Invitation Accepted Chapter Eighteen

You can read the story from the beginning here

“So you haven’t heard from Rhys?” Carli asked, leaning over the reception desk. “It might not mean anything. I heard that he’s got a lot of family problems at the moment.”

Surjit managed a shrug that almost looked unconcerned. “I’ve texted him loads of times,” she said. “But he hasn’t even checked.”

“Gareth says that he’s really, really, busy,” Carli said. She hated seeing Surjit so despondent.

Surjit’s shoulders slumped. “I really like him,” she admitted. “And he can be such a gentleman, but it’s no good. I’m not getting involved with that sort of drama. If it’s so bad that he can’t text then I don’t want to get caught up in it.”

Carli thought about the mess that the werewolves were in. “Perhaps it’s just as well,” she said. “Anyway, maybe you should speak to Alan in the warehouse. He seems nice, and I noticed that he couldn’t take his eyes off you in the canteen yesterday.”

Surjit managed a smile. “I’ll think about it,” she said. “So what are you doing down here apart from fixing my love life?”

“I’m just getting a sweater from my car,” Carli said. “I’ve brought in an extra space heater, but I’m freezing. The cold just rattles through the office.”

“You wait until it gets really cold,” Surjit said. “The windows in the office ice up. Last year when we had the cold snap, the sales team ended up working in the dyer’s room and most of the post was handled in a corner of the finishing room.” She grinned. “But with all the new stuff, I don’t know how that will turn out. Perhaps Luke might actually force himself to pay out for new windows.”

Carli chuckled, then shivered as she headed for the door. “I’ll be back in a second.”

She scurried across the car park and over to her modest hatchback. Why did she have to park all the way over here? She clicked the car key fob and nothing happened. Instincts started to prickle and she slowed down. She felt for her phone in her pocket and glanced around. She couldn’t see anyone, but that meant nothing. She dialled a quick number. “Gareth, could you come to the car park. I’m sure something’s off,” she said. There was no reply as Gareth hung up straight away. Carli hoped that meant he was coming straight down from the office. She approached the car cautiously. The cold light didn’t show any shadows under the car. She clicked the key fob to unlock the car again. Nothing happened. She glanced back at the entrance. She could glimpse Gareth through the inset glass panes in the wide doors. Surjit had caught his arm, no doubt still complaining about Rhys, but he would soon be here. Carli opened the back door and reached in for the sweater, glancing over her shoulder to see if Gareth was closer, then crying out with shock as someone grabbed her hand and pulled her hard into the car.

“Hello, Carli,” Rick said.

“What are you doing?” Carli snapped, struggling away from him. “You were told that you couldn’t come near me.”

“That was just them being jealous,” the young werewolf said. “You are my mate, my soulmate, my twin flame. We’re meant to be together.”

“No we’re not,” Carli said. “Please, just leave me alone.” Her voice cracked as she tried to pull free. “Just leave me alone.”

“You don’t understand,” Rick said. “We were good together, you remember.”

“I never dated you,” Carli said. “You just got it into your head. And you frightened off my boyfriend and scared my mother.”

“He wasn’t meant for you,” Rick said. “And your mother was just interfering. Let me take you to the wolf side.”

“No!” Carli cried. “Listen, your pack leader, he was supposed to keep you from following me. He was supposed to stop you. And you were warned.”

“They didn’t mean it really,” Rick said with a wide grin, his teeth lengthening as he spoke. “Besides, Chris is busy with that shitshow of the Leeds pack. He reckons that they’re going to change leaders and he’s there for the entertainment. And we’re not in Chris’s territory now. It’s down to the Leeds pack leader to make the rules, and they are kind of busy. There’s not even a paladin here. So no-one can come between us. Just admit it, babe, you know that you are drawn to my wild side. There’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

“I’ve got a boyfriend,” Carli said. “And we’re not in Leeds territory. It’s the Otley pack in charge here.”

“No such thing,” Rick said. He reached over and pulled the keys from her unresisting hand. “Get in the car. We’re going to drive to your flat and you’re going to show me how much you’ve missed me and how much you’re sorry that you’ve played so hard to get.” His grin got wider. “Let’s have some fun. I’ve got wine in the back.”

“No!” Carli said, struggling harder. She pulled her arm free and backed away slowly. “I’m not going anywhere with you.” She looked over her shoulder and felt relief wash over her as she saw Gareth stalking across towards her. Behind him, Surjit was on the phone, pale faced and shocked and talking frantically. “That’s my boyfriend.”

“You prefer him me?” Rick asked incredulously. “Are you on glue? He’s just a skinny lad and nothing compared to me.” He pulled himself out of the car and slid out of his leather jacket. He flexed his muscles under the tight t-shirt. “I could break him in half without even going to fur. And does he know about the beast? I’m disappointed in you, Carli. I thought you had better taste.”

Carli looked back at Gareth. There was purpose in every step and his jacket had been wound around his left arm. He had a small knife in his right hand, held straight down and parallel with his thigh and he was gently rolling his shoulders and neck as he approached. Carli thought back to Gareth when she first met him and how he was now, with the extra layer of taut muscle and the experience of far too many brawls. He was still slim compared to the thickset brawn of Rick, though, and Carli’s heart sank as she could see no trace of Bron. “He’s kind, and gentle, and he is incredibly creative,” she said. “And he has a lot inside of him.”

“I’ll sure to have a good look when I rip him to pieces,” Rick said. He pushed Carli to one side. “Keep out of the way, now, bitch. The men are talking.”

Gareth stalked up. “Get your hands off her,” he said coldly.

“Or what, shrimp?” Rick laughed. “Do you know what I am?”

“You’re a pathetic puppy,” Gareth said, the ice in his voice unchanged. “Do you know what I am?”

Rick didn’t get a chance to answer as Gareth stepped forward, telegraphing a blow to the head before stamping hard on the werewolf’s knee. Rick howled as his knee buckled, bringing his ribs within easy range of Gareth’s fist as he swung hard into Rick, punching deep and with purpose. Rick staggered back, swinging a wild punch that Gareth ducked with ease. “Don’t make me go to fur,” Rick yelled. “Carli – tell him what happens if I go to fur.”

“He knows,” Carli said as her stalker glared at Gareth. “He really does.”

Rick grimaced and started to change. Gareth didn’t wait but instead stepped into Rick’s reach, grabbing an arm and twisting it hard against the joint before slamming Rick’s head hard into the car roof. The sound echoed around the car park along with Rick’s howl as he writhed in Gareth’s hold. Still struggling to change, Rick kicked wildly back, catching Gareth’s thigh with a glancing boot. It failed to break Gareth’s hold, and he slammed Rick’s head down hard again. Ignoring Carli’s faint scream in the background, Gareth plunged the knife into Rick’s shoulder.

“It’s silver, mutt,” Gareth said. “You won’t change yet.” He released his hold on the knife, leaving it sticking obscenely out of Rick’s shoulder and punched Rick hard again in the ribs. “You need to learn that when a woman says ‘no’, she means ‘no’ and that’s when you walk away.

Rick screamed. “It’s silver! It’s fucking silver! Get it out! Get it out!” He fell hard to his knees and whimpered.

Gareth kicked Rick hard in the head. “Carli told me about you,” he said. “But did she have a chance to tell you about me?” He kicked Rick in the ribs. “I’m the paladin.” He grabbed Rick’s hair and threw him hard against the car. “But I’m playing nice until the local pack leader gets here.” He rolled Rick onto his front, the knife still wedged into the shoulder.

“They’ll come for you,” Rick said, panting. “And they’ll rip you into shreds. There’s no Prince to protect you.” He gasped as Gareth kicked him again.

“There’s always a prince with a paladin,” Gareth said. “And I think that you need to understand me. You stay away from Carli. Don’t try and convince yourself that she’s into you, or being shy, or playing hard to get. She’s not yours.” Gareth pushed Rick’s face hard into the dirt of the car park. “And she’s not mine, either. She belongs to herself and she has chosen not to be with you. So don’t come sniffing around here again, or I won’t be so gentle.”

“I’ll be ready next time, paladin,” Rick said. “Carli needs to be with me.”

Gareth knelt on Rick’s damaged shoulder. “If there’s a next time,” he said. “Because the local pack leader is on their way and Tyler is out for blood.” He leant forward, shifting his weight across the damaged joint as Rick howled. “Tyler feels that he owes Carli,” Gareth said. “And I think he may want to send a message.”

A white van raced down the street, swaying wildly as it swung into the car park and screeched to a halt, blocking the view between the factory and Rick. Tyler jumped out and grimaced at the sight of Rick, bloody and battered on the floor. Sir Philip jumped out of the passenger side and came around.

“Thanks for coming,” Gareth said. “You made good time.”

“We were just up the road anyway,” Tyler said. He nodded go Gareth. “You can let him go now.”

Gareth pulled the knife from Rick’s shoulder and wiped it deliberately on Rick’s shirt before standing. “I thought I should be clear,” he said.

“Bron?” Sir Philip said uncertainly. “Thank you for calling in Tyler and not dealing with it yourself. It saves on the paperwork.”

“It’s nothing to do with me, lad,” Bron said, making Tyler jump. “I thought the lad should deal with it on his own as it’s his lass that was affected.” Bron looked approvingly as Tyler hauled Rick up and pushed him against the side of the van. “He did a good job, and used more restraint that I would.”

“I wondered about that,” Sir Philip said. He looked over to Carli. “Are you okay? I’m sorry I didn’t realise that Rick had come up with the delegation. Perhaps Gareth can take you back into the mill and you can have a cup of coffee and rest for a moment.”

“He won’t bother you again, miss,” Tyler said with an edged finality. “I’ll make sure of that.” He opened the back door of the van and threw the young werewolf in. “You’re not hurt, are you?”

Carli shook her head. “Gareth got here really quickly,” she said, her lips trembling as she fought back the reaction to the shock. “What’s going to happen?”

“Gareth is going to look after you,” Tyler said. “And this mutt isn’t going to bother you ever again. That’s a promise.” He looked over to Gareth. “You need to be at the memorial tonight over at the Leeds pack house. There’s a lot going on, and they could use an outside view.”

“I’ll be there,” Gareth promised. He reached over and pulled out the sweater from the back of Carli’s car. “Come on, I’ll get you a nice cup of coffee,” he said, putting a comforting arm around her shoulders. He looked ruefully at the dent in the car roof. “I’ll get the car sorted out as well,” he said.

“It’s okay,” Bron said. “I know a garage that owes me a favour.”

Carli managed a chuckle. “Of course you do,” she said, clinging onto Gareth.

Tyler nodded. “I’ll send Kidder and Mortimer to meet you from work and take you to the citadel,” he said to Carli. “I’ll tell them to make a fuss of you.” He looked at Gareth. “Thanks for dealing with this properly. We’ll talk later.” Then he shut Sir Philip in with the whimpering Rick, climbed into the cab and drove off.

Gareth and Carli turned back to the mill to see Surjit standing, horrified at them. “You’re good with words,” Carli said to Gareth. “Please think of something that we can tell her.”

Invitation Accepted Chapter Seventeen

You can read the story from the beginning here

Rhys tried to remember when he had last slept. He’d crawled into bed around 2am this morning, but had tossed and turned, his mind racing, until he fell out of bed around 3am. He’d got into fur and gone for a run on the damp, cold pavements, loping for miles in the dark before trotting back to the pack house as the place started to stir.

Breakfast was tense. Rhys sat in Mark’s place at the head of the long table, next to the empty decorated chair set in memory of Claire. The place was already overflowing with visitors, and Rhys kept a diplomatic smile on his face as he forced down an excellent breakfast. Then he mingled as well as he could, accepting expressions of sympathy and excusing Mark’s absence as due to him guarding Claire. Stella and the ladies kept the food going, but the atmosphere was keeping everyone’s fur on end.

Rhys caught up with Stella’s husband. “Keith, I just wanted to let you know how grateful I am for all the work that Stella has been doing,” he said. “She’s been a wonder, and I don’t think that we could have managed without her.”

Keith looked at him thoughtfully. “We seem to be managing without Mark,” he said. He looked Rhys over. “Stella says that you’ve always been respectful.” He paused for another long look. “I know your reputation, but I’ve seen you with Stella. I know that nothing’s going on. Thank you.”

“I won’t tread on another man’s tail,” Rhys said. “Besides, I’ve seen how Stella adores you. I don’t think that she notices me.” He shifted a little and looked around the room. “These are tough times, and I wanted you to know that your wife has been amazing, feeding whoever turns up and leading the crew in the kitchens. There’s nothing more to it than that.”

Keith nodded and clapped Rhys on the shoulder. “You’re a good man,” he said. “And you’ve been out here, making sure that we’re all okay, talking to everyone, just like a…” Keith paused carefully. “Just like a good man should. I’m right behind you. He glanced over to Stella who had just come in with a tray of cups. “I’ll just go and give the wife a hand.”

Rhys watched him walk away, a chill in his heart. He didn’t need talk like that. Mark must be mad to abandon the pack at a time like this. A sudden pang shot through him. And he missed Claire. She would have been everywhere today. She would have been talking with all the women, charming the visitors and putting everyone at their ease. And she would have smiled and been a light as everyone came to her for comfort. His heart sank further as Lord Marius and Steve Adderson walked in, together with a contingent of a dozen hard faced elfen. That was all that he needed.

Lord Marius ushered Rhys inexorably into a smaller room and Steve shut the door firmly behind them. A flick of Steve’s wrist and Rhys could feel the enchantment hanging over the door.

“You should have asked,” Rhys said. “It’s not nice to use magic in someone else’s home.”

“We can’t be overheard,” Lord Marius said. “Besides, we should be asking permission from the leader of the pack, and Mark is strangely missing.”

“Where is Mark?” Steve asked, lounging casually in the corner. Rhys eyed him warily. The slim man may look ineffective, wearing a suit that cost more than most of the cars parked outside the pack house, but Rhys was under no illusions. He may currently be mortal, a normal if you liked, but he was half elfen and a ridiculously powerful sorcerer who had lords up and down the land owing him favours.

“Mark is guarding Claire,” Rhys said. “Does Phil know that you’re here?”

“I didn’t ask what he was doing,” Steve said coolly. “I asked where he was doing whatever it is. Where is he, Rhys?”

“This isn’t a joke,” Lord Marius said. “We need to know.”

“I don’t have time for this,” Rhys said. “I’ve got most of the local packs turning up tonight, together with ambassadors from half the country. And I’ve still got a business to run.”

“That’s telling,” Steve said. “You’re talking about you running the business, not Mark. But let’s be honest, you’ve been running it for at least the last year, haven’t you?”

“Your loyalty is admirable,” Lord Marius said. “But we need to know – where is he?”

Rhys looked coolly at the two men. “You have some nerve, walking in here while we’re grieving, snapping out orders and making demands. Now is not the time. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go and greet the guests as Mark’s deputy.”

“Mark has been failing as the pack leader for some time,” Lord Marius said coldly. “I’ve watched from a distance and refrained from interfering. Your loyalty has kept him going for months, and I respected your efforts. But it’s no longer enough.”

“This is pack business,” Rhys said. “You can’t interfere.”

“I’m the Prince of Leeds,” Lord Marius said. “And I will always interfere when my domain is at risk. The last thing I need is an attack on our werewolf pack because it’s perceived as weak. Do you think all of the visitors are here because it’s good manners? Do you honestly believe that they are here to pay their respects to Claire? They’re here to check out how strong you are, where your weaknesses lie and how easy it would be to take you down.”

“That’s a damned lie,” Rhys snapped.

