Shadow and moonlight merged beneath her bare feet, the dappled forest floor blurring as the little girl ran fast, then faster. Her long plaid skirts were hiked around her waist, and bushes and twigs reached for the woolen fabric like bony hands.
They were close behind her now. The nervous whining of dogs, the hiss and flicker of torches, the stench of tobacco and ale and human sweat. The excited voices, rough with anger and a little fear.
Her heart threatened to explode from her chest, her lungs were in flames, but she had to run. She had to get away.
She stumbled yet kept her balance. She ran, knowing now that she couldn’t outdistance the hunters. She was very young—still, there was one thing left, one thing that could help her.
It spoke to her now, whispered from deep inside her.
Within her, something stirred to life and the hair on her scalp prickled, her skin felt hot and tight. A small stream was in her path and she leapt into the air with the last of her strength—
And landed as a young wolf. Faster now, streamlined, she was nature’s perfect running machine, and it was only a matter of minutes before the hunters were left hopelessly behind. Her four paws took her off the narrow game trails and into the deep brush where even the dogs couldn’t follow her—if they dared.
Run, run, run.
She raced easily, faster and faster. Her fear became exhilaration and she ran with an unbridled joy ... until the ground disappeared beneath her feet and she tumbled headfirst into darkness.
Kenzie Macleod awoke with the scream stuck in her throat. She swallowed it back as awareness dawned, and released the fear on a long shaky exhale.
What the hell was that?
Heart racing and skin slick with sweat, she freed her naked body from the tangled sheets and padded to the kitchen. She pulled a water bottle from the fridge and drank it down with hardly a pause, wiping her mouth on her arm.
Her heart rate had returned to normal by the time she stepped into the shower. Her thoughts slowed down as she ran her fingers through her dark hair and reached for a towel.
Fully awake now, stray riverlets of water licking over her skin, she stepped out on the porch of the guest cabin. Still clad in only the towel, she wasn’t a bit cold, despite the breeze—Changeling body temperature ran much higher than human. Kenzie breathed in the scents, took in the sounds and sights of her brothers’ farm. The sky was lightening, silver gray above the tall poplars. Roosters crowed, livestock stirred. Birds sang to the dawn and a flurry of ducks took off from the pond. She liked it here. She had always liked it here. The abundance of life that seemed to be in the very air made her feel alive, and she let it soothe her.
By the time she yanked on her old jeans and a worn plaid flannel shirt, she felt almost normal. Calm, as she plugged in the coffee pot. But the nightmare was still very much on her mind, because it wasn’t a dream....
It was a memory.
For the first half of her Changeling life, she’d had horrendous flashbacks to long-ago Scotland where she’d been born
Mackenzie Adair Macleod
, youngest child of six, to Ronan and Gwynn. The entire Macleod clan had lived on the Isle of Skye for centuries, but the wolfen sept of the family had gradually moved to the thick Caledonian forests on the mainland. Kenzie’s parents had built a homestead in the ancient pine woods. The family grazed a pair of cows in forest glens and gathered medicinal herbs and plants for the market. In their lupine form, they chased big red deer and small swift roe.
The rugged terrain and poor soil precluded serious farming in the area, and therefore human settlement as well. What few humans lived in the forest and along its borders were safe from their neighbors’ wolfen natures—Pack law forbade them to be harmed. Kenzie had spent the first six years of her life with playmates from both worlds, not knowing how quickly things could change.
changed—she knew that now. Kenzie sank into an armchair and drank her coffee from a battered blue enamel cup, remembering. Allowing the memories to play out.
Legend had it that the last wolf had been exterminated in Scotland in 1743. History didn’t mention that the report was premature by over a century in the remote highland wilderness. It also didn’t mention that it was actually a war on Changelings that precipitated the wholesale slaughter of all wolves across the British Isles. The flashpoint had been a series of attacks on humans by rogues,
, and the result was that no wolf of any kind was ever safe again. The war on wolves had been slow to reach Kenzie’s family, and at first the thick pine forests provided refuge for many displaced Changelings.
When she was seven, hunters began to enter the thick woods, keen to collect the rich bounty offered by the crown. The last time Kenzie accompanied her father to the marketplace in Torridon, she had seen tall stacks of wolf pelts. The death of so many creatures was heart-wrenching, but the true horror was revealed by scent—many skins had come not from wolves, but from Changelings in their lupine form. Ronan Macleod had never taken his family to the market again. In fact, they had stayed away from all of the villages after that. But the madness had already infected the forest. Heavy iron traps lay in wait, log falls and pits, ropes and nets. Although few dogs would chase a Changeling—and fewer still would do it more than once—there were some that could scent their nearly imperceptible trail and direct humans to them.
The dream had ended with her fall into darkness, but Kenzie remembered all too clearly everything that happened after that. The breath was knocked out of her as she landed on hard-packed earth.fugacked e Her lupine body struggled awkwardly against something squeezing her tightly around the middle. As her eyes adjusted, she realized she had fallen into a deep pit filled with long sharpened stakes. Her small body had slid between the posts rather than been impaled upon them. The thick peeled wood would not yield to her young sharp teeth or her struggles, holding her in place as easily as iron bars. On the other side of the pit, a big black wolf had not been so lucky and the stench of blood was thick in her nostrils. Terrified, she had nonetheless obeyed the first rule of the hunted—silence. She neither howled nor cried, fearing the human hunters or their dogs would hear her. She screamed in her mind, however, until she was insensible. It had been the next day—an eternity—before her family came and freed her.
