Chapter 1: The Battles of a Rose
Shani Vardan opened her eyes, ending her dream.
The deep red canopy of the tent glowed from the rising morning sun. Around her, her packmates were beginning to stir.
She flung back the sheeps wool blanket and rolled out of her cot of bear furs onto her bare feet into the bathroom alcove; she made sure she was at the edge of the tent years ago so she could be first out. The circular mirror was propped against a bucket of water, its surface fingerprint-smeared and grimy, but it was one of those luxuries of cleanliness that the pack learned to look past, even when it nearly obscured their reflections.
Shani scowled at hers. It wasn't enough to hide the hazel eyes of the Blacktooth wolf pack. She was not supposed to have hazel eyes.
One of the Alpha's consorts tugged on the alcove curtain. “Hurry up in there."
Shani quickly smoothed out her hair—as red as autumn leaves, the right color, and her only feature that kept her from being banished—and pulled out the single braid to start again, slipping out of the alcove before the other she-wolf could barge in.
It was midmorning, and she was one of the few who weren't required to be awake before dawn to start the day's chores. As she ducked under the entrance flap, the familiar sounds greeted her with rich sunbeams breaking through the summer forest treetops.
All around her, the Bloodrose wolf pack thrived.
The Birchwoods Forest was home to hundreds of wolves—dozens of packs big and small, and the Bloodrose was one of the largest five.
Each pack lived in a simple but sprawling campsite of their own configuration for as long as it was established. Bloodrose may be populated, but it was only founded one hundred years ago.
The camp was a spacious maze of tents—the largest for the Alpha and Luna, the second largest for the harem, several for the Epsilon sentinels, more for the rest of the pack mostly dedicated to raising pups, and a small collection designated for preparing clothes and food. As for a configuration, they were in two rows with a packed-dirt “road" between them, which acted as a spacious forum for the pack to roam freely, big enough to accommodate all one hundred wolves.
Shani let her finished single braid fall to her waist to brush off the bits of wool still clinging to her pale brown linen outfit that she'd sewn herself. She focused on that instead of the immediate glares of the packmates who were supposed to love her as much as the rest of the Bloodrose “family."
The summer air was warm, permeated with a dozen scents—the wolves themselves, dyes for clothes, the livestock pens at the far end of the camp, the gardens of cotton and herbs on the other end, and the simple freshness of the forest itself. Smells of home and safety.
Shani felt neither of those things.
Wolves were made of flesh, bone, and loyalty. Nothing meant more to them than family, whether by blood or not—as long as they weren't illegitimate.
They could shift between their human form—known as a base form, as no sensible wolf would ever dare call themselves a human—and wolf forms at will. Any true human would think them no different from a true wolf but for their unnatural size and supernaturally vivid eyes.
Both forms of all ages meandered through camp. There was an abundance of pups—young offspring of the Alpha and his Luna and his consorts, mainly.
The title of Alpha wasn't just to denote who was king, but a dynamic, indicated by their size and subsequent strength, scent, and ability to breed but incapable of bearing offspring, as they were mostly males. They were physically dominant, some having a superiority complex over Omegas.
In true wolf packs, they were the scapegoats, the dynamic derogatory. In wolf packs, it titled them as smaller and more submissive in personality. They were mostly female and able to bear litters of pups, also making up the majority of the pack.
Also unlike real wolf packs where only the Alpha and Luna could procreate, wolf packs were free to breed. Sparingly, of course. Overpopulation was an issue pack leaders were not keen on dealing with.
Shani glanced back at Alpha Karro's tent, the one behind the harem, where her mother was likely still sleeping. Avoiding the judgment just the same as her daughter.
“Is that her, Mama?"
She looked down at a young male pup gaping at her. The mother rushed over and grabbed his hand, not holding back her glare, pulling him away as she said loudly, “Yes, the Blacktooth b*stard Omega."
Her heart clenched so hard she forgot how to breathe for a moment. It wasn't the worst insult she'd heard, just the most frequent, and it never lost its sting even after all these years. Maybe it was just the fact that the younger generations were taught to be so brazenly cruel about her, and her alone, apparently.
This is why I have no desire to ever have pups, Shani thought bitterly. Not that she never wanted offspring; it was just that she didn't want to condemn her bloodline to the same social neglect the same way her own parents did.
She inhaled deeply. On the exhale, she started into a walk—only to be shoulder-checked by a wall of solid muscle.
“Watch where you walk, sis."
Shani's blood stilled. She forced the words out through gritted teeth, “Excuse me. Your ego-swelled head is blocking my way."
Alpha Karro had a dozen offspring between his Luna—Zetta—and consorts, who included Shani's mother, Rossie. Shani had six half-brothers; two of them were the twins, and they hated her just as much as she hated them.
They were twenty-six, six years older than her, as well as two feet taller. Sarnai blocked the way behind while Sivard loomed in front. He bent at the waist to meet at eye level—his were the rich green that every Bloodrose was born with. And they were burning with a deeply-rooted contempt for their “misbreed" half-sister.
“What did you say?" Sivard asked, everything about him possessing a predatory slowness.
