AN UPDATE?! ZOMG!
Buckle up. It's long.
As her siblings ran with members of the Sutherland Pack and generally made themselves useful—all under Owen's watchful eyes—Eris scoured the Laws. It was definite now; they would leave in two days for the Council meeting, a journey that would take them only a night at the most. Time had become a very precious commodity.
Owen had opted to help her by keeping track of her brood, as he was quick to own to his ignorance. He was not even a very well-read man, let alone a scholar. There was little he knew of the Laws that could help her.
"You should take a break."
Meela stuck around to make sure that Eris was taking care of herself and eating—probably on Koran's orders. Eris did not know her well, but liked her. She was sweet-natured, soft-spoken, and gentle; the perfect female in many ways.
Meela nodded and said nothing for a long while. Then, timidly she began, "Eris?"
The girl was darning a hole in Eris' shirt as the older girl sat in her bindings, hunched over the book of Laws that lay in her lap. The needle paused a moment and pale blue eyes darted up briefly. "I… how do you… never mind."
Eris managed a quick glance upwards, frowning slightly. "Out with it," she snapped. Meela cowered at this and she heaved a sigh. The endless hours of reading was driving her out of her mind. She had never spent so much time on her studies as Cael and therefore had never become as proficient with the written word as him. This was more taxing than a day hunting of with Taka. "I'm sorry, Meela. What is it?"
"I just… I wanted to know how you get… attention from a man."
Stunned, Eris could do little but blink. She and Meela were not very well-acquainted, so it made sense that the girl had no idea just how under-qualified Eris was to answer that particular question. "In my experience, rescuing them from Ferals seems to work."
Meela smiled, but it was weak at best. "Your friend is very handsome."
"Yes, he is. This isn't about him, is it?"
"Of course not, no!"
Eris ignored the sudden relief that washed over her, chalking it up to instinct and a nature-driven possessiveness. Even if this was about Owen, she could get over it. Meela had as much right to admire the unmated male as she or any other woman did. "Then, who are talking about?"
A little harder to ignore was the wave of nausea that came over Eris at that.
Yes, Seath was very handsome and as the son of the pack's leader, he was in position to take over after his father. He had power and, for whatever it was worth, he had money. If he wished to leave the life of an Outlander, he could easily buy his way into noble society and make a way for himself in the city.
But Eris knew Seath. She had seen the ugliest side of him, the darkest and most dangerous facet of his personality, which had only reared its head once or twice during their more brutal face-offs. It was what had driven her from simply fending him off and turning tail to responding with violence of her own. "Meela, I don't know what to tell you…"
"He likes you. A lot. My brother runs with Seath so he's always around and he always talks about you when they get talking about girls…"
"I know you were supposed to be mates…"
And Eris was pretty sure that that was actually bile tickling her throat, combining with an entirely different sort of burning in her gut as rage ignited inside of her. The mere thought of being bound to the man was bad enough. The thought that he still seemed very much attached to the idea of a possible union between them was even worse.
It wasn't that Eris despised the thought of someday finding a mate and settling down. She wanted a husband. She wanted someone that she could trust and lean on, someone that she could love and hold close. To that end, she wasn't opposed to the idea of having children either, as she now had plenty of experience. After more or less raising Taka, every other child that could possibly come into her life would be easy.
But she wanted those things on her terms: not with some male chosen for her, not for convenience, and most definitely not with Seath.
"Meela, he isn't the man you might think he is. Seath is—"
Both girls turned sharply to the very subject of their conversation, who was standing at the hut entrance looking rather insufferably smug. Eris clenched her teeth. "Seath's not welcomed here. Get out!"
He ignored her entirely and looked to Meela. "Why don't you finish that up outside?" he suggested with a deceptively easy smile.
The girl nodded weakly and then shuffled out. Once she was gone, Seath pulled on the tie holding the door flap aside and the heavy, leather covering fell forward, plunging the hut into half-darkness as now the only light allowed inside was what little could squeeze in around the door flap.
Eris rolled to the side when Seath lunged at her, throwing himself forward with the intent to pin her. She wasn't quite so lucky when he reached for her again and managed to catch first one leg and then the other when she kicked at him. With little preamble he dragged her to him by the ankles and then threw his weight into her, knocking the air out of her at the same time as he pinned her, grasping her wrists in his hands and straddling her thighs to pin her legs uselessly to the ground.
This was entirely why she avoided unarmed combat. It was why she spent so much time wrestling with Taka and Cael—not only to hone their instincts and abilities, but to challenge herself against opponents that would, with time, be stronger than her. Her strength would grow with theirs.
