Dark Lycan (Carpathian)(6)

By: Christine Feehan

Chapter 4

“Great battle,” Zev greeted as Fen came out of the thinning mist toward him. Zev half sat, half laid on the ground, his back against a tree.

“You look a little worse for wear,” Fen said.

Zev was covered in wounds from teeth ripping at him and claws tearing him open. He was obviously in pain, but stoic about it.

“You might want to take a look in the mirror yourself,” Zev suggested with a show of his white teeth.

By the way he didn’t move, Fen knew Zev was in bad shape. Like Dimitri, he had taken the brunt of that last attack in order to give Fen time to save Tatijana from the Sange rau.

“Honestly, I’d rather not. Tatijana dealt with the carcasses. I still have to get those two home.” Fen jerked his head toward Enre and Gellert still shielded in the tree. “I have to admit, I’m tired.” He sank down, his legs a little rubbery. He’d given a great deal of blood to Dimitri and he hadn’t attended his wounds.

“You knew he was here, didn’t you? The abomination? You tracked him here.”

Fen shrugged. He didn’t mind Bardolf being called an abomination. The undead had chosen to give up their soul, but he knew that Zev would think Fen was Sange rau—bad blood as well, if the Lycan knew the truth about Fen’s own mixed blood. Fen respected Zev, so it was just a little disconcerting. “I suspected. I came across the rogue pack and thought I’d better try to do damage control, pick them off one by one if possible. But then I saw the destruction, and even for a rogue pack, it seemed too brutal.”

“I didn’t know,” Zev admitted. He sounded disgusted with himself. “I should have suspected. You called him by name.”

“My pack was destroyed by the Sange rau, years ago, and I went to a neighboring pack,” Fen explained. “Bardolf was the alpha. He was . . . brutal with the younger members. I had a hard time with him and knew I wouldn’t be able to stay long.”

Zev looked a little amused. “I can imagine. You’re pure alpha. One would think you would have a pack of your own.” There was a mixture of speculation in his voice as well as the laughter.

“A few months after my pack was destroyed, Bardolf’s pack was attacked by the same Sange rau that had killed most of my pack. The demon wreaked havoc, killing everyone in his path. He targeted the women and children first and then began killing the men. Bardolf’s mate and his children were killed in the first attack. Bardolf went a little crazy and went hunting on his own while we were burning the dead. No one noticed at first that he was missing. We tracked him to a cave deep in the mountains.”

Fen leaned his head back against the tree trunk and closed his eyes as Tatijana knelt beside him. Rather than the battle with blood and death, she smelled of the forest, fresh rain and wild honey, that elusive scent he found enticing. She passed her hands over his face. At once a soothing calm came over him. He looked at her face, so beautiful, her skin flawless, her lashes long and feathery. She smiled at him, lighting up her glittering emerald eyes.

“You need healing, Fen,” she said gently.

“So do you, my lady,” he answered, his fingers finding the wound on her shoulder.

The wind ripped through the trees, sending a shower of leaves and swirling fog rushing between Zev and Fen, hiding the glow of warmth and Fen’s mouth moving over the wound with healing saliva.

“It’s nothing,” Tatijana said aloud for Zev’s benefit. “Let me see to your wounds. They’re far worse. I will have to go to ground soon and any injury will heal fast.”

Fen couldn’t help but be proud of her. She never missed a cue. As far as Zev was concerned, Fen was Lycan. Tatijana had gone a long way to keep his secret safe. She bent over his wounds, her body partially hiding her actions from Zev, but Fen wasn’t too concerned. Carpathians were known for their healing abilities.

Her tongue stroked over the wound. His body clenched, reacted unexpectedly. Her eyes had closed, and she looked so incredibly sensual she took his breath away. He’d never thought in terms of sensuality, that was a new experience for him, and he was a little shocked at how intense his reaction to her was.

For me as well.

Her voice was soft, brushing along the walls of his mind, almost with the same sensuality as her tongue. She didn’t attempt to hide her wonder or her need from him.

“You said you’d tracked Bardolf to a cave in the mountains,” Zev prompted.

Fen couldn’t help himself. He touched Tatijana’s face with gentle fingers. She smiled, but she didn’t stop her work. She took soil from between them, where Zev had no chances of seeing what she was doing, and mixed it with saliva to press into the worst of the bite marks and lacerations.

