Follow Charlie on Amazon.com
“You should get into bed, Your Majesty.”
Alarick groaned as he valiantly fought sleep, his eyelids lowering. “Not yet.”
I held back a smile and continued to run my fingers through his hair. This had become a nightly ritual of ours, one initiated by him, I might add. After a long day, I would sit on the couch in his royal chambers, and he would lie down, stretching his long body and resting his head on my lap.
“Just a few more minutes,” he mumbled, his words laced with sleep.
Alarick fell asleep on my lap so often, I could count the heartbeats it took for him to go under. His head was tilted slightly back, dark stubble growing on his handsome face. He wasn’t traditionally beautiful. His features were rugged—a square jaw, little creases at the corners of his eyes from thousands of years of smiling. His hair had grown to around his ears again, and soon it would be time for a trim. It warmed me, knowing I was the only one he allowed to cut his hair. His full lips were slightly parted, his features softened in sleep. With a feathery touch, I brushed my fingers down his cheek to his jaw, smiling at the sigh he released. He turned onto his side toward me and snuggled close.
When had this complicated, inexplicable, perplexing creature become my very reason for breathing? How had he become my everything? It made no sense. He was a king. The King of All Shifters. His power was vast, connected to the stars above, evident by the swirling cosmos reflected in his fathomless eyes. He could shift into any animal he’d fathered since the beginning of time, yet most days he needed me to find his socks. Some days I wondered how he’d survived all those years before I became his advisor and valet. He had the most outlandish thoughts, had no impulse control, ate far too many sweets, and was spoiled rotten. Yet he possessed a pure-hearted kindness I had come across in so few. A genuine love for his children and the world they inhabited.
Alarick’s hand over my heart stilled me, as it did every time. He had a habit of placing his hand over that spot and did it more often than he realized. I was almost as familiar with Alarick’s touch as I was my own, and I lived for those moments. They flayed me open, exposing the raw nerve that was my love for him, but I wouldn’t give them up for anything. I yearned for those tender touches, basked in them, and was fortunate they came often. My presence soothed him, and after thousands of years together, having me near was a comfort to him. I’d become more than his valet. I’d become his companion. Yet he sought reassurance of my presence. More often than not, some part of him rested against me, and if he couldn’t, he’d find his way around to it by placing a hand on my knee, my shoulder, my chest. He had absolutely no idea what he did to me with those touches.
I covered his hand with mine and murmured a softly spoken, “Always.”
“Good.” Alarick hummed, drifting off, most likely telling himself he’d only take a nap.
With a warm smile, I continued to run my fingers through his soft hair. I held on to his hand and enjoyed this moment, letting its warmth flood through me. My eyes closed, and I balanced on the edge of sleep. Suddenly a presence I’d not felt in a very long time jolted me alert. My heart lurched, and I stilled. It wasn’t possible.
Carefully I slipped out from underneath Alarick, then headed for the balcony. The guards posted outside the door and in the hall would keep watch over him. No need to alarm them until I investigated. Closing the balcony doors behind me, I sniffed the air, my blood turning to ice. After thousands of years, it couldn’t be.
I pulled loose the bandage from around my eyes and peered out in the direction of the forest beyond the garden. It was an old habit, but it helped ground me. For thousands of years, I’d honed my senses and magic to replace the sight I’d lost. I searched the darkness, startled by the putrid magic pulsing from within the thickness of the trees, which along with the pitch-black shadows helped shroud the presence.
Please, let me be wrong about this.
Jumping over the balcony, I landed without a sound on the grass below. I stalked in silence toward the trees, listening for any hint of what might be out there. A green glow pulsed in the darkness before me, and a gasp escaped my lips before I could stop it.
“Who are you?” I demanded, knowing I didn’t have to raise my voice to be heard. Not by the creature lurking in the woods.
“You don’t recognize one of your own?” The voice was gravelly, drawn-out. “You wound me.”
“Lies,” I hissed. “I am the last of my kind.”
