Allison sat in a circle on the temple floor with three other girls, two would-be priestesses and a healer, each of them bent to their own asks. Across her knees length of cloth she was working on was almost finished, stretching out to puddle on the tiled floor. The hanging loom rattled and shook, each ratchet of the press pushing the cloth that much closer to completion.
The temple was open-air, nothing more than columns and a roof, but Allison could barely remember what fresh air was like anymore. Incense filled her head, burned down into her empty stomach and through her veins. Her head felt light enough to float away, but her work kept her rooted.
Priestesses in a rainbow of robes bustled around the open-air temple, filling incense burners with something that smelled sweet and dark. Smoke drifted between the pillars in a blue haze, vanishing like a spirit into the sunlight. Crystal relics were cleaned until they shined, the carved rose that was cupped between the twin hands of Life and Death, the sword wielded by the Warrior to defend her sister, Peace. They cast rainbows across the floor and through the smoke as they were lifted and moved, turning the plain cloth in Allison's hands to something magical.
The pillars were polished, the faces of the goddesses and gods carved onto them blushed with pigment at the cheeks and lips, bringing life to the cold stone. Their stone eyes rested on her, waiting, expectant. She could feel the touch of their plans growing with every click of the loom. Her mother hovered at the outside edge, never crossing beyond the pillars. Allison caught glimpses of her through the fog of the incense, red hair bright like fire, face stern. Even the Matriarch of Diahann had to follow the laws. A girl had to become a woman alone, no matter what her family.
Hours passed. Days. Centuries. The loom worked endlessly, seemingly without effort on Allison's part. The sun moved, sinking inexorably toward her bed in the west, movement in her blood almost more than it was in the sky. A cold breeze blew in, mixing the taste of early snow with the thick incense. One last thunk. Allison's hands went still.
She stared down at the completed cloth, running her fingers over it. It felt heavy, far heavier than it should have. The fur had been gathered from Lydia's goats over the objections of her mother, and she'd started spinning thread for it the day she'd first bled six months past. Every single piece of the cloth had been touched by her, made by her. It shouldn't have been so heavy, like the weight of the sky was pushing it down.
A priestess in soft purple robes pulled the cloth from Allison's hands, handing it over to a young girl still in children's braids. Another, this one in gray, lifted her to her feet by her elbows and pulled her forward. Allison's legs tingled, sharp as broken glass. It was a distant agony, far off, as if it were in someone else's body.
She limped along as the priestess led her toward a still pool at the far back of the temple. Flowers far off season floated in it, bright pinks and reds, purples and blues. More women appeared from the smoke. They held her hands as she was turned around, her plain gray robe stripped from her shoulders and heels hovering over empty air. The purple-robed woman smiled, and then shoved.
Cold water folded over her head, snapping her back to herself in a rush. Allison rose, gasping for air. Her dark hair streamed around her shoulders, spilling icy tendrils down her back and across her breasts. Oil and flowers clung to her skin, making the water bead.
More priestesses grasped her hands, pulling her out into the air, drying her off with a rough length of cloth. Her hair was combed out, spread across her shoulders to dry. Oil was applied to her skin over the top of the thin layer that still clung, drawn out symbols that Allison couldn't follow closely enough to recognize. The setting sun turned her gold where it touched her skin, making her shine like someone blessed. Closing her eyes, she let them shuffle her into the dark, knee-length tunic and belt on an empty sheath and bracers, ate the small crust of bread that was shoved in her hands.
The sun was just slipping out of sight and the full moon was a mere promise in the east as Allison was lead down the temple steps toward the paved courtyard. She passed a line of girls headed to the temple for their own, more modest Crucible. Fresh air braced her better than even the cold water. By the time she was halfway to the gates, she was walking unaided, chin up and stride long.
Tonight, she would hunt.
The Huntress's Moon sailed over head, nearing his crest. He gleamed, solid as a jewel that could be plucked from the sky. The forest was awash with light, each autumn-crisp leaf etched in moon silver, branches reaching up to welcome the moon as he passed on his nightly journey.
Allison stayed low, bitter wind biting through her tunic as she crept through the night, her mother's knife a heavy weight at her hip. Early snow crunched like fine glass under her feet. The sky had dropped a hand of it the night before, and then the sun had melted the top enough to turn to ice. It helped her see, with the full moonlight shining on it through the half-naked tree limbs, but it was far more of a hindrance than a help.
There was a feral lilt to her thoughts that she'd never felt before, some combination of three days at the temple and the brisk air skinning her down to her most bare. It was maybe the first time in her life she'd ever been truly alone, but she didn't feel alone. She could feel the path of time under her feet. Behind it stretched to her mother and grandmother before her. Before her, the will of the goddesses, their eyes like a touch on her skin, a tightness she couldn't ignore.
No one talked about the girls who didn't come back from the Crucible, who were deemed unworthy by the goddesses. Their names were lost, their bones abandoned where they fell, only the knife of their mothers retrieved. No one would sing over them. If she came back empty handed, Kate would follow her mother as Matriarch. If she failed, no one would save her.
She wouldn't fail.
Up ahead, she could hear her prey snapping and snarling over a downed deer. Bones crunched, loud as a lightning crash in her ears. They were thankfully too busy to notice her. The fall had been good, but winter was early. One small deer wouldn't be enough to sustain an entire pack of wolves.
Keeping to the shadow of the tree trunks, sandstone rough on her skin, Allison edged in. They were beautiful, vicious and graceful, their kill painted across the snow in arcs of red. A sacred challenge or a death sentence, she didn't know. It wasn't for her to decide.
As she got closer, she realized that the deer wasn't small and the wolves weren't, in fact, far away at all. They were huge—larger than the ponies that came in from the western islands. The biggest stood taller than she did. Breathing out, praying it wouldn't be one of her last, she took a step forward. Snow cracked. The world went sharp.
One of the wolves' heads came up, its muzzle bloody. Its red eyes found hers across the way, gleaming ruby in the dark. Teeth flashed, a flicker a white in shadow. A heartbeat later the entire pack bolted, leaving the deer carcass to steam in the snow.
As if her legs were propelled by the goddesses themselves Allison darted after, bending over to scoop up a rock and let fly. It caught one of the wolves in the skull, knocking it off its feet with a yelp. Before it could rise she was on it. Its claws caught her in the thigh, meat ripping as she grappled for her chance. Her knife found its new sheath, sliding in between the wolf's ribs. Blood rushed out in a warm spray to coat her to the elbows. Then she was away, scrambling to safety so it could thrash out its final moments.
Instead the wolf only coughed, rising to its feet, swaying but clearly not down. It lowered its head and snarled, teeth white as the moon and pelt made out of night. Blue eyes glowed sunlight through colored glass. In them she could make out every fleck, every spark of color, a storm of it. Intelligence shined in those eyes, and a crazed, vicious malice Allison had only before seen in people.
She fell into a crouch, knife at the ready, heart thrumming with the pulse of the hunt.
The wolf leaped. Allison bared her own teeth and darted in, sliding aside at the last possible second. Vicious fangs barely missed the meat of her shoulder. She used her smaller size to slip under, scoring a slice over its belly that should have had its guts cooling on the snow. Instead it swatted at her with one massive paw that sent her rolling across the snow. Her knife slipped out of her hands, skittering away.
Pushing up to her knees, she watched as the wound healed over. In a few seconds it was gone, clean as if it had never been. The wolf rose healed, silhouetted against the snow and moonlight. Before she could so much as defend herself, the wolf was on her. Its claws ripped through the thick hide of her bracers, shredding them easy as leaves.
Allison snarled in its face, throwing herself into the fight with every muscle and sinew. No blow seemed to faze it, no scratch or kick or even when her teeth sank into its foreleg. It wasn't long before it had her pinned by a paw between her breasts, eyes alight with victory.
Desperation bitter in her throat, Allison threw herself aside. Its claws ripped through the skin of her breast, but the wolf was thrown off balance. Lunging forward, she wrapped her arms and legs around the wolf, yanking it down where those teeth couldn't reach her.
They rolled together, struggling, until the wolf inevitably had her trapped again, back to the snow. Then it froze, eyes wide, ears flicked back in confusion. Her hunting tunic had ridden up, leaving her exposed. Normally, Allison wouldn't care about something so simple, but his cock pressed against her bare belly, slick and hot from the sheath. It was fire compared to the ice at her back.
A shiver ran through her that had nothing to do with cold. Her blood sang, wild notes composed of her heartbeat and the wolf's breath on her skin, their blood mingled on the snow. Slick heat wet her thighs, tingling up to burn in her stomach with need.
Overhead the moon laughed, taunted her. Life or death, life or death. The goddesses eyes were on her, waiting, watching for her choice.
"Well?" Allison demanded, breath a puff of white between them. Her hands wrapped in its ruff, and her hips rolled up. There was no way she had the strength to hold him back from her throat if he went for the kill. It didn't matter if he did. She'd made her choice. "Are you going to do it, or not?"
He growled, sniffing at her neck. Allison stayed still, watching as his nose ran down her body, jammed into her armpit, dipped down into her navel. Her blood was up, and all that mattered was copper on her tongue and the heat in her stomach. She could have rolled away. Could have gone to find her knife, to finish the hunt one way or another.
Instead, she found herself rising to her knees, bare ass pressing up against the beast's furred chest. The front of her tunic was shredded, bloody, and her elbows ground into sharp rocks that had been hidden. It barely mattered next to the heat of his body, the touch of his cock against her thigh that made her pulse spike.
The wolf must have felt it too. He rose, great paws wrapping around her ribs. Jaws strong enough to snap bone held her neck as he rocked, cock struggling to find her entrance. Blood trickled from the nicks his teeth left in her flesh, splattering under her. Allison whined, frustrated, rising up to try and meet him.
And then his cock caught, sliding inside with a tug. She cried out, pressing back greedily, knees splayed wide as her cunt swallowed him. His whole body snapped, cock driving into her. Every thrust went through her in a spike of pleasure from cunt to throat that left her breathless. Warm fur ran across her back and ass, sharply at odds with the teeth at her nape. It was a cold, calculating grip that wouldn't allow her to slip down to the ground, even if she'd wanted to.
She took everything, demanding more in gasped words that the beast couldn't have known but seemed to respond to. Orgasm sliced through her veins so hard she jerked in his grip, fresh blood staining the snow. It didn't stop her. Allison kept fucking backwards, claiming more and more as her own. Every new round of pleasure took her higher, until even the pain of her wounds was gone and all she could do was continue taking her due.
The pressure in her cunt tripled, tender lips suddenly tight as his cock caught and held. Liquid heat splashed in her, more vividly than any man she'd been with. Allison choked on her own voice as his hips kept working, kept feeding her though they tugged and clung and never parted.
Finally, he slowed, breath hot on her neck. His teeth release, letting her sag forward when her arms wouldn't hold anymore. Every now and then, his cock would work in her once or twice, winning a little spark of pleasure at the pull. A long, hot tongue lapped over her skin, cleaning the wounds. They stung a little, but no worse than others, and so she leaned her head to the side to let him have his way.
Eventually the swell of his cock went down enough for him to slide free. Allison groaned as she flipped over onto her back. She looked up at her wolf, taking him in without the heat of a fight. His eyes were still that same impossible blue, watching her with something more than animal awareness and at the same time less than human. There was a banked rage there, a promise of violence in the curl of a lip that sent a not-unpleasant shiver down her.
Reaching up, Allison ran her hand along his cheek. "Good hunt."
Allison kept her head up as she approached the town walls, sunrise just cresting the hills. Over her shoulders, she bore a wolf.
A common gray wolf.
Bruises and scratches had turned her bare legs into a crosshatching of pain. Blood trickled down between her breasts from the claw marks there. Puncture wounds in her arm still bled sluggishly where her prey had bitten her. More blood had dried in the crease of her elbows and under her nails. Her whole body was a song of pain and endurance. Only the knowledge that it was almost done kept her going forward, crossing the dead zone between the forest and Diahann.
The gates opened before she reached them. Her mother was already there, looking much the same as any other woman if it hadn't been for the bright red of her sleeves. She had, no doubt, been waiting there all night for Allison's return or failure. The farmers were already in the field, leaving the crowd thin. But Scott was there, standing back with the other boys, his face tight with worry. And there was Lydia, wrapped in her favorite bear fur, red hair glowing in the dawn. Her father stood behind her mother, pride obvious in the set of his shoulders.
Swallowing back her nerves, Allison stepped up to her mother's feet and knelt down, dropping the wolf in the dirt. The stone knife was still in its skull. She hadn't been able to get it out, the tip embedded in bone. The sharp, on-edge feeling that had kept her going all night was fading. All she could feel was tired and sore.
Victoria knelt down, running her fingers through the animal's pelt. She grabbed the handle of the knife, tugging once, nodding when it wouldn't dislodge. Her hand came away brown-red. Reaching up, she cupped Allison's cheek, leaving a smear of cool, tacky blood behind as she granted her daughter a rare smile.
"You did well."
Then Allison found herself pulled into a tight embrace. She clung back, tangling her dirty fingers in her mother's clothes while her father hugged her from the other side.
Far off in the woods, her wolf howled.
Allison hissed and jerked as Alan pressed a hot compress against her bite wound, the blue and silver smears on his fingers stark against pale cloth. Where he touched, they left colored streaks behind that danced unnaturally in the firelight. He lifted the compress and peered under it, making an unhappy sound. Her skin was already starting to look red and puffed around the injury, which even she knew wasn't a good sign.
Healers bustled around the room, laden with the tools of their trade. Scott worked at a table in the back with other apprentices, dutifully grinding up the items the Healers had left clustered around him. Allison smiled at his back, but didn't try to speak. Exhaustion had settled into her bones, and even a little bit of casual conversation seemed too much trouble.
Humming, Alan shook his head and sprinkled something else over the wound, something that glowed and hissed where it touched her. Then he grabbed her other hand and pressed it against the pad. Fire seared up her arm to her shoulder joint. She hissed, instinctively trying to pull the pad away, but he swatted her knuckles. "Hold it there," Alan ordered quietly. "Until I move it for you or it stops hurting."
"What happens when it stops hurting?" Allison asked, shifting around so she could prop her elbow on something. There was nothing though—he kept his workplace immaculate. There wasn't even a wall.
"You die." With a bland smile, he turned back to his mortar and pestle, sprinkling something into the mix. "And then you become my sister's trouble."
"I'll try to stay out of her way," she promised dryly, slumping forward a little. Finally, Allison gave up the search for support, instead choosing to slip off the edge of the table. She propped her back against it, legs stretched out in front of her on the cold stone. With a little bit of shifting, the table held the pad in place for her, and she was finally able to lower her arm.
The stone floor was icy against her bare ass since she hadn't had time to change before being whisked away. Still, hard and uncomfortable as it was, at least she could relax a little. It probably beneath her now that she was a woman, sprawling on the floor like a child, but she couldn't bring herself to care. She was bone tired, aching everywhere. All she wanted to do was sleep for a week, or at least until the wolf hide was finished curing.
The part of the Healing House that wasn't a floor was warm, at least. Three fires burned in different hearths, two of them using wood and one seeming to survive only on air. Its flames glowed deep blue at their heart, flicking up to paler shades at the outer edges. The same color as the eyes of her wolf.
He obviously hadn't been an ordinary animal, but he'd been real, more solid than spirit or a vision. And he'd been there, right to the end. When she'd picked up her hunt again he'd followed her like a puppy, worked to coral the smaller wolf once he'd realized her goal.
She wondered what it meant, that she'd ended up lying with her first choice of prey instead of killing him. If it were some sort of divine joke, or if she had missed something vital. Everything that happened on the Crucible was sacred. Some girls had visions. Some vanished into the woods. Allison had never heard of anyone who'd done what she had. Obviously she had been deemed worthy of passing, or she wouldn't be her, but she wondered why. How. There was a sick feeling in her gut that she thought might be guilt. Guilt for having done it, for bargaining her body away that was in exchange for life.
Guilt that she didn't regret it. That she'd do it again.
After a few minutes, Alan came back to check on her wounds. He sprinkled something on it that smelled like sulfur, and then replaced the pad, along with her hand on it. Allison hissed, hunching forward against the new burn, her hair falling in dark tangles around her face.
Instead of moving away, Alan hovered. A cool finger touched the back of her neck.
"Rather a larger one here," he said, voice carefully nonjudgmental. "Clean, though. Was there another wolf?"
Allison went still, mind racing. When she looked up, she could see the knowledge in his eyes. It chilled her to the core. "Yes," she answered honestly. "A pack of them, large as horses. I attacked, but they got away before I could kill one."
"I imagine they ran very quickly indeed, if they were as you say." His hand closed around the back of her neck, palm warm and soft. "Does it hurt?"
Wordlessly, she shook her head.
He sighed and squeezed. Carefully, he scooped her hair back, tying it low on her neck with a leather thong. "You may want to wear high collars for some time to keep the dirt out. Just a suggestion." Before she could ask what he meant, he vanished off to stand over Scott, checking his work.
Tentatively, she released her compress to touch the bite wound. It throbbed pleasantly, only a little warm to the touch. Nothing like the one that the little wolf had given her arm.
High collars, indeed.
Allison spent three days in bed, stirring from her spot in the loft bed only to change her bandages, eat and occasionally meet guests. On the fourth day, she drifted awake to the sounds of someone singing outside and a hammer being banged against what was possibly an army worth of drums. She buried her face under the blankets, but it wasn't nearly enough to block the sound. By the time the hammering came to a natural stop, she was too much awake to fall back asleep.
Grumbling, she rolled out of bed and made for the ladder, fumbling when sleep-dead knees didn't want to stand steady on the rungs. After splashing her face with some water from the pitcher. A clean dress had been laid out for her, a simple shift and leggings suitable for an invalid, a double band of red hastily painted on the sleeve. She made a face, but pulled them on before making her way to the main hall.
Lydia and Kira waited for her in front of the hearth around a casting blanket. The bearskin Lydia wore everywhere spread out behind her like a train, masking her small size with its bulk. There was no sign of anyone else, but there wouldn't be. Unlike her, they didn't have the right to laze around all day.
Bones rattled in a cup, then spread out as Lydia released them expertly. Most of them flew beyond the edge of the white circle that had been woven into the blanket, but three bumped up against it and came to a stop. "And this means An Awakening," Lydia explained, nudging the bones to show Kira the etchings on the side and how they lined up with the onyx and gold sigils stitched along the edge of the blanket. "Good afternoon, Hunter Allison. There's still stew from your hunt, if you like it."
Allison wrinkled her nose at the thought of food so early, but refusing the meat of her own kill was probably crass. She found a clean bowl waiting by the hearth, along with the spoon she usually carried at her hip. The stew was thick, loaded with the fruits of a harvest still fresh in memory.
She ladled up a bowl and went to sit next to Kira at the edge of Lydia's blanket, curling her legs under her thick wool skirt. "You don't have to call me Hunter."
"Your father's been singing your praises since you returned." Kira ducked her head, looped braids falling forward across her shoulders. Old yellow gleamed between her fingers as she tossed them from hand to hand. Her cup set by her knee, glazed blue with a golden interior, chipped and worn with age. "He threatened to stake Tabitha out in the woods if she didn't show you respect."
Rolling her eyes seemed like the only answer to that. "Tabitha is different. You're my friends."
"And you will lead us one day." Lydia flashed a smile and collected her bones from the circle, scooping them into a cup. They were polished bright white, whiter than Allison had seen in the cup of anyone else who cast. "How does it feel to be a woman?"
"Like any other day." Bringing up the bowl, Allison took a sip of the broth. It was gamier than usual, probably because of the meat and extended stewing, but not bad at all. "Sore, tired. I'll probably change my song once my mother gives me new duties."
Kira's shoulders slumped. She leaned over, nudging Allison gently enough that her stew barely sloshed. "And then you won't have any time for us." Quick as a blink, she tucked something into the crease of Allison's knee. It glinted in the firelight, a little cast-bronze figure of a fox.
"No, then I'll start training you for real." Allison nudged back, picking up the token and tucking it in her sleeve. Later, she'd put it in her hip pouch so it always stayed with her. It was far from the first token she'd received, even from Kira. Her friends had been daily visitors, and Kira had never come without one. She'd only started bleeding a week ago, and wouldn't be going on her Crucible until the Strawberry Moon, but she was already saving up luck for it. The next matriarch, fresh from becoming a woman, was the luckiest thing around.
