange for the might of his army, he'd sent a cripple and a woman to collect the debt.
"Kiss your mother, girl," Margaret Lackey commanded, gesturing with the hand that held the spear aloft. "We've a long ride to Blackens Gate."
Aurelia did as she was bade, though it galled her that the command had come from the woman and not from Sir Raf. Cripple or no, he was the one among them who should have spoken. I am a daughter of a knight, Aurelia reminded herself. I am to be Lady Canis one day. I will take no further orders from a woman without title or rank.
When she'd made her farewells to her mother and father, Sir Raf turned, without a word to her, and limped from the great hall. His companions followed, leaving Aurelia with no choice but to do the same. She winced with every labored step Sir Raf made, the thump of his booted foot and the gentler fall of his crutch and the pitiable dragging of his iron leg. His long cloak disturbed the rushes, revealing where the wide base of his false foot scraped the stone beneath. Transfixed by the rhythm of the terrible sound, Aurelia did not see the rooms of the castle, her home since birth, as they walked through them. She stood blinking in the daylight before a cart loaded with her few chests of clothing and household goods, all she would bring to her marriage.
"Up you go, my lady," the ginger-haired knight rasped, lifting her by the waist and boosting her onto the back of the cart.
Humiliation roared in her breast, and she could no longer ignore her treatment. "Is this how I am expected to travel?"
The red knight looked down, a smirk twisting his lips. Margaret Lackey snickered audibly. Sir Raf hobbled toward her, his face no longer kind. At his scowl, Aurelia shrank back.
He leaned close, fierce anger darkening his gaze. "This, my lady, is what your lord husband sent to carry you home. You may show him your displeasure when we arrive. For now, you ride on the cart."
As he limped back to his horse, shame burned in Aurelia's face. Margaret Lackey jerked her head toward Raf and quipped, "I don't think your brother will like this one. Maybe we ought to lose her on the way."
Though she wanted to stand and proclaim that one day, very soon, she would be of loftier station than they, and she would make them regret their foul treatment of her, she kept sullen and silent. They had already proven that they thought little enough of her to let some calamity befall her on the road. Instead, she would endure the journey, tallying up each insult as they went, and she would repay them for each.
She did not watch Sir Raf mount his horse. She assumed it was a pathetic spectacle, and felt immediately chastened for holding his gruff demeanor against him. He called out to the party, and in a restless shifting of horses and the creak of the cart's wheels, they began their travel, Raf, Margaret Lackey, and the dark knight on horseback, the red knight driving the ox that pulled the cart.
The going was slow and careful. Though heavy snows had not yet fallen, the dry, frozen ground proved treacherous enough for the horses. The ox's heavy feet broke the jagged peaks of hardened mud and left impressions in the road from the bailey. The wheels of the cart shuddered and jumped over ruts, and Aurelia's fingers cramped from holding on, lest she slip from her precarious seat.
She did not know how long they had travelled when Raf called a halt. Aurelia opened her eyes, amazed to find she had slept at all. The ungentle motion of the cart had lulled her into a stupor, and now every part of her body ached with stiffness. Her very teeth hurt.
The rest of the party unhorsed and wandered into the barren trees to relieve themselves. Aurelia scooted to the edge of the cart, wincing with every motion, and hopped down, pain blossoming in her ankles as her feet hit the ground.
The red knight was the first to stagger back. Jeoffrey, Aurelia had learned from the few conversations the party had engaged in on the road.
It took Aurelia only seconds to assess that there was something dangerous in the way Jeoffrey approached her. The set of his mouth as he smiled, perhaps, or the slow way he came forward. She stayed very still as he came close to the back of the cart, a hand reaching to the knife at his belt.
"They've gone deeper to look for game," he said in a reassuring tone. His hand fell on her shoulder.
She jerked away. "Don't."
His expression darkened. "Don't? You aren't the lady of the castle yet, apple. And things work a little differently there, don't they then?"
"I wouldn't know," Aurelia admitted, breathing deep. "But if he is a man, my husband would not like you putting your hands on his property."
"Ah, but that's the trick of it, isn't it?" Jeoffrey seized her by her arms. "He isn't a man, and neither am I."
His eyes. Jeoffrey's eyes flashed warning orange, and Aurelia shook her head, backing slowly away. Of course, she'd known what they were. Her father had spoken of the wolf-men with disgust, but grudging respect for their prowess in battle. Yet something of a blindness, unintentional, perhaps, had come over her when she'd contemplated this journey. While her denial had made her feel safe, she now realized the folly of it. She was alone, in the forest, with wolves.