“Is it?” Steve said from the corner. He straightened and moved over to stand next to his father. “The pack at Wetherby have had their eyes on Scarcroft for some time. You know that they have some business interests that they’d like to develop there.”

“And the new pack that has taken over in Otley and around the Yeadon and Guisely area has already nibbled away at your territory,” Lord Marius said. “Not that you were taking much notice over there. It’s been a neglected area for some time and I’m sure the new prince will do well.”

“You’ve lost territory to them,” Rhys said. “What are you doing about it?”

“I’m not arguing with a paladin,” Lord Marius said. “I do not challenge the Fates. But I do not wish to have that lout Coulson stepping into Scarcroft, any more than I wish to deal with Elliott or Craven or any of the others sniffing around.” He leaned forward, looking hard into Rhys’s eyes. “You are running this pack in every way that matters. You are making the deals, sorting out problems, and I know of at least four occasions where you’ve stepped in to prevent trouble. The only thing that you don’t have as pack leader is the title.”

Rhys flinched. “I’m loyal,” he said. “I’m not some stray sniffing around every lamppost. Mark is good to me…” He trailed off as the lack of conviction in his voice told its own story.

“Mark was good to you once,” Lord Marius said. “I remember when your parents died and he behaved as he should. But that was a long time ago, before he met Claire.”

“Claire did nothing wrong,” Rhys said softly. “She was a blessing on the pack.”

“She was,” Lord Marius said. “She kept Mark in check, encouraged him to work for his pack and brought everyone together.” He frowned. “I remember Mark when he was a pup – a violent, obsessive, unpredictable pup. I considered taking action against him when he took over the pack. Then he met Claire and everything changed.” Lord Marius looked away, thoughtful, as he remembered. “She was a star to him, to faithfully follow. And he did. He wanted to be the best mate and leader for her. He poured everything into her. I was worried about what would happen as she died, and, again, perhaps I should have acted.”

“You can’t just talk about this like it’s nothing,” Rhys said. “This is a man’s life at stake here, and the safety of our pack. It’s not like sorting out a dripping tap or creaking door.”

“It’s absolutely more than nothing,” Steve said. “Where is he, Rhys? Where has he gone?”

“You have no right to come in here and talk like this,” Rhys said as cold fear ran over him. “We are dealing with things in our pack.”

“Why do you think that I came here with my strongest guard?” Lord Marius asked. “Do you think I’m so fragile that I would need them for a little chat with the next leader of the pack? Mark has the Orache Stone.”

Rhys looked between Steve and Lord Marius. “That’s not possible,” he said. “He was there. Fang killed Violet and fled. Fang has the damned stone.”

“Bron found Fang,” Steve said. “And now he’s looking for Mark. And he is in the mood to send a message.” Steve started pacing. “I’ve heard too much about Bron to feel comfortable about that. We need to manage this. We need to get to Mark before he starts turning up in very damaged, very small pieces.”

“I remember Bron from the old days,” Lord Marius said. “He was incredibly effective. If it wasn’t for the potential trouble from the Orache Stone, I’d let him… play.”

Rhys shrugged. “Mark has always been able to take care of himself,” he said.

Lord Marius smiled maliciously. “Bron was almost effective enough to count as an elfen,” he said. “We feared his imagination. In these new times, he has been coaxing drug people to fight each other while he plunders their money without them noticing him. Now he has Gareth whose imagination is firing up the sales for that mill. The combination would be intriguing. Again, it is a strong temptation to wait to see artistry in revenge.”

Steve shot a quick look at Lord Marius. “But we need to track the Orache Stone,” he said. “It seems to be calling to werewolves, and if it got a hold in the middle of this gathering, it wouldn’t be pretty.”

Rhys felt sick. For all his brave words, Mark was out of condition and out of practice. He was older now, as well. And he had felt the steel will in Bron and Gareth. It was always unnerving. One minute he would be speaking with the shy youngster who was quietly working miracles with the advertising or the older, sardonic but kind older spirit, then there would be a problem like Kidder or Fang and both Bron and Gareth would be – something. Like a force of nature, or a mythical hero. Mark wouldn’t have the sense to run, would never back down no matter how stupid he was being and wouldn’t ever be able to talk his way out of a tough spot. “Are you sure about the Orache Stone?” he asked.

Steve nodded. “Fang was… interrogated. There wasn’t much of him left to ask questions. The stone had left him a shell. As it was, it’s clear that he didn’t have the Orache Stone. I managed to track it back to here, but there’s some sort of interference and I can’t get a clear fix. We need to deal with this in force. So we are asking you now, politely, where is Mark?

Rhys took a deep breath. The implications were tumbling through his mind and he had never felt more out of his depth. “I don’t know where he is,” he whispered. “He’s been gone a day without any news. His phone has been turned off and he took the tracker off his car. No-one has seen him.”

“How about the guards on Claire?” Lord Marius asked. “Has he been visiting them? I know that you don’t like to leave your dead alone, and Mark would never allow anything to happen to her. I thought this would be the best chance, as the cremation is tonight.”

Rhys swallowed as he pulled out his phone. “I got a call from Mark yesterday,” he said. “Claire isn’t being cremated tonight,” he said. “He’s taken her remains and…” Rhys moved slowly around to behind the desk and sat carefully in his chair. “What can this Orache Stone do?” he asked as he tapped on his phone, unlocking the messages. “I mean, it sounds powerful.”

“They never found the limits,” Lord Marius said. “But it has power, more than any can imagine.”

“I won’t take the Orache stone on in battle without a team at my back,” Steve said. “From what I saw, the power can be channelled almost by will alone. So far it’s been used for gaining leadership and as a weapon, but the glimpse I had seemed to make it an incredible power source.” His eyes narrowed. “Why do you ask?”

Rhys pulled up the picture that Mark had sent. “Mark has taken Claire’s body somewhere,” he said. “And he sent this guy to get Claire’s clothes and stuff.” He held out the phone to show the picture to Lord Marius and Steve. “When he got here, he was polite.” Rhys couldn’t stop the shudder running through him. “But there was a wrongness about him. I had all the kids hidden and the women as well as he gathered the things and left. We all felt it, especially the ones in fur. It was like a dirty kind of storm, all twisted and snarled up.” He bowed his head, weighed down by the worries. “And Mark was talking like a mad man. I always knew that he wanted to get hold of the damned stone to heal Claire. I knew that he was trying to do a deal with Violet. But now I think he may be thinking of other things.”

Steve checked the image on the phone. “I know him,” he said quietly. “He’s a sorcerer like me,” he half shrugged. “I hope not too much like me. He’s…” Steve exchanged a glance with Lord Marius. “He’s willing to do dark deals.”

“If Mark has the Orache Stone, he won’t give it up easily,” Rhys said. “You know how stubborn he can be.”

Lord Marius smiled in reluctant admiration. “But that’s the loophole, isn’t it?” he said. “I also recognise him. Last time we met, he used the name John Smith, but we all know him as Edragor. He was born a normal, but it was a long time ago. He’s cruel enough to be an elfen and coldblooded with it.” He pulled a chair out and sat gracefully. “It’s perfect. Mark owns and controls the stone – losing what little sanity he has left in the process. Edragor controls Mark. Thus Edragor controls the power of the Orache stone without any of the inconvenient side effects. And when Mark is destroyed, as he will be, by the stone, I’m sure that Edragor has some poor, weak-willed fool ready to take Mark’s place.”

There was a long, charged silence. “We need to find the Orache Stone,” Steve said finally.

“We need to remember Claire,” Rhys said quietly. “But tonight, after the memorial, the pack will start looking properly for Mark, and I’ll ask around the visitors as well.”

“I’ll call in a few favours of my own,” Lord Marius said. “We’ll start searching now.”

“And I’ll be in touch with the Knights Templar,” Steve said. “I can’t imagine anything good coming out of this.”

Invitation Accepted Chapter Sixteen

You can read the story from the beginning here.

Rhys had reluctantly moved into Mark’s office, at least until after the funeral and Mark could take over. The whole business was turning his fur grey. The mood in the pack was uncertain and Rhys didn’t think that any change to the leadership would help right now. Mark was as twitchy as a cat in a dog pound, and Rhys didn’t feel like tugging on his tail. It would be a lot easier, Rhys thought, if Mark would just have a snarl around and reminded everyone who was in charge.

Rhys slumped behind Mark’s desk. With Mark being absent so much, first looking after Claire and now guarding her body almost every hour of the day, it had put Rhys firmly in charge of sorting out the funeral and the memorial, while still keeping track of the planning permission for the new builds in Garforth and the renovations over in Middleton. On top of that, he felt a lingering duty to the mill over in Yeadon and he wondered about Surjit. They had had a good time at Bolton Abbey, but he hadn’t had much time to do more than text over the last few days.  

Stella bustled in. “I’ve started making the food,” she said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there weren’t five hundred for the cremation, what with all the packs near here and people sending their condolences in person. I’ll need some men to take the chiller van to the farm.”

“Can’t Stacy and Leah drive it?” Rhys said. “They’ve both got licences.”

“You mean, apart from all the women getting caught up in the cooking?” Stella said. “I hate to say that we need a strong man to help us, but we’ll be picking up a lot of meat. A full bull’s carcass weighs a ton. I mean, almost literally. We won’t be just picking up beef either.”

“We could always pick up some frozen stuff from the wholesalers,” Rhys said.

“Mark would have a fit,” Stella said. “He likes to have feasts prepared the traditional way. And he had a point. It’s part of the way that the women come together and makes it more of a communal thing. It helps us feel useful.” She leaned over the desk and patted his arm. “Don’t worry too much. We’ve got plenty of stuff in the freezers and pantries.”

Rhys pulled his notebook towards him and made another note. “I’ll send Shaun and Dev with you,” he said. “They’re strong enough and won’t chase the sheep.”

“And they’ve got the sense to do what I say,” Stella said smugly.

Rhys continued jotting. “We’ll need to get the big marquees out of storage,” he said. “We can’t trust the weather at this time of year. I’ll get Alex and Tim to check out the heaters as well.” He looked down at the drift of papers scattered over the desk. “I’m going to have to get some of the lads pulling double duty. Between setting up and covering the work, we’re going to be stretched.”

“The women can cover most of the set up,” Stella said. “I know how you’ve been having trouble in Armley and have a lot on your plate with the job in Middleton. If you can deliver the marquees and the chairs and tables, we can cover the rest.”

Rhys managed a weary smile. “Thank you,” he said. “I appreciate that.” And that was another thing. Mark had kept the women very much in the kitchen, but time and again they had proved how capable they were. He should have a word when things calmed down. “I’ll get the extra space heaters out as well, just in case,” he said. “Half of them will be in fur anyway, but it’s better to be sure. And we’ll need to order in the drinks.”

“And we’ll need plenty of that,” Stella said. She hesitated. “Mark hasn’t said anything, has he?”

Rhys knew what the question meant. Mark should have been sorting this out. It should have been him deciding on what food to serve and who to send for the stuff in storage while keeping the business going. And Stella had been less than impressed when it had been Rhys talking to the minister and floundering around trying to work out what readings and hymns should be included. Rhys didn’t want to be entangled with those kind of questions, though. “Mark’s upset,” he said. “And he’s been guarding Claire.” His sharp ears caught footsteps approaching before the sharp rap on the door. “Come in,”

To Rhys’ relief, it was the undertaker rushing in and not Mark. “What’s this about Claire being moved?” he said. “The cremation is supposed to be tomorrow night but Mark has cancelled it.”

“What?” Rhys said, staring. “I don’t know anything about it.”

“He can’t just cancel,” Stella said. “We’ve got hundreds of guests coming.”

“He said to ring him if you have questions,” the undertaker said. “But he didn’t answer any of mine. He just told me that a private ambulance would be collecting Claire later this afternoon.”

Rhys pulled out his phone and called Mark. “Hi, the undertaker is here,” Rhys said. “And he’s not making sense.”

Mark’s voice was raspy over the phone. “I’ve found a better way of remembering Claire,” he said. “The cremation’s on hold.”

“Mark, are you okay?” Rhys said. “This isn’t normal, this isn’t right.”

“Just pay off the undertaker and wait,” Mark said. “And I’m sending someone for Claire’s things.”

“Mark, I know that you’re grieving, but you can’t just give away Claire’s stuff without catching a breath,” Rhys said. “You’re not thinking clearly. You should wait a little while before making big decisions.” He exchanged a worried glance with Stella. “And we have a few hundred guests coming. Some will already have set off. We can’t cancel it all.”

“Just sort it out,” Mark said. “I’ll be back in a week or two.”

“You can’t just vanish for a week!” Rhys said. “We’re going to be sinking as it is.”

“I’m sending you a picture of the man coming to collect Claire’s things,” Mark said. “Let him get what he wants from her room. And just sort it all out.”

Rhys stared at his phone. “He hung up. And he’s sending someone to collect Claire’s things.”

“What are we going to do?” Stella asked.

“And what’s happening with Claire?” the undertaker said. “You can’t keep the remains of a werewolf too long or people will be getting too interested, if you know what I mean.”

“I’m sorry that you’ve been put out like this,” Rhys said, trying to be diplomatic. “I’ll be in touch with you as soon as I find out more.”

“I understand,” the undertaker said. “Grief can affect people in strange ways. I’ve known Mark a long time, and he’s always been too intense for his own good. This was never going to be easy for him.”

Rhys glanced at the picture that Mark sent. The image of a tall, dark haired man gave him an uneasy feeling, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on why. Still, that wasn’t the only worry. “Stella, we’re going to have to go ahead with the gathering tomorrow,” he said. “Too many people will have already set out and it’s going to be chaos trying to change plans. Just do your best and we’ll call it a remembrance. Perhaps a couple of us can make speeches. It will be a bit like the memorial but it can’t be helped.”

“What do we tell people about Mark?” Stella asked.

“I’ll think of something,” Rhys said.

“You’ll have to,” she said. “Or the pack will look weak.”

“Stella is unfortunately correct,” the undertaker said. “There is already talk in the area.”

“We’re not weak, and we’re doing fine,” Rhys said. “I’ll think of something.”

Stella shook her head. “I think you need to make decisions about more than the cremation,” she said. “People are looking to you now.”

“This isn’t the time for that sort of talk,” Rhys said. “Mark’s been caught up with Claire and it’s taken a toll. But he’ll be back just as strong, taking charge and getting us all jumping.” He stopped and stared at the figure getting out of the black Mercedes that had just stopped in their car park. It was the man coming to collect Claire’s belongings and while he looked so completely ordinary, from his neat hair to his business style shoes, every instinct in Rhys was screaming that this was danger and death and all the wrongness. He fought to stay out of fur, his lips curling in a reflexive snarl, and he could see Stella fighting the same instincts. The undertaker glanced between them and backed slowly out of the room before turning and running.

“Get everyone out of the way,” Rhys growled to Stella through clenched teeth. “Get the kids into the back field. I’ll come when it’s gone.”

*****

“It’s all quiet,” Bron said as they met Lady Mary in a shaded spot away from The Iron Sickle. “There doesn’t seem to be much activity at all.”

“There wouldn’t be much at this time,” Lady Mary said. “It’s 8pm on a Sunday night. It’s not the most popular time for drinking.” She looked at Tyler. “Are you okay?”

Tyler nodded. “Too much is changing,” he said softly.

Lady Mary looked over to Bron where he stood with Sir Dylan and Sir Philip. “I am bringing my authority here,” she said. “But Tyler is in charge. He will be dealing with the werewolves.” She looked around. “I notice that Kidder isn’t here.”

