Peter and the Pups by Merry Farmer

5

Magnus and the others came through for us in a brilliant fashion. True to his prediction, the pack leaders had decided to definitely boycott all faires for the rest of the year, beginning immediately, before midafternoon. More than that, as he strutted back into the camp—where my friends and I were sprawled in the shade of some of the yurts, resting after our kickball practice and telling ribald stories—he announced that the other pack leaders were as interested in a game of “pup-ball”, as he called it, as he was.

A scant half hour after that, we were walking en masse to the empty spot between camps where we’d seen the other wolves playing that morning. I knew immediately that our plan to bring the pups out into the open through sport would work. Everyone’s spirits seemed to be up after the successful negotiations of the morning, which meant that the pack leaders were comfortable bringing their pup to a central gathering. And there were more of us than I had dreamed there would be. As near as I could figure, over two dozen pack leaders were in attendance at the summit, and the vast majority of them had pups. The rules of kickball required eight players on each team, but there were fully twenty young men around my age by the time we were all gathered.

“My beautiful pups and their friends have already formed the heart of one team,” Magnus said, an arm around both my and Neil’s waists as the pups and their men gathered in the center of the playing field. He held us close and grinned fondly at us. I was half convinced he might pull either me or Neil into his arms for a series of passionate kisses, just to prove that he could. Neil must have been thinking the same thing, but instead of grinning cockily over it, like me, he glanced around at the other pack leaders, his brow furrowed anxiously. I lost my smile when I remembered his comment about Magnus putting a target on our heads with his displays of affection. “I believe they need two more at least for their side. More importantly, the other team needs a captain, like our side has Jace.”

“Nikita can captain our side,” one of the pack leaders who I thought might be called Avraam, said, eyes narrowed at Magnus. He was clearly one of Magnus’s opponents, but if he was who I thought he was, his pack was one of the smaller ones in attendance.

His pup wasn’t even a little bit small, though. The strapping lad looked like a farmer’s son, with his thick arms and thighs and broad shoulders. He was exactly the sort to send a flutter through me and to have me instinctively posing and smiling at him, even though he couldn’t have been more than a year or two older than me. He strode forward, extending a hand to Jace. “Nikita,” he introduced himself in a gruff voice.

“Jace.” Jace shook his hand in return. The energy that sparked between the two was that between two alpha wolves who were as likely to rip each other’s throats out as they were to fuck until they were exhausted. “Since we already have six on our team, why don’t you start by picking five from the remaining pups. Then we’ll trade off picks until our teams are formed.”

“Agreed,” Nikita said, then stepped back to survey who he had to choose from.

“I’ll leave you darlings to it,” Magnus said, squeezing Neil’s ass, then letting him go. He turned to me, making as if to kiss the top of my neck, but whispered, “Try to keep your cock in your trousers, Peter. He’s just another pup, like you.”

I flushed dark and sent him a guilty look. “You weren’t supposed to notice that,” I whispered in return as he stepped away.

“Peter, darling.” His lips twitched into a grin. “I notice everything about you, and I know you well enough to see exactly what you’re thinking.” He dropped his gaze to my trousers.

I actually peeked down to make certain I wasn’t bulging. I was only slightly hard, though when Magnus laughed teasingly as he backed away, I was in danger of getting harder. The man truly did know me. Well enough to know exactly what sort of teasing would bring me the most embarrassment.

“I’ll take you, you, Burian, you, and Hertz,” Nikita said in his gruff voice, pointing to the five burliest pups who had gathered for the game.

I swallowed uneasily. We hadn’t even started, and I had a feeling we were going to be thrashed. The young men Nikita picked all looked as though they had lived tough lives filled with hard labor. They might have been the sexual playthings of some of the most powerful men in the forest now, but they weren’t soft, like Neil, Conrad, and I were. They definitely weren’t nobly-born.

At the same time, Nikita’s picks winnowed down the field as far as guessing which of the remaining pups might actually have been nobly-born. There was a definite, physical distinction between the men our age who had worked in their lives before becoming pups and those who hadn’t. As the remaining pups moved forward—or were nudged forward, in the case of a few who didn’t look thrilled about joining the game, but whose masters insisted—I looked them over. A few stood out to me as possibilities as far as noble birth.

I stepped closer to Jace, glad that Orel—and Anton—moved in as well. “Pick the ones you think were nobly-born,” I whispered.

