“Several mangled bodies were found in the woods today…” The news spoke through the static of the radio, making us lean closer to hear better. “Local authorities suspect animal attacks such as wolves to be responsible. Sightings of wolves have been reported and will be closely watched—“
The radio we were huddled around was promptly shut off by a frowning elder having just arrived at the small living room of our pack house where we were waiting. “Enough of this human gibberish.”
“But they’ve spotted us—“ A boy around my age attempted to argue.
“Not us.” The elder snipped impatiently. “And that is none of your concern. Leave this business to the Alphas.”
But it’s definitely someone.
And I think we could all guess which 'someone' left these bodies. Not many know much of him, only stories and half truths— none of them any good.
This 'someone' is an Alpha of a pack of the worst kind of werewolves with a population of thousands. They’re the worst of our race. Monsters, as many would say. They mate with whoever they want, they kill whoever they want and they claim land as if they own everything. Rules did not apply to them and no one tried to correct them lest they become this someone’s next meal.
I usually stay away from such talk… mostly because I don’t want to be the next meal.
The pack elder impatiently claps his hand to get our attention. “Enough of that nonsense. I have called you all to this meeting to discuss the Assembly—“
“The Games,” A girl from behind me corrected under her breath.
“The Assembly,” The elder continued sharply, shooting her a disgruntling look. “Is an honored tradition and it is happening this weekend. Many young men and women wait for this day like it is their coming of age! Much like when you first shift, but this is better for this Assembly is where you will choose your soulmates for life.”
The murmur in the living room rises with both excitement and anxiousness. My own anxiousness bubbles as I play with my fingers, wringing them together.
A small smile made its way to the elder’s lips. He did not smile often and it made me even more uncomfortable. “Werewolves from all over the world are to come and gather in a neutral territory to meet, to mingle, to choose and to mate.”
“To force. Not to choose.” Another quiet whisper spoke from behind me. “Everyone knows there is no choice. Powerful wolves control this and the lesser wolves are at their mercy.”
Which is our world.
Which is how things are done.
At least around here.
“Tell us about the blood ranking.” A boy asked, speaking above the elder’s explanation of how the Assembly had saved us from going extinct.
“I was just getting to that boy.” A glower left the elder’s lips, the smile gone as quickly as it came. “The Assembly will last for the entire weekend and right before it ends you’ll all be arranged by your blood ranking. The women with the highest blood ranking comes first and they will be chosen by any that want her.”
I felt several pairs of eyes on me, the weight of their stare heavy, but it didn’t bother me. I know what I am: a forgettable daughter of an even more forgettable warrior. My father and I are nothing special. We lived under a kind and elderly Alpha, residing far away from everyone else. Here, we are all very forgettable together and that was okay because we were at peace while the rest of the world burned through war.
Our entire race is obsessed with blood ranking. My blood is what you call ‘poor quality’. Low level warriors and rogues have these types of blood. The highest ranking of blood are the Alphas and the Betas. They’re royalty… pure, the golden ones. Everyone below them is just trash in their way.
My blood is the lowest quality, the poorest of all of them, and that was okay. My ranking doesn’t bother me as much as everyone says it should. I am okay with how I am, no matter how low and poor it is.
I’ll be chosen or I won’t. Mostly likely I won’t.
A hand rested on my own, squeezing it gently. I looked up from my hands to find Pete staring down at me. He smiles at me reassuringly, telling me quietly that he didn’t care about my blood.
“The four of you—“ The elder continues, gesturing to us. I looked around. There were only four of us attending the Assembly from the pack. It was the lowest number of attendees amongst all the rest but we were one of the smallest packs and that was expected. With less than a hundred members, it was a miracle we could even send four. “Will arrive and mingle and network. Remember, not everyone will be chosen, but you must all do your best to try.”
I glanced back at Pete, wondering if by some small chance he could choose me, but that was a foolish thought. This was no small ask like a cup of sugar or a piece of paper. This was our whole lives.
And he deserves better.
Everyone deserves better.
“Remember, your honors are on the line. To possibly choose new members of the pack and bring new wealth,” The elder looked at the boys. Dowry. A payment of such by the girl’s family or the pack to the man that chose their daughter. That was what is important for the men. To bring back the wealth of whoever they choose. “And to be chosen by another, which can increase the value of your blood ranking.”