“What was left of his pack went with me to find him—to aid him. There weren’t very many of us, and we had wounded along so we couldn’t go as fast as we would have liked. We didn’t dare leave them alone, not with the Sange rau so close, and none of us wanted to take the chance of Bardolf finding him and taking him on alone. I couldn’t leave them to go ahead. I knew none of them had the skills to deal with a monster like we would be confronting. That gave Bardolf a good head start on us.”

Fen was tired. Much more exhausted than he had been in a long, long while. Fighting in the other world, without his body and only using his mind and spirit, had been draining. Tatijana seemed to know, her hands moving over him with sureness, taking on some of the burden. Zev shifted position and groaned softly. It occurred to Fen that Tatijana had performed the same healing rituals on the Lycan.

Not the same, she denied. Her breath was warm against his skin as she knelt up and pushed the hair from his face to find a particularly nasty claw rake.

His body tightened unexpectedly. No, it’s not the same, my lady, he agreed, filling her mind with his warmth. It was the only thing he could give her without betraying who he was.

He glanced at Zev before he could help himself, afraid to put Tatijana in any more danger. He was tired and it would be easy enough to make mistakes.

Zev’s eyes were closed. Lines were etched into his face. He looked every bit as exhausted as Fen felt.

Fen laughed softly. “We’re in great shape, Zev. I’m not looking forward to another dance with this bunch, at least not tonight. Aside from getting our two drunken friends home safely, there’s a body in the forest the rogues killed. Tatijana and I found it on our way to the village. That’s what brought us running back.”

Zev stirred as though he might rise. Tatijana whirled around and held up her hand to stop him. He groaned and subsided.

“I don’t know what the healing rate is for Lycans,” Tatijana said, “but it isn’t this fast. If you don’t want those wounds to open again, give yourself a few minutes. I’ll get you back to the inn so you can rest. Let me take care of Fen first. But don’t you dare move.”

Zev laughed. “Are all Carpathians as bossy as you?”

Tatijana gave a little sniff, her eyes alight with amusement. “Only the women. We have to be. Our men are difficult, you know. We have no choice.” She turned her emerald eyes back on Fen. Laughter made the green facets glitter. She looked more beautiful than ever.

“If your men don’t treat you right, they don’t have brains in their heads,” Zev said. “You’re a beautiful woman, Tatijana, and hell on wheels in a fight. You didn’t even flinch.”

Fen felt himself go still. He looked around Tatijana to Zev. The man clearly wasn’t flirting, just stating a fact. Everything in him settled, when two seconds before, he’d been coiled and ready.

Tatijana nudged him. “Pay attention, wolf boy.”

Zev snickered. “That’s a good one. You fight like the elite.”

It was a probing question delivered in a casual tone.

Fen forced a smile, showing strong white teeth. He’d lived as a Lycan so long it was second nature to him now. He wouldn’t make a mistake, not unless Tatijana was in danger. He thought like a Lycan. Zev was cunning, intelligent and fierce, a very skilled fighter. He had walked into their circle and told them to leave, and had they, he would have fought the entire rogue pack alone.

“I’ve been around and without a pack, I tend to hunt more than most,” Fen admitted carefully. “Once I suspected Bardolf was running the rogue pack, I’ve spent most of my time tracking them, trying to pick them off one at a time.” He shot Zev a grin. “They’ve turned on me a couple of times and I got my butt handed to me.”

Zev studied him, eyes too old—too shrewd. “I doubt that. But you’ve seen your share of battles. You’re every bit as skilled as I am, maybe more, and that’s saying a lot.”

He hadn’t hid as much from Zev as he would have liked. Zev was one of the elite, and they were few. They were born that much faster, that much stronger and that much more intelligent than the rest of the Lycans. They regenerated at much more rapid rates. When a pack discovered a child with such attributes, he or she was sent to a special school for education.

“You must not have been very old when your pack was destroyed,” Zev ventured.

Tatijana sank back on her heels. “There you go, gentlemen. Both of you should live, although next time I suggest you move just a little faster. If you notice, I have very few bites on me.” She flashed a saucy grin at them both.

You healed them, my lady, and that is unfair, he teased her privately.

The Lycans looked at one another and then both of them laughed. The tension between them seemed to evaporate with Tatijana’s observation.

“Finish telling me about Bardolf and the cave,” Zev prompted again. “If you really think that he’s the alpha for this pack, I need to know everything about him.”

