"Lio. Wake up, Lio."
I felt the hand on my shoulder and jerked into awareness.
The sun was streaming through the window, a scent of jasmine in the air, fresh and clean. I sat up slowly, but the body ache, the exhaustion, the nausea and giddiness, were all gone. The suppressant had finally worn off.
I looked over at Iola who was perched on my bed, smiling. I returned her smile and stretched, feeling the strength in my muscles again. Gods, it felt good to be back to normal again.
"Feeling better I take it?" Iola asked as she held out a mug of hot tea. I nodded as I took it from her and took a long gulp.
I winced and touched my throat, and suddenly it all came flooding back, the whole incident with the Raging Bull.
That really happened then.
"I'm glad. You had me worried there." Iola said. "You were out for a long time."
"Only a few hours longer than usual." I said, taking another long drink of the tea. By the strength of the sunlight, it looked to be nearing mid-day, which meant I'd been asleep for about 7 hours after my early morning adventures.
"Lio, you've slept for a whole day." Iola said, amused.
I stared at her and then shook my head.
"We met last night, when I returned."
"That was the night before last, Lio." Iola smiled as I stared again. "You missed all three Meals yesterday."
"My Lord, my apologies," I began, as I threw back the sheets and swung my legs to the floor. "I'm so sorry--" But Iola waved off my apology as she rose, heading to the small seating area where I could see fruit, porridge and juice waiting.
"You're allowed to be sick once in a while, you know." She sat in one of the chairs, reaching for an apple and gesturing for me to join her. "And besides, it made the contingent very appreciative of what you do. With you unavailable, they were all scrambling to manage their arrangements. They've all been quite fervently wishing for your good health and speedy recovery." She winked at me as she began peeling and cutting the apple.
"I'm so sorry, my Lord." I repeated, sitting down.
"You needed it, Lio." She said, glancing up briefly, "You looked on the verge of collapse when we met. You look yourself now. Back to full strength?"
I nodded, leaning back in my chair. I was certain I was at full strength. The weakness I'd felt was gone, I felt refreshed, alive, full of energy.
"Good. I thought we'd have Afternoon Meal in your chambers together, before I head to the meeting. That way I can catch you up on what you've missed." She speared a piece of apple and put it in her mouth.
"More drama?" I asked, pouring myself a glass of juice. She grinned at me.
"We're Clan. Of-course there's drama."
It didn't take long for her to bring me upto speed. I hadn't missed anything of significance, Clans were still butting heads and Clans were still mediating. Once Iola had headed off for her afternoon meetings, I took a refreshing shower, feeling even more invigorated and ready to handle all the logistics that were pending.
I was drying myself off when I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the mirror and frowned. I moved forward for a better look.
If I'd had any doubts about that random incident I'd been a part of, the bruises around my neck, dark on my skin and unmistakeably handprints, were proof enough.
I reached for my robe, shrugging it on and tying it, covering my exposed neck with a carefully tied scarf. It looked a little odd, but it did the trick and I could always say I was still feeling unwell. Better that than trying to explain why I had handprints on my neck.
Now that I was conscious and coherent again, I thought about what had happened.
It felt surreal, random, and if it hadn't been for the bruises, I'd have written it off as a figment of my fevered imagination, a delusion from the suppressant wearing off, it had happened so fast, coming out of nowhere.
I reviewed my own responses clinically. I'd diverted the male's attention from the female, kept it on me, I hadn't struck a single blow and I'd extricated myself at the right time, before the attention on me had sharpened, before they'd had the chance to notice my scent wasn't quite right and before they could ask too much about who I was.
Of-course, the most prudent way to have avoided attention would have been to have not gotten involved in the first place.
But that hadn't been an option.
Not from the moment I scented her blood.
Not after my history.
I adjusted the scarf, making sure the bruises were completely covered, and headed out the door. There was work to be done.
It was dark when I had finally caught up with all my tasks. It had been a busy, satisfying day and I didn't feel the tiredness that had been dogging me for the past week or so. I closed the door to my chambers and locked it, untying my robe and letting it hang loose as I poured myself a mug of water and then walked onto the balcony.
I sipped my water, looking out over the garden and the forest at its boundary, the faint moonlight turning it into all shadows and blue light.
I hadn't been to the forest to see him in two days.
I'd been so busy all day and I'd finished up later than usual, so I hadn't had time to think of anything until now.
Damn, damn, damn.
