Excerpt for Magic Runs Deep by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. All person(s) depicted on the cover are model(s) used for illustrative purposes only.

Magic Runs Deep

Copyright © 2018 by Alex Whitehall

Smashwords Edition

Cover art: Shayne Leighton,

Editor: Carole-ann Galloway

Layout: L.C. Chase,

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ISBN: 978-1-62649-747-4

First edition

April, 2018

Also available in paperback:

ISBN: 978-1-62649-750-4


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For the last five years, Veier has been chained to a king’s throne in his bear form. When a neighboring kingdom overthrows the crown, Veier’s imprisonment ends, but true freedom is not so easily earned. With blood on his hands, he needs someone with patience, strength, and trust to help him become the person he was before and prove to the invaders that he isn’t the monstrous king’s loyal pet.

Elrid, the invading king's brother and a powerful mage, is everything Veier despises. He’s also the only thing between Veier and execution, because he thinks he can help Veier change from an aggressive bear shifter into a reasonable man. While the pair have a rough start, with long talks and mutual leaps of faith, they begin to care for each other.

However, the closer Veier gets to his freedom, the closer he is to losing Elrid. He must find balance in his heart and his life if he wishes to truly claim the freedom he’s been given—and the man he loves.

About Magic Runs Deep

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13


Dear Reader


Also by Alex Whitehall

About the Author

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The heady aroma of destruction hung in the air. Smoke wafted through the throne room, carrying undercurrents of blood and charred flesh. The noise beyond the heavy wooden doors was terrific, but inside the stone walls, only Bora’s growls and the clink of his chains broke the silence.

Bora’s nose twitched as the side door to the throne room swung open. Briefly screams, shouts, and the clash of metal echoed off the hallowed walls. They were silenced by the door clanging closed behind the Almighty and his council. Bora rose to his feet so he could properly bow his head.

The Almighty had left earlier in the day with his council, talking of barbarians attacking, but Bora had remained chained to the Almighty’s throne. Despite being the Almighty’s protector, he was never set free to prove his worth.

They feared giving him freedom. Afraid a bear would turn his claws and teeth on the Almighty’s people. Or the Almighty. As if he would attack his creator, who loved him.

The Almighty hurried across the room, clearly focused on his councilmen.

“My liege,” Lord Gorr urged, right on the Almighty’s heels, “if you leave through the kitchens, no one will be on guard. We can dress you as a servant, and our fleeing will not draw their attention. The Right Hand can cause a diversion and—”

“No,” the Almighty said. “I will leave as my position warrants: on my horse with my things. I will not sneak away from my own palace!”


The Almighty’s fist cut the air. “Silence! You will either help me or be considered a traitor. Now. To the rooms!”

The door on the other side of the room slammed closed behind the Almighty and his entourage. Stillness settled around Bora for a moment. He waited on tenterhooks for something. Anything. But there was nothing. He was about to hunch back down when the main doors opened and a flood of invaders poured in. Swords drawn and bloody, their armor oddly shaped and scarred, they stank of strangeness and destruction.

Bora roared and surged forward, only taking a few strides before the chain ran out of length and the attached collar choked him to a stop. The metal dug into his neck and cut off the noise, but it didn’t matter. The men who’d charged in pulled up short and turned to face him, clearly recognizing him as the threat he was. Perhaps not as large as other of his bear brethren, but on all fours he was nearly to their waists, and larger still if he rose on his hind legs. Not to mention the sheer heft of his weight.

One of the men cursed in the Common Tongue, and then the rest of the words were lost in a foreign babble.

Bora watched their gestures and yanked hard against the chain, snapping his jaw at the air, daring them to come closer. Even if he could not fight them, he could distract them from their prey. He lunged again. The chain held strong, but the throne he was tied to screeched as it slid an inch across the floor.

Now, they watched him. He pulled again, and another squeal of metal pierced the air.

The first man gestured and spoke in their strange language, then turned to cross the room. The others joined him, heading toward the door the Almighty had taken.

A few heads turned at his warning roar, but it didn’t stop the soldiers from breaking down the door and following the Almighty’s path up the staircase beyond it. And then the men were gone, and for a moment, silence hung in the air again.

