WOLFFAN Descended from ancient shapeshifters, Hardane could take on wolf form to stalk the darkness. But as a man he had long, sinfully black hair and a body to entice any woman. He appeared to Kylene in her dreams, then rescued her from certain death at the executioner's hand. He was promised to another, his marriage destined to end the brutal warfare between their two peoples. But no matter what the danger, no matter who tried to stop them, he would spirit her into the night and tempt her with a love like no other. . . "Master storyteller." —Christine Feehan 94,000 Words.
Release date: August 1, 2012
Print pages: 290
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Beneath a Midnight Moon
Deeper and deeper she penetrated into the heart of the emerald forest, her footsteps muffled by a thick carpet of pine needles as she explored this strange new world that was so different from her own.
She saw a black-faced doe picking its graceful way along a narrow path, a pair of red-tailed squirrels chasing each other across the forest floor, a bird with bright yellow plumage flitting lightly from tree to tree.
And then she saw him, the man who lived only in her dreams. Her gaze moved over him with undisguised admiration. He was large of stature, his massive shoulders and well-muscled arms and legs accentuated by the gauzy white shirt and tight buff-colored breeches that he wore.
His eyes were gray, the color of clouds on a winter day; his hair fell to his waist, as deep and black as the Caves of Mouldour. His skin was the color of dark honey, smooth and unblemished. His nose was long and straight; his cheekbones prominent and well defined; his jaw strong and square.
His lips were firm, sensual; and when he smiled, as he was smiling now, it made her wish that he was a man of flesh and blood and not just an image conjured from the fathomless depths of sleep.
He came toward her, one hand out in a gesture of welcome; but still, in his eyes, she saw the same silent plea for help. And yet, how could she help him when she couldn’t help herself?
“Lady . . .” His voice was deep and rich, like chocolate velvet.
“I’m coming,” she called. “Wait for me.”
Yet even as she hurried toward him, his image faded, like an old painting left too long in the sun, and then he was gone from her sight.
“Your name,” she murmured sadly. “I don’t even know your name.”
A sob rose in her throat, waking her, returning her to the ugliness of her prison cell and a pillow soaked with her tears.
She stood in the middle of the inquisition chamber, her wrists tightly lashed to a thick iron bar suspended above her head.
“You will tell us what we wish to know,” the Lord High Sovereign’s interrogator demanded brusquely. “You will tell us today, or you will die tomorrow.”
Kylene shook her head. She’d been imprisoned for almost a fortnight, and she still had no idea why they thought she could help them find the elusive Hardane.
“The lash is a crude weapon,” the Interrogator mused. “Crude, but effective.”
He nodded in the Executioner’s direction and Kylene’s body tensed as she waited for the lash to fall. The thick leather strap cracked through the air with the sound of thunder, biting deep into her skin, sizzling like summer lightning.
“Dying under the lash is a most unpleasant way to perish,” the Interrogator remarked. “A way that, if done with care, can take a very long time.”
It was an effort to hold her head up, to stay the words of pleading that rose in her throat. It was fortunate she didn’t know where Hardane was, she thought, for she feared she would tell the Interrogator everything he wished to know if it would spare her the pain of the lash. But she could tell him nothing.
“Where is he?”
The whip fell again, and then again. Tears stung her eyes and clogged her throat. The blood trickling down her back felt like sunfire. A red haze hovered before her face, making everything else seem distant and out of focus.
Trembling convulsively, Kylene closed her eyes, and he was there, standing before her, his slate gray eyes warm with compassion. His hand reached out to her, the touch of his fingertips as soft as fairy mist as he gently wiped away her tears.
“Lady, come to me . . .”
Startled by the sound of his voice, so near, so real, she opened her eyes.
And he was gone.
Mad, she thought. I must be going mad.
And yet his voice seemed to linger in the room, surrounding her with its strength, cocooning her in its warmth, lessening her fears, easing her pain.
“Where is he?”
The Interrogator’s voice cut through the silence, sharp as a blade.
Slowly, sadly, Kylene shook her head. “I don’t know. I don’t know who Hardane is. I don’t know where he is.”
The Interrogator nodded and the whip fell again.
She heard the sibilant hiss, felt it strike across her shoulders. From deep within her mind, she heard a low-pitched wail, like that of a man sobbing with fury.
As if from far away, she heard the Interrogator order the Executioner to put away the lash.
Sick with relief, she closed her eyes and surrendered to the darkness that dragged her down into blessed oblivion.
It was dark and she was alone beside an iridescent waterfall. Moonlight danced upon the face of the ink-black water. Countless shooting stars chased each other across the indigo sky. A night bird lifted its voice to the heavens, its three-note mating call begging for attention.
