4396 words (17 minute read)

Chapter 7

Hours later, I stopped and sat down on a tree root, gasping for air. Kieran turned and glared down at me. “What are you doing?”

“Resting. What does it look like?”

“We can’t afford to lose time. Get up.”

“I have blisters on the bottoms of my feet, okay? Just chill for a minute.”


“Back off. Take it easy. Give me just a few minutes to recover.”

Kieran muttered something under his breath and took his shirt off. I looked everywhere except at him, and caught him smirking out of the corner of my eye.

“Whoa, now. How is taking your shirt off an appropriate response to me having blisters on the bottoms of my feet?”

He ignored me and ripped both sleeves off the shirt before pulling the remainder of it back on. “I’m going to bandage your feet. Take off your boots.”

I watched as he started ripping the shirtsleeves into strips, duly impressed at how easy it was for him to break down the material. He surveyed the pile of pieces with a frown and pulled his shirt off again, ripping the rest of it into strips, as well. I felt myself turn red and looked away again, blushing even more when I heard him chuckle.

“You really enjoy making me uncomfortable, don’t you?”

“Yes. It’s one of the few times you’re quiet.”

I rolled my eyes and started working my boots off with a soft whimper. “And if you don’t mind me asking, why’d you rip up the whole shirt? The material you had from the sleeves looked like plenty to wrap my feet with.”

He looked at me like I was stupid for a moment and then shook his head. “Extra padding so we can keep moving,” he shrugged.

“Keep moving? Are you serious right now?” I blanched and groaned as I peeled off my socks, and they pulled flesh with them.

Kieran laughed aloud and shook his head, kneeling in front of me. “Here, give me your feet.” I held them up for him to see and he gave a soft whistle. “I’m sorry.”

He pulled an old, beat-up tin out of his pack and opened it. When he did, I gagged at the smell. “Holy crap! What is that? It smells awful!”

“Medicine. It may stink, but nothing works better.” He scooped out what looked like purple Vaseline with two fingers and started applying it to the bottoms of my feet. Within a minute, I couldn’t feel the pain anymore. I couldn’t feel my feet at all, for that matter. “Wow! That’s amazing! What’s it made from?”

“I’m not sure. It’s some secret concoction Wynne, our healer, makes.” He carefully bandaged both feet, stuffed my dirty socks into an outside pocket of his pack, pulled out another shirt and put it on, then put my boots inside his pack. He stood and passed the bag to me.

“Why are you handing your pack to me? I hope you don’t think I’m going to carry it, too, because you’re severely delusional if you do. I can’t even feel my feet.”

“Just take it, get on my back, and hold on tight.”

I raised my eyebrows, but I didn’t argue. Who was I to argue with a piggy-back ride when I couldn’t even feel my feet? I did as I was told in silence, until I felt his body starting to contort. I couldn’t stop myself from screaming bloody murder, as he transformed into a coffee-brown clydesdale, the same color as his dark hair. “Are you kidding me right now? If you could do that, why didn’t you do it sooner? I hate you right now.”

Kieran didn’t answer, of course. Instead, he snorted and shook his curly mane, as if to tell me to be quiet, and we trotted deeper into the forest on what seemed to be a deer trail. Darkness fell as we ran through yet another stretch of scrub that looked like every other bit of brush we’d forged through for the majority of the day. Kieran stopped without warning and shifted back into his human form. I almost pulled us both over backward, since there had been no warning, but I staggered and steadied myself on feet that were starting to ache again.

“What is it?” I asked.

“We’ll camp here for the night.”

I dropped our packs and lifted my eyes to the heavens. “There is a God!”

When Kieran pulled a hatchet out of his pack, I couldn’t help eyeing him with suspicion. “What, exactly, do you plan on doing with that?” Thoughts of ax murderers danced through my head and I shivered. I really hoped I didn’t have a male Lizzie Borden on my hands.

