Date: 06 Fyrfall 826G – Present Day
Tharon Blakesley stared in a daze when her wife declared that she refused to break her wedding vows or betray her family—the House of Arrington. For weeks, Tharon had planned and plotted how to gain access to Garrett’s office. The most crucial step was ensuring that Roswynd would remain asleep while Tharon sneaked off. The alcohol’s potency had been a risky gamble, but Tharon had refused to drug her wife. She had hoped the alcohol was strong enough that Roswynd wouldn’t notice Tharon’s absence from their bed. Instead, Roswynd had awakened and caught Tharon in Garrett’s office. Roswynd’s ignorance about Tharon’s spying would have been much easier for them, but now Roswynd was faced with a life-altering choice.
They were both forced to make a choice.
Tharon favored minimal action, allowing Roswynd to pick between her and the Arringtons. When Roswynd first entered the office, Tharon could have captured Roswynd, silenced her, and found another solution to being caught. However, Tharon truly believed that Roswynd would side with her in the end. How could her former best friend choose a House full of liars and murderers?
In a few short minutes, their argument had escalated to a level that undermined Tharon’s confidence, both in Roswynd’s pending decision and in Eustace’s assuredness that the House of Arrington was responsible. Roswynd stood her ground against Tharon, supporting the Arringtons as if their innocence was undeniable. Tharon swallowed against the building bile in her throat and held back the growing turmoil in her thundering heart.
“But there is one last thing I can do,” Roswynd declared in a peaceful tone that stirred dread inside Tharon’s already tight chest. What possible conclusion had Roswynd made that calmed her so? Tharon started to tremble, and the dryness in her mouth halted her from being able to speak again.
“Until the end of my days,” Roswynd whispered. Her features were serene, and her eyes were renewed with certain fire.
The strange declaration stole Tharon’s power. She stood rooted, her boots heavier than iron, and watched as Roswynd escaped the office. Until the end of my days, whispered her mind; the weight of the declaration clicked the same moment that the door’s bolt was locked from the outside.
“No!” Tharon launched toward the door, grabbed the handle, and fought with the locked bolt. She raised her fist, about to splinter the door with every bit of her strength, but that would only alert the guards of her presence. Her nails clawed into the door, but she pushed off. Her only option was to climb back down to their shared room, then give chase. Or else Tharon could be too late.
Roswynd was going to kill herself!
Every tiny fiber in Tharon’s body was charged with lightning. Her blood was on fire with the need to protect her wife. Tharon sprinted to the balcony, climbed over the side, and hurried down the rope, which was still attached to the lower balcony. Thank the Divine for any miracle at this point.
Once close enough, Tharon swung herself, leaped, and landed neatly on the bedroom’s balcony. She hastened to untie the double rope she had looped through the stone handrail of the office’s balcony. Not bothering to coil the rope, she snared most of it in her arms, grabbed the loose grappling hook and small sandbag from the floor, and rushed into the bedroom. She deposited the climbing gear into her trunk, slammed it shut, and ran out of the room.
Standing in the hallway, Tharon hesitated for a beat and tried to think what Roswynd might do to herself or even where, which could be any place. Roswynd had a dagger. Shaking her head, Tharon doubted Roswynd would cut or stab herself. Not with how much she hated the sight of blood.
“Prince Tharon?” a guard asked as he approached her. He came from the direction of the stairwell. The air around him was tense and smelled of both curiosity and concern.
Tharon chewed on a rising growl and used the guard to her benefit. “Have you seen my wife?”
The guard shifted on his boots and glanced away from Tharon, who was about to grab the guard and shake him. “Earlier she went upstairs, but I believe I heard her running down the stairs to the ground floor.”
Tharon held back another snarl, not wanting to alarm the guard any further. “Thank you.” She brushed past him, then sprinted down the stairwell. Her hunting instincts guided her outside into the cool darkness of the castle grounds. With flaring nostrils, she read the air and picked up faint notes of her wife’s scent. She followed the fading trail, running across the inner bailey and out of the inner iron gates. Her nose led her to the stable. Of course!
In the bleak light, Tharon followed the first line of stalls and slapped the door of Dragonfly’s empty stall. In her haste, she put on only Obsidian’s face tack and hurried her horse out of the stable. Tharon grabbed the mane and swung herself onto Obsidian’s bare back, urging him toward the main gate.
Sensing his owner’s frantic needs, Obsidian surged forward, then squealed and braked when two guards stepped into his path. He danced on his hooves, waiting for Tharon’s orders.
“Hooo there, Prince Tharon!” the right guard said. “Where are you off to? It is late.”
Tharon recognized the guard’s distinct voice and said, “I am in search of my wife. Which way did she ride, Flann?”
Flann approached the horse’s side and revealed his features in the firelight from the overhead lamps. “She rode off in a hurry and did not halt for us. She entered into the city and appeared to go west according to the wall guards.” He hadn’t signaled the other guard to get out of Tharon’s way, not that Tharon wasn’t against riding over him. “A few guards can accompany you.”
“There is no time.” Tharon nudged Obsidian forward. “I will find her. We will return by daybreak.”
Flann turned on his heels said, “At first light I will send out guards if you do not return!”
