The village of Andell lies in the narrow foothills of a thickly forested valley sliced in two by the River Wend. With fertile soil and plentiful trees, it is home to around a hundred families of farmers, hunters, and wood crafters. Our patrols take us through here often given the community borders our pack lands, and more frequently of late given the escalating conflict with the bear shifters whose lands borders Andell’s east.
A forest fire has led to reduced hunting grounds for the bears. Pushed from neighboring clans, they are seeking weaker options. Short of eradicating the entire pack, which is definitely on the table, we do what we can to check on outlying communities lest trouble spillover into pack lands.
Last year it was the Blighten, the green-skinned orc bastards and those who do their bidding. This year it is the bears. Such conflict is part of life, and we take it in our stride.
The forest is full of spring scents as we run through the pathways over loamy ground softened by pine needles. Scents prickle my nose: rich soil, rabbit, the occasional fox and badger, all mixed up with the sweeter perfume of spring flowers coming into bloom. As we emerge into the village, fresh scents greet me: sawdust from freshly cut pine, grass and weeds, sheep (making my wolf hungry)… and wet human for a workman fixing the water mill has just taken a tumble into the river.
I shake out my wolf form as we stop on the outskirts and shift into bipedal beast. Our party of eight lift noses to scent. Both wolf and beast form have their benefits. My beast form is particularly attuned to the bear bastards, for we have battled several times over the last few months.
“Nothing,” Casper, my second says, voice rough and gravelly for beast tongues are not meant for the subtleties of human speech. “Want to speak to Edwin?”
My beastly lips tug up. “No, but we’ll talk to him, anyway.”
A few villagers lift hands in greeting as we pass along the main street. Children stop and gawk, and men pause mid task to dip their heads in deference. We do not trouble the villages, and it is in our interest to protect them given they supply goods and other services that are not naturally crafted by shifters.
As we arrive at the ivy-covered stone manor belonging to the village lord, Edwin. The man blusters out, round belly challenging the buttons on his grey felt waistcoat, white whiskers on his chin and wispy hair sprouting from an almost bald palette.
He dips his head to me. He may be the lord of this village, but I am a high-ranking alpha in the Oberon pack, one of many lieutenants commanding a patrol in defense of ours and neighboring lands.
“Any news?” I ask.
“Word has come from the centaurs that their leader tried to snatch Axton’s new mate!” Edwin announces, motioning us to enter his home.
The bears former leader was killed several months ago, and the pack subsequently fell into infighting, but I hadn’t known the cause. “That was foolhardy,” I say. Axton, the herd leader, is steadfast, but brutal if crossed. Little wonder the bear shifters are now in disarray, with smaller packs seeking to carve out territory from neighboring lands.
At the entry to Edwin’s home, a familiar blushing lass holds a pile of cloaks in her arms.
I take the top cloak and shift to human. “Hello Fern.” Her eyes snap up to meet mine even as her face turns crimson. I should not taunt the young lass, who cannot seem to help her wandering eyes whenever I take human form.
“Good day, sir,” she squeaks, sights now fixed upon the diminishing pile of cloaks as my pack members squeeze past me, take one, shift, and enter the home.
Reluctantly, I tear my gaze away from the blonde beauty with emerald eyes, and still not donning the cloak, fall in step beside Edwin.
The hall is functional as befits a minor lord, polished hard wood flooring, white-washed walls with a small glass-filled, leaded window opposite a stone fireplace stocked but unlit on this mild spring morning. There is a hint of stale wine offset by the two earthenware vases of spring flowers set upon the oak table with benches to either side long enough to hold a dozen.
“Was there any trouble today?” Edwin asks as I come to a stop beside him.
I shake my head. “Kyler will not tolerate them causing trouble,”—on our land—“If the bears have sense they will seek opportunities elsewhere.”
Kyler, our pack leader, will not tolerate many things, but he is not a strong alpha, and his decision to defend the village of Andell should greater trouble arrive, could fall either way. We have our internal strife to contend with given our pack is dysfunctional, bordering is on anarchy.
The sickly sweet voice grates upon my sensitive ears bringing an involuntary shudder.
Edwin clears his throat and gestures towards my crotch. With a heavy sigh, I thrust the provided cloak over my cock. Shifters do not concern ourselves with modesty. Although I have spent many years around humans, they are ever a peculiar species.