Jeoffrey's body, made heavier by the mail he wore, pinned her to the hard ground in half a heartbeat. She gasped for air, then gave up and clawed at him, not breathing but making a hoarse, gulping sound as she pushed and slapped to no avail. His knee pressed between her legs, pinning her skirt to the ground, and as she flailed, she heard the fabric tear. One of the woolen mitts she wore on her hands slipped free, and she sank her fingernails into the skin of his cheek, raking down as hard as she could.
With a roar of pain, he reared back, but only for a moment. As she tried to drag herself backward, he struck her across the face with one metal-plated gauntlet, and blood exploded from her lips, matching the three bright red stripes she'd left on his face. But a second was all she had needed to gain her breath, and with it, her voice. She screamed, shrill terror ringing off every tree in the forest.
The rest of the party returned within seconds, even Raf, crippled as he was. It was he who lifted Jeoffrey from her, flinging him with impossible strength into the side of the cart. The knight crumpled with a sigh of collapsing mail, blood spattered across his tabard.
"Get up!" Raf shouted, dragging her to her feet ungently, by one arm. Aurelia's head reeled, and she struggled to understand this rough treatment. Did he not see her struggle? She thought to plead with him to see reason, that she had not betrayed his brother, her betrothed, but then she saw the reason for the urgency in his tone. On the far side of the narrow road, Margaret Lackey and Sir Clement stood, brandishing spear and sword, their eyes glowing orange.
"You would harm one of your sworn brothers to protect this mewling cat?" Margaret spat in the dirt. "Your father was right to set you aside. You're nothing but a coward!"
"She belongs to my brother!" Raf pushed Aurelia farther behind him. "He has bested you both in combat time after time, and you've never earned the right to his property."
"She isn't a proper woman," Clement explained patiently, as though Raf were a child to be soothed. "She is a lower being."
"She belongs to my brother," Raf repeated. "If either of you wish to challenge him for her, you may do so at the wedding feast. But I am charged with her safety."
"We could challenge you in your brother's stead," Margaret threatened. Aurelia peered past Raf, then regretted it. The fierce woman wore a cruel grin. "Clement, Jeoffrey and I. We could easily cut you down, crippled pup, and all three of us share her."
Suddenly, the world was upside down, and moving fast. Hanging as limp as a sack over Raf's shoulder, Aurelia watched as, in a flurry of movement almost too fast to see, Margaret Lackey and Sir Clement shed their clothing and crouched, lean and terrifying, their naked skin rippling in waves of black. Two huge wolves sprang at her, jaws snapping. Another breath and they would be upon her, and Sir Raf, one-legged, limping Sir Raf, could not protect her.
He jostled her on his shoulder, and wind whipped her face as a thick branch snapped backward, knocking back one of the wolves, Clement, if she'd kept things right when the world turned upside down. The wolf Margaret jumped, and Raf whirled, Aurelia flying up and colliding with his back as the wolf yelped. Then, pulling Aurelia over his shoulder to cradle against his broad chest, Sir Raf dropped to the ground and they were sliding, in a cloud of dust and dead leaves, down a steep slope, the end of which disappeared into nothing. Raf did nothing to slow their descent, but held her to his chest tighter with one arm as they flew over the brink. With an arm above his head, he caught a thin ledge of stone from the face of the cliff.
Aurelia did not wish to look down. Far below, the river roiled, white frothing against the dark depths.
"Hold on to me!" Raf shouted over the rushing of the river.
She flung her arms around his neck, even as she begged him not to do what she was certain would come. That they had outrun the wolves was unbelievable; that they could survive the tossing waters was too much to ask.
She squeezed her eyes shut, but she could not ignore the plummeting feeling. It seemed forever before they touched the water's surface, and then, as the frigid depths enveloped them, not enough time at all. She tried to keep hold of Raf's neck, then just his cloak, her fingers fumbling on the wet edges of the fur, but the water drove them apart, tore her away in a rapid current that she struggled to climb above. This river ran past her home as but a trickling stream that she had sailed wooden boats on as a child. Now, it offered her no friendly quarter, sweeping her down the banks, farther and farther away from where Raf surfaced, looking about frantically. She gasped for air before the currents pulled down again. Her last glimpse of the world above the water was of the huge, black wolf standing at the cliff's edge.