Justin was in over his head.
He really wasn’t surprised by this. In retrospect, he doubted that anyone who could have seen him now, surrounded by large hulking shapes with mean tempers would have questioned how he ended up here. It was part of his curse. Justin could not keep his mouth shut and sooner, rather than later, he always found himself in a situation he just couldn’t talk his way out of.
The ring of shapes closed in on him and he stepped back instinctively only to have a table dig into his side. He winced, which was a very bad sign especially since the entire reason he was here was to convince these men that he was one of them - one of the elite. Justin hoped that they hadn’t seen the slight flinch but from the way the man with the thick neck to this left smirked it was clear that it had been noticed.
“Go home,” he growled, the veins in his neck nearly bursting from beneath his skin. “This doesn’t concern you.”
“I belong here,” Justin snapped back, unable to let even the slightest dig keep from ruffling his fur. “And you know it, Andel.”
The man with the thick neck narrowed his yellow eyes. Justin kept himself from shaking even as he heard the audible pop of Andel’s knuckles as his hand closed into a fist. If he was ever going to be respected in the Pack this was something he had to do, no matter the consequences. It was far too late to back out now.
“Do you know what I see?” Andel said, reaching out and grabbing Justin by the front of his shirt. The wall of bodies pressed in closer eliminating any chance of escape that Justin might have had. “I see a weak little pup who has yet to cut his milk teeth on anything other than his bitch mother’s breast.”
Justin’s anger boiled beneath his skin and any fear he may have felt quickly evaporated. “I deserve a place with the honor guard,” he snapped, bearing his teeth. “Leave my mother out of this.”
This was his chance and Justin wasn’t ready to let it go. He was tired of being pushed aside just because his mother had come from a Lesser Pack, one whose magic was slowly thinning and the Wolves were no longer born with the ability to shift. If this was the only way he could be seen as anything other than a lowly wolf instead of one of the elite, now was the time.
“Outside,” Justin said, pushing himself quickly to his feet. “And don’t think to jump me before we begin. I want this to be official.”
“We don’t need to take it outside,” Andel chuckled.
Justin looked puzzled and he glanced around at the smirking faces that circled him. “But, the pub,” he said, gesturing to the room around them. “You can’t mean to have an all out brawl in the pub.”
The pack erupted into peals of laughter. Justin fought the urge to shrink back.
“One move,” Andel said, holding up a single finger once the pack had quieted down. “That’s all you get. If you can defeat me in one move then you will have earned your place with us. But, if you fail...”
Andel’s voice trailed off but Justin didn’t need words to know what it would mean should he fail. Any claim he might have to be apart of the elite would be forfeit and his life would belong to whoever had bested him. It was the risk that a lower status pup would take when challenging someone higher than himself. It was his right by blood to be a part of Andel’s inner circle but if he failed, was he prepared to live with the consequences?
“I won’t fail,” Justin said, his voice filled with determination. It was too late to back down now. He only wished at the other Wolves would cease looking at him as if he had already lost.
“Then attack,” Andel said, placing his hands at his sides. His self-satisfied grin tipped Justin into a rage and he couldn’t keep still any longer. Without warning, he took a step back, his hand balled tight into a fist before he leapt forward, putting every inch of power into his punch as his knuckles slammed into Andel’s jaw.
Justin felt Andel’s legs buckle and for one brief and shining moment he thought that he had won. His mind raced forward with scenes of joy, fantasies that he had finally brought his mother’s name out of the gutter where it had been for so very long. But then reality set in once Justin realized that what he had thought was Andel’s legs weakening was really the older wolf’s body shifting, turning Justin’s momentum against him. Andel’s hand was on Justin’s chest just as fast, Justin’s feet being swept out from beneath him. He fell onto his back hard, the breath being knocked from his lungs and he was left gasping for air. The air was musty close to the ground and it was difficult to breathe, especially with Andel’s foot pressing hard against his chest.
Justin winced and pushed against Andel’s leg but it was as if he was trying to move a tree that had suddenly rooted on his chest. He looked up at Andel angrily and saw that the other man wasn’t as gleeful as Justin had expected, considering. In fact, the rest of the pack was silent as every Wolf stared at their leader, watching him in shock. Blood trickled down the front of Andel’s chin, staining his shirt. Justin saw that the man’s lip was split and the right side of his mouth was swollen. He had broken the bastard’s jaw, Justin realized, and it was clear that he had shown more strength than anticipated. Had he remained on his feet he would have been accepted into the elite pack but now that he was on his back and vulnerable, Justin was in a far more dangerous situation then he could have ever anticipated.
“Get off me,” he said, hoping that the blow had stunned Andel enough to want Justin out of his sight. The pressure on his chest grew more intense and he could feel his own ribs beginning to strain.
“You’re mine, now,” Andel hissed, droplets of blood spraying down onto Justin’s face. “I should smash your spine into the floor with my boot. But first, my pack needs some hunting practice. How about it, little rabbit? Ready for a hunt?”
Justin struggled harder, all thought of pride gone. They were going to make him prey which meant Andel was going to lame him, biting his ankle most likely so that his leg was ruined, and force him to run as the pack hunted him down. It was the worst sort of punishment and the one reserved for those that failed when challenging the Alpha. Andel wasn’t the Alpha of the Pack but he may as well be for the elite group of wolves that made up the Magistrates personal guard. Dying had never been a consequence Justin was prepared for and if they thought he was going to go easily, they would be sorely mistaken.
The laughter was back once more as he fought to push Andel off of him. The larger man seemed to take pleasure in watching Justin panic, standing on top of him, unmoving. Justin didn’t know how long they would stay like this and it seemed that Andel had only just begin torturing him when a voice broke through the crowd.
