“Muriel,” someone was calling my name and tugging on my arm. I opened my eyes, squinting against my throbbing headache. “Wake up,” my sister said in a trembling whisper.
“What is it, Fleur?” I groaned. “Did the fire go out? Where’s Sabine?”
“She disappeared, remember? We have not seen her for a day and a night.” Fleur was speaking, but I barely heard her as I sat up and stared through the bars of a cage. Where I expected the walls of our home and the stone hearth, there was only forest.
“What is this?” I whispered. We sat in the center of a wooden cage made of branches as tall as a man and twice as long, lined with fur pelts. Beyond the bars, figures moved around a bonfire. A few men accompanied by giant dogs.
Fleur huddled closer to me. “They came in the night,” she whispered. “Do you remember? They burst into the hut and grabbed us.”
“I remember.” My head ached but I recalled the dark shapes looming over us. I’d leapt to my feet, wielding a small knife my older sister Sabine made me carry. One of the warriors had caught the blade in his hand.
“Careful,” he had laughed, wrenching the weapon from me even as blood dripped from his palm, “this one is a fighter. She has a little tooth.”
“Get away from me,” I’d shrieked. My defiance lasted as long as it took for one of the huge warriors to catch and force me down. I struggled on the floor, craning my neck to look back at Fleur. My twin sister was often sick, and weaker than I was. She’d shrunk back on the bed when three warriors converged on her. “Leave us alone!”
“Be quiet, and we won’t hurt you.” The warrior binding my wrists had covered my head with a sack and hefted me up. We were moving, moving, out of the hut and into the night. I’d screamed and struggled with all my might. The warrior carrying me slung me down, and—
Blackness. I remembered nothing more.
“What happened?” I asked my sister without taking my eyes off the men in the clearing. The huge warriors were cutting down more trees and adding logs to the fire.
“I don’t remember much after they came in and took us. I must have hit my head.”
“The man struck you so you slept,” Fleur said. “But I stayed awake the whole time. They carried us here, faster than any man can run. I know you won’t believe me…”
Fleur often had visions and dreams during the day, fantastical things she shared only with me. Often she saw things that weren’t real, and asked me about them. With my help, she didn’t speak of things that no one else saw. Otherwise, the villagers might call her fey, and kill her for it.
“I believe you,” I said, holding her tighter. “This is real. This is happening.” The men at the bonfire were more frightening when they stepped into the light than when they stood in shadow. Massive and muscular, they wore the garb of warriors and carried great weapons, from axes and bows, to daggers and swords. Though larger than any man I’d ever seen, they moved like predators, with smooth, quick grace. One of our captors walked out of the woods wearing only a loincloth, and carrying a giant log over his shoulder as if it weighed no more than a stick. He shrugged it off onto a growing pile, and joined a group that stood studying us in the cage. Amid the men roamed a few giant beasts that I thought were dogs, but for their size and the intelligence in their bright gold eyes.
Fleur and I huddled together amid this nightmare.
“Who are they?” I asked in despair. My teeth chattered, more with fear than cold.
“Wolves.” Fleur pointed out two of the warriors standing guard. Not more than a minute passed without them glancing back at us. I noticed they seemed particularly interested in Fleur, and I squeezed her tighter. “See those two? They took turns carrying me. They told me a witch cursed them with great strength and speed, but with the curse came the rage of a ravening beast. I didn’t understand until I saw one of them, that third one, there, turn from man into a wolf.” The beast she pointed out was massive, bigger than any dog or wolf I’d ever seen. With its midnight fur and eyes shining in the firelight, it seemed a demon creature.
It hadn’t stopped staring at Fleur.
“What do they want with us?”
“The warriors told me they have no women. They took us because they need mates.”
I forced my disbelieving gaze from the giant beasts and warriors, to stare into Fleur’s pale eyes. My normally pale sister looked even more wan and tired, with great circles under her eyes. But I knew she was telling the truth.
“How is this possible?”
“A prophecy foretold of a race of women they could mate with. Muriel… they have Sabine.”
“She’s here? Alive?” Our older sister had disappeared a few nights before. I sagged back onto the pelts, overcome with the first good news I’d had all night.
Fleur nodded and lay down with me. “They took her first. She’s to mate with the two Alphas.”
My forehead wrinkled. “Two of them?”
“They sometimes mate with women in pairs.”
I closed my eyes. My head hurt again, and not because of the tender bump on my skull.
“Do you think she’s all right?” I’d often been at odds with my older sister, but she’d always looked after us since our mother died. We had another sister, Brenna, older than all of us, but she, too, had disappeared.
“I think Sabine is fighting them. But they laughed about it and said that one way or another, the Alphas will tame her. And then…” Fleur’s voice died away, but she didn’t have to finish the sentence.
After Sabine was mated, it would be our turn.
Dawn came, and despite fear churning in my stomach and a raw feeling in my gullet, I dozed.
When I woke, the crowd of warriors had thinned. There were only three warriors left—the men who had carried Fleur, and their companion in wolf form.
Someone had left a skin of water just outside the bars. I waited as long as I could, but finally threaded my arm through the bars and took it. I sniffed it carefully but smelled no taint or poison. If these warriors had any reason to kill us, they could simply snap our necks. With that bleak reasoning, I didn’t hesitate to drink from the skin.
The wind shifted and the smoke blew into our cage. Fleur started coughing in her sleep. I moved to block the foul breeze, but she kept coughing. Her lungs had never been very strong.
