First up, this story appears in the Dunedin, Aotearoa-produced anthology Beyond the City Limits and I’d encourage you to support my fellow local Speculative Fiction writers by purchasing a copy of the anthology.

Second, this is me exploring a character that came to me when I was searching for short story ideas, but both Ekon and Anais (her “origin story” is The Source, from the same collection) have let me know they have what it takes to carry a series of novels. So, while this will give you a taster, if you later read the resulting novels, forgive me if I change things up, I’ve still got a few interviews to run with these guys to really nail them down, plus some changes were made to fit the short story medium, anyway.

The below is a little over 5,600 words. Please enjoy.

from Pixabay

Ekon sauntered along the dusty track between forest and sand dunes, thumbs hooked behind belt, lips curved in a satisfied grin, sandals scuffing the occasional stone, and kilt swinging softly about his thighs while his mind replayed sensations of skin-on-skin and exploratory kisses. The sun’s warmth and cloudless sky cemented his mood. Life was good.

A grizzled, old wolf emerged from between two trees, morphed and unfurled into human form and matched step beside Ekon. Life was less good when Uncle Abasi showed up like this. Not the nakedness—that was acceptable—but turning up here and now was clearly designed to shatter Ekon’s mood.

“You know better than to waste time with that human girl.”

Ekon mouthed the words along with his uncle.

Abasi gripped Ekon’s bare shoulder, halting him and forcing him to turn. Ekon’s body may have faced the old man, but Ekon looked out to sea, refusing to be cowed by his superior at this time. They both knew Ekon was about to rise up the ranks. Soon, Abasi would be the one grovelling. More likely, he’d be dead. The current pack elders had had their day.

“That’s right. You should be out there, across the seas, seeking a mate.” Abasi prodded the air.

Ekon shifted his gaze so the pointing hand was barely a blur in his periphery. A large wave rolled in, crashing and inundating the beach. The roar of the impact reached his ears a moment later. He shuddered. Such power. And it could be neither beaten down nor manipulated. It killed without remorse.

The water slurped back and for a split second he saw his brother Ekewaka going out with it, but blinked it away before it burnt his eyes again.

“Your siblings chose you. Mostly because you’re the right age. The gods know it wasn’t for your physical or mental prowess.” Abasi stepped around Ekon, placing himself between his nephew and the sea. “Your father imbued you with the Alpha mantle. Now you must live up to it. Find a mate from a mainland pack, bring her back as your queen and lead us. Don’t risk muddying our blood with that of a human. Tensions are bad enough as it is.”

Ekon lowered his gaze to finally meet that of Abasi and grinned. “How can I hope to impress my future queen if I don’t get some practice in first?”

“The Alpha of the Kaeneus pack will impress her,” Abasi snarled, his wolf’s growl infusing his words. “You need no trickery in the shadow of that prize.” He took a breath, pushing serenity through his features. “Your father lives, but his time runs short. If he dies while you are away, myself or one of your older brothers may lead, but only for a short time. Better that you go and return while he lives. You have the Alpha. While I would query the sanity of any princess who would choose you, you are all we have to offer. I trust a wolf of quality will see through to the pack borne on your shoulders, weak as they may be.”

Ekon rolled his eyes and gave his left shoulder a sideways glance. It was muscular enough as far as Theresa, the human girl, was concerned, but there was little to be gained arguing the point with his uncle. Abasi would only double down on his lack of respect until Ekon had a queen and a first-born. Likely Abasi would be dead by then, so any effort was futile.

“Come back to the den. Gather some clothes. I understand the finest mainland lassies live high in the mountains. It gets cold up there like you’ve never known.” Abasi stepped aside, hunched, and morphed back into wolf form, leaving Ekon to look out over the treacherous sea.

If he was honest—and it was hard enough to be so with himself, he wasn’t about to open up to the pack—the thought of climbing onto a boat, floating out over that water, terrified him. His father had done it some forty-plus years prior, but Ekon couldn’t look at the water without seeing the shock and fear in Ekewaka’s eyes as it dragged him out. Neither his human nor his wolf form had been able to fight it, and he’d been a strong swimmer. Ekon hadn’t gone in the water since.

