Untamed - A. G. Howard


“If we’re going to survive this, Alison, you have to go for the jugular. No. Mercy.”

Thomas’s deep, commanding voice warms my ear as he helps me stand up, then molds my fingers around the sword’s metal handle that had slipped from my gloved hand. A mixture of his sweat and the citrusy scent of his bath soap lingers in the air, muted by the perfume of flowers and greenery surrounding us.

I rub my hip where it still throbs from my fall, then resume my stance and stare across the bloodstained grass at our opponents: mine, with the beautiful, otherworldly glow to her skin . . . Thomas’s, with his muscled build and fearless green eyes. Their silver swords flash beneath the autumn sun and reflect light off of faces that give nothing away, until, in a sweep as slow as a storm cloud, curiosity crosses their features as they try to predict our strategy.

My heart pounds out a steady pulse of anticipation. I wipe some sweat from my brow. They’re younger, faster—but Thomas and I have wisdom on our side, and an incomparable connection. We’ve been a team for twenty-two years. These amateurs have nothing on us.

Ignoring how hot and itchy my skin is beneath the layers of clothes, I coax my body to relax, yet hold position, sword raised and ready, before snapping my mask over my face.

My husband often offers cues, gestures that only I can decipher: a nod of the head for a parry, a squint of the eyes for a block. But I don’t need his instructions this time. I know my opponent. I’ve watched her long enough to learn her strengths and weaknesses. She’ll lunge at my left, and I’ll defend with a parry of six. Unless this time she decides to mix it up.

As if thinking she’s figured me out, she glares with piercing blue eyes and then smiles, overly confident, before dropping her mask into place. Her stance tightens and mine does the same, inviting her to make the first move.

With stealth and grace, she shifts her feet and thrusts, attacking on my right in a surprise tactic. I strike her blade with a beat to compromise her rhythm. She totters off balance and overcompensates, executing a messy parry. Her hasty reaction creates an opening at her chest.

Growling, I aim my sword’s tip at her heart, feeling the burst as I puncture her white jacket. She drops her blade and grips her sternum. Her eyes grow round behind her mask. Blood spurts across the grass and spatters my white tennis shoes.

“Mom?” she mutters in shock, then folds to the ground.

I snap up my mask, shuck my gloves, and drop to my knees beside her, poking her ribs relentlessly. “Say it!” I shout. “Say I’m the queen!”

Jebediah and Thomas laugh from the sidelines as Alyssa giggles hysterically, rocking on her back like a turtle turned over on its shell, trying to catch her breath and escape my tickle torture. Her mask pops off in her efforts, revealing flushed cheeks.

“Say it!” I insist again.

“Never!” she screeches and captures my hands, wrestling me to the ground beside her.

Soon my own ribs ache from her relentless fingers and we’re hugging and laughing so much tears stream from our eyes.

“All right.” Thomas regains enough composure to call a cease-fire. “The elders won, fair and square.”

“Foiled again,” Alyssa quips, referencing our flexible practice swords. Her pun coaxes a deep chuckle out of Jebediah as he reaches down for her blood-smeared hand.

Thomas helps me up and I pat the wet, red streaks on my fencing jacket and pants, the stickiness clumping between my fingers.

My husband offers towels for us to clean the mess. I use mine to blot my face and brow.

“I still think the Halloween blood packets were overkill,” Jenara says from her place on the porch swing where she and Corbin are waiting to challenge the winning team. They’re sipping lemonade the same shade of pink as her hair. She wrinkles her nose. “That’s a pretty gruesome scene.”

“You’re kidding, right?” Alyssa says with an eager grin, appraising the thousands of red splotches across our clothes and the lilies, honeysuckle, and silver licorice plants in the garden. “It’s beautiful. Like any window dressing, it just needs to be shaped into something new.”

The long, blond braid down her back swishes and sways as if coming alive. She uses her magic to lift the shiny droplets from the plants and flowers, then reanimates the spatters on our clothes to join