A cool wind whistled through the ancient trees, sending the multicoloured leaves whirling gracefully to the ground. The forest canopy was almost bare; the branches starkly beautiful against the background of the full moon hanging low in the night sky.
Somewhere in the depths of the forest, a wolf howled. The sound sent a shiver of fear racing up the owl's spine as she flew on silent wings over the trees that marked the forest's edge. She had been warned against flying too far into the wood. Her mother's words echoed through her mind, keeping time with her wing beats as she flew on towards the forest's heart.
"Keep away from the forest. Those that dwell within its shadows are not like us. They think of nothing save the thrill of the hunt, and the pleasure of the kill. They know nothing of gentle emotions. They are beasts. Savage, cruel and heartless. Stay far from them and remain safe. Too many of us have been lost to their fangs and claws. What do they care who they hunt? To them, the hunt is all that matters. Who or what you are, it makes no difference. A life is a life, to them. No more, no less. If they catch you, you will never return."
The owl shivered again and thought of turning back, but one thing drove her onward. Her father was hunting on the far side of the forest, and he did not know that human poachers had been seen in the area. The warning had come barely an hour earlier. She had set off at once, against her mother's wishes.
As the fastest flyer of the family, she was the only one with a chance to reach him before the hunters did. But he was so far ahead of her that the only way she could do it was by flying over the forest. He was flying the route he always flew, around the wood's perimeter. It was safe, but slow. She would arrive at the hunting ground before him. If she kept going.
She was flying over the darkest part of the forest when a sharp crack broke the night's silence. She shrieked, pain burning through her right shoulder, just below her wing. Her eyes became hazy with agony, shock and fear. The hunters! She had been shot!
Her wing grew heavy and it was all she could do to keep flying. She struggled to remain in the air, but it was growing more difficult to do so. She knew she could not fly much longer. Still, she fought against the pain. Every beat of her injured wing was a strain, and a battle that she refused to lose. As she flew on, she could hear the sounds of men crashing through the undergrowth as they tried to keep up with her. She expected them to shoot again, so was surprised when no further shots came. Then she heard a sound that made her blood freeze with fear.
The men screamed, their cries merging with the snarls and growls of wolves.
Desperately, she tried to keep flying. The sounds faded behind her, but she was losing altitude fast. She almost sobbed when she realised that she would not make it to the other side of the forest. Her large eyes filled with tears until she could no longer see where she was flying. Unknowingly, she dipped down, beneath the forest canopy. She never saw the tree that she flew into.
He ran as he had never run before, his eyes never leaving the white form that flew valiantly on through the night sky. Behind him, he could hear the others circling around the terrified humans.
The sound grew fainter with each moment as he left them far behind. He was unconcerned about that. They would not miss him. They would not come looking for him. He was nothing to them. Merely a loner who was tolerated among them solely because of his strength, speed and skill in the hunt. It had its advantages sometimes.
He had no wish to explain his actions. They had no wish to know what he was up to. He was happy with that. They would never have understood, anyway. They never understood him. It was why he was a loner.
His thoughts were interrupted when the owl suddenly dipped down before crashing into a tree. He winced as he ran forward, his steps slowing as he neared the place where she was lying.
For a moment, he hesitated in the shadows. He could smell her fear and he knew that shock could be fatal to birds. But then he realised; the smell was merely clinging to her, a remnant of the emotions she had been feeling during her flight. She felt no fear now. She was unconscious.
He slowly padded out of the shadows, his paws silent as he crossed the leaf-covered ground. He was almost at her side when his keen nose detected a sharp rise in the scent of her fear. He froze, his eyes darting to hers. She was conscious again.
Time seemed to stop as the wary dark brown eyes of the wolf locked with the frightened light grey eyes of the owl.
She trembled and made an odd noise, half chirp and half sob, before she tried to get away. She cried out with pain as her movements jostled her injured wing. He began moving towards her, his massive head leaning down as he drew near. She flinched, but he kept coming. Her eyes closed tightly as she waited for his powerful jaws to close around her.
He nuzzled her gently before speaking in wolf-speak. *Don't be afraid. I mean you no harm. I only want to help you.*
She opened her eyes again, too shocked to reply. Her mother's words ran through her mind as she stared up into his eyes. His deep, gentle, beautiful eyes. *I'm not afraid of you.* She was stunned to find that it was true. Deep within her heart, something told her that he was not like the nightmares her mother had described so often.
He was surprised to hear her voice. It was soft and musical, like the little stream that ran through the forest. He had always loved the sound of that stream. Although she spoke in owl-speak, their languages, like those of all animals, were alike enough for them to have no trouble understanding each other. It was merely as thought they were speaking with different accents. *It is not safe here. There are evil men out tonight. I know somewhere safe. Can you... walk?* he asked hesitantly, eyeing her.
