She was a bundle on the bottom of the skiff, tossed in with her skirt and petticoat tangled around her legs, hands bound behind her with a thin chain that also wrapped around her neck.
She didn’t struggle; the silver in the chain burned her skin. The more she moved the more she burned, so she lay still because the only way to stop this would be to make them kill her. They wanted to kill her. So why didn’t they? Why go through the trouble of rowing this wave-rocked skiff out to this hideous island just to throw her to her likely death? To save themselves the taint of murder? To keep themselves clean of whatever small sin her death would engender on their souls? Surely her life was not so large that her death would be such a burden.
“Why? Why not just kill me and be done with it?” she growled.
Her captors—the two rough men on the oars and the gentleman with the tailored frock coat and fine manners who sat at the prow—were wolves, like her. They smelled of musk and wild and moorland, of the beasts that hid inside their flesh. But they were civilized. They followed orders and bowed to their betters. Not like her. They also smelled of hearth fires and smugness. She smelled of fury.
The gentleman, Mr. Edgerton, laughed sourly. “You are not worth the cost of the silver ball it would take to kill you.”
She was not valuable enough to keep and not dangerous enough to kill. There was a pretty fate. Too dangerous to keep and not valuable enough to bother taming. And so here she was, dumped on the edge of the world, off the coast of Scotland. She could laugh and cry both, but her throat was too locked up with stifled screams. Edgerton would like it if she screamed. He’d tell his master, the Lord of Wolves in London, that she screamed. He’d likely tell the Lord that anyway, but it wouldn’t be true, and that would be something. She’d make the fine gentleman a liar.
Edgerton drew out a spyglass and used it to search the island’s shore.
“See anything, sir?” one of the oarsmen asked. The men at the oars were servants, lower wolves who bowed and scraped and thus got their meat thrown to them. They wouldn’t save her.
“Not a thing. They’re hiding from us. Biding their time.”
“Maybe they’re all dead,” said the other. “Maybe they all killed each other.”
“Perhaps they did. You’ll have the island to yourself,” Edgerton said to the woman and grinned. The bottom of the skiff hit sand. “That’s enough, no need to go all the way up.”
“Let her walk the rest of the way.” He would never say it, but he was afraid.
Her hands jerked; the silver chain seared her neck. Her bonds were suddenly loose, but in the next moment she was rolled over the side of the boat and into the freezing North Atlantic water, wool skirt instantly sodden and pulling her down. She flailed, reached out. Put her feet down on the sand, stood. Was only knee deep in the churning surf, watching the skiff row away, the men laughing. Edgerton held up the silver chain in a gloved hand. It was worth more than she ever was.
“Damn you all! Damn you all for cowards and bastards! You could have just killed me, but you’re cowards, aren’t you just!” She screamed after them, and their laughter carried to her in reply. They, all of them who condemned her to this exile, need never think of her again.
She stood with the waves pushing back and forth around her legs, shoving ’round her skirt, freezing water pulling at her. The sand reached from the lapping surf to a stretch of sea grass and crumbling gray rock. The sky was gray, the water was gray, dark slate, pushing up the thick stretch of pale sand. Beyond, the land was green and spare, grass kept short by wind and whatever gnawed at it. Sheep had been here days ago, and oddly the scent of their droppings gave her hope. There was food here, if she could get it.
Past the beach, up a slope, was a craggy outcrop, stones tumbled down from some exposed hillside. Wasn’t as good as a fort or a tower, but maybe she could defend the spot. She needed a place. She needed weapons. She needed time. Soaking wet, she wanted a fire. A fury had built up in her heart to the breaking point. She would snap and strip and the wolf would burst through her skin and run wild, and if that happened she was done for, she’d have nothing.
No matter. It was finished. She was here, and she knew that she was not alone on this island.
She got to work.
• • • •
By the time the cold rain started, she had something resembling shelter. She’d piled driftwood and rushes over a cleft in the jagged rocks and made a little cave for herself. With the rain, well, she had fresh water. Though she was hungry, food could wait until tomorrow. The gray sky was turning dark, the sun setting, the slate ocean turning black, and the rush and crash of the waves went on and on. Survive the night, that was all she had to do. Then the next night, and the next.
