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Northumberland, England, 1860
Braden stood in the broad shadow of his grandfather, Tiberius Forster, earl of Greyburn, and gazed about the Great Hall into thirty pairs of eyes. Eyes that, like his, seemed human but were not. Watchful eyes: fierce, ever alert, weighing every other man and woman who waited in silence for the earl to speak. Even now, at this ninth great meeting of the families, the delegates never forgot what they were.
Loups-garous. Werewolves. A breed apart from mankind, but living among humanity. A race that would have faced extinction if not for the earl of Greyburn's great Cause.
Braden had been told the story so many times that he knew it by heart. Tiberius had spent his youth searching for his scattered people--in Europe, Russia, Asia, America. His special gifts let him sense them wherever they survived--among the aristocracy and elite of their homelands, more likely than not; more rarely among the common folk, hiding what they were.
The hiding was always necessary. It was a world of humans, and humans far outnumbered the wolf-kind. Yet the loups-garous had intermarried with humans and ceased to breed true.
Tiberius knew that their people would die out, fade to nothing in a matter of years or decades--inevitably--unless the blood bred true again. Unless those purest of lineage and power were joined to others equally pure.
There was only one way it could be done. Boundaries must be set aside; old national rivalries, old hatreds forgotten. The loups-garous must come together, must make a great pact to preserve their race. Tiberius had cajoled, threatened, pleaded, argued, and used his considerable power to bend others to his will.
And they had come, to this stronghold in the inner heart of Northumberland, where the Greyburn Forsters had held their land for hundreds of years--Forsters who shared a surname with humans but were so much more. That first Convocation in 1820 had been fraught with peril and suspicion, but in the end the loups-garous had chosen their salvation. The first marriage contracts had been negotiated, bloodlines traced for the new records.
So it had been now for forty years, twice each decade. But this was Braden's first meeting; at fourteen he had learned to Change, and was at last worthy of taking part in the Cause.
He stared under drawn brows at the Russian delegate, the father of the girl who had been promised to Braden at this very meeting. A great landowner, this prince, who ruled a virtual kingdom of serfs in his distant country. The Russian blood was strong yet, and when joined to the ancient British strain . . .
Braden shook his head. It was too much to consider here, in this forbidding place with its banners and cold stone. He looked instead at the other delegates, memorizing faces: dour Scots from Highland and Lowland; French aristocrats, who with their powers had survived the purging of the nobility in their land; the wary Austrians and Prussians; the small conclaves of proud Spanish and Italians from warmer climes, where their people clung to the mountains; Norsemen who crossed the sea to land again on shores where once their ancestors had raided and conquered.
There was a handful of guests from more exotic lands, who had come but reluctantly: an Indian prince, a sheikh from the deserts, the last survivor of a venerable clan in Nippon. Only their nonhuman blood bound them to the others.
And then there were the Americans. They fiercely guarded their independence and looked askance at the British nobleman who claimed leadership of all who ran as wolves and men. But they, too, recognized Grandfather's warning, and so they had arrived at Greyburn--to talk, debate, hammer out compromise.
Today, the ninth gathering of the families was at an end. The delegates would scatter for five more years, but new contracts were set in place, and there would be another generation of children born to carry on the revived bloodlines. Just as the first contract had bound Braden's late father to Angela Gévaudan of the old French blood. Angela had dutifully borne the Greyburn heir three children: Braden, Quentin, and Rowena. Each would, in turn, marry as the great Cause dictated; and their children would follow suit, on into the future when the loups-garous would become the powerful, fearless people they were meant to be. . . .
Braden jerked out of his thoughts and stared up at his grandfather. A glance from Tiberius could freeze any other man, human or werewolf, and it had always reduced Braden's knees to jelly.
But Braden had learned to Change, and fear had turned to respect. "Sir?"
Tiberius cuffed him lightly and pushed him toward the massive wooden doors. "Go. I have final words for the others, but I shall speak with you later." He dismissed Braden with a jerk of his shoulder, and Braden saw that all the strangers' eyes, cool and assessing, were on him this time. The delegates knew Braden was to inherit the earldom and his grandfather's great purpose. They watched him for any sign of weakness.
I shall be strong, like Grandfather, Braden thought. One day they will all respect me. He stood tall and marched from the room, closing the heavy carved double doors behind him.
