For three days out of thirty, when the moon is full and her law is iron, the Great North Pack must be wild.
If she returns to her Pack, the stranger will die.
But if she stays…"Wonderfully unique and imaginative. I was enthralled!"—JEANIENE FROST, New York Times bestselling author
For three days out of thirty, when the moon is full and her law is iron, the Great North Pack must be wild.
If she returns to her Pack, the stranger will die.
But if she stays…
Silver Nilsdottir is at the bottom of her Pack's social order, with little chance for a decent mate and a better life. Until the day a stranger stumbles into their territory, wounded and beaten, and Silver decides to risk everything on Tiberius Leveraux. But Tiberius isn't all he seems, and in the fragile balance of the Pack and wild, he may tip the destiny of all wolves…
Titnore Woods, 1668
This would be Ælfrida’s fourth and last attempt. The Pack at Essex had refused, as had Anglia. Even the tiny remnants of the Pack at Gyrwe had sent her away empty-handed. Now staring at the strong and plentiful wolves of Wessex, her heart sank. She’d even caught sight of a pup staring at her from under a dead oak, the first she’d seen in England in over a decade.
Her own Mercia Pack hadn’t had a pup since Halwende, and he was almost an adult. As she waited to be announced, subordinate wolves circled Mercia’s Alpha, sniffing her curiously and gathering her scent to take back to the dominants. Others, still in skin, watched from a distance.
“Ælfrida, Alpha of Mercia. Wessex þu wilcumaþ swa beódgæst.”
Ælfrida, Alpha of Mercia. Wessex welcomes you as table guest.
She’d made sure her wolves had learned the English of humans years ago. It was ridiculous to pretend that the Packs were still the top predators. That title belonged to humans now, and Ælfrida studied them as carefully as deer studied her.
“Greetings, Wulfric, Alpha of Wessex, and many thanks for your hospitality.”
“Sprecest þu ne Englisc?” the huge man growled, though that was one of the ambiguities of the Old Tongue: it sounded growled, whether one meant it to or not.
“This is English, Wessex.” She brushed her hand against her breeches, feeling scaly bits of fur there. “Is Seolfer here?”
“Seolfer? Min nidling?”
“Yes, your nidling.” She was distracted momentarily by the scabrous clumps in her hands. Sniffing her palms to be sure, she wiped them against a tree trunk. These wolves might look well fed, but some, at least, had mange. Maybe all was not well in Wessex. Maybe Wulfric would listen to her.
For now, though, the old Alpha scowled.
“Ic þearf wealhstod,” she said, even though she actually didn’t need a translator. Ælfrida was an Alpha who issued commands and was obeyed. This bluntness had not served her well when dealing with the other Alphas, and Ælfrida hoped that Seolfer would know how to translate that bluntness into something the conceited oaf Wulfric might find more acceptable. Besides, she liked the young woman and had looked forward to seeing her again.
“Seolfer!” Wulfric yelled without bothering to look.
The woman who emerged from behind Wulfric’s lodge had dark-blond hair, typical of silvers when they were in skin. A runt, she was destined to life as a nidling, a bond servant to her Alpha pair.
Many moons ago, looking for something more than a life of endless submission, Seolfer had made a desperate run all the way to Pack Caledonia. Unfortunately, wolves tolerate neither weakness nor strangers, especially not with resources so strained. Caledonia, Essex, Northumbria, Strathclyde: all of them had sent her away with nothing but a bite to her pastern.
Then she arrived at the Forest of Dean and planted her short legs and shook her shredded hide and challenged the famously fierce and powerful Alpha of Mercia for a place in the Pack. Ælfrida took one look at the runt and laughed. Then took her in. Not because she had any room for weakness, but because she saw in Seolfer a kind of strength that Packs almost never had: the courage to face the unknown.
The runt was, as wolves say, strong of marrow.
Unfortunately, the great Forest of Dean was falling fast to the humans’ rapacious desires for lumber and grazing and iron, and with her Pack on the edge of starvation, Ælfrida had sent Seolfer back to Wulfric. She knew what waited for the girl, but submission was better than death—at least that’s what Ælfrida told herself.
Seolfer said nothing; her head was bowed low.
