The Twisting, Volume Two
Published November 3rd: The Twisting, the second installment in my serialized novel!
The ebook is for sale on Amazon.
The print paperback is available on Createspace.
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The story of otherworldly Blighted Basin continues in THE TWISTING…
In a valley hidden from the rest of Victorian England, Annmar Masterson has found friendship and acceptance at Wellspring farm. But as her recently discovered magical abilities grow, unstoppable crop-eating pests drive her new home to the brink of collapse.
Shapeshifter Daeryn Darkcoat’s heart pulls toward Annmar, but duty comes first. With harvests across the Farmlands shire facing destruction, the predator guard scrambles for new solutions, calling upon the ingenuity of animal shifters, mechanics and growers alike.
Desperation drives landowners to utilize prototype machines, heedless of the threat to their way of life. As the danger mounts, Annmar’s knowledge of Outside ways—and her magic—might be more important than anyone realizes.
Weaving steampunk engines and a land of wild magic with a coming-of-age romance, this sequel to THE UNRAVELING and second volume in THE LUMINATED THREADS whisks readers off on another spellbinding adventure.
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An Excerpt of The Twisting, Volume Two of The Luminated Threads
Wellspring Collective, Blighted Basin
Mid September 1868
Daeryn Darkcoat’s eyes flew open at the creak of floorboards. Footsteps padded outside the bedroom. In an instant, he rolled his long, slender polecat body to four paws and leaped from his warm nest of covers beside the sleeping girl.
Annmar Masterson didn’t stir when his quick movements jostled her bed, or when the door opened. Like a brown shadow, Daeryn darted across the orange hook rug. He managed to duck to his hiding place beneath a wing chair before the bony, middle-aged woman entered.
Wellspring’s healer, Miriam Chapman, set her usual tray of dishes on the side table, lit a gas lamp to low and carried a bowl and spoon with her to sit on a side chair next to the bed. A yawn stretched Daeryn’s mouth, though the sky had already darkened beyond the windowpanes. These disruptions to his sleep had become normal over the days he’d guarded Annmar. Miriam still hadn’t ordered him out after Annmar mistakenly thought he was a cat Sunday night, but he wasn’t about to test the healer’s patience. Three days of sickbed visits had etched furrows in her brow deeper than Wellspring’s ravaged fields.
And tonight her worried scent accompanied the herbs of Annmar’s next remedy dose.
“What? Nooo,” Annmar murmured in protest.
“A little,” Miriam crooned. “Keep those eyes closed.” With the cajoling, Annmar accepted the spoonful of herb-laced porridge. “There you go. You don’t even need to wake up.”
Was not waking helping Annmar heal from Paet’s blows to her head? She’d been unconscious for days, with no signs she was getting better. Daeryn swiped a paw over his furred brow and snout. The memory of that ropen bastard hitting Annmar haunted him each time he looked at her, even as her bruises faded. He hadn’t heard her cries soon enough, hadn’t run fast enough, hadn’t gone for the lout’s throat. The flying beast might’ve outweighed his polecat animacambire form by sixtyfold, but if Daeryn had known how badly he’d treated Annmar—
Tap, tap, tap. The quick paces told him Annmar’s friend Mary Clare had arrived to relieve him so he could join the night’s hunt. The door opened, and the redhead greeted Miriam, but her gaze darted to the bed, then the wing chair where he also slept during the daylight hours. Even if his nocturnal vision hadn’t picked out the eager look on her face, her scent swirled with excitement. Daeryn rose to his paws and padded out of hiding.
Mary Clare spotted him and mouthed, “Jac,” while pointing downstairs.
Jacqueline Fellclaw, one of the lupine night guards and now Daeryn’s co-leader of the nocturnal team, wouldn’t leave the fields unless there was a problem. Yet somehow problem didn’t seem to match the emotion he was sensing. What exactly was happening? Could it be they’d caught Paet’s father, Maxillon, returning and Jac wanted to give him the news herself?
He bounded through the open doorway, ran a length of hall to his own room and shifted to his human form. A minute later, he rounded the bottom of the staircase, wrestling his trouser braces up over a hastily pulled on shirt.
