Red

an excerpt



Chapter One

The sounding of the village bell sent a shiver through Ceron. He gave a soft groan. Of late it could only mean one thing; another run-in by a villager with a Wolven. He rubbed his eyes; the orbs were still heavy with sleep. He found it hard to understand why, after so many years of the villagers and the nearby Wolven pack living harmoniously, there would suddenly be such antipathy between the races.

He yawned as he cast his mind back over recent events. One villager had complained of harassment by Wolven males, another even showed the signs of claw marks down his jerkin. Equally, the Wolven Alpha male made repeated accusations that their water was being contaminated, or that their food source, the animals they preyed on, was being chased away before the Wolven could catch what they needed.

Like everyone in his village he knew that Wolven lived in extended family packs; not in houses, but in large, wooden caravans. He had seen some of these caravans from a distance, and had been amazed at how beautifully crafted they were, each uniquely carved and painted. The Wolvens' specially bred, massive horses pulled the caravans when the pack moved. But this pack had been living next to Ceron's village for at least four generations. This was their home as much as anyone who lived in the village.

They even traded with the village. Wolven were gifted weavers and made beautiful clothing decorated with intricate sewing. They were also furriers and providers of meat. His village was not particularly wealthy. There were no farmers or land owners with large numbers of domesticated animals for food. The village made use of the meat from the wild animals the Wolven supplied, whether it was the caprea that leapt high up in the mountains, or deor or arktos that roamed deep in the forest bordering his village.

The male caprea's large horns were prized by silversmiths for making jewellery. The deor skin provided leather, and the huge arktos, good thick fur that the Wolven traded or made into clothing. Ceron knew they traded their goods with other villagers and even the nearby town. If the Wolven moved on, he was sure it would be to the detriment of his village.

"Where would we get meat or fur from if they go?" Ceron spoke aloud. Sometimes he needed the sound of his own voice to stave off loneliness. He shook his head. At the moment, the two peoples seemed to be finding it increasingly difficult to live in the accord they had once enjoyed.

Ceron ran his hands through his long, rose-gold hair before securing it at the nape of his neck. Loose, it reached to his shoulder blades. He had inherited the colour from his mother. The thought of his parents made him reach for the chain on his neck where their rings hung. No matter how poor he was, he would never sell them. One day he hoped to wear the one and give the other in marriage.

He stretched and yawned. He had already begun the work of grinding grain to make flour for the village. He always rose and started this task before even dressing. He was up a good hour or two before anyone else. Once the mill wheel mechanisms were working he could time his checks to ensure enough grain was poured through.

His other job was working the dough that went to make up bread for the baker to bake. He'd already worked several batches while the mill ground the grain. The miller and baker were brothers. And although they were hard taskmasters, they were fair and provided him with a place to sleep, and food, even if his wages were meagre. In this way, he could ensure his grandmother's small vegetable patch was supplemented by whatever he could offer.

As the last of the grain passed through the mill, Ceron could take time to hurry to his grandmother's and work the next batches of dough on his return. He was grateful for the freedom he had in his jobs.

Thinking of his grandmother made him smile. She was an indomitable lady who always wore a white shift and red apron. She adamantly refused to move into the village from her cottage. Even with the unrest between the village and the Wolven. It was quicker to cut through the ancient woods to reach her than go around, despite the rumours that Wolven now prowled in them. Ceron had not been molested by one when visiting.

Yet.

Annoyed with himself, Ceron pushed the uncharitable thought aside.

"Wolven needed a place to live, food to eat, and water to drink, too."

They kept to their packs and had little contact with humankind except through their Alpha when trading. Ceron thought it sad that the two peoples had always lived near, and yet there were still those who had a deep, abiding hatred for the Wolven.

Groaning softly, Ceron stretched again, getting the last of the kinks out of his body. Removing the coarse bed-shift he wore, he gazed down at his slender frame. It was difficult to set the mill wheels in motion, given his slight form; however, he had found a way. There was no choice, he needed the work. There was his grandmother to care for.

