Zenlial had spent most of the rest of the evening and night quietly singing to the pups and helping them get as settled as they could. They hadn’t witnessed their mother or brother being killed, but they had definitely assumed it. At least …they had assumed their brother had been killed. Nikita had tried to keep them back to the cave and away from anything bad, but their older brother had broken free to try and help their mother.  When Niki had been attacked, they knew things couldn’t have gone right. They had tucked themselves away in the smallest place they could find, like she had told them to do. They had heard the fighting, the snarls, the breaking bone. Thankfully, they had seen none of it.  So the elf told them not to think on it, for they had all the pack around them, now. Their family had come back for them. They would not be alone. 

Their suites were still intact within the palace. She helped them bathe and dress in clean clothes. She took her boots off and her armor and washed herself up as well as she could under the circumstances. Zen didn’t want to leave them alone. They needed someone who could understand. Likewise, both Jayd and Serra seemed to want to cling to the elf for comfort. They had requested to stay near their brother’s portion of the room and she agreed. She helped make them a bed – fort moving their mattresses to one corner and hanging sheets around it. Placing blankets inside, she bid them go in and she told them stories from a happier day and sang to them until both drifted to sleep in each other’s arms and she fell into a light bit of reverie, sitting in the lotus position at the front of their little tent.  

Once Twilight had taken over with Nikita, Wulf had gotten himself cleaned up. When he found out that no one had helped the elf with the pups… or was it that the elf had not allowed anyone else to help with the pups? – the lycan scout made haste back to the palace. With his hair still dripping from the wash off, he had made his way to the pups room. He’d seen Zenlial bring them up. The elf had a very motherly way about her that the pups had needed. Opening the door and making his way across the room, he took in the stripped bedding and makeshift tent.

Crouching down the big lycan pulled the sheet aside to look in. “I see ya got ‘em settled. Are ya ready to clean up and get somethin’ to eat?” He spoke softly to her knowing that she had been through alot herself. Wulf held out a hand to her.

She looked back over her shoulder and then to him once again, “Who will watch over them? Jayd is still a bit shaky and Serra shouldn’t have to take care of her brother without someone to also take care of her.” For the elf, this was very important. They needed to always have someone close to them right now.  She remembered her own children and how they had reacted to bad things.

“There are a few ladies of the pack that have volunteered to take turns watchin’ and tendin’ to ‘em until their Aunt and Uncle can take over. They’re right outside… have been, I think.” Wulf opened and closed his hand a few times to urge her to take it. “They’ll be alright, their grandad will make sure of it.” He felt the hesitence from her and could see the mother in her shine forth in that protective glint in her eyes. “Kieran loves ‘em and won’t let anything hurt ‘em.”  

She looked back over the sleeping sweetlings and her hand moved over her heart. But, he was correct. If she didn’t take care of herself, she’d be useless to others. Finally, the elf placed her hand in Wulf’s hand and let him tug her gently from the tent. She stood, collecting her weary thoughts and her pack from near the door as another of the pack came in with food and water. The new sitter bowed to the couple and made her way with a bag of knitting to the chair closest to the tent. She was ready to sit and be here for them. Zenlial felt warmth from the girl’s heart and therefore finally relented to Wulf’s gentle but insistent tugging to get her to the door and then out of it.

The female that was taking over for Zenlial looked at the elf in a wary sort of way. It was to be expected, however… he hoped they understood that Zenlial would not be held back from those pups over the time they were all here. Wulf would have told her to stay and he could bring clean things to her and help her out, but he could tell that Zen was exhausted and needed some time to herself. So the big lycan chose to go forward with his plans for her.

“Where are we going?” she asked very quietly. 

Taking the pack from her, easily this time, Wulf explained, “First, I’ll see ya to the bath house so you can wash up. Ya can change ya clothes and there are some nice soaps at the bath. After that I’ll take ya to eat.” He kept the little elf close as he led her down the stairs and outside.

“Nice. I would like that very much.” She smiled wearily. 