Jace looked at me as though I’d grown another head. “Are you mad? I’m picking the ones who can help us win.” To prove his point, he pointed at one of the tougher-looking pups and said, “You.”

The pup looked a bit annoyed, sent a longing glance to Nikita’s side, then wandered over to join us.

“We need to find the other three,” I whispered, aggravated with Jace’s choice.

Jace glared at me as Nikita scrutinized the remaining pups. “Nikita isn’t going to pick anyone he doesn’t think can win, so it’s not like he’s going to snatch your soon-to-be friends out from under your nose. And we need at least a few men who can play so that we don’t embarrass ourselves.”

I let out an irritated breath, but he was right.

“That one there is Sebald,” Orel murmured, nodding to a wide-eyed, pale young man who looked about eighteen.

Jace cursed under his breath. “He’ll be rubbish on the field,” he grumbled. “Let me pick one more who looks like they won’t trip over their own feet before I pick him.”

I huffed through my nose and crossed my arms, but I couldn’t argue with Jace’s logic.

Nikita picked another pup who looked fit, then Jace chose the last of the ones who looked like they might actually have some skill. My confidence took another blow a moment later, though, as Nikita picked Sebald.

“You should have picked him earlier,” I grumbled.

Jace turned an irritated look to me. “Do you want me to turn you around, push you over, and fuck you dry in front of this crowd? Because if not, you need to shut up.” He turned back to the remaining pups with a considering look, but added, “Besides, if you’re so good at diplomacy, you’ll figure out how to make contact with Sebald whether he’s on our side or not, now that you know what he looks like.”

I wanted to curse and kick the ground. Jace was right again. That didn’t stop me from bristling with impatience and praying that Jace would get lucky and that at least one of the last few pups he picked for our team would be nobly-born.

When each team had ten players, we retreated to different sides of the field for a short practice—which our men had apparently decided would be fair, without our input, while we were choosing teams. They, too, were right, and in the end, I was glad of it, since it gave us a chance to learn each other’s names and leaders.

“I’m Efim, Garold’s pup,” the first of Jace’s picks introduced himself. He looked slightly happier, after Jace had picked another man who looked tough, and after Jace’s last pick—a scrawny young man with a shock of black hair named Jaramy—surprised us all by showing how quick and agile he was. What had my spirits lifting was the fact that Garold was one of the pack leaders Magnus had hinted might be convinced to back him, under the right circumstances. “I used to play kick-ball in Dunsk.”

Anton’s brow shot up. “I’m from Dunsk.”

“I know,” Efim nodded to him. “I used to see you on festival days, when Da had me help bring in the herd for slaughter.”

So Efim was some sort of herdsman, or had been. And judging by the way he smiled at Anton, he’d noticed him in more ways than one.

“How long have you been in the forest?” Anton asked, a bit anxiously. “Have you heard anything about…about my mother?” He went beet-red as soon as he’d asked the question and shrank in on himself.

Efim shook his head. “I left for the forest three years ago. I didn’t even know you were a pup, even though nobly-born pups is all anyone can talk about these days.”

“Really?” I asked, practically dancing with the urge to sit down and talk until we were all hoarse.

Efim looked straight at me. “I don’t see the appeal,” he said, as if meaning it as a slight.

My back went up, but I was immediately appeased when one of the other, completely nondescript-looking pups Jace had chosen at the end said, “Hold on, are you nobly-born too?”

I snapped to look at the young man who had spoken. He couldn’t have been more than seventeen and had a round face and blue eyes that seemed anxious. “I’m Peter Royale,” I introduced myself by my old name, not by my connection to Magnus. “From Novoberg.”

The lad’s face lit up, and his shoulders unbunched. “Lefric Rohini, from Klovisgard.” He offered his hand.

I leapt to shake it. I knew the Rohini name as a family my father was allied with, but I’d never laid eyes on Lefric. “Very pleased to make your acquaintance. How long have you been in the forest?”

“Only three months,” Lefric said, his face coloring slightly. “And it’s been a wild experience so far.”

I opened my mouth to say more, but Jace cut me off with, “As much as I would love to sit down for tea and crumpets, we have a game to play. And if we don’t get at least a few minutes of practice in, that lot is going to spank us harder than our men ever could.”

I was too happy to have found Lefric to be offended by Jace’s comment. Anton looked disgusted, of course, but the others ignored the ribbing and turned to Jace for leadership. Jace glanced to me with a look that said, “Are you going to shut up and let me lead now?”, and I replied with a nod and a grin.