The responsibility fell to him as his parents hadn't survived the fever that gripped many of the villagers two intensely cold winters previously. He had lived thanks only to his grandmother's unfailing care. The village's doctor had given up on Ceron when his parents had failed to respond to the doctor's ministrations, focusing his attentions on those who seemed to be recovering--and who could pay.

Reaching for the leggings and day-shift he wore, he looked at them critically and shook his head. He had only one other change of clothing.

"These are getting so thin that they'll soon be indecent to wear. The Wolven may be talented weavers and furriers, but I'll never be able to afford something they make. Maybe I could barter some of Grandma's vegetables, as well as find some additional work somewhere, to buy an inexpensive shift. Grandma can probably mend the leggings. After all, what's one more patch?"

Taking care on the rickety steps, Ceron slowly walked down the old, wooden spiral staircase from his tiny bedroom and washed. A bucket of water for him was set aside in the mill, and its coldness made Ceron shiver. He dried himself quickly and then headed to collect the bread, cheese, and drinking water or watered ale that the miller's wife would have left for him. He gave a slight smile.

To his delight, the miller's wife, Mistress Carys, had a soft spot for him and included some bacon and a couple of apples. Ceron wrapped the bacon and apples carefully. He would take them to his grandmother. If he was lucky, the baker's wife might be equally generous when she provided food later in the day.

Adjusting the cape more tightly around his shoulders and the almost threadbare hood over his head, Ceron headed toward the forest, sighing. It did help keep out the chill a little, but he knew his grandmother was concerned at how he would manage when the cool of impending autumn became the bitter cold of winter. He pushed the thoughts aside.

"There's no choice to be made. I have to try and get some other work to do. If I could just get hold of some yarn, Grandma could knit me something."

Thoughts swam around in his head. He wondered if he could find time to do something else, in the evening perhaps, when his other jobs were finished.

A muted scream escaped his lips as Torrin appeared suddenly in front of him, as if the man had been purposely hiding. Ceron silently cursed himself roundly. If he had been paying more attention to his surroundings, he might have avoided the unwanted meeting. As it was there was little he could do except face the man he disliked.

The woodcutter was as tall as a tree and just as solid in Ceron's eyes. From his years of woodcutting, Torrin had huge shoulders with arms and thighs thick with solid muscle. A broad, solid chest led to a waist that was slowly losing its trimness. Torrin was starting to spread around his middle as he employed men to cut wood and did less himself. His midnight hair was loose and wild about his face, his beard untamed, and his dark eyes seemed to denude Ceron as they stared at one another. He hated meeting the man away from the relative safety of the village.

"Off to Grandma?" There was a mocking tone to Torrin's deep bass voice.

"Yes, as you know, Master Woodcutter." Ceron tried to keep his voice steady. He frowned as he thought he heard something in the bushes. He prayed it was not one of Torrin's friends. To meet the man alone was bad enough. He gazed around desperately, selecting the way to run if he had to.

"Stubborn old biddy." Torrin grumbled and glanced in the direction of her home. Then his voice took on a sly tone. "I've offered good hard cash for that hovel she calls a cottage. Imagine what you could do with money in your pocket."

"It wouldn't remain there long, Torrin." Ceron surprised himself at his sudden firm tone. "Grandma would have to find elsewhere to live, pay rent, and have no means to grow any of her own food. The cottage may be small, but she keeps it neat and clean. She is right to remain."

"I'm standing for burgher of the town come next summer. I'm well off, I could arrange for her to live in my servants' quarters. You could live there, too. Give up the long, hard hours at the mill and bakery." Torrin smiled, but it did nothing to put Ceron at ease.

"And just what would be expected of me?" He was well aware that generosity was not part of Torrin's nature. If the man was offering one thing, Ceron knew he would expect another in return.

"You could be one of my personal servants. You're a pretty little thing. Why not use what you have to your advantage, Red?" Torrin leered at him.

Ceron frowned. Torrin knew the nickname infuriated him. However, he was doubly incensed by the big man's crude implication.

"You would expect me to be your unpaid concubine." Ceron's voice rose in anger. "I would rather remain where I am."

"You're as stupid as your grandma, whelp." Torrin growled the words before roughly grabbing Ceron's arm

"Let go of me!" Ceron shouted loudly, but doubted there was anyone near enough to help him.