Everything seemed fine until they stepped into the courtyard of the palace. The Pack had slowly been returning to the grounds. Those that were drifting in were ones that had recently been held by Pack Simoa to sell off to elves for servants and laborers. So it was no surprise when they shied away from Zenlial or gave her hard looks of distrust. A few even curled their lips in a partial snarl of contempt at her and Wulf set them straight by snarling back as he drew her just a little closer to his side. The act alone had many dropping their gazes from her and simply veering out of her path.

~ They… they know me not. I am a stranger to them and wearing an enemy skin, my friend. Do not be overly harsh to them. ~ Zenlial had slipped into the very proper speak she was raised and trained on. She was honestly  having to focus to keep herself straight.

His mood eased a little when she mindspoke. He was glad to see she at least understood the misplaced anger. He kept quiet and let Zen set the pace they walked.

“The children finally slept, though. I am happy to have helped them find some comfort. I hope their dreams are good and not nightmares,” she whispered to him as they walked.

With his gaze moving over the lycan that were around them, Wulf rumbled softly, “I’m sure their dreams will be good thanks to the lullaby ya were singin’ to ‘em.”

“Do you have children?” she asked, “Because, you were so fatherly toward Nikita and thoughtful of the little ones that it made me wonder.”

Wulf gave a slow shake of his head, “I’ve just known ‘em all since they were born and have helped their mama wrangle ‘em in when it was needed.”

“They are remarkably resilient. I…” she wasn’t sure where she had been going with that thought. And the tension in the air kept her from remembering.

They were just about 50 yards from the bath house when they came across a patch of trouble. Five Weylyn warriors were returning from the fields and they were exhausted, rough looking creatures. It was obvious the group had been helping clear out the remains of the enemy and at the sight of the elf each of them stopped dead in their tracks.

“Didn’t know captives were taken. Are there any of the frail ones left for our pleasures, too or are ya the only lycan that gets to lay claim to the leftovers?” The looks they gave the elf were anything but pleasant.

Zen’s glare couldn’t be hidden. Misunderstanding was one thing. Out and out threatening was another. Laying claim to a prisoner in such a way was barbaric and the lycan she knew wouldn’t have even hinted at such behavior.

“Watch your tongue and take care ya words. She’s done nothing but aide our Pack and is nowhere close to any enemy or war spoils.” Tucking the smaller framed warrior behind him, Wulf simply stood his ground. He had no desire to injure his Pack brothers, they’d been through enough. He knew this was just exhaustion and hurt talking. He wouldn’t let them hurt Zenlial. “Best all of ya head inside and feed ya bellies and get some rest.”

Two of the men dropped their gazes and walked on towards the palace and the meal that awaited them. The other two stuck with their makeshift leader who stood right in front of Wulf.

“Are ya choosin’ a frail one over us?” his head cocked a bit, one eye narrowed. 

“I’m not frail,” Zenlial didn’t have her weapons with her, but she damn well knew how to use her hands and her body to her advantage when fighting a larger foe, and exhaustion or not, she’d do so if a lesson needed to be taught. Her hands were on Wulf’s back to let him know how she stood, her stance and which way she would go should it come to that. She had worked with him in the fight at the cave and she had worked with other larger fighting partners before and had been victorious. She was ready and letting him know such.

“I’m sayin’ ya don’t want to push me and ya damned sure don’t want to force such an answer from me. Our Alpha Devon Weylyn wants her here and she will remain safe while I’m around to assure it. Now keep ya honor and ya pride intact and go grab that meal and bed.” While Wulf’s stance never changed, he was watching every movement of the three. If they made the wrong choice he’d show them their error and then watch ‘em run off with their heads down in shame.

The commotion was beginning to draw the attention of others. Soon there was a small gathering of onlookers that were waiting to see what happened next. There was unease and tension that rippled through them all. They’d never seen an elf simply walk amongst them as if she were one of them. To them, elves were dangerous and not to be trusted.

~ Just stay right here in front of me. They ain’t foolish enough to challenge me outright. They’re just tryin’ to stir me into doin’ somethin’. ~ Wulf carefully moved Zenlial to be right in front of him as he started walking again towards the bath house. She had the best shot at defense in this position, as he had learned in the cave, and in turn, his large form protected her from any foolishness from behind. 

