Here’s the first chapter of The Last Pendragon. The book should be available for sale sometime next week.
Let me know what you think.
I’d been running for too long already. My breath came short, burning in my lungs and stabbing me just under the ribs on my left side. I could hear them right behind me and see them on either side. The part of my mind that never stopped analyzing and calculating my chances noticed that though I could feel the heat of the furry bodies around me, and though I could feel the breath of the wolf behind me, I should be feeling more than that—unless they were herding me somewhere. Just as I reached this conclusion, I tripped on the uneven ground. As exhausted as I was, there was no way I could have caught myself. I clenched my teeth against the scream I would not grant those enjoying the chase as I started to fall. I knew, at that moment, that I was going to die.
I was wrong—the two wolves on either side leaped in under my hands as I uselessly reached for something, anything, to keep me on my feet, and steadied me until I could regain my balance. Another bit of data supporting my realization that they were taking me somewhere specific, I thought, as I sensed more of the pack close in around me.
The werewolf pack I’d angered surrounded me, chasing me into a small clearing that held a large slab of stone in the center like a dais. The charcoal wolf, obviously the pack leader, lounged on the center of the stone. One of the wolves behind me leaned against my legs, trying to force me down to my knees. I refused to cooperate, locking my joints. I was going to die. I knew that. But I was going to die on my feet.
The charcoal wolf barked. It sounded like the command it obviously was; the wolf behind me whined and stopped leaning into the back of my legs. I glanced around the edge of the clearing, startled and beginning to wonder if I was dead yet or if I still had a chance.
“Woman, pay attention,” said the wolf in front of me. Startled, I looked back to the dais. The pack leader had shapeshifted from fur covered wolf back to naked human, and sat cross legged on the stone, leaning his elbows on his knees. I resolutely stared at his face, ignoring his nudity. Apparently, that amused him: he chuckled. “You’ve given us good sport so far, but you’re starting to bore us.”
I shrugged, trying to catch my breath. That was really hard to do—I was so thirsty that my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth. “What do you expect?” I panted, my voice thick. “I’m only human. I can’t run all night without either rest or water.”
The pack leader threw his head back and laughed. The rest of the pack echoed his laughter in their howls. “Well and bravely said, woman. Very well. You shall have your rest and your water. ”
“How long do I have?” I asked.
“Long enough to drink and catch your breath,” he replied.
“How will I know that my rest is over?”
He cocked his head and grinned. It wasn’t friendly. “You’ll know. Don’t take too long.”
The wolf behind me gently took my wrist in his mouth, tugging me toward the left. I shrugged and followed. No reason not to, after all; if they were going to kill me, they were going to kill me. Still, I rather thought that they wouldn’t go against their pack leader.
He led me to a large creek or a small river, one where the banks were low. I suspected that this was the same creek I’d fallen in earlier when I’d lost my flashlight, but there was no telling whether it was upstream or downstream, or how far. A stone path had been laid down to the edge of the water. The wolf let go of my wrist, whining, and nudged me toward the water. I didn’t need prompted again; I waded into the water until it reached my thighs, pulling the scrunchie out of my shoulder-length hair to let the air reach my sweaty scalp.
I fell to my knees in the middle of the creek, and ducked my head under the water, trying to cool off, then surfaced, flinging my hair out of my face. I could feel the air rasping through my lungs, and fought to slow and steady my breathing. To take rest as I could. It had been a long run, and the night was only half over, if that.
I lowered my face to the water, drinking without regard for whatever microbes might or might not be living in the mountain stream. I was too thirsty to care, and besides that, I wasn’t sure if I’d live long enough for dysentery to become an issue. As I drank, I strained my ears to hear sounds of pursuit over the sound of the water flowing over the rocks in the stream bed. Nothing yet.
