Rylan limped toward home, cursing the injury that had forced him out of his faster form and left him naked and vulnerable to anyone who happened across him. He only hoped he’d managed to outpace the hunters whose arrow had scored his flank before he was forced to change. He knew their kind. He’d be in a cage before he could blink if they caught him, and that would kill the wild heart within him—a death sentence for sure. He could survive quite well in either form for extended periods of time, but he needed the freedom to run, as man or beast.
He stumbled, his injured leg giving out on him, the fall leaving scrapes on bare skin. He cursed again, wishing he could shift. Four legs would be far steadier than two.
“Are you all right?”
The sound of a voice in this usually deserted corner of the forest surprised Rylan. He tried to push himself to his feet, but his leg gave out again. “No,” he admitted, studying the man who stood a few feet away in the woods. He was tall and broad through the shoulders, but lean at the waist and hips, with long, long legs, perfect for gripping the back of a horse—or a lover’s body. Pitch-black hair topped olive-colored skin, the equally dark eyes warm with the offer of aid. Usually skittish around strangers, Rylan could sense no ill intent, nor did the beast inside him stir as it was wont to do in the presence of a threat. “I’ve hurt my leg.”
The man stepped closer. “May I look at it? I’ve some skill with healing.”
Rylan had no idea what a human’s tricks could do for him, but he did not see any harm in finding out. Even if all he got was a bandage around his thigh and a hand to keep going until he could get home, it was more than he had now. Carefully, he rolled to his side, showing his benefactor the long gash on the back of his leg.
“You didn’t do that yourself,” the man said immediately. “You were shot.”
“It’s clean,” Rylan told the healer. “The arrow merely grazed me rather than penetrating.”
“It was clean,” the healer corrected. “It’s caked in mud now. We need to get you to shelter so I can clean and dress it properly. I’m Dane, by the way. If you’ll lean on me, I have a horse not far from here. She can carry you to my cabin, where I can get you patched up and on your way.”
Rylan shook his head, for as delightful as it sounded not to have to walk, he knew what would happen if he tried to mount the animal. He’d been thrown before. Horses didn’t need to see his other form to know he wasn’t fully human. Their equine senses recognized him immediately and refused to let his human form mount them any more than if he’d been in his true form. “She won’t carry me. Thank you for the offer, though. I’m Rylan.”
“How do you know?” Dane asked, confused. “You haven’t even seen her yet.”
Rylan shook his head. “I’ve yet to meet a horse that will let me on its back for more than the few seconds it takes to throw me. If you’ll help me to my feet, I’ll be on my way again. My own home is not far.”
Dane approached and offered Rylan a hand. Rylan managed to get to his feet, but his leg held him for only another few steps. With a muttered curse, he looked up at Dane. “Perhaps I am more in need of assistance than I realized.”
Rylan was right about the horse, but he had not counted on Dane’s determination. The mare would not bear him, but Dane did not give up, loading the entirety of his pack onto his horse’s back instead so he could put his shoulder beneath Rylan’s arm and his arm around Rylan’s waist, taking the bulk of Rylan’s weight on himself. They moved slowly, but they made progress, and an hour before dark, they reached a little dwelling nestled in the woods.
Rylan’s sense of direction told him they were far closer to his own home than he would have expected, for he thought he knew the woods and its inhabitants well. “Have you lived here long?”
Dane shrugged. “For three seasons now. When winter gives way to spring, I will have been here a year.” He helped Rylan inside, the beast within Rylan growing restless at being confined in the unfamiliar space. Rylan soothed it with the reminder that he needed help and that Dane had been nothing but considerate.
“I’m surprised we have not met before,” Rylan murmured, breathing a sigh of relief as he was able to sit and take the weight completely off his wounded thigh.
“I don’t go out much,” Dane said as he opened a cabinet and began taking out herbs and tinctures to tend Rylan’s wound.
“Why not?” Rylan asked, surprised. “If you have the skill you say you have, I would think you would be in high demand.”
