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The steele wolf, p.4
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       The Steele Wolf, p.4

           Chanda Hahn
 
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  Chapter 6

  I had been cooped up for three many days, hiding from the world, from my clan and from my father. I grabbed the fur cloak before heading to the central stables. Going around back I let myself into the stable and found Faraway.

  Run Fast? He asked.

  Yes!

  After saddling, we headed out to a field and I let him have his run. It wasn’t long before the sound of pounding hooves could be heard from behind me. Drawing back, I looked over my shoulder and saw another rider riding hell bent towards me.

  Faster! To the woods, Faraway.

  Faraway ran like the wind and headed into the woods. As soon as we disappeared a ways, I had Faraway slow and I carefully stood on his saddle and latched onto a tree branch that overhung the path we traveled on. Quickly shimmying up to a higher branch, I sat and waited as Faraway waited farther up the path, getting ready to run as soon as the rider drew closer.

  I heard the sound of the horse panting and the man curse as he came into view.

  Go! I commanded Faraway, who took, off making a lot of noise but never going so far that I couldn’t draw on him for power. We hadn’t fully tested the distance of our bond. When the rider and his horse came into the woods and saw Faraway farther up, the man cursed again and changed direction, heading towards Faraway and me. When he came near my tree, I concentrated and pushed a lower branch farther underneath me down into his path at the last minute, and he hit it with a thud and flew backwards off of his horse. The horse panicked and dashed farther into the woods.

  “OHH Stars!” the man cried as he slowly lifted himself off of the ground. His hood fell back to reveal familiar auburn hair and pain-filled green eyes.

  “Fenri?” I called down from the tree. “What are you doing?”

  “Thalia?” Fenri looked around the forest floor in confusion before looking up. “What are you doing in the tree?”

  “Bird watching,” I teased.

  “Can’t you see birds just as easily from the ground?” he asked, oblivious to my joke.

  I sighed. “I didn’t know who was chasing me and I thought this was the easiest way to find out.” I lay along the huge branch on my stomach, not moving an inch closer to the ground.

  Looking up at me with newfound respect, he continued, “That is smart.” Confusion filled his eyes. “How did I fall from my horse?”

  “I think you must have hit something.” I said as truthfully as I could, while trying not to break eye contact or betray any hint of a smile. “Why were you chasing me?” I asked sternly, sitting up on my branch, comfortable in the fact that I was still high enough out of his reach.

  He looked down at his feet before he looked up at me. “I thought you were running away.”

  “Why would I run away? I just got home.”

  “Has your father spoken to you yet?”

  “About what?” I asked, feeling myself start to get angry. He was dancing around the subject as if I were a two year old.

  “Thalia, if you can’t remember then maybe it is for the best.”

  “Oh, spit it out Fenri!” I snapped. “I’m not a child that is going to run away.”

  “You may have already done so.”

  “What?”

  “I won’t say anything else until you come down from the tree. I promise that I mean you no harm, but this is ridiculous.”

  Sliding back along the branch until my rear hit the tree, I turned and lowered myself down and had a moment of panic as I realized that to get into the tree, I stood on top of Faraway. There was still a good five-foot drop. Gritting my teeth, I let go and felt warm hands encompass my thighs and squeeze as I was caught midair and lowered gently to the ground. Fenri made sure my footing was good and then backed up giving me space. Taking a deep breath he went on.

  “Your father just revealed your future lifemate to the elders.”

  “I don’t understand.”

  “Thalia, you’ve been different since coming back. Your father is worried about the clan succession and about you. You need a strong lifemate that will help you lead the clan after your father.”

  “How could he do this to me?” I blurted out, turning my back on Fenri, while I mentally called to Faraway who was around the bend. Fenri went on speaking quickly, trying to convince me.

  “Bearen and Rayneld don’t see eye to eye. They’ve had an intense rivalry since childhood. He’s worried that you’ll be banished if you don’t have a husband. He did what he had to do.”