I sat back on my heels, focusing harder on slowing my breathing and heartbeat, trying to quiet the pain in my side. Before Dad had gotten so sick, I used to run. I’d run a full marathon every year I’d been in college, but I wasn’t used to exercise like this anymore. The exhaustion of muscles long disused might well mean my death if I couldn’t find the second wind I knew I had.
The crack of a dry branch and the sound of a large animal snuffling at the top of the bank what sounded like a few yards upstream let me know the reprieve they allowed me was almost over. I lowered my face back down to the water for another drink before I staggered up and on my way.
I was still kicking myself over leaving Dad’s Smith & Wesson .44 magnum, despite the fact that it wasn’t an ideal camping gun. I was really kicking myself for selling the camping guns. I could have used one, a few hours ago—it might have bought me enough time to get to a road and flag someone down.
On the other hand, it might have also got me killed by the rest of the pack.
I really wished that I’d waited another week before hiking into the mountains to camp. One more week would have had me here after the full moon had come and gone, and I would never have stumbled into the clearing where the werewolves were having their time of the month.
Hiking into the Blue Ridge Mountains was easier than hiking into the Rockies. Dad and I had done both (among others), before he’d gotten sick. I’d taken a deep breath of the crisp, clean, spring mountain air. This was the first vacation I’d had in the more than ten years I took care of Dad while he was dying. I planned to take several weeks and just camp up here, since I was between jobs. I don’t know when the next job will come along, but I need to be rested from the last one before I start looking. Thankfully, it’s not urgent. Dad was smart: he made sure to buy long term care insurance, and deeded the house to me. He hadn’t needed to sell it and move into a nursing *home, and after he passed on I was able to sell it for enough to live on until I find a new job. Even if that takes a year. Or five.
The ground leveled out as I reached the top of the thickly forested foothill. The trees gave way, thinning as the ground leveled out, and I looked around a small clearing that I’d hiked into. Any road was more than three difficult miles away, due south. My car was further, just a bit—the park’s parking was on the edge of the park, four miles away. That suited me just fine. I’ve been too much around people the last few months Dad spent some time in the hospital, where it took a significant amount of bullying on my part to get the doctors and nurses to give a man who wasn’t rich the care that any dying human being deserved. Though it was bad enough at first, it got worse once Dad had slipped into a coma three weeks before he passed. I’d talked to myself a lot. I’d talked to him, too, but I never knew if he heard me. He slipped gently from that coma into his final rest. Then, everyone he’d ever known (that was still alive) came to the funeral, and each and every one had to pat my shoulder, pat my back, and tell me that they remembered me from when I was little. One creepy old friend of Dad’s patted my butt, telling me I looked just like my mother.
I stepped into a beautiful, tiny, nearly perfectly circular clearing in the trees. The ground, thickly padded with fallen leaves, was nearly level—perfect for building a fire ring and pitching a tent for an extended stay. This looked like as far as I needed to get, at least for the night, so I slipped my hiking backpack off my shoulders. I’d stay here, and decide whether or not to go on tomorrow. It wouldn’t take long to set up camp: all I needed was a tent and a fire. Oh, and someplace to keep the food where animals couldn’t get at it. Unfortunately, it took the majority of the day to get to this spot, and I didn’t have much light left to find firewood with. I shrugged. “If I don’t start now, I won’t have a fire,” I muttered.
The sun sets fast, up in the mountains. I had a good armload of dry deadfall gathered by the time it sank below the horizon, but not enough for the night. I thought about it, and decided it would be a good idea to start a fire now, and finish finding dry, dead wood after I’d set it up. I already had a fire pit prepared, the basic circle of bare earth surrounded by rocks, so it didn’t take long to lay a small fire. The fire pit was about five feet in diameter, and the fire was really small—even though we’ve had a wet spring so far, it’s not a good idea to take chances. I squatted in the dirt, watching the flames catch and grow, dancing in the twilight.