If it helped her friends, Allison didn't mind being used as a charm. "By the time I'm done with you, you'll be ready to bring home a twelve-point buck out of season," she promised.
"My mother brought home a fox. She thinks I will too," Kira confessed quietly, a tiny, shy smile flickering across her face.
Giving her bones a shake, Lydia let them fly again. "And I will be waiting back here, where it's safe. Leave the hunting to the Hunters." The bones hit each other and scattered, rolling to the outer edges of the circle. Only one was left, a tiny white splinter. Allison almost assumed was shed from the others until Lydia turned it over to show the rune carved on the broken side of the fragment. Her eyebrows went up. "Hm. That's interesting."
Curiosity bit. Allison leaned over. "What is it?"
Lydia lifted her eyes from the casting, bright green eyes unfocused. Then she shook her head, red-gold curls bouncing, and started folding her blanket around the bones. "Nothing important," she said breezily, busily rolling the blanket into a tube. It rolled up smaller than it had any right to, eventually tucking into Lydia's cup with ease. "Break your fast. You need some sun."
Allison glanced over at Kira, who met her eyes and just shrugged. That was about how she felt on the matter. You couldn't force answers out of a banshee, and trying was probably unhealthy. Without other options, Allison set herself to her stew, shoveling in bites as fast as she could politely chew them. Even though her stomach was still tight, it warmed her from the inside, reaching places the fire couldn't.
Lydia watched her eat, like Allison would pour the bowl out behind her back out if she got a chance. Her lips pursed together thoughtfully, until finally she said, "Did something else happen out there?"
A bit of meat lodged in Allison's throat. She choked, then coughed, hoping it would mask her blush. "What? It's my— You're not supposed to ask that!"
"Lydia, don't be rude," Kira hissed, looking appalled at Lydia's behavior.
"I'm a banshee. I'll be rude if I want to," Lydia insisted. "But something's changed. More than the Crucible. I want to know what it is."
"I've been asleep for days." Allison pulled her nearly empty bowl in against her chest, as if it could protect her from the prying. "There's just been you two. Kate came back from the east and brought me new knives? That's all, really."
A line formed between Lydia's brows as she scowled. "You're sure? That's all?"
"You're being ridiculous, and I'm done with it. Allison, bide a moment." Kira climbed to her feet and vanished into the foyer.
Lydia scowled after her, pulling her fur in around her like a cocoon. "No one listens to the banshee unless she's screaming," she muttered to herself.
A few moments later, Kira reappeared, an old, worn cloak folded over her arm. A double band of red ran along the hem and around the hood, colors faded with time and sun. "Matriarch Victoria said you should wear this until one of your own is made," she explained awkwardly, snapping it out to settle around Allison's shoulders.
The hide that had made the cloak's lining was big enough to cover the whole thing, fur thick and warm for winter. Allison rubbed the pale gray fur between her fingers. It was, she thought, just about the right size to have come from something like her wolf.
But that was impossible. If someone had taken down a wolf that big, there'd still be songs sung about it.
Shaking her head, Allison drained the last of her bowl and set it aside for someone to scrub later. Her leathers were still by the door where she'd left them before her Crucible, bracers and shin guards scarred but comfortable. Kate's gift had been hung on the belt already, making her smile as she buckled it on. Kira's token went in her pouch with all the others, next to the small blade and other tools she'd been stripped of before her Crucible. Boots she slipped on with a sigh. They were worn and a little tight, but her toes were still a little sore from having run around all night in just her skin and a tunic. She really wasn't eager to let them chill again just because her boots were old.
As soon as she stood up, Lydia linked her arm through Allison's and tugged her out the door into the bright light of early afternoon. Kira hurried after, grabbing Lydia's other hand when she held it out. It was a nice day for late fall. The snow had melted away into little puddles, and the sun was still warm from the fading promise of summer. Men looked up from their work as they passed, pausing to nod respectfully. Their wives and mothers smiled and gave Allison a wave when they saw her, while little girls ran through the street playing Doe and Hunter.
"Come on, the day's already half gone," Lydia chivvied, putting a bounce in her step as she pulled them to the western edge of town. Tiled roofs gleamed a rainbow of colors in the sun, and the hard stone walls looked softer somehow, more welcoming. "The top of the wall, I think. Where the breeze will catch you."
"If you say so," Allison sighed, accepting a quickly offered collection of pressed flowers from a young girl with curly black hair. Serena, she thought. She opened her mouth to ask, but the girl had already vanished off into a crowd of her friends, giggling at each other. Shrugging, she tucked the flowers into her pouch with the rest, pushing it into a corner where it hopefully wouldn't crumble. That would probably be a bad omen.
Lydia led them to one of the gate towers, breezing past the guard without even a wave. Allison made an apologetic face at the woman over her shoulder before she was being dragged up the stairs and out of sight. Kira mumbled something uncomplimentary under her breath, but if Lydia heard she didn't say anything. The door at the top opened up, spilling sunlight.
Allison pushed past to lean against the outer ramparts, lifting her face to breathe in the sweet air. A strong wind pushed back her hood and caught her loose hair, flinging it out behind her. Her friends wandered past, Lydia saying something about heights and falling things, the details lost on the breeze. For a moment, Allison considered following them, but the peace and warmth on her cheeks kept her anchored.
On its western face, Diahann sat on the very edge of a cliff, rock walls sliding down into a valley. Sunlight illuminated the needles of the evergreens, the bright red-gold of those trees still fading into autumn. To the north she could see just barely the shapes of farmers in the fields, collecting the last of the harvest that they hadn't been able to get before the snow fell. More fields were stretched out into the valley to the south, but they were already empty for the coming winter.
Something in her heart settled, a restlessness she hadn't realized was there until it had gone. The aches that still plagued her faded. Lydia had been right. She needed this. Taking a deep breath of fresh air, Allison tipped back her head to soak up the sun.
Far below, something howled.
She froze. The bite on the back of her neck twinged.
It came again, a low rumbling that trailed off into a higher-pitched whine. The sound was soft, barely audible behind the wind in her ears, but impossible to ignore once she'd heard it. Swallowing back a sudden lump, Allison leaned forward to peer over the edge.
At the bottom of the cliff, a black figure paced. Every now and then it stretched up and pawed at the rocks, as if contemplating its scalability. It was much too far away to make out any details, but Allison knew, knew that it was her wolf.
Hurriedly she looked around, but none of the guards seemed to have noticed the wolf. On this side, they were mostly on the lookout for approaching armies, not animals. Lydia's red hair and black fur gleamed in the sun all the way down at the next gatehouse, too far away to notice anything Allison might do. Kira wasn't in sight at all.
Running her hand across the top of the wall, Allison searched until she found a loose pebble, softly rounded and painted for someone's game. Then she leaned back over the edge, took careful aim, and let fly. The pebble dropped down silently, vanishing out of sight with the distance. A second later, the wolf leaped aside, and she thought she saw his head lift.
"Shoo," Allison hissed, mostly to herself. There was no way the animal could hear her from all the way down there. "Go back to your pack!"
His haunches dropped down, head definitely tipped back now. He howled again, softer, mournful.
Stretching up on her toes, Allison pushed forward until her shoulders hung over the edge. Her hair whipped in the breeze, curls twisting around themselves. "Go!"
Incredibly, her wolf seemed to listen. He stood, trotting back toward the tree line. Allison held her breath until his great bulk vanished completely, the forest swallowing his dark bulk.
"Hey!" Kira plopped down next to her on the wall, so sudden that Allison yelped and rolled away in surprise, scraping the bandage still over her thighs. "What are you looking at."
"Nothing," Allison said hurriedly, glancing back at the trees, but there was no sign of her wolf. If she squinted, she thought she could make him out, but... "Nothing. Just a shadow."
The fire crackled and popped in its hearth below the sleeping loft, heat rising up to make the nook cozy as could be in autumn. Allison stared at the inside of her eyelids and listened to it, sleep far away. Her parents had long since drifted off, their breathing soft and steady beside her. The town was quiet, laden with the deadness that came with very early mornings. Not even a servant was up and about.
Tomorrow she would be expected to wake early and go about her usual chores in the smithy and around the town learning her mother's tasks. She'd used all the time to rest that could possibly be justified, and now that she was a woman there were things that needed to be done. Her wolf hide was still tanning, but the tailors would want her measurements for her new clothing, Alan would want her blood for the dye. Arrows needed fletching. Swords needed to be made, tasks overseen. Her father was just a single man, and could only do so much on his own.
But instead of sleep, her imagination painted fanciful pictures behind her eyelids. The flames turned shadows into canine shapes looming out at her. Wind in the thatch sounded like the cry of an animal. Creaking rafters became the tap of claws on stone. Warm blankets became fur against her skin.
Finally, she gave up on the impossible and pulled herself from bed. Her parents slept on as she stepped over them and crawled down the ladder to collect her overdress, bare feet frozen by the cold flagstones. Then it was to the foyer for her cloak and boots. They were still warm from being hung by the fire, fur lining settling around her shoulders like an embrace. Holding it close, she pulled up the hood and slipped out the door.
The streets were completely empty of anything but a scavenging dog. A bone-cold wind of autumn played around her ankles, teasing under the edge of her skirt. Overhead, the moon was waning, hovering just over the edge of the wall. Most of the stars were drowned out by his proud light, leaving the sky a vast expanse of midnight.
She followed him, headed east. Large, elegant stone houses shrunk as she walked, turned to more modest wooden homes, and then to farmer's huts. Plans played out in the back of her head, relentless thoughts that unfolded in trickster's promises. Allison did her best not to think about it, even as her feet led her to the edge of the town wall. Guards paced by at the top, but they never looked down. The shadows cast by the moon were soft, weak things, but they were enough to hide her from casual onlookers as she walked the wall, fingertips trailing over cold stone.
When she'd been little the walls had been older, still being rebuilt after they'd collapsed when the earth had shaken. Mostly they were new now, but in some places, the old walls held. She and other children had endlessly played in the construction, hiding from their fathers and only minding enough to keep from being yelled at. They'd learned a hundred secrets while they played. Children who are staying out from underfoot tend to find things that adult feet will never lead them to.
It was a tiny place in the very north east corner, an old grate that covered what used to be a drainage ditch. Kneeling down, Allison felt around in the dark until she found the bars that jiggled and twisted free under her touch. It was more of a squeeze than when she'd been small, but she slipped through with only a few hisses of pain from her healing wounds.
The moon's glow shined through the bars of the other side of the ditch, making it much easier to find the trick ones and slide through. Then there was nothing but wide open clearing and, at a distance, the call of the forest. Allison stared at it, stomach roiling with either fear or excitement, she couldn't be sure which. A figure moved in the shadows, black-on-gray, a flicker of blue.
Taking a deep breath to collect her courage, she pulled her hood higher up and sprinted for the forest. No one shouted at her to stop, nor did the torches flare to brighter life. In what felt like only a few heartbeats, fallen pine needles and the last of the snow were crunching underfoot, and she was safely hidden with none the wiser.
Her wolf was waiting, eyes glowing in the darkness like fairy lights. Sitting put his head higher than hers, and by the proud prick of his ears he liked it.
She sighed and went to him, reaching up to tangle her fingers in his ruff. "I told you to go," she chided, giving him a little shake. "There's people here, and they won't be as nice as me."
He chuffed and bumped his cold nose against her cheek, and again on her neck. Rising, he paced around her, side rubbing all along her body. Then he settled in against her side and nosed his way under her arm, taking a pointed step forward. When Allison didn't move with him, he twined about her again, bumping his shoulder into her back.
"Am I being herded?" A fond smile twisted her lips. Obediently, she moved in the direction the wolf indicated, following his lead when he moved her off the path or around an obstacle. The forest turned thick enough that at times the only thing she could see was the glow of his eyes, but he never led her astray.
The more time she spent with him, the more convinced Allison was that her wolf was smarter than his form suggested. He herded her expertly, seemed to understand what sort of hazards were too much for a person on two feet rather than four. She toyed with the idea that he was a forest spirit, maybe. Or a small god, a devil sent to lead young girls to darkness, a monster in wolf form sabotaging the goddesses' will during the Crucible. Songs were full of creatures who could hide their nature in another's skin, and they rarely ended well.
But of all that, the frightening part was that she didn't care. There was something more there, a bubble of adventure, a pull that might be the death of her. Even knowing that, she couldn't ignore it. Easier to stop the sunrise.
After maybe a half an hour of walking, he circled back and bumped her again, pushing her to the side. This time, the path led to a sharp drop, but when she investigated it was thick with well-set stones. She used them to climb down, rolling her eyes when her wolf knocked his head against her hip impatiently.
"I'm coming, I'm coming." Allison scratched the top of his head, pulling him in to smack a kiss against his nose. "Some of us are only human."
He snorted and turned, leaping down to the bottom of the gorge. It was only then that Allison realized she could see again. The moon had risen high enough that his light leaked through thinned out branches, showing her the way. She sped up then, taking steps two and three at a time until her feet touched ground and she could throw her arms around her wolf's shoulders.
Huffing, he rubbed his cheek against her and stepped aside, trotting away to vanish to the other side of a copse of trees. A second later, he came back and sat, waiting. Allison followed, brushing her hand over his shoulders as she peeked through the branches.
The clearing was lit up with silver shadows. A creek ran through it, water bubbling like music. Moss filled in where pine needles couldn't reach, creating a soft carpet underfoot. It was even warmer, the trees having cut the wind down to a mere trickle of air.
Her companion wagged his tail, but wasn't looking at her, as if he were deliberately not asking for approval.
Allison smiled and wrapped her arms around his neck anyway. "It's beautiful. Thank you for showing it to me."
He curled around her, nosing her into the clearing. Once she'd taken the first step, though, he trotted off to sniff around the edges of the trees, leaving Allison to settle herself onto the moss by the creek. Things were a little colder there, but she was able to spread out her cloak and look up toward the sky without being too badly affected.
A second later, her wolf came back to stretch out by her with his chin on her thigh, a warm bulwark against the last bit of chill. She reached out to run her nails down his back, getting a shiver when she hit his tail bone.
"Feel good?" she asked teasingly, scratching directly at the spot.
His whole body shuddered, from ears to haunches. Then he flipped his tail, smacking her right in the face.
"Hey!" She shoved it away, laughing. "What was that about?"
Her wolf growled and did it again, batting at her until she shrieked in laugher and curled up, hiding her face from the assault. One of his forelegs stretched over her thighs, holding her pinned while his tail hit her again. Then his muzzle nosed under the hem her skirt, cold nose against warm skin, and suddenly Allison was breathless for another reason.
They locked eyes. He nuzzled higher, lapping at the inside of her thigh. The tail that had been her bane just a few seconds before wagged tentatively.
This time there was no rush of adrenalin, no excuse she could use. It was just them. Swallowing, Allison let her knees slip apart, one hand moving down to clench in his ruff. "It's okay."
That seemed to be all he needed. His shoulders rolled, and next thing she knew he was standing over her, paws planted by her hips and his head buried under her skirt. His nose followed the line of her thighs all the way up to her cunt. Cold as it was, his tongue was warm where it ran over her. Allison's hips jerked as he lapped with broad strokes, nuzzled farther down to her entrance.
Flopping on her back, Allison rucked her skirt of higher, bunching it up out of the way. She couldn't see much—the underside of his great jaw, a flash of tongue and teeth. Little shocks of pleasure played up her spine, flushed her cheeks. When she braced and lifted her hips, his tongue burrowed deep in her, making her toes curl. It was enough to make her groan and roll her head back.
Above her, the moon was blocked by his chest and stomach. A hint of a lighter color hung under him, the tip of his cock just starting to slip its sheath. Allison licked her lips. She propped herself on her elbows, stretching upward. The scabs on her chest tugged, but not enough to make her stop.
Her wolf growled, head twisting around to look at her. A paw planted on her stomach to keep her pinned.
"No, no, it's fine, just let me..." She reached up to grab his hip, using it to tug herself higher, tongue flicking out to touch the pointed tip of his cock. It was mostly lost in his fur still, but she managed to her lips around the first inch, rubbing her tongue over it.
He whined, hips jerking, a little more coming out to rest on her tongue. Her lips pressed right against the sheath, soft fur tickling her cheeks. Claws scratched through the dirt, and then he lowered himself down so she didn't have to stretch so much to reach. His nose buried back in her cunt, licking around her clit in delicate little laps. The edges of his teeth pressed against her, a little too hard, too threatening, and perfect for it.
Allison cried out, letting his cock in her mouth muffle her. It was slowly getting longer with every rock of his hips. She bobbed her head, teasing out more, licking the tip before slipping down to see how much had come out. When it finally was long enough, she took a breath, relaxed her throat and breathed in through her nose. It slipped down, easier to take than a man's, heavy and hot on her tongue.
The effect was instant. His hips snapped, burying the last few inches in her. They did it again, as if he were helpless to do anything else. He lurched forward, then back as his claws fought for purchase on the soft moss. The last few inches of his cock came out, and Allison stretched her jaw until she was swallowing it all, her nose pressed hard against his belly. His work between her legs became harder, more desperate. She rocked her own hips encouragingly, choking on a moan as lightning arched between her mouth and cunt.
Both of her hands came up to tangle in his fur, holding on as he rutted into her. Her lips wrapped tight around his shaft, suckling him down, swallowing around him when it got to be too much. She could feel his cock sliding across her tongue, stretching out her throat. Rutting turned frantic, his thrusts fast and arrhythmic. Then a shudder ran down his body as he slammed into her, harder than before. Something swelled behind her teeth, locking him in, bitter-salt hot in her throat, on the back of her tongue.
She came so hard she almost choked on his come. Her whole body curled in, knees locking behind his jaw as she forced his mouth harder against her cunt. Stars burst behind her eyes as her vision edged on black, golden warmth turning her muscles soft. The wolf's thrusts eased slowly, working the half-inch he had that wasn't knotted in her before coming to a complete stop.
Closing her eyes, Allison wrapped her arms around his hips and swallowed. For her trouble she got another thrust, sliding over her tongue, in her throat. A rock dug into her shoulder, and she could feel her ass going cold from being exposed as it was. None of it mattered. He was still coming in little spurts, flooding warmth down into her belly. She wouldn't have left even if she could, if his knot weren't tight behind her teeth.
The wolf sat above her for a moment, limbs shaking, chest heaving with pants. Then he put his head down and ran his nose directly across her clit. She cried out, gagging when her throat tried to close on the sound. He made a sound that in a human might have been a chuckle.
In retaliation, Allison reached up and yanked on his tail hairs. He growled and rocked again before lowering himself down. His cheek pressed against her hip, back legs hunched up awkwardly as they waited to be untied.
Allison ran her hand over his ribs and let her eyes close, breathing through her nose with only a little effort. Her jaw ached, and she was certain she'd grown some new bruises. It didn't matter. She was more comfortable than she'd been in her own bed.
When her wolf was finally able to slip free, he didn't move to do more than turn around so his head rested on her shoulder instead of her hip. She wrapped her arms around neck and buried her face in the scent of warm, clean fur. The night settled in around them.
If it was a trick of fate working against her, she was well and truly trapped.
The moon was just starting his journey down to the western trees when Allison snuck back to the town. She was more careful this time, watching the lamps carried by the wall guards, counting minutes until she had their pattern down. A shadow seen fleeing away from the walls might have been excused, but never one coming toward them.
There was a gap in the guards on the northern wall, where the wall curved outward to accommodate an old tower that blocked the guard's view for an entire three minutes. She counted three times before she was certain she could make it. Her wolf stayed against her side, warm and soft, head low. She could almost imagine him counting with her, finding her an opening.
Goodbye tasted bitter, so she just rested her hand on his shoulders, stroking back fur mussed by play in the clearing. He looked up at her, eyes flatter, some of their glow gone. Allison didn't think he would follow, but just in case she murmured a soft stay here as she stepped up to the end of the shadows. Behind her came a quiet whine, but no corresponding head-butt, no warm body appeared under her hand. As they watched, the guard's lantern bobbed around the edge of the wall and out of sight.