Too soon, more men came. All strangers, all battle worn. All yelling in a confusing language, gesturing, giving orders, taking orders, and then dispersing. Most startled at him when they first arrived, but few stayed, except a handful of common soldiers, their armor dull and ill-fitting at best.

One man, boasting about his own greatness—Bora could tell, although the words were meaningless—approached with a spear. He stank of sweat, filth, and pride. Bora snarled and hunched to the ground, then slowly slid backward to slacken the chain. The man sneered and thrust the spear at him. Bora fell back farther, luring the savage in closer to the throne.

When the man advanced and thrust a second time, Bora leapt. He’d spaced it right. The chain pulled taut, but he had already felled his foe, small bones crunching beneath his weight. Screams echoed in the large hall when his claws dug in. A single swipe of his paw and there was victorious silence.

Shouts and cries from the other soldiers echoed in the hall, but it was too late. He’d made his point. After that, the rest of the invaders left him alone. He crouched beside the corpse and snarled when anyone came near. But they kept outside the length of his chain, eyeing him and his prize warily.

Bora returned his thoughts to the Almighty, praying for his safety, and then he felt it.

A loosening.

He shuffled, grumbling, and stood, then shook out his body. The feeling stayed. It sprouted between his shoulders like an itch that didn’t itch, and spread through his forepaws, down his spine, along his hindquarters, and into his brain. Until the collar around his neck was only metal, a weight bearing him down. Gateways in his mind opened, and he shook again, trying to dislodge the new feelings, but they overwhelmed and settled into him.




The Almighty had―

No, he was no god. He was a man. A king, yes, but a man. Now that man was dead, and the spell tying Bora to him was broken. A snarl curled Bora’s lips, and he lunged at the corpse. He tore his teeth and claws into flesh, wishing it were that vile king, rendering the entrails into pulp.

Beyond the walls, the noise muted and a cry was heralded. “King Numeir is dead. Surrender and you will be spared!”

He clenched an arm in his jaws, blood dripping down his chin, and tossed it across the room. It hit the wall with an unsatisfying splat. Beneath him, the rest of the body was a slushy puddle littered with bones. Blood and gore matted Bora’s black-brown fur, staining the white pattern on his chest.

This time when he roared, he had their attention. Faces twisted in horror. But the noise felt strange on his lips. When had he been taught to roar? He huffed instead. Snapped his jaw. Then stepped away from the pile of filth and lumbered back to the spot he’d always taken by the throne.

It was familiar and horrific. Bile rose in his throat. He swallowed it down and buried his muzzle under his bloody paws, closing his eyes. His heart pounded with the footsteps of soldiers; his brain buzzed with their voices. He still couldn’t make out their words.

Bora didn’t raise his head when the grand doors to the main hall swung open. He didn’t check when a hush fell over the men milling about or when the creak of leather and chink of metal told of people bowing. Kings, leaders, gods, whatever. It didn’t matter to him.

“Poor thing.”

At that, he did look up, to the one who spoke in the royal tongue that his captor had used. A man stood surrounded by soldiers, staring at Bora. He was probably their leader if the finery of the armor indicated anything. The men around him were bowing or keeping their gazes lowered. Did they think him a god?

“He killed Klaudius,” a man said in the royal language, his heavily accented words muffled against his armor. The man didn’t explain that this Klaudius had attacked him with a spear, Bora noted. But perhaps it didn’t matter. He was an animal to them, after all. And these men were monsters like his captor had been. Like Klaudius had been.

A pulsing cry rose in his throat, and Bora drew to his feet, daring the leader to come closer—but the man wasn’t a fool. Another man was though. He stepped around the leader and took three measured strides toward the throne. He was a slim, mousy-looking thing with sturdy leather armor covering only his torso and forearms. Red stained his hands, the pale-blue sleeves of his frock, and the knees of his trousers. His raven-black hair was tied back in a braid.

Bora lunged.

The man’s fine brow rose, but he didn’t move away, didn’t flinch, as Bora’s claws swiped through the air, brushing past the delicate, upturned nose without a scratch. Interest sparkled in the dark eyes.

Bora retreated, galloping back to the throne, only to turn and run full-force, dragging the throne another inch closer to the fool.