At her back, Sarnai yanked her braid and snorted. “She's trying to be brave again."
Sivard c****d his head. “You're still not, you know."
It was a jab at her own cowardice for never having the guts to stand her ground. And if there was anything she loathed more than her bullies…it was her own incompetence against them.
She averted her eyes, the only thing preventing them from being nearly identical. “You want me complacent? Congratulations, I already am."
Sivard's knuckle crooked under her chin to bring her face inches from his. She forgot how to breathe again, her body coiled like a snake ready to spring—except her instinct was not to fight but to flee. Some wolf I am, she thought bitterly, if I'm as meek as a mouse.
“We want just a little fight in you," Sivard murmured. “So we can beat it out."
The word “again" didn't need to be said. Shani met his gaze and managed enough courage to bare her teeth. “Is that what family means to you? Control?"
His eyes narrowed. “No. Family is all about love, Shani."
The stern voice punctured the bubble around them. Sivard released her immediately and snapped into a formal stance. A second later, Sarnai was next to him, both facing the male whose presence made Shani feel safe for a fraction of a moment.
She turned. Alpha Karro Nasrin stood nearly seven feet and, despite his sixty years, his grizzled features were honed and handsome. The green of his eyes was still sharp, though his red hair, braided on either side to his shoulders, had faint streaks of gray. Shani prayed the features shared by her brothers did not age so gracefully.
He was looking at them with subdued emotion. “I'm sure you two have better things to do than harass your sister. Find something useful to do or I will for you."
It was a father's and an Alpha's order, which made it impossible to argue against. The word of a pack leader was absolute. Moon Goddess help anyone who defied even the smallest command.
Shani didn't look back to see their response; she heard them retreat without a word.
Karro's gaze dropped to hers. However objectively handsome, the Alpha still coveted a look of indifference, even to his offspring. But whenever he looked at Shani, she noticed his expression always became faintly sympathetic. It was an odd relationship they shared; he was one of the extreme few who didn't hate her, yet he didn't quite know how to feel about her, because she knew it was hard for him to accept a female who was supposed to be his daughter but wasn't. She was a constant reminder that he failed as a lover to Rossie—that she was just the result of an affair between his consort and a rival pack male.
The tense situation became suddenly awkward.
Shani dipped her head. “Thank you, Alpha. I should get going—"
Karro's outstretched hand halted her first step. “Shani," he sighed, “you know you can always ask for my help if you ever need it."
Her chest was torn between bitterness and thankfulness. Karro Nasrin was one of the few Alpha leaders who acted on honest fairness. Family meant equality, and he strived for it. But there was only so much he could do. Making every pack member fully accept her as a Bloodrose Omega was beyond even his power—much less get Rossie back in their good graces.
Shani attempted a grateful smile up at him. “Thank you, Alpha, but you shouldn't worry about fighting my battles."
Karro dropped his arm. “I'm sure you can fight them well on your own," he said, voice taking on an understanding tone. “But packs never battle alone."
“The battle shouldn't be within us," she said before she could stop herself.
Hurt flickered over his face and it sent a twinge of guilt down her spine. I know you're trying, she thought with an ache. Shani touched his arm before turning. “I'll be back in two weeks."
“Be safe. Give Danior my greetings."
Shani slipped between two tents and passed the sheep pen to leave the camp's perimeter and enter the outskirts where the Birchwoods stretched on for what seemed like could be forever—but before she did, she turned her head at the call that rang out:
“The hunters are back!"
Curse her heart, it jumped again as she backtracked to scan the crowd that gathered around the Epsilon sentinels—the guardians and hunters who defended the pack and its borders—who set out hours earlier to catch fresh game.
She didn't have to search hard.
Harkin found her first. From the jostling gathering of large bodies, he broke free and waved, calling her name with a stupidly happy grin. Noise and movement from every wolf quieted.
Shani spun and continued walking into the forest. Fled, more like.
The trees of various species were sparsely spaced, a combination of being naturally occurring as well as felled ones by the pack over the years as a resource. Shani trekked the steady uphill with sure footing, breathing in the fresh air, wanting to stay in her base form to take her time despite her commitment to leave by noon.
The sound of rushing water came before she found the break in the tree line to the sudden cliff face where a waterfall fed into a roughly circular pool cloudy with curls of steam. Thank the Moon Goddess for natural hot springs.
Shani shed her shirt and pants onto the rocky shore, easing herself into the boiling water. Could humans handle the same heat wolves can? she often wondered. Only six feet deep, there was a natural seat around the circumference of the pool. She sank into it and rested the back of her head on the edge, closing her eyes.
But she wasn't given the chance to start to relax.
Her eardrum tickled with the sound of someone approaching. It wasn't rare that she would be sought out just to have her clothes stolen as a joke. No one liked her, but no one would leave her be.
For the Moon Goddess's sake, just leave me alone, she thought with a sharp bitterness. “What do you want?" she demanded.
When there was no answer, she cracked open an eye and tensed to reach for her clothes. Instead of a hostile packmate, she saw Harkin dip into the pool across from her.
Shani's eyes flew open and her heart lurched into her stomach when she saw he was naked.