That improved Jace’s mood immeasurably, and within seconds, he had all of us running sprints up and down the length of the field so that he could gauge our speed and ability. After that, he ran us through a few drills, passing the ball back and forth with our feet and hands. I wished I had something other than my calf-high boots to play in, but none of us had expected we would be attending a sporting event as well as a life-changing negotiation.

I noticed something else that had my heart lifting in my chest—even as it slammed against my ribs from all the running—as we continued practicing. Our pack leaders had all gathered close to each other on one side of the field—just as the opposing team’s leaders had come together on the other. A good deal of the men who weren’t allied with one side or the other already showed interest in the game as well, including Jorgen and Hati. The socialization aspect was a double-edged knife, since it meant Magnus’s opponents could talk amongst themselves, but I counted it as a good thing when I saw Magnus shaking hands with Savya and the leader I thought was probably Avraam, as well as another man I didn’t recognize. It was exactly the sort of outcome I had hoped our game would have.

I had one final fit of inspiration as Ox—who had apparently been designated the referee, for some insane reason—called to each team that the game would begin in five minutes.

“Take off your shirts,” I told the rest of my team as we clustered together for one final moment of strategy.

“What?” Lefric balked.

“Trust me,” I told him, and everyone else. “Look, we know who we are. We know what we are. We know that our men are here to look at us. We need to give them something to look at, something to convince them this was a very good idea. One they might want to repeat later.”

“Peter would have us all play naked if he could,” Conrad joked.

About half of our team laughed. The others looked baffled. Except for Anton, who was disgusted. The others followed my lead and stripped off their waistcoats and shirts, though.

“It’s so we can tell which players are from which teams,” I explained when a few of the spectators sent us confused—and interested—looks.

I met Magnus’s eyes. He seemed to be having a hard time not laughing. I could tell that he knew exactly what game I was playing, and it wasn’t kickball. “It’s a hot day,” he called to me. “Perhaps we should find strips of colored cloth for you all to tie around your waists so that both teams can be unencumbered as the game heats up.”

“If you can find something like that, I’m certain we’d all be grateful,” I called back, feigning innocence. And it was most definitely feigned.

Nikita’s team seemed to catch on to what we were doing as eight players from each side walked out to the center of the field to start the game. As soon as he saw our naked—and in the case of the original five of us, still hairless—chests gleaming, he rushed to take his shirt off as well.

“I won’t have your side gaining favor with the leaders for anything other than your skill on the field,” he growled at Jace, the light of challenge in his eyes.

The other seven members of his starting team peeled off their shirts as well. Nikita gestured to one of the non-playing members of his team to come take their shirts. My breath caught in my throat a bit at the sight of Nikita’s muscled chest, and the physique of some of the other pups on his team.

“Careful, Peter,” Jace tweaked me aloud. “Don’t look too closely. It’s painful to run when you’re as hard as an oak.”

I could have kissed Jace for his comment. Nikita and his team laughed, but not in a dismissive way. I laughed along with them, saying, “Nikita will definitely have the advantage in this game. I simply don’t know how I’m going to pay attention to anything but those glorious nipples.” I nodded to his chest.

“You want these, pretty boy?” Nikita said, pinching his nipples, then winking at me. “Come and get them.”

Our men might have opposed each other to the point of war, but I instantly had the sense that we pups saw each other as allies. I winked back at Nikita as salaciously as I could before Ox stepped in with the ball.

“I’ll toss the ball up to begin play,” she said. “And so help me, if you lot descend into an orgy instead of playing kickball, I will walk around kicking every one of you in the balls.”

Again all of the pups laughed.

“We wouldn’t do that,” Sebald said, then looked uncertain. “Would we?”

“Jace and Peter started an orgy last time we were all together,” Anton said, intending to be sour, “so I wouldn’t put it past them.”

“Did you really?” Nikita asked with a spark of interest in his eyes.

Jace grinned at him. “Peter swallowed me down to the hilt without so much as blinking,” he said. “And he’s hung like an ox to boot.” He turned to Ox and raised a hand. “No offense.”

“Sounds to me like we know what we’re playing for now,” Nikita laughed. “Losers suck the winners off.”

“Don’t say that to Peter. He’ll lose on purpose,” Anton sneered.

“What can I say?” I shrugged with one shoulder, sending Nikita a coy look, then dropping my eyes to his trousers. “I have a gift.”

