Tommy refused to get lost.
It was probably his sheer force of will that got him out of Lirim in the end. Had he given up to the desperate, miserable feeling of not knowing where he was going, he’d probably have a mental breakdown in one of the countless dark corners of the mansion. As it went, he wandered around till he found a staircase. His heart was pounding like crazy in his chest. He had no idea how sensitive Chase was to his scent and when he would wake up. He just knew that he’d be in a whole lot of trouble if he got caught. He had just spotted the second staircase, leading down to the lounge and then, hopefully, outside, when he saw the hulking shape of Napoleon.
Of course. The bodyguards had given the beasts their privacy with their bonds, but that didn’t mean they weren’t alert. From what Tommy spotted before he quickly slinked into the shadows in the corner of the corridor before he was seen, the bodyguards each watched over a door. Which meant the only way out of the mansion from the ground floor was through the lounge.
Which meant Tommy wasn’t getting out of the ground floor.
As quietly as he could, Tommy backed back into the shadows of the dark corridor. He had no idea what kind of beasts the three bodyguards were, and how good their ears were. Napoleon resembled some kind of bear; Miss Medrano was sleek and elegant as a gazelle and Irena...well, Irena looked like a shrivelled prune, to be honest. Tommy prayed to God they hadn’t hear him as he hurried down the corridor to the other end of the first floor. Confident he was far away not to be heard, he opened one of the French windows. He was surprised to find them unlocked. The darkness spread out like a suffocating black hole, and Tommy had no idea how he would ever find his way out of the Beacon. Even so, he hefted himself onto the windowsill, careful not to rattle the window frames, and jumped down. His feet hit gravel, the impact going up his knees and thighs, making him stumble. The gravel crunched under his feet and it sounded impossibly loud in Tommy’s ear. He glanced up at the window. He should have closed it.
Too late now.
He straightened his glasses on his nose and looked around. Now that he was on the ground, he could faintly make out a fountain, some bushes, the stretch of the valley beyond... he was torn. He really wanted to just run, get the hell away from Lirim and never look back. On the other hand if he did that, he’d probably end up lost and he wouldn’t even climb to the top of one of the hills before one of the beasts realised he was gone. So he’d have to find a car – Jordan must have gotten in here somehow, right? He couldn’t just have dragged Alfie all the way to the mansion by hand. Tommy hurried towards one of the towering bushes acting like a hedge for the mansion and crouched beneath it, trying to organise his thoughts. A car, a car...where would a car be?
His scream died in his throat as suddenly a hand clamped against his mouth, ‘’don’t scream,’’ Finn hissed in his ear and released Tommy’s mouth a second later.
Tommy inhaled sharply and turned to find Finn, in just a large t-shirt and bare legs, crouched behind him, ‘’how did you get out?’’
‘’Same as you,’’ Finn looked darkly towards Lirim, ‘’they have the ground floor on lockdown. We need to get a car. I’m guessing it’s behind the house. We go quiet and fast – that’s our only chance of getting out of here.’’
‘’And where do we go?’’
‘’Ireland,’’ Finn whispered, ‘’it’s the closest place that doesn’t recognise bonds. They won’t be able to drag us back. And then I’m going to America. At least they don’t think beasts are anything special there.’’
Tommy gave a little grin. Truthfully, the whole venture was a little less frightening with someone by his side, ‘’I’m inclined to agree,’’ his smile fell, ‘’and the others?’’
Finn shrugged, ‘’each man for himself,’’ he rose on his feet slightly, like a cat ready to spring, ‘’on my mark-‘’
They both heard it.
The crunch of gravel.
‘’Zły chłopiec. Powyrywam ci włosy na nogach i zrobię sobię z nich nową perułke.’’ Called a kind voice.
‘’Shit,’’ Finn breathed, ‘’it’s the old Polish lady. Run for the hills.’’
In the next instance, Finn was gone. Tommy didn’t wait. He sprinted off into the darkness. Fuck getting lost. Fuck having to hike up the valley. He’d do it. Because right then one old, Polish hunchback felt like a 100-man army. Finn thought more or less the same thing as he sprinted in the opposite direction to Tommy. He figured two was better than one, but now panic overtook him and his self preservation instincts blocked out the thought of meeting back up with Tommy completely from his head. The only thing in his head was run, run, run...
Finn yelped as he tripped up and fell face first into lush grass.