“We found massive amounts of blood. Scorch marks. A sign of a terrible battle. No bodies, but we knew Bardolf had met up with the Sange rau. All of us believed Bardolf had been killed by him, but there was no body.”

There was a small silence. Zev shook his head. “The others believed Bardolf died that day. You knew he was still alive.” He made it a statement.

“Bardolf did die that day, whether he appears to be intact or not. He tangled with the Sange rau and somehow he became just like the one he fought. I wasn’t certain, but the more I studied the battlefield, the more it looked wrong to me. Staged. The burn marks, the withered plant life, blood everywhere, but no body. Something wasn’t right.”

Very slowly, Fen could feel his strength returning. Tatijana’s powerful blood and healing magic was already working miracles and soon, his Lycan blood would kick in to aid in even faster healing.

“Where are you staying, Zev?” Tatijana asked. “I can take you there. Have you ever ridden on a dragon?”

“I can’t say that I have,” Zev admitted. “I’ve been around a few Carpathians over the long years, but only to hunt with them and not once was any of them polite enough to offer me a ride home.” He flashed a tired grin. “Of course, they weren’t nearly as beautiful as you are, and I might have had to object to them insinuating I couldn’t make it home on my own.”

“Of course you could,” Tatijana said. “But I’m not turning down an escort.”

You are amazing, Fen said. Zev has a lot of pride.

He’s hurt pretty bad. Even with his blood, and mine, it will take him several days to heal.

Alarm spread. Is he aware you gave him blood?

Centuries ago, the Lycans didn’t know what caused the combination of Lycan/Carpathian. Or for that matter, Lycan/Vampire. Clearly the Lycans didn’t distinguish between the two. They saw both as a powerful threat. So few crosses had been made that maybe the Lycan council still was unsure, but they must have guessed. They had access to laboratories and they studied and researched. Most likely they had to suspect a mixture of blood in this century.

I was careful, Tatijana soothed. Rest until I return. And be watchful. Don’t go to sleep on the job.

Fen found himself laughing. She was one smart woman. He had explained the danger he was in and she was going to be able to tell him exactly where Zev stayed. She’d taken Zev’s blood as well as given him blood. She could monitor him even from a distance.

“How do you both manage to wield silver?” Tatijana asked curiously. “Wouldn’t it harm you the same way it does the rogues?”

“We get used to using gloves,” Zev answered. “Or we coat our hands and arms with sealant. That wears off fairly quickly. I prefer gloves, and clearly Fen does as well.” He nodded toward Fen’s protected hands.

Fen had lived so long as a Lycan it was second nature to him to don gloves and he was grateful he’d done so the moment they had been threatened by the rogue pack.

“Are you strong enough to hold on by yourself?” Tatijana asked Zev.

Fen winced. That would hurt Zev’s ego. A hunter of rogue packs? A skilled warrior? To be asked by a woman if he could hold on all by himself? He nearly groaned out loud. He didn’t dare look at Zev’s face.

“I think I can manage. What about you, Fen? Are you safe here until she returns for you?”

Fen looked around the battlefield. There were several silver stakes lying on the ground in the ashes of the burned carcasses. He had enough energy to draw them to him after they left. He lifted one eyebrow. “You can leave me that silver sword. I covet that.”

“I made it,” Zev said. “It comes in very handy in tight situations.”

“What other weapons have you made?” Fen asked curiously.

Zev hunted with an elite pack. He’d been chosen, above all other hunters in his elite pack, to be the scout. He went ahead, investigating rumors and sifting through evidence before calling in his pack to clean up. Scouting put him in continual danger. Rogue packs could be as few as three but as many as thirty. The fact that he was still alive was a testimony to his skills.

“I’ll have to show you. Have you considered being trained?” Zev asked.

Fen shrugged. “Honestly no. Since my pack was destroyed—and it’s been a very long time—I’ve been on my own. I’m an independent thinker. Following an alpha would be difficult.” That much was the truth. That, and the pack would turn on him the first full moon.

“I’d welcome you into my pack anytime,” Zev said. “Elite packs are different. Every member is an independent thinker, they have to be. Our alpha is more the counsel than one individual within the pack, although generally, the scout has a lot of clout. I imagine you would be more suited to the life of a scout.” He grinned suddenly, the weariness and pain etched into his face gone for a moment. “And think of all the cool toys you get to have.”

