The hand on my wrist savagely yanks me backwards, causing me to stumble, my knees painfully striking the earth. I gasp in pain as the force jolts my small frame, nearly making me bite off the tip of my tongue. I look up, palms bleeding from where I have tried to catch myself, in time to see both males bear their canines at me. There is distinct fury in every line of their faces, their eyes suddenly black with the anger from their wolf. I can see the tension straining beneath bare muscle. They loom over me with their black scowls and sharp, exposed teeth and I realize my mistake.
I turned my back on them. As dominating as these two clearly are, I should have known they would not allow such disrespect during their mocking. Males are prideful, these two especially so.
Tears pool in my eyes as I shrink away and I am immediately furious with myself for being so weak, for letting them make me cry. Why can not I be a strong, independent female, the kind these two would fear for the rest of their days after trifling with me? I have tried so many times before but, just when my courage came calling, I would always falter, always wilt, and the bullies would lunge in for the kill.
From the corner of my eye, I see the sky has begun to darken. My heart plummets into my stomach. What if this is my nightmare coming true? What if I am about to run for my life in these trees and these two males are the ones who were hunting me? Is the Goddess who has forsaken me trying to give me one last chance to survive? One little mercy before death?
But no, they claim I will die at Beltane. But why? Do they plan to kill me there? Has there been some detailed plan laid out? Will be be long and drawn out for the embarrassment I have caused them and our pack? What if they can not wait and kill me now? I knew their hatred of my disability ran deep, deep enough to snatch my life away, but I never thought it was forged in cruelty and the urge to torture.
Wolves are vicious but that does not make them without feeling or empathy. These two simply use their wild instincts as an excuse to justify their inexcusable actions. How many males before have claimed they merely couldn control themselves just to accomplish bloodshed and tears?
"Don walk away when your betters are talking to you" The second male snaps, top lip curling to expose his teeth. He still has my wrist in a stranglehold, bruising skin and bone. It burns where his skin touches.
I whimper, both from the fear and the pain. "P-Please-"
But before I can finish, there is a sudden blur of movement and the male is tackled to the ground, releasing me as he and my brother go flying. Trees, bushes and logs are thrown as Ethans mighty body, as tall as a horse and strong as fifty human men, crashes into them, shaking the earth. He is even faster and more determined than before, set on seeing the male who had touched his family dead.
I scream as Ethan, still Shifted and foaming at the mouth with fury, crushes my attacker to the ground beneath his massive frame, no doubt breaking the ribs and collarbones of the male, still human.
He lets out an agonized scream, too pained to Shift beneath Ethans wolf. Even over his screams I can hear the booming growl in my brothers chest, the roaring promise of a brutal and bloody slow death.
Nearby, the first male is yelling, his bravado gone as he begs Ethan to let "D" go. "Let him go! Let him go! You
e gonna kill him!" There is true terror for his friend and his own life in his words. In his begging, I can hear every vulnerable gulp of air, every place protected with cold armor suddenly raw and exposed. How can someone so cruel and sadistic turn so cowardly so fast?
Ethan turns his large head, eyes black with rage, and snaps his jaws at him. I do not mind the pack link to hear his thoughts: Good. Youll be next.
Tears stream down my cheeks as I continue screaming. I can not breathe. All I know is panic and hysteria. My fear is not for my brother, who is clearly the favored opponent, but for the male who grabbed me. I do not care about his life but I care about Ethans and if he kills this male, he will be punished. Pack members attacking or killing each other (aside from me it seems) is absolutely not tolerated, under any circumstances. It is one of our oldest laws. At best, my brother could lose his coveted title and hard-earned respect of Alpha Soren. At worst, he could be dead.
My words are so labored by my gasps and hiccups I am almost impossible to understand. "Ethan, stop! Don - he didn - don kill him! Please- please stop!"
But my brother can not hear me. His wolf has completely taken over, so enraged and infuriated he no longer knows anything but his one goal: kill the inferior male. I can see the rage in his every trembling muscle, how he is absolutely shaking with the urge to slay the male beneath him.
This is my worst fear: that my family, the ones I love, will become even more involved, perhaps even killed, because of me. Because of my weakness and the embarrassment I have caused them and the pack. The embarrassment I have caused my kind.
This has been building for years. There is only so much patience and mercy among our kind. Though there is kindness and compassion, we are bound by the instinctual code of our DNA, instilled with strength, honor, and an absolute refusal to accept weakness. Weakness is a disease in the eyes of my kin and they fear it will spread. The spark has caught and now it will burn.
I have never been so afraid.
But just as I am about to yell again, to keep screaming until my brother hears me, something strange happens. For an instant, the world halts, time freezing in its tracks. The gentle summer breeze keeps moving, shuffling leaves and grass. The sun still shines down, warming the world below. But I am frozen, watching with wide, terrified eyes as Ethan and his opponent hover in place, unmoving as Ethans muzzle drips saliva onto the other male. His teeth are still bared wide but his eyes have gone unnaturally still. Nearby, the other male is like a stone statue, mouth frozen in an "O" in his panic.
