•Right Now•

Matt could hear the marching of many feet through the grass in the small tent that he'd been left in. Nearby he could hear shouting; the deep, gruff voices of the Were-folk were too far away to make out the words, but close enough for Matt to hear the anxiety and tension that they all felt. This made Matt feel particularly nervous. The Were-folk were a large people, all of them taller than him by at least a foot, and when they turned to their bestial forms they were even bigger, if that were even possible. Anything that could make them nervous must be truly terrible.

Despite Katherine's snarled warning for him to stay put, Matt poked his head out between the flaps of the tent. The sun was hidden behind the kind of clouds that had bold outlines. Looking up, Matt could make out every contour of the billowing shapes that darkened the sky. Besides that it was a beautiful day, not taking into account the massive horde of men that were fast approaching. Much too fast for Matt's comfort, or for that of the Were-folk.

Matt wasn't a fighter, that much had been made certain over the past few weeks. The Were-folk had tried to see what he could do by their own standards, which were gruelling and intense, and nothing short of torture for Matt. The Were-folk measured the worth of an individual by their strength, their speed, and their skill at fighting, whether it be armed combat or hand to hand. All of them had kept silent about their opinion of Matt's worth after weeks of putting him through their set of tests, but it was no secret that they were dissatisfied with him. The only reason they tolerated him at all was because he was the one that had come when they'd performed the summons.

That was three weeks ago, maybe four, it was hard for Matt to be sure. He still wasn't sure where he'd been taken, or how, but it wasn't anywhere that he'd ever believed would exist, even if he'd been told about it. He'd been minding his own business in the small town of No-one-cares in the middle of nowhere, working at his mundane, boring job with a whole lifetime of predictable boredom to look forward to, when in an instantaneous and sudden flash of light, a moment of extreme suffocating pressure, he opened his eyes to find that he was standing in a huge stone room, surrounded by people that were taller than anyone he'd ever seen.

It turned out that it was an ancient ritual that even the Were-folk barely remembered. When they needed someone, anyone, but didn't know who or where to look, this ritual would use the forgotten art of the old magic to summon the right person, regardless of where they were at the time. In this case, Matt had found out, the patriarch of the Were-folk was trying to summon a mate for his daughter. He'd been less than impressed when he saw Matt standing in the middle of the stone circle. None of them had been impressed.

•Three or Four Weeks Ago•

Karn strode quickly across the wide corridor, dragging Matt by the arm behind him. Matt tried to keep up, but the man was too tall, and his long legs swallowed the distance with no discernible effort. Karn looked more severe than usual, scowling heavily. The effect was compounded by the traces of grey at the temples of his long black hair. Matt was always scared of Karn, even at the best of times. Now he was terrified.

"You have been here for two days." said Karn, his gravel deep voice booming off the stone walls. "Still you have made no progress."

"I don't know what you expect from me." Matt wailed, unable to keep his voice level. The anger was coming off Karn like waves of heat, it filled Matt with a cold dread.

"I expect you to show your worth." Karn snapped, and pushed a large wooden door open as they came to it, practically throwing it against the wall on the other side. "As of this moment you have shown none."

The room beyond the doorway was as spartan as the rest of the castle that Matt had seen. The walls were the same cold grey stone, and the only things that broke up the monotony were a roaring fireplace and a pile of furs in the far corner that Matt recognized as a bed by the standards of the Were-folk. Karn threw Matt roughly into the room, and Matt barely stopped himself from falling flat on his face. He turned to see Karn pointing a finger at him.

"You will rest here. At dawn I will come for you, and we will begin again!"

"Why!" Matt demanded, giving in to the anger that flared suddenly in his heart. It faded as Karn fixed him with a smouldering look that made Matt feel even smaller, but he carried it through. "What's the point of all of this? It's obvious that I'm not like the rest of you. I'm not big enough for you, I'm not strong enough for you, I can't run as fast as your slowest runner, and everyone laughs at me when I can't breathe because of how much you make me run! I don't need to keep doing these stupid tests of yours for you to know that I can't do it. Why keep doing them?"

Karn glowered at him from beneath his heavy brows, and the furs that he wore on his back seemed to bristle as if it were his own hide. Normally the sight of the patriarch in such a mood would have made Matt weak at the knees with fear, but right then he was too tired to be that scared. He stared right back.

"You must."

"I don't belong here! I want to go home! You know it, and I know it, so why must I?"

