Time flowed slowly when you were a tree. Root to tip, the turning of the seasons was the only sense of time you had. That and pain. The sudden pain of an axe biting deep into your wood, or disease gnawing at your roots. Ivy strangling you, taking your nutrients for itself. But that pain, the pain of ivy, was slow to grow, to destroy.
Iva Yamauchi wasn’t familiar with those kinds of pains. Neither axe nor ivy would attack the tree of one of the four ruling dryads of Maggie’s Grove. But there were other pains, other horrors that awaited her outside her tree. Horrors she could no longer deny, nor avoid, for it lived within her and her tree. She’d fought, hard and long, fought alone at first to reject the invader who’d tried to take her mind and soul. She’d almost died at the hands of the Van Helsings, the torture almost too much for her body and mind to bear.
Then, he’d come, his howl of pain almost familiar, because that’s all her world had become. Pain, and darkness. But he took her home, took her to her tree, and she’d joined with it, sharing her pain, halving it and doubling it at the same time. It was how things worked when she was one with her tree. She was its power, and its power was hers.
Unfortunately, she’d brought the invader in with her, and now both she and her tree had been forced to battle it, to try to stop it. But there was no stopping it, no keeping it at bay, so her tree suggested something Iva had at first rejected. They’d argued bitterly, but in the end her tree had been right. So they no longer fought the invader. No, they welcomed it, made it part of them, one with them, forced it to become, to be with them. No longer was it an it, it was them, and the invader was part of them both. The pain was gone now, silent, so she and her tree took the time to recover from their battle until the seasons started to turn.
It was time. Time to find him.
She sensed he was close, within the Throne, her home, the center of the dryads’ power and safe from the ones who’d harmed her. It made coming out much easier. He was waiting for her and out of harm’s way.
He growled, and she realized she could hear again, more than just the whisper of leaves. “Why is Iva’s tree trembling?”
One of her brothers, Greer, answered him. “It’s cold?”
Iva wished she could smile from within her tree. She’d sensed Greer’s grief, then his anger, then his joy. Had he finally gotten the girl he’d pined over? She hoped so. Greer deserved everything he wished for.
Her tree shivered as they fought to separate. It had been so long yet so short a time that they were having some difficulty. But like all things, it was time.
The yew tree gave one final shudder. Iva’s leg appeared, her foot landing daintily on one of the outstretched roots of her tree. Her torso appeared, then one of her arms, and soon Iva was standing tall beside her tree, her eyes closed as she took a deep breath.
Oh, that felt so good, to breathe air and use her lungs. The roughness of the bark beneath her feet, the scent of the warm earth, all of it was nearly overwhelming. The Throne welcomed her, its power shuddering through her, whispering secrets only she could perceive. She opened her eyes to mere slits, the filtered sunlight almost too bright to bear.
Greer grinned as her other siblings, Ash and Mina ran up.
“Iva,” Mina breathed, barely breaking the sudden silence.
Iva smiled. “Mina.” My queen, my sister, my friend. I’ve missed you.
It was when Iva opened her eyes all the way that they gasped. They all appeared horrified by something, but Iva had no idea what it might be.
“What?” Iva’s hands went to her face, touching it gently. “Do I have a leaf in my teeth or something?”
“Your eyes,” Ash whispered. “Fuck, Iva. I’m so sorry.”
“What?” Iva stared at them all in confusion. “I don’t understand.”
Only a tall, arresting man stepped toward her and took her hand. He was huge, at least six foot four, with dark hair and eyes as black as midnight. “Sweetheart?”
“Yes?” Iva peered at Noah, blinking. “Oh. I remember you.” She smiled, remembering the faint sound of his voice as she had fought for her life. “I heard you. You helped keep me sane.” She laughed, overjoyed by what she saw in him, what she remembered him saying to her while she was communing with her tree. “I’m your mate, aren’t I?”
He nodded. “Yes, I’m Noah. You do remember me?”
She studied him, frowning slightly at the visible signs of pain on him. The flesh of his arms was twisted and scarred, as was half his neck. “Who hurt you?”
“A dead person.” The wolf man kissed the back of her hand. “You can thank Greer’s mate, Mollie, for that.”
The forest murmured the details of his wounding and healing to her. A strong psychic fire elemental had burned him when trying to arrest her. His stomach had taken the brunt of the scarring, the skin thick and ropey, darker in some places than others. His face had been spared, as had his legs. Mollie, leader of the fire elementals, had stopped the fire before it had gotten too far. During the week of shifting, he’d stretched himself, keeping the marked skin as flexible as he could. Greer had given him a concoction to help with the process, but it was the alpha’s innate curative ability that had allowed him to come so far so fast. While he still had healing to do, he was able to run his pack with the same amount of grump and love he’d always given them.
Alpha. Yes, it was coming back to her now. His name was Noah, Noah Wulfenbach, and he was hers.
Iva nodded, her gaze never leaving Noah’s face. “Seems I have a lot of catching up to do. No offense, big guy, but I dozed a lot. I don’t think I caught everything you said.”
“What’s the last thing you remember?” Ash stepped toward her and put his hand on her back.
Iva flinched, unwilling to be touched by any but Noah, not yet. The air on her skin pressed down on her, the sun burning above her far too bright. It was too much to add touch to it, but Noah’s did nothing but calm the sensory storm while Ash had added to it.
Noah growled, warning Ash away.
“Fuck off, fur ball.” Ash stroked Iva’s back. She tried not to move away. She didn’t want to hurt Ash, but his touch burned her. “She’s my sister. I’d never harm her.”
“But not by blood, and that’s what’s setting my wolf off.” Noah took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “And I haven’t claimed her yet.”
“Ah.” Ash took a respectful step back. “My apologies, then. I forgot for a moment how strong the pull would be for you right now.”
Greer hummed, checking her over, using his gifts as a Singer to check if she was indeed healed. His expression changed when he found something he hadn’t expected. Something dark, that was now a part of her.
She bowed her head to him once before glancing back at Noah. “Are my eyes green or something? Did those assholes do something to my eyes?”
“No,” Noah replied, obviously surprising Iva. “They’re jet black, like obsidian, beautiful and dangerous.” He cupped her cheek. “So beautiful, my mate.”
“Oh. I always wanted green eyes, damn it.” She sighed, taking a seat on the root of her tree. “Well. Fuck my life.”