Offering up a prayer to the Thief for secrecy, Allison pulled her cloak tight around her and dashed across the clearing. Every step felt like one closer to doom, but somehow she reached the brick of the wall without raising a cry. She pressed back against it, catching her breath as silently as possible. Then, slowly, she inched along in the shadow of the wall, headed east. In the forest, her wolf paced her, black fur a darker shadow among the rest.
It was harder, being in close. All it would take would be for a guard to actually look down. It was unlikely, but she stayed tense, listening for the moment she was given away. Her pulse refused to go down until she was scrambling into the ditch, twisting the bars loose. Safe shadows swallowed her, and she was able to breathe again.
Someone grabbed her arm.
She whirled, lashing out at her attacker. A boy yelped, and there was a sound of dirt shifting as they scrambled back. Another person grabbed her from behind, locking her arms to her side.
"It's just me and Stiles!" Kira hissed in in her ear.
"You brought a boy down here?" Allison demanded, aghast. She twisted free, putting her back to the wall. "This is no time for boys to be wandering around. Are you trying to get him killed?"
"Hey, I'm seventeen," Stiles protested, his voice bouncing off the tunnel walls a little too loudly. "I can protect myself."
"You're a scribe. You couldn't fight a chicken," Allison shot back, rubbing her face. "Why are you two here?"
A light flickered, and suddenly she could see him, holding up a thief's lamp in the darkness. His ink-stained fingers nearly vanished around it, only the black-pale crescents of his nails visible. The two of them were kitted out, or as much as they could be. Kira had her gear on, metal glinting at her hip and wrist. Stiles held a quarterstaff that Allison wasn't really sure she trusted him not to smack himself with.
In the thin beam of the thief's lamp, Kira's guilty expression was only partly visible, an unhappy press of her lips, a twitch of her eyebrow. "Your mother came looking for you. She said you weren't in bed, and your kit was gone. She wanted to know if you'd come to see me."
Cold gripped Allison's chest. Her hand fell to the knife sheathed at her hip. She hadn't thought to leave it, which was so stupid in hindsight. But she hadn't even known where she was going, either. No wonder her mother had worried. "What did you say?"
"I said you were with Lydia."
Allison closed her eyes and breathed out a soft, "Thank you." No one would dare disturb Lydia without being certain they were welcome. Only a small handful of people would think to try, really. Even her mother walked tenderly around a banshee. "That doesn't explain why you're here though."
Kira and Stiles exchanged a look that was heavy with significance Allison was too tired to really parse. "Lydia again." Weaving her fingers together, Kira hunched inward, hair falling forward to hide her face in shadow. "I went to tell her that you were missing—I thought she might know something, but..." She shrugged. "She just said that you were safe outside the wall and that we shouldn't worry, but she said it in that way that meant she wanted me to do something but didn't want to just tell me to do it."
Allison couldn't even find it in her to be surprised that Lydia knew. Banshees were strange. All she could hope was that Lydia didn't know the specifics. And of course Lydia's usual cryptic drama would have made Kira worry even more. She was worse than any other woman Allison knew about finding danger and wanting to leap in feet first. "So you went after me. What about him?" Allison asked, jerking her head toward the boy, who really should have been safe at home in his bed.
Stiles stuck out his tongue, verifying everything Allison already suspected. "I wanted to help." When Allison raised her eyebrows in disbelief, he sighed and said, "Okay, I saw Kira creeping down to the wall and was curious. Kill me."
"That can be arranged," Allison muttered, rubbing her face again. It was too late for this, and she was too tired. She didn't even want to think about what she must look like, pine needles in her hair, clothing mussed. Most of it she'd cleaned off in the creek, but her clothing would need to be beaten out. Hopefully they couldn't see the worst of it, though. The last thing she needed was anyone asking questions. "You two need to go home."
Immediately they both started to protest, but Allison held up her hand to stop them in their tracks. "I mean it. I'm back, and I'm obviously not hurt. All I'm going to do now is go home and go to bed—"
"Your mother's waiting for you," Stiles reminded her unhelpfully. Allison glared at him, but Kira was nodding agreement, and since when did she side against Allison with a boy? "We should all go to Lydia's," he went on, looking around like he was waiting to be told no. "And maybe you could tell us all what you were doing out there?"
"No." The denial came out flat and authoritative, and for one breathless instant Allison realized that she sounded like her mother. "It's private."
Kira slung an arm around her shoulder, pulling her along toward the inside grate. "Then it can be private at Lydia's."
Allison let herself be dragged past the secret entrance and along the line of the wall. They were right—if she wasn't at Lydia's in the morning, her mother would have questions. Saying no wouldn't work on the Matriarch, and Allison was too bad of a liar to be able to pull it off. That was even if she could think of a suitable lie. If she wasn't careful, she'd end up at the Healing House again for being moonstruck.
The Banshee House was in the very northeast corner of the town, in a clearing all its own, where it had kept Banshees whenever they were born for centuries. Originally, it had been outside the walls, but when they'd been rebuilt Allison's grandmother had ordered them extended to protect it too. There were still remnants of the old walls around it, crumbled masonry and oddly placed dips in the ground.
Most of it had been used to rebuilt the new wall, and the rest had been pillaged by townsfolk, or by Lydia's family. They'd built it into a low barrier wall around the Banshee House that no one dared cross without permission. Inside the boundary, a little garden flourished vivid green even with winter oncoming. There was just enough moonlight for Allison to make out the shape of a goat dozing on the roof and the shadow of chickens roosting in a tree.
Just as they reached the gate, the front door opened, golden light spilling out onto the pathway like fire. Lydia waited just inside, a perfect silhouette in the doorway, unmasked by her furs. Her expression was hidden in shadow, but the exasperation in her voice was sharply clear. "It's about time. I thought I'd have to come find you myself."
"You told Kira not to worry," Allison called, slipping the latch and edging inside sideways so no animals escaped. Her companions followed, Stiles eying a goat with healthy skepticism.
"But I didn't say not to go after you," Lydia said, turning her head so her smile was visible. "Hurry up, the chill is getting in."
Allison and Kira had been inside Lydia's home enough that the eerie normalcy of it had worn off. There weren't any suspicious shadows, no strangely colored lights or jars filled with oddities. Just a patched-together quilt making a soft place to sit on the floor, the usual loft bed, and brightly colored wall hangings that Allison knew Lydia received as gifts from folk eager to claim her favor. It was normal, comfortable, when Lydia went to tend the fire while they hung up their weapons and cloaks.
Stiles, however, gawped like a child, staring around until Kira poked his ribs sharply.
"Stop it," she hissed under her breath, just loud enough for Allison to catch. "You'll make her nervous."
"Make her nervous?" Boys were, apparently, incapable of whispering. "I'm the one alone with a bunch of women in the middle of the night. I'm pretty sure my virtue just turned black by association."
"As if you were ever going to find a wife anyway." Lydia added another log, tucking it back away so it would burn slower.
"Did the spirits tell you that?" Stiles had the audacity to look offended as he settled on the quilt, tucked close to the fire and, by circumstance, Lydia. "Because I'll have them know I would be a fine catch for any woman in this town."
"No spirits needed, knowing you was more than enough. But speaking of spirits..." A tiny, smug smile twisted Lydia's lips, visible only for a moment before she vanished off through a back door. When she came back, she had a heavy skin of something that sloshed promisingly. She handed it to Allison, then took a seat on the other side of her. "The three of you are going to help me with very important work tonight and tomorrow. Your parents will just have to understand."
"What sort of work?" Allison asked warily, snuffling at the mouth of the skin. It smelled like applejack and, on further examination, tasted like it too. The drink burned down to her stomach, completely uncut and much harder than what she usually drank. Already it was warming her from within, easing the chill of running around the woods so late at night. She coughed, handing the skin over to Kira, who slugged it down with much more finesse.
"Getting drunk." Lydia's shoulder bumped Allison's, only thin cloth between them. It was suddenly unbearably intimate, seeing her friend in only a dress. "You'll thank me when you don't have to wake with the sun tomorrow after the night you've had."
Allison blamed the alcohol for the heat in her cheeks. "And what sort of night did I have?"
"I'm a banshee, not a mind reader." Reaching out, Lydia plucked a pine needle from her hair, holding it up in silent accusation. "But I have a few guesses."
"Oh, that explains a lot," Kira said, eyes huge and dark, tinted yellow by the firelight. "Was it good?"
"Must have been, if she snuck out in the middle of the night for it," was Stiles' opinion, mumbled around his hand as he wipes his lips and passed the skin to Lydia.
Groaning, Allison hid her face. "You're all terrible."
Lydia rubbed the small of her back reassuringly. "We know."
With Lydia's blessing, Allison's mother didn't look too much askance at her when she didn't reappear in public for two days, though her aunt Kate pulled her aside to tell her to watch out.
"I know she's your friend, but she's a banshee," Kate had said, cupping Allison's hands between her own. She loomed over Allison, on her knees when Allison was sitting. Her knife still sat at her hip—she never removed it, even though it was impolite not to inside the house. "They're not like us. You never know when they'll side with the spirits over living people."
"It's just Lydia." Allison tried to pull her hands free without giving away the crawling of her skin.
"And a hound is just a hound." Kate locked their fingers together intently. "You can train them to do tricks, to come to heel and to obey, but even the best of them can turn on you. Remember that." Then she'd kissed Allison's forehead, like she was a little girl being taught a lesson.
The month of the Huntress's Moon passed simply enough. Everyone took a turn in the fields, getting in the last of the harvest before the oncoming cold stole it away. Hunting parties went out in larger numbers, coming back ladened with meat for salting and smoking, to supplement what the herders brought in. Even Lydia put in her share of work out in the orchard to gather up bushels of nuts, wearing a pair of patched trousers with her fur heavy on her shoulders.
After Kate's warning, Allison made sure to stay close by Lydia's side. She was surprised to find not only Kira, but Stiles and Scott doing the same. They traded looks behind Lydia's back, nodding at each other in solidarity. Part of her desperately wanted to know if their families had given them the same warnings, but she didn't think she wanted to hear the answer if it was yes.
Whenever she could, Allison slipped off into the woods. It was less than she would have liked, but autumn nights were filled with dancing and stories, singing songs to their ancestors, and it was hard to get away before exhaustion got the better of her. No matter how many nights she missed, though, her wolf was always waiting in their clearing when she did show up, ears perked and tail flagged. If she were tired and aching the day after, it was always worth it.
Her new cloak was finished in time for the next full moon, made from the hide of her kill and the cloth she'd woven in the temple. Alan presented it to her with a flourish, rolling it out across a worktable to show the double band of purple at its hem, the color of the flowers that grew on the side of the cliff in spring.
"Strange, isn't it?" he asked conversationally. "I used the same method I always do for your family, but Miran says it dried like this on its own. An omen, I'd say."
Allison inspected the cloak, pretending that her hands weren't shaking. Thick gray fur lined the cowl and shoulders, impossibly warm where she ran her fingers through it. At the hem the purple was vibrant, the kind of hue that grand ladies on the other side of the mountain supposedly spent fortunes to have. In the light of his hearth, clear white today, it seemed to glow.
Usually, women only took new colors when they were leaving to start their own House. But Allison was her mother's only child. She didn't even have a brother whose wife could take her place. "What kind of omen?"
He only smiled. "Perhaps the kind that comes with teeth marks on the back of your neck." Carefully, he took his hands off the cloak, stepping away from it. "You might want to hurry, Hunter. The moon's almost risen."
It was Allison's first time standing with the Hunters during a full moon. Her new cloak felt odd on her shoulders, heavy with the weight of the stares it brought. No one would question the color of stripes that came from a dye specifically produced by Alan and Miran, though. At least, not aloud, and certainly not at a full moon.
She was sharply aware of Kira, standing with the other unproven girls watching the ceremony with adoring eyes, of Stiles and Scott at the front of the men with their solemn faces. Lydia stood at the back, away from other people, where her scream wouldn't break eardrums if it sounded. She'd traded her usual long skirt for something shorter, easier to walk in. A bad sign, if ever there was one.
There were two girls being sent off to hunt for the Beaver Moon Crucible, a tow-headed wisp of a girl named Heather, and a taller, darker one named Serena. They received their first blessing from their Allison's mother, who offered them their knives on the flat on her palms. Neither of them looked afraid as they took their weapons , which was how it should be. Allison remembered being in their place just a month ago. There hadn't been enough room in her head for terror.
The girls moved down the line, receiving their blessings from Healer Melissa, and then Priestess Marin. Hunters, Priestesses and Healers who had gone before them and come back were the last group, each woman reaching out in turn. It seemed like barely any time at all before the two were in front of her.
Allison imprinted the girls faces in her memory as she clasped their hands together. They weren't anyone she particularly knew. Just two girls she saw around, girls who had given her tokens and smiled at her in passing. Leaning forward, she kissed Heather's cheek, then Serena's. A rope of worry coiled through her lungs as she recalled how it had felt to be out in the snow, staring death down with only the moon to see. The back of her neck stung.
Would a wolf come for them, too? And if it did, would they welcome it?
Her hands tightened, and she couldn't breathe. The whole town was watching, waiting for her to give her blessing, but all she could think of was her wolf, or one like him, bleeding out in the snow. Or one of them, two that she'd never cared about but suddenly couldn't stomach losing. Allison let out her breath, eyes closing. Instead of a blessing, she murmured, "Don't fear the wolves."
Then she stepped back, not looking up to see the confusion no doubt written on their faces. The rest of the ceremony finished without incident, and the gates closed with a heavy clang just as the moon began to crest the trees.
As soon as they did, Lydia was at her side, hand wrapped around her arm to pull her off into the shadow of the wall. She reached up to push Allison's hair back, cupping her cheeks between two delicate hands.
"What did you say?" she demanded, forcing Allison to meet her eyes. "Tell me— what. Did. You. Say?"
"I said—" Allison's stomach roiled. "I told them not to fear the wolves, I— Lydia, are they—" Desperately, she grabbed for Lydia's wrists. "What are the spirits saying? Are you going to scream?"
If she had sent those girls to their deaths, if her words were going to be the end of them...
But Lydia was shaking her head. "Not anymore." She bit her lip, then gave Allison a shove to the east, toward the secret exit. "Go. You need to be out there tonight. You're bursting from your skin with it."
The ache in Allison's chest was a physical thing. It was a pull on her bones that she couldn't ignore, could barely think her way through, nothing like the simple desire that had always drawn her out before. But she still paused, looking back. "You know. Did the spirits tell you?"
"There's more to being a banshee than the soon to be dead whispering in my ear." Red curls bounced around Lydia's face, washed out and pale. She looked like a ghost standing in the alley, all shadows and contrast. "You're bound to something, and it's calling you. Go to it."
Bound. It felt like so much more than that. She still nodded and turned, running through the empty streets. Everyone was still at the courtyard, waiting for the girls to come back or for Lydia to scream. No one was there to hide from when she slipped between the bars. Even the guards were less vigilant than usual, their lanterns stationary pinpricks as she dashed through the dead zone. Winter-dry grass crunched underfoot, and then she was in the shadows of the trees, moonlight peering through dead branches.
Her wolf was waiting, pacing, a reckless energy burning in him that she could feel like the heat of a hearth fire on her skin. Allison threw herself at him, arms sliding around his neck and suddenly her mind unclouded, all the panic and restlessness draining away into a quiet peace. His head tucked down, squeezing her in close enough that she could feel his heart pounding.
"I'm here," she murmured, breathing in the musky scent of fur and wildness. "I'm here."
He nipped at her arm, dropping his head to butt her in the shoulder. It was hard enough that she spun around, wobbling, and then staggered forward when another headbutt landed in the small of her back.
Obediently, Allison moved forward, first at a walk, and then stretching her legs into a run when he just knocked into her again. Her wolf ran beside her, moonlight shining on his fur. There was plenty of it to see by, to make even the treacherous footpaths of the forest simple enough. Her feet were steady, and the few times she stumbled he was always there to prop her up and keep her going.
They ran together, until the walls of Diahann were far behind. He slowed to a trot, a walk before sitting down to tip his head back. A howl rose from his throat, deep and rich, carrying up into the night in hymn. Far away, an answering chorus came, dozens of voices weaving in and out.
Her wolf called again. This time, Allison cupped her hands around her mouth to sing with him. Her voice was thready, higher. It didn't carry as well. But her wolf's tail wagged, sweeping through the leaves happily. It was enough to make her smile in turn.
She dropped down to the ground beside him, arm stretched across his shoulders. He nuzzled into her hair, licking at her ear, down her neck. The scars from his bite he gave special attention to, setting his teeth against them and gnawing until the flesh was tender again.
Allison hissed, bowing her head forward and sweeping her hair out of his way as he followed the marks around. His mouth opened wide, settling carefully over her neck again without biting down. It tingled down her spine, settling hot and frenetic between her legs.
"Is that what this is about?" she murmured. Hot, damp breath washed over her neck, a flicker of wet tongue over her skin. She reached under her skirt, rubbing at her slick cunt idly, easing some of the ache. "You want me on my knees again?"
He let go of her neck to push at her shoulder urgently, whining. His cock had already slipped its sheath nearly fully, hanging low and thick below him.
The sight made Allison lick her lips. Hurriedly, she set aside her cloak and hiked up her skirts, tying them around her waist so they wouldn't get in the way. Her wolf was still butting at her, whining, growling, nipping at her skin whenever it appeared. When she dropped to her knees, he didn't even give her a chance to find her balance before he was mounting her. His cock slid home in a single sharp push, stealing a groan from her throat.
Since he was in such a rush she braced her shoulders, rocking back to take him deeper. He stretched her out, reached those places inside that made her see stars. "Come on," Allison growled, tipping her head back to feel his cheek against hers. She thrust backwards again, demanding. "Come on, come on—"
He took it to heart. Her palms scraped across the ground as he found his pace, rutting into her. It nearly knocked her onto her face until she met his rhythm, started leading him along. Hot fur tickled the back of her thighs, up against her ass. His weight hung over her, heavy and perfect. Breath came short, burning her lungs. Her nipples scratched against the inside of her blouse, sharply sensitive, every touch another flare of pleasure.
Balancing on one hand, she reached behind to tangle her fingers in his ruff, holding on. Each stroke went to the center of her, tingled across her skin and up her spine. Pleasure built and built, pressure building behind a dam. She cried out when it broke, fingers biting into his neck as her whole body seemed to spasm with it, toes curling and hips slapping back.
As if he'd been waiting, his orgasm followed on the heels of hers. His cock expanded in a rush, knot tying them together at the lips of Allison's cunt and trapping her around him. It tugged at her cunt, yanked, sending new shocks through her. They rode it out together, bodies slowing reluctantly to a moon-drenched stop. He lapped at the nape of her neck, twisting off to balance delicately on one paw without pulling on her more.
Allison dropped her head to her forearms, suddenly too aware of the burn of cold air in her lungs, of the new bruises he'd given her. "I can't stay for long," she warned him. "As soon as we're free, I should go."
He huffed agreeably, licking her again.
Dawn crested the treetops by the time she was got back to the courtyard to stand with the others. Familiar, comfortable aches settled in her muscles, the price of a night well spent. Sporting with her wolf had transmuted the overflowing energy that had plagued her and she felt rested, eager to face the new day.
She was the only one. Only a small portion of the town had awoken for the dawn ceremony, and those that did were drooping with exhaustion, one and all. The celebrants stood straight in their line, but most of them had their eyes closed. Children slept swaddled in blankets and cradled in their parents' arms. Even Lydia was half asleep against Stiles' shoulder while Scott stood guard, arms crossed belligerently. Allison took a moment to smile at them. Stiles was... well, Stiles, but he was a good friend in times of need, and Scott had a strong heart. If Lydia ever chose a husband, she could do worse than one of them.
Morning silence snapped as one of the guards called down a sighting. Those who remained woke from their dozes, shaking sleep from their shoulders to pretend vigilance. Allison did the same, lifting her chin and bracing herself. The gates opened with a groan of icy hinges, and Serena staggered in. A bobcat draped over her shoulder, and blood streaked her tunic from the battle, making it stick to her skin. The Matriarch moved to take it from her, but Serena fell to her knees. The carcass slid to the ground, its gaping throat hanging open.