I bow my head to Petra, Edwin’s daughter who has recently come of age. She was a nuisance before that happened. Now she is like a bitch in heat seeking to sink her teeth into any passing male. Her father has plans to marry her off to a neighboring lord. It cannot come soon enough.
“Petra,” I say as she forwardly tucks her small arm through mine. As I disentangle her hand, my cloak slips, much to her delight if her cooing is any indication.
“Would you organize the servants, Petra,” her father says pointedly.
“Fern!” she screeches, rounding on the sweet lass who has the misfortune to be entering the hall carrying a laden tray of drinks and food.
The poor lass nearly drops the fucking tray.
Edwin holds his arm out toward the table. I take a seat. Petra berates Fern for some perceived misdeed as more servants arrive filling the table with a basket of fresh bread rolls, a platter of cheese, cold ham, cups and several jugs of ale, making a veritable feast. Given we have been patrolling all night, the food is welcome. For all I prefer meat, the human food here is tasty. The bread is crusty on the outside, soft inside, and still warm. I squeeze a chunk of cheese between the roll and take a hearty bite.
“The bears are getting bolder,” Edwin says, sitting at the head of the table to my right. “Our hunters spotted them on the outskirts of…” He trails off when his daughter flounces back into the room and makes a beeline for me. “Petra, your aunt was looking for you, I believe.”
The lass has been known to slip in beside me and get handsy. Peta pouts at her father although my attention is snagged by the arrival of Fern carrying a tray so laden her small arms shake under the strain.
I stand, cloak dropping as I liberate the lass of the tray lest she drop it on the floor and earn herself Petra’s censure.
“Oh!” Fern mutters weakly, her green eyes darting down for the second time today.
“Fern!” Petra says. “Return to the kitchen lest you embarrass us further!”
Fern turns and flees the room.
I dump the tray on the table with a scowl. I told Kyler that he should negotiate for the lass who is a skilled healer. The pack’s scorn for humans cannot be as bad as here, or so I tell myself. My wolf just wants to fucking mark her and rut her, even as the man in me recognizes that would be a bad idea, and she would be better off with her own kind.
The great door swings open as I take my seat again to admit Adam, the lord’s second-born son. He is a big bastard, perhaps the biggest alpha I have ever met. “Tavion,” Adam says with a nod for me as he comes to stand beside his father.
Behind him, the door opens yet again, and Fern enters carrying a bucket and scrubbing brush. A deep red stain mars her right cheek. Distracted by this development, I track her as she carries it to the corner, sets it down, and sinks to the knees.
Edwin sighs heavily as Fern begins to scrub.
I frown. Adam frowns.
“For fuck’s sake,” Adam mutters, turning on his father. “This has got to stop.”
I couldn’t agree more.
Crack! Petra’s hand connects with my cheek, sending me stumbling backward.
“You stupid little bitch,” she says, tone dripping with malice and eyes spitting fire. Her chest heaves and her hand remains poised, like she is going to slap me again.
I lower my eyes, my breath whistling through my tight throat as a rage builds inside me for the cruelty this woman has meted upon me all my life.
I’m an orphan reminded constantly that I live only by the goodwill of Lord Edwin and his family.
Goodwill. There is no goodwill here.
I am a slave.
I am the subject of cruelty.
I am less than nothing.
“You will need to be punished,” she says, lips thinning and eyes turning calculating. “Use a hand brush to scrub the hall floor.”
My eyes widen in disbelief. I am being punished because I couldn’t carry the ridiculous tray she ordered loaded for me. She was probably hoping I would drop it so she could beat me again. Only Tavion stepped in and thwarted her plans. “You want me to clean the floor now? While all the visitors are in there? Surely it will disturb their conversation?”
“It won’t,” she says, her thin lips curving into a smirk. “Ensure the floor is thoroughly clean. I will come to inspect it later.”
Face twisted in a sneer, she flounces off, long silken gown rustling.
Shame and humiliation crash through me. Not only am I nothing, but I must be demonstrably nothing before them.
I was so excited to see Tavion. My heart does a stupid flutter every time he appears. Everyone in the village fears the shifters in their beast form, but I don’t. I think Tavion’s beast is the most magnificent creature in all the world.
I love his wolf form too, and his human form with his tousled brown hair and piercing blue eyes… my cheeks flush partly from the blow, and partly from seeing his cock again, which is sure to feature in my dreams tonight. I should be ashamed about the way my eyes stray toward it, but he only seems amused, and not unkindly.