Ekon turned from it. The sea was a fine sight from a distance and without memory. Much better as a mere acquaintance tagging alongside a fond daydream.

But Ekon’s recollections were shattered, tainted.

“Damn you, Uncle. Why did you have to go and spoil a perfectly pleasant afternoon?”

Stuffing thumbs back behind his belt, shoulders hunched, Ekon stomped down the path some fifty steps before blasting an unvoiced curse through his nose, unbuckling his belt and tossing it into the trees, stooping and making the change to wolf form between one stride and another, leaving his kilt in the dust. Someone would collect it later. If a human, they would appreciate the quality. If wolf, they would return it to him, likely accompanied by a tirade of abuse.

No more of that when he returned as Alpha with a queen.

He glanced at the crashing waves and huffed. Not today. But his siblings wouldn’t complain if he returned to the den with a few rabbit carcasses.


No one had returned Ekon’s kilt to him and luckily it had been where he’d left it, so his wolf could pick it up and bring it along to Theresa’s family’s farm the following morning. It was a little scuffed with dirt, but he suspected Theresa appreciated the look of a working man. And working he was, swinging an axe overhead, splitting wood for the family’s winter fires. While he wasn’t saving Theresa from one of her jobs, which she often appreciated, she also welcomed a light shimmering of sweat over his skin from exertion.

A flutter of off-white caught his eye. Theresa. Ekon placed the axe down and leaned back against a large rock, finding holds to rest his palms in; all the better to flex his muscles. Theresa wore a full-length tunic that plunged deep between her breasts, held simply by a wide belt.

“You’re late to work this morning.” Ekon grinned openly at her. It had the usual effect of making her smile back before she went all bashful over his magnetism.

“Dad kept me home to help Mummeh with some chores. My brothers told me you were here.”

Ekon’s stomach dropped. He hadn’t sensed anyone’s presence when he’d arrived in wolf form. What if they’d been downwind—their scents carried away from him—and seen him change? There was nothing in Theresa’s demeanour to suggest she saw him any differently than she had the day before.

“Everyone knows about you now,” Theresa continued as she approached, hands outstretched to caress his shoulders, biceps, and pectorals. Ekon opened his mouth but remained silent. Let her speak and reveal what she knows. No need to go dropping himself in it.

“There’s a dance in the Temple of Velechka in a few days. Meant to be a chance for us young people to relax and spend time together.” One of her hands travelled firmly down his stomach—tickling him always spoilt the moment—down his hip, thigh, then cupped a glute through his kilt. “I don’t want to go alone.” She squeezed her hand, pouted her lips. “And if I did go alone, it would be as if I am unpromised. Why, I could dance with anyone.”

The thumb of her other hand rubbed at a bruise on his pectoral, as if she could clean it away. One of Ekon’s brothers was still sore over not being voted Alpha. “It would be a great opportunity to meet my family.”

Ekon laughed and gripped both her arms, halting her caresses. “No, I don’t think that’s a good idea. I mean, we’re having fun here, right?”

Theresa nodded. “But I don’t see why we couldn’t still have fun. Surely it gets even better when we can be open. Don’t you want to meet my family and friends? You can’t remain a mysterious stranger forever. My friends doubt you even exist. At least now I have my brothers’ testimony.”

And just like that, it was over.

Ekon sighed, released Theresa’s arms and looped his about her waist, drawing her into him. While she allowed herself to go belly-to-belly with him, she kept her head back, trying to read him. Still holding out hope he would agree? He cupped her head to bring her lips to his. A parting kiss, and maybe a little—or a lot—more before he left for good.

“Out of the way, Theresa.” A gravelly voice sounded behind her.

Darn these human senses.

“Dad?” Theresa looked over her shoulder and tried to pull away from Ekon. He released her and she stepped back. Her brothers raced in from either side, each grappling an arm.

Ekon tried to shake the men off, but each was at least as strong as him.

“You’ll regret this.” He definitely meant the men, but glanced Theresa’s way for good measure. She must’ve known. “Let me go.”

Theresa’s dad laughed and draped an arm over Theresa’s shoulders. His other hand held an earthen cup, as if they were chatting over a casual drink.

“And let you break my little girl’s heart? No. Sadly, we will have to do that on your behalf.”