"They have her," she gasped, looking up. More blood coated her face, gleamed in her dark hair. Allison's stomach churned when she realized that it came from a set of claw marks raking across her forehead. "The wolves, they— big, fast—strong, so strong, with eyes that— they took Heather. I tried to stop her— I tried—"
The Matriarch knelt down to cup Serena's cheeks, lifting her face. The girl—woman now—locked her trembling jaw, but it didn't stop the tears from pouring down. Then Victoria turned to cast a sharp look at Lydia, who only shook her head. The silent question was unnecessary; everyone knew Lydia had stayed in the courtyard all evening, with never a peep. Heather, wherever she was, was alive at least.
After a moment, Victoria nodded and stood, pulling Serena up with her. "Someone take this woman to the Healing House." Scott immediately leaped forward, wrapping an arm around Serena's shoulders to pull her away. A pair of men grabbed up her kill, taking it off to be properly skinned and cooked.
Victoria wasn't done. She paced the line of the crowd, holding her fingertips up to show where Serena's blood painted them scarlet. "Get me maps. Lists of our supplies, a count of every able bodied woman we have." When she reached the end of the line she paused, chin lifted. "Hunters, Priestesses, Healers. We meet at noon in the temple for a council."
The temple's tile floor ground into Allison's ass, which was well bruised from her night out in the woods. She sat at her mother's right hand, hands folded together atop her bow, stomach alive with writhing knots of worried frustration. On the Matriarch's other side, Noshiko—Kira's mother—sat with her legs folded, back as straight as the line of her lips. Kate stood rather than sat, arms crossed and knees locked. She gave Allison a toothy smile, flicking her favorite knife between her fingers. Everyone with the right crowded around them and spoke at once, guessing at the truth, aggression a buzz of hunger in every voice.
Women who had never sought the honor of higher callings, who had found their womanhood in other ways waited outside the temple steps, with their daughters and husbands keeping respectful silence nearby. Alan sat on the temple steps, hands folded on his knees. Kira crowded in close to the pillars, lip caught between her teeth in excitement. Stiles and Scott stood behind her, Stiles' face waxen with worry.
Allison's time in the temple for her Crucible seemed a lifetime away, it had changed so much. The pillar of the Warrior had blood streaked down her crystal sword and across her forehead, matching the claw marks Serena had returned with. A handful of bones littered the floor by the Hunter's feet, and some resourceful soul had wedged an arrow in her husband's hand, as if the Harvester were offering up the weapon as a sacrifice to his beloved. None of the others had the same sort of gifts. The Peace-maker had been divested of her flowers, and the Father had been draped in mourning.
It had already been decided. All that was left was the justification.
With a deliberate precision, Victoria stood and moved to the center of the floor, where the mosaic curled in to a brilliant gold sunburst. The murmur of excited voices faded, vanishing into the wind. "One of our own has been taken," she announced. Her voice rang, echoing off the pillars, up into the temple's ceiling. "The great wolves led her astray, taking her into darkness. Hunter Serena, tell your tale."
Serena nodded and stood, weaving on legs that still trembled with exhaustion. "Heather and I made a pact to hunt together," she said, softly at first, then picking up volume. "We found my prey first, deep in the woods. I—I don't know how long it took to take it down. Most of the night, maybe. By the time we finished, it was almost morning and... We heard wolves."
There was a pause while Serena caught her breath. In the corner of Allison's eye, she saw her mother smiling, a hard glint in her eye. "Tell us about the wolves," Victoria ordered, voice softer than Allison had heard it since she was a child. "Tell us what happened to your sister in arms."
The Hunter pressed her lips together in a near-smile, eyes darting to Allison. "They were more than wolves. They were— they were monsters, spirits—huge things, with teeth sharper than our finest knives, and their eyes glowed in the dark."
A sharp murmur went up from the other Hunters, dying only when the Matriarch held up her hand for silence.
"I attacked," Serena continued. "I knew I shouldn't, but I didn't think and—and when they turned to fight, Heather saved me, pushed me away from being savaged by a beast with red eyes. But the monster bit her before she could get away. They carried her off after that. I don't know where they took her. After that, I returned home, for help." Serena lowered herself back to the floor, her knees giving way to drop her the last few graceless inches. She leaned on the shoulder of woman who looked nearly identical to her—a mother, maybe, or an elder sister, the double bands of orange around her sleeves bright and new.
Allison bit her lip as conversation buzzed through the temple, sharp and bloody as everyone tried to speak their minds all at once. No one rose to claim the floor, but it didn't stop everyone from talking over each other. The word revenge and punishment sang louder than the rest. No one voiced anything gentler, or if they did it wasn't loud enough to pierce the din. Kate's face was set as she shouted about monsters, and even Kira's usually reasonable mother was nodding along to a speech about reclaiming the forest. The Matriarch was silent, obviously allowing the gathered women to work themselves into a bloody frenzy.
And that was what it would be, Allison realized. So many women with their passions up and their weapons sharp. It would be slaughter, of one sort or another.
Before she quite knew what she was doing, Allison was standing, bow clenched in her fists. "Enough!"
A hundred or more shocked faces turned to look at her. Her mother's was the last, eyes chips of agate and bitter as winter. "Yes, Hunter Allison?"
Allison raised her chin, forced herself to breathe steadily. She could feel their eyes on her like physical things. Never had she wanted to run away so much, not even when she'd been facing the wolves herself. "Hunter Serena, did Heather go with the—the great wolves voluntarily? Was it her choice?"
Serena's hands clenched on her knees. "They were spirits, how could she—"
One of Allison's hands came down, cutting Serena off. "Did Heather go voluntarily?" she ground out between clenched teeth.
There was a pause, then Serena nodded, one sharp jerk of her head.
A knot in Allison's chest unraveled a little. Her wolves—her wolf wasn't holding a girl hostage. Whatever was happening, Heather had at least chosen it. "Wolves who attacked only when they were threatened. A girl who went willingly with them, in the middle of a Crucible trial, when all things are sacred." Taking a breath, she stepped forward into the circle, facing the others. "And our Banshee hasn't screamed to mark her passing. What right to revenge do we have?"
Kate surged to her feet, stepping into the ring. "Heather was one of ours! She deserves justice!"
"Heather chose her path," Allison shot back, baring her teeth. "She lives, obviously. We shouldn't risk lives for a threat that will only exist if we chase it!"
"That's my daughter!" A golden-haired woman shoved forward from the crowd outside the temple. Her cheeks were stained by tears, but her expression was flint. "We can't just leave her!"
"Everyone knows the rules of the Crucible!" Allison yelled back. The weight of her bow kept her solid on her feet, even when older, more experienced women raised their voices in protest. "Heather chose her path for her own reasons. The great wolves didn't steal her. We can take no action."
"You're acting like a bunch of old men!"
The force of the insult came down like a blacksmith's hammer, leaving silence behind. Scott's mother, Melissa, shouldered her way through the press of bodies, the bright green stripes on her sleeves flashing as she folded her arms. Her hair hung loose around her cheeks, curls seeming to crackle with the force of her personality. She glared around at the gathered women, teeth bared. "Beating the war drums, talking about revenge! We are stronger than this!"
"I agree with Hunter Allison and Healer Melissa." Slowly, Priestess Marin rose, drawing her shoulders back. She stepped into the circle, resting her hand on Allison's shoulder and giving Melissa a respectful nod. "Nothing I've heard today suggests the great wolves are a danger to us. The goddesses act in strange ways when the Crucible is upon a girl. It would be folly to challenge them for the sake of our pride." Behind her, the other priestesses nodded, with only a few uncertain faces among them.
Victoria pressed her lips together, looking around at the gathered women. Allison fought to meet her mother's gaze; if she gave even an inch, she would lose, and she wouldn't risk it for this. Finally, the Matriarch shook her head. "Folly, indeed. We will send out patrols, but no more. I have made my decision. Make offering and depart."
Heather's mother let out a snarl, but the women near her gathered her up to pull her back into the crowd. The women parted to touch the pillar of their chosen goddess. Allison was left in the middle, trembling, only Marin's hand on her shoulder keeping her from making an ignominious escape.
Kate pushed her way through to Allison. "I don't know what's gotten into you," she said quietly, bowing her head to keep her words between them, "but get rid of it. When those beasts come for us, I want to be able to trust you at my back." Her elbow caught Allison's side, pushing her into Marin as she brushed by the pillar of the Warrior.
"Don't worry," Marin said, loudly enough that those nearby craned their heads to hear. "There are hotheads even among the greatest. Not all are meant to lead. They'll see." She squeezed Allison's shoulder and let her go, touching twined pillar of Life and Death on her way to meet her brother on the steps.
The temple emptied in small clusters, until Allison was left alone on the floor. She pulled an arrow from her quiver, holding it in her palm. The metal tip glinted in the sunlight. Every arrow she had, she'd made. Her mother had insisted that she learn to fletch and cast, to sharpen arrowheads to wickedness, and she'd never questioned her wisdom. Her arrows were part of her.
Gritting her teeth, Allison drew the sharpened edge of the arrowhead across the back of her forearm. Blood dripped down to slide across the barbs, then to stain the shaft. Whirling, she crossed to the pillar of the Peace-maker, with her hands upraised in demand, facing the Warrior across the way. Allison laid the offering in her hands, tip pointed toward the warrior. Then she went a step farther, and traced her bloody fingertips over the gentle curve of the goddess's mouth. When she stepped down from the temple, she felt more firmly grounded, steadier.
She knew what side she was on. And now, everyone else would too.
Allison kept her head down, knife working steadily at splitting feathers for fletching. A curl drifted loose from her hastily twisted crown of braids, and she had to stop working to tuck it up again. Usually crafting arrows was soothing, but now it was everything she could do to keep her hands steady. Lavender dye smeared her fingers where the feathers hadn't quite dried—supposedly it was the same dye mixture that Alan had said went wrong for her cloak, but she wasn't sure. It didn't look anything like a dye that was meant to come out red.
Victoria leaned over the table Allison had laid her work out on, one hand planted inches from a pile of razor-sharp arrowheads. Her red hair fell around her cheeks, sticking like she'd been sweating. "How could you?" she demanded, nearly hissing in her venom. "Undermining my authority that way?"
"Oh, I thought that we were supposed to air our opinions in the council," Allison threw back as steadily as she could. Arguing with the Matriarch on the temple floor was an entirely different prospect than fighting her mother in their home. There was no one to stand for when it was just them, and Allison wasn't sure she could stand for herself. At least her father had made himself scarce. He knew better than to interfere when women were fighting. "I guess I should have just let my silence lie for me, in front of the goddesses and everyone."
Her mother's nails scratched against the rough wood of the tabletop. "These great wolves are dangerous," she said quiet, calmly. Too calmly, like the peace before a thunderstorm.
"You don't know that." Another curl fell. She let out an annoyed noise as she tucked it back in. "Lydia says Heather's not in any danger of dying soon."
"We don't know how loudly the spirits speak to Lydia from a distance," Victoria argued. "For all we know, the wolves have taken Heather far enough away that Lydia can't hear her die."
Allison winced. It was a surprisingly good point. "But—"
"And this has happened before."
The knife slipped, coming a hair's breadth from slicing Allison's finger open, grazing it enough that it stung without actually drawing blood. She stuck the near-injury in her mouth anyway, sucking until the pain faded. "What do you mean, this has happened before? I've read the Histories—I know all the songs. Someone would have—"
"Not here." As if she sensed that she had found a crack in Allison's defenses, Victoria leaned in closer. "There was a village to the east—Accalia. The great wolves had completely taken it over. They'd killed everyone. Every last person, and were using what was left as a den. The whole town had to be burned to get rid of them."
A thought slithered through Allison's memory, slimy and disgusting, a worm burrowing into fruit. She swallowed the sudden taste of acid in the back of her throat. "Kate went east this summer."
Her mother nodded, eyes locked on Allison's, silently demanded that she listen. "East to save Accalia, but she was too late. She thinks this may be the remnants of that pack."
Allison let that thought slip down her throat, settle hard in her stomach. She'd never wondered where her wolf and his pack had come from—wolves had giant territories, and great wolves no doubt had even bigger ones. If they were what was left of the pack...
Kate was a brilliant hunter. Knife-sharp and quick to act, ruthless at need. It was something Allison had admired in her when she'd been a child, had imitated with total devotion. But thinking about that wit turned on her wolf brought a burn of tears to Allison's eyes.
She turned her back before they could give her away, applying her knife to an arrow shaft that didn't need the work. "I still think it would be premature to attack now." Slivers of wood curled away under her blade, thin and delicate as flower petals. "If they were going to take girls to kill, why didn't they take Serena? Why just Heather? There's too many questions."
The table leaped as her mother slammed her fists onto it, false calm broken, making Allison's blade skitter and notch the wood. "They're wolves, Allison! Why are you so—" Her voice cut off so quickly that Allison found herself looking up involuntarily. Victoria was staring at her, pale eyes wide. "Where did you get those marks?"
"What marks?" Allison put down her fletching knife before the next eruption, in case it might take her finger with it.
"On your neck. Teeth marks."
Unconsciously, Allison's hand flew to the nape of her neck. She realized her mistake when her mother's face hardened. "I— on my hunt," she stammered, face starting to burn with a tell-tale blush. "My— it got ahold of me from behind, but I was able to get free."
"Your prey." Tension lined Victoria's face, set her jaw so firmly that Allison could imagine it cracking from pressure as she spoke. "Your wolf prey. I don't recall it being large enough to leave marks like that."
"It felt that big." Allison fought to keep away the memory of precisely how big her wolf had felt, of fur on her skin and his teeth in her neck. The scars were still tender where he'd worried nibbled them the night before. When she was sure she could speak without giving herself away, she turned back to her arrow shaft. The notch had completely ruined it—if she smoothed it enough to balance the weight, it would be too thin to hold the arrowhead. "It didn't kill me, so what does it matter?"
"What matters," her mother said slowly, "is how an animal large enough to leave those bites got its teeth in your neck from behind and yet you are sitting here alive. Almost as if it let you go."
The smooth wood of the ruined arrow snapped against the inside of Allison's forearm as her grip tightened. Her stomach heaved with a tension that felt like her heart might stop. The words she knows, she knows, she knows ran circles behind her eyes.
She heard her mother move, the brush of booted feet on stone flooring. "I'm calling another council tomorrow at noon." A second later, a cool hand pressed against the back of her neck. Nails dug into the still-healing scars like a new set of fangs. "You will stand by me and recant your objections."
Allison whirled away from her mother, wincing when her nails scratched over tender skin. "I will not!"
"You will!" Victoria had her blood up, wasn't even looking at Allison's face, but at the band of purple on her cloak by the door. "You will recant, and you will stand with me when we hunt. We'll have no more of this foolishness."
Breath was coming short. Allison swallowed, trying to find words that wouldn't come. Her mother was asking her—ordering her to lie on the temple floor. "You can call the council if you want. It won't change anything." Twisting, she grabbed her fletching knife from the table and shoved it in the pouch it her hip before stalking for the door to collect her kit.
She didn't look up. Her bag of arrows slid easily over her shoulders, but when she tried to buckle her knife belt her hands were shaking. With a snarl, she tied the excess off instead—there'd be time to buckle it later.
"Allison, where are you going?"
"To Lydia's." Her cloak went on over it all, its wolf-hide lining heavy on her shoulders, laying awkwardly over her quiver. When she picked up her bow, it felt too heavy, wrong, but she wouldn't leave it behind. "Maybe to stay."
Victoria's face was turning as red as her hair, making her pale eyes stand out even more unnaturally sharp than usual. "You would leave this house for a banshee—"
The tension that had been building in Allison's stomach snapped, flooding her with a sudden rage. "I would leave this house where I am expected to make an oath-breaker of myself!" she snapped. Her mother staggered back as if the blow had been physical. Before her words could catch up to her and weigh her steps down with guilt, Allison wrenched the door open and stalked out into the night.
She stayed off the main paths as she made her way toward the eastern wall, cowl up around her face for whatever secrecy it was worth. The wolves needed to know what was happening. They were smart. Maybe they would return Heather, and it all would be forgotten. Or they could go somewhere safer. She didn't like to think of never seeing her wolf again, but liked the thought of seeing his hide draped over some woman's shoulders even less.
For once, the town was far from quiet after the sun finished setting. Every house was alight, precious candles being burnt while women, men and children spoke about the meeting at the temple behind the privacy of closed doors. Hunters walked the streets in pairs, unofficial patrols, as if wolves would crawl up from the dirt to steal away girls in the dark. When the pairs came by, Allison stepped aside and kept her face down until they were past, then hurried on.
She was nearly in sight of her escape when a voice behind her called, "Allison!"
Whirling, Allison saw Kate trotting toward her in full kit, a quiver of arrows bouncing on her shoulder, a group of hunters gathered in a knot behind her. In the poor light of the moon and a few distant torches, their expressions were a rainbow of disgruntlement. One of them was even a man, armed with a crossbow and a long knife strapped to his hip.
The sudden block of ice in Allison's stomach made it impossible to breathe, but she somehow managed to force a smile. It wasn't an honest one, but after the temple it didn't need to be. "Kate! What are you doing here?"
"Sent by your mother." Kate clasped her forearms formally, rather than giving her the hug she usually would, but her smile was bright and sweet. She didn't release Allison's forearms, even when it was long past the point of politeness. "We're to be the first patrol."
Allison blurted out the first thing that came to her. "At night? But that's—I know it's a fresh moon, but you should at least wait for morning, shouldn't you?"
"For normal wolves, but we're dealing with spirits, remember. Who knows if they even exist in daylight?" Reaching up, Kate tapped the tip of Allison's nose. "And anyway, we're not going far. Just around the perimeter, then down to the fields to see if the shepherds have seen anything."
Patrols already. Hunts. Unofficial ones, nothing that could be called a counter to the High Priestess and Healer's override of the Matriarch, but enough to invite trouble. One fight would be enough justification for even the most devout to go against the council. "Safe hunting, then."
Something flickered across Kate's face, a range of emotions moving so quickly in the poor light that Allison couldn't identify any single one until it settled on determination. "You could come with us," Kate murmured, leaning in. Her grip on Allison's forearms tightened, nails cutting stinging crescents. "Earn back a little of the honor you threw away today."
Allison went still. Gently, she pulled herself free of her aunt's grip. "I didn't throw away anything, but if I went with you I think I would be doing just that."
Kate's expression fell, her jaw clenching in outrage. Her weight shifted to the balls of her feet. Fire from the torches danced in her eyes, making her seem a spirit herself. "So you'll leave wild animals to steal away our people?"
"It's been years since your Crucible. Maybe you've forgotten what it means, but I haven't." Before Kate could do something stupid, Allison took a step back, out of easy reach. "Safe hunting."
For a moment, she thought Kate would swing at her, but in never came. Instead, Kate took a step toward her party. "Go to your Banshee's house, then. Little girls shouldn't be out alone. They might get hurt." Turning on a heel, she stalked away, taking her toadies with her out of sight.
Allison waited until she couldn't hear them anymore before moving. She wanted—needed—to go to her wolf, but with Kate out there she'd just get them both killed. So instead she gathered her cloak around her and changed her path.
The Banshee House was lit up brighter than even the temple. No sooner had she crossed beyond the gate than Lydia was at her side, wrapping an arm around her shoulders. Kira waited in the door, a blanket folded over her arms, Scott and Stiles standing behind her with mirrored expressions of worry.
"Inside with you," Lydia ordered, tugging Allison through the off-season garden with gentle hands. "We've been waiting."
This time, Allison didn't wake with a hangover, though her neck ached something fierce from having slept on Lydia all night long. Dawn was just starting to peek through the cracks in the shutters, casting pink-gold beams across the floor. Outside, the goats were talking quietly to themselves, little bleats accompanied by the occasional cluck of a chicken.
No one had come looking for her, and the others were still asleep, but Allison found herself staring at the back of Lydia's neck. Her blood was alive, tingling under her skin. Something was coming.
Carefully, she pulled free of Lydia, making sure to leave the blanket well tucked in. With nothing else to do and no inclination to face the day, she took the time to clean herself up at the bucket outside, even going so far as to borrow one of Lydia's combs to pin her hair up in braids and out of the way. Then she worked on building up the fire and set the pot of porridge to do more than simply stay warm.
