Lightning flashed outside, startling me awake and the distant sounds of thunder followed a few seconds later. I turned to the clock, 4:30 am. I closed my eyes again and dug back into the pillow, trying to get back to the dreamless sleep I had been enjoying.
A few more toss and turns and it was decidedly not going to happen.
Swinging up and out of the bed, I went over to the window. Sunrise was starting to creep onto the horizon, and with the waning moon, there was enough light to see out the front of Iona’s house and onto the lane. Rain still glistened on the dirt road and I opened the window to peer out. The storm had passed, maybe half an hour ago and it had taken the wind with it, an eerie quiet falling on the house and garden.
A sound behind me made me turn, and Iona was now walking in and sat on my empty bed.
“Can’t sleep?” I asked, leaning back up against the window frame.
She gave a small smile, the fleece robe she wore hung off her shoulders.
“I never can in a storm, not since the night of that accident.” I tilted my head at her in question.
“That night, where your father ran across the road, there was a storm passing through not long before, which was why the river was so high. Ever since then, storms feel...ominous I guess, to me anyway.”
I grimaced and I walked over to the bed, sitting beside her and holding her around the shoulders.
“I’m sorry you lost him so young.”
She gave me a small smile and reached for her neck, pulling out a rose shaped locket underneath her nightgown. Opening it, she flashed it toward me, in the night light next to my bed. There was a handsome teenage Ewan staring at me with my broad smile, with Devon Jones on the other side. Iona brought her hand to my cheek, “I didn’t lose him, not really.”
I gave her a big smile, and my eyes welled.
“It sounds selfish, but I am glad you’re here.”
I opened my mouth to tell her I understood but was cut off. From the open window, the sound of dogs fighting erupted. It reminded me of my apartment in Seattle, where cats brawling in the alleyway was common late at night. The sound intensified, and the sound of at least two or three canines, snarling and barking resonated against the house and its little alcove.
I looked to Iona, both of us with raised eyebrows in surprise. Together we moved to the open window and looked out. There was silence for a few moments, then out of the bushes that ended the lane, two grey wolves came out in unison. In their mouths, was an unconscious dark brown wolf. His scruff was in the mouth of the larger wolf with his hind thigh in the mouth of the other. The pair were easily hauling its body back up the lane at a quick pace. Ignoring the house and the two ladies looking down on them, the wolves trotted right past the gate and continued on the way to the main road until they were out of sight.
Iona and I looked to each other, with comical expressions,
“What the hell was that?”
Iona opened her mouth like a codfish before shutting it again.
“You know honestly? Not the strangest thing I’ve seen at this house. Let’s just leave that, shall we? Try to get a few more hours of sleep, huh?” The older lady patted my hand and left me at the window sill, confused, and looking out, while she walked back to the open doorway.
“See you in the more reasonable morning, darling.”
I gave a slight agreeing smile to her and then closed the window.
Down a giant rabbit hole.
Omar’s voice sounded from the stairwell.
I poked my head out from the reading nook on the second floor.
“Rhys is here. Can you come down?”
I frowned, Rhys had never had a problem just wandering into the house before. I shook the crumbs of my lunch off my chest and put the e-book down with Jolene’s required reading. At the bottom of the stairs, Rhys was out the front door, clearly not coming in because his boots and up to his knees were a good deal covered in thick mud. He gave me a once over before ending at my face and giving me a smile that didn’t reach his eyes. He had other things on his mind.
“Uh, hi, Look, I need to postpone our thing til tomorrow. Stuff has come up and it’s not a good day for what I had planned with the storm still hanging around. Alright?”
He planted his hands on his hips and looked down to his boots, kicking them on the porch steps, trying to shuck some of the mud off.
“Yeah, fine, just work stuff. Storms, ya know? Always something to fix.”
“I’m always happy for baby lamb duty if that helps?”
He looked up from his boots and gave a smirk.
“Fell in love, did ya?”
“Something like that.” His eyes moved down to my lips. Shit, he thought I was speaking of him, and I quickly diverted my interest to my own feet.
“Naw Red, I’ve got the farmhands on it today, and by tomorrow when it clears up, they will be out in the pasture.”
“Tomorrow then, yeah?”