~ I know the misunderstanding of some, but do they not understand that there are many kinds of elves, just as there are many kinds of lycan? ~ Facing the three, the elf walked through them as they parted. She and Wulf were making their way forward again. The heat of his body against her back was… uncomfortable in an oddly enjoyable way. The places where her wings had once been were still very much sensitive to anything against the area. So, she tried to speed up enough to put a bit of space between them.

“No they don’t. The only elves we’ve ever dealt with are the kind that want us enslaved.”  Wulf let her remain a few paces ahead of him and used the distance to make sure the other males had taken the advice and continued on to the palace. As they drew closer to the bath house those that had been using it or preparing to use it scattered as the pair approached. “It’s alright, they just aren’t used to your kind being friendly or social with ‘em. For the first time ever an elf wants to help instead of use us.”

“I … the things my people have been capable of? I have seen it. And that is why I can understand their caution. But I cannot abide any attacks. I’m glad you understand that.” She turned to face him; to smile for him. “We are not all evil. And not all lycan believe us to be so, it would seem.”

“A little proper for my tastes, but no, I don’t see you as evil at all, Zen.” his own words barely had the accent to them when he spoke.

“Considering what Devon said befell your pack, I found it surprising that you would speak to me at all after I poked back at you the first we met. I suppose, I shall take your kindness toward me as a mark of your stronger character.” She smiled for him. “I truly appreciate you, Wulf…” Her head canted and her eyes narrowed. “What’s your true name? Wulf… they gave you that because you’re adopted, correct? But, I’m curious what’s your real name?”

“Rory of Pack Riordan, but they’re nearly all gone except me now, so Wulf is who I am. Rory went to the fields with his family….” Wulf didn’t look at her when he answered. He paused at the entrance, “I’ll make sure it’s clear if ya want to stand just inside the doorway.”

“Oh, no… it’s okay. I assume, from watching your cultural norms that you separate by sexes when bathing, and so you would’ve brought me to the bathhouse that the females use?” She needed to be sure, because she didn’t want to offend anyone when she strolled inside.  

“That’s right we do.. It’s respect. Unless mated the baths are separate.” Wulf held the backpack out to her.

“Then, if anyone is inside, I shall let them know who I am and give them the choice to leave or stay. Hopefully, there will be no trouble. I just… I just want to take a bath.” Her soft laugh and sigh told him that she didn’t plan to make people uncomfortable, but she also was no longer going to give up her own rights for lycan who couldn’t be bothered with accepting her presence.

“Hope ya enjoy the bath then.” He gave a slow bow towards her as he turned his back to the entry and relaxed against the doorframe.

Zenlial moved into the side of a mud-baked building with her pack, she had everything she’d need there and she knew the lycan kept linen out in the bathing houses for everyone to use.

“I’ll be right here if ya need something.” Wulf could be an ass, but he was a gentleman when it was called for. Elves weren’t his favorite, given his family history with them, but Zen had earned respect from him with the way she’d seen to the young and was so willing to defend them at any cost. He wasn’t sure what to make of her. Not completely. Suddenly, he found himself wondering why he cared to understand her at all. Clearing his throat, he stood a bit straighter and kept guard. 

The elf was actually happy to find the place devoid of any other beings. Zenlial slowly removed her clothing, layers upon layers of clothing. It was how elves stayed warm and kept cool no matter where they had to fight. She looked at her fingers and palms, both calloused and blistered. It had been a while since she had taken up the bow or the sword. It showed.  She unbraided her hair, long dark strands falling to her shoulders and below. Looking into the water, she could still see the blood stains in her hairline. She knew the dark tresses also had blood all in it, matted. Taking the soap from the side shelf, she waded into the water. Dunking her head she made sure it was all wet before soaping up and then dunking again.  

She remained under, enjoying the silence.

That silence was where she felt the blood pour over her.

Where she felt the pain in her back.

Where she felt the pull to the stars.