“If you don’t start this game soon, your masters are going to march out here and spank your asses,” Ox warned us.

“Yes, please,” one of Nikita’s team cooed.

We all laughed, then walked away to take our places on the field. I couldn’t have been happier with how the game began than if I’d orchestrated it myself. We got along. We were all different and from different backgrounds, but we had at least one thing completely in common. And as far as I was concerned, if it took me exerting myself in a sport I was no good at and flirting salaciously, both of which constituted me making an utter fool of myself, I would do it. If it meant the pups of the forest leaders became friends, I would do just about anything, including blowing every one of them.

The game started, and I knew at once our side was overpowered. But what we lacked in strength and stamina, we made up for in skill and strategy. Whereas Nikita and his players all seemed interested in keeping the ball to themselves as they barreled down the field toward the goal, our side passed it between us, keeping it away from Nikita’s team. We also had the advantage of having practiced that morning, though I wouldn’t have said either side was as cohesive as a team should have been. Our side also had the advantage of a good goal-keeper in Efim. We might not have been great at scoring goals, but Efim kept goals from being scored on us.

The longer we played, the more wolves gathered to watch us. By the time we’d been going for fifteen minutes or so—just about the time my lungs were burning and my eyes stinging from the sweat that seeped into them—nearly everyone who had come to the summit was watching. Considering that number reached into the hundreds, I considered our efforts a success. Even if it was terrifying to demonstrate my lack of sporting skill in front of that large of a crowd. At least I was able to switch out with some of our other teammates for a quick rest now and then.

It was during one of my rests that I saw him. The moment I glanced across the field and saw Yuri approach the field, Gennadi with him, I nearly sank to my knees in shock. Gennadi had some sort of collar around his neck with a chain hanging from it. Yuri strutted up to the front of the crowd on the opposite side of the field, leading the poor boy as though he were a dog. The best I could say was that several of the wolves Yuri led Gennadi through looked shocked. Some even stared at Yuri as though he were a devil. No one seemed to actually say anything to Yuri, though, and no one tried to come to Gennadi’s aid.

“Peter. Peter!” Jace’s shout pulled me out of my thoughts as desperation for Gennadi pooled in my stomach. When I dragged my eyes to meet Jace’s, he said, “Snap out of it. I need you to play.”

“Is something wrong?” Magnus asked, walking up to the side of the field near me from where he’d been standing with his friends, old and new, discussing the game as they watched.

“Magnus.” I turned to him desperately. “Look.” I pointed across the field to Gennadi.

Magnus’s face instantly went as hard as stone. “I see, Peter.”

“You have to do something. You have to get Gennadi away from him,” I pleaded with Magnus, walking closer to him.

“Peter! I need you to play,” Jace shouted behind me.

I twisted to look at Jace and the game as it moved down the field, then turned back to Magnus. “We have to save him,” I said to Magnus.

“I—” Magnus’s mouth hung open for a moment. I’d never seen him look so out of his depth. He glanced across to Yuri and Gennadi too, then turned to me and let out a breath. “Play the game, Peter. I’ll see what I can do.”

It took everything I had to trust Magnus’s word, particularly since I had the horrible feeling that what he could do was nothing at all. I sent him a final, pleading look before turning back to Jace and jogging toward the game.

“Focus on what you can do right now,” Jace told me as we walked to the side of the field, signaling to Ox that the two of us would be trading off with two of the other players at the next break. “Sebald is on the field,” he went on. “Guard him, block him, knock him over, I don’t care. This is your opportunity to make contact with him.”

I nodded. Jace was right. I couldn’t do anything to help Gennadi, but I could make friends with Sebald. Even if I only had seconds in which to do it.

The game reached a pause as the ball was kicked out of bounds. Ox jogged to get it, signaling that Jace and I could replace Conrad and one of our other players, and two of Nikita’s team could replace exhausted players as well. I jogged out to stand by Sebald, scrambling for a way to connect with the young man.

“This certainly isn’t where I imagined I’d be last summer, when I was preparing for my sister’s birthday ball in the palace at Novoberg,” I told him with a knowing grin.

Sebald laughed, thank God. “This time last year I was taking dance lessons to prepare for my betrothal.”

“I’m not sure which is worse,” I said, straightening and tensing as play resumed farther up the field, “exhausting myself with sports or ending up betrothed.”

Sebald laughed. “The betrothal was worse,” he said running forward as the ball came our way. “This game will end. That marriage wouldn’t have.”