“Give him another chance, Dad. With the dance coming up we—” Theresa’s words pleaded with her father while her eyes pleaded with Ekon.

“No, love. I’m sorry for this, but he is not a man for you.” The older man flicked his chin and the brothers gripping Ekon dragged him away from the rock, his heels scraping through the dry dirt.

He got his feet under him, bringing them to a halt, though their grip held firm. Filling himself with fury and will, Ekon repeated, “Let me go.” The Alpha radiated through his words. One of the brothers loosened his grip.

Theresa’s dad laughed again and tossed the contents of his cup over Ekon’s head. “Down, dog,” he said as his daughter admonished “Dad!”

The faltering brother recovered and tightened his grip again.

Ekon shook the water from his hair.

Damn. He’d been careless.

His unceremonious journey continued.

“Dad, please. He loves me, I know it. He just needs a chance to—. He’s just scared, dad. Don’t you remember—?”

“I remember all too well, love. And I’m sorry this has happened to you. This is for your own good.”

“You’re just giving us a scare, right? It’s working. It is. Please. Just let him do the right thing.”

“I’m afraid he can’t do that. Can you, boy?”

They’d stopped at one of the wells. The one Theresa had said was contaminated. They couldn’t drink from it, or bathe. What were they planning to do? Dump him in it? How deep did it go? And just how bad was it?

Theresa’s father came around to stand before Ekon. He pushed a bucket over the edge of the well and it plummeted, rapidly uncoiling a rope behind it.

“Well, boy. Tell us the truth.”

As soon as the words left the man’s mouth, Ekon knew he would do just that. Water dripped from his hair into his eye. He shook his head and blinked hard.

“Do you love Theresa?” The man started pulling on the rope.

“No.”

Theresa gasped, sobbed.

“Because dogs don’t know that kind of love, do they?” —Pull pull.

“I’m not a dog,” Ekon growled, though he seemed unable to fill his words with the wolf like his uncle could. He struggled against his captors. “And it’s not like that.”

“Oh, it is like that.” The older man pulled the bucket over the lip of the well and rested it on the stones. “My daughter doesn’t need it to be any other way. You are incapable of loving a human.”

Ekon growled, but let it rest. While he did not love Theresa, seeing her sob over his betrayal didn’t feel good. Besides, maybe her father was right. He’d never met a wolf who loved a human, romantically, anyway. The pack survived on companionable love. The only breeding pair were the Alphas.

Theresa’s father patted the bucket rim. “This well is the last power store in Epmahia. It has survived since the last sorcerer filled it, while other stores have dried up. And now you know the secret to our farm’s success. But there’s more to it than that.” He gripped the bucket and came at Ekon. “Out of the way, boys.”

The brothers released Ekon and leapt to either side as water flew at him, dousing him fully.

Dad!”

“Return to your true form, dog!”

“I’m not a—” Ekon couldn’t shape the last word with his half-formed muzzle. Fur sprouted. Bones shifted, changed shape. Usually, the pain of the shift was short lived, but he hadn’t wanted to shift and fought against it at first. It was no good. The old farmer’s words compelled him like an Alpha. He slumped as he completed the change.

Theresa screamed.

Ekon sat on his haunches—the echo of pain still thrumming through his bones—sopping wet and growling.

Fearless, the farmer spoke. “You shall remain like this until the day you fall in love with a human.”

He laughed, though he cut it short as he glanced to his daughter. “A shame dogs don’t understand our kind of love. What a prize you might’ve had. She will love again. But you—” Again showing no fear, the farmer took a step closer. Ekon backed up, unsure in the face of this confidence. And himself packless. “If we ever see you again, your pelt will find itself draped over Theresa’s shoulders for winter. Understand?”

Ekon growled again, but his uncertainty slipped through in a whine.

Other whines reached him. And yaps. Excitable. Getting closer.

Blaine and Zia galloped across the field. They jumped at the humans, pushing them to the ground and diving straight for soft flesh. Theresa! Ekon jumped at Blaine, knocking him off the human girl. Leave her, he growled, holding the other wolf down.

Return to the den, Blaine rumbled back.

Come back with me, Ekon snarled. He checked over his shoulder to see Theresa, bloodied, pushing herself up from the ground. She gaped at the violence around her. Ekon snarled at her. Go! She recoiled from his ferocity, but turned and ran, crying for help.