“I’d be very interested in seeing those toys,” Fen admitted. He was just a little envious. That sword had come in handy. He needed time to study it, to figure out how best to forge one himself. Silver was natural—of the earth—which meant he could easily produce one, as he did the silver stakes, but one didn’t just fashion a fine weapon from thin air without having knowledge of how it was made. He really did covet that extraordinary sword.

“Come by my room at the inn.”

“You know you’re deep in Carpathian country,” Fen pointed out. “Everyone in that village is friends with the prince. He’s close by and his hunters are probably already aware of you. They’ll be watching closely. And there’s no way you can keep a rogue pack under wraps here.”

Zev nodded. “They won’t be able to detect what I am, although they may become suspicious. They’re very astute.”

“Hello. Did you both forget I’m right here?” Tatijana demanded. “Of course the prince will know you’re here. I have every intention of ratting the both of you out immediately. We don’t take kindly to rogue packs and vampires killing anyone, human, Lycan or Carpathian. Did you think I’d be a good girl and just forget to report this?”

“We could only hope,” Fen said good-naturedly.

“You fought so well,” Zev added. “For a minute there I forgot you were Carpathian and believed you were Lycan.”

“Ha, ha, ha, Zev,” Tatijana sniffed. “As if a Lycan can fight as well as a Carpathian. Who saved your butt today? That was me.”

“Don’t tease her, Zev,” Fen said with a small groan. “She’s sassy enough without making her think she has to defend the entire Carpathian species.”

Zev flashed him a knowing grin. “Come take me on my first dragon ride,” he said to Tatijana. “I’ll let you deal with dead bodies and Carpathians this night, Fen. Come see me and I’ll show you those weapons. I might even have an extra or two.” The smile faded and he lifted his head and sniffed the forest.

Fen did the same. The scent of blood and death and burnt flesh permeated the entire area. The scent of rogues in battle was already present, and if they were creeping close again, they would have made certain their scents would remain hidden. Zev was worried about leaving him there alone.

“How long will it take Bardolf to regenerate?” Zev asked. “I’ve never actually fought the Sange rau. I’ve never come across one before,” he admitted.

“Longer than he’ll like.” Enough time that Fen planned to go looking for his lair. But he’d do that alone. Neither Tatijana nor Zev needed that information.

Silly wolf man. You think to protect me from the vampire thingie, whatever he is. I learn fast. I am not going to leave you to fight this battle alone.

There was soft, sensual affection growing in her voice, enough that the low note turned his heart to mush. He was supposed to be the big bad warrior and she seemed to reduce him to melted goo with just a few words. That didn’t bode well for his future.

Tatijana threw back her head and laughed aloud. “You two are priceless. I’m collecting the silver stakes and giving them to Fen. Do you want to loan him your silver sword as well while he waits all alone like a sacrificial lamb in the forest for the wolves to return?”

That was a good one. No way would Zev want to part with his sword, but she’d made it nearly impossible for him to do anything else. If he insisted on taking it with him, when an injured man was waiting alone and vulnerable, he would look pretty petty.

Zev shook his head. “I want this back, Fen.” He held the sword out to Tatijana.

“I’ll see to it,” Fen promised. “You said your pack would be here to help in another twenty-four hours.”

Tatijana might be the one giving the sword back. Fen had only another day before he entered the time of great danger. Zev would recognize his mixed blood. By the full moon, every Lycan in the vicinity would sense his presence and try to kill him. Once Zev’s pack of elite hunters arrived, Fen would be in real trouble. They would put the rogue pack on the back burner and make him their primary mission.

“It amazes me that the silver would be strong enough to cut through bone.”

Zev’s smile was distinctly wolfish. Clearly he had a few secrets when it came to making his weapons. Fen needed those secrets. He glanced at Tatijana. She nodded.

“Let’s go, Zev, before it gets much later. Unlike you, I have to be aware of time,” Tatijana reminded gently. “I’m going to shift and you’ll have to climb up my wing to get onto my back.” She looked around. “I’ll need a little room.”

She didn’t wait. Tatijana was so fast at shifting into the form of a blue dragon, and so completely engulfed, mind and body, immediately, that Fen realized she was far more comfortable in that form than in her own.

