Magic Runs Deep
For the last five years, Veier has been chained to a king’s throne in his bear form. When a neighboring kingdom overthrows the crown, Veier’s imprisonment ends, but true freedom is not so easily earned. With blood on his hands, he needs someone with patience, strength, and trust to help him become the person he was before and prove to the invaders that he isn’t the monstrous king’s loyal pet.
Elrid, the invading king's brother and a powerful mage, is everything Veier despises. He’s also the only thing between Veier and execution, because he thinks he can help Veier change from an aggressive bear shifter into a reasonable man. While the pair have a rough start, with long talks and mutual leaps of faith, they begin to care for each other.
However, the closer Veier gets to his freedom, the closer he is to losing Elrid. He must find balance in his heart and his life if he wishes to truly claim the freedom he’s been given—and the man he loves.
Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:explicit violence
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish. Click on a label to reveal its content.
Themes: abuse, acceptance, commitment, death / the afterlife, duty, enemies to lovers, family, first love, fitting in, hurt / comfort, illness / injury, interspecies, isolation, politics / power struggle, power imbalance, protection, PTSD, recovery, reunion, self-confidence, slave / capture (actual - in past), trust issues
The heady aroma of destruction hung in the air. Smoke wafted through the throne room, carrying undercurrents of blood and charred flesh. The noise beyond the heavy wooden doors was terrific, but inside the stone walls, only Bora's growls and the clink of his chains broke the silence.
Bora's nose twitched as the side door to the throne room swung open. Briefly screams, shouts, and the clash of metal echoed off the hallowed walls. They were silenced by the door clanging closed behind the Almighty and his council. Bora rose to his feet so he could properly bow his head.
The Almighty had left earlier in the day with his council, talking of barbarians attacking, but Bora had remained chained to the Almighty's throne. Despite being the Almighty's protector, he was never set free to prove his worth.
They feared giving him freedom. Afraid a bear would turn his claws and teeth on the Almighty's people. Or the Almighty. As if he would attack his creator, who loved him.
The Almighty hurried across the room, clearly focused on his councilmen.
"My liege," Lord Gorr urged, right on the Almighty's heels, "if you leave through the kitchens, no one will be on guard. We can dress you as a servant, and our fleeing will not draw their attention. The Right Hand can cause a diversion and — "
"No," the Almighty said. "I will leave as my position warrants: on my horse with my things. I will not sneak away from my own palace!"
"But — "
The Almighty's fist cut the air. "Silence! You will either help me or be considered a traitor. Now. To the rooms!"
The door on the other side of the room slammed closed behind the Almighty and his entourage. Stillness settled around Bora for a moment. He waited on tenterhooks for something. Anything. But there was nothing. He was about to hunch back down when the main doors opened and a flood of invaders poured in. Swords drawn and bloody, their armor oddly shaped and scarred, they stank of strangeness and destruction.
Bora roared and surged forward, only taking a few strides before the chain ran out of length and the attached collar choked him to a stop. The metal dug into his neck and cut off the noise, but it didn't matter. The men who'd charged in pulled up short and turned to face him, clearly recognizing him as the threat he was. Perhaps not as large as other of his bear brethren, but on all fours he was nearly to their waists, and larger still if he rose on his hind legs. Not to mention the sheer heft of his weight.
One of the men cursed in the Common Tongue, and then the rest of the words were lost in a foreign babble.
Bora watched their gestures and yanked hard against the chain, snapping his jaw at the air, daring them to come closer. Even if he could not fight them, he could distract them from their prey. He lunged again. The chain held strong, but the throne he was tied to screeched as it slid an inch across the floor.
Now, they watched him. He pulled again, and another squeal of metal pierced the air.
The first man gestured and spoke in their strange language, then turned to cross the room. The others joined him, heading toward the door the Almighty had taken.
A few heads turned at his warning roar, but it didn't stop the soldiers from breaking down the door and following the Almighty's path up the staircase beyond it. And then the men were gone, and for a moment, silence hung in the air again.