The way the elder looked directly into my eyes made me shiver. I am worth only a bag of potatoes… or something around the likes. My father has worked his entire life to be able to give something more, but we are a very poor family in a very poor pack. A bag of something is better than nothing.
Nonetheless, it’s a great dishonor not to be chosen. Everyone knows this. If a boy doesn’t choose, it just means no one was good enough for him— even if a girl rejects him during the choosing, which only happens if the girl is of a higher rank than the boy, but for a girl not to be chosen means that girl is useless and unwanted.
“The Alpha has paid a great deal of money to be able to afford your ceremonial clothes. He had it imported from the city pack.” Which is the wealthiest pack amongst all of us and to import anything from them is a really big deal. “Its worth more than what this pack makes in a year, so he hopes you will all do very well.”
The sack of potatoes that I am worth seemed to drop on my shoulders, weighing me down even more.
“Now go home and get some rest, you will all be leaving bright and early tomorrow.” Not the first time that day, the elder caught my eye. “Except you, June. Stay.”
Pete took my hand, hesitating about leaving me, but I smiled at him in reassurance. “I’ll meet you at home.”
He hesitates again, shooting the elder a frown before nodding. “Same place.”
“Same place.” I confirmed with a nod before releasing his hand.
The elder waits for Pete to leave the pack house before he speaks. “I have spoken with your father and the Alpha. They have agreed to work on your dowry. With your father taking more patrolling shifts, he will be able to afford a bolt of silk with the help of the Alpha. That is much better than potatoes.”
I have heard from many of my pack members that although our pack can only ever afford sacks and bolts of materials to give as dowry, other packs can give away carts of diamonds and bars of gold. Sometimes even lands and armies.
Still, I felt bad for my father having to work more for something stupid like a dowry. He’s already old. He should be resting, not working himself to the bone so he can afford silk.
“Even by our standards, a sack of potatoes is sad.” The elder sighs, tired lines on his forehead showing. “Larissa, in fact, is worth a small crystal now. Her family heirloom.”
Larissa is the other girl in my pack that’s going to the Assembly this year. I was happy for her. Larissa is beautiful and strong, smart too. She deserves a better future and with a crystal, no matter how small, that could be all she needs to have it.
“We thought you needed all the help you could get.” The elder pats my back gently, almost fatherly. “Silk is a fine dowry for a farming pack.”
I fought not to cringe away. They only increased my dowry in fear I wouldn’t get chosen and be sent back home unmated. We had a fair number of unmated females as it is. They didn’t need another that sucked away at our already small pack budget. When I finally spoke, I did it through gritted teeth. “Thank you, Elder.”
“June, I genuinely want you to have a good life. I can only hope the silk can help you.” He squeezes my shoulder.
My head falls as I stare at my feet.
They’re really hoping silk can make all the difference? I’m grateful. Of course I am. I would look less like a fool coming into the Assembly as a bolt of silk instead of a sack of potatoes, but it’s hard to believe that silk will have a better standing than pearls, priceless jewels, lands and armies.
I just didn’t want to disappoint them… I didn’t want to go back home with the bolt of silk still in my hands— silk that my father worked hard for in hopes I could have a better life.
“See you tomorrow, June.”
I murmured my goodbyes, head still down as I walked out of the pack house and walked down the hill to where our small wooden hut was. Our land, our home, is unremarkable at best. The land is bare, a deep brown instead of green grass. It’s almost impossible to grow anything. The trees are old and unhealthy, swaying with every gust of air that blows.
We have no electricity in our pack. The electric lines never make it all the way here. And even if it did, we wouldn’t be able to afford it.
The houses are small and can barely be called houses. They were huts, small ones, the wood already aged and soft. The logs are dark as night and fragile. Our roofs leaked, our tables wobbled and our beds were made of cold hay. It wasn’t a very impressive sight.
We weren’t a very impressive sight.
In fact, many prefer to live in their wolf forms as it was better off to live that way.
This was our life though, and it is better than nothing. We were happy for the most part and peaceful.
So I didn't really mind the stories that came from the women who returned from the Assembly. They all told the same tales about the glorious neutral land. I often listened to them, preparing for the day I would be just like them. Unwanted. Unmated. Telling stories of a land I will never see again.