The man simply stepped back with a nod.

“He is not safe,” the leader said, and Bora must have imagined the regret in his voice when he added, “He shall be put down. Cray, see to—”

“No.” The raven-haired man paused, turned toward the leader, then dropped to one knee, his head bowed. “If I may have my liege’s leave.”

“Oh, for—” the leader said, snapping his teeth on the unsaid words. “Hold on.”

He spat a series of orders in the other language, and men started moving around. Bora eyed them all, waiting for one of them to come close enough. Their attention seemed to be elsewhere, though, most dispersing from the room at once.

“So what is it, Elrid?” the leader asked, his voice low—private words in the royal language for the raven-haired man only. But Bora could hear despite the noise surrounding them. Did they think he couldn’t understand that language despite being tied here so long?

“Yllth, he’s a shifter. Ursinai,” Elrid said just as quietly, leaning closer to the leader. Bora could see some similarities beyond the exhaustion of battle. The same fine-featured bones in their faces. The same shiny black locks. But the leader was taller, broader. A warrior where this one was a scholar. “There is a man in there.”

“Yes, a man who is loyal to the filth we’ve washed out. He is obviously unwilling to stand down now that the battle is over. His life is forfeit.”

“Stand down? Battle? Yllth, he’s chained in here. Do you really think the king saw him as a loyal subject?”

“Maybe he likes it.”

Bora huffed and stalked closer. Both men glanced at him—the leader with pity, the scholar with curiosity. Yes, he wanted to tell them, I can hear you talking about me. No, I do not like being chained to this throne. Yes, I will tear you apart if you try to touch me.

“I’m going to guess not,” the smaller man said, smirking.

“This isn’t a stray cat, El,” the leader said in exasperation. “You can’t take him home and nurse him back to health.”

“Rosie catches many mice in the stables, I’ll have you know.”

“Oh, for—” the leader growled. “You have no idea how to handle something like this. How do you plan on taking him anywhere? If you recall, he attacked you.”

“I have my ways.”

Bora snapped his jaw and huffed again, straining against the resistance around his neck. He didn’t like this. He liked it less when the leader sighed in defeat.

“I was going to ask you to stay here with me and help with reconstruction anyway. You have three weeks to get that”—he gestured at Bora—“to shape-shift and not threaten to kill anyone. To explain himself. And you better not slack on your actual duties to the king and people.”

Elrid bowed deeply. There was only a touch of humor in his voice when he said, “Of course not, King Yllth Adarian, bringer of peace and light.”

The king groaned. “Oh, for goodness’ sake, stand up. You can have a room to keep your pet for the next three weeks. After that I’ll make a final decision.”

“Thank you, Yllth. I mean it. Thank you. You know how I hate—”

“Senseless murder.” The king shook his head. “I know. You’re a healer, not a fighter. Just prove that this death would be senseless. You also have to write the letter to that soldier’s family explaining why he’s dead.”

Because he prodded a bear with a pointy stick that wasn’t long enough. Bora snorted.

Both men turned to him, but only the shorter one was grinning like he could hear Bora’s thoughts.

After the two men finished discussing him, they moved on. Everyone else left him alone too. Whatever was being done in the rest of the castle, in the rest of the kingdom, Bora wasn’t privy to it. It didn’t affect him, anyway, since he was being passed from one man to another. Kingdoms and rulers didn’t matter when a man had enslaved you with a magical collar and could kill you without hesitation.

All he wanted was to go home. Instead he was being given a new master and a new chain.

He pawed the collar. If the magic was gone, maybe it would no longer change sizes with him. It wouldn’t hurt to try. But not until tonight. Then he could slip away while the rest of the world slept. Once he was far enough from the city, he could shift back and run faster than any man astride.

Running. He remembered what that was like. Would his muscles be able to handle it? Surely he still knew how to hunt, even if the memories were foggy flashes of cold streams and silver. Yes, the silver had tasted sweet in his mouth, refreshing and juicy in ways that water was not. Fresh fish. How long had it been?

That made him think of his mother’s cooking. Frying up what he didn’t eat raw in bear form, so the skin was crispy and saturated with flavors. Beside a heaping pile of potatoes and a thick slab of bread.