*Not easily,* she admitted softly. Her wing was paining her, but even if it had been uninjured, owls were not at their best on the ground.
*Then I will carry you.* There was no hesitation in his voice and she blinked at him in shock. He lay down on the ground beside her and looked at her. *Try to get on my back.*
She managed it, with a great deal of difficulty, then almost fell off as he stood. He started off through the woods, with her holding on as best she could. She was a very large bird, about half as big as the wolf, so she could not perch on his back. Instead, she lay on her belly, clinging to his fur with her talons and wings. It was an awkward position, but then again, it was an awkward situation.
Yet, she still felt no fear of him.
When he came out of the trees and she caught her first glimpse of their destination, she was stunned. The small cottage was the prettiest place she had ever seen. Built in a clearing within the forest, the building looked as though it had been transported directly out of a fairytale. It was small and neat with a thatched roof and ivy-covered walls. The moonlight bathed it in a beautiful silvery light and the owl almost forgot to breathe as she gazed at the place that was as familiar to her as her own home.
She had seen this place before.
Every night in her dreams.
She came out of her reverie as her companion spoke softly. *Please do not be afraid of what I am about to do. Although I will no longer be able to understand you, I will not harm you and I will be able to help you far more than I can now. I know you have no reason to trust me. I can only swear that my only wish is to help you.*
At first, she didn't understand. Then he began to glow faintly and she realised what he was doing. At the same time she suddenly realised that he did not know the truth about her. A part of her wanted to tell him, but the rest of her remembered her mother's warning and remained silent.
The body beneath her shifted as fur became flesh and fabric, as the wolf became a Were. Not quite human, not quite animal. A being caught in a curious half-life. The owl blinked as she found herself caught in strong masculine arms. She looked up and blinked again, suddenly feeling as though she had flown into another tree.
He was the one from her dream!
The young man, little more than a boy really, was around eighteen with long hair the same dark russet-red as the fur of his wolf form. Despite his age, his expression was oddly knowing, as though he had seen much in his short life. His face wasn't as lean or strong as the one in her dream, but there could be no mistaking his eyes. The dark orbs were the blue of the midnight sky on a moonless night and they seemed to draw her soul into their depths as she gazed into them. There was the shadow of remembered pain in those eyes, but it was the gentleness, the kindness, within them that caused her heart to quicken.
He seemed to feel her heartbeat change, for he looked at her anxiously. "Shh now... don't be afraid. Please don't be afraid. I won't hurt you." She forced herself to calm down and the fear on his face eased.
Moving very slowly, obviously afraid of startling her, he carried her inside the cottage. She could not resist looking around. Yes... it was all exactly as she had seen in her dream. Except... she turned her head to get a better look at the table as they passed through the tiny kitchen. It was bare. In her dream, it had been set for three. She had always wondered about that third place.
Her companion hesitated, also looking at the table. He frowned slightly. "It... doesn't seem right to put you there. Not when you're hurt so badly. You should be somewhere more comfortable... I wonder if... Yes, that's what I'll do."
He carried her into another room and she was surprised when he pulled a patchwork coverlet aside and laid her on the crisp white sheets beneath it. He gave no apparent thought to the fact that her blood would quickly stain the fabric. Either that, or he thought of it but simply didn't care. When he spoke, she knew her second guess was right.
"I'll get that bullet out of you and then clean you up. Don't worry, you'll be as good as new again before you know it!" Hesitantly, he stroked her head with a gentle hand. She stayed quiet, watching him with wide eyes. He smiled slightly. "You are a calm one, aren't you? Wise as well as beautiful. If only..." For a moment he looked as though his thoughts had taken him a million miles away, then he blinked and stood up. "I'd better get the first aid kit... before I make a total fool of myself."
The owl blinked in surprise. Her surprise turned to shock, and then to contemplation as she heard him talking to himself in what was apparently the bathroom.
"Idiot! She's an owl, you're a... No, you're not even that! You're a Were! As the others keep reminding you... But... those eyes... just like... No! Forget about that! It's just a foolish dream! You can't go looking for something that doesn't exist. No matter how much you want it to..." There was the sound of running water and a long period of silence before his voice came again, soft and hesitant. "I'll patch her up and look after her until she's well. Then I'll let her go, and my foolish fantasy with her. I am a Were. Born of the oldest of the bloodlines. It is my duty to carry on my line." A heavy sigh as the water was turned off. "Even if everything in me yearns to love a dream and turn my back on my own kind forever."
When he returned to her, the owl studied him more closely. The pain in his eyes made more sense now. He was being pressured to accept a life that he did not want. Just like her.
