I shake my head, angry that Ive upset myself. There is no point in raging about what I can not change. Too many years I spent punching trees, screaming into the night, begging the Goddess for answers. It will not help. It is best simply not to think of any of it at all. At least, that is the only coping skill I have found. "I can not participate, Lena. Especially not this year."
I shudder, a new thought creeping into my brain. "They will want to hide me. Mama and Papa will keep me in the hut. They will not want so many strangers on our land, let alone near me. Someone could find out about me." I do not have to finish. The words hang heavy in the air anyway:
And if they do they will kill me.
They are not bound to my packs laws and even if they were, no one other than my own family would be upset. And, in all of the chaos on so many guests and strangers and events, whose to say someone from my own pack will not go ahead and take matters into their own hands? They could easily blame it on another pack after everyone has gone and discovered my body.
This is my life. A constant, ever-growing anxiety that my death is near. How does one continually exist knowing at any moment, anyone could take up a blade or- more likely- slash my throat with their own claws? As cowardly as it is, I can not allow myself to completely soften even to Lena- Lena, who is made of light, so gentle for our kind.
Perhaps years of constant fear and shame have broken my brain.
Lena covers her hand with my own. She looks surprisingly crestfallen. "But don you want to dance? Partake in the wine? We could dance beneath the stars. I could braid your hair with flowers. You could very well meet your mate, with so many guests coming! This could be your chance!"
Her hopeful words stab at my heart and I withdraw my hand, turning my face away so she can not see the tears in my eyes. She has struck a nerve.
I feel Lena wince. She knows it as well, though she doesn know what nerves she has struck. She doesn know I WANT to go to the Beltane festival. I want to dance with Lena around the blazing fires in the fields, to drink the sweet honeyed wine prepared by the females. I want to laugh and sing and act as any unmated female should be allowed to- shamelessly. Freely. I want to lose myself for just a single night and dance along the breeze as if I have no worries in the world, even if that is all my world is made up.
And, more than anything, I want to meet a male. MY male. I want to prepare with Lena, dressed in only my finest attire, and blush and shyly peek around as I dance, hoping someone will come for me. I want to be stolen away and kissed until I am breathless, as I have seen so many other mates do. I want to fall in love. I want someone to love ME.
For so many years before I came of age to Shift, I daydreamed and doodled all day and night, so swept away in the idea of a true love out there waiting for me. A strong, confident male like a knight in shining armor, come to sweep me away and love me with a love unlike anything else I have ever known. I dreamed of bearing pups, of being a proud warrior my male could look upon proudly. I dreamed of being spoiled, of what it felt like to be someones Queen, the very center of someones universe.
But then the years passed and those dreams died with my chances of Shifting, of meeting my wolf and becoming a complete version of myself. Sometimes I find myself staying up late into the night wondering if I was a puzzle, what essential pieces would be missing from me? Is it the lack of my own strength that leaves me incomplete or is it knowing that because of what I am, because of what I will never be able to be, there is no knight in shining armor waiting out there for me?
But these are things I will never be able to say aloud. These are the hope-filled, vulnerable dreams of an innocent child and I am no longer a child. I no longer have the luxury of hope. Hope is dangerous. So many times I have had it ripped away. I think back to how many times I have cried myself to sleep after Healer Hyacinth told me for the millionth time that the treatments hadn worked, that my wolf remains dormant. I think about people shoving me to the ground, baring their teeth at me everywhere I go. Hope has a way of burrowing beneath layers of armor, always finding a way to slip through and leave you more vulnerable than ever, then destroyed when that hope burned out like a flame in the wind.
I can not allow the foolish dreams of a child to cloud my judgement. If I allow that seed to fester, it will ultimately destroy me when even that is taken from me.
All I can do is focus on each and every moment, always in the present, never once thinking of the future, always lost in the past. Right now, survival is all I can hope for.
My voice is very quiet when I finally answer. "I have no mate, Lena."
"Everyone is destined for a mate, Eledy."
My words are firm. "I have no wolf. I am all but human. There is no male out there waiting for me."
"Ellie, don be so down. Even Healer Hyacinth said it may yet happen. You may still just be a late bloomer."
"Or I could be a dud. Im eighteen years old and have not once Shifted, have not once spoken with my wolf, have not once dreamed of my mate." My tone is hard, final. I will not be hopeful in this, not for Lena and certainly not for myself. I have spent too many nights crying myself to sleep over the loss I have endured. "Healer Hyacinth said I may be a late bloomer but she also said I may never Shift. That we may never know why this happened."