I must have lost track of time, because when I stood to finish finding enough wood to last the night, the full moon was rising above the mountain, looking huge amongst the trees. I sighed, looking at the shadows under the spring foliage, and decided my flashlight wasn’t a bad idea. I reached into my tent and grabbed it, turning to go in a direction I hadn’t gone yet. I eyed the moon, the thin canopy of the small clearing, and the placement of my tent. I hoped I’d be able to sleep; I’d forgotten the moon would be full. I had no idea it would be this bright.
I clicked my flashlight on, then quickly flicked it back off. The moon was bright enough that the shadows it cast and the shadows from my flashlight played hell with my depth perception. “What the hell,” I muttered, stepping over the ring of stones on the other side of the fire from my tent, “I’ll have enough light.”
Deadfall was more plentiful on this side of the camp. I scowled, scolding myself for forgetting my dad’s basic instructions on where to find the most wood: level ground, under heavier canopy. Climb the trees during the daylight for more that hasn’t fallen yet. I could almost hear Dad’s voice as I remembered.
I shouldn’t have let myself get distracted. While I was busy listening to my memories, I tripped over a depression and stumbled into another small clearing. I grabbed a tree to help me catch my balance, straightened and froze, staring into the eyes of a charcoal gray wolf as he looked up from the kill his pack feasted on. Something about the pack didn’t seem right. I frowned, trying to think of what drew my attention. The charcoal wolf cocked his head, his ears laid back. He looked at me almost like he was reading my mind, hearing me realize that no wolf pack shared prey so equally, or had individual wolves as big as these were. His upper lip lifted in a silent snarl, and he sprang over the deer. I stepped backwards, putting the tree between us, trying to move slowly enough he wouldn’t see me as prey. As soon as the tree blocked me from his sight, I turned and ran back toward the campfire. I couldn’t hear whether he chased or not, but did not look back until I made it to the fire. I turned.
A naked man stood at the edge of my camp. His eyes were the same as the charcoal wolf’s had been. Long dark hair hung loose around his shoulders. “Woman,” he said, his voice rough with anger. “You have seen something this night that you never should have seen. You have been somewhere this night you never should have been. In this place, this night, you are other, and you trespass. My wolves and I will give you until we are finished with the feed. Then we chase. If you make it to a road, you will live. If not…” He shrugged.
I stared, for a long moment, shocked speechless. I could feel my brain trying to catch up, trying to make connections. It just wasn’t working. He stared back, then seemed to decide I wasn’t going to say anything. He turned. “Wait,” I said, throwing out a hand. As if that would stop anything from happening. “What are you talking about?”
He looked over his shoulder. “This,” he said. He sank toward the ground, moonlight and shadow twisting around him, blurring his outline. I blinked, and the charcoal gray wolf blinked back. He snarled silently, and stalked into the shadows. Something in my brain clicked, and I stared for a moment, goose bumps crawling down my spine, arms, and legs. I’d been face to face with a myth.
I took a deep breath, slowly let it back out, trying to convince my goose bumps to lay back down. They, predictably, didn’t listen. I looked up at the moon, paced around my camp, trying to convince myself that I’d been hallucinating. It didn’t work. I paced faster and faster, then turned abruptly and clicked on my flashlight, looking at the tree line. A wolf stared back at me. I don’t know how he managed, but he looked amused. The moonlight shivered around him, while he rose to his hind legs, shifting into human form. “Run, woman, run,” he taunted. “If you just stay here, we’ll just kill you.”
I didn’t wait to watch him shift back. I ran. I flicked on my flashlight and started running down the way I’d come up, straight toward my car. It had taken me four hours to hike up to the site I’d chosen to camp, so I didn’t know if I’d make it or not. I just knew I had to try.
The light from the flashlight swung crazily, making me a little dizzy. I knew that the werewolves would have an easier time tracking me with it on, but they’d also said they’d give me a head start. I could not afford to sprain anything, not now; the flashlight would stay on.