God damn them who put her here, but she would live. If for no other reason than to spite them.
Wasn’t time for the full moon—breaking clouds revealed a three-quarters waxing moon. Wolves howled anyway. Five, six of them, calling out with high, sharp territory songs. We know you are here, we sense you, we smell you, we are coming for you. Curled up in her cave, huddled in her skirts, hugging her knees, she listened to them.
Weapons. She would need to find weapons tomorrow. Build a palisade around her cave and hold them off as long as she could. There would be no silver on the island she could use to kill them. Or herself.
They would be wild. They had been exiled to the island because they could not control themselves, because they were dangerous. Likely, they spent more time in their wolf shapes than as men. Why would they need to walk upright, why would they need hands and voices and manners here? And they would all be men. Wolf-women were rare, and she was the only one to ever be exiled to the Island of Beasts. The men, the wolves already here—they would tear her apart.
She would not let them.
• • • •
Morning, she tried to keep sleeping, curled up tight and shivering. If she slept, this might be a dream, she might wake up in her attic servant’s room. She imagined a bushy tail pulled up against her face like a blanket to keep her warm. A whole coat of thick fur, sharp claws and fierce teeth to catch rats and vermin to eat. She was already wild, they said. Was why they exiled her here. She could be wild. And lose her clothing, her shelter, her wits, her dignity. The ability to stand with her chin up. As a wolf, she could murder them all.
Come full moon she wouldn’t have a choice.
No, she would have a plan by then. She would make a plan, she would survive as her own self and not the beast inside her. She would keep herself, and what was left of her soul. Everything was damp: the rock, the ground she slept on, her clothes, bodice and petticoats. Her tangled hair she shook out and pinned back up. Brushed out her skirt, stamped feeling back into her booted feet, and went out into the bleak morning.
Along the shore she found a couple of crabs, dug for clams and ate them raw, gnawed on seaweed. She collected more driftwood and thought about how to sharpen pieces without so much as a penknife. Found a stand of heather on the far side of the hill and hauled an armload of it to her little hovel to dry.
Piling up wood and brush, she built what she could of a wall to protect the sheltered room. Dragged some stones up to anchor it, grateful for her wolf’s strength. It wouldn’t hold against attack, but she had high ground here. She would see whatever approached. She chose a couple of good sturdy lengths of driftwood she could use as clubs, and commenced to shaving another down into a rough spear. Even through the heart, a wooden spear wouldn’t kill the wolves. But she could give them pause.
Some distance out from her fort, she squatted and pissed in an attempt to mark some territory. She smelled other piss marks, at least two different wolf men farther out on the field. She didn’t piss on them direct—it would be taken as a challenge, and they would come for her even sooner, to meet the challenge. This way she only meant to carve out a little space for herself, to send a message: leave me alone, I am no threat.
Still, it didn’t take long for the residents of the Island of Beasts to find her.
She smelled him well in advance of his arrival, had time to climb up one of the craggy rocks to use as a vantage, carrying one of her makeshift, inadequate spears. He was a rangy thing, black fur and golden eyes. He trotted around the hill, down slope toward the beach and then back again, head low and scenting, tail out like a rudder. Tightened his circle on each lap, coming closer. He was big, more than two hundred pounds. As a man, he would be a solid brute.
“Get away, you! Go on!” she hollered, as if he were just a dog and she were just a woman, a housekeeper protecting a flock of chickens. She threw a stone at him, missed.
He danced away but instantly spun back, mouth open and tongue lolling. Laughing at her. She screamed a howl of warning, not that it would do any good. If he charged, she was done for. If he had friends, she was done for. But she would deliver as much damage as she could before then. The wolf circled again, giving her a good look-over, then turned to the field beyond her hill and ran, loping off without a care. She slumped against the rock, leaning on her spear. She had survived her first encounter with one of the exiled wolf men of the Island.
• • • •
More wolves came, but these walked on two legs. She awoke next morning with their scent on the air from upwind, like they wanted to be sure she smelled them. Heart racing, she left her little fort to see how they would attack and how she might hold them off.