"What do Alpha Soren and Luna Bianca think?" I do not miss the hidden worry in her words.
"They are aware, Im sure, but neither have said anything to me personally, or my family. Perhaps after it is brought to their attention they will banish me to live with the humans." Or save the trouble and kill me themselves.
Lena gasps, horrified. "They would never! You are our kin, of our blood. To banish you from your own kind is a punishment no one should ever have to receive." She grips my wrist and her fingers are strong, leaving red marks along my skin. I can see the determination in her dark eyes. "My father is Beta. I will not allow them to cast you aside. Or harm you."
I shake my head. "You don have that kind of power, Lee." I sigh, picking up my bucket, now full. "Even the Goddess seems to have turned Her back on me."
Lenas expression is fierce. "Just because you can Shift does not mean you don have a mate. You are our kind. You have that right, if nothing else."
I give her a sad smile as I depart. "Unfortunately, I don think I have a right to demand anything anymore, Lee."
Males are strictly trained away from the females in our pack. This has been an absolute rule since long before either I or my parents were born. While the unmated females train under the tutelage of the Luna, studying her exquisite fighting, the males serve under Alpha Soren. I have heard it is to keep the unmated sexes away from each other, out of principle to the mate bond. Ethan says that is nonsense.
It is because the males are trained so brutally.
Our females are strong, swift, and deadly in the face of any adversary but, because the males are so much larger and more powerful, they are held to an insane degree of fitness and expertise in hand to hand combat, fighting while Shifted, and advance skills in knives and daggers. As males, they will be the packs main defense, the front line both proud and eager to defend their females and pups. For this, they train their entire lives.
Usually females and males train at the same time of day, so there is little chance for interaction anyway. I alone am the exception because I do not train.
Because of this, I sometimes sneak away after my chores to watch Ethan train. He has berated me so many times as only an older brother can for this. He fears I will discovered spying, though it is not an expression rule for members not to watch, and be punished by Aloha Soren. Not only that, but he worries the training will scare me and make me worry for him. Sometimes it has, though I have not told him. There was one day I watched in horrified silence as Ethan was made to fight six other males at once and, when he was defeated, he was struck multiple times by Alpha Soren across the back, leaving him bloody and gashed for days.
"It is the price we males pay," He had told me, holding my hand as I cried at his side. "To defend our mate and our blood." He never cried once.
Blood does not scare me. It is natural to be spilt, even to spill anothers. There is no other way of life among our kind. But blood spilt from the ones I love terrifies me like nothing else.
Ethan has fought me coming to his trainings for years, even going as far as threatening to tell mama and papa, though we both know he would never.
Like my parents, I am the jewel of Ethans eye, the younger sister he begged our parents for as a toddler. And, though he doesn say it, I know he is secretly proud of his accomplishments and strength and secretly pleased I want to watch him. He knows I still watch from the safety of the camouflaged wilderness despite his lectures and, though he would never admit it, he seems to show off a bit more once hes noticed my subtle, almost non-existent scent. It had rapidly began fading after my fourteenth birthday.
Not only do I like watching Ethan, but I am also a curious creature and am secretly fascinated by the strength of the males in our pack. It is a strength I will never get to know, not because I am not a male, but because I can not even Shift, a natural instinct of our kind. I could be the strongest human ever and still not compare to them, to their heightened senses, their incredible strength and savagery.
Because my scent is so faint, it is easy to slip through the woods, not invisible but definitely unnoticeable. Though I am not strong, I am incredibly quick and quiet. Ethan used to yell and fuss when we were pups playing tag because he could never catch, or eventually, find me when I slipped away.
Now I slip through the same trees, nimbly ducking beneath branches as my feet fly over hard-packed earth and springy green moss. Squirrels and other small animals ignore me, scampering across the decomposing bodies of dead trees, running through hollow logs as they fight for nuts and berries. Among the thick green canopies of the pine and oak, birds chirp and squawk to each other, filling the stillness with their song.
I close my eyes for a moment as I run, savoring the quiet, savoring the cool breeze that stirs up my hair and the scents of mushrooms, green grass, and pine. Though I can not Shift and may not even be one of my own kind, nature calls to me, singing a perfect harmony to the unique melody of my soul. After too many days hiding away in my familys hut, the forest is a safe haven, where even the worried eyes of my parents and brother can not find me.