“Excuse me, but you’re blocking my table.”
The voice was crisp and clear, able to be heard over the din of the pub and the baying laughter of the Wolves. In fact, Justin had never heard such a simple phrase cause everyone to stop and turn, giving their full attention to the man that had spoken.
There wasn’t anything overly remarkable about him. He had a mop of unruly dark hair and a pair of spectacles that seemed to reflect the light from the bar, keeping his eyes hidden from sight. He was just shy of Andel’s height and thinner, yet he had an air of authority about him that almost made Justin want to lower his gaze so as not to challenge him. Justin could see that Andel was fighting the same urge and that only served to irritate the Wolf further.
“Piss off, human. This is of no concern of yours,” Andel growled.
The man merely smiled but it wasn’t the kind of smile that expressed warmth and friendship. It was the sort of grin that made a cold shiver rush down Justin’s spine. He watched the man carefully, wondering what sort of game he was playing and how Andel would respond.
“Perhaps I wasn’t clear,” the man said before placing a hand on Andel’s arm. “You are blocking my table, not to mention you are leaving an ugly boot print on the boy’s shirt. I suggest that you help him up and move to another table where you will be less likely to be in the way.”
Andel bared his teeth at the man, a snarl deep in his throat. Justin watched with morbid fascination as it seemed that the man must have had a death wish. Andel seemed on the verge of snapping when his face suddenly went blank and all emotion drained from him. Andel blinked twice before shaking his head, the foot that had pinned Justin to the floor was gone, giving Justin the opportunity to roll away and push himself up to his feet.
“Boss?” one of the elite pack said, looking worried. “Are you alright?”
“Why wouldn’t I be?” Andel snapped, the sour expression on his face returning instantly. “This place is a dump. Why did you drag us here, Jan?”
Jan, a short, thick man with a mop of auburn hair looked surprised to be mentioned. “Oh, I didn’t. You did,” he said without much thought which earned him a blow across the face.
“Don’t tell me what I did or did not do,” Andel growled. Justin was amazed at how completely bewildered Andel seemed. It was as though he didn’t know whether he was coming or going or even what time of day it was. Justin glanced over at the strange man who just stood calmly by while all of this took place.
“Let’s get out of here,” Andel said, reaching back to grab Justin’s arm when the strange man spoke up once more.
“The boy doesn’t need to leave,” the man said in a cheerful tone. The same strange foggy look crossed Andel’s face before he shook his head. The sour expression reappeared and he struck the man standing next to him.
“What are you fools still standing around, for? I said to move!”
The pack exchanged glances before they instantly fell in line, following Andel out of the pub. Who were they to question a command given to them by a superior Wolf? While they were secure in their position in the elite pack, each one of them knew that it was only at Andel’s request that they were there. None of them wanted to land on Andel’s bad side or else they would be playing the rabbit for the pack’s next hunt.
Justin watched as the pack left the pub before he turned to stare at the strange man who had defended him. He was impressed, he had to admit that and yet that niggling sense of pride that had vanished only moments before resurfaced and triggered his anger once more. “You didn’t have to protect me,” he snapped at the man. “I was doing just fine on my own.”
“I wasn’t protecting you,” the man said with the same calm amusement in his tone. “This is my table and you and your friends were blocking it. But now that I’m here I don’t think I’m in the mood for a pint. Perhaps some tea would be more pleasant. Would you care to join me?”
Justin shook his head, feeling confused as if the man’s words were a cloud. “What? No, why would I do that? Who are you?”
“Henri,” the man said, offering his hand to Justin. “Pleasant to meet you, Justin. You’ll forgive me if I already know your name. I overheard one of your friends use it. So, tea?”
Again, Justin felt a strange pressure behind his eyes when Henri suggested tea. “No. Maybe. What are you?”
The smile that graced the man’s face changed into one far more friendly. His hand slipped to his glasses and pulled them down, allowing Justin to see the intelligent grey-blue eyes that had been hidden. “I’m a wizard,” he said, his lips quirking into a smile. “You know, you’re the first person today who has even sensed that something out of the ordinary was happening. You’re far more sensitive than most Wolves I have met.”
“So, you’re using magic?” Justin asked. If Henri was a wizard than perhaps all of the stories he had heard about where true. Wizards were corrupt, using their magic to harm others for their own good. His mother had always warned him to be wary of wizards and Henri seemed to be just the sort she had meant.
“A little,” Henri said with a shrug. “Sometimes it’s difficult to remove the spell from my words, especially when I had to use so much of it to influence the thoughts of the one who seemed to enjoy standing on your chest. His mind is a bit thick so some residual magic may be left on my words.”
Magic on words. Justin had never heard of such things. True, he knew that wizards used spells and most spells contained words but how could one weave magic into the words themselves? It wasn’t anything Justin had experienced before. Just thinking about it was making his head ache.
“So, about that tea,” Henri continued and this time Justin didn’t feel any of the pressure he had before.
“I suppose so,” Justin replied, wondering what his mother would think if she knew what company he was keeping at the moment.
“Brilliant,” Henri smiled. “I know a shop down the road. While we’re there I should wonder if I could get your opinion about spoons. A dear friend is taking an opinion poll and I don’t believe she has a Wolf in her data.”
Perhaps it was the fact that Justin had just narrowly avoided death that caused him to laugh at the absurdity of the question. A wizard asking about spoons? No, he had never expected to have this conversation today, let alone in his lifetime. “Why not?” he said, following Henri out of the pub. “Given how this day has gone, it is probably not the strangest question I will be asked today.”