"The human had to prove herself like we all did," Daniel said. "It is the law. It is fair."
They spoke of her as if she wasn't even there, instead of sitting at my side.
"Fair, really?" I asked. "Who among you has faced twenty-two challenges in two weeks?"
None. Not even Mahon, our Executioner, had killed so many so quickly.
Speaking of law. I addressed Jennifer directly. "If I recall correctly, Daniel, despite being chosen upon the retirement of his predecessors, had successfully faced a number of challenges before choosing you as his mate. However, you have never been challenged. Do you know why that is? Because according to the law the two of you are so fond of quoting, whoever challenges you will also have to fight Daniel. The alphas fight as one. If one of the alphas is injured, it has been an unspoken courtesy among the Pack to wait until both are on their feet before a challenge is issued. It is the matter of honor. If you take another's place, you must win it fairly. You did not afford my mate the same courtesy."
"She killed my sister," Jennifer ground out.
Good, let's get it all out there. Settle things once and for all. "True, your sister went loup and attacked her. Kate didn't cause it and killed the one who did. Your anger is misplaced. As a matter of fact, she did you a favor. If you were any kind of alpha, you would know that putting your sister down was your responsibility. It was your burden to carry. You are the next of kin."
Jennifer clenched her teeth. I measured every word carefully. I couldn't challenge her, because the challenge had to come from the ground up. But if I said enough, she would challenge me.
"My mate assumed your burden and instead of gratitude, you hate her for it. She is the constant reminder of your weakness. You want to fight her, but you can't. Instead you goad others into doing what you can't bring yourself to do. It is your greatest failing. However, because I am merciful and just, I will offer you a chance to atone."
"I will not apologize or bow to her. I'll die first." Jennifer snapped at the air like a mad dog.
We'll just see about that. "Again, you misunderstand. What I offer is a chance at the revenge you seek, but properly this time. Challenge us. Couple to couple, as it was meant to be."
I gave the rest a warning glance. "No one will interfere. Just the two of you against the two of us. It is the law."
Kate tensed next to me. I found her hand under the table and gave her gentle squeeze to reassure her that I was just bluffing and that it would be alright. Well, not really, but I was confident that even as we were, we could take them, and all the rest if need be. As long as they believed we could do it, we wouldn't have to.
Jennifer began to rise - she really was either stupid or crazy -and Daniel grabbed her arm, almost too quickly to see, and yanked her back. She landed in the chair, hard.
She opened her mouth. He gave her a flat stare. She shut her mouth and dropped her gaze. Her face turned red. So he was unwilling to let her throw away her life or his own. I had expected as much.
Daniel bowed his head in a slight nod. "Clan Wolf begs the Consort for her forgiveness. We are sincerely sorry for any offense we may have caused. We wish to express our continued loyalty and obedience to the Beast Lord and his Mate."
Well said. Perhaps there was hope for him after all.
"What about the rest of you?" My gaze lingered for a moment on the alphas of Clan Rat. Thomas and Robert Lonesco shook their heads in unison.
Thomas, the older and larger of the pair, spoke. "We have no dog in this fight." He smiled a little, showing very even white teeth. "We did not vote for her because we did not know enough about her. We made amends."
Kate leaned in and said softly, "After I killed the Jackals, they sent me chocolate."
Good, in truth I actually liked them both and would have regretted killing them.
I looked at the aforementioned Jackals replacements.
The female, Tracy, spoke. "We have no problem with the Consort. We are indebted to her for our current position."
I had expected as much. All that was left was Clan Nimble and Mahon's heavies. The old bear I would deal with privately. Clan Nimble was a sort of anomaly within shapeshifter society. Its alphas, an older Asian couple, ruled not because they were the strongest, but because their age and wisdom was highly respected by their subjects. It did not hurt, of course, that their devoted betas were a vicious pair that was feared by the rest of the clan and many in the Pack. They kept their elders from harm and it was understood that they themselves would take their place as alphas, when the time came.
The alpha of clan Nimble stood, drew himself to his full height, and then bowed deeply without his gaze ever leaving me. He held the bow then straightened and proclaimed in a very formal tone, "Clan Nimble remembers the understanding his Majesty has shown to us, and would never dishonor itself by repaying that kindness with treason or betrayal. The Consort has fought admirably and earned a place of respect at our lord's side."
Okay, a simple "we got your back" would have sufficed but if he felt more comfortable with formality, then so be it.