“That was the problem,” Dane muttered, so softly Rylan would not have heard him without his acute senses. Deciding it best not to reveal the abilities brought about by his dual nature, Rylan let the comment go, waiting until Dane gave a louder answer. “My skills are mine to use as I see fit.”
“Then I shall say thank you for using them on me,” Rylan said as Dane approached.
“We’ll see if you still say that after I’ve dunked you and dosed you,” Dane said with a laugh. “My medicines will do no good on a dirty wound.”
As the sun dropped below the horizon, Rylan settled on a pallet in front of Dane’s fire, amazed at how much better his leg felt already. The healer had washed his wound carefully, making sure it was completely free of dirt and debris before covering it in a thick paste the color of the sunset. Rylan had no idea what was in the paste, but he could practically feel his leg healing as he lay there.
In the dim light of the fire, Rylan could see little detail of Dane’s home, naught but the table set into shadows, yet the place felt safe. Rylan’s beast was as relaxed as he was, a surprise in itself because of the wound that kept him from changing. Usually, when he was hurt, he had to fight to keep the animal inside him under control. The pain kept him in human form, but the inability to shift left his mind in turmoil. Dane seemed to have a calming effect, making Rylan wonder what magic besides healing the man possessed. In his other form, perhaps he could have identified the source, his beast able to sense far more about a person than Rylan could do in human form. Given his current inability to change, he would simply have to accept the situation at face value.
The exterior door opened, allowing a gust of wind to enter, chilling Rylan even beneath the thick blanket Dane had provided him. “Are the animals settled?”
Dane nodded, turning his back to Rylan and stripping off his shirt. Rylan barely smothered a gasp at the sight of the scars crisscrossing Dane’s back. They appeared healed, but it was obvious someone had taken great pains to whip the man badly in the not terribly distant past. Rylan’s beast screamed in protest at the thought, surprising the man with its ferocity. Then Dane turned, and Rylan caught a glimpse of a much more foreboding mark. Dane had an M branded into his shoulder. M for murderer.
The rational part, the human part of Rylan’s brain urged him to flee, but he was not strong enough to get far. Even more importantly, the animal inside him felt no fear. Dane might be many things. He might even be a murderer, but he was no threat to Rylan. Of that much he was sure.
Dane’s head whipped around, his hand covering his shoulder automatically. “You… you can see my mark?”
Rylan cursed silently. He should have realized Dane would never have undressed if he thought Rylan could see him. “I’ve always seen well at night. You didn’t answer my question.”
“The local lord’s son,” Dane said, his voice tight as he pulled a clean shirt on over his head. “I tried to help him, but he was too far gone by the time I got there. I tried explaining that, but the man was crazy with his grief. He insisted I had killed his son. They tried me and branded me. They were going to hang me, but I escaped.”
“Three seasons ago.”
Dane nodded. “I won’t go back. I don’t want to hurt you, but if you try to turn me in, I will find a way to stop you.”
“Don’t worry,” Rylan said, though he knew Dane had no reason to trust him. “I have my own reasons for wanting to stay as far away from the nobility as possible.”
“Why aren’t you afraid of me? Everyone else who has ever seen it has run away in fear.”
“Because I know you don’t mean me any harm,” Rylan replied honestly.
“You aren’t the only one with secrets, Dane,” Rylan said, evading the question. “So they accused you of murder and you ran here to hide.”
“They say a terrible beast lives in these woods,” Dane explained. “The people from the village won’t come here.”
“And if the beast finds you?”
“I’ll take my chances,” Dane said.
Rylan hid a smile. He already knew what the beast’s reaction to Dane would be. “If you see the beast, just remember that it can read your intentions. It will never hurt someone with a pure heart.”
“How do you know?” Dane asked, coming to sit at Rylan’s side, his eyes alight with excitement.
“You aren’t the only one who lives in these woods,” Rylan reminded him, though it was no real answer. He could hardly tell Dane that he was the beast. For one thing, Dane would never believe him, and he couldn’t change in his current state to convince the man.
“You’ve seen it? What does it look like?”
