The drive lasted about fifty minutes through the forest. I could tell why she needed the dirt bike, the path was completely off-road. However, we reached a point where the forest gave way, opening into a massive clearing full of people. Tents were erected all over the place. People had campfires and were busy cooking or sewing or chatting with each other. Children in partial werewolf form ran around chasing each other on all fours. A few adults wore their werewolf faces, but most of them looked like humans. There were a few motorcycles and bikes like Treena’s, but it looked like this place was inaccessible to cars.
“This is Landsmeade. The clan meets here every time there is a new Alpha selected or every time the Alpha calls a meeting.” Treena described.
“It doesn’t look like there is a lot of room for this competition.”
“No, that occurs down the hill over there in a place called the bowl. The games don’t start until tomorrow either way.” Treena explained.
She looked back, realizing who she was talking to, and then shut her mouth with a visible click. It looked like she wasn’t going to share any more information with me. It was nice that she could be friendly though, even if it lasted a second.
“Treena!” A voice shouted from one of the tents.
An older woman stepped out and approached the motorcycle. Treena dismounted from her bike, shoving me off the back in the process. I took a few steps back as she turned to the woman. Treena seemed to wear a completely different look as she smiled at the newcomer with respect and even a little bit of reverence. The older woman had rich brown hair that grayed at the edges. I frowned slightly as she looked somewhat familiar to me.
“Have you seen him? Where is he?”
Treena lowered her hands, trying to settle the woman, “He’s fine. He’ll be coming in tonight.”
“Well, he never calls, he never writes. They say that you’re supposed to give your little pup room so they can grow but I didn’t think that would mean moving away for several years.”
Then it hit me, I realized why I recognized her; she looked like Daniel. “Katrina?”
The two women turned to me, Daniel’s mom had on a little frown, “I’m sorry, do I know you?”
“Wow! It is you. The last time I saw you, you were a little pup.” I lowered my hand to about the size I remembered.
“What are you talking about?” Treena asked in confusion.
I blushed. “Oh, nothing. Katrina and I go back. Way back.”
Treena glanced over at Katrina in confusion, but Katrina was busy staring at me. She took a step forward, taking one long whiff in a familiar way.
“You’re not Daniel’s new mate, are you?”
I gave a nod and Katrina let out a sudden squeal that even surprised Treena. She lunged forward, grabbing my arm and dragging me towards her and into an immediate hug.
“Oh, I am so pleased to meet you. I was beginning to think my boy would never pick a mate. He was so fickle. But look at you, you are such a darling. You look exactly like the girl I envisioned my boy to be with. Come on now, before Daniel gets here, let’s talk girl to girl. We need to discuss various forms of protection so you can avoid them. I want grandkids as soon as possible.”
“Wh-what!” I barely got out in the flurry as Katrina started dragging me towards her tent.
Treena also took a few steps forward, stuttering to try to get a word in edgewise. It looked like Katrina took after her mother in that respect; she was a bulldozer. Katrina noticed Treena trailing them and looked back.
“Oh, don’t worry, girl. I’ll watch her. You did perfect bringing her to me. Now, mother and daughter will discuss some things. You can move along.” Treena said gently but also firmly, leaving no room for argument.
Still, Treena didn’t immediately leave, instead seeming to build up her courage to talk. “B-but, Daniel-”
A sudden loud shout broke off what Treena was going to say as an answer. The direction the scream had come was from the bowl. Something about the scream seemed to cut into me. I needed to go find out what it was. I broke away from a surprised Katrina and began running in the direction of the scream.
I heard a laugh behind me. “Just like Daniel, always running towards the screams. This one’s going to give my boy lots of work.”
I heard a grunt and Treena was running beside me. She caught up and surpassed me, cresting the hill. This wasn’t a race, but you couldn’t tell that from the glee on Treena’s face as she overran me.
I crested the hill too and noticed a small gathering of men in a circle near the bottom. I ran down the hill towards them. Treena was in front of me, but she seemed to slow down and trailed to a stop. I ran passed her until I could see what her enhanced vision had already identified. When I contemplated the scene, my body froze solid. Daniel was standing in the middle of a group of men, all of them turned into their werewolf forms. He had blood spattered across his chest and clothing. He was holding a knife and at his feet was a dead werewolf, its throat cut.
The events that followed were a whirlwind that made me dizzy. The werewolves descended on Daniel, who dropped the knife and was beat to the ground as he made no attempt to defend himself. I tried to run forward to pull them off of him, but Treena suddenly grabbed me and started to drag me away. I struggled against her, but Daniel’s childhood friend easily overpowered me, wrestling me back up the hill.
I stopped fighting, but Treena opted to continue to drag me the rest of the way into the tent that Katrina owned. A large horn was blown, and the rumors about what happened starting shooting through the camp like wildfire. Sometime later, after I had a bit to recover, I snapped out of my shock. I was sitting in a chair in Katrina’s tent. I sat numbly as Treena explained her version of events to Daniel’s mother. Katrina had a worried look on her face, but she handled the information well, listening to the full story and only giving occasional nods of affirmation.
“It was Jorgan’s body. I recognized him.” The young werewolf finished, “He would have been the only one who could put up a challenge to Daniel for Alpha. That makes it a motive.”
“Daniel would never do something like that,” I spoke up with the first words I had said since it happened.
“You saw the same thing I did,” Treena shook her head.
“He was framed,” I declared.
“You don’t know that.” Treena sighed.
