Wolfheart: A Heartblaze Novelette by Shay Roberts

THE PRESENT

It’s a warm fall morning as I patrol the fence line with Cerberus, my brave Anatolian pup with the white, fluffy head. Cerbie’s a good dog. He’s not quite seven months old, and already I’ve got him friendly with the chickens and goats, and he’s working on the 
Wolfheart: A Heartblaze Novelette
Wolfheart: A Heartblaze Novelette by Shay Roberts

sheep. Not a bit of chase behavior. He’ll be a great livestock guard dog, maybe the best I’ve ever trained. Once he’s fully grown, I can sell him to a nice farmer, and then I’ll buy a whole litter of pups to train. That is, if I can stand to part with him. It’s a sacrifice I’ll have to make to start my business.

I can still see Dad, on the last day of his life, scratching his crotch as he yelled, “Listen here, girl, playing with dogs don’t pay the bills.” Dad’s gone now, but he still manages to visit almost every day. I’ll never be rid of him.

Cerbie’s sudden growl startles me. He stares past the barbed wire, into the thick woods beyond. Cerbie’s body language is weird, something I’ve never seen. I have no clue what it means.

I instinctively reach for the slingshot on my hip and scoop a handful of lead balls from my ammo pouch. I was raised with slingshots. I can hit a quarter at sixty feet. Slingshots are the perfect weapon. They don’t attract cops, like guns and bows, and they’re cheap and easy to repair. I built my own slingshot to fit my small hands. Every day I manage to bring in a squirrel, rabbit, or dove. I’ve never shot anything bigger, but a hunting slingshot like this one can take down large game if the shot hits the head.

I look into the woods and see a dark shape sprawled on a bed of fall leaves. An animal, a person? I can’t tell from here. If it’s a person, they might need help. Calling the police isn’t an option because they’re probably looking for me. And anyway, I don’t have a phone.

I have to hike six miles to Corby, a little logging town, just to get supplies. I’m all alone out here, so when a problem like this comes up, I have to deal with it myself. And I can do it. I’m eighteen now, a grown woman. I’m armed and I don’t take shit from anyone.

I tell Cerbie to stay, and I crawl out between the lines of barbed wire. I put this fence up myself, and I have a scar on my hand to prove it. As I clear the fence, I somehow manage to leave a few strands of my long red hair hanging in the wire. The wire always wins.

I approach the prone figure cautiously, with my slingshot half-drawn. I feel a surge of hope as I see a deer carcass. If the meat is healthy, I can dry it and it’ll feed me for weeks.

Then I see something that gives me a chill. A predator killed the deer and then abandoned it. Predators don’t usually kill for sport; they kill to eat. Something’s not right here.

I check the area, but the fallen leaves obscure any tracks that might tell me more about what killed the deer. And there’s no blood trail leading to this spot. That bothers me, because it means the animal was killed right here, only twenty yards from my fence. From the look and smell of the carcass, it probably happened only a few hours ago, just before I got up.

I clip the slingshot back on my hip, grab the deer by the hind legs and drag it toward the fence. There’s no way I’m letting this meat go to waste. But first I’ll check to make sure there’s nothing wrong with it. There could be a reason the predator didn’t eat it.

With any luck I’ll be sleeping with a full stomach tonight. With even more luck, my terrible dreams of the past won’t return to haunt me.





ONE MONTH EARLIER

Snuggled into my favorite flannel pajamas, I sit at my desk with a bowl of popcorn and a cup of instant coffee. It tastes like crap but I love the smell. I grab my physics book. It’s mostly boring stuff, but there’s a cool chapter on relative motion. Science says our entire galaxy is shooting through space at over a million miles per hour. Sometimes, when I sit still and it’s real quiet, I swear I can feel the earth moving.

Shasta, my pet husky, usually curls at my feet when I study. I never need socks at night, because she’s always there to keep my feet warm. Where is she? Out at her water bowl? Shasta is the only dog on this farm that isn’t a working dog. She’s the only thing that’s mine. The only thing that truly loves me.

Suddenly, Mom walks into my room. Ever since they caught me naked with Ronny Fisk, I have to keep my door open all the time. As Dad says, “A door is a privilege, not a right.” I wish I could do my homework in the bathroom. It’s the only place with privacy.

I smell the fumes of cheap vodka wafting from Mom. She used to mix it with orange juice and call them screwdrivers. Now she doesn’t bother with the juice. I don’t have time for her now. “Mom, I’m studying.”

She doesn’t answer. I look over to see her sitting on the edge of my bed with a glazed look on her face. More glazed than usual. She speaks in a near-whisper. “I need your help with something.”

“I’ve got a physics final tomorrow.”

No response. Normally, she’d argue. I look at her and notice red paint on her shirt. Except we don’t have any red paint in the house. “Mom, is that…blood?”

She nods. “It’s not mine.”





THE PRESENT

I wake with a jolt and find myself back in the present, lying in the barn next to Shasta.

I really don’t want to remember Mom and the blood. But I can’t help thinking about her. Sometimes I wonder where she is and what happened to her. But I already have enough problems without digging up the past.

The deer meat was healthy and the dogs and I gorged on it. Food has been in short supply and it felt so good to eat a full meal. I decided to sleep with the animals to protect them in case the predator gets over the fence. I rise on stiff legs and attach my small flashlight to a special clip on the slingshot. I added this mod in case I need to shoot something at night.

I do a quick night patrol of this old barn. As usual, the sheep are curled in one corner and the goats in the other. Cerberus is sleeping with my three sheep tonight. That’s a good sign. They’ve stopped trying to run him off. He’s such a cute puppy. Sometimes I just want to hug him and feed him treats and make him my snuggle-bunny. But I can’t spoil him like I do Shasta. He’s a working dog and has to be raised differently.

