He had him now.
Victor smiled to himself as he lifted his head from the broken branch he had been checking. That damned witch might have crawled from the depths of hell, but he was just human enough for one thing to still hold true: since he was an omega, no attentive alpha could miss his scent when he was in heat.
It had taken Victor months to carefully scout out the paths the witch took through the forest. He was a decorated war hero and first general to King Yakov’s armies, but charging in head-first on an armoured horse was no strategy to catch a magicker. They ruled the places they lived in, made the plants, the animals, the very shadows the leaves threw their subjects. Still, Victor persevered, studied the ever-shifting landscape, began to spot patterns in what seemed like chaos at first. He was not simply a brute with a sword – no truly great knight could be. He had laid ambushes for some of the mightiest armies on earth, one witch would not escape him forever.
Some people thought Victor should have spent his hours on more important matters. The witch’s killings that had once shaken the crown city had stopped a decade ago. Victor found this short-sighted. Who was to say the witch hadn’t just been collecting blood for a ritual that would be repeated at some point in time? Could they be sure they were safe? Would they bet the lives of their children on it? And either way, that didn’t make the murders from all those years ago lesser crimes.
Those thought weren’t all that drove Victor deeper and deeper into the forest today, though, methodically moving between trees that changed position to confuse him and by a brook which coiled this way and that as quickly as an angry snake to make it impossible to follow its band. He looked up at the blue sky through the gaps between the leaves instead, charting his way by the sun’s position. Twelve years ago on another beautiful summer day just like this, when he had been fifteen, he and his friend Georgi Popovich, another young squire to King Yakov, had wandered these very woods even though it was forbidden to them, giddy as young men got with the adventurous spirit of disobedience. Georgi, a sentimental soul often enraptured by beautiful sights and tales of romance, had fallen behind as he stooped down to inspect an old, weatherworn statue of a man which looked like it might have belonged to some temple or shrine before its house had withered away.
The moments that followed had been forever branded onto Victor’s mind. Georgi had risen to his feet as Victor called to him to hurry up. Before he could take one step forward, however, the ivy ensnaring the old tree to his side had loosened its grip on the broad trunk and swung forward like a whip, grabbing hold of Georgi and pulling him back. Georgi had called out Victor’s name as he was dragged into the underbrush. As Victor stormed forward, the trees closed ranks before him like guards at a gate. By the time Victor had made it around the wall, the forest had swallowed Georgi whole and hours of searching had netted him nothing but skin torn bloody by the thorns of sweetbriar and brambles.
Though they had never found bleached, horribly small bones wrapped in the clothes of lost children as they had with other victims of the witch, Georgi had never returned, and eventually Victor had had to accept that his friend had died at the hands of the mage.
It was not an option to let the witch go unpunished.
Today, the forest wasn’t resisting him as much as it usually did. Victor wondered if the heat scrambled the witch’s powers. He had seen strong, healthy omegas weak-kneed like newborn puppies in their worst moments. Even a magical creature would not be able to resist nature forever.
Victor could follow the witch’s scent on the trees he had touched in passing, and where naked feet had fled over the soft mossy ground. It was almost familiar – thick and heady like a whole meadow of evening primrose –, but that was no surprise at this point. They had been playing this game for years on-and-off, and now for weeks without pause, as the secured borders of the Winter Kingdom finally allowed Victor to heap all his focus on this one task. He had even faced off against the witch before, a hooded, masked creature hiding who knew what behind those swathes of cloth wrapped around his face. So far the mage had always eluded him, never seriously taking the fight, even if Victor, seeing what else the witch was capable of, had to admit he probably had a good chance at winning a duel. That he did not understand, but in the end he also didn’t care. It was not surprising that a man who murdered children might be a coward.
Victor stopped. He had reached the edge of a glade and for once it was not filling in with vines, trees, or thick underbrush. The forest around him had ceased moving. Carefully, he pressed close to a tree and peered out over the grass.