I gave him a big shrug,
“I’ll be here. Doing...nothing.”
It was like he had forgotten my almost-prisoner status. Instead of seeing the irony of asking me if I’m available, he gave a smile, turned to leave before stopping,
“Omar, can I grab you for a minute?”
The older Arab frowned, but followed Rhys out the door, shutting it behind them. Wondering about the exchange, I moved into the sitting room and watched them from the window. Rhys had his hand on Omar shoulders and the two were huddled. The younger man pointed up the lane and opposite into the hills that led to the sea. Omar shook and nodded his head every now and then. After a few moments, the two parted, Rhys to his truck and Omar back inside.
I walked back to Iona’s parlor and poured a cup of tea that was waiting on a tray when she came in with a sewing set and sat down by the bay window, pulling out my torn Henley. I watched her methodically work through the first shoulder, then the other tears. After a half an hour or so, I asked,
“So, does weird stuff like this morning happen all the time?”
Keeping her eyes on the needle she was rethreading, she replied.
“Not so much these days, but in the beginning, when the Maddocks assumed control of the Jones’ pack, there was a bit of anarchy in these hills, yes.”
She looked up at me while she was positioning the shirt, “Ewan’s decision to step down affected a lot of people, there was a lot of anger.” She sighed, and started mending, “Then when he left in the middle of the night soon after, Deian had a good rager and I think there were four or five wolves patrolling these hills at once, always thinking Ewan would return.” She stayed quiet while she sewed the shoulder of my shirt back together. I sipped my tea and looked out the window.
I thought about the turmoil that would have happened around my grandmother, but it was something that she would have lived with for over thirty years now and understood well as an old wolf. Whereas I had unknowingly kept mine at bay for my entire life. But now I was a few days away from the next full moon, and I doubted I could keep her asleep anymore if I tried.
“Will it hurt?” I suddenly asked, quietly.
Looking up from the shirt, she placed it back on her lap, her wrinkled face filled with pity, she knew what I was speaking of.
I took a long exhale, I already knew that answer, but to have someone like Iona confirm it made it worse.
“Will it be...worth it?”
She turned her head to look out at the garden outside. The sky was clearing up from the clouds, and the late afternoon sun was peeking out, lighting up the colors of the springtime bloom.
“Absolutely.” She smiled at some memory and pressed on, “you’ll feel unconstrained, free. The red wolf gene was always flawless. Your grandfather, his wolf, looked like poetry in motion when he ran. Then when she lets go and you revert, you’ll feel different, more in tune with yourself. Like something you didn’t know was even missing was returned to you.”
She was staring out the window dreamily, reminiscing.
“How long has it been since you changed?” I asked.
She broke her reverie and looked back to me, a rueful smile.
“Many years. My wolf and I had a good time, but she knew when it was time to go to sleep.”
My concern at hearing that my grandmother’s wolf had essentially left her, gave her a small laugh and she put her hand over mine.
“Don’t worry, darling. After a certain age, it is too much for a body to go through. The amount of painkillers one usually takes for the transformation these days would kill me by itself!”
I frowned again, thinking of the new full moon in four days and continued to stare out the window, holding my tea close for the warmth while Iona sewed. Slowly, the clouds moved North, and sunshine was streaming into the garden.
After some time, I began to feel restless, the sense of urgency, along with everything Iona had told me was growing. Rhys was leaving me alone again and doing farm chores. I felt useless.
“You know what? Rhys said it was handled, but since it’s cleared up, I think I’ll take a walk down to see those baby lambs again. Did you need me to set anything up for dinner?”
She looked up in thought. “No, Omar has his own routine down, just be back in an hour or two.”
I nodded and headed to the mudroom for my hiking boots.
The front white picket fence closed behind me and I looked up and down the lane. The bushes at the end where the two wolves were carrying the third from this morning, were now still. Weren’t there supposed to be ‘guards’ hanging around somewhere? Rhys said the outer yard, so maybe that just meant in the hills.
Screw ’em, if they weren’t around, then it was literally not my problem. Plus, I was just walking down the road, 10 minutes away.