“So you believed.”
“So I know.” I stepped forward, fingers flexing at the ready. No one dared step foot on the palace grounds with the intent to harm Alarick, not since I became his valet and promised a swift death to anyone foolish enough to make an attempt.
“Perhaps you were. For a time. I’d been trapped by magic and frozen for thousands of years, but not dead. I am finally free.”
I moved closer, the familiarity of the voice tickling a long-forgotten memory. Many lifetimes had passed since they’d all left this mortal world, yet I knew this voice. “How is this possible?”
“Global warming. It’s a thing, apparently. Hooray for me.”
“Is that a joke? Never mind. I don’t care.”
“You should. It was your war that saw me end up there, frozen and imprisoned inside that cursed mountain, thawing year by year, weak and starving, feeding off whatever magical creatures came along. Like scraps thrown to a dog.”
I froze. Espen Mountain. “You killed the bear shifter prince and then tried to kill his son.”
“By the time the first prince appeared, enough of me had thawed that I could feed properly. I then bided my time. When the son returned, I’d all but thawed. He would have made a tasty snack before my journey here, but sadly he escaped. No matter.”
“Why are you here?” The question was redundant. I knew why he was here. I only needed him to confirm it so I could rid the world of him once and for all, as I had so many of the others.
“You know why I’m here.”
The blood in my veins turned to ice. “Your king is dead. Has been dead for nearly as long as you’ve been frozen.”
“Yes, but the mission lives, and I will see it finished.”
“I forbid it!” My power coursed through me, green sparks of lightning jumping from one finger to another. I flinched at the sting. It had been so long since I’d needed to summon the death within me. The evil, rolling laugh that echoed around me had me gritting my teeth and hissing.
“You have no power over me. Tell me, does your precious king know who you are? What you are? Does he know why you came to him?”
I ignored the taunt. Alarick would never know, if I had anything to say on the matter. “I won’t let you touch him.”
“Look at you! Pathetic. Your true power is gone.”
The voice echoed from somewhere on my right, and I turned in that direction. “I don’t need my sight to defeat you.”
“Oh, but you do, and we both know it.”
I shook my head despite the fear swirling inside me.
“Yes.” The evil laugh grew louder, closer, now somewhere to the left. “Your sight was the source of your greatest power.”
My heart stuttered, and I faltered before quickly regaining my fortitude. I would not allow him to poison my mind. “Show yourself, and I will gladly acquaint you with what little power I have left!”
A green glow pulsed, and I readied myself, but it suddenly vanished. Frowning, I edged closer to the woods. Nothing but silence met my ears, a scentless soft breeze ruffling my hair. My muscles tensed at what I heard. No songs from the night birds, chirps from crickets, or fluttering of fairy wings. The world stilled, every sound fading into empty nothingness. He was preparing for the attack.
A blast of green fire knocked me off my feet, the intense heat and pain forcing a cry out of me. My arm throbbed, and I pushed myself to my knees, the scent of my blood in the air. My head swam, my thoughts hazy from the venom coursing through me. The bastard was as strong as I remembered, and no doubt growing stronger, while I had lost a good deal of my power.
Before I could register what I’d heard, a second green glow pulsed through the trees, and the earth trembled beneath me. I felt him then, as I always did when he was near or in distress. No…
The cosmos shifted around us as Alarick pulled the light toward him, then sent a blast into the darkness, the grass and trees nearly torn from their roots by the explosion.
“Alarick, no!” I pushed to my feet before turning to face the evil in the forest, my words intended for Alarick. “Go back inside!” Damn the bloody stubborn bastard! He ignored my order, reaching my side and gasping, no doubt at my bloodied state. “Damn it, Alarick, I said go back inside!”
“You must be mad if you think I’m going to leave you out here on your own to face whatever’s done this to you.”
The forest glowed again, and I turned, throwing myself at him and knocking us both to the grass as the powerful rush of green flames exploded over where we’d stood.
“Run! Into the palace. Now!”