But it wasn’t like that at all. Two of them waited halfway up the hill. One was muscular, bearded, a hard-looking man with a glare like stone. He wore boots, breeches, linen shirt, and the red coat of a soldier, all the worse for wear, but he stood straight, a thumb hitched into his waistband. The other was tall, lean, and clean-shaven. Imagine, keeping a smooth face here in this place. His shirt was well tailored, and he wore a waistcoat that must have been silk, the way it shone and fit so smooth. His breeches and boots were also fine, and he had a smirk of confidence. A bit of lordly swagger. He must have been a gentleman, once upon a time.
They were wolves. Not just wolves—they had a power to them, a certain bearing. The assumption that they would be listened to and obeyed. They led packs. She had been told that the island was chaos. That there were no packs, that the law of beasts ruled, which meant there was no law, only violence and blood, and she would be at their mercy. She had not thought to expect . . . this.
The gentleman held up a stick with what looked like a worn-out cravat tied to it. Though a little grubby now, it had once been white. A flag of truce, then. Staring, she leaned out from behind her rock, unwilling to reveal herself further.
“Hallo! You there!” the gentleman called. “Might we have a word?”
She didn’t have to come out, she could pretend she wasn’t here, but they knew she was. They’d crossed the scent she’d marked.
“I promise, we mean you no harm. We wish to speak with you.”
She came out far enough to sit on the rock and laid her spear across her lap. This was as far as she would go, let them do with that what they would.
The gentleman nodded in understanding, even as he frowned.
“I am Mr. Brandon and this is Sergeant Cox. First, however trying the circumstances of your arrival to our Island, may I offer welcome and hope that you are settling in as well as can be expected.” His speech was very proper, almost laughably so, given the landscape. He ought to be in a fine drawing room with a matched tea set and ancient portraits on the wall. How had he come to be exiled? Did he know Edgerton?
The soldier, Cox, glared at him a moment, then rolled his eyes. Brandon huffed a little. “Yes, well. To explain the rest to you then . . . each of us commands one of the Island’s two packs. We are here to . . . invite you, I think is not too strong a word. That is, we’d each like to make an offer, so that you may choose which of us to ally yourself with.”
“You’ll be safer with one of us.” Cox’s accent was rougher, his manner straightforward. Not a gentleman. She caught his scent, studied the hint of gold in his eyes—he was the rangy black wolf who’d visited her yesterday. A scouting mission.
“And so we do you the courtesy of offering a choice, rather than resorting to . . . more direct persuasion.” The gentleman showed his teeth, a flash of a smile, and her stomach clenched. As laughably proper as he was, she should not underestimate him. His fine manner disguised a monstrous bearing. Others had likely underestimated him. He likely counted on it.
She could not find words. The beast trapped inside her wanted to howl, her hands clenched on her spear, and she could very nearly feel the claws about to rip through her fingertips, bent on slaughter. She would not choose, she would not, and if she tried to speak, the words would come out all at once in a roar.
They must have taken her for a simpleton. They looked at one another, uncertain.
Cox licked his lips and said, “Full moon’s in five days. You’ll have to come out then. Then we’ll have you.”
Her lips curled, a snarl. “You will not. I’ll drown myself first.”
Brandon smiled. “Ah, she speaks.”
She stood and shook the hopeless spear at them. “I won’t choose! I won’t! That’s what got me booted to this bloody place. They told me I must choose, I must be some wolf’s mate, but I said no, and I fought, and so they sent me here to be torn apart by brutes. And now you tell me that I must choose? No, a thousand times no!”
“It isn’t . . . you misunderstand us,” Brandon said patiently. “You needn’t be anyone’s mate. But as the sergeant says, you cannot be alone during the full moon, you must have the protection of one of us. So we—or at least I—propose a more conventional domestic arrangement. More suited to your . . . um.” He gestured at her simple clothing as if that explained everything. This choice actually boded worse than the other. Brandon continued, matter-of-factly. “You see, you are a woman.”
She looked skyward and laughed. “And what of that?”
“We have been without women’s company for some time. And, well—”
“How dare you, how dare you come here and think you can . . . use me so!”
Brandon said, “It isn’t that, our motives are entirely upstanding. We’ve no wish to use you in that manner at all.”