I walk outside the barn to look at the stars. I’m disappointed by the cloudy skies, but it’s hard to complain about the weather. This fall has been so warm I’ve barely needed a sweater. I look at the wood piled across from the barn. All of it was cut by hand, with my own axe. Every day I try to add more. I don’t have enough yet to make it through winter, so I’ll have to work harder. I’ll freeze if I’m not prepared.

I’ve got a wood stove in the shack across from the barn. Normally, Shasta and I would be sleeping in the shack, but tonight I’m not taking any chances with the animals. One last thing to check, the chicken coop against the barn. The door to the coop is latched and my feathered friends are all tucked away in their little cubbyholes. Coyotes will sometimes dig under a coop to get to the chickens, so I put in a floor with some sheet metal I found at a junkyard.

I hear a noise over by my broken-down truck. A couple of weeks ago, the transmission went out. I don’t have the money to tow it and have it repaired. Anyway, it would cost more than the truck is worth. So now it just sits there gathering dust. I shine my light on it, but nothing looks out of place.

Maybe the sound came from the shack. I swing my light over and see the shack door standing open. Did I forget to close it? That’s not like me. But if there was an intruder, the dogs would be going crazy. So what the hell is going on?

I feel my heart beating as I load a lead ball into my slingshot and slowly advance toward the shack. I relax a little as I look in through the open door and see that it’s empty. Just my old mattress, the rusty wood stove with the drying rack covered with venison left over from my feast, and my shelves of supplies.

I don’t get it. I always close the shack door. Maybe this time I ate too much and wasn’t thinking straight. Like a Thanksgiving coma, but with venison instead of turkey.

I flash back to my family’s last Thanksgiving together. It actually wasn’t terrible. Mom didn’t drink. Dad didn’t hit. And I snuck some leftovers to Shasta. Most people my age still have a home to go to, a place to spend their next Thanksgiving. But not me. I have no community, no support from anyone. My friends from school, all part of tight-knit families, don’t realize how lucky they are. They take family for granted.

As I’m about to close the shack door, I notice a plastic cup on the floor. I haven’t used that cup lately. Did I knock it over, or has someone been in here?

I ease inside, slingshot at the ready. I’m alone in here. The shack is only a dozen feet across and there’s no place to hide. Whatever was here is gone now.

Except for the cup on the floor, nothing seems out of place. As I pick up the cup, I see something that sends a jolt of fear through me. Two letters have been scratched into the wooden floor. “WH.”

WH? What does that mean? Is someone trying to send me a message?

Suddenly, all hell breaks loose back at the barn. I hear dogs barking, chickens clucking, sheep and goats bleating. And also some sort of deep growl that vibrates through my bones. The predator is killing my animals!

Heart pounding, I race back to the barn, afraid of what I’ll find. By the time I get there, the animals have fallen silent. I find the goats on their feet, pressed together into their corner. But all of my sheep lie dead. My poor sheep! I should have been here to protect them.

I spin around, slingshot fully drawn. Where is it? Where is the monster that killed my sheep?

But nothing’s here. How could it have gotten away so fast? And why didn’t I see it leave?

Then I see something that tears at my soul. Cerbie lies motionless against the inside wall of the barn. I rush to him and find him dead. “Oh, Cerbie, I’m so sorry!” I kiss him on his nose, still warm with the life he has lost. “Goodbye, my beautiful pup.”

I remember when Dad first brought him home. Clive Anderson, another farmer, bought a hog from Dad and threw in Cerbie as a bonus. Cerbie was the runt of the litter. When his littermates were already running around, Cerbie couldn’t even walk without tumbling over. The only reason Dad agreed to let me train him is because he was sure I would fail. But this little dog was just a late bloomer, and I proved Dad wrong.

There’s no blood on Cerbie’s body. He must have been thrown against the wall, just knocked aside when he got between the predator and the sheep. My despair quickly turns to anger. That goddamned creature killed my Cerbie. I realize my dreams of starting a business have died with Cerbie. And then I feel a pang of guilt. How can I worry about myself when that beast just killed my wonderful dog?

Shasta! What about Shasta? I don’t see her in the barn. I call out into the night. “Shasta! Come here, girl.”

Shasta creeps out from behind a stack of old boards. I’ve never seen her so scared. Thank God she had the good sense to hide. I rush over and fall to the ground with Shasta wrapped in my arms. In the back of my mind, I realize I shouldn’t be letting my guard down like this. The monster could still be out there. But all I can do is hug Shasta and press my face into her fur.

Why is there so much evil in the world?





ONE MONTH EARLIER

Wearing only my pajamas and rubber boots, I follow my mother as she heads toward the pigpens. I’m pretty sure Dad is dead. The pigs must have gotten him. It feels like a weight has been lifted.

As we approach the pens, lit by our security lights, Mom falls to her knees near Dad’s body. Three of our dogs stand vigil over the body: my beloved Shasta; the new puppy, Cerberus; and our big Anatolian, Biscuit, a cream-colored livestock guard dog weighing over 130 pounds.

I notice the lock on the pen. It’s closed, and only Dad has the key. Whatever went down happened outside the pen. That’s when I see blood on the mouths of Shasta and Biscuit.

Dad’s throat is red with blood. With utter horror, I realize the dogs killed him! He may have been a total bastard, but I feel pity for him now.

This incident shouldn’t surprise me. Biscuit is a working dog that I trained. Dad beat him whenever he failed to perform up to Dad’s standards. Biscuit just couldn’t take the beatings anymore. He must have struck the first blow, then Shasta joined in. Unusual for her to be so bold. Little Cerberus, his mouth clean of blood, probably only watched.

This is justice, in a way, for all the terrible things Dad did to me when I was young and helpless. Our dogs had the courage to do what I could not.

Mom looks up at me. “Help me get him into the truck.”

“Why my truck?”

“To get him to the hospital.”

I’m in no mood to support her delusions. “He’s dead, Mom.”

“No! They can patch him up. Then the cops will take care of those dogs.”