Tharon urged Obsidian through the gatehouse and onto the cobblestone streets of Earna. With it being the middle of the night, the streets were empty, giving her a cleared path to the western side of the city. Only a few city guards hollered for her, but she pushed Obsidian into a full gallop when they reached the city limits.
Obsidian whined and huffed as he galloped harder down the wide-open road. But he was forced to slow down when Tharon turned them into the black woods. Without the moon, it was difficult to see anything. Tharon was reliant on Obsidian’s better eyesight, as her partial blindness inhibited her.
Roswynd had ridden west, which meant the Icecrown Forest. The woodland was vast with hundreds of well-known and unknown spots throughout. However, Tharon was certain of the location that Roswynd would attempt suicide. Her heart wanted to seize in her chest, but she focused on the hunt that drove her to find the most precious piece of herself.
The Icecrown Forest was full of life, especially in early harvest. Despite the cool night, animals were active and laboring to store food for the approaching winter. Obsidian’s loud arrival chased most of them away. Vines and limbs attempted to snatch at Tharon, who unsheathed her left sword and slashed them out of the way. Finally, she spotted the familiar trail and turned Obsidian onto it. They were able to move a little faster, but it was a difficult ride due to the upward slope.
Tharon tried urging Obsidian, dreading what Roswynd might do to herself. She could already be dead. Even though logic told her that Roswynd was facing the same uphill battle, her imagination played out a horrible story in her head. If Roswynd managed to kill herself, then Tharon would do more than destroy the House of Arrington; she would burn the entire kingdom to the ground.
For ten long years, she had battled her way through Wyndfeld to avenge her mother and to claim Roswynd, against Saxon’s wishes. Her ultimate and secret goal was to marry Roswynd so that they were always together. She had kept at least one of their old vows. Even though it cost her all the others. Even though it cost her Roswynd’s love. Tharon willingly paid those prices if it meant having Roswynd at all. One day, Roswynd might have understood and perhaps accepted that the old Tharon was dead. She was the Black Wulf now. A preying knight with canines, swords, and a simmering hunger for revenge. The Black Wulf was an unlovable beast of blood and war, but a beast that would do anything to have Roswynd as a mate.
When another branch scraped at Tharon’s face, she slashed it out of the way, swallowing down a howl. If she alerted Roswynd, it could all be over. Parts of her wanted to believe Roswynd wouldn’t do this. But when Roswynd set her mind to an idea, she moved forward with great strength and intent as if the Divine carried her. The thought alone drove Tharon mad, making her hack at more branches. Once she found Roswynd, she would ensure they never relapsed into this chaos again.
Obsidian protested with a loud neigh, but he was so close. The incline started to flatten. Tharon recognized their location and sheathed her blade. Then Dragonfly’s scent hit her nose and caused her to scramble off Obsidian’s back. Matching her heart’s pace, Tharon bounded up the remainder of the hillside and leaped up and over a familiar boulder. She burst through the clearing and onto the overlook for the waterfall, which roared in the darkness.
Dragonfly whinnied and sounded the alarm of Tharon’s arrival. He hopped back onto his hinds but made no attempt to escape.
Tharon ran past the old but large dore tree they’d climbed throughout their childhood. Ignoring all the fond memories from their favorite spot, Tharon was faced with the worst future in front of her. She slowed and stood there with her hands fisted. “N-No,” she whispered between pants.
Roswynd stood at the edge of the overlook, peering past the side toward the brutal death of rushing, freezing water. She straightened and met Tharon’s gaze. The dagger was still in her hand, but she allowed it to slide from her fingertips. The sliver of moonlight to the east reflected against her tearstained cheeks. Roswynd’s mismatched eyes were lost, as if this lifetime was a heavy burden she could no longer carry.
“Stop,” Tharon whispered, unable to find strength in her voice as though she were a meek youth again. From the first day she met Roswynd, her Alpha had been imprinted to Roswynd’s Omega. They were destined for each other, in this lifetime and all the others. But as Roswynd swayed on the cusp of sacrifice, Tharon accepted all the wrong she had done to push Roswynd to this ending.
Tharon accepted her failures, but she denied this ending. They were not finished. Damaged things could be fixed, if she simply tried again. Her voice was weak, but her body carried her forward and crossed the distance. Yet each step was like a push to Roswynd, who fell back over the ledge. For a moment, Roswynd seemed to hover in the air with her arms spread out, but when she closed her eyes, gravity pulled her down. Tharon’s heart was in her throat as her fingertips grazed the front of her wife’s tunic.
After ten years, Tharon set free the one name she loved so much. The one name that broke and fixed her spirit all at once. The only name that meant anything to her after her mother’s death. The name she tried to purge from her heart, but that now jerked her to life and sent her diving over the ledge. The unrelenting roar was powerful, consuming Tharon as she plunged toward the inky, wet unknown far below. If she died here, at least it would be with Roswynd—better than facing a lifetime without her.
But death wasn’t waiting at the bottom of the dark abyss. For a moment, the waterfall’s great thunder was silenced by her body slicing into the icy water that pierced her being. Tharon launched to the surface and broke through the rushing waters, then gulped air. “Roswynd!” she cried out and searched for her wife while fighting the water’s rage.
