It was late afternoon by the time Silver arrived at the riverside. The wind here was more humid than in the Tulkan scrublands, the soil darker and less sandy. A thick growth of trees hugged the riverbank, leaning lazily over the rushing waters.
They followed the river downstream, away from the nearest settlement and toward the pack’s summer resting place. The musky scent of wolves was heavy in the air; Dev wagged his tail but Silver only felt a growing cold conviction that he shouldn’t have come. He should have dealt with the girl himself, and not involved anyone else. He didn’t need anyone else—had made a vow not to seven years ago when he’d stood over the grave of his alpha. Living with this new pack was making him soft.
Dev paused, howling to announce their presence. A reply came almost immediately: it was Jake, and he sounded worried. The wolves exchanged glances and hurried onwards, heads raised, ears pricked forward. Something was wrong.
Jake was waiting for them further upstream, in human form. He was pacing back and forth, his dark hair tousled as if he’d run his hands through it repeatedly. He didn’t smile, his expression lacking its usual insufferable charm.
“You’ll all need to shift here,” he said. “Al’s orders. We can’t risk upsetting Vera.”
They dropped their clothes onto the ground and shifted. As they were getting dressed, Dev cross-questioned Jake. “How is she?”
Jake shook his head. “Worse.”
“He just watches over her. Everyone’s waiting for him to do something, but he isn’t even moving. He won’t eat, he won’t sleep . . . .”
Dev frowned, fingers lingering on the drawstring of his trousers. As beta, it was his job to step up to the plate, but whether he wanted to was another matter entirely. He tugged on his earring thoughtfully, ignoring Rae’s pointed yawn. “What about the ewtes?”
Jake’s lips thinned. “When Al said what we needed the nitum for, they jacked up their prices.”
“Al’s a dick,” Rae said. “He should’ve killed a couple of them. That’d change their tune entirely.” Her lip curled into a sneer. “Then again Al’s never had the guts to do what’s needed.”
One word from Dev was enough. Rae pursed her lips, looked away. When Dev marched off in the direction of the pack, she trailed after him sullenly.
Silver stayed where he was, watching them leave. He was tempted to turn around and head back to Tulkan to collect the girl. No, not tempted—he needed to, it was an urge he couldn’t control. Somehow she had gotten her claws into him and every second apart only made it worse. In that moment, Silver was convinced of two things: firstly, that the girl needed to be kept safe at all costs, and secondly, that he completely hated her.
Silver reached into his pocket for a cigarette and scowled when he realised he had none. Jake’s resumed pacing only made him more irritable. He glared. “Are you done moping?”
Jake bristled. “I’m standing guard!”
Silver didn’t reply—his sceptical expression said it all. He walked away from Jake, toward the pack, then realised the idiot wasn’t following. “Only pups sulk alone,” he called over his shoulder.
Jake chased after him, blocked Silver’s path. He looked angry. It was an improvement.
“Who’re you calling a pup?” he snarled.
Silver gave him a long look. “Do you care?”
“Why would I care what you say?”
Jake’s eyes narrowed. “You asshole,” he said, but the words lacked any real force. Then he began to walk to the pack, keeping three paces ahead, as predictable as a child. Silver let him take the lead with thinly veiled amusement.
It was odd to think that they were only a year apart. For a twenty-three year old, Jake had the emotional maturity of a bat. Or maybe it was Silver who was old for twenty-four; he felt the years press down on him, the weight of so many memories he wanted to erase.
Had it really been seven years since Caleb’s death? The memory still ached like a burn that couldn’t quite heal. He could remember the slipperiness of blood on his hands, the nausea as Caleb named him alpha with his last breath. At the funeral, Silver had lit the obligatory incense and bowed his head in thought. But the words had deserted him, and it had seemed so impossible that Caleb was actually dead and in the ground beneath his feet that Silver had walked away without even saying a prayer.
He’d vowed to never form bonds again, to rely only on himself. Relationships were a weakness. Yet others still turned to him for help: first Al, then Jake and Fang, Amber and Howl, and now this girl, this worm he barely knew. And this time he couldn’t run away and leave it all behind.
When they entered the clearing, Howl ran up to them, grinning widely. His hair stuck out at odd angles, and his clothes were ragged and dirty, as if he’d been rolling around in the dirt. It wouldn’t be the first time.
Howl beamed. “You’re back! How was the theatre? D’you see the worms?” He hovered by Silver’s elbow, as close as he could get without touching.
Thankfully Jake welcomed the distraction, pushing Howl away playfully. “Obviously he saw the worms, stupid. The theatre was full of them!”
Howl shoved back, teeth bared. “I en’t stupid! How many times do I gotta tell you?”
Jake pretended to think. “Hmm, I don’t know. Until you’re not stupid?”
“Take it back!” Howl launched forward, arms swinging wildly, but he moved too slowly to land a hit. “Take it back!”
“See? You’re stupid!” Jake dodged another lunge, smirking. “You can’t even hit me!”
The two ran off, the sound of their laughter too loud in the tense silence of the clearing. Al was slumped on his knees in the middle, oblivious to everything but the still figure lying before him. The rest of the pack was keeping their distance, huddling together in small groups, eyeing each other in suspicion. Dev was moving between each group, bending low, speaking softly.
