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As promised, their weapons and packs were returned to them. Mila had been given free reign of Andrea’s caravan and she spent what felt like forever sorting through and cleaning her gear before plucking up the courage to venture back outside.

The clouds were clearing up, replaced with warm sunshine. At first glance, the campsite looked so idyllic she had to pause for a moment and drink it in, even as more faces turned in her direction. Thankfully, the whispers that had followed her earlier had now stopped.

For a moment she was unsure what to do. Caelan had said something about checking on the horses - perhaps she could find him? She noticed Andrea sitting by a tree on the edge of the clearing, scraping away at a half-made crossbow bolt, and headed towards her instead.

Andrea glanced up as she approached, watching with a neutral expression and a distinctly wolf-like stillness. Mila tried for a smile. “Hi…” She gestured to the pile of roughly hewn sticks beside the other woman. “Can I help?”

Andrea’s smile was genuine, if a little uncertain. “Sure,” she said. She passed Mila a knife and a couple of sticks as she settled on the ground.

“Thanks for the caravan, by the way,” Mila said. “Are you sure it’s ok for me to use it?”

“That’s fine,” Andrea replied. “I don’t really use it much - it’s a bit small for me now.” Seeing Mila’s confused expression, she explained. “There’s three of us now. I guess Johnny must have arrived after you left.” Andrea gestured across the clearing with a half made arrow to where the blond man Mila had seen in the caravan yesterday was talking to Spencer. “I’ll introduce you later,” she said with a smile. “Anyway, it was a bit cramped already with the two of us, then Luke came along.” Her smile widened. “My son. He’s nearly four now.”

Mila couldn’t help feeling a little overwhelmed. “Congratulations,” she said, finally. A pause. “I guess a lot can change in six years.”

Andrea looked at her with careful eyes. “Definitely,” she said. She smiled cautiously. “How about you then?”

“What?”

“Caelan. Are you and he…?”

Mila felt a blush erupt in her cheeks and had to look away. “Uh… no.” Her eyes fell on the figure of a boy in his late teens leaving his tent, and she found herself staring. “Is that Daniel?” She asked.

Andrea looked round and grinned. “Yes. He’s certainly grown up since you last saw him.” A chuckle. “Still a bit of a kid at heart though.”

Grateful for the change in subject, Mila found herself smiling too. “Lilly?”

“Bossy as ever. She’s just turned thirteen - her first change came a few months ago.”

“Emma?” A knot in Mila’s stomach clenched at the memory of her old friend.

“She moved on.” Andrea looked apologetic, but Mila couldn’t help feeling a little relieved. “Hazel’s still around,” Andrea was saying. “I think she’s patrolling the perimeter today, but I’m sure you’ll see her at some point.”

Mila wasn’t sure how she felt about that, and moved the conversation onto other pack members. It turned out that many had left after her father had died, not wanting to follow either Spencer or Ben. Others had left in the years before - the more usual comings and goings of pack life - including Andrea’s sister, Erin, and Mila’s father’s old Beta pair. Andrea pointed out various people as they chatted, and although Mila nodded, she was certain she was not going to remember most of the new names.

Two women around Mila’s age emerged from the forest (“Addy and Jessica,” Andrea told her) and came over to chat with Andrea, introducing themselves to Mila with friendly smiles. Overcoming her initial uncomfortableness, Mila discovered she quite liked both of them - Jessica was rather quiet, but Addy was content to chat about nothing in particular and appeared to have a true talent for avoiding awkward silences. Certainly, Mila reflected, it was nice to talk to someone who had no prior knowledge of her.

Lunch was a communal affair - a cauldron of soup and a mountain of freshly made bread stood in the centre of the clearing and they all helped themselves. Mila found herself sitting with in a small group with Andrea, Addy, Jessica and, after a bit, Johnny. The smell of the bread and the sound of the pack laughing and gossiping together brought Mila back to her childhood, and she found herself smiling and laughing along with the rest of them. Her smile widened when she looked up to see Caelan strolling out of the woods, chatting to an unfamiliar red-headed wolf.