"Because the summoning brought you here. I performed the ritual, called on the old magic and asked for my ancestors to send me someone worthy . They sent you, and I am not going to question the will of my ancestors, regardless of my opinion of you. You whine and cry like a cub begging his mother for milk! But the ancestors brought you here, for whatever reason. You will prove your worth. Even if it takes many turns of the moon, you will prove your worth."

Then he left, almost slamming the door behind him.

Matt was, in a word, miserable. He'd been taken from his home in the most horrible way to a place that was more like a nightmare than a dream. Certainly this place couldn't be real, but yet it stubbornly continued to exist, and he kept waking up to the same stone walls. But as horrible as all this was, there were a few things that were still unfortunately familiar. Back home, Matt had had no friends, and had been the laughing stock of girls for his entire life. He had a stupid, menial job that anyone could have done, and was picked on all the time by people bigger than him, for no reason other than they could. Bastards. Here, it was much of the same. People bigger than him were calling him names like 'human' and 'weakling' or 'pup', and they laughed when he failed to do any of the ridiculous physical tasks that they made him do. Things like lifting stones that were as big as him, running in a race in which he inevitably lost, or sparring. The sparring hurt the most, because these people moved so fast that he couldn't even see them move. Everything may have been different, but bullies were the same everywhere, it seemed.

His body ached from the sheer exertion over the past couple of days, the fire was too hot, the stone floor and walls were too cold, and he hated sleeping on the furs because they made him sweat. He kicked the brown pelts into the corner of the room by the fire. It was just close enough to be warm but not hot, and the stone against his back as he laid down felt nice by comparison. As he lay there, waiting for sleep to mercifully take him away from his misery, he contemplated that whatever the reason he'd been brought here, someone somewhere had made a mistake. He closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep, thinking about home before sweet oblivion came.

Katherine definitely wasn't pouting. She wasn't sulking either, regardless of what her sisters said behind her back. She was furious at the world in general, at her father in particular, and staying in her room and not letting anyone in. But she wasn't sulking.

She'd known that this would happen. From the moment she was old enough to understand who her father was, and what it meant to have a mate, she knew that this would happen. As she got older, and gradually matured into a young woman, men had shown interest in her and competed against each other for her affections. Each time a victor was triumphant, approached her and presented her with a gift as a symbol of their courtship. Many suitors had come forward, offering her jewels from the mines, the carcass of a wild predator, or even a bouquet of rare blossoms that only grew at the top of the distant mountains, where only the strongest of body and will could go and survive. All of them had approached her with self-assured smiles of confident victory, and all of them were stunned when she turned each of them down. What made it insufferable was the fact that none of them did it for her. They competed for her affections because of who her father was. She was the patriarch's daughter, which meant that she was the most eligible woman in the tribe. None of them truly knew her, and that is what irked her about the whole business more than anything.

Katherine wasn't cruel. It wasn't out of malice or spite that she turned away men that her sisters would have done anything to get just a single glance from. Katherine had never been interested in taking a mate. If she'd been able to speak her mind freely, she'd have told them. She'd have told them all. But she was the firstborn of patriarch. The idea that she should remain unbound was unthinkable in the eyes of her father, as well as every one of her people that lived, and had come before. When her father told her that he was going to perform the summoning ritual to bring her a suitor worthy of her, she'd been furious, livid! But she hadn't been surprised. To him it was the only logical course of action, she understood that, even if she didn't like it.

Someone knocked at her door, but she didn't respond. It was her sister, asking her if she was ready to come out. Naturally she wasn't but her sisters, loyal to their father's wishes, had tried to persuade her to see the sense of taking a mate, which made them enemies in Katherine's mind. At least as far as this matter went. But they were still her sisters, her closest of friends and dearer to her than anyone else since their mother had passed away. So even though she didn't answer to the soft voice behind the door, she still cocked her head to the side, listening carefully to what they had to say.

"I can understand that you're scared, Katherine. I would be too." it was the voice of Serina, her youngest sister. Katherine grunted her contempt at her gross misinterpretation of her feelings. This wasn't fear or nerves that forced her to block out the world behind her bedroom door, it was rage and frustration.

"That's why we've come up with the perfect idea!"

That was Myra, Katherine's other sister. She was older than Myra by only a year, and she in turn as older than Serina by another two. The three of them had always been close friends as well as sisters.

"We were trying to think of what reason you could have for dismissing this one, like all the others." said Serina.

"Which for the life of me I can't figure out why you would do such a thing." that was Myra now, unable to keep the snide out of her voice. "Sal is a powerful man. He could have had any pick of the womenfolk that flocked to his feet, but he ignored all them to present his gift to you! I still can't believe you'd turn him down."

Katherine heard Serina hiss at her older sister.