“He’s with Ewan back at the cottage,” Bron said. “He’s with us, now, and he isn’t going to cause trouble. And you can’t expect him to go after Fang, not after what happened last time.”

“And will you be in control of yourself, Bron the Ancient?” Lady Mary asked. “This is personal for you, isn’t it?”

“I just want the truth,” Bron said coldly. “And then I’ll want justice. I know the difference between justice and vengeance, and I’ll grieve in my own way.” He glanced around the group. “Shall we?” He turned and, without waiting for the others, marched straight up to the doors of The Iron Sickle and pushed his way inside.

The pub was silent as Bron stalked up to the bar, followed by the rest of the group. The lights were dim and the half dozen or so drinkers were spaced widely around the bar, hunched over their drinks. The clock behind the bar ticked loudly. “Where’s Fang?” Bron asked.

There was no reply. Tyler stalked up to the bar and slammed his hand down onto the counter. The drinkers flinched as he glared around. “Where is Fang?” he snapped. “I’m taking over and I’ve come to challenge him. Show me!”

An older werewolf pointed hesitantly and Tyler paced slowly towards the unlit corner. “Fang, show yourself!” he called. “”Meet the challenge.”

“If he still has the Orache Stone, this could go very badly,” Sir Dylan murmured to Sir Philip.

“And that’s why we’re here,” Sir Philip murmured back.

Bron shot them a look and followed Tyler as he slid out of his jacket. “And you’re to answer to me, boyo,” he called. He hooked his jacket over the back of a chair and stood at Tyler’s shoulder. “Who killed Violet, Fang?”

Tyler held up his hand and turned to the bartender. “Why are the lights out?” he asked.

The bartender swallowed. “The orders were to keep it dark,” he said.

Tyler smiled coldly. “And my orders are to switch on all the lights,” he said. “Let’s see what we’re dealing with.”

“These lot don’t look like they’re going to be trouble,” Sir Dylan murmured to Sir Philip as he glanced around the drinkers. “But we stick back to back and give them space to run if they want to.”

Sir Philip gave a slight nod. “They look like they’re more likely to run than fight, but who can tell,” he said, glancing swiftly around the room. “We can fall back to the slot machine. That looks stable enough to have at our backs.”

The bartender edged along the bar and started flicking switches. The drinkers squinted at the bright light and one fled the bar. “Let him go, for now,” Tyler said. “I want to see Fang.”

As the lights reached the corner, Tyler recoiled. The shape sitting there was barely recognisable. Fang was in cloth, his human form emaciated and his eyes blank. His tangled hair was wild and he pushed himself back into the bench as he flinched at the light. “Not me, not me,” he mumbled. “It’s my stone, my stone, I said it was and she wasn’t saying. I said it was mine.” Drool ran down his chin. “She said she knew how to use it, but didn’t say. It’s mine, mine and she should have told me. She took it. I fought but she took it, old lady bitch.” Fang’s thin hands clenched and unclenched. “She should have told me. She threw me away. Hurt me, hurt me with silver even though it was my stone.”

Bron pushed past Tyler and grabbed the creature’s shirt, hauling him to his feet and staring into what was left of him. “He lost the stone,” Bron said. “He lost it, but after it had taken his mind.” He tossed the werewolf onto the floor in front of the bar. “Ewan was right. Fang fought Violet and lost.” He looked up to Tyler. “He’s all yours.”

“You’re giving me the job of justice?” Tyler said. “Are you going soft?”

“Violet would still be here if she hadn’t been weakened,” Bron said. “And I’m not sure I’d know when to stop.” He looked at Fang who was drivelling at his feet. “It wouldn’t be a fair fight, and the werewolf pack needs justice.”

“We’re not a pack,” a skinny lad next to the bar said, then winced as he regretted speaking up.

“You are now,” Tyler said. “You acted enough like a pack under Fang, so now you can be a pack under me and I’ll sort you out.” He kicked out at Fang, who whimpered. “I’ll start here.”

“I’ll be off now,” Bron said. “But here’s something.” He picked up his jacket and pulled out a box which he placed on the bar. Opening it, he took out a purple orchid. “It’s the wrong type of year for violet flowers,” Bron said. “But Violet, the elfen who would be alive but for this, should be remembered, as a little bit of justice. I can rely on you all here to keep her memory and a memento behind the bar, can’t I?” There was steel in his tone.

Tyler nodded. “That sounds fair enough,” he said. “Now, all non werewolves should leave now. Things are going to get interesting.”

Bron, Lady Mary and the Knights Templar left and walked across the road and down to a small park. The distance helped to muffle the screaming now coming from the bar. Lady Mary looked Bron up and down. “That was a sensible decision,” she said. “It must have taken a great deal of effort.”

Bron shrugged. “I could be inventive, but I don’t have the time,” he said. “I have to speak to Mark Davies.”

Lady Mary tapped her elegant finger on her chin, ignoring the frantic howls coming from The Iron Sickle. “That could be problematic,” she said. “The cremation is tomorrow night, and several hundred are expected to attend the pack house afterwards. You are formidable, Bron, but even you would struggle with those odds. I believe some have already arrived.”

“He can’t be allowed access to several hundred wolves with the Orache Stone,” Bron said urgently. “Do you want that many werewolves ravaging through Leeds? The bloodshed could be horrific.”

“I hadn’t considered that,” Lady Mary said. “Regardless, you can’t challenge Mark Davies in front of several hundred werewolves at the cremation of his wife. If possible, you need to wait a day or two, until the last puppy has gone home.” She looked at Sir Dylan. “I believe that there will be a contingent of Knights Templars present,” she said. “And several high ranking elfen will also be paying their respects, including Lord Marius and Steve Adderson. It should be possible to deflect any trouble even if we can’t stop it completely.”

“I’ll put a general alert out,” Sir Dylan said. “The top brass at Lincoln were already waiting for a call. We’ll make sure that we have reinforcements ready.”

“I’ll bide my time and be ready,” Bron said. “I’m not an idiot.” He looked around the group as the snarls and growls behind them grew. “But I still get that son of a bitch, right? I still get Mark Davies.”

Invitation Accepted Chapter Fifteen

You can find the story from the beginning here

“Hey, Mark,” Rhys said, cautiously walking into the office. “I’m so sorry.” He looked at the werewolf sitting hunched at his desk. “The doctor has signed the certificate and the undertakers will be here any time to take Claire. The nurse is with her until then. I thought it was best that she was in a safe place.”

Mark managed a nod. “We don’t want weirdos going after our dead,” he said, his voice hoarse and raspy.

“Everyone’s here,” Rhys said. “All the women are getting together in the kitchen.”

“I suppose it’s what they do,” Mark said.

“The kids were hanging around so I got them tidying the car park and grounds. It will keep them busy so they don’t get caught up in things,” Rhys said.

“That’s good,” Mark said, staring blankly ahead. “We’ll need the place to look smart for the visitors.”

“And I’ve set up a rota to guard Claire until…” Rhys watched Mark warily. “She will need to be guarded until cremation. She won’t be alone.”

“I’ll be there,” Mark said. “I’ll keep watch with them.” He looked at Rhys, devastation in his eyes. “She’s gone. Claire’s dead.” He dropped his gaze to the picture of their wedding that was clenched in his hand. “What am I going to do now?”

“I’m so sorry,” Rhys said. “I’ll ring up the clients for the building work and let them know that there’ll be a lag, but we should be able to keep things mostly on track.” He leaned forward. “The minister will be here soon as well,” he said. “Do you know if Claire had any ideas about her funeral?”

Mark growled. “What sort of question is that? I wouldn’t let her believe that it was terminal. I kept telling her that she’d get better, that she’d be fine.” He looked up and his gaze burned into Rhys. “How could I ask her to think of a funeral when it was so important to think of life.”

“Well, you need to be able to tell the minister something,” Rhys said.

“Why?” Mark said.

“What do you mean?” Rhys asked warily.

“Why now?” Mark said. “If she had held on just a little longer…” He turned to Rhys. “I did everything I could, you know, everything. I held her, I prayed, and I…”

“We all know that you did all you could,” Rhys said. “You were devoted.”

“Claire was everything to me,” Mark said. “She was my heartbeat.” He stood and started pacing. “I wouldn’t have led the pack without her. She kept me whole.”

“She was a good woman,” Rhys said.

“She was sunshine,” Mark said. “She held my heart and was safe. And she did so much with the women.”

“She was a great leader in her own right,” Rhys said. “Everyone loved her.”

“She made such a difference to everyone,” Mark said. “And she took over a lot of the paperwork.”

“She really shook up the office,” Rhys said. “Her handwriting is still all over the papers and files.”

Mark snarled and swept the papers from his desk. “Why couldn’t she last a little longer?”

Rhys stared at the drift of papers swirling down onto the plain carpet. “Mark, sometimes it’s just someone’s time. We can’t answer that,” he said helplessly. “The minister will be here in a few hours. It’ll help to talk to them.”

Mark kicked the wastepaper bin hard. It crashed against the wall, denting the plaster. “All I needed was a little more time and I could have saved her,” he said. He stood there, panting a little. “Why? Why did it go this way, Rhys? Why was the timing so wrong?”

“Mark, it’s hard, I know,” Rhys said soothingly. “But it’s how things are. It’s not easy, it’s never easy, but you just have to keep your fur flat and keep going.”

“And how many wives have you lost?” Mark snarled. “You talk the talk, but what do you know.”

Rhys struggled to hold in his temper. “I know that I’ve not lost someone like this, but I remember losing my parents, and I remember how tough it was,” he said, pushing down his instinctive response. “And when all is said and done, we need to think about Claire. She’d want to see you keeping going. You know how much she cared about the business and the pack.”

“She cared about everything and everyone but her,” Mark said. Abruptly he upturned the desk. “If she had seen a doctor earlier, or if I’d noticed that she was failing before and made her go, it would have been different.”

Rhys looked around the wrecked room. “We can’t go back in time,” he said, slowly picking up the desk. “And you’re the pack leader. You have to show the cubs how it’s done and set a good example.” He glanced at the damaged plaster. “So we have the cremation as soon as possible, then the memorial at the next dark of the moon, as traditional.” He started gathering together the papers. “Stella can sort out the food, if you like. She knows what’s fit for the cremation. I’ll sort out the business side and we’ll just keep putting one paw in front of the other like we always do. And we keep remembering Claire in our hearts.”

Mark stared at him. “You don’t understand,” he said. “You really don’t understand.”

“Claire’s Bible is still in her room,” Rhys said. “You can look up readings before the minister gets here. You know that Claire had a lot of faith. She’d want something nice.”

Mark looked out of the window. “The undertaker is here,” he said. “I’m going to guard Claire. Just sort something out with the minister – you’ll know the sort of thing.” He pushed past Rhys and jogged down the hall to Claire’s room.

Rhys straightened the room and made a note on his phone to get the plaster patched. He leafed quickly through the papers, but there was nothing urgent or even important. All the main business had been coming through him for a while now and it was his desk in the side office that held the critical stuff. He placed the papers carefully back on Mark’s desk before running a weary hand over his face. He could see the shape of the future and it didn’t look good. He didn’t have time for that, though. He had to go and search the internet for readings suitable for funerals on top of everything else.

Kidder opened the door to Carli. “It’s good to see you, but are you sure that you want to be here?” he asked, grinning.

“What’s up?” Carli asked, then winced as Bron’s voice boomed from the living room.

“I’m doing my time and taking my share of the work,” he yelled. “But where is the support looking for Fang? Why am I the only one hunting him down?”

“We can’t risk The Iron Sickle on our own,” Gareth added. “But we’ve tracked all around there.”

“And surely you should be looking at this?” Bron said. “Violet’s dead! You can’t just wink at a murder just because it was an old and fading elfen.”

Kidder beckoned Carli towards the kitchen. “I was making the tea,” he whispered. “Mortimer is hiding in the shed in the garden. He doesn’t do well with arguments.”

“We’ve had our hands full with other things this week,” Sir Dylan said. “We had the vampires off their heads on dragon’s blood and not knowing which way is up and trying to camp in the minster grounds. That took a bit of sorting out.”

“And there was that outbreak of scarabs at the Royal Armouries,” Sir Philip added. “They mostly dealt with it themselves but they needed a bit of cover.”

“Lord Marius should be here tomorrow with Steve Adderson and they can start scrying for Fang,” Sir Dylan said.

“I’m not a fan of magic,” Sir Philip said. “But it may be the best chance of dealing with this.”

There was a long silence. Carli strained her ears as she helped Kidder lay out the mugs on a tray. “I’ll put something aside for Mortimer,” she whispered. “He must be upset.”

Kidder nodded. “I’ve half a mind to join him,” he whispered back.

“That’s where I went wrong then,” Bron said, his voice icy in the study and exquisitely clear and controlled. “I shed my blood and take my knocks for the people here, but you won’t even consider searching for the one who killed my lover. I see where I stand.”

“Hang on,” Sir Dylan said. “Lord Marius will be here tomorrow and that will make all the difference.”

“He’s right,” Gareth added coldly. “We know exactly how important we are to you. But we shouldn’t be bothering Lord Marius. If you are happy to disregard the relationship between Violet and Bron, then it becomes a matter for the Prince, not the paladin. And this is out of Lord Marius’ domain. Those are the rules, aren’t they?”

“It’s not as simple as that,” Sir Dylan said. “This is about the Orache Stone. You can’t ignore that.”

“But you can ignore the death of my lover,” Bron said.

Carli shot a worried glance at Kidder as she got the milk from the fridge. “I really don’t like the sound of this,” she whispered.

Kidder shook his head as he pulled the almond milk from the cupboard. “Neither do I,” he whispered back.

“You cannot consider going to Lady Mary,” Sir Dylan said. “She’s a vampire and to the best of my knowledge has hardly any magic.”

“You were the one who put her in that position,” Bron said. “Did you choose to set her up to fail? Or is she the best person for that title?”

“Regardless, it’s her domain,” Gareth added. “And she can make the decisions about allowing Lord Marius access to the hunt.”

“He really won’t like that,” Sir Dylan said. “He said that he remembers the last time the Orache Stone was around and he isn’t going to let it take hold this time.”

“I remember the time as well,” Bron said. “And he did service enough, but he was just a twig then, a stripling, a youngster at the back of the crowd. And I remember what it took to take the Orache Stone last time. It took everything.”

“We’ll talk to Lady Mary and take it from there,” Gareth said. “We’ll let you know what is decided.”

“You can’t do that!” Sir Philip said. “It affects normals as well. You’ll need the Knights Templar.”

“I don’t think you understand,” Bron said with careful control. “You may be concerned with the Orache Stone and I cannot stop you seeking it. But I am concerned with the murder of Violet, and that is apparently nothing to do with you, your Knights or Lord Marius.”

Kidder jumped at the knock on the door. “Don’t go in there without me,” he whispered to Carli. “It’s getting tense.” He tiptoed past the study and opened the front door. “Ewan?” He stared at the rangy stray that was fidgeting on the step. “Is everything alright? Are you alright?”

Ewan shuddered. “This is a scary place, dog,” he said. “It’s a real scary place.”

“Are you on stuff?” Kidder asked.

“I needed a bit of help to get here,” Ewan twitched a little. “It just keeps me going and it’s not been easy.”

“Don’t stand there, come in,” Kidder said, pulling the scrawny werewolf inside. Ewan may be in cloth but he looked like a rough sleeper and there was enough curiosity from the locals as it was. “What’s the matter, dog? What are you doing here?” He pushed Ewan into the kitchen. “You need coffee.”

Ewan managed a jerky shrug. “I’m fine, just fine,” he said, looking nervously at Carli. “But I had to come and get you. You were the only one who could get through to Fang.”

