Chance Encounter

Brand followed a narrow dirt path between towering tree trunks. The night around him was curiously silent, as if the residents of the dense forest knew a predator stalked in their midst. The pungent fragrance of pine tickled his nose. Through the snow-covered boughs he could see the lights of the nearby village, but he wasn’t headed toward their inviting warmth. At the fork he turned away from the promise of camaraderie and toward the seclusion of his cabin.

A whimper ahead of him drew his attention. He scanned the edge of the woods, searching for the source. A small shape just off the path moved a fraction of an inch and then ceased. He closed the distance in a dozen quick strides.

Her blonde hair was the first detail he saw, curly and tangled. She lay on her side, her bare back facing him. One pale shoulder shuddered when she groaned. Brand crouched next to her, wondering how she’d gotten there. This close he could see the curve of every rib in her emaciated torso and the half-healed, sinuous cuts running from her shoulders to her waist.

Swallowing the anger that surged into his throat, he reached to touch her arm. “Are you all right?” Considering her state the question was ridiculous, but he had no idea what else to say. She didn’t move or make a sound. Her skin was cool under his fingers.

He pulled his jacket from his shoulders, wishing he’d brought one that was warmer. When he placed it around her, it engulfed from neck to knees. He considered bringing her back to the village, but had reservations. She’d either come this way to escape someone or she’d been dumped. Either choice didn’t bode well for her if he returned her.

Moving his hand to her forehead, he felt the frantic energy of her wolf buried under the unconscious mind. After brief consideration, he rejected the idea of calling her to wolf form. Though the change would ease her pain and speed her healing if her mental state was compromised she might never be able to make the change back to her human body. He maneuvered his arms under her and lifted her to his chest. She weighed very little. Her frail bones protruded from her skin everywhere he touched her.

Based on the extensive bruises that marred her body, any movement would have been painful and he was suddenly glad she wasn’t awake. He walked to his cabin with measured steps so he wouldn’t jostle her. The wolf in him bristled with impatience and if the moon had been closer to full he might have lost the battle for control a handful of times. When he finally reached his door, his jaw was clenched tight enough that his head ached.

Once inside he lowered her to his narrow cot and pulled the blankets over her. She still hadn’t moved much, despite his handling. He lit a lantern and then returned to her side. Leaning close, he pushed her snarled hair away to examine her face. Bruises darkened her jaw, and red lines from fingers marked the light skin of her throat. Dried blood from her nose and mouth covered her cheeks.

He didn’t know her, but he hadn’t mingled with the nearby brood. He frowned, regretting the choice he’d made to avoid them. It seemed wrong that he didn’t know her name.

Brand crossed to the other room of his tiny cabin. A ramshackle table with one dangerously tilted chair crowded the closet-sized area he used as his washroom. He lit the brazier that warmed his basin and waited, grumbling under his breath at the delay. He returned to the bedroom a few minutes later carrying a bowl of warm water, with a shirt and a towel tucked under his other arm. The female mumbled when he entered, but her eyes didn’t open.

He lifted her limp body to put the shirt around her and slide her arms into the sleeves. Keeping a silent tally of each injury, he buttoned the shirt with shaking hands. Once he was sure she was going to be all right, he would figure out who had done this and there would be time for vengeance.

Cleaning her face with gentle strokes of the towel, he hoped the water would rouse her. She shifted several times, but didn’t wake. After the blood and dirt were gone, he examined her again. The worst of her wounds were already mending. He whispered a prayer of thanks to the Wolfmother for the swift healing she’d granted his kind when she’d given birth to the first of them.

He studied the curves of her wide cheekbones as they tapered to her pointed chin, shocked that her face was familiar to him after all. After a few minutes of reflection he realized she reminded him of his mother. Old grief he thought he had put behind him made his throat tight.

In an attempt to quell the memories he didn’t want to revisit, he concentrated on the mystery of who this female was. He traversed the tangled web of his maternal relations in a blur. Cursed with the same empathic powers he’d inherited from her, none of his mother’s siblings still lived. What offspring they’d had were also dead. He backed up a generation and hit on the connection. One of his mother’s aunts had lived and she’d joined the brood that inhabited the village in these woods.

For more than an hour he sat on the floor next to her, holding one of her small hands between both of his. He wrangled his wolf away from the pointless rampage it desired and used its power to calm her.

Sometime later, the sharp edge of her fear jolted him out of a fitful doze. He reached for her hand, hoping to soothe her with his presence. Her fingers twitched in his grip when she came fully awake. Blue eyes wide, she tugged away from him and sat up.

Brand let her hand slip from his grasp. “I won’t hurt you.” He reached for a tin mug on the ground beside him. “You must be thirsty.”

She looked from the cup to his face several times. Her thirst eventually won out over the fear and she snatched the mug from him. She gulped the water, choking twice before she managed to swallow the last of it. Clutching the mug in a white-fingered grip, she kept her eyes on the ground in front of him. Her nostrils flared as she took quick, panicked breaths.

Hoping to put her at ease, he backed away. “Do you know who I am?”

She made a jerky nod that caused her snarled hair to cover most of her face. Her terror filled the small room, cloying like the scent of something long dead.

“You’re in no danger here.” He sent a tendril of soothing energy toward her.

She flattened herself against the wooden wall, putting more distance between them before she lifted her gaze to his face. She hastily returned her attention to the floor. “May I go, my Lord?”

“I doubt you can stand, never mind walk.” The use of his title irritated him beyond all reason and his voice had come out more gruff than he intended.

She flinched. “As you say, my Lord.”