The rough-looking man said, “What he means to say is he wants someone to wash his shirts.”
“And cook for us. We’ve had no one to do the mending, either, and—”
She screamed. Clenched fists on either side of her face and gave voice to her fury.
“I take that as a . . . no.”
She spoke, snarling. “You’ve all been here for years, and not one of you ever made a stew or darned a sock?”
“We’ve done what we can, but a woman’s touch—”
She left. Slid down the rock and slipped back into her hovel, pulling her knees up and hugging them hard. So. She had come to the Island of Beasts and found . . . civilization. It was civilization that had put her here in the first place. Looking outside to an overcast sky, threatening more rain, she waited. Her nose flared, searching the air for the men’s scent.
At last, Brandon called up the hill. “We’ll come back after you’ve had a bit of time to think things over.”
“We’ve got fire,” Cox said. “You want a warm fire and a hot meal, you’ll come with one of us.”
“Just so,” Brandon said.
She put her hands to her ears and squeezed shut her eyes, because she didn’t want to listen anymore. They went away.
• • • •
She carried the spear with her when she went foraging on the strand again. She did not trust that they would let her alone, let her choose. The wolves had managed to get themselves arranged in packs—they would fight over her, sooner or later. Why should she believe that they would let her alone?
She’d never been let alone before.
After gathering more crabs and an armful of seaweed that she thought she might knit into a net to catch fish, she went back to her cave to consider how she might find fire and more weapons. How she might survive the full moon night without being torn apart by the Island’s wolf packs.
The gentleman, Brandon, was waiting for her. He stayed the same polite distance halfway down her hill. When she appeared he glanced at her—and away, and did not try to meet her gaze again. In the language of beasts he was saying that he meant no harm, no challenge. She was unconvinced, and kept her own gaze on her hand, around the spear.
He had put a tray on the grass in front of him and knelt before it. The tray held a tin kettle with steam coming out of the spout. A pair of little china tea cups, and how on earth had such delicate things reached the island intact? A clay pot of honey, which smelled of the island’s own wildflowers.
“Fancy a cup of tea?” he called to her and drew a strainer out of the kettle. “It’s not precisely tea, mind you. But there are patches of mint and lavender growing over on the east side of the island. It can be very soothing, if you’d like to try?”
She sat hard on the grass outside her cave. Of all the laughable, unbearable things Brandon could have offered . . . The funny thing was, her mouth watered. She did want tea. Wanted nothing more than to sit with a hot steaming cup in her hands, breathing in the smell of it. She didn’t dare.
They both looked down the hill when a new scent came to them. Sergeant Cox, approaching, carrying his own offering. She squinted, not sure she could trust her eyes. But her nose told her: he carried a bundle of scruffy-looking wildflowers.
“What’re you doing here?” Cox said in greeting and stopped on the hill some dozen paces from Brandon.
“Exactly what it looks like. Don’t be cross just because I thought of it first. And what did you bring?” Cox held out the bouquet, and Brandon snorted. “Very traditional. Well done.”
Except that he let the flowers fall away, and hidden within the bundle was a dagger. The kind of thing a soldier might use to cut a rope or slice a throat on the battle field. He walked a little ways up the hill, set it on the grass, and retreated.
“I see that you’ve been putting together weapons. Or trying to, rather. This one’s not got any silver in it, but it’ll do some damage. If you think it’ll help.”
Brandon scowled as if he wished he’d thought of it himself. Cox gave him a smug smile and hooked both thumbs in his belt.
It was a valuable gift. Couldn’t be that many knives or blades of any sort on the island. He was right, it might not kill, but she could do damage. She could defend herself a little better. She didn’t dare take it. She didn’t dare choose.
“Oh, I almost forgot. The second half of my gift,” Brandon said then, and reached behind him to a small hooded lantern with a candle burning inside. He put it on the grass next to Cox’s knife.
Fire. He offered her fire. Warmth, cooked food. And hot tea. She’d only been a few days in the wet and cold, and what they both offered seemed like heaven. Seemed worth whatever price. Her shoulders slumped. She scrubbed her hands across her eyes because she didn’t dare let them see her cry. Never mind that they would know, that they would smell the tears on her.