The witch stood with his back to him. He was draped into a long black cloak adorned with purple stones and raven feathers, a dark blemish on the summer green meadow. Apparently, he thought he had lost Victor. Since Victor was standing downwind, his own scent was blown away from the witch while he could smell him, enticing to a thoughtless, hungry part of his brain despite all. The witch’s breath was going fast.
He was no match now.
With the faintest of whisper of the steel against leather, Victor pulled his dagger out of the sheath at his hip. He doubted he could sneak all the way to him without being noticed, so he had to count on the witch’s reflexes being dulled by the heat.
Victor pushed off the trunk, sprinted forward, and took a running leap like a wolf. The witch had barely turned his head as Victor crashed into his back, toppling them both forward. He himself was only wearing light, flexible leather armour, and so pain shot through his knee and elbow as they hit the ground hard. However, he shook it off and immediately knocked the witch’s face down to the earth, forearm pressing against the back of his head. With the other hand, he brought his dagger to the witch’s neck. The witch’s scent was overwhelming this close up, enough to get drunk on, but Victor wouldn’t succumb.
“I wouldn’t think about hexing,” he said, coolly.
The witch groaned.
“Don’t kill me,” he managed, voice muffled against the dirt.
“Give me a reason not to. You’ve killed dozens.”
Victor knew he had to get this over with quickly. If he didn’t then his instincts would take over. While he had faint hope he might be able to keep himself from mounting this demon thing out of sheer revulsion, being distracted still meant the witch would have a chance to turn tables on him. However, he had yet to kill someone without at least allowing them a last word in their defence.
“Let me turn around.”
Victor hesitated, but, forcing the blade of the dagger against the witch’s clothed neck as a warning, slowly nodded his head.
He kept himself as tightly pressed down on his prey as he could while allowing him to move. However, the witch made no attempt to escape. As Victor looked at him, he noticed for the first time that his eyes were the dark deep blue of clear water. For some reason, he had imagined red or all black.
The witch lifted a hand, but Victor slammed his fist down on it immediately. He was not taking any chances.
“Look at me,” the witch said, arm going slack.
Most of his face was hidden behind a black scarf. Carefully, Victor let go off the witch’s wrist and pulled down the cloth in one go.
The witch looked Victor’s age. The heat and the flight had painted his pale skin red. His nose was bleeding from the impact where Victor had slammed him to the ground, and the cloth had spread the blood around his face like war paint.
And then, with a moment’s delay – shock, perhaps, or disbelief –, memory began layering a familiar face over the one Victor was looking down at now. When he had last seen it, it had still had some childish roundness to it, whereas it was all edges now, a straight nose, a pointed chin, high cheekbones, but the eyes, now that he saw them in conjunction with his features, they were still just the same.
Victor blinked rapidly. His head was spinning. Maybe it was the intoxicating scent of an omega in heat, or a spell...
“Stop it!” he snapped, anger bursting like flames from an explosion.
“You know me,” the witch pleaded.
Furiously, Victor turned his head in search of a weapon not quite as deadly as the dagger. If the witch wouldn’t stop of his own accord, he’d make him. He saw a fist-sized rock lying by the witch’s elbow and grabbed it, bringing it down on his exposed wrist with a hard blow. The witch howled in pain. Victor was reasonably sure he’d hear the dry crack of bones.
“You don’t get to use Georgi’s face against me. You killed him!”
The witch hissed in pain, but did not drop his mirage.
“No, Vitya – stop it, gods be damned! It’s me,” the witch gasped.
“Are you making fun of me?”
“The witch took me, but he saw I had a dormant talent. He shut me in his cellar and made me his apprentice,” the witch babbled. “When I had grown strong enough, I killed him – ten years ago! Didn’t you notice the murders stopped?”
Victor halted, stone still in hand. Nothing made sense anymore.
“I don’t believe you.”
“Ask me about our childhood,” the witch said breathlessly.