Seath pressed his nose to her neck and inhaled sharply and Eris thrashed against him, arching her body in an attempt to throw him. This only seemed to amuse him as he began to chuckle and in retaliation he pressed back into her. The intimacy of their contact, their bodies flush against each other, made her skin crawl. Why would any woman ever want this?
"You smell so lovely," he whispered.
"Get off, Seath!"
He bared his teeth and without much effort, dismissed another attempt to throw him. "I don't understand. Help me." His words were short and staccato and although he was whispering, she was not stupid enough to think him calm. "You can save yourself… you know that. Even if your other companion will not help you, I would be more than happy to. I can save you. Can't you see what this means? First our parents conspired to put us together and when that did not happen, now fate is forcing its hands. You were always meant to be mine."
Eris snarled and reared her head up, slamming her forehead into his nose. She made a move to take advantage of his moment of weakness and buck him, but Seath's fist made sharp contact with her cheek in return. However, with her right hand now freed she swung at him. Her fist made contact with a disgusting 'snap' and reflexively he threw both hands up to cradle his face. She threw him then, drawing her knees up and then arching her hips to toss him to the side.
She rolled nimbly out of the way and onto her feet, lifting a finger to point at him as she rose to her full height even as she continued to breathe harshly. "I will never be yours."
There was another flash of pearly white teeth as Seath wiped blood from his face, both of his palms now covered with it. "You say that now. However, my prize was stolen from me and, if I have to, I will take it by force if necessary."
The girl opened her mouth to retort, to swear at him, to tell him to go straight to hell, but light suddenly flooded the room and she winced against it as she turned toward the doorway.
* * *
Owen's hands tightened immediately into fists upon the sight of Eris' swollen cheek and his eyes narrowed as he turned his focus on Seath. "It appears that I've missed something," he said coolly. He stepped forward and laid a hand gently upon Eris' shoulder, positioning himself beside her. "How about you fill me in?"
"This isn't any of your concern," Seath snapped. "Get out!"
"Fine. Eris, why don't you come with me?"
She nodded and Owen ushered her quickly ahead of him and out of the hut, both of them ignoring Seath's sputtering protests behind them.
"What happened?" Owen demanded as soon as they were out of earshot.
Eris shook her head. "Let's wait until we reach the woods. I'll tell you there."
* * *
Owen felt locked out of the loop, which he didn't enjoy. Eris had been keeping to herself for the better part of the time spent in the settlement and it was making him uneasy. He couldn't help her when it came to developing a defense against the Council and he was happy to look after the others and make sure that they avoided trouble while Eris was occupied elsewhere, but he felt left out. He hated to say that he missed her, because she was right there and, as of yet, not dead, but they hadn't talked much, if at all, for the better part of a few days. Their little verbal sparring matches, their discussions on proper skinning technique and tools, and the times when she'd listen eagerly to his stories… they were nice. In a very domestic way they were nice and he missed them. It was a strange feeling for him, for someone who had become so well acquainted with isolation.
"So, what's wrong with him?" he asked once they could no longer see the village.
Eris laughed a little and glanced up at him, her arms folded loosely over her chest. "A lot of things," she muttered. "The Sutherland pack works on a more hierarchal system than the Beckmoor pack used to. Seath's power is guaranteed to him by his father being the Alpha, so he walks around behaving like he is entitled to everything he wants. In contrast, my father was in power because he had earned it by being the strongest. Rafe would have inherited his power, but he would only have been able to keep it if he could hold his own against any contesters."
"Doesn't that lead to a more unstable system? If you can win power by winning a challenge…"
"If you can't lead or if you're only in it for yourself, the pack will only tolerate you for just so long," Eris replied. "That usually weeds out any unworthy contestants. Then, when there isn't a bloodline to follow, a new Alpha is chosen by the pack as a collective."
Owen blinked at her. "Then why is power ever inherited if the decision is ultimately the collective's?"
"It's assumed that any Alpha who is a good leader and a good man will raise his sons to be good men as well. How do you not know any of this?"
He shrugged, feeling sheepish. "I was born in the city. It's different there."
"I… suppose it's more like you describe the Sutherland pack, except power usually has a little bit more to do with money and the pack system is different. My pack was just my clan starting at my grandfather's bloodline and encompassing all of the branches. We coexisted with other packs in the same cities."
"That must be why city-breeds seem to think of us as having spoiled blood," Eris murmured to herself.