“I do!” I snapped, glaring at her.
Treena looked taken aback for a second, and lowered her eyes, “I’m not saying I don’t agree, but there is no chance we can convince others of that. Too many witnesses saw him with the knife.”
“What do you think the committee will decide?” Katrina asked in a soft voice.
“Without an Alpha, no official decision can be reached. Banishment would be too little. Most likely death.” Treena sighed.
“What about the other werewolf? Bran?” I broke in.
“What about him?”
“Wouldn’t he have a reason to frame Daniel?”
The young werewolf shook her head, “He wants to be Alpha, but he’s nowhere near skilled enough to beat even the half-dozen men below Daniel. It would be pointless for him. Besides, he’s mostly concerned with absolving his family. Getting caught in a murder scandal would destroy them.”
“What did his family do?” I asked.
“His grandfather, a man named Stine, ended up betraying our allies for personal gain.”
Bran’s grandpa was Stine? If I understood nothing else, that was enough for me to suspect the man. When I had traveled to the past, Stine was the man who kidnapped Andrew and me during the peace talks, nearly causing the angels and demons to go to war. He had almost killed me, and tried to hurt Andrew too. However, what did he gain by getting Daniel arrested? Had he found a mate to compete and just wanted to get the two biggest contenders out of the way? That seemed far too simple a goal.
“I don’t understand though, how does becoming Alpha allow him to absolve his family?”
Treena sighed, a tinge of frustration on her face, but it was Katrina who answered, “When a person becomes an Alpha, they get something called the first rights. They can absolve three crimes committed by members of the clan. It becomes as if the crimes never existed. It’s an old law, but it sometimes helps resolve bad blood when a new Alpha is picked.”
“Would it be possible for someone to win the Alpha and absolve Daniel?”
Treena frowned as she looked at me, but then her eyes brightened a bit, “We might be able to save him that way.”
“My son is loved by many in this clan. I don’t think anyone truly believes he did it. However, absolving him would put a lot of pressure on any one of them. I can’t think of any who would vouch for him like that.”
“There has to be someone,” I pleaded.
Treena looked to be deep in thought. I was about to demand she tell me what her thoughts were when another loud horn sounded from outside the tent.
“They’re calling.” Treena muttered.
“That must be the decision.” Katrina let out a worried breath.
The three of us piled out of the tent. Katrina reached over and grabbed my hand, seemingly using me as emotional support. Treena had noticed this gestured, but turned away with a face that gave nothing away. Gathering around in a circle with another hundred or so werewolves and their mates. An older man moved his way to the center of the circle.
“As I am sure you have all heard by now,” The old man spoke up in a clear, grizzled voice, “It is with my great displeasure that I must announce the death of one of our own, Jorgan. We questioned the accused extensively. He has maintained his innocence.”
A few shouted out in anger, but more nodded as if they had expected as much.
“Without an official trial, we will be unable to decide his guilt, and without an Alpha, we cannot start an official trial. Thus, the elder council has decided to postpone the trial until after an Alpha is declared. At that time, we will decide the young Daniel’s fate.”
My brain ran a mile a minute. People started muttering to each other, an angry buzzing cacophony of noises. I found myself stepping forward as the old man turned to leave the center of the circle.
“Is Daniel still eligible to be Alpha?” I demanded loud and clear.
The man froze, turning back. The angry rumble of voices increased a bit.
“Eligible? I suppose. However, he will stay contained for the time being, and thus he wouldn’t be able to succeed in any of the challenges.”
“I’ve heard mention that an Alpha can select others to fight in their place.” I continued to press.
The old man gave me a kind smile as if he was only humoring me. “The only one that would be eligible to fight in an Alpha’s place would be his mate. That is an old law and seldom practiced in reality. Female werewolves simply lack the capacity to keep up with these kinds of challenges.”
The angry mutters were growing a little louder now. Some of them were telling me to shut up, but just as many were demanding that I was allowed to speak, particularly from the women. Katrina’s hand reached out as she tried to grab my arm. I pulled out of her reach, stepping farther into the circle of men. Now I understood what I had to do. I looked back, Katrina had a worried look on her face while Treena glared at me. I turned back to the old man.
“My name is Jane Averygail. I am Daniel’s mate. I will win this competition for him.”
Like a floodgate, the voices exploded in surprise.
“But you’re only human,” shouted one person.
“She’ll die!” another came out.
Katrina immediately rushed forward and grabbed me, pulling me back through the throng of people. The elder worked to try to keep order. There were many eyes on my back as Katrina dragged me away. The pair that looked the deadliest were Treena’s.
When Katrina had ushered me back into the tent, she looked me up and down, “I don’t think you understand what you’ve done girl. I know you had the best intentions, but you’re human. Even werewolves have been known to die in some of these challenges. The best thing you can hope for is a discharge. Just go out there, explain you weren’t in your right mind, and drop out.”
When my eyes met Katrina’s, she couldn’t help but take a step back in surprise. She did not expect such ferocity from them.
“I will not. Somehow, I will beat this competition. I will win, and I will absolve Daniel.” I stated firmly.
Katrina shook her head in disbelief, but her lips formed a small smile of admiration.
“I did get a hell of a daughter-in-law, didn’t I? I hope you live until the wedding.” Katrina’s shoulders fell with a sigh of acceptance, “So, what can I do to make sure you survive? I’ll help my son and daughter any way I can.”
“I need a phone,” I glanced back at her, my eyes resolute, “I need to call in a few favors.”