I knew I had good reason to be absent - and he'd seen how unwell I'd been the last time we met. Still, to my surprise, I realised the slight tightening in my gut was nerves, an uncomfortable and unfamiliar feeling.
Because I had an inkling of how he might have reacted. Especially after the last conversation we'd had.
Yes, fair enough, I had good reasons: I'd been unconscious yesterday and rushed off my feet today. I just had to hope he would see it - and see that it wasn't deliberate and I hadn't been trying to avoid him.
There was no way I wanted to trigger the hunter I could sense lurking within him.
What are you doing, Lio? Since when were you this worried about what someone thought?
I shook my head, smiling to myself wryly.
A soft rustle broke my reverie and I turned my head sharply towards the source of the sound. It had come from the treeline towards my left. I stilled, my senses alert, listening intently, my eyes scanning the shadows.
Then I saw it.
The faint shadow of a creature, just within the treeline, standing so still that if I hadn't been looking, I would have missed it. I looked right at it, unsure what sort of wildling it was, when it decided to show me by taking one step out of the shadows.
I caught my breath.
A white wolf.
Staring up at me.
It was an adult, that much I knew, of a good size, strongly built. Its coat was the purest white I'd ever seen, thick and luxurious looking. I could see its eyes glowing bright, it looked almost other-worldly, a lone figure of light amid the shadows and darkness.
I don't know how long we stood there, staring at each other. I wasn't aware of anything except my heart thudding loudly, that solemn, beautiful creature below, the strangest connection flowing between us, the Clan in me rising in answer to its wildness.
And then there was a faint howl from the depths of the forest and it was gone.
I turned as I heard my name called, having just closed the door to my chambers after breakfast, to see a senior Council member hurrying towards me.
"My Lord Iola is having a private meeting with the Leaders of all the Clans and she needs these." He thrust a sheaf of parchment at me. "Urgently. I would go myself, but I'm late to another meeting and I can't trust these to anyone else." He looked at me pleadingly.
"I will see to it, my Lord." I said reassuringly, inclining my head. "Where is my Lord Iola's meeting?"
"The Solarium, their Guard will direct you. Thank you, Lio." He called over his shoulder, already half way down the corridor, his robes billowing behind him.
I headed towards the main holding building, ordering the papers he'd just given me so that they looked less haphazard and trying to avoid bumping into the various Clanfolk milling around, deep in discussion.
"The Solarium?" I asked the blonde giant of a Guard who manned the main entrance and whom I'd gotten to know rather well during my time here.
"I'll show him, Vanor."
I glanced behind him to see a familiar face.
"Lio of Enarda." He inclined his head in greeting, smiling.
"Alen of Vargas." I inclined my head back.
"Come." He beckoned me to follow him, nodding at the Guard. "I take it those are for your Leader?" He gestured at the parchments I was holding. I nodded. "This way." He lead me down a corridor, open on both sides, with small gardens and the familiar fountains, a trellis of intricate flowers and vines above us. I could see the Solarium ahead, there was a heavy Guard presence outside it, a mix of the Vargan Guard and Guard from the other Clans, all muscular and Warrior-like in appearance. "The meeting hasn't yet started. You're just in time." He nodded at one Guard, who stepped aside, allowing me into the chamber.
The difference in atmosphere was immediately apparent. The sense of power and authority was evident in the way every person carried themselves, the robes they wore, the conversations were muted murmurs and much more somber.
In other circumstances, I'd have taken my time and watched the gathered Leaders, observed their interactions and the dynamics, but this was not the time. I didn't linger or waste time glancing around, I inhaled deeply to find Iola's scent.
And staggered, nearly losing my footing.
A heady, delicious scent, fresh and strong, hit me hard. It was unlike anything I'd ever scented before, intoxicating, wild like the forests, exhilarating, an adrenalin rush that coursed through me hard and fast. For a moment, I couldn't breathe, couldn't think, my chest tight, hands shaking, my skin alive and tingling.
"Lio? Are you alright?"
I heard Iola's voice dimly, as if from a great distance, but it snapped me back. With effort, I turned towards her.
"My Lord, these are for you." I said, handing over the parchments and taking a deep breath. My fists clenched as I took in a second waft of that scent. Gods, where was it coming from? It smelled divine.
"Are you alright?" She repeated as she accepted the papers, looking concerned. I nodded.
"Ran too fast." I said briefly, glancing around me, searching the chamber for the source of that scent.
"You'd better go, the meeting is starting." She said, as the other Leaders began heading for their seats. I inclined my head, leaving the room swiftly through the same door as I'd come, just as I heard the Leaders murmur a formal greeting.
