Derek holds up a finger when Peter walks in, scribbling a last note of instructions to his outriders. Once he’s done, he motions Peter forward, pressing his own seal into the wax.
“Apology to your Alpha?” Peter inquires, a small knowing smile curling up his lips.
“I’m not doing anything needing apologies, she’ll soon see that.” Derek passes the note to his squire, Tobie, who will see it to the proper messenger, and finally squares his attention on his uncle. “What news?”
Peter nods at the water jug, and Derek pours for both of them, deferring to age and experience as Peter settles in across from him in the temporary tent. It could very easily be Peter leading this revenge party, and not himself, and Derek realizes this. He and Peter are in similar situations - both the second Alphas of their line, which means, of course, they won’t inherit any of the Hale lands. The obvious, non-familiacidal way to get that land, then, is parties such as this.
The previous king had called a halt to this sort of thing, but then again, the current king, and more importantly, the current queen, surely wouldn’t object to Derek seeking revenge for offense to an Omega. Derek is just following the duty he owes to chivalry, to protect Omegas above all else. And if he happens to seize vital lands along the border they share with the Vancs, well, it will surely be seen as just rewards.
Peter had taken Derek under his wing back when Derek had turned five - he’d gone to live with Peter and his Omega, Blythe, in the eastern section of the Hale lands, more than a day’s ride from the manor he’d spent his childhood. He’d known it was coming; after all, his older sister has always been the first born Alpha, so he’d been told from his infancy that he’d provide for the family in other ways. It’s never easy being the second Alpha, but Peter had shown Derek how to be most useful to the Hale family - by becoming a knight. And Derek had taken to knighthood easily. He’d poured himself into combat, tactics, and even the mundane tasks of caring for an army. Talia Hale’s army, led by Peter and Derek.
Talia Hale, Alpha of the Hale lands, master of Beacon Hills, the manor on which Derek had grown up. Talia, whose keen intellect and strategic mind had made her one of the richest Alphas in the whole land, who held the ear of the King. Talia, his mother.
Talia, who had expressly forbidden him from exacting revenge on Kate Argent. Although, Talia doesn’t know what Kate’s done. Derek is sure he’ll be able to get his mother to see reason. After he has the keep, and Kate Argent’s blood adorning his sword.
“The Argents’ defense is pitiful. My scouts found guards just here, here, and here.” Peter makes marks on the map Derek had drawn himself.
“So when I must explain myself to the king, I can also tell him that I was also simply helping the Argents restructure their defenses. This fief borders the outerlands. What if the Argents fell to the Vancs? They put the whole kingdom of Calis at risk, like this.”
Peter eyes him with a sly grin. “That’s good, but keep working on it, nephew. Your heart still jumps as you say it.”
Derek ignores the grin, focusing on the map, wishing not for the first time that he had his uncle and mentor’s ease with deception. “We should push now. I want no fatalities, if possible. Warriors can be retrained easily under a new master. It’s Kate I want.”
Standing, he drains his water glass and begins the task of checking his equipment for battle.
The battle goes as expected, up until it doesn’t. He’d been expecting to take the normal guards of the keep easily. He’d been hoping that Kate’s personal guard would also be willing to lay down their arms. But even as those warriors who wore the plain brown garb of the inhabitants knelt before Derek’s warriors in surrender, a wave of Kate’s loyal troops, those wearing her special green insignia, came at them. Their intent had been clear: none of them would be surrendering, except to death.
In the middle of fighting, Derek has enough presence of mind to be suspicious. Kate’s soldiers seem to be drawing them into battles, not quick fights, and the more Derek clashes with them, the more he feels like he’s being intentionally distracted.
The thought creeps into his mind as he fells another soldier that Kate’s gone. She must be. These soldiers must have been left behind to keep him from being able to follow her. Which means Kate knew in advance that he was coming. Which means that someone in his own party must have warned her.
The realization distracts him for a moment, and the last green-bearing warrior between himself and the keep doors manages to slice into his side, under his armor. The pain turns to rage, which he uses to retaliate, and then there are no more distractions between himself and the inside of the keep.
“Peter, check the outbuildings,” he calls, though he already knows in his heart that it’s useless. If Kate’s anywhere, she’s in the keep, and he sincerely doubts she’s in there, either.
With a bloody hand, he pulls open the sturdy keep door - a small part of his mind admires the obvious handiwork in the upkeep of the manor building - leading with his sword, just in case.
None of Kate’s men attack him. In fact, there’s two single Alphas in brown uniforms protecting the entrance hall, and they kneel and lay down their weapons as soon as they see Derek. He bypasses them for now, taking a correct guess and sweeping to the left room into the great hall of the keep. Beyond a row of empty dining tables, down by the hearth, huddle a small group of servants.