Would that Sabine were here. She was smart and brave, and had a little magic. She would demand our captor bring her what she needed to make Fleur medicine, and would not stop standing up to them until we were all free.
I’d wrapped my arms around my legs and pressed my head to my knees., when a voice hissed close to my ear.
I raised my head and looked straight into golden eyes. A reddish wolf, so red I would’ve thought it was a fox if it hadn’t been so large, sat panting not five handspans from where I sat within the cage.
I watched in wonder as a ripple of magic split the air. The beast’s form shimmered, and then in place of the wolf crouched a man, naked but for a loincloth.
If Fleur had not explained the night before, I would’ve thought I was crazed or still dreaming, but the man looked real enough. He was young and sturdy, with a pale muscled chest and legs. The only resemblance to the wolf was his tousled red hair.
He grinned at me, and placed a finger to his lips, gesturing for me to stay silent. I glanced back at the warriors guarding us, and they all were focused on the fire. The smoke still blew in our direction. Turning my back on them, I nodded to the red-haired warrior. For some reason he didn’t want to be seen, and his secret was safe with me.
His grin widened, displaying sharp incisors. He beckoned me closer.
For some reason, I obeyed, sliding on the pelts to tuck myself against the side of the wooden prison.
“Muriel?” His low voice was rough, but I recognized my name when he repeated, “Are ye Muriel?”
Gaping at him, I nodded.
“Are ye sure, lass?” he asked. “I have a message for Muriel, and I dinnae want to tell it wrong.”
Licking my lips, I found my voice. “I am Muriel. Who are you? What’s going on?”
“You’ve been taken by Berserkers, warriors cursed to live as beasts. Ye were stolen by the Lowland Pack. I am Fergus of the Highland Pack. My pack and this pack dinnae get along.”
That explained his secrecy.
“You have a message for me?”
“Aye. My Alphas promise ye that ye will not be harmed. Soon ye will be free.” He crept closer, crouching next to the bars. If I put my hand out, I could touch him.
“‘Tis not wise for me to come out of hiding, but ye looked so sad. I wanted to reassure ye.” He had a splash of light freckles across his nose.
“Thank you. That’s very kind.”
“I cannae stay long. I’m only here because the wind shifted. They willnae scent me as long as I’m downwind.”
“Please, will you let us out?”
“I cannot. Not until I know ye are safe. Do ye know why you’re in a cage?”
I glanced back at the fire, but our guards were still distracted. “To keep us from getting out?”
“No, to keep the monsters from getting in.”
I wanted to close my eyes, lie down and go to sleep, and forget all this as a dream. Instead I studied Fergus. With his freckles and teasing manner, he could be a youth from my village, except for his rugged, handsome looks, and the magic that made him a wolf.
“Why did they take us? Why are we here?”
“They need brides.”
Fleur had relayed the truth. I gripped the bars harder, and clenched my jaw to fight the tears.
Fergus looked stricken. “Now, lass, don’t cry,” the warrior crooned. “”Twill be all right.”
“I don’t know how…I don’t know what to do.”
“Help is on the way. I swear on my life, I will get ye out. Dinnae worry your wee head.”
After a shuddering breath, I nodded.
“The wind is shifting. If they scent me, I’ll be caught.”
“Don’t go,” I begged.
He tilted his head. His shoulders were also dusted with freckles. “Ye aren’t afraid of me, wee one?”
I didn’t know what to say to that. “Please.”
“I won’t stray far. I’ll make sure ye dinnae come to harm. This pack is dangerous, but the more unstable wolves have orders to stay away from ye.”
He changed before my eyes, the masculine features distorting into the maw of a reddish wolf. I jerked back, but he was already gone, only the tremor of a leaf on a low-hanging branch evidence of where he had been.
I clutched at Fleur, but she was asleep, her cheeks wan and pale, her body shaking with coughs. Tears streamed out of my eyes–from the smoky air, I told myself. Not because I was afraid.
A warrior walked into the clearing. Pale and blond, he stood a head taller than the others, and towered over them when they bowed their heads.
“Arne, Erik,” he greeted the men, and then the wolf. “Gunnr.” He had a strange accent but spoke in a level, cultured voice. I’d almost think him a lord from some far off court, but he tilted his head and sniffed the wind, and I saw the predator in him.
“Alpha,” the warriors greeted him, and his head jerked towards our cage.
“What is this?” the blond Alpha asked his men. “I smell a wolf. And not one of our pack.”
“I smell it too.” The warrior named Arne growled.
Fear flashed through me. They would track Fergus, and all would be lost.
I moved to the far side of the cage, opposite where I had sat with Fergus.
“Hey,” I cried out. “You there.” Gripping the branch bars, I tried to shake them. Fleur coughed again in her sleep, the perfect distraction.
The warriors’ attention swung to me. My body was numb with fear, with cold, and now with anger.
“My sister is sick. She may be dying, if I cannot get her the herbs she needs.”
The tall blond approached. Crouching he ducked his head to meet my gaze. His eyes were bright gold.
I waited for him to speak but he only cocked his head to the side.
“Did you hear me?” Fury supplied my words. “You captured both of us—and soon one will die. If she goes…I will make you pay.” I did not know how. My cheeks were frozen from my old tears, or were they new?
“Threats for your captors?” the Alpha murmured. “I wonder what makes you so bold?”
“It’s the enemy, Ragnvald,” answered one of the guards—Erik. The second and third, in wolf form, stood at the forest edge, whining and pawing the earth where Fergus had been.