“It looks like a horse, with a few minor exceptions,” Rylan answered honestly, having seen his reflection in the pond as he drank. “It has a horn that sprouts from its forehead and extends nearly the length of your arm. Its coat is black as night during the day and white as the moon at night. It is a peaceful creature, as long as it isn’t threatened, but if it fears you, it can use its horn with all the dexterity of a sword. I have seen more than one man spitted through by its sharp point.”
“It sounds fearsome,” Dane said. “I will do my best to avoid coming to its attention.”
Rylan could have told Dane he had nothing to fear, but then he would have to give an explanation he was not ready to offer. The few people in the past he had told had reacted badly. In one instance, he had barely escaped with his life. No, it was far better to keep his secret for the time he was here and leave Dane in his ignorance.
Three days later, the wound on Rylan’s thigh had closed completely. Although it was still stiff and sore, Rylan could move his leg and even put his weight on it for short periods of time. With the freedom from debilitating pain came the need to shift, something he could not do in Dane’s company or in his home. Even if the man could accept it, Rylan’s animal would not. In his other form, he could not bear any kind of confinement.
When Dane went out to check on his animals, Rylan disrobed so he would not damage the clothes Dane had lent him and slipped out into the woods. As soon as he could no longer hear the cackling of the hens the healer kept in a pen behind his house, Rylan changed, his body stretching and reforming to become the black unicorn that struck fear into the hearts of the villagers in the surrounding towns. He shook his head, ruffling his mane, the movement working its way down his body until he had stretched every muscle.
Taking a few tentative steps, he tested his injured leg, finding the muscle as sore in animal form as in human form, but not so much that he could not walk. His animal mind resented not being able to run, but even in equine form, he retained enough of his humanity to control the urge to ignore the pain and gallop through the woods toward home. He knew he should go back to Dane’s and take his leave properly, but the desire to find the solace of his own abode was nearly overwhelming. He turned his head back toward Dane’s cabin, and then regretfully began the long walk home.
An hour later, he was regretting his decision. His leg was throbbing, making it harder and harder to walk, and he still had some distance to travel. Furthermore, he could hear someone approaching. When he was well, he feared no one, but in his current state, he did not have the speed to defend himself should the need arise. There was nothing for it, though. He would have to face his tracker and hope for the best. Lowering his horn threateningly, he turned back and waited.
Dane walked into the clearing where he stood.
The sight of his benefactor took Rylan’s breath away. In his human form, he had come to know the man over the past few days, appreciating Dane’s gentle hands, his sharp wit, and his handsome face, but now, as a unicorn, he could sense so much more. He could sense the basic goodness at the heart of the man and the untouched innocence, which lured the unicorn like nothing else. He was not repelled by the sexual experience of those around him, but the unicorn inside him still felt the lure of the virgin. Especially when he already knew and cared about the virgin.
Slowly Rylan lifted his head so his horn pointed toward the sky rather than toward Dane’s chest, and waited to see what the man would do. Even with the distance between them, Rylan could hear Dane’s heart pounding in his chest, another advantage of his shifted form, but the man did not back away.
“Rylan was right about you,” Dane said. “He told me you were peaceful as long as I didn’t have any ill intent.” He took a step forward.
Rylan’s muscles quivered, but he stayed where he was. His human mind knew he should leave before Dane saw the wound on his thigh, so comparable to the one the man had been treating, but the unicorn’s desire was stronger, the need to feel Dane’s hands on his neck, his shoulder, his flank too great to overrule. Angling his body so Dane would approach his good side, he let the man draw near, blowing hard to ruffle his black hair.
Dane laughed and stroked his long nose gently. “I can’t believe you’re letting me touch you.”
Rylan couldn’t believe he had gone this long without Dane touching him. His entire body vibrated with the sense of rightness at each stroke of tender hands over his hide, his heart crying out in joy at the nearness of an innocent, someone who could be his One. He nickered softly, trying to convey without words how much he enjoyed the caresses, how much he wanted them to continue.
