Pawn Among Wolves Ch. 08bySmileWhenYouMeanIt©
Soft moonlight, filtering through the sleeping forest canopy, lit a strange scene.
Gemma was sitting cross legged behind Mac, flopped against his broad back, her legs and arms curled loosely around as much of his torso as she could manage, and her head resting tiredly on one shoulder blade. The throbbing pain of Nick's bite in her neck, together with the warm, homelike male scent of his human skin in her nostrils, muffled the tension of the scene and eased her back into boneless relaxation. She would have slumped to the ground despite the tirade washing over them, if she hadn't been jammed between the bulk of her wolf and the large tree behind her.
She also had a tingle of relief - and regret - that the insatiable urge to jump his bones every second was missing. Not that the idea didn't appeal, but it was a normal urge, the one she'd always had to subdue, living with him. Strengthened by the new knowledge of exactly how delicious, amazing, being bedded by her wolf was. If only she had the energy to do anything. She smiled lazily against his skin.
Her mate was sitting upright, cross-legged, in front of her, listening calmly, and with apparent relaxation, to the vitriolic abuse from the newly arrived Alpha. The short, stocky, slightly overweight seeming-human was gesticulating wildly as he strode agitatedly around the clearing. Mac didn't move his head, but his eyes followed the dark figure as it passed through the dapples of moonlight and shade. Her wolf remained motionless, watching the words spit out of this new Alpha's mouth, watching him prowl aggressively in front of them.
Under the calm exterior, Gemma could feel her mate's frame trembling lightly, the internal shimmer of a body too far stressed, in too much pain. He still couldn't stand, still had deep mottled bruises and angry open wounds all over his bare torso, and he needed sleep, the healing sleep. Damn this new Alpha. Mac had only broken out of his coma because of the threat to her. She herself had awoken abruptly, finding her mate crushing her to him, rolling them in a swift scatter of wolves to the trees before he swung her behind him and wedged her protectively there between himself and a large trunk just as this new arrival exploded through the wolf-ring at the opposite edge of the re-grouping circle.
Mac couldn't fight. Not yet.
Maybe he wouldn't need to.
Vanilchov - Vanil, the platinum Alpha whom Gemma had only ever seen cursing Mac, spitting into his face, or attacking him, was standing protectively in front of the pair of them. Her heavily muscled ex-suitor was staunchly facing the newcomer, alert and ready. He appeared to be fully healed, apart from two small dark holes adorning his stomach and shoulder, Gemma noted slightly sourly.
Vanil hadn't already been carrying the damn poison for weeks.
The third, unknown Alpha had a nondescript face framed by what looked in the moonlight like brown hair, broad shoulders, and a slight paunch over a powerful frame. His white teeth and whites of his eyes flashed in the darkness where he stepped through the shade of the trees, as he spewed emotion across the clearing.
"Fuck it, what's gotten into you, Vanilchov? Its life is forfeit - shooting a wolf with silver? Clearly the were is deranged already, and needs to be destroyed. Fuck it - you're one of the wolves it shot!" His voice whip-cracked the angry words around the trees and the wolves surrounding them shifted uneasily, eyes aglow.
"Grey shot Mackeld and me," Vanil replied brusquely. Again.
But his words were ignored, again, as the other Alpha made a short, impatient gesture with one hand.
"Yeah?" growled the newcomer, "That's not what my wolves say. You were in shiatz - so how the hell would you know what it was doing while you were out? It was holding the gun when they arrived, and the only scent on the weapon is the wereem's. Mac was also down, and Grey was standing over him, nowhere near the creature when it fired at him too. Why the fuck are you defending it?"
The harsh voice softened, silkily sarcastic, "Or is that it? The rut that drove Mackeld loon-loup is over, but you still fancy a piece of that tasty wereem tail?"
Mac growled softly, but Vanil ignored the insult, stating coldly, "I was awake and charging the aggressor when I was shot. Nicholas Grey shot me twice, with silver, after shooting the Mackeld. No doubt he intended to blame the human, as she would have made a handy scapegoat and there was no scent of him here to testify to his presence."
"Ridiculous!" spluttered the angry Alpha, "No wolf would use silver on another - whereas that creature, it's not even a human, it's a fucking -!!" He howled to a halt, unable to produce an abusive enough word, and heaved in another furious breath, abruptly changing tack.
