Winter – Chapter 15 – 06

                He came to his feet with eyes blazing and was on Rory in a heartbeat.  One hand fisted in the front of Rory’s shirt, bunching the collar tight enough to make breathing difficult.  Phelan’s other hand grasped his staff so tightly his knuckles were white against the wood, the tip of the stout shaft hovering dangerously close to Rory’s head.
                I took half a step forward before Thom jerked me back and shook his head almost imperceptibly.
                Wait.  His eyes told me.  Watch.
                “Do you think this is a joke?”  Phelan asked, vice a low rumble, like thunder from a distant storm.  “Do you think I’d joke about this?”
                Davon cleared his throat nervously as he came to Rory’s defense.  “You have to admit—”
                “I would not joke about something as serious as this,” Phelan said through clenched teeth.  “This is our lives, our safety—your lives and your safety.  You are blood of my blood, bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh.  You would know if I was joking.”
                Another howl echoed in the sudden silence.
                A muscle in Phelan’s jaw twitched.  “I am not joking about this,” he whispered harshly, then threw Rory to the ground in a gesture that was both dismissive and surprising because Phelan didn’t look nearly strong enough to do that to anyone.  He stalked back to his spot by the fire and stood with legs akimo, the butt of his staff planted firmly in the parked dirt.
                “Vammatar and her sisters have called the hamrammr before,” he said.  His voice sounded strange, slightly unfamiliar.  My hand found Thom’s and he squeezed it, leaning toward me.
                “Let him talk,” Thom murmured in my ear.  “Kira told me about this—she saw it happen once, except Teague was on the receiving end of that.  It’ll pass, just let him get it all out in the open.”
                “But he sounds different,” I hissed in a whisper.  I don’t like that.  Makes me start to worry—a lot.  “That doesn’t concern you?”
                Thom squeezed my hand again.
                The fact that you’re not that worried is slightly encouraging, Thom, I just wish that this didn’t feel so damned wrong.
                “After the nose-bloodying we gave her a few weeks ago, it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if her kin wouldn’t have called them again to exact some revenge—maybe even claim this as her territory.”
                “What the hell is it with all of you people and power plays and territory grabs?”  J.T. muttered, shifting uncomfortably from one foot to the other, bright eyes hooded under bushy dark brows.  “What does it matter?”
                “It doesn’t to me,” Phelan said, his voice softening slightly, losing some of the strange, hard edge that had entered it moments before.  “The only thing that matters to me are you guys.”
                “And right now, we hold the high ground and that’s a defensive advantage we shouldn’t give up if we can avoid it,” Thom added.
                Phelan made eye contract with him and nodded firmly.  Thom never flinched.  That shot shivers down my spine.
                Leadership qualities are rearing their fair—or ugly—head.  And why shouldn’t they?  He was as much responsible for everyone and everything here as anyone else—and he was more qualified to lead than the rest of us.  At least that’s what I keep thinking—and I’m sure he’s thinking it, too.  A quick glance at the rest told me that their thoughts were starting to parallel mine—at least where Thom was concerned, anyway.
                “How many?”  I didn’t realize I’d spoken until everyone looked at me.
                Phelan glanced toward Matt and Thom, a brow arching almost delicately over one eye that blazed with blue-green fire.
                Matt shook his head slowly.  “Three of them sounded distinct.  Can’t be sure there’s not more than that, though.”  He looked at Thom for confirmation and got it when Thom nodded.
                “I only heard three,” Thom said.  “But you’re right, there could be more.”
                “But werewolves?”  Jacqueline chaffed her hands over her sweatshirt-clad arms.
                “You’ve seen something pretty damn close to a demon, haven’t you?”  Carolyn said, glancing sidelong at her.  “Why should werewolves be that much more of a stretch?”
                Jacqueline grimaced, but she shrugged.  “I guess you’re right.  How dangerous are they?”
                Do we really want to know the answer to that question?
                “Dangerous enough,” Phelan said, voice grim again.  “I’ve only known three men to go up against them and live.  And one woman.”  He straightened slightly.  “I’ve never gone toe-to-toe.  Conventional wisdom is to hit them hard from the sides and the rear and pray.  Pray hard.”
                The next howl we heard was practically on top of us.  Hairs on my arms and legs stood on end and I shuddered.
                “And if that’s not an option?” I asked.
                “Get the guns, get the swords, cluster tight and start praying that we make it out of this alive.”

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