He twisted desperately to avoid the fetid breath and lunging lips of his assailant. Torrin slammed Ceron against a tree, tore his hood away, and grasped at his tunic. He then grabbed Ceron's hair, and tried to hold his head in place. Ceron gave a cry as he was suddenly shoved to the ground as a rustling and bestial growling emanated from the undergrowth.

"Wolven. There's always another day for me to deal with you, boy. If you live." A tremor in Torrin's voice betrayed his fear.

Ceron was too relieved he was no longer Torrin's intended prey to give any thought to the man's words. He grunted softly as he eased himself to his knees. His back hurt as did his head, but he was still untouched. Strong arms assisted him to stand and then he stared transfixed at the man before him.

The stranger's eyes were an enigmatic shade of brown-blue and gazed at him with a mix of concern and curiosity. Glossy chestnut hair fell past broad shoulders, and sideburns of the same hue curled beneath solid cheekbones. A nose, wider and flatter than his, twitched, and generous, full lips were parted and displayed sharp teeth. As the two men continued to stare at one another, Ceron dimly registered that he had never been so close to a Wolven before.

"Are you hurt?" the Wolven asked.

The question seemed to break the spell for both men. The Wolven stepped back, nose still twitching as did his furred, pointed ears. Ceron finally tore his gaze away from the Wolven to stare ruefully at his torn tunic. Hopefully, his grandmother could repair it.

"No." He sighed softly, offering a small smile.

"He wanted you. I could smell his lust. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to scare you."

Ceron could not stop the soft whimper of fear that slipped past his lips at the graphic words. It had been close. Suddenly the Wolven dropped his head and backed away.

"No, please, I'm not afraid of you." Ceron reached out to the Wolven. "It's just-- Well, it's one thing to think what Torrin might be capable of, but it's quite another to be told so boldly." He glanced down again at his torn tunic. It was, in truth, a small price to pay.

"Here, take mine."

It took Ceron a moment or two to register what the Wolven had said. Looking up, Ceron realised the Wolven had noticed the way he examined his torn clothing. The bigger male had already shrugged out of his sleeveless jerkin and was reaching for the buttons of his undershirt.

"No, I couldn't." Ceron's voice was barely above a whisper.

The Wolven's shirt was a finer weave than his tunic's coarse material as well as being decorated with red thread around the scooped neck. There was no way he could repay such generosity. Despite what some of the town elders said about the Wolven being poor and the attacks being on wealthy townsfolk, he dressed more poorly than this particular Wolven.

"Too good to take something offered by a Wolven?" The other man's voice was little more than an angry growl.

"Too poor." Ceron corrected the assumption immediately. "I have no way to repay your kindness."

Ceron spoke honestly and it seemed to deflate the Wolven's ire. The bigger male's head cocked from side to side as his nostrils flared. There was a puzzled look in the hypnotic eyes.

"You go through the forest regularly. I know your scent." The Wolven looked intrigued.

"My name is Ceron, although Torrin and his cronies nicknamed me ‘Red' because of my hair." Ceron reached to push it back into place.

"I am Storm, son of Rain and Shade." The Wolven stood tall, touching his chest as he spoke. "You may have the shirt and I want no money. Perhaps if you let your people know Wolven are not beasts they will stop persecuting us. Consider that ample repayment."

"Thank you." Ceron was touched by Storm's generosity. "I visit my grandma, daily if I can. I try and take her food. I don't earn much, but at least I have food and shelter."

"I'll walk with you." Storm looked around, his nose flaring. "Just in case Torrin decides to make a reappearance. And your hair is beautiful, Ceron."

Even as Ceron blushed, he found himself temporarily deprived of his wits as Storm unfastened his shirt before sliding it from powerfully muscled shoulders.

It was not as if Ceron had never seen another male's naked chest before. But this was different in ways he had no way to explain. As the material slithered from Storm's torso, it revealed a lushly-furred chest on which two dark, peaked nipples stood proudly erect in the slight chill of the air. The fur tapered to Storm's navel and a dark trail vanished beneath the waistband of his black pants. Ceron swallowed hard as he accepted the shirt.