A chill runs through my veins. They’ll kill the dogs! Of course, they’ll kill the poor dogs. I turn to Mom. “I need to get dressed first.”

I rush back into the house, throw on jeans and a sweater, then pack a bag as quickly as I can. I’m careful to include my slingshot and lead ammo. Dad kept a wad of cash in a shoebox in his closet. A lot of it is my money, from training dogs. I grab the cash, along with the keys to my truck, then hurry back outside with my bag.

Mom still kneels in the mud, staring at Dad’s body.

I throw my bag in the truck and whistle for the dogs. They all leave the body and pile into the truck. The pickup is mine, an old Ford from the seventies I bought with money I earned from training dogs. But my parents have always seen it as their truck.

Mom looks at me, confused. “We can’t take the dogs along. There’s no room.”

This is how I want to remember her, drunk and covered in mud. “Goodbye, Brenda.”

I’ve never called her by her first name before. It feels…right.

Brenda’s jaw drops as I hop in the truck and drive away. I don’t even look in the rearview mirror.

A sense of freedom electrifies me as I drive out of farming country, passing by the Mennonite community. When I was growing up, I used to pity them. No Internet, TV, or even radio. Their life seemed so primitive. But now, here I am, driving to a new life that might be much the same. But at least it will be my life, and I will be free.

There are some things I will miss. I have a couple of good teachers at my high school. I consider them my real parents. When I can, I’ll call them and let them know I’m okay. Ms. Kepler taught me about Stoic philosophy, how to know what’s under my control and what isn’t. Mr. Sidmonton told me about famous people who got stronger from adversity, people like Helen Keller, Beethoven, Stephen Hawking, and Lincoln. I really think I would be dead without those teachers. I can’t go back to school right now, but one day I’ll return and graduate. I want to make my teachers proud.

Shasta flops her head down on my lap. I love these dogs so much. And they love me, more than my human family, and more than the few friends my parents allowed.

If the cops try to take these dogs, they’ll have a fight on their hands.





THE PRESENT

In the morning I find Cerbie’s favorite spot, a patch of wild grass under a chestnut tree not far from my shack. For some reason he loved to roll around in this grass. I bury him there, stacking rocks on his body to keep the coyotes from digging him up. Then I make a cross with wire and tree branches and plant it next to his grave.

Cerbie didn’t deserve this. Animals have souls; they have feelings. They’re not cruel, like people. They’re better than us. I wish I could cry for him. I wish I could cry for myself. But I haven’t been able to cry for years. Dad stole all my tears.

As Shasta sniffs at the grave, I find myself wanting answers. What killed Cerbie and my sheep? Not a healthy predator, that’s for damn sure. Maybe it was a bear with rabies. But that doesn’t explain the WH scratched on the floor of my shack.

I return to the barn and check out the scene. Any tracks have been hidden by the straw on the floor and the leaves on the ground outside. I’ll have to salvage the meat from these dead sheep. I can’t let it go to waste. But I can’t actually use all this meat right now. The drying rack above my wood stove is overloaded with strips of deer meat. I’ll have to haul the sheep meat into Corby. There’s a butcher there who’ll buy it, then I can get some supplies with the money. I’ll also need to report this beast before it kills again. Corby’s too small to have police, but the loggers will probably put together a hunting party.

The job of packing up the sheep meat takes until midmorning. By the time I’m done, I’m filthy and reeking. I can’t go into town like this so I’ll have to go over to the creek to take a bath. For the first month I was here, I really missed having hot water. Bathing in the creek was torture. The water is so cold. But now it doesn’t bother me as much.

I head down to the creek with Shasta and a fresh set of clothes. I find my favorite spot at the creek, a waist-high pool where the rocks on the bottom aren’t too slippery. I set my slingshot on the bank, within reach, strip off my clothes and step into the frigid water. As usual, it feels like it’s burning, but I get used to it quickly.

This will be the quickest bath I’ve ever taken. I feel vulnerable with this vicious animal around. I’m hoping it only strikes at night.

I clean myself quickly and wash my hair with some eco-friendly shampoo I managed to find in Corby. It smells like peaches. In two minutes I’m finished. As I turn away from the creek, I see a man standing on the bank!

He holds up my towel for me, his head turned away politely. Shasta, apparently scared off, is nowhere to be seen. I leap out of the pool and grab my slingshot. As I load a lead ball into the slingshot, the man’s head turns toward me, and he looks at me naked. I’m more scared than embarrassed. I’m not ashamed of my body. I’m lean and mean from hard work and not much food. Let him look at me. It will be the last thing he sees.

His light blue eyes, square jaw, and short blond hair seem strangely familiar. He speaks with a deep, but soft voice. “Don’t shoot, Ash. I’m here to help.”

He knows my name! That’s enough to keep me from putting a lead ball through his eye. Who the hell is this guy? And where have I seen him before?





ONE MONTH EARLIER

After leaving my home behind, I’ve been driving in my truck for hours. It’s morning now, and I think I’m somewhere in Vermont. I’ve been staying off the main roads, trying to come up with a plan.

Dad’s cash may be enough to rent a cheap piece of land somewhere, or else buy a few sheep and goats, but not both. I might have to sell the truck, though I doubt I can get much for this wreck. I just need to get a place to lie low for a while so I can train some dogs and get back on my feet.

With the gas tank on empty, I turn off toward a small town called Corby. The name seems familiar. As I pull into town, I see huge steel claws in the distance, hanging high in the air, swinging logs around. So it’s a logging town. Figures, with all the trees.

Most of the buildings I pass are run-down, some even worse than our family farm. I see more than a few tall, Viking-looking guys. Reminds me of the men in my part of Pennsylvania, but without the black hats.

It suddenly strikes me that I’ve been here before, five years ago, when my aunt died and we drove up to Maine. On the way back, Mom wanted to take the scenic route, and we stopped here for gas. What are the chances I’d end up here again?