These - and those that he knows Peter will find in the outbuildings and huts - these are the people Kate’s left alone, defenseless except for a few paltry home guards. Not just Alphas and Betas, but Omegas, too, left behind for Kate’s enemies to destroy.
His stomach roils against the thought. It’s unconscionable.
He knows he’s covered in blood - his own and others’ - and he’s sweaty from the battle. His Alpha musk is practically rolling off of him, a fact which he can’t help since he’s not exactly in the mood to go bath in the nearby, surely icy river at the moment. He can tell, though, the moment it hits the Betas and Omegas servants huddling together. He’s fairly sure one towards the back faints.
For this reason, he tries to keep the anger at Kate out of his voice. “I won’t hurt you,” he promises. “When did Kate leave?” Perhaps he can still catch her.
The huddled mass shivers, though, and Derek knows in his heart that he’s not going to be leaving this keep until they are properly defended. He opens his mouth to reassure them again, when one Beta servant steps forward.
The servant straightens his shoulders, and Derek isn’t sure whether the courage is false bravado or not. “Yesterday, sire.”
“What’s your name, Beta?”
“Scott,” he answers, crossing his arms over his chest. Derek decides he likes the boy’s courage.
“And what is your job?”
“I’m the housekeep, sire.”
Derek’s pleased with his answer - the housekeep knows every secret a keep has. He tries to smile, but Scott scowls at his attempt. Still, he pushes on. “Scott, walk with me. I would like to refresh myself in your kitchens.” And interrogate you about my new home.
“The rest of you- the battle is over. No harm will come to you. You may return to your quarters.” The smile is still unsuccessful, if the other servants’ scared faces are anything to go by, but they all, as a huddle, start to make their way out of the great hall.
One boy remains, though, and Scott nods at him. “Yes, Isaac?”
“Will you-” Isaac looks at Scott imploringly, then the floor, then Derek.
Already secrets reveal themselves, Derek muses.
Scott gives a brief nod, pressing his lips together tightly. “Isaac, I’d like you to stay awake, in case-” He cuts himself off and turns to Derek. “Is there someone he may coordinate with to best settle your warriors in for the night?”
“Find Tobie, my squire. She’ll be caring for the big Black in the courtyard, more than likely, but the two of you can see to the crowd.” Derek gives an approving nod at Scott. “That’s a good idea.”
The praise doesn’t seem to do much to quell Scott’s obvious uneasiness with him, but he gives a nod at Isaac, who scurries away. “Thank you, Alpha. This way.”
“Please, Master Hale is fine.”
Scott nods, his mouth a thin line. He doesn’t look at all surprised by the news of Derek’s name, which is further proof that Derek has treachery among his ranks. He adds an investigation to the growing list of tasks he needs to complete.
As they walk, Derek asks gently probing questions about the keep and its residents, the atmosphere under Kate and at other times. He can tell, though, that whatever Isaac prompted Scott with earlier is still on his mind. Derek is pleased when the Beta finally decides to trust him with the secret. It takes the walk through the entire keep, outside, and across the small walkway to the kitchens before Scott stops Derek with a hand on his arm.
He looks at Derek’s face, judging, before looking down and away. Derek follows his line of sight to the body of one of Kate’s personal soldiers.
“My warriors will be cleaning up the...mess immediately, once the keep has been totally secured and guard duties set,” Derek reassures, assuming Scott is upset at the sight of blood. “By morning, your people will be able to walk through here.”
He’s surprised when Scott’s eyes flash gold. “I cared not for that villainous bastard.” He spits on the ground, at the feet of the broken body. “I care not for Kate.”
Derek measures him up, straightening to his full Alpha height. “We agree there, then.”
“I care not for any of the Alpha-lords,” Scott spits out, before looking regretful for his outburst. “But I have a question for you.”
Derek arches an eyebrow, crossing his own arms over his chest. “Oh?”
“Rumors say that the reason you are here is to seek revenge on Kate because she pupped an innocent Omega and refused to do the honorable thing.”
“The honorable thing would have been to not rape the Omega in the first place.” Derek feels his rage rising to the surface once more. “But the rumors are correct. She pupped one of my sister's handmaidens. An honorable Omega from a proud family, ruined.”
Scott gives a little nod, like he has found Derek’s answer satisfactory. His whole manor changes to one of desperation, and he clutches at Derek’s sleeve. “I must ask you a favor, sire.”
Derek’s brows draw together. “What’s that?”
“You must- you have to save him.” Scott tugs on his arm again. “Come, I must show you. I’ll explain on the way.”
Derek’s side aches, and so does his stomach, the fuel he burned in battle making itself known. But he can’t turn away from the Beta’s scared determination, and he follows.