On the far side of the ground floor, Master Brightwell bent over his workbench beneath a halo of gaslight. The inventor didn’t lift his head when Jac minced her way through the machinery storage bay on bare feet. The wolf ’cambire, now in her feminine human form, hadn’t bothered to pull on boots, just a bib-and-brace over a flannel shirt.
“What kind of news is this? Is it Max?” Daeryn blurted out.
The taller girl rapped his shoulder with the back of her hand. “Lower your hackles, Daeryn. Your every waking thought does not need to be on protecting Annmar. Miz Gere swears Maxillon is blocked out.”
He crossed his arms. The hare-sized pests they called gobblers continued to gnaw away at the crops. If they could get in, so might the ropens. The farmworkers were divided in their opinions, but Daeryn saw no reason to take a chance, in spite of Wellspring’s owner trying different methods of enhancing her Knack barriers around the farm property.
Jac tugged one strand of her long, dark hair. “Dae? The situation in the fields is horrible already.”
“Already?” It couldn’t be much later than eight, the usual time Mary Clare finished her kitchen chores and then replaced him. He groaned. “I never heard our count from last night.”
“Still about a hundred and twenty total for the five of us, but just two ropens killed half that a night. They said they’d clear the pests in a week.”
“Then that claim of a week—”
“Was bullshit. Miz Gere knows. The vermin are overrunning us, and I swear the increase is because every last one in the Farmlands shire has been herded to Wellspring’s fields by that damned ropen. Once this is over, I’m personally leading the hunt for him.”
His muscles started to hum. Paet was in jail, but…“Of course. Maxillon is seeking revenge on us for grounding his son. That bastard.”
Jac’s hand flew up. “Channel your anger into killing gobblers. That’s what’s spurring on the rest of us. That and Master Brightwell’s new device. He completed two by dusk and instructed us in how to use them. Already, the tide might be turning in our favor. Another is nearly ready, but the…er, operation is in pairs, so I’ve come to show you how it works.”
“Device? What are you talking about?” He glanced around the bay. No new equipment stood out among the clockwork machines, so whatever it was must be right there in front of Master Brightwell. Daeryn started forward, but Jac threw out an arm, blocking him.
“Promise you’ll try it out before shoving your nose in the air.”
Damn female and her games. A growl started to rumble in his chest, but he squelched it. He’d learned a valuable lesson working with Jac, and they’d come too far for him to let his edginess these last few days ruin their progress. Instead, he nodded his promise. Jac led the way across to the workshop and paused yards back while the inventor’s quick, dark-skinned fingers continued to fit together pieces of shiny brass.
Jac’s nervous scent filled Daeryn’s nostrils, ratcheting up his pulse, and not in a good way. “What are we waiting for?” he whispered.
She heaved a breath of exasperation. “This is where you’ve got to be open-minded.” She tipped her head toward the older man. “It’s not just my feelings, or the team’s. It’s Master Brightwell and Rivley sleeping only a few hours a night to work out the problems and put together more of these, uh…devices for us.”
He stared into her earnest yellow eyes. He’d never seen her more serious. Or considerate.
Daeryn wiped a hand over his face. He’d been out of the action more than in it since Miz Gere had asked him to be lead. Once he’d discovered the extent of Annmar’s head injury, he’d left most of the team’s coordination to Jac. He put in his hunting hours, but at the first sign of daylight, when the gobblers disappeared, he did, too—into Annmar’s room. Meals were snatched on the paw, and this might be the longest conversation he’d had since they fought the ropens and prevented them from kidnapping Annmar. His best friend Rivley’s teasing back on Saturday night about lovesickness hadn’t been far from right.
He raised his gaze to Jac’s face again, studying the steady and hopeful look. Her nerves were jittery because she was trying so hard to win him over, not take over. She wanted to do the right thing, and given the newness of their co-leader arrangement, he wasn’t inclined to challenge Jac’s decision on this. If he hampered a way to stop these vermin, she’d whip his ass, with the others joining in.