Shasta and Cerbie lie half-asleep in the seat beside me, but Biscuit is awake and agitated. He probably has to pee. So do I. I pull over to the same gas station my family visited when I was thirteen. There’s a field behind it, so I let the dogs out. They’re well trained and don’t need a leash when they’re with me.

Biscuit runs full tilt toward the field, but Shasta and Cerbie take their time, sniffing around the gas tanks.

Something’s wrong with Biscuit. He’s barking strangely. I call him back but he ignores me. He’s never ignored me. He just keeps running, across the field, and into the woods.

I think about chasing after him, but I can’t leave the truck and the other dogs. Besides, Biscuit is fast and can cover a lot of ground. There’s no way I’ll catch up to him. I just have to wait here and hope he comes back. I don’t understand that dog. Why did he run? It didn’t look like he was running toward something. He looked scared, like he was running away from something.

Worried, I load Cerbie and Shasta back into the truck, then go inside the station’s convenience store. After using the bathroom, I approach the counter, where a silver-haired woman sits smoking a cigarette. She studies me with her sharp green eyes as I hand over a couple of twenties. “I need forty dollars of gas, please.”

She nods and takes the money without a smile. This must be one of those towns where they don’t like outsiders. I get that. Still, I’ve got to try. “My name is Ash Kinley. I’m looking for a patch of land I can rent. Maybe keep some small livestock.” Probably wasn’t smart to give her my real name. I’m not used to being a fugitive.

She speaks softly, through nicotine-stained teeth. “Look somewhere else.”

Bitch. “Okay. Sorry to bother you. I just need to hang outside a bit. My dog ran off.”

She shrugs. As I turn to leave, I notice a tall man waiting behind me: midtwenties with blond hair, a chiseled jaw, and light blue eyes. Why couldn’t he be the one behind the counter? I give him a little smile as I leave the station.

After gassing up, I wait in the truck, keeping an eye on the empty field, praying that Biscuit comes back. What’s wrong with that dog? Attacking Dad must have messed him up. I should’ve known that would happen. I feel so bad that I didn’t put him on a leash.

I jump as the hot Viking from inside the station taps on my windshield. I roll down the window and he hands me a piece of paper with some directions written on it. He speaks in a deep, but soft voice. “There’s an abandoned plot about six miles from here. No one will bother you, and you don’t have to pay rent.”

This has got to be some sort of con. “Who are you?”

He shrugs. “No one.”

He turns and starts to walk away.

“Wait! Who owns the plot?”

He stops, looks out into the empty field, then turns back to me. “Sorry about your dog. He’s probably not coming back.”

Then the mysterious stranger walks away, heading down a road leading deeper into town. Man, that guy pisses me off. What a mean thing to say. There’s no way he can know Biscuit isn’t coming back.

I look at the note in my hand. Viking guy’s handwriting sucks. Another reason not to like him. But what if he’s telling the truth? If I had a free place to stay, I might not have to sell my truck.

I wait for Biscuit for an hour before hunger drives me back into the station, where I pick up some food and water for me and the dogs. New plan: I go check out this mythical free land to confirm it’s bogus, then I come back here to see if Biscuit’s turned up.

After two hours of driving on dirt roads winding through the woods, I finally spot the place. I think I must have passed it a couple times earlier. It’s way off the road. I have to drive over a patch of broken ground to get to it.

My heart sinks as I see it up close. There’s an old shack not much bigger than my truck, and another small building behind it that must be what’s left of a barn. It’s missing part of a wall and half its roof. And there’s no sign of a well anywhere. I hope there’s a creek nearby.

I cautiously swing open the creaking wooden shack door. I carefully step inside, half-expecting the floor to cave in. It’s dark in here and there’s no power. I see something out of place, an object on the floor about two feet high. It’s a package, wrapped in plain brown paper. On top, there’s a note that says “Ash.”

What the hell? Did Viking guy leave this here for me? He could have overheard my name at the gas station. I like presents, but this is getting kinda creepy. How’d he get it out here so fast? What’s inside the package?





THE PRESENT

The man who caught me bathing at the creek, who I now recognize as Viking guy, stands outside my shack. He looks in through the door as I grab one of my plastic cups and pour him water from my purifier.

He nods toward the purifier. “I see you got my housewarming present. Almost forgot about that. How’s it working out?”

“You’re not getting a thank-you after the stunt you pulled at the creek.”

“Sorry to interrupt your bath. Couldn’t be helped.”

“What’s your name? Peeping Tom?”

“Magnus.”

“Nobody’s named Magnus.”

“They are in Corby.”

“I should go straight there and report you.”

“You could, but they’re the ones who sent me.”

“Who is they, exactly?”

He takes the water and drinks it down in one large gulp, then hands the glass back. “That dog of yours, the one that ran off. Did it ever come back?”

I feel a pang as I think of Biscuit. I never found him. He’s probably dead by now. I hope he and Cerbie are playing together somewhere over the rainbow.

I say nothing, but Magnus can read my face. “Sorry, Ash.”

“It’s weird to use my name before I’ve introduced myself. Makes you seem like a stalker.”

“I am a stalker.” His face is serious.

“You’re creeping me out.”

“Yeah, I do that. Relax. I’m not stalking you. We’re looking for a dangerous…animal. Been preying on local livestock.”

“Who is we?”

He shrugs. “Folks in Corby.”

“Okay, first off, I wouldn’t call it preying. More like murder. Normal predators don’t act like that. Also, there’s something else. Check this out…”

I point to the WH scratched on the floor. Magnus examines it. Do I see a flicker of worry in his eyes?

I try to sound casual. “You know what it means, don’t you?”

He shakes his head. “No idea. Someone’s probably just messing with you. Stay here. I’ll scout the area and be back by sundown.” He turns and leaves the shack.

“Wait, what exactly are you looking for?”

He doesn’t answer.

As I watch him, I realize he’s going into the woods unarmed. “Hey, shouldn’t you have a gun or something?”

