Ferushka handled a few more Healers, didn’t learn much except that the horse ridden by the lady varied. Chestnut here: Bay there. Smart, Ferushka knew. A horse that stood out like these would be simple for LupaRegnant to track. She soon learned that the horse most often wound up a gift for a Marked, or a Healer. Evidently the lady left in LupaHumana form. Interesting.
Exhausted, she lay back on the large bed, burrowed her face into the deep pillows. Maybe she could get in a nap before dinner.
It wasn’t to be. Petra tapped on her door, then blasted through without waiting for an invitation. “Ferushka. A strange Alpha is in room 223: the Bucharest Alpha – and most of his pack – are ascending the stairs right now. Moreover, their scent is outraged, belligerent. I’d bet this pack here isn’t known to the Bucharest wolves.”
“You’d bet right,” a deep voice declared. Ferushka spun to see a tall, well-built male in his early 30s. Eyebrows like black scrub-pads, eyes a deep, piercing blue and narrowed in suspicion as he faced the staircase. She froze. She’d never seen any male, much less an Alpha, that looked like this. She could only stare as those bushy eyebrows relaxed, and those eyes stared so deeply into hers that she was sure he saw her very soul.
But then the door at the end of the corridor blasted open, a heavy aggressive scent covered the group in the hall. Ferushka’s hair lifted off the back of her neck as Petra, human only of course, took a leap and wound up in front of her LupaRegnant, pressing Ferushka against the wall. One hand buried in her gaily-decorated purse.
“Who the hell are you, all of you!” a heavy-set, middle-aged Alpha strode in from the stairs, gut so wide he had to squeeze it through the door. “What gives any of you the right to enter my city, MY city – without permission or even a by-your-leave!”
He took a knee, as did what members of his pack had made it through the stairway door. “My life – my heart – to yours, LupaRegnant,” he said in a low voice which nearly trembled with emotion and intensity.
The tall Alpha stepped lightly in front of her, bent to one knee, never taking his eyes from hers. Ferushka had to force herself to look at the sea of kneeling men.
“All right,” She heard herself snap out as if it were somebody else. “We’re making a scene in very much the wrong place. Both Alphas into my suite on the double. Bucharest Alpha, please insist the rest of your pack waits outside.
In moments the hall was cleared, both Alphas and their top wolves were perched on delicate French furniture in Ferushka’s living room. The sight was absurd: she only just managed to choke back a laugh only to discover the foreign Alpha was staring at her openly, a grin in those blue eyes. With great deliberation, he crossed his thighs – each the size of Ferushka’s waist – where he sat in a delicate, gilded chair. She burst out laughing, quickly regained control.
God damn he was immense, Ferushka’s first thought. Jet black wavy hair hung over his shoulders nearly to his waist, and now a pair of bright blue eyes rested on hers with a visible grin, then fell away in politeness.
“You. Where are you from, and why are you in this city unannounced?” The foreign alpha was as large, even taller, than the Bucharest one. And where Bucharest carried a hell of a lot of weight in his belly, this foreign Alpha has no extra weight anywhere. Unless you counted the muscles pushing out of his fine, white silk shirt.
“We came to find you,” was the utterly unexpected response. For a moment, Ferushka’s mouth dropped like a surprised child before she snapped it shut and frowned. “And, unbelievably, ask him for his help too.”
“Explain,” Ferushka snapped out. “And provide your names.”
“I’m Mihal from Fiorenze Pack. This is Dumi of pack Bucharest.” He hesitated, eying her nervously. “I only hope your temper isn’t as – as undependable – as that of the previous LupaRegnant,” he said, brows lowered uneasily.
“There’s an expression, from French court – Henry’s temper being as choleric as it is – “Don’t kill the messenger.” Because anyone bringing bad news of any sort gets hung on the spot.”
“Of course not,” Ferushka said haughtily, small chin lifted in disgust.
“All right. This is going to be – difficult,” Mihal began. “My pack is very old, very well known in Italy, and has been asked to litigate pack problems in the area for years. Naturally, we hear all the news as it comes through the city.”
“Below us is a Duchy where the Duke is greedy, works his peasants almost to death under a ridiculously-high tariff. We’ve had complaints for years. Anyway, because this Duke is so highly unpopular, he lives surrounded by bodyguards wherever he goes. Virtually a small army of them, highly trained with different weapons.”
“If you’re going to say you need help in killing this human-“ Ferushka was enraged.
Mihal sighed. “That boat has already sailed. Someone took out most of his standing bodyguard brigade – and we’re talking 80 men stationed around the castle, the stables, the outbuildings and several hundred more stationed in surrounding villages. 350 humans, we estimate. And then the Duke himself was killed.”
“When I heard about this, I realized it was an impossible enterprise for anyone but a large human army.” He paused, Ferushka saw his face sag with exhaustion, and some other emotion she couldn’t place. “A large human army, which would have been spotted by any of the surrounding villages and cities, or a much smaller brigade comprised of LupaHumana.”
“Christos,” Ferushka breathed in utter horror. “How many in this – this brigade?”
“Best number we have is 165.”
Completely shocked, Ferushka stared at him. “Numbers of your pack?”
“We’ve been around for centuries, and we still have only 62. 63 if you include a newborn.”
Ferushka focused on Dumi, raised her brow. “Us, far newer. 35 of so.”
“And of course they’re killing humans.”
She paused. “Do we know where they live? Any information on that pack at all?”
Mihal sighed. “As a matter of fact, one of our wolves infiltrated that pack.”
“Are you sure he’s trustworthy?”
“He’s my little brother.
Mihal hauled himself off the delicate chair, took a knee if front of Ferushka.
“We officially request protection and aid from the LupaRegnant,” he said, head bent.