“You know what Fang did to me,” Kidder said. “I’m not going back there.” He saw Ewan’s doubtful glances at Carli. “It’s okay, you can talk freely. But there’s no way I am going back there. Fang was beyond mad. It was like white jaw and the fits and rabies all mixed together. I’m good here.”

“No, dog, you gotta come back,” Ewan said earnestly. “You were the only one that Fang ever really listened to and he needs it.”

“He listened to me because I wasn’t using,” Kidder said. “And look what happened last time I tried to talk to him.”

“But it’s different, Kidder,” Ewan said. “He’s lost the stone. He’s wanting to get us all together and to go after Violet. She’s the one who stole the stone, he said. He went up there to give her the hard word, because he said she was disrespectful, and then…” Ewan’s face screwed up. “This is hard, dog. But Violet got the stone and now Fang is kind of lost, or crazy but different crazy, and you need to stop him trying to make us be a pack. It’s not right, dog.”

“Would you care to repeat that?” Bron said.

Kidder whirled around, instinctively ready to go to fur before controlling himself. “It sounds like something bad has happened,” he said. “This is Ewan,” he added, waving a hand in the direction of Ewan who was trying to hide behind Carli. “I’d say it was a trap, but Ewan isn’t like that.”

Bron stared coldly at Ewan who was trembling as he retreated towards the cabinets. “Are you sure?”

Ewan gave a yelp as his back hit a cabinet and instinctively flowed into fur. As a wolf, he was skinny and scarred, with thin, dirty fur matted on his back. He cowered, tail between his legs and his ragged ears flat. Kidder put a reassuring hand on Ewan’s head. “It’s okay,” Kidder said.

“What was that about Violet?” Sir Dylan said from behind Bron.

“The kitchen is getting crowded,” Carli said pragmatically. “Perhaps we should move into the living room. Come on, Ewan, it will be fine.” She ignored Gareth’s wary look and ran a hand over Ewan’s ears.

“If you will all wait in the living room, I’ll get Ewan back out of fur,” Kidder said. “But keep it calm, please. He’s not good with people.”

It took time and patience, but eventually Kidder brought Ewan into the living room and coaxed him into a chair near the fire. “It’s okay,” Kidder said. “You can sit here and be safe. Just tell everyone what you told me.”

Ewan shivered and wrapped his arms around himself. “It’s like I told Kidder,” he mumbled. “Fang lost the Orache Stone to Violet. He said she beat him up and chased him away. He wants to get everyone together to get it back, but I thought that Kidder could maybe talk to him because Fang isn’t right in the head.” He thought for a moment. “I mean, he was always a headcase but now he’s gone Dagenham, you know, two stations past Barking.”

“Violet is dead,” Bron said flatly.

“No, mate,” Ewan said. “Fang said that she beat him up and took that stone – and good riddance because it did him no good and it didn’t do much for anyone near him.”

“I found her remains,” Bron said. “She’s gone.”

Ewan twitched. “I don’t know about that, mate,” he said. “But Fang was in a right mess when he got back to The Iron Sickle. He was covered in blood and his paw was half hanging off. It took him ages to heal up.” He glanced nervously around the people watching. “Now he’s just sitting and muttering about the stone. And he wants us all to go with him. But Barky’s already gone back to London and I haven’t seen Fleabag around for a while either. There’s only me and Yobber and Stee that’s around regular, and we can’t deal with an elfen.”

“It sounds like he is telling the truth,” Sir Philip said quietly. He leaned carefully towards the battered werewolf. “Ewan, would you like something to eat?”

Ewan’s eyes darted around the room, waiting to see if it was a trick before cautiously nodding. “I wouldn’t say no to a biscuit or two,” he said.

“Carli, please could you get Mortimer to make something for our friend here,” Sir Philip said quietly. “And then you and Ewan and Mortimer should perhaps stay in the kitchen while we discuss this.” He nodded carefully at Ewan. “But you can leave any time you like,” Sir Philip said. “It’s just that you may like to know if Kidder will be coming around later.”

“And there’ll be food?” Ewan asked.

“I’m sure that there’ll be plenty,” Sir Philip said, nodding at Carli who stood and held the door open for Ewan.

They waited until the sound of Mortimer fussing in the kitchen reached them, then Bron closed the door. “This is all wrong,” he said.

“Ewan is convinced that Fang has lost the stone,” Kidder said. “And he’s terrified of being taken to face Violet.” He glanced across at Bron. “I’m really sorry that you’re having to deal with this,” he added.

“Thank you,” Bron said quietly. He stood and started pacing. “Mark was very clear,” he said. “I remember every word. He said explicitly that Fang had attacked Violet and then fled, taking the stone with him. There wasn’t any doubt. And there was blood all over her room.” Bron ran a hand through his hair. “I thought the blood was from Mark or from Fang where Violet had resisted.”

“Fang was going to see Violet,” Gareth said. “He overheard Mark talking about getting the stone and using it to heal Claire.” He looked at the two Knights Templar. “I overheard the end of the conversation, but I didn’t really think about it. I asked Rhys about it, but he ducked the subject. We should talk to him again.”

“I can be quite persuasive,” Bron said.

Sir Philip looked thoughtful. “We should speak to Fang first,” he said. “As we’re going into Lady Mary’s domain, we need to get her permission and her aid if possible. We should be able to shake some answers out there.”

“If Fang has any sanity left, that is,” Bron said. “It’s a cruel toy, the Orache Stone, and from what Ewan said, there isn’t much of the old werewolf left.” He frowned. “If Fang doesn’t have the stone, if Ewan is right, then Violet had the stone when Mark was there.”

“I’ve known Mark Davies for years,” Sir Dylan said. “He’s always been pretty steady but he’s had a tough time recently with his wife.”

“She died the day before yesterday,” Kidder said quietly. “Rhys was called away to deal with things.”

“We should have a whiteboard in here,” Gareth said. “But let me try and get some sort of timeline. Violet was murdered three days ago. Mark said that he chased Fang away but couldn’t save Violet but Ewan said that Violet chased Fang away and didn’t mention Mark.”

“There’s no point talking to Mark at the moment,” Kidder said. “From what Rhys said, Claire died two days ago and Mark’s been mad with grief. I know that Luke is sorting out normal security, but Rhys wanted me to keep a proper watch over things, like a good wolf, so he handed over to me, in a way.”

“Mark could have taken the stone,” Bron said, his voice drained of all emotion. “If he reached Violet when she was weakened after battle, and she would have been weakened if she had fought the holder of the Orache Stone and won, then…” his voice trailed off.

Unnervingly, Gareth continued. “Mark could have taken the stone for himself, to try and heal Claire. But he would have been too late.”

“That would mean that he murdered Violet,” Sir Dylan said. “And that now involves two domains and two princes.”

“You can’t go rushing in and accusing him,” Kidder said. “It sounds like the pack is a mess after Claire’s death.”

“If Mark has the stone then we can’t leave it too long either,” Bron said. “The stone will be taking over.”

Sir Philip stood and stretched. “We call Lady Mary and then speak to Fang,” he said. “Lord Marius and Steve Adderson will be available tomorrow if we need to ask Mark some hard questions later. I don’t think that there will be anything to gain if we interrupt a funeral.” He reached over and put a hand on Bron’s shoulder. “If it’s the murder of an elfen by a werewolf, we shouldn’t interfere. It’s supposed to be strictly non-normal. But with the Orache Stone being involved, we have a reason to be part of it. Whatever happens, we’ll stand with you.”

Bron swallowed and then nodded. “Thank you,” he said. “He turned and stared into the fire. “I wouldn’t want to interfere with someone else’s grief. Perhaps the madness has taken Fang so far that he’s forgotten he has the damned stone.”

“I’ll give Lady Mary a call,” Sir Dylan said. “And then we can pay a visit to Fang. Things should be clearer after that.”

Invitation Accepted Chapter Fourteen

Image from Unsplash taken by Jannis Lucashttps://unsplash.com/photos/lzO1h8-Lf5s

You can find the story from the beginning here

“And you never thought to tell me!” Gareth hissed.

Kidder edged his way towards the door of the empty mill room. “I’ll just go and get…” he said.

“I’ve never asked you about your love life,” Carli said. “What difference does it make?”

“You didn’t tell me that your last boyfriend was a werewolf,” Gareth snarled. “So when I was trying to work everything out, you just smiled and watched me struggle.”

“It wasn’t like that!” Carli snapped back. “By the time that came up I was too busy dealing with Bron.”

“Leave me out of it,” Bron said.

“But you could have said something,” Gareth said.

Kidder bumped into Rhys in the doorway. “You do not want to go in there,” Kidder said.

“They’re going to be bringing up the machinery after lunch,” Rhys said. “I thought I’d have a quick sniff around.”

“When was I supposed to say something?” Carli snapped. “One minute we’re working up to holding hands, the next minute we’re neck deep in this, this, this non-normal stuff.”

“I don’t know,” Gareth growled. “Any time you felt like it. You know, when we were looking after Kidder you could have said something.”

“But Kidder didn’t need to hear an argument then,” Carli said. “He was in a really bad way.”

“I’m not sure that I need to hear an argument now,” Kidder murmured to Rhys, who grinned.

“And I didn’t need to go looking through Sir Philip’s phone to find the map and find pictures of you,” Gareth shouted. “And looking like that!”

Kidder and Rhys’ heads snapped around to stare at Carli, who ignored them.

“You’re only after me for my looks, aren’t you?” Carli cried.

“You didn’t look like the photo when you first came into the mill,” Gareth yelled. “I hardly recognised you under that makeup.”

“I was a design student,” Carli said. “Of course I was going to experiment with my look.”

“You looked like an extra in a cheap vampire porno,” Gareth said bluntly.

Kidder and Rhys winced. “He’s never going to get back from that,” Kidder said.

“At least there’s only one of me in here,” Carli snapped back.

“And then I find, from Sir Philip and not you, that you had to leave Birmingham to get away from an abusive werewolf boyfriend,” Gareth snarled. “What happens if he follows you here? It would be great if I could have a little warning.”

“Because being ambushed by a werewolf is getting a bit run of the mill,” Bron added.

Rhys shrugged. “He’s got a point,” he said.

“You stay out of this,” Carli said. “I can look after myself, you wouldn’t need to get involved.”

“You could look after yourself so well that you needed a Knights Templar escort to get here, which is where you met Sir Philip, and if there was a werewolf problem, it would be me that had to deal with it,” Gareth yelled.

“Okay, I may have had a Knights Templar escort,” Carli said with dignity. “But I was coming up here after finishing my design degree. I’d been speaking to Uncle Luke…”

Silence rippled across the room.

“I didn’t see that coming,” Rhys murmured to Kidder.

“Luke is your uncle?” Gareth asked coldly.

“Listen, there was some sort of row between him and my mother before I was born,” Carli said. “It doesn’t matter, I just need you to hear me.”

“When were you planning on telling me?” Gareth asked.

“I don’t know!” Carli said. “It wasn’t important.”

“And knowing that I should be prepared for a potential werewolf stalker wasn’t important?” Gareth’s voice was icy. “Even if our personal relationship was unimportant to you, I would need to know as the paladin.”

“But he’s not coming,” Carli said. “Gareth, please, listen to me.”

“Are there any more surprises that I need to know as the paladin?” Gareth asked. “Because I don’t think it’s worth asking about the personal level. I can see that there’s nothing left there.”

“It’s not like that!” Carli yelled. “I was desperate, my stepfather was on the verge of war with the local pack leader and then Uncle Luke got in back in touch with mum about closing down the factory.”

“Are you sure about that?” Gareth yelled back, waving a hand around the room. “Because three industrial looms are coming out of storage and getting set up in here and that doesn’t look like the mill is closing to me.”

“No! Stop twisting my words,” Carli cried. “When Uncle Luke found out that I was graduating in clothing design, he thought he could maybe pass things on. I didn’t want anyone to treat me different, so…” She stared at Gareth. “You wouldn’t have taken me for dinner if you’d known.”

“Lass, that’s not the right thing to say,” Bron said. “What you’re saying is that you would have only gone out with Gareth as part of a lie.”

“That’s not what I meant at all!” Carli said. “And when Uncle Luke saw how Gareth was making a difference in sales…”

“No wonder he was so protective of you,” Gareth said. “And what’s that you said about your stepfather. Is he a werewolf as well?”

“He led a subpack over at Dudley,” Carli whispered. “He was good to mum, and like a proper dad to me. I won’t hear a word against him. And my ex, well, once the pack leader realised what was going on, he took action and he won’t be bothering us.”

“You,” Gareth said. “He won’t be bothering you. I don’t think that there’s an us anymore. After all, you’re the niece of a mill owner and likely to inherit the whole thing and your stepfather is important in the non-normal world. I know when I’m out of my league.”

“You’re a paladin, dammit,” Carli shouted. “And you wouldn’t treat me any different.”

“Are you sure about that?” Gareth said. “Even if I didn’t treat you different, would you always be looking out for it?”

“He has a point,” Bron said.

“Stay out of this,” Carli snarled.

There was a long pause as Kidder and Rhys inched away.

“Don’t cry,” Gareth said. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it.”

“I know,” Carli sniffed before breaking into full sobs. “But I’m so scared to lose you.”

“I’m going nowhere,” Gareth said softly. “Come here.”

Kidder glanced back and saw Carli leaning against Gareth as he held her close, stroking her hair. “You may need to stall the looms,” he said to Rhys.

Rhys grinned. “They’ll be fine in a minute,” he said. “I can’t remember when I last saw a pair so besotted with each other. They haven’t worked it out properly yet, but they will.”

Kidder nodded, a little shyly. “She’s a really good person,” he said to Rhys. “And Gareth and Bron are decent people. They’ve all been very kind to me and Mortimer.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” Rhys said. “Or I’d be having words with them.” His phone rang. “Excuse me.” He strode off to a corner near the stairs.

Kidder peeked back at the couple before ducking quickly back. “It looks like everything’s alright again,” he grinned at Rhys as he returned before seeing Rhys’ expression. “Is everything alright?”

“Claire has died,” Rhys said. “That’s Mark’s wife. I need to get back to the pack. Can you have a sniff around and make sure that Romeo does a check as well, just to be sure?”

“Of course, mate,” Kidder said. “And I’m really sorry. Please pass on my condolences.”

“Thanks,” Rhys said.

Invitation Accepted Chapter Thirteen

You can find the story from the beginning here.

Kidder wandered into the garden, grinning at the Knights Templars. “When is the furniture going to get here?” he asked.

“It should have been here half an hour ago,” Sir Dylan said, checking his watch.

“This isn’t an easy place to find,” Sir Philip said. “I had a few problems getting here myself.”

“I’m glad that Lincoln sent you,” Sir Dylan said. “I think we’ll need all the help we can get. I’m just sorry that the accommodation isn’t the usual standard. I mean, you could stay in Leeds, but it’s better to be nearer the action.”

“Mortimer is having fits,” Kidder said. “He’s in a state about how we are going to eat dinner without a proper dining table.”

“Brownies are always having fits,” Sir Philip said easily. “We’ll manage even if we have to sit on the floor and eat with plates on our laps.”

“It’s not like he’s used to a lot of furniture,” Kidder said. “He’s been in a bit of a bad place, but now he’s been watching videos online about how to lay the table and, well…”

Sir Philip chuckled. “At least you’ll be well fed,” he said.

“I’m going to ring the store,” Sir Dylan said, pulling out his phone.