Sitting alone on a flat gray rock, she searched the darkness, a nameless fear making her shiver with apprehension.
There was a soft rustling in the underbrush as a huge black wolf materialized out of the shadows, its dark gray eyes fixed upon her face.
She should have been afraid. In her own world, she would have been afraid. But here, suspended in a dreamworld of illusion, she held out her hand.
The wolf drew closer, close enough to touch. A low whine erupted from its throat, and then it lowered its head and licked the palm of her hand. The velvet stroke of its tongue coursed through her, hot as molten lava, sweet as sunbaked honey.
A soft sigh of pleasure escaped her lips. And then, to her disbelief, the wolf changed shape, its image blurring, until a man stood before her. A man with hair the color of pitch and eyes the color of storm-tossed clouds.
“You.” The word whispered past her lips.
“My lady . . .”
“Your name,” she begged. “Tell me your name.”
“Search your heart, lady. You know who I am.”
“I don’t. Tell me, please.”
She wanted to plead with him, to tell him that it had to be now, this very night, because it was to be her last night. But the words seemed trapped in her throat.
And then he was touching her, his big, callused palm cupping her cheek, his dark gaze lingering on her face, as warm and sweet as a caress.
“I won’t leave you alone, lady.”
She heard the promise in his words, the underlying anguish in his voice.
He gazed deeply into her eyes, her soul. “Only swear you won’t betray me.”
“I swear,” she murmured.
His smile pierced the dark clouds of her despair, and then he was gone, leaving her alone once more, left to wonder how she could possibly betray him when she didn’t even know his name . . . when she was doomed to die by the Executioner’s hand.
They came for her a fortnight later. A priest of the Holy Brotherhood of Mouldour blessed her soul, and then her wrists were bound and she was led away to the inquisition chamber once again.
The Interrogator stood in the middle of the room, appropriately clad in funereal black from head to foot. He was a tall man, thin but with no hint of weakness. His eyes were cold and blue, like the Inland Sea. His hair, cropped short, was thick and blond. He would have been handsome but for the hideous scar that angled across his left cheek.
“This is your last chance,” he warned as Kylene stepped into the room. “Where is Hardane?”
“I’ve told you and told you, I don’t know who he is, or where he is.”
“Shall I refresh your memory for you? It is said that Hardane of Argone possesses mystical powers. His great grandmother’s mother was a Wolffan . . .”
Kylene frowned. “A Wolffan, my lord?”
The Interrogator shook his head impatiently. “Yes, a Wolffan, believed to have evolved from the union of a wolf and an Argonian woman. He’s a shape shifter, as you well know.”
“I know nothing of the kind.”
“Perhaps she speaks the truth,” the Executioner remarked, idly tapping the butt of his whip against a well-muscled thigh.
The Interrogator stroked his jaw thoughtfully. Was it possible the Princess Selene didn’t know of Hardane’s whereabouts? But that was impossible. She was Carrick’s seventh daughter, betrothed since birth to marry Hardane. It was a match that had been prophesied by the White Witch of Mouldour on the eve of Selene’s birth. According to the prophesy, a marriage between the seventh son of Argone and the seventh daughter of the rightful heir of Mouldour would produce twin sons who would one day rule the warring lands of Argone and Mouldour, thereby bringing eternal peace to the two countries.
Such a marriage would signal the beginning of the end of Bourke’s reign as Lord High Sovereign.
The Interrogator drew in a deep breath and let it out in a long, shuddering sigh. If Bourke were destroyed, the Interrogator’s life would also be forfeit, for he had sworn a blood oath to follow Bourke not only in life, but in death, as well. Bourke, the reigning Lord High Sovereign of Mouldour, had stolen the title from his elder brother, Carrick, through trickery and deceit. Carrick’s whereabouts were presently unknown, though it was feared he might be trying to muster an army in an attempt to regain his throne.
At the moment, Carrick was no threat. Bourke was confident that he could defeat his brother in battle, but an alliance between Carrick’s daughter and Hardane of Argone would be the first step in fulfilling the ancient prophecy. It was possible that the people, superstitious fools that they were, would read more into the marriage than there was. Weary of war, the common folk desired peace. But there was no profit to be made in peace, and neither Bourke or the Interrogator would rest secure until any possible alliance between Mouldour and Argone had been thwarted.
“She must know Hardane’s whereabouts,” the Interrogator insisted, his voice cracking with tension. “How could she not know? She is betrothed to the man.”
