It was always such a pleasure to be out in Savernake Forest, especially on warm Spring days like today. It was one of the few places he felt he could almost relax. The harmonious tranquillity of being out in nature always seemed to lighten the burden he carried on his shoulders. It was a burden he willingly carried, but some days it just felt heavier than others, and today was one of those days.
Gary Sanders stood for a moment, lifting his nose into the air he drew in a deep breath. The smell of fresh air mixed with the earthy scent of moist soil and leaf decay, the mustiness of moss and the pungent odour of animal refuse. His mouth watered from the scent of an animal's fresh kill nearby, probably a rabbit, no doubt compliments of a hungry fox.
Following the sound of birds cheerfully singing in the treetops, he shifted his gaze toward the tall trees, to where their leafy peaks brushed the pale blue sky. The old trees creaked and groaned as they swayed in the breeze, their sun-dappled leaves creating flickering shadows on the ground. And, far off in the distance the crack of a branch breaking stirred a flurry of activity, sending a flock of birds into flight and small animals scurrying for safer ground.
Resuming his slow-paced trek once again, he followed the well worn path that wove its way to every corner of the forest. Most people walked this path and only noticed a fraction of what surrounded them. But, he wasn't like most people, he took note of everything. The clumps of moss on fallen trees, coating the surface and filling crevices where the bark had broken off, and wood beetles bumbling a path from one side to the other. Wild mushrooms, and butterflies fluttering close to bluebells and daisies, dotting the soft ground like a patchwork quilt.
A gust of wind blew through the trees and stirred the dried leaves on the forest floor, their brittle skeletons cracking and crunching beneath his feet. To the average ear, the noise was barely distinguishable from the general rustling of leaves swirling together in the crevice of the path. To his own ears however, it sounded like his location had been broadcast on a megaphone. Inwardly reprimanding himself for losing his focus, he moved off the path. Mindful of keeping his footsteps light, he took extra care to avoid stepping on the dried twigs littered about. It was an easy task when walking on two legs, but now, when he was in his wolf form and walking on all four, it was a little trickier. Fortunately he'd had a lot of practice, especially over the last couple of years. Picking up his pace, he moved silently through the forest.
Ahh, shitballs! He cursed silently to himself. He'd hoped he wouldn't stumble upon anyone this deep in the forest. Seriously though, what else should he have expected? With a beautiful Spring day such as this, nature lovers were bound to come to the woods. And, in this couple's case, lovers of their own carnal nature. They weren't here to simply take in the sights of the woodlands with a brief distraction of playing tonsil hockey, they were getting down and dirty in a very primal way.
Sanders was tempted to disturb them, scare them away, but instead he grudgingly crouched behind a dense thicket of brushes. The thorny spines on their spindly branches had no chance of piercing his skin, his thick fur wouldn't allow it. Still, they clung to him like valcro.
Why did he stay? It wasn't to satisfy any perving fetish, that was for damn sure. As leader of a lycan military team, it was his responsibility to ensure this forest was safe and secure for everyone within its borders. In most cases he wouldn't have given a couple such as this a second glance, he would've just left them be. This pair however, had chosen the one clearing in the forest which could cause issues.
This was the clearing which contained the Elder Tree. Not that many people had actually seen it. The elusive tree which existed on three planes of existence simultaneously, here on Earth, Fey and in the Higher Realms, was something akin to an angelic 'Hotline'. And like the angels who created it, whose wings could be retracted from view at will, the Elder Tree was only revealed to those they felt were worthy. Hence, he himself had never seen it. Not that he cared. Seeing the tree or not, didn't change the fact that he was responsible for keeping the forest surrounding it relatively free of human eyes.
Why is that you might wonder. It's simple. This clearing was also the area chosen by the nephilim to open portals from Fey. And since humans weren't supposed to know the supernatural world co-existed with them, having to hogtie a pair of naked humans until he could find either a vampire or female lycan to wipe the memory of seeing the shimmering air split open and seven foot tall beings stepping through, would really suck. And, today there was a high chance of that happening, since today Wade's bachelor party was being held at the Drunken Duck Pub in Cadley, at the edge of the forest. And since Wade was a wyvern from Fey, quite a few guests would be coming through portals, any of whom could arrive at any time.
Sanders thought on that for a moment, weighing up his options.
Fern fronds swayed in the gentle breeze, thankfully blocking his view, but they did nothing to cancel out the sounds of the couple's escalating frenzied enjoyment.