Magnus hops over the fence and disappears into the forest. Why do men never answer my questions? It’s infuriating. I want to know what’s out there, and who wrote the WH. Was it Magnus?





It’s dark by the time Magnus returns. I’m less pissed with him now, and I’ve cooked a meal for two. Nothing special, just venison and potatoes. I also have beer I’ve been saving for the right occasion. Magnus may be annoying, but he’s easy on the eyes. I like his lean body and square jaw. Prediction: by the end of the night he will tell me what WH means. I just have to turn on the charm.



Magnus and I sit on rickety chairs outside my shack. I watch him wolf down his food in the lantern light. I’m not that good of a cook, so he must be really hungry. “Did you find anything out there?”

Magnus speaks quickly between bites. “Nothing fresh. He’s been moving fast, hitting places over a wide area. We’ve got three other trackers looking for him. We’ll find him.”

“Him?”

Magnus’s eyes grow wary. “I see. You’re distracting me with food.”

“So this isn’t an animal, it’s a person? The same person who scratched WH on my floor?”

He doesn’t respond, shoving the last of the food into his mouth.

“It’s someone you don’t want to kill. That’s why you’re not carrying a gun.”

Magnus shrugs. “I should stay here tonight. He might come back.”

Truth is, I’m relieved. But I’m not giving in that easy. “Do I look like a damsel in distress?”

Magnus suddenly laughs. “You’re no damsel. Folks in Corby have been keeping an eye on you. They call you Wolfheart, because you’re tough, and good with animals. Astrid, the woman who runs the gas station, says you were a wolf in your past life.”

“Wolfheart. Thanks for telling me that. You just earned yourself a beer.”

I open two bottles for us, moving my chair a little closer to his.

He’s guzzling the beer when it hits him what he revealed to me. “Shit.”

I nod. “The WH stands for Wolfheart.”

His shoulders slump. “I’m no good at this. The talking part. But I’m good at other things. Believe me.”

What other things? I wonder. I find myself wanting to know. But he’s like a big, scary dog. I have to take it slow. “Okay, let’s talk about something else. What was it like, growing up in Corby? Astrid and the others, they’re not exactly the friendly type.”

Magnus looks confused. “What? That’s not true. They’re all family. Any of them would take a bullet for me.”

For a moment, I feel a stab of jealousy. What’s it like growing up in a place where everyone treats you like family? I’ve never felt that sense of belonging, that sense of being cared for.

I shake off those depressing thoughts. “So you’ve lived there all your life?”

He nods. “Where else would I live? My people are there.”

“Family? Any brothers or sisters?” I always wanted a sister.

Magnus stares into his beer. I think I hit a nerve. I let the silence grow. Sometimes, with men, it’s better to be quiet and wait.

Eventually, Magnus speaks. “I need another beer.”

After a second beer, and a third, Magnus finally starts to relax a little. We move the chairs inside, near the wood stove, and Magnus kicks his feet up on an overturned bucket. He crosses his arms and speaks softly. “My dad was killed in a logging accident. The skidder he was using to pull trees tipped over an embankment. He fell out of it and the skidder crushed him. Mom took it hard. She’s been real quiet since.”

“That’s terrible. I’m so sorry.” I reach over to touch his shoulder but change my mind. He’s talking now and I don’t want to break the spell.

“No sisters. I have one brother, Anders. He’s messed up.”

“What do you mean?”

“Even before Dad died, Anders had problems. He needs help, but we don’t have shrinks out here.”

“What kind of problems?”

“He’s just not…himself. If he ever shows up here, stay away from him.”

“Why, is he dangerous?”

Magnus stares at the wood stove for a few moments before replying. “Maybe. Let’s talk about you now. Where’s your family?”

I’ve pushed him too far and now he’s shutting down. Best to come back to this later. “My family and I don’t get along. That’s why I’m out here by myself.”

“What about your friends, your town? You miss them?”

“No town. We lived on a farm in the country. My parents kept me busy. I don’t have a lot of close friends. I wish I did.”

“Damn, that’s rough. I’d be lost without my clan.”

“Clan?”

Magnus blinks. “I’m getting fuzzy-headed. Better get up and move around.”

Clan? Is he part of some militant group? Just when I think I’m getting somewhere with him, more questions pop up.





Magnus keeps watch outside while I go into the barn to spend the night with the animals. Even with Magnus here, I want to stay close to my livestock in case the predator returns.

I close my eyes for what seems like a minute, and when I open them it’s later in the night. Through the hole in the barn’s roof I see the moon is high. It must be after midnight. I never know exactly what time it is. There’s no need to know.

Shasta remains half-asleep in the straw beside me as I quietly get up to check on Magnus.

When I look outside, he’s not there.

I call out to him, afraid to be too loud. “Magnus?”

He emerges from the shack with a mug in his hand. “Shouldn’t have drank all those beers. Made some coffee on the wood stove. Hope you don’t mind.”

“Why don’t you get some sleep? I’ll take a watch.”

He looks out into the dark woods. “Nah. You can’t see what I see.”

“And what do you see?”

Magnus takes a seat on a barrel outside the barn. His tone grows somber. “I see a beautiful, brave girl who doesn’t know how much trouble she’s stumbled into.”

I step closer to him, taking the mug from his hand and sipping from it. “And I see a beautiful, brave boy who doesn’t know how much trouble he’s stumbled into.” I lean forward and kiss him, uncertain of his reaction. He smells like the forest: rich and musky.

He kisses me back, hard, like it’s something he’s been waiting to do forever. “I can’t, Ash.”

He says he can’t, but he’s still kissing me.

“Ash, this is…forbidden. If the Gray Wolves find out, it could be bad for you.”

My hand slips under his shirt. His abs feel like hardwood. “Who are the Gray Wolves?”

He’s breathing hard now, pressing against me, getting aroused. “The Elder Council. Our kind aren’t supposed to mix with outsiders.”