Too soon, more men came. All strangers, all battle worn. All yelling in a confusing language, gesturing, giving orders, taking orders, and then dispersing. Most startled at him when they first arrived, but few stayed, except a handful of common soldiers, their armor dull and ill-fitting at best.
One man, boasting about his own greatness — Bora could tell, although the words were meaningless — approached with a spear. He stank of sweat, filth, and pride. Bora snarled and hunched to the ground, then slowly slid backward to slacken the chain. The man sneered and thrust the spear at him. Bora fell back farther, luring the savage in closer to the throne.
When the man advanced and thrust a second time, Bora leapt. He'd spaced it right. The chain pulled taut, but he had already felled his foe, small bones crunching beneath his weight. Screams echoed in the large hall when his claws dug in. A single swipe of his paw and there was victorious silence.
Shouts and cries from the other soldiers echoed in the hall, but it was too late. He'd made his point. After that, the rest of the invaders left him alone. He crouched beside the corpse and snarled when anyone came near. But they kept outside the length of his chain, eyeing him and his prize warily.
Bora returned his thoughts to the Almighty, praying for his safety, and then he felt it.
He shuffled, grumbling, and stood, then shook out his body. The feeling stayed. It sprouted between his shoulders like an itch that didn't itch, and spread through his forepaws, down his spine, along his hindquarters, and into his brain. Until the collar around his neck was only metal, a weight bearing him down. Gateways in his mind opened, and he shook again, trying to dislodge the new feelings, but they overwhelmed and settled into him.
The Almighty had —
No, he was no god. He was a man. A king, yes, but a man. Now that man was dead, and the spell tying Bora to him was broken. A snarl curled Bora's lips, and he lunged at the corpse. He tore his teeth and claws into flesh, wishing it were that vile king, rendering the entrails into pulp.
Beyond the walls, the noise muted and a cry was heralded. "King Numeir is dead. Surrender and you will be spared!"
He clenched an arm in his jaws, blood dripping down his chin, and tossed it across the room. It hit the wall with an unsatisfying splat. Beneath him, the rest of the body was a slushy puddle littered with bones. Blood and gore matted Bora's black-brown fur, staining the white pattern on his chest.
This time when he roared, he had their attention. Faces twisted in horror. But the noise felt strange on his lips. When had he been taught to roar? He huffed instead. Snapped his jaw. Then stepped away from the pile of filth and lumbered back to the spot he'd always taken by the throne.
It was familiar and horrific. Bile rose in his throat. He swallowed it down and buried his muzzle under his bloody paws, closing his eyes. His heart pounded with the footsteps of soldiers; his brain buzzed with their voices. He still couldn't make out their words.
Bora didn't raise his head when the grand doors to the main hall swung open. He didn't check when a hush fell over the men milling about or when the creak of leather and chink of metal told of people bowing. Kings, leaders, gods, whatever. It didn't matter to him.
At that, he did look up, to the one who spoke in the royal tongue that his captor had used. A man stood surrounded by soldiers, staring at Bora. He was probably their leader if the finery of the armor indicated anything. The men around him were bowing or keeping their gazes lowered. Did they think him a god?
"He killed Klaudius," a man said in the royal language, his heavily accented words muffled against his armor. The man didn't explain that this Klaudius had attacked him with a spear, Bora noted. But perhaps it didn't matter. He was an animal to them, after all. And these men were monsters like his captor had been. Like Klaudius had been.
A pulsing cry rose in his throat, and Bora drew to his feet, daring the leader to come closer — but the man wasn't a fool. Another man was though. He stepped around the leader and took three measured strides toward the throne. He was a slim, mousy-looking thing with sturdy leather armor covering only his torso and forearms. Red stained his hands, the pale-blue sleeves of his frock, and the knees of his trousers. His raven-black hair was tied back in a braid.
The man's fine brow rose, but he didn't move away, didn't flinch, as Bora's claws swiped through the air, brushing past the delicate, upturned nose without a scratch. Interest sparkled in the dark eyes.