“I should think my intentions are fairly clear.” He took a step in my direction, and I moved to back away. Unfortunately, a large tree impeded my progress. Kieran snickered and moved to my left, shaking his head as he started hacking at the briars and saplings that cluttered what could loosely be referred to as a clearing. In reality, it was more of a hole in the trees that had allowed other plants to overrun the rich, dark soil. “I’m clearing just enough brush to make it possible for me to build a fire pit and give us a place to bed down for the night.”

“Oh.” I nodded but kept my back pressed against the tree until he stopped swinging the hatchet and put it away. Kieran laughed at me again when he realized that I’d never once taken my eyes off him or exposed my back to him.

“You’re getting smarter, princess.”

I huffed and rolled my eyes. “Is there anything I can do to help?”

“Yes. Stay out of my way until I’ve set up camp.”

“Fine by me.” I shrugged and crossed my arms, content to lean against the tree and watch him.


After Kieran finished, we had what might be considered a burrow made of leafy branches. I had watched as he strategically placed them to create a makeshift shelter. Then he untied a rolled-up pelt from the bottom of his rucksack and laid the fur out to serve both as the floor of the burrow and the bed. I sat down in front of the small circle of stones he’d gathered to serve as a fire pit and watched as he started a small blaze in it.

“Isn’t fire a little risky since people are following us?”

“Our pursuers won’t be close enough for that to be a problem tonight. Believe me when I tell you that in a little while, you won’t be questioning my wisdom in starting a fire. The Black Forest gets quite cold at night, even in the summer.” He pulled a small loaf of bread out of his pack and broke it, handing me half. “I don’t feel like hunting tonight.”

“I don’t blame you.” I paused and looked around for a moment. “The Black Forest…is that what these woods are called? Funny, we have a Black Forest in my world, too.”

“Woods?” Kieran shook his head, not bothering to hide his incredulous expression. “These are the outermost reaches of the Black Forest. It is the largest and densest forest in Daraglathia, as well as the most bountiful and treacherous. Very few people dare to live here, so the Black Forest remains largely unspoiled.”

I was unable to keep the apprehension I was starting to feel out of my voice. “What do you mean, treacherous?”

“The Black Forest harbors many beasts and infinite secrets.”

“Okay, there goes sleeping tonight.”

Kieran shook his head. “The day will catch up to you. I’ll be surprised if you can manage to hold your eyes open for more than a minute after you lie down.”

We ate the rest of the bread in silence, and I considered my options. I lay down and pretended to fall asleep in an instant. I had perfected the art of keeping a peaceful face and lying still when I didn’t want to be forced to do things, thanks to Michelle. My mind, however, was far from being at peace.

How can I stay with this guy? What if he’s a complete nut? I don’t trust him. He could be just as dangerous as the queen’s guards. I could take my chances on my own…but what about the beasts he mentioned?


It felt like forever before Kieran fell asleep, and I waited just a couple minutes more before I decided to move. I knew I had to risk setting out alone. I crept over to where Kieran had placed our packs and, holding my breath, silently searched Kieran’s for any extra supplies I might need. I took what I needed and then, by some miracle, managed to sneak away without Kieran waking up.

At first, the night was still, unbroken by any sound. Not even crickets or the wind in the trees disturbed the night’s eerie tranquility. Unfortunately, my luck didn’t hold out. As I was creeping through the brush, twigs started snapping one after the other a few yards behind me, sounding like traps being sprung. I could hear the rhythmic clanking of armored feet marching in step. Somehow, the queen’s Elite Guard had found us. We were probably spotted by a scout, or they’ve got excellent trackers in their ranks, I thought. No longer caring about being quiet, I broke into a limping run, praying that I’d be able to put some distance between us.

I may not have been in the best of shape, especially not with blistered feet, but I did have an advantage. When we were little, Audrey and I used to play in the woods around Bay Minette all the time. Her dad was a game warden, and he’d taught her thousands of useful things, many of which she’d passed on to me. I found myself wishing I were wearing my jeans, though, because the soft woolen dress wasn’t doing much to stop the underbrush from stinging my shins through my new, soft doeskin boots. Memo to me: change clothes if I manage to escape.