“How are you, Seolfer?”
“As you see, Alpha.”
“Hmm. I don’t need you to translate. I need you to make what I say palatable to the old fart. Gea?”
The Seolfer that Ælfrida had known would have laughed, but not this one. She just nodded and bent her head lower, trying to avoid Ælfrida’s attempt to catch her eye. She didn’t have much time, so Ælfrida coughed a little and started her set speech. “The time of the wolves in this country is over. It is now the time of the humans.”
She waited for the girl to translate. Wolves, both wild and in skin, came close to listen to the rugged cadences of the Old Tongue. Ælfrida wrinkled her nose and sniffed; even human, she could smell the sick sweetness of rot. Something was definitely wrong in Wessex.
“The land in Mercia is dying, and with it, our Pack. It is the same everywhere: Anglia and Sussex and Gyrwe.”
“It is not the same here,” interrupted Wulfric, looking at Seolfer to translate, but Ælfrida waved her off.
“How can you say that? When I was last here, just fifty years ago.” Seolfer stumbled over the word year, and Ælfrida waited for her to translate it into six hundred moons, a span Wulfric would understand. “The last time I was here,” she started again, “I ran into a tree to avoid a deer. Now there are neither. The same is true of Mercia, which is why I have arranged for a boat to take my Pack to the Colonies. I am asking you to join your bloodlines with ours. Make a truly great Pack in the New World.”
“Landbuenda?” Wulfric repeated, missing the larger point in his fretting about the whereabouts of these “colonies.”
“America,” Ælfrida said irritably.
“Omeriga?” Wulfric echoed, still confused.
“Oh, by the Moon, Wessex. Vinland.” Recognition dawned on Wessex’s face, then he laughed, and Ælfrida knew that for Wulfric, Vinland was still nothing but a rumor west of Iceland. “It is real,” she snapped. “I have talked to humans who have been there. It is a great land, a wild land. There are vast forests that we could buy and have legal title to and—”
Before Seolfer had even finished translating we could buy, Wulfric interrupted.
“Why should I travel across the water to buy land, when I have land here. Land that has been ours for centuries.”
“You have lived here for centuries, but it belongs to Worthing, and the humans will have it.”
“And since when does a wolf care what humans think?”
“Since they have become stronger than we are, you sodding ass.” Seolfer glided without comment over the last bit. Ælfrida’d had a long and depressing fortnight, and her patience for Pack obstinacy was nearly exhausted. “Since they have armed themselves with weapons that will kill us from afar. Since they tear down our woods to build their ships and graze their sheep. Since they rip up the very ground to find rocks to melt into those guns and bullets. It is time for you to face the truth and do the hard thing. Do the right thing. Be an Alpha, and bring Wessex to America with us. Let us start something great and new.”
As soon as Seolfer had finished translating. Wulfric signaled impatiently for Ælfrida to follow him toward a stone shed with a sod roof. The tall Alpha of Mercia had to fold herself nearly in half to get inside.
Wulfric looked at her smugly. “You see, Mercia. I have faced the truth.”
It took time for the weak eyes of her human form to adjust to the dim light, to see the neat rows of muskets lining the walls. To make out the shelves below loaded with flint and powder and cartridge.
“But…how did he get these?” she asked, turning to Seolfer. “Tell me you didn’t help him do this.” The girl shook her head firmly. “Then who negotiated with the humans? How—?”
Ælfrida froze as she sensed another presence enter the shed, someone with a new and terrifying stench. She turned to the man who was only slightly taller than Seolfer and then bent down, sniffing him. Just to be sure. Just to be sure she wasn’t mistaken in that lethal combination of steel and carrion. That she wasn’t mistaken in that fugitive but equally deadly hint of wild. The man smiled at her, and Ælfrida knew that Wessex had bet the survival of his Pack on a deal with the devil.
“It was my pleasure to help the Great Wessex Pack,” said the man with the thinning blond hair who was the size of a large human and human in disposition, but was not human.
He was Hwerflic. Changeable and inconstant. A Shifter. More than anything, Packs feared Shifters. Because they could be wolves if they wanted, but they never had to be. Unlike Packs, which were ruled by the Iron Moon. For three days out of thirty, when the moon was pregnant and full and her law was Iron, the Packs must be wild.