They paced along one side of the cage, and shivers worked up my spine.
“He was here. One of the Highland Pack. If we go now, we can track him.”
I stared up into the leader’s face, silently pleading.
“No,” he said finally. “Let him go. If plans hold, the Highland Pack will not be our enemies for much longer.”
I held the leader’s gaze for a moment longer, then a sharp pain flashed in my head and I dropped my eyes. Power rolled through the clearing, beyond my mortal understanding, and the hair on my arms stood on end.
Fleur coughed again, breaking the spell.
“Please, my lord,” I said. “My sister truly is ill.”
“Do you know what will save her?” Erik asked in a harsh, almost guttural voice. He stalked towards the cage, eyes on Fleur’s limp body. I shrank back, but the warrior stopped when his leader lifted a hand. Every muscle in Erik’s body was taut, ready, as if at a word he would jump forward and rip apart the wooden structure.
“Yes,” I gulped. “I can find the herbs to make medicine, if you let me out.”
Fleur coughed and one of the wolves whined again.
“Alpha, please,” Erik asked in a quiet voice. Sweat beaded on his forehead as he waited for his leader to give the order.
Erik reached out and sliced the bindings on one branch, so the side of the cage swung open.
“Take Gunnr and track our red intruder,” Ragnvald continued. “When you catch him, do him no harm. Tell him I wish to meet under a branch of truce, to negotiate peace with his pack.”
I did not breathe until the tense warrior was gone.
“Be at peace, Muriel,” the Alpha said. “Your sister has told me of you and your bravery. It seems even Fleur has charmed my men in less than half a day.”
The bare blue sky called to me from beyond the wooden frame, yet still I hesitated. The Alpha beckoned. “Come forth, little sister. I am Ragnvald, Alpha of the Lowland Pack. I swear I will not hurt you.”
“I am not your sister,” I said.
“No,” Ragnvald said, amused. “But when Sabine accepts her place at my side, you will be.”
Heart beating fast, I ducked through the opening. The Alpha of the Lowland Pack swept out his hand, ushering me into my new life.
Nine moons later…
I saw the wolf through the branches of the berry bush. Large and reddish with a white splash on his tail, he sat with his tongue lolling out, watching me.
With a smile, I turned back to the waiting branch and picked another handful of berries for my lunch.
A subtle wind lifted my skirts and brought a fresh, open scent–like the earth after spring rain. Leaves crunched under someone’s foot–the sound too slight to notice unless I was waiting to hear it.
A pair of large, rough hands covered my eyes.
“Guess who,” the Scottish brogue tickled my ear.
“Fergus,” I whirled with a grin, and took in the young warrior, his handsome face and broad, muscled shoulders making my mouth water.
He stood bare-chested and unashamed, wearing nothing but a loincloth around his nethers. The pink in his cheeks was the only sign that he was affected by the slight chill.
I cleared my throat, ducking my head to hide my blush. “You should not be here…and I cannot see you like this.”
“I cannae carry clothes wherever I go. My wolf likes to run unencumbered.” His voice dropped to a seductive rumble, “Look at me, Muriel.”
I did as he bid, raising my gaze to meet his clear blue ones. I watched in fascination as the magic within him took hold and turned his eye color to bright gold.
“I’ve missed ye, lass.”
“And I’ve missed you,” I whispered. Much had changed since we’d first met, exchanging names through the bars of the cage. My sisters and I lived with the Berserkers, less as captives and more as prized guests. Tensions between the packs had died down, but there were still treaties and negotiations. Fergus acted often as a go-between, and so even though I was with the Lowland Pack, I saw him often—but always in the presence of the Alphas or a few guards. Never alone, in a secret meeting, like this.
“Ye look well.”
My skin tingled as his gaze swept up and down my form, hungry.
Clearing my throat, I sought for a change in subject. We had little chance to converse beyond a look, a small touch, a carefully worded greeting. The entire pack watched over my sister and me, for we were their hope for the future. But of all the giant, forbidding warriors, only Fergus could make me laugh with his antics, and the sly, silly comments that were innocent enough, but I knew were meant for me.
“I hoped you would find me today.”
“Yes?” He took a step forward, eyes lit.
“Yes,” I backed away, blushing. “I know I am not to speak to any of the warriors because I am unmated, but I wanted to speak to you.”
“Well, then, lass.” He kept moving forward, and I kept backing away. “What did ye want to say?”
No matter how much distance I put between us, he stalked me slowly. At last he cornered me against the berry bush. My heart beat faster, fluttering like a bird taking flight.
He raised his hand and offered me a white flower.
Warmth rushed through me. Smiling, I took hold of it by the stem. “I knew it was you.” Lately, I’d found the little white flowers everywhere. A small token that could’ve been carried by a bird, or fallen from a tree, but when I found it on a stump in the clearing near our new home, or a rock in the stream where Sabine and I washed our clothes, I’d guessed it was a gift from the red wolf. “Thank you. It’s beautiful. But I need to tell you…I wanted to warn you. You should not come so close to me. It’s not safe.”
He tilted his head, as if touched at my worry. “I dinnae care about my safety.”
“I do. Please, Fergus. I don’t want the others to find you here.”
“They willnae catch me. I am small, yes, but I am fast when I’m the wolf.”
I started to protest and he held a finger up, almost brushing my lips. “Do ye want to spend our time arguing?”
“Then let us speak of other things.”
There was so much I wanted to ask him, so much I wanted to know. I often imagined him while I lay awake at night on my pallet, pressing the white flowers he left for me to my lips.