She wasn’t entirely free, however. She’d remained a wolf for days, too traumatized to remember how to shift back. And when she finally did, she didn’t speak for months, as if her mind was somehow stuck in instinctive silence because of the constant, overwhelming fear that gripped her. Gradually she recovered, but she’d never been free of the fear. Even when her parents moved the family to the raw wilderness of northern Canada, she hadn’t been free. She had nightmare flashbacks of the chase, the pit. Of the dying wolf. And when those faded, she still felt distrust.
Her brothers and sisters had been able to build a life that accepted humans. Even Culley, whose leg still bore the scars of an iron trap, had managed to overcome that trauma and move on. For her family’s sake, Kenzie pretended that she had too. Like her family, she lived among humans, grew up alongside them, talked and laughed with them. She even liked them—a great deal, if the truth be known. Deep inside, however, there was a part of her that didn’t trust them. That couldn’t.
Perhaps that’s why she ended up studying them.
Kenzie Macleod had twin doctorates in anthropology and archaeology. She turned down many opportunities to teach in favor of digging, and the more isolated the site, the better she liked it. Most people forgave her reclusiveness, chalking it up as natural for an “egghead”—even an attractive one. Professionally, her papers were well-received, her research was respected, her opinion was sought, and her rare lectures never had an empty seat. Her last book wasn’t on anyone’s bestseller list—
Beyond Clovis: Oregon’s Ancient People—
but it had sold a respectable number of copies so far and two colleges were negotiating to include it in their curriculum. Only last week, National Geographic had asked her to participate in a television program they were filming about Ice Age man.
She drained the cup and savored the nutty coffee grounds at the bottom, crunching them between her teeth. Wondered, as she had many times:
What would they think if they knew that the so-called expert on humans wasn’t one herself? What if they suspect what I’m really searching for?
Even her family didn’t know what she sought. No one did, not even her closest, dearest friend, Birkie Peterson, even though Birkie could be trusted to keep a confidence forever. Until Kenzie had found what she was certain existed, discovered irrefutable proof in the form of tangible evidence, she couldn’t bring herself to say it out loud. Couldn’t bear to hear how crazy it would sound, even to herself.
Certainly her hard-earned credibility would vanish overnight if a single word got out about her true goal. Not only media but social networking sites would spread it far and wide like feathers in a hurricane. She’d be labeled a kook, automatic fodder for late night television jokes, and utterly dismissed in scientific circles. Finding her holy grail after that wnd after tould be worse than useless—no one would listen to her when she explained its true significance.
Kenzie rinsed out the coffee cup and headed outside, down the wide wooden steps to the narrow path that wound through poplar and spruce trees toward the corrals. She took her time, enjoying the scents and sounds, grateful as always just to be at the farm for a little while. Her oldest brothers, James and Connor, and their families co-owned the sprawling farm. In fact, they owned most of the forested land around it, all the way to the Peace River. Connor had purchased the huge parcel originally, but as a busy veterinarian and owner of the chronically understaffed North Star Animal Hospital, he didn’t do much farming aside from keeping an ever-growing assortment of rescued animals. Sure, he’d added a few purebred Highland cattle, but even he admitted they were more for nostalgia than any hope of profit. The big shaggy beasts were basically pets. And despite the fact that he was a gifted healer, he was a certifiable
when it came to plants, so the fields lay fallow. The wild-grown pasture suited the cattle, being of an independent breed that could forage for themselves. It suited the herds of local mule deer too and even a few elk began to frequent the edges of the farm. Poplar trees encroached on the fields, as if nature was determined to reclaim the land.
All of that changed when James came on the scene. Connor’s animals remained, of course, but they were joined by top-producing livestock. The unsown land and neglected pastures gave way to certified organic crops. The farm not only prospered but over the years, it had gradually grown until it became the gold standard for sustainable agriculture in this part of the country.
Despite their different talents, James and Connor shared one thing—a deep respect for the earth. While most farmers would cut the timber to add to their cash flow, the mature spruce and poplar forests that flanked the Macleod fields remained standing. Not only were they useful to Changelings as a place to run as wolves, safe from human eyes, but the woods provided refuge for many other creatures as well. And in recent years, James’s wife, Jillian, had built a wildlife sanctuary in the northeast woods where she rehabbed injured creatures from owls and ravens to puma and moose.
Kenzie admired her siblings’ talents with living things, with plants and animals and earth. Strange how her own aptitudes seemed to lie with things long dead....
“You’re up early.” The voice in her ear made her jump before her mind registered that it was James. His stalking abilities were legendary, moving as a ghost, whether on two legs or four.
She punched him in the shoulder as hard as she could. “It’s rude to sneak up on people.”
“It’s careless to let me,” he countered, and ducked before her fist connected a second time. “I was thinking you might need a ride to town to pick up your truck.”
“Thanks, but Zoey’s taking me when she goes to the office.”
“Not today she’s not.” A rare grin spread across his face. “Doc Miller arrived just after midnight. Birkie too.”
“The baby? Omigod, Zoey’s having the baby? When—”
Without warning, the Red Hot Chili Peppers belted out an old classic,
. Kenzie dove into her pocket for her cell phone.
Connor was on the line. “Congratulations, you’re an auntie.”
She squealed, a sound that would have shocked her peers and had James covering his ears in mock pain. “What is it, what is it, what is it?”
“A girl. She has Zoey’s hair, and we’re still arguing over her name.”