“Sol, it’s me.”
“Did you find a rope?”
“Yes, but I don’t think it will reach you.”
“Try. Brace the rope around your waist. I’m heavy.”
“And I’m strong.”
“Thank the Goddess.”
Tian did as instructed, wrapping the rope around her palm and then passing it behind her back. She heard it bump the rock face as it unravelled and tumbled towards Sol.
“Can you reach it?”
“I can see it, just above me. Damnation, it’s too short. Can you lie flat? Give me a few more hand-spans?”
They’d become two disembodied voices working in the dark towards a common purpose. With no need for sight, she let go her wolf’s eyes and directed the energy into giving Sol the extra length of rope that would allow her to pull him out. She lay full length, searching for the edge with her palm. Trapping the rope beneath her body, she dug her toes into the soft earth, anchoring herself. “Can you reach it now, Sol?”
“I have it.”
The rope jerked and tautened. With each thump of Sol’s feet on stone, each determined grunt, she hauled and prayed and implored the wolf to strengthen her arm. When the blur of his face appeared, level with hers, she reached out, meaning to take hold of his tunic, then remembered he was bare to the waist. She grabbed his hair instead, twisting it around her palm as she pulled him gasping, over the edge. He rolled across her and onto his back, a mess of cuts and bruises, blood dripping from his chin to his chest, but alive.
For a long moment, neither spoke.
“Tian,” he said at length. “Have you any idea what you just did?”
The words, whispered, urgent, took her by surprise. She had no breath to answer.
“You saved my life. I’m forever in your debt.”
Closing her eyes, she turned a cheek to the musty earth and waited for the shaking in her arms and shoulders to subside. The rope-burns stung her palms. The wolf had given her everything and for now, she was utterly drained and vulnerably human.
“Thank you, Tian. Thank you.”
She lay in the dark, listening to Sol’s rumbling voice, punctuated by hisses of pain through his clenched teeth. Exhaustion and exhilaration. Confusion and certainty. Her body and mind were a whirl of contradictory sensations. His fingertips, slippery and wet, rested lightly against her palm, connecting but not imposing. She forced herself to relax and breathe with him and come back down to earth.
Death had taken her mother, but she hadn’t let it take Sol. He would return to the people in the picture, and for that she allowed herself a small surge of triumph. His fingers twitched. She pulled hers away, curling them into a tight fist.
Inside, her wolf stirred and tested the confines of its human cage.
You saved him, Tian. We go now?
Sol let out a long steady breath, like a man steeling himself for an unpleasant task. She listened to him shift and move. Made out his dark shape as he hauled himself into a sitting position. This close, the thundering of his heart deafened her.
“Tian,” he said. “Will you help me with my shoulder?”
“I have to go,” she replied, gathering her scattered wits. “I shouldn’t have returned.”
“Please, I need you. Put it back for me. It’s dislocated. You’re strong enough to do that.”
“I don’t know how.”
“Give me your hand.”
She’d rescued him so he could return home and she could leave this place with a clear conscience. If only life were that simple. For every action, a consequence. If she’d wanted nothing more to do with this man, she should have left him in the ravine.
“Can you see right now?”
“Shadow and shapes. My wolf is…sulking.”
“Tian, take my hand. You saved me and you can do this, too. I won’t stop you leaving if that’s your wish. I swear it.”
Should have left him, Tian.
No, she thought. It was the right thing to do. I’m a Lupine, and he is only a man. And sent by the Goddess, too. He is no threat to us.
“I do wish to leave.” When she rolled over to sit up, her coat gaped open. Hastily, she found the fastenings and closed them. Only when she offered her hand did he wrap his long fingers around hers.
“Too near to the edge,” he said. “Move away. My word is my bond, you can trust it.”
She allowed him to pull her away from the ledge, painfully aware of his worldliness and that, even now with his gentle manner and unhurried movements, he might be playing some sort of game with her.”
“Put your hand here,”
Her palm slid over the warm curve of his shoulder. Over broken skin, rigid muscles and the lump of displaced bone. Sol took another deep breath, readying himself for the ordeal. His shoulder rose and fell under her hand.
“What do I do?”
“Tell your wolf to stop sulking and put your other hand here.”
“If I pull it upwards, will it go back into place?”
“Push down hard on my shoulder and pull my arm up at the same time. One sharp pull should do it.”
“All right. You must relax. It will hurt more if you stay hard.”