The flow of the Razor River moved with the power of a blue dragon spewing ice. The larger rocks and boulders were jagged teeth that attempted to bite Tharon. She pushed off one with her feet and shoved the wet strands from her face. For an instant, she spotted coppery hair to her left and it sent her surging down the river.
“Roswynd!” Tharon called again, never losing sight of her wife’s distinct hair. She had to move faster before they arrived at the next waterfall. The damn river was tied to the White Razor Mountains, which fed the river with melted snow and ice from the summits. The freezing water played with Tharon’s heart rate, but she wasn’t leaving without Roswynd.
With every stroke of her arms, Tharon kicked harder and chased after Roswynd, who was floating like a rag doll. She used an approaching boulder to propel her, sending her within arm’s reach of her wife. Tharon surged forward and snared her wife before the water pulled Roswynd from her grasp.
Roswynd didn’t wake. She was unmoving and silent.
Tharon hugged Roswynd to her body, but then something firm and sharp pierced her back on the right side. She yelped and whimpered in agony. The racing waters pinned her to it, as if her blood were the penalty for rescuing Roswynd. Tharon gritted her teeth, reached behind, and touched a tree branch that had skewered her like meat. Roswynd was unharmed by it, but it meant nothing if Tharon couldn’t get them out of the river.
The movement of water indicated another boulder was nearby. The limb had probably tangled itself around the rock at some point in its trip down the river. If nothing else, the tree it had been attached to was keeping them from the next waterfall.
Looking toward both sides of the river, Tharon jogged her memory about their location, and which side of the shore was easier to navigate. Their horses were on the shore to her left. Tharon gritted her teeth, tightened her arm around Roswynd, kept their heads above water, and reached behind for the branch. She snapped it free, but pieces were still buried in her body. She had bigger problems.
The river fought to take them farther down and closer to the waterfall, but Tharon used the extended tree for support against the rushing current. She had to be close to the shore. Tharon kicked and wrestled against the river’s power. Her body was weakening faster with the stake lodged in her back. If only Tharon could rest for a moment. She could fix this, all of it, but she needed a break for once in her life.
Her legs started to slow and her thrashing arm was heavier than iron. All she needed was a minute, to breathe and let go. Then she would try again, she promised herself. A small, familiar hand clenched against her stomach as Tharon was prepared to relax her muscles.
Roswynd was still alive.
If Roswynd were awake, she would tell Tharon how stupid she was for giving up, even for a second. Tharon roared and rallied against the river that wanted to take them away from their years of suffering. But they could fix this, could heal the damage they’d done to each other and move forward—if Tharon simply fought for Roswynd rather than against her. Her hopes lifted as the shadows from the trees welcomed them back toward solid ground. Then her boots scraped against the stony bottom. The shred of traction was everything.
Tharon pushed forward and faintly smiled in triumph as her boots connected with the bottom. The water started to recede and weaken against her. No longer needing to swim, Tharon lifted her wife out of the frigid water and cradled her to her chest, ignoring the bite against her back. She walked onto the stony beach, almost sliding on the damn river stones.
Once out of the water, Tharon collapsed to her knees, gasped, and warred against the exhaustion in her bones. Tilting her head back, she released a piercing howl that had built up inside her since the moment Roswynd fled the castle. Everything Tharon had done in her life had been with the intent for them to be together. But instead, her actions led them to this breaking point. She was stupid and wrong.
As the howl faded from her lips, Tharon dropped her head forward and stared at Roswynd’s pale cheek. We’re not finished, she told her wife. She lowered Roswynd’s legs, then hastened to find a pulse along her wife’s neck. “Please, please.” Her nimble fingers searched for any sign. Roswynd’s earlier touch hadn’t been a dream or the river’s current moving her wife’s hand.
“N-No,” Tharon whispered, her voice faint. Moving her touch higher, she brushed a weak throb near the underside of Roswynd’s jaw. Tharon whimpered and pressed her fingers against the spot that pulsed with determination. Tears welded in Tharon’s eyes, burning hard with regret. She lifted Roswynd closer, nuzzled her, and whined, but her wife didn’t respond to anything.
Tharon needed to focus rather than let her stupid emotions rule her. She was the lord commander, a knight, and the Black Wulf. Not a silly pup lost in the woods. She began with Roswynd’s care. Tharon placed her wife on the ground and checked for any noticeable injuries, such as broken bones. Nothing felt broken, but a rib or two could be damaged from the river’s force. There were a few scrapes across Roswynd’s face that might have been from tree branches on the ride to the overlook.
Their biggest issue was their clothes, which were soaked with icy mountain water. With it being Starfall, the night air was chilly enough to keep their clothes damp and frigid. The ride back to Skye Hunter Castle would take a while, between the darkness and Roswynd’s current state. Tharon needed to find them warmth quickly.
“Frostwood,” Tharon muttered, recalling the Arrington’s manor home. The estate was about a five- or ten-minute walk from here. She stayed there numerous times as a pup and assumed the Arringtons still owned it. Sliding her arms back under Roswynd, she lifted them both up from the ground and groaned against the stake still impaled in her back. She considered removing it, but right now it was holding in her blood like a wooden plug.