“You’re trying to buy me. Both of you,” she called to them.
“Let’s say bribe, rather,” Brandon said, with a wry wink. “So? What say you?”
She couldn’t. She simply couldn’t. Silently, not sure of her voice, she shook her head and looked at the damp, oppressive sky.
They watched her silently. They didn’t cajole, they didn’t mock her. They simply waited, their gifts sitting in the grass.
“Will you take a cup, Cox?” the gentleman asked his rival.
“That’s very upstanding of you, Brandon. I think I will.”
So Brandon poured out two cups of a pungent, acrid liquid that was in fact not very much like tea, and they sipped companionably.
She called to them, “How is it you two are even here and not tearing each other’s throats out?”
Brandon chuckled. “Turns out there’s nothing on this island worth fighting over. Might as well get along, eh?”
“Except . . . now there’s you.” Cox grinned.
“I won’t let you fight over me. I will not be a prize.”
“She’s a regular Anne Bonny,” Brandon said to Cox. “A Boudica.”
“Fierce,” Cox agreed. “Can see why the Lord exiled her.”
“It’s Edgerton himself dumped me out of the boat. You know ’im?”
They both did. Their lips curled, their bodies braced. The fur of their other selves would have been standing on end.
Cox said, “Edgerton is a sniveling, toadying, cowardly piece of shit. I’m sorry he ever laid a hand on you.” He settled with a growl burring the back of his throat.
“Just so,” Brandon added softly.
She glared. “The Lord and Edgerton and the rest are all right bastards. Why’d they exile any of us? We’re none of us a threat. They could have just killed us, executed us for standing up to them. Heads lopped off, no coming back from that. But no, they dump us here. Why? Why go through the trouble? I still don’t understand.”
Cox stared into the murky water in his cup. “They keep us here in case they need us. An army of chaos. We are here to cultivate our wildness, so that they might come back, capture us, cage us, and let us loose upon the world when they have need of beasts. If Napoleon makes for England, they will set send us into his camp at night. Can’t say I wouldn’t enjoy it myself. But. They could have just asked.” He spat the last word.
“So you see,” Brandon said. “We resist by being civilized. As much as we can, with no bloody tea to be found.” He shrugged and finished off the rest of his cup. Pursed his face and hissed at the taste of it. “Ah well.”
“Then can’t you be civilized and leave me alone?” she pleaded.
“Why would you even want to be alone? It isn’t natural,” Brandon said with an offended, gentlemanly sniff.
“There are twenty-three wolf men on this island,” Cox said. “Our command of the others is vague at best. Some of them won’t ask. In the end, we’re all beasts, and the full moon is coming. Let one of us look after you.”
They would save her from damage, and keep her for their own use.
“Let me look after you,” Brandon said pointedly.
“You’re a fop,” Cox spat. “You hardly know which way you’re pointed.”
The gentleman laughed. “We settled this once before, we can do it again. It won’t come to a draw next time, I’ll warrant—”
“That’s right, it won’t—”
“Stop it!” she shouted. “I’ll look after myself!”
The two wolves stepped a pace or two apart and had the grace to look abashed.
Brandon gave a quick nod. “My dear, at least tell us your name.”
Right now, her name felt like a weapon they would use against her. To civilize her. “No,” she said, and the growl came through. Her wolf had fought before, she would do again.
“We could just carry her off,” Cox said to Brandon.
“The entire point of the exercise was to have the lady’s cooperation.” The gentleman called back up the hill. “What if we shared you? A month with me, the next with Cox—”
Then she did scream, hands tangled in her hair, and the sound had the edges of a wolf’s howl to it. She doubled over as the beast cried out. Wolf would break free and tear them all to pieces, she could do it—
“Girl . . .” Cox said warningly.
“Let’s be off, shall we?” Brandon said, brushing grass off his neat trousers. “We’ll leave you to it.”
The pair of them walked away while she crouched, gasping, struggling to keep hold of herself. At last, after a minute or so of breathing as slow as she could, the beast stilled and she was able to look out with human eyes and take stock.
The men left the knife and candle on the hill for her.