“It’s a charity shop,” Sir Philip said. “They aren’t going to have a strict schedule. The extremely cheap furniture will be here when it’s here. We may as well relax in the sun while we can.”

Kidder stretched in the late autumn sunshine. “I’m taking my chance to do nothing,” he said. “Mortimer will have us moving the furniture around for hours and then I’ll be busy moving stuff around at work next week.”

“How’s it going?” Sir Dylan asked. “Have you had any more problems with Fang?”

Kidder shook his head. “And Rhys has calmed down a little,” he said. A shadow passed across his face. “But the sooner we get Fang sorted, the happier I think everyone will be.”

“He’ll get sorted out,” Sir Dylan said. “We won’t let him get away.”

“Gareth is coming,” Kidder said, tilting his head and grinning again. “Wait until you hear Gareth and Bron arguing, Sir Philip. It’s weird.”

Gareth walked around the corner and out from behind the untidy hawthorn hedge. “There’s a van stuck at the bottom of the lane,” he said. “And it’s blocking the way. I can’t get past it. Apparently someone bought all the furniture in a charity shop and paid extra for delivery.”

“How can it be stuck?” Sir Dylan said.

Sir Philip looked at him. “Let me see, a volunteer driver in an unfamiliar, overloaded van down a narrow lane. What could possibly go wrong?”

“If it’s definitely for us, then we need to give her a hand,” Gareth said. “I don’t think that the van is well loaded, and if we just get a few bits out then it could make all the difference.” He looked at them. “How much furniture did you buy?”

“Not enough for Mortimer,” Kidder chuckled.

Sir Philip laughed. “We got so much that the charity shop threw in some tray cloths and doilies to help the deal,” he said.

“Great,” said Bron, making Sir Philip start. “We’re going to have a house full of young men but set out like an old lady’s place.” He shrugged. “If it’s warm, dry and clean then I’ll take it.” The phone in his pocket rang. “Excuse me.” He wandered off into a corner of the unkempt garden.

“Joking aside, sirs, but how much did you buy?” Kidder asked.

Sir Dylan shook his head. “I wanted to go to IKEA,” he said. “We’ve got a reasonable budget and we need practical, not fancy. But I was overruled.” He looked pointedly at Sir Philip.

“It seemed the right thing to do,” Sir Philip said. “We had a lot of money to spend and now it’s helping out a charity.”

Sir Dylan grimaced. “We got a lot of furniture,” he said. “But I’m sure that we’ll need it. I’m not sure about the tray cloths, though.”

“We have a problem,” Bron snapped, striding back to them. “That was Mark, the werewolf. He went up to see Violet and it looks like Fang paid her a visit before he got there. I’m on my way there. Follow me when you get the damn lane cleared.” Bron started running down the lane. “And get that Steve Adderson to turn up,” he yelled over his shoulder. “In case Fang comes back.”

“Get Mortimer,” Sir Dylan snapped to Kidder. “We need to get that lane cleared.” He pulled his phone from his pocket and pressed speed dial. “Steve, it’s Sir Dylan. I’ll send you the co-ordinates. It could be our chance.”

Bron raced up to Violet’s cottage and then paused, controlling his breathing with difficulty. The garden had seen a fight. Violet’s beloved plants had been crushed and tossed in some sort of struggle. The door hung from the hinges, swinging slowly. Bron approached carefully. “Violet, are you there?”

“She’s gone,” a voice said.

Bron headed to the sound of the voice. “Is that you Mark?” he asked. “And where has Violet gone.”

“I mean, she’s…” Mark’s voice trailed off and Bron heard him take a deep breath. “She’s dead, Bron. I was too late.”

“No,” Bron said with iron control. “The elfen do not die so easily.” He strode into the cottage and the truth hit him like ice.

“Fang was all over her,” Mark said. “I tried my best, but…”

Bron looked at Mark coldly. The werewolf had a lot of the marks of battle, the scrapes and bites slowly fading and the adrenaline was still seeping out of him. “You’re the leader of the pack,” Bron said. “And you couldn’t stop Fang.”

Mark snarled but then shook his head. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I heard that you and Violet were close. Fang has that stone. I drove him off, but I was too late. Violet had been too badly hurt.”

Bron looked around the fading cottage. The colours were starting to seep out of the wall and dust was settling. He could see all of the signs of a fight. The loom in the corner had been shattered and the warp had been tangled, caught in the battle. Ashes from the fire were scattered on the hearth rug and furniture was upturned. He reached out to a fading throw, tangled in the remains of a smashed chair. And mixed in with the chaos was a drift of dead leaves and splashes of vivid blood. “There’s been a battle here, alright,” Bron said. “Violet was fading, but she would not have gone quietly.”

Mark stared at him. “I was holding her. I got Fang by the throat but he wriggled out and went through the window,” he said, nodding at the window. “But Violet was hurt and I tried to hold her.”

“When elfen die, they return to nature,” Bron said. “They go back to leaves and dust and air.” His fists clenched and unclenched. “We should get out of here.”

Mark looked around. “Is it cursed?” he asked.

Bron shook his head. “Violet’s spirit filled this place,” he said. “Now she’s gone, it’s not so stable. Think – isn’t it a lot dimmer than it used to be? And look at the blood, look how bright it is next to the floor and walls.” His shoulders slumped for a moment. “The cottage will follow Violet. It’s best that we get out of here.”

Bron didn’t wait for Mark but strode out of the cottage and into the autumn sunlight. The garden, already fading and ready for winter, was losing what was left of its vigour and withering as he looked.

“I’m so sorry,” Gareth said into the back of Bron’s mind. “I know that you cared.”

“Thanks,” Bron said. “She had faded, and she was often silly, but…” He walked slowly down the cracked path and stepped over the crumbling gate and into the lane. He glanced up and down, checking for trouble. He had to show the boy how to behave like a man. He needed to be measured and keep his head clear of the red rage filling him. “She was my last true link with the old days, my old life.”

“Do what you need to do,” Gareth said. “Be who you are. I can feel the pain coming from you like heat from a furnace. I may not be an old warrior, but I know that you can’t bottle this up.”

Bron sensed Mark behind him. “Which way did Fang go?” he asked.

“He went out of the window,” Mark said. “He must have overheard me talking with Rhys in the mill. I talked about Violet having some control over the stone. He must have been worried.” He turned back to the cottage and squinted. “You said it would fade, but I didn’t expect that.”

Bron glanced back briefly. The outline of the cottage looked blurred and smudged, like it was seen through thin smoke or a heat haze. “Violet had lived here for many centuries,” he said. “It was mostly her will in the walls, keeping it standing for all these years. It was part of her. But which way did Fang go? That’s the important question.” He frowned as a car raced up the lane and pulled up next to the gateposts. “What do you want, wizard?”

Steve got out of the car and met Bron’s dark gaze before flicking past him to the cottage. “I see,” he said softly. “I’m sorry that I was too late.”

Bron turned back to Mark. “Which way did Fang go?” he asked again.

“He went to the north,” Mark said. “But that must have been fifteen minutes ago and he could move fast in the countryside, especially if he went to fur. He could have gone anywhere.”

“You can’t take on the Orache Stone,” Steve said. “And that’s probably all that’s left of Fang. You can’t take it one on one. We need to work as a team.”

“You’re mistaken, wizard,” Bron said. “I was the one who dealt with it last time.”

“It killed you last time,” Steve said. “And the stone wasn’t destroyed. It’s different now. Lord Marius has learned a lot over the years, and the Knights Templar are better trained than most would believe. Let us help you.”

“Have you ice in your veins?” Bron asked. “Can you turn away from something like this? Could you stop yourself from going straight after the one who killed your love.”

Steve met Bron’s glare without flinching. “I’ve always waited,” he said. “It wouldn’t help anyone if I went in without thinking and made everything worse. Or do you want Fang to take you as well as Violet, and Gareth with you?”

“No fight is without risks,” Bron growled.

“We can avoid the worst of the risks,” Steve said impatiently. “We can put plans and fallback plans in place. We have a better chance of taking down Fang and the Orache Stone as a group. It needs more than just brute force.”

“Brute force worked last time,” Bron said.

“Did it?” Steve asked, his voice icy. “Last time you ended up dead and the village was without a defender for decades. The people there suffered. And you only managed to use brute force because of magical help from Violet – who isn’t here. Magic won’t work on its own and neither will brute force, not if we want all of us walk away in one piece.”

“I’ll back you no matter what,” Gareth said in the back of Bron’s mind.

Bron stared at Steve for a long moment, then nodded. “I want the best chance of getting rid of Fang,” he said. “I’ll play by your rules. But I’m still going to track Fang.” He tapped the phone in his pocket. “I’ll keep in touch.” And, with a quick look around, he disappeared into the forest behind the crumbling cottage.

Invitation Accepted Chapter Twelve

You can read the story from the beginning here

“What the hell did you do last night?” Gareth groaned as he gingerly lowered himself onto the chair at the kitchen table.

“It’s complicated,” Bron said. “And it’s my turn to take the tea so it’s black with enough sugar.”

Gareth groaned again. “Okay, just get it over with. And what do you mean, complicated?”

“I have already searched the internet on removing bloodstains,” Mortimer said primly as he cracked eggs into the pan. “There shouldn’t be a problem.”

“Bloodstains?” Gareth said. “Thank goodness for long sleeved shirts. They’re going to be asking questions at work.” He rolled up his sleeve and inspected the long, sore gash along his forearm. “How badly did it bleed?”

“Perhaps you should keep a notebook about what each has done when in charge of the body,” Mortimer said, moving bacon from the rack to the warmed plates.

“He doesn’t want evidence,” Gareth said darkly. “And I think that there’s times I don’t want to know.” Bron chuckled and poured himself a mug of tea.

Kidder bounced in, glowing from his morning run. “That bacon smells great!” he said. “Hey, which of you broke up the fight at the boggart birthday party last night? Everyone’s talking about it.”

“Boggarts?” Gareth said. “But they’re really dangerous.”

Kidder stared at Gareth’s damaged arm. “Oh yes! They’re crazy strong and not usually good with reason, especially if they’ve been drinking.” He peered closer as he dropped into his own chair. “You should see a doctor about that. It looks like it should have been stitched.”

“I can’t go to a doctor like this,” Gareth said. “I think they have to report anything like knife or gunshot wounds, or anything with violence.”

“It wasn’t a knife,” Bron said. “It was a broken bottle. The party had spilled out of the house to the local shops and it got a bit boisterous. A cut from a piece of broken glass can’t be suspicious. It’s practically a household accident that could happen to anyone.” He took a long drink of his tea.

“It’s so weird hearing both of you speak out of the same body,” Kidder said. “I’ll never get used to it. And that slash must have hurt.”

“I was a bit busy at the time,” Bron said. “I didn’t really notice. Thank you, Mortimer.”

Mortimer smiled as he placed three plates on the table together with an extra plate for the surplus eggs and bacon and a rack with toast. His was a small portion but both Gareth and Kidder had loaded plates in front of them. “It’s important to start with a good breakfast,” he said. “And the food here is wonderful.”

Kidder looked at him thoughtfully, then down at the bacon, eggs, mushrooms and toast on the plate. “You’re a great cook,” he said.

“We never had eggs in the domain,” Mortimer said. “And bacon was only for Saturday. This abundance is amazing.”

“Thank you for cooking,” Gareth said. “Carli and I will take you shopping one night this week so you can get an idea of what’s available.” He winced as he stretched to reach the toast.

“You really need to see a doctor,” Kidder said. “Why don’t you ask Sir Dylan. He must know of someone who knows what they’re doing but that wouldn’t ask questions.”

“What happened with the boggarts?” Gareth asked, buttering the toast.

“It wasn’t anything serious,” Bron said. “A couple of youngsters had been drinking a little hard and were getting a bit rowdy. They calmed down after I dropped them on their heads a few times and had a word with their grandmother.” He grinned. “She laid the law down and promised that she’d send some snacks as compensation.” He looked at Mortimer. “She said that she owned a bakery so someone may be dropping off a box of bread or something. I’m sure that we can use it up.”

Kidder nodded enthusiastically as he polished off his last mouthful of bacon and started reloading his plate. “I can always find room for a sandwich,” he said.

Mortimer took a small mouthful of egg and stared as Kidder piled his plate again. “I’ll purchase further bacon,” he said. “And I don’t think that there will be a problem using an extra loaf or two.”

“I need the energy,” Kidder said, adding another egg from the serving dish. “They’re opening up the third floor and I’m helping them move the machinery into place.”

“Take it steady and don’t let them strain you,” Bron said. “You’re still not much more than a cub.”

Kidder grinned. “It’s all on hydraulic lifts,” he said. “And Brian and Keith are helping out, and they’re boggarts. The warehouse guys are helping as well, so we shouldn’t have a problem. Then the engineers will be testing the kit for the next few days. It’s going to be amazing. Luke said that I’ll get trained up on the looms.”

Gareth nodded. “Carli was talking about it. She has a buyer coming today to talk about the designs for the blankets.” He winced again. “I’ll have to give Sir Dylan a call about the doctor today. Anyway it’s turning into one of those complicated things. Lord Marius wants to buy blankets to trade from his domain. There’s some sort of complicated arrangement going on with them owing each other favours. A guy called Steve Adderson is coming to make the deal and check out the patterns and to confirm prices. The sales team aren’t happy that they’re missing out on commission on this, but it sounds like Steve will put some business their way.”

Kidder’s eyes were wide. “Steve Adderson is a scary guy,” he said. “I mean, really scary. He’s the son of Lord Marius and he knows everyone and I heard that he fried a load of strays with lightning over in York.” He looked at Gareth. “You won’t let me be alone with him, will you? I mean, you’re supposed to protect normals not us, but you wouldn’t turn your back on me?”

“I’ll be there for you,” Gareth said, “And I’ll let Carli know as well. Besides, it’s just sales. There won’t be any trouble.”

“You’re one of us now,” Bron said firmly. “We look after our own. And this Steve Adderson is some sort of shaman, is he?”

“I don’t know about that,” Gareth said. “But he’s red hot as a salesman. He had Luke beat and got a really good deal for all wool, all natural dye blankets in weird patterns. I wouldn’t worry about it. He’s going to be busy with Carli and the designs.”

“As long as it’s only designs he’s talking about,” Bron said.

Kidder shook his head. “I’ve heard all about him. He’s married and they have a shop in York. I think that Carli will be fine.” He frowned for a moment. “But even if you’re not there, I’ll look after her.”

“That’s the spirit,” Bron said. There was a knock on the door. “I’ll get it. Mortimer – make sure that you eat enough, okay. You’re working hard here.”

Kidder nodded as Bron headed for the door. “He’s right, you know,” he said. “You’ve been amazing. The house is getting decorated and everything’s clean and tidy. You’ve even started working on the garden, and that’s a mess.”

“I hope that I can give satisfaction,” Mortimer said. He looked anxiously at Kidder. “If I don’t get things right here, I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

For a moment, all of Kidder’s fears showed on his face. “I know what you mean,” he said. “If I get it wrong here…” His voice trailed off.

“Hey, you two, give us a hand,” Bron yelled from the hall.

Kidder and Mortimer exchanged a glance and then went out into the hall. Kidder chuckled. “How much trouble did the boggarts cause?” he asked, looking past Bron to the four young boggarts standing nervously at the door.

“We’re really sorry,” one said. “And Gran has told us to tell you that she’ll keep you in mind.”

“You don’t want us to bring it in,” another boggart said. “It’s just that my mam said that I should never go into a Paladin’s Citadel, just in case.” The other boggarts nodded in nervous agreement.

