Fey had to remind herself to breathe as Norrin led her toward her old pack’s nest. Part of that was the same fear she’d been harboring ever since she’d set out on this journey, now cranked up to eleven with the knowledge that whatever was going to happen was happening right now. But behind that fear, less demanding but still just as noticeable, was something else…
Why won’t he look at me? she thought, staring at the bear-walker’s broad, muscled back. He didn’t even say anything when he saw me. I know he never spoke much anyway, but still…nothing?
She focused her attention on Clueless, who was hanging limply from his shoulder. She was bleeding, but considering what Fey knew Norrin was capable of, she had gotten off remarkably lightly. Those gashes looked bad, but she doubted they would prove to be life threatening as long as they were tended to soon.
Assuming the pack let her tend to them, and didn’t just kill them both.
And if they didn’t kill them, what would happen next? Fey knew she couldn’t stay here. She would be lucky if they even let her sleep on their territory overnight. That was fine, though. Fey knew how to fend for herself in the Wild, pack or no pack. More importantly, how would they react to Clueless? Wildborn skinwalkers weren’t rare, but Clueless was a special case. She still hadn’t come to grips with her own sentience, much less her new place in the world. Would they make her feel welcome in their pack? Could Clueless learn to be happy here? Or would she spend the rest of her life pining for her hateful owner?
Fey’s heart began to beat faster when she recognized the part of the forest they were in. Even after spending half her life here, she couldn’t claim to know every inch of these woods. She doubted anyone could. But this place in particular was as familiar to her as her childhood neighborhood—because that’s exactly what it was.
Norrin stepped into the pack’s nest, a small clearing that sat beneath a short cliff, and unceremoniously dumped Clueless on the ground. In the center was a fire pit, and on the far end the cliffside opened up to form a cave big enough to comfortably house the entire pack.
The whole pack was there, she realized with a lurch, blood turning to ice. Skylar, in her half-hawk form, was perched on an outcropping above the cave, acting as lookout. An orange-and-black furred fox-walker stood up in alert, her emerald eyes widening the moment she saw Fey. A pair of young rabbit-walkers, who couldn’t have been older than five, chased each other around the fire pit. And then there was—
“Fey’s back! Fey’s back!”
A light brown blur shot across the nest, colliding with Fey almost hard enough to knock her down. The young deer-walker hugged her as tightly as if she were his long lost sister.
“Derrick?” Fey exclaimed in surprise.
The deer boy let her go and stepped back, grinning at her. “I can’t believe you came back! I’ve missed you!”
Despite herself, Fey couldn’t help but smile back at him. “Look at you! You’ve grown so much! How old are you now?”
“I’m ten!” he announced proudly.
“All your fawn spots are gone,” she said.
“Almost all of them.” He turned to show a single white spot in the otherwise brown fur on his back. “But look at these!”
He bent over and pointed at his head, from which two small, velvety bumps were protruding.
“Your antlers!” Fey said. “Already? That’s in—”
“Get away from her, Derrick!”
Fey took an instinctive step backwards, and groaned when she saw the fox girl angrily making her way over, teeth bared.
“Great,” she muttered. “Don’t tell me you’re already—”
“What the hell do you think you’re doing here?” the fox girl demanded, thrusting her face half an inch from Fey’s. “Do you think you can just wander into another pack’s territory like you own the place?”
Fey held up her hands in surrender. “Ember, calm down. I’m just here to—”
“I should rip your throat open right now!”
Fey glared back at her, swallowing the sharp remark that came just as naturally to her tongue as it had three years ago. Having her throat cut one time today was more than enough. Truth be told, this was the welcome she had expected, but she hadn’t expected it to come from Ember of all people. If she was the one giving the orders around here, then that must mean…
“You always thought you were above the rules just because you were Glenn’s favorite!” the fox-walker snarled.
“Where is Glenn?” Fey butted in. “What happened to him?”
Ember’s eyes widened in surprise. “Excuse me? You don’t get to walk into my territory and start asking questions! I think it’s time somebody cut you down to size!”
She raised her hand, ebony claws glittering in the sunlight, and Fey tensed her body. She couldn’t fight Ember here, not when she was the one trespassing. But if that harlot thought she was just going to stand there and let her—
“That’s enough, you two!” shouted a familiar voice.
Ember froze, the fury in her eyes growing even hotter, but she obediently lowered her hand and backed down. Fey looked past the fox-tramp, and her heart skipped a beat when she saw the figure behind her.
At a glance, Glenn was not an intimidating figure. The deer-walker stood five and a half feet tall, his antlers giving him another foot or so of height, and while he was lean and strong, he wasn’t especially well muscled. Compared to Norrin, who was sitting by the cave entrance, impassively watching the scene unfold, Glenn looked downright puny.
But looks were, as any skinwalker knew, deceiving, and Fey had firsthand knowledge of just how deadly this buck was.
“Dad, Dad!” Derrick yelled, running to his father’s side. “Fey came back!”
“I can see that,” Glenn replied, running his piercing blue eyes over her. “But that just begs the question…”
Fey tensed up again, ready to bolt.
“…why hasn’t she given me a hug yet?”
A smile burst onto Glenn’s face, and Fey breathed a sigh of relief. Crossing the distance between them in a run, she gave her former alpha a hug, which he happily returned.
“Three years!” he declared once they’d separated. “Has it really been three years since you left?”
“Too long,” she answered, fighting back the tears that suddenly threatened to pour out of her eyes.
“Too long, indeed. You’re always welcome to visit us.”
“Hussy,” she heard Ember mutter.
Glenn looked around. “But Fey, where is your pack? Don’t tell me you left them without their alpha?”
Fey had to avert her eyes, blushing furiously beneath her fur. “I, um…I don’t have one.”
Glenn raised an eyebrow.
“Yet!” she quickly added, the lie burning her tongue. “I don’t have one yet! I just haven’t, uh, had much luck…you know, finding skinwalkers.”
To her relief, Glenn nodded. “Our numbers have never been large, even counting the unAwakened. You’ll find them, Fey, I know you will. But if you don’t have a pack…” He glanced over at Clueless. “Then who is this?”
Derrick was kneeling over Clueless’ unconscious body, gently running his fingers over her. “I think she’ll be okay. We just need to let her rest.”
Fey sighed in relief again. “Thank God. Glenn, I’m sorry she came into your territory uninvited. She was just Awakened a couple of days ago, and she doesn’t know skinwalker customs yet.”
“I see.” He nodded his antlered head in thought. “But she’s not part of your pack?”
“It’s…complicated.” Fey paused to look around at the other packmates. “Glenn, can we talk in private? Please?”
“Absolutely not!” Ember butted in again, leaping forward to stand between them. “You want to walk off all alone with our alpha? How stupid do you think we are? You could be trying to kill him and take over the pack!”
Fey’s hackles rose. “I would never—”
“If there’s one skinwalker outside of my pack that I would trust with my life,” Glenn cut her off with a smirk, “it’s Fey. Besides, even if she did manage to kill me, she’d still have to deal with you, Ember.”
Ember backed down again, but as Glenn led the way out of the nest and into the woods, Fey could still feel the fox-walker’s hateful glare burning into her back.