There is darkness everywhere. Why is it so dark? My eyes, normally so sharp and vigilant, are blind to my surroundings. My heart is pounding too loudly for my to rely on my keen hearing; all I can hear is the rapid slamming of my heart against the frail bone of my ribs. My sense of smell is the last arrow in my quiver of instinctual tools to help guide me from this peril.
I take a deep breath, trying to ease my lungs from their restrictive bonds as I inhale through my nose: warm, wet earth, the rich smell of pine. And everywhere, EVERYWHERE, there are the scents of strangers- enemies, dangers. I can hear them distantly, hunting through the trees and underbrush, wild with the primal desire of the hunt. Their claws scrape against the ground, their massive shoulders shoving aside stones and fallen tree limbs. They are of my kind yet their eyes may as well glow red like the demons of the Underworld. They are beasts.
They will find me. They will tear the skin from my shattered bones and laugh as I scream-
My feet begin moving again on instinct. Despite my bloody soles and bruised toes, I stumble along, determined. They will not catch me. I will not give them that satisfaction.
A low rumbling stops me in my tracks. It is so deep, so powerful, that at first I think it can only be that of a storm moving in overhead, booming thunder preparing to stake its claim. What else could create such a terrifying noise?
But I am not afraid of thunder. Thunder does not make the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Thunder does not send a stab of uncontrollable fear into my heart, stealing my air and washing my cheeks in fresh tears. No, thunder is not what is lurking behind me this night.
I hear the low growl again, so loud it vibrates into the earth. I do not turn to the look at the wolf behind me, the one who will be lucky enough to draw my blood. How did he find me so quickly? I am frozen solid, a block of ice carved from deep within an artic cave.
More tears. I close my eyes as I hear him approaching. Will he be merciful? Will my death be quick? Or will it be drawn out, strictly for the pleasure of pride and bloodlust?
Something brushes against the skin of my back, too harsh to be a breeze, too warm to be the wind.
It is his breath and he has come to devour me-
The wind is knocked from my lungs as my body slips from the cot of my bed (probably tossed and thrown around in my unconscious state) slamming into the hard ground below. My leg lands awkwardly beneath me and I groan, eyes flying open.
It is a moment longer before my mind, sluggish and still hazy with sleep, slowly begins to peel away the fog of my nightmare, revealing reality.
Sunlight streams bright and golden through the huts window. And I am not lost in the dark, being hunted by a predator.
At least not awake, A small voice in my head whispers cruelly.
I sigh and lean my forehead back against the hard ground of the hut- my familys home. It, like all the other huts on my packs land housing mates and their pups, is small, only one room with one window, all made out of clapboard and the wood from fallen trees. No floor or carpeting is provided. Instead, we use the grass and the dirt.
The hut itself is sparsely furnished. Only three cots (one for me, one for my brother, and one for my parents) and a small black pot in the center of the room, situated carefully in a small pile of kindling and coals.
Peeling myself from the ground, I peer closer, noticing the coals are warm, the kindling already burnt. Mama has already made her tea with papa and left for the day. I glance back to my brothers bed. I am not surprised to find it empty. Ethan is three years my elder and training hard in the service of our Alpha. He is one of our swiftest and strongest warriors and hopes to one day earn a rare coveted spot at Alpha Sorens side. He has probably already been up for hours.
Something sharp slices across my heart as I remember I, too, would be in training, were it not for my "condition" as mama so delicately puts it. If it were not for the shame I cause my family every day by continuing to exist, not quite apart of their world- not quite apart of any world. I will always be in between.
The thought makes me hesitate to leave the safety of our small home. Plain and wild as it may be, its thin walls (cut from the very trees in our forest by my father) provide protection, a place to hide. Somewhere where the eyes of my pack members can not follow me, sharp and hating me for my weakness and the embarrassment it brings them.
Wolves are prideful beings. And they will not tolerate vulnerability.
Not only that but the nightmare still clings to my skin, cold and clammy from the encounter. Sweat coats my wild hair and the back of my neck. Though I am so shaken, however, the memory of the nightmare grows dimmer and dimmer the harder I try to focus on it. The only thing left imprinted is the fear left back twisting my lungs, closing my throat. This has happened every time I have had the nightmare- every night for the last six months.
With the drastic repetition, I had been able to glean some things as the months passed.
I had been in the forest. Possibly lost? There had been the feeling of absolute fear, the kind one only felt when their death must be near. Before the nightmares, I had never felt such a gut-shredding terror, such a naked, child-like vulnerability. And there had been a wolf, though my memory only stretched far enough only to remind me the creature had been a terrifying force, something so brutally overwhelming in its powerful, untamed nature that I had been forced to wake up. Every. Time.