"I'll be as gentle as I can, but this will hurt...." As he began tending to her wound, she concentrated on her dream to distract herself from the pain.
She had dreamed the same dream every night since the night of her seventeenth birthday, almost a year earlier.
In her dream, the cottage was a happy place, full of love and laughter with none of the shadows that filled her home in reality. She lived there with her husband, a tall man with dark russet-red hair and midnight-blue eyes that twinkled with laughter.
The dream would begin with her walking into the cottage, then her husband would sweep her up in his strong arms and carry her outside, where they would sit and watch the moon rise. The dream would end with the two embracing. Although it was a simple dream, the feelings that it left her with were anything but. She always woke with the memory of the love she had felt in her dream-husband's embrace, and the contentment and joy that filled her dream-self's heart.
In that waking moment, she always felt such hope! But then the truth would intrude into her fantasy and she would remember that such joy was something she could never feel. Not if she was to carry on the legacy of her bloodline.
Among the Were, the term 'bloodline' did not refer to family, as it did with humans. It referred instead to all the Were that could become one specific type of creature. There were several bloodlines, but some of them were very rare, with only a few families left.
Her parents insisted that she bond within her own bloodline, to ensure another generation. Since they were one of the rarer lines, that meant bonding to someone she had never met. There were only three males of her line of a suitable age, and all three lived in England. Brothers, she had been told. Beyond that, she knew nothing of them. She shuddered at the thought of leaving her home and all she knew to go to a strange land where she would have to live with someone she did not know, let alone love. But there was no other choice.
The Were were dying out.
Among them, children were few and females fewer still. Already, one line, the Foxes, had faded into nothing more than memory and legend.
The problem was that the Bloodlines were incompatible with each other. What few children were born from mixed line bonds never survived their first change and so such pairings had been forbidden for generations. Although Were/Human bonding did produce children, very few of them were Were.
Then there was the Turning...
It was possible for a Human to become a Were, but it was a dangerous practice and did not always work. Also, the resulting Were were not 'moon blooded'.
While true Were could call on the power of the moonlight to bring out their power at any time, day or night, turned Were could call upon the moonlight only during the nights when the moon was at the height of her power. They had no control over their transformations though, it happened whether they wished it or not, and the change was always agonising.
As if that were not bad enough, the natures of the turned were-creatures were always brutal, savage and uncontrollable. As a result, such creatures often came to the attention of humans. Usually with terrible consequences.
The Turning had been outlawed for over a hundred years, but there were rumours that the Elders of the Blood, the ancient leaders of the Werefolk, were considering allowing it once more. They had little choice. If they did nothing, most of the bloodlines would cease to exist within a few generations.
Her parents had impressed this fact upon her many times over the years, but she had never been able to accept it completely. Even though she was to be bonded on her eighteenth birthday, only a few weeks away, a small part of her was adamant that it would not come to pass. Every night, she went to sleep thinking of ways to escape her fate, and every morning she woke yearning for the life she dreamed of in her sleep.
"There! All done!" The voice jarred her out of her thoughts and she blinked in momentary confusion up at the young Were leaning over her. As her memory flooded back to her, she looked down at her wound. Her white feathers were stained with blood, but she was relieved to see that she was not bleeding too badly. She would heal quickly enough.
"I'll just clean you up a bit and then I'll bandage you up. You won't be flying for a while, but that's okay. I'll look after you until you're well." He smiled gently and reached out, apparently intending to stroke her head. He hesitated, a sad look crossing his face before he turned away.
Standing, he went back into the bathroom, returning with a basin of water and a cloth. He began to clean her up, gently wiping the blood off her feathers. As he did so, he spoke softly, more to himself than to her.
"It's the strangest thing. For the past year, I've been dreaming the strangest dream. Night after night, it's always the same. There's a woman, a beautiful woman. She's so graceful and her eyes... They're wide and innocent and so pale grey that they seem almost colourless. I look into them and I see such strength in her, but I also see her belief, her trust and her love. For me. All for me. I see that and I feel strength flowing through me. I know that I can do anything, as long as she is by my side. I know that together we can do even more."
He sighed softly and turned his face away, his hands automatically wringing the cloth out and wetting it again. "Her face haunts me, night and day. I know we have never met, and yet... I feel as though we have never not known each other. I know it's foolish to feel this way, but I can't help myself. The thought that someday I might find her... it's the only hope that keeps me going. Then, today, I saw her eyes. Your eyes."
His head dropped and he sighed again. "Now I know I've been living in a fantasy. All this time, placing my hopes on something that could never be. I should just accept my fate. I should bond with the female that has been chosen for me and try to make such a life as I can. But... even now I can still see her in my mind. How can I give up on her? On what I know we could have? I love her. With all my heart, all my soul."