Alarick squeezed my good arm. “Not without you,” he said through his teeth.
“Stubborn bastard,” I ground out, making him grin.
“It’s like you don’t know me.”
“Come on, then.” I grabbed him and pulled him up with me, mumbling under my breath about how he was a pain in my ass.
We ran into the palace, and I shouted at the guards to fortify the gate. I didn’t put anything past the vile creature outside and doubted he would wait long before attempting to infiltrate the palace. I pulled Alarick with me, his hand in mine, and I didn’t release him until I had him safely locked in the throne room, windows and doors barred, warded by magic. Safe for the moment, I slumped down into a chair as my body healed itself. Alarick knelt before me, his concern for me emanating from him like the warm glow of a fire.
“Jean, talk to me. What’s going on? What was that out there?”
I put my hand to his cheek. “I swear to you, I won’t let anyone touch you. Not while there’s breath in my body.”
“Jean?” Alarick leaned into my touch, and a piece of my heart splintered, knowing he would recoil from me if he ever discovered the truth. “You’re scaring me now. What’s happening?”
“He’s here to do the job I never could.” I closed my eyes, the past looming over me like a dark storm, threatening to tear apart everything I had built with Alarick. I had a life with him, and even if he couldn’t love me the way I did him, simply being at his side brought me more joy than I had ever dreamed possible.
“Job? What job?”
“Of killing you.”
Alarick stilled, the image of his beautiful face at times so clear I almost saw him, as if I were looking through glass. If I focused my magic, I might see every detail, but it meant opening myself up, leaving myself completely vulnerable, something I could not afford at this moment. I had to focus all my power on keeping him safe.
“I don’t understand.”
I opened my mouth to reply, but thunder cracked the skies apart. No, not thunder. It was him. He was trying to get in.
“We need to leave.” I jumped to my feet and took hold of his arm.
“Nonsense. Whatever it is, I can deal with it. I want to know what you were referring to.”
Damn it all. Why did he have to be so stubborn? “Please, Your Majesty. Your life is in danger.”
He waved a hand in dismissal. “I cannot be killed.”
“We both know that’s not true.” He might be immortal, but even the gods could be killed. There was always a way, and one of them was trying to crash through the gates.
Alarick turned to me and cupped my face. “Jean, are you saying whatever is out there was sent to kill me and has the power to do so?”
“Yes! That’s exactly what I’m saying. It’s what I’ve been saying for the past several minutes!”
“Has anyone told you how adorable you look when you’re indignant?”
I opened my mouth to reply, but no response was forthcoming. Adorable? I loathed the very idea of it, yet I melted a little because he was the one who thought so. Goddess above, I was going mad. He was driving me to madness. I finally found my voice and smacked his hands away. “Why are you laughing? What is there to laugh about? Someone has been sent to kill you, and you’re blathering nonsense!”
Alarick chuckled, and my brows shot up. Really? He nodded, and for several heartbeats I focused my magic to see his smile turning into a forced frown as he pretended not to be amused. “Yes, right. Serious.”
I was going to strangle him with his robe sash. With a growl, I grabbed his arm and pointed ahead. “The cabin in Svalbard. Take us there now.”
“Svalbard? Oh no. It’s cold there. And we both know how Princess Sinopa feels about me.”
On a good day, the Princess of the Arctic Fox Shifters wanted to bury Alarick in the snow. I was starting to understand her sentiments on the matter.
“Your Majesty,” I ground out through my teeth as another boom rocked the palace around us, “do you trust me?”
“With my life,” he replied, sounding offended by the question.
“Then do as I say.”
“I can’t leave our staff.”
“They will be safe. It’s you he wants. Now open a portal.”
Another thunderous boom erupted. “Alarick, open the damn portal now!”