The ground was uneven. I ran as fast as I could while staying upright. A couple of times, I slid down steep slopes on my butt, barely managing to stay in control. I lost track of time as I ran, but I made it down the steep foothill much, much faster than I’d made it up. I looked forward, setting myself to run on the gentler, nearly flat slope, down through the tree line, to where I’d left my car parked. I built up to my top running speed, then abruptly tried to stop, skidding to a depression, and tumbling into a roll as my foot caught on the edge. Several wolves sat, stood, and lay just inside the tree line. I didn’t know if it was the werewolf pack or not, but I was willing to bet that it was.
I turned to parallel the tree line, and a half a dozen wolves paralleled me, keeping between me and safety. They let me get to within sight of my car—within sight of the charcoal gray wolf sitting on my luggage rack, on my trunk.
“Shit,” I gasped. The pack edged closer to me, several lifting their lips in snarls. I turned, set myself to run back up the steep foothill, wondering if I could make it to the other side of the undeveloped area, to a road on the other side.
I wasn’t familiar with the part of the foothill I was running on, now, but I couldn’t afford to run slower. I tried to run back across the side of the hill, back to the path I had taken up, but they were there. I turned back to the unknown ground, running as fast as I could in the dark, bitterly aware I was being herded. I picked up my speed, trying to pull ahead of them a little. I knew damn well I wouldn’t be able to pull ahead of real wolves that were hungry, but this pack of werewolves wasn’t hungry. I was hoping that they were bored enough to want good sport, and was determined to give it to them. Maybe I’d survive, that way. I glanced back over my shoulder; they were falling back a little. I put on a little more speed, beginning to hope.
I dodged, ducked, climbed trees and doubled back. I flicked off the flashlight and turned off of the path I’d run up, and back. I didn’t try to get back to the other path—the pack had made it clear that they would not permit that. I ran the other way, along the side of the hill, tripping where it merged with another hill. I shoved myself back to my feet, wishing I had the breath to curse. Sticks cracked and dead leaves rustled under my feet. I heard a small stream, somewhere, but couldn’t tell where. I didn’t want to turn on the flashlight, didn’t want to throw away whatever advantage I had gained by doubling back and changing direction. I didn’t know that I’d gained any, but I couldn’t bear to think otherwise.
The ground abruptly gave way beneath my feet, and I fell. I slid and rolled into a steep creek bed, splashing down hard into the knee-deep water, getting bruised on the stones. I lost my grip on my flashlight, and lost it. I scrambled up, wishing the full moon wasn’t full, but at the same time thankful for the light, now that I’d lost the flashlight. No, on second thought, I wished the moon wasn’t full to begin with: then, I wouldn’t need to see to run.
I ran along the creek bottom, looking for a way to climb out. In a way, the creek was a blessing: it would break my scent trail. I wasn’t ready to bless it quite yet, though. Both sides were too steep to climb, and I still had to find a way out. I thought I could see one, not too far ahead. A tree, its roots undermined by the flow of the water, had fallen into the creek. Its trunk made a narrow, steep, but passable ramp up the soft, dirt bank. I debated taking it: it was an obvious way out, and that might give them an idea on where to pick me up again. Then again, I didn’t know when I’d find another way out.
The fat, full moon had passed its zenith a while back, and was halfway to the western horizon, telling me that I’d run for more than half the night. I stumbled and fell, scrambled up, fell again. The ground was uneven, and covered with leaf litter, sticks, branches, and rocks. My stomach, lungs, and legs burned with effort—I’d run all the way through my second wind, and wasn’t sure if I had a third—but I could not stop.
A creek bed lay in my path. I could smell the water, knew that it ran over moss-covered rocks in the bottom of a man-deep ravine. This was the same creek that I’d fallen in earlier, where I’d lost the flashlight, and had had to wade downstream until I could find a way out that wasn’t too steep to climb. Probably the same creek where I’d taken the one, single rest and water break that the pack allowed. On the bright side, though, it had broken my trail the first time I’d fallen in. I’d just not wanted to see it again, and I could not turn; they were too close behind me. I reached the edge, feeling it crumble, feeling my thighs and calves burn as I launched myself through the air. I didn’t quite make it, landing on my stomach on the ledge of the other bank. I started to slide into the ravine, scrabbled across the ground for grass, roots, anything to pull myself the rest of the way up with.