"Well?" hissed a voice as he passed into the entrance hall. Quentin's eyes were bright with curiosity and mischief. "Was it as exciting as you thought it would be? Did you get to talk, or did they even notice you were there? What did you think about the one with the funny--"
Braden snatched at his brother's arm. "Not here," he whispered. He glanced at Rowena who stood, as always, at Quentin's elbow, and herded the twins down the entrance hall to the front doors. A footman hurried forward to open the doors, and then they were out in the fading sunlight. Once they were alone and beyond the high shield of rhododendrons across the lawn, Braden fixed his sternest gaze on his younger brother and used his deeper voice to best advantage.
"You were spying," he accused. "You had no right to be there. If Grandfather caught you--"
Quentin laughed. Nothing ever frightened him--no threat of punishment, no prospect of dire consequences. He was, as Maman had said before her death, impossible.
"Do you think it's just a game?" Braden asked. "What Grandfather has done to save our people--"
"I know, I know." Quentin rolled his eyes. "You're so deadly serious. What's the use of being able to Change if it's never any fun? When I make the passage, I shall enjoy it."
Rowena curled her small fingers around her twin brother's arm. "I shall not," she said. "I wish I never had to Change at all."
"You don't have a choice," Braden said, more harshly than he'd intended. "We all have to do as we're told, or there won't be any of us left." His voice softened. "Anyway, when you can Change, you'll find out, Ro. It's amazing . . ." He shivered. "Poor humans. I almost feel sorry for them."
"Not me," Rowena began. "If I could, I would--"
But her words were quickly drowned out by Quentin's. "I know you can't wait to become leader when Grandfather dies," he said to Braden, his grin belying his words. "But he's not nearly ready to stick his spoon in the wall, so you may as well resign yourself to a few more years of playing second fiddle."
Braden stiffened. "When I am leader, you'll have to do what I say."
Quentin snapped into a mock salute. "Yes, my lord. But not quite yet." He gave a yelp as Braden grabbed for him, and suddenly there was a chase in progress, half in earnest and half in play. They tumbled onto the lawn, Quentin nearly holding his own in spite of his lesser years. Rowena hopped a little as if she'd join in, but she was far too proud of her new frock to dirty it, and her twelve-year-old's dignity was too fragile to compromise.
At last Braden had Quentin pinned. "Promise me," he said breathlessly, "promise me that you'll obey me when I'm leader."
There was no surrender in Quentin's eyes, and his smile didn't waver. "Are you afraid I shall do what Grandfather's brother and sister did, and spoil your Cause?"
Braden knew that story by heart as well. "They were both traitors. Great-Aunt Grace married a human instead of the mate chosen for her. And Great-Uncle William broke his word. He went to live in America, but he never sent his children back to England. Now he's dead, and we've lost his bloodline--"
"Bloodlines. You talk just like Tiberius."
"And you talk like a child, because you don't understand."
"Just because the families who come here are loups-garous like us doesn't mean they're worthy. Like that
"What about her?" Quentin bent lower, showing his teeth.
"You like her, don't you? I saw the way you looked at her. Just because Grandfather's arranged it so you have to marry her in a few years. But she and her father have something wrong with them. I saw him hit a stableboy and call him a serf, and that girl is wicked and vain. She said when she comes to live here, everyone will have to do as she says."
Braden tried to picture that delicate, exotic face spouting such threats. Surely not. Milena had smiled at him, made him think she liked him, too. . . .
"I don't believe you," he said.
"Maybe not now. But I don't think she will find Greyburn at all to her taste."
The tone of his voice put Braden immediately on alert. Quentin's exaggerated, too-innocent expression was one Braden had seen many times--just before his younger brother pulled a prank on some hapless and unsuspecting victim. They weren't dangerous, his little tricks, and never mean-spirited. Except on those very rare occasions when he didn't like the recipient....
"What did you do?" Braden demanded, grabbing Quentin's collar.
Quentin only grinned more broadly, but Braden hadn't long to wait for an answer. There was a shriek from somewhere inside the house, loud enough for nonhuman ears to hear even through the thick walls. Braden let Quentin up and gave him a shake.
"If you hurt her--"
"Remember those flowers in the garden that made her sneeze? I just made sure she had plenty to decorate her room." Quentin cocked his head. "She won't look very pretty with a runny nose."
Braden closed his eyes. "Why, Quentin? Do you know what Grandfather will do to you when he finds out?"
Quentin knew. He'd been punished before. But he'd never played a trick on one of the family delegates.
"You had best go to the wood for a while," Braden said, shoving Quentin away. "Ro, you as well."