"No scent? Is your nose twisted? Grey's trail is a clear blaze into the forest. My forest," he glared at the other two Alphas as he continued. "My range. My judgement, here."
Vanilchov's reply bit. "OK. Maybe I should be more clear. Grey left no scent until the Mackeld ripped his throat out. And the reason I live is because the human dug the bullets out of me."
The short, heavy Alpha facing him halted his angry pacing and swung to face them head on, snorting incredulously, "What, are you really claiming Grey can mask scent now, are you buying into Mackeld's tail-catching? Have you joined them in their feud?" His voice deepened in scorn, "What would your Natalie say to this? Mackel -."
Vanil's voice was harsh with warning, snarling an interruption. "She would ask, as I do, what the hell Grey was doing inside Mac's ruhkreis? My challenge. My fight. What was a third wolf doing there? And how did he get past the ring, unnoticed?"
Vanil's icy gaze swept interrogatively, accusingly, around the circle of waiting, watching wolves, and Gemma felt a frisson of unease, of doubt, run around the quivering pack awaiting her fate. Frowns creased many faces as, confused, the watchers surrounding them realised the significance of the Vanilchov Alpha's question, and tried to puzzle out how the Grey could have eluded them on entry. What had they missed?
Masking scent? Impossible. Yet also impossible to slip past the circle. Each wolf had been crowded by the scents of his neighbouring rivals all week. If there had been a gap, someone would have filled it instantly, desperate for space.
Into the stinging, doubtful silence, the platinum-blond Alpha standing in front of Mac and Gemma added softly, "Do you dispute my witness, Silback?"
The last words hung dangerously in the electric air, and the uneasy wolves around the clearing shuddered in increased tension, sending unhappy, awkward glances flicking between the two standing Alphas facing off against each other.
Unnoticed to any except Gemma, Mac abruptly lifted his head, as though scenting, sensing something that startled him. He turned his face to peer intently off to the right, into the dark forest, listening, his attention dragged away.
In the moonlit break between the dark trees, Silback avoided Vanilchov's challenge, switching to attack on a different front, voice softening. "Human? I hardly think so, Vanil. The shiele has taken root - it melted wereem into the rut, and its scent only holds a hint of human now, even without the doft. It's turning. It stands no chance. Let me put it out of its misery, before its insanity messes things up any further." His glance also swept the clearing, and his voice took on an edge of scornful rebuke, "I'm surprised none of my whelps had the balls to take care of it already, while you both were in shiatz."
Vanil's back twitched, and a crooked smile lifted the corner of his mouth. "Be my guest," he responded calmly, to Gemma's shock, and stepped lightly aside. The platinum Alpha turned to keep Silback in view, eyes gleaming with amused anticipation as he watched him focus in on Mac and Gemma.
Gemma lifted her head warily to meet the fierce, clinically killing gaze of the broad, stocky Alpha over Mac's bulk, and she shivered uncontrollably. Then his eyes seemed drawn inescapably to her neck, to the multiple rows of Mac-tooth hieroglyphs nibbled and nipped into the skin over her collar bone, and even in the moonlight, she could see him blench.
Mac turned his head back calmly from whatever had been holding his attention, and met the burning eyes of the fulminating Alpha challengingly.
"Are you insane?" Silback almost howled.
"Try me," Mac growled back.
"Human - or were. Whichever. Has sleeping with the fucking enemy bewitched you?"
"Humans are not the -."
"Humans have caused this whole fucking war, Mackeld. If it weren't for humans, you wouldn't have Tzo's lot pouring over your borders, trying to smother the whole of Aster under his rule. Yet you're defending that creature. Marked with your naulu! I say again, has it infected you with its insanity?"
The squat, powerful Alpha broke off abruptly and turned to face the East himself, incredulity lighting his features, followed by awe, disbelief, and then dawning, dazed excitement. Vanil was already standing alert, trembling, facing the way Mac had first turned, his eyes gleaming, cheeks lightly flushed.
Other wolves around the clearing began to sense whatever it was. Gemma lifted her head, a faint quiver at the shimmer of feeling in the air feathering down her spine. The seething mass of anger and worry was quietening, giving way to excitement, and growing wonder. Slowly all of the noses, wolf, human or lycan, turned to point into the darkness under the trees which the three Alphas already faced. Utter silence fell, broken only by the tense, excited breathing of over fifty trembling wolves.