His stomach growled, reminding him of how long ago his last meal had been. Not that he couldn’t go without. But years―how many years had it been?—of scheduled meals had left his body wanting.

He rolled to all fours and began pacing―clockwise, then counterclockwise―around the throne. His stomach cramped with each lap; his temper flared. When Elrid came in, Bora didn’t glance at him, until his scent―freshly washed in mint water, not that it covered his sweaty maleness―and food drew Bora’s eyes.

Elrid, stripped of his soldiering clothes and wearing simple finery instead, bore a tray, upon which lay a whole fish surrounded by nuts and berries.

Bora’s mouth grew wet. He let his tongue roll out, tasting the air. Oh. Oh, this was good food. Fresh and ripe, not leftovers from the latest feast.

His stomach rumbled, and Elrid, the conceited prick, smiled.

“I was wondering if you were hungry.” He stopped beyond where Bora’s chain reached, set the tray down, then pushed it across the invisible line.

Bora hesitated long enough to inhale, and then lunged to the end of his chain. With one paw, he dragged the tray farther into his circle in case the man changed his mind. Then he hunkered down and snuffled everything on the tray, savoring the heady aromas—

And something else. He sniffed again and raised a suspicious gaze.

Elrid, sitting just beyond Bora’s reach, gave a lopsided smile. “Yes, I dosed the fish. But not with poison. It will simply make you sleep for a few hours. I want to move you to a different room―this place is too big and . . .” He gestured with his hand as if Bora could fill in the rest. “But they refuse to try to move you while awake, and I can’t say I disagree with them. So if you eat the fish, you’ll fall asleep.”

Bora stared, then looked down at the platter of food. He licked some nuts and berries into his mouth before glaring up at Elrid.

The man’s smile was wry. “Yes, I wouldn’t trust me either. But I know a man’s mind is in there. I see it in your eyes, and I recognize the crest of the Ursinai on your chest. So understand that if you don’t show a little trust and eat the fish, then we’ll use an arrow dosed with the drug. The results will be the same, but I’ll know where we stand and my brother will trust you less.”

Brother? Did that mean Elrid wasn’t only part of the council, but a princeling? Bora’s lips curled in distaste, before the rest of what had been said sank in.

Eat the fish and get drugged, or be shot and get drugged. He could fight it, fight them, but eventually their advantage would win out—and he would be short a fish in his belly. He nosed the salmon. It would be a shame to waste such delicious food. Despite the drugs, it was sweeter than anything he’d eaten in . . . in too long to recall.

He wasn’t sure what it meant that Elrid had been honest with him about it. Not forthcoming, but honest once it had been pointed out. The scholar seemed to have his interest at heart, even if it was simple curiosity that drove him.

By the time Bora finished eating, Elrid was nearly preening. “I knew you’d make the smart choice. Not stupid at all. And you understand the royal language. I suppose that makes sense, considering—”

Bora snorted. He didn’t want to hear the rest of that sentence. The thought alone was upsetting what had been an enjoyable meal.

“Ah. Yes. Well.” Elrid stood, the pale-blue garment fluttering into place around him. “I will leave you alone, then. I’ll be back in an hour, but you’ll be asleep. When you wake, you may feel light-headed and disoriented, but it should pass quickly. You’ll be unchained and uncollared in a room that will only open by my command. I will probably be in there with you. If you kill me, they’ll kill you, and they’ll likely make it painful and torturous. I’d really rather neither of us suffer that fate, so please don’t try to kill me.”

Bora huffed at the flippancy.

Elrid must have taken that as assent, or at least confirmation that Bora understood, because he nodded, turned, and left the room.

Bora sighed and rolled over to await the oncoming slumber.

He wouldn’t be able to escape today, maybe, but if he was still alive after this night was through, then he would have other opportunities.

Home would be within his grasp soon.

Bora dreamed of mint fields and gurgling streams. Basking in the sun on an autumn day. The movement of the earth as he slept. The deep sleep of hibernation. A hand touching him.

He dreamed he wasn’t wearing a collar. That he was free. That he could run and would not be caught at the end of a chain.

A dog’s bark woke him, a growl quick on its heels.