A hand caught my wrist, hauled me up onto the bank. I couldn’t see much of my rescuer in the dark under the trees. The sky was clear and the moon still bright, but he stood in shadows. At least, I thought it was a male, from the strength of the grip. I couldn’t tell, though. It was too dark to see the other who stood on two legs as more than a shadow.
The pack, silent in its chase, appeared on the other side of the ravine. The leaders skidded to the very edge of the bank. The second rank skidded into them, jostling them. The charcoal gray one, the leader, fell in with a startled yelp and a splash. They circled, noses in the air. Clearly, they smelled my rescuer, as well as me, and were unsure. Only heaven knew why; they had no problem with killing one. Another shouldn’t make a difference. Their leader, in the creek bed, growled and grumbled with annoyance as he tried to get back onto the bank. Without direction, they neither attacked nor retreated.
The charcoal wolf climbed out of the ravine, pulling itself onto the bank in front of my rescuer and me. I shrank back, tried to run again, but my rescuer kept hold of my wrist. I couldn’t budge him—or her—so was forced to stay. I wasn’t sure any longer that my rescuer meant my rescue or my death. I tried to still my sobbing breath, tried not to fear. It was hard; I had been running since moonrise, waiting for the teeth on my ankle, my knees, the back of my neck. I stood as still as I could manage, breathing hard and shaking, waiting for the deathblow.
The charcoal wolf rose up on his hind legs, shadows flowing around him and hiding him as he stood. He stepped into the moonlight, his long black hair flowing loose past his shoulders, streaked with gray, his face lined. “What are you doing here?” he asked, voice harsh with the effort of the change. “Why have you interfered with our hunt?”
“You hunt the wrong prey,” my rescuer answered. The voice, a smooth androgynous voice, held no anger, no inflection.
The leader of the pack frowned. “She is not yours.” The doubtful tone of voice turned the statement into almost a question.
“I never said she was. However, nor is she yours to kill at your pleasure.” There was no doubt, now. About two things. My rescuer was a man, and my rescuer really meant to rescue me. I raised my chin, looking at him from the corner of my eyes. If he wasn’t going to kill me, though, why hadn’t he let me go?
“She is other,” the pack leader said, puzzled. “She should not be here. She trespasses on our hunting grounds. For tonight, she is ours to kill, or ours to let live.” He chuckled, low in his throat. It sounded more like a wolf’s pants than the sounds a man should make. “She’s given us good sport. I had almost decided to let her live.”
“She will live. At least tonight.” My rescuer stepped between me and the pack leader, into the moonlight. I stared, trying to get a good look at him, but moonlight and shadows wavered around him, blurring any definite impressions.
The pack leader shrugged. “So you say. But what about tomorrow night?”
“That is not your business.” I thought I could make out broad shoulders, very pale skin and hair. I could see nothing else clearly, except for his fists, clenching and unclenching as if he was exerting an enormous amount of self-control.
The pack leader shrugged again, turned, and sank back into his four-legged form. I backed away from him as he loped a short distance away from the ravine, turned, and took a running leap to land neatly on the other side. The pack melted back into the shadows and vanished.
“Thank you.” After his answer to the leader of the wolf pack, I wasn’t sure whether I was saved or not. I refused to think about it. I was alive, and that counted for something. As long as I was alive, there was a good—very good—chance I could get out of this. If I just kept my wits.
My rescuer turned and looked at me. Though the moon shone full on his face, his features were still indistinguishable. “For what?” he asked.
“Saving my life.” The night’s effort hit me all at once. I leaned against the tree next to me, my vision tunneling out. The last thing I saw was him, as he leaned in close, reaching out to catch me as I fell.