Rowena, at least, had the wits to be frightened. She tugged at her twin's arm. "Come, Quentin!"
Quentin stood his ground. "You'll peach on me anyway, so why should I bother--"
Braden snarled and charged at Quentin. "Get out of here!"
Under any other circumstances, Braden might have been pleased at how quickly Quentin obeyed. The power of Braden's will was growing, and he could feel it coursing through his veins like the magic of the Change itself.
But he was nothing against the earl. He swallowed and walked back to the house, reaching the broad steps just as Grandfather came charging out. His white hair was on end, his eyes blazing, and such was his fury that Braden expected to be knocked from his feet.
But Tiberius stopped short, fists balled at his sides.
"Quentin," he growled. "Where is he?"
"I don't know," Braden said. "He was--"
"Do you realize what he has done? The count's daughter has been insulted, and the count himself--" Grandfather's will bore down on Braden like a stifling weight of water, making it nearly impossible for him to breathe. "The Russians have threatened to break the marriage contract. Because of that boy, the alliance itself is at risk. Tell me where he is."
For a moment Braden wavered. Quentin had to learn. But Grandfather's way of teaching was harsh at the best of times; in his current temper he might do far worse than administer a beating.
"I apologize, sir," Braden said. "I don't know."
There was something far more menacing about Grandfather's sudden stillness than in his short-lived rage. "Do you think to betray me as well?" he said quietly. "No. I would kill you first."
Braden shivered in spite of himself. He'd been raised from leading strings to believe that nothing mattered more than the Cause, that all else must be sacrificed to it. He had seen that principle at work in his grandfather's marriage to the woman he had chosen for her pure blood, and again with Maman and Father.
But Tiberius would not kill the carrier of the very blood he was fighting to preserve. At least not the body. But there were other things to lose. . . .
Abruptly Grandfather took Braden's arm in a hard grip and dragged him into the house. The Russian count stood waiting at the foot of the grand staircase, his eyes silvery slits. Grandfather stopped before him, and some silent communication passed between lord and lord, the kind that Braden was only beginning to comprehend. Wills clashed, and it was the count who broke away first.
"Go to my rooms," Tiberius ordered his grandson, and Braden didn't hesitate to obey. He could buy Quentin more time, and Grandfather would lose the first edge of his anger. He started up the stairs that led to the landing and corridors that ran the length of the first floor through the family and guest wings. A small group of the delegates and their mates stood watching with wary curiosity from the guest wing, but they melted aside as Grandfather reached the landing. Human servants retreated with equal discretion.
Grandfather's suite was a place for which Braden had never borne much affection. Here punishments were meted out, lectures given. And here the weight of the Cause was overwhelming.
Ancient armor stood against the wall, shields and weapons surviving from a more savage age. The Forster blood went much further back than this house had existed, though the names Braden's ancestors carried had changed with the centuries. There was nothing of gentleness in the room. It was icy, for Tiberius denied anything that hinted of a human weakness. The loups-garous did not suffer from mere cold.
Grandfather sat down in his hard-backed chair. "Stand where you are, and listen," he said. "I had believed you were old enough to understand. I was mistaken. I shall make it clear to you again. Quentin is only worth to me whatever children he can sire. Rowena is the same. But you--of you I expect far more."
Braden lifted his chin. "I know my duty."
"No." Tiberius pounded his fist on the carved arm of the chair. "But you will, before I am done with you. Your father was worse than useless, but your blood is strong. You will not betray me in the end." He stood up and walked to the old mullioned window that looked over the park. His voice dropped to a rasping whisper. "I've been betrayed twice before. My dear sister eloped with a human before her marriage to the man I had chosen for her could take place. She rejected the ways of our people. And William's daughter Edith ran off with some American peasant, a human named Holt. William and Fenella have been dead these five years, and Edith and Holt and their two offspring have taken up residence in some forsaken wilderness to the far west of America."
"But if you know where they are--" Braden began.
"As of a year ago, yes. If they survive, they will be found and brought back. That shall be your charge when you come of age. Bring them back and force them to--"
He stopped, breathing hard. "There will be no more betrayals."
The passion and anguish in Tiberius's voice was very real and utterly unexpected, and it struck at Braden's heart as nothing else might have done. Grandfather had spent his life trying to save a race, and his own siblings had turned their backs on him. Only his innate power had kept the other werewolves cooperative when they had cause to doubt his strength and authority, even over his own family.