Owen nodded. "But none of that explains why Seath acts the way he does toward you in particular."
"That explanation is boring and doesn't matter."
"Right," he scoffed skeptically. "Tell me anyway."
She rolled her eyes. "The Beckmoor and Sutherland packs are the only two firmly established packs in this area—well, Sutherland is alone in that now. This peninsula we live on is split equally between us: Beckmoor to the north and Sutherland in the south. Koran and my father's ultimate goal was to create a third pack of both Sutherland and Beckmoor blood and settle them in the west, expanding both packs' territory and access to food. It was agreed that Seath and I would marry and start that pack."
"How did that fall through?"
"The agreement only existed between my father and Koran in a theoretical sense. When Father died the agreement was dissolved. When Koran made the proposal again to Rafe, he was turned down. Seath… he hasn't really adjusted to that idea yet."
"Is that what the territory dispute was over?"
Eris nodded. "Cael will vilify Father until the day of his own death, but he's young and it helps him cope, so I do not correct him. The truth is that it was Koran's scheme from the beginning and Father agreed to it because our pack was starving. We were too large and we were sharing land with the human village nearby so we were running out of food. The idea was that the opposing pack in the west was small and easily conquerable, which was better than starting a blood war with the humans. Our pack was assigned to lead the fight because we were far greater in number and strength. As you know, that didn't work out so well."
"You were overwhelmed."
"It was a spectacular defeat by all accounts," she admitted. She smiled humorlessly and shook her head as she pushed her hair out of her face in a gesture that gave away her uneasiness. "The opposing pack was a Feral pack and perhaps only half our size, but as a testament to their strength they dwindled down our numbers until it was a fairly even fight. The Sutherland pack made it rather clear that they weren't going to help and with so many dead, whoever survived from our side ran off. As far as I know, the Feral pack has disappeared as well."
Owen tried to take this all in, his mind whirling. Seath's behavior now made some sense. He appeared at least a few years Eris' senior, so he would have been older when the agreement had first been proposed. While Eris would have… well, been Eris and still too young to be caught up in romanticism, maybe Seath had liked the idea of marrying her. Or maybe he was just acting like a five-year-old throwing a temper tantrum after not getting what he wanted for his birthday.
"So, what was that back there?" he asked, veering quickly back on track.
"He was proposing to me."
"By punching you? How very romantic of him."
"Well, you have your ideas of romantic and he has his." Eris shot him a wry smile and then looked away again. "He's switched tactics. He's no longer trying to woo me as much as he's just trying to appeal to my sense of survival. If I take a mate, this whole mess will resolve itself."
"How's that? Where I'm from if you're charged with any crime that might warrant an execution, that's it."
"This only works in the case of insubordinate females, but if I take a mate, it is assumed that I am turning away from my taboo behavior and more or less admitting that I was wrong and that I am accepting my role in life. Besides, it's thought that from thereafter, my mate would keep me in check. It can't be so very different from how you were raised."
After a bit of thought, Owen could admit that it was not. While his mother had been very much in love, his sisters very happy with their chosen husbands, and his aunts very nicely settled with their partners, they were all very traditional women who lived very traditional lives and thought in very traditional ways. They kept their houses; dictating their servants, mothering children, and whiling away their hours by planning parties and embroidering pillows.
They were nothing like Eris and she was nothing like them. Society made no room for spirits like Eris'.
"So you are allowed to choose your own punishment: an axe or a cage," he murmured. "Merciful of them."
Eris spared him a sideways look then and then turned her eyes away quickly and pretended to be interested in the canopy above them. "Koran mentioned you as a candidate."
Owen blinked and looked to her sharply. "What?"
"It's hard to say why, except that it is assumed that you do no have a mate. Why he did not recommend Seath is strange, but then the match isn't as agreeable now that there is no profitable connection to a larger pack to be had. He's a practical man."
For a moment, Owen was struck dumb. While she seemed to simply be making conversation by bringing this up, it hit a particular chord with him that sent a strange wash of fear down his spine.
As if sensing this, Eris grinned. "You don't need to look quite so white," she scolded. "I was not proposing. I told Koran that I have no intention of taking a mate—you or anyone else—just to escape from the consequences of my actions. I did not do anything wrong."
Stranger still, this brought Owen no relief. Even as he boggled over this conflict, he managed to ask, "Have you decided on your defense then?"
"I think so. It will require some refinement, but it is the best chance I have."
"And if it doesn't work?"
"I will escape."
Owen looked to her, frowning. She was so quick to respond and she sounded so definite, so calm. "What?"