He nodded in what he hoped was an off-handed manner. “Open mind. Got it.”
She took a breath. “It’s a stunning gun.”
“What?” Daeryn’s ears echoed with long-ago blasts. His heartbeat raced, and every good intention of calm discussion flew off like water shaken from his pelt. “Using firearms at night? Guns aren’t allowed in the Basin, at all. Are you lot crazy? What does Miz Gere have to say—”
“The best solution we could come up with on short notice,” said Master Brightwell, turning to them with a coil of gray solder in one hand and a soldering iron in the other.
No. They couldn’t be serious, building a deadly weapon, a banned weapon. And Miz Gere, an Elder for the Farmlands, approved? By moving to the middle of the Basin, he thought he’d avoid any possible contact with guns again. But now they expected him to fire one?
His entire body shuddered at the idea of even touching the thing.
“Dae?” Jac jostled his shoulder. “This is a different situation than what happened to Sylvan. Please. You promised to try it.”
He glared at her. Jac was wrong, and unfortunately, he knew it firsthand. The danger of any one of them getting shot was just as real as what had happened to his mate. “You tricked me into that promise.”
“I did. I admit it, but how else—”
“You know every one of us ’cambires is Sylvan all over again if caught.” He swallowed hard. “If we’re not recognized for what we are.”
“I know. But listen for a minute, will you?”
With a last glare at Jac, Daeryn turned to the mechanic and the shiny canister in his hands. All he could see was the trigger, dammit, so he dragged his gaze up to the inventor’s brown eyes, partially hidden by his drooping eyelids.
Master Brightwell peered over the half-moon spectacles perched on the end of his nose, his short, springy hair aglow in the gaslight. “The effects of this liquid ammunition are temporary. Make an error, and all you have to do is let the fellow sleep it off for the ten to fifteen minutes the brew takes to break down when exposed to air.”
“Right. We’re still doing the actual killing.” Jac raised her hands in her trademark what do you expect? manner and bared her teeth. Her canines lengthened, a trick the wolf used to draw attention, knowing Daeryn hated it. He batted at her, and she flashed a quick smile.
This wasn’t Jac’s usual showing off. She was teasing him, trying to raise his spirits.
“You’ve got to avoid the end that was shot, but there’s no danger of being bitten yourself while a quick crunch breaks the neck. Or for a few, that’d be necks.” She pushed up one sleeve, revealing an incisor scrape on her forearm. “One with two heads, like you described attacking you and Terrent, caught me after I broke the first neck. I saved it to show everyone.” Her face crumpled into a disgusted look. “Nothing I’d ever consider eating, even in wolf form. The animal is weird, and—I was right—not sentient. Another runs up as we drop the last one’s limp body.”
Daeryn wasn’t sure if the confirmation about the two-headed beasts made him feel better or worse about the vermin. He looked from Jac to the inventor. “Then these stunning devices are worth using.”
Master Brightwell gave a tired half nod. “Miss Fellclaw can explain how to use it. Allow me to attach the second strap, then I’m following the order I gave Mr. Slipwing and taking myself to bed.” He turned to the workbench and applied the solder to a brass bracket, then clipped a leather strap to its ring. Master Brightwell picked up the eighteen-inch-long gadget and held it out.
A brass canister comprised the bulk of the stunning gun. A short tube extended from one end, separated by a circular contraption with gears. Slender rods connected them to other toothed wheels near the middle and to the trigger lever. The device seemed benign enough, but the mere shape and shine of the thing jittered his hands, and Daeryn couldn’t bring himself to take it.
Jac did. She bounced forward, her eyes shining, her black hair flouncing about her face when she strung the weapon’s strap over her shoulder. The thing hung at her middle, and she grasped the canister in one hand, the barrel in the other. Her thumb rested over the trigger near the muzzle.
Master Brightwell folded his arms and leaned back to watch her, a faint smile playing about his lips. Daeryn eyed her stance. The positioning looked ridiculous compared to what he’d witnessed of poachers in the mountains surrounding the Basin. But Jac carried it off, appearing tough and ready for action. Dominant.