  “No! He didn’t. He could have asked me, given me more time,” I shouted, frustrated at my inability to do anything.

  “No, he couldn’t. If your father didn’t take these necessary steps, your uncle would have and still could petition the council for clan rights and clan leadership as the strongest candidate. Your uncle would be the clan leader followed by his son, Bvork.”

  Biting my lip, I kept myself from commenting in anger as I listened to everything that Fenri said. After he quit speaking I slowly turned toward him.

  “Who did my father chose as my lifemate?”

  Fenri stood back about six feet from me and he looked nervous as my horse slowly walked back to me.

  “He needed someone who knew what happened to you, when you were captured and the experimenting and about your gifts. After all we all saw some unusual things in the pass. What we saw was enough to make us question some of our beliefs. We all took a blood oath to keep your secret.”

  “That would mean one of my clansmen that fought in the battle at the pass.” My mind worked quickly as I thought about being bonded to each of them. “Who?” I asked quietly, too quietly because Fenri didn’t respond at first.

  “Who?” I said again louder, my fingers curled into a fist of fury and fright.

  Fenri slowly met my eyes.

  “Me.”

  Chapter 7

  My heart dropped. I grabbed Faraway’s mane and pulled myself up. Faraway felt my agitation and danced back and forth.

  “Thalia, don’t run away again,” Fenri spoke firmly, beginning to show some of his warrior spirit.

  Turning Faraway back I spoke out. “What do you mean run again?”

  “The night you disappeared was the night I had planned to ask your father to consider me for your lifemate,” he spoke roughly. “You disappeared before I asked him.”

  Looking Fenri over, I thought about the bravery that he had shown at the pass. He would make a good clan leader.

  “Fenri, I can’t say what I thought back then. But today—right now, I have to decline.”

  “Why?” he said stubbornly.

  “Because I already lost my past, and I can’t let my future slip through my hands without a fight.”

  His mouth pressed into a firm line of understanding and he nodded his head in acceptance.

  I rode hard for home, letting Fenri chase after his horse, which according to Faraway, was stopped by a stream a quarter mile away. Riding up to the door, I left Faraway and strode into the house yelling for my father.

  “What?” the great voice rumbled back as he was sitting barely four feet from me in his favorite chair.

  “You chose my lifemate without consulting me? How could you?” I yelled at him.

  “I had to. Rayneld was acting too pleased this morning and I heard rumors of him going before the council.” Even though Bearen ran the clan, the council of elders was used to decide on any discrepancy of the laws for someone had to make sure the clan leader didn’t betray them.

  “Well, I refuse,” I firmly stated. A feral gleam of challenge rose up in Bearen’s eye and I knew that I looked just as menacing. After all, this was the man I got my famous temper from.

  “You choose to willingly disobey your father?” he growled.

  “Yes—a thousand times, yes!”

  Bearen threw his hands up in the air in disgust. “What in heaven’s name girl, do you want me to do?”

  “Why do I have to have to be married? Why now? I’m to young to have my future decided.”
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  “It’s not your future I’m worried about. It’s the clan’s future. If you don’t have a man by your side soon, then Rayneld may try to press the ongoing witchcraft rumors and have you banished. I may even be banished and he’ll take over the clan. And you know that he won’t stop trying until I’m in the grave. I can’t imagine what will happen if he takes over.”

  His words hit me like a slap in the face. It wasn’t about me, it was about our clan and the struggles they would endure under my ruthless uncle.

  “Well, if you don’t want me to choose a husband for you, than I have one option left. It’s one that even Rayneld and the elders can’t argue against. I’ll call a Kragh Aru.”