Once outside, I had to shake my head a few times to clear it.
What was that? I'd never smelled anything like it. Some sort of plant or flower? It hadn't been in the room - perhaps it was outside, growing in one of the small gardens nearby. I inhaled. It was faint, but I could scent it near. Slowly I stepped towards one of the gardens.
I turned sharply as Alen came up behind me.
"Yes, thank you." I inclined my head.
"Where are you heading? Time for a quick goblet of fruit wine?" He asked, a friendly smile on his face. "Now that you've mastered the art of drinking it." He winked, beckoning me as he went down the corridor.
"Fruit wine sounds good." I said, following him, glancing back at the Solarium, a tad reluctant to leave my little mystery unsolved. My skin was still tingling. Oh well. I could always ask my Healer friend about it when I got back home.
"In here." Alen gestured for me to precede him into what looked like a quiet receiving chamber, simple furniture and a small alcove near a window where a small table and comfortable chairs were set up, bearing a silver jug and some goblets. He gestured for me to take a seat, pouring from the jug into two of the goblets the now familiar Vargan fruit wine. Handing me one goblet, he took the other and sat opposite me.
"To interClan friendships." He raised the glass, grinning at me. I had to smile as I raised my own glass to my lips.
"Hey, our Clan Leader is very big on encouraging interClan friendships." He said, catching my smile. "He believes it to be the true essence of Clan."
"Yes, I know." I said, without thinking and then swiftly corrected, "I mean, I agree." You're slipping, Lio. You nearly gave things away there.
"Then you have been doing your part to improve interClan relationships, I presume?" He gave me an innocent look from over the rim of his goblet, his eyes dancing with mischief. I laughed out loud, amused.
"I have." I agreed, unable to stop the flashes of my couplings with my lover - his Clan Leader - that came to mind.
"Ahh, I see." He said softly, his eyes knowing. I didn't reply, instead taking a long sip from my goblet. He sighed. "Well, it was inevitable."
"Looking like that? I'm sure you've had every Vargan in your radius panting." He grinned. "It is a Vargan you're..er...warming sheets with, isn't it?" I chose not to respond to the latter comment, but instead raised an eyebrow.
"You overestimate my appeal."
He sat back and let his eyes travel up and down my form in frank appraisal.
"I don't think I overestimate anything, mysterious, dark stranger from another Clan." He said, his grin growing wider as I chuckled at his openness.
"You Vargans. Direct and silver-tongued." I shook my head again, still smiling.
"You know us well, OutClan brother." He got up to refill his goblet and indicated for me to hold mine out to top it up. Once he had settled back into his seat, he spoke again. "So apart from the hopefully pleasant company and interClan engagement, how are you finding your first taste of Vargas?"
"Fascinating." I said, truthfully. "Very different from my own Clan."
"I've never been to Enarda. You're, what, three weeks away?"
"Five." I responded, smiling slightly as his eyes widened slightly, "Don't let that put you off from visiting."
"Why should I travel that far? What does Enarda have to offer me?" He leaned forward, eyes glinting, tone flirtatious.
"Clanfolk who are better looking than I am, for a start."
He laughed and was about to reply when there was the sound of footsteps in the corridor outside and two Guard burst in, just as my companion rose to his feet.
"My Lord Alen. The Clan Leader has summoned you." One of the Guard said, his tone urgent.
"I am sorry." Alen turned to me, frowning, as I stood and put my goblet down.
"No, please." I indicated the Guard. "Duty calls."
He nodded, putting his right hand on his left chest in formal greeting before hurrying out of the room, the Guard in tow.
I followed them to the door, watching as they strode down the corridor, back in the direction of the Solarium. The Clan Leader has summoned you. I smiled wryly to myself. It was still hard to reconcile.
I turned, heading back towards the buildings where the various visiting Clans were housed, to get on with my tasks for the day.
"Lio." I heard my name being called from behind me and turned back, surprised to see Leader Iola walking towards me, her Guard flanking her.
"That has to be the shortest meeting ever." I remarked as she caught up with me.
"It's been adjourned. Something rather unexpected came up." She said, walking alongside me.
"Something I need to know about?" I looked at her enquiringly.
"Something everyone will know about before long." She said, pushing open the doors to the quarters our Clan was housed in.
I wasn't expecting her next words.
"Clan Leader Xent's matemark appeared. The Clan Leader of Vargas has found his mate."