The evening bonfires were quiet. Tense. Alec was sure most of the clan knew what he planned to do tonight, even if Nahele didn't. Nahele's beta, Hyrad, should have sensed the rumblings, the intent to challenge, and told the Alpha, but Hyrad had never been that great of a beta. It was just one more reason Alec thought a change was needed. When the one who is supposed to be watching the Alpha's back can't be bothered, how was the clan itself safe?
He tossed his bowl of glistening meat aside, nodding when three young cubs sniff at it. There was no reason for the food to go to waste. The three descended on it hungrily, and Alec chuckled. A few months after he took over, if he took over, he'd need to mate with one of the strongest females and produce a litter. It had been years since he'd had cubs of his own. The cubs left nothing behind, and when the central bonfire had begun to die, Alec stood. His heart pounded in his ears, and he was afraid. As afraid as he was, though, he was just as determined. The clan needed him. The clan needed change, and he was willing to die to bring it about.
Alec stopped on the opposite side of the small bonfire Nahele, Hyrad, and three of the elder clan members claimed as their own. Nahele smiled when he approached, but when their eyes met, the smile faded.
"Alec," Nahele said, putting aside his empty bowl.
It was now or never. Alec took a deep breath, his voice carrying easily when he spoke. "Nahele, you are no longer fit to be Alpha," he said, and was surprised that his voice was so steady. "It's time for you to step down and another to step up."
The gathering all but exploded into a sea of murmurs, and Alec watched Nahele's eyes grow wide with shock. The seconds it took for that shock to turn to anger were like an eternity as Alec stood there, refusing to step back or show any sign of weakness.
"Silence!" Nahele roared, and the clan immediately hushed, all eyes turning to Nahele as he stood. "I have served this clan for centuries. I have helped us unite, grow, and prosper." Nahele's eyes bored into Alec. "I will not yield my position, nor will I step down."
Alec felt his heart pound in his throat, but he allowed himself only one swallow, his tail swishing behind him resolutely. "Then I challenge you for the title of Alpha and will meet you in the challenge field to prove myself your worthy successor."
The crowd of feral-Maith broke out into murmurs again. A few even cheered him on, clapping and yelling encouragements. Alec thought he might be sick just from the effort it took not to tremble in the swarm of energy around him. Before he could show any sign of his condition, he turned abruptly and walked away from the bonfires toward the clearing where the fight would take place.
Part of him had hoped, albeit naively, that Nahele would simply step down, but he knew Nahele. The Alpha's pride would never let him step down without a fight, not when challenged to his face. Nahele might have relinquished his position and allowed another to rule the clan before, but that was hundreds of years ago, long before he had been born. The moment Nahele had wanted the position again, he had easily defeated the reigning alpha wolf.
Alec was scared. He walked to the clearing without a backward glance, both because he didn't want to appear weak, and because he didn't want to see Nahele's expression, the anger or betrayal or shock. He had to steady himself, prepare to fight without losing his nerve.
Every feral-Maith in the settlement, save for the youngest children, surrounded the clearing. Alec stood proud in the center, head high. He wouldn't back down. He couldn't back down. This was it. Good or bad, he had challenged his beloved friend and strong alpha. He would have to see this through. Alec thought his heart would leap into his throat when Nahele entered the wide, bare circle, tall and broad and deadly.
Alec didn't delude himself. Nahele had taken the position of Alpha from Breedahn six centuries ago, and Breedahn hadn't given up the seat of power easily. The battle had raged for almost an hour before Nahele chose to make a killing blow, and no other had dared challenge him since. Would Nahele kill him tonight? How badly did Nahele want to keep his place in the clan? And how badly did Alec want to take it from him?
"Do you recant your challenge?" Nahele growled across the clearing as torches were lit and staked into the ground around the perimeter.
"Do you refuse to do what is right for the clan and step down?" Alec managed to growl back, forcing thoughts of the clan's well-being to override his fear and give him strength.
The fire of the torches glinted dangerously in Nahele's eyes. "No," Nahele all but spat at him.
"Then you have my answer."