Shifters mostly lived as humans, but they had much stronger senses and could sniff out Packs. And because all Shifters believed that Packs, like dragons, sat on vast hoards of treasure, they slaughtered them with terrifying regularity.
“The moon is nearly full,” Ælfrida said to Wulfric. “The Iron Moon is coming. How will you protect yourself when you have no hands to load the powder and ball? When you have no fingers to pull the trigger?”
“If I may, Alpha,” said the Shifter in his polished voice. “I have been able to arrange for a human guard who protect the Pack during those days. Times being what they are, they are glad of the employment and will ask no questions.”
Wulfric smiled smugly at Ælfrida.
“Leave us, Shifter,” she said. The man hesitated until Wessex nodded. As soon as she was sure he was out of earshot, Ælfrida whipped around to Wulfric. “What are you doing, you old fool? Once they know how vulnerable you are during the change, the Shifter and his humans will kill you. Then they can take as much time as they want to find your gold.”
Wulfric didn’t wait for Seolfer to finish translating.
“Wessex does not fear prey!” he snarled, his lips curling back from dark-yellow teeth set in pale gums. He belched loudly and stalked out of the shed, followed by his Pack and his Shifter, leaving only his nidling and a sour fug behind.
“What do you mean by ‘prey,’ Wessex?” Ælfrida yelled from the doorway.
The big male did not stop and did not answer.
“Wulfric, betelle þu. Tell me. What have you done?”
Seolfer plucked hard at Ælfrida’s loose sleeve. She’d been a tough little thing, outspoken and smart, but now she looked haunted. She shook her head, her finger raised to her lips. Peering around until it was clear that the Pack had followed its Alpha, she moved quietly, her bare heel eliding to bare toe, clearly used to gliding noiseless and unnoticed around the Pack.
The two of them climbed an incline alongside a fast-moving stream. Wessex hadn’t offered her anything to eat, a terrible breach of Pack laws of hospitality; still, Ælfrida needed something to drink, at least. But before she could kneel at the water’s edge, Seolfer grabbed her arm and pulled her roughly away. For such a tiny thing, she was remarkably strong. Then the nidling pointed her toward a springhouse a short distance away. She pulled a rag from her waistband. “Cover your mouth, Alpha.”
Ælfrida ran as fast and hard as she could. She had left her clothes with the young woman, as well as the details of her Pack’s departure from Portsmouth on the day after the Iron Moon. Had she said they’d be sailing on the Assurance? She couldn’t remember anymore, because all she could remember were the partly eaten humans cooling in the springhouse. Everything made sense now: the guns, the fat, the mange, the yellow teeth, and the stench. The smell of carrion and man-eaters.
The wolves of England were already dead. Running at night and through streams and in the cover of whatever trees she could find, Ælfrida headed fast for her own Mercia Pack, praying that they were where she’d left them, hiding in tight dirt dens in Sussex.
When the Iron Moon passed, Ælfrida led her scraggly group to Portsmouth. She could barely stand to look back over the thirty thin adults who were all that remained of the one-time greatness of Mercia. Breeding had always been difficult for Pack, without adding in starvation and ferocious hostility to lone wolves and fresh bloodlines. She had used too much of the treasure her Pack had accumulated over the centuries for a ship that was larger than she needed, hoping and praying that some Alpha had the sense to join her.
What a waste.
A murmur roiled the Pack, alerting Ælfrida to the faint scent of wolf. Even with her poor human nose, she recognized it instantly, running it down until she came to the end of the dock where the Assurance’s captain stood yelling at a small woman seated with her legs over the side of the dock, her arms clenched around the harness of a dog cart, piled with three large chests.
Seolfer was weaving slightly, staring at the blood falling from her leg into the water in rapidly dissipating gusts. The little nidling looked up with difficulty, her eyes barely focused in her pale face. “The guards shot them during the change. Clubbed them. Cut off their heads and stove them onto the branches of our trees. Bleeding into our earth. They are right now tearing up our land, looking for money. But I have them all, Alpha. I have them all.”