Closing his eyes, Victor tried to pull something sensible out of the maelstrom of his thoughts.
“When Countess Babicheva gave birth, what present did we give her child?”
“Mila,” the witch said, a faint smile flickering on his face. “I hear she’s a knight now, too. Yakov gave us an iron sword and a golden necklace to bring to her.”
“What is my favourite hunting dog’s name?”
“Makkachin,” the witch said. “I imagine he’s too old to hunt now.” He grimaced. “But you don’t seem to need the help of dogs anymore...”
Victor dropped the rock he held in one hand, the dagger falling from the other, bouncing off the witch’s – off Georgi’s shoulder before it came to rest in the grass.
Georgi wrapped his good arm around Victor’s shoulders.
“You came for me, Vitya,” he said quietly.
“I came to avenge you!” Victor sputtered. “Why didn’t you come back when you killed him? I thought you were dead!”
“I’m a witch, now, too. I haven’t killed anyone but him, but who will believe me?”
“I believe you,” Victor answered.
Despite everything, the magic, the subterfuge, all the time that had passed, he was sure he knew Georgi that well.
Georgi looked ready to cry at his answer. Victor pushed his arm under Georgi’s head, cradling it against his shoulder. All he’d imagined he’d find of Georgi was perhaps some scraps of his clothes or bones left as trophies in the witch’s hut. The relief and affection melted all reason like fire and he kissed his forehead, breathing him in. Oh gods, this was why the witch had smelled so familiar. After all those years, he had still recalled Georgi’s scent in some recess of his mind, without a name to put to it.
“I came into town sometimes in disguise. All the things they say about your prowess don’t seem to be just flattery. I’ve shaken every other hunter who came for me,” Georgi muttered.
“Nature tripped you up,” Victor said, laughing quietly, his heart light as a feather. “Gods... when you were taken, you hadn’t even presented.”
It had been so long.
Georgi tried his best to look dignified, which was difficult with his blood-stained face and feverish gaze and the hard length pressing against Victor’s hip through his robes.
“Of course you’d get to be an alpha,” he said, and it made Victor laugh more as he remembered those moments of childish jealousy Georgi used to display whenever Victor hit the sword out of his hand in the training yard. He rubbed his head against Georgi’s, spreading his scent on him, playful like a much younger man. Georgi shivered.
“People have good things to say about me these days,” he agreed to Georgi’s earlier comment, “but right now it feels like my quest to kill a witch became a mating run, like they did in olden times. That wasn’t my plan.”
Georgi huffed a breathy laugh that turned into a gasp when Victor clamped his teeth around his neck. There were so many things to ask, so many things to say, but now that he was not facing a hellish foe but an old friend, it was infinitely more difficult to tame his instincts. Victor wanted to reclaim him for the living – for himself.
Georgi was still holding him.
“What were you doing jumping at a witch in heat like that, anyway, you fool?” he chided. “Some great knight you are. If I were my old captor, I would have seduced you and killed you in the act.”
“I sleep with men, not with monsters,” Victor said, licking his lips as Georgi nipped at his ear. “But... it won’t be so easy to step away from this, so if you...”
Georgi swallowed his concerns with a kiss.
“What about your hand?” Victor said into his mouth.
“I barely feel it,” Georgi murmured. “Mixing your scent with my heat does worse things to me than most potions I can brew.”
Victor rustled with Georgi’s long robes and tore away the underclothes, relief, lust, happiness, and the thrill off the hunt putting his blood to boiling point. He tore one glove off with his teeth and made sure with an unsteady hand that Georgi was wet enough before he pulled himself out of his leather breeches and spread Georgi’s legs.
“Ah... I was in love with you when we were boys, you know?” Georgi muttered, as Victor slid into him.
Victor’s hips stuttered to a halt.
“Don’t at me look like that. Everyone had a crush on you.” Georgi raised a brow. “I’m sure becoming the first knight of the realm didn’t change that.”
