Running Free—Excerpt

The pup had disappeared. Again. Honest to God, thought Zach, these moon-run outings were going to be the death of him.

Storm was too young to be out and about on his own, and Zach was too big and, well, too much of a horse to scrabble under the bushes. He had to go around, and while he had a pretty good idea of where Storm was headed—the pup being fond of the clearing in the middle of the small woods—Zach didn’t like not knowing exactly where Storm was at all times.

There were coyotes out here, and a werewolf pup should be running with older wolves, not on his own. Or should be running with his horse guardian—if only the pup’s mind didn’t forget that important fact the moment the moon called to him.

The damn thing shone overhead, lighting Zach’s way. The wet snow was deep tonight. Not a problem for Zach’s long legs, but a struggle for a small body. Storm would be clumsy and slow in the snow, oversized paws almost flapping. A sitting duck if anything were to attack the child.

Zach knew how it would go. Soon Storm would stop and look around and wonder where Zach was, wonder why a large horse hadn’t been able to follow him under brush. Then he’d be sorry he’d run off, sad he’d disobeyed. He’d been distracted by the smell of rabbit or something, but he’d end up by himself, shivering or yipping forlornly at the moon.

Trying to make Storm’s time alone as short as possible, Zach moved faster. Five more minutes max, he hoped. There had to be a better way to run under the moon than this. The hell of it was, though, he couldn’t quite figure it out.

As he cornered the last bend of the path, the entrance to the clearing came within view—and a scent brought him up short. Despite his urgent desire to find Storm, Zach plowed to a stop and breathed in hard to identify the smell of danger—of wolf. Wolf, adult and male. All Zach’s senses went on high alert. He wasn’t able to discern whether the scent meant wolf or werewolf, and he didn’t care. He didn’t trust either creature. He didn’t trust wolves, period.

He took off again, muscles bunching under him as he powered forward. It wasn’t far, and he just prayed Storm was in his usual place. Zach rounded the last copse and picked up further speed. Before him stood the low-lying bushes. He knew what lay beyond so he launched himself up and over, his hooves skimming the top layer of brush before he landed within the small meadow.

He kept moving, determined to reach his charge. There in the middle of the clearing stood Storm, ears back, body trembling, timid and afraid. As he should be. For out of the bush, on Zach’s side of the clearing, had emerged a large gray wolf like the nightmare he was, prowling forward. It wasn’t the first time Storm had been stalked. Even if previously the werewolf had been in human form. And it wasn’t the first time Zach had faced down a wolf, he knew that much.

A ripple of fear seemed to flow through the pup, but then he turned away from the danger and looked to Zach, no doubt having heard his hoofbeats. Storm’s entire body radiated relief, and he stood taller before he began his run towards Zach, who in turn was galloping full speed towards him.

Galvanized by the pup’s fleeing, the gray wolf started his chase in earnest, aiming to intercept Storm before he reached Zach. The wolf could move, but he wasn’t going to make it, not if Zach had any say about it.

He screamed his horse’s scream—loud, angry, aggressive—a simultaneously deep and high-pitched noise. It made other creatures cringe. The wolf paused while Storm barreled forward, giving the wolf wide berth.

Storm didn’t hesitate, he trusted Zach to protect him, and twisted through Zach’s legs and beyond. Once Storm was on the other side, Zach focused on the predator who was not backing away, not at all. The fool intended to take Zach out. Instead of slowing, the gray wolf sped up and launched itself at him, aiming for Zach’s throat. Zach rose on his hind legs easily, and the wolf met hooves, not flesh. Zach attempted to bring it down, trample it to death, but at the last moment the wolf twisted in midair and escaped. It rolled out of range, regained its feet, shook wet snow off its body and snarled, showing teeth.

As if this could intimidate him. Zach charged, screaming his rage. No one touched what was his to protect; he was making that clear. The wolf scrambled to retreat, more aware now of the danger Zach posed and staying out of Zach’s reach. It thought it was clever, outsmarting a dumb horse by outmaneuvering him—reaching Storm by going wide. However, Zach had not lost sight of his charge.

The pup aimed for his legs again. As the gray wolf closed in, Zach turned from Storm, and the wolf believed it was about to achieve its goal. It forgot about just how hard a horse can kick.

Storm ran, he was a smart pup, and took himself out of the way. The wolf moved in; Zach’s hind leg snapped out. In one well-aimed, potent blow, his hoof connected full-on with the wolf’s head.

The noise resounded in the field, sharp and lethal—and skull-breaking. The wolf’s neck whipped to the side at a too-acute angle. Its body flew through the air to land on the snow and lie in sudden stillness. For a while Zach could do nothing but stare at the gray fur in the snow and make sure the wolf didn’t rise again, make sure that was blood seeping out from the wolf’s head and soaking the snow red.