"I made a promise to Taka."
She smiled crookedly at him and he found himself rather liking the way her lips opened lopsidedly to reveal only one sharpened eyetooth and not the other. Even then, however, it was still a rather melancholic smile. He knew soldiers and mercenaries who joked about dying by the sword, kidding that it would be worth it if the pay was good enough, but there was always a bit of hesitance there first. Yes, he knew some people who were just so off their heads that death was an arbitrary thing to them. But for anyone who had something—or someone—to live for, there was always a scale hard at work in the backs of their minds weighing costs to benefits.
"Eris… please, let me help."
He wasn't sure why he was being so bloody persistent. He didn't think of himself as suffering from some desperate need to be anyone's hero, but the fact of the matter was that he was still there. He could have slipped out at any time the night before and even if they had seen him, they wouldn't stop him. Even the twins had begun following their sister's lead and encouraging him to go on whenever he felt like it.
So… why hadn't he? Had that Feral hit him a bit too hard and damaged the piece of his mind that could think through his emotions?
"Owen, there isn't anything you can do."
"There has to be something."
The smile was still there, but faltered for a moment. Her expression was now vaguely incredulous, full of uneasiness and doubt. And it was then that he realized what instincts and pride were doing to him—those crafty bitches and their machinations.
He wanted to stay, not for her sake, not for the boys' or the twin's sakes, and not even because his ribs still occasionally felt like someone was pounding at them with bare fists, but to prove her wrong. To prove that part of Eris that hissed and bore its teeth at men that dare approach her or her siblings, that made her draw her knives in preparation for the attack, utterly and completely wrong.
… About him.
He couldn't deny that she was a very smart girl and that she was probably just making things easy on herself by declaring the whole gender toxic. But he took exception to the idea of being included. He wanted her to trust him, to accept his help, and to know that he wouldn't leave her just because things were a bit sketchy. Most of all, he just wanted her to look at him and see someone just as ready to abandon her as her brother had been, although he couldn't say with any bit of certainty why that was so important.
"I'll let you know if a job opens up."
They shared an awkward silence in which he nodded and her weak skeleton of a smile fell away. With that seed planted, they turned and headed once more for the village.
"Owen…" Eris began but trailed off just as they were reaching the edge of the town where the smoke stacks rising from the chimneys were coming into view over the crest of the next scan of trees.
"What's wrong?" he asked.
She looked to him and then to her feet. "If I do need you…"
"Say the word, Eris."
He realized then, as she nodded and turned away again, that he had never meant anything more sincerely in his life.
* * *
"To be honest… we're not quite sure what to do with you."
Eris couldn't help but feel as if she had somehow got the short end of the stick. Yes, the Council Hall was twice as impressive as she had imagined, being an enormous stone leviathan carved out of a mountain side and standing defiantly over the treetops. It was set aside from society, resting at the apex of several clan lands to give the appearance of neutrality.
"To execute you would be to kill another member of an already nearly extinct pack. Not to forget that you have dependents. While your attempts to act as the Alpha are illegal… we cannot deny that you were doing something noble and that you were doing only what you could to protect your siblings, acting out in that way that females do at times to protect their loved ones."
However, she felt snubbed. It wasn't that she wanted a big deal made of her trial or that she wanted the full weight of the Council's presence bearing down upon her, but she felt somewhat cheated. There were seven of those bastards and only one deigned her important enough to speak with? What were the others busy doing? She hadn't heard of any out-of-control dispute sweeping across the countryside like wildfire. In fact, things were always pretty lazy in their quarter of the world and shouldn't they be jumping at the chance to hang an insubordinate female?
"Are you paying attention?"
He sounded so bored, as he sat hunched over an enormous, oak bureau with his elbows propped and his chin resting on his enfolded hands that she wondered if he'd blame her if she said 'no'. Taka and Cael would thank her for forcing her to stay where they were. They'd be in tears at this point—even Cael. "I am," she replied aloud, trying not to smile as she thought of her siblings. "I was just wondering what you expect me to say to that."
His thin, grizzled lips pursed slightly. Actually, he looked a bit like a tree with skin so weathered and heavily tanned, having been ravaged by both the sun and many, many years of life, that it resembled bark. His white hair was pulled back into a tight knot while the rest was left to hang haphazardly around his face and in his eyes.
"I never quite know what to do in these circumstances," he began slowly. "I consider myself a traditional man. I was raised to think a certain way and after a very long life I still think the same way since it has been proven to be the most efficient. In our society men and women have their places. It is the male's job to lead and to fight and the female's to follow and serve. I am typically hard-pressed to feel sympathetic for individuals like you."