I cursed myself for not putting my hair up in a ponytail before leaving camp. It was whipping behind me and catching on everything. The harder I ran, the more thankful I was that the night was cold. There was nearly steam coming off my skin, and sweat was stinging in my eyes. My feet were burning and aching again, and the only things keeping me going were an urgent need to lose the guards and the desire to put some distance between Kieran and myself. I mean, really, how could I trust the guy if he couldn’t even tell me he’s a shape-shifter? God only knows what he intended to use me for, anyway.

My heart was pounding so hard that I could barely hear my pursuers’ shouts. Their persistence was staggering, considering that they were weighed down with full plate-mail armor. Unfortunately, that armor offered them a lot more protection than what I was wearing. Another unfortunate realization hit me as I plowed ahead. They had weapons and I didn’t. I had only my rucksack.

I almost choked on a scream when I ran up on the edge of a small ravine. I teetered there, flapping my arms to regain my balance. Once I did, I surveyed it, weighing my options. A clear-running stream wound its way through the ravine below me. I scrambled onto the moss-covered branches of a tree that leaned almost parallel to the ravine floor and looked down. I hoped the guards thought I was too weak or foolish to hide there.

I stopped when I was out over the water, reminding myself that it was only about a ten-foot drop, and I’d landed safely from higher up when Audrey and I were kids. I gripped a branch and let my body hang full-length before I let go. Leaves slapped at me as I dropped into the murky darkness of the canyon. The creek water was almost icy as it soaked through my boots, and I sucked in a breath, scrambling over to the bank. Mud squished up around my boots and I realized, much to my chagrin, that I’d leave prints if I walked along the bank.

I groaned and waded back out into the stream, hoping that my feet would go numb soon. The scent of detritus and a wet, stinking gray mud filled my nose, and an idea struck me. I was tired, and I needed to stop running if only to catch my breath for a few minutes. I stopped and scrambled up onto the bank opposite the side I’d come down on, hooking my pack in the branches of yet another leaning tree. I couldn’t help smiling as the green-gray material blended with the foliage, and then picked my way back down the bank, disturbing as little as possible.

I waded upstream until I found what I was looking for, a bank of reeking, slimy gray mud. It smelled like something dead. I eased up into it, trying not to gag as the stinking mud squelched and sucked at my feet. I found a straight, dry stick and wound my hair up and out of the way with it before I started covering myself with the mud for camouflage. I even covered my face and exposed hair with it, and it took all I could do not to throw up at the smell. Still, as bad fates went, enduring a bad smell was head and shoulders above dying at the hands of the queen’s Elite Guard, so I kept it under control. I crouched in an earthy overhang on the bank near the mud slick and hoped the guards would be stupid enough or arrogant enough to pass me by.


All too soon, I heard armor clanking and water splashing and squeezed my eyes shut. So much for them not thinking to look in the ravine. I pressed my back into the bank as hard as I could and prayed in silence. I could hear them marching closer and ground my teeth, fighting the urge to hyperventilate. The splashing was starting to make me claustrophobic, but it was interrupted by an intimidating feline yowl that caused me to scramble up the bank. We had plenty of wild cats around Bay Minette, and this sounded similar to, but bigger than those by a good bit. “Sweet Jesus, that has to be a big cat,” I hissed. Just as I was about to crest the bank, someone grabbed my muddy topknot.

“I have the raven-haired witch, Damon!”

I screamed with a volatile mixture of fear and rage, throwing myself forward and dragging the guard down the bank with me. He yelped but didn’t let go of my hair, and I howled in pain, clutching my scalp as we rolled down to the stream. Fortunately for me, the soldier ended up facedown in the water. In a panic, he let go of my hair and I pushed up, climbing over him. I started to stand, suddenly aware of a dull ache emanating from new parts of my body I knew I would be bruised from head to toe by morning. My left arm was tingling from the elbow down and throbbing from the elbow up.