Gemma could feel her own blood beating excitedly in her veins; the shimmer inside Mac was deepening in response to the rising tension in the forest clearing, excitement, anticipation, and eagerness bouncing between the collection of alert wolves.
The waiting seconds seemed endless.
Silence preceded his arrival for several aching, pulsing heartbeats, and the wolves seemed to stop breathing when finally, silently, four huge males brushed into the clearing, smoothly clearing a path through the circle of trembling, excited wolves.
Then came the wolf, quietly, softly pacing.
He was tailed by a substantial following of others, male and female, who fanned out behind and beside him where he halted; all were in human form.
Yet the others were irrelevant. The wolf at the centre was small, mild-looking, slight, his silver-shot black hair topping an aged face lined with humour and wisdom. He was walking with upright, gentle grace, aided negligibly by the small cane in his right hand, and his clothes were elegant, dark, and barely noticeable except for the sense of refinement which they shrouded over him. But the air echoed with his presence; it was almost like heat against the skin, a sense of pressure, coiled power concealed, beating suffocatingly through the air.
He didn't need an entourage.
The aged wolf halted on the edge of the windbreak, beside the tree which had been wounded by the silver bullet Gemma had fired, and leaned lightly on his cane, glancing casually around. The wolves surrounding the gap in the trees were all kneeling on their forelegs, noses bent to the earth, and Vanil and Silback were already curving back out of deep bows while Mac was struggling to force his legs to steady underneath him and lift him to his feet. The seemingly slight old man shook his head at her shivering wolf, waving a friendly hand, and mildly requested him to stay seated.
"Rather, I also will sit," he pronounced, a slightly French lilt to the words, and he did so, resting upright on a small triangular camp stool which one of his followers had swiftly unfolded.
He laid his cane lightly across both knees, and surveyed the three of them.
Gemma caught a glimmer of steel under the mild look in his eye, and awareness of the edge to the situation sank into her suddenly. Silback's accusations, in comparison, had just been posturing. This wolf held real power - and the ring of wolves surrounding them had held them for judgement. Was this an audience? Or a trial?
Vanil cleared his throat. "Fealden Wolflord," he began awkwardly, his voice slightly choked in awe, and was waved to silence. The Wolflord was looking at Mac, his eyes deep pools, silently assessing, sinking into her mate. Mac lifted his chin slightly, and settled himself, his gaze steady as he kept his eyes courteously on the lined face of the old wolf, waiting to hear what he would say, perfectly still.
"You frequently amaze me, Mackeld. How did you manage to break from the silver coma and tear the bullet out yourself?"
"My mate called me for help," Mac rumbled softly over the stir in the air while the surrounding wolves turned to look at him, eyes shining in disbelief.
The black eyes of the aged wolf facing them flickered, then mellowed, softening with a hint of sadness, and they dropped a heartbeat to rest on the marks on Gemma's neck, before they lifted to meet Mac's gaze again. Then he turned them to hold Gemma's.
Hold was the word. The black pools were so deep. Way, way too deep to read, and she had a sense that is she stared for too long she would fall, and keep on falling into the bottomless, endless, depths. She was falling - nothing to hold on to, no sense of place, time, self. Falling. Nothing. No weight. No world.
Dimly, she felt the shrug of skin against hers, the hint of bitter scent curling into her - familiar - Mac, the angry acridity in the heat of his musk burned in her nostrils and made her blink, breaking away, shivering her back slowly into a sense of herself.
Gemma dropped her head, closing her eyes, and pushed her face into her mate's neck, breathing in his protective anger, trying to escape the endless, calling depths of those old eyes.
"Sorry about that." Fealden's faintly French accent was refined. "I was curious, and hadn't realised how open you are, human."
A shock of disbelief and faint resentment reverberated around the waiting wolves in the clearing. The Wolflord was a legend among their own people. Over recent decades the ancient, revered hero had only ever been seen by the small pool of Alphas on the rare occasions when they were invited to his home. Now he was here, with them, among them once again. But - had the Wolflord travelled from his retirement fastness to speak to the human?
