When they returned to the clearing, Al was still crouched by Vera’s side, his face buried in his hands. The rest of the pack was congregated in one corner, their backs to Al, all eyes on Dev. He was speaking to the group quietly, Rae hovering smugly by his side. Even Amber was with them, although she kept to the fringes of the group. The pack machinations had already begun.
“Silver?” Fang kept his voice low.
Silver cursed, itching for another cigarette. He’d have to buy some soon. “I can’t be bothered with this,” he muttered. But his little pack stared at him hopefully, and Howl’s round, pleading eyes were far too pitiful to be ignored.
In five long strides he was by Al’s side. Silver scowled, waited for his presence to register. When Al finally looked up, he looked far too relieved.
Silver crossed his arms. There was no way he’d let Al dump the responsibilities on him. “Are you going to sit there and mope, or are you going to be the pack’s alpha?”
Al’s mouth curled downwards, his eyes narrowed. “The pack needs both its alphas.”
“Right now, it has neither.” Silver waited for the words to sink in, then added, “I’m not going to cover up your mistakes.”
It was exactly the wrong thing to say. Al shot to his feet, glaring, his chest heaving with anger. The twenty-nine year old was a good nine centimetres taller, and he used that difference to his advantage, towering over Silver to subdue him. But Silver only tilted his chin up and glared right back. Al was the strongest wolf in the pack, but that didn’t make him the best fighter. He was too nice—he hesitated at the wrong moments.
“Rae’s gloating,” Silver said, knowing that it would redirect the alpha’s attention.
The rest of the pack was still huddled together, with Rae and Dev in the middle. Al’s face darkened further, his generous nose scrunched in anger. He looked away, took a deep breath. When he faced Silver again he looked calmer. “You’re lucky I consider you my brother, Silver.” He glanced at Vera and his resolve hardened. “Fang, Jake! Come here!”
They approached cautiously, Howl trotting at their heels looking unhealthily cheerful.
“Yes, Al?” Fang’s polite smile was steady.
When Al tilted his head towards Vera, Fang settled down by her side, checking her pulse and temperature. Al watched every movement anxiously, unable to curb the protective urge.
Howl leaned against Silver’s elbow, grinning. “Guess what?” he piped up cheerfully. “Fang gave me and Jake cookies. But he gave me two, and Jake only one!”
Al’s fists clenched. “Shut up,” he growled, glaring at the boy, his fists clenching. Silver shielded Howl from view, and Jake stepped forward with a smile.
“You wanted something?” Jake said easily.
Al’s eyes tracked over them. His short brown hair was plastered to his skull in small curls, and there were deep, permanent creases around his eyes. He looked distracted, erratic, but at least he was making an attempt at pulling himself together.
“Fang stays here,” Al said. “You three, come with me.”
Without waiting for their asset, he strode over to the rest of the pack. The six-strong huddle of wolves loosened, scattered by the force of Al’s approach. But where Rae was scowling, Dev was pleased to see them. He wasn’t ready to take on the role of alpha. Not yet, at least, no matter how much Rae wanted him to.
One gesture from Al and the pack settled down in a loose circle, with Dev on Al’s right and Silver on his left. As a pup, Howl was not allowed within the circle, so he settled behind Silver, quiet for once.
Al took a deep breath, looked at every wolf. “I would like to apologise to you all,” he began. “These past few days I have failed as an alpha. If you choose not to follow me, I understand.”
Silence was his only response. Al waited the requisite minute, then nodded his head in thanks. He straightened and looked around the circle. “You all know the current situation. I’m open to your suggestions.”
Amber leaned forward, red curls glinting in the sunlight. “Vera needs to leave,” she said. When Al scowled, she hastened to explain, “Not leave the pack, just the area. It’s a strain for us to keep such tight control of our energy, and being near us only makes it more difficult for her.”
“Especially with an unpredictable pup around,” Rae added, sneering at Howl.
Silver sneered. “Not to mention the unpredictable bitches.”
Dev growled, but Silver didn’t back down. Howl was under his protection; he was within his rights to respond to Rae’s insult.
Al snarled deep in his throat, and even thought it was not directed at them, the lower-ranking members of the pack flinched. “Amber is right,” he said. “I’ll take her to town myself. She’ll be closer to the ewtes; that’ll kill two birds with one claw.” He looked around the circle. “Anything else?”
Dev crossed his arms. “Tulkan’s in lock-down. They’re interrogating werekin. It stinks of WPL.”
“Not necessarily.” Silver couldn’t avoid mentioning the events at the theatre now—news travelled fast, and to remain silent would only cause him problems later. He told the pack about the massacre at the theatre, careful to leave out any mention of the girl. “The attack happened immediately after the werekin were on stage. It’d be enough to make them suspicious.”
Dev had clenched his hands into tight, meaty fists. “Why didn’t you mention this earlier, in Tulkan?”
Silver latched onto the first excuse he could think of. “And risk having a witch overhear?”
“Silver was right to wait,” Al said, settling the quarrel before it could begin. “It wouldn’t have been safe.” He held his palm up to forestall any comments. “Fang will need to get in contact with the worms near Rivton,” he said. “Dev and Silver, head back south and visit the theatre. The more we know, the better.”