The honey-sweet, croaky chuckle behind him made his blood run cold as he realised he had tripped on something. He rolled over, leaning on his elbows as he stared up at Irena, resting both wrinkles hands on the handle of her umbrella as he leaned on it. She still wore her wide-brimmed hat. In the light of the moon, she offered Finn a kind smile. The human scrambled to his feet and took a step back, ‘’nie radziłabym,’’ she said, ‘’walczy łam w Afghanistanie.’’
‘’I have no idea what you’re saying,’’ Finn snapped at her, panic making him feel, ironically, like a caged animal. He went as if to whirl round and resume his sprint – an old lady couldn’t keep up with him for long.
But as he turned, Irena was suddenly there. Finn gasped painfully as the dull metal point of her umbrella jabbed him in the stomach. He bent over and from that angle, he was face-to-face with the hunchbacked woman, whose smile remained on her face as she gestured in the direction of Lirim, signalling for Finn to walk towards it. Finn straightened and took another step away from her. Again, she was there in a flash, hitting the back of Finn’s legs with her umbrella so he stumbled forward, ‘’what the f-‘’ he gasped again as the umbrella slammed into his stomach. As he naturally doubled over, the umbrella point was suddenly under his chin, raising his face towards Lirim. Finn put his hands at shoulder-level in surrender, ‘’alright,’’ Irena dropped the umbrella and hobbled forward on it.
Finn whipped around and sprinted in the opposite direction. He stumbled and nearly fell into Irena who once again blocked his path at crazy speed, ‘’oh, you’re shitting me,’’ he barked. In the next instance he was on the ground, head spinning from the dull impact. He had a second to stare at the stars before Irena bent down, grabbed one of his ankles and dragged him forward, effortlessly. Finn would have gaped, had his head not hit a small pebble painfully, ‘’ow, wait!’’ Irena was unfazed, hobbling forwards, leaning on her umbrella and dragging Finn behind her as if he was a sack of flour, not a fully grown man, ‘’I get it, I get it!’’Finn bellowed, head raking over more pebbles in the grass, ‘’you’re not to be messed with. Let go!’’
At that, as if she understood, Irena released Finn’s ankle which thumped onto the grass unceremoniously and continued walking. Finn knew there was no point trying to run again. It was like Irena had a third eye at the back of her hat. And she was too fast, too strong, for Finn to compete with her - whatever beast she was, she was not to be messed with. Finn was under no illusion that if he tried to run again, she’d drag him by the leg all the way to Lirim, up the stairs and dump him in front of Alt, wounded pride and all. So he trailed after her. He refused to give up. He’d bid his time, plan his escape better. He’d gotten all the way out of Lirim this time; next time he’d get out of the valley. And at least Tommy...
As he trailed into the driveway after Irena, he heard screeching and swearing. He sighed, dejected, as a pissed off Chase emerged from the darkness in just his boxers and a spectacular bed head. He had Tommy thrown over his shoulder, which was pretty impressive, considering they were nearly the same size. Tommy was kicking and screaming like a banshee. Chase just looked mildly annoyed.
Tommy’s yells and curses followed Finn up the staircase as he went after Irena, who made sure to deposit him right at Alt’s doors again. She gave him a serene smile and Finn peered at her wearily with violet eyes as she hobble away into the darkness. Finn turned towards the doors just as they opened. Alt was awake and his face was wiped clean of any emotion as he stepped sideways, inviting Finn back in. Finn stepped inside, holding his breath. He had never been around a beast in the first place, and he had never pissed one off. What came next? Did the beasts allow hitting? Was this the beginning of a horrible, abusive relationship?
But Alt just said, very quietly, ‘’sleep,’’ and walked back over to the bed. He slipped under the green covers and lay on his side. And that was it. As if he had expected Finn to run. As if he didn’t blame him for it. Finn’s skin prickled with relief and he exhaled, slowly. He got lucky. Next time he’d have to complete his journey because maybe Alt wouldn’t be so accepting of his escape next time.
For now he slid back into the bed, lying as far away from Alt in his t-shirt stained from grass. He curled his chilled, bare legs into the warmed covers, glad for the small bit of comfort.
The beasts didn’t dine with their bonds at breakfast.
The humans were ushered into the kitchen, which was marble and modern. They still had no proper clothes. Finn had woken up with Alt already gone and his clothes – cargo pants and the striped top – diligently washed and waiting for him. Jordan had left Alfie a black long-sleeve, which hung past his finger tips, and jeans that he had to keep in place with a belt. As much as he didn’t want to wear the beast’s clothes, he also didn’t want to parade around naked. Brín hadn’t been left anything but when Napoleon came to wake him up, he offered him a t-shirt – one of his probably. At least it was clean, unlike his worn jeans and red chequered jacket that he wore most of the time on the streets anyway. And Tommy...well, he was hardly going to wear the same thing for the third day. Chase was gone, too, when he woke up, so he had appropriated his clothes, digging out jeans and a white v-neck. He was planning to avoid Chase for the rest of the day to avoid a scrap.
Seònaid served them cinnamon-banana porridge (which, at least in Brín’s book, was a massive plus) and massive mugs of coffee, ‘’eat up,’’ she said brightly, twirling around the kitchen in a flurry, grimy apron swishing, ‘’soon, youse will be put on diets to watch yer weight and heighten the chance of having wee bairns.’’
As they ate, Finn and Tommy tired and gloomy from the previous night, Seon introduced the other two servants, her ‘apprentices’ – dark skinned, golden eyes Jaya, whose cat-like way of moving spoke clearly of her beast form, and chubby, yellow-haired Marie. By the way Jaya looked at her, and the manner in which Marie addressed the boys (mostly kept her head down and squeaked out responses) it wasn’t hard to guess she was a mouse. The three of them were the only staff in Lirim – it seemed like a massive house for only three people to keep. After the two maids were sent on their way and the boys scraped the last of their porridge from their bowls, famished after skipping dinner the night before, Seon came to stand at the head of the table and put her hands on her wide hips, ‘’right, yer all getting skelped. Youse aren’t supposed to run away from yer bonds.’’
Brín choked on his porridge and Tommy slammed his hand into his back half-heartedly. Alfie, who had been sneakily slipping silver cutlery into his pocket, muttering something about eBay, stared around the table, ‘’seriously?’’ he said, ‘’you guys didn’t even wake me up!’’
Brín swallowed and shuddered, ‘’I was asleep!’’ he said defensively.
Finn shrugged apologetically, ‘’sorry. Honestly, it would have been too risky. And Tommy bumped into me by accident-‘’
He was cut off when Seon slammed her hands on the table, rattling bowls, ‘’master Finlay!’’ she bellowed, ‘’youse cannot run from yer bond!’’ they all stared at her in surprise and the cook sighed, straightening, ‘’I understand that the behaviour of the masters may seem strange to youse, and youse are probably scared. But it’s because beasts and humans work on a different level. Once yer changed, youse will understand,’’ she shook her head, wiping her hands on her apron and hurrying over to the letter box where Jaya had brought in the mail. She picked out four laminated pieces of paper and came back over to the table. She set down the paper in front of the boys and collected their bowls.
‘’What’s this?’’ Brín picked his up and squinted, ‘’math, history, etiquette...oh, you’re kidding, right?’’
‘’Miss Medrano has ran background checks on youse, as much as she could,’’ Seon explained, wiping down the table, ‘’master Brín, we found yer missing report file from when youse was sixteen,’’ Brín dropped his eyes at that. By the time the report was filed by his good-for-nothing family, he’d long since left Ireland. How he longed to be there now, if only to get away from this oppressive law that kept him bonded to Eric Fredriksen, ‘’since ya barely finished high school, we hired Napoleon for ya. He is a pure dead brilliant teacher, he is. He will fill the gaps in ya knowledge.’’
Alfie dropped his schedule as if it was on fire, ‘’what the hell are omega classes?’’
Seon hesitated, ‘’let’s say they’re like an introduction to the world of beasts.’’
Finn stared, ‘’I’m having French lessons? Like, I can kind of speak it, but seriously? It feels like I’m back in high school!’’
‘’Master Finn, please-‘’
Suddenly the doors to the kitchen slammed open. But it wasn’t the beasts that stood within it, or the two servant girls.
‘’Yoo-hoo, I’m back!’’
Seon’s face lit up, ‘’mistress Vicky!’’
Brín, Tommy, Finn and Alfie stared at the rather short, curvy girl that stood within the doorway, pale blonde hair spilling in waves from a ponytail atop her head, ‘’oh, are they the bonds?’’ she asked excitedly and before any of the boys could react, she was in front of Brín, extending her hand, ‘’Victoria, nice to meet ya.’’
Brín shook her hand hesitantly and she moved on to the others, introducing herself and taking their names. She finally turned to Seon and, to everyone’s surprise, gave her a warm hug. Seon rubbed her back, ‘’I though you weren’t getting back from Norway until the banquet, Mistress Vicky?’’
Vicky pranced behind the kitchen counter, picking up leftover banana and popping it into her mouth, ‘’oh, please,’’ she said with her mouth full; Alfie instantly liked her, ‘’I was supposed to leave my two dumb-as-rocks brothers and those two other idiots alone with their bonds? They’d scare them to death!’’ she nodded towards the boys, who still gaped at her, ‘’has anyone tried to run away yet?’’
Tommy and Finn raised their hands slowly.
Vicky motioned to them pointedly, ‘’see? If those men weren’t such impulsive beasts, this wouldn’t happen! But no,’’ she walked back around and pulled up a chair to the table, ‘’they thought it’d be a good idea to kidnap four humans, drag them to a mansion in the middle of nowhere and...oh, don’t tell me. Did they give them the ‘breeding’ talk?’’ Seon’s face said enough. Vicky threw her hands in the air, ‘’someone construct a time machine and send them back to the fourteen-hundreds. They’ll fit right in,’’ she waved a hand at the cook, ‘’it’s alright, Seon, you can go. I know how busy you are. I’ll take care of these four.’’
Seon didn’t look convinced but she hurried out of the kitchen. Vicky swivelled in her chair to look at the four humans, who were staring at her with open mouths. She chuckled, ‘’what, never met a beast with an opinion?’’ she brushed invisible crumbs off her black turtle-neck, ‘’I should probably introduce myself properly. Hi,’’ she stuck a hand in the air, ‘’I’m Victoria Fredriksen. I’m Eric’s little sister and Chase’s big half-sister. I’m, gloriously, a beta which means I get to bond with whoever the heck I want. In other words,’’ she looked pointedly at the ceiling, ‘’I’m most likely the only person who understand what a messed up position you are right now.’’
‘’Oh my god, can I be bonded to you?’’ Tommy breathed.
Vicky sent him a dazzling grin, ‘’so, tell me, who are you? Where do you come from? Starting from,’’ she pointed to Finn, ‘’you.’’
Now that she said it, the boys realised they knew nothing about each other. Finn cleared his throat, ‘’so, uh...I just turned twenty one. I live in Lincoln and I study art at a university.’’
Vicky nodded, ‘’art’s cool. I like art,’’ she nudged her chin at Tommy, ‘’you?’’
Vicky squealed, ‘’same as me!’’
Tommy offered her a smile – probably the first one since he woke up in Lirim, ‘’I study photography in London.’’
Vicky nodded appreciatively once more and looked towards Alfie, ‘’and you, Alfie?’’
‘’I’m twenty two. I just graduated as an accountant but mostly I just sell stuff on etsy,’’ he shrugged, ‘’I got dragged here after Finn hit Jordan with a motorbike and I decided to play Mother Theresa.’’
Vicky’s blue eyes widened, ‘’I want to hear all about that later,’’ she finally turned to Brín, ‘’and you?’’
‘’Uh...I’m Brín. I’m Irish, as you can tell by the accent. And I’m a whooping twenty six which, apparently, is a sin.’’
Vicky cringed, ‘’ah. Eric gave you hell for it?’’
Vicky laced her hands on the table and leaned forward, ‘’here’s the thing, about this whole situation. I’m not excusing what they did. I’m just...going to try to help you understand the boys a little bit more. So with Eric...well, him, me and Chase grew up together, more or less, but Chase and I are a year apart, and Eric is seven years older, so we weren’t close with him. For most of his life he was pretty isolated, cause he’s the alpha of the Fredriksen ruling family, and so automatically the heir. When he turned eleven, we all got separated. I got sent to Norway to my mother who runs the pack there. As you’re probably aware, Norway doesn’t recognise bonds, and they’re much more progressive there. Beasts and humans live unbothered by each other, if not side by side like in America. So I grew up with a pretty liberating mindset. But Chase and Eric stayed here.’’
