C5 The Witch
Viktor did not pause a moment for us. We trekked long blindly through the jet forest, led only by the slightest outline of his shape and his glowing orange eyes.
Daniel, at least, had discovered his wolf long ago and was bestowed with all the gifts that came with the turning. As a result, he had fine night-time vision and lead me by the hand for the entirety of the journey through the darkness. At times, it felt as though we were walking in circles and climbing hills, leaping over streams and going still as death at the slightest shuffle in the distance.
I wasn’t sure what was so rightfully terrifying about the forest that we had to play opossum at the slightest noise, but I trusted Daniel’s instincts. Whenever he squeezed my hand, I froze until the sound passed.
Eventually, we made it to the other side and Viktor shifted back to his former self before we left the cover of the trees. He took his clothing back and stepped out behind us, fully clothed.
“I’ll give you one hour to finish your business, and then we turn back,” he said.
But the issue remained that I wasn’t sure exactly what we were looking for.
Daniel was the one who turned to him and asked, “Do you know of an expert here—someone who might be able to contact one’s inner wolf?”
The question seemed to confuse the rogue. Most wolves were capable of contacting their own inner spirit.
After a moment of pondering, he gave a large sigh and said, “I should charge you extra for this.” Then he stepped out in front of us and gestured for us to follow. As we rounded a large, brick building, the city of Thorne came alive in the black of night. Lanterns hung from ropes that stretched from building to building and shivered in the cool night air. A woman balanced on a large marble ball in the center of town, juggling apples and scarcely wearing any clothing at all. A crowd of men whooped and tossed her coins. Patrons shuffled in and out of taverns and browsed tented shops that had been set up along the cobble walkways.
I followed closely to Daniel, who followed a ways away from Viktor, weary of the world we’d stumbled into.
We stopped a tiny cottage with a sign out front—the shape of an eye in the center of a diamond. After a firm knock from Viktor, an old woman came to the door, looking weathered and tired and milky in one eye. “I thought I smelled dogs,” she grumbled. “What is it this time?”
She left the door open for us and walked back inside, and we followed her into a small, crowded shop with dead creatures that had been stuffed and preserved and priced for sale. Some were in jars and some were—unfortunately—still alive. I wrinkled my nose at the dozens of newts that scrambled around in their glass enclosure, desperate to be free.
“Strange for a girl like you to be in these parts,” the old woman said as we took a seat at her wooden table. “If you have a question, ask it. I’ve better things to do.”
I glanced back to see Viktor hanging by the doorway. I hadn’t wanted him to know anything about me, let alone how weak the duke’s heir was. My father was an enemy to the rogues, after all. But I was here—finally here. Finally, I’d know where my true mate was and maybe—maybe they could bring out the wolf in me.
I removed my hat and let my hair fall over my shoulders. “My name is Korina Rosenthal. I want to know why I haven’t found my mate yet.”
The witch gazed with that single seeing eye—the other milky and white, and not quite looking the right direction . “How old are you?”
“I just turned eighteen.”
She reached across the table and clasped my hand in her palms. The skin on her knuckles wrinkled and folded like paper. Then she shut her eyes and breathed in deeply. After a long while, the old woman cracked open her eyes and sat back in her chair with her hands folded beneath her chin. “I’m afraid we’ll never know where your mate is, my dear.”
My face prickled. “Wha—why?”
“I fear I can’t reach the wolf in you to find out.”
“What do you mean?” I felt the panic rising and rose with it, my chair sliding back behind me. “You can’t reach her? Why not?”
“I felt only one soul in your body,” the old witch said. “Either you aren’t a wolf at all…or the second soul inside you has died.”
Fire hit my cheeks and my lungs floundered. Died? Died? How could my wolf be dead?
“You’ll likely never know your mate,” said the old witch. “And quite likely you’ll never meet your wolf. As far as the gods have declared it, you are as void of magic as a simple human.”
My heart wacked against the walls of my chest until I couldn’t breathe any longer. I ran out of the tiny cottage and into the streets of Thorne, hot tears sprouting in my eyes. How could she be dead? I’d never even had the chance to meet her. No. No! I was going to be trapped with Cato for the rest of my life—locked away in that fucking tower, forced to breed his offspring year after year like a damned milk cow.
“Hey,” said a voice. I thought it to be Daniel’s so I slammed against his chest with my arms around him and cried. He touched the back of my head and said, “What did I tell you when we came here? Don’t trust anyone.” I only noticed them that it was the rogue who held me in his arms, not Daniel. Rather, Daniel watched from the side, a surprised and contemplative look on his face. Viktor did not give me time to pull away before he had me by the shoulder, leading me off.
“Come on, sunshine,” he called to Daniel. “Let’s get a drink, shall we?”
The tavern Viktor led us to was bustling with music and chatter and the laughter of a large group of men in the corner of the room who clanked glasses together and roared in delight of one another’s company. Viktor, Daniel and I took a seat at the counter where a woman was drying the edges of a glass with her rag. She did not ask what we wanted, but rather set down three large glasses full of fizzling ember liquid before us.
“It can’t be true,” Daniel was saying, watching the bubbles pop in his glass. “Your mother and father were both wolves. You must be a wolf, too.”
“Quiet down,” urged Viktor, glancing to the roaring men in the corner. “Some of the patrons here aren’t keen on our kind.”
“You aren’t keen on our kind,” I told him. “Are you sure you didn’t set this all up because you knew we came from the duke’s castle.”
“Whatever mortal imbecile you choose to worship is none of my business,” said Viktor.
“What is it about authority that disgusts you so?” Daniel responded. “You rogues are all the same. You leave because you abhor the idea of being ordered around by a pack—then you find a new pack to be ordered around by.” He scoffed and took a swig of his ale. “Ridiculous.”
They continued to bicker as I slipped down from my stool and wandered out into the cool night. I felt numb and sick and the way the moon grinned at me from so high above did not provide any sort of comfort.
“You’ve come looking for something, haven’t you?” asked a voice. A merchant sat crouched beneath his tent, a number of items laid out on the quilt before him. “Tell me how I can help such a pretty, sullen face.”
“You can’t help me,” I muttered to him—or perhaps just to the wind. “No one can. Tomorrow, I’ll be a prisoner to a man I barely know. And again, every day after that.”
“Is that so?” asked the merchant. From his sleeve, he withdrew a small vial. It glinted in the moonlight, the contents milky like the old witch’s blind eye. “I believe I have the antidote to your problems.”
I wandered closer to gaze into the milky vial. “What…is it?”
“Wolvesbane,” said the merchant. He was old, freckled with age, but his eyes held a kindness that seemed foreign here. “A dose this large would result in immediate death among your kind.”
Was my freedom really worth murdering the man who was soon to be my husband?
The vial called to me, liquid glinting in the light of the hanging lanterns.
“How much do you want for it?”