Ekon turned back to Blaine. Come with me. He stepped back, freeing the other wolf to stand. Blaine looked after Theresa, but didn’t move. Ekon drew his shoulders up, drawing in his will and calling on his Alpha again. Time to go.

He galloped from the field, trusting the others would follow. They had no choice.

They soon slowed to an energy-conserving lope as they continued down the path between beach and forest, until they reached the small pile of clothing and Blaine resumed human form. Zia remained wolf, whined. What you done?

Blaine stood over Ekon as he buckled his kilt on his hip. “Father called another vote. Eryx is to be Alpha. You were supposed to return to the den and relinquish it.” He stooped to collect his belt. “But, did I hear right? They locked you in wolf form?”

All Ekon could do was whine, a sorrowful whistle.

“At least try,” Blaine said. He picked up a fanciful sash he liked to wear. It didn’t provide protection from anything, but it was handy for carrying small tools and weapons.

Ekon huffed and willed himself into human form. Nothing happened but an all-over body ache as he strained against his wolf cage. He hadn’t doubted the farmer capable of compelling him to change form, but was he truly trapped? He tried again.

Zia watched on intently.

Stuck, Ekon whined, avoiding contact with either.

Zia transformed. “Oh no,” she said, cover her lips with her fingers. Highly sensitive and easily rattled, she had been one of Ekon’s closest cousins through their childhood and his biggest supporter when the Alpha was bestowed on him. Clearly, she took his failure to heart. “Oh no, oh dear. Oooh no. Says he’s stuck.” She pulled her fingers from her lips, didn’t seem to know what to do with her hands for a moment, then put them to use picking up her tunic and draping it over her body. “Ooh no.” Covered, she clenched and unclenched her hands a few times.

“Quit it, Zia.” Blaine stood over Ekon, hands on hips. “You can’t perform the ceremony. You can’t release the Alpha in wolf form. How do we undo this? What did the farmer say? He has to love a human?”

“Fall in love with,” Zia clarified and wiped her hands down the sides of her tunic. “Oh dear. Oh no.”


That night Ekon ran and ran and didn’t stop until he could hear wolf howls no more. Exhausted, he curled up in the hollow of a tree covered in unfamiliar smells, surrounded by unfamiliar sounds.

Alone, he hunted small game, just enough to keep the hunger pangs subdued. Alone, he was painfully lonely. He wandered Epmahia’s forests, climbed mountains, skirted townships. He returned to the Kaeneus pack lands only to find the den deserted, apart from the weakest of the elders. All they had for him were snarls, curses, and hurled stones.

He journeyed to the coast, looked out over the sea. He’d been chosen as Alpha because he was of breeding age with the most breeding years left of all his siblings. The right age to leave a lasting legacy. He had been imbued with the gift of the Alpha and squandered it. What a legacy that was.

Seasons passed and he returned to the sea looking out to the horizon; wondered if some few pack mates were still out there. Had they been accepted by new packs on the mainland? Or did they wander aimlessly, cursing his failures as he did? He felt the relief that a wolf would be unwelcome on a boat and derided himself for it.

Fear made him weak. No. Fear made him… human?

Wolves were no stranger to fear, but an Alpha should have been more.

Dogs were braver. Less cunning, but braver.

Dogs loved humans, and were loved in return.

Such thoughts were so alien to him that he wondered if they had been his, or somehow planted, especially when, soon after, he felt an irresistible urge to visit Ancoth, a city on the opposite coast from his own pack lands. It had a port; passage to the mainland. What cost, truly, was it to put his pride on the line and ingratiate himself to a human? What might he gain? His tamped-down human mind teased wolf Ekon with memories of Theresa. He had a point. There was something tantalising about the female human form. Something he could only truly appreciate again if he returned to his own human form. If he… fell in love.

Hmph. Not likely.

Still… He coveted the companionship dogs shared with humans, and he was an Alpha wolf. What did he have to fear but a life of loneliness?

Answering the call resounding through his bones, he headed south, howling into the night in the hopes of hearing a reply, and—hopefully—sending any fearful humans scuttling. If he was to find a match, they would need to be brave, like him.