Dane laughed again, a sound Rylan had heard too rarely in the days they had spent together. The fear of discovery kept Dane somber more often than not, but it seemed Rylan’s unicorn form brought out the lighter side of his personality.
“What is this?” Dane said suddenly. “You’re hurt!”
Rylan did not stop to think. He fled.
He could not let Dane discover the truth. That reality had been driven into him since he was a child and had first learned to change. He could not let anyone realize his dual nature, at the risk of being captured or even killed, and experience had only reinforced that lesson. He ran as far as his injured leg would carry him, collapsing to the ground in human form when the pain became too much.
He cursed under his breath at finding himself back in the same position as when he and Dane had first met. His leg was in better shape now than it had been then, even after his reckless run, but the weather was far worse. The wind whistled threateningly in the trees above his head, bringing with it the heavy smell of impending rain. Lightning crackled between the low-hanging clouds, the acrid smell of ozone making him realize how close the storm really was. He pushed to his feet, limping as he tried to continue toward his home.
Shoulders slumping, Rylan turned to face Dane. “We have to stop meeting like this,” he joked, but Dane’s face remained stern.
“What are you doing out here with a storm brewing and no clothes on?” Dane scolded.
“It’s a long story,” Rylan said with a sigh as the first fat raindrops hit the canopy of leaves. “My home is not far. If you will help me there, I’ll try to explain.”
Dane nodded and slid his shoulder beneath Rylan’s arm, supporting his weight as he had done the day they met. “Which way?”
Rylan guided them through the woods to his home, the stone dwelling built into the cliff face next to a small waterfall that fed a normally placid pond. The wind and driving rain stirred the surface, leaving it choppy with white-capped waves. They stumbled to the door, Rylan working the locking mechanism to allow them entrance. Heart pounding, he stepped over the threshold, Dane at his side, the first man to ever enter Rylan’s domain.
“You should dry off,” Rylan said, avoiding Dane’s eyes. “There is a towel by the sink. I will find something dry for you to wear, even if it’s only a blanket.”
“Take the time to dry off and dress as well,” Dane urged. “I will start a fire for us.”
Rylan nodded and retreated into his bedroom, shutting the door behind him and leaning back against it for a moment. He had invited a man into his home. He wasn’t a monk. Dane would not be his first lover—he had no illusions they would end up anywhere but in Rylan’s bed—but Dane would be the first man Rylan had welcomed into his bed. The first man his unicorn had ever acknowledged. The One, the virgin he would bind to forever.
Taking a deep breath, Rylan found a towel and dried off, dressing in his own clothes again for the first time in three days. He rummaged through the armoire, looking for something that would fit Dane, but the man was too big. Rylan settled for pulling the blanket from his bed. Stepping back into the main room, he paused for a moment to appreciate the vision of Dane in only a towel, kneeling in front of the fireplace, his body limned in gold from the light of the burgeoning flames.
“You must be cold,” Rylan said, struggling to keep his voice even as he draped the blanket around Dane’s shoulders. “What were you doing out in the woods?”
“I could ask you the same question,” Dane replied, rising from his crouch to face Rylan.
“I was coming home,” Rylan replied honestly. “I’d imposed on your generosity long enough.”
“Then why run away like a thief in the night?” Dane asked. “You could have asked me to come with you, if only to make sure you got here safely. You didn’t need to sneak out of the house—naked, no less—while I was outside.”
“I told you that first night you were not the only one with secrets,” Rylan said defensively. “I didn’t mean to discover yours, but that doesn’t mean I’m ready to share mine.”
Dane wrapped the blanket more securely around his shoulders. “So you ran away instead.”
Rylan shrugged. “That’s why I was in the woods. What’s your excuse?”
“I was looking for you,” Dane replied slowly, his eyes searching Rylan’s face as if he could find answers to some silent question there. “I found far more than I expected.”
Heart pounding so loud he was sure Dane could hear it, Rylan struggled to keep his voice steady and his face blank. “Really?”