“You speak foolishness,” Kylene said. “I am betrothed to no one save the Sisterhood.”
“So you keep saying, but it is well known that you are Carrick’s daughter.”
Kylene frowned. “His daughter, my lord?”
The Interrogator took a step closer. His frigid blue eyes narrowed, his breath mingling with hers.
“I grow weary of these games. If you value your life, you will speak the truth. Are you not Carrick’s seventh daughter?”
“Has your hearing gone amiss, my lord?”
The Interrogator whirled around, his ice-blue eyes boring into the pale brown eyes of the Executioner. “Have you brought me the wrong woman?”
“I brought the woman you described,” the Executioner said quickly. “A woman with hair the color of dark fire and eyes the color of newly turned earth.” His voice softened with obvious admiration. “A woman with skin like alabaster come to life. . . .”
“I did not ask you to praise the girl’s beauty,” the Interrogator replied brusquely.
The Executioner shrugged, the movement causing the coarse material of his shirt to pull taut over his massive shoulders. Who could help but be spellbound by such a rare creature?
“Where was she found?”
“Cos and his men found her gathering herbs near the Motherhouse at the farthest reaches of Carrick’s holdings.”
Near the Motherhouse? The Interrogator muttered a mild oath. Was it possible that Carrick had returned to Mouldour? Was he even now plotting to depose his brother and regain the crown?
The Interrogator shook his head. Even if Carrick had returned, it was unthinkable that he would allow his daughter to prowl around the countryside alone, gathering herbs, of all things!
His gaze moved from the Executioner’s pock-marked face to Selene’s. For the first time, he began to think the girl might be telling the truth, that they did, indeed, have the wrong woman.
“She fits the description,” the Executioner remarked.
“Aye,” the Interrogator agreed absently. “Tell me, girl, if you are not Carrick’s daughter, who might you be?”
“I am a foundling, my lord, allowed to live on the outskirts of my chieftain’s lands. I would have taken my final vows so that I might join the good sisters who raised me if your men had not abducted me.”
Kylene’s heart began to pound erratically as confused looks spread over the faces of both men. Did they believe her? Would they now let her go?
The Interrogator stroked his bearded jaw thoughtfully. It was possible they had taken the wrong woman. It was just as possible that she was lying.
“Kill her,” he said curtly. “If she is the wrong woman, it matters not. If she is the right woman, so much the better.”
“And if Lord Carrick learns her fate?”
The Interrogator shrugged. “He need never know. Indeed, if she is not his daughter, he will not care.”
The Interrogator walked swiftly toward the door, only to pause with his hand on the latch. Glancing over his shoulder, he fixed his accomplice with a hard stare. “Attend me in my chambers when it is done.”
“Aye, my lord.”
With great deliberation, the Executioner secured Kylene’s hands to the iron bar, took a step back, and raised the whip.
“Do not make her passing too easy,” the Interrogator warned. He turned his narrow-eyed gaze on Kylene. “You should have told me that which I desired to know, princess.”
With a courtly bow, he left the room, closing the door behind him. He had hoped to locate Hardane’s whereabouts that he might procure for himself the secret of shape shifting, but he dared not wait longer to dispose of the Princess Selene, if indeed that was who she was. It seemed unlikely now. Perhaps her resemblance to Selene was mere happenstance. Perhaps not.
Still, he could take no chances. Better the woman die now and forever put an end to the possibility of her bearing the twin sons that had been prophesied. Each day she lived put Bourke that much closer to being deposed.
The Interrogator smiled faintly. There was still a chance that they would discover Hardane’s whereabouts. He fingered the ugly scar that puckered the skin on his left cheek. It would give him great pleasure to slay Argone’s heir to the throne. But before he took Hardane’s life, he would discover the shape shifter’s secrets.
Kylene closed her eyes, her fingers curling around the iron bar over her head as she waited for the lash to fall. How many strokes before the pain would drive her to unconsciousness? she wondered morbidly. How many strokes would it take to steal the breath, the very life, from her body?
Why didn’t he begin?
She opened her eyes and looked over her shoulder. The Executioner was standing motionless, his head cocked to one side, as if he were listening to voices only he could hear.
He was perhaps the ugliest man she had ever seen. His hair was lank and brown, his face scarred by the pox. His lips were thick, his nose decidedly crooked. He had massive shoulders, a bull-like neck, and huge, hairy hands that could break her in half as easily as she might snap a twig.
She stared at him, wondering why he didn’t begin and get it over with. He nodded once, briefly, and then released her hands from the bar, though her wrists were still bound together by a narrow cord.
“Follow me,” he said.