The loups-garous respected strength. But loyalty to family was burned into their very souls, and so a brother's and sister's rebellions were wounds that would not heal. Braden could not imagine Quentin and Rowena doing that to him. Never.
He crept across the worn carpet to his grandfather's side. "I won't do what they did," he promised. "I won't let the Cause die."
Grandfather looked at him, and it was as if he'd never slipped to reveal a single moment of vulnerability. "When I'm finished with you, you will have no other purpose. You will live for the Cause, as I have. Nothing else will matter to you. Do you understand?"
Braden couldn't speak. Grandfather's stare held him like the mantraps set in the woods to catch human poachers, and his tongue was leaden.
"You will not lie to me again. Today you will track down your brother and bring him to me. Then you shall administer the punishment the count himself selects. Go."
Behind those words lay no room for negotiation, no latitude for compassion or mercy. The lesson was meant not for Quentin, but for Braden himself. It would be fashioned so as never to be forgotten.
Braden turned and left the room, his mind a blank. He followed the landing to a door that led into several twisting, narrow corridors, hidden stairs, and a back entrance used by the servants. There he paused, scenting the evening; autumn was coming, and he could smell hay and heather and sheep and the smooth-flowing waters of the river below the great sloping park.
He discarded his clothes behind the shrubbery along the wall and Changed with a single thought. On four legs he ran through the gardens, past the open park and into the wood an ancestor had begun and Tiberius had nurtured, until now it was far greater than any private wood in northern England.
As he ran, leaping the burn and dodging pine and oak and ash, he ignored the spoor of rabbit and fox and all the other small creatures that shared the wood. There was only one he hunted. And soon enough he found the familiar scent. But it was Rowena who met him, her eyes very wide and her face pale. Her skirt was muddied, her hair snarled with twigs and leaves.
"What will they do to him?" she whispered.
Braden Changed, and Rowena quickly looked away. Her modesty had always been exaggerated, but Braden had no time for her almost-human sensibilities.
"Where is he?" he asked.
"Did you come to get him?"
"I came to tell him to stay in the woods." Braden wrapped his arms around his chest, though he hardly felt the chill in the air. "Grandfather told me to bring him back. The count is to decide his punishment. But if Quentin stays away until the Russians leave, maybe it won't be so bad."
Rowena bit her lip. "You'll get into trouble if you don't bring him back."
Braden shrugged. "I know Quentin can find somewhere to hide for a few days. When you see Quentin, tell him--"
"You can tell me yourself." Quentin emerged from behind a thick stand of trees, his habitual smile nowhere in evidence. "I'm no coward. It's my fault. I'll come back with you."
"No." Braden glared at his younger brother, working his will. "You're not as strong as I am, and Grandfather has never liked you. But you owe me for this, Quentin. Don't forget that you owe me."
Quentin clenched and unclenched his fists. "I won't forget."
Braden glanced at Rowena. "You'd better come back. Just don't go near Grandfather for a while. The delegates will be leaving soon, and things will be back to normal."
Normal. As normal as they ever were at Greyburn.
"I'll come to check on you, if I can," Braden said to Quentin. "But stay out of trouble, for once."
They stared at each other. Rowena wept soundlessly. After a moment Quentin took a step backward, and then another, until he had vanished behind the trees again.
Later Braden would talk to Rowena, try to comfort her if she'd let him. But she'd always been closer to Quentin, and the separation would be difficult for her. He repeated his command that she return to the house, and then Changed once more.
His run home was not so swift nor certain. He knew what would come when he admitted his failure to Tiberius. The pain he could bear, but the humiliation and his grandfather's scorn would cut far more keenly than the whip.
But he would bear it without flinching, to prove his strength. To show he could not be broken. He would be worthy to carry on the work of the Cause.
I will, Grandfather, he promised. I will make our people strong again. Nothing will stop me, ever.
Within half a mile of the house he angled away and ran to the top of Rook Knowe. From here he could look down into the valley, across the small fields and isolated cottages and beyond to row upon row of heather-clad, treeless hills marching into the distance. This was his country; he loved it as he loved Greyburn, its hardy human tenants, the bleakness of a landscape that had been never been wholly tamed.
Yes, he would devote himself to the Cause. But he, unlike Tiberius, would find room in his life for other things. For family affection. For the beauty of moor and wood and burn. For the possibility of love in an arranged marriage. For an ideal not driven by anger and bitterness.
I'll do my duty, Lord Greyburn. But I'll do it my way, not yours.
Braden believed with all his heart that it was a promise he could keep forever.