• • • •
Since taking them would feel like putting herself in their debt, she didn’t. The knife stayed unclaimed and the candle burned out.
Five more days passed. She could feel the full moon before it rose, sense the coming light against her eyes, the tug against her gut. The creature within began scratching, pain on the inside of her ribs as if they formed a cage it could break free of. Nothing could stop what was about to happen to her. This was the true punishment. The Lord of Wolves, all the wolf packs, offered protection. That was the pact so many of them made. Submit and be safe. Know your place and keep to it, and those in power will shelter you. She had thrown it all away and hadn’t regretted it a whit until this moment.
She wondered which of the wolves on this island would find her first, then rape and kill her.
Refusing the tears that threatened, she carefully undressed, folding and setting aside skirt, petticoat, bodice, shift. She couldn’t afford to rip them during her transformation; she had no others. That she would return to wear these clothes again was an article of faith. She must believe it would be so. She was strong, her beast was stronger. Together they would survive. They’d made it this far.
She marked her territory, small as it was, again and again and again.
She and her beast had had nights on the moor that were glorious. Miles of space, no one to answer to, she could run and run and run, as free as she’d ever been, wind in her fur, dew on her tongue. Her first months as the beast were difficult, as her skin ripped apart and her bones broke and reknitted and her own mind felt otherworldly. But the reward had been those nights of freedom.
It hadn’t lasted. The Lord of Wolves, his dukes and henchmen had wanted her. England wasn’t big enough for them all to run free, they told her. She must submit to one of them, any of them. Instead she fought, and fought, and fought. And now here was where fighting had got her.
The moon rose, her human body stretched and broke, and her long, despairing howls joined the others on the Island of Beasts, their song reminding her that the other wolves were here, they knew where she was, they could find her. She ought to be silent, she ought to hide—
But her beast was furious and so screamed out, Come find me if you dare, I am strong, I am monstrous!
• • • •
A smuggler of whisky rowed his boat past the island that night, and heard such a cacophony of wailing and moaning that he knew the stories that the ghosts of every sailor and fisherman ever lost at sea had washed up on that desolate rock must be true. He dug into his cargo and threw a bottle of his best into the waves as an offering and didn’t stop praying until the shadow of the island was out of sight, and its terrible howling gone quiet.
• • • •
She awoke naked in her den, tangled in her skirt, and safe. She must have snuggled into the fabric and used it as a bed. It smelled like home. The whole place did, which was why her wolf had come back here. She’d been able to come back here.
She never remembered much from the nights of running as a wolf. Images and feelings. The taste of blood on her tongue—so she’d been able to hunt. Her full belly told her she’d eaten. Her wolf had slept contented. Looking herself over, again and again, disbelieving—she hadn’t been damaged. No one had touched her.
After putting on her shift and skirt—she couldn’t be bothered to lace up her bodice or even put back her hair—she walked on the beach. Closed her eyes and breathed in the sea air. Smiled for the first time in weeks. She had survived. Somehow, she was still standing, and it felt glorious.
A glint in the surf caught her eye. A glass bottle shoved up on the sand, sliding back on the wave, then rolling up again. Splashing barefoot in the water, she grabbed it up, studied it. It was a full and sealed bottle of whisky. A blessing on her morning. She might not have much, but oh, this was a thing to bargain with.
She hiked back to her den to hide it away until she decided what to do with it. Found Brandon and Cox there at the same place, halfway up the hill. Waiting for her.
They looked like wolf men after the night of a full moon always looked, with shadowed eyes and unkempt beards. Even Brandon hadn’t shaved in a couple of days and had scruff on his cheeks. His waistcoat was unbuttoned, his collar open. Cox squinted in the sun, frowning in her direction, if not directly at her, and crossed his arms.
However much she wanted to turn and run, fast as her two legs could carry her—or better, let her wolf loose, she could run so much faster on four legs—she stood her ground. They didn’t seem angry. Their gazes turned away. Seemingly bored, Brandon scuffed his shoe in the grass. Cox went barefoot.
Brandon finally smiled. “Good morning, there. Did you have a good run? Can’t say you look particularly well rested, but then who can, after such a night?”