Ekon reached the hills above Ancoth before dawn. The chill in his bones ceased, leaving a sense of emptiness at its loss. For a few days, he’d felt connected to something. He howled, sat wondering what to do now he’d lost his sense of purpose, and eventually lay down, hoping some other sign would come to him.

Some time later, it did. Again his bones resonated with a sense of being called. He padded down the slope and along narrow cobbled streets following a silent song until he emerged around a corner, crossing paths with a young woman—perhaps a few years younger than himself—and two men. By his scent, Ekon placed one of the men as the woman’s father. It was the woman Ekon was drawn to. Or, more specifically, the rose-gold medallion depicting the sun that rested on her chest.

All three humans initially drew back at sight of him, but the woman soon calmed, her head tilted, as if listening to something only she could hear. Ekon rotated his ears, but he heard nothing. The young woman crouched, watching him with intensity and a hint of apprehension.

“We can’t keep the Queen waiting,” the man who wasn’t the father said.

The father stilled him with a hand on the arm.

Again Ekon was drawn on, this time to press his nose to the medallion.

Guardian.

Ekon’s whole body—along with the Alpha he bore—resonated with purpose. All his failures and all his weaknesses had brought him here, now.

He placed himself by the woman’s feet, ready to take on the world with her.

“Ah—” The woman reached a hand out and patted Ekon’s head. He suppressed a growl and looked skywards, stretching his tolerance to its limits.

“Is he… is he tame, Anais?” the father asked, while the other man shifted his weight, giving off a scent of impatience. Neither man was of any consequence.

The woman snatched her hand back into her body as if Ekon had snapped. “Damita— The medallion tells me he his my G—my Guardian.” She relaxed her hand down but didn’t try touching him again, to Ekon’s preference. He belonged at her side. He was no pet.

“Oh. Guardian.” The father relaxed perceptibly. “That sounds good. I think.”

Oh, you can trust me, old man.

Ekon walked tall, but kept his nose alert, dipping it now and then to analyse olfactory markers left by others; human, canine, and a range of smaller critters. Anais still called guardians to her, though he doubted she sensed it, and in the moment there was something else in the signal, a marker to hold steady, remain in limbo until her current task was completed.

They navigated their way down cobbled streets, guided by the man who’d spoken of the Queen, Anais growing more at ease in Ekon’s presence, to the point he sensed a pack-like bond.

Ekon’s human mind recognised the castle, while his wolf self huffed at its false grandeur. A den was a den. Smaller was cosier than large, and easier to keep clean. And since he was stuck in wolf form for the foreseeable future, his wolf opinion was all that mattered.

A pair of guards halted them at the ornate doors.

“Dogs are not welcome at the castle,” one of them said.

“The Queen has cats,” the other murmured, earning him a warning eye roll from the other.

“He isn’t a dog,” Anais said. “And I don’t think he’ll let me go without him.”

Damned straight.

“He’s here to look after me. He’s very well behaved,” Anais said and Ekon huffed. “He won’t be any trouble, I promise.”

Her easy faith in him had a warming effect. He glanced up at the medallion resting on her chest. The air seemed to shimmer over it. He didn’t understand it, but that pendant linked them. And not since his exile—no, never in all his life—had he felt a sense of belonging to something bigger, of being an essential part of a greater whole. He would be this young woman’s companion if that was to be his role.

The guards glanced between each other and Anais’s guide. They let the guide through ahead, leaving Anais, her father, and Ekon waiting. Ekon sat at Anais’s side, sampling the air. The guards had been assured, now they were wary. But Ekon sensed it wasn’t aimed at their group. He’d tested his pack’s rules enough to know that trepidation when it came time to face the elders.

Dogs may have been against the rules here, but Ekon knew his purpose now.

When the guide returned he waved them in. Ekon stayed by Anais’s thigh as if attached.

Once they were inside, other household staff followed Ekon’s progress warily, otherwise they went unmolested until their escort turned to face them outside two ornately-patterned large doors. Ekon sensed no anticipation, no excitement. Nothing to suggest Anais was about to be greeted in the manner she deserved.