The first step felt like walking into a bolt of lightning. It stole Tharon’s breath, and she almost fell to the ground. She cried low, but pushed forward rather than surrender to her misery. Roswynd needed her to be strong. Each movement had the stake digging into her back. She cursed it with every colorful word she’d learned in the army, until her adrenaline took over, then she rushed through the trees and hoped to find her way to the trail that led to the overlook. Much to her relief, she entered the trail. If she had any more luck, the horses would come to her.
Tharon whistled for Obsidian, who neighed in the distance. He trotted to her, finding his way and whinnying. “Good boy.” She frowned and recalled how Roswynd called for her horse. She duplicated the whistle and sighed when the horse cantered down the incline next and joined them. “You are a good boy too.” Tharon wanted to carry Roswynd to the manor, but she feared dropping her. Instead, Obsidian followed Tharon’s command to get down on his stomach, and he stayed still until Roswynd was draped over his back.
Clicking her tongue, Tharon kept her hands on Roswynd while Obsidian rose. She grabbed Dragonfly’s reins and noted the lack of saddle on Dragonfly’s back too. Shaking her head, she guided the horses down the incline while keeping a hand on Roswynd’s shoulder. The walk down the hill was tedious and slow, but it was better than jarring Roswynd.
They increased the pace once they were on flatter land, then headed for Frostwood Manor. The horses were antsy, but calmed with Tharon’s reserved nature. At least, she attempted a cool aura to not frighten the horses. Her mind was spinning in every direction as she replayed Roswynd’s willingness to sacrifice her life for personal peace. Again and again, Roswynd kept falling over the side of the cliff without any regret or remorse, as if Tharon’s presence had been the final push she needed to kill herself.
Huffing and gasping, Tharon hurried the horses and put distance between them and the overlook. Frostwood Manor seemed to be leagues away, but it emerged from the woods like forgotten ruins in Tharon’s memory. Little had changed in its appearance, and she rushed to the main entrance. She hitched both horses to a post and promised them she’d return soon.
With Roswynd in her arms, Tharon climbed the few steps and crashed her shoulder against the right door, which cracked and shuddered. Backing up, she slammed her foot into the same door two times before its bolt and hinges gave way. Tharon shoved the door wider, hurried through the entrance, and went deeper into the manor. Without hesitation, she took the stairs to the second floor, then went to Roswynd’s room, which was to the right near the top. This time, the door opened easily and welcomed them to the room filled with childhood memories.
Tharon shoved back the whispers in her head and crossed the distance to the fireplace. She kicked the table out of the way, then scooted the curly bear fur closer to the hearth. Kneeling, she snarled against the pain radiating up her injured side. Once Roswynd was on the fur, she handled the fireplace, which took longer than necessary due to Tharon’s injury.
The initial heat from the fire was a blessing and gave Tharon hope that Roswynd might be okay. She went over to the bed and stripped off two furs, came back, and dropped them nearby, then stripped the cold, damp clothes off her wife’s petite frame. She covered Roswynd with the furs and hung the clothes on the armchairs.
“I will return,” Tharon whispered and then departed the room, which held Roswynd’s faded scent from over the years. She wanted to stay and be comforted by it, but the horses needed to be stabled. Both animals whined in greeting and followed Tharon to the stable near the manor. She removed the tack and hung both pieces, then jogged to the house. The front door was in rough shape, but she propped it into place. If the Arringtons didn’t hang or behead her later, she would need to replace the door.
Once in the house, Tharon searched the place for cloths and alcohol, needing both for her wound. She found a few items in the kitchen, then hurried to the bedroom and discovered Roswynd’s condition unchanged. With a sigh, she retrieved another fur and blanket, then started to strip her clothes and hang them in different spots. One of the swords’ tips she’d placed in the fire, but it would be a while before it was ready.
Now naked, other than her breast band, Tharon placed a folded fur on the hearth and sat on it with her back to the fire. She tried to inspect the wound, but any twist of her torso made it a hundred times worse. Growling, she lifted her legs and leaned against them while she waited for the sword to be ready. Several times, she came close to falling asleep and caught herself before she tumbled forward into Roswynd.
Her wife had remained still and quiet, but her breathing had deepened in the last twenty minutes. Tharon checked Roswynd’s pulse again and sighed in relief at the stronger thrum. It was a matter of time before Roswynd woke and could tell Tharon whether she’d suffered any other injuries. But the emotional damage Tharon had done to Roswynd left Tharon trembling and wondering what would happen now.
Tharon sighed and glanced at the growing embers under the blade. Soon the tip would be hot enough. She grabbed the jug to her right and drank a mouthful from it to dull her senses. She could have drunk more, but instead she poured the clear alcohol onto a folded cloth and rested it on her thigh. The sword’s tip was glowing.
With dedicated focus, Tharon reached behind and wrenched out the stake with only a grunt. She tossed it into the fire, picked up the soaked cloth, and pressed it against the bleeding wound. The pain was strong, but it wouldn’t compare to later. Without anyone to inspect the injury, she had to assume the worst. The bloody cloth confirmed what she needed to do.
Using the cloth, Tharon grabbed the blade about halfway down and pulled the glowing tip out of the embers. There was no need to brace herself, as she had cauterized her wounds several times in the past. She pushed the flat side of the heated blade against the injury and snarled against the agonizing heat that tore across her back. She reached out and clawed at the mantle while she kept the sword in place for several heartbeats. Once on the verge of blacking out, Tharon withdrew the blade and left it on the hearth.