The fire was good and burning when Scott started to stir. He pulled away from Kira and Stiles with a tiny groan, rubbing his face blearily. His hair was smashed up against the side of his face, sticking to his cheek, and he looked like he could barely open his eyes. For all of that, he took care pulling himself free of the shared blanket and stepping over the other two. Immediately, Kira shifted over to take the newly freed space with a happy little sigh.
Allison found where Lydia kept her bowls and ladled up some porridge, offering Scott his with a tiny smile. He accepted without actually opening his eyes all the way. It took him a few moments of him blindly fumbling for the spoon before she took pity and nudged it toward his hand.
Lydia woke next, sitting up to look around. Whatever she saw must have suited her, because she nodded to herself and rose from her pallet, holding the blanket around herself head and shoulders like a defense against the morning light. On slow, unsteady feet, she toddled toward the door, wobbling enough to make Allison worry.
"Where are you going?" she asked quietly, casting a quick glance toward the two sleepers. She needn't have worried; Stiles was completely encased by the blanket, more lump than person, and Kira was so firmly asleep that her sleeve had a fresh drool mark.
"Animals," Lydia mumbled, wrapping her hand around the door handle, then hesitating as if she'd forgotten how to work it. "The chickens get vicious if they don't get fed. I'll only be a moment."
A moment later, she was still standing there, and had actually started to lean in toward the door, red hair falling in a curtain around her face.
"Do you need help?" Allison prompted gently, startling Lydia back upright.
"No, no, I'm fine, I'll just—" Lydia yanked open the door, then screamed.
It wasn't a banshee scream; those carried for miles, and could break crystal. This was a throaty but entirely human screech of outrage and surprise.
Kira shot upright, dropping Stiles with a heavy thud, then immediately fell back to her ass when her body was behind the rest of her. "What is it? Who is it? Where's my sword?" she demanded, pushing up more carefully. Stiles crawled out of the blankets, mumbling something that sounded like a less enthusiastic echo of Kira.
Allison and Scott exchanged a glance. Moving together, they leaned sideways to peer around the edge of the door.
A naked man crouched on Lydia's stoop, unshaven scruff lining his jaw, dark hair a mess of twigs and blood. He shook his head and hunched down. "Where is she?" he demanded in a growl, baring his teeth. Blue eyes flashed. "I can smell her, what did you do to her?"
"Sweet goddesses," Allison breathed. She scrambled to her feet, nearly spilling her porridge in her waste. It couldn't be. There was no way. Only the gods themselves could have magic that powerful. "Wolf?"
"Wolf?" three different voices chorused.
But the moment she moved into sight, his head swiveled around. "You're alive?"
"What else would I— Never mind." Allison grabbed up the blanket Lydia had dropped and rushed out to cover him. He hissed and yanked away, but she forced it around him and started pulling at his hands. Almost no one went near the Banshee House casually, but with the patrols she'd seen last night it wasn't worth the risk. "Get inside, before someone sees you."
He let her pull him reluctantly, lifting his hand to touch her cheek. "I came looking for you," he said. For a wolf, his voice was softer than she would have guessed, almost gentle. "I thought you were dead."
"And I thought you were a wolf." Keeping her hands on his, Allison led him over to the heard and pushed him down onto one of the pallets. He winced as she pushed, shoulders hunching up. She kept pushing, finally giving him a shove that toppled him back on his ass.
Kira and Stiles had scrambled away to the far wall, but Scott was already pouring another bowl of porridge. He offered it to her wolf at arm's length, though, so he obviously wasn't entirely comfortable. Allison flashed him a grateful smile anyway.
Lydia hadn't left the place she'd rooted herself to, only turning around to keep her eye on things. "Does anyone want to tell me what's going on, or do I have to guess?" There was a vicious gleam in her eye. "I don't think either of you want that."
A flush burned Allison's cheeks, but her wolf only shrugged. "I thought she was dead. I came looking. I found her." He leaned forward to sniff at the porridge before picking up the spoon to take a bite.
"Why did you think she was dead?" Stiles asked, peering around Kira's shoulder with bright eyes. She'd backed him protectively into the wall first, but it really wasn't doing much good. He was already halfway around her. "She's right here."
Her wolf chewed thoughtfully, not rushing or speaking with his mouth full. That alone made him better mannered than some human people Allison knew, including Stiles and Kira. When the mouthful was gone, he licked his lips and said, "There were hunters out last night. I smelled her blood on them. Then they shot me and I ran."
"They shot you?" Allison scanned down him, but other than a few dried smears of blood he didn't seem to be injured at all. She risked pulling at the edge of his blanket to peer under, resolutely not looking at the strong lines of his upper thighs and chest, much less the area in between. He was handsome enough as a wolf, but it translated very well into a human form. "Did they miss?"
He shook his head, reaching around to brush his fingertips against the back of his shoulder. "Here. I healed it, though."
Healed it? Frowning, Allison peeled down the edge of the blanket. At first, all she could see was smooth, dirty skin, but then he shifted and a faint lump cast a soft line of shadow. She ran the pads of her fingers over it, probing gently as she could to feel anything through the calluses. Her wolf hissed and jerked away, but she ran her free hand over his head and followed. It was hard to be sure, but... "Scott, come look at this and tell me what you think."
"I'm only an apprentice," Scott protested, but he obediently edged in closer. "It looks like he healed over something, but..." One of Scott's soft fingertips brushed over the spot, much more delicately than Allison had. "There's no scar. How could it get there and not leave a scar?"
Her wolf shrugged, then winced when it moved the thing under his skin. "We heal fast."
"It's in there pretty deep, but it's going to have to come out," Scott said apologetically. "Does anyone have—"
Allison was already reaching into her hip pouch to fish out one of her smaller knives. She shoved it into Scott's hand, crouching down to look her wolf in the face. "You're okay with this?"
He eyed her uncertainly. In human form, his eyes were still striking, a soft green-hazel that was utterly human for all that she knew better. The bowl of porridge clinked as he set it by the hearth. Slowly, he nodded, shifting his weight subtly into her hip.
Without looking away from him, Allison said, "Kira, help me hold him down. Stiles, you might want to step outside. Help Lydia with the chickens something."
Lydia raised a hand and went without argument. Kira eyed the wolf warily, but came up on his other side to push down the shoulder furthest from the knife. When he didn't so much as growl, she braced herself more, setting her back firmly.
Stiles hadn't moved.
"Stiles?" Allison asked pointedly.
"I'm fine." He crossed his arms. "Just because I'm a man doesn't mean I can't take a little blood."
She and Kira exchanged a look. Even Scott looked worried, but Stiles had his jaw set. In Allison's experience, there was no arguing with a boy when he got like that. They could be stubborn to a fault when they got the bit between their teeth. "Go ahead and do it, Scott," she ordered, tightening her fingers on the wolf's shoulder. "I've got you."
The first cut was light, just opening the skin. Blood slipped down the wolf's shoulder, dripping down to puddle on the stone floor. Almost before the first drops at hit, the wound started to close. The wolf barely flinched, his eyes still locked on Allison.
Scott made a face. "Sorry, I have to..." He jerked the knife, cutting in deeper and twisting. His fingers pressed into the hole he'd made, digging. Every few minutes he had to cut it open again before the wound healed. Blood stained his hands up to the wrist, poured down in a steady trickle.
In the background, something thudded to the ground. Allison twisted her head to look, but the second she broke eye contact the shoulder under her hand leaped as the wolf tried to yank away. She pushed him down, fingers digging in so hard the impressions went pale around the red flush of pressure. Kira rose up on her toes, leaning forward. He whined, turning his head to bury his face in her stomach.
"Almost... got it..." The knife dropped with a clatter as Scott braced his free hand on the wolf's shoulder. His fingers were buried in the wolf almost to the final knuckle. Every time they moved, it made a lump writhe sickeningly under the skin, some monster about to burst free. With a final twist, Scott pulled away, holding up a metal arrowhead triumphantly. The wolf heaved a sigh and sagged forward, wrapping his arms around Allison's waist and clinging.
Allison smoothed back his hair, watching in sick fascination as the hole Scott had carved closed up smoothly as if it had never happened. After less than a minute, the only evidence was the blood still clinging to his skin. "Someone get me a damp cloth," Allison ordered. "Stiles, would you—oh."
Stiles was in a heap on the floor, passed out cold.
Scott made an apologetic expression and scurried off, coming back with two wet rags. He gave Allison the first, then dropped the other on Stiles' face with a wet slap. When Stiles surged upright, sputtering, Scott just gave him a look and grabbed him by the arm, hauling him out to the back where Lydia kept her rain bucket. Kira vanished out the front door, mumbling something about keeping Lydia from being eaten by the goats.
Rolling her eyes, Allison set about sponging up the spilled blood before it could start to dry. Some of it had gotten down as far as the small of his back. "Do you have a name? I can't keep thinking of you as 'my wolf'."
"I am a wolf." He smiled against her stomach, a soft scratch of facial hair tugging at her clothes. She had the feeling that he was enjoying being there now that there wasn't a blade in his shoulder. "But I'm called Derek. Who are you?" One pale green-gray eye peeked up at her. "I can't keep thinking of you as 'my human'."
She rolled her tongue around his name and smiled. "I'm Allison." The bit of blood on his lower back was almost out of reach, and she didn't want to let him go, so she just dropped it to the ground and wrapped her arms around his shoulders.
They held on to each other until Kira came bursting back into the house, soaking wet from the top of her head to the bottom of her feet, but holding up something that glinted in the firelight. "Allison!" She hurried over, shoving the thing in Allison's hands. "This is what Scott got out of him! Look at it!"
Allison frowned, flipping it over. "It's just an arrowhead, I don't..." Gleaming on the flat was a stylized flower, still red where its rinse hadn't cleaned the blood from the etching.
It was hers.
There were about ten different things going on in Lydia's home, and all of them were centered around saying nothing. Lydia was casting her bones again and again, head down, the rattle of her cup almost constant. Kira wavered between sharpening her knife and watching Lydia's casts like she would learn to read them out of sheer force of will. Scott and Stiles were all over, inside and out, tending the fire, having silent conversations with their eyes, vanishing to bother the chickens. They eventually settled down near the low-burning fire, casting uncertain directions at the others.
Allison stayed close to Derek, wedged along his side as he ate the porridge that he'd abandoned earlier. It was odd, seeing him on two legs. He moved like her wolf, had many of the same mannerisms and tell-tale expressions, but he was utterly, perfectly human. Even the way he held his spoon was easy, practiced. She didn't know why it was so surprising. Derek clearly had experience being human, and humans used spoons.
It occurred to her that he must have been able to turn human before too, and he hadn't. Allison really wasn't sure what to think of that.
None of it felt real. There was something in her, some tie that went straight from her heart to her wolf, to the moon and blood-splattered snow. When she closed her eyes, she could tug on it and feel it connect to Derek, could feel him pulling on the other end. But she didn't know what it meant. Wasn't sure she wanted to know. She didn't know Derek, didn't know anything about the person under the fur. But it felt like she should.
She gave herself a shake, staring down at her feet. "Finish up. We need to get you back to the woods," she said absently, drawing a line across the floor with her finger. Her other hand held the arrowhead. It was impossible to be certain, but there were few places anyone could have gotten one of her arrows. The thought of her offering to the Peace-maker being used as a weapon of war made her ill. Being used on Derek...
The bones rattled as Lydia cast another set. "Not until sundown," she answered, as if Allison had been speaking to her, not even looking up. "It'll be safer."
Allison looked up from the floor, eyebrows furrowed. "It's less safe to stay. If he can get out, he can make a run for the woods and be out of sight in a few minutes."
"And be shot full of arrows."
"Instead of staying here and being caught by my mother?" Allison grabbed Derek's hand, yanking him up to his feet. "We should go now and get it over with."
Lydia left her bones abandoned on the floor, standing between Allison and the doorway. She crossed her arms like she could physically block Allison in if she just made enough effort. "You should stay here."
Derek looked back and forth between them, then carefully extracted himself from Allison's grip and eased over to where Kira, Scott and Stiles were watching in quiet horror.
She didn't even glance back at him. "We're going."
"Absolutely not!" Lydia's red hair was still a rats nest of tangles where she'd been combing it out the night before and had failed to pin it back up before they'd broken out the applejack. It made her look more a wild thing than Derek. "It would be suicide. You can wait until sunset at least!"
"The sooner Derek is back in the forest, the safer he'll be. The safer we'll all be." Allison insisted through clenched teeth. She clutched the incriminating arrowhead in her fist, barely keeping from cutting herself open. The pressure kept her grounded, even when fear was a cold clench in her stomach. "What do you think they'll do to any of us? To you?"
Lydia held her eyes for a moment before saying, "That's a chance I'm willing to take." Before Allison could sputter out her counter argument, Lydia held up her hand, forestalling her . "No one is going to sneak up and kill a banshee or her friends by surprise. If you stay until at least sunset, you'll be safe. Before then, and..." She shrugged. "There will be more deaths than just ours."
"It's fine," Derek said suddenly, looking up from his mostly-empty bowl. "I can run at night just as well as in the daylight." Allison threw him a glare, but Derek stared back at her calmly, unmoved. "You know I'm right. You've run with me."
"That was different," she mumbled, shaking her head. There was still a banshee blocking the doorway, and she couldn't argue with Lydia's feelings. Not when she'd been putting so much weight on them elsewhere. "You're certain?"
"As much as I ever am."
She hated it, but Allison nodded and turned back to Derek with a strained smile. "Sunset, then."
"Sunset," Derek repeated. He patted the spot beside him until she dropped down beside him with a heavy sigh. He leaned into her, bumping their shoulders cautiously. She bumped back, letting her head fall to his shoulder.
The sun was sinking past the western mountains, setting everything on the eastern inner wall ablaze with golden light. It was as early as Lydia would allow them to leave, but it still itched at Allison. They'd stayed so long, risked being discovered for too long. She stayed close to Derek, ready to grab him into a run at a moment's notice. He moved like a wild thing, low and graceful, ready to leap into action or flight at any second. The only time she saw him relax was when she brushed against his side. Then the hard line of his shoulders eased, and for a second she could almost see the wolf she'd spent so many night playing with.
They reached the grate without any witnesses. The bars were already set aside, which explained how Derek had gotten in—he'd watched her come and go often enough, after all. Allison shoved him through, following close on his heels. Shadows swallowed them, a brief promise of safety.
"You'll have to run fast," she reminded Derek, undoing the clasp of his cloak. "They're looking for wolves now. Go back to your pack and—"
"I won't leave." Derek didn't even try to sound belligerent about it. It was just a simple statement of fact, as certain as if he were commenting on the weather. A sliver of light caught his eyes, making them shine green-gold in the dark. He leaned in, wrapping his arms around her waist. The scruff of his beard scratched at her neck, a gentle rub that had to be deliberate.
Allison stretched up to kiss him, dragging his head down to make up for the height difference. His body was solid against hers, promising a world of delights for when they had time. If they ever had time. She broke away with a half-sob, dropping her forehead to his naked shoulder. "Don't you dare die," she ordered, for all the good it would do. "Find somewhere safe. I'll come to you when I can."
Derek nodded but didn't make a move to let her go. Gently, she shoved at him until he'd taken a step back.
He glowered, but turned sideways to squeeze through the other side of the bars. Allison stayed right up against the edge of the grate, watching close as he crept along the base of the wall. It was mostly in shadow, but still plenty bright to see as his shape twisted and shimmered. His skin roiled, dark fur sprouting. In a breath, he dropped to all four feet, once again a wolf.
Blue eyes caught hers as he turned to look at her, tail waving slowly. She smiled and flapped her wrists until he turned and trotted off for the forest. Allison watched, heart in her throat and half out of the tunnel to keep him in sight.
The second he passed the line of shadow, a shout went up.
"Great wolf! There's a wolf at the eastern wall!" A pause, and then an arrow arched down.
Derek startled sideways, right into the path of another arrow. It buried itself in his hip, dropping his hindquarters into the dirt. He twisted around, grabbing for it with his teeth, but all he managed was to snap off half the shaft. More arrows were flying, and it was getting thicker as more guards converged. Most of them missed, but some came so close that they had fur clinging to them when they hit the ground.
"Wolf at the eastern wall!"
Someone screamed. At first, Allison thought it was Lydia—it was so loud it took over her world, pounded in her head and rattled through her bones. It was only after she'd shoved herself through the bars and the sound vanished that she realized it was her.
Then she was pelting across the clearing, throwing herself down by Derek's side. She yanked at what was left of the arrow lodged in his hip, hands coming away stained red. Another arrow whizzed by close, making her duck down lower, hunching in to make a smaller target. The hail of arrows was getting thicker, archers lining the walls as they ran to provide backup for the alert.
It was nearly impossible to get her fingers around the shaft; the thing was too slick with blood, and it had broken off close She dug through Derek's fur, pushing it aside to find the wound, which was already starting to close around the broken wood. Snarling like a feral thing, she reached directly in, slicing her fingers in the edge of the arrowhead. With a sharp yank, she pulled it out, throwing it aside.
"Run!" Allison yelled, planting her hands against his ribs and shoving. "Go!"
Derek growled, nudging her with his head, paws working clumsily in the dirt. But he managed to stagger to his feet. His body curbed around her, pushing her toward the woods. Suddenly, his head came up, ears pricked. With a quick burst of speed, he threw himself forward, knocking her sideways. An arrow bloomed in her thigh.
At first, she didn't feel anything. Not the ground under her, not the cold air on her skin. Another arrow appeared overhead, arching gracefully down, pretty in their multicolored fletching. She rolled out of the way, and that was when the pain hit, shooting through her leg and up to her hip like fire. It staggered her, only her grip on Derek's fur keeping her upright. Another shout went up from beyond the walls, and the arrows cleared from the sky.
Gritting her teeth, Allison gripped the shaft with bloodied fingers and snapped it in two, making sure to leave enough that it wouldn't become lost the way Derek's had.
"You need to go," she told Derek, pushing him again. "Now. Before they get better aim."
His broad, warm head nudged itself up against her side, sliding under her arm. Derek whined and planted his feet, leaning into her. The message was clear: he wasn't leaving without her. Up at the top of the wall, a fresh line of archers was lining up. Something bright red flew in the wind.
Cursing to three different goddesses, Allison gripped his neck, using it to haul herself to her good leg. Bracing herself, she grabbed a double handful of fur and leaped up onto his back as she would a horse. It nearly didn't work. She landed on her stomach, the arrowhead digging even deeper into the meat of her thigh. Her vision went gray, and she nearly blacked out from the pain.
Somehow she managed to swing her leg over, clinging by arm strength alone. Her vision stayed tunneled, and she couldn't breathe without feeling as though she'd be ill, but she held on. Derek moved like silk under her, like water, so smoothly she could barely believe she was moving at all.
"Allison!" Guards and hunters poured around the corner of the wall, weapons flashing in the fading sunlight. Her mother was at the forefront, brilliant red hair gleaming like fresh blood.
Allison tightened her grip in Derek's ruff, turning her face away. "Run."
Derek wove in and out of the trees, never slowing past a trot. Allison clung to his fur like a burr, face buried between his shoulder blades as she held on as best she could. Her leg ached, and Derek couldn't move smoothly enough to keep from jarring it. Branches scratched at her back and arms, and once they had to climb down a slope so steep that she almost fell off and he had to scramble to keep her from falling.
She tried not to think of what it all meant, didn't let herself picture her mother's face or think very hard on the hunting party that was inevitably being collected. Hummed to block out the imagined songs of old hunts.
Refused to wonder if she'd even be welcome back home.
Somewhere between the edge of the woods and midnight, Allison lost track of time. Her vision went gray, and the world around her faded to the steady thump of Derek's paws under her and the press of fur against her cheek. The next thing she knew, warm hands were lifting her off his back. She hissed when her leg was jostled. Before the bite of pain could pull her back to consciousness, a cool breath of relief flowed through her veins and the pain washed away.
People moved around her. There was a clink of metal, and the warm-spice scent of fire that filled the space behind her eyelids with a golden glow. Allison tried to sit up , but a gentle hand on her forehead pressed her back to the ground. It was a light touch, but she found herself pinned, unable to even attempt to rise.
"She's pale," someone, a woman, said accusingly. Cloth ripped, and suddenly cool air washed over Allison's left leg. "You didn't stop to bind the wound?"
