|Home > Christine Feehan > Dark Series > Dark Blood (Chapter 54)|
|Dark Blood(Dark #26) by Christine Feehan|
Hemming nodded, grateful for the explanation of the difference. “She often gave me blood during hunts or battles when I was wounded. I realized that I was becoming as she was.”
Branislava squeezed his hand. “Zev is Hän ku pesäk kaikak. Fen and Dimitri are as well. They fought this day with honor. You would have been proud of your grandson.”
“I’ve always been proud of my grandson. He has been a thorn in Xaviero’s side almost from the first day the mage became aware of an elite hunter who advised the council. Xaviero couldn’t break Zev’s hold on them, not even the members of the Sacred Circle.”
Another coughing fit seized Hemming hard. His body was slippery from all the blood leaking from so many places the chains had opened up. Branislava looked to Gregori, her sorrow so heavy she could barely breathe.
The pain is gone now. His body is numb, Gregori assured her. Can you not feel his joy? He is going to be with his lifemate. They are bound, whether or not tied soul to soul. He cannot wait to be with her.
Branislava knew Gregori spoke the truth. Hemming’s head fell back into her lap and once more his gaze jumped to his grandson’s.
“He never knew you were my grandson. He didn’t even suspect—not until recently. It was amusing to see him rail and rant, throwing temper tantrums like a child because he couldn’t kill the six of you he wanted dead. He used my blood to build servants, but he didn’t understand that the making of a true Sange rau—or rather a Hän ku pesäk kaikak—took time. He expected the Lycans he forced into his service to be faster and smarter and better than all they encountered.”
His hand went out to Zev. Trembling. Weak. The loss of blood was telling on him and he choked several times, fighting for breath. Branislava didn’t care if Hemming was numb or not. She couldn’t stand that fact that he was drowning in his own blood and knew it.
I call to water’s life source pay heed to my call,
I bid you to bend and reform to my will,
I take that which is lifeblood and turn it aside,
So that air may now flow giving peace to this life.
Hemming looked up at her and smiled. “I’m not afraid, little granddaughter. The pain of the chains is gone and I’m free. I feel as if I’m soaring across the sky. I have this time to be with my grandson and to meet you and his friends. No man could ask for more as he passes. I thank you for your care.”
Clearly her small spell had worked, and he was able to find an alternative method of breathing enough to talk as his time ran out. Branislava shoved her free hand in her mouth to keep from sobbing aloud. Hemming clearly wanted to be free of the life he had led. She didn’t want to ruin his passing with her tears.
“These men. Lycans. The ones Xaviero forced into his service,” Hemming said. “They were good men, Zev. Kind men. Some did their best to ease my suffering. They had no choice once Xaviero took away their free will. They will feel tremendous guilt. And they will be forever shunned by Lycan society, and yet they need to belong to a pack.”
“I hear you, grandfather,” Zev said softly. “I understand.”
“You can’t risk them going rogue. They need a strong alpha they can look up to.”
“You tried to be that alpha for them, didn’t you?” Zev asked, with sudden comprehension. “Even wrapped in chains of silver you tried to help the others.”
“They can’t continue without a pack, you know that. They’re good boys. Some of them must have survived.”
Not the one who had thrown his grandfather facedown in the dirt in front of Xaviero. That Sange rau had not survived. Dimitri had dispatched him quietly and quickly while the rest of those in the field had watched in horror as Xaviero and Xayvion had opened the gates of hell.
“Maybe a dozen,” Zev said.
“So few. Xaviero took so many lives so casually. He was cruel, Zev. So cruel. If the Lycan he wanted in his service didn’t join with him, the mage tortured and killed his family. Then, just to rub salt in the wounds, he took on his Lycan image and became the kindly Rannalufr, to counsel the rest of the grieving family members. More than likely he made them feel such guilt they quickly killed themselves. He would dance with glee around the laboratory whenever he managed to ruin an entire family.”
The coughing was continuous now. The bleeding was steady, no matter how many times Zev wiped the blood from his grandfather’s mouth.
It won’t be long now, love, Branislava said. He’s close. I don’t know why he’s still holding on when he could embrace death.