He surged to his feet. The room spun in a swirl of brown, white, and gold, and he gnashed at the air, wary of an attack. Where was that vile king who had captured him? Where was the collar that normally subdued him? Where—

Mint-infused air wrapped around him.

A deep inhale and the world straightened. He peered cautiously around the room, but he was alone. No, not alone. His nose and eyes focused on the raven-haired man sitting in a plush chair, a book spread on his lap, shoulders back. Watching him.

Bora huffed and snapped his jaw in warning.

“The dizziness will pass,” Elrid said. “Meanwhile, there is a mint bath in the tub, if you’d like to wash off. It should still be fairly warm; I timed everything well.”

Elrid sounded far too pleased with himself. But a bath did sound good. Something to rinse the sticky sap from his fur. Bora grunted and lumbered to the steaming tub. He shoved his nose right to the surface of the water and inhaled. Mint to clear his head. He lapped. Clean water scented with leaves, not oil.

However, the large tub was far too small to fit his massive body. He could maybe stand in it and splash off the filth that crusted his fur. Or . . .

Glancing over his shoulder, he saw Elrid had his eyes on the book. Bora didn’t think for one moment that the fool was actually reading―who would read when a violent bear was free?―but Bora was begrudgingly thankful to not be stared at.

Another grunt and he walked to the far side of the tub. Took a few laps of water. His mouth was dry, his body ached, and his neck hurt where the collar had dug in from his enraged attempts to move the throne. A hot bath would do him well.

Keeping his eyes trained on the still-reading man across the room, he let the guise of bear slip away from him. It slid off like a blanket; or rather, that was how it felt. He knew it looked like a bear shrinking instantly into the shape of a man, but all he felt was a tug and the coat fell away, leaving naked, human flesh. Dried blood covered his sun-starved skin from his elbows and knees to the ends of his limbs, and generously coated his underbelly up to his eyes. He pushed to his feet, and had to grip the edge of the tub as his balance wavered. It had been a while. A long while. He paused, letting the room settle and his legs adjust, then stepped over the side of the tub.

The warm water enveloped him as he sank into its scented depths. Immediately the liquid pinked as it rinsed off the top layer of scum. He inhaled deeply and let the heat suffuse his body, absorb into him. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d had a bath as a human. Normally the guards dragged him to the stables as a bear and dumped cold water on him. Now he could have a proper bath. After the novelty had worn off, he roused himself and began scrubbing away the filth, watching the water turn brown. Each swipe of his hand revealed scars and bruises and brewed anger in his throat, but each inhale brought with it a calming mint that kept him washing rather than raging.

“Would you like some soap?” Elrid asked.

Bora startled and grabbed the rim of the pool, his eyes snapping up and legs tensing. The man was still sitting where he’d been, but watched Bora as if he expected an answer. Oh yes, speaking. That was a thing Bora was capable of.

“I—” His voice cracked, his throat raw from being abused, making noises that weren’t natural to it. The thickness there warned him not to try again. He touched his neck and the sores from the collar that were already beginning to heal over. He stared down at the water and nodded.

Motion yanked his eyes back up.

Elrid had set aside the book and was standing with restrained exuberance that raised Bora’s hackles and a burning growl in his throat. Elrid pulled up short, eyeing him from afar, and then moved slower. He crossed the room to the cart by the tub. Bora watched him, legs folding, ready to spring, but Elrid simply selected a bar of soap and paused by the farthest end of the tub.

He hesitated, then slid the soap into the water and nudged it, floating it over. “There. If everyone wasn’t busy with important matters, I’d ask them to draw us another tub of clean water for you, but we’ll have to do what we can with this.”

“Tha—” Bora’s voice cracked. Keeping one eye on his captor, he snatched the soap from the water and started scrubbing. This, too, was mint-scented. He’d never smelled someone in the castle who’d washed with mint before. Had Elrid brought his own personal supply? It seemed silly. But it smelled nice.

“You’re smaller than I expected,” Elrid said.

Fear snapped taut inside Bora, and he was leaping through the air, hands out, aiming for Elrid’s neck, before the final d settled in the air. They landed on the carpeted floor with a thump and an umph, then it was Bora’s snarl and Elrid’s choked gasps.