  My mind struggled to recall the words but finally an old memory started to surface. It was Odin telling me stories of warriors competing in an elimination contest for money, land, and even a bride. For some reason, this idea didn’t bother me as much as the idea of an arranged marriage, because I saw a chance to get the upper hand. I wasn’t the best idea, but I could enter. I could win the prize and buy myself time, because I wasn’t ready to get married. It was a gamble and I knew my father was hoping I would say no and wed Fenri. Instead, I did the opposite.

  “Yes, I you’re right. We need to have a Kragh Aru.”

  Bearen stuttered in surprise at my announcement, proof that I had caught him off guard. “Was there something wrong with Fenri?” he asked.

  “No, I actually hope he wins.” I lied, knowing full well, I wanted to win, but if I didn’t then I hoped Fenri would. I knew Joss would never be allowed to be my lifemate since he was a Denai, and the reason I myself could face banishment.

  “Are you willing to live with the outcome?” he asked slowly.

  Lifting my chin in defiance, I felt my knees go slightly weak, before answering. “Yes, Father.”

  My father’s dark eyes squinted in thought. “I will go and make the announcement. We will have a Kragh Aru and the prize will be you, Thalia, as the winner’s lifemate.” Bearen’s huge form rumbled as he walked across the wood floor. When he disappeared out the door, I waited until he turned the corner and ran to Odin’s home. I could barely contain myself, when he opened the door and I rushed into a house very similar to ours.

  “Odin, you have to help me,” I blurted as soon as the door was closed behind us.

  “Ah, little wolf. What did you do now?” His wrinkled forehead became more wrinkled in worry as he looked at me. He was sitting in front of his warm fire whittling a piece of wood.

  “I’ve agreed to a Kragh Aru and I’m the prize!” I stated, my hands itching in excitement.

  “Why would you do that? I heard your father planned to announce that you would be bonded to Fenri! You are going to make people think you’ve gone mad.”

  “Papa Odin, I may be when you hear what I have to say.”

  Chapter 8

  Weeks passed, as the news of the Kragh Aru spread, distant members from other clans, arrived from far and wide to compete. After all, the chance to become bonded with the clan leader’s daughter and help govern the whole clan was something they couldn’t pass up. Especially, since the Valdyrstal’s were the largest and the wealthiest of the remaining clans.

  The week before the competition, my father became sullen and angered easily. I had thought it had something to do with the influx of clan members that seemed to be appearing daily. Family members greeted many of their distant relatives, while others brought tents of their own to set up along the outskirts of the fields. On more than one occasion I had gone to the gathering hall, where many chose to eat and drink, and found my father passed out drunk.

  But the next morning, Bearen was back to himself again. He even wore his finest leathers and furs and spent the morning looking to the mountains as if he were waiting for something or someone.

  I was spending the morning avoiding the new faces and the odd stares by hiding in the stable with Faraway. I crawled up into the hayloft to bring another bale down to the stalls.

  Throw some of that hay my way!

  Instead of throwing Faraway a handful of hay to munch on, I dumped a whole loose bale on him. I laughed out loud as he shook his head and flicked his tale comically to get the offending hay out of his mane.

  Oops. I guess you should have said how much hay.

  I don’t think you brought down enough.

  I threw down plenty you pig.

  Never underestimate my stomach, Faraway taunted back and began to munch happily on his snack.

  I heard the pounding of racing horses before I saw men race past the stable and barrel down the road towards the mountains. Normally I wouldn’t have cared, except that I recognized two of the riders as my father and Odin. Quickly, I jumped down the ladder and ran out of the large double doors and into the road, trying to see where they were heading. I went back inside to grab Faraway with the full intention of riding after them.

  “I wouldn’t do that, Meja Faelan.” It was Fenri. He had snuck up behind me and gently laid his hand across Faraway’s stall.

  “Do what?” I answered.

  “Follow them. It is your father’s business, and if he wanted you to come he would have asked you.”

  “Is he in danger?” I couldn’t help but let the worry show.

