When we return home to our familys hut, the tears on my cheeks are still warm. I do not bother hiding them. Mama is a fiercely empathetic wolf and keenly attuned to her pups. She will have already sensed my upsetness and will be waiting with agitation.
Ethan enters the hut before me, ducking inside. He has grown so tall he almost does not fit. I glare angrily at his bare back as we emerge inside to find papa resting on his and mamas cot, long legs stretched out before him in an apparent attempt to loosen tense muscles. Though he entered his fourties a few years prior, his appearance does not show it for he is as strong as any teenage male and there are still no signs of silver or grey in his vivid amber hair, the exact same shade as Ethans. His warm brown eyes are filled with a type of love and adoration I will only ever be able to jealously covet as he studies mama, his mate and the mother of his pups.
Papa looks at her as if she is a newly bloomed flower unfurling before his eyes, always gazing at her with something like awe and loving wonderment. Often I have heard him say their mate bond still catches him off guard even after twenty years of being mated, though he has only ever said so with a lazy smile, as if he would never have life any other way.
I have seen my mother return that unwavering devotion every moment of every day, the ideal role model a female following her male. Normally her gentle gaze is filled with love and contentment but now her green eyes are worried, her dark eyebrows pulled together in worry as she fiddles with the tea.
As soon as she hears us enter, her head snaps up and her perceptive eyes immediately hone in on me and my tears.
"Ellie!" Mama rushes over and presses her cheek against mine, transferring the tears onto her face instead. "Whats wrong? What has happened?"
Papa is quick to follow mamas gaze, though there is a tension to his worry, something lingering beneath the surface.
For a moment I wonder if my brother will tell our parents about what just happened, about how I was caught spying on Ethans training. I see the intense desire in his smoldering eyes, the muscle in his jaw jumping as he plays with the idea. He must know if he tells them this I will tell them he attacked and nearly killed that male. It would not help me escape my punishment but it would render Ethan his own, if a lesser brutal and public one than Alpha Soren would bestow.
I narrow my eyes at Ethan. I am not above dragging my brother down with me and he knows this. I watch as he scowls, seeming to come to the same conclusion, before finally he answers our mother. "I informed Eledy she can not go to Beltane this year."
There is a long silence. Ethan kneels by the kindling, watching as the newborn flames eagerly lick against the black tea kettle. It infuriates me how he acts so nonchalant, as if my being upset is of little concern. Heartless male.
I watch as both mama and papa stiffen, then exchange a glance. They knew this was coming.
"Ellie…" Mama hesitates.
"Your brother is right" Papas voice is gentle but there is an undeniable firmness there I rarely hear. "It is too dangerous."
"You haven attended Beltane since you were sixteen" Mama interrupts not unkindly. Her hands are gentle as they take mine, trying for a hopeful smile. "You and I have spent Beltane the last few years together. We could go stargazing and look for the Little Dipper."
"You have had no desire to go the past two years" Papa notes. His brown eyes are curious. "Why have you one now?"
I don , An irritated voice in the back of my mind snaps. I only want to be treated like any other of our kind.
The thought momentarily douses my anger like a flame in water. I will never be an equal to those in my pack, even my own family members. Unlike me, their wolves do not still sleep. Unlike me, they are so much more than human.
"Lena told her Alpha Knight is coming" Ethan says before I can answer. His expression is full of meaning as he and our father share a loaded look. "ONLY that Alpha Knight is coming."
Papa looks slightly relieved and gives a tiny nod. Suddenly I remember that Ethan has been hiding something from me. It seems Papa, at least, knows what it is. I swing my accusing glare at him. "What is happening the first night of Beltane? Ethan won tell me!" I cross my arms defiantly over my chest. "I already know Alpha Knight is coming in search of his mate, along with a dozen other packs."
"Which is exactly why you will not be attending" Ethan snaps and I bear my teeth at him to show him my displeasure. As quick as it vanished he has already relit the spark of my anger. "We will not be able to keep you safe should someone try something."
I scowl, stewing in furious silence. I myself told Lena this morning Beltane would be an impossibility. It was something I had already long ago come to accept. But the way my family is acting has made me feel irritable and defiant. Can they not see how painful it is to be treated differently, to be considered a freak among my own people?
"You don even know someone will try to hurt me!" I throw my hands up, my inner emotions a tangled mass of anger, sadness, confusion and humiliation. Part of me knows they are right, that they are only trying to protect me. Another part is furious, so exasperated of the cage their concern has created around me. And yet another part is simply exhausted, so laden down with hopelessness and embarrassment that I long to curl up into a ball and sleep forever just as my wolf has decided to do- if she even lives. "I could go and dance with Lena- No one might even try to hurt me! There will be a lot of people- I could leave early even-"
"I DO know someone will try to harm you" Ethan spits. He hesitates a moment before spinning on his heel and facing our parents. "Eledy has been sneaking to watch my training sessions every day."