“Request granted,” Ferushka replied.
“LupaRegnant, we have a good idea where this brigade will strike next,” Mihal said.
“Henry VIII’s coronation is at Westminster Abbey June 24, after which is an enormous celebration. We have decided to create a wagon train full of exotic animals, and of course gold, silver, beautiful tapestries. We’ll want it heavily guarded on the road to France, but I’d like to bet the Battalion hits it. So my brother has intimated, at least.”
“Then I suggest we all get to Italy with all due haste,” Ferushka suggested. She eyed Dumi. “Your pack is of a goodly size. Will you do a service for your LupaRegnant, and accompany us to Italy to protect this gift for a king?”
“We will with pleasure.”
“You shall both lead my battalion royal, then. Makes things far simpler.”
From both Alphas at once: “That would truly be an honor!”
Mihal grinned. “That’s one thing I never thought I’d be involved in.”
Dumi laughed. “That’s two of us, then!”
“What does inclusion in the royal battalion really mean?”
“You have protection like none other, for one thing. Now that you’re both Alphas Royale, I can explain. But not at this moment,” she said with a wink.
“We’ll look forward to it,” Mihal said, staring directly into her eyes.
She felt an odd sensation in her gut, which lurched lightly under that blue-eyed regard. Gods, he was gorgeous. Likely had a mate, though, and her own mating ritual demanded only a mateless Alpha. Rare as chicken lips, Viktor used to say. At the memory, her heart pained her.
“Are you alright?” Mihal asked softly.
“I lost my mentor on my birthday,” she responded. “Every time I think of him, my heart breaks a little further.”
“I’m really sorry for your loss, and on such a day.”
“Thank you. OK, guys, I have many preparations before we leave.”
“When would that be?” Dumi asked.
“Tomorrow afternoon too soon?”
“Fine,” they chorused.
As they left the hotel, Ferushka watched as they mounted the region’s small, wiry horses. That will never do. And I do believe I’m due an hour or so of pure pleasure.
Since she’d been small, she’d adored horses. All sizes and shapes, though war stallions were so magnificent. And had been so far outside anyone’s range that she knew! Not now, she thought with excitement as she asked the man at the desk where the best sales stables were located.
Fifteen minutes later, her rented carriage pulled up in front of several large, clean-smelling barns with an eager, dark-skinned man helping her out of the carriage.
“Are you here for a palfrey, Madame?” the man asked., slanted dark eyes gleaming as he eyed her from the tip of her head to her feet.
“Perhaps. I’d like to see your war horses, have you any?” Ferushka hadn’t missed the hungry regard and appreciated it less.
“Only the best outside Europe – and perhaps there as well! Come, come, you must see them.”
He led her deep inside the largest barn, to the far end where each enlarged stall extended into its own exercise pen. The war horses were enormous, nearly 18 hands with stout legs, big steady feet crowned by ‘feathers.’ All were stallions, of course.
She walked slowly down the aisle, ignoring a spotted horse, then a palomino. The next stall contained a glossy black stallion with large, intelligent eyes. He whuffed at her for a treat: the stable owner slipped her a piece of sugar. The horse lipped it out of her hand.
“This one,” she decided on the spot. “There. Found one already.” The black was perfect for Mihal. For a moment, she closed her eyes in euphoric disbelief. Her small tribe had never had the coin for even one eyeball of a creature this fine, and now she could purchase the creatures in multiples!
Within moments, she’d found a slightly smaller, wider bay with 4 white socks: right up Dumi’s alley, she knew. And couldn’t wait until the men saw their first royal gifts.
“Now let me show you a palfrey, we truly have a special mare,” he insisted. Right across the aisle was a small, dappled grey mare with a dish face like an Arab.
“She’s beautiful,” Ferushka had to agree. She took several steps back to get a better look at the mare, and suddenly felt a yank on her backpack. “Hey!” She whipped around to find herself eye to eye with an enormous chestnut stallion, lower lip flopping in relaxion – or humor, she figured. For the devil had plucked her money sack right out, it was dangling from his mouth!
He was a bright chestnut – several degrees lighter that her own darker red wolf. But likely she should purchase – in the next second she stumbled backward, a forceful nose even now withdrawing from her gut. God, had he read her mind?
“You are a stallion, my friend. I’m a lady – we normally ride smaller mares.”
To her amusement, he put his head up and whickered.
“Madame, I don’t think Red here’s any kinda good choice as he’s a biter, kicks too. Bucks like a mother- excuse me.” He darkened red. “Reckon you should try the beast before purchase – he truly bucks like Satan takes him for weekend rides and burns his ass the whole way.”
Ferushka grinned. “Sounds like a challenge to me. Will you have him saddled?”
“In no time flat.”
The man was as good as his word: ten minutes later she was walking the giant steed out back of the stables, where several good-sized rings were set up. She allowed the man to give her a leg up, cautiously lowering her weight to his immense, nearly flat back. Gods if the bastard really did buck, she’d end up adorning the pointed roof of the barn.
The huge fellow dropped his head into his bridle and trotted off like any well-trained lady’s horse. But Ferushka had learned far more than that.
She put him to a canter, sat back, pressed her heels lightly into his side, lifted the reins. He came to a sudden halt, went up on his hind legs and struck out viciously with his front ones while Ferushka leaned forward, hooting and cheering him on.
What a war horse he was! He’d destroy any lesser beast, and likely anything else as well.
“Add him to my bill,” she said recklessly. She’d always dreamed of owning such a beast and if the LupaRegnant couldn’t have one, who could?
She made arrangements to pick up the three horses in a few days – special arrangements, to surprise the twos alphas who’d been kind enough to offer her aid.