I laughed, then proceeded to attempt to block him as the ball came sailing our way. Everything I knew about kickball rules and strategy was brand new, but I’d spent the game so far watching Jace, Lefric, Nikita, and his team throwing themselves right up against each other in their attempts to block, pass, and kick the ball. I flung my arms out to the side, shifting and dancing and doing my best to counter Sebald’s attempts to kick the ball around me. Finally, he cut one way and I cut the other, but instead of running past me, we somehow ended up tripping over each other’s feet, both of us spilling flat to the ground.

“Sorry,” I said, recovering quickly and rolling toward him as Sebald growled and grasped his ankle. “I didn’t mean to. I’m sorry.”

Ox hollered for the game to stop and dashed over to us. “Peter, you can’t kick your opponents in the shin. It’s a penalty.”

“He didn’t kick me in the shin,” Sebald said, laughing, even as he winced and rolled to his back. “It was an accident.”

Ox snorted. “Don’t you nobly-born pups know anything at all?” she asked. “You’re supposed to play up your injuries so your side gets a penalty kick.”

“We are?” Sebald laughed.

I was on my feet first, so I reached a hand down to Sebald, helping him up. “I’ll make it look more convincing next time,” I said.

Sebald took my hand, and I pulled him up. Once we were standing, I thumped his naked, sweaty back. “I am so new to all of this,” Sebald laughed. “Sports, the forest, being a pup. I’ve only been in the forest for a few weeks.”

My heart raced, though it was the worst possible time to pry for the information I wanted. “Were you captured by Karpov the slaver?” I asked, deciding the direct approach was the only way I could go.

Sebald sent me a wary look. “My father sold me to him,” he said. “I wasn’t supposed to know. It was supposed to look like a kidnapping. But I heard the two of them discussing it.”

Ox shouted at us. “Come on! Move! The game is starting again!”

My eyes were wide. “I want to talk to you about this more,” I said, risking everything with blunt honesty. “I have a theory about what Karpov and our fathers have been doing in the last year. I think they got rid of us on purpose. Can we meet tomorrow to talk?”

Sebald’s eyes went wide. “Yes.”

It was all he had time to say. We were forced to concentrate on the game once more as Nikita came hurling toward us, then passed the ball to Sebald. I did the best I could to block him and actually managed to steal the ball from him and kick it across the grass to Lefric. It was the most skilled move I’d made in the game so far—aside from the invaluable truth I’d just pried from Sebald—and it gave me the energy to try for more.

I threw myself into the game after that. I was exhausted, I felt out of my depth, and my entire body hurt with the effort of so much movement, but by the time our two sides were tied, two-to-two, I thought that perhaps I could get used to playing kickball. More and more people were arriving to watch us too. So many that it didn’t seem right somehow. So many that the noise from the sides of the field started to grow louder.

But as Jace stole the ball from Nikita and started down the field with it, I realized that the murmurs coming from the sides of the field weren’t cheers or encouragement for the game, they were gasps and shouts of surprise and curiosity. I paused in the middle of running down the field to intercept one of Nikita’s men, who had stolen the ball back from Jace, to glance to the side of the field. In among the pack leaders and well-dressed advisors I noticed rougher, dirty men. Men who looked hungry and lost. It clicked in my mind that these were not attendees of the summit. They were newcomers.

A moment later, as Nikita’s teammate charged down the field with the ball, I spotted a familiar face in the group of newcomers. He stepped forward quickly, his eyes fixed on me, I would know those eyes anywhere.

“Sascha?”

Nikita’s teammate ran smack into me a moment later. We both crashed to the grass, and for a moment everything went black, the impact was so hard. My body ached from where I’d hit the ground and skidded for several inches, and Nikita’s teammate was hot and heavy on top of me.

“Oh, sorry,” he panted. “Are you all right?”

“Yes, yes, I think so.” I twisted as the man rolled off of me and glanced to the side of the field. It was definitely Sascha staring at me with wide, worried eyes, and he looked like hell.

“Peter! Peter, are you all right?” Magnus ran toward me from the edge of the field, his eyes wide with anxiety.

“I’m fine,” I groaned, rolling so that I could rise to my hands and knees.

“Are you certain.” Magnus skidded to a stop in front of me, dropping to his knees and reaching for me.