Bora was small for a man, true, but inside he had the strength of a bear, a strength he could tap into without summoning claws and fangs. He wouldn’t let anyone take advantage of him again. Elrid struggled, and Bora tightened his grasp. He would choke the life out of any man who would abuse his weakness . . .

And then he would be killed as well.

He froze. He didn’t move off, but he didn’t press harder.

Elrid managed to worm a hand between them and clutched his fingers to Bora’s collarbone. Yet Elrid didn’t push him away. They stayed like that, chests heaving. Was Elrid giving him a choice? To see if he would continue the attack? Did Elrid think he could remove Bora? None of it mattered: Bora couldn’t seem to do anything.

Then a wave of magic slammed through him.

Eaugh!” His muscles turned to jelly. He dropped to the floor, limp and panting, unable to do more than twitch. Screaming, it seemed, was the only thing he could do. He was trapped again, magic controlling his limbs, making him into something he wasn’t. Only this time he knew it, and that only made him fight harder.

“Easy, easy,” Elrid rasped, sitting up and pushing Bora off of him. “It’s temporary. Unless you want to attack me again.” He coughed, cleared his throat, and winced. “My brother would probably like a bearskin rug.” It didn’t sound like a threat, but it was a threat all the same.

Bora’s entire body spasmed, then shuddered. Slowly strength and control returned to the muscles, and he scrambled back with flailing limbs and pressed close to the warm metal tub, eyes trained on Elrid.

“Easy, I said. I won’t let him make a rug of you yet. But as you see, I’m not defenseless against you,” Elrid said, still rubbing his throat. “Nor are you defenseless even as a human. Small doesn’t mean weak. But I didn’t mean to imply you were. Now, get back in the tub and finish washing. There’s a towel by the head, and maybe we can find some clothes for you.”

Bora narrowed his eyes at the order, but Elrid sighed and pushed himself to his feet. As if he had reason to be tired. Must have been hard having all the power.

Bora snorted and clambered back into the tub and the warmth, wanting to banish the chill from his skin. Wanting to wash off the memory of the magic coursing through his body. He found the soap and clutched it as Elrid walked stiffly back to his chair. He watched, with some satisfaction, as Elrid sat gingerly and returned the book to his lap.

Bora lathered himself, carefully tended to the welts on his neck, and was extra thorough with his shaggy head of hair and the thick bristle of his beard. His hair had been chin length before, if he recalled correctly, but he’d been shaved when he arrived, and left to grow out wild. He dunked his head under the water, and came up already clearing his eyes, then scraped away the excess water from his hair and beard, until it was dark with water rather than filth. Finally clean, he stepped from the tub and dried off. The beige towel was gray when he was done, but he folded it and set it back where he’d gotten it anyway, then turned to Elrid.

Who was once again pretending to read. Bora huffed. No response. “I—” The word crackled. He growled. Swallowed down a raw throat. “Done.”

There. Elrid looked up, a slight twist to the corner of his lips. His gaze roamed Bora’s body, but before Bora could tense, Elrid nodded.

“I think we can find something in your size.” Elrid rose, then paused. “You do want clothing, right?”

What kind of a question was that? Bora nodded.

“I’ll have a servant fetch clothes, then.”

When Bora didn’t protest, Elrid crossed the room. He didn’t open the door, which strangely had no handle, but merely pressed his palm against it and briefly closed his eyes. Having finished whatever strange magic he’d likely been doing, he turned and eyed Bora again. “You could wrap in the towel while we wait. It may be a while.”

“Wet,” he grunted.

Elrid huffed. “Yes, because standing there naked is much better. Aren’t you cold?”

Bora was chilly now that the heat from the bath was vanishing from his skin. He just shrugged in reply though, and donned the coat of a bear.

“Wow.” Elrid sounded amazed, not scared, which seemed rather foolish. “I’ve never seen . . . Well, until today, I’d never seen an Ursinai shift. It’s rather incredible.”

Bora chuffed and dropped to all fours.

“Yes. Of course, you can’t talk like this. Please shift to human form.”

Bora tilted his head, debating.

“You heard what we said in the throne room, didn’t you? What King Adarian said was required for you to prove you’re not loyal to your old master?”

Bora wanted to argue the bit about your old master, but any complaint wouldn’t be understood. He chirped his agreement that he’d understood their discussion about him right in front of him.