The nightmares have never gone further. And I am still left wondering whether or not I lived or died before I woke.
Mama is the only one who knows. As she has been so many times before, she is my secret confidante, though we have never once had to discuss the nightmares aloud. It only took four days before she realized the nightmares were something more than just a restless sleep, that they would no doubt be back each night for a length of time before they finally vanished.
The morning of the fifth day, I woke, teary and fearful, to find a small mug of steaming tea, wrapped in delicate stems of lavender and rosemary, at the head of my cot. It had smelled faintly of the herbs my mother and the other females often gathered and I knew without asking (though I wouldn have been able to; everyone had already left) that it was both a tonic (no doubt to ward off nightmares) and a gift from mama. A gift saying she would not pry but she would help. She would not tell papa or Ethan but she would be there to listen, should I ever need it. A precious and private moment of affection between a mother and her pup.
Being affectionate is usually reserved only between siblings, mates, and mates with their pups, in our pack. Typically mates are the only ones to indulge in public displays of affection- often pushing the limits between heated passion and mating. My mama and papa are the rare exception. While they show no open displays of emotion or affectionate behavior outside the hut, me and Ethan are spoiled, the jewels of our parents eyes.
Not to say they have never been strict. Off in the distance, I hear a distinct howl and hastily glance out the one window. It is barely dawn but my chores demand nothing less than absolute punctuality if I wish to be home in time for dinner this evening. I do not want to face the wrath of mama and papa, or Alpha Soren, Goddess-forbid.
Stooping next to my cot, I grab the fresh mug of tea mama has left and swallow it in three large gulps before stepping outside.
It is still late spring yet the summer humidity seems to have already found us, the sun blazing yellow and orange overhead, feeding and frying plants alike. Even through the thick canopies provided by the dense clusters of oak and pine trees provide some shade, it is impossible not to feel the heat.
Despite the uncomfortable temperatures, however, there is a feeling of excitement, the kind that only comes once a year when the season changes, bringing blazing fires, honeyed-wine and Beltane, a High Holiday celebrated with dancing and The Hunt, where the males hunt for almost two days before returning with a feast. And, when the leaves begin to change, those who are mated will go into heat and hope to conceive a pup.
Just stepping outside my familys hut, I can feel the electricity in the air, the excitement and anticipation that comes with change. I step outside just as four or five pups scamper by, squealing with excitement as they head to the river with one or two other older females- their mothers no doubt.
I give each of them a smile. They are young, perhaps only six or seven, far too young to Shift yet. Males do not begin the change until their twelfth year; females not until their fourteenth. They will still be able to bite and wrestle as carelessly as they wish for a little while longer.
I try not to think about their bright little futures, the happiness they will experience when they finally know the joy of meeting their wolf.
Despite the glaring heat, almost everyone in the pack seems to have already woken, moving barefoot across the vast green expanse of grass between the trees. Males go to and from the woods, chopping wood, hunting, and fishing before alternating either to training or Guard patrol, occasionally stopping to visit their heavily pregnant females or lounge in the shade for a brief respite. Females with pups or females too old to mother or train, work in the gardens, pulling weeds, plantings seeds, plucking fruits and vegetables. Females in training, strong, athletic young women, walk in groups to their morning chores, dressed only in scant loincloths and strips of fabric to cover their breasts, long legs and arms bare for all to see.
This is the uniform of every unmated female: unrestrictive and lightweight, easy to train and do chores in and easy to Shift in. Only when a female becomes mated does she change her clothes to cover more of her body; any prideful male will accept nothing else, lest their female craves jealous bloodshed.
Males wear only loincloths year round, their muscled legs and torsos barred to the world at all times.
I remember mamas teachings, whispered to Ethan and I as we fell asleep as pups: We come from the earth, from the wolves whose blood split long ago and still runs through our veins. We try to honor nature as the Goddess would intend, living amongst the trees, away from humans, giving back what we receive by growing our own crops and raising our own livestock.
Thinking of livestock, I turn to the east and began making my way towards the fields kept just on the edge of the tree line, protected by wooden fences and a sturdy-looking stable of oak-wood, housing the cows and pigs. Off to the left of the stable, sit the cluster of chicken coops. The sound of clucking and shrill squawks can be heard across the forest.