Bora retreated, galloping back to the throne, only to turn and run full-force, dragging the throne another inch closer to the fool.
The man simply stepped back with a nod.
"He is not safe," the leader said, and Bora must have imagined the regret in his voice when he added, "He shall be put down. Cray, see to — "
"No." The raven-haired man paused, turned toward the leader, then dropped to one knee, his head bowed. "If I may have my liege's leave."
"Oh, for — " the leader said, snapping his teeth on the unsaid words. "Hold on."
He spat a series of orders in the other language, and men started moving around. Bora eyed them all, waiting for one of them to come close enough. Their attention seemed to be elsewhere, though, most dispersing from the room at once.
"So what is it, Elrid?" the leader asked, his voice low — private words in the royal language for the raven-haired man only. But Bora could hear despite the noise surrounding them. Did they think he couldn't understand that language despite being tied here so long?
"Yllth, he's a shifter. Ursinai," Elrid said just as quietly, leaning closer to the leader. Bora could see some similarities beyond the exhaustion of battle. The same fine-featured bones in their faces. The same shiny black locks. But the leader was taller, broader. A warrior where this one was a scholar. "There is a man in there."
"Yes, a man who is loyal to the filth we've washed out. He is obviously unwilling to stand down now that the battle is over. His life is forfeit."
"Stand down? Battle? Yllth, he's chained in here. Do you really think the king saw him as a loyal subject?"
"Maybe he likes it."
Bora huffed and stalked closer. Both men glanced at him — the leader with pity, the scholar with curiosity. Yes, he wanted to tell them, I can hear you talking about me. No, I do not like being chained to this throne. Yes, I will tear you apart if you try to touch me.
"I'm going to guess not," the smaller man said, smirking.
"This isn't a stray cat, El," the leader said in exasperation. "You can't take him home and nurse him back to health."
"Rosie catches many mice in the stables, I'll have you know."
"Oh, for — " the leader growled. "You have no idea how to handle something like this. How do you plan on taking him anywhere? If you recall, he attacked you."
"I have my ways."
Bora snapped his jaw and huffed again, straining against the resistance around his neck. He didn't like this. He liked it less when the leader sighed in defeat.
"I was going to ask you to stay here with me and help with reconstruction anyway. You have three weeks to get that" — he gestured at Bora — "to shape-shift and not threaten to kill anyone. To explain himself. And you better not slack on your actual duties to the king and people."
Elrid bowed deeply. There was only a touch of humor in his voice when he said, "Of course not, King Yllth Adarian, bringer of peace and light."
The king groaned. "Oh, for goodness' sake, stand up. You can have a room to keep your pet for the next three weeks. After that I'll make a final decision."
"Thank you, Yllth. I mean it. Thank you. You know how I hate — "
"Senseless murder." The king shook his head. "I know. You're a healer, not a fighter. Just prove that this death would be senseless. You also have to write the letter to that soldier's family explaining why he's dead."
Because he prodded a bear with a pointy stick that wasn't long enough. Bora snorted.
Both men turned to him, but only the shorter one was grinning like he could hear Bora's thoughts.
* * * * * * *
After the two men finished discussing him, they moved on. Everyone else left him alone too. Whatever was being done in the rest of the castle, in the rest of the kingdom, Bora wasn't privy to it. It didn't affect him, anyway, since he was being passed from one man to another. Kingdoms and rulers didn't matter when a man had enslaved you with a magical collar and could kill you without hesitation.
All he wanted was to go home. Instead he was being given a new master and a new chain.
He pawed the collar. If the magic was gone, maybe it would no longer change sizes with him. It wouldn't hurt to try. But not until tonight. Then he could slip away while the rest of the world slept. Once he was far enough from the city, he could shift back and run faster than any man astride.
Running. He remembered what that was like. Would his muscles be able to handle it? Surely he still knew how to hunt, even if the memories were foggy flashes of cold streams and silver. Yes, the silver had tasted sweet in his mouth, refreshing and juicy in ways that water was not. Fresh fish. How long had it been?
