In a world of danger and uncertainty, the Alpha can never let down her guard...
As Alpha of the Great North Pack, life is never easy for Evie Kitwanasdottir. The Pack has just survived a deadly attack, and Evie is determined to do whatever is necessary to preserve their safety—especially from the four Shifters who are now their prisoners.
Constantine lost his parents and his humanity on the same devastating day. He has been a thoughtless killer ever since. When Constantine is placed under Evie’s watchful eye, he discovers that taking directions and having a purpose are not the same thing.
Each moment spent together brings new revelations to Constantine, who begins to understand the loneliness of being Alpha. He finds strength and direction in helping Evie, but there is no room for a small love in the Pack, so Constantine will strive to prove to Evie he is capable of a love big enough for the Great North Pack itself.
In the forest stark and grim live unspeakable things.
My mother had never been one for bedtime stories. Never one for articulating much at all. Mostly she cleaned her tiny house—I never thought of it as mine or ours—with the fierceness of a woman who knew civilization danced on a razor’s edge and a single misfolded towel or an undusted mote was enough to send it toppling.
To hold that eventuality at bay, she worked. Constantly. Touching up the bright-white paint. Washing the blue and purple floral linens. Tearing away the spiky fragrant bushes around the edges, chopping down the single shade tree in the yard. She gave it to a neighbor with a fireplace for nothing, a moment of largesse that made him trust our odd family even less.
Then she lay down rough green grass that came in rolls like toilet paper and was not to be walked on.
During the day, the house smelled pleasantly of cinnamon or chocolate and less pleasantly of ammonia.
There was a blue, onion-patterned curtain that shielded the window above the kitchen sink. It was always closed, except on laundry days, when the window opened onto a range of mountains, faraway and tree-covered.
Sometimes my mother would forget that the curtain wasn’t there. Then the faucet ran and the food burned until my father came home and turned everything off and put the curtain back on its brass rod and pulled his wife away from the window.
Those were the evenings when she told me, her only child, stories, cautionary tales about people who wandered into the woods, losing their way, their lives, their souls.
They all started the same way.
“In the forest dark and grim live unspeakable things.”
One Christmas, when I was still very young—six, maybe seven?—I heard a noise downstairs in the kitchen. Convinced it was Santa eating the brownies my mother had made, I crept down the steps. I did not find Santa noshing on rich squares of chocolate and walnuts. Instead, I found my mother staring empty-eyed through the kitchen window toward the snow-dusted forests, bloody butcher paper on the counter.
Gnawing absently on raw beef tongue.
In the forest dark and grim live unspeakable things.
In our stories, the forests were deathless. In our stories, they spread in endless protective waves across the land. In our stories, they could be hewed by disease or fire or woodman’s ax, but each hewing left enough of the old forests to seed new ones.
In our stories, though, the old forests were not churned into a sea of mud and sawdust, herringboned by tread marks with iridescent puddles that smell sick-sweet, like venom.
This is not our land. Our land is beyond the gap between two mountains. There, a tree cracks, a beaver slaps its tail against water, and a loon gives out a long, haunting call.
Where are you?
Its mate calls back.
Our land is where my wolves wait for my own call. I try to clear the heartache in my throat then throw back my head and howl.
Where are you?
It starts out that way, though by the end of that long breath, it is simply Are you?
And from across the vastness of Homelands, the Great North call back.
We are, they answer, each voice reassuring me that all are safe and accounted for.
There are humans howling in a white windowless bus, who are not safe.
Tiberius slams the door on the injured would-be hunters, then bangs twice on the roof to signal Thea that she’s good to go.
“Watch your tail,” Thea says as Elijah Sorensson, the Alpha of the 9th Echelon of the Great North Pack, pulls his tail in and drops his muzzle on the shoulder of his human mate. She reaches across to pull the passenger door closed.
Victor, who had been our Deemer, our thinker about pack law, did not want to let this human who knew our secrets live. I knew he was angry that I refused to kill her, but not angry enough to stand by while human hunters decimated our pack.
Well, now you’re dead, Victor, a noseless dog wandering hungry and alone forever, and Thea Villalobos, the Goddess of the City of Wolves, is smuggling those humans back into Canada.
When the Pack finally falls silent, one last solitary call floats down from Westdæl. It is hesitant, questioning, asking the hills and valleys of Homelands to help her make sense of her new life. It is nowhere near as loud or as certain as the wolf Varya once was, but then the Gray is no longer Varya.