Fealden answered the tension in the crowd, calmly, "Peace, my wolves. This is a wolf friend." A frantic shock rocked through the clearing at that simple phrase, wolves scrambling to their feet in protest, snarls, whines erupting, echoing from all sides. Mac stiffened, his head shooting up in amazement, and Silback yowled a note of discordant dissent, but Fealden continued without pause, seemingly without noticing the reaction to his declaration, talking softly over the seething mass of wolves who settled uneasily back into silence. His eyes were fastened on the dark crown of Gemma's head, just visible above her mate's shoulder.
"She is a remarkable creature. Did you know that on the rut, on the run, she halted and centred herself enough to devise an antidote for the poison which is currently eating into the Mackeld? Maynard has had his people perfect it, and he successfully used it to treat Amy the night before last. She awoke yesterday afternoon, weak, but clear of all silver."
The dark gaze switched to Mac, and the Wolflord added dryly, "You will require longer treatment. You must find the time, somehow, despite the growing threat on your north west borders."
What? thought Gemma. Of course. She had forgotten Dr Maynard. And his likely interest in this, his internal knowledge which would allow him to decipher and use the formulae she'd posted on the faculty website. And he'd been successful!
A wash of relief swamped through her, a hard little knot of tension deep within her, that she hadn't even been aware of, relaxing. Mac would be alright. She snuggled against her wolf, hugging him in intense relief, tears starting in her eyes.
But Mac was not relaxing. The opposite. Gemma could sense the tension inside him growing, feel his tightening skin, radiating outwards, and she realised that Fealden was now on his feet, treading softly towards them. He stopped a foot away, and she could feel the shiver break through her wolf as he met that dark, powerful gaze again.
"Your naulu will not save her from the shiele in her system, Ulf Mackeld," the Wolflord stated quietly. "I would not see such a spirit go to waste." He sighed. "Yet, much longer, and she will not be redeemable."
"Moreover, these new bites I do not recognise, although yours were the first. A new Alpha I have not yet met? Who is he? Is she his or yours? Who will she look to once turned?"
A heavy shudder of revulsion shook through Mac, the reverberation echoing through Gemma, and she lifted her head painfully, abruptly, caught by the soft words of the aged wolf, staring back at him, loathing scorching her own skin at the realisation.
Belong to Nick? She would rather die.
She would die, first.
"You have not yet the strength to heal her, Mackeld," continued Fealden, "Not with the silver in your system, and these other wounds." He paused, an ugly sting to the brief silence, then continued, promising softly, "And I will not touch her with your naulu. But it is now urgent, with the fresh bites festering - will you accept my shiele, to do what must be done yourself, to try to save her? As close as she is, we haven't the time to soften it. Can you channel my essence for your human?"
Mac's breathing deepened in tension while he continued to hold the fathomless gaze of the upright old wolf, shivering under the power battering against him. But he nodded, and gently eased Gemma out from behind him, pulling her around in front and folding her in his arms, despite her protests at his own wounds.
"Let me," he breathed the plea, eyes burning into hers, and Gemma fell silent at the feeling in his glowing eyes. She nodded. He kissed her softly on the shoulder, away from Nick's bite, but his breath burned over the fire of the open sore. Then slowly the tremor in Mac grew, unbearably, shaking Gemma with the pain she could feel beating against his skin from the inside, pain which erupted into an uncontrollable shudder when Fealden leant over and gently placed a finger on her mate's temple.
A hiss of sympathy shimmered in the air. The watching wolves around the clearing gritted their teeth, and braced themselves to just watch in awe, to witness the Mackeld Alpha melting down under the force of shiele passed from the Wolflord.
Gemma was on fire, the stinging pain of previous healings a candle to the meltdown of this supernova inside her, agony screaming from her lips. She was aware of the power wracking her mate, shaking his body uncontrollably while his tongue moved gently over her wound. The full incinerating force was battering against her, barely held in check by Mac as he fought to throttle it back, feed her just enough, just the amount she could survive.
The fire of Nick's bites torched into an inferno of white-hot pain, lightening sheeting through her, spreading torture through the rest of her, eating into her skin, burning through her blood, her loins, her heart. Every pore was screaming, the agony unbearable, and she was evaporating, dissolving under the firestorm which burned into her, unable to escape. Dimly she was aware that she would never take a free breath again, never move, live, think without the pain that now burned into her. She was crumbling, disintegrating.