With a final sigh, he turned back to her with the cloth. His eyes widened in shock and he froze, unable to move, unable to speak. Her large pale grey eyes shone with understanding as she gazed back at him.
"I feel the same."
Her musical voice surrounded him and he was unable to draw his gaze from her captivating eyes. Hesitantly, he reached out to her. Lightly, his hand traced along her cheek. She smiled shyly at him as her hand traced a similar path along his face.
"You're the one in my dream," they both whispered together.
They did not question how they knew each other's name. They had used them so often in their dreams.
He stared at her, unable to bring himself to believe that he had finally found her. But she was there. She was real. She was... His eyes widened as the truth sank in. "You're... a Were-Owl..."
She nodded slightly, sadly. "And you're a Were-Wolf." She closed her eyes, but it did not stop the tear that trickled down her cheek. They had found each other, but they were of different bloodlines. The Elders would never allow them to be together.
When she felt his arms go around her, she pressed her face into his chest for a moment before easing back to look at him. He was looking serious but there was a light in his eyes that had not been there before. She recognised it.
"I couldn't bear to lose you. Not now that I know you're real." The hope faded slightly as worry etched lines into his brow. "There is a way that we could be together. But... it would mean..." he couldn't finish the thought.
"I know." She closed her eyes and rested her head against his shoulder. "Yes. As long as we were together. But..." She raised her head again, meeting his eyes. He had to know what he would be facing. "I am the last female of my bloodline. They will not let me go easily."
He smiled gently. "Neither will I," he promised.
The Elders glared down at the two youths, furious that their careful planning was being threatened by two foolish youngsters who dared to speak of love and dreams when the fate of all of the Were was at stake!
They had agreed to a meeting that night, despite the fact that the Were-Wolf male had only contacted them that morning. They had listened while he stated his pathetically weak case. The girl's parents had been humiliated by their daughter's betrayal. To turn her back on her bloodline for someone she had known for only one night! It was unheard of! The Elders had tried to talk them out of it calmly and rationally, but the two infuriating children refused to listen to their wisdom. There was only one thing left to do.
The Elders nodded at each other and turned expectantly to the Elder of the Wolf bloodline. Since it was a Wolf who had convened the meeting, the Wolf Elder was the one who would speak the judgment.
"The Council of Elders has decided. Serena Flight, you will leave for England tonight. Once there, you will be bonded to the eldest suitable male of your bloodline. Wilder Hunt, you will remain here and bond with the female that was selected for you." He frowned at them sternly as they started to protest. "If you refuse, you will be exiled from the Were. Forever. You know what that means."
Wilder lowered his head. "Yes. We know." He raised his head again, his gaze locked with his Elder's. "It means that we will be free to live our lives the way we wish to live them."
At his side, Serena also raised her head. Her gaze was locked with her Elder's. "It means that, instead of being forced to endure empty lives, we will be free to share a bond of love."
"Together!" As they cried out the last word, their two voices speaking as one, something strange happened. For a single heartbeat, their eyes blazed with light! The Elders, who were the only ones to see it, suddenly began to wonder if they had not made a terrible mistake.
Wilder and Serena turned to leave. Some of the Were immediately blocked their exit, their eyes cold and hard as they stared at the traitors. As the two had feared, the Elder's threat had been nothing more than an empty bluff. He had no intention of allowing them to go into exile. Not when it would come at such a heavy cost to both the Were and the Elders' pride!
Clasping hands, Wilder and Serena glared at the Were who dared try to stop them. Again, their eyes began to glow. "Don't be fools," Wilder said softly. But they would not listen.
A few minutes later, Wilder grasped Serena's waist and gently lifted her over the pile of unconscious Werefolk lying on the ground. They turned to look at the stunned Elders.
"We choose exile. Forget about us. As far as you are concerned, we no longer exist."
As the faint mist of morning rolled in over the ground of the meeting place, a delicate mist-grey cat emerged from the far side of the clearing and padded to the place where the two youths had stood, their eyes shining with their power. The power that came from their being together.
Standing very still, she tilted her head and closed her eyes, as though listening to something that only she could hear. After a little while, in a voice softly lilting with an Irish accent, she began to speak.
"The bond of souls shall ensure the survival of the Were, but it is the soul-bond between Owl and Wolf that will show the way. For from their love shall come a child, the like of which this world never thought to see again."
Prophecy opened her emerald-green eyes and smiled slightly. "Well... this should be interesting. It seems that Destiny has something very special planned for those two." She started back to her master's tower, feeling a sudden urge for sardines. Prophecies always made her hungry.