“Does it hurt to Change?”
“Not into the wolf. The beast, our Berserker form, is brought on by extreme emotion. That can be painful, if only because of the desire to fight and rip apart the very earth. But we shall speak no more of becoming monsters.” His voice was light, but I knew he worried about the beast taking over his mind. All Berserkers were once men who were cursed with the magic of the Change. They could control the shift from man to wolf, but after decades of fighting, they eventually lost control of their monstrous third form: the beast.
To me, though, Fergus was no monster. The red-headed warrior could’ve been a boy from my village, grown up into a man I could love. I’d always imagined such a suitor courting me. We’d have a country wedding, and a sweet, simple life with each other and our children.
My life had changed but I held onto my small, sunny dream. Whenever I was with Fergus, I felt it could still come true.
I swung off my cloak and wrapped him in it.
“Walk with me?” I invited. We weren’t supposed to be near each other. War could break out if we were found together, but the pull between us couldn’t be denied.
As we ambled along the woodland path in silence, his hand clamped on my wrist over my long sleeve. I let him lead me deeper into the forest. My heart thumped, eager to find a secret place where we could strip our souls bare and be with each other, without any threat of being found hanging over our head.
“You’ve grown a little these past few moons,” he said in his beautiful, lilting voice.
“Gotten fat?” I asked with a coy look.
“No. More’s the pity. I like a wee bit of meat on my woman’s bones.”
I shook my head.
“I jest, Muriel. You’re beautiful.” His fingers brushed my cheek.
Blushing, I arched away from his caress. I’d spent nights longing to feel his fingers on my skin, pressing the white flowers to my lips. But I’d been warned not to let a Berserker touch my skin. Fergus knew this as well. In the spell of the dark, quiet forest, and each other’s presence, it was easy to forget the rules.
“Where are we going?”
His hand dropped to take hold of my wrist again. “Not much farther.”
Finally, we reached a place where little light broke between the thick branches of the towering pines. A stream ran through the heart of a grove of ferns, and here Fergus stopped. Hands spanning my small waist, he lifted me and set me on a broad, flat stone splitting the rush of water, and stepped onto it with me. Before I lost my balance, he tugged me closer, holding me in his arms like we were a couple dancing at a midsummer fair.
“Fergus,” I kept my eyes on the hard ridge of his muscle along the center of his chest. Lean and wiry, he was the smallest of his Berserker pack, but still two heads taller than me and much, much stronger. Stronger than any human in existence. “We shouldn’t be together like this. It is forbidden.”
“Muriel,” the way he breathed my name sounded like a song, a prayer. “Look at me.”
“I cannot,” I kept my gaze averted. “Sabine says I must not look any members of the pack in the eye, or risk giving great offense.”
“Any other warrior in the pack, aye. But not me. Never me. Look at me, wee one,” He gave a command and tipped my chin up with a finger.
He had eyes of a storm far off over the ocean. When the beast was upon him, they turned gold with an otherworldly light.
“I have things to say to ye, but I cannae say them yet. I haven’t the right.”
Now my cheeks were turning pink as heat poured through me in response to his touch. “Can you not say a few of them?”
“I would that I could. Some day, soon, I will. I’ll tell ye all ye want to hear, and more.” His promise sent warmth through my body. We had an ocean of difference between us–he was a Berserker of the Highland pack, and I was a captive and ward of their enemies; he was a werewolf, I was not–but in that moment we shared the same breath, the same heart.
Bowing his head, his forehead brushed mine, and his voice dropped to a deep rumble that spread tingles through me. “If I had my way, I’d show ye my thoughts as well as tell ye. Ye ken?”
I opened my mouth, and his head jerked.
“Do ye hear that, lass?”
“Your sister calls for ye.” His tone held regret.
“I have to go.” I whispered.
I pulled free a ribbon from my dress Head bowed, I wrapped the green cloth around his bicep.
When I stepped away, he caught my hand, pulled me back. I leaned into him, my eyes closed, and his lips brushed mine.
I smiled the rest of the walk home.
For the past two moons, I’d lived with Sabine in the great lodge her Alpha mates—Ragnvald and Maddox—had built for her. I wasn’t surprised when I ran to the doors and they opened before me. A dark-haired warrior, clad only in leather breeches and the tattoos that covered his bare chest, waited inside.
“Muriel,” he greeted me. “I’m glad you’ve returned. Your sister Sabine was worried you’d lost your way.”
“I did for a moment,” I told the bland truth; Fergus had led me off the path I knew. Wolves can smell a lie. “Where is my sister?”
“I was about to leave to look for you.” My older sister stood over a great table spread with drying herbs. “Where is your cloak, Muriel?”
“I must have left it in the woods.” Another half truth. Sabine frowned, and I dug in my pouch for the herb that had been my excuse to leave that morning. “Here is more feverfew. I followed the stream until I found a whole patch.”
“Ah, so your path crossed a stream. No wonder Ragnvald couldn’t track you.”
“I would’ve eventually,” Sabine’s second mate, Ragnvald, entered the lodge behind me. “I just wanted to be sure I found her before the other wolf did.”
“There was another wolf out there? Berserker?” Sabine asked.
“I smell him on you, Muriel. You must have come close to him.”
I kept my head down and washed my hands. If I said anything, they’d scent a falsehood, and I could not give Fergus up.
“Too much coming and going between ours and the Highland Pack,” Ragnvald muttered.