"I didn't know it was that bad," Derek argued, but he sounded soft, almost contrite. "They don't heal like we do."
"Now you understand that?"
Allison stretched out an arm in the direction Derek's voice was coming from. She groped around until a large, warm hand wrapped around hers. "Don't be mad at him," she mumbled. "I'm fine. Just give me a minute."
The woman snorted. "You hunters are all alike. Too stubborn for your own good."
When Allison opened her eyes, she found her head pillowed on the lap of an older woman of maybe her mother's age. There was gray in her hair that glowed in the firelight and a few lines in her face that made her seem like she was more at home laughing than crying. Just then, her mouth was pulled down in a slight frown as she pushed Allison's hair off her forehead.
Down at Allison's side was another woman, nearly a match for what the first must have looked like twenty years past. She ran her fingers down the arrow shaft so lightly that Allison could barely feel it. Her hair was pulled back, showing sharp cheekbones and a slant to her lips that Allison thought she could recognize in a dark room, even though she'd known them less than a day. Both of these women must have been Derek's kin.
They were also entirely naked. At another time, Allison might have been embarrassed by it, but she was too tired, too sore to let something like shame touch her.
"I'm going to take the arrow out now," the younger one warned, pressing down on the skin around the shaft. Strangely, it didn't hurt. They'd cut her trousers away at the hip, and Allison could easily see that the skin was red and inflamed. "Don't tense up if you can help it."
She nodded and let her head fall back. Derek was at her side, looking down like he didn't know what to do but needed to do something. Black veins streaked up his arm like a blood fever, fading away at his shoulder.
Allison squeezed Derek's hand and took a breath. "Do it."
Even whatever magic they were using couldn't completely block the ripping as the arrow was pulled free. Bones cracked in her grip and she clung to Derek's hand, barely daring to breathe until the arrow was out. Then the blessed, numb coolness filled her again, pushing the pain far away. There was a little sting as they washed it out with what smelled like wine, and then the ache of the bandage being wrapped around it.
As soon as they were done with her leg, Allison forced herself upright. Her head swam, turning the fire into a swirl of color until she closed her eyes. A shoulder pressed against hers, providing support while she got her bearings. Derek.
"You must be the human girl my son has been risking his hide for." The older woman rested her chin on her laced fingers thoughtfully. There was no sign of who she was—her only clothing was an unmarked cape pushed behind her shoulders. She didn't even have the bands of red paint that the Matriarch would use when other items might be lost or forgotten. "Would either of you like to tell me what's happened?"
Before she could bite her tongue, Allison heard herself say, "I mean no disrespect, but who are you?"
"My name is Talia. I'm Alpha of this pack." Talia bowed her head graciously. "You would call me Matriarch."
"But you don't have..." Unconsciously, Allison plucked at the hem of her cloak. It was a little battered from their flight, but the bands of color still stood out vividly.
Sharp white teeth flashed in a predatory smile. Talia's eyes slowly flared to scarlet, glowing like got coals. A blink, and they faded back to humanity. "We carry our mark of authority a little differently. Now. An explanation?"
"It was my fault," Derek said, so firmly that Allison's mouth snapped shut on her own story. He shifted his weight, edging in closer, and she unconsciously mirrored him. They were a little too far from the fire for it to reach them, but Derek was like a sun all of his own. "I snuck into the town, and they saw me leaving. Allison was injured saving me."
"I should have waited until after dark," Allison shoved in, before he could take too much of the blame. "I'm the one who insisted on going at sunset."
Blue eyes flashed dangerously as he turned to glare at her. "I shouldn't have risked sneaking in so close to dawn."
Allison set her jaw and leaned in. "It was my blood and my arrow that made you come look for me!"
The Alpha chopped her hand down between their faces. It nearly smacked Allison's nose, making her jerk back. Unknowingly, she'd gotten so close that there'd barely been a finger width between them. "That's enough explanation, I think," Talia said, voice thick with amusement. "I can see you're both willing to throw yourselves to the fire. Very noble of you, but unnecessary."
It wasn't quite a reprimand, but the overtones of one hid in the background. Derek turned his head, leaning it to bare the side of his neck.
His mother reached out to brush her fingertips along it, then up into his hair. "I always knew you were too much a romantic, but don't worry so much. It'll turn out all right."
That jarred Allison out of the moment. "No— no it won't. You have to leave the forest as soon as possible." She leaned forward, grasping the fingers of Talia's free hand urgently. "The entire pack needs to go."
"Needs?" There was a new tone in the Alpha's voice, a low purring growl that never could have come from a human throat. Her eyes flashed to red, and when she spoke again there was a new sharpness to her teeth. "Who are you to say we need to do anything? This forest has plenty of hunting for both our people. We'll move on in the spring, when the passes clear."
"It's not about—"
The voice ran through Allison like another arrow, stealing the breath from her words. She twisted around, nearly pulling herself from Derek's grip in her shock. Wolves and people were coming from the forest, most of them laden with some sort of game, others carrying baskets of what looked to be late fruit and tubers. But that wasn't what pulled her attention. "Heather?"
It was Heather, rushing forward, stumbling like an overeager child. Then she froze, catching herself on a fallen log as if she needed it to hold her in place. Her hair fell in tangled waves around her shoulders, and there was dirt smeared over her cheeks. What was left of her ceremonial tunic was tattered and stained, barely clinging to her shoulders. At her waist, a swath of the fabric had been ripped away, baring smooth skin underneath.
Grunting in pain, Allison struggled to her feet. She had to keep one hand on Derek's shoulder, the other reaching out.
Heather leaped over the log, and was crowded into Allison's arms in a second. Allison wobbled in surprise—she'd only meant to clasp forearms—but recovered quickly enough to pull the girl in against her. "Your mother's been hysterical," she murmured against her hair. "We knew you weren't dead, but..."
"My mother just wants a Hunter for a daughter, since she was too afraid to face the higher Crucible herself," Heather muttered, pulling away. "I'm okay—I'm pack now. Your blessing saved me."
A hard blow of emotion landed in Allison's stomach. "Maybe you." She blinked away her tears and turned, using Heather and Derek to hold herself up as steadily as possible. "This is why you need to go. They think you kidnapped Heather, and—" A lump of guilt nearly choked her. "And me. They're going to come for us, and they won't believe we're here by choice."
In a breath, the Alpha was on her feet. "Heather is part of this pack and I will not—"
"I'm not letting you go back there alone!" Derek snapped. "If you go I'll—"
"I'm not going back!" Heather yelled at the same time, shoving Allison away. Her eyes flared golden, glowing like the fire. "I'll run away again, I won't—"
"I didn't say any of that!" Allison swayed, grabbing for Derek to keep from falling and doing herself even more damage. He grabbed her hands, pushing her back upright before she could fall. "I didn't say she has to go back!" She pitched her voice to try and rise over any incoming arguments.
Over by the fire the rest of the pack had stopped everything they were doing, and were watching the argument unfold. They had the stillness of wild things about them, trying to decide whether or not to run. Even the ones on two legs were unnaturally tense, waiting.
Allison swallowed and made herself straighten, looking the Alpha in the eye. "If you don't leave, they're going to come for you, and they're going to kill you. Heather and I, we'll just be the excuses."
Talia held her gaze. Slowly, the red faded from her eyes, and her shoulders rounded subtly. The wolves working by the fire relaxed with her, turning back to their work. "We were traveling west, to find a new home after our old one was burned. The early snow closed the mountain passes for all but birds and dragons. There's nowhere for us to go until spring clears them again. Even if we were so inclined, there's nowhere for us to go."
"We can defend ourselves, Hunter." Talia's tone shifted, no longer confessional. The Alpha had made her decision. "You're welcome to stay with us if you wish, as a friend of my son's. Heather, with me." She held out a hand, which Heather took without hesitation.
Neither of them looked back as they walked away.
The pack was surprisingly hospitable, even in light of their Alpha's anger. They went out of their way to pass by Allison, nodding companionably before going back to their work. A few of them asked after her leg, and one even went so far as to check on it for her. Derek stayed close by her side, not saying much as his people bustled around them, obviously settling in, though it was nearly dawn.
The dark-haired woman from before came by to offer Allison a wooden plate of some sort of potato and roasted venison off the spit. The plate was piled high with far more meat than Allison could have dreamed of eating in a single meal. "Eat up," the woman ordered sternly, leaning forward to inexplicably rub her cheek against Allison's." You need to get your strength back if you want to keep this lunatic in line."
"Laura..." Derek curled his lip and growled, but she just snapped back playfully and darted off with a laugh, dropping down to four legs between on stride and the next.
The next visitor was another obvious relation of Derek's, a younger girl this time. She paused across the fire, eying Allison measuringly. Whatever she saw must have met approval, because she threw a bundle of blankets into Allison's lap and drifted off to sit by a broad-shouldered black boy who was busily whittling something with his claws. He twisted toward her without looking up, offering up his work for her inspection. Neither of them looked her away again.
Curious, Allison picked up one of the blankets and unrolled it with a snap of her wrists. They were beautifully woven, soft and thick, in colors that shifted with the firelight. "This is lovely," she murmured, looking across the fire. "Who was that?"
"My little sister. Cora." Derek made a face. He pulled the blanket from her hands to settle over them, tucking it in with little precision jabs of his fingers. The addition of his body heat cut away the last remnants of the chill, letting her finally relax. "She's been wanting to meet you."
"I didn't know you had sisters." She didn't know anything about him or his people, Allison realized with a sudden pang. They turned into wolves, but that was obviously a small part of them. There was life all around her, the little occupations that kept people busy on cold night. As she watched, a man pulled out a small loom, and someone else started sharpening her knife. A girl with red-brown curls snuck up on one of the men and wrapped her arms around him from behind, whispering in his ear. Whatever she said, his face blushed bright red, and a moment later she was dragging him off into the woods hand in hand.
Most everyone else was settling in together for the morning, three and four to a blanket, wolves to the outside like guardians against the cold. It was all so normal that it took Allison a moment to see what was wrong.
"Where are the children?" she asked suddenly, leaning into Derek. "I don't see any..."
"There aren't." His voice was sharp, bitter, but he pressed his shoulder back into hers. "There was a fire. We're all that's left."
Accalia. Allison's eyes burned. She turned her face to bury it in his shoulder. "I'm sorry. I didn't know."
Under the blanket, his hand found hers, twining their fingers loosely together. "It's okay."
She shook her head, but the lump in her throat wouldn't let her say anything more. It wasn't okay. It wouldn't be. Kate did this. Kate killed children. The thought sank through her, a rock in a still pond. There was no way to make that okay.
Derek's fingers touched her cheek, smearing a tear she hadn't realized she'd cried. "Stop that. It's not your fault." He cupped her chin, gently urging her to look up at him. "We don't blame all hunters."
"Why don't you?" The words came out surprisingly firm, for all that Allison thought she might be ill. "Why didn't you kill me? I was trying to kill you. I would have killed you."
He didn't act surprised to hear it, just shrugging. "I don't know why I didn't kill you." Before Allison's stomach could drop even more, he kept on. "On the full moon, we're— driven by our instincts." A hint of blue glinted in his eyes, swirling around the edge of the iris. "My instincts didn't say to kill you."
That, Allison could work with. A distraction was just what they both needed, and almost everyone else was asleep now. "And then? After? It wasn't the full moon anymore." She swung herself around to kneel over his lap, gritting her teeth when the wound in her thigh throbbed. The blanket stayed wrapped around their shoulders, blocking the view of anyone who might wake enough to glance over. Her lips found his adam's apple, pressing a soft kiss to it. "You came back."
Under her lips, Derek's throat bobbed when he swallowed. "I thought you'd try to shoot me."
"But I didn't." His jaw was sandstone rough when she scraped her cheek across it.
"You didn't." Derek pushed her skirt up over her hips, resting his fingertips on the skin just above her trousers. The same coolness from before spread out from the touch, easing the throb of her wound to something less terrible. "You came back, too."
Between her legs she could feel him getting hard, the growing press of his cock against her. When she wrapped her hand around it, it felt thicker than it had been when he was a wolf. Definitely human, at least. Part of her wondered if the things they'd done together were normal to his people at least. Then she decided she didn't really care. They were normal for them.
Derek turned his head, catching her lips in a kiss. "You're hurt. We shouldn't—" But he started plucking at the laces of her trousers. They loosened enough for him to slide a hand down between her legs. He didn't do anything but cup her, though, his palm a warm pressure against her vulva. She was already starting to slick up. Maybe his form had changed, but her body knew him anyway.
"You're doing something to stop the pain, aren't you?" Allison worked his cock slowly, playing her fingers over him. Her hips rocked into his touch, barely flexing her thigh at all to do so. "I'll be careful."
His fingers ran over her, swirling across her clit, down between her lips to dip inside. "Just this." A hint of a ground curled through the last syllable, rising when her thumb brushed the head of his cock and then faded when she stopped. "That's not fair."
"I never promised to be fair." With his delicate sensibilities in mind, Allison made sure not to hurt herself as she inched closer to him. She didn't stop until she could feel his cock against her stomach. It was a hard, unmistakable line of heat that made her cunt clench around his fingers. There was no doubt now that he was much thicker in human form. "Just this? Are you sure?" Leaning forward, she caught the edge of his ear with her teeth, tugging. "Derek?"
The groan that escaped him rumbled between them, vibrating through Allison's chest. He twisted a finger up in her, making her rise up onto her knees just so she could ride it down. The pain in her thigh flared past the barrier of his touch, stealing her breath until she leaned away again to ease the strain.
"Just this," he repeated, kissing the corner of her mouth.
All Allison could do was nod breathlessly. She closed her eyes to try and focus on the feeling of his fingers working on her, on the cock in her hand. With the pain faded once more, it was easy. She loved the weight of it, how different it felt. His cock as a wolf was nice, but she didn't get to spend nearly as much time handling it as she would have liked.
And his fingers. She'd had his mouth before, much as she could when there was a muzzle in the way, even the length and dexterity of his tongue didn't match his fingers. They were clever and gentle, working her open, taking his time as they never bothered to when he was in his other shape.
Allison groaned softly, letting her forehead fall to Derek's shoulder. He rubbed over her clit, making her toes curl deliciously. She twisted her wrist, working him in time with the thrust of his fingers. Orgasm hovered just out of reach, hiding in the clench of her stomach, in the bite of pain when her thigh tried to tense. Allison chased it, shifting her hips as carefully as she could, arching her back and—
Derek's finger brushed against something that made even the pain in her thigh vanish. Lightning flashed behind her eyes, scorched through every muscle. She bit her lip to muffle her cry as she rode him through it, pumping his cock frantically. Distantly she felt him shudder under her, felt the warm splatter against her stomach and palm.
They sagged against each other, breathing. The space under their blanket was almost too hot, but the air beyond it was frigid. Allison curled the edges closer under them, preferring the stifling to the cold. The fire had settled into a soft golden glow, no longer the hungry crackle of before. Derek murmured something into her hair, too quietly for her to make it out.
Sighing, Allison nuzzled into his neck, letting her eyes drift closed. "We should move closer to the fire."
"Later." His arms snaked around her, settling the flat of his hand to her back. "We'll move later."
Allison spent the week close to the camp fire, doing whatever little things the pack brought to her. She had some sewing and cooking skills that her mother had taught her, weaving she'd learned from her mother's family. But most of her talent was at the forge, and there wasn't one here. That left working cloth, mostly, mending ends and pieces that, she'd been told, had been salvaged from the fire.
Using the fire for light, she worked on the ragged edges of a fire-charred blanket that was falling apart from wear, watching as Heather worked awkwardly with a blonde called Erica. It was something like sparring, but not quite. Far less structured than Allison was used to seeing. Erica would dart in, and Heather would whirl away before Erica's claws could connect. Then Heather would turn her twirl into an attack of her own. Nothing ever connected. It seemed playful almost, and rarely ended without laughter.
Heather was... something Allison didn't know what to make of. She didn't move like a human anymore, but she wasn't quite a wolf either, and she never changed shape that Allison saw. Claws, sometimes. Her eyes and teeth. But she never fell to four legs like the rest. None of the others seemed to think the lack of change was strange, but Allison wondered if she'd given up her past for a future as only a half-thing, not even a great wolf.
A rock clattered, and Derek sat down next to her. "You smell upset." He leaned over, bumping their shoulders lightly. There was a smudge of dirt on his cheek from whatever he'd been doing off with Boyd and Laura, and a few pine needles in his hair. The bright winter sun caught the glimmer of sweat on his skin, made him shine like a gilded god in a temple. "What is it?"
In spite of her worries, Allison found herself smiling. Not wanting to ruined the moment, she started to say nothing, then caught herself with a bite of her lip. "You said Heather had been bitten," she said instead, keeping her voice low. Not that it mattered. Everyone could hear everything. But a quiet conversation, she'd found, was more likely to be politely ignored. "But she doesn't act wounded. And she..." She curled her fingers, swiping them like claws. "How?"
He didn't answer right away, crossing his arms over his knees and leaning forward. In case he was thinking about not answering, Allison leaned to press their shoulders together. She wasn't sure what it meant, but she'd seen Boyd and Erica do it, along with a few other couples, and it was a good way to remind Derek that she was waiting without breaking his concentration.
"We call it the Bite," he finally answered, slowly, mouth forming the words uncomfortably. As if, Allison thought, he wished he could have a muzzle instead of lips. "Most of us were born as we are, but some of us were human once. Erica and Boyd. Isaac. Heather. When an alpha bites a human, they become a wolf, if that's what's in their heart."
She watched Erica and Heather play. Cora was sitting just beyond, in her four-legged form. Her haunches her up and her forequarters down, tail waving slowly. Only a second later, she pounced, tackling Erica to the ground and rolling her. In a blink, Erica shed her human skin and was in golden fur, snapping at Cora as they sprang apart, then crashed back together.
Allison tried to picture either of them as humans, and drew a blank. They had the wild in them, buried deep in their bones. "And if it's not in their heart?"
Heather dived into the pile of growling fur, her eyes bright gold and glowing even in the daylight. She grabbed Erica's tail and tugged, then dashed off into the woods with a pair of wolves hot on her heels. The woods crackled with sound. A second later, someone yipped, and then there was silence.
"We do something similar, I suppose. The Crucible." Allison looked down and found she'd made a snarled mess of the blanket. She wrinkled her nose and started undoing the work of the last ten minutes, plucking at loose threads and untying knots. "Did Heather tell you?"
He nodded, not looking at her. "Some. I know it's special. She wasn't sure if being bitten ended hers or not."
Allison thought about it, twisting a loose thread around her fingers. She shook her head, thinking of the bones in the forest that never had anyone but the birds to sing over them. There were always some, girls who tried but couldn't make it. Biting them and seeing what their hearts said they should be seemed less cruel, somehow. "The Crucible ends when you die or give up. My Aunt Kate's hunt went on for a week. Everyone thought for sure she was dead. I don't think Heather's is over yet. Maybe it never will be. That's for the goddesses to decide."
Derek was quiet for a second, watching her from the corner of his eye. "Heather said that—what happens is sacred. That the animal you choose, the weather, even the wounds you take mean something."
"It does." She swallowed, focusing close on a particularly tangled thread. Allison didn't think she'd ever blushed so much. Somehow, Derek brought it out in her. "Everything in the Crucible has meaning, but some of it more than others. Priestesses take theirs with potions. Healers walk the paths of the spirits." The knot came loose, and Allison quickly smoothed what was left into a neat pile to work from later. It gave her something to look at that wasn't him as she said, "One way or another, it changes you. It makes you a woman, someone strong enough to make new life."
"Not a man?"
The laugh bubbled out of Allison's chest before she could stop it. "Men don't go through the Crucible."
Derek's eyebrows rose. He leaned in against her until the tips of their noses brushed. If he turned his head just a little, she would have been able to feel his stubble. "Is that so?" he asked, so quietly she suspected it wouldn't carry beyond the sound of the fire.
"It is very much so." Allison darted in, pressing a quick kiss to the corner of his mouth. "Don't complain. I'll be woman enough for us both."
When Derek laughed, it was like the wolf, all in the eyes and the expression, a soft huff of air the only sound that made it free. He wrapped an arm around her, tugging until they fitted together from hip to shoulder.