He soon settled down next to her, tucking into his meal with gusto. “How’s it going?” he asked.

His tone was light but Mila could sense the depth behind the innocuous question, and she smiled reassuringly. “Fine.” Quickly she introduced the others in the group to Caelan, before asking: “How are the horses?”

“Very well looked after - don’t worry.” He gestured to the red-headed girl who had just settled down on his other side. “This is Tay. She’s in charge of the stables.”

Tay smiled, timidly “Nice to meet you,” she said. She seemed sweet, if a little nervous, and Mila noted that the cadence of her words was similar to Caelan’s. “And stables might be a little generous,” she was saying. “They’re still a little rough and ready.”

Caelan shrugged. “They have four walls and a roof - that’s good enough for me.”

The group settled into an easy conversation about horses and caring for them. After a minute or so, a young man Mila didn’t recognise passed by, greeting Jessica briefly before jogging off into the woods. Caelan stared after his naked form, quirking an eyebrow.

Andrea saw his expression and laughed. “We’re not too concerned with nudity here,” she said. “You’ll get used to it.”

Caelan shot Mila a look that somehow managed to be amused, suggestive and shocked all at once before replying. "It’s a bit of a giveaway that something’s not… entirely normal though, isn’t it? Don’t you ever have people wandering through here by mistake?”

“Not often,” Andrea said. “The borders of our territory are well guarded. Even if they do find the clearing, we have this.” She gestured to the flagpole.

“When the flag is up, we know that there’s a stranger around and we shouldn’t do anything too wolfy,” Tay explained.

Caelan nodded appreciatively. “Clever.”

“It was Sean’s idea first. I just stole it.” Spencer’s voice managed to startle Mila. She turned around to see him looking down at her with a grin. “Could I borrow you for a bit?” He asked. “I was wondering if you’d help me check the perimeter.”

Mila nodded. “Sure.” She stood, suppressing her sudden rush of nervousness determinedly. It was only Spencer. She shot a quick smile in Caelan’s direction before falling in step next to Spencer, heading into the woods.

It was quieter there. The dappled sunlight cast the woodland floor in shifting golden glow and above them birds flitted from tree to tree, singing familiar tunes. They walked a while in companionable silence before Spencer spoke. “You seem to have settled in ok.”

“Andrea’s been very accommodating,” Mila replied.

“She and Johnny have been great allies. I don’t know what I would have done without them.”

“Johnny wasn’t interested in the Alpha bid?” She asked, in spite of herself.

“Not back then, no.” Spencer looked thoughtful. “Perhaps one day he will, but I think he’d rather split than challenge me for it.”

A good thing too, Mila thought. A challenge from your Beta was a nightmare for an Alpha wolf, with no real best case scenario. Dominance challenges normally ended in death for the Beta if they were unsuccessful, and if they were successful, the old Alpha would likely be banished, if not killed outright… One of the many reasons to make sure you had a good relationship with your Betas.

“Listen, I know a lot of this must feel uncomfortable for you.” Spencer’s voice pulled her back from her thoughts. “I know lots of the pack don’t know you, and they’ve all been gossiping most of the morning… I wondered whether we could have some sort of welcoming ceremony tomorrow night, to help celebrate your return. It would give them all something to look forward to, and it would help introduce you to them all properly.”

Mila narrowed her eyes. “A welcoming ceremony?”

“A party,” Spencer corrected.

Mila swallowed back a sudden rush of anxiety. It seemed a sensible idea, and she appreciated Spencer trying to make her feel at home, despite how her stomach clenched at the idea of being the centre of attention. Again. “Sure.” She subdued her fears and grinned. “At least Harry’s not here for you to throw up on this time.”

Spencer raised an eyebrow. “If memory serves me correctly, it was Emma that threw up on Harry,” he said, mockingly haughty. “I threw up against a tree, like a professional.” He laughed, shaking his head. “Your father was so pissed off with us.”