Walking down the lane, the same eerie stillness after the storm this morning had continued, and Rhys’ farmhouse with the shed came into view with the near setting sun. The black truck was parked out the front, but I cut across the open field and headed straight to the shed, coming up from behind it.
About a hundred feet away, I was stopped in my tracks when a chilling scream came from ahead. It was suddenly cut short, almost like someone had smothered it.
I paused, looking around the yard and up at Rhys’ house, now showing that there were some lights coming in from the kitchen. Holy shit. Was that Rhys? I rushed the last hundred feet to the back of the shed, climbing up onto a tin drum, where a gap in the wood had a clear thumb shaped hole and light pouring out. I peered inside, allowing my eyes to adjust to the bright spotlight that was now shining inside.
The inside of the shed had been drastically altered since yesterday, the hay bails moved to the side, and the middle was a large empty space brightly illuminated. Except now there were men and wolves inside, and one of them was completely naked and hanging by his wrists from the ceiling.
The slender man, his body lengthed from hanging, was facing me and the shed doors were closed behind him. I looked to his face but didn’t recognize him. Even if I had known him, I doubt I would be able to tell. His face was a smear of blood and bruises. The nose looked broken, teeth were missing, and his left eye was swollen shut and bleeding. Various places on his body were bleeding, either from gashes or bite wounds.
My eye ran around the room. The two grey wolves from this morning were sitting either side of the rolling shed doors, looking bored if a word could be given to waiting dogs. Three men, dressed in a farmer’s jeans and flannels, were hanging around the edges of the space, arms crossed, looking intent on the beaten man. My heart started to pick up as I took in the space, the sweet little scene with baby lambs was now completely different, this was a torture room.
The man, slightly swinging from the chains around his wrists, moaned deep in his throat and the back of a tall figure walked into my view from my wall of the shed.
He had his hands resting behind the back of his head, like he was frustrated and needed to do something with them. His knuckles resting in his hair were busted and looked dirty with blood smears. Watching his back walk towards the prisoner, he shook his head and placed his hands on his waist.
“What does he think, at least?”
The strung up man spit a mouthful of blood onto the floor.
“I told you, he knows nothing, that’s why he sent us. Just to look. We only wanted to see it.” He sounded like he was pleading now.
Rhys rubbed his hand over his face, and they finished again behind his head.
“You wouldn’t risk coming so far, so close, with two others, just to look. That’s a raiding party.”
The man, a steady stream now coursing from his mouth, chuckled, a new source of bravado coming from somewhere deep. His voice took on a slightly hysterical quality and he almost shrieked at Rhys.
“You think you fucking Maddocks can keep it forever? You fucking stole it, blackmailed him for it! Sooner or later one of the other packs will get to it. If not us, then one of the others. It’s no secret that it’s back.”
Rhys took two long strides towards the man and swung his right fist into his jaw, the thick cords of muscle in his arm straining with the violence. The hoisted man’s whole body lurched with the blow, and he swung back and forth like a pendulum. Rhys turned with the motion, and I saw his face for the first time.
His brow was covered in sweat and his face was contorted with a look of anger I had seen once before. On the face of Deian Maddock the night when I had wordlessly rejected him. If there was any doubt about the connection between father and son, it was obliterated now.
Charming, flirtatious Rhys was long gone, hell, this wasn’t even Asshole Rhys. This was Rhys Maddock, the cold and violent Were that grew up in a den of Wolves.
He wiped his brow under the bright floodlight and turned to the darkness of the back of the shed, facing me. I almost flinched away, but realized the movement would have drawn his notice. His stance stiffened and he closed his eyes, still clenching his fist open and closed by his waist.
His breathing slowed, and he looked like he was focusing. After a moment, with eyes still closed he clearly asked to the back wall,
The prisoner lifted his head up and looked to the others in the room, defeat on his face.
“Just make sure they get my body.”
Staring in my direction, Rhys’ eyes flashed open, now changed. The azure blue iris had widened, his black pupils were now dilated to cover more of the orb and in the gloom of the back of the shed, he looked almost demonic. He brought his hand to his face, seeing that his nails now had points on the ends. Holy shit, Rhys had let his wolf take over an inch, and it seemed that it wanted a mile. That beautiful smile I had once admired flashed again, his canines now elongated and he replied with a frigid, guttural voice,
“Oh, your Alpha will get your body,” and he turned about to the man, “in pieces.”