She hesitated only a moment. Perhaps he still meant to take her life, but, be that as it may, she was grateful for the reprieve, however short it might be.
He opened the heavy, iron-barred door, turned left, and started down the narrow corridor, his footsteps as wary as a wolf on the prowl. Not once did he turn to see if she followed, yet she knew he was aware of her every move, her every breath.
Swift and sure, he made his way along the corridor and up a winding staircase until they reached the rear entrance of the dungeon. Without hesitation, he opened the heavy iron door and stepped outside.
Kylene drew a deep breath as she crossed the threshhold, feeling as if she had just crossed the boundary from death to life as she breathed in the sweet, clean scent of fresh air, of trees and earth.
“Hurry,” the Executioner said.
Kylene hastened after him, wishing he would stop long enough to free her hands. But then, perhaps he didn’t mean to free her at all. Perhaps he only meant to use her for his own amusement before carrying out the Interrogator’s orders.
The thought brought her to an abrupt halt.
Immediately, he whirled around to face her. “What is it?” he demanded curtly. “Why do you tarry? Is it your wish to die at the hands of the Executioner?”
Odd, Kylene thought, that he should speak of himself in such a way.
“No,” she replied. “I have no wish to die at your hands, nor anyone else’s.”
“You will not die by my hand, lady.” He glanced at her bound wrists as if noticing them for the first time. Muttering an oath, he drew his knife and cut her hands free. “Hurry now, before our escape is discovered.”
“Trust me a few more minutes,” he urged, “and all will be explained.” He cocked his head to one side. “They’re coming,” he said, and he held out his hand.
In that instant, Kylene knew that she did trust him, though she couldn’t help shuddering with revulsion as his thick, hairy hand closed over hers; then they were running up the hill, over the crest, and down the other side.
Two horses, saddled and bridled, awaited them.
“You can ride, can’t you?” the Executioner asked.
“Of course I can ride,” she said quickly, fearing that if she told the truth, he would leave her behind.
The Executioner looked skeptical; then, with a shrug, he lifted her onto the back of a long-legged gray mare.
Swinging aboard a big black stallion, he pounded his heels into the animal’s flanks.
The gray mare needed no urging. She raced after the other horse, almost unseating Kylene, who grabbed the saddle horn with one hand and the horse’s mane with the other, and held on for dear life. In truth, she had never ridden before; there had been no horses at the Motherhouse.
The Executioner glanced over his shoulder from time to time, no doubt to make sure she still followed him. She toyed with the idea of trying to get away from him, but it would be night soon, and she had no desire to ride through the forest alone. She would be easy prey for the many outlaws that roamed the countryside after dark.
After what seemed like hours, the Executioner drew his horse to a halt. Dismounting, he lifted Kylene from the back of her mount, tethered the horses to a sturdy tree, then led the way up a short steep cliff toward a small cave.
“We’ll stay the night here,” he said.
“And then what?”
“At dawn, we’ll ride for the Sea of Mouldour. My men have a ship waiting to take us to Argone.”
“Argone.” She spoke the word in the same tone she might have used if he’d told her they were going to Perdition’s flames.
“Would it do me any good?”
A wry smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. “No, lady, it would not.”
He gathered a handful of leaves and twigs and carried them into the cave. Moments later, a small, cheerful fire chased away the darkness.
Kylene stood at the entrance to the cavern. The fire’s warmth beckoned her even as the Executioner’s ugliness repelled her.
He glanced at her, a hulking shape in the dancing shadows cast by the flames.
“Come, warm yourself.” He looked at her askance when she hesitated, one grizzled brow quirked in amusement. “You still do not trust me?”
“Yes . . . no . . . I don’t know.”
Rising to his feet, he walked slowly toward her. “Trust me, lady, I will do you no harm.”
Removing his fur-lined cloak, he placed it over her shoulders.
“Who are you?” Kylene asked. “Why are we going to Argone? Why have you brought me here?”
“I will answer your questions in good time, lady. For now, I would know who you are.”
“It is as I told the Interrogator. My name is Kylene, and I am a foundling. The Sisterhood has cared for me since I was a child. I want only to take my final vows and join their holy order.”
He shook his head in disbelief. He had saved her life and she still didn’t trust him with the truth. And yet, he could understand her reluctance. He was, after all, in the guise of a stranger.
“Why would a woman as lovely as you seek such an existence?” he asked, willing to play along for a moment.
“I wish to embrace their way of life, to know the kind of peace that they enjoy.”
“What kind of life is that? To hide yourself behind high walls for the rest of your days?”