Zev feared he knew. “Rannalufr means ‘plundering wolf.’ I suppose if any of us had just thought about how that name didn’t fit the imagery we might have looked closer at him.”
Hemming made a movement as though he might shake his head, but the effort was too much and sent him into another violent coughing fit. Zev took his free hand.
“You want me to be responsible for these displaced Lycans. To form a pack with them and become their alpha. Not someone else. You want me to be their leader.”
Hemming nodded, too exhausted to speak.
“I give you my word, Grandfather. I’ll take care of them.” Inwardly Zev sighed. He knew what his grandfather wanted all along. But that many Sange rau, all relatively newly made, shunned by the Lycans and their council, would be a handful. “They will make tremendous elite hunters once trained properly. If they wish to join my pack, I’ll take them on.”
Now he was a schoolteacher. Zev couldn’t contain the little sigh. A flash of amusement lit up Hemming’s eyes. He squeezed Zev’s hand and then allowed his lashes to drift down.
There was a moment where he took a breath and exhaled. Peace settled over his ravaged features. A kind of joy. His lips curved into a soft smile, and he was gone.
Branislava held Hemming’s hand for a few more moments and then gently extricated herself, allowing his head to lie on the ground once again. She reached out to Zev, who immediately wrapped his arm around her.
“He wanted to go,” Gregori said, his voice a little rougher than normal. “I’m sorry, Zev. He was a good man. It would have been a pleasure to have had more time with him, if for any other reason than to learn from him.”
Zev nodded. He looked past Mikhail to see the four silent sentinels, Andre, Tomas, Lojos, and Mataias standing guard between Mikhail and the Sange rau lined up behind them, watching in silence. He noted each of the faces of the mixed bloods. They looked grief-stricken. Confused. Ashamed. All of them had bowed their heads at Hemming’s passing. Two wore the Sacred Circle tattoo, and one crossed himself. Another looked as if he murmured a prayer.
The moment Zev looked up, all eyes jumped to his face. Waiting for him to judge them. To pass sentence on them. He was weary of blood and death. Of fighting. He had lost friends this day—they all had. But these men had lost everything. They were no longer Lycan and most Lycans wouldn’t welcome them home. Even if the council ruled to lift the death sentence on the Sange rau, there would be prejudice until education finally won the old ones over.
Their free will was taken from them. They tried to fight against Xaviero’s orders. Some embraced his rule, while these did not. You can see marks on them. Some of them were disciplined by the mage. His disciplines are brutal. Cruel, Branislava informed him.
I will not force them to join my pack. They’ve had enough of others making choices for them. They can make up their minds.
Most likely they’d heard the conversation with his grandfather, but he was held to that promise—not any of them.
Slowly he stood up and made his way to them. The row of Sange rau—no, not that—they were Hän ku pesäk kaikak. “In spite of what others have told you, in spite of every ancient belief, a mixed blood is not an abomination. Just as a Lycan can make the choice to become a rogue werewolf, and the Carpathian can make the choice to become a vampire, you also have a choice in how you want to live. At this moment, you are considered Hän ku pesäk kaikak, which means ‘guardian of all.’ I am Hän ku pesäk kaikak. I make no apologies for this. I take my role very seriously. I guard all species. Lycan. Carpathian. Jaguar. Human, and yes, even mage.”
One man stepped forward. “I’m Caleb,” he introduced himself. “We fought for the mage and have committed terrible crimes.”
Zev nodded his head gravely. It would do no good to dismiss things done in battle. “War brings out the worst in all of us,” he agreed. “Especially when we have no choice. Xaviero took your will from you. In some ways, he took all of our wills, forcing us to fight against one another. He was a powerful mage and he had centuries of planning the downfall of our people. He made you pawns and turned you into the thing you were taught to hate the most. That doesn’t mean he should continue to rule you. You all have choices to make.”
“Where can we go?” Caleb asked. “My pack will never accept me back. I have no family to go back to.”
The others nodded.
