I almost wasn’t in time. I was too slow.
It turned out at that the little female that we’d found along the riverbank wasn’t a rogue, just like the head enforcer had said. She didn’t belong to our pack, but she was a shifter that had probably fallen or gotten lost in the woods. She was suffering from broken bones and a little internal bleeding from being bashed about on the rocks, and now she was being cared for in the pack hospital by doctors who had worked for the past twelve hours. Her recovery time would be slow, as she was also suffering from a bit of malnutrition. She was merely skin and bones, but now that she was getting some fluids and nutrients in her, her prognosis was a bit better. After she was awake she would meet with Paul and discuss how she had come across Destiny Pack’s borders. It wasn’t easy to get to, but it did happen from time to time.
My guess? Hunters or rogues had pushed her away from wherever she was and she had either jumped or fell into the river from the south or southwest. There wasn’t another pack for many miles to our west and north, so it only made sense if she had come from that direction.
“You always were the ever-reluctant knight in shining fur, bro.” Paul sat down next to me outside the small pack hospital on the rickety old bench that should have been replaced probably a decade ago. We were simple folk though, and until something completely broke to the point of not being able to be salvaged, we kept it around.
I suspected that old bench would be firewood within a couple of months. I just hoped it didn’t take out some poor, unsuspecting shifter with it when it finally caved.
“Doc Denario said she should be fine if she makes it through the night,” I told Paul, ignoring his furry hero-complex remark. He was forever nagging me about acting too tough but being too soft when it came to the unfortunate people who came across the property in less than ideal shape. This incident had only reaffirmed his idea that I had some sort of hidden agenda about saving people. Or—well, shifters of my sort, anyway. If the beast had been a rogue, I would have had no problem killing it myself.
Rogues were feral, living mostly in wolf form and forgetting the humanity they were born with. They became brutal the more time passed and couldn’t be reasoned with. They were a threat, and I wasn’t about to become soft on account of the fact that they were hurt or suffering. Put them out of their misery, I would—and do it gladly.
“That’s good,” Paul said almost absently. “Then we can find out what happened. If hunters are near, we need to know about them. Any sign of foreign scents besides our little invalid in there?”
I shook my head.
“Not even a trace, but then again with the rain—”
He interrupted with a sigh.
“Yeah. It would have been difficult to tell after all that, but we had to make the effort. I’d have felt like I was letting people down if we hadn’t at least tried to find a whiff of what patrol’s been talking about. If the folks see I’m not doing anything—”
“You’d lose their trust, I know.”
Paul and I had been best friends for so long that we often finished each other’s sentences. It was like we were some old, married couple instead of friends from diapers. Even Cass made fun of us every once in a while. All in good fun, of course.
“You should probably head out later again, at any rate,” Paul concluded. “You only did a sweep of half the perimeter before you came across the stray in there. I’d like you to double back a couple of miles and make sure you didn’t miss anything along the river. Just in case.”
I nodded, agreeing. Not that I could go against a direct command, and that was about as close as Paul had ever gotten to giving me an Alpha Command. We had an unspoken agreement. He didn’t use it on me if I simply did what he asked. Or directed.
“I’ll head out in a bit,” I told him, heaving a sigh before standing up from the unwieldy deathtrap of a bench. It shifted as I stood, and the imbalance of weight rocked Paul to standing as well.
“Take the same group with you,” he told me. “They’ve all had a good night’s sleep and, with the exception of you, are still raring to go. You look dead on your feet, dude.”
I’d had only had a few hours of sleep and they were restless ones at that. I didn’t like the fact that there were strangers about and had kept my ass planted in a chair in the waiting room of the hospital, drifting off every once in a while as the doctor tried to save the trespasser’s life.
I was about to walk off when Paul stopped me again.
“Yeah?” I stood still, almost as if I knew what was coming.
“You should, uh—you should probably think of going to The Claiming next year.” Before I could object, he was talking again. “I mean, you can’t let Carla and her rejection keep you in some kind of fucked-up mate limbo. She rejected you five years ago, man, and even if The Counsel pretty much leaves us be, they’re bound to start wondering why you’re still unmated in their books.”
The Counsel. Them and their stupid fucking mating books.
The Counsel kept ledgers of the different packs and their mates—particular those men and the few females with higher ranking in the packs. Alpha, Beta, Delta—the list went on, though they didn’t much care for the Omega-ranked wolves. Being Beta, I was probably being looked at with some scrutiny.
“No,” I spat out, irritated. “I’d at least like to see if I get a second chance mate within the next few years before being marched off to some heathenistic ritual where I’m forced to play ‘catch the she-wolf’. It’s barbaric, if you ask me.”
Paul nodded and smiled.
“It is a bit, at that,” Paul said. “But it’s where I met Cass, so it can’t be all that bad. And it is sort of fun to stalk your female for a bit. Especially in the wild.”
Paul had been lucky and had found Cassidy within a few seconds of the annual ritual starting. Once he let the arbiter of The Claiming know that they were true mates, they were pardoned from having to compete, mostly on account of him being of Alpha blood.