Any chance of her finishing her work on the blanket vanished. Allison burrowed into his side, letting the heat of him chase away the part of winter that the fire couldn't.
"I have to go home."
"Is that so?" Talia didn't look up from her work preparing a rabbit for stew, but Allison thought she saw a bit of red gleam behind her eyelashes. Her claws sliced the meat off so close to the bone that it shined in the fading sunlight. Wolves didn't use knives for much; their claws did almost everything a blade could. "You're unhappy with us?"
"You know I'm not."
"Do you no longer care for my son?" The Alpha kept up her work. She was calmer than Allison's mother, less strict in ways. But her hands tightened around the rabbit's haunch more than needed to be, and her claws came down hard enough that a bone cracked clean in two.
"You know I still do." Derek worked across the clearing with a few other wolves, cutting logs from the detritus that littered the forest floor and trying not to appear as though he was listening. His back shined with sweat, making the mark between his shoulder blades seem to dance. He glanced back at her casually. Allison smiled at him, and was rewarded by a quick about-face, as if he could disguise his burning ears.
The work on the rabbit was finished, bones set aside in a little pile, presumably for use in other things. With a few twists of her wrists, Talia started slicing the meat into chunks and tossing it into a nearby pot. She still hadn't looked up; Allison wondered if it was disrespect, or something else. Derek didn't always look her in the eye, either.
Gritting her teeth, Allison squatted down to Talia's level, trying to meet her eye. The pain in her thigh still flared, scar tissue tugging when she flexed, but not badly. The constant cold was starting to get to her, though. She didn't have fur to protect her the way the rest of them did. "The hunt hasn't found you yet, but it will."
The last chunk of meat went into the pot before Talia finally raised her eyes. They were dark brown again, without the red from before. "And you will stop them?"
"Don't you think I should try?"
"I think you'll get yourself killed." The Alpha pursed her lips and tilted her head thoughtfully. "But I cannot stop you. Not without causing more trouble, in any case. Leave when you are ready. Come back when you can."
Over by the wood pile, Derek had given up pretending not to listen. He leaned against a tree, watching blatantly, ax abandoned.
Allison met his eyes as she asked, "What about Derek?"
Talia's head turned to look at her son. He straightened up, crossing his arms belligerently. She was silent for a moment, then shook her head, looking away wearily. "I couldn't stop him from going to you before, could I? Being his Alpha and mother, apparently, have limits. But—" A flicker of scarlet rose in her eyes. "Take care of him, Hunter. Send him back to me when you are safe, or we will come seeking."
Hoping she was guessing right, Allison leaned in to press her cheek to the Alpha's. "I will."
Allison and Derek rose with the rising sun while the rest of the pack was just starting to settle in from their long night. They were, Allison had found, mostly nighttime creatures. The necessity of daylight sat poorly with even the ones Derek pointed out as formerly human.
They weren't the only ones awake, though. Cora and Talia were as well, standing by to watch as they readied themselves for the trip. The two of them stayed on the other side of the fire in their wolf forms, watching with red and yellow eyes. Their judging expressions weighed on Allison's shoulders, slowed her hands as she broke her fast with some of the stew from the night before.
Derek nudged her knee with his own, looking at her meaningfully. Allison smiled faintly, but shook her head. She thought he might be trying to reassure her, but she couldn't tell for sure. He was so much easier to read with ears and a tail to speak for him.
They were just finishing eating when a streak of brown fur flew over sleeping bodies, something clenched between the wolf's teeth. Laura came out of the run on two legs, shoving a tightly rolled bundle into Allison's arms: the blanket that Cora had given her on her arrival. "In case you get cold," she said urgently. "Since you don't have fur or anything."
The dawn light made the colors seem even more vibrant, and it smelled heavily of damp fur, like Laura had rolled around in it before bundling it up. Ignoring the smell, Allison pulled it tight against her chest and offered a small smile. "Thank you. It's beautiful."
"It's not bad. When you come back--" A sharp, quiet whine from one of the wolves across the fire made Laura's words stumble. She threw a quick look over at her family, grimacing. "When you come back and I have a real loom, I'll make you a better one."
Allison looked down at the blanket, then over at Derek. He was studiously looking away, the tips of his ears turning red. When she looked back at Laura, the other woman was grinning. "Are you trying to give me Derek's groom price? I thought you didn't... that the pack didn't... do that." It had been an incredibly awkward conversation with Talia on her second day of recovery. Allison had expected the Alpha would force her to make an honest man of Derek, but apparently wolves were less formal about things like that.
Laura's hand flew to her chest, her gray-green eyes going wide. "Of course not!" she gasped, gaping at Allison in total shock. Just before Allison could start to apologize, though, she grinned and leaned in to whisper, "He's not worth a whole blanket. Maybe a scarf."
"Laura!" Derek hissed. His blush had gone from his ears all the way across his cheeks. "Stop that!"
His sister just laughed and pressed their cheeks together. "I expect you both to come back safe," she said. "Mother does too, even if she won't say it. You will come back to us."
That felt a little too much like an order instead of well-wishes, but Allison smiled anyway. "Thank you again. But we'd better go, if we want to have time to travel."
More hugs went around, along with the cheek-rubbing that Allison was definitely going to ask Derek about one day. Not that she minded the rub in general, but she definitely minded not knowing what it meant. By the time it occurred to her, though, Derek had already shed his human form and was waiting patiently by a tree stump.
Allison climbed on, still careful of her bad leg, and balanced the blanket in front of her. His chest was broad under her legs, making her work to stay balanced more than she remembered. Her leg twinged at the unaccustomed work, but eventually settled into a slow, constant ache that she could ignore with only a little effort.
Derek walked in a slow circle, giving her time to adjust her seat. Then he headed for the far edge of the clearing at an easy trot that glided over the forest floor more easily than any horse Allison had ever ridden. Leaning forward, Allison balanced herself over the blanket, dropping her forehead between his shoulders. The camp fire and fur smell of the encampment faded away until it was just her, Derek and the forest.
Moving at a slower speed than before, it took most of the day to get from the wolves' camp to Diahann. The constant pace didn't seem to wind Derek at all, not even with her added weight. They stopped only twice, when the pain in her leg turned to a cramp that couldn't be eased without standing. But as soon as she was able, she was back on wolfback and they were moving again.
Derek took her right up to the edge of the town, closer than Allison was really comfortable letting him go. But he wasn't going to leave her until he had to, and—much as she hated to admit it—it was nice not having to walk on her injury. When they got too close, she ignored his grumbling and slid off to sneak forward on her own two feet.
She crept through the underbrush to a copse of trees, peeking through at the walls and judging her chances in the long stretch of incoming twilight. The lights atop the wall were thicker, guards posted every twenty feet from the look of it. Thankfully, they hadn't bothered lighting torches outside beyond the usual ones by the gate; her little escape was still shadowed, hopefully unguarded.
Turning around, she cupped Derek's muzzle between her palms and pressed their cheeks together. "Go back to the pack," she whispered into his neck. "I'll come find you when it's safe."
His ears pinned back, and she could almost feel him about to argue. Then he froze, head twisting, lips curled back to bare his fangs. Faster than she could see, he'd whipped himself around and shoved her back into a tree. Allison stumbled, hissing when her injured leg twisted under her. "Derek, what—"
"He's trying to protect you, sweetheart." Dead leaves crackled, and her aunt stepped out from behind a tree downwind. The tip of her crossbow didn't waver from where it was pointed—directly at Allison. Kate flashed a quicksilver smile pulled a small whistle out from under her bodice. The blast echoed through the woods like a scream, and a second later another whistled echoed from the top of the walls. "Kind of sweet, when you think about it. They do get awfully fond of their human pets, though. At least until they eat them."
Using the tree to support herself, Allison straightened up. Derek didn't move from in front of her, tail low and hackles up. He was growling now, so softly that Allison wasn't sure it would even carry to where Kate was standing. There was a chance, just a chance, if she could...
"Kate, you're making a mistake." Slowly, hands up and visible, she edged up around Derek's side. He whined and tried to step in front of her, but Allison circled with him, didn't let him block her back in. "Let him go. He hasn't done anything."
Her aunt made a face and shrugged. "He can run if he wants. I'll just shoot you."
Ice curled through Allison's stomach, freezing up to her throat like she'd swallowed snow. There were people coming, a large enough group that the forest rattled with the jingle of their chain mail, the thud of their feet hitting the ground. "You wouldn't."
"Does he know that?" Kate asked brightly, flashing a smile at Derek. In the light of the setting sun, she looked like a creature of fire and shadow, her hair turning red-gold and her smile a dark promise of pain. "Are you really sure you'd trust me, big bad wolf?"
"Derek, I'll be fine. Go," Allison ordered, shoving at his side. It was worse than pushing a stubborn horse. He just leaned, not giving even a single inch. The footsteps were getting closer. Allison could see the torches through the trees. They were almost out of time. "Go!"
"Yes, Derek. Run away like a mangy cur. That's all you are, after all." Kate laughed, quiet and pretty, and Allison was going to be ill.
She knew Kate. Knew how she loved her family, how proud she'd been of her brother for marrying a woman like the Matriarch and giving her a strong daughter. When she'd been little, Allison had followed Kate around endlessly, tried to act like her, dress like her, talk like her. Kate had helped design the emblem on her arrowheads when she first started making her own.
Kate had set an entire town of people alight.
Kate had killed children.
Maybe she didn't know Kate after all.
Then their time was up. Women in guards uniforms surrounded them, bows and swords ready. Derek pressed against Allison's side, head swinging around. Torchlight caught his eyes but couldn't dim the brilliant blue of them. Allison curled her fingers into his fur and kept her chin up as Kate traded her crossbow to one of the guards for a sword.
"Keep the wolf alive," Kate ordered. "They can talk if you give them enough reason." Callous and arrogant, she ignored Derek's warning snarl, marching up to grab Allison's elbow and yank her around. Pain shot all the way up to Allison's hip, and her bad leg buckled. She cried out and stumbled forward, grabbing Kate's arm to keep her balance.
Black fur and teeth shoved between Allison and her aunt. The point of Kate's sword swung around, blade glinting in the torchlight. Before a blow could land, Allison sprang forward, jamming her shoulder into Kate's gut. They went down in a sprawled heap, sword spinning off into the dark.
Crossbow strings twanged. Bolts slammed into Derek's side. He twisted and snapped, but more bolts smacked into his side, his neck, his haunches. Blood dripped down through his fur, gleaming wet in the firelight. His legs folded under him, sending him staggering to the side. He fell.
"No no no no—" A pair of guards grabbed Allison by the arms before she could run to Derek, pulling her back. Her shoulders screamed, twisting, but she still fought forward, kicking, biting, thrashing when they got too close. Flesh thudded as she twisted and clawed for freedom, using elbows and knees and everything else she had. It was no good. There were more of them, and before long she dragged away.
The last she saw was Kate, kneeling by Derek's body and smiling like she'd won a prize.
Gaol was cold and dark, for all that Allison's father filled it with blankets from home and they made sure to leave a torch lit where it shined through the grate set in the door. She got better food than other prisoners, though, and her chamber pot was cleaned regularly. No one had done anything as rude as shackle her, it didn't make the lock on the door any less solid, or the bars on the window less real.
Even the guards were more sympathetic than angry. The entire three days she'd been there, they'd been nothing but kind. She was cursed, they'd said. It wasn't her fault. Monsters had stolen her heart, the same way they'd stolen Heather. No one listened when she tried to explain.
Allison curled around her knees, unmoving, watching her mother move around the cell, tidying, pacing, always active. She looked odd without a knife at her hip, stripped down to only her long tunic and skirt. The colors were dull, washed out and plain. Work clothes. Clothes for easy moment, for fighting.
"As soon as they find whatever magic that beast cast on you, you'll understand," her mother said, folding a blanket with deft hands, only to unfold it and try again, smoothing the creases in search of nervous perfection. "You'll rise above this. I'll help you, you just have to be patient. The women of our family will not bear this dishonor for long, mark my words."
It wasn't Laura's blanket. That had been left with Derek, and she doubted survived. Someone would have burnt it, if it hadn't been taken in as spoils of war. She hoped it had at least been taken by one of the guards. Someone could have seen the colors and knew it didn't deserve to be destroyed. Deaton or Miran could have told them it wasn't cursed. Not with anything worse than bad memories and death, at least, and the whole town would face that soon enough.
At least she wouldn't have to see Laura again. Wouldn't have to tell the pack that she'd let Derek die.
"Allison!" Her mother knelt down, grabbing her chin to force her to look up. "Are you listening to me?" In the torchlight her hair was red as blood, red as Talia's eyes. Talia would probably be one of the first ones they killed. She was the biggest, the strongest, Matriarch. Probably her own mother would do it, and then would sew her pelt into a new cloak, a new mark of pride.
Jerking her chin away, Allison turned to look at the wall instead.
Her mother's hand ran over her hair. For a second Allison thought she might be forced to look up again, but the touch stayed gentle. "This is for your own good," Victoria said softly. "I know it hurts now, but you'll be stronger for it."
She swallowed and ground her teeth together, fighting back the sting in her eyes. "Did Kate say that to the children she killed?"
The hand on her hair froze.
"Well? Did she?" Allison clenched her fists in the blanket spread across her legs. "Did the fire make them stronger?"
"Kate killed monsters. Not children." Victoria stood up, stepping away with a click of iron-tipped boots. "I know you don't understand. What that animal did to you is—"
"I understand just fine!" Grunting, she pushed herself to her knees, then up to her feet. Her leg throbbed, the injury not taking her forced inactivity well after a day of hard abuse. The pain grounded her. It was real. Solid, certain. Something that would end one day. Nothing like the hole in her stomach that felt like it would go on forever. "I'm not cursed. I'm not dumb. I know what this is about."
Her mother stood, back straight as an iron rod and just as strong. "And what," she said slowly, lips curling around the words like they were blades, "is this about, then?"
"This is about fear." On the other side of the door, chain mail jingled, a bit of metal flashing as a guard peeked in through the small grill. The illusion of privacy shattered. Allison forced her back straighter, her weight to balance even between her feet, though her leg ached for it. Whatever happened next, it was going to get back to people. She had to make sure whatever went around was right. "This is about your fear that the pack is going to come for revenge. This is about Kate murdering a whole town—burning men and children in their beds and then coming home and calling it a victory."
"You don't know—"
"Do you deny it?" Allison raised her voice loud enough that it bounced off the rafters. The guards weren't even trying to pretend that they weren't listening now. "Do you deny that Kate burned Accalia? That she killed everyone in its borders?"
She could actually see her mother grind her teeth. Her fist clenched in the fold of her skirt, and suddenly Allison wondered if there'd been a guard woman enough to do a full search of the Matriarch for weapons. But if she had a knife, Victoria didn't reach for it. "Kate burned down a town of monsters."
Allison bared her teeth, lips curled back the way she'd seen the wolves do. "I've seen the monsters, mother, and they're not out in the woods."
Victoria's face flushed red, and her hand tightened around what was definitely a hilt hidden under her skirts. For breathless second, they stood frozen. Then, without another word, her mother turned and marched out of the cell. The heavy door swung shut behind her with a clang of a bar sliding into place, followed by the rasp of a heavy iron lock.
"Summon a healer to look at her again. No else one's to talk to her without my permission," Victoria ordered, boots clicking on rough flagstone as she walked. "They'll just feed her delusions." A door scraped open, and then slammed shut, leaving her alone one more time.
A commotion in roused Allison sometime just before dawn days later, when the sliver of light creeping through the shutters had only barely changed. She blinked fuzzily and crawled over to the door, straining to see. From her angle, it was impossible to be certain, but someone had just come in—she could taste the fresh air on her tongue, the little change in temperature. Metal jingled, and hard feminine voices traded sharp whispers.
Straining, she managed to catch the words hunting and dawn. Her stomach rolled.
Allison slumped down against the door, clutching her blanket around her shoulders. The cold seeped in through her ass, but it was just a minor annoyance. Unimportant. People were about to die, and it would be her fault. She was the reason Derek had come so close to the walls so many times, the reason why Heather had gone with the wolves, the reason for the hunting party that would be gathering at the Temple.
There were more metal sounds, and boots on stone. Then the door swung closed. A single pair of booted feet paced over the floor, followed by a scrape of wood on stone. One guard left.
A few minutes later someone knocked at the door. The guard cursed, and the sound of wood came again. Another curse, and then there was the sound of hinges creaking as a door opened.
"Scott? Did Master Alan—" Her voice trailed off, and then there was the heavy sound of a body hitting the floor.
At that voice she shot to her feet, stretching up to shove a hand as far through the bars as she could. They were set so close together that she only managed it to the wrist. "Stiles? Stiles! Over here!"
It was Scott who rushed over to the door, though, swinging a key he must have gotten from the guard. "We've got to hurry. She'll wake up soon." He fought to twist the key in the lock; it was old and rusted, hard for even a grown woman to turn properly.
"Tell me you didn't hit the guard." Allison pushed up on her toes, straining to see what he was doing. Her leg throbbed. She ignored it, bouncing higher. "If you killed her—"
"I did it." Kira popped into view, elbowing Scott a step to the side so she could help. Her hair had been pinned around her head in a crown, laced with bright blue linen flowers to match her tunic and loose leggings. "It's some sort of powder the Healers use. She'll be fine when she wakes up." The lock clicked open with a harsh sound, and they hurried to pull the bar from its place.
"You're going to be in so much trouble for this." As soon as the door opened, Allison rushed them, wrapping her arms around their necks for a fierce hug. "Thank you. Thank you. I have to—I have to stop this, I have to go make my mother listen. I have to..." Her throat tightened on the word revenge. "Derek. I—"
But Scott was shaking his head. "They're keeping him in the old stables. You were—"
"He's alive?" Her heart rose and plummeted, a thousand feet to the rocks. Allison's fist wrapped in Scott's shirt, as if he'd run, vanish away into a puff of incense smoke. "Derek died. I saw him die."
Kira touched her wrist, pulling her gently away from Scott. "They captured him," she explained. "They're keeping him locked up for bait."
She wavered, looking back and forth between them. A single certainty wrapped around her and held tight. "I have to save him."
"We have to save him." Over in the far corner, where she hadn't been able to see before, Stiles was tying the unconscious guard up with a length of rope. He shoved a rag between her teeth and tied it in with more rope. A bow and a bag of arrows sat at his feet—her bow, though how they'd gotten it she had no idea. "We're going with you. Now and wherever you go after."
Allison's mouth opened to argue that she wasn't going anywhere, she couldn't leave her home, but their hard looks froze the words on her tongue. It was a happy lie, but not one she could keep believing. "Thank you. I—" Air burned her throat and lungs as she took a breath. "Where's Lydia?"
Kira's eyes slid away. "With the Hunters. Your mother wanted her close. For luck, she said."
Of course. Of course she would. We'll take care of it," Allison decided. "Scott, do you have any of that powder left?" When he nodded, she turned to Kira. "You and Stiles go steal horses. Three of them at least. Scott and I'll rescue Derek and meet you at the main gates."
To try to beat the hunting party to the wolves. To try to stop the fight before it started. To try to salvage whatever was left.
To try not to die.
Mother of Life and Death, they were all going to die.
Stop it, Allison. You're a woman. Act like it.
They nodded, Kira and Stiles already headed for the door. Allison scooped up her bow and arrows and slung them over her shoulder. Pleasantly, her knife belt was under it, along with her carry pouch and what was left of the rope. She tied them on, feeling better for having her kit back. Then she grabbed Scott's arm, yanking him out the door and into the open air.
Dawn light was just starting to touch the far eastern horizon, catching the frost that clung to the stone houses and turning it pink-gold. They crept north as quickly as they could with Allison's injury, the rising sun a constant reminder of what time they didn't have. She kept an arm on Scott to keep him close and stuck to the still-thick shadows, hoping whoever saw them would think they were lovers sneaking in rather than traitors sneaking out. Scott didn't fight, stayed behind her where it was safe, kept his face down.
The old stables had been boarded up, windows and doors reinforced with strips of metal. Like with the gaol, only one guard was left. She was a big woman, her brown hair going silver at the temples, dark skin lined with harsh wisdom. But Allison could see the droop in her shoulders, exhaustion creeping in from a long night standing watch.
Allison caught Scott's eye, flicking her fingers at the guard. He nodded and slipped off to the side, toward the wider road.
A minute later, the guard straightened, her hand falling to her sword. "Who goes— Scott? Why aren't you at the seeing off?" Her hand fell away, and her whole body relaxed.
Scott trotted up, hands cupped carefully and dimples deep pocks in his cheeks. "I heard you were standing watch. Here, I need you to look at this." He held up his hands, straight to the guard's face.
She leaned over, peering down. "It's just a bunch of—"
He pursed his lips and blew. Purple dust spread everywhere, sparkling in the dawn. The guard staggered back, swatting at her face. Then she wobbled and slipped sideways, falling with a soft thud.
As soon as the guard was out, Allison limped out of hiding, dropping the coil of rope at Scott's feet as she passed. "Tie her up and drag her inside." The door was barred with a heavy piece of iron and wood, but unlocked; apparently they didn't think more than brute strength was necessary to hold a great wolf. She pushed it up and let the bar fall. It was so heavy it left a dent in the frost-specked ground. The door creaked open, old timbers scraping across the plain dirt floor.
Inside the stable hadn't bothered with light, leaving the open door the only source. It shined a thick corridor through the gloom. The contrast only made it all worse. Old piles of hay moldered where they sat, filling the air with the sweet, slightly rotten scent of grass. Stalls had been emptied, ripped apart to leave the building hollow, their boards piled haphazardly along the walls.
A huge, black circle took up all the remaining space, glittering unnaturally in the faint light. Derek lay in the center, eyes closed, chained by a thick length of metal around his neck, paws bound and hobbled. Blue fire sparked up to lick at Allison's toes as she stepped over the ring of ashes to collapse by Derek's unmoving form, bad leg stretched out to help with the pain. He was so still she had to run her hand over his ribs to be sure he was breathing.
The collar and hobbles were tight, good solid iron and leather, the sort of thing that she would have expected. Maybe a werewolf could break them, if she got her jaws around it, but not the wearer. In contrast to the rough iron, the buckles were beautiful, solid gold sunbursts that looped around Derek's neck and between his legs with a single delicate chain. Next to it, the locks were clumsy, ugly things, all brute force. Brute force, though, was all it took. "Scott, does the guard have any keys on her?" she called, fingering Derek's collar. Underneath, the fur was thin and the skin looked rough from the pressure. "Or a pin?"
"She's got keys!" Scott appeared in the doorway, a hunched over silhouette dragging the unconscious guard inside step by slow step. "Come get 'em."
Allison touched the top of Derek's head before scrambling to help by grabbing the guard's feet. The keys Scott had promised were right there, hanging off her belt. Between the two of them, they were able to get the woman inside and the door swung shut again, though Allison had to clench her teeth. Then she grabbed the keys and hurried back to Derek's side.
There were five keys in total. Allison found the right one on the second try. It turned with only a little bit of struggle before popping open with a rasp of greased metal. She hurried to pull the collar off, letting it fall between Derek's paws as she turned her attention to his hobbles. The same key worked on them, and in only a minute she was throwing the whole mess aside.
Derek still hadn't moved, hadn't even opened an eye. There was no sign of the arrows he'd taken, no evidence of any maltreatment, but he was so still. Allison rubbed his cheeks, pushing her fingers through the fur and tugging at his ruff. His head flopped, but he didn't respond. "Come on, wake up. Derek, wake up."
"Here." Scott shoved in beside her, pulling a small vial of liquid out of his hip pouch. When he uncorked it, Allison reeled back from the sharp, bitter stench. He waved it under Derek's muzzle.
A second later, Derek jerked awake, lunging forward with a snarl. He lunged forward, snapping. The bite missed Scott by a bare inch. Knife-sharp claws scratched the ground, leaving scars in their wake as he scrambled to his feet, muscles bunching under his thick coat of fur.
"Get back!" Allison threw herself between Scott and Derek, arms wide and eyes clenched shut.
Nothing happened. Then, softly, a low whimper. Hot, sour breath blew over her cheeks. She cracked one eye open to see Derek's face just a whisper away from hers, ears pressed back anxiously. When he saw her looking, he whined and dipped his head, shoving it into her chest.
Allison let out a trembling, broken sound and wrapped her arms around his neck. She let herself have a moment to bury her face in his shoulder and hang on. He smelled like damp hay and rotting wood, dirty fur and dried blood. It didn't matter.
"Um, Allison?" Scott tugged at the back of her shirt. "We need to go. Now."
Derek pulled his head out of her chest to look at Scott, ears pricked. In the shadowy stable, his eyes were will-o-the-wisps, two spots of unnaturally blue flame. His lips curled back, showing just the tips of his fangs.
She shoved at his shoulder, getting only a slight sway for her effort. "Don't be like that. He's right. We have to stop the hunting party before it finds your pack. Come on."
Halfway to the door, she heard Derek make a strange sound behind her, half yelp and half snarl. He'd stopped just inside the black circle, which had flared into life again. Blue fire cascaded upward, forming a solid wall. As Derek danced sideways, it followed, constantly blocking his path.
Allison kicked at the line with her bad leg. Fire crawled up her leg, sending her leaping back with a yelp. Her knee buckled under her, leaving her to desperately grab at the wall to keep from landing on her ass. The entire stretch of her leg from the hip down tingled, completely numb.
At least it wasn't hurting anymore.
"It's rowan ashes," Scott said, squatting down by the line. Unlike Allison's attempt, the line didn't even see fit to raise a single spark at his presence, even when he cupped his hand over the top. "It's supposed to keep out magic. Or in, I guess. Master Alan uses it sometimes." Flicking his fingers open, the ashes rippled, billowing up in a dark cloud until there was a break in the circle. Derek stepped through, sniffing in Scott's direction warily.
"Master Alan, huh?" Allison switched her grip from the wall to Derek, clinging to his thick ruff for balance. "That's some work for a man."
Scott grinned, two parts pride and one part bashful. "My mother comes by sometimes with some pointers."
And who was going to ask a Healer what sort of pointers she was giving her son and his master? Allison shook her head and turned to hoist herself clumsily onto Derek's back. It was the opposite of graceful, and Derek had to sidestep to keep her balanced, but by the time she was up there was thought she'd be able to hang on. "Let's hope you won't need them. Get the door, Kira and Stiles are waiting."
Kira and Stiles didn't have the horses. There was no hunt to chase down, because it was right outside the gates.
Four humans and a human-shaped wolf crouched down behind a row of barrels, watching as people collected in the square. Guards stayed in the back, their dull brown and gray uniforms arrayed in neat lines. They talked little, moved less, but not one of them looked pleased to be there. By contrast, the hunters were a riot of chaotic color, standing in small groups and wearing the fruit of their Hunt and the crests of their mothers. Kira's mother, aunts and grandmother were at the front, white fox fur and deep blue flowers in their hair. Healer Melissa, with her emerald bands and staff stood by, no daughter by her side. Even Heather's mother was there, though she didn't have the bands of mastery or a fur.
No red sleeve or wolf's fur made itself known, other than Allison's. Lydia wasn't anywhere either, though her bearskin should have stood out. The gates were closed, so they couldn't be far, but Allison didn't like not being able to see them. It itched at her, the feeling that she was missing something important.
"What's our plan?" Kira nearly vibrates in her hiding spot, eyes bright and lively. "Are we going to join the pack? Steal all their weapons? Kidnap the matriarch?"
She was enjoying herself way too much, floating with excitement. Allison couldn't find it in her to rope Kira's feet and bring her back to the ground. They'd all be down to ground soon enough. "No, to all of that," she said, shifting her weight to the side. The numbness from the blue fire was turning into a blessing. Allison could barely feel the throb of her leg, even though she knew it had to be bad. As long as she could stand and walk, it would have to do. "We'll just make the fighting worse. We have to make them realize it's not worth it."
At her shoulder, Derek was a tense line of energy under his borrowed cloak, only still because Allison was using his shoulder to lean on. She had a feeling that if she didn't need help standing, he'd have been pacing. "Your people already burned our home. My mother will see this as the final insult. The pack won't stop until we're returned."
"We?" Allison asked, startled.
He frowned at her. "You're pack now, aren't you?"
A warm glow curled through her stomach. Reaching out, Allison found his hand to tangle their fingers together. "We have to get back to them then."
At the far edge of the crowd, a flash of red caught her eye. Before she had to strain to see it again, the crowd parted for the Matriarch. She was trailed on one side by Priestess Marin in long, elegant golden robes that reflected the sunlight like fire. Her face was turned down, perfectly impassive as she carried a long, thin that glimmered with jewels.
On the other side was Lydia, wearing the simplest dress Allison had ever seen on her, dull black, gathered at the neck and falling to her bare ankles without even an attempt at shaping. Her red hair flowed down her back, dripping wet, and a thick strip of leather was wrapped around her head like a bit to keep her from screaming.
Whatever had happened at the temple, Lydia was very, very displeased, and ready to take it out on whoever dared to present themselves as a target. She kept her chin up, but Allison could see her rage in the set of her shoulders and the way her fists clenched behind her back.
"At least they didn't try to tie her feet," Stiles muttered under his breath. "She hates that."
Scott bumped Stiles' shoulder with his. "She's coming, too."
Derek wrinkled his nose, but only sighed. Allison almost felt bad for not warning him that she had a pack of her own already. Maybe if they all survived, she'd find time for guilt. Or maybe she'd just enjoy not being ashes and song.
They fell quiet after that. The Matriarch had reached the head of the crowd, near the gates, and no one else was talking. Even the little skitters of the horses' hooves was too loud in the silence. Three horses were brought over, Lydia's great deaf bay warhorse the only one not outfitted with leather plates and armor. Hunters started mounting their horses, and the guard straightened. All together, it looked less like a hunting party and more like a war.
The gates creaked open, windlass groaning from the weight. A hum went through the crowd, the start of a hunting tune so old that Allison could probably sing it in her sleep.
If they were going to go, they had to do it now. "Derek, try to hide your beard and stay close. You three, free Lydia and wait for us. We'll meet you at the back as soon as we're clear." Allison yanked her hood higher and started to stand, but Kira tugged her back down.
"Are you crazy?" she hissed, eyes so wide that they were ringed in white, like a frightened horse. "They're boys."
"Make something up! Just get Lydia somewhere safe!" Wrenching out of Kira's grip, Allison ducked around the barrels, dragging Derek by his wrist. With his cowl up and his head down, he could mostly pass for a very tall, very hairy woman. Just in case, she pulled him over behind the horses, where the women out to prove themselves waited. Horses danced and twitched impatiently, making their spot more hazardous than most, but it meant that women were more interested in avoiding a kick than in their neighbor.
Out of the corner of her eye, Allison saw Kira dragging Scott and Stiles around the edges of the crowd, making their way to where Lydia was. They had their hoods up too, but they weren't even trying to blend in. Heads turned as they passed, and a whisper started rippling through the crowd, breaking up the song, but no one moved to stop them. Up at the front, Kira's mother stayed stock still, chin up and proud, completely missing the spectacle of her daughter manhandling two unmarried men.
She hoped they didn't get themselves in too much trouble. If everything went badly, there wouldn't be any pack to take them in.
The gates finished opening, and the procession started to move out in waves, Hunters first. In the audience, the humming cracked into open song, wordless and ancient. Hairs on Allison's arms rose with a prickle. Against her shoulder, she felt Derek shiver, and thought she saw a flicker of blue in the shadows behind his cowl.
"Stay close to me," she murmured as their rank finally started shuffling forward. The horse in front of them stomped, throwing its head up, and only a quick hop backwards saved them from a kick. "Horses are scared. You'd think there was a wolf here or something."
In answer, Derek snorted and took a half-step to the side, bumping up against her again. She thought she caught a flash of a smile, white teeth in the dark. It was gone as quickly as it came.
They passed through the gates, leaving the strains of the hunting song behind. Up ahead the wolves were gathered at the tree line, out of range of the archers on the wall. There was only a double-handful of them. Two dozen at the most, arrayed behind Talia and Laura in a fan formation that no normal wolf pack would ever had taken.
The band marched to the halfway point before they were called to a stop. Hunters and wolves faced each other, waiting. Allison held her breath, hoping that some sort of parley would happen, something that would buy her more time.
As if her prayers were being answered, a commotion broke out up ahead, shouting cutting through the still-loud strains of the hunt song. A handful of Hunters twisted on their horses to see what was the matter. Bright blue flashed in the crowd ahead, and then Kira, Scott and Stiles were being shoved forward by an overeager crowd of women.
Kira talked fast, hands moving, while Scott slowly turned the color of a blooming rose. Stiles stuck so close to Kira's side he might have been tied there. From so far away, Allison couldn't hear what they were saying, but Noshiko dropped her reins to hide her face in her hands, and Kira's grandmother started cackling above the music.
Since all eyes were on the drama at the front, Allison started tugging Derek sideways, out of the thick of things. She moved faster than was really safe, but there wasn't far to go. It was an oddly sized band of people, too small for a battle but too large for a real hunt. It was, however, perfectly sized to take down a small pack of wolves. Before long they were out of the worst of it and moving up along the edge, completely clear on the left.
"What's your plan?" Derek demanded in a whisper that, while soft, was still audible masculine enough that some heads turned.
"I don't have one!" Allison kept her face turned away from the others, pretending to watch as Kira slapped Scott and Stiles' asses simultaneously. The scandalized expressions on everyone's faces would have been hilarious if it wasn't becoming more and more obvious that they were all going to die. "Get up there, don't get shot. Don't let anyone else get shot."
"I don't see you coming up with anything better!"
Whatever Kira was up to, it was enough for the matriarch to get involved. She pointed them over to where two guards were minding Lydia's horse. The guard eagerly handed over the reins and moved into the thick of the crowd, leaving Scott and Stiles to lead Lydia's horse out of the way of fighting while Kira unsubtly sawed at the ropes holding her hands.
Victoria leaned over to say something to Kate, then kicked her mare to the front. She rose up in her stirrups, sword raised to the sky. It shined back a hundred shades of fire from the rising sun. "For our daughters!"
Allison stumbled as a hundred women started to surge forward to meet the wolves running at them. She saw Lydia's hands come loose, saw the gag fly off into the dirt. Saw the Warrior's Blade gleam red, like it was already covered in blood. She and Derek were already on the move, his cloak flying free as four paws hit the ground. Between one step and the next she was on his back, arrow knocked.
"LYDIA!" Allison yelled, lungs aching as she fought to be heard over the clamor. "SCREAM!"
Lydia's head turned, scanning the crowd until her eyes fell on Allison. Her horse wheeled, knocking Scott and Stiles on their asses. She drew a breath.
The world went white.
It hit in a wall of pain, sound made solid rippling through the air. Derek whined and stumbled, but somehow managed to stay upright. The scream was too loud, too high-pitched to hear, but it clawed at the inside of Allison's head all the way through to the center of her chest. Horses panicked, kicking and bucking, some of them breaking ranks and running for the trees. Women crumbled to their knees and clutched their heads.
At the front, where Lydia was facing, the chaos was even worse. Horses and women went down completely, knocked unconscious. The wolves collapsed midstride, clawing desperately at their bleeding ears. Even Allison's mother was hunched over, trying to protect her head from the sound. The Warrior's Blade fell from her hands in shards and chunks, shattered.
The feeling died as Lydia sagged against her horse's neck, visibly panting for air. Derek lurched forward, the pounding of his feet swallowed by the ringing in Allison's ears. She used her heels to direct him like a horse, barely hanging on as he dodged around panicking people. They planted themselves in the center of the field, Allison's arrow swinging around to point unerringly at her mother, who was staring down at the remains of the hilt in her hand.
Slowly, people started to pull themselves together. The wolves staggered to their feet, listing off-balance. Hunters collected around the Matriarch. Kate slid off her horse to pick up a shard of broken blade, holding it in her palms and staring down at it blankly.
"The Warrior has spoken!" Allison yelled. She could barely hear herself, but some heads turned, mostly people at the back who hadn't had the worst of Lydia's scream. Hopefully, the watchers on the wall would hear too, and the rumors would spread. "The Warrior shattered her blade, rather than let it be used for this battle! This is a false war!"
Kate rose to her feet. A glint of color flashed in the sun. Without conscious thought, Allison's heel slammed into Derek's ribs, making him leap aside just as her arrow let loose. The crystal shard hissed through the space where Derek's head had been.
Allison's arrow was better aimed. Kate went down, clutching the arrow shaft in her shoulder. Before she'd hit the ground, Allison already had another arrow knocked.
The Matriarch raised her head. She met Allison's eyes for just a moment, expression hard. Slowly, she turned her face away. Her arm came up, and those who could stand did so. Silently, they gathered around her, following her back through the gate.
Kira and the boys stayed off to the side, holding Lydia steady on her horse. Her mother held back as they passed, and Kira's chin lifted belligerently. Noshiko only shook her head and leaned down to press a kiss to her daughter's forehead. Then she was gone, trotting to catch up with the rest.
Wolves arrayed behind her, Talia stepped up by Derek's left shoulder, Laura taking his right. They stood guard until the gates closed.
Allison sent the others back home.
They fought, but she only had to point out that the pack had scare supplies, and more mouths to feed wouldn't be welcome. She watched them go from her place by Derek, waiting until she couldn't make out the red of Lydia's hair before they turned back to the pack.
The winter was cold and long, bitter as the early snows had promised. Tensions stayed high, though there wasn't any more fighting. Allison's leg healed, though the wound still ached on especially cold nights. When that happened, the pack slept in a massive pile somewhere close to the fire, her and Heather at the center.
Some folk ventured out to trade for furs the pack caught but didn't have the means to cure. They approached Talia in roundabout way, stayed as far from Allison as possible, as if she'd taint them. As soon as they got what they wanted, they were gone, beating feet back to the safety of thick walls and torchlight.
Her parents never visited, not even her father.
Spring came like a blessing. The air warmed almost imperceptibly as the trees started growing a soft green fuzz. Snowdrifts shrank. Talia picked one as a marker, declaring that when it was gone, they would make for the mountain pass. Allison watched it vanish, day by day, feeling time run through her fingers.
And then they came. Stiles and his father showed up one morning with their packs across their shoulders and a determined set to their jaws. Scott and his mother were only a few hours behind, chiding other two for having left without them. Kira came by herself, carrying only a change of clothes and her kit.
A few others drifted in, too. A girl Allison remembered as having been orphaned in a fire. A boy whose father was notorious for his temper. The pack opened to them warily, but it wasn't long before they were sleeping curled up in the center of the pile, too, while Talia looked on from outside like a proud new mother.
Lydia was last, right when the snow drift had finished fading. She appeared one afternoon when Allison got back from the hunt, casting the bones while Cora and Heather watched warily from across the fire. Her hair was piled up in twists fit for travel and her usual fine dress traded for a sturdy brown skirt and solid boots. Off to the side, a draft horse nibbled on the new shoots that were just starting to peek out of the remainder of the snow. Its cart sat off to the side, loaded with boxes and bags and bales.
Allison handed off the brace of rabbits she'd caught to one of the new wolves and took a seat at Lydia's side. "Packed light?"
She shrugged, rattling her cup. "If I wanted to take something with me, I thought it may as well be useful." The bones danced, seeming to glow as she threw them across the blanket.
"What do they say?" Derek folded himself down on Allison's other side, knee nudging hers. "Something good?"
Reaching out, Lydia flipped over one of the three bones that had been left in the circle, so its rune was visible. "A prophecy passed. Unexpected changes. Family." A smile flickered across her lips as she glanced up at Allison. "I always told you that you'd lead us one day, and here you are. Is that something good?"
Allison looked across the fire, at where the pack was gathered in its late night circle. She couldn't picture her family there, and it hurt to think about. There was no place for her parents by the pack's fire, no way to repay the debt Kate owed. The lacking was a hole in her chest, tender and not quite healed. When it did it was sure to scar.
But Derek was warm and solid beside her, and Stiles' father was talking to a trio of boys about the best way to skin a rabbit, and Kira was curled up between Scott and Stiles, using a pair of wolves as back rests. Somewhere Melissa was laughing, and Laura was showing one of the new wolves how to control change enough to take on four legs.
"Yeah," she said finally, leaning into Derek's side. "I think it is."