By dragon standards, she might have been considered small, but there in the forest and so close to them, she seemed enormous—and beautiful. Her scales were iridescent blue, shimmering in the surrounding mist. Spikes ran along the ridge of her back down her long tail to end in a lethal-looking spear. Her eyes were large and emerald green, faceted like sparkling diamonds.

“Magnificent,” Zev said. “Tatijana, that’s incredible.” He glanced at Fen. “Did you see how fast she was? I would have thought a dragon would take a few minutes.” He attempted to rise, holding on to the tree trunk for support.

Fen could see the extent of Zev’s injuries. He’d been badly wounded in dozens of places. Deep chunks of flesh had been torn from him. His face was etched with pain. Beads of sweat dotted his forehead. He didn’t make a sound, as stoic as ever, but his skin looked a little gray.

“Hang on,” Fen ordered, using his most compelling voice. Low. Velvet soft. A sneaky compulsion that slipped in on an alpha when the most commanding voice would never work. He stood up himself, blocking out the rush of pain as he got to his feet.

His respect for Zev was growing with every passing minute spent in his company. He’d met many tough Lycans, good men who knew how to fight in a battle, but clearly Zev was a cut above the rest. Lycans couldn’t cut off pain the way Carpathians could. They endured it and fought on. The really great ones, like Zev, stayed in the battle even when others would have passed out.

Fen crossed the distance between them, one hand sliding over the body of the dragon in a long caress. “You’re a lucky man, Zev,” he observed.

“A privilege,” Zev agreed. “I never thought I’d ever get this close to one. They’re long gone now from this world.”

He didn’t protest when Fen slipped an arm around him to aid him. That told Fen more than anything, that Zev was badly injured. Tatijana extended her wing toward Zev. Fen helped him cover the ground to get to the wing.

He can’t walk up your wing, Fen told her, using their telepathic link. He was beginning to worry about Zev’s condition. Just how bad was he?

He’d been so concerned with Dimitri’s horrendous wounds he hadn’t considered that Zev had borne the brunt of the attack right along with Dimitri. He’d known, but Tatijana hadn’t really told him just how bad Zev’s injuries were. She’d been concerned with protecting Fen’s secret as well as getting to him quickly to see to his wounds.

He didn’t have intestines hanging out like Dimitri, Tatijana said. But it was very bad. A lesser man would be unconscious right now.

If I use my abilities as a Carpathian to get up on your back he’ll know immediately that I am more than Lycan.

Tatijana made a little sound in his mind, a very feminine humph of annoyance. All you had to do was ask.

He found himself smiling. Maybe he did try to annoy her just a little bit on purpose. He liked her fiery little temper. He could feel each time that temper flared, bursting across his mind like stars across a sky on a hot summer’s night, warming him. He found comfort in her explosive reactions, small as they were, but still directed at him. Engulfing him. Surrounding him. Sinking into his bones. His blood. She was his.

You wish.

She gave a little delicate sniff, but there was growing affection in her teasing tone. He felt surrounded by her warmth. She seemed to pour into his mind, liquid fire, filling every empty, dark place with light, laughter and her incredible natural sensuality.

Why is your dragon blue when you burn so hot?

Have you never seen a blue flame? Tatijana asked. When I was a little girl I would see the flames dancing blue in Xavier’s secret caverns. I could never touch or feel them because they were always far away and I was often encased in ice, but they looked so beautiful.

Which was why she had been so intrigued with flames earlier in the tavern.

The blue dragon looked at Zev with worried eyes. She projected her voice through the great beast. “If you will allow me, Zev, I can float you up to my back. It will be easier on both of us.”

“Thank you, of course I don’t mind if it’s easier for you. You’re already doing me a huge favor.” He looked up that long wing. The climb would be quite difficult with his wounds.

He was weak from loss of blood. I gave him blood, but was careful it wasn’t so much that he would know. He was in and out of consciousness for a few minutes until I got enough blood in him.

I could kiss you for making it easy on his pride, Fen told her.

There are much better reasons for kissing, Fenris Dalka. Perhaps you might consider one or two in my absence.

Tatijana floated Zev up to her back and waited until he was seated comfortably.

And wolf man . . .

Her voice had turned dark. Sensual. The blue dragon turned that wedge-shaped head, lowered her neck until her multifaceted emerald eyes were on the same level as his. His breath felt trapped in his lungs. His heart stuttered. Every muscle in his body tensed.

You haven’t seen just how hot I can burn yet.