If I wish to cry or rage in frustration, I can do it completely alone here. Only here can I completely fall apart. Even the bonds of sibling-hood and parent to pup have their limitations when it comes to strength and the natural order.
But it is not one of those days. Today, I merely wish to watch my brother train.
It is another fifteen minutes before I begin to approach the clearing the males train in. It is as vast as a football field, empty save for the occasional crate of knives and the three or four dozen males training there. Thick bushes ring the perimeter, probably in an attempt for more privacy. For other wolves, this would be an issue. But because I am so small and not Shifted, it is easy to lower myself onto my belly and crawl beneath their thick foliage, careful to stay low to the ground and only go as far as the middle of their thickness so as not to be seen. My heightened eyesight makes it easy to spy through the tiny breaks in the branches and leaves.
Having done this so many times before, I go ahead and get comfortable, settling down on my elbows and resting my head on my chin.
In the clearing, training has already long been underway. Each and every male is Shifted, huge and hulking in their second form. All of their fur is drenched in sweat, leans muscles stretching beneath skin, bone and fur. Even from a distance they are intimidating, as tall as a horse with the claws and canines of a beast. They ARE beasts. Absolute predators.
I flinch, briefly thinking back to my earlier nightmare and what it felt like to be the prey of such a creature.
Outside the bushes, I watch as wolves fight each other one on one today, though that doesn make it any less terrifying as they rip and claw at each other, each determined to plant the other on the ground. There is not an ounce of restraint or mercy in their movements. Our enemies would not show them that and that is why they must not hold back.
I look amongst the pairs of wolves, looking for Ethans honey-amber coat amongst all the black and brown. Ah, there he is, squaring off against a wolf I do not know. Based off of how many other wolves had won or submitted, the fight has been going on for a long time. My brothers opponent is doused in sweat, mighty chest heaving with breath as he circles Ethan who, to his credit, appears only slightly winded.
I smile to myself. Ethan was so frustrated when he first began to Shift, infuriated he was so small and slight compared to his friends. Now he is the biggest of all the males present, even those older than him.
I watch as the two males circle each other. Even from here I can feel the tension in the atmosphere, the crackling ferocity between the two males vying for dominance. I shiver, watching as Ethan suddenly lashes out, fangs bared as he tackles the other wolf to the ground. Fur and blood fly as the two pound into the ground, so strong and mighty that when they strike into a nearby tree, the trunk cracks, threatening to fall over. Claws and teeth, saliva and blood. Aggressive, dominating pheromones leak from both of them, the instinctual need to crush anything that defies their will raging.
Neither will submit until one is too bloody to continue.
Nearby, the other males yowl and growl, cheering for their favorite. This is almost as exciting for them as fighting themselves. Males are prideful, dominating beasts and they crave this kind of destruction and chaos. Anything to prove they are the best.
I watch nervously, my eyes tracking Ethans every move. There is no need for me to worry; he will obviously be the victor. Still, I can not help but worry for him. More than one female has died in training and multiple males do every few years. We train to become deadly, even to our own kind.
Ethan is making his move out in the clearing. Tackling the other male to the ground (shaking the earth beneath them) he quickly overpowers him and locks his mighty jaws around the males neck. Were it a real fight, Ethan would tear out his throat. Instead, the other male merely cocks his head far to the side, lowering his eyes, showing his submission and his admission of defeat.
Howls and yips boom as the match ends and Ethan lets go of his opponent. He is kind enough to help the other male rise back to his paws and they seem to share a sense of comrade, as many males in the pack do, soldiers amongst the trenches together. Ethan is not only popular for his prowess in battle but also for his charitable and kind nature. Many have offend remarked on what a good Alpha he would have made, what an incredible Beta he still may become.
I wonder if others are disappointed when they see the two of us standing together, comparing our skills and attributes. They probably look at the two of us and wonder if Ethan got everything- all of the strength and resounding social skills, the skilled leadership and wisdom in battle. He is even better looking than me with his forest-green eyes and amber-brown hair. Mama says I have her ferocity and papas cunning but it is more than likely she says this only to comfort me, not because it is the truth.
I watch Alpha Soren, a massive and terrifying sight of white fur and muscle, more a bear than a wolf as he looks out over the males he has trained since they were born. It is impossible to tell but I think he is pleased with Ethans match. He moves to bump my brother with his nose before looking at all of the males, now gathered. He must be speaking to them through the pack bond, a silent language spoken only through the mind, connecting those with a second soul, the soul of a wolf. It is a skill one adapts after beginning to Shift.