Eris shrugged. "And I think that you're wrong," she replied. "Your system hasn't proved to be the most efficient; it's just the one that you're used to so you won't give up control. But that isn't why I did this. I wasn't trying to prove a point. I wasn't trying to snub society or its rules. I would give both of my arms for my parents to be alive, for my brother to be home again, and for my life to be as every other female's is. But my situation was and is thus: my parents were killed, my brother abandoned us, my pack is deceased, and I have siblings to care for!"
"And how do you justify never turning to another pack for assistance?"
"No aid came to us. I was young and I was holding it together as best I could. I wasn't going to go looking for another pack that I wasn't sure I could trust."
"And after you regained your senses?"
She huffed like an angry bull at the condescending turn of his words, but decided to ignore that. "You lose your knife and then you find a new one: do you still go to the blacksmith's to buy another? As far as I was concerned, I had fixed our problems. I didn't need the other packs to be involved."
He snorted softly and reached across his desk for the quill that rested beside the delicately molded glass ink well. "Careful. Your mother's blood is showing."
Eris bristled at this, lifting her lips slightly in a snarl on reflex. "Do not speak of my mother."
"Ease yourself," he scolded as he began to write something down upon one of the many scrolls of parchment laid before him, moving the quill with languid strokes of his hand. "I was referring to your mother's temperament; not her blood. Although, now that I think of it, both show. Now, how do you defend your actions?"
"I thought I just did."
"I have heard that argument many times over the years and it never ended well for the individual making it. You had best have a second plan."
Eris rolled her eyes and closed her arms about herself, wishing that Cael, or even Taka, was there. She always felt so much braver with them beside her. "My eldest brother was in line for position as Alpha and he abandoned us. That makes him a traitor and therefore a greater criminal than me."
The old man raised an eyebrow at her. "Go on."
"I don't think I did anything wrong and I wouldn't have done it at all had my brother fulfilled his duty and remained with us to take on the role of Alpha himself. There's an old law that permits a pack to hunt a traitor themselves…"
"It permits males."
Eris smirked, to mask her own uneasiness. She had to do this right. She wasn't much of a speaker—stabbing something was so much easier—but this was her only chance. "Reread the law, old man. It doesn't specify who of the pack may do the hunting. You've already said it yourself that you can't kill me without putting the Council into an awkward position. Just let me hunt my brother."
"Even if I wanted to, that doesn't solve our current problem."
"It does too. I hunt him, I kill him, and I earn every right to rule as Alpha."
He rolled his eyes. "It seems to escape your notice that only males can be Alpha, woman!"
"Well, it seems to escape your notice that the law writers had this weird inability to specify gender! They failed to do so when speaking of dominance battles and the failed to do so when speaking of traitor-hunting."
"It is written with the understanding—"
"Then why are other laws written specifically?" she demanded with a bit more bravado. "The laws were written nearly five hundred years ago and even you can't possibly be that old. You have no idea what the understanding was at that time. I hunt my brother. I catch him, I kill him, and I get to be Alpha. I fail? You hang me in whichever way you so choose."
The Counselor said nothing for some time as he seemed to mull this over. Then he rose to his feet and leveled his gaze upon her. "I will discuss this with the other Counselors."
"Go for it."
The best I can say: just go with it. I need to get from intro to plot and we're taking this clumsy-as-hell route as all of the other roads are flooded out. I promise we'll be out of this crap soon and we'll get back to the fun werewolf stuff. As always, ask whatever questions you'd like to.
As for this being so late, I don't really have an excuse except that I had to edit this nine million times and am posting it only because I know I have to post something even though I still think it's WAY belong my standards. As for the enormous leap forward in time from the end of Eris' and Owen's last scene, yeah I know I said I'd stop doing those. But the thing is... nothing would've happened in between. You didn't miss a thing except for the wolves traveling from point A to point B.
And yes, Eris is trying to catch them in what I like to call "The Exact Wording Gambit". Many lawsuits have been won this way (not to mention many Lich Lords asses kicked via traumatized heroines with swords and fathers to protect... ... Lord of the Rings anyone?)
As always, please, please, please, please REVIEW. I appreciate them. I know that this was a boring, exposition heavy chapter, but they make me feel all warm and fuzzy on the inside. More importantly, they determine my worth as a human being and a writer. More more importantly they decide whether you get another chapter or not.