Hang it. He had to say something without offending her. “Held that way it doesn’t look much like a gun.”
“No one said it was.” Master Brightwell removed his glasses to reveal narrowed eyes. “I refer to it as a stunner. No one should call it a gun. Leastwise not in these parts.”
Daeryn stiffened under his hard stare and, to his surprise, so did Jac beside him.
“We won’t,” she said.
So much humility laced the words. Great Creator, it’d been days since he’d actually talked with her. Had Annmar’s healing done more to Jac than fix her cuts?
“Now get on with the instruction so I can send Mr. Darkcoat out with you.”
She gripped the device once more. “Though it’s not a firearm, it shoots Master Brightwell’s potion, which is in here.” She tapped the canister. “Once in operation, the gears turn on the pressure of the vapors and release one dose into the barrel at a time, storing it until you press the lever.” Her thumb jiggled up and down like an impatient squirrel. “It squirts under its own pressure from…?” Her brow wrinkled, and she looked at Master Brightwell.
“Fermentation. The amount in the closed tube instantly senses it has room to grow and does. Within seconds, the process gives off gas. When the tube is opened abruptly via the switch”—Jac wiggled her thumb again to demonstrate what Master Brightwell referred to—“it shoots a distance of three meters.”
Daeryn had to convert the scientific measurement. “Ten feet or so?”
Master Brightwell nodded. “Close range.”
“A gobbler runs at you, you shoot it, and it falls, bam, like that,” Jac said. “Your stunner partner picks it off. Usually in time for another to notice you and head toward the two of you.”
This type of hunt sounded half race, half baited targets. But safer from the tooth nicks and scratches they’d all received. Daeryn almost agreed without questions. Others had used the device already. Master Brightwell worked for Miz Gere, after all, and didn’t answer to him. But had the lady asked how the newfangled device worked? Verified its safety? “Sir? I’d like to make sure the team isn’t at risk. What is this liquid ammunition?”
With a sigh, Master Brightwell hoisted a canning jar from a shelf and held it out. Daeryn took it and peered at the bubbly white muck half-filling the jar.
“This”—Master Brightwell tapped the glass with a bent finger—“is the fuel. And the ammunition.”
Daeryn reached for the lid. Quicker than lightning, Master Brightwell slapped his hand on top. “I wouldn’t do that, Mr. Darkcoat. Even a splash will leave you loopy. I load the canisters in full protective gear.”
Damn, the last thing he needed was a muddled head like Annmar was suffering. Daeryn set the jar carefully on the bench. Master Brightwell returned it to the shelf.
“An experimentation of mine with a fungus. Went to distill the flavorful mycelium into a brew and had the mixture take off on me. Multiplied better than rabbits, though I never have learned if it’s tasty.” He smiled. “A mere touch, and I was knocked flat. Went to throw it out, then thought, what if I did want to put out an assailant for a good bit? I came round with no lasting harm, so…”
He shrugged. “Instant protection. Not against Basin law. I’d have plenty of time to remove an attacker, or a thief. I stored a batch in the tank of a little device I’d been developing for the growers to hand-apply fertilizer. That first unit had too short a nozzle, and the brew accidently splashed onto the mechanical components. The droplets combined with my lubricant and set up like mortar for ten to fifteen minutes, the same amount of time it knocks out a person. Couldn’t have the operation shutting down with every errant drip, so I extended the applicator”—he pointed to the stunner’s barrel nose—“and enclosed the gears. The improved stunner is rugged enough to address the vermin problem.” He gestured to the device Jac had unslung from her shoulder.
“Please, Dae?” Jac said. “I know you’re adamantly opposed to firearms, but say you’ll give it a try. With only two pairs of us, we’ve already killed half as many pests in an hour as last night’s count. We don’t have to dodge the teeth. It’s Mar and me, and James is working with Zar. You’d make a third with Terrent. Miriam gave him approval to go out tonight, but only if he doesn’t shift forms or run. A few more days, and his leg might be completely healed. He’s anxious to help and chasing his tail without a partner.”
“You’ve persuaded me,” Daeryn said. “I wish Annmar had this when Paet attacked her.”