She looked frightful, her hair in a tangle down her back, her shift and skirt wrinkled and stained after so many days. And found she didn’t care. This was the Island of Beasts. Propriety was a secondary consideration. They regarded her exactly the same as they had before. She was a wolf woman after the night of a full moon, and that was fine.
“I had a . . . a decent night, I think. No better or worse than any other such night I suppose.”
“That’s a way of putting it,” the soldier said. “No better or worse is a thing to hope for, sometimes. You hunted?”
“Yes. Rabbit, I think.”
“We got a sheep,” Brandon said smugly. “Was our turn for sheep, this month. They’ll get one next month.” He nodded to the other fellow.
“You take turns?” she said.
“Well, Christmastime we both get sheep. We have to be careful, not to completely depopulate the island. But you got a rabbit. That’s good.”
“Yes.” She moved closer. She wanted a better look at them. Wanted to know what had happened last night, how she’d managed to have the most peaceful full-moon night she’d had in months, here on the Island of Beasts.
“You have a question,” Cox stated, matter-of-fact. Brandon studied his fingernails, picking out a bit of dirt from one.
“You . . . you left me alone,” she said. “I was prepared to fight, to defend myself. But none of the wolves came for me.”
Brandon finished picking his nails and brushed off his hands. “We convinced our men to leave you be.”
“Or we’d rip their throats out. No argument,” Cox’s smile was mean, toothy. A fierce wolf’s grin.
“But why?” she asked.
“That is our bribe,” Brandon said. “The one gift you might accept. We leave you alone.” He flicked his hand as if releasing a bird to flight.
“And what do you want in return?”
“Your name?” the gentleman said hopefully.
She thought about it a moment and said, “Lucy. I’m Lucy.”
“Glad to make your acquaintance, Miss Lucy,” he said.
“Likewise,” Cox said, more gruffly. “Three packs on the island, then?”
“Agreed,” Brandon said with a brief nod. “But Miss Lucy, I hope you’ll understand if we don’t allot you your own sheep every month.”
She shook her head. “Even my beast couldn’t eat a whole sheep on her own.”
She didn’t know what to think, and felt as if she still swayed with the movement of the boat that brought her here. Her legs gave out and she sat heavily in the grass, cradling the bottle of whisky in her lap. Scrubbed her cheek and swallowed back a tightness in her throat.
“What’s that you have there?” Cox asked, pointing.
She held it up. “Found it on the beach.”
“Good lord is that what I think it is?” Brandon’s gaze narrowed, amazed.
She studied the label, looked back at them. Relished the feeling of safety she had in that moment. The feeling of peace. It wouldn’t last, most like. Couldn’t last, on a windswept island wracked by storms and monsters.
Then again, maybe it would, if an island of monsters could choose civility for itself. Unlike the world that sent her here. She cracked the seal on the bottle and pulled the cork. Brandon might have moaned a little. Even from several paces off his wolf could no doubt smell the heady, oaky aroma rising up. For a moment they simply sat quietly and breathed it in.
“I don’t have cups,” she said.
“Never mind cups. We’re monsters, after all,” Cox said. “Just take a swig and pass it ‘round.”
She did so, turning up the bottle, filling her mouth, letting the liquor burn. Cox reached, and she handed it to him. Taking a chance on him. Trusting.
He drank, let out a laugh. “God that’s good. See, it’s what this island’s needed all along, a woman’s touch. Place looks better already.” He handed the bottle to Brandon.
“Barbaric,” Brandon muttered, but didn’t turn down his chance. He took his drink and savored it, eyes closed.
Then he passed the bottle back to Lucy. That was when she knew she would be safe on the Island of Beasts. She stuffed the cork firmly back in the bottle’s mouth.
Still wincing from the liquor’s sting, Brandon said wistfully, “No offense to present company, but I was meant for better than this.” He gazed off at a distant point, maybe at a parlor fire or some fine park in London. Lucy would get his story someday.
“Aye, we all were,” Cox said. “They will come for us, you know. The Lords of Wolves and Masters of Blood and all the rest. They will come here expecting to find monsters. Tools they can use in their wars.”
The wind blew and smelled of rain. They turned their noses up to it, and Lucy breathed deep the free air.
“We will be ready for them,” she said.
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