“All right. But I expect an explanation when we get there.” With a flick of his wrist, he opened a portal, and I ceased all use of my magic before I not so gently shoved him through. It closed behind us in a swirl of ice and snow. I couldn’t see him glare at me, but I certainly felt it. Adverse weather conditions played havoc with my senses anyway, making it more difficult for my magic to help me “see,” so there was no point in taking the risk. Despite our current predicament, I held back a smile when Alarick wrapped his arm around my shoulders to lead me in the right direction.
Tragically underdressed for the bitter cold, we shivered as the ice and wind whipped at our skin. A few more steps and we’d be at the cozy log cabin in the middle of snowy nowhere, but I felt the cold down to my bones. Alarick could have shifted into a polar bear or any number of creatures acclimated to the cold, but he didn’t in order to guide me. I had the power to summon heat, but any use of my magic would alert him, exposing our location, and I couldn’t have that.
Finally inside the cabin, I brushed the snow off myself and hurried to the fireplace to get a fire started. My entire body trembled as I rubbed my hands together, waiting for the flames to grow. Alarick pressed himself to my back, and I stilled.
“What are you doing?”
“Warming us up while you get that going.” He rubbed at my arms, the warmth of his chest against my back sending heat greater than any blaze flaring through me.
The only sound around us came from the howling wind outside and the crackling kindle in the fireplace. Alarick let his chin rest on my shoulder, his mouth so close to my face his breath warmed my skin.
“Are you warm now?”
Unable to bring myself to speak, I merely nodded. He stepped away, and I wished I’d not replied at all. I sensed him somewhere to my left and heard the shift of fabric as he sat on the love seat. He patted the space next to him.
“Come sit. There’s a nice warm blanket here.”
Closing my eyes, I attempted to push down the fear that threatened to rise up and take control. I turned, took a step forward, and stubbed my toe.
“Goodness, Jean. What’s the matter?”
“I’m bloody blind,” I snapped at him. “In case you haven’t noticed.”
“You once led an entire army through a poisonous maze filled with terrifying creatures, without a single casualty. Are you telling me you can’t maneuver around an ottoman?”
Teeth gritted, I joined him on the love seat, mindful not to run into any more damned furniture. I sat at the end of it out of habit, and he didn’t hesitate. He lay back, his head on my lap and his knees bent because he was too tall to stretch out. I closed my eyes and allowed myself to absorb his warmth. The tension fled from my body at an embarrassing rate. His effect on me was instant.
And the tension was back. “We should be safe here,” I murmured, placing a hand on his brow.
He knew me too well. I supposed there was no avoiding it, considering we’d fled the palace.
“Why don’t we start with whoever he is.” Alarick didn’t move from where he lay, but I felt his gaze on me.
“His name is Nathair. I thought he was dead, but apparently he’d been trapped in Espen Mountain.”
Alarick went rigid. “Wait. Did he—”
“Kill Bernd’s father and then try to kill Bernd? Yes, that was Nathair. He’d been slowly thawing, feeding off magical creatures who drew close enough until he could be free. We have humans to thank for that.” Who knew what else was out there, lying in wait for the damage to be done so it could once again be free to unleash chaos?
“Who is he?”
“An assassin,” I replied, moving my hand from his brow.
I flinched. It wasn’t a question, but a statement. I nodded.
“You were sent to kill me.”
“And instead you saved my life.”
My smile held no humor. “Not a very good assassin.”
“Jean, there is nothing you don’t excel at. Try again.”
His words warmed me and chilled me all at once. “You’re right. I was the very best at what I did.” Those years were a blur to me now, a distant fog in the depths of my mind. I had been something else back then. Something… monstrous. “You became my mission. I was sent to infiltrate your kingdom, learn about your powers, how many shifter children you had, and how they came into being. I was to get to know you and become your friend.”
“Which you did exceptionally well.”
His tone held no harshness or malice, which made me feel all the worse. I didn’t deserve his kindness.
“At first I was eager to get it done. To return home and declare my victory.” I tentatively brushed my fingers over his lips. “I never expected to be the one struck down. You confounded me, and with every smile, you unraveled my binding until all I could see… was you.”