Animals are always tricky. Though we always approach in human form, they sense the second soul within us, the soul of a wolf and the soul of a predator. They seem to sense the danger we truly mask beneath the surface and it often makes it difficult to gain both their trust and their obedience. Only the females usually interact with the livestock in our pack, taking the liberty of doing the milking and the shearing of wool.
Because of my "condition," animals do not fear me. They not do sense me in what they sense in my pack members, in my kind. If I were normal, if I were what I should be, they would squeal and scream in fear every time I came near. They would sense the predator sleeping inside my soul and know instinctually they were in danger.
But in me, they sense only the soul of a human. Only me. For this reason, for the embarrassment in what I represent, my pack members find me shameful. Few meet my gaze. Those who do glare and bare their teeth. They do not have to speak aloud for me to know what they are thinking:
They would kill me if they could. They would be rid of me and the scandal I have caused. Only the loyalty of my brother and father have kept me alive thus far.
Well, at least not everyone wishes for my death.
I turn and smile as Lena makes her way to me, positively bubbly despite the early hour. She is beautiful in the way that makes even the breeze still, the kind of beauty that leaves every unmated male staring after her in awe, hoping to claim her one day as their own. Blessed with luscious caramel skin spread across long legs, perky breasts and hour-glass curves, she is young, vibrant and athletic, the ideal image of perfection, the female all males want to carry their pup.
Even more magnetic than her alluring body, however, is the energy she produces. There is always a small glint in her shining almond eyes, a charming smile always at the ready for anyone who needs it. Her compassion and supportive affection draws everyone close to her. Her free spirit and flower-child nature only make her more fascinating in their eyes. She has never once not met a stranger, but instead a friend she has not met yet.
Perhaps that is why she keeps company with me. Perhaps she sees me as some lonely little outcast, in need of friendship and empathy. I hope she instead enjoys my jokes, my witty stories, but even I can not argue my nonexistent lack of resources in friends or social skills.
I try to shove the thought away as Lena loops her arm through mine, her wild black curls brushing against our bare shoulders. Though she is one of our finest females in training, she has not cut off her hair as so many of the other females do; long hair can be a weakness while fighting human. Then again, though she is kind, Lena has always done whatever it is she pleases.
"You were nearly late" I joke with her as we continue to the stables.
She sighs. "I know, I know. I was delayed."
I raise a pointed eyebrow. "Delayed" could mean anything from her oversleeping for the thousandth time or waylaid by some gooey-eyed male. My instincts assume she was still drooling on her pillow. "Oh what excuse is it this time? You lit the hut on fire again?"
"You know that was an accident."
"Your father doesn think so" I snicker as she scowls, playfully shoving me away. I laugh as I stoop to pick up the milking buckets. Lenas father is Beta and finds his daughters free-spirited yet wild antics exasperating. "Ethan says he was ranting about it two mornings ago."
"That was three years ago!" Lena rolls her eyes, clearly exasperated herself. Her expression abruptly changes as I hand her a bucket, her eyes lighting up as a wicked grin spreads across her normally innocent-angelic features. "Speaking of my father."
I roll my own eyes. "You are so nosey. Let me guess, you snooped on him?"
We settle on the small stools used to sit while milking, Lena beside me as she begins to squeeze and fill her bucket. Her cow fidgets, unsettled by her presence. Mine merely looks on, bored. Around us, there are the sounds of animals calling out, shuffling around as pack members outside move to and fro.
Lena scowls. "I am not nosey! For someone who claims to be so kind, you sure are quick to jump to conclusions."
"I have never once said I am kind."
She huffs again but is unable to argue. Even as nice as she is, even she can not miss my glaringly weak social skills, my anxious and nervous scowl when roaming the pack lands. Then again, she is the only one who has gotten close enough to see me smile. No one else ever would.
"Are you going to sit here continuing to interrupt me or do you want to hear the juicy news- secret juicy news- from the other pack lands?" Her smile is absolutely devious now and it strikes me that just as she is the only one to see my vulnerable side (outside of my family), perhaps I am the only who truly sees her mischievous one. Perhaps that is the foundation of our friendship: we each peal away the mask we wear to reveal something unexpected underneath.
I look up from my milking, startled. "The other pack lands?"
Though there are too many packs to count across the United States, each is separate but equal in power, like tiny kingdoms spread out across a continent. Each has its own morals, rules, and customs, some similar or completely different to others. Though we are all friendly to each other for the most part, there is a unspoken but clear rule: we do not step on another packs land without receiving permission. The only times we usually meet the members of other packs are during the rare trade of goods or upon invitation to a special event, such as Beltane or a Welcoming, though it has been several years since that last happened.