“I met the beast you told me about,” Dane said. “He isn’t a monster at all. He’s beautiful.”
Rylan shrugged silently.
Dane frowned, but went on. “But I noticed something odd. He had a scar on his left hind leg that matches the wound on your thigh perfectly.”
“That is odd,” Rylan agreed, his voice sounding strangled to his own ears.
“Why didn’t you tell me you were a shifter?”
“For the same reason you didn’t tell me about the brand on your arm,” Rylan snapped. “It’s a good way to get myself killed.”
Dane’s hands landed hot and heavy on Rylan’s shoulders. “You know better than that. If I had any intention of harming you, I would have done it already.”
“But that was before you knew what I am,” Rylan reminded him. “Unicorns have been killed for their horns. Surely you know that.”
“I do,” Dane agreed, “but I also know they’re less likely to be killed than a man with the mark of a murderer on his arm. Unicorn or not, I mean you no harm. For the first time in three seasons, I have had the company of another person for more than a swift business transaction. You saw the brand on my arm, but you never once condemned me. You asked me who died, not who I had killed. I think I fell in love with you from those words alone.”
Rylan started to shake his head, but Dane’s lips brushed his, stilling the movement and winning a gasp of surprise from Rylan’s lips. The kiss was awkward in its innocence, Dane clearly having no idea what he was doing, but Rylan could not have cared less. His innocent, his virgin, his One, was kissing him of his own volition, and nothing had ever felt so right.
“I need you to hear me,” Rylan said, breaking the kiss with difficulty. “Right now, my beast desires you, and if you choose to leave, it will fight to go after you, but I will win because I am not my beast. If you stay, if you let me have you, you will be mine, my One, and no power in the world will be enough to keep me from coming after you if you try to leave. If you are not completely sure you can love me in both my forms, you need to leave now, because I won’t be able to offer a second time. The lure of the virgin is nearly overwhelming for a unicorn, and my own attraction to you only adds to that.” He took a breath to slow the rush of words, steeling himself for Dane’s rejection. “You need to decide now.”
“There is nothing to decide,” Dane replied, renewing the kiss. “You are all I stopped letting myself dream of the moment they put this brand on my arm.”
Rylan wanted to ask if he was certain, but he could only fight the unicorn within him for so long in the face of such provocative temptation.
“You are mine now,” he swore, pushing the blanket aside and turning Dane toward the bedroom.
Dane made no protest as they moved into the other room, though Rylan could sense his nervousness. He turned Dane back around, kissing him tenderly, the emotion in the gesture, the interest his beast showed for the first time in his intimate life, making it easy to go slow and give Dane a moment to adjust to their intimacy. Rylan had fucked many men in his life, but never before had he made love. Never before had he taken a man to his bed with the full acceptance of his unicorn nature. Never before had he claimed a man.
His hands wandered carefully, gentling Dane as earlier Dane had gentled the unicorn. Their lips stayed pressed together, moving against each other, parting for a quick breath, then joining again. Rylan could swear he felt their souls touching in that contact. He waited for Dane to touch him in return, but his virgin was too shy for that, apparently. Rylan looked forward to teaching him confidence, but that could wait for later, when Dane trusted the depth and permanence of Rylan’s love. For now, Rylan would take charge and claim his virgin, his mate. His One.
He had always known his other half would fixate on someone someday, and that when that happened, he would be bound to that person for life, but knowing and experiencing were two completely different things. The reverence that imbued his touch as he discovered every plane and hollow of Dane’s body had never before been present in his bed sport. His own pleasure had no importance in the face of Dane’s need. And when their bodies finally joined, the tender indignities of flesh piercing flesh faded to nothing compared to the knowledge of soul mating with soul.
Time stretched and slowed as their breathing returned, finally, to normal and their pulses steadied again. Rylan rolled to one side, keeping Dane tightly in his embrace so his virgin—even if Dane was considerably less virginal than an hour ago—would not feel rejected.
“So what happens now?” Dane asked after a few minutes. “You called me yours, but I don’t know what that means. In practical terms.”