“Difficult to relax around you.” A tremor shook his body. “Cold,” he said with grim humour. “And yes, it will hurt like the devil. Do it and don’t mind my cursing. It might get a little colourful.”
“How can you jest when you’re in pain?”
“It’s what humans do.”
“All right. There!”
Inside of her, the wolf leaped at the sharp sound of the bone snapping back into place. She might have changed had Sol not grabbed her with his good arm and held her to his shaking body. The wolf backed off, more alarmed than frightened now. Tian struggled to breathe in the crushing grip, understanding his need for an anchor to ride out the pain. His anguished bellow seemed to echo around the entire mountain. As it died away, Sol softened, holding her more like a man seeking reassurance than someone who’d come to drag her bodily back to civilisation.
“Shh,” she said, remembering the words her mother would use to soothe her when she’d fallen and skinned her knees. “It’s all over now. Hold on and wait for the pain to go away. It won’t last forever. Nothing lasts forever. Shh…”
“Yes, I know. Thank you.”
Her turn to shiver. The words, spoken too close, felt like a caress. She brought her hands, sticky with Sol’s own blood, to his face and touched his features lightly. Feeling for injuries, she told herself. And seeing with her hands as she did when the wolf refused her sight. Sol remained in place, letting her explore him. Oh yes, he knew the Lupine well.
The masculine roughness of his jaw fascinated her and contrasted with soft lips and the gossamer flutter of eyelashes against her searching fingertips. His hair slipped through her fingers like down until she found the spot where his skull had hit the rock and a slippery clot was forming over the wound. His back and chest, criss-crossed with shallow cuts and scrapes, read like a map of his suffering. He endured her gentle scrutiny with stoic silence.
“Come,” she said. “You’re starting to lose heat. I will make up some taraga root for the cuts. And we will see where else you are hurting.”
“I’ll survive,” Sol said with weary resignation. “All I want is talk to you. There are men who would hurt you. I’m not one of them.”
“I only know what you tell me. Can you stand?”
“Why did you rescue me? Look into your heart. You’ll never have cause to doubt my actions or my words. This I swear as a warrior of the Tribes of the Eagle.”
She wished she shared his belief. Sol’s conviction and determination to follow his chosen path shone from his every pore. She, on the other hand, was becoming more conflicted with each breath. Deep down, she’d known good men must exist somewhere in the world. She’d listened to her mother’s wise counsel and tempered the strength of her words with adolescent dreams of love and shining knights on white steeds who would take her away from this life of isolation. But the fairy tales sitting on her bedroom shelf had remained there. Would she ever be brave enough to explore what the world had in store for a creature like her?
Sol rose to his feet and accepted her shoulder as a prop. At the hut, he lowered himself gingerly onto the step and leaned his head on the decking-post. When she made to leave him in order to fetch taraga and water to clean him, he put out his arm and blocked her path.
“I took an oath to protect you and I will do that to my dying breath. Here’s my hand. If you choose not to take it, I nevertheless remain bound by my obligation to the Goddess. One way or another, Tian, I am at your service. You have me for life.”
She didn’t doubt the fervour in his tone. It was frightening in its intensity. The strong arm blocking her way could be a small taste of life bound by the conventions of society. The wolf’s hackles bristled at the man’s arrogance. Tian pushed it back. The wolf would simply run away. Hide in the mountains and live each day as it came. The woman in her knew questions needed answers, otherwise they’d fester and eat at her and she’d never have any peace.
“You ask too much, too soon,” she said choosing her words with care. “I rescued you because your actions showed me you did not deserve to die. Because you risked yourself to save me. It does not mean I wish to return with you, or to have you follow me like a dog. According to my mother, my father had the face of an angel, a silver tongue and the heart of a devil. He travelled a lot, but when I turned five summers, he took me away from her. She risked everything to rescue me and hide me here. By staying true to her sacrifice, I honour her memory.”
The barrier made by Sol’s arm dropped away. “Perhaps I was a little unrealistic in my expectations.” He laughed and tilted his face to look up at her. “Naïve, even, to imagine I could ride into your life and expect you to follow me without question. During the journey, I fell in love with the idea of you. I must admit the reality is somewhat different.”
“Oh.” She felt oddly nervous as she asked, “Better or worse?”
He looked away. “I haven’t decided. Go, fetch your salves and then I would like to sleep. My head is thundering fit to burst.”
“You don’t like me?”
Sol remained silent. When she focused her wolf’s eyes on his face, she caught the hint of a smile amidst the pain. It only served to confuse her more.
BUY THE EBOOK FROM: