Damon’s eyes glittered in the flame that danced around the age-smoothed walls of Poko’s cave. He stared at me – right straight into my soul – and squeezed my hand. The ring of warmth enveloping us in the center of Poko’s cave seemed a barrier against the darkness — a blanket against the cold.
We’d been there for almost an hour, waiting for the moon to be right, in the sky. The ancient wolf elder shuddered, his whitened eyes shot open; his meditative trance at an end, and Damon’s tattooing ceremony about to begin.
“You have,” Poko began, his voice rattling, and as old as the cave where we knelt, but full of power, “passed the trials. Not only are you the Skarachee alpha, but you are the next elder. Many will fight you, many will complain, and many will think me insane – if they don’t already – but this is my decision. You are the heir to the Skarachee.”
Damon nodded, solemnly.
The fire crackled. A little, wooden bowl sitting on the rocks ringing the pit and began to bubble. Black liquid within roiled angrily, until Poko reached out, plucked it away, and set it on the ground.
Poko grunted with effort, then waved away Damon’s offer of an extended hand, to help him to his feet.
“Old, yes. Helpless, no,” he said with a dry laugh. “Helpless no, pup. But soon, I will be gone, and the dangerous times are just ahead. They’re… coming…”
He glanced left, and then right, smiling into the darkness at some unseen visitor. He spoke to spirits, Poko did. They told him things, gestured to him… guided him. And Damon was starting to hear the same things, though, only when they wanted him to hear them.
“Yes, I think so,” Poko said to someone neither I, nor Damon, saw. “He’s ready. I know that much. Don’t you think? Mmm-hmm.” The old man’s thin lips hardened to a tight line. “He may be ready, but I’m not sure I am.”
Finally, he turned to Damon, who smiled, before he looked away.
“Whatever comes, I’ll do my best to do what’s right for the pack. For our people.”
Damon’s voice was firm, strong and serious. It made my stomach clench a little, and sent a flutter through my chest.
“For the Skarachee.”
Poko laughed, almost too quietly to hear.
“This time, I think, it’ll be for more than just our people.”
The twist at the tail of Poko’s voice meant that he wasn’t saying everything he knew. But then again, he never said everything he knew.
“But, I know you will. We all do,” he said, with a sweep of his hand.
“Thank you,” he said, and squeezed my hand.
Poko chuckled again.
“Now, we have some other business to attend. Normally,” he turned his head and coughed softly, “this is done in parts. However, you’ve managed to become both the confirmed alpha, and, in burying that rogue wolf out West, you’ve committed an act of great valor, and saved our people from an uncertain fate.”
Again, Damon nodded. The lines on his face hardened. His eyes flared in the darkness. I closed mine, and let the feeling of his aura wash over me. There was a sense of purpose, of quiet, calm intensity behind the words being spoken that belied the incredible seriousness of the ritual.
“Aside from all that,” Poko continued. “You’ll be marked as the elder’s heir.
Poko took up a flint knife and scraped it against one of the heated stones ringing his fire. Damon gripped my hand, but watched the ancient werewolf’s halting, silent movements.
“Do you accept these responsibilities, Damon? Do you accept the weight of the Skarachee pack, which will bear heavy on your shoulders? Which will bend your back, and drive you to the ends of the earth? Which will test every shred of your loyalty, your sense of duty, and…”
Poko turned to me.
“This involves you, too,” he said. “There will be times when you need him, and he cannot be there. There will be times when he is inches from death, and you’ll have to nurse him.”
As I listened to the words, I fluttered the fingers of my left hand, rotating the ring Damon gave me when we said our “I-do’s” in front of the Fort Branch Justice of the Peace. It was a month ago, but seemed like an eternity.
“Do you understand all of this, Lily? That your mate is not entirely your own? That he belongs to his people – to his pack?”
Slowly, I nodded. I knew it was true before, but hearing Poko say all of it made it more real, somehow. On cue, Damon gripped my hand tight and stroked the back of it with his thumb in a slow circle.
“You’re as brave as he is, you know.” Poko laughed again. “The two of you have been through more than most will in an entire lifetime. But, your trials are far from over. Before he can settle down somewhere and fiddle around in an old cave… or wherever…” Poko cracked a grin. “You two will experience the most horrible darkness, and the most wonderful elation… And, you’re ready to accept this?”
Damon pulled my hand closer to the fire and turned it over, so that my wrist was pointed at the ceiling. Poko’s leather fingers supported me. The flint knife, dripping with carbon ink, radiated energy that warmed me, though, the flint itself, was cool.
I took a deep breath, and then nodded.
The first prick hurt the worst.
Halfway up my forearm, Poko’s hand moved quicker than I imagined he possibly could. What began as burning pain, quickly faded into a dull, sweet ache, and what seemed like moments later, I looked down at a pair of circles – one within the other – the mark of the alpha’s mate.
Speaking to Damon, Poko said, “Your mate is strong, pup – although, I misspeak. You’re no longer a pup. You’re the alpha. Are you ready to accept your own marks?”
Damon swallowed, as Poko dabbed my forearm with a cloth and applied a poultice that cooled my skin. He began to nod.
“Yes,” Damon said. “I’m ready.”
Poko reached out and took Damon’s chin between his aged fingers, turning his head toward the fire.
“First,” Poko said, “I will give you the alpha’s mark.”
The flint clinked, and then scraped, against the bottom of the bowl, as Poko collected the ink on the blade’s point. Damon pulled his lip taut, like he was shaving.
When the knife first drew blood, he closed his eyes tight, and gripped my hand. A soft hiss of air from the corners of his mouth told me how badly it hurt.
“Eyes open,” Poko whispered. “The pain I give you now is the pain of the alpha. The pain of loss and death and war. A pain you will have to bear your whole life, Damon King. Face your future.”
Slowly, Damon opened his eyes and focused on the elder, who had taken the first line from Damon’s lip to his chin, and just then started to thicken it on either side.
“Good,” Poko said. “Face your future. Face your fears.”
Poko reached up and dabbed blood off Damon’s face, then dipped his knife again.
“This blade was used to tattoo at least a thousand Skarachee warriors, over my lifetime,” he said.
His voice was airy, almost passive, as he began the second line, running parallel to the first, from the left corner of Damon’s mouth, all the way down, and then over, to form a closed shape.
Damon winced again at the last jab connecting the lines, and the Poko dabbed away more blood.
“In fact, this very blade gave me my markings. My elder told me the same words I’m telling you. Before that, his elder told him the same, and before him, another elder as well. It goes all the way back to…”
The way he just trailed off was very much unlike Poko. Poko, who told all kinds of stories, who liked to lead conversations in circles, was not one to simply trail off before he’d finished a thought.
“There,” Poko said.
The three lines going down from Damon’s mouth to his chin were all connected at one point. Poko wiped away the blood and drew a half circle where the lines gathered, which he darkened and filled in, as Damon clenched my hand.
“The moon,” he said. “Sacred to our people. And now, you’re marked with the moon – the symbol of our power.”
Damon took a deep breath.
“That… hurt a lot more than I expected.”
Poko laughed under his breath. “But you held strong. You held fast, and didn’t cringe away or turn. You showed the strength of an alpha.”
“It wasn’t just me,” Damon said, looking in my direction for a second. “She kept me strong.”
“And she will,” Poko said. “She will be your strength in the darkest of times. And those times are coming.”
Before either of us thought to ask what he meant, Poko jabbed his knife in Damon’s forehead, near his hairline, going parallel to the single furrow in his brow that only appeared when Damon frowned.
“This mark,” he said, “is your line of valor. The more you do, the longer it will grow, although, I’m giving you a little bit of credit on loan. I won’t be around forever, and since you’re the elder’s heir, no one will be around to extend your lines.”
Damon hardened his mouth into a thin line. I could see the determination, the dire seriousness that marked his face, and felt his strength radiating from him.
“I won’t let you down, elder,” he said with an uncharacteristic stiffness.
“No,” Poko said with a gentle smile. “I expect not. That’s why I chose you, instead of the other one.”
Damon raised an eyebrow. Poko pulled the knife away just in time.
“I wouldn’t do that when someone has a dagger on your forehead, Damon,” Poko said with a shallow laugh. “It’s nothing to worry about. There are always multiple candidates to be alpha. Just so happens, the others of your generation proved less reliable. That’s all.”
Damon grunted and relaxed his face.
“If you say so,” he said.