Fen nearly choked. He watched the dragon maneuver its long body through the trees until the mist swallowed them up. He let himself sway, one hand on a tree for support, just for a moment until the world stopped spinning. He kept pain at bay, even though that also cost in strength, uncertain whether or not Tatijana would touch his mind.

He still had the dead body to take care of, and he needed to find a warm body to provide enough blood to sustain and heal him. He would provide sustenance for Dimitri. It would take his brother a longer time to heal due to the extent of his injuries.

Fen had always, always stayed as a Lycan, thinking and acting as one, which helped him to keep the darkness at bay until this last century or so when his mixed blood began to add to the pull of darkness. Now he needed to go back to being Carpathian, at least until this night was over. He was going hunting, wounds or no. That was what Carpathian hunters did.

He took to the air, a long trail of mist streaking through the denser fog.

What do you think you’re doing? Tatijana’s voice was deceptively mild.

He wasn’t buying it. My lady, I have duties to perform this night. As do you. Make certain your prince is aware of what is happening in his homeland.

Tatijana’s amusement burst through him like sparkling fireworks. Our prince, Fenris. You can change your name to anything you want, your blood may be different, but you were born Carpathian and you will always be Carpathian. You may have left your homeland when another prince was ruler, but you have returned and you owe your allegiance to Mikhail, just as we all do.

She had a point. He had been alone so long he had forgotten there was an entire society attempting to rebuild itself. He had long ago resigned himself to being completely on his own. He’d never even heard of Mikhail or his second-in-command, Gregori, until Dimitri had filled him in on the news of the past few centuries there in the Carpathian Mountains.

It is so, my lady.

Wait for me. I’ll only be a few more minutes.

She was tenacious—and worried about him. While it warmed his heart and made him feel alive and exhilarated, it was also a very bad combination.

Tatijana, what I do is dangerous. I can’t do this and worry that you will be harmed.

Again she surprised him. There was no petulant woman, upset with him for brushing her aside when she’d aided him in battle and was still aiding him. She stroked a gentle caress through his mind. You do not know your lifemate. I absorb everyone’s knowledge when I come into contact with them. Enemy and friend. It is a habit I acquired from my childhood when I had no other life than an intellectual one.

I hunt rogue and the Sange rau this night. Bardolf will not expect it and he will be weak, trying to repair himself.

And that is why your lifemate will be an asset to you on the hunt, she replied complacently. I am Dragonseeker. No vampire could hide from me, which essentially, that’s what he is. He can sink into the wolf and I would still know he was there. I made a mistake tonight. I felt his presence and dove to protect you. I would have flamed him but you were too close. You were his target, Fen.

He had heard, down through the long centuries, that Dragonseekers could ferret out vampires when no others could. They were the only lineage in the history of the Carpathian people who had never had a single family member turn. Tatijana was Dragonseeker. More, she had been honed in the fires of hell, more precisely, in the glacier ice of the mage world. He couldn’t discount what she said.

Fen had come across the rogue pack’s trail of destruction and he’d begun to suspect that a monster, the combination of wolf and vampire, traveled with them or at least near them, but he hadn’t known until Bardolf had come to kill him. If Tatijana said she had known immediately Bardolf was vampire and not werewolf, he believed her. It was difficult to tell an untruth to one’s lifemate when you often shared the same mind.

Her laughter was soft and warm. So now you are thinking I just may come in handy on this hunt of yours after all, aren’t you?

The difficulty as he saw it, would be letting her go. She was already deeply entrenched in his mind. He had been so alone for so long in a shadow world of violence and darkness, and with just one evening in her company she had brought laughter, emotion and companionship into his life. He hadn’t even realized he’d missed such things. He could barely remember having them. He was under a death sentence and it was only a matter of time—this century or the next—but it would happen. He would be hunted down and killed.

He couldn’t give Tatijana the most basic thing between lifemates—the blood of life. His blood was no longer pure Carpathian. He would never have given Dimitri his blood had there been an alternative, and in any case, Dimitri and he had shared so much blood over the centuries his brother was already well on his way to becoming a mixed blood.

That is not your choice, Fen, Tatijana reminded. I am no young child as Dimitri’s lifemate is. I am centuries old and no one will ever make my decisions for me again. If my choice is you, then I will share all things a lifemate does, including exchanging blood. I am a woman. A warrior in my own right. I am an asset to you on the hunt and I refuse to be relegated to the role of a child with you making decisions for me.