“Wolves come about to catch a peek of the women who can mate with Berserkers. I know I would risk my life for a glimpse,” Maddox said to Sabine, and he tugged a lock of her honey gold hair. She slapped at him, and he laughed.
Ragnvald stayed serious. “ No more excursions out of the lodge alone,” he told me.
“I understand,” I said in a docile tone. Throughout my life I’d found I could quietly go my own way if I acted sweet and obedient.
Sabine was too stubborn to be submissive. “That’s ridiculous,” she frowned at Ragnvald, hands on her hips. “Spring is here. You cannot keep us cooped up.”
“Just for a little while. Muriel will be leaving us, soon.”
“I thought she was to stay with us, and Fleur with our sister Brenna.” Part of the truce meant that the four of us were split evenly among the packs. Brenna was mated to the Highland pack’s Alphas, Sabine to the Lowland Pack’s. Soon, Fleur and I would have to take mates. No one had spoken of this to me, but I understood it all the same. We were still captives, even though we were treated with respect and care.
“We need to talk. Muriel, will you come here?” Ragnvald pointed to a place before him on the raised stone hearth. I went and sat with my hands in my lap. The very picture of meekness. The blond Alpha hadn’t questioned me about the strange wolf he’d scented in the woods, and I was eager to keep from raising suspicion. One slip of my tongue, and my secret meeting would be revealed. I would get in trouble and might be disciplined, but Fergus would face the Berserker’s wrath. His punishment might be death. The packs were very strict when it came to preserving their few potential mates.
I kept quiet as Ragnvald studied me.
“What’s going on? What is this about?” Sabine set down her mortar and pestle. Maddox hovered close to her, and she gave him a sharp look.
Ragnvald spoke directly to me. “As you know, all Berserkers met at the Gathering last week.”
“Many things were decided there, so we might keep the peace between our packs. Two nights hence there will be a great competition. It will be a great contest of force, battle readiness and strength. Muriel, you watch the Games. Sabine and all the Alphas will all be there to oversee them, but you will be the guest of honor.” He paused as if waiting for a response.
“I see,” I said, even though I didn’t. “I am happy to go where the treaty decrees. As always, my sister’s and I are grateful for your hospitality and protection.” Never mind that I was little more than a captive, my marriageability making me a useful pawn in the negotiations between the warring packs. If I kept quiet and remained obedient, I might be awarded more freedom. Perhaps I would see Fergus at these Games, and we could find another chance to slip away together to talk.
“The competition will decide who is the greatest Berserker among all the packs. There is a prize for the winner.”
I thought I understood. “You wish me to attend these Games so I may award the prize?”
The two Alpha’s exchanged glances. Ragnvald came to where I sat on the hearth and crouched in front of me.
“Muriel,” he said gently, “you are the prize. You’ll be given to the winner of the Games, and he will claim you as his mate.”
For a moment the world spun. The fire burned too hot; my body flushed as if with fever. Ragnvald was still speaking, but I heard only a buzzing noise. Fergus’ voice floated through my head, a whispered promise.
Sabine’s sharp voice cut through the ringing in my ears.
“So she’s to be given away like a trophy? Bound for life to a man who wins her in a contest? You could not give her a choice?”
“We would if we could. This is what was agreed after many nights of debate,” Ragnvald explained. “The man who wins her will be the most powerful warrior in the pack. He will be worthy of a bride.”
“Bride. Such pretty words for ‘chattel’. You may as well be auctioning off a piece of meat,” Sabine raged.
“Sabine,” Maddox started.
Sabine whirled on him. “And if she refuses?”
“She cannot refuse. There is no escaping this. You knew this was coming. We all did,” Ragnvald continued in his patient, level tone.
“She might disappear in the night. Stranger things have happened.”
“We will be keeping close watch over her. Both packs have sent emissaries to guard her.”
“We’ll be watching you, also, Sabine. So you will not help her run.”
Sabine snorted in disgust. Pushing away from the table, she kicked the chair so it clattered to the floor.
Maddox followed Sabine around the room, shadowing her as she paced in a temper.
“We leave tomorrow to reach the place where the Games will be held,” Ragnvald told me.
“If she hates the warrior, can she refuse him?” Sabine asked.
“She can’t can she? She could be given to the most awful, brutish wolf in the pack, and can do nothing to escape him. Bound for life.” Sabine spoke bitterly.
My tongue still lay heavy in my mouth, unable to move. My heart hurt. Had Fergus known what was decided for my fate? He must have had some idea. Perhaps his intent was to win the Games.
“Sabine,” Maddox came behind his mate and slid his arms around her. She twisted to face him.
“It’s not fair.”
“It is as fair as we can make it.”
“It’s fair for every warrior in the pack. But not for her.”
“Perhaps Muriel will decide that.”
Sabine shook her head. With one final look at me, she ran from the room, Maddox following close behind. I heard them murmuring in their chambers at the far end of the lodge.
I still hadn’t moved, though my hands were white where my fingers threaded tightly together.
“Muriel? Do you have anything to say?”
“My sister is very angry.”
“She wishes her life was not directed by forces outside of her control. She is a force, like a great raging river. Sometimes she moves the rocks from her path. Other times, she must eddy around them. One day she will be powerful enough that nothing will stay in her way.” Ragnvald’s handsome face held a thoughtful look.
My sister had magic. A witch’s prophecy foretold of a special race of women that carried a strain of magic to make them prime Berserker mates. So far, Sabine and Brenna have proved the prophecy true, and they expected Fleur and I to have the same ability. That was why they were so eager for us to marry within the pack.