The game appeared to have broken up as people rushed around the newcomers. The hum of alarm and questions hung in the air, like distant thunder before a storm. I glanced back to Sascha. He was still watching me. Mikal and Jakob now stood on either side of him, as if holding him back.

I glanced to Magnus. “Did you just come out here to make a show of claiming me in front of him?” I asked with a weak smirk.

Magnus laughed in relief. He closed his arms over my shoulders and helped me to my feet. “You’ve found me out,” he said, about a dozen emotions in his eyes.

He truly had been concerned I’d been hurt. He was also more or less pissing on me to show Sascha that I was still his.

“Would you like to bend me over and fuck me right now to drive the point home?” I managed to tease him, even though my anxiety over what was going on deepened with each passing second.

Magnus laughed, but kept his arm around my shoulders as he escorted me over to the side of the field. “If I thought it would help….” He let his sentence fade out as his hand tightened on my arm.

The dynamics in the meeting grounds had completely changed with the new arrivals. Those of us who had been focused on playing hadn’t realized how much until we made it to the side, where wolves who were attending the summit had begun to surround the newcomers. It was almost as though they were a threat and needed to be contained. For all I knew, they were a threat. Neil jogged out from where he’d been taking a turn out from the game, his shirt around his shoulders but unbuttoned. He carried my shirt with him and fell into step with me and Magnus as we joined the others to see what was amiss.

I was taken completely by surprise by Ox’s high-pitched cry of “Katrina!” as she raced past us.

My breath caught in my throat, and I stood taller, craning my neck to look for the woman. I didn’t have to look hard. Katrina was so much taller than pretty much anyone I knew that she stood out from the crowd surrounding the newcomers. Ox pushed her way through the cluster of wolves to throw herself into Katrina’s arms.

“Look at you!” Katrina exclaimed to Ox as the two women hugged. “Aren’t you a sight for sore eyes.”

“Why are you here?” Ox asked, hugging Lena and Annika as well. Annika’s little boy was screaming with tears and fear at the commotion all around him.

“We were attacked,” Katrina said, raising her voice high enough for the wolves surrounding her to hear too. “Soldiers from Novoberg. They poured out into the forest three days ago and rooted out everyone.”

I was glad Magnus had his arm around me. I would have stumbled and fallen in shock if he hadn’t caught me. Indeed, as I searched the faces of the newcomers, I recognized many of them—Leo and his pack, Sergei and his, and a few wolves I thought I might have seen at faires. All of them lived near Novoberg.

Which didn’t make sense.

“My father doesn’t have soldiers,” I said, recovering enough to walk closer to Katrina. “He has guards, but it’s hardly the same now.”

Katrina’s eyes lit up when she saw me. “Peter! You’re looking well.”

Her comment earned a scowl from Sascha, who tried to step forward once again, and who was, once again, held back by Mikal and Jakob.

“Peter, thank God.” Ivan stepped out of the cluster of newcomers, Sven right beside him.

They both marched forward as it they would greet me with hugs, but were stopped by some of the men attempting to keep the newcomers contained in one group. I noticed that the wolves containing them were moving slowly forward, closing the newcomers into a tighter and tighter cluster.

“You’re fine how you are,” Magnus called to those men, some of whom were from our camp. “I don’t think they’re going to cause any trouble.

“What is this about an attack from Novoberg?” Bela asked, striding up to join the growing number of leaders studying the newcomers.

“It was completely unexpected,” Katrina said.

For some reason, the wolves around her stepped back, letting her speak for them. I wasn’t surprised, in all honesty. Aside from Sascha and his pack, Katrina was the only one in the forest around Novoberg who even came close to the kind of power and strength I’d seen since attaching myself to Magnus. Everything I’d seen in the last several weeks only proved that Sascha was unimportant. That didn’t stop my insides from tying themselves in knots to see him again, or to hear what Katrina had to say.

“We had no warning,” she went on. “They came early in the morning, turned us out, and burned our house to the ground.”

My gut clenched in anger. I’d been to Katrina’s house. It was lovely, if simple. My father had to have ordered the attack.

“They burned our entire village,” Leo added.

“Ours as well,” one of the other, small pack leaders added.

I caught my breath and turned to where Sascha and my friends stood. Sascha must have seen the question in my eyes. He said, “General Beiste liked the look of our house too much to burn it.”

General Beiste?” Neil gaped. “My father?”

Jakob shook his head. “It was a younger man. About thirty.”