But—maybe he was right. Maybe if I went to one of these shitshows they hosted each year I would find a second chance at happiness and finally put the past where it belonged. In the motherfucking past.
Not bitter at all—not me.
The group headed to the southwest just a little after lunch. We had all eaten in the impromptu mess hall that we used for group functions. It was located in the bottom—many considered it the basement—of the packhouse and had a large kitchen. Some of the mated enforcers had opted to eat at home before heading out, but for the most part we were grouped in the loud cafeteria eating together.
No new scents were abound, and the night before had been blissfully dry. The ground was still soft beneath my feet, but at least it wasn’t the mud from twenty-four hours ago. It made hiking and shifting a little less like mud-wrestling, or one of those obstacle courses that were all the rage nowadays. Tough Mudder? Was that the name of it?
If those humans that partook in the messy event knew how much harder it was in the real outdoors, it wouldn’t so popular I was sure.
The soil along the river was, of course, a little less than ideal with its constant mushiness, but we kept away from it since it would have been easier to get away if we ran into any unwanted visitors. After yesterday’s discovery along the banks, we figured we’d smell any intruders before we saw them. There were too many hills and slopes along the bank, some of them jutting up to over twenty feet above the rapidly moving water, and at those times, we were forced to split up, some of us sticking to higher ground while others nearly lost their footing—and in some cases, shoes—in the muddy river bank.
Tough Mudder this, bitches.
The fragrance of new blooms and pine needles was getting stronger, so I assumed we were coming to the less unforgiving terrain near the meadow that went on for about a mile due south of the central community of Destiny Pack. I had always found the area quite pretty and relaxing, sometimes taking a day off to myself to lie back in the tall grass and just stare at the sky. It was a little brain downtime, and I treasured those moments above all else these days. It was too far away for a nice daytrip for most wolves, and so it was left vacant for the most part except for the few daring or adventurous enough to take on the task of getting there, making a day of it and then hoofing it back to the center of town. I know that when I went, I made sure to leave early and head back by mid-afternoon.
Wildflowers were usually most prominent, along with some Queen Ann’s Lace. Brown-eyed Susan’s and daisies with the occasional crop of daffodils were most common, though there were some wild roses that popped up on occasion. That was why the scent of them surprised me so much. It was very strong to my sensitive nose, and I wondered if some of their seed had drifted to near the riverbank on some of the wilder windstorms we’d had last spring. It made sense, but usually I had only found them rarely, and when I did, they were farther away from the water.
“Smell that?” an enforcer muttered from beside me. His body had gone tense and his nose was lifted into the air.
He gave me a look like I needed to have my head examined.
Maybe, but not right now.
“No,” he replied. “I smell shifter. Not Destiny Pack, but not rogue smell either.”
“Fuck.” I grimaced. “Don’t tell me we have another wanderer on the fringes that got lost. Are we hosting some fucking function or something I didn’t know about?”
Those rarely—if ever—happened, so I was certain we had another lost little pup idling about our land and in trouble.
“Blood, too,” the enforcer announced suddenly. “Not much, but enough.”
Fuck. Just what we needed. Another damn mouth to feed and another broken body to mend.
“Move on,” I told him. “The wind’s ahead of us so it’ll be due east. Along the bank again, most likely.”
The wind didn’t shift the whole time we walked, creeping closer to the river and scenting the wind to find the direction from whence it came. It had only gotten stronger, along with the scent of wild roses with a hint of wildflower. The wildflowers were probably just north of us, but I could still scent them anyway as I was attuned to their fragrance in general.
“Look!” the enforcer—Jeff? Jake?—pointed down to the water’s edge. “See that?”
I did. Ripped clothing with some white skin poking through. If my eyes weren’t deceiving me, I could see bloody scratches along bruised ribs. Whenever this person had come to this place, it hadn’t been too long ago. The abrasions and cuts looked pretty fresh.
The body wasn’t tall, so I assumed it was another female, probably younger, and most definitely injured beyond being able to move on her own. I stalked over to the bank and took in more of the foreign wolf. The scent of roses overwhelmed the other smells. Fresh-running water, the daisies from the meadow. Even the biting taste of blood that usually irritated me and made me bite back bile was muted against the heavy scent of the mystery source of the bloom.
Only it wasn’t so mysterious when I kneeled down and put a hand out to touch the foreign creature.
The scent was coming from her.
I rolled the young woman’s neck gently in my hands and her eyes slid open slowly, like they were too tired to open any faster. Looking up at me she uttered only one word.
Her eyes slid closed again and I stumbled back until my ass was planted in the mud. I didn’t care though and my breathing came in heavy pants.
What did she mean? Could she tell I had been rejected, or was it some sort of explanation about how she’d come to be laying on the bank, bruised, some of her bones bent at angles that shouldn’t have been possible in either wolf or human form.
When I had regained my bearings, I kneeled down again and pushed my arms under her body before pulling her up into a bridal carry.
“You guys keep moving and tracking,” I told the rest of the enforcers. “Mindlink me with any news of foreign scents. I’ve got another stray wolf to save apparently.”
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