Jac shifted beside him. “Maraquin and I discussed that, but now that I’ve seen it work, we hope only the good guys ever find out about it.”
Master Brightwell cleared his throat. “The very reason I’d kept my fungus brew under wraps. In the wrong hands, it’s dangerous. For people and machinery.”
Daeryn tried not to look at the cold metal device he carried out to the dark fields. He never thought he’d see a weapon again, let alone hold one. Or use one. Putting distance between himself and the Borderlands meant less of a chance he’d run into a hunter. Another hunter who might devastate his life like the last one had.
He met up with Terrent and handed over the stunner. The other two teams hunted in the farm’s northernmost section, the one most overrun by pests, so Jac suggested he and Terrent spread south to the middle section of Wellspring’s crops. The rising moon, only a day past full, cast plenty of light, allowing their ’cambire night vision a clear view in gray tones.
Row after row of winter cabbage had been rolled from their straight lines and pocked with bites. The kale lay in tatters. Withered tomato stalks hung in their cages, the fruits rotting. The smell of fennel preceded their broken tubular leaves, and some of the bulbs had been unearthed. On a brighter note, the trial pea nut rows looked untouched, but the lone test field wouldn’t carry the harvest and support Wellspring’s dozens of vested farmworkers through the winter.
They stalked to the edge of their assigned squash fields. With their numbers increasing each night, the gobblers had become easier to find. In a glance, Daeryn spotted four different shadows darting among the mass of vines, in and out of the wilting leaves and dark globes. Black-furred vermin bigger than rats and smaller than hares. A normal farm pest would eat the random ripe vegetable, leaving the rest to mature and possibly be harvested. These cut through the plant stalks—when they weren’t attacking the nocturnal guards.
Shuffling behind him, Terrent cleared his throat. “Yous gonna change forms?”
Thank the Creator they had to wait for Terrent to finish healing. Perhaps Daeryn would never need to shoot the stunner. “Just give me a minute to see if they have any patterns to their movements.”
“In a minute they’ll be on us, Dae.”
“Then shoot ’em. According to Jac, I’ll have a good ten minutes to make the kill. See if you can hit one.”
Terrent laughed nervously and lifted the stunner to his shoulder, not at all the technique Jac had demonstrated. The boy sighted along the barrel and aimed at a shadow. It disappeared behind a squash, emerged on the near side, lengthened and wound into a cluster of leaves with Terrent still tracking the gobbler. It reappeared—
Milk-colored gunk shot from the brass barrel. The animal jerked when it hit, then stumbled forward and fell, the rear half of its fur glistening in the moonlight.
“That’s one,” Terrent muttered. He pivoted slightly, eyes darting for a second then narrowing as he raised the gun a few inches and tracked.
Click! The metallic tick came faster than Daeryn expected.
Daeryn blinked. He didn’t need to watch for patterns. “Uh, you’re rather good at this.”
“Over at Forestridge’s Borderlands, we don’t have it near so good as youse fellows down in the Black Mountains. Too many of them Outsiders close by. We gotta persuade them we aim to keep our property private. Never give ’em the chance to get near the Gap Gateway.”
“Well, maybe you haven’t heard, but down in Rockbridge, we haven’t had it so great with Outsiders either.”
Terrent sighted down the metal barrel. “Sounds like a story there,” he said, and the trigger clicked again. Another of the pests fell, its back end coated in mush. “Three.”
“Are you actually aiming for the rear?”
“’Course. So yous can bite the neck without getting the fungus in your mouth. Earlier tonight, Zar got laid out by biting a glop of the muck.”
Damn. Daeryn shook himself, then slipped off his braces and pulled his shirt over his head. His clothes landed in a heap at the edge of the field. Bringing up his ’cambire form, he took a deep breath to focus. Fur sprouted over his body, and he dropped to all fours. The night air dampened in his nostrils, making scents sharper, including the odd clean odor the vermin gave off. His rounded ears gathered sounds clearly: Terrent nearby, the others on the next hillside, several mice scurrying away behind him.