Ælfrida breathed in deep and said a silent prayer of thanks to the pale remnants of the daylit waning moon. She yelled for her Delta, the one she’d sent to Glasgow to study medicine.
“This is Seolfer,” she said. “Heal her.”
Untying the rag around the woman’s calf, the doctor frowned. “Alpha, the ball is lodged in her tibia, and she has lost a great deal of blood. It is doubtful she will survive and sure that she will lose her leg.” He shook his head sadly.
“Do not wag your head at me.” Ælfrida bent down, one strong hand clenched around his jaw. “You will do what I tell you, and she will live.”
“Then what?” Ælfrida’s Beta yelled from the back where he’d been serving as rear guard. “Are we to embark on this foolishness saddled by a crippled runt who is not even of Mercia?”
It is not in the nature of a Pack to accept change quietly. Mercia’s wolves had not seen what she had. While she had visited the Packs, they had dug holes in the dirt and eaten rats, which had done little to improve their disposition.
Ælfrida bolted through the Pack, straight for the enormous male. She hadn’t eaten enough for months, but there was a reason she was Alpha, and every muscle tightened in explosive anticipation. Her lungs expanded as she plowed her struggling Beta to the edge of the dock and then threw him into the disgusting murky water lapping against the quay.
She glared at the rest of her Pack, every tendon and bone wanting to shift. Her shoulders curved high behind her lowered head. Her teeth needed to tear into muzzles; her fingers ached to claw at flanks.
“Your Alpha,” she growled, her body heaving, “says that this woman and these chests are Mercia now.”
She might have been weakened by the long, slow hunger, but one by one, her Pack dropped their eyes and submitted.
“You,” she barked at the goggle-eyed captain of the Assurance, who was staring at her huge Beta flailing in the water. “Fish him out.”
She left two wolves to help the captain and two more to help the doctor. Then she commanded the rest of the Pack to carry the chests to the hold. “Gently, gently. Don’t jostle them.” She sent Halwende, the Pack’s single juvenile, for as much water as he could carry.
“Hurry,” she whispered as soon as they were in the hold, away from the humans. She couldn’t keep the anticipation and dread from her voice. Fastened only with sticks, the chests opened easily, and her heart clenched in her throat. The Pack gathered around the boxes smelling of piss and terror, and one by one they picked up the silent, cringing pups, cradling them against the warmth of their bodies. They gave them water from their cupped hands and stroked their fur and rubbed faces against muzzles to mark them.
And for the first time in many years, Ælfrida, the last Alpha of the Great Pack of Mercia, allowed herself to feel hope.
“Be sure to wash them well,” she said, more softly now. She would not have the pups coming to the New World smelling of the corruption and death of the old.
Unfortunately, Ælfrida had one last thing to do to make sure her Pack could leave safely. It was a shitty job, but that’s what it meant to be Alpha.
She’d seen the Shifter lingering near the dock and walked until she found his scent and tracked him to a nearby tavern. He seemed no more surprised to see Ælfrida than she was to see him. He was, he said, devastated that the human guards had betrayed Wulfric. Humans, he said, had no sense of honor, of a promise made and kept. But he could not bear life as a lone wolf, he said, and would serve her in whatever way she needed in return for a place in the Pack.
He never mentioned Seolfer or the three great chests that he had tracked to Portsmouth. Nor did he mention the pistol he carried, though the scent of gunpowder was tart in Ælfrida’s nose.
Ælfrida watched a young human woman, barely out of girlhood, smile at a customer and saw the customer’s body relax. When the girl touched his arm, he leaned forward, his scent becoming suddenly receptive. Ælfrida turned to the Shifter and gave him the same barmaid smile and the same barmaid touch, and his scent became musky. The blandishments that Ælfrida presumed he had used on poor Wulfric he now used on her, along with his fingers and palm. Finally, they went to one of the back rooms. “To formalize things,” he said archly.
* * *
“If you’re going to puke, puke leeward,” the captain of the Assurance had said, muttering something impertinent.
Ælfrida was beyond caring about impertinence. She leaned over the rail he had pointed to, and as she started to vomit once more, she called upon the moon to witness that as long as she lived, she would never eat Shifter again