Rylan pushed up on one elbow. “Unicorns are fascinated by innocents, virgins. I’m not sure you could have approached me in animal form earlier tonight if you hadn’t been untouched. I wouldn’t have hurt you, because I knew you meant me no harm, but I’m not sure I could have stayed still while you petted me like you did. In my human form, it isn’t simply an abstract fascination. It’s a mating instinct. I’ve always known that, someday, my unicorn would find a virgin who would be my virgin, my One.”
“Except I’m not a virgin anymore,” Dane pointed out.
“No.” Rylan had to agree, since he had taken part in the deflowering. “But I caused that, and so instead of my unicorn seeing you as tainted, it sees you as mine. Nothing we ever do together in love will tarnish your innocence in the eyes of my beast. How is it that you have reached an age and a maturity to be my One without ever having taken a lover?”
“I never met a man I respected enough to take to my bed,” Dane replied. “Apparently I needed a unicorn instead.”
The answer was, perhaps, simplistic, but Rylan accepted it for now. He would have time to learn more of his mate’s past as they built their future. The details could wait.
Winter had given way to spring finally, and both Rylan and Dane were ready for the freedom the warmer weather allowed. The snow had been uncommonly heavy, making it hard for Rylan to run in unicorn form. He had changed frequently, his unicorn as possessive of Dane as Rylan was, but while he had reveled in letting Dane brush him and stroke him, they had not been able to go for many rides. Now that the snow had finally melted everywhere but under the densest stands of trees, Rylan wanted to take his mate on his back and run.
Over the winter, they had worked toward Dane being able to ride Rylan in unicorn form. Even with Dane, his One whom he trusted implicitly, Rylan’s unicorn had been nervous at first about accepting a rider. It had taken all of Rylan’s will and all of Dane’s persuasiveness to convince the animal to let Danefirst lean and later sit on its back. Finally, though, they had reached the point where Dane could take a short ride around the protected yard. The sensation of having Dane’s long, long legs stretching across his back and down his sides, gripping him tightly for even that distance, had been enough to result in a frenzied session of lovemaking. Rylan could only imagine—and anticipate—the results of a real run.
“Are you ready?” he called impatiently to Dane, who was still in the house.
“Hold your horses,” Dane joked, coming out of the house.
“Who are you calling a horse?” Rylan retorted, a grin forming at the easy teasing.
“Not you,” Dane said immediately. “I want my ride today, and I know what will happen if I insult you.”
“What will happen?” Rylan asked, drawing Dane into his arms. He stroked the strong arms bared by the sleeveless shirt Dane wore, thrilled that the man no longer felt the need to hide the brand from Rylan’s eyes.
“You’ll pout, and the unicorn won’t let me mount,” Dane said. “And that would ruin the rest of my plans.”
“And what are the rest of your plans?” Rylan asked, though he thought he knew.
Dane grinned mischievously. “Finding a secluded spot and convincing you to switch back to human form so you can ravish me thoroughly.”
That coincided exactly with Rylan’s plans. “What makes you think I have any intention of ravishing you?”
Dane held up the small vial he had found tucked among his clothes that morning. “The fact that you left this for me, since you can’t carry anything when you’re in unicorn form. Come on, change already, so we can go.”
Rylan stripped, shivering a little as the breeze picked up, his human flesh far more sensitive to temperature than his equine body. Usually, Dane’s hands would have been all over him as he bared himself for the change, but today it seemed the man was as eager as Rylan was. With a stretch and a shake, he shifted, turning to nudge Dane with his horn. Dane approached the animal cautiously, because even after their practice rides, the unicorn remained skittish at first, but Rylan’s eagerness overcame the beast’s fears and Dane mounted with ease. Rylan took a deep breath, calming his unicorn’s nerves and reining in his own anticipation. Dane’s pat on his neck gave him the sign he needed that his One was settled and ready to go.
The unicorn began at an easy walk, growing accustomed to the extra weight on his back, to the way it moved and shifted with and against him. Dane made no move to guide Rylan, content to let the unicorn explore on his own, much to Rylan’s relief. He was not sure the animal inside him would have taken such direction.