Why had the world still not changed? Why were things not getting better? She literally screamed in frustration beneath the water before pushing back up to stand in the waist deep water. She wrapped her arms around herself, the only comfort she had been able to take for decades, and she cried.  She had to get the frustration and negativity out of her system. It would poison her soul if she didn’t.

Hearing the noise within Wulf was quickly on his feet and rushing inside only to stop dead in his tracks. He hesitated only a split second before spinning to face the doorway, eyes squeezed shut.

“Sorry, I just heard… well I thought..” It didn’t sound right any way he tried so Wulf simply blurted out, “Sounded like you were drownin’ are ya alright?” He had seen enough to know that the images wouldn’t leave his head anytime soon. Goddess but she was beautiful. He wasn’t supposed to think that. He scolded himself for thinking that.

Zen swallowed and tried to calm her breathing before talking. She moved to where the towels were, not that she was ashamed of herself, but he seemed to be shy about it.  “Sorry to have worried you,” she whispered, her lyrical voice wavering a bit. “The emotions of the past week caught up to me. I was a bit overwhelmed, I’m afraid. I have no outlet and I drifted again. I saw more than just this week. I felt much more from the past and it overwhelmed me.” Zen didn’t like showing weakness. But she also didn’t want to be dishonest. Her dark hair was plastered between the scars on her shoulder blades as she brought the towel to wrap her waist.  

“Alright then, I’ll wait outside..” Wulf didn’t look back as it would probably be his undoing. He’d promised back before the battle that he’d see to her and with Devon still out, Wulf was even more determined to keep his word to the Alpha. That was all he was doing. No thought on the skinny little waif of an elf at all. None. Elves were usually the enemy. They slaughtered. They enslaved. They didn’t have your back or make jokes or tell stories and sing to children… they… they weren’t kind and pretty… Shaking his head, the large lycan moved quickly outside again.

“I will be along quickly, I promise,” she replied, realizing only after she had spoken that he wasn’t even in the room anymore. That was odd. Shrugging, the elf went about drying her hair as best she could and pulling it into rolls before finding cleaner clothes in her pack.

Standing out in the fresh air, Wulf breathed it in. He needed to get her scent out of his head and put those memories in their proper place. He calmed his inner wolf, scolding it for thinking heated thoughts of the elf.  No.

When Zenlial appeared, he was in control of himself and ready to escort her to a meal. “Now that you’re clean I bet you’re hungry.”

“Oh yes! Food would be perfect!” she giggled, finally feeling a bit more light. The bathhouse had been empty, so she’d had no confrontation there. She hoped there would be fewer and fewer as word of her accepted presence here spread. “Could do with some venison, if there is any. I loved Devon’s stew out when we were in the woods.” What she wouldn’t give for some deer stew! Most elves were vegetarians, but Zenlial had been kindred to a dragon and the elves of her particular reach were known to be omnivores because of their kinship to the scaly creatures. Of course, she wasn’t sure Jaysson or Rowly or Devon had told Wulf anything of her past.

“You.. eat deer?” he chuckled before adding, “Guess there’s a lot about you that’s different from normal elves.”

“I’m anything but normal, Wulf.”

“Yeah,” he agreed with her before holding his hand out for her pack. Unlike any other elf he’d ever crossed paths with, Wulf found himself wanting to know about her. “I’m sure a hearty stew or deer roast is probably in the kitchen if ya don’t mind wadin’ through the lycan to reach it.” Wulf gave a low chuckle, “Otherwise I can rustle up some veggies for ya.” 

Recalling what Devon had told her about Wulf before and still feeling the pain from her stubbornness with her pack from the hike, Zenlial voluntarily offered him the pack this time around. It was actually nice to have someone help her for once. It had been quite some time since she had allowed it.

“You saw that I don’t mind wading of any sort,” this time she grinned.

As they walked Wulf took a moment to ask her some of the same questions she’d asked him, “Do you have children? Ya acted very motherly towards the pups, so I’m assumin’ ya are or am I wrong?” Lycan still gave her cautious looks but none made a scene like before.

“I have five children. They are all grown and have found lives in various parts of this world and the other. I was conscripted into my position by the Elven High Court, but they were not. Only one of them has anything to do with the high Court. She is a High Guard. But they do not know her lineage and I keep it thus.”