I gasp, both outraged and betrayed. The glare I shoot him could cut glass for I am hurt Ethan has shared our secret. For years me sneaking into his trainings has been a shared secret between the two of us as siblings, a sign of our bond that he has trampled. I spin to Mama, who is watching with wide eyes. "Ethan knew! Hes known for years!"
"That is my fault and I will take full responsibility" My brother says firmly, still facing Papa. He will not look at me. "I should have told the two of you sooner."
"Why tell us now?" Mama asks. There is fear in her emerald eyes and I feel it hit my hard like a hammer. "Ethan, what had happened?"
"It was nothing!" I shout but Ethan is still talking.
"Two males grabbed Eledy after my training. She didn sneak away soon enough and they caught her."
Mama gasps, horrified. She turns to me, mouth open in a slight "O." "Ellie-"
"They only grabbed my wrist!" I rush to defend, though in the back of my mind I remember how tight the males grasp had been, how scared I was. "And its not all about me! Ethan attacked the male who grabbed me!"
"Ethan!" Mama swings back to him.
"I didn kill him!" Ethan grumbles. Finally he looks at me and I can see he is hurt that I told our parents what he did, how he nearly killed that other male even if it was in my defense.
I merely glare at him, too upset to feel guilty. He will have me punished so I will see the favor returned in kind.
"Enough" My father says abruptly.
Ethan, Mama, and I turn to look at him, distracted from our squabble.
Papas gaze is haggard, tired. He runs a weathered hand down his face, brushing the dark scruff on his chin. "Ethan. We will deal with your actions. While I understand your need to protect your sister, it is inexcusable to maim another pack member unless they draw blood first."
Ethan bows his head, obvious shame at being chastised flashing across his features though it is clear he only feels guilty about being caught. He feels no regret for attacking that male.
I look up, finding my fathers eyes on me. His serious gaze holds mine, refusing to let go and I bow my head, feeling just as chastised. "You will not attend Beltane. Several packs will be arriving for the celebration, some of whom may be mortally offended should they learn who you are. There will be too much confusion and your brother and I will be busy helping with the festivities."
"NO BUTS, ELEDY" My father vaults to his feet, forcing me to take a step back in surprise, my eyes filling with tears as I take in Papas angry gaze. He has been angry with me before but has never looked at me in such a way. The expression is alien, unfamiliar, as I take in his furrowed brows and set jaw, normally soft eyes hard. "You will stay here with your mother all three nights of Beltane and not step a paw- foot out of this hut. Do you understand?"
My cheeks are so red they feel as if they
e burning. "Yes, Papa."
With that my father storms out of the hut, Ethan following behind with his head low. No doubt he will receive his punishment now for not telling our parents of my deception.
Two warm hands touch my neck and I turn as Mama pulls me into a hug, stroking the back of my head. She must sense my hurt. "Do not cry, sweet one. He worries for you. It has taken quite the toll on him."
As if that will make me feel better. I shake my head against her shoulder, unable to swallow the lump in my throat silencing all of the dark thoughts torturing me, the thoughts I will never share with anyone: how scared I am every day it will be my last, how terrified I am that my wolf will never wake and I will be sentenced to a life among the humans. I have always feared death but even more than that I fear a monotone life of endless days spent alone, human, wallowing in my isolation and humiliation.
I think of the two males who grabbed me, the cruelty in their eyes. I think of their warning of the first night of Beltane. I think of Lenas face, so sad when I told her I could not go. I think of my parents and my brother, who have spent so much of their recent years fearing for me that it has seemed to age them beyond their years. I think of the mate I would have had had my wolf woken.
And I let myself cry.
The next few days pass in a slow misery. As punishment for spying on Ethan and the males, Papa has forbidden me to even leave the hut, leaving me to spend endless hours watching from the huts window and peeking through the curtain covering the doorway trying to catch a glimpse of the preparations for Beltane.
Though Beltane is one of the high holidays of our kind and has always been wildly celebrated, Luna Bianca appears to be going to extreme lengths, having every available female (aside from me and the pups) weaving decorative tapestries, baskets and bracelets to act as both decorations and gifts for visiting pack members. Fabrics are dyed, satin and silk flutter in the warm breeze. Dozens upon dozens of flowers have been woven into wreaths and flower crowns. The older females have been cooking for days, preparing the mountains of fish, meat, fruits, and vegetables for the three nights of feasting that will soon ensue. Mama has been among them, helping to prepare her mothers famous crab and potato stew.