“My brother, Theobald, then.” Neil leaned heavily against Magnus’s side. He was close enough for me to grab his hand and squeeze it.

Sascha noticed the gesture and narrowed his eyes. He went on with, “Our house was spared, but the out-buildings were all destroyed. General Beiste said the house would make a lovely retreat for him and his wife.”

“How dare he?” I hissed. The thought of someone else occupying the house where I’d had my awakening into forest life was a sort of atrocity.

“Was anyone hurt or killed?” Feodor asked, stepping up to Magnus’s side. He sent us a look, and after a moment, I realized he was staring at Neil.

“No,” Katrina answered. “They didn’t lift a finger to any of us, just destroyed our homes and chased us away without supplies.”

“And you came here?” Bela seemed furious. “By God, you’ll lead them right toward us.”

“We didn’t come straight here,” Sascha said, raising his voice. “We wandered until we were certain no one was following us.”

“They didn’t seem interested in doing more than clearing us out of the immediate area surrounding Novoberg,” Mikal added.

“It doesn’t make any sense,” I murmured.

“It might make sense,” Magnus said with a frown. He glanced around to see who from the leaders was looking toward him. I found it encouraging that many of the leaders were looking to him for what to do. “Anyone who can spare tents for these people, bring them here. We’ll set up a camp for the refugees and give them something to eat.”

“We will not,” Yuri said, marching forward into the fray. I shuddered at the sight of him, and at the way the other wolves parted to let him walk up to Magnus. “They’re a liability. They’ll take our supplies and give us nothing in return. Let them fend for themselves in the forest. That’s what we wolves do.”

“They’ve been attacked and lost their homes,” Savya argued. “Surely, helping them for a few days can’t cause any harm.”

I was encouraged by Savya’s show of support. He could definitely be swayed to Magnus’s side. At the same time, letting the refugees set up a camp at the meeting grounds meant that I would be in close proximity with Sascha. Given the circumstances and what I still needed to do, I wasn’t sure I liked that.

“Something has to be done with them for tonight, at least,” Magnus said. His comment was generous enough, but he looked straight at Sascha with a challenging look as he spoke. “We can’t have them wandering aimlessly, in danger of starving.”

“You’ll regret it if you let them stay,” Yuri argued. “We’ll all regret it, as I have been saying from the start. Wolves are not domesticated dogs, fit to be chained and to do their master’s bidding.”

“Says the man who keeps his pup on a leash,” Magnus snapped. He grabbed my hand as he spoke and as he glared at Yuri.

I squeezed his hand in thanks, but my heart shook as Yuri sent him a look of spite that would have struck a weaker man down. “My pup obeys,” Yuri growled. “Yours is no better than a bitch in heat that you cannot control.”

I flushed with anger and embarrassment. Especially since Magnus didn’t have any choice but to reply, “Oh, Peter is more obedient than you could possibly imagine. Do you think his actions are his own?”

I snuck a peek at Sascha. Fury seemed to roll off of him as he stared daggers at Magnus.

Yuri laughed. “And you think I’m cruel for keeping my pup as close to me as possible. You’re the one whoring your pup out to anyone you think you can sway to your destructive point of view.”

I prayed that, somehow, Sascha had been struck deaf and couldn’t hear Yuri’s and Magnus’s posturing. There was no possible way he wouldn’t get the wrong impression. Not that it mattered. I would have done what—and who—I needed to for Magnus even if Yuri’s insults had been a thousand times worse.

“I think it would be wise if we all returned to our camps for the evening,” Avraam said, stepping forward. Nikita stood just behind him. “Let’s keep our tempers in check for now and battle this out in tomorrow’s meeting. In the meantime, I don’t see any harm in letting these refugees make camp here tonight.” He gestured toward the kickball field.

“I agree to that,” Magnus said.

Yuri clenched his jaw and balled his hands into fists. He glanced to a few of the leaders whom I assumed where his closest allies. Finally, he turned to Avraam and growled, “I agree.” Immediately after, he turned and walked away.

“You have leave to make your camp here for the night,” Magnus told the cluster of refugees. “We’ll find tents and food for you.” He nodded to a few of his allies, who sent runners off toward their camps. “We’ll take care of you, keep you safe,” Magnus went on, making eye contact with as many of the refugees as he could. At last, his gaze landed on Sascha. “As long as you respect what is ours and take only what is given.”

Once again, I had the feeling that Magnus was pissing on me to mark his territory. Strangely, I didn’t mind.