I’ve been alone for so long. I’m not letting him get away. My hands slide down below his belt. “But I’m Wolfheart. Maybe they’ll give you a pass.”

Magnus moans and lifts me off the ground. His arms are made of steel. I’ve never touched a man so powerful.

He carries me into the barn and we fall into the hay. Shasta wisely leaves as Magnus tears the shirt from my body. He’s so hungry for me, he’s literally growling. No man has ever been this excited to be with me!

My shoulders suddenly burn. I look down and see deep scratches. “Magnus, stop.”

He pulls away from me and I see his face in the moonlight. It’s the face of a fanged beast, half Magnus, half wolf! The wildness suddenly leaves his eyes, replaced by horror as he sees the scratches on my shoulders. “Oh shit, I’m so sorry!”

He’s off of me in one heartbeat, and out of the barn by the second.

What the hell just happened?

I grab the slingshot, always at my hip, and rush out of the barn half-naked. But there’s no sign of Magnus.

Oh my God, is he a werewolf?

I push away a wave of panic and try to think. Magnus and the Gray Wolves, and probably the whole town are werewolves. No wonder Biscuit ran away. He could probably sense them. And no wonder Magnus said I didn’t know how much trouble I’d gotten myself into. I ran out of an abusive home and straight into a horror movie

My heart pounds as I run to my shack, where I find Shasta cowering inside. That dog knows how to dodge trouble. She has a lot more sense than I do.

As I dig around for my first aid kit, I notice that the sheep meat is gone. What happened to it? Did Magnus eat it? There’s no way he could have eaten so much.

I open the first aid kit and treat my scratches. Nothing serious. I don’t think Magnus was trying to hurt me, because if he wanted to, he could have torn my head off. I’ve never seen that sort of power.

Was Magnus the one who killed Cerbie and my sheep? A terrible thought suddenly hits me. Magnus scratched me. Will I become a werewolf? Will I go crazy and attack my own beloved animals?

How do I deal with this? I can’t go into Corby for help. They’re probably all in on it. How far is the next closest town? Thirty miles? Forty? And my truck won’t run, so anywhere I go, I’d be on foot with Shasta, the chickens, and the goats. And how far would I get against a monster that can move that fast?

Another scary thought occurs to me. What if Magnus didn’t kill Cerbie and my sheep? What if it was someone else, another werewolf, one that doesn’t like me as much? And what if it knows I’m all alone now, just waiting to be gutted like my poor sheep?

There’s no lock on the shack door, so I throw on a clean shirt and sweater, grab my slingshot, and load Shasta into the truck. I fetch a couple of rusty bear traps I found in the barn after I took over the place. I’ve never used them because I think they’re cruel, but tonight I’ll make an exception. I put them outside each door of the truck and then get inside with Shasta. After locking the doors, I hunker down and wait for dawn.

There’s so much evil in the world. I pray it doesn’t find me.





I lurch awake as three black SUVs pull up, surrounding my truck. Old people emerge from the vehicles. I see their blue eyes glowing in the dim, predawn light. All of them have gray or white hair, and they all look shockingly fit. My heart stops as I see one of them carrying a chain saw. A lot of loggers in this area carry chain saws, but why bring one here?

If they’re trying to scare me, it’s working. I double-check to make sure the doors are locked. The old people simply stand around my truck, being careful to avoid the bear traps. They stare at me, saying nothing.

Suddenly, I realize who these people are. They’re the Gray Wolves that Magnus warned me about. These are the elder werewolves that have forbidden him to mix with the likes of me. They’re going to cut me into pieces with that chain saw and scatter me across the woods!

I push down my panic. If there’s one good thing my evil father did, it was getting me used to bad situations. I can handle this.

Cowering in this truck isn’t going to impress them, so I unlock the door and get out, trying to look confident. I’m not sure which one is the boss. Something tells me it’s not the guy with the chain saw.

I notice a woman with long white hair still sitting in one of the SUVs. She looks…curious? Amused? There’s something special about her.

Steeling my nerves, I walk past the people surrounding my truck and tap on her window. “You lost or something?”

She smiles and rolls down the window. “Now see, that’s why we call you Wolfheart.” Her voice is cracked with age. I suspect she’s much older than she looks. She extends her hand through the window. “I’m Sigrid.”

“Ash.” I shake her hand and her grip is crushing.

She sniffs in my direction. “You’re wounded.”

Damn, she can smell my scratches. She knows what Magnus did to me.

I try to act casual, knowing there’s a man with a chain saw behind me. “Magnus and I didn’t have sex, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

“Ah, he told you about our little group.”

“Not much, but enough.”

“And did he tell you what we are? What he is?”

This is a trap. She knows Magnus scratched me, so I must already know he’s a werewolf. “Magnus didn’t tell me what he is, but it’s pretty obvious.”

Any time now, I expect to hear the roar of that chain saw.

Sigrid nods. “Don’t worry about your injury. You won’t turn into one of us. It doesn’t work that way.”

God, I hope that’s true! But can I trust her?

Sigrid reaches into a backpack on the seat beside her. “For the record, our kind having sex with osterkligr, normals like you, is the least of our concerns.” She pulls a phone from her pack and hands it to me. “Magnus didn’t check in and we’re worried about him. Take this phone. If he comes here, press and hold the one button.”

She rolls up the window before I can ask any more questions. The Gray Wolves get into their SUVs and drive away. I’m so relieved to see them leave. But I have more questions. Does this mean that Magnus is the beast? Are they hunting him? Is he the one who wrote WH on the floor of my shack?

Up until he scratched me, I didn’t get the feeling Magnus meant any harm. I think he’s really into me, but just got carried away. But who knows, maybe there’s another side to him, a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Magnus kind of thing.

If bad Magnus shows up, I need to be ready. I’ll have to make preparations. I’m not going to stand around and wait to be a victim. I’m also not going to run. I know that a sane person would have left by now, but this is the first place I’ve had to call my own. I have dreams for my future here and I’m not ready to give them up.