The guide assessed Anias’s father a long time as if he intended to send him away but decided against it, gathered a long-handled hammer and tapped one of the doors three times. They soon swung open and the escort stepped through, announcing Anais as Sorcerer in a deep, bellowing voice Ekon had not guessed he possessed. The murmurings of the room ceased and their entrance echoed throughout the room.

A woman pushed herself up from a large seat at the far end of the room, followed by the man in a seat next to her. Her face was painted to emphasise her lips and cheekbones, mostly to draw attention to her eyes, which were naturally large enough but even more so in their black frame. Both she and the man wore loose clothing either woven with gold itself or somehow made to look so. Either way, Ekon’s human mind understood it to be a display of wealth. Probably power, too. Together they descended down the wide steps to the level of the rest of the room, heading directly for the new arrivals.

A sharp tang in the air obliterated all other odours in the room, leaving Ekon to rely on hearing and vision and a limited ability to assess human body language. With so many people to observe, he lacked certainty in any assessment. As guardian to Anais, he didn’t wish to admit to being overwhelmed. Besides, he hadn’t known her long enough to develop a clear non-verbal communication key.

The woman came to stand before Anais. The man stopped beside and just a half step behind the woman, while six others placed themselves in an arc around them.

“Cousin Anais.” A man behind the self-important woman nodded at Anais. “Uncle Niko.”

Anais’s father scoffed. “Quite far removed,” he murmured, though smiled like he appreciated the acknowledgement.

“Zane.” Anais smiled at the man. He nodded back, then withdrew in on himself, as if he had spoken out of turn, or felt guilty. He held a small bucket. From his position, Ekon didn’t think the pungent smell originated from the bucket. He resolved to watch the man closely anyway.

“Oh, of course. Zane has been spending time down your way, hasn’t he?” The woman spoke. “I understand you’ve assigned him to the seas.”

Assigned? As Ekon had been assigned as Guardian?

Ekon found himself mollified the handsome man wouldn’t be hanging around.

Sure. Because of course she will fall in love with a wolf. A wolf incapable of love himself.

“Well, I didn’t—”

“You presume to tell a prince what to do?”

“No, I—”

“I think such power belongs in the hands of natural leaders, don’t you?” The woman didn’t wait for an answer, held out her hand. “Give me the power source.”

“You know the stories,” Anais’s father spoke up.

“Yes. Stories. Give it to me.” The woman shook her open hand in front of Anais’s face.

Ekon growled. With that overpowering odour, though, he had no sense of what Anais wanted him to do. Did she need him to step in? Did she feel in control and simply wish him to stay put?

“I don’t think I ca— I can’t.” Anais placed a hand over the medallion.

“You can and you will obey.” The woman’s voice grew steely.

“I don’t think you understand—” Anais’s father began.

“I understand fully. That kind of power does not belong in the hands of a commoner.”

Anais is the source,” Anais’s father said.

“Give it to me or I will have to take it.”

Ekon growled but was unsure if he was required to take action at this time. Human politics eluded him.

“I can’t take it off,” Anais said.

“Have it your way.” The woman stepped back and gestured at one of the men beside her.

He flicked a hand holding a wide-mouthed bottle, loosing a clear liquid at Anais. Ekon barked and went to charge forward, but was grappled to the ground by two men from behind. Anais screamed and fell to the ground, clasping her face. Her father also bellowed, caught in the splash. A drop landed on Ekon’s nose and it burned. Men with gloved arms mobbed Anais, forcing her to uncurl so they could reach in for the medallion. Ekon struggled to free himself but was held firm. Anais screamed again. The men stood back, one brandishing the medallion, dripping with blood, triumphant. The woman snatched it. The man Anais had called Zane lunged with his bucket and soaked Anais in water.

“Get rid of them.” The woman looked at nothing beyond the medallion she held aloft.

The air fizzed with uncontrolled power. It surrounded all, but coalesced around Anais, soaking into her. Heat radiated from her. A high-pitched ringing filled the hall, likely out of hearing range for the humans. Things were about to go very badly for everyone if something wasn’t done to make it

STOP!

Ekon called on all his will to stand and bark the command. Simply: Stop.

The Alpha infused his command. The energy surrounding Anais silenced, halted, though still remained. The entire room obeyed, freezing in whatever they were doing to look at Ekon. Even the woman holding the medallion looked down on him, stunned.