A faint color rose to Elrid’s cheeks. “We, ah, probably shouldn’t have spoken like that there.” He cleared his throat. “The point is, King Adarian requires you to be human. And, honestly, so do I.”

Bora huffed in discontent.

“It’s rather harder for me to understand you like this. I want to help you, but I can’t do it in this form.”

Bora rose onto his hind legs and let the coat fall off. Perhaps Elrid could understand the curl of displeasure in his lips now.

Obviously not, if the bright smile lighting Elrid’s face was any indication. Elrid canted his head. “Great. Well, I could—”

Elrid stepped forward, and Bora tensed, shoulders hunching. He blew out a hard breath and clanked his teeth. Elrid stopped, then gestured to the chair where he’d been sitting. A frock coat hung limply across its back. “You can put that on to keep you warm while we wait.”

Bora had been warm as a bear, although Elrid didn’t seem to care about that. Still, he strode to the chair, keeping one eye on Elrid, and swiped the frock from its back. It was large across his shoulders and tight around the torso, but it kept off the sharpest of the chill. He fumbled with the buttons—latching enough to close the front and hold in his heat—but gave up after a few and crouched by the chair warily.

Elrid, for his part, stayed where he was and watched with the same damnable curiosity that always lingered in his green eyes. “Do you have a name? I mean,” he amended, “what are you called?”

Bora snorted. “Bora.”

“Bora.” Something flickered across his face, but was quickly shuttered. “My name is Elrid.”

“I know.”

Elrid smiled. “Sounds like your voice is getting stronger.”

Bora grunted. Elrid’s words didn’t seem to require much of a response.

Silence followed, broken by a knock on the door. Elrid turned and brushed his hand along it, and it swung open. Magic. Though the door had a handle and locks on the outside, magic was still his prison. Bora growled and rubbed at the soreness around his neck. Magic users. Tricksters the lot of them.

Elrid took a pile of clothes from whoever was at the door, and then the door closed and Bora’s chance at escape was gone. He was a fool. He snarled at his own stupidity, but the anger had the added benefit of keeping Elrid from coming any closer as well.

The wizard shuffled to a stop, head tilted to the side. “I, uh, have clothing for you.”

Bora jerked his head toward a bench along the one wall. “There.”

Elrid placed the clothes where indicated, then moved to the farthest spot of the room. When Bora was certain the other man was safely away, he stripped off the frock coat, dropped it in the chair, and crossed the room, then kept one eye and ear on Elrid as he pulled on trousers and an undershirt. He tied the belt but left the shirt untucked. Everything felt oddly confining after so long without clothes. But also safe. A level of civility and culture he’d been refused. A bit of recognition that he was two halves of one whole and not a wild animal.

He was struggling with the buttons, vaguely aware that Elrid had gone to his chair and was fiddling with the frock, when the man said, “I could help you with those.”

Bora’s head snapped up, and he glared.

Elrid coughed. “If you’d like.”

As if he wanted Elrid’s help. Bora snorted and left the shirt hanging open. It wasn’t that chilly in here, and if he was locked in this gilded cage, then there would be no sensibilities that could be offended.

“I’ll take that as a no, then.”

Bora ignored him, stretched out on the bench, and pretended to make himself comfortable for a nap, while he remained focused on Elrid.

Who huffed. “Why did I want you in human form if you aren’t going to talk to me?”

“Not my—” his words snagged and he snarled out the last “—concern.”

Elrid took the seat he’d occupied during Bora’s bath—

No, not Bora. That hadn’t been his name before. That was the mocking title his captors had given him. Veier. That was his name. Strong. Deep. Not like Bora. How clever to call a beast by its type.


“What?” he snapped.

Elrid’s sigh exhausted even Veier. But the man continued as if such burdens were his to carry. “I had merely asked how you came to be . . . here. You didn’t growl at me, so I thought perhaps you hadn’t heard.”

Veier sniffed in disdain.

“Yes, that was the reaction I expected.”

“I came to be here in much the same way that all men who are chained to another man’s chair are: captured and enslaved.”

Veier didn’t think the surprise on Elrid’s face was because he’d managed a full sentence in the royal language.