Alphas occasionally talk amongst each other, whether over the dispute over land or struggling to make some sort of trade agreement. Other pack members have very little communication with those beyond their own pack otherwise.
My curiosity seems to only excite Lena more. "Yes! My father was still home, running late for some reason. He seemed really frazzled and busy- even more so than usual. Just as he was leaving, Alpha Soren arrived."
I inhale quietly. Whatever Lena is about to tell me, it is information not to be shared.
As if sharing my apprehension, Lena looks around the empty stables before sliding her stool closer to mine, making my cow huff and startle, uncomfortable with her proximity. She keeps her voice low even though we are alone. "We are to have guests for Beltane this year."
"Beltane?" I frown. It is the Highest Holiday of the year, only one week away. The pack has been in a mad dash for weeks in preparation, the males hunting day and night for the feasts while the females create intricate decorations for the festivities, allowing their small pups to help. Those who are newly mated will craft gifts for their males, presented to them after performing in the traditional dance before The Hunt. It is an event that typically lasts up to three or four days, all filled with drinking, dancing, mating and feasting.
"Yes! Alpha Soren arrived in quite a huff, furiously telling my father that some powerful Alpha has begun the search for his mate. Apparently he is powerful enough to have demanded entry to the lands of several other packs."
I nod. This is not uncommon. Alphas typically do not begin the search for their mate until after they have taken their title and become fluent in the required actions and needs of their pack members. When they finally do begin the search, most travel from pack to pack, searching amongst the members until the mate is found. The few times one Alpha has refused entry to another to find his mate, it has ended in terrible bloodshed.
"But get this-" Lena is really excited now. "This mysterious demanding Alpha is not just strong. He is apparently one of the most respected and feared Alphas among our kind. Many females have been waiting for him to begin their search, desperately hoping they are Chosen for him. Alpha Soren informed my father that such a fuss has been made that several packs have come to an agreement to host Beltane here, so as to expose the Alpha to all unmated females at once."
"Beltane? Here?" I don even try to mask my surprise. We have not celebrated Beltane with another pack in years and we have welcomed guests even rarer. I don think another pack has set foot on our lands in almost seven years, aside from trades.
"Luna Bianca is having a fit. They were only given notice last night of the changes."
"Well that is quite rude" I agree amicably.
"She has the females training only once a day now so they can help in the preparations. After we are done with our chores, we are to report to her side."
I stare at the ground, chewing my lip. I don say anything for a moment. "Lee…I don think I am wanted there."
Lena looks up, confused. "What? Why? Luna Bianca will want all hands at the ready-"
"You know I do not participate in the festivities."
My friends eyes soften with understanding. "Ellie. No one has ever forbidden you."
"They are ashamed of me, Lena. They prefer I hide my face and suffer in silence. They would prefer my death if they could justify taking it. I do not know how they haven already."
Lenas expression hardens, an angry twist to her mouth. "They are fools. You can not help your condition."
Your condition. I try not to let those words turn bitter in my chest.
"It does not matter what I can help. I am eighteen years old and I can not Shift. My wolf is still dormant. No matter how hard I train, no matter how hard I try to wake her, she still sleeps. I am proof of a weakness this pack would rather see disemboweled."
My words are far more fierce and aching than I mean them to be, immediately wishing I could take them back the moment they pass my lips. I hate talking about this. I hate constantly having to relive over and over again every day of the living humiliation that I am.
The swelling hatred my pack members hold for me did not start this hostile. There are always late bloomers, of course- those who do not Shift for the first time until six months to a year after their twelfth or fourteenth birthday. At first, we all assumed that was the case.
I remember standing outside of our small hut for hours on end, straining to Shift, to wake my wolf inside; the other half to my soul. I remember Papa trying to soothe my tears as the days turned into weeks with no success. Mama held me every night after my failed attempts. Ethan was always kind, telling me over and over that it takes time for some.
I was frustrated but determined. I would master this. It was my birthright, the very instinctual nature of my mind and body.
But then one month became six.
Six became thirteen.
Thirteen became two years.
Two years became four.
By the time I was sixteen, my parents were beside themselves. I saw the pack Healer twice a day for eight months. I drank hundreds of different teas, tried hundreds of different meditations and exercises. Nothing worked.
My fellow pack members had already long taken notice of my disability, my vulnerability. Each day their pity chipped away a little more, slowly molding into embarrassment and hate. I was unfathomable to them. A Lycan not able to shift is like a person unable to breathe.