“I do. Now, try to keep from moving around so much. I’d hate for this to turn crooked.”
Poko grinned as he resumed his work, and Damon once again tightened his grip on my hand, until I thought he was going to hurt me. I kept my face straight, though, refusing to give in to weakness.
A drop of blood ran down Damon’s forehead and along his eyebrow, before sliding down the side of his face. I wanted to comfort him, to wipe away the droplet, but I knew it was all part of the ritual – all part of his transformation. I looked from his face to Poko’s, both of them glowing from the fire. The lines Poko drew on Damon were exact copies of those on his own face.
“How do you do it?” I asked. “They’re exactly the same. The lines, I mean.”
“Dear Lily,” Poko said. “The lines I draw on your husband, on your mate… they are as old as time. Older than any time that my memory can possibly imagine. These lines, these symbols,” he paused to dab Damon’s face. “They’re from our ancestors. From before there were Skarachee, even. These lines come from a time when all the packs were one, all assembled under an elder so powerful, that it’s said, he could never die.”
I nodded. The oldness of all these things – of the wolves and their politics and their packs – it was humbling. It’s like looking up at the stars on a clear night and realizing that every, single point of light is a sun that might have another planet, just like ours around it, and that planet might have people, just like us, living there.
“There,” Poko said. “Almost done. Show Lily.”
Damon turned to me, and I almost lost my breath. The thin lines on his forehead, four of which extended to his eyebrows, were almost regal. They conveyed such gravity, such power, and so perfectly framed his already gorgeous face, that it made me a little wobbly in the knees. Good thing I was already on the ground.
The lines on his chin followed the powerful sweep of his jaw, and somehow made him even more rugged, more stunning, than he was before. They had such a sense of place, of being, and of tradition, that it took my breath away.
“You two look a lot alike,” I said, noticing it, just as I opened my mouth.
“It’s just the lines,” he said. “We’re almost done. Which is good, because my old bones are starting to ache.”
He turned Damon’s head to one side, and wet his knife, again, in ink. Along the curve of his cheek bone went the gentle tapping that drew drops of blood with each stroke. By now, Damon had numbed himself to the pain. No longer bothering to clench my hand, he just curled his fingers between mine, and turned his eyes to me, warming me with his gaze.
When he next turned to me, as Poko stood up and leaned left, then right, popping his ancient back, there were two thick, black lines that curled under Damon’s eyes and down the lines of his cheekbones, with two flourishes on either side.
“They’re… beautiful,” I said.
It sounded stupid even as I said it, but I couldn’t think of any other way to express myself.
“So delicate. So…”
Poko laughed. “You will not think them so delicate, soon. Both of you keep applying this poultice to your markings. The ink will make them very angry, if you do not.”
Absent mindedly, I touched the circles on my forearm, and was surprised to find them a little hot, even though the paste had cooled my skin.
“It’s the ink,” he said. “The way it’s made can be very irritating, if it isn’t treated.”
As he spoke, the old man seemed to go a little limp, and then started to collapse. If Damon hadn’t acted as quickly as he did, catching Poko in his arms, he certainly would have fallen.
“What happened?” Damon asked. “Are you okay?”
Poko coughed, and then nodded.
“Just tired,” he said. “The candle of my life grows short. And now that I have you, I can rest easy. I suppose this old body, and these old bones, are starting to realize that they’re not needed anymore. They’re starting to relax, whether or not I wish them to do so.”
His coughing turned to a gentle laugh.
“But that’s something for old men to worry about. You two you should go celebrate.”
Poko’s white eyes settled on me. For a second, I thought back to months before, when seeing his eyes freaked me out. Now, though, he was just another part of my life.
And he was really eyeing me.
“Go,” he said. “Go celebrate.”
“Celebrate what?” Damon said, as I pulled him toward the mouth of the cave. “What do we have to celebrate? The markings?”
Poko chuckled softly. “Yes,” he said. “The ceremony – go celebrate. And I’m sure there are other things too.”
I looked back, and he gave me a look that said he knew a lot more than he was letting on.
“Celebrate that, and everything else. You two have a lot to live for. More than you know.”
“More than we…” I fell silent and relaxed the confused scrunch of my eyebrows. “What are you talking about?”
Poko’s only answer was a thin smile.
Of course it was.