Tharon stood in a hunched stance, stepped over Roswynd, and then collapsed onto the empty fur next to her wife. Now on her stomach, she dragged the blanket over her body and allowed her world to go black.
* * *
Birds sang and chirped in the distance, invading Tharon’s sleep. The morning songs were often pleasant, but today she didn’t want to hear any of it. Every one of her muscles hurt, and there was horrible throbbing along her back, to the right side. Whatever battle she fought against Wyndfeld yesterday had rattled her brain. Then a weak voice stirred her. She would recognize that voice anywhere, even after ten years. Her heart lurched once her recent memories were charged by Roswynd repeating her name.
“Tharon?” Roswynd whispered again. There were bits of confusion and worry in her tone, charging Tharon more.
Groaning, Tharon lifted her head and looked over at Roswynd, who was awake but remained on her back.
“Where…” Roswynd scanned their immediate surroundings that were faint under the predawn light. The fire was nearly gone, and only the embers gave off an orange glow around them. “How did we get here?” She coughed, then turned her head toward Tharon and frowned after a moment. “I…” She shot upright but gasped as the falling fur revealed her naked upper body. She clutched it to her chest and looked back at Tharon.
“I brought us here.” Tharon rolled to her bad side but used her arm to keep the pressure off the injury. “After I fished you out of the Razor River.” There was no spite or blame in her tone; only continued exhaustion from last night. She was drained from battling for so long.
“Y-You…” Roswynd stared in shock at her wife. Then different ranges of darkness ghosted across her features. Her mismatched eyes burned and iced over once she settled on rage. “How c-could… w-why did you when I-I…” She was trembling and words were beyond her means. “No!” She hopped up without concern for her nudity.
Tharon groaned and tried to snatch Roswynd’s hand, but she was too slow. She drew in a pained breath and forced her body to move, especially as Roswynd grabbed her clothes. “Do not leave,” she called.
Roswynd stood near the bed and hastened to get her clothes on without looking at Tharon. She nearly toppled when she put on her trousers, but she forwent lacing them all the way and tied them off halfway.
Tharon allowed the blanket to fall from her body as she stood. “Wait,” she said, needing to talk this out for the first time. But Roswynd had on her riding boots and was out of the room. “Shit!” She wiped the sweat from her forehead and grabbed her trousers, not caring about the rest. She hopped into them on her way to the open door. “Stubborn Omega,” she muttered and jogged through the manor.
Roswynd peered over her shoulder after moving the damaged front door. She broke free from the confines of the manor and stumbled down the porch steps before Tharon came out next.
Tharon followed after her wife, who was a few steps ahead of her. She halted and yelled, “Please stay, Roswynd!” Regardless of where Roswynd went, Tharon would find her again and again.
Tripping, Roswynd landed on her hands and knees, but she remained there. She was panting and slumped forward, winded by the escape. Rolling onto her butt, Roswynd stared at her wife and whispered, “What?” Her jaw quivered as her breathing became more labored.
Tharon covered her heaving chest, above the breast wrap. “Please stay.”
Roswynd rose and shook her head. “You do not get to say my name now. Not after everything that you have done to me and to my family.” She growled low, then asked, “And stay for what? Stay for the lies, the hatred, the revenge?”
Trying to work her jaw, Tharon wanted to plead for Roswynd to stay for her. But the request would be laughed at after everything. Perhaps she had done more than damage their relationship.
Perhaps Tharon had broken it.
“I did not wish to be saved!” Roswynd shouted. “I am finished with this life!” Her cold declarations struck Tharon and cracked open the past ten years of silence between them.
Tharon closed her eyes, but her tears were stronger than her. She hadn’t cried since her mother’s death, believing she had given away all her tears. Her breaths quickened while her heart slammed against her chest. She was going to lose Roswynd regardless of her attempts; she would be taken from her as her mother was. “Then I am finished too!” she yelled across the estate.
Roswynd swallowed, then the rage in her features softened to a simmer.
“I have thrown away everything so that I could give my mother peace and have you back!” Tharon fisted her hands and allowed herself to unravel from the inside out. “For days, I watched my mother slowly choke and drown on her own blood because of something she ate or drank at the one festival that I looked forward to year after year. The one time of the year that I looked forward to the most because it was our birthdays, our time together, and the happiest time our families shared.”
Roswynd was panting, clenching and unclenching her hands while Tharon voiced herself for the first time in a decade.
“Not only had I lost my mother, but I was forced to let go of my best friend!” Tharon was gasping and her skin burned so much it itched to her bones. “I defended you day in and day out until my father forced me to accept that you were an Arrington—the enemy. At the age of fifteen, what was I supposed to think or do? My mother was murdered by my second family.”
“We did not murder your mother!” Roswynd screamed across the estate, which echoed it back to them. She was red in the face, driven by the determination that blazed in her eyes. She came closer, and the conviction in her expression was unbreakable. The power behind her stance and voice rattled every nerve ending inside Tharon, who could recall holding the same ground against her father and brother. Over a decade ago, a similar argument had been hashed out, but this time it was Roswynd standing against Tharon.
With renewed fire, Roswynd demanded, “Did you ever once stop to question why we would want to murder your mother?”