I straightened up just in time to see Damon charging at me, his sword drawn. I squeezed my eyes shut and winced, but the pain I was expecting didn’t come. Instead, I heard a deep, resonating growl and the screech of metal being ripped apart. My eyes snapped open and I saw a tiger with familiar gold-flecked dark brown eyes pinning Damon to the ground. As I watched, the tiger morphed into an infuriated Kieran. He glared over his shoulder at me and screamed. “Run!” I had no problem taking that particular order and clawed my way up the bank.

By sheer luck, I ended up at the same tree where I’d stowed my pack. I snatched it down and ran. I ran until my legs collapsed beneath me and I fell face down in the dirt, praying that I’d lost Damon and his underlings. I had no idea how he would find me, but there was no way I was going to move again without Kieran.


“Get up!”

I screamed and rolled over, staring up at Kieran with wide eyes. “Oh, good, it’s just you.”

I winced when he bent down, grabbed my hands, and snatched me to my feet. “Let me tell you something, princess, it would be in your best interests to stick with me unless your goal is to end up back in the dungeon I found you in. Understand?”

“Yeah.” I nodded and swallowed, regarding him with a mixture of awe and terror.

“Good. See to it that you don’t forget. I’ve rescued you twice, now.”

He let go of one of my hands but held the other a little tighter than necessary as he dragged me back to our campsite. Kieran started swearing and I cringed, peeking around him. The site had been ransacked. Kieran’s pack was empty and hanging upside-down from a tree branch. The remains of the contents were strewn on the ground from one side of the clearing to the other. I could feel Kieran starting to shake with rage as he let go of my hand, and I shrank back against a tree.

His body began to contort, thick wolf-like hair burst through his skin and rippled out to cover every bit of visible skin, while his clothes seemed to melt into his form and disappear under the fur. I watched as he tilted his head back, bellowing up at the sky. “Can nothing go right?” I couldn’t help staring as he clenched his clawed fists and forcibly stopped the change that was trying to take him over. He breathed in a slow, practiced sort of way, and his body shifted back to normal in front of my eyes.

“Wow.” I didn’t realize I’d said it aloud until Kieran looked at me with raised eyebrows.


I felt myself get hot from head to toe and knew I was blushing a deep crimson. “Um, well…I’ve just never seen a real shapeshifter before. What you do…it’s incredible.”

“It’s incredibly painful.”

“I’m sorry.” I found myself frowning and wringing my hands.

Kieran shrugged and shook his head. “Sorry? It’s not your fault I inherited a curse, and while it is painful, it also happens to be extremely useful. I consider it a necessary evil.”

“I see. May I ask you something?” I chewed on my bottom lip and studied him through lowered eyelashes.

“I don’t see why not. Ask away.” Kieran started to pick things up off the ground and dust them off while we talked.

“How do you shift into more than one sort of animal? In my world’s mythology, shape-shifters can only turn into one kind of animal, but I’ve seen you turn into a horse, a tiger, and just then you were turning into a wolf. How is that possible?”

“The curse that was placed on the men in my family is a special and unique one. Our shifts are triggered and influenced by emotions. If we feel a particular emotion too strongly, it can enact the change, and we tend to turn into the kind of animal that we associate with that specific emotion. It’s unpredictable and difficult to handle at first, but it can be very useful when you learn to control it. As a matter of fact, I’ve used it both times I’ve rescued you.”

“That’s another thing I’ve meant to ask you…how exactly did you save me the first time?”

“I shifted into a rat. That’s how I got into the dungeon. Another convenient thing is that whatever I’m wearing shifts with me. It just kind of melts into my form, staying with the human part of my mind on the inside while the animal takes over the outside. I brought along some rope and a vial of acid; it was all rather quiet and simple.”

“Oh. That’s pretty impressive.”

For the first time ever, I saw Kieran smile. The smile didn’t last very long once Kieran started taking inventory. “All our food is gone, so are the pots, and the hatchet.” He bent and peered into our shelter, coming back up with the pelt in his hands. “At least they didn’t take everything.”

“Well, I have some good news.” I took a few steps away from him, just in case he got mad enough to shift. “I have the hatchet and the smallest copper pot.”