Shoulders shaking with silent laughter, Victor pushed all the way in.
“I’m not arrogant enough to assume.”
“Then you really must have changed...”
Victor bit his shoulder as he angled his hips. Georgi cried out on the next thrust.
Georgi was a bit harsher in tone than Victor remembered, but that was no surprise after what he had been through: fear, loneliness, and being hunted like an animal. There was something left of that boy with his head in the clouds in the enamoured look he was giving Victor now, though. Georgi reached up with one hand, brushing short strands of silver hair behind his ear, but they were not long enough to hold and fell back like a curtain.
“You cut your hair.”
“Years ago. It made wearing a helmet easier. Do you like it?”
He made sure Georgi’s answer was lost in another moan as he pressed deep into his body just in time. Georgi looked like he was trying hard not to pout. Victor grinned. He had always liked teasing him.
It was not long until Georgi’s grip on him grew tighter. Victor held him by the hips as he thrashed under him. There was very little restraint to Georgi, but there never had been. It was nice to see he had never learned to hide his feelings because Victor had always liked that about him. Watching him twitch and shudder through his orgasm as he moaned Victor’s name was about to drive him wild now.
He wanted to pull out, but he tumbled off his own peak harder than expected, and Georgi was distracting him with kisses, and as he moved his hips back his knot had already swollen.
“Looks like we’ll be stuck like this for a while,” he said, apologetically.
“We won’t be disturbed here.”
The foggy haze of the heat cleared a little now as he held himself above Georgi, simply breathing in the warm, humid air of the forest laying in the sleepy lull of early afternoon, Georgi’s scent comfortable and calming now that he had claimed him, not a frenzying drug. In the span of half an hour, he had found out his oldest friend had survived what Victor had believed to be certain death, that he had magic powers, was an omega, and then had he fought him and fucked him with barely moments to spare in-between. Victor felt like he had woken from a fever dream. The look on Georgi’s face told him he might be having similar thoughts.
He only now spent any time looking at their surroundings, which was also not the habit of a good soldier, considering how exposed they had been. Only then did he notice that the spot in the meadow where they laid looked a little difference than everything else. Little bell-shaped purple blossoms grew only around Georgi’s bruised hand and by his head in the grass. Victor’s leg was tickled by a young rose bush that definitely hadn’t been there before, springing from where Georgi’s naked foot stood on the ground..
“Did you make flowers?” Victor asked, stunned.
Georgi glanced off to the side with a petulantly embarrassed look on his face.
“My control over my magic wanes when I’m in heat. Joy and ecstasy beget energy... I had to channel it somewhere or risk hurting us.”
Victor shook his head, looking at the flowers.
“If you had, you would only be paying me back.”
Victor rubbed at the half-dried blood on his face with his thumb.
“True. You didn’t have to break my wrist,” Georgi said dryly.
“It’s fine,” Georgi answered with a self-satisfied smile. “I can fix it.”
“There’s a spell for that?”
“There are spells for a lot of things.”
Victor cupped Georgi’s face.
“We could use a man of your talents in town.”
Immediately, Georgi shook his head, though he turned it into Victor’s palm right after.
“I have no desire to be chased out of the crown city with pitchforks and torches.”
Victor glanced over his shoulder and leaned back, plucking one of the red roses Georgi had made and gently laid it down in his bruised hand.
“You wouldn’t be if Sir Victor Nikiforov brought you back as his mate.”
“Why not? You’re the first omega I captured – well, and the first I hunted, to be honest. It must be a sign,” Victor joked.
They hadn’t seen each other for many years, and Victor was sure there were a thousand things he didn’t know about Georgi now, and vice versa. In one way they used to be very similar, though – neither decided matters of the heart through cold reason or slow deliberation. It seemed that hadn’t changed, since Georgi pulled him down into a kiss. From the corner of his eyes, Victor saw more blossoms pushing their colourful heads out of the earth between green blades of grass.