The fox boy had another gobbler sighted, but not the one gnawing at a vine four feet away. Terrent would see it before the pest moved far. Daeryn bunched his shoulder and thigh muscles and sprang forward, covering the distance to that first furry vermin in two leaps. A quick sniff identified the fungus-soaked end. The smell of Master Brightwell’s concoction overwhelmed the clean odor of the pests, but even this close the animals themselves had no real smell, the reason they’d been so effective in their surprise attacks.
He swung his nose to the non-fermented end. Huh, this wouldn’t be as easy for him as it was for Jac and Maraquin. The wolf snout—and even Terrent’s fox ’cambire—had the advantage of length over his shorter nose. Normally, he’d shake prey, but this time he clamped his jaws over the ears and angled the head back. To his relief, the spine snapped.
Daeryn dropped the animal carefully, so the wet fur didn’t touch his own coat, and leaped over it. Where had the second—
Click! Swoosh. “Five,” came Terrent’s soft count.
Five? What had happened to four? Hang it all, he had to get going.
“Watch it!” Terrent shouted.
Daeryn jumped instinctively. Something brushed his heel, and click-swoosh the stunner fired again, this time at him. Nearly at him. Daeryn twisted toward the glistening mass of fur lying inches behind him.
“You all right?” called Terrent.
He gave a quick sniff to his left rear leg. A scratch. He yipped an affirmative.
“Good. Better get going. We don’t need this first lot waking up at our feet.”
Not only had Jac taken more of the lead during his days with Annmar, even this boy had seen enough of the new situation tonight to be giving orders. That’s what he got for dividing his attention. He leaped to the newly downed animal and grabbed its head, turning it while he closed his jaws. Snap.
But it’d been so worth it to be with Annmar. The memory of her warm softness filled his ’cambire body better than his human form. It was his polecat form Annmar had clutched in pain, then snuggled into as she relaxed under medication.
Daeryn dropped the gobbler and scampered the few feet to the third animal and grabbed up its dry head, snapped it and leaped to the next.
Annmar’s city taint had dissipated over the week since her arrival. Her own sweet earthy scent engulfed her and overwhelmed him. He smelled it now—new spring grass shoots—in his fur. He’d marked her with his musk as well. Had to. Just as he had to do this work tonight, with the weapon-like stunner. To keep her safe, keep them all safe. Without Wellspring Cooperative succeeding, there would be no home for him, or Annmar, in Blighted Basin.
Snap. That was five. Practice rounds were over. Terrent shot again, and Daeryn bounded to the next animal. Automatically, his snout arrowed to the dry end, clamped over it and twisted.
* * *
At the barest lightening of the sky, rain began to fall. A few birds woke and sang, and the gobblers slunk away. Did the drizzle trigger their departure, or the daylight? Or were the pests as tired as he was? Daeryn had no extra thoughts left to worry over the details. By gut memory, he trotted to where his polecat form knew the prey lay, the spot indicated by the splat the fungus had made when it struck its target.
He dispensed with the animal. Ninety-eight. Or was Terrent’s count eighty-nine? Not even an hour into this desperate game, he’d stopped thinking and let predator instinct take over, sending him bounding to the next. And the next.
In the soft pattering, he looked around. Terrent hadn’t shot for a few minutes. Daeryn raised his snout in question. Terrent scanned the field. He wove his way out of the vines and strode the dirt road, raising the stunner and then lowering it. Their gazes met.
“One’s lying to your left,” Terrent said, “and another yards east of it. Kill them while I patrol the edge for stragglers.”
Daeryn did, listening for more shots. Great Creator, he was tired. He could lie in the rain-soaked plants until Terrent returned. But what team leader did that? He paced to the edge and waited until the boy’s footfalls advanced.
“All gone,” Terrent said. “Time to head in.”
Daeryn shifted, got his wet clothes and trudged with Terrent to their changing hut to wash under Master Brightwell’s spray fixtures. Even after Terrent left his stall, Daeryn let the hot water fall on him. When the hut door opened, he cranked off the nozzle. Maraquin walked in, shaking her chest and shoulders in the final stages of shifting so all that remained of her fur was a full mane of hair.