For an instant, I can feel the heartbeat of the earth pulsating beneath my feet. Or is that my own heartbeat slamming away into my rib cage, determined to break free?
Where are you? A quiet voice in my head seems to whisper. I can not tell if it is my own voice or anothers. My mind has been completely overwhelmed in its terror and confusion and I can not separate that fear from conscious thought. My feet threaten to fall out from under me.
And then just as fast as it stopped, the world lurches forward, releasing me. I let out a strangled gasp, momentarily relieved, before Ethan snarls again and I am reminded of where I am.
Before I can think better of it, my bare feet are suddenly moving and I throw myself against Ethans hulking frame. It, of course, doesn budge him in the slightest but it is enough for his wolf to snap his head to the side, prepared to snap his mighty jaws at me before he realizes who shoved him.
Despite his boiling fury, there is also worry and concern in Ethans large round eyes as he pauses to take in my tear stained cheeks and trembling hands. It seems as if he is finally present enough to hear my horrified pleas.
Another long few seconds pass before my brother lets out an irate huff. He turns his head back to the male pinned beneath him, moaning quietly as he suffers the pain of his shattered bones. Because of our advanced healing, it will only take two or three days before he recovers but it will be an agonizing process.
Ethan lets out one last booming growl and snaps his fangs at both males before finally retreating. The threat is obvious in his furious behaviors: I will kill you if this happens again.
Before I even have time to speak to Ethan, to throw my arms around his massive neck and thank the Goddess he is alive, my brother locks his jaw around the loin cloth covering my breasts and swings me up onto his back, racing off into the trees.
"Okay, OKAY" I snap into the silence. "Im sorry. Really."
Beneath me, Ethan says nothing.
"I shouldn have stayed so long during your training" I continue irritably. I do not want to admit my foolishness but denying it would only make me look even stupider. I cross my arms over my chest in annoyance and continue reluctantly. "I just wanted to see your match."
Again, no response.
"I knew youd win. I just wanted to see it."
Usually, this would cause my brother to snort or wag his tail with amusement. He has always been a sucker for flattery, especially in his battle prowess. Instead, he remains silent and keeps trotting through the trees ahead, back to the safety of our hut.
I may not be able to communicate through the pack link but I do not need it to hear Ethans frustration. He is deliberately ignoring me and he knows I will notice. He also knows it is one of the few ways to set my teeth on edge. I can not stand when Ethan and I fight.
My voice becomes imploring. "Come on, Eth, Im sorry. It won happen again, I promise."
All at once, my brother halts, swinging me off of his back. I wait, confused, as he lops into a dense cluster of bushes before emerging once more in his human form. The furious set of his jaw immediately tells me he is far angrier than I originally thought.
e damn right it won happen again" He growls. Though he is human, his voice still thunders with rage. Rage directed at me, not my attackers. "Because you will never set foot on that training ground again."
"What the hell were you thinking?" He demands. He stomps forward, dressed in a loincloth, his feet and chest bare. His upper body ripples with muscle and sweat from his training. "Do you have ANY idea how close they were to killing you?"
I open my mouth to argue but Ethan isn done. "This isn a game, Eledy! Do you have any idea how deep in peril your very existence is? Our pack members grow less and less tolerant every day of you and sooner or later they will act if given a reason. Do you want that? Do you WANT to die?"
Tears make my voice thick. "No."
"Really? Because you sure as hell don act like it. These wolves know you can not Shift and they will use that weakness to any advantage they can. They will tear you to pieces, Eledy, and I won always be around to stop them." Ethans chest is rising and falling rapidly. His breathing is labored with the force of his anger. I have never seen my brother so furious with me and it cuts me to the core. Not only that but suddenly Im ashamed of myself for my actions. Suddenly Im remembering the cruelty in the eyes of the two males who grabbed me. I remember the way that ones grip bruised me.
I look down to rub the same wrist that was grabbed, gently probing the skin that has already started to swell and darken. I bite my lower lip, heart splintering. Not only do I feel like a scolded pup but I have been reminded that no matter how much I long to belong, no matter how much I strive, I will never be the same as them. I will never be their equals or the equals of anyone else in my pack. I will always be the pariah.
I lower my head so Ethan won see the tears glimmering in my eyes. The heartbreak his words have wrought. "Im sorry. Truly."
There is a beat of heavy silence before strong arms are embracing me, pulling me in against a hard chest. Ethans familiar scent (pine and wild grass) fills my nostrils and I sink into the embrace, trembling with sadness and relief. Despite his earlier anger, I feel safe and protected in his hug.