He could hear a mothers pride in her words as she spoke of her children and so he urged her onward, “Tell me about ‘em while we head to the kitchen.” It was a surprise to hear that she had five grown children. Honestly Zenlial didn’t look old enough for that, but looks could be deceiving among elves and lycan.

“Two are twins and joined at the hip. They are warriors and adventurers who travel both in this world and our original world. They are wild and free and I’d dare not try and tame them. My youngest is a druid who travels this world with his older brother. His older brother cares for him, because… he tends to not care for himself.”  She was quite proud of her children. “They are not accepted by the elves.”

“With you as their mama why aren’t they accepted.. If ya don’t mind me askin’ that is?” Wulf held doors for her and kept their way clear. He knew she was very independent, but he just couldn’t help himself. It was his upbringing and she’d have to be tolerant for the time being anyways.

“Luria is. She’s the guard. She has no outward signs of her heritage. But Callan and Neilan have masks and scales down their backs. They can hide only so much. Sheridan actually has wings and a mixture of both mine and Rhegal’s traits. Some scales, some feathers and he’s tall and lean. He protects his little brother, Dorien, who is the druid. The only reason Dorien is not accepted is that he refuses to accept the elven society as it stands.” She sighed before sitting at the table. She’d help, but she had no idea where things were or how this situation should work, to be honest.  “Dorien was there when his father died. He never wants to have anything to do with the elves. I cannot blame him. Much like… though I want to change the minds of your people where it comes to elves, I cannot blame them for being judgemental in some cases. They may have been through harsh things at the hands of some elves.”

“So, a dragon in the form of a male, then?” Wulf had been around enough of the scaley ones to know that they usually could either become the form of other creatures by virtue of their own magic, or they used the magic of others to do so. 

Zen gave a nod.

“I can’t speak for all lycan, but I know that after watchin’ what they were capable of it’s hard for me to see elves as anything but cruel, greedy, vain creatures.” Wulf placed utensils on the table for her before moving to grab a bowl from one of the shelves. “You’re the only exception so far – if that tells ya anything. Ya children are lucky to have you as their mama and I’m sure their father was a good male too. Be sure to tell ‘em that they aren’t missin’ anything by being outcasts to elves.” Wulf looked over the cooking pots and lifted lids to sniff before filling her a bowl and grabbing her a thick chunk of bread and filling a plate with some fruit and some cheese. He carried the load to the table and laid it out for her before filling her a glass with cool water. 

“Their father was very honorable. You would have become fast friends had you known one another.” She spoke as he put the variety of food in front of her. “As to the rest… they know. Believe me. If I had their freedom, I would not be a Councilor for the elves. However, as such – I’m trying the best I can to right previous wrongs.”  She picked up the bread and yanked off a piece before passing the half-loaf over to him. She was accustomed to sharing with Devon out in the woods. She wasn’t about to be rude and stop that now. Dunking the bread in the meat soup, she then took a nice big bite and groaned in pleasure. “Issssgoodmmmm…” she slid the words around the food before grabbing some of the chunks of cheese to pop in her mouth as soon as she had swallowed.

The few lycan that were working in the huge palace kitchen paused to watch him with raised their eyebrows at him. Wulf paid them no heed as he not only took a seat across from her, but also took the offered bread. Ripping off a piece, he snatched some cheese to chew up with it while grinning at her. “See told ya; deer stew.”

The elf smiled with glee as she began to devour what had been settled in front of her. In her experience, the best way to show one’s appreciation for food was to eat it! And eat it, she did! Of course, that didn’t stop her from playing ‘ring Wulf’s mouth’ with cheese bits here and there or making him eat some of the meat from her fork when she found the tenderloin in there. Zen wasn’t aware of the looks they were getting or the quiet audience that filtered through the area or around the area at all. Her attention was caught completely by her friend.  

The antics made him chuckle and Wulf’s full attention was on Zenlial. He had never shown such attention to a female outside of bed. They were both eating and talking about hunts. She seemed to enjoy feeding him and somehow they made a game of it. He’d wrinkle his nose and Zen would withdraw the morsel only to insist once more that he take it. The lycan would wait until the bit was rubbed along his bottom lip before he snatched it quick while grinning. He was surprised he didn’t have bread and gravy all in his beard! 