“I always knew I must mate a Berserker,” I ventured. Ragnvald seemed to listen, he sat with a half smile, as if imagining his fiery mate. “I was hoping I would at least like whoever was chosen for my mate.”
“Little sister, know that I would’ve made things easier for you, if I could. But the Games will satisfy the warriors in both packs. Otherwise there would be war between us.” My sisters were happily mated to the Alphas of the their pack. Sabine, for all her arguing loved Maddox and Ragnvald, and Brenna had borne her two Alpha mates sons. War would threaten the love and new life, so fragile and dear to us all. “Already there are arguments and infighting over who will be awarded a Berserker bride. It’s only a matter of time that a warrior challenges another for you and they fight until they destroy each other. We are doing all we can to avoid that.”
“They are fighting…over me?”
A smile played around his mouth at my innocence. “You must understand what hope you give these men, Muriel. You and your sisters are the only women we’ve found to temper the curse. All the gold, all the bounty these warriors have fought for in the past century, nothing compares to the chance to win your hand in marriage. Believe me when I say these warriors will count it an honor to fight and bleed for you.”
I couldn’t think of what to say to that, so I stared at my hands, wishing I were braver, or stronger, or more clever tongued like Sabine.
“So whoever wins these Games I must take as a mate…like a husband?”
“In werewolf packs, a mate is more than a husband or a wife. The bond runs closer. This man, whoever he may be, will pledge himself to you and your care. He will be a devoted partner, protector, and leader, and will do everything within his power to keep you safe from all harm. Even die for you.”
I swallowed hard. Berserkers lived like warriors, fierce mercenaries always ready for battle. I’d watched them training in their camps. They fought constantly, practicing, readying themselves for war. They were rough and brutal, given to violence at any moment. It was their nature.
I would be given to such a man.
“All right,” I said finally. “I understand. Thank you.”
“Of course, little sister. We will be watching over you, and will do all we can to help you.” Ragnvald rose, and I knew he was eager to get to the bed chamber, and Sabine. The arguing had subsided, and given way to…other sounds. “Know this. Whatever wolf wins you, we can promise, he will treat you well. If he does not, he won’t just answer to us. The Alphas would sit in judgment upon him, and he’d be lucky if we kill him ourselves, rather than give him over to the pack for them to tear him apart.”
Later that night, I woke to harsh voices arguing. Sabine and her two mates slept on the far side of the lodge. Try as I might to keep a blanket muffling my ears, I often overheard their lovemaking.
Tonight there was more anger than love.
“You don’t understand,” Sabine was saying. “The twins are not like Brenna and me. They were coddled, sheltered. We kept them safe at all costs.”
“We will do the same.” Ragnvald sounded amused. “You think a Berserker cannot shield his mate from all harm? Muriel will be safer with a warrior from the pack than with any other creature on this island.”
“You fear nothing, little witch,” That was Maddox. “Much to our dismay. We wish you feared us. It would be easier to make you obey.”
I imagined her swatting him away.
“You do your sister a disservice, thinking her so weak. She is stronger than you know.”
“Her strength may break her. She will obey you, and at what cost? To spend the rest of her life shackled to some brute–”
“We will make sure she is well treated by whoever wins the games. We need her to do her duty.”
“Duty? She’s an eighteen year old girl-”
“Who has the power to bring balance and stability to the pack. These warriors have gone so long without hope of living a normal life. Living as men. The Games gives them a chance to compete for what they desire above all,” Maddox said.
“And when they see the strongest of them rewarded with a bride, they will accept his right over them,” Ragnvald continued, “otherwise, I fear they will tear each other apart challenging for Muriel’s hand. The Games will be violent, but not deadly.”
“It is not right. Muriel should be able to choose. Perhaps we could wait, and see if she is like Brenna and me. Muriel may not have the magic that allows her to bond with a mate.”
“You don’t know that.”
“She’s never come into heat, as I did,” Sabine insisted.
“You were a ripe fruit ready for us to pluck. Maddox stalked you for several moons, enjoying your scent.”
“Tortured by it,” Maddox muttered.
“My point is,” Sabine sounded aggrieved. “Muriel may not be able to form a mating bond, as Brenna and I were able to. We should wait and see if her abilities grow.”
A long pause, as if the Alphas were considering it.
“No,” Ragnvald answered, finally. “There is no time.”
“All will be well, Sabine.”
“It’s not fair,” there was defeat in my sister’s voice, “She should be mated to someone she can love.”
“Perhaps, in time, she will come to love the one to whom she is given. After all, stranger things have happened. I recall a certain young woman who liked to stray from her home at night, who was taken by two Berserker warriors. She fell madly in love with them.”
“You wish, wolf,” Sabine said, but her tone was warm. A pause followed, filled with soft, passionate sounds I tried not to hear. When a low moan rose, I rolled over and clamped my blanket over my ears. Despite my worry, I smiled into the darkness.
“Muriel, will you help me sort these herbs?” Sabine called me from my place staring into the fire. My own small bag was full and ready for our journey.
“I don’t know what to bring,” my sister fussed over her great table. Since our talk at the hearth, she’d been in a testy mood, as if she was going to be given to the Berserkers instead of me. After a heated argument, Sabine ordered her Alphas out of the lodge, and refused to let them back in. To my surprise, they obeyed, murmuring that they’d be back when it was time to leave for the Games.