Tavion alone is bad enough, but Adam is in the hall, too. The lord’s second son has recently returned from the war. A big burly alpha with kind brown eyes, he had stern words with Petra yesterday after he caught her scolding the stable lad, raising him to hero status for that alone, notwithstanding he not spent two years fighting the Blighten to keep our lands safe.
Sighing, I head for the kitchen. I should know to lie low whenever Petra is in a witchy mood.
Mrs Thomas does a double-take as I enter. “There, lass,” she says, placing her fingers under my chin and tipping it up. She makes a tutting noise. “That young miss needs a damn good thrashing!”
“Mrs. Thomas!” Becky hisses, throwing a nervous glance toward the door.
“Go on, lass,” Mrs. Thomas says. “She has clipped your ear plenty of times without reason. We understand our place is lower than hers, yet we are all equal before the Goddess. Gentile folks do not slap a lass out of spite or jealousy. That is the lowly behavior of ruffians and cutthroats as you chase out of a decent village like Andell.”
I don’t need Mrs. Thomas to tell me what is right or wrong. No matter the person’s station, they should not treat others harshly. Perhaps it is only because we are servants I see from this perspective? If I had grown up in a lordly house with people waiting upon me, would I have become cruel?
No, I don’t believe I would.
Setting the bucket in the sink, I turn on the tap to let the water splash in.
“Now she has got you cleaning?” Mrs. Thomas asks. She goes back to the kitchen table where she resumes rolling out the pastry from a pie base. Beside her, Becky goes back to peeling some vegetables for it: carrots, parsnips, potatoes. A chicken rests to the side of her board, already plucked.
“The hall,” I say.
Mrs. Thomas huffs out a breath. “Well, the Melwood lord she is due to marry is a bit of a bastard, by all accounts. Happen the lass will get her comeuppance.”
“How so?” I ask, only a little guilty for my glee at this news.
“The traders as passes through love to gossip about him knowing our lady is to be his wife. He is a mean bastard who thinks women don’t have an opinion. Petra has got too much opinion, if you ask me, and none of it is good. The lass is in for a rude awakening when she weds that man.”
I don’t know if Mrs. Thomas is telling me this to cheer me up. Surely I should wish no woman to marry a mean husband. But goddess, how glad I should be when she is gone.
“She was batting her lasses at Eric the other day,” Becky chips in. “Hoping he might be fool enough to tumble her in the hay and so be forced to wed her.”
“Eric?” I ask, feeling a little sick at Petra’s boldness.
“Go on!” Mrs. Thomas says. “The lad is sensible to steer clear of her mischief.”
Turning off the tap, I lift the bucket down and pick up the scrubbing brush. “I’ll see you later,” I say, wishing I could stay in the kitchen instead of scrubbing floors.
Mrs. Thomas gives me a kindly smile. “I’ll save you some of the pie, love.”
“Thank you,” I say.
Humiliation burns my cheeks as I slip into the hall. They are talking about some trouble with the centaurs and bear shifters, but the conversation stops as I enter. I scurry over to the far corner without meeting the curious stares, not wanting them to see me like this, see how lowly I am, a servant well cowed by her mistress.
I sink into a fantasy where I stand up to Petra, telling her she can stick the scrubbing brush up her ass, even knowing it would likely see me punished.
Despite my determination to keep my eyes lowered, they lift, cutting from Adam’s frown to Tavion’s locked jaw. Snatching my gaze away, I set my bucket down in the corner, get on my knees, and scrub.
My hands are already sore from scrubbing her bedroom chamber for some perceived lack of cleanliness yesterday. It took me all day, and by the time I was done, my hands were blistered and cracked from the water and harsh soap, and my knees and back stiff.
It has ever been a shame that as a healer, I cannot heal myself.
“This is ridiculous,” Adam mutters breaking the silence.
“Just a falling out between the lasses,” Lord Edwin says.
“It is not a fucking falling out,” Adam replies vehemently. “She needs the strap taken to her bottom until she learns some respect.”
Realizing that I have stopped scrubbing, I scrub again twice as fast. Is he talking about me? Petra has caned me, slapped me, punched me, pulled my hair, raked her nails down my arm. She has even kicked me a few times. Once, she threw a hot cup of tea over me and claimed that I threw it over her. To add further insult to the matter, the head housekeeper punished me and I didn’t get supper for a week. Last year, she cut my hair off in a rage because Eric helped me stack some wood. I don’t even care about my hair, but her gleeful expression as she hacked it with blunt scissors is forever emblazoned on my memory.