Some of the mothers have even had their pups make art and small crafts to give to the other pups that will arrive so as to ease their anxiety of being on new pack lands surrounded by strangers.
Even the males have halted training in favor of erecting large white tents in the wide expansive fields two or three miles North where the festival will be held. Ethan has described how they have woven glimmering lights into the trees along with silver streamers and torches smelling of incense and sweet flowers. Some of the females have even hung polished mirrors cut in the shapes of stars and moons to reflect the moonlight and dance among the rays.
In an apparent attempt to mend our relationship, my brother has begun giving me every tiny detail he can remember about the festivities, trying his best to answer my every avid question, save for what event will be held with the unmated males the first night. I know he has felt guilty about ratting me out to our parents and taking their side. I know hes also felt bad watching me watching the other females longingly, catching glimpses as they excitedly rush to and fro in an attempt to help.
I try my best to distract myself from the dark sea of my miserable thoughts threatening to pull me below but without being able to leave the hut there is little to do. I try to nap often but my dreams are infested with the same nightmare that has haunted me for months. With each passing night they have only gotten worse, more and more vivid every night until I began waking up screaming. Dark bags have sunk in beneath my eyes and Mama has begun giving me my special tea three times a day.
It has not helped.
Finally, the first day of Beltane arrives. I stand at the entrance to the hut, trying my best to peer at the strangers that will inhibit our lands for the next three days. They will no doubt be welcomed at the gates but I desperately hope some of them will pass by on their way to the North fields.
Ethan and Papa are already gone. They left hours ago with the rise of the sun to help finish final preparations. I think of how Ethan griped my shoulder as he passed to leave.
"Be safe, Ellie-nelly" He had murmured. It is the nickname he gave me when I first born and he was only a toddler. He hasn called me that in years since I first began my struggle to Shift. My eyes filled with tears and I had returned the touch before my father stopped before me.
His gaze had been firm but gentler than when he had yelled at me seven days ago. I knew he had been studying the dark bags beneath my dull eyes and the hollows in my cheeks that have begun to show; I have been unable to keep much food down lately.
He had pulled me into a tight hug. "We will see you back here tonight. Be safe, Ellie."
Please, his eyes seemed to say. Please be safe. Please survive.
It had been the look of one soldier to another among the trenches.
Why can you not look at me as just a daughter? I had thought. Why can you not see me as strong and capable like Ethan?
But I only nodded. "Yes, Papa."
My father had cast me one last worried look before departing.
That was hours ago. Now the sun is high in the sky and the sounds of new arrivals have been sounding all morning. I wait, chewing my bottom lip as I perch on the tips of my toes, trying to catch a glimpse of someone- anyone. The only people I see are my own pack members running frantically from one destination to another.
I feel a sharp pang of envy in my chest as I watch two girls rush past, their hair woven with colorful flowers. They wear no makeup but instead bright patterns painted all over their arms and legs- runes for love, joy, fertility. Some males, I notice as they pass, have runes painted on them as well: joy and love and swiftness and strength.
I frown at the last two. Those are typically only worn during battle or ceremonies in which Beta or commanding oaths are taken. Why will they need such protection?
"Ellie, come away from there" Mama calls behind me.
I ignore her gentle command. "Do you think Lena will have woven flowers into her hair? Or painted herself with the runes?"
A pause. Then, "Im sure she will. Lena has always been such a free-spirited female. She will no doubt wish to present herself in such a fashion."
My voice is hollow. "I wonder if we would have gotten ready together. If she would have braided periwinkles into my hair or you would have helped us paint ourselves."
Mama doesn answer. There is nothing she can say. Still, I feel her worry. "Ellie. It is merely a high holiday. A festival. Why has your heart become so dependent on such an event so suddenly?"
I am still peeking outside when I answer. "I don know. It just feels like…like something is trying to pull me closer while I remain still." A string pulled so taunt it is threatening to snap at any moment, just like me. Perhaps whatever strange and all- consuming apprehension this is will do the job for my pack mates and kill me instead of them.
The comfort that sinking dark thought startles me. I do not wish for death but an endless life of shame and loneliness would be a fate even worse than meeting my early end. What will I do when Mama and Papa pass on to the After? When my brother and Lena find their mates and move on to a different phase in life, one where they, too, will leave me behind?
Behind me, I hear Mama hesitate. "Ellie…perhaps after tonight…perhaps the third night…maybe we could-"
"Sage!" The curtain is suddenly yanked aside, startling me so bad I stumble back a few steps as an older female I do not recognize rushes in, paying me no mind. Her attention is solely focused on my mother. "There is a problem with the feast- Bernadette said you would know how to help."
I watch as Mamas eyes widen in slight surprise before they fall on me, filled with obvious hesitation. "Well, I-"
"Luna Bianca is in a fit."