The Games….I’d spent two days trying not to think of my fate, yet my thoughts swirled endlessly, reliving the conversation with Ragnvald and imagining what the Games would be like. Which warrior would win? In my dreams, I only saw Fergus’ face, his red hair and sparkling eyes as he came to claim me as his prize…
“What are you thinking?” Sabine asked.
I shrugged and leaned on her table, toying with a few stems of dried angelica. Sabine covered my hand with hers.
“Muriel, my powers are still growing, but if you wish to leave now,” she lowered her voice further, “I can call the witch Yseult. Her powers are greater than mine. She could help you escape.”
I gave her a sad smile. “Where would I go?”
“Anywhere, far from here. The witch could hide you for a time.”
For a moment I toyed with idea of running away with Fergus. We could build a small cabin in a forgotten corner of the island, perhaps by the sea.
My foolish dream lived only a second. There was no corner of the earth where I could hide from these warriors. When they went to hunt, they tore great stags apart with their bare hands; if I ran, I’d be much easier prey. Besides, I would never put Fergus at harm. They’d take delight in destroying him.
No one could stop these Berserkers from taking what they wanted. And they wanted me.
I shook my head. “I cannot betray the truce. I’ll be all right, Sabine. They will not mistreat me.” I offered a fervent prayer to the goddess that this would be so. “I can do my duty. It is what the pack requires.”
“Damn the pack! I wish the goddess would throw all the Berserkers in the sea.”
“No, you don’t. You’d miss them too much. At least two of them.”
“I don’t want you to sacrifice your life.”
“You did. Would you change your fate?”
“No.” Sabine gnawed her lip. “But, Muriel, remember that your fate is more than duty. You deserve to have a husband you love. I promised you once I would help you marry well, remember?”
“I remember,” I couldn’t keep the unhappiness out of my voice. I knew I was being selfish. My sisters Sabine and Brenna had been taken against their will to become Berserker mates, and had grown to love them. But was I strong enough to do the same?
The next day Berserker warriors came to escort me to the place where the Games would be held. These were men from the Highland pack. I looked for Fergus, but he was not among them. Ragnvald and Maddox were coming to represent the Lowland Pack, and wherever they went, their mate went with them, so Sabine was coming too. After the Games she would take time to visit with Brenna and her new family, and relieve Fleur of some of the baby-watching duties.
I supposed I could help, too, if my new mate would allow it. My thoughts slid to Fergus. Did he like children? Would he raise them if I died birthing them? My sister had survived a difficult birth, but Sabine had told me Brenna had magic helping her. I had no magic. Would this make me an inferior mate? Would the Berserker who won me be disappointed and cast me aside? Would this threaten the peace?
My stomach churned and my foot caught my hem, making me stumble.
“Careful,” one of the Berserkers held his hand out as if to break my fall, but did not touch me.
“Are you all right?” Sabine and her mates glanced back.
I hitched my dress up so it would not snag my boots. “Fine,” I answered, and managed a smile. After a brief pause, Ragnvald gave the order and we marched on.
Walking in shadow between twin columns of the large warriors, I decided not to think about my life after the Games. I’d take this journey one step at a time.
We were headed to the Place of Stones, halfway between the Lowland and Highland Pack’s home. The journey would’ve been quicker with horses, but the animals could not abide being near a Berserker. It would also be faster for the Berserkers to carry Sabine and I, as they have great strength and speed. But they could not because I was unmated and it would offend my future mate for the men to touch me, or so Ragnvald explained to me.
The day was fine and we made good time, so when Sabine requested we stop for lunch, her Alphas agreed. The three of them slipped off together leaving me standing stiffly with my honor guard. As the warriors handed out strips of meat, I drifted closer to a nearby stream. These men were on their best behavior, but I still kept a distance between myself and them while we waited for Sabine to finish with her lovers. I was used to the three of them disappearing like this, and did not fault them. Ragnvald and Maddox had nearly gone mad waiting for their true mate, the one who would balance the raging beast within and bring them peace. They needed connection with Sabine like food and air, and my sister was happy to comply. When she complained of their possessiveness, she did so with a smile.
My sisters were well matched with Berserkers, and happy. Perhaps I would be so lucky.
I found a rock near the pool and sat down, studying my reflection. Skin not dark or pale, but tan with faint freckles. Long hair neither very blonde or very dark, but a dun brown. I wasn’t short like Sabine, or tall like Brenna. There was nothing extraordinary about my looks or my person. Sabine had smarts and Brenna had courage, but I was lacking in both.
My hand dashed my reflection. At least one red-headed warrior had thought me beautiful. He was well built and strong, and he wanted me.
“Fergus,” I whispered, touching my hair where I’d threaded the white flower. “If there was any magic in me, I would use it to find a way to bind us now.”
“Does our company weary you so much that you’d speak to your own reflection?” A warrior with blond hair loomed over me. I’d noticed him before—he had fine looks but an unhandsome sneer on his face, and watched me in a way that made me uneasy.
“I know. Let us have some entertainment. A small tournament. Any man here can challenge me.”
I rose and scooted away from the warrior, under the pretense of going to a berry bush to pick fruit for my lunch. If I was lucky, I would not attract any unwelcome attention.
The blond warrior faced the rest of the troop. I noted that none met his eyes—a sign that this bully was dominant in the pack. “Well, come on? Will no one challenge me? Winner gets a kiss from the prize.”
At that, I stiffened. I might be no more than a prize to these men, but my kisses were mine to give. This warrior had no right to claim them.