Kylene lifted her chin defiantly. “It is my life. What is it to you how I wish to spend it?”
“You are a woman of rare beauty. They will clothe you in shapeless black robes, cut off your hair, and cover your face with a veil.” Slowly, he shook his head. “It is a waste, to hide such perfection in ugliness.”
Kylene felt her cheeks grow warm under his praise. She had little experience with men, still less with worldly compliments.
“So,” he mused, “you are not the rightful Mouldour’s daughter, but a foundling.”
Kylene went suddenly cold. Would he kill her, now that he was convinced she was not Carrick’s seventh daughter?
She stared at him, mute, wondering if she could buy a little more time by lying. A sudden weariness overcame her. Lifting her chin defiantly, she stared at the Executioner.
“I am not his daughter,” Kylene said. “I have seen Lord Carrick but once, and from a distance. If it is your intention to kill me, then do it, but, pray, do it quickly and be done with it.”
He grinned, amused by her unexpected show of temper. “Why did Lord Carrick offer you sanctuary?”
Kylene shrugged. “I am told he is a kind man.”
“Kind, perhaps, but you cannot rule a country and maintain a throne with kindness.”
He thought of the waste brought about through war with Mouldour, the lives sacrificed on the field of battle, the homes and crops that had been destroyed. Of course, Carrick couldn’t be held entirely responsible. He had wanted peace. He had willingly agreed to see his daughter betrothed to the house of Argone in hopes of achieving peace.
But he had not been strong enough to keep the throne of Mouldour. Unfortunately, Bourke and his advisors seemed determined to keep the ancient feud alive, to seek the revenge that the ruling house of Mouldour had long felt was its due, and all because Hardane’s great-grandfather’s father had chosen to marry a Wolffan princess instead of the Mouldourian princess who had been selected for him. The Lord High Sovereign of Mouldour had been insulted when his daughter was passed over in favor of a woman he considered to be less than human. The Wolffan were an alien race. They were rumored to prowl the woods at night, slaughtering cattle and sheep and wild animals, stealing young children from their beds to be sacrificed to their heathen gods. The cry of war had been raised, and there had been war ever since.
“My people have never known kindness from any of Mouldour’s monarchs,” the Executioner remarked. “Surely Bourke does my liege no kindness by holding him prisoner in the dungeons on the Isle of Klannaad.”
Kylene leaned forward, fear for her own life momentarily forgotten. No place in all the known world was viewed with such horror as the dungeons located in the bowels of Castle Conn on the barren Isle of Klannaad. It was said that to be imprisoned there was to look into the face of certain death.
“Your liege is Lord Bourke’s prisoner?” she queried, frowning. “How can that be? Do you not serve Lord Bourke?”
“No, lady,” he said, tiring of the game. “I serve only my father, the Lord High Ruler of Argone.”
Kylene drew back as, quite unexpectedly, the Executioner’s gruesome face and form began to change.
Her breath caught in her throat as the man who lived in the shadow world of her dreams stood before her, his eyes as dark and stormy as winter clouds, his hair long and sinfully black, his skin the color of wild honey.
“You.” The single word whispered past her lips.
He inclined his head, the ghost of a smile hovering on his lips. “My lady.”
“Who are you?” She felt her mouth go dry as her gaze moved over him. Surely there could be no harm in looking, for he was beautiful enough to tempt Saint Lorinda herself.
“I am your betrothed, lady,” he said with a soft smile. “Hardane of Argone.”
Kylene shook her head. “I am not the woman you seek, my lord.” But now, looking at his broad shoulders, at the wide expanse of his chest, she felt suddenly envious of the woman who was destined to be his bride.
“Impossible,” he retorted sharply. “We have met often in your dreams.”
Kylene nodded. “That’s true, but I am not your betrothed. The Princess Selene is Carrick’s seventh daughter.”
Hardane grunted softly. Selene. Kylene. “What is the color of her hair, her eyes?”
“I know not. I have never seen her . . .” Kylene’s voice trailed off. “It was Selene you meant to communicate with, wasn’t it?” she asked, unable to stifle her disappointment.
The man of her dreams had become flesh—only he belonged to another. It was just as well, she thought, hoping to console herself. She had vowed to unite with the Sisterhood, to devote her life to easing the pain and suffering of others. There was no place in her future for a man, especially one who was heir to a throne.
“You can tell me the truth, lady. Surely you know I mean you no harm.”
“I am telling the truth,” Kylene replied quietly. “The Princess Selene is the woman you want.”
Hardane shook his head in confusion. It wasn’t possible. Only his betrothed, the woman destined to be his life-mate, had the power to rece. . .
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