Mama hesitates a moment longer, chewing on her lip before she nods, resolute. No matter her worries for me, she can not refuse our Luna. Our duty would never allow it. Mama turns to me as the female hurries out, grasping my forearms with more force than I thought possible. "I will return shortly. Stay here. If you hear anyone approaching- HIDE. I will come home as soon as I can."
But shes already gone. I stare after her out the open door of the hut, watching as she disappears between the small crowds of our pack members that have begun to move towards the North fields. There are loud titters of excitement as people sing and call out to each other. The drinking has already began in earnest. Surely many pairs of intoxicated mates will conceive a pup in the next three nights.
The string within me, as thin and sharp as wire, pulls tight and I whimper, turning away from the door. I can not punish myself any longer. I can not watch the world move on without me without wanting to remove myself from it.
I have just buried myself in my cot beneath the soft mounds of blankets when there is a loud crash. The walls of the small hut shake as I flail from my sheets, slamming into the ground below.
Its the first night- theyve come for me- they
e going to kill me-
Im still struggling to sit up, to untangle myself from the restraints of my blankets, to flee- anything, when I see a mound of dark curls and two brilliant topaz eyes peering at me.
I blink, uncomprehending. "Lena?"
My friend, still in an awkward heap on the dirt floor of my home, immediately bounces up to her feet as if she didn just tumble through the window. "Ellie! Oh thank the Goddess I was hoping your father would be gone too."
I finally manage to stand. "What? Yes, Papa has been gone since early this morning, Ethan too. What are you doing here-"
"Where is your mother?"
I stare at her. Perhaps I am too sleep deprived or emotionally exhausted to think. "I- Mama left just now- some cooking emergency-"
"I know, who do you think caused it?" Lena arches a dark brow. Her expression is downright mischievous, perhaps a touch of nervous excitement.
"YOU did that?"
"Yes, now hurry- we don have much time."
It is now that I finally take in Lenas attire. So distracted was I by her floundering entrance that I am just now noticing that the two strips of deer-hide cloths usually covering her breasts and bottom have been replaced with a baby pink bralette made up of lace and sheer satin highlighting the large swell of her breasts. A long skirt in the same hue and fabric sit low on her hips, exposing her toned stomach and hourglass curves. Though her feet are bare, bracelets of woven gold thread adorn her wrists and ankles, swirls of gold paint splattered across her ribs and shoulders. Throughout her heaps of curls are tiny braids interwoven with gold and pink beads.
Understanding dawns. "Lena- the festival- I can -"
"Theres no time for that, Eledy, now get dressed" She tosses a flimsy garment at me. I catch it and hold it up: it is the same outfit as Lena wears, only in the richest royal blue. It is not as sheer as Lenas but the skirt is much shorter and the bralette is strapless. I do not have to try it on to know the color would bring out the chocolate and red in my dark hair or that the tight fabric would show off my every curve.
For a moment I am so distracted by the feeling of the silk and satin (so delicate and beautiful) beneath the callouses on my fingertips that I forget my surprise. We females rarely wear such delicate, intricate clothing. My fingers trace the stitching of the embroidery (a lighter blue than the royal blue of the garment) that form howling wolves and flowers at the hem.
"Where did you get this?" I breathe.
"Luna Bianca had every female craft a garment for the festivities so as to be presentable. I used the extra fabric from another females piece and had my mother embroider the skirt- I told her it was a different outfit so I would be able to change each night."
Tears fill my eyes. "Lena-"
She moves fast and clasps me in a tight hug, so fierce in her grip that I momentarily lose my breath. She pulls back just as quickly. "Get dressed. We only have an hour before your mother will return."
My mind returns to the topic at hand. "But my father- Ethan-"
"Every male has been called forth at the North woods. Every pack has arrived and there so many females and pups no one will notice you. The sun has already begun to set. The dancing has already begun; we will pack everything we can into the hour before we sneak you home. No one will be the wiser."
Dead by Beltane. The first night of Beltane.
I feel myself deflate, heart in my throat. I open my mouth to argue, to tell Lena the reasonable, practical response: I can not go. The dangers are too high and I could be killed. This night very well could be my last.
But what will become of your other nights? A voice in my mind whispers. How will you spend the rest of your existence after Beltane? Mateless? Unable to Shift? This night could be my last chance at freedom (at happiness) before my fate comes for me, whether it is for me to die at the hands of another or by an endlessly dull life of mediocrity and shame.
And there is still that urge within me, that inexplicable tension and drive fueled by instinct I can not name. Whatever it is it is pulling me closer to those fields.
My hands shake as I begin to peel off the cloths covering my body. "Help me into this."