Ethan sighs against my hair. "Im sorry too. But you
e my sister, Ellie, and I would rather die before I let anything happen to you. It- it TERRIFIES me to think of something like this- or worse- happening again." There is real pain and real fear in his words and for a moment I wonder what it must be like for Ethan to carry so much on his shoulders. Every day he must constantly push himself to the brink in training so that he may one day earn the coveted title of Beta when Alpha Sorens son, James, takes over the pack. Every day he must strive for perfection so that he may build a reputation and a life for his future mate and pups. And, on top of all of that, there is always the looming threat that my throat will be slit or tore out by one of our own. How often does Ethan worry for my safety and whether or not I will be alive the next day?
I nod against his shoulder. "Im sorry" I murmur again. "I promise I will be more careful."
Ethan relaxes me from the hug and steps back, a very serious expression coming over his features. "You must. Beltane is coming."
Dead by Beltane.
My heart suddenly shrivels thinking back on the earlier threats of my attackers. The high holiday is only a few days away. Had they been serious or had they merely meant to frighten me as I claimed?
I try to keep my voice casual and steady. "Do you know what is happening? At Beltane?"
Ethan begins walking. It will be at least another five or six minutes before we reach the hut at my pace and I know he will want to speed the journey up. Is it my imagination or will he not meet my gaze all of a sudden? "It is a festival. People will dance and drink until they sicken themselves."
His tone is emotionless, final, as if that is the end of the conversation. I frown. "Besides that. Lena told me…" I hesitate, unsure whether or not I should share the information I have learned. Knowledge of the visiting packs, especially the Alpha coming to seek his mate, seems to have not traveled far yet. Still, the two males who attacked me knew something. Looking back on it, it is clear the information they had correlates somehow to what Lena had said. I just can put the pieces together.
"Lena?" Ethan asks. He rolls his eyes. "Oh, Goddess, what did Lena say this time?" Ethan, like Lenas father, is often exasperated by the wild things the female sometimes involves herself in, though he seems to find her antics much more amusing.
I smile despite myself. Once again he is my big brother, conversing without anger or the instinctual need to protect and defend. "She said…she said other packs are coming for Beltane. That an Alpha is coming to search for his mate during the festivities." My smile fades.
Ethan worries his lower lip. By the way he is avoiding my eye, it is obvious there is something he knows but will not tell me. My eyes narrow. "Yes" He admits reluctantly. "I have been told the same."
"Alpha Soren. He has spoken with every unmated male in the pack and informed us of the arrivals."
I blink, confused. "Only the unmated males? Why?"
Ethan doesn answer. In the distance, I see the trees giving way to the clearing in which our hut is settled.
"Ethan" I demand. "What aren you telling me?"
"Let it go, Ellie."
But Ive caught the scent of blood in the water. Im onto something and I know it. "Ethan, tell me. What is going to happen at Beltane with the unmated males?"
"It doesn matter. You won be going."
Though I had already come to that conclusion myself long ago, a spark of anger lights beneath my sternum. He has already picked at the sore wound of my otherness in the pack. Why must he keep reminding me? Suddenly I feel resentful. "Who are you to say whether or not I will be attending?"
Ethan stops and spins to face me, scowl fierce. "I DO. And mama and papa will agree with me."
I curl my top lip at him. "You don know that. And I should be allowed to go if I desire it. Everyone else in the pack will be there-"
"Which is why itll be even easier to kill you" He snaps. "Do you realize how many wolves will be here for the high holiday? Hundreds upon hundreds. There will be so much chaos and confusion that it would be so easy for one of our pack members- or someone from another pack who learns of your- your disability- to pick you off and claim it was someone else. Mama and papa will have duties to attend to at the festival. They will not be able to guard you every second. And I will be busy-"
He cuts himself off, glancing away into the trees. His gaze is deep and searching, as if the answers to all of lifes mysteries laid in those woods.
"Why will you be busy, Ethan?" My voice is more a command than a question.
My brother shakes his head. "I will not tell you. Not until the first night of Beltane is over."
The first night of Beltane. Dead by Beltane. "What a shame. She will simply have to wait for the first night." "We aren to speak about Beltane to the females." That is what those males had said.
My heart feels as if its fallen into my stomach. Something big, something dangerous, is going to happen the first night of Beltane. Only the unmated males have been informed of what that something is. Whatever it is, is is apparently enough to make Ethan worry- no, scared. My brother is SCARED for me.
I swallow, fighting back my own fears. "And you will not let me come."
"That is correct. Mama and papa will agree it is the best choice."
"And you won tell me why."
"That is also correct."
I groan, frustrated. "I am not a pup, Ethan! I can-" I had been about to say I could defend myself but stop, knowing how ridiculous that lie will sound. I sigh. "I will be alright. Lena would watch over me. And mama and papa would let me go if I asked."
Why do you even want to go? A voice in my head points out. Its obvious theyll try to kill you. Not to mention this deadly event happening the first night.
"Not this year."
I throw up my hands, beyond irate now. "Fine don tell me. Papa will."
It bothers me how confident Ethan sounds. "He won . He will be sworn to secrecy, as will Mother." He gives me an almost sympathetic glance. "Its for the best, Ellie. For your own safety."