That made him think of his mother's cooking. Frying up what he didn't eat raw in bear form, so the skin was crispy and saturated with flavors. Beside a heaping pile of potatoes and a thick slab of bread.
His stomach growled, reminding him of how long ago his last meal had been. Not that he couldn't go without. But years―how many years had it been? — of scheduled meals had left his body wanting.
He rolled to all fours and began pacing―clockwise, then counterclockwise―around the throne. His stomach cramped with each lap; his temper flared. When Elrid came in, Bora didn't glance at him, until his scent―freshly washed in mint water, not that it covered his sweaty maleness―and food drew Bora's eyes.
Elrid, stripped of his soldiering clothes and wearing simple finery instead, bore a tray, upon which lay a whole fish surrounded by nuts and berries.
Bora's mouth grew wet. He let his tongue roll out, tasting the air. Oh. Oh, this was good food. Fresh and ripe, not leftovers from the latest feast.
His stomach rumbled, and Elrid, the conceited prick, smiled.
"I was wondering if you were hungry." He stopped beyond where Bora's chain reached, set the tray down, then pushed it across the invisible line.
Bora hesitated long enough to inhale, and then lunged to the end of his chain. With one paw, he dragged the tray farther into his circle in case the man changed his mind. Then he hunkered down and snuffled everything on the tray, savoring the heady aromas —
And something else. He sniffed again and raised a suspicious gaze.
Elrid, sitting just beyond Bora's reach, gave a lopsided smile. "Yes, I dosed the fish. But not with poison. It will simply make you sleep for a few hours. I want to move you to a different room―this place is too big and . . ." He gestured with his hand as if Bora could fill in the rest. "But they refuse to try to move you while awake, and I can't say I disagree with them. So if you eat the fish, you'll fall asleep."
Bora stared, then looked down at the platter of food. He licked some nuts and berries into his mouth before glaring up at Elrid.
The man's smile was wry. "Yes, I wouldn't trust me either. But I know a man's mind is in there. I see it in your eyes, and I recognize the crest of the Ursinai on your chest. So understand that if you don't show a little trust and eat the fish, then we'll use an arrow dosed with the drug. The results will be the same, but I'll know where we stand and my brother will trust you less."
Brother? Did that mean Elrid wasn't only part of the council, but a princeling? Bora's lips curled in distaste, before the rest of what had been said sank in.
Eat the fish and get drugged, or be shot and get drugged. He could fight it, fight them, but eventually their advantage would win out — and he would be short a fish in his belly. He nosed the salmon. It would be a shame to waste such delicious food. Despite the drugs, it was sweeter than anything he'd eaten in . . . in too long to recall.
He wasn't sure what it meant that Elrid had been honest with him about it. Not forthcoming, but honest once it had been pointed out. The scholar seemed to have his interest at heart, even if it was simple curiosity that drove him.
By the time Bora finished eating, Elrid was nearly preening. "I knew you'd make the smart choice. Not stupid at all. And you understand the royal language. I suppose that makes sense, considering — "
Bora snorted. He didn't want to hear the rest of that sentence. The thought alone was upsetting what had been an enjoyable meal.
"Ah. Yes. Well." Elrid stood, the pale-blue garment fluttering into place around him. "I will leave you alone, then. I'll be back in an hour, but you'll be asleep. When you wake, you may feel light-headed and disoriented, but it should pass quickly. You'll be unchained and uncollared in a room that will only open by my command. I will probably be in there with you. If you kill me, they'll kill you, and they'll likely make it painful and torturous. I'd really rather neither of us suffer that fate, so please don't try to kill me."
Bora huffed at the flippancy.
Elrid must have taken that as assent, or at least confirmation that Bora understood, because he nodded, turned, and left the room.
Bora sighed and rolled over to await the oncoming slumber.
He wouldn't be able to escape today, maybe, but if he was still alive after this night was through, then he would have other opportunities.
Home would be within his grasp soon.