Red Wolf was the strongest of the Nine Great Chiefdoms of the lycan clans, which had long suffered under the yoke of the blood-drinking sa'necari necromancers. Thirty years ago, the realm of the sa'necari, Waejontor, was conquered by the amazon nation, Shaurone. The Sharani brought the lycan people three decades of peace and freedom that is now threatened by the sudden rise to power of a young Waejontori Queen.
Clan Redhand, the family that rules Red Wolf, is plunged into danger when a sa'necari bounty hunter and mercenary named Malthus Estrobian arrives in their valley, posing as a human refugee from the battles beyond their borders. Unknown to them, Malthus is the "Butchering Serpent," the genocidal mastermind behind the hidden laboratories where hundreds of lycans perished in vicious experiments. He infilitrates Red Wolf with two goals in mind: find out what happened to his brother, Troyes, who disappeared in the valley several years ago; and destroy the Redhand family in order to subjugate Red Wolf for his queen.
The only person standing between Malthus and his objectives is a young guardsman with a concealed heritage: Kynyr Maguire. Trained by the greatest armsmaster the lycans have ever known, and educated well beyond the norm for his kind, Kynyr must find a way to defeat the dark arts of the Butchering Serpent or see his people destroyed, including the woman he loves.
The Great Hall of the Redhand Manorhouse was the largest room in the building. Two rows of stone support columns ran along the south and north sides of the room. Clusters of comfortable chairs, sofas, and low tables in dark-stained wood broke the Great Hall into false alcoves. The sections of a large trestle table stood stacked along the south wall to be assembled for rare formal dinners. At the east end stood the deep hearth and to the left of the hearth were three looms, a spinning wheel, and several baskets of wool and yarn.
Claw sat in his big over-stuffed chair. Like most of the lycan clans, he maintained an informal household, rather than the elaborate courts of the sa'necari and the humans of Shaurone to the south and Creeya to the Northeast. On the side table sat his pipe rack with a jar of tobacco in the center and four pipes in cradles around it. He filled his pipe, struck a lucifer and lit the herb. Claw took several puffs, then slid his gaze across the four guardsmyn seated around him: stout Belgair, the Captain of Claw's Household Guards for the past two decades, reputed to be a bully although Claw had yet to witness it himself; blond Kynyr Maguire, the youngest of the guardsmyn at twenty and so handsome that some said it was downright sinful; tow-headed Finn MacIver, who had missed being youngest by two months; and Ramsey Fitzgerald with hair as red as a whore's petticoats and a temperament so mellow and staid that it proved you could not judge a mon's nature by the color of his hair.
A slender nibari slave entered with a tray and handed out tankards of mead. "Will be all, Master Claw?"
His gaze rested longest on a handsome young male named Kynyr Maguire. Kynyr looked so much like Claw's long dead son, Tarrant, that it often caused a poignant flutter in the otherwise crusty, obdurate old chieftain. "I hear they've a new one at the Camp."
Kynyr glanced at the Captain of the Guard, Belgair, before answering. He drew a glare followed by a shrug from Belgair. "A male with two little girls."
"I don't like it. Males don't stop here."
The Sanctuary Refugee Camp existed only because Claw permitted it, and he liked to keep a close watch on it.
"They do if they've children along." Belgair pointed out, and took a long draw from his tankard.
"Yaw. And how many times has that happened in the last four years? They stay just long enough to dump the cubs and run."
Kynyr shook his head at Claw, drawing another glare from Belgair. "Nikko says this one is insisting he's here for the long haul… that he won't desert his nieces."
"Only the girls. He's human."
"Or so he says. Go ask around, Kynyr. Ramsey, you and Finn go with him."
Kynyr finished his mead and they left.
Belgair out-stayed the others, leaning in toward Claw. "Just because he's got a pretty face…"
"Shut up, Belgair." Belgair had never known Claw's twin sons, Logan and Tarrant. They had died ten years before Belgair's birth. Belgair had no idea what they looked like because Claw had ordered all their portraits removed from the walls of the manor after their deaths: looking at them made his wife Aisha cry. Let Belgair think what he would; Claw had no intention of opening himself up for accusations of sentimentality by telling Belgair what it was that drew him to Kynyr.
"I wouldn't put so much trust in Kynyr… if I were you."
"I'll be the judge, Belgair. You've made your points, now get out."
Belgair frowned and removed himself.
Claw sat a long time alone, smoking and drinking, ringing the bell for Kissie repeatedly to refill his tankard. He kept hoping that Kynyr would draw the eye of his daughter Merissa, but she seemed determined never to fall in love again; and like the rest of the Redhand family, stubbornness was proving a curse. So far all that Claw had was the bastard child Merissa had borne her sa'necari lover — a child that could not inherit the realm because he had not been born lycan. If Merissa did not find a husband in the next year, Claw intended to exercise his rights and arrange a marriage for her whether she wished it or not.
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