There was no defiance, only implacability. Tatijana was not a woman to be pushed around and he found he admired her all the more for that. She was a fitting partner for him, which made it all the more difficult to protect her from his life—and herself.

She gave an inelegant snort of pure disdain. If I choose to be claimed by you, then I will share your blood with open eyes. This is not your decision alone, Fen. It is a mutual decision. My lifemate is my partner, not my keeper.

Again there was truth in what she said. He was both Carpathian and Lycan. If he claimed her and shared his life with her, there could be no half measures. I understand, Tatijana, he replied. What else could he say when she had a point he couldn’t refute.

She was his miracle and he wanted to wrap her up in a safety net and always make certain she was protected.

Have you considered that I might think you’re a miracle? That I want to make certain that you’re safe at all times? Why should that be only your prerogative?

Below him was the body of the man who had been killed by the rogue werewolves. His body was torn almost beyond recognition. If it was found in its present state, all real wolves in the vicinity would be threatened. There would be an outcry for justice and hunters would be overrunning the forest and mountains to wipe out the dangerous packs. In the meantime, the rogue werewolves would move on to new territories or begin killing the villagers.

They don’t know they are in Carpathian territory, do they?

I doubt it. Not even Bardolf would know. If he’s the one who stirred the pack in this direction, he certainly didn’t. He was Lycan, not Carpathian, and he would have no knowledge of this culture or the fact that the prince is in residence here.

Fen dropped down to the forest floor. The body was exactly where he and Tatijana had stumbled across it earlier, but something about it caught his attention. He circled warily. He needed to conserve his strength in the event he managed to track Bardolf to his lair. Even in his present condition, the vampire would be lethal. After meeting Fen, recognizing what Fen was, Bardolf would move on as soon as he could. Now would be the optimum time to destroy him.

What is it?

That tinge of worry in her voice warmed him, showing him more than ever that he was no longer alone. She might not want to be claimed, but she was his.

Concentrate on what you’re doing or you’re going to get yourself killed, wolf man. We’ll never find out about this lifemate business if you keep trying to play the hero.

Trying? He gave her a male smirk. The branches above his head tapped together in the wind. There was no wind. The air had gone still, yet that tapping persisted—a consistent, steady, very rhythmic beat. I was the hero tonight, my lady. You clearly weren’t paying attention, which makes it necessary to repeat myself. He let her hear the clacking of the branches.

I see. You think it necessary to impress me. She listened to the rhythm. That sound is one Xavier used to ensnare his victims. It’s hypnotic on a subtle level. Whoever is using it was once trained by the mages. It is not natural.

What is going on here? A rogue pack has entered Carpathian territory with Bardolf, a wolf/vampire combination. And now another enemy? This makes no sense.

Perhaps it does, Fen, Tatijana mused. The prince’s lifemate, Raven, has a son. His daughter, Savannah, has twin girls. She is lifemated to the prince’s second-in-command. These children will grow into great power. Would it be so farfetched to think that enemies of the Carpathian people would be drawn here?

Fen circled the torn body. The werewolves had nearly pulled the man apart in their initial attack. Rogue packs enjoyed torturing and killing their victims and often fed on them even while their victims were still alive. The elite hunters, much like Carpathian hunters, had no choice but to destroy them. This body had been left as bait. It wasn’t an unusual tactic. Humans, as a rule, went looking for their lost loved ones.

Fen made it a point not to look above him at the clacking branches. An attack could come from any direction. Was it possible Bardolf had lesser vampires under his control? That had become more and more of a popular thing for master vampires to do. They took newly turned vampires and used them as pawns, sometimes building a formidable army.

I saw no evidence of vampires massing here, Fen told Tatijana, but get word to the prince this night that there might be a problem.

Tatijana sighed. If I let the prince know what is happening, instead of waiting for them to find out, they’ll know I’ve been out on my own. There was regret in her voice. The tapping is growing faster. You’ll have to be careful, Fen, and block the sound. As the rhythm changes, the hypnotic affects really take hold.

I don’t feel it all. He was more than Carpathian and more than Lycan. Things that worked against other species didn’t work on him—which was why the Lycans had outlawed his kind.

Please be careful. Don’t get all cocky. I’m on my way.

He read the growing anxiety in her voice. She had more experience with mage traps than he did and she clearly was worried.

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