  “No, he’s not the one you should worry about. Besides, he has Odin with him. I guarantee you they will both be back by nightfall in time for the feast. After all, how often does our clan get together and we have such a glorious occasion to celebrate.” Fenri made a show of waving his hands in the air, but I could tell that he was somewhat disappointed.

  “Look Fenri, about the Kragh Aru.” I stepped closer and looked up at his clean-shaven face and couldn’t help but reach out and touch his cheek. “I’m sorry—.”

  He closed his eyes and gently pressed his cheek into my palm before pulling away abruptly. “No, you have the right to make me fight for your hand and your honor. There is no need to feel shame.” He moved toward the stable doors and turned back with a half smile on his face. “Unless you don’t dance with me. After all, I am the best at the Tipturo.” He left.

  I felt a quick pang in my heart and felt a soft nuzzle against my shoulder. I turned to pat Faraway’s warm cheek.

  You’re filled with sadness for the red-haired one.

  Yes, I can’t give him what he wants or probably deserves.

  Which is?

  My heart.

  Why not?

  An image of Joss flashed through my mind and then it flickered away.

  I don’t know.

  Well maybe it’s not your love you need to give him.

  What else is there?

  Your loyalty.

  He had me there. It is what I was doing anyway if my plan failed. I was going to marry whoever won the competition. So why didn’t I just accept Fenri’s offer or agree to my father’s choice? What did I hope to achieve if it didn’t work? I finished my work in the hayloft and grabbed a currycomb and brushed Faraway as I went over my problems. I kept glancing out the doors to the mountains waiting for my father and Odin to return. It was nearing dark and I had to change for the celebration soon. As I was about to leave Hemi led three latecomers into the stable. He looked surprised to see me and quickly stepped in front of me, hiding me behind his large body.

  “Oi, since you have no family ties, and you didn’t bring your own tents, you get what’s left,” Hemi said gruffly gesturing to the hayloft above me. “Which would be the loft.”

  Taking the cue from Hemi, I kept my head low and pulled up the hood on my vest, hiding my face. I grabbed a pitchfork and pretended to muck out the stall. I studied each one, trying to see if I recognized any of them. I didn’t.

  One was in his fifties with long grey hair and a nose that looked like it had been broken on numerous occasions. The second was completely bald, medium build, muscular and was the loudest of the three. The third man was slightly taller than the bald one, he wore a furred cap that covered most of his head and was appa
rently drunk. He collapsed onto my fresh pile of hay and immediately began snoring. The other two kicked him and made some crude gesture. I heard their words and had problems understanding. Their dialect was different- harsher.

  I backed up and whispered to Hemi. “Who are they?”

  Hemi stroked his long red beard and eyed them warily. “The news spread quickly and you gained attention from the Stahler clan. I didn’t think any from that clan would show themselves, but the prize must have been too much for them to pass up.”

  The grey haired Stahler made a lewd comment about hoping to get ahold of some ladies tonight for some entertainment.

  Hemi’s face turned bright red and he made a curt reprimand before grabbing my elbow and physically removing me from the stable and out of their line of sight. Thankfully, they never paid me any attention.

  “Whatever you do,” he warned. “Stay away from them and don’t go anywhere near the stable.” I nodded and quickened my steps to match his as we put as much distance between the Stahlers and me as possible. Something about them made my skin crawl.

  Faraway, can you keep an eye on them?

  How about my nose? Can’t miss that stench.

  Hemi walked me to my house and paused. He shuffled his feet back and forth before looking up at me with pride in his eyes and something that could have been tears.

  “It doesn’t matter to me, what happened to you. I’ve seen it with my eyes, you’re special. You are worth a hundred of us warriors and you shouldn’t hide who you are. You have my axe if ever you need it.” He put his giant hand on the handle to his axe that he always wore on his back and he lumbered down into a bow.

  I felt myself begin to tear up as well. Somehow, I had earned the loyalty of one of my father’s trusted friends. Now if only the rest of my clan felt the same way.

 
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