“It is entirely up to you. I can teach you the ways of the elite hunter. With me, you can learn the ways of the Carpathian so that your skills will improve even more. You will be expected to understand the full meaning of what it is to be a guardian of all and to live your life with honor. You are free to leave now and choose your own way. If you choose the way of the Sange rau and you decide to go rogue or vampire, we will hunt you down and kill you. That is a fact I cannot deny.”
“Are you saying you would have us?” Caleb asked. “All of us? After what was done here?”
“Xaviero and Xayvion did this. You were victims of his cruel magic. We all were.” Zev shrugged. “Look around you. Do you see condemnation? That is not the way of the Carpathian people. You are both Lycan and Carpathian. Your loyalty must be first to your pack and then to both species if you remain with me.”
Gregori stirred, but said nothing when Mikhail flicked him one telling glance.
The twelve men looked around the battlefield. Carpathians had called down the lightning to burn their dead, and Lycans had chosen to fuel the ceremonial pyre to incinerate their dead. Rolf, the other council members and the pack leaders huddled together. Some shot the twelve suspicious glances, but no one challenged them as they talked with Zev.
“They will not accept us,” Caleb pointed out.
Zev shrugged. “That’s their problem not ours. They had no trouble allowing us to fight for them—and they’ll call on us again.”
The guardians looked at one another as though uncertain what to do. Zev shook his head. “Any time you join a pack and swear allegiance to the alpha pair, it is solely an individual choice. It has to be. Each of you make up your own mind.”
He glanced at Gregori and then back to the others. “Know this about the pack leader you will serve under. I am fair and loyal, but I absolutely demand your best at all times. I don’t tolerate insubordination. I have women in my pack who are as good or better warriors than any of you, and I expect them to be treated with respect at all times. If you can’t handle those things, you don’t belong in my pack.”
He noted each of their expressions, especially the ones with the tattoos of the Sacred Circle. Many of those who believed in the sacred code didn’t believe women should fight with men.
“You also need to know my allegiance is given to Mikhail, prince of the Carpathian people. I am Carpathian, just as I am Lycan. I am a guardian of all and I will defend him with my life. I will expect my pack to do the same.”
Again he watched them closely. Two frowned, but they appeared more puzzled than dismayed.
“We’re both Lycan and Carpathian,” Caleb said, with a little bit of wonder in his voice.
Zev nodded his head in agreement. “Think about it and let me know. You’re free to go wherever you like. And you’re free to contact me when you make up your mind.”
Caleb shook his head and stepped forward, gripping Zev’s shoulders hard. “I cannot be without a strong pack leader. Hemming was my acknowledged leader, though most of the time I couldn’t do the things he would have wished. I would be more than honored if you would accept me into your pack.”
It looks like we’re going to have a very big family, Branislava said.
I know, Branka. I’m sorry. I don’t want to complicate our lives, but I can’t leave them without a leader.
She laughed softly, wrapping him up in her love. We asked for wolves, remember? I think the old adage “be careful what you wish for” might apply here.
He laughed softly in his mind with her, sharing that moment of humor while each of the twelve guardians swore their fidelity to him and to their new pack. He had to learn their names quickly before he performed the introductions to his lifemate, their alpha, and Daciana, Makoce and Lykaon, before bringing them before the prince.
The four silent guards watching over Mikhail moved a little closer, as did Gregori, but no one objected to the formal introductions.
“I have much left to do here,” Zev pointed out. “Daciana, Lykaon and Makoce can find you a place to stay until we can make homes within the forest where you’ll be more comfortable.”
He watched his pack move off the battlefield. Life just became a lot more complicated.
I have no doubt that you can handle it.
“We couldn’t get here any faster,” Gregori apologized. “We brought reinforcements, but the barrier kept us out.”
“Xayvion slipped away, but Xaviero is dead. Let’s hope he stays that way,” Zev said.
Mikhail shook his head. “We lost a couple of our warriors, but the Lycans were hit particularly hard it seems.”
“Those closest to the mage were lost,” Zev explained. “He needed souls for his exchange. His toads were more of a delaying tactic but his hellhounds and his Sange rau killed quite a few. He also sent some into the fire before we managed to stop him.” He looked down at the body of his grandfather. “All this time Xaviero had him, torturing him, and I didn’t know.”