“Were you at war?”

“I . . .” He sat up, eyeing the wizard across the room. Elrid was reclined in his chair, his head tilted slightly, listening with apparent earnest interest. But the king’s magicians were why Veier couldn’t remember his past now. Trusting another one of their kind wouldn’t help him. “Does it matter?”

“I suppose not. How long have you been here?”

He closed his eyes. Time blended, a smear of repeated actions. Day after day. Before that, training to be a good little bear guard. But before . . . a celebration. For what? He furrowed his brow, recalling the dances and the food, the smaller moon hiding behind her sister, leaving one bright orb in the sky. “Since the lunar alignment.”

Elrid coughed, and Veier opened his eyes, but the man seemed fine. Maybe a touch puce in the face as he cleared his throat, struggling to get control of himself. Veier shrugged. “How long is that?”

Elrid grimaced. “Over five years.”

“Oh.” Veier lay back on the bench, stretching out. His limbs were oddly numb. In his chest, his heart beat on as if nothing had changed. Above him, the sunlight streamed across ornate architecture in red and orange.

“I know it’s not worth anything, but I’m sorry.”

Veier stared at the ceiling. “You’re right. It’s not worth anything.”

If Elrid was put off by that, he didn’t show it. There was a brief pause, and then he asked, “So what’s shifting like?”

“What’s breathing like?” Veier retorted.


Veier rolled his eyes and didn’t answer.

“Maybe you could tell me about your family? Are you close? Do Ursinai live together? Do you roam the forest or do you have homes?”

Veier turned onto his side so Elrid could see the exasperation on his face. “You ask a lot of questions.”

Pink tinged Elrid’s cheeks. “Your people are, uh, isolated, so we don’t know a lot about them.”

Veier rocked onto his back again. “Maybe that’s on purpose.”

“So you can’t tell me anything?”

Veier smiled. “My mother always fried up my fish nice and crispy how I liked it, and—”

“You don’t eat your food raw?” Elrid sounded shocked.

“As a bear, yes. As a human, no. We’re not animals.”

“But half the time you are,” Elrid insisted.

“We’ll still consume our food cooked many times,” Veier snapped. “We’re Ursinai, not bears. We’re Ursinai, not humans. We are both, and you’d best not forget it.”

If he’d been angrier, if he’d been braver, he would have turned onto his side and put his back to Elrid, but instead he stared at the ceiling like he could see nothing else, hear nothing at all.

Elrid asked him a few more questions, but gave up when Veier didn’t answer. He said something about dinner―going for? Returning with?—and then was gone, leaving Veier alone in this room haunted by the scent of mint.

Elrid had not returned by the time the sunlight faded from the high windows—if he was going to return at all—so Veier pulled the blankets from the bed and settled in to sleep on the bench seat. Part of him didn’t believe Elrid was the sort of man who’d take advantage of him while he slept, but the past five years had taught him never to expect less than the worst. His limbs still remembered the ease with which the wizard had stolen their agency. Would Elrid think that Veier was offering himself if he was in the bed? Better not to risk it. The bench was plenty comfortable.

So he slept. A deeper slumber than he’d had in too long. It was refreshing to not sleep on the floor, although the bench was hard. But he had blankets—even if his bear form would not have needed them. It wasn’t that he was honoring Elrid’s request by remaining human, but rather that it had been so long since he could take this form. Plus, it was a luxury to feel their weight, to know they existed and covered him, a barrier against the cold. It comforted him.

But if he had not slept so deeply, he might have woken when the door opened. He might have heard the footsteps approaching, rather than waking when the voices whispered far too near.

“Shh.” A man chuckled. “I want to see him.”

“Just a gods-accursed shifter,” another grumbled. “Don’t see the point.”

Veier wasn’t sure if it was a blessing or a curse that they were using the Common Tongue.

“I hear he turns into quite the pretty boy when he’s human,” the first sneered.

“Yeah, if he doesn’t rip your head off first.”

“Don’t be such a bleeding hole.”

“Shove off.”

By the time the light from their lantern found him, he was crouched on the bench, teeth bared, his bear-self begging to escape. He huffed and snapped his growing jaw. Stay away.

The second man cursed and jumped back.

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