“The winner will get nothing from me,” I blurted. “I am not a bawd, earning my keep in your beds.”
The blond warrior whirled and stalked back towards me, and I knew I’d made a mistake. He stalked closer, intent on tormenting me.
“No? Pity. It might be better for the pack if you were. Perhaps I will suggest it at the Gathering. We could pass you around and enjoy your charms. Why should one man claim what we all could share?”
I tensed as he bent over me, but stood my ground. “My fate has been decided.”
“Such a shame. We could have had fun.” He stepped closer, too close. Every instinct in me told me to run. I clenched my fists at my sides and forced myself not to look up at him, or strike out, goading him further.
I couldn’t stop my sharp tongue. “I doubt I would enjoy it.”
His voice dropped an octave lower, but the seductive purr only made my skin crawl. “It will be my pleasure to prove you wrong.”
“Not unless you win the Games.” Inwardly I shuddered at the thought of being shackled to such a bully.
When I started to move away, he caught my sleeve with a growl.
“Siebold,” a deep voice rang out before I could lash out. “Take two wolves and patrol ahead.”
The bully froze. “But–”
“Now.” Even I felt the push of compulsion in the order. Berserkers were wolves who followed an Alpha, and a more dominant wolf had power over a weaker one. Whoever this Siebold was, he held sway over most of the warriors—but not all of them.
The blond left and my savior approached. Without thinking, I looked up…and looked up further. This man was enormous. Tall and broad, his heavily muscled form towered over me, enough to block out the sun. His legs were like tree trunks; his arms and shoulders stretching the leather jerkin he wore. He wasn’t handsome—a scar slashed over his blunt features, and his grey stubble on his chin matched that of his shaved head—but he was striking, powerful. A force to be reckoned with.
At the last moment, I dropped my gaze.
“The rest of you, spread out. Form a perimeter,” the giant ordered, and the rest of my escort obeyed. He remained, my sole protector.
Slowly, my body relaxed. I picked some fruit off the berry bush while the great warrior hovered at my side.
“You would do well to eat more than berries, little one.” He offered me a strip of dried meat.
“Thank you, sir.” I accepted, careful not to touch his fingers. I’d had little appetite lately, but I found it had returned. When I finished the meat, I unhooked a horn I wore at my belt, and filled it with water from the stream. The giant warrior stayed at my side, watching over me. I offered him the horn, first. He paused before he took it.
“Careful, Muriel. Sharing a drink with a warrior means more to him than it might to you.” At my puzzled look, he explained. “Long ago, when a woman approached a man with a horn, it meant she had chosen him for the night. We remember some of these rules from the years when we were men.”
“I’ll take more care, sir.” I didn’t raise my eyes beyond the dip in the center of his chest. Pack rules didn’t allow weaker members to look stronger ones in the eye. To do so was a challenge that could result in a fight to the death. In many packs, females that could not fight were punished for rising above their place. As a human female, I was weaker than any other, and this man was twice as tall and thrice as broad as me, the most powerful Berserker I’d ever seen. He could crush me with a single blow, yet I felt safe in his shadow, unlike with Siebold or most of the others.
“Look at me, little one,” he rumbled. Nervous, I obeyed almost as soon as he gave the command. The scar gave his face a brutal look, but his grey eyes were kind.
“I thought…” I licked my lips and found my voice, “I was told I’m not supposed to look any wolf in the eye,” I told him.
“It is wise to follow that rule carefully, but not with me. Never with me. My wolf doesn’t see you as a threat.”
I felt like he’d told me something important.
“Thank you, sir,” I said, trying to be polite.
Grey eyes smiled.
“So brave. You did well, standing up to Siebold.”
I pursed my lips. “He’s a bully.”
“He is. A dangerous one. You need to take care not to bait him, unless you’re around me.”
“I’ve never been good at holding my tongue.”
“So I’ve heard. You were very brave when the Berserkers first took you, calling out to save your sister’s life, making demands of the Lowland Pack even when you were their captive.”
I blinked. “You hea
rd of that?”
“Every wolf has heard of it.” Reaching out, he tucked a strand of hair behind my ears. I jerked back, my heart tripping faster. This warrior dwarfed me in every way. His hands could span the width of my waist, but when his blunt fingers caught a handful of my long, brown tresses, his thumb stroked the shining lock of hair with surprising gentleness.
“My lord–” I protested, tugging the lock from his grip. Heat suffused my body as if he had touched my skin, and again my gaze fell to the chiseled muscles of his chest. Cheeks hot, I couldn’t bear to look him in the eye.
“Wulfgar,” he supplied, amusement in his tone.
“My lord Wulfgar, you should not touch me. It does dishonor to the man who will win my hand.”
One side of his mouth creased in a half smile. “Is that so, little one? Then I had better win.”
Captured to be a prize in the brutal Berserker Games…
My life changed forever when the Berserkers took me. These fearsome warriors must find women to keep their lethal rage at bay…and I am an ideal mate.
The Alphas decree that all warriors must compete in a series of Highland Games for my hand. Of all the giant warriors, two have caught my eye, but I have no choice. When the final match is over, I will belong to the ruthless victors. They will possess me fully. I can only hope they will be the two I could come to love…
Given to the Berserkers is a standalone, full-length MFM ménage romance starring two huge, dominant warriors who make it all about the woman. Read the whole best-selling Berserker saga to see what readers are raving about…
The Berserker Saga
Claimed by the Berserkers – coming early 2017