He made her laugh like she hadn’t laughed in a long time. And for the love of all the gods, she needed that right now. She had shared her food with him and they’d gotten silly with it. To see his eyes sparkle like that and hear his chuckles and see his grin? It warmed her. He’d been so stern when they’d met and with the tragedy they had witnessed, things had just gone from tense to tight as a bowstring. This moment? It felt good. It felt right.

At least, until it was no longer allowed.

It was as he licked the flavor from his bottom lip that Wulf finally noticed they were the center of attention for what seemed like the entire palace staff.  Maybe things had gone a little too far? Clearing his throat he eased back in the chair and sighed. “Think ya better enjoy the rest Zen.” He’d gone beyond proper and the looks they were getting was telling him as much. His eyes moved to his hands instead of to her. That lasted for half a clap before he snuck a look. 

Zenlial was suddenly aware of the other lycan, many of whom were young females and a few older males. She smirked and had to cover her mouth to keep from showing her food as she did so. Her eyes were smiling at him, though. She saw that he was looking at her and so she crossed them for a second or two before rolling them around in the most exaggerated eye roll ever done.

Wulf barely held the snort in and he blushed.  

~ Fine. ~ Zen moved easily into mindspeak. ~ They can’t hear us like this and they can’t stop us from talking. Bunch of jealous ones you’ve got here. What was it Devon called it? They’re on the prowl for you, Wulf. ~  Her brows raised and fell in comic design as she took another bite of dunked bread to try and hide a snicker. Yes, she was teasing him. Why not? Why did it make her feel sad to think of him with any of these?

He cast a glance at all the females that were casting dagger like glares at Zen and he sighed as he slowly shook his head at the comedic elf that sat across from him. ~ They’ve been on the prowl for years.~ His broad shoulders shrugged in a lazy way as he snagged another piece of cheese to bite into. Since he had, she grabbed up the next morsel, too.

~You’re point? ~

~ I’ve no more interest in ‘em now then I had last full moon celebration. ~ He’d taken part in every moon hunt up to the last one and he’d simply decided he didn’t want to chase after some young untried female any more. They bored him and were a great deal more work than he was sure anyone ever realized.

~ Why is that? Some of them are very becoming. ~ She’d definitely give credit and compliment where it was deserved. However, it also concerned her just a small bit that her friend might be missing out on something lycan were well known for – lifelong love and family.

~The problem with ‘em is they see me like some trophy and not a one of ‘em would know what it meant to be my mate if I truly chose ‘em. So why waste my time? ~

~ You? A trophy? Trophies are for collecting dust on a shelf somewhere. You’d never be able to do that. If that’s all they think of you, then you’ve made a very wise decision on not wasting your time. ~ The thought of it was ludicrous to the elf. She plucked a grape, then another from the plate and putting one in her mouth, she rolled it around before biting into it, a bit of the juice popping from her lips.  ~ Mmmm.. sure you don’t want this? It’s the last one… ~ She held the last grape between her fingers toward him.

She was teasing him and Wulf found himself unconsciously licking his lips. He shook his head and watched her eat the last one just as slowly. ~Better finish that up because I think they’re about ready to kick us out. ~ He needed to show her to her room so she could rest and then he could go work off some of the tension that seemed to fill him since being around this female.

~ I think you’re right. But I’m taking the rest of this with me. ~ She began pulling all of the rest of the cheese into the bowl with what was left of her stew and snatched what was left of the bread, too. Folding her napkin over the bread, she carried it on top of the bowl and looked to Wulf as he picked up her pack once again.

Was she disappointed that he hadn’t played along again? Sure. But she was also happier than she had been upon first coming in here.  Wulf made her feel better. She was thankful for his company.

“Lead the way, good sir. I’ve been washed and fed. Time to rest my weary head.”

 

~  Rachel Diane Adams and Dawn McClellan © ALL RIGHTS RESERVED 2018