I feel safer now, tucked away in my new makeshift sniper’s nest on top of the barn. It took a while to find a section of the sagging roof that would hold my weight. I’ve pulled up the old wooden ladder behind me, so there’s no way for someone else to get up here. I’ve got food and water, my Gray Wolf phone, and most importantly, my slingshot and a good supply of lead balls. There’s no way to get Shasta up here, but I know she’ll hide if Magnus comes.

It’s around noon now and the sun peeks through a break in the clouds. I take a deep breath, enjoying the silence. I concentrate hard. Time passes, and eventually I can feel the earth moving through space.

“Hello, Ash.”

The voice breaks my reverie. I open my eyes to see Magnus waving up to me from the shack.

Wait, it’s not Magnus, he just looks a lot like him. This man has the same blue eyes and square jaw, but longer hair. He smiles as he approaches the barn. “I’m Anders, from Corby. Just checking in to see if you’ve seen Magnus.”

The more I see of Anders, the more I like him. Magnus has guarded eyes, but this man’s eyes are wide and welcoming. He and Magnus look so much alike. This is the brother Magnus was talking about. The one who needs a shrink!

Wary, I raise my slingshot but don’t draw back the band. “Stay where you are. Magnus told me about you.”

“I suppose he told you I was the crazy one. Tell me, Ash, do you still believe him, even after what happened?”

Suddenly, I feel very strange, all bubbly and lightheaded. I’m getting tunnel vision. For a moment, all I can see is Anders’ blond hair fluttering in the breeze.

Anders. Anders is a nice man. He isn’t crazy. He’s suffered a lifetime of lies and abuse from his own brother, just like I suffered at the hands of my father.

I put the slingshot back on my hip. “I’m sorry. I thought you were the bad brother.”

“It’s okay, Ash. I understand. Magnus fools a lot of people. He’s actually not crazy, you know, he’s possessed. A were and a demon, a dangerous combination. His demon side can influence the soul of his prey, drawing them into his trap. You’re lucky you survived.”

I am lucky. Good thing Anders is here now. “I’m really glad to meet you.”

His smile is wide and warm. I love it so much. “Me too, Ash. Maybe I could get something to drink, and you can tell me what you remember?”

“I’ll get you something to drink and tell you what I remember.”

“Thank you, Ash, you’re very nice.”

Why do I feel so giddy? I lower the ladder and start climbing down from the roof of the barn.

Anders jumps to the base of the ladder and holds out his arms. Why? Does he expect me to fall?

The ladder step under my foot suddenly breaks and I tumble with a yelp.

Anders catches me. Thank God he was there. Weird, though, how did he know I was going to fall?

I relax in Anders’ strong arms. He gives me a wonderful little hug before placing me on my feet. “You okay, Ash?”

“I’m fine. Thank you. You just saved my life.”

“Happy to do it, Ash.”

This man is an angel. I want to run my fingers through his blond hair. Magnus should wear his hair longer, like Anders does. It’s much nicer this way.

I suddenly realize I’ve been staring at him. “Water! I have water in the shack. Sorry, I’m out of beer.”

“Water would be great, Ash.”

He follows me to the shack and I pour him a cup of water from the purifier.

When I turn back to him, he’s examining the few clothes I have folded on the shelf. He smiles, each tooth like a shiny pearl. “I like your clothes, Ash. Especially this.” He holds up my white nightgown.

I don’t know why I packed it. I never wear it.

Ignoring the water in my outstretched hand, he holds up the nightgown against my body. “White nightgown. Red hair. Symbols of purity and blood. It suits you, Ash. Will you put it on for me?”

My hands tremble as I set down the water. Something is wrong, but I can’t put my finger on it. “I’ll put it on for you.”

Anders strokes my hair. It makes me feel like a puppy. It makes me want to please him. “Put on the nightgown, my beautiful Ash.”

I nod and strip off my clothes. I feel nervous and excited as I raise my arms and he lowers the nightgown over my body. He smells like wood smoke.

He spins me around, admiring me. “No wonder Magnus likes you. Ash, you’re gorgeous. There are no girls like you in Corby.”

I feel myself blush.

He points to the WH on the floor. “I see you got my message. I’ve marked you as mine.”

“What? You wrote that?”

Anders casually lifts the hem of my nightgown and places his warm hand on my stomach, just above my panties. “Such a flat belly, Ash, so lovely and ripe.”

Something is wrong. Why is he talking about my belly?

Anders stiffens, his voice steely. “Shit. Magnus is coming to spoil my fun. He always does that.”

Suddenly, Anders is no longer a man. His eyes have turned a paler shade of blue, his teeth have become long fangs shining with a blue iridescence, and his fingernails have turned into ice-blue claws.

Fear grips my heart. What the hell am I doing? Why am I here with this werewolf? Why am I in my nightgown? What kind of spell did he cast over me?

Anders turns and leaps out of the shack. Outside, he’s met by Magnus, also in werewolf form. Though their heads and hands have transformed, they still wear their clothing. They look so much alike that the clothes are the only way I can tell them apart.

I’m desperately afraid for Magnus. I realize now that Anders really is the crazy brother Magnus talked about. Anders is the one who killed Cerbie and my sheep, and now he plans to kill Magnus! I should have seen this sooner, but Anders somehow confused my mind.

Anders howls. The sound shakes my bones, paralyzing me with terror. His hand moves too fast to see, and suddenly Magnus is bleeding badly from his stomach, his shirt hanging in bloody shreds.

Magnus throws himself on Anders, tearing Anders’ back with his claws, and pushing his fangs toward Anders’ throat.

They fall to the ground, ripping at each other, fangs opening long gashes on their heads and shoulders as each struggles to land a lethal throat bite.

Blood pours from Magnus’s stomach. I know he’s going to lose this fight.

Finding my courage, I dig through my clothes on the floor and find my slingshot and pouch of lead balls.