Anais’s sobs were the only sound against a background of Ekon’s echoing bark, accompanied by the occasional moan from her father.

Ekon sensed an energy in his bones, much as he had perceived the call to Anais’s side. The Alpha held it in check. The power laboured against that grip, trying to reach Anais—the beacon of power. The Source. The Sorcerer. She was supposed to gather the power. The medallion was supposed to redirect it, control it. Without the medallion, Anais still attracted the power, but it had nowhere to go except inside her, until she would break. Ekon did not wish to find out how long that might take. Somehow—and he wouldn’t question it—his Alpha was holding that power at bay. It pushed and he pushed back, wrapping Anais in a pulsing bubble.

She needed that medallion back.

Growling, Ekon took a step towards the woman. Her guards closed ranks around her. All except the one who’d called Anais cousin and washed her with water.

The woman clutched the medallion to her and, at her signal, the guards shuffled her away. Ekon took a couple of steps to follow but instead turned back to Anais, still curled on her side on the floor. He didn’t know how far he could move from her and still maintain the Alpha’s protective halo. He had to stay with her. All he could do was watch as the woman slipped through the door.

That left Ekon, Anais, her father, and a spattering of people who considered themselves noble in the room. No one said a word. No one moved except the cousin Zane. He crossed the room to a well, refilled his bucket, looked one of the noblewomen up and down, grasped the hem of her tunic and tore a strip from it—ignoring her protest—then returned to Anais at a jog. Ekon joined him.

“Anais?” Zane hovered a hand over her shoulder. “Let me help you.” He sunk the strip of fabric into the bucket, brought it over the side of her face and let it drip over her. She gasped and hunched tighter in on herself. “Please, Anais. All I know about that stuff is we’ve got to wash it off your skin as soon as possible.”

Anais’s father pulled himself up and crawled over, sunk his hands into the bucket and splashed water over his face. He struggled to open one of his eyes and his skin was flecked with red sores, some barely distinguishable from a freckle, others the size of a thumb. He filled his cupped hands again and pressed them to his face, heedless of the water pouring over his clothes.

“Anais, please,” Zane implored. Then he whispered, “I’m so sorry.”

Yes. Clearly he’d known what had been planned, and though he’d made preparations to reduce whatever damage, he’d failed to stop it. Ekon gazed on him flatly, locking that away for later. Right now: Anais. He pressed his nose to her shoulder. She didn’t react. He reached in closer, into the crease of skin where jaw, neck, and shoulder met. He snuffled, tickling her with his breath. He poked his tongue out, tasting her. At another time, in another form, it might have been erogenous for her. Anais slapped him away, lightly, but she also stirred, as he’d wished. She turned her face up. Or, what was left of it.

She tried to squint her left eye against whatever irritation or pain she must have been feeling, but the muscles to do so didn’t quite work as they should. Her face was a patchwork of healthy flesh and burnt. He doubted her left eye saw anymore, the ball itself was barely recognisable. Her cheek was burned through to muscle. Burning, he corrected. Some edges still bubbled.

At her turning, Zane had gasped and drawn back. Ekon looked to him now and, significantly, at the bucket of water. Then to her father. Stop this, he tried to send through that look.

Niko moved first, fetching up the dripping cloth to administer to his daughter. She flinched, but allowed him to squeeze it over her wounds, careful not to get water up her nose. Several times he soaked the cloth and squeezed, then finally dabbed gently at the edges of her burns.

When finally she could stand, they left without harassment. Anais was cowed by her injuries, but Ekon felt strong. Yes, he had failed her. Failed to recognise the scent, failed to stop the attack. But his will and his Alpha now protected her and he would not fail her again.

Later, as Anais finally slept at her home, Ekon climbed up on the bed beside her and, as he had done for many of his packmates in the past, he licked her wounds. It was something wolves could do that humans couldn’t: aid the healing process.

He would not fail her again.

His failures and fears had brought him to her. In her darkest hour she needed him by her side. She, destined to bring all manner of riches into the world, would fail without his protection, without his… guardianship.

That was his purpose. That was the reason for his sacrifices: his home, his pack, his human form.

Guardian.

He would not fail her again.

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