The cold eye color, paired with the wolf’s silver-gray fur, made Émilien pause. The sensation of ice coating his own fur reminded him of the frozen mists and darkness of Niflheimr, Hel’s domain, although she spent most of her time in the inner realm of Helheimr with the dead. He hadn’t liked it then and definitely didn’t like it now.

“Why are you here?” Émilien demanded. “You have no right to be here without permission.”

A brown wolf, thinner but more muscled than the silvery predator, stepped forward. “I don’t know if you remember me, Émilien, but we met in D.C.”

With a quick glance at the speaker, Émilien’s gaze snapped back to the first wolf. Waves of anger emanated from him. Émilien recognized the immediate threat, his gut telling him the creature shouldn’t be trusted. “I remember. You are called Andrei, I believe.”

“Yes, sir. We were sent here by one of the elf kings—Ailuin, I think.” Andrei shrugged. “They’re kind of hard to tell apart.”

“Identical twins usually are,” Émilien said, forcing his body to relax, the silver wolf standing his ground but with his tail down by one leg and his ears pointing more outward, his demeanor less aggressive. Straightening, Émilien met Andrei’s brown gaze. “Lamruil is the serious one and rarely smiles. Ailuin can’t seem to stop smiling.”

Andrei’s black lips curled up. “Then it was Ailuin. He joked with Demyan.” He motioned with his clawed thumb to the silver wolf. “Unfortunately, Demyan doesn’t understand humor.”

“Humph.” Émilien crossed his arms, a slight smirk on his face. “Seems he and Lamruil have something in common then. Now, tell me why Ailuin thought you would be better off here rather than in Alfheimr? The elf realm is beautiful this time of year.”

A mahogany-furred wolf stepped up next to Andrei. “I’m Ruslan Kozlov and that,” he pointed to the last wolf, his fur a shade or two lighter, both with matching black eyes, “is my brother Ravil. While the entire realm is beautiful, we number too many. We aren’t known for controlling our temper, so add in close to seventy-five aggressive wolves, and it isn’t pretty.”

He chuckled with a quick sideways glance to the draugar. “I also think the regents prefer the variety of copper, gold, and red leaves adorning the trees to remain where they are. In the presence of too many undead, leaves don’t seem to stay on them for long.”

“The co-regents thought it would be better to separate us into different realms,” Ravil added. “They trust you to train us to live as we are now.”

“Whether we want to or not,” the white wolf growled.

Émilien turned his gaze to Demyan. “The feeling is mutual. I have lived with this curse for centuries and have discovered it is better to learn who I am now and what I’m capable of. I was experimented on and cursed into this form by the Dark Fae, whose notes Himmler found and used to create you.”

“So, you’re older and’m not impressed.” Demyan’s scowl deepened. “I can take care of myself and don’t need help from anyone.”

A smart-ass retort was on the tip of Émilien’s tongue when he caught a familiar expression deep in the wolf’s eyes. His own anger dissipated as the ceaseless pain surrounding his heart tightened its grip. His gaze touched on each beast, recognizing fellow warriors. He exhaled, letting go of past regrets, and turned back to Demyan, the one who seemed to be drowning the most in sorrow.

“I will not force you to do anything, Demyan. I, too, know what it’s like to bury family and friends. Never letting go of the ever-present anger because I failed to save them. I am as old as the universe and have seen more than you could comprehend, but all of that pales to the pain I carry in my heart for the loss of those under my care.”

Remembering the draugar still stood behind him, he stepped away from the two groups. “If you still wish to remain here, you will be safe and well-cared for. On the other side of the castle, there is a long building the wolves can stay in.”

He turned to face the draugar who stood at the front of the small group. A gaunt face with pale green eyes stared back. Each creature wore an open robe over dark pants and shirts that looked as if they’d come from the Renaissance instead of modern times. While the leader’s features resembled the other draugar, there was something about him that seemed familiar.

Frowning, he tried to remember but when the other creatures moved to stand behind their leader, he shook off the thought. “I am Émilien Elasalor. Who sent you here?”

The lead draugr’s pale gaze lowered to his. “Alva and Bernard thought it best if we came here but did not say why. Alva and her mate we trust. You are unknown.”

“If Bernard’s woman believes you should be here, then I cannot argue. If you will follow me, I will take you to where you can stay.” He took a few steps then stopped and turned to meet Demyan’s icy stare. “There will be no bloodshed on my land. I have given all of you sanctuary, which will be respected at all times. None of you want to be judged for how you look, so until you get to know someone, don’t judge them.” Émilien held the other wolf’s gaze until he gave a subtle nod.

Without another word, Émilien strode away, leading the draugar toward the mountains on the southern border of his lands. Heedless of his speed, nor looking back to see if the draugar even followed, he made his way toward the cave system he found when he first moved to this part of France.

Rounding a massive boulder that had fallen from the mountain, he slowed to a stop in front of what looked like a wide crack in the rocky base. Raising his head, he sniffed the surrounding area, picking out deer, fox, and the familiar scents of the growing wolf pack he’d nurtured back to health.

Scenting nothing untoward, he motioned with a quick wave of one paw. “The caves are numerous and complex, going deep underground. There are a couple of large streams and, if you like privacy, numerous smaller caves you can each claim. I know not if or what you eat, but there is plenty of wildlife in and around the mountain. The eating of wolves, however, is forbidden.”

Standing in a semi-circle around him, a gust of wind blew the draugar’s long, white hair as the five of them stared at the cave’s entrance. Just as Émilien’s patience ran out, the leader turned his head and gave him a single nod, his pale green eyes shadowed.

“This is more than we expected—and it’s appreciated. As creatures of myth and fables, our afterlives have not been easy. We are judged by the actions of others—others, I might add, who helped to create the horrors of our race. I am called Himra and have been appointed the leader of our small group.”

With a jerk of his head, he motioned to the next draugr. “To my left is Ukris then Banayl, and to my right is Daqar and Dannoth. We will honor your rules, wolf.” He held out his skeletal hand. Lying across his palm was a long silver whistle. “If you should have need, blow three times in quick succession, and we will answer.”

Using the tips of his claws, Émilien picked up the small gift. Another breeze ruffled his thick fur. He glanced up, but the creatures were gone. Listening, he heard an unfamiliar rushing inside the caverns, like a strong stream with what sounded like whispers. His gaze dropped back to the whistle. The exquisite etchings looked like a mixture of Celtic and Norse, fitting for one such as he as the past battle advisor to the black elf king of Alfheimr.

He tucked the whistle into the small bag he always carried and turned to head back to the castle when an unsettling sensation made his fur rise. With a quick shiver, he gazed toward his home, seeing only the stone crenelations surrounding the battlement around the top of the keep.

The sky overhead was filled with dark clouds as an afternoon storm moved in. Four crenelated towers nestled the central tower between them and housed his and Shalendra’s living quarters. With a quick exhale, he walked back to the castle along the winding path through the thick expanse of trees.

Tags: Heidi Vanlandingham Fantasy
Articles you may like