“It’s okay, lads, we’ve got it,” Bron said breezily. “And don’t worry about it. It’s all done and dusted and forgotten. Just keep your heads next time, okay, and don’t try attacking the big dumpster bins at the back of the supermarket again. Even if you think they’re fighting back.” He chuckled. “And if you have to, and you think that they’re winning, walk away.”

The young boggarts flushed with embarrassment and shuffled away. Bron turned to Kidder and Mortimer. “Can you give me a hand with these,” he said. “I hope you know how to use it all up.”

Kidder stared. “Wow!” he said. “You must have really impressed the grandmother.”

“This is a challenge, though a welcome one,” Mortimer added. “I’m not quite sure where I’ll store it, but I’ll not let a crumb be wasted.”

Kidder looked at the four large boxes overflowing with a dozen varieties of bread, together with pastries, cakes and biscuits. The scent rising from them was almost intoxicating. “I’ll do my share to help you out with that,” he said.

Rhys led Mark up onto the third floor. “This place is huge,” he said. “And I swear that I haven’t found half of the corners.” He turned and looked at the pack leader. “If we are going to give proper security, we need a team. Anything could come crawling out at night.”

“We’re not proper security, dammit,” Mark said. “There’s a paladin here, for fur’s sake. You’re here to get Carli away from the paladin. Anything else is a bonus.”

“I can’t do that,” Rhys said. “She’s absolutely besotted by Gareth. She hasn’t even noticed me.”

“I know what sort of a dog you are,” Mark sneered. “You’ve had bitches all over the county following you. She would have been licking your hand if you had made a proper effort.”

Rhys’ lips curled. “I’m no dog, not like that,” he snapped. “And I know the orders. But I’m not forcing a woman and I’m not a murderer. Not when it’s just a bystander.”

“You’ll do as you’re told!” Mark snapped back.

“Or what?” Rhys growled. “You don’t even know where the new constructions are starting, you haven’t turned up to any of the planning meetings, you don’t know anything about the new supplier and you weren’t the one dealing with complaints to the neighbours up on the project in Armley. You owe me! While you’ve been hovering around Claire, I’ve been holding everything else together. Don’t push me.”

“I’ll give you a lesson,” Mark snarled. “Do you think that you’re up to my whiskers yet? I’ll send you off yelping and knowing your place. Deal with Carli, that’s all I’m saying.”

Rhys laughed bitterly. “I don’t think so,” he said. “How often are you in the gym? How often are you part of the training runs? When did you last lift a load of bricks? You are getting weak, Mark, and nobody is fooled. When it came to the scrap in The Iron Sickle, it wasn’t you who pulled everyone’s tails out of the fire. Face reality, Mark. You’re not the fighter you once were.” He fought to control his temper. “Ask Lord Marius for help. You know that he’d be there for us. We’ve been there often enough for him.”

“Violet will give me control of the stone, but only if I get rid of Carli,” Mark said. “She said it can heal Claire. We’ve got to get Carli out of the way. So do your job, dog.”

Rhys shook his head. “Mark, are you sure that this is what Claire would want?” he asked. “If there’s anything there of her to ask? There’s just a shell left, and it’s twisting in permanent pain. I hear her sobbing at night.” He grabbed hold of Mark’s arm. “Are you doing this for Claire or for you?”

“What’s this about Violet?” a voice said from the shadows.

The two werewolves whirled around as Fang strolled out. Rhys stepped up to him. “Get out of here.”

“Or what?” Fang said. “I’ve got the stone.” He held the stone up in front of him. It gleamed darkly under the harsh strip lights.

Rhys could feel the energy flowing from it in icy waves. “Congratulations, you have a shiny pebble. Get out.” He took another step forward. Behind him he could hear a low growl starting in Mark’s throat and his heart sank. The old leader was ready to lose control and this wasn’t the time.

“Do you really think that Violet can control this?” Fang said, holding the stone up to let its gleam spread. Blue and red tinted gleams of light sparked in the darker corners of the room. “Nothing controls this,” he said. “Not me, not anyone. I can only serve and feel that deep power through me like fire filled with silver.” His eyes were wild. “You are an inconvenience to me. I’ll deal with you first.”

“Keep your fur flat,” Rhys hissed to Mark. “Play it canny.” He stared into Fang’s mad eyes. “Do you think that you can face both of us? Get out.”

“If you thought you could take me, you would have already sprung,” Fang laughed. “Weaklings.” Mark leapt.

Rhys went to fur and followed Mark, snapping at Fang’s arm as it was flung up at Mark. Then everything went wild. Rhys’ fur bristled as magic and static filled the room and he was flung violently against the wall, landing hard and winded. He could hear Mark’s howls as he scrabbled to get on his paws, fighting to catch his breath.

“Does puppy want to play?” Fang sneered, then yelped as Mark caught Fang’s wrist in his jaws. Another wave of magic ricocheted around the wide mill and the strip lights flickered wildly. Rhys could hear Mark’s snarls through the ringing in his ears and forced himself upright.

“I’m coming, Mark,” he barked, and launched himself into Fang’s side, knocking him backwards and loosening the grip Fang had on Mark’s throat. This time Fang didn’t bother with a blow. Instead magic rang through him, burning into his mind and sparking out of his fur. His legs buckled under him and his paws skidded wildly on the concrete floor. He heard Mark yowl and then a thud. Rhys shook his head and tried to focus his blurred vision. They couldn’t fight this. They needed to get out of here. They needed to warn the pack…

“Stop!” an unfamiliar voice cried.

Rhys pulled himself onto his paws and headed towards Fang. He couldn’t let a bystander be hurt. “Give it up, Fang,” he growled.

“I have the stone,” Fang yelled, his voice high and cracking.

“No!” The unknown voice rang with authority.

Rhys staggered again, swaying and stumbling as the swirling magic was sucked out of the atmosphere and the static left his fur. His vision cleared and he could see Mark, in fur, lying sprawled and stunned against a wall. Fang was still in cloth, holding up the Orache Stone as he glared at the newcomer who was flanked by Gareth. Gareth looked purposeful and was holding a large silver knife, but it was the stranger that caught attention. A slim man in a sharp business suit, he held up his hand, multicoloured magic swirling around it, and he was glaring at Fang. “Get out,” he said quietly.

Fang stared at him with baffled fury. Rhys pulled himself onto his paws and got ready to spring, but Fang swore, flourished the stone and, with a sharp crack, disappeared.

Gareth rushed over to Rhys. “Are you okay?” he asked.

Rhys got out of fur and nodded. “I’m fine.” He looked over to Mark. “My pack leader…”

The stranger was leaning over Mark. “I think he’s just stunned,” he said, running a hand over Mark’s well furred flanks. “If we give him a moment, he should be fine.” He looked up at Rhys. “I’m Steve Adderson. What the hell was that?”

Invitation Accepted Chapter Eleven

The story from the beginning can be found here

Rhys found himself smiling as he turned the corner into Reception. Surjit was there, frowning over the post and making quick notes on the computer. “Hi,” he said. “I’m just checking in.”

Surjit looked up and her answering smile seemed to light up Reception. “Hi, Rhys. Have you time for a quick coffee?”

Rhys nodded. “Don’t you know, I’ve got it all planned out,” he said with his best smile. “I’ve got my routes all sorted so that I can make my coffee stop here.” He had a quick scan of the area before he strode over past the desk and into the tiny back room. “And as it’s my stop, I’ll even make the coffee for you.”

“You’re an angel,” Surjit said. “I’ve got so much on here.”

 Rhys looked around the half assembled security equipment littering the small room. “If things carry on, this room is never going to be big enough.” He added coffee to the filter and slotted it back in.

“We’ll need proper security,” Surjit said. “They’re talking about getting the old looms out. A few of the sales team were talking about it, but they don’t get it. Luke is putting in massive orders for wool and dyes as well as booking a team in to get the looms running. We’re opening up the bigger warehouse.”

Rhys frowned. “I don’t think that I know half of this place,” he said. “I’ve been slacking.” He pulled out two mugs.

“I don’t think that you’ve been slacking,” Surjit said. “You’re always moving around and you don’t seem to miss much.” She paused. “I was planning on heading up to Bolton Abbey at the weekend. I like getting out and about, and it’s beautiful up there with the leaves starting to turn. Do you fancy coming with me? Just for a friendly day out?”

Rhys was torn. “I normally spend the weekend with my family,” he said. “Will your family miss you?”

Surjit grimaced. “Embarrassing admission – I don’t have family. I think I’ve got some third cousins down in Leicester and a few very distant aunts and uncles in Pakistan, but that’s it,” she said. “So weekends can be quiet. I like to keep myself busy.” She smiled shyly. “I can pack a picnic.”

Rhys’ hand clenched around the mugs. He wanted to go with Surjit. He wanted to forget about the prim, closed down Carli and fall into Surjit’s open smile. He wanted to tell his duty to go to hell, to shake off the shame of souring a romance to get a favour. Mark had got his tail twisted and his fur tangled. Where was the honour? Where was the pride? He was supposed to get someone into bed because he was ordered to? He stared at the hissing coffee maker. What had he become? But he had a duty to the pack. He had a duty to Mark. He needed to be at hand to make sure that Mark’s crazy obsessions didn’t wreck the pack any further. He needed to be there for the rest of them. He had to do his duty, force Carli to cheat with him and… There was a sharp crack and he looked down. The mug had shattered in his hand and the cut across his palm from the broken pottery felt like ice.

“Are you okay?” Surjit asked quickly. “That looks like a bad cut – I’ll fetch the first aid kit.”

“I’ll be fine,” Rhys said. “It looks worse than it is and I heal quick.” He looked at the shattered pieces. “I’d love to come out with you,” he said, dropping the pottery shards into the bin and rinsing his hand in the tiny sink. “And if you’re packing the picnic, I’ll drive, and I’ll even buy us a cuppa at the overpriced tea rooms.” He felt his heart light up with Surjit’s bright smile.

“It’s a deal,” she said. “I’ll pack plenty of food.”

“I’m not a vegetarian,” Rhys warned. His heart turned over at the sound of her chuckle.

“That’s okay,” she said. “Neither am I.”

Rhys walked away from Reception, deep in thought. He wouldn’t take the reputation of a dog around the bitches, no matter what Mark said. It was wrong. There had to be another way. Besides, for the last two years he had danced around Mark’s whims, no matter how outlandish, keeping the pack and the business together despite all that was thrown at him. Now, when he finally found someone with a smile that warmed his heart, he wasn’t letting it go.

He pushed that thought aside. He’d have to deal with Mark, but that could wait. He had another duty. He had the duty to keep this mill safe. But he didn’t know all the places. Surjit was talking about the looms, but Rhys had no idea where they were. He had suddenly become aware that there were large areas of the mill that had been closed for years – and anything could be there. He paced on his route, keeping a careful eye out. Technically he wasn’t a real security guard. The chances of Fang ever coming back were slim. Besides, Gareth and Bron could take care of most threats. Rhys had seen the way Bron held himself, the way he moved as he crossed the car park and the power of the man. That man was death. Rhys was never going to cross him, not even on Mark’s crazy orders. But he felt it, deep down, that he should be protecting the people here. That’s what they expected, so that’s what they should do. It was so deeply ingrained in werewolves. The loyalty, the passion and the protective spirit. He had a duty.

The mill was old and massive, sprawling across four floors and a scatter of outbuildings. There were two floors currently working as the old plan expected, with knitting machines on one floor and the making up of the garments on the other. Then there were the offices and the canteen, tucked away on one side but still attached to the factory, and the main stores with the new racks for the dyes and the massive bundles of fleece and cages for the threads. Now the nearest shed was opening up and Rhys could see a figure dragging out rubbish towards a skip. He jogged over. “Hi, I’m Rhys Davies, the security guard,” he said, running an assessing eye over the young lad.

“I’m Kidder Bronson,” he said. “I’m clearing this out now, but I’m going to be starting on the looms next week.” He hefted a bucket of rubbish. “There’s plenty to keep me busy.”

Rhys looked at him closely. “Shouldn’t you have presented yourself to Mark Davies,” he said. “You know that all werewolves are supposed to attend a pack whenever you cross into a territory.”

Kidder raised an eyebrow. “Does that mean that you should have attended on Tyler?” he asked. “This isn’t Leeds Domain anymore.”

“Don’t get clever with me,” Rhys snarled. “Where are your manners?”

Kidder looked him straight in the eye. “What are you talking about? Tyler is the pack leader, I’m staying with Gareth and Bron, I’m nothing to do with Leeds Pack and I’m not going to go fawning around some strange dog because they can’t keep their tail straight,” he said. “I’m not going to start anything, but this is my job. This is the first chance I’ve had in years. I’m not letting some overfed hound push me out of it.”

Rhys felt the fury rise up in him. “You’re yapping pretty hard for a stray,” he snapped.

Kidder dropped the bucket and glared at Rhys. “You stay out of my fur and I’ll stay out of yours,” he said. “But don’t think I haven’t seen you sniffing around Carli – who’s spoken for, by the way. Everyone can see it, everyone can smell it. What sort of dog does that?” He jabbed a finger towards Rhys. “And you ought to be glad I’m here, with Bron and Gareth. Because if Fang comes back here, you’ll need all the help you can get if you want to step up as security and push him out. If he catches you on your own, he’ll eat you, rhinestone collar and all.”

“Big bark, small paws,” Rhys said. “I can handle myself.”

“Yeah, I heard about when you tried to take on The Iron Sickle,” Kidder sneered. “You didn’t keep your tails up then, did you? And it’s getting worse, so if I were you, I’d leave Gareth’s lady alone and get on his good side. Because you’ll need him if Fang comes calling.”

“You might be tagging along with a normal,” Rhys snarled, “But don’t fool yourself. You’re either in a pack or a stray, and we all know what strays are like. Trust me, if I see a claw the wrong way I’ll shred you and they won’t even find your collar.” He spun on his heel and stalked off.

Kidder jogged up to Rowan Cottage. He’d worked an extra few hours under the watchful eye of Luke and Brian and felt a little tired and very satisfied. It was good to be working again. He grinned to himself. They’d even paid him his overtime cash in hand, just this once, so he had some decent money in his pocket. Things were looking up, even if there was that fluff furred security guard hanging around. He slowed down slightly. There were a lot of cars around, and that could mean trouble. He tried to keep calm. If the worst happened, he had the money in his pocket, right?

Carli met him at the door. “It’s chaos in there,” she said, waving at the kitchen. “I thought brownies were supposed to be amazing homemakers.”

Kidder stared. “They are,” he said. “They do homemade everything and keep the house surgically clean. They fold their towels in fancy ways and rotate their stores of toilet paper.”

Carli took a deep breath. “I’m an outsider, right?” she said. “But I think I can see a pattern here. This is a Paladin’s Citadel, isn’t it?”

Kidder nodded. “The place where the paladins live and where normals can come to for help.”

“So having non-normals living there is kind of a problem, as they’re protecting against non-normals?” Carli continued.

Kidder shifted uneasily. “I suppose I shouldn’t be here,” he muttered.

Carli sighed. “I don’t think that Bron would let anyone kick you out now,” she said. “You’re stuck here. He’s seeing you as family, heaven help us all. But you’re a werewolf that’s not a stray, because you’re here. And you’re not in a pack, because you’re here. You’re just part of the household. And now there is a brownie moving in. But not just any brownie! It’s a brownie that doesn’t know how to clean.”

“There’s no such thing,” Kidder said flatly.