For three days out of thirty when the moon is full and her law is iron, the Pack must be wild. However the Iron Moon finds us, she makes us wilder. If we are in skin, she makes us wild. But if we are wild, she makes us æcewulfas, real wolves. Forever wolves.
Varya and the Bone Wolf, the wolf she loved—loves—sacrificed their other forms to fight for us, while we writhed on the ground, neither wild nor in skin. Deaf, blind, paralyzed, and helpless.
The Alpha Shielder of the 12th Echelon had been made hard by memory. I choose to believe that she will be freed from those memories now.
As her call dies out, I throw back my head and answer. We may not be part of her pack anymore, but she will always be part of ours.
The Great North’s runt hobbles up beside me, and as soon as she does, Tiberius lopes over, falling to his knees in front of her. Eyes closed, he buries his face in her fur.
One of the four Shifters sitting on rickety chairs starts to move. Without standing, Tiberius exhales, pivots, and fires.
Wild, Tiberius is a terrible hunter. Much worse than Silver with her bad leg and small size. In skin, though, his shot hits the burly Shifter, grazing his shoulder.
“I told you to sit down,” Tiberius says.
“Do you have any idea how much this suit cost?” the Shifter says, plucking loose threads from the tear Tiberius’s bullet left in his shoulder pad.
“It would be easier if I killed them now,” Tiberius says without looking away from the Shifters.
I eye Silver. With Victor dead, the Pack needed a Deemer. There are older wolves and bigger, but no one who knows our laws and the needs of our wild selves better. Silver chuffs a long, disappointed breath, telling me what I already knew. Of course, it would be easier to kill them now, but if laws were easy and convenient, there would be no need for them.
The law says we can kill only for food or to stop an immediate threat to the Pack, and as much as I would like to get rid of these last Shifters, they did not side with the humans against us. One even fought on our side.
As for food…they smell like humans, and humans taste like plastic and mink and the grease trap at an all-you-can-eat mutton emporium.
Without moving my head, my eyes flicker toward the gun in Tiberius’s hand. I wrinkle my lip back from a single fang, and he slides it back into his waistband with a sigh.
But just because I’m not killing them doesn’t mean I will trust them. Shifters are different. They don’t have to be wild so they never are. The Iron Moon means nothing to them. They don’t have the same ties to Pack or land, and their wild is not sacred. It’s just another resource to be exploited as they battle with humans to be apex predators.
“You can’t trust them, Alpha,” says Tiberius, and he is half Shifter. He is August Leveraux’s son.
I lost my birth pack to Shifters. I have no intention of losing another.
Crystal shatters, and the solitary female Shifter screams.
She was cold, I suppose, so she’d tried to cover herself with the stained white length of damask, simultaneously knocking over a crystal flute and revealing the man with the hole in his forehead, centered like a third eye.
I’d forgotten about him. Another detail to be taken care of.
“That’s Julia. She’s August’s niece. Cassius,” he says, nodding toward the burly man, “is, I think, now engaged to her. She’s spoiled, he’s a fool. But
Constantine’s the one you have to watch out for.”
I follow the direction of his eyes toward the two other men. I discount a smaller one who sits on a rock trying to hold back groans. He is frail and clearly in pan. The Shifter standing beside him, whispering too softly for me to hear, I recognize. He was here before, waiting for the blustering man to deliver August’s ultimatum to the Great North. He’d said nothing, but I’d noticed him anyway: broad-shouldered, long and lean and tightly coiled, like a rattler made man.
Usually I appreciate Tiberius’s terseness, but now I have too many unanswered questions and no way to ask them. What is wrong with the smaller Shifter? He looks sick, but I thought Shifters were like us, dying from bullets and traps and hooves, not from slow wasting disease.
And what is a niece? When he first said it, I’d looked toward Silver with a mystified blink, forgetting momentarily that as wise as my Deemer is in matters of the law, she failed Introduction to Human Behaviors four times.
Finally, Constantine fought for us, so what makes him dangerous?
The sick Shifter groans again, caging his face in his hands.
“Magnus, shut the fuck up,” Cassius yells.
Before the last sound fades, Constantine’s elbow cracks against Cassius’s throat, fast as a rattler strike, which partly answers that question.
Julia sobs something about going home.
I slip into the sequestering trees silvered by moonlight, knowing they never will.