Gods, but he was a brute. Trying to get a handle on his anger, he passed a hand through his hair. The wolf lurked near the surface, craving the blood of whoever had hurt her. “Call me Brand and nothing else.” After a pause he added, “What’s your name?”

She swallowed. Her mouth worked a few times before she managed to speak. “Alice.”

He steered the conversation in a more casual direction, hoping to help her relax. “Gylla was your grandmother?”

She looked up, her eyes widening. “Yes.”

“Then we’re related.” He smiled, careful not to let his overlong canine teeth show, and was relieved when some of the tension left her shoulders. “You look a bit like my mother.”

Alice blinked. “Really?”

Brand nodded. “I might be the only one who remembers her face now.” He wished so many of those memories didn’t involve fearful expressions.

“My grandmother told me Kolla was her favorite niece.” The recollection seemed to calm her further.

With deliberate slowness, Brand rose and reached for the mug. She handed it to him with a nod. He moved to the other room and refilled it from the basin. After returning with the water he said, “You’ve been mistreated and I would see that avenged.”

She took a slow sip. “There isn’t anything to be done.”

He clenched his fists as fury roar through him. The proximity of the wolf made reasoning difficult. He danced on the careless edge of true wrath. “Why not?”

She drew her legs up as if to make herself smaller. “Arnbjörn owns me.”

He knew the name by reputation only. The son of the earl of this brood, Arnbjörn was by most accounts half-mad and by the rest irredeemably vicious.

A low growl vibrated in Brand’s throat. When she shuddered he reined in the wolf as best he could. “Your sire sold you to that beast?”

Alice nodded, but didn’t speak.

He paced across the small room. He had an idea how many females were treated this way every day, just as his mother had been. Roaring in frustration, he cursed his long-dead sire and every male like him. His rage built on itself until he thought the ferocity might tear the roof off the cabin.

Alice’s stifled sob brought him back from his near-rampage. He whirled toward her and hated himself for the desperate fear etched into the delicate curves of her face. When he allowed his feelings to run rampant, he projected echoes of his emotions without even trying. Forcing himself to calmness, he gradually loosened his fists and relaxed his shoulders. “I’m sorry,” he said once he’d regained a measure of control.

Her mouth fell open and a few seconds passed before she had the presence of mind to shut it again. A hint of pink colored her pale cheeks. “Why would you shame yourself so?”

Brand ran a hand over the coarse stubble along his jaw. “Apologizing to you isn’t shameful.”

“But…” She hesitated, then seemed to realize she was staring and dropped her gaze. “It’s just not done.”

“Because some Norseman who’s been dust more than a thousand years would rather die than admit he was wrong?” He swallowed the growl of irritation that threatened and simply shook his head. “I refuse to have my actions dictated by a savage.”

Alice lifted her eyes and slowly appraised him. After a moment she seemed to come to a decision and the right side of her mouth lifted slightly into a half-smile. “I wish I had that luxury.”

The thought of the violence waiting for her if she went back to the brood tightened his gut. He considered the whirlwind of possible options, and realized there was only one choice. “You do now.”

Her forehead creased. “What do you mean?”

Brand pulled his knapsack from under the cot. The list of items he needed to pack was short. “I’m taking you away from here. Tonight.”

She stared at him as he moved about the small room collecting his belongings. “He’ll come after me.”

“I hope he does.” Brand grinned and flexed his fingers. He wanted to barrel into the village and beat retribution into the face of that animal until the anger boiling under his skin cooled. Only the need to see Alice safely away first held him back. After he’d installed her in Denver where she would be safe, he’d come back and deal with the menace lurking in these woods. “He won’t hurt you again.”

Tears welled in her eyes. “I believe you.”

* * *

The icy air rushing into Brand’s lungs smelled of pine, snow, and blood. The crash of a large body’s hectic flight through the underbrush drifted to him and he increased his speed. Ahead of him, the dim outline of his quarry crested a rise. The chase had ranged over miles of night-clad wilderness, but finally his prey was in sight.

Arnbjörn glanced over his shoulder, and that hesitation cost him. Brand barreled into him and shoved him into the trunk of a tree that groaned with the impact. Clumps of snow fell from the branches above them. Arnbjörn snarled.

Brand closed the distance between them. He curled his fingers in Arnbjörn’s sodden shirt and shook him. The scent of fresh female blood surrounded the other male. “Whose blood is this?”

 “She’s a tasty morsel. Smells delicious, don’t she?” Arnbjörn offered a lecherous wink. The satisfaction that rolled off him turned Brand’s stomach.

Brand banged Arnbjörn into the trunk of the tree twice more. “You’re a filthy mongrel.”

Arnbjörn laughed. “She’s hurt bad. Don’t you want to go check on her?”

Images of how he’d found Alice clouded Brand’s mind, though she was far from here and safe. If he backtracked Arnbjörn’s route through the woods after he was done here, he thought he could find the new female he’d found to torment.

Capitalizing on the moment of distraction, Arnbjörn punched Brand in the gut. He grabbed Brand’s arms and swung him around until he crashed into another tree. The impact made Brand lose his grip. One more punch, this one to kidney, and Brand crumpled to the ground, gasping for breath.

Arnbjörn kicked him in the ribs, sending splinters of pain up and down his side. “She’s dead. Same as the one you took will be when I find her.” He rolled Brand over onto his back with his foot. “Only reason I don’t kill you now is I want you to watch.”

With a parting kick, Arnbjörn pivoted and ran down the hill toward the village at top speed. Brand struggled to regain his feet, but gave up after a few seconds. Now that Arnbjörn was aware he was after him, Brand doubted he’d get another chance to catch him alone. His best bet was to go back to Denver and wait for Arnbjörn’s anger to drive him there.

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