Rhys closed the distance between them and placed his clawed hand over the man’s chest, digging his fingers into the skin. He cried and wailed in response, wordlessly pleading.
A loud gasp escaped my lips and I clamped my hand over my mouth as Rhys dug his fingers deeper, circling his hand so he made a target shape in the naked skin. Withdrawing his hand, he clenched it into a fist, cocked it back above his shoulder, and savagely punched through the man’s rib cage, the sound of crunching bones echoing. Tears welled in my eyes and underneath my hand, my mouth contorted into one of horror.
The man was beyond screaming now, blood pooled in his mouth and spilled out like a leaking faucet. Rhys’ wrist was deep in the chest, and he pulled the body closer to him with it,
“It will be a Maddock and you don’t fuck with the Maddocks.”
The prisoner’s eyes lowered to Rhys’ one last time before his head rolled back. Rhys gave his arm a strong tug, his hand at first sticking inside the body akin to a boot caught in mud. He gave it another strong pull and it popped out. His dripping hand now held a pulsing heart.
Bile rose in my throat and my knees shook, the tin drum beneath me slightly rattling. Fuck fuck fuck. This was next level. Sure, I had killed two men before in rage and revenge, but it was nothing like this. This was an unarmed man, pleading for his life, and was murdered with Rhys’ bare hand.
Inside the barn, Rhys studied the heart for a moment before throwing it to the larger wolf by the door. The creature snatched it from the air and brought it to the floor to eat.
“Good work,” Rhys directed to the wolf before turning to the men, looking rather unaffected by the sight, like this was commonplace in their line of work.
“Cut it up evenly and then shift. Drag the whole thing back to the border. I want every goddamn Ellis Were that crosses that border to be able to smell that body and know that this is what happens when you try it on.”
Cut it up and drag it back? Cut up the body? Holy fucking shit. Who was this man? He called the man 'it' and gave that order like he was asking for his shoe size.
My eyes were glued to Rhys, past belief that this was the man just yesterday apologizing to me while we were holding baby lambs. The shed door clanged shut and I looked around the room again. Shit, the second wolf was gone from the interior.
From my left, a low growl sounded and I swiveled my head quickly. The small grey wolf was now outside and around the corner of the shed, heading my way. Through this whole time, everyone was intent on telling me I was going to be a part of this pack, but I had the distinct feeling that being caught spying on a torture and murder scene would quickly demote me back to something painful. I could not be caught.
I quickly uttered my incantation for chameleon and gripped the side of the wall tighter. From my elevated position on the drum, my eyes moved to the corner of the shed, where the nose of the wolf slowly came out.
Oh hell, he could smell me.
The sun had now well set and in the twilight, I watched slowly as the wolf stalked around the corner, his teeth bared. He seemed surprised when he came around the back of the shed and no one was there. Still, he walked slowly forward, now relying on his smell and passed by the tin drum and paused. There was nothing I could do, if I moved, the incantation would break. If I stayed and he investigated, he might bump into me and the result would be the same.
I held my breath and clung tight to the wall, hearing him slowly paw past and out of my line of sight. I breathed a sigh of relief when inside the barn the door clanged open and shut again and through the hole, I could see the wolf had returned.
It was definitely time to get the hell out of Dodge. The sound of a chainsaw started up inside the barn and I crouched down and off the drum, and ran with everything I had to the field behind. I didn’t know what my wolf could do yet, but I knew that for the first 27 years of my life, I loved running, and I was good at it. And tonight, I was setting a personal best.
The last of the light had left the sky when I finally stopped running over the hills and I looked back to see Rhys’ house at least a mile away judging by the lights. Orienting myself, I worked out that Iona’s house was to the right and couldn’t be too far, maybe behind that hillock and larger patch of wood?
I started to make my way to the dense woods when I was again halted by the sound of a howling wolf coming from where I had figured Iona's house to be. It wasn’t in pain or anger, rather it sounded like it was howling just to get attention, to raise an alarm.
Dammit, it turned out I did have a guard at the house, and they had just figured out I was gone.