Carli sighed deeply. “According to Sir Dylan, Mortimer has been living in a hole in the ground for all of his life, up until now. He explained something about a lord fading and another lord taking over and rescuing some trapped non-normals, over near Hebden Bridge. Mortimer hasn’t had any contact with things like washing machines or microwaves, or, well, have a look.” She ushered Kidder into the kitchen.

A young, tall and extremely skinny brownie was standing by the sink. “Water on,” he said. “Water off. Water on. Water off. Water on. Water off.” He stared, fascinated, at the water coming out of the faucet every time he turned the knob. “There’s so much water.”

“That’s right,” Sir Dylan said. “That’s the cold tap and this is the hot tap.”

“But where is the well?” Mortimer asked.

“There isn’t one,” Sir Dylan said. “It’s all taps.”

The brownie looked thoughtful. “So I don’t have to fetch water?” he said.

“No, you don’t,” Sir Dylan said patiently. “It’s all taps.”

“And I don’t need to heat it over a fire?” Mortimer asked.

“No, it’s all done with the plumbing,” Bron said gently. “Kidder, this is Mortimer and he’s going to be looking after the house.”

Mortimer looked around with determination. “I shall prove worthy of the trust you put in me,” he said. “Lord Richard has given me a device to access the internet and instructed me. There are many cleaning and homemaking resources.”

Kidder thought that he heard Sir Dylan swear under his breath. “I’m pleased to meet you,” he said. “I’m Kidder, and I’m a werewolf.”

Colour drained from Mortimer’s face but he swallowed, took a deep breath and stepped forward to shake hands with Kidder. “I am honoured to meet you,” he said. “I understand that you are a member of this household. May I enquire – do you prefer a bed or a rug?”

“It’s definitely beds,” Carli said with an edge to her voice. “Let’s keep it more standard, in case anyone visits.”

“Of course,” Mortimer said. “I should start making dinner.”

“It’s okay,” Bron said. “With everything being so confusing, I’m ordering pizza. I get a discount.”

“Is it the one near my old flat?” Gareth asked, making Mortimer start. “Have you been helping them out with troublemakers when I’m not around? Because I’ve noticed some really interesting bruises.”

“All you need to worry about is that we get an extremely generous discount,” Bron said. “And the food will come here nice and fresh.”

As Sir Dylan and Bron tried to explain pizza to Mortimer, Carli looked helplessly at Kidder. “Do you know how many cleaning blogs there are?” she asked him. “Or how many YouTube channels just about cleaning? Anything could happen!”

Kidder looked over where Bron was refusing to explain why the pizza place was on speed dial on the phone. “Yep,” he said. “Absolutely anything.”

Invitation Accepted Chapter Ten

You can find the story from the beginning here

“Thanks for seeing me,” Gareth said as he stepped into Tyler’s workshop. “Me and Bron are both here, so it may sound odd.”

Tyler gave him a long look, then shrugged. “Two people in the same body is nothing compared to what’s been coming and going at the house. Lady Mary has been having a fit.” He waved a hand at a chair against the wall. “I’m mostly dealing with the more mentally stable side, but it’s still a shock to the system. How can I help a paladin?” He shook his head. “I’ve spent most of my life hiding from paladins. Now I’m here and chatting and about to ask if you want a tea.” He looked at them enquiringly.

Gareth shook his head. “We can’t agree how we take it,” he grinned.

Tyler shook his head and propped himself against his workbench. “So how can I help you?” he asked.

“It’s Kidder,” Gareth said. “He’s been staying with us in the paladin house, and he’s been a great help.”

“He’s been helping us get set up and he’s working too hard,” Bron added. “Like he’s scared we’ll throw him out or turn on him.”

Tyler briefly closed his eyes. “I’m never going to get used to this,” he said, then waved a dismissive hand. “It’s not surprising that Kidder’s in a bad place. He got thrown out of his pack down near Luton for practically nothing. Then he drifted around, keeping his tail up and his fur flat, and generally doing his best. He heard that there were places in Yorkshire where strays can settle and found Fang.” Tyler stood and started pacing. “Fang wasn’t always bad. I mean, a normal going into their bar would end up in trouble, and not all of the sheep kills around the Yorkshire Dales are from foxes or stray dogs, but he was okay with the other strays. They didn’t come together like a proper pack, not until Fang got hold of the Orache Stone, but he watched out for cubs like Kidder.”

“The Orache Stone is bad news,” Bron said. “I remember it last time. Don’t underestimate the power it has. It nearly blew Lord Marius away a few days ago.”

“So I heard,” Tyler said. “But back to Kidder. What do you want to do about it? I’m happy to have him here, if he wants it, but I think it’ll be hard for him to trust a werewolf, at least for a bit. I can ask around if any elfen will take him but that could take time.”

“I think he should stay with us,” Bron said. “If it’s okay with you and Lady Mary. He’s a big help. He’s got a knack for fixing things up, and he’s not bad company.”

“It’s not the usual run of things,” Gareth added. “Sir Dylan is having a hard time with it all. But Kidder seems happy enough, and I think it’ll be better once he knows that he’s staying. And we’re getting a brownie to help out,” he added. “Kidder won’t be on his own.”

“Sir Dylan wasn’t keen on that, either,” added Bron. “But I remember the hearth-keepers from the old days. They could be like a stone in your shoe when it came to keeping the home and garden tended, but they were harmless. They were more likely to hide behind a defender than attack them.”

“You have a brownie?” Tyler asked. “That’s…” He stood in front of them and stared. “You’re just breaking the rules for the fun of it, aren’t you?” He ran a hand through his hair. “Okay, I’ll take on the role of Kidder’s pack leader, though. Are you paying him a fair wage and treating him well?”

“I’ll keep a close eye on him,” Bron said. “I can tell that there’s a good lad under all the fear.”

“And he’s not really going to be working for us,” Gareth added. “Once the place is set up, he’ll be more like a lodger. And I’m sure that I’ll be able to get him work at the mill, if he’s willing.”

Tyler’s eyes narrowed. “What sort of work? How safe will he be?”

“Luke is really strict about safety on the mill floor at the moment,” Gareth said. “And I know he’s looking for people in the warehouse and trainees for the weaving. And after a recent scare, he’s been running a full audit of safety in the place.”

“It’s been fun to watch,” Bron said. “It’s a battle every day between him hating to spend the money and worrying about someone getting hurt. Luke looks like he has permanent toothache.”

Tyler ran a hand over his face. “Okay,” he said. “Two tongues, three people talking. It takes a bit of getting used to.” He paced for a moment. “I’m fine with Kidder staying with you – for now. And I’ll be dropping by regularly. Don’t let him get too fluffy and keep his fur flat, okay? He’s a werewolf, not a pet, and not a human – a normal.”

“We won’t forget,” Bron said coolly. “But we won’t make it a definition. The lad needs to work on himself and we won’t stop him. He’s nearly grown.” He met Tyler’s angry gaze without flinching. “And you need to start worrying about the strays that will be lost and without direction when Fang falls. You’ll have a pack to pull together and you’d better be ready to lead it.”

“I’m no pack leader,” Tyler snarled.

“That’s funny,” Bron said. “You were acting just like a pack leader five minutes ago.”

Rhys smiled as he saw Surjit behind the reception desk. “How are things going?” he asked.

“Not too bad,” Surjit smiled back. “I’ve got another rep from a dye company coming in an hour and Luke is having fits about that. He’s spending a lot of money.”

“I was there when the insurance company found out about the lack of security here,” Rhys said. “They still paid out for the dyes, as it turned out that the packaging was substandard. But he’s only got so long to get all the cameras and stuff set up.”

“Cameras?” Surjit asked. “I mean, we’ve got the alarm system and I think that there’s a camera on the car park…”

Rhys shook his head. “The cameras are on their last legs and half of them don’t work. My boss, Mark, put Luke in touch with a contractor, and he got a good deal, but there’s a lot to do.”

“I suppose so,” Surjit said. She looked around a little nervously. “Luke is spending a lot of money recently. We all thought he was running the place down, with him having no kids of his own. But now he’s got a new designer and he’s making all these improvements…”

“I don’t think that Luke is losing his touch,” Rhys said. “If you heard him arguing with the contractor, you would know that he’s as sharp as anything. Perhaps he’s just been distracted and he’s getting back to things.”

“I suppose so,” Surjit said doubtfully. She looked towards the door. “Hi, Carli, have you heard about the security update?”

“I know I’m going to be working away from the office for the next few days because I daren’t risk a power surge on my laptop,” Carli said from behind them. “The last thing I need is losing that while they’re playing with the electric. It cost a fortune.”

Rhys turned around and gave her his best smile. “Will you need a hand getting your stuff to the flat?” he asked. “I’d be happy to help.”

Carli smiled politely. “It’s okay, thank you,” she said. “I’ll be working with Gareth at his place. It’s not far away so we can get back here if we need anything.”

Surjit shook her head. “You need to make him take you on a proper date,” she said. “Or at least make you a nice dinner.”

Carli laughed. “Perhaps I could cook for him as a thank you for letting me work with him,” she said. “I mean, his place is so much nearer and there’s a lot of space.”

“I thought that he just had a little flat,” Surjit said.

Carli shook her head. “He’s moving into somewhere different that’s near to the mill. I’m not sure of all the details, but I know that it needs a lot doing to it, and that he’s got a good deal on the rent.”

“Don’t let him use you for free labour!” Surjit said. “Make sure that you at least get a trip to the cinema or something.”

“He won’t take advantage of me,” Carli said. “Anyway, I need to get busy. I’ve a lot I want to get done today before they start with the security systems, and I need to speak to Allen on the machines first.”

Rhys watched her walk briskly over to the factory. “I wonder if she knows how much she’s fallen for him,” he said.

“I don’t think either of them have realised,” Surjit said. She sighed softly. “And they’re both really nice people. Carli’s the designer, you know and could really throw her weight around. But she doesn’t. She’s really sweet.”

Rhys turned back to Surjit. “But so are you,” he said, watching the blush run over Surjit’s face. “Anyway, I can’t stay here forever, no matter how much I want to. I like to keep an eye on the back of the mill, so I’ll just take a quick walk. I’ll see you later.” He winked at Surjit.

“I’ll see you later,” Surjit said, flustered.

Bron and Gareth parked the car and looked at the house. The light was fading but they could still see a thin plum of smoke curling from the chimney and lights were on in the kitchen and living room.

“It seems odd to have a wood stove in this day and age,” Gareth said. “But I suppose that we need to be prepared for anything.”

“We really do,” Bron said as they reached the door. “That book that Sir Dylan gave us had quite a list of things to look out for. Still, the house is well built and we can be comfortable.”

“I hope Kidder can as well,” Gareth said.

Kidder was busy in the kitchen. “Hi,” he said, jumping around to face them. “I thought that you might like something and I put on a casserole like my mum used to make. But if you’ve already eaten then it will freeze or you can put it in to the fridge for tomorrow. They say that a casserole is better on the second day.” He looked at them anxiously.

“It smells delicious,” Bron said. “Full of good meat and flavour. When will it be ready?”

“It’s ready now,” Kidder said, fidgeting with a tea towel. “I’ve got baked potatoes in as well.” He shifted from one foot to another. “It’s supposed to save energy, cooking baked potatoes and a casserole at the same time.”

“Sounds great,” Gareth said. He pulled out deep white bowls, plates and silverware. “I’ll make the tea.”

“I can do it,” Kidder said quickly.

“You’ll be too busy dishing up the dinner,” Gareth said. He was probably the same age as the werewolf, but he felt so much older. “And I’m starving.”

Kidder dished up two generous servings of beef casserole with huge baked potatoes on side plates, squishy and slathered with butter. Gareth put two mugs of tea on the table and sat down. “This looks great,” Gareth said and took a large forkful.

“This is really good,” Bron said. “And we’re grateful for it. But it shouldn’t all be on you. We’ll have to take it in turns.”

“While I’m here,” Kidder said awkwardly.

“That’s something we need to talk about,” Bron said. “We called in to see Tyler today. I suppose he’s the nearest thing to a pack leader around here.”

Kidder tensed. “Does he want me to move on?” he asked.

Bron shook his head. “We suggested that you stay with us for as long as you feel like it,” he said. “At the moment, you’re sort of a guest and helping us out with setting up the place. And there’s plenty to do,” he added.

“But once things are stable, we thought you could be a sort of lodger,” Gareth said. “We’d charge you a bit of rent, and as we’re getting a brownie housekeeper then you won’t have to do much cleaning.”

“If I remember rightly, you won’t get a chance to do cleaning,” Bron said. “But they’ll raise hell if you make a mess.”

Kidder managed a faint smile. “I’ve heard about them,” he said. “But what about rent and that. I mean, what do I do?”

“We’re trying to work it out,” Gareth said. “But I promise it won’t be much. I’ll look at the bills and see what a fair share of them is. We won’t cheat you.”

“And it isn’t fair that you have to cover stuff that we need because we’re paladins,” Bron said. “But a share of the food and some of the bills sounds about right.”

Kidder stared at them and swallowed. “But that’s…”

“And if you’re looking for work, I think that there’s some jobs at the mill,” Gareth said. “It’s noisy, and no-one knows about non-normals, but it’s okay.”

“I didn’t think… Are you sure?” Kidder asked. “I’m a stray. Do you know what it means?”

Bron shrugged. “It sounds like you’ve had some bad luck. Anyway, Tyler has said that he’ll be looking out for you to make sure that you get treated fairly here. He’s not a bad leader,” Bron said. “Even if he has got his fur up at the moment. There’s papers that you’ll need and he’s sorting that out.”

“Sir Dylan is having fits,” Gareth said, “But he’s agreed that you would be best here for a while, although you can leave whenever you like.”

“So after we’ve cleaned up, we can all have a beer and relax,” Bron said. “And plan how to make this place comfortable.”

“Thank you,” Kidder said, his voice cracking a little. “Thank you so much.”

“I’d wait until we’ve met the brownie before you get too grateful,” Bron said.

Invitation Accepted Chapter Nine

You can read the story from the beginning here

Image from Unsplash, taken by Phil Cruz

“Have you seen the new security guard?” Surjit asked.

Carli shook her head as she hurried into reception. She leaned on the reception desk. “Do you think that they know what it is?” She asked. “I mean, all the scary stuff?”

“I don’t know,” Surjit said. “Syed told me what happened at The Iron Sickle, and I saw a bit of what happened in the car park. Something weird is definitely happening.”

Carli shivered. “I think there is,” she said. “But I think Gareth can deal with most of it.”

“You are so sweet on him,” Surjit said. “But think about it. Gareth can’t be everywhere, and he may need a hand if it gets scary.” She looked around the reception. “And Luke knows something that we don’t. I’ve been told to let in Lord Marius or Sir Dylan at any time and without question. What’s with the titles?”

“I think I’ve met Sir Dylan,” Carli said. “He doesn’t look like a ‘sir’. He looks like he could rip Gareth apart. He has tattoos on his neck and he’s built bigger than Jed. But he seemed nice enough.”

“I suppose that you can’t judge by appearances,” Surjit sighed. “I’d love to go out with someone with a ‘sir’ or a ‘lord’ in their name. As it is, I’m not even managing a ‘mr’.”

“Perhaps you’ll get a date with the security guard?” Carli said. “Is he really old?”

Surjit snorted with laughter. “He’s gorgeous,” she said. “I mean, he’s dark, with short hair which always looks good on a man. Then he’s full of muscles and there’s just something about him.” She looked at Carli and sighed. “He’s just calm. He reminds me a little of how Gareth is these days.”

“And not old?” Carli asked.

Surjit thought for a moment. “I think he’s in his thirties,” she said. “So maybe five years or more older than me. But he looks in great shape and has a lovely smile.”