I load a ball and draw, stepping to the open door of the shack for a clearer shot. Magnus is in deep trouble, trying to push Anders off him. Anders’ teeth are inches from Magnus’s throat, and Anders’ extended tongue licks Magnus’s windpipe.

Suddenly, Anders withdraws, screaming in pain. “My eye!” He tries to escape as I fire, but Magnus holds him tight. The lead shot rockets into Anders’ eye, sinking deep into his brain.

How did Anders know I would shoot his eye? How did he know I would fall from the ladder? Anders is more than just a werewolf. He must be the one who’s possessed by a demon.

Anders topples into the leaves, his muscular body quivering as he dies. Maybe I should feel bad for him, but I don’t. I’m flooded with relief.

I rush to Magnus, who lies on the ground, now returned to human form. “Magnus, are you okay?”

He nods, but doesn’t try to get up. The tear in his stomach looks pretty bad. “Hold on, I’ll get my first aid kit.”

I rush into the shack and return with my kit. I gingerly press some patches of gauze against his stomach wound, using pressure to stop the bleeding. “Sorry, I know that hurts.”

“Ash, I have to tell you why I’m here. I might not get another chance.” His voice sounds weak.

“We can talk later. We need to get you some help now.”

“I came to apologize. For hurting you.” He grimaces in pain as he reaches into his pants pocket and pulls out a chain with a pale claw attached. “It’s the tip of the claw from my ring finger. I want you to have it. A ring claw is a way of saying you’re special to me, that I’ll never hurt you again.”

I take his gift with trembling hands. Is he dying? Is this the last time we’ll ever talk? I’m not sure what to say to him. “Thank you, Magnus.”

He tries to sit up on one elbow. “You don’t remember me, do you?”

“I don’t understand.”

“We met once before. Years ago. You were with your parents at the gas station. I thought you were the prettiest girl I’d ever seen. Now look at the woman you’ve become. Fierce. Independent. You’re amazing.”

I reach back into my memories, but I don’t see Magnus. I feel guilty that I don’t remember him.

I lean forward and kiss him gently on the lips. “I need to get you help.”

“Don’t call the Gray Wolves. They’ll take me away. I want to stay here with you.”

I want that too. No man has ever cared so much for me. “I wish you could stay, Magnus, I really do.” But I won’t stand by and watch you die.

I squeeze his hand, then place it on his stomach wound. “Keep pressure on this.”

I hurry into the shack, find my pants, and pull the Gray Wolf phone from my pocket.





Shasta emerges from hiding and comes out to comfort me as I watch the Gray Wolves load Magnus into the cargo space of an SUV.

Suddenly, I’m struck by a memory from the past.

I’m thirteen years old, standing at the magazine rack inside the gas station convenience store. I pick up some sort of magazine with a cover story about NASA.

Dad walks by carrying a couple bags of pork rinds. He grabs the magazine from me and stuffs it back on the shelf. “That’s for smart people.”

It hits me like a punch in the gut. I’m not smart.

As Dad walks to the counter, a tall, beautiful boy approaches me. It’s Magnus. He whispers in my ear. “Don’t listen to that dick. You’re smarter than he is.”

A thrill runs through me as he walks away. My first compliment from a boy!

Looking back at that moment, I realize Magnus threw me a lifeline, the ability to see myself as something other than the pathetic girl my father owned. That was a true gift, and until now, I didn’t realize how much it had meant to me.

I yell out as the Gray Wolves finish loading Magnus into the SUV. “Wait!”

I rush over to the SUV, with Shasta at my heels.

Magnus, lying in the cargo space, looks up at me, his eyes squinting in pain.

I kiss him on the lips. “I do remember you. Thanks for what you said to me.”

He whispers. “It was worth it, you know, all of this. Just to see you again.”

A Gray Wolf pulls me back as they close the hatch and the SUV drives away. I wave goodbye, even though he can’t see me.

I pray he’ll recover. I already miss him terribly. I put his chain around my neck and clutch his ring claw in my hand. It feels warm in my palm.

Sigrid remains behind with another Gray Wolf and two other SUVs. I feel exhausted as she approaches me. I don’t have the strength to deal with her right now. At least the guy with the chain saw isn’t here.

Sigrid speaks to me, her voice warmer than last time. “Thanks for helping us with Anders.”

“It was mostly Magnus. Anders was scary as hell. I think he could see the future.”

Sigrid nods. “Demons can sometimes see a short distance into the future. Don’t ever let one inside you.”

I nod, chilled by the thought.

Sigrid steps closer, her voice dropping. “I also want to thank you for calling when Magnus got hurt. I appreciate your good judgment, and your future discretion about what you’ve seen and heard.” Her eye contact is really strong. I get the message.

“No worries. I keep things to myself.”

She assesses me, then nods. “Keep the phone in case you ever need it. We left a solar charger in the shack. Also, take this.” She tosses me a set of keys.

“What’s this?”

She smiles. “We can’t have you walking everywhere. It isn’t safe.”

Is she giving me a car?

“Goodbye for now, Wolfheart.” Sigrid and the remaining Gray Wolf get into one of the vehicles and drive away without a glance back.

One of the black SUVs remains in front of the shack. I approach it with Shasta at my heels.

I can’t believe this. A phone and a car! These people are taking better care of me than my own family. I always thought that Corby folks were kind of mean. But now I feel a connection, a sense of community that I’ve never experienced. I’m not an idiot, I know they’ll keep Magnus and me apart, but still, they’ve got my back. I feel a warmth spreading through me.

I push the button on the key and the vehicle unlocks. Stunned by this amazing gift, I open the door to look inside. Something’s moving on the passenger seat.

I lean in for a closer look and see an Anatolian puppy wrapped in a blanket. They've given me a dog!

My heart melts.

Tears flood my eyes for the first time in years.

Yes, there’s evil in the world, but there’s also good. And I’ve found it in the most unexpected place.

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