Ahh, fuck it!
Moving toward the couple he made as much noise as possible in the bushes, stepping on every twig, rustling branches, snorting out heavy breaths, and when they failed to notice any of that, he began growling. A low, menacing growl that definitely caught their attention. Stopping abruptly in the throws of their in flagrante delicto, they hastily put on their clothes and ran away yelling wolf. There hadn't actually been any natural wolves in England for well over a century, not that this pair knew that, nor did Sanders care. He was just glad they were gone.
Sanders snorted out a few more irksome breaths. The couple had left but he still felt,….peeved. Even his fur felt nettled by the encounter.
What was it about seeing the happy couple that soured his good mood? Was it that he was enjoying having this patch of forest to himself and they disrupted his peace? Or was it simply the fact of seeing a happy couple? Whatever, he wasn't about to dwell on such an inconsequential thought. If anything, he should be grateful to them, not annoyed. After all, he wasn't out here to enjoy the sunny afternoon, he was on patrol.
Leaving the clearing he took one last look over his shoulder, not expecting to see the Elder Tree, but somehow he still felt disappointed when he didn't. He didn't think he was such a bad bloke, sure he was a little rough around the edges, and having worked undercover in enemy territory more often that most, he'd done a few regrettable things which had blurred the lines of his loyalties a little. Okay, so sometimes his methods of handling things were a little unethical, but his heart was always in the right place.
Sanders moved faster through the woods, ignoring his cantankerous thoughts, choosing instead to focus on his surroundings. Fortunately there was nothing else that required his attention. He really wasn't in the mood for dealing with any bullshit situations. Reaching the modified tree stump, barely fifty metres inside the forest's tree line where the patrolling lycans stashed their clothes, he phased back to being human and quickly dressed.
"Marcus." He greeted the younger lycan in curt fashion. He liked to keep his conversations short, sharp and to the point.
"Sir," he replied with a mandatory, but half-hearted salute.
"There's more people in the forest than usual, make sure no one wanders into the clearing, we don't want any complications today," he growled.
"What bug crawled up your arse?" Marcus asked, dropping any hint of formality in favour of familiarity, which also ticked Sanders off.
"Nothing. Fuck off and do your patrol. The last thing we need is for something nasty to slip through our net."
"That can't happen in Savernake. It's angelically protected. Nothing and no one with evil intention can pass the border, you know that," Marcus answered, looking at his superior as though he'd grown a second head for even suggesting such a thing.
"It's not what goes into the forest that bothers me. It's what might be lurking around it. We've got the high lords of Avengard, Dun Turidd and Lemuria here from Fey today, with their families, plus nearly every other notable Alliance member."
"All the more reason not to worry if you ask me. No one in the Guild is mad enough to take us all on at once."
"Again, that's my point. We're all going to be here. The women will be in Oxford by themselves, unprotected."
Marcus waved away his concern. "Pfft,…They're going to the Phoenix nightclub. Teagan has that place so well warded, nothing evil is getting in there. Besides, I'm pretty sure the women can take care of themselves. Those druid sisters are pretty bad-ass."
Sanders nodded. "I can't argue with you there." He certainly wouldn't want to cross them, and he felt sorry for anyone who tried.
Still, it didn't make him less on edge. After all, wasn't that his job? To always be looking for the negative in a situation, handle it quickly, and thus ensure there was always a positive outcome? In the last couple of years since Morganna and Scorpion stole the Thunderstone, they had noted a steady increase in the number of demons coming through from the Underworld. There had only been Shades, so far, but the incorporeal fuckers were nearly impossible to see in the shadows, wreaked havoc when they hijacked people's bodies and were real buggers to kill.
"Take a chill pill boss, we've got this. And I'm pretty sure Oliver's got a bottle of the good stuff stashed behind the bar with your name on it. Just for today, why don't you relax."
"Yeah, right," his reply laced with a hint of sarcasm through it.
Marcus raised an eyebrow, assessing for a moment whether Sanders' reply was in agreement with his suggestion or refuting it. His expression was no easier to decipher, the single sided curling of his upper lip could easily be interpreted as a half-hearted smile or a snarl. Considering his usual surly demeanour, Marcus decided it was the latter and felt it was probably wise to make himself scarce, quickly. Deliberately pissing Sanders off usually ended with some form of cruel or unusual punishment being dolled out, you know, things like cleaning toilets, cleaning skid marks from men's jocks that weren't his own, or being made to go Vegan for a week. And Marcus should know, he was usually the one who copped them.