Storm whimpered, and Zach’s attention was wrenched back to the pup who crouched in the snow, ears back, clearly upset. But the child was unharmed. Zach’s heart was ready to burst out of his chest it was beating so hard. His sides worked strenuously, like bellows, not quite able to contain his emotions. He’d had the fright of his life. As he leaned down to inspect and nuzzle a whimpering, supplicating Storm, he couldn’t detect any physical damage done to the pup.

If that fucking wolf had got hold of Storm, he might have ripped the pup in half in one go. But Storm squirmed beneath him, fully alive, licking Zach’s muzzle feverishly. With good reason. Storm knew he had gone against Zach’s full-moon rules. He had put himself in danger.

With that thought, Zach raised his head to gaze again at the unmoving body that lay ten feet from them, to check one last time it hadn’t risen from the dead. Because shifters healed from extraordinary wounds, even if that kind of brain damage was tough to recover from.

It wasn’t the first time Zach had killed a wolf, and it might not be the last. His previous satisfaction at slaying these creatures was muted by the bundle of life at his feet.

Storm was a werewolf, a pup, and for all intents and purposes, Zach was his guardian, his father figure. He had to hope there was more to adult werewolf life than violence and evil, predatory behavior. Storm’s sunny personality, which contradicted his name, gave Zach real hope that was the case.

His charge whined, and Zach looked down to see that small body slump to the ground, exhausted after his near-death experience. He nudged the pup, nickered once and gave a brief stamp. His cue. He wanted the boy to shift back to human with what energy he had left. It was the only way to carry him home.

This time Storm obeyed him. While Zach watched over him and tried to ignore the stench of dead wolf, Storm lay still and silent, focused on the transformation to come. Yes, the boy had to experience the pain of shifting. It wasn’t an easy process, though the flexibility of the young helped. Eventually Storm blurred before Zach’s eyes, his skin and bone moving and melding in slow motion until—transformed—a young, pale child lay on the snow on his stomach, as if sleeping. Only the slight movement in his small chest indicated he was alive.

Zach breathed warm air on him until Storm woke from his stupor and sat up to knuckle his eyes. When Zach prodded him, Storm grabbed hold of his mane to pull up to standing.

“I want to go home.” The thin voice trembled. Much had happened in one short night.

Zach blew out in agreement. The small body weighed too little to bother Zach as he clambered up and over his shoulder, using his long mane to climb. Once Storm was seated and had draped his body over Zach’s neck for warmth, Zach took up a slow canter and headed towards the very outer suburbs.

It took about twenty minutes to make it home, because Zach feared Storm might fall asleep on his back and tumble off. It had happened twice before. But the exhausted boy had enough adrenaline coursing through him from tonight’s encounter and enough heat from the recent shift that he stayed alert till they arrived at the backyard of their house.

At that Storm slid to the ground, threw up his short arms in a hug around Zach’s neck—attempted hug since those arms didn’t reach very far—then curled up in a porch chair with a sleeping bag to doze as he awaited Zach’s own shift. The boy didn’t like to go inside without Zach. Thank God it was a low of minus five degrees tonight instead of minus twenty-five. Warm for January.

Zach went to the shadow of the trees, even if his neighbors weren’t close enough to see anything, and he pulled his horse within.

That’s how he perceived it. He’d once discussed the process of shifting with Storm, who found such a description baffling. The boy saw a shift as throwing himself into the other form.

It didn’t matter how he thought of it, as long as he succeeded. Tonight, Zach’s horse ceded easily. It hadn’t always been that way; there’d been years his horse battled for supremacy. But ever since Storm had marched into Zach’s life and grabbed such a tight hold on his heart, much had changed. Both his forms were attached to the pup, and his horse wanted his human to go look after Storm, take him inside out of the cold and put him to bed.

Zach’s horse retreated inwards, the ground embraced him, and he woke to damp snow and an ache in his leg where he’d kicked out so hard. So lethally.

Later he’d think on the fact he’d taken a life. Now? He pushed himself up off the cold ground and stalked over to the chair to lift Storm into his arms. While he would have liked to just tuck the boy into bed, food was an absolute necessity. He forced the boy to down some calories in the form of his favorite cereal—the best bet at this hour. Then, pajamas donned and safe within his warm blankets, Storm fell into a deep, restful sleep.

Zach made himself to do the same thing, ingest calories, though he barely tasted them. He still wasn’t ready to think about what had transpired this night and what it meant for the future and Storm’s safety. First he’d sleep, then he’d face the questions he had to ask himself tomorrow—or next week.

He was a horse. He didn’t always have to think. Sometimes he just was.

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