Rae broke off from one of the groups and loped up to Silver. “Dev’s rounding everyone up. We’re to watch over Al.” She stepped closer, lowered her voice. “There’s a rumour of a WPL attack.”
He tensed. “Another one?”
“Yeah.” She tucked her blond bob behind her ears, tilted her face up to catch the sun’s rays. With her eyes closed, Rae was transformed. There was a startling softness to her face, her jutting cheekbones balanced by the curve of her cheek. Then her attention refocused on Vera and the illusion vanished, every trace of innocence stripped from her expression.
“Come on, then,” she said.
Silver led the way into the centre of the clearing, where Al was slumped on his knees. Once he was close enough, he crouched down to get a better look, careful to keep his distance. Vera’s eyes were closed, but she was twitching and moaning in her sleep, one hand curved protectively over her belly. The air around her was warm with pent-up energy.
He looked at Al, keeping his voice low. “How is she?”
For a long moment Al did not reply. Then he sighed. “She won’t be able to hold her human form for much longer.”
“Maybe that’s a good thing,” Rae said from behind them.
Al turned his head slowly to stare at her. “What did you say?” The muscles in his legs tensed, his jaw clenched. There was a thin sheen of sweat on his cheeks. He was close to snapping, and Rae didn’t seem to notice.
She shrugged, looked away. “If the baby’s a wolf, he’ll be fine. If he’s not, well, who cares?”
“It’s not the baby I’m worried about,” Al snarled, standing up. “It’s Vera! Do you know what a human foetus could do to a wolf’s womb? Or do you care so little for your alpha?”
With every word, the air around them heated. Rae ducked her head to one side, exposing her neck in submission, but her display did nothing to appease Al’s anger. He growled lowly, his inner wolf rising to the surface.
Then Vera whimpered. They all glanced down to see her left hand twitch and shift into a wolf’s paw.
Al deflated, sinking back down to the ground without another word. He couldn’t lead in this state, Silver realised with growing anger. Dev would have to take charge. And with the pack politics so unstable, it was too dangerous to bring the girl here. If only he could forget about her . . . but the thought of her at the mercy of the scum in Tulkan made his jaw clench.
“Go patrol,” Silver told Rae brusquely. “I’ll stay here.”
For once she didn’t argue. “I’ll keep a look-out for any WPL,” she promised, eyes darting nervously to Al’s slumped figure.
Silver settled cross-legged by Al’s side, near Vera’s feet, fighting back the frustration. Without Al, their twelve-strong pack would fall into total disarray. What, then, would happen to the girl?
Al was holding Vera’s paw in his hand. When he looked up at Silver, his eyes were filled with despair. “She’s barely holding herself from shifting as it is. I don’t know how long she’ll last.” Al dropped his gaze, and spoke even softer than before, so that Silver had to lean forward to hear him. “She can’t leave me, Silver. She promised.” And it was those words that brought back the ache of memories full force.
The small jug in his hands was cold against his skin. His limbs were heavy and his stomach was tight. The sun hung low in the horizon, fighting a losing battle against the growing darkness, but it was just bright enough to see the neat rows of white tombstones, each one long and rectangular like a finger pointing at the sky. Caleb had been dead for a month, and only now Silver was returning to the tombstone to pay his respects.
Five rows back, eight along, was Caleb’s tomb, the earth raked flat, a small vase pushed into the ground and filled with half-burnt incense sticks. Silver carefully poured water over the tombstone, using his hand to ensure every inch was covered. Then he set the jug aside, added his own incense sticks to the vase. Ritual observed, he bowed his head and tried to find the right words to say to the man who’d been his mentor, his friend, and his adoptive father. But he could think of nothing. The white stone was so far removed from his memories of Caleb that it seemed ridiculous to talk to it.
All he found instead was a growing anger. He could still see it in his mind’s eye, see Caleb crumple to the ground, a silver dagger in his heart. Caleb hadn’t even tried to fight back, had been willing to die for what he believed in, without thinking of how it would affect anyone else.
The words came, finally. “You left me behind. You promised you wouldn’t. You promised!”
Silver punched the tombstone, bit back a cry when his knuckles split open and began to bleed. But it wasn’t enough. A second punch, more blood, and Caleb’s name smeared in red.
How could Caleb have left him? Dying for others—the supposed ultimate sacrifice—was a coward’s way out. Had Caleb even thought of what it would do to him, how responsible he’d feel? Silver punched the tombstone again, ignoring the trembling in his hand. He’d never die for anyone else. He swore it, right then and there, with his blood dripping down onto his mentor’s grave.
“Never,” he told the tombstone. “Never.”
He’d stayed just long enough to find the Reke pack a suitable replacement alpha, and then he’d left. He’d headed far to the west, to the most far-flung edges of the Empire, and he hadn’t looked back. Silver stared unseeing at the ground. If Vera died and the pack fell apart here, he had nowhere left to run.
“She promised, Silver,” Al repeated desperately.
Silver didn’t answer. He knew promises meant nothing.