When he was comfortable, he picked up the pace a little, alert for any sign of discomfort or distress on Dane’s part. Despite his intention of being careful, their lovemaking the night before had degenerated into a pounding, Dane demanding more and more until Rylan’s reserves broke. The body on his back moved with him easily, though, nothing in the hands resting lightly on Rylan’s mane or the legs wrapped firmly around his girth suggesting anything more than pure enjoyment of the day and the sunshine and the ride.
The need to run became overwhelming finally, and Rylan gave in to it, his hooves pounding the uneven ground as he raced along the narrow track between the trees. Dane moved with him as if they were one body, making Rylan long for them to be joined in another way. Turning toward the hot springs that bubbled up from the base of a nearby mountain, he raced in that direction, already anticipating making love to his One in the bubbly water.
Dane dismounted when Rylan stopped near the springs. The unicorn gave a restless shake of its head and transformed back into the man. The very aroused man.
“It looks like you enjoyed our ride nearly as much as I did,” Dane said with a grin, pulling Rylan toward him.
“I don’t know,” Rylan teased, moving into Dane’s arms. “You still have clothes on.”
Laughing, Dane pulled the shirt over his head and started undoing the laces on his trousers. Rylan moved to help when a noise caught his attention. “Someone’s coming,” he said tersely. “It sounds like a group.”
Dane nodded, his face sober as he refastened his pants and reached for his shirt. “Change. We can always come back later.”
Rylan stretched, his body transforming as Dane pulled his shirt over his head. Before Dane could mount, though, five men broke free of the woods. Everyone froze for a moment before one of the men shouted Dane’s name. The others took up the cry, rushing toward the man, heedless of Rylan at his side.
The fell intent in their hearts spurred Rylan forward, his body blocking Dane’s from the oncoming crowd. They did not appear to have bows with them, fortunately, but Rylan would have fought them even then. No one threatened his One. No one. He lowered his horn, charging the group. He hoped his aggression would frighten them into retreat, but he had not counted on their greed. The emotion he could feel roiling from them made no sense until one of the men shouted about the price on Dane’s head. That only added to Rylan’s anger. These men would steal his heart from him for money? They could think again.
Rylan reared high, his hooves thrashing just above the head of the nearest man. When the man’s response was to draw his sword, Rylan lowered his head and skewered the man without regret. He tossed his head, the man’s body flying through the air to land lifelessly at the feet of a nearby tree. The other four hesitated after that, not sure they wanted to face Rylan’s horn, but the lure of the bounty was great.
Before Rylan could lunge again, he felt tender hands on his side and a leg over his back. “Go,” Dane said. “Don’t sink to their level when their only crime is greed. They can’t follow us. Run.”
Rylan was tempted to ignore the admonition, but his One ruled his actions as surely as his heart. Springing forward, he reached the track the men had taken to arrive, hoping to throw them off his trail by not returning directly home. His hooves thundered hard on the forest floor as he raced away from those who would have hurt Dane. He could feel Dane clinging to him, bent over his neck, hands tangled in his mane. All the pleasure of the earlier ride had disappeared in the face of the villagers’ violence, and not even Dane’s legs squeezing tightly around Rylan’s belly could restore it. Not until he knew Dane was safe.
Arriving at a stream, he splashed into the bed, traveling downstream for some miles so the water would hide his tracks before leaving the watercourse and turning toward home. His subterfuge would slow their pursuers, but the villagers knew Dane was in the woods now, in the company of the beast. They would be back, and in greater numbers. When they entered the yard, Dane slid from Rylan’s back.
“You defended me,” Dane said as Rylan shimmered back into human form.
“Gather everything of value,” Rylan said. “We must leave as soon as we can load the pack horse. It will take them time to find us, but they will not give up.”
Dane caught Rylan’s arm as he started toward the house. “You defended me.”
The repetition caught Rylan’s attention. “I’ll always defend you. You are my One.”