She peered around, her gaze coming back to him twice.
He snatched a towel from the pile to cover himself as he rounded the wooden barrier between the wash stalls and the cubbyholes that held their clothes. “Looking for someone in particular?”
“You reek of her.” She stomped past him, and Terrent snickered from where he sat on the bench putting on his socks.
Daeryn pitched his damp towel at the fox boy’s head. “You’re both full of it.” He grabbed a fresh towel and rubbed briskly at his chest. But his grin faded at the sight of Zar shifting forms in the doorway.
The lynx’s snout wrinkled in a way that turned to a grimace on his bearded human face. “No, they ain’t kiddin’.”
Daeryn stilled the towel and sniffed at himself. “She smells nice.”
“Didn’t say she doesn’t. Just that it’s not you. Different. Too fast to adjust to.”
“Exactly,” Maraquin called above the spray of water. “I thought she was in here. I mean, logically I knew she wasn’t, but it still makes you stop at the door.” Her drenched head popped over the wooden stall, her yellow eyes trained on him in sympathy. “It’s fine, really, Dae. I mean, she wasn’t one of us, but somehow that night, she suddenly was.”
“She is.” Jac picked up a towel on her way in and came to stand beside him. “Show him your rear, Mar.”
Daeryn wrapped the towel self-consciously around his middle before he’d realized what he’d done. Zar and Terrent sidled over as Maraquin maneuvered her previously gouged bum around the stall edge, her forearm hiding her breast. Smooth skin showed no scars from the bites Paet had left.
“My body was completely repaired when I woke the next morning,” Maraquin said. “I can’t wait to thank her.”
“Agreed,” said James from the door. He pulled his shirt over his head and kicked the wet clothing aside. “Though I’m still not sure what happened while the city girl drew.” The lines of a five-clawed scratch marked his upper shoulder, cuts Annmar must have missed because of the worse laceration to his thigh.
“We don’t need to know,” Jac said. “And none of us should call her a city girl anymore. Mary Clare says she’s Basin bred.”
Huh, he’d have to ask Annmar about that. Daeryn poked Jac’s shoulder. “Are you admitting you’re glad she’s here?”
Jac swatted at him, but her grin spread clear to her sparkling eyes. “Only for your sake.”
“She’s got pluck, that artist,” Zar said. “Comin’ here. Fittin’ in. Healin’ the hides of beings she’d never lain eyes on. Compared to all that, handlin’ one little polecat ain’t so much.”
Everyone laughed, and Daeryn took their teasing. But he couldn’t shake one question from his head, one that the older, observant Zar, the female-savvy wolves, or even Terrent with his Borderlands’ experience with Outsiders, might be able to answer. When his fellow night guards had dressed and were walking across the misty farmyard to breakfast, he asked, “You think she’ll stay?”
Terrent just shrugged. Maraquin looked at Jac, who said, “Attempted kidnapping, the possibility of rape? That kind of thing throws off a female’s sense of security, but Miz Gere has done everything she can to fix that.”
Daeryn nodded and looked at Zar, willing more wisdom from the man.
“Not sure about that. Just that she ain’t afraid. Let her have her head.”
Daeryn dropped his gaze. “Suppose I don’t have much choice.”
“Yous don’t.” Terrent grinned. “Not if yous want her in your bed—”
“Keep mum!” Maraquin mock-beat his head, messing the boy’s neatly combed hair.
“That girl is some healer, even with her own injuries,” James said. “How’s she doing, Dae?”
“Less restless, sleeping deeper since Miriam started feeding her that minty herb mix.”
“Ugh,” Maraquin groaned. “You know when she puts mint in it, that’s the strong stuff, the stuff you can’t choke down otherwise. How’s she doing it?”
Daeryn’s gut twisted. While his polecat had noticed the sour smell, he’d missed that point. “She hasn’t been conscious enough to notice. I think that’s part of what Miriam’s doing for her head to recover from Paet’s shaking.” And in saying that out loud, in human form, he had to face what his polecat form had avoided. Annmar was seriously bad off.
* * *
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