Yet another one I did not develop.
I watch as Alpha Soren lets out a sharp bark and swiftly turns to leave. Several males follow him, others falling back to talk with friends. Some remain in the clearing, still trying to recover from the day of harsh exercise.
I slowly begin to squirm backwards, easing out of my bush and my hidey-hole. I should have already left. Usually I leave ten or fifteen minutes before the trainings end so that there is a wide enough birth between me and the males who would be irate to find me here but I was distracted by Ethans match. He, too, will be furious if he finds out I am still here, possibly in danger.
Finally making my way out of the bush, I crawl to my feet, brushing away the loose twigs and leaves in my hair as I prepare to hurriedly depart-
"Well, well, well" A voice calls out.
"Look who it is, D! The defect!"
Two males stand before me, arms crossed and cruel grins wide as they survey me, so much smaller and caught by surprise. Though they are currently human, they each ripple with muscle and strength, so much so that I must appear like a baby deer to them- easy prey.
One of the two steps forward. He is tall but not as tall as Ethan, with curling light hair almost boarding on grey, like gunmetal. He and his friend both appear my brothers age but I have never seen either of them until now.
"What is a tiny little thing like you doing out here?" The male asks me, his dark eyes gleeful in my upcoming humiliation. His tone is high-pitched and condescending, as if speaking to a child or someone mentally unstable.
I do not answer. Standing before them, I feel just as vulnerable and weak as a pup, utterly defenseless in the wake of their obvious hostility. I am more than a head shorter than both of them and no doubt weight at least a hundred pounds less. I can not Shift. But perhaps they only mean to humiliate me. Surely they can not kill me right here, with so many witnesses only a few hedges away? Or maybe they will. Besides my brother, who has probably already left with Alpha Soren, thinking I am gone, no one would come to my defense.
"What? Did the Goddess steal your tongue, along with your birthright?" The other male leers. Despite his sticky pleasant tone, there is a clear edge, a sick thrill of excitement. Some wolves are guided more by their human conscience than their wild, beastly one. Clearly these males rely only on their dominating, predator instincts. They see me as a piece of prey to hunt them corner.
My heart slams unevenly against my ribs as my lungs constrict, withholding my oxygen. I can feel my fight or flight instinct rearing its head, urging me to run from this place as fast as I can. I will not be fast enough, though. They will catch me and they will hurt me, if not kill me.
"I-I was just l-looking my brother" I say without thinking, my words halting and unsure. My mouth feels dry, my tongue thick. Their grins widen. They know I am afraid. Even if they do nothing to me, this alone satisfies them.
"Big bubby isn here" The first male pouts his lips as if he is sympathetic or sorry for me. "And you shouldn be either."
"Yes, Alpha Soren will be furious" The second says happily.
"Should we tell him, D?"
"Why bother? Shell be dead the night of Beltane anyway." The males eyes stare straight into mine, forcing every word to stab into me until they stick and I feel my gut clench. "No point in beating an already dead horse- xcuse me- human."
Dead the night of Beltane.
I gape at both of them. For a moment I can not comprehend what they are saying- what they are promising. "W-What are you talking about?"
The first male seems delighted by my horrified reaction. He turns to his friend, faking forgetfulness. "Oh but wait- we aren to speak about Beltane to the females."
"Ah, yes" The second sighs. "What a shame. She will simply have to wait for the first night." He gives me a sad, knowing look, as real as a wax apple. "I would go ahead and start making your final arrangements now."
I scowl, trying to look fierce despite my pounding heart. "Gabber and nonsense. You want to scare me."
Both of them take a menacing step closer and I stumble back. "Oh we want to scare you" The second male agrees. His smirk makes my chest contract. "But the rest is true. Dead by dawn- if it takes you that long for him to find you."
"Just wait until Beltane" The first chuckles. He bites his lip, growling quietly to himself. "Oh, I cannot wait for The Hunt. So much to FEAST upon."
The two laugh but I do not get the joke.
I try to take another subtle step back, hoping to distract them. "Yes-well, my brother will be looking for me. I best-"
I turn to scurry away before a large hand locks firmly around my wrist, twisting the skin. I gasp in pain.
"Where do you think you
e running of to?"