“Here’s the big question,” Carli said. “Is he single?”

“I can only hope,” Surjit said. “Hang on…” She smiled professionally at the man walking into reception. “Good morning, how can I help you?”

“The name is Mark Davis,” he said. “I’m here to see Mr Luke Ossett. He should be expecting me.”

Surjit checked the computer. “Of course. If you go up now, I’ll let him know that you’re here.”

“I can take him up,” Carli said. She smiled at Mark. “This way.” She led him out of reception to the stairs. “I’m Carli Sykes and I’m the designer.” She started on the stairs, uneasily aware of Mark’s intent gaze. “The business is all under one roof from design to packaging.” They reached the top of the stairs and Carli pulled open the heavy wooden fire door. “It’s just down here,” she said as she led him past the cluster of desks in the outside office, glancing quickly over to where Gareth was sitting. Their eyes met briefly before Carli carried on. “This is it,” she said, raising her hand to rap on Luke’s door.

Mark held up his hand to stop her. “My nephew is starting today as a security guard – Rhys Davis,” he said. “I hope that you’ll make him feel welcome. He’s a bit lonely these days.”

“Everyone is welcome here,” Carli said. “It’s a good crew. But I’ll say ‘hi’ when I see him. Would you like a tea or a coffee?”

Luke stared across the desk at Mark. “Lord Marius asked me to take on Rhys Davis,” he said. He drummed his fingers on the desk. “But I have reservations. He’s not to be alone with the ladies.”

Mark looked at him coldly. “If Rhys asks a woman out to dinner, it means that he will be paying for her to eat with him at a restaurant, nothing more. He’s not a stray with no manners.”

“You tell me that, and Lord Marius tells me that, but how do I know?” Luke said, running his hand through his thinning hair. “How can I trust you and Rhys when you’re something I can’t even imagine?”

Mark looked at him coldly. “I can’t answer that,” he said. “But what choice do you have? If Rhys steps out of line, Lord Marius will deal with it.  You know how he deals with things.”

Luke swallowed. “I’ve seen it, a little,” he said quietly. “I took in some apprentices in the factory, years ago. I said I’d do it to help them out, and everyone needs a hand now and again.”  He stood and paced over to the window and looked down on the stained floor. “They were boggarts, and they’re still with us. But it seems that other boggarts were after them. I didn’t ask, and they didn’t tell, but I stood by them then and I stand by them now. Lord Marius was grateful.” He turned around and looked hard at Mark. “Lord Marius looked after me then and I suppose that he’s looking after me now, but…”

“If there was a genuine threat then you wouldn’t be able to move for Knights Templar and non normal protection,” Mark said. “This is just playing safe. Lord Marius feels that he owes you for looking after Keith and Brian. And Rhys is a good lad. He’s usually in charge of a building site. You won’t have any problems. Here.” He pushed his business card across to Luke. “Look my firm up. Look at the reviews. You may find people complaining about the finish, but nothing about throats being ripped out.”

Luke walked back to the desk and took the card. “It’s alright for you to joke,” he grumbled.

“What else has Lord Marius talked about?” Mark asked.

“He’s talked about there being trouble within your lot, but not much,” Luke said. “And he wants some blankets at a good price.”

“You’re doing a deal with an elfen?” Mark said, amused. “Are you sure you want to do that?”

“He’s sending someone in to do the negotiations,” Luke said. “He said it was someone like me, someone called Steve Adderson.”

“He’s a salesman,” Mark said. “He buys and sells to the elfen. He’s tough, but he’s unlikely to be weird.”

“I can deal with tough,” Luke said. “The mill would last long if I couldn’t.”

“I wish I could see it,” Mark said. “But why don’t you show me around so I know what Rhys is getting into. After all, I may need to swap in others if there’s a problem.”

“They’ll all be respectful, won’t they,” Luke said sharply.

“Trust me, all my pack act like gentlemen,” Mark said.

A tense silence hung in The Iron Sickle. Fang was sitting in a corner, his pint untouched, as he stared unseeing and muttered to himself.

“Are you okay, boss?” Kidder asked.

Fang stared at the young werewolf. The lad was just twenty and had been kicked out of his pack for kissing a normal girl his own age. At the back of what was left of his mind, Fang recognised that there was something wrong going on, that Kidder was trying to be kind and he deserved a chance. It was overridden by the swirling dark filling his head. “I’m fine, just fine, and I’ll tolerate no disrespect.” His eyes swept the room. “You lot can’t even look at me straight,” he snarled. “Tonight we’ll hunt, and I’ll show you about respect.”

Sir Dylan waved Gareth into the cottage and switched on the lights. “It’s not been used for a while,” he said. “But it was once a safe space. When I rang the top brass in Lincoln, they said that Otley was once a minor domain before Lord Skyrack got ideas.” He sighed. “The old prince of Leeds sounds like a right bastard. Anyway, we’ve done the rewiring and checked that the plumbing works. There’s some brownies that owe us a favour so they’re going to come in, clean it and redecorate. You’ll have to let them know what you want. Carli’s on her way, isn’t she? She can help with the colours.”

Gareth grinned. “Don’t tell me, you don’t believe that there’s a colour called ‘lilac’.”

Sir Dylan shrugged. “She does colours for a living. I’d make the most of it if I were you.” He hesitated. “You don’t sign up to the same stuff as the Knights Templar. We’re under most of the same rules as monks.” He avoided Gareth’s eyes. “I know a few paladins that are far from monks. All I’m saying is that you can’t have a lass move in without the benefit of marriage. Not here.” He took a deep breath. “Anyway, this is obviously the hall. The living room is through there, then the kitchen, study, dining room, another room, downstairs bathroom – we converted that, so the plaster needs to dry out a bit. Then the stairs are at the back.” He led Gareth further in. “There’s six bedrooms because you never know when you might have to put up visitors from Knights Templar, people needing refuge, etc. And there’s another main bathroom upstairs.”

“It doesn’t look that big on the outside,” Gareth said uneasily. “I’m used to a bedsit.”

Sir Dylan laughed. “If you’re working then you can use your stipend from the Home Office to pay for a housekeeper and gardener. Some brownies would jump at the chance.”

“This is taking a bit of getting used to,” Gareth said.

“There’s a gun safe in the study,” Sir Dylan said. “I’ll show you that and I’ll sort out some time at the shooting range and a licence and that.” He grinned. “What does Bron think of that?”

“I have no idea,” Gareth said. “He’s not around at the moment, but I’m sure that he’ll enjoy it.” He looked around the wide hall with the dusty wooden doors leading off. “This isn’t set up like a normal house at all, is it?”

“Not even close,” Sir Dylan said. There was a wild banging on the door.

It was Carli. “Gareth, Bron, you have to help me!” she cried. “It’s awful.”

Gareth followed Carli as she raced out of the garden and down the lane. “I parked down the hill,” she gasped. “I wasn’t sure of the turning so I walked up and I heard the whimper. I thought it was a wild animal that needed help, but…”

“Someone’s hurt?” Gareth said.

“They’re in a bad way,” Carli said. “And I didn’t know what to do.” She raced over to a ditch. “He’s here.” She knelt down to a shape on the ground. “It’s okay, I’ve brought help.”

A shiver ran through Gareth as he heard the pitiful whimper. He felt Bron stirring as he followed Carli. It took all of his self-control not to recoil. “We’re going to need help,” he said, pulling out his phone. “Carli, ring the number marked Tyler, werewolf. Sir Dylan, we’ll use our jackets as a stretcher. We can’t leave him here.”

Sir Dylan’s face was set as he ripped off his jacket. “We should get Mark Davies,” he said.

Bron had dragged off his jacket and was kneeling by the creature. “Mark Davies is a self-absorbed idiot who’s miles away,” he said. “Gareth was right. Tyler is a better choice.” He cast his eyes over the werewolf. “And this poor thing needs help now.”

Sir Dylan glanced up at Carli as she reached Tyler. “Tell him to come to Rowan Cottage,” he said. “He’ll know where it is.” He looked down at the werewolf. “And tell him to hurry.” He started gently easing his jacket under the creature’s head.

Something bad had happened to the werewolf. It wasn’t just the oozing wounds and torn flesh. Werewolves healed quickly enough. Whoever it was had been traumatised. One hind leg was a wolf’s paw, but it was next to a man’s leg. Both of his front legs ended in paws, but they were at the end of human arms. His muzzle was misshapen, neither human nor wolf. Worst of all, he was whimpering and rigid with pain and his eyes were blank.

“Stay back, Carli,” Bron said. “He won’t know what he’s doing and he may snap.” He eased his jacket under the creature’s hips. “Sometimes the wildness takes over in the kindest of wolfkind. Right, Sir Dylan, let’s get our footing and on three… One, two, three.”

The men carried their burden gently down the lane. Carli ran ahead to the cottage and held the door open as they carefully lifted the werewolf into the living room. “Warm water in a basin, please,” Bron said as they lowered the werewolf onto the floor. “If there is one.”

“The house isn’t furnished,” Sir Dylan said. “But there’s a small first aid kit in the cupboard under the stairs. It won’t be much good until Tyler gets here, but I’ll get it now.” He pulled off his sweater and folded it before easing it under the tormented werewolf’s head. It whimpered.

“It’s okay, laddo,” Bron said. “You’re with friends and it’s okay.” He pulled out a knife. “Can you hear me? Now, this knife is big and scary and sharp, but it’s not to hurt you, see. It’s just to cut away your clothes so we can treat you. So don’t fear it, and don’t fear us.”

Carli came in with a bowl of warm water and a roll of kitchen paper. “What happened?” she asked. “Is he going to be okay?”

Bron frowned as he sliced off the werewolf’s tattered jeans. “It’s hard to kill a werewolf, even with fire and silver, but he’s been badly treated. All we can do is make him comfortable and hope that Tyler knows what to do.”

“I told him everything,” Carli said. She reached out and gently stroked the creature’s paw. It whined gently.

Bron stayed poised, ready to knock Carli out of the way if pain got the better of the werewolf and it snapped, but the creature seemed soothed. “Okay, laddo, I’m cutting off what’s left of your shirt,” he said. “It will hurt some, but then we can get the dirt out of your wounds. We can’t have you getting a fever.”

The creature whimpered and whined as Bron removed the last of the tattered clothing. Carli gently stroked his paws. “Poor thing,” she said.

“Keep your hands away from his head,” Bron said. He looked into the werewolf’s eyes. “I know that you wouldn’t want to hurt her, but pain makes people do crazy things and we don’t want you snapping out of instinct, do we?” He saw a faint recognition of his words and relaxed a little. At least the creature wasn’t complete maddened. “Now I’m going to try washing some of the dirt from you, okay, and it will hurt, but it’s not through malice. Try and hold onto that.” Bron looked up at Carli. “If you have to, get away quick. It’s not his fault, but instinct’s the devil when you’re hurting.”

Carli nodded. “Can I help?”

Bron shook his head. “He’ll have enough to bear with just me.” He looked up at Sir Dylan. “You had better get out in the lane and make sure that Tyler doesn’t miss the house. There aren’t many lights around here and we can’t waste time.”

Sir Dylan glanced down at the injured werewolf and nodded. He bent to gently touch a paw. “Help is coming, don’t worry,” he said before striding out of the room.

The minutes stretched. The werewolf whimpered softly as Bron gently cleaned his fur, easing the dried blood and dirt away and murmuring gently to him. “Can you see if there’s a blanket anywhere?” Bron asked. “He’s starting to shiver and he needs warmth.”

Carli leapt to her feet. “He’s going into shock,” she said quietly. “If he’s stuck then he may not be able to heal properly.” She ran a gentle hand over his paw. “I’ll find things to make you comfortable,” she said.

Bron watched her leave and then put a gentle hand on the werewolf’s shoulder. “She’s a good lass,” he said. “If there’s anything around here to help, she’ll find it, don’t worry.” Bron sat on the bare floorboards between the werewolf and the door, blocking any draught. He could worry enough for both of them.

Sir Dylan had never been so glad to see a werewolf. “In here,” he said urgently.

Tyler took in the signs of strain on Sir Dylan’s face. “The woman that called said it was a badly hurt werewolf that was stuck halfway through a change,” he said.

“That’s about right,” Sir Dylan said. “He’s in a bad way and we’re not set up to help him.”

“I’ve brought over some stuff,” Tyler said, hefting a jute bag. “I know my way around a sick dog.” He jogged into the house and into the living room, grimacing when he saw the shape on the floor. Carli had managed to find a faded blanket and her own jacket was added to that, but the creature was shivering and whimpering under the coverings.

“Okay, mate,” Tyler said as he knelt next to the werewolf. “I’m one of your kind, okay, and I know a few things. I’m going to get you set up and then we’ll have a good long talk about how this happened, okay?” He ran a gentle hand over the werewolf, checking the muzzle and wiping it clean. The werewolf licked at Tyler’s hand and Tyler nodded and smiled. “Relax, I’m in charge and I’m going to get all this sorted out,” he said. “I’m going to take control, take the lead and if you keep your fur flat, you’ll be fine, you understand.” He looked at Carli. “Could you pass me the bag?”

Carli’s eyes were wide and fearful as she handed over the bag. “You’ll make him better?” she asked.

“It’s a rough medicine,” Tyler said. “And it’s not easy, but werewolves are tough, right young pup?” The werewolf licked his hand again, though a whimper escaped. Tyler pulled a dusty bottle out of the bag and a small pipette. “You may want to leave for this part,” Tyler told Carli. “It’s not always pretty.”

“I won’t leave now,” Carli said, pale but determined as she held the werewolf’s paw.

“I’ve seen something similar,” Bron said quietly. “It was a long time ago, but I know how it works. He’ll need all his courage.”

Sir Dylan looked between them. “How safe is it?” he asked.

“Safer than staying like this,” Tyler said. “Sometimes you need a drastic remedy.” He carefully drew up 20ml of the brown liquid. Then he frowned and pulled up another 10ml. “I think we need to take a risk.” He patted the werewolf who was watching, panting and with wide eyes. “Hang on, pup,” he said, without warning, and squirted the liquid deep into the werewolf’s throat.

The werewolf convulsed violently, coughing and spluttering. Carli stared as the limbs flowed from one state to another as the shape struggled, wheezing as it dragged in air before finally coming to rest as a young lad, red faced and spluttering. The gashes across his chest and back were already starting to heal and he looked up at Tyler with gratitude. “Thank you,” he said. He coughed a little more.

Carli dashed out to the kitchen and came back with a freshly washed glass of cool water.

“And thank you for your kindness,” he said. “You’re a normal, and you didn’t turn away.” His voice broke a little. “I’m Kidder.”

“Is there somewhere in here where he can rest?” Tyler asked. “It looks pretty empty.”

“I found a camp bed upstairs,” Carli said. “It’s where I got the blanket. It’s pretty bare, but Kidder should be able to rest there.”

“You’ll need a nap, young pup,” Tyler said. “Then we can work out what to do next, okay?”

Kidder nodded and followed Tyler obediently, the blanket wrapped around him. Tyler came back a few minutes later. “The lad will sleep now,” Tyler said. “It would be kind if you could let him rest overnight here before moving him.”

“It’s not a problem,” Sir Dylan said. “We’ll stay here and keep an eye out.”

“What did you give him?” Carli asked. “It seemed to be so, well, violent.”

Tyler met Bron’s eyes and grinned. “It was two tablespoons of cheap rum in an old bottle and with plenty of drama,” he said. “It works every time.”

Don’t forget, Dark Picture, Under Dark Hills and the stories that belong to At the Fireside will be taken down on 30th April.