‘’Because Chase is the child of an affair, he’s considered part of the family, but he could never inherit. He’s pretty bitter about this, and when we were separated, he was pretty much set lose. So he’s become...pretty wild. And impulsive. And he kind of expects to be entitled to some things. There’s good sides to him. A lot. It’s just,’’ she cringed, ‘’kind of hard to see them most of the time,’’ she sighed, ‘’and Eric...well, Eric got it worst. He was taken under our father’s wing who was, like most family head’s, deeply rooted in traditional beliefs. He indoctrinated Eric into believing all the outdated stuff – like how kids are the most important duty of a bond and how higher-rankers should be respected and all that. It’s not Eric’s fault. But what is his fault is this mentality that he doesn’t have to get past that. So in the end we get asshole Eric,’’ she shook her head, ‘’maybe I only see it because I’m his sister, but there’s also a lot of good sides to him. But he keeps to himself. When I heard he got a bond, I got kind of happy,’’ she gave Brín a sad smile, ‘’because I hoped maybe you’d drag him out of that shell. But then I realised what being bonded to an old fashioned guy like Eric would mean for a human,’’ she shrugged, ‘’and so I boarded the first flight from Norway and got here as fast as I could. I’m going to keep an eye on them. Make sure everything is done properly.’’
‘’And what is...properly?’’ Finn asked wearily.
Vicky sighed again, ‘’bottom line is: you’re here. You’re bonded. Unless I’m planning to smuggle you over the border to Ireland, which I’m not, sorry, you’re stuck here for the time being. You’ll need to take the stupid lessons,’’ she pointed to the schedules, ‘’you’ll need to listen to them nag. You’ll need to accept their bites. You’ll need to change into beasts.’’
‘’That’s an awful lot of ‘needs’,’’ Alfie said tightly.
Vicky gave him a mischievous smile, ‘’oh, yes, quite. But after you’re changed, you will be equal to them. There will not be any law, any reasoning, that will keep you from doing what you want. And while you’ll always be tied to them, you’ll have power like you have never had before. And what you do with that power will be up to you,’’ she stood, ‘’think about it when it gets hard. Think about how you will get back at them for every asshole thing they do to you,’’ she smiled, ‘’and on the other hand, be open. They’re bonded to you. You don’t feel it, but there’s a deep-rooted instinct to protect you that will come out sooner or later. They want to care for you guys. So don’t always be prepared for the worst. Because Chase is a dick and Eric is an even bigger one, but Jordan is sweet, kind and much more accepting than you think, Alfie. And Alt...’’ she grinned at Finn, ‘’Alt loves you already,’’ she walked over to the kitchen doors as the boys sat in stunned silence. She pushed them open but then looked over her shoulder, ‘’oh, by the way, Alfie – your bodyguard is here. And he looked like something out of a movie.’’
Later that night, the four of them sat around the fake-fire in the patio outside, relishing in their last moments of pseudo-freedom. Tomorrow, their lessons began.
‘’We need to get out of here,’’ Tommy said darkly, ‘’I don’t care if Chase has ‘good sides’. He doesn’t want to be around me, and I don’t want to be around him. I have a degree to finish. This,’’ he gestured out at the dark valleys, ‘’is an expensive prison that I don’t intend to stay in.’’
‘’Yeah,’’ Finn drew his legs up to his chest and hooked his hands under them, ‘’but how? My bodyguard is some crazy ninja lady. She nearly stabbed me to death with her umbrella.’’
‘’I don’t think Eric would care if I went,’’ Brín admitted thoughtfully, staring into the fire, ‘’Napoleon is my problem. But if I can get past him, then Eric wouldn’t chase me. And maybe I could get someone to help you out here. Maybe notify your families...’’
Alfie rubbed his face, ‘’this is such a mess,’’ he groaned, ‘’it’s not fair. I was being kind and I got kidnapped for it, in broad daylight, which is illegal. Finn practically got smoked out of his house. Tommy, you got stolen from a balcony – again, illegal! And Brín, you didn’t have a choice but to be outside,’’ he sighed, ‘’those fucking old bastards.’’
The others muttered their agreement.
Eventually, they all fell asleep around the fake fire on the couches on the patio, not wanting to leave Brín alone and not willing to go back to their rooms with their bonds. When they awoke the next morning, Finn was gone, carried gently by Alt to bed in the night, and the rest of them had blankets tucked around them, the work of Jordan or Napoleon, most likely. Brín woke up first and he sat up, brushing dew from his long-ish red hair. He sat there for a good hour, watching the sun flood the valley.
For a moment there, it didn’t look like a prison at all.