“Be on your guard,” Ylva’s eyes shifted from the tracks to me. Some had left footprints, others giant paw prints, but there was no mistaking it: a big group of Dechi people were migrating together, and from the looks of it, they couldn’t be far.
“I can smell them in the wind,” Maccon nodded, lifting his snout. “Do you think they have clothes for me?” he added just as wistfully. We wouldn’t humor him with a response; the very air grew tense and frozen.
Ylva lifted her arm up suddenly to signal us to a halt. She gestured to me and pointed out where, at a distance, some wulfen forms could be seen slinking through the trees. “He’s in there somewhere,” Maccon said definitively. “I recognize a couple of his lackeys. But there are so many prints... could he have added even more to his pack?”
“There’s only one way to find out,” I began to trudge forward, a foreign sense of surety rising up within me.
“What is he doing?” Maccon hissed.
“He’s confronting your usurper,” Ylva said, sounding pleased and following me at a little distance as I approached the tribe.
They were all stationed by a river in a clearing from the woods. When I knew I could be heard, I yelled over to them. “Hey!” A few of them turned their heads, then I heard them start to howl. The noise of the alarm built as more and more of wulfen shape joined the chorus, bringing the entire group, which I could now see must have exceeded two hundred, to a halt. A tall, stocky man of middle age began to make his way toward me, and all the others came in toe. The reality of the situation set in for me; one moment had given way to another, and there was no turning back.
The closer the group came, the more I heard mumblings among them. I thought I heard Ylva’s name in the hushed tones. As they came upon our troupe of three, an older woman with blanched hair called out.
“Ylva! My daughter! My daughter is alive!”
I watched as a grey-haired man, presumably Ylva’s father, urged her to be silent. I couldn’t hear his words, but there was a distinct fear in his voice. Rezso did little to acknowledge the stir, but kept his blackened eyes fixed upon me.
“I see strangers,” he said in a deep, calculating tone. “Why have you come?” His unkempt, dark brown hair danced in the wind as his face bent with curiosity. I opened my mouth to commence my reply, but before I could, he added, “Strangers, yet perhaps not so. This one I shamed in defeat.” He looked over at Maccon, whose tail was tucked, eyes downturned, and head low. “And you,” Rezso reverted his gaze. “You are familiar to me as well, yet I struggle to place you. Who is the woman? She looks like a strong one.”
She answered for herself. “You know my name already. You’ve heard my people’s cries amongst the crowd. I am Ylva. I was betrothed to one who would have been the Rinnek Tribe’s Alpha, had the humans not slain him. And this--”
It was evident that Rezso had quickly lost interest in Ylva’s response as he interrupted her. “Why are you here?” he demanded from me.
“I am the grandson of Amarog, the last of the true Alpha line.” Was it truly me these words came from? “And I’ve come to take my rightful place as chief among the Dechi.”
The lines on Rezso’s broad face suggested amusement at my words. “Now this is interesting. Another who claims the right and ability to claim the broken throne. I would have you know, boy, that I have now united three tribes beneath me. My own nomadic tribe, the Rinnek, and now the Beyloh. This would not be achievable without my blood. You see, there is a story my mother passed down to me quite recently on her deathbed. A story of how Amarog’s father had had an affair with a woman before he married his queen, and a son was born. That son was my grandfather, so I believed myself to be the last of the true Alphas. I have been uniting my people according to my birthright.”
“He’s lying!” Ylva cried.
“Let this young man speak for himself,” Rezso barked. “Tell me, what is your name, and how do you claim your birthright? If you truly are of Alpha blood, you may join me, and we can rule these people together.”
I considered his words for a moment. He sounded well-convinced of his heritage, and if it was his right to rule these people, it was his right. If I were to be honest with myself, I saw his potential birthright as an out, a final avenue through which I might squeeze out of a responsibility I’d nearly accepted, but which was unceremoniously thrust upon me.
“You don’t have to answer him,” Ylva said quietly in my ear.
“Perhaps it’s best they know sooner rather than later,” I muttered before raising my voice to Rezso and the throng. “I’m the only son of Calysta, Amarog’s sole heir who was slain by Gillireth.”
“Calysta had no son. And if she had had a son, he would be--”
“Half human? The son of Gillireth, the king who has sent armies in his name to destroy our people in slow torment?” Our people? What had come over me? “Yes, that’s precisely who I am. But rest assured, I despise my father and his ways just as you do.”
Now an uproar had begun in the crowd, but Rezso himself remained silent, waiting a minute before he rose his arm to quiet his tribe. “I know why you look familiar. You look like the human chief from the north whom I slew in the red of autumn. Do show us your wulfen form,” his voice remained cool. “You have piqued my curiosity very much.”
My heart sunk. “Not a bear,” I said under my breath. “YOU KILLED ZOLAN! You bastard!” I screamed, my anger kindled to a raging fire. I shifted to wulfen form in an instant, my clothes shredding violently. I ripped off the tatters with my bare jaws. “Why did you do it? He hadn’t done a damn thing to you!”
“As a matter of fact, he tried to kill me!” Rezso’s voice reached a crescendo. “But it was not for that that I drew his blood. It was for you, boy. Weak as you were as his dog, I wouldn’t tolerate his demeaning one of our kind. Now look at you! I’ve liberated you! You owe me thanks. But if you fail to submit yourselves to me now,” he addressed all three of us, “then let it be a duel to the death between the mutt and me.”