Mila couldn’t help chuckling too as the warm rush of memories assaulted her. “We were supposed to be watching the kids - ”

“And then Hazel wouldn’t speak to you for a week!”

“She got over it,” Mila responded, before falling silent, her stomach once again sick with guilt. “Was Emma upset after I left?” She murmured.

Spencer took an almost uncomfortably long time to reply, his lips pressed in a hard line. "She was more upset with me than with you,” he said finally. “She and her parents moved on a few months later. We never really reconciled.”

Mila looked down. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be,” Spencer said firmly, cutting her off and making her stop to look up at him. “Look, I know why you left. It was as much mine and Emma’s fault as your father’s. Emma felt the same way.”

Mila frowned. “It wasn’t your fault. You didn’t know what was going on - I never told you.”

“No, but we should have known. You were suffering, and we didn’t see it. What kind of friends did that make us?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t matter now.” He looked like he was going to argue but she raised a hand. “Spencer, I don’t want to talk about this. What happened happened. And now it’s done.”

He surveyed her in silence for a few long seconds before sighing. “Fine.” He moved out of her way and she walked on, grateful he wasn’t going to push the issue.

“How far to the border?” She asked.

“About an hour’s walk,” he replied. “We use the hills as a rough guide.”

The perimeter must be huge. “How do you keep it all defended?”

“We have regular patrols, mostly in pairs. There’s normally at least eight on the border at any given time.” He must have seen the question in her face as he continued: “Your welcoming party was a bit of a fluke. Larry and Reece had picked up your scents, and happened to run into Cassidy, Matt and Andrea who were on their way back from trading at the nearest town.”

“It’s a good thing Andrea was there to recognise me,” Mila commented. “It might have been a bit of a bloodbath. Your pack’s small enough as it is.”

Spencer’s lip curled. “You think you would have won?”

“We’ve faced worse odds,” she replied shortly.

“A-ha…”

His tone was teasing, but she bristled. “I’m not some helpless pup, Spencer.”

“I never said you were,” he replied smoothly. “Judging by that mark on your neck, you’ve gone against vampires and won. Believe me, I’m not planning to underestimating you.”

Slightly mollified, Mila let the subject slip to further reminisces until they reached the perimeter. Their task, Spencer told her, was to check the traps - whether for trespassers, or for dinner, it didn’t matter - and reset them. The final one yielded a young buck, which Spencer hefted over his shoulder for the walk back, eyes bright at the prospect of fresh venison for dinner.

By the time they reached the camp again it was nearly time to cook the beast. Spencer re-introduced Mila to Cassidy, and she helped the other woman prepare the buck, with the additional help of Cassidy’s nine year old daughter Wren, who was soon pestering her with questions about the lands across the sea. Luckily Caelan rescued her, and before long he had attracted almost all of the pack’s children - even, Mila saw with a smile, thirteen year old Lilly - and was entertaining them with tales of his various exploits. To start, she was a little concerned that the content would not be suitable for children, but Caelan seemed to have found the perfect level of gruesomeness to enthral without traumatising them, and they all groaned when Cassidy announced it was time for dinner.

Caelan sauntered up to Mila with a grin, his gaggle of admirers reluctantly disbanded. “Good day?” he asked.

Again, she caught the undertone of the question, and felt warmth blooming in her chest. “Yeah,” she replied. “You?”

He nodded. “Peace and quiet, surrounded by nature. I could certainly get used to this.”

“Don’t let the kids hear you,” she replied. “They think you’re a swashbuckling adventurer.”

“A very good point,” he said seriously. “Still, I’m glad you decided to stay.”

And as she tucked into her venison a little later - with Spencer on her right, Andrea on her left, Caelan and Johnny chatting like old friends opposite her and the squeals of excited kids surrounding them as they acted out Caelan’s stories - she had to agree with him.

 

 

 




Submitted: September 15, 2018

© Copyright 2021 Amy R. Beckett. All rights reserved.

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Sylvermyst

At least Mila is getting comfortable with her old pack but I wonder how much longer she will stay.

Sun, November 11th, 2018 3:18am

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