Tharon ignored the shaking in her legs, matching Roswynd’s piercing gaze. Tiny beads of sweat rolled down her temples, warning her that her body was shutting down.
“Why would we murder her?” Roswynd asked in a gentler tone. “What could we possibly gain from her death?” She held out her arms. “Ten fucking years of war, thousands of deaths, and millions of resources wasted on a lie.” Dropping her arms, she shook her head and whispered, “We loved her.” She peered up at Tharon, then wiped the tears from her face. “I loved her.”
“I know,” Tharon murmured in a broken voice. She threaded her fingers in her hair, pulled at the strands until it caused a throb along her scalp. “My father said—”
“That we poisoned her food?” Roswynd huffed. “There were hundreds of people attending the ball.” She hesitated, then suggested, “Any one of the nobles could have poisoned your mother.”
Tharon glanced away and thought back to the conversation she and Saxon had with their father before war was declared on Wyndfeld. Eustace was certain and firm in his belief that the Arringtons had poisoned his wife. He had made mention of proof about a noble witnessing an incident at the ball, but Tharon couldn’t recall the details, or she had missed them. At such a young age, Tharon was pushed into agreeing and believing her father and brother.
“You knew that at the time,” Roswynd stated in a harsh breath. Her eyes darkened to a burning and icy shade while her heavy pheromones whipped around them. Tharon’s unspoken thoughts somehow were interpreted by her former best friend, who excelled at reading Tharon. “You fucking knew we did not kill your mother, but yet you agreed with them!”
“Because they are my family!” Tharon growled and fisted her hands. Her ire deflated Roswynd’s bite, but they glared at each other in return. “I could not abandon them!”
“But you abandoned me!” Roswynd covered her chest while her voice boomed across the estate. “I was your family too!”
“You never stopped being family to me!” Tharon’s honesty hit Roswynd with enough force to send Roswynd back a step. “And I never stopped loving you,” she whispered and sighed after their mutual battle started to ebb. The earlier bite in their pheromones had faded. “I simply buried it deeper and deeper so no one was aware.”
This time, Roswynd turned her head away and covered her face with her hand. A soft whimper escaped between her fingers, then she uttered, “N-No. You said you did not vow to love me.”
“Because I still do.” Tharon shifted closer but kept enough space between them. “Have I not proven it? Or is jumping off a cliff not proof?”
“I did not ask you to save me!”
“Did you think I would not try? Or that I would not join you in death?” Tharon said with another rise of her voice. She held out her arms and argued, “It is not until the end of your days. It will be until the end of our days.”
Roswynd growled after Tharon’s reminder about their vows from their childhood and now their marriage. She looked upward toward the sky and bellowed, “This is madness, Tharon!” Coming closer, she held her wife’s determined stare. “I cannot live this way. I cannot watch everyone I love be killed over a lie!” She bared her teeth before she whispered, “Despite what your father or brother has said, this is not justice for Edeva. She would have never wished for any of this to happen to us.”
Tharon half opened her mouth, but she remained silent. For many years, she had not uttered, much less heard, her mother’s name. Roswynd spoke it so freely, and it was a blessing to hear it again. Tharon had forgotten her mother’s face, voice, and scent. She had buried them with her mother years ago near the family’s estate outside of Wulfbite. Instead, Edeva had become a shadow in Tharon’s memory until Roswynd’s reasoning unlocked the box that had sealed her mother away from her mind.
“We have remembered her with blood, death, and hatred. Edeva was never any of those things.” Roswynd’s eyes brimmed, but she pressed on despite the tremor in her voice. “We all have disgraced Edeva’s memory.”
Tharon had lowered her arms to her side. Somehow Roswynd’s simple yet insightful observation cut the thick line of rage that her brother and father had wrapped around her. She covered her sticky, bare chest that fell and rose with strange weightlessness. “You are right.”
Roswynd gasped low, then the tears fell to her cheeks. She grabbed Tharon’s hands and clutched them harder than manacles. “Then tell me you still believe in my family’s innocence, please.”
After a swallow, Tharon said, “I-I do.” She returned Roswynd’s grip and ignored the tremble in her legs. Closing her eyes, she allowed her mother’s image to calm her rising regret about the past. Yet, it was impossible to take shelter from the truth. “I have spilled years of blood in my mother’s name,” she uttered before her knees buckled, sending her to the ground before Roswynd. A guttural howl erupted from her. She had run out of words to express herself or the frantic rush of fear that was unbottled last night when Roswynd gave up on them.
“Tharon!” Roswynd freed their hands, darted forward between Tharon’s grounded knees, and slipped her arms around Tharon’s shoulders and chest.
Tharon continued to howl, deep and wrenching, but it was freeing as she reached the crescendo. Once her howl began to die, she managed to place her shaking arms around Roswynd’s waist and press her palms against Roswynd’s midback. Her howl faded to a soft whimper, and Roswynd pushed Tharon’s head into Roswynd’s breasts. Delicate fingers massaged Tharon’s scalp and eased the last bit of strain in Tharon’s body. Her eyes wanted to roll back without her command, but she fought her body’s needy demands when Roswynd spoke.
“We cannot continue this way, Tharon, please. I do not wish for any more of us to die over this lie.” Roswynd lowered her head and leaned it against Tharon’s own. She was quaking in Tharon’s arms, but she remained upright. “I do not know if this is your father’s lie, Saxon’s lie, or another’s lie, but I will find out if you give me time.”