"Good talk boss. See you in a couple of hours."
Sanders' reply started and ended with a grunt.
Leaving Marcus to begin his patrol, he made a mental note to double the patrol on the next rotation. Maybe it was just his foul mood, but his spidey sense was tingling and he had a nagging feeling that things weren't going to be quite so straight forward today as Marcus believed. Hopefully the worst that might happen was a wardrobe malfunction with one of the strippers. Either way, he wasn't about to take any chances.
Stepping up to the front door of the Drunken Duck Pub, he wiped his boots on the mat, gripped the door handle and pulled. All at once the smell of food cooking, the warmth of an open fire burning and the sound of laughter and lively conversation, hit him.
The man had danger written all over him. He was dressed from head to toe in black. Heavy black boots, black pants which she supposed would have fit most men reasonably loosely, but on him, they hugged his powerfully built thighs and lean hips like a glove. Similarly a black T-shirt clung to his torso in a way that circumscribed every displayed muscle the man owned, of which there were a lot. A black baseball cap shadowed his eyes, and a jaw so hard she'd bet she could take a crowbar to it and never crack a smile out of him. And, there was a darkness behind his eyes, secrets he was keeping. It should have made her afraid, not curious.
"Hey stranger," she announced cheerily, sidling up beside him she ran a glossy red nail along the length of his inner thigh.
Sanders looked down at the feminine hand which now clutched his upper thigh, her thumb drawing circles very near the bulge in his pants.
"Kelsey, what are you doing here?"
"You're a naughty boy," she answered, reprimanding him by tapping him on the nose with another painted nail, adding a playful growl. When he failed to react in any way she let out a frustrated huff. "I heard you were back in town and I got tired of waiting for you to call me, so I came looking for you instead."
Annnnd, there it was. That look. The one that suggested that despite her flirty behaviour, she was actually looking for more from him than something superficial, and that scarred the hell out of him. He didn't have the first clue how to handle situations like this, despite how often it seemed happen. He didn't do relationships, of any kind. And, when it came to women, he had sex with them. End of story. No ties, no talk, just in and out, literally.
What did he do now? His instinct shouted...Run! Somehow though, he doubted he could run fast enough or travel far enough to escape the feelings building inside him. Feelings of frustration, and maybe a little fear.
It wasn't Kelsey who stirred these feelings, it was more a general feeling that had been slowly building over the last year or so. If he was honest, it probably started when his ex-DEA partner Anna, who had also been the provider of occasional carnal benefits, mated Hawke. That was five years ago.
Kelsey didn't wait for him to answer, instead she lifted her hand clutching his thigh and raked her nails over his abdomen slowly, dragging them higher until she reached something else hard beneath his jacket.
"You know, I'm against guns, unless they're in the right hands, then it lends weight to a moral argument," she told him in a sultry, flirty manner.
"And whose hands would you approve of?"
"Mine," she answered with a cheeky smile. "I could do a lot with the heavy weight of your weapon in my hands, stroke it, tug it, lick it, suck on it."
"Are we still talking about my gun?"
Kelsey shrugged. "Hmmm, depends on your perspective. The gun I'm talking about certainly doesn't shoot blanks, although I doubt you could use it in shootout," she told him, provocatively stroking her fingers slowly up and down, along the straw in her glass.
And wasn't that a kick in the balls, the more she tried to seduce him, the more he wasn't interested. Was there something wrong with him?
"Sorry love, but you'd be better off chatting up one of these other guys, there's at least a dozen in here who'd be glad of your company."
Her pouting expression would have seemed cute if it didn't annoy him so much.
"But, why? I thought we had something special."
"I have neither the time nor the crayons to explain it to you."
"You're very funny. For a minute I thought you were serious," she laughed.
He was, he was very serious.
Just when it looked like he might be stuck with her for the night, the Calvary arrived. Several of the guys from Fey, that is, including the bachelor of the hour, Wade.
Without a second thought, Sanders stood and walked toward the wall of men entering the pub. However, it seemed Kelsey wasn't quite through with him yet. After exchanging greetings he returned to the bar to find his drink waiting, along with a stinging slap to the cheek. With that, Kelsey abruptly turned on her heel and marched away.
"What did you do to upset her?" Oliver asked, leaning across the bar.