Kieran stalked over and held his hand out for the commandeered utensils and shook his head. “I don’t know whether to strangle you or kiss you right now.”

I tried for a winning grin. “I can put the fur back in the shelter if you want.” Even I was surprised by  how saccharine my slight Southern drawl had grown while trying to wheedle him into resting again.

Kieran laughed and shook his head. “No such luck, princess. This camp is compromised. It’s been ransacked once already; whoever did it-probably the QEG-might come back. We need to move now.”

“I was afraid you were going to say that.”

“Now that your fears have been confirmed, would you mind helping me pack?”

“Sure. The sooner we leave, the better, right?”


We packed the remnants of our supplies in record time, and I shot Kieran a hopeful look as I shouldered my pack. “You’re doing the horse thing again, right?”

“Wrong. It took way too much energy to keep from shifting when we found the camp ransacked. I’m too tired to turn, so for now, you’re just going to have to walk.”

I nodded and groaned, silently cursing myself for my earlier, idiotic escape attempt. “Okay.”

Kieran chuckled. “Regretting your little excursion now, aren’t you?”

“Yeah, yeah. Rub it in, why don’t you?”

“Don’t tempt me, princess.”

We walked until my feet couldn’t take it anymore. I stopped and leaned against a tree, picking my right foot up and rubbing it through the boot. Kieran looked back and rolled his eyes.

“I suppose you want to make camp now?”

“That’d be really helpful.” I tried for a sweet, innocent smile, but it probably came out more like a grimace because Kieran laughed aloud.

“Wow. What a face! I was going to say we should keep going for at least another half hour, but after witnessing that expression I think stopping right here is just fine.”

My mouth fell open. “Oh my God. My face cannot possibly be that bad.”

He shook his head. “If you had a mirror, you would retract that statement. That face was horrendous.”

“Why don’t you just shut up and work on putting together a shelter, since we’re stopping?”

Kieran laughed again and pulled the medicine tin out of his pack, tossing it to me. “Why don’t you take care of your feet? You’re getting a little grumpy.”

I felt myself turn an angry shade of red. “I’m grumpy because you’re making fun of my face, not because my feet hurt.”

“Oh, come on. I’m just teasing about your face. Have a sense of humor, why don’t you?”

“I want you to remember your little spiel about having a sense of humor the next time you get frustrated with me.”

I arched my eyebrows at him and sat down with my back propped against the tree trunk and pulled off my still-soggy boots. The wet leather and blister pus stench that wafted out of them made me gag a little and Kieran shook his head.

“I’ll get a fire going so you can dry those out. Go ahead and take the bandages off your feet, too. They’ll need to be cleaned and dried as well.”

I nodded and started unwrapping my feet, shaking my head at what a mangled mess they still were. Kieran winced when he saw them, too. Once he got the fire going, he set my boots close by it to dry. I slathered the smelly medicine on my feet and crawled closer to the fire to get warm while Kieran put together a shelter. He paused long enough to pass me the canteen and a shallow wooden bowl.

“Clean those bandages up as well as you can with what we’ve got. “

“Okay.” I finished wringing out the last of the bandages just as Kieran finished setting up a shelter like the one from the last camp. To my surprise, he took the bandages without a word and held them close to the fire, drying them out as well as he could before he wrapped my feet again.

“Better?” His eyes were gentler than I’d seen them since we’d met. Although he wasn’t even remotely my type, I found it all too easy to get lost in their dark warmth. They reminded me of something, or maybe someone, safe and familiar.

“Yeah. Thank you.”

“Let’s get some real shut-eye, yeah?”

I blushed in embarrassment and nodded. “Good idea.”

He helped me up and made a sweeping gesture at our leafy burrow. “Ladies first.”

I narrowed my eyes for a second but didn’t argue as I crawled in and curled up on the soft fur pelt that served as a floor and bed. For a moment, I considered asking what kind of coat it was, but sleep intervened before I could find the words.

Next Chapter: Chapter 8