"We respect Clan Nimble and hold its friendship in high esteem." Ahh, that got him, he almost smiled, bowed once more, and sat again.
"So, it's all settled then. Unless there is anything else, you may depart in peace. Mahon, you stay."
The rest filed out as quickly as they could while maintaining a semblance of dignity.
Kate turned to me. Her eyes asked me, "Do you want me to stay?"
Silently I shook my head. "No, you don't want to be here for the next part."
*** *** ***
I watched the Council of the Pack run from the room with their tails between their legs. One by one, they fled, careful not to look at me or the Bear. Finally the last of the shapeshifters went through the doorway. It was just the two of us.
I looked at Mahon the way an alpha looks at the subject. Mahon crossed his massive arms.
"It comes to this, then."
I didn't answer.
"It's about time. I've been waiting for this, boy. It needs to be sorted out."
Good, we understood each other. "Do you want to settle this here, old man, or do you have some place in mind?"
Mahon considered it for a long moment. "We're going to need space. This place is too small."
"Up on the fourth floor balcony, then."
The balcony, a flat top of one of the smaller towers, was a stone square, about twenty by fifty yards. In spring and summer we used it for outdoor dining and gatherings, but in winter it was deserted. It would provide us with plenty of room and give us some privacy as well.
This thing between Mahon and me wasn't going to be an exhibition. It wasn't a fight to the death either, but if any of the Pack happened to witness it, it would become one. I would have to kill Mahon, and I did not want to do that. Mahon wasn't my father, but I was his son.
This was between the two of us and when it was over we would know once and for all who was the strongest.
I walked through the doorway. He followed. Outside the room Derek saw me and stepped away from the wall. I glanced at him, said, "Follow me," and kept walking. The kid fell in step behind us. We would need a guard to keep the rest of the Pack from sticking their noses where they didn't belong and it couldn't be Jim or Kate. Jim was my best friend. He would interfere. Kate… This was something I didn't want Kate to see. Derek would do what he was told and would keep the rest out.
The three of us made our way to the fourth floor. A solid wooden door barred the way to the balcony.
I looked at Derek. "You stand here. Nobody gets on the other side of this door." I held his gaze for another long moment to make sure I had his attention. "No one."
I opened the door and Mahon and I walked outside. The cold air hit my lungs.
The door shut behind us.
Darkness had fallen. The sky was black and vast, and the small lights of stars pierced it with cold light. Behind us the grey towers of the Keep blocked the moon, but it was there, spilling light on the snow-strewn clearing around the Keep. Beyond it, black woods rose.
The balcony stretched before us, covered with untouched, white snow. Before this was over, we'd paint it red.
"How do you fancy doing it?" Mahon asked.
"Not like this and your half form sucks," I told him. "I want you at your best. You better bear out."
"In that case, you better come at me in your warrior form. It will give you a better chance."
"No need," I answered.
He laid his hand on my shoulder and said quietly, "My son, if you hesitate or hold back, I will break you."
You will try. "No more talk."
I let go. Heat flooded me. There was a tremendous warmth. It was like being stretched on a rack while being set on fire. And then everything pulled: bones, tendons, muscles, skin stretched tight. The hazy veil I didn't notice fell away and suddenly the world was painfully clear. I smelled it all, the wind from the icy sky, the hint of smoke from the Keep's kitchen, the dry stone, the clean snow, and the fur of a huge bear waiting to break my back.
Bear. Familiar scent. Safe. The same scent I smelled years ago, when I had no place to go and Mahon told me I had a home. He was huge then, big and rough, taller than me by almost a foot. "You can stay here, boy. We'll treat you like our own. You don't have to call me Dad. Just Mahon will do."
Across the balcony, the Kodiak shook his head. He was huge, nearly twelve feet tall, and he weighed almost a ton.
Going toe to toe with him was out of the question. I shook, testing the shift. Everything had fallen into place. I wasn't at full power, but that was fine. I was too pissed to take a rain check on this fight.
The shaggy giant beast reared up onto his hind legs and roared at me. That's right show me that big soft belly. I opened my mouth and roared back, drowning him out. Bring it, fat boy.
My best bet would be to bleed him. Dart in, bite or claw, then out again before those big paws can connect. Don't let him grab or hold me. If he could, Mahon would pull me into a hug and crush my head between his jaws. And if I was really lucky, he'd come at me just like this, on hind legs, gut out.