"I don't know. I've never understood women," he said, rubbing his cheek.
"You could ask her."
"Are you crazy? You never ask an angry woman what you've done to cause it. It never ends well. She'd probably threaten to cut off body parts I'd rather keep, if you get my meaning."
"You say that like its happened before," Oliver laughed.
"More than once."
"Umm, I wouldn't say never, if I was you. Here's your chance to end things with her properly, she's coming back."
Holy crud nuggets!
"Great. What about I say: Things just aren't working out. But, don't think it's anything you've done, because it's not. It's me. "
Oliver shook his head in dismay. "Sanders, I like you. You're the best military commander I've had the pleasure to work with in years. I would hate to lose you. If you do the, 'It's not you, it's me' speech, the only thing you'll be unburdening yourself of will be your nuts."
"Thanks for the tip, but I was going for a unique twist on the spiel."
"Well, in that case, it was nice knowing you." Oliver leaned across the bar to shake his hand.
Sanders had barely disengaged his hand from the lycan Alphas, when Kelsey stopped in front of him, hands planted on her hips, and eyes blazing with anger.
He didn't say a word.
"You're just like every other man. I could be wearing the skimpiest lingerie and doing cartwheels in front of you, but if the football is on TV or your mates want to hang out, I might as well be wallpaper for you'd care."
Okay, he'd tried not to say anything, but his foul mood somehow managed to get the better of him.
"I don't follow football, but you're right. I don't care. I'm not the kind of guy who wants to be tied down. I have no intention of becoming your arm-candy to be dragged to all your social functions, and I don't give a fat-rat's fucking arse about curling up on a fucking couch to cuddle with you or anyone else. I'd rather have bamboo shoved under my nails."
Kelsey's cheeks flushed red and her eyes flared over with indignation and disappointment. "Well, I doubt you could handle me anyway. You're nothing but a cold-blooded arsehole."
Sanders shrugged. He would have used the term 'cold-blooded killer', but in retrospect, arsehole seemed like a compliment, so he cheerfully accepted it.
Grabbing Sanders' drink off the bar, she proceeded to pour it down the front of his shirt and stormed off.
"I don't think she likes you any more, you must be happy," Oliver commented dryly.
"No kidding, and yeah, I am. Mostly." Sanders griped, flapping his shirt out in front of him.
"Another drink?" Oliver asked, producing the bottle of bourbon from behind the bar.
"Sure. This time I'd like it in a glass." Sanders huffed, slumping back onto his barstool.
"You could've handled that better. What's eating at you? I know its not that female, or your soaked shirt," he asked.
"I honestly don't know." He pondered the question more thoroughly for a moment. "I guess I'm bored. I used to be like all these young bucks," he pointed around the room to all the younger men juiced up on testosterone. "I'd see a pretty face and I couldn't wait to tap that tight arse. Now?..." Sanders huffed out a long disgruntled sigh.
"You're bored," Oliver finished for him. "You know, sometimes I wish I could have what you have."
"What, the strong possibility of contracting an STD from anonymous one night stands?"
Oliver laughed. "No, I'm mated to a wonderful woman. I can't even imagine having sex with anyone else. I meant, you have a great life, you have command of a great team, and I'm not saying that just because my son is part of your team," he quickly added. "You rarely stay in one place for longer than a month and travel all over the planet, as well as Fey. Life is exciting for you. Me, I'm expected to stay here, except under exceptional circumstances. The peak of my excitement is getting old Mrs Norris down from the tables before she starts the dance of seven veils, when she's had too much to drink," he laughed.
"I never thought you were unhappy with your life."
"I'm not. In fact I think I'm pretty lucky, I have an amazing woman by my side, a great son and more extended family than I can count. But, every now and then I do still wish I could be like you, shouldering the responsibilities of a leader, but also having the ability to expand my horizons."
Sanders cocked his head.
Despite the geographical limitations Oliver's responsibilities entailed, he had to admit happiness agreed with the clan's Alpha. He looked good, his lips often curled up in a smile and he always looked relaxed. That was a far cry from his own life.
He couldn't help envying him. And felt petty and small for doing so.
Still, he'd recently celebrated his eighty-fifth birthday, in lycan years he was only just reaching his prime. So, if by some miracle there was a mate out there for him somewhere, he had at least another century ahead of him before he had any intentions of meeting her.
For all his current boredom, he had no plans on being tied down or changing his lifestyle to suite the expectations of a woman.