Silver nodded. Perfect. He could convince Dev to visit the theatre alone while he stopped by Tulkan and got the girl. He still had the money Dev had given him; he could take the girl to Rivton and check her in to the tavern. It was safer there, and nearer the other worm entrance—it would buy him time to plan how to convince the pack to hire her as a negotiator.
Al put his hands on the ground to push himself up. “Anything else?”
Rae shot Silver an overly innocent smile. “Oh yes,” she said. “Silver wants someone to join the pack.”
Everyone turned to stare at Silver once more. Damn.
Howl leaned forward, so that his face was by Silver’s ear. “What?! Who?”
Silver pushed him back irritably. “No one.” He shot Rae a scowl. It wasn’t her business to bring up; if he hadn’t mentioned it, she shouldn’t have, either. But Al had settled back down and was looking at him expectantly. “I changed my mind,” he said. “I don’t want her to join the pack any more.”
“Her?” Trust Jake to pick up on the pronoun. He winked cheekily. “Who’s the lucky lady?”
“None of your business.”
Howl rested his chin on Silver’s shoulder. “What’s her name?”
“Don’t touch me.” Silver pushed Howl away again.
The pack seemed relieved at the light-hearted turn to the conversation. Even Amber joined in. She leaned forward, chin in her hand. “Oh, come on, Silver,” she said. “Don’t tell me you don’t know her name. At least tell us where you met her.”
“Where else could he have met her?” Rae said, slow and sly. “The theatre.”
Silver gritted his teeth but couldn’t think of a lie fast enough. He kept a tight rein on his anger as Al glanced at him sharply. “It doesn’t matter,” he said, his voice low and fierce. He looked at Al, hoping the alpha would dismiss the meeting and end the questioning.
But Al looked grim. “You were the only wolf at the theatre,” he said.
The pack fell silent. There was a long, tense pause as the implications sunk in. Silver noted everyone’s shock, their disbelief that he had asked—or intended to ask—for a non-wolf to be let into the pack.
“What are you not telling me?” Al’s voice was as sharp as steel.
This time the silence was awkward.
Al waved a hand at the rest of the pack, keeping his eyes focused on Silver. The others began to stand up, moving away from the confrontation, but Howl lingered beside Silver, his loyalty warring with common sense.
Amber tugged on the boy’s arm. “Come on, Howl. Let’s go get a drink.”
“But I’m not thirsty,” the boy whined.
Silver levelled a stern look at Howl. “You’re going with her.” When Jake started chuckling, he focused his attention on him. “You, too.”
Soon it was just the two of them.
“You’re a good wolf,” Al said quietly. “But you’re not a very honest one.” And then he just stared at Silver expectantly, waiting.
“She is . . . ” Silver paused. He couldn’t admit the girl was a worm. He’d look ridiculous, and Al would dismiss the matter entirely. He started again. “She could be useful, a neutral third party to negotiate with the ewtes. They wouldn’t overcharge her.”
Al shook his head. “If you wanted her to join the pack, then she must be important to you. Why?”
“You’re wrong,” Silver replied. “She’s not important.”
Al studied his face carefully, his lips a flat line, but Silver didn’t budge. Finally Al stood, beckoned for Silver to follow, and walked over to the centre of the clearing, where Vera was. Fang was still by her side, and looked up curiously when they approached.
“How is she?”
“The situation is delicate,” Fang said, his voice gentle. “She must be moved away from the pack without delay.”
Al nodded. “I’ll take her to town myself. But first, there’s something I need you to do.” He turned to Silver. “Describe her.”
Silver warily did as he was told. When he was finished, Al looked at Fang. “She’s in Tulkan. Do you think you can find her?”
Fang approached Silver and sniffed cautiously. “I can detect a scent roughly matching her age and gender. I will do my utmost to find her, but considering the high density of people in Tulkan, I cannot make any promises.”
“Just do your best,” Al replied. “Start at the hotel.”
Silver glanced between them, trying to curb his growing anxiety. “I can find her myself.” The girl was his problem, not the pack’s.
“Yes, you could,” Al replied sternly. “But you won’t do what’s necessary. And if she’s a witch . . . ” he trailed off, giving Fang a significant look.
Fang nodded solemnly. “I’ll do what is best.”
“No!” Silver felt his control snap, the rage within him overwhelming in its unexpectedness. The air around him heated, his body shifting to wolf form. He landed on all fours and growled angrily at Fang.
A sharp cry of pain distracted him. He looked to his right: Vera was moaning, doubled over and clutching her stomach. Fur had sprouted over her face. The energy of his shift had affected her.
Silver felt a momentary flash of guilt before the sight of Fang leaving the clearing refocused his attention. He sprang after Fang, weaving through the trees and quickly shortening the distance between them. Soon Fang was only a paw’s breadth away. Silver gathered himself for one final leap, to knock Fang over and assert his dominance, when another wolf bowled into Silver’s shoulder and pushed him to the ground.
Silver jumped to his feet and whirled around to face the new threat, fur bristling, tail erect. It was Al.
Stay, Al barked. The word had the weight of authority to it, the alpha compulsion.
Silver growled, his legs trembling all of a sudden with the effort to stand. It was useless. His body sank down to the ground against his will.