The young woman’s cruelty knows no bounds.
“We’ll talk about this later,” Lord Edwin says. Only I don’t believe he will talk about it later. I have heard the head housekeeper ask the lord more than once to have words with Petra about her ways with the servants, and nothing ever changes.
Deep in the night, I have a fantasy where Tavion claims me and carries me off to his pack. I know little about packs, save for rumors and gossip. They have a bloodthirsty reputation and treat humans like slaves, and this is where my fantasy falls flat. I am treated like a slave here, so it would not be any better. Yet I am reaching that invisible limit, and even if it were terrible with the shifters, it would be a different kind of terrible, and so a relief.
My fingers sting as the soap gets into the cuts, and a wave of hopelessness washes over me. I will never leave, I realize. Why would they let me go? I am indebted to them. My entire life is by their charity. They have fed and sheltered me, likely they expect a lifetime of service in repayment.
Tears trickled down my cheeks, making me glad I have my back to the room.
Here, on my knees, raw hands bloody, I determine I cannot endure this for the rest of my life. Yet where would I go? To our east are the bear shifters, to the north the village of Melwood, to the west lies the shifter settlement, and to the south are mountains. Wherever I might go, I would be found, returned, and likely punished.
Nothing is forever, neither good nor bad.
I have been holding out for her wedding, yet no firm date is set, and the closer that date comes, the meaner Petra becomes. There are no other lords near by for her to marry. She has her sights set on Tavion, blatantly attempting to entice his interest. Not only Tavion, but Eric too, Becky said.
I swipe my tears away with the back of my hand, and determine that Tavion pays more attention to me than he ever does to Petra. He often teases me, and I’m sure he changes to human at the optimum time to make my damn eyes wander. The man has no shame in his nakedness. No shifters do. Blushing, I get on with scrubbing the floor.
Around the table the conversation is quieter so that I cannot make out more than a low rumble of voices and the odd words over my vigorous scrubbing.
“… would be better off in the pack.”
Wait? Who? Did I just conjure those words up. I freeze, heart racing, battling the urge to peep.
“She is a healer,” Lord Edwin says. “Some recompense would be required.”
“She is not fucking leaving,” Adam says. They are talking about me, I am sure of it. All my earlier goodwill toward Adam flees, and I think I might hate him for interfering with these plans. “I know what you shifters do with women.”
My brows draw together. What do shifters do with women?
“It is no fucking worse and what you do with them,” Tavion says, voice ripe with scorn.
I should scrub, but if I scrub I cannot hear. Although they are so focused on discussing me, I think they have forgotten I am here!
“Father, you cannot possibly agree to this.”
“The lasses do not get on,” Lord Edwin says tiredly. “Perhaps Fern leaving is for the best.”
“If you were to discipline your own daughter,” Adam says, voice low and rumbling with all his alpha force. “Fern would not need to be handed off to shifters to defile.”
I swallow, not entirely averse to being defiled by shifters if that shifter were Tavion.
A deep growl emanates from behind me, bringing another surge to my furiously beating heart.
“Please forgive my son’s rash outburst,” Lord Edwin says, a stammer in his voice.
The growling stops. “You have a healer, but you do not deserve one if you should treat her thus.”
“What do you need with a healer when you can shift and heal?” Adam says tersely. “How would it be better for her there when shifters disparage humans so?”
“We like humans plenty,” Tavion says. A couple of men laugh. “We like them better than Petra fucking does.”
I scrub, but slowly and lightly, not wanting to miss any of this conversation.
Hope surges inside me, is crushed, surges, and is crushed again. I would go with Tavion despite the uncertainty as to what would become of me. I would scrub his floors all day. I would do anything he asked.
“Father,” Adams says, voice the deep alpha bark that carries weight.
“Fine,” Lord Edwin says. “But son, you are already betrothed.”
Wait? When was Adam betrothed? And why does Lord Edwin mention it?
“I want no part of that,” Adam says.
A cry comes from beyond the window, full of panic, the kind that sees my scrubbing brush fall from nerveless fingers.
The hall door is flung open. “Attack!” the messenger calls.
PRE ORDER ・ ʚ˚̣̣̣͙ɞ‿︵‿︵
Bound to the Pack is a spicy reverse harem, including MM, with classic omegaverse meets shifters in a fantasy setting.
A standalone novel set in the Coveted Prey universe.