“Hide her, Nuna! Now!” My father's powerful voice roared through the room, echoing off of the walls as he commanded my uncle. Fires raged around us, turning the home we had once shared as a family into nothing more than embers. Warm tears slid down my face as my uncle swooped me into his arms and ran through the smoking ashes. Cries from around us stabbed into me, splintering my world into glittering shards.
“Uncle Nuna… What’s happening?” I whimpered.
“Nothing, pup. Be still and be quiet.” With no choice, I obeyed, crying silently as we sped through the forest that surrounded what used to be our village. “Stay here, and whatever you do, don’t trust anyone but those with you right now.” Like a bullet fired, he took off back towards my parents, his wife, and our dying pack.
“It’ll be okay, Haven. No matter what happens, I’ll protect you.” Turning my head from the empty forest where my uncle had once stood, I was met with large black eyes. Bammiuk’s face was the only dry one in the circle huddled around me as he stared intently at me.
Exhaling a heavy sigh, I smiled. “We will protect each other.” Nods from my brother and my cousin mimicked Bammi’s. Reluctantly, I shifted my gaze from the ones closest to me, taking in the fifty pups sobbing openly. Fear hung heavy in the air, choking each of us. We’re too young to be alone…
* * *
Ten years later
The quiet of the Chisana mountain soothed the anxiety that had been plaguing me for a decade. I’m not too young to be an alpha anymore. My eighteenth birthday had come and gone days ago, but I still felt like the inexperienced kid that had been leading a fractured pack since she was eight.
Suddenly, the most incredible scent pulled me from my thoughts. I inhaled deeply, luxuriating in the warm honey aroma. Is that cinnamon as well? It was incredible. “I thought I might find you here.” A familiar voice whispered from thirty feet away, causing a smile to break across my lips.
“Bammi.” In an instant, the gap between us was closed. “Why do you smell so good? Are you using a new shampoo?” I murmured against his lips.
“You know why I smell different, Ven.” He chuckled lightly, pulling back enough for us to look at each other.
My eyes went wide as realization dawned. Mate. The word echoed through my soul, rattling my bones and shaking me to my core. “We’re…”
“I don’t want to be an alpha, Ven. I can’t. It’s too much responsibility. Please understand.” His words didn’t fully register at first. Several long seconds later, I understood.
“Is this a formal rejection, then?” I hissed through clenched teeth.
“No. I don’t understand.” I seethed. “You’ve known for seven years that we’re mates. When I turned sixteen and you kissed me, you knew. How long have you known you didn’t want to be an alpha?”
He sighed heavily, rubbing his palm across his forehead and disrupting the shaggy black hair that was never quite styled. “I really only just started thinking about it for a couple of weeks… You were gone for the week of your birthday, and I almost convinced myself I could handle it while you were gone.” He shrugged dejectedly. “I can’t do it. I’m not meant to be an alpha, a leader.”
My breath hitched in my throat. “You’re already a leader. I made you zeta when the Coyotes attacked us and decimated everything because you were by my side constantly, ready to fight no matter what. You’ve been zeta for a decade and you think ‘I’m not meant to be a leader’ is an adequate excuse?” Gritting my teeth, I drew myself up to my full height of five feet and seven inches. “Fine, if this is what you want, you’ve got it. Bammiuk Kolit, as Alpha of the Red Moon Wolf Pack, I formally reject you.”
Pain flashed across his face for just a moment before he composed himself. “Haven Waska, as Zeta of the Red Moon Wolf Pack, I formally accept your rejection.”
In that moment, a piece of me splintered off. Fire raged in the depths of my soul, lighting me up with anger and resentment. Tearing off my clothes as I ran, I jumped from the mountain ridge, landing on all fours on a flat path below. The wind ripped through my fur as I accepted my oneness with the wolf side of me. My legs burned as I pushed myself harder and harder, careening through trees down the mountain path.
* * *
Four years later
“Gamma Nuna.” A lilting voice called from behind me. Turning, my full attention was engulfed by bouncy blonde hair, sparkling green eyes, and long tan legs. “It’s a pleasure to see you again.” Bright white teeth made me want to gag as she flounced away.
“Nuna, she’s half your age.” I scoffed.
“Yes, and I have no interest in her.” He sighed heavily. At fifty-six, he was still striking. His hair had only just begun graying, and his dark eyes were still agile and alert. “She has begun propositioning me and doesn’t seem to understand that I am still mated.”
“Aunt Eve is dead, though.” My voice was gentle, but he still recoiled as if I had slapped him. “It is okay to… Indulge, even if you never truly move on.”
“Haven, you are an alpha, but you are only twenty-two. Do not presume to understand what it is like to be in love and then lose your mate.” I watched his retreating back as he stormed off down the hall.
Frustration bubbled inside of me. I’m still making mistakes. I can’t be driving my inner circle away in angry fits, it makes me look weak and weakness gets you killed. I tilted my head back, listening. After the m******e, when I was eight, only fifty pups and thirteen adults had survived. It was the lowest our numbers had been in almost one hundred years. How did the coyotes manage it… They’re so few in number, and even if every coyote pack in central Alaska had banded together, we still would have outnumbered them two to one. “Quit it, Bammiuk!” A piercing giggle shot into me like a shard of glass.
“But you’re so cute when you squirm.” The deep voice of my former mate chuckled in response. Like I was eighteen again, back on that ridge in the Chisana mountains, anger spiked straight through my core.
Without thinking, I stormed out of the entry hall to the mansion the high-ranking pack members shared. Harsh sunlight beat against my face as I stomped down the stone path, into the heart of the village my pack and I had built together. “You look angry.”
“I am.” I c****d my head in the direction of Davidee. “Why are you out here alone?”
A careless shrug. “I was waiting on a girl, but she never showed. Want to go for a run?” We smiled at each other, almost carefree, almost like we were two normal siblings about to play a game of tag.
“Absolutely. Race you!” I kicked my leg out, sweeping my younger brother's feet out from under him before taking off in the direction of the forest.
A protested screech of, “No fair!” Came from behind me, but I didn’t slow for him to catch up.