They speak of a giant mansion made from white stone and equipped with a thousand rooms. Bright lights in every direction— not from candles or torches or the moon— all electric and glowing. The women would talk about every color except black and brown, like a rainbow that never stopped. Flowers in every shape and size, blooming and smelling of life. Everything was white and gold and perfect. The food never stopped either. They tasted everything and it was all free. They could eat until they popped and drank until they peed. It was all okay.
Servants, they would tell me next. The women never had to do anything in the Assembly. There were no chores there, everything was done for you. The rooms are cleaned daily, the food is already prepared before meals and laundry and dishes… it didn’t exist.
I couldn’t imagine a life like that. Every second in our pack counts. We wake up before the sun rises and sleep when the moon is at its highest. We’re always rushing to do things before dark, cleaning, patching clothes, praying we didn’t lose a button or a shoe and cooking whatever ingredients we could forage. Our hands were as hard as our hearts, our skin tough and calloused.
The place they talk about, the place I will be tomorrow, it sounds like a different world.
I slow down as I make it to the blackened lake in front of our home. Pete was already sitting on the edge, his back to the front door, throwing rocks into the water.
He didn’t look up when I sat beside him. “What did the old man want?”
“Nothing.” I shrugged, picking at the dead ground. “He just said that I’ve been upgraded from a sack of potatoes to a bolt of silk.”
His eyebrows shoot up as he turns to me with a teasing smile. “Oh, fancy. You suddenly look that much more attractive.”
I rolled my eyes, pulling at a root buried in the ground. “Whatever. I wish I had been born a boy.”
Pete looked genuinely surprised by this. “What? Why? Don’t you want boys fawning over you? All begging for your hand?”
“I doubt a bolt of silk will have boys fawning.” I said with a laugh.
He quiets, his dark eyes on my face. “I will.”
Scoffing, I shook my head, knowing better. “Shut up.”
“I’m serious.” He whirls to face me. “There’s nothing wrong with your dowry. In fact, my sisters were worth a sack of coffee beans and a basket of apples. They found mates just fine. All in the farming packs but still chosen on their first year in the Assembly.”
“They were beautiful, Pete.” I couldn’t help but argue, remembering his beautiful sisters. All with bright eyes and glowing skin. It wasn’t that I was jealous of them— they’ve always been nice to me and never made me feel less, but it was the obvious truth. They are gorgeous and boys fawned over them even before the Assembly.
“You’re beautiful, June.” Pete insists softly, genuinely.
I wasn’t beautiful. Beautiful wasn’t something used to describe me by anyone. “You must really want that bolt of silk, huh?”
He doesn’t give up easily and takes my hand in his. “I’m serious.”
“Pete…” I started, but his eyes were hard to resist.
Much like his sisters, Pete is attractive and he uses his charms well with his dimpled cheeks at the ready. “Let’s make a deal.”
I lifted an eyebrow, trying to hide the beating of my heart. “What kind of deal?”
He looked down tentatively before meeting my eyes again. “If you had a chance to stay here, in our land, would that interest you?”
I always thought I would stay and die on our land, so I didn't have to think about it. “Yes.”
Eager eyes brightened at my answer. “Then let’s promise to choose each other during the Assembly.”
“This isn’t allowed… to discuss this before the Assembly.” There were rules when it came to the Assembly, to keep the mystery and excitement of it. One of them is to never discuss prospects before joining.
“Everyone does it.” He argues, which wasn’t exactly wrong. “How else do the Alphas choose the Alphas? And the Betas choose the Betas? They talk about it and negotiate before the actual Assembly happens. Why can’t we? How are we any different?”
I didn’t have much to ponder. The answer was easy. “Okay.”
“Okay?” Pete asks, hopeful.
“I promise.” I quietly said, happy and a little overwhelmed with how things had turned out. “We’ll choose each other.”
“Good.” He says with a nod.
“Good.” I murmured, leaning back on the heels of my hands. I closed my eyes with my chin and face upturned towards the warm glow of the late sun. And with my eyes closed, the music of the woods heightened and sharpened and I felt my lips curve into a small smile, as my heart felt a little lighter knowing that I wouldn’t be coming back here empty handed.
That when I do come back, I will have Pete and my father.