With a heavy breath, Tharon tilted her head back until she could see Roswynd’s reddened eyes. “We must do this together. I must end this war for my mother.” Her father had started the war in Edeva’s name, but Tharon was guilty of advancing it. Edeva had been gentle, kind, and loving, especially toward her family. Such a bitter war would have been an absolute horror to Edeva. Tharon had incredible senses and skills, yet her mind was more blinded than her bad eye toward her wrongdoings.
Roswynd cupped her wife’s flushed cheeks and searched her face for a long moment before a relieved breath came from deep in her. “We can only do this together if you open up to me, please.”
Tharon chewed on her bottom lip and considered Roswynd’s request. Since their wedding, she had ensured that Roswynd learned little about Tharon’s changes as a person. At first, the task had been easy because they were separated for so long and Tharon’s presence scared everyone except her wife. As the sun rose and set, she found it more difficult to not return to old habits with Roswynd, who had an uncanny ability to understand Tharon when they were pups. Now faced with Roswynd’s outright wishes to be closer, she could no longer ignore the growing stone of fear in her gut. Roswynd would be appalled with who Tharon was now compared to the shy but cute pup she had once been.
“I have destroyed everything in my wake,” Tharon murmured and watched her wife’s features. “Including myself. I am not the same person you once loved when we were pups.” Roswynd’s developing forlorn expression cut into Tharon. “I am this dark thing that happens to still look like Tharon, but this version is older, ugly, and stupid.” She whined low and asked, “What is there left of me to love?” Her soul was blackened and little in her was held together any longer. She wanted to sink through the ground and join Gyldr in the afterlife where she could repent for her sins. Then perhaps one day be granted to see her mother, who would love her despite her mistakes.
“No, no-no-no.” Roswynd jerked Tharon’s head back until their eyes locked again. Her passion was flushed across her cheeks and down her neck, and it spread over her chest, which was exposed between the tunic’s opening. “I am not blind.” She flinched at her poor choice of words considering Tharon’s partial blindness. After a sigh, she persisted and said, “I am well aware you are not that pup anymore. I know Edeva’s death and the war has remade you. But I also have not stopped believing that there are pieces of my best friend left. Why else would you risk your life for mine last night? Or teach me archery? Or even give me a ring with such meaning?” She indicated her wedding band.
“Perhaps I was attempting to gain your trust simply to betray you,” Tharon whispered and frowned. Indeed, last night she had betrayed Roswynd by going into Garrett’s office. Yet, Tharon was never attempting to garner Roswynd’s trust for an ulterior motive. All of her interactions with Roswynd were from a genuine place inside her that she believed was gone. Even after all this time, Tharon found she desired to see Roswynd smile. However, she could not fault Roswynd for questioning each of Tharon’s motives over the past weeks.
“Honestly, I thought that at first,” Roswynd admitted with a less-than-proud voice. She dropped her shoulders and shook her head. “Until you gave me a bow and taught me to shoot.”
“Because you could then shoot me?” Tharon quipped, but her joke missed its mark.
Grumbling, Roswynd shook her head and replied, “Because you have always known how much I have wished to learn archery. Only my best friend would risk my father’s ire to teach me something I am not allowed to learn.”
Tharon growled low, pulled Roswynd closer, and rested her chin on her wife’s chest. “You may learn whatever you wish to learn.” Her strength drained from her limbs when Roswynd beamed at her.
“That is my best friend,” Roswynd declared. Her upturned lips trembled a bit, but her eyes shone with an unblemished love that caused Tharon to turn her head to the side. “Tharon, please look at me.” Her sweet pheromones grew and filled Tharon’s mind, willing her to peer upward again. She started to breathe harder again, and somehow their physical contact felt too limited. Tharon hastened to slip her hands under Roswynd’s tunic, and she groaned at the soft flesh that eased the difficulty of their conversation. For so many years, she had slashed and punched her way through life, and now she had to talk through her dark situation. She was grateful to face it all with Roswynd.
“There is nothing about you that will chase me away,” Roswynd whispered, then bent forward until their foreheads met. “And deep inside you, you already know this to be true. So please allow me to love you, again.”
Tharon was lost and rediscovered in her wife’s devotion. As much as she was aching for her mother again, Roswynd was Tharon’s beginning and ending. Her brother’s warning to not allow Roswynd Arrington into her head was his fear, not hers. She wanted to be Roswynd’s again and was tired of fighting against her natural desire. “Yes, I know.” She tightened her grip against Roswynd’s back muscles. “Somehow I must fix all the damage I have done.” She frowned at the daunting task. It would perhaps take the rest of her life, but she was willing to do so in honor of her mother, and to have Roswynd at her side. Deep inside, her Alpha tugged and pulled at her to care first for her Omega. If she could start there, then the rest would be a little easier. “Please tell me, what can I fix between us?” A familiar fogginess started to settle in her head, but she tried to push it aside. Beads of sweat were collecting at her nape and rolling down her back.
Roswynd remained quiet for a beat while her breathing started to accelerate. She swept back a few strands from Tharon’s face and whispered, “Exchange the friendship vows with me again.”
Tharon closed her eyes and blocked out the blurriness of her vision. “You are willing to bound yourself to me again after all I have done?”
“Tharon,” Roswynd murmured and gathered her wife’s face into her hands. Once Tharon opened her orange eyes, she revealed a smile and whispered, “We will always be bound to each other. But now we can begin again.”
Tharon nodded and murmured, “Yes. We will exchange them, and I will never break them again.”
“If you do break them again, it will be the end of our days,” Roswynd swore. Tharon swallowed but accepted the consequences if she failed a second time. Roswynd brushed her thumb across Tharon’s temple, gathering the perspiration there. Her lips turned down while her eyes rounded in alarm. “You are burning up.”
“Yes, it is a fever.”
“Pardon?” Roswynd wiped more of the sweat off Tharon’s brow and then looked more closely at her eyes. “Why are you sick?” Her voice grew more frantic. She squatted down and checked Tharon’s pulse.
“Infection,” Tharon whispered, eyes growing heavy. But Roswynd patted her cheeks to get her attention.
“Infection from what? Are you hurt?” Roswynd searched her wife’s exposed upper body and growled at the lack of explanation. “Tharon!”
Shaking her head, Tharon refocused and said, “A tree branch pierced my back when we were in the river.”
“Fuck!” Roswynd snarled again, then pivoted around Tharon and gasped. “You cauterized it!” She hissed, shook her head, and shifted until she had an arm across Tharon’s midback. “Stand up with me. We need to get you back inside so you can rest.”
“No, we have to return to Skye Hunter Castle before Flann sends out guards for us.” But Tharon obeyed Roswynd’s guidance toward the manor.
“No, we are staying here.” Roswynd navigated them up the steps, then she kicked the door in and walked them over it.
Tharon snorted at her wife’s abrasive attitude with the ruined door. “I will fix that later.”
“That is the least of our concerns.” Roswynd guided her wife to the upper floor, then beelined into her bedroom. “Come now. Get into bed.” She assisted Tharon after she tossed the two remaining blankets aside. “Let me get your trousers off.”
Tharon remained sitting and stared across the room. “This was not how I envisioned you taking off my clothes.”
“This is not funny,” Roswynd hissed, then yanked the trousers free and tossed them to the floor. She touched Tharon’s forehead again and asked, “Have you drunk any water?”
“I had plenty of water from the Razor River,” Tharon replied with a touch of amusement.
“Tharon,” Roswynd managed between grouses, then nudged her wife. “Lean forward.” Once she had access, she removed the breast wrap and touched near the wound. “I am going to clean this and wrap it.”
Tharon managed a weak nod, then rolled to her right and collapsed onto her stomach. “There is an alcohol jug by the fire.”
Roswynd huffed and said, “There is a balm in my parents’ room. I will be back in a few minutes.” The sound of her footsteps faded from the room.
After a minute, Tharon allowed her body to drift off, but Roswynd’s return stirred her awake again. She groaned and turned her head toward her wife. Roswynd carried a jar in one hand and a small clay jug in the other. Before Tharon could move, a small hand pressed on her shoulder and immobilized her with little effort.
“Stay there.” Roswynd placed the jug on the floor and opened the jar, which revealed a white balm with an herbal scent. While she applied it to the wound, Tharon noticed the white cloth hanging across Roswynd’s shoulder. “What happens now?” she asked, holding back hisses while Roswynd applied the salve.
Roswynd paused and cut her eyes to Tharon’s features. “You rest, then we will go back to Skye Hunter Castle.”
“After that?” Tharon asked and caught the faint tremble in her own voice. She cursed herself, but her life was taking a new turn that she hadn’t planned on, ever. In many ways, Roswynd was in control of where they would go from here. As the lord commander, Tharon had absolute control over her army, her soldiers, and even the future of her kingdom. Her uneasiness wasn’t from Roswynd but from the uncertainty of their situation.
“Well, after that, we will eat and bathe,” Roswynd replied, closed up the jar, and smelled her own tunic. “Or perhaps bathe then eat.” She canted her head and regarded her wife for a moment. “Then we will talk and work out a plan.” Pulling the cloth off her shoulder, she began to wrap it around Tharon’s stomach and back. “Together,” she whispered and smiled at Tharon, who had raised her lower body so Roswynd could work more easily.
Tharon rumbled, closed her eyes, and murmured, “Together.” After another minute, Roswynd withdrew and made a few different noises, but Tharon was almost asleep, until a hand was shaking her shoulder.
“Tharon, come on. I need you to drink some water.”
Eyes fluttering open, Tharon focused on her wife’s exhausted features and said, “You should lie down.” Her Alpha stirred at the idea of Roswynd needing care too.
“I will after you drink,” Roswynd promised and indicated the mug in her hand.
Tharon groaned, turned onto her left side, and drank the water in three large swallows. She lowered back onto her stomach and snuggled into the pillow. After another minute, Roswynd’s scent surrounded her, then a warm presence was next to her in the bed.
Roswynd brushed Tharon’s hair back, then nuzzled her and whispered, “Thank you for risking your life to save mine.” She released a shaky breath, then started to withdraw, until Tharon placed a hand against Roswynd’s neck. Swallowing, Tharon used the last of her reserves to say, “Do not ever do anything that stupid again.”