"You're not helping."

"I've been trying to get Sal's attention for months!" Myra snapped. "He chooses her out of all people, and she says 'no'. What woman wouldn't dream of such an offer?"

Katherine couldn't help herself, she snorted in amusement. Sal was a brute. He was the biggest man in the tribe, and always did his thinking with his muscles. It was a typical trait of the Were-folk, but for Sal it was more so. Katherine was powerful too, in her own way. If she were to fight Sal, she'd probably win; not because she was stronger than him, but Katherine prided herself on being a cunning fighter, and very fast. Any punch that Sal threw she'd see coming well in advance, and by the time he did, she simply wouldn't be there, she'd be behind him, kicking his legs out from under him.

A man who relied completely on strength alone held no appeal to Katherine, and even if she had desired a mate, she would have still turned Sal down because of it. Unfortunately it was the same with most of the men. Strength seemed to more important than anything else these days than any of the other attributes that make a warrior. It was enough to make Katherine despair for her people.

"Anyway. . ." said Serina pointedly, "we understand that father performing the summoning is a drastic measure, and that can be intimidating. I mean, being asked to marry someone that you've never even met, that would be enough to frighten anyone."

"So we decided that you should meet him now." said Myra. "That way you'll know what he's like before the trials are over, and you'll have something to look forward to!"

At first Katherine was about to dismiss the idea on her own mind, but as she thought about it, she realized that her sisters had come up with a good idea. They'd come at it from the wrong direction, but it still had merit. It wasn't fair of Katherine to condemn a man she hadn't met yet as unworthy. After all, the ritual was legendary for summoning exactly the right person for whatever purpose the tribe needed, for all she knew he could be the right man for her, the one she was destined to fall in love with. It didn't seem likely, but Katherine was begrudged to admit that it was possible.

"Alright." she said after a long silence. "But how will you get to him? Father has him locked away somewhere, resting from the trials."

"You leave that to me." said Myra, and Katherine could hear through the door that she was grinning. "I have my ways."

Tarren was tasked with guarding the halls of the trials, which for him was a tremendous honour. Every young cub faced the trials the day they came of age, and measured their worth in every way that mattered to the tribe. Each room had a different test. Some for testing strength, some for endurance, others for speed, and on and on.

Tarren wasn't normally called in for duty by anyone, because he was so small, and not much of a fighter, but now the patriarch had asked him to guard the halls during the trials. It was a mundane task, even boring, but Tarren was thrilled because he was doing something useful. The fact that the halls didn't actually need a guard and Karn had given the job to him just make him feel useful wasn't lost on Tarren. It was a still a chance to prove his worth to some small degree, and right now that was enough.

Footsteps approached from around the corner, and Tarren stood as high as he could, eager to show that he was keen and capable. Myra was first to come into view, followed by Serina and Katherine. When Tarren saw who it was, he felt weak at the knees. The patriarch's daughters were famous throughout the tribe as the most beautiful of women. Tarren believed that this was true. Each of the women looked similar, sharing the same curve of the nose and line of the chin, but to carry through their own special form of beauty. The only difference between them was their hair. Katherine's hair was as black as the midnight sky, and draped down to her waist in a loose braid. She was eldest, and proudest of the three, making her statuesque and aloof, like a true princess. Serina, the youngest, had her blonde hair cropped short, sticking out at strange angles that looked almost bedraggled, but her smile was so impish and her eyes sparkled with mischievous delight, that it made her look like a pixie from a children's story. Tarren felt his heart skip a beat when he laid eyes on Myra. Her hair was the colour of rich, dark earth, swaying just below her shoulders loose and free. Her eyes were large, and seemed to change colour depending on her mood. She was bold, strong and Had a fiery temper. To Tarren's mind she was the most beautiful of the three. He could remember the first time he saw her, years ago. He was struck dumb by the sight of her, and almost fell to his knees. Ever since then he'd harboured a secret love for Myra, but could never tell anyone. She was the patriarch's daughter, and even then Tarren knew that he would be worthy of her. She was a princess, and deserved a prince, not a child who was the runt of his litter.

Tarren expected them to walk past on their own business, but to his surprise they stopped in front of him, looking at him. He felt suddenly a lot smaller, and stood in awe in the presence of the woman of his dreams.

"Hello Tarren." said Myra. He couldn't believe it, she knew his name, and was talking to him! He couldn't seem to breath, and he could only open his mouth and shut it silently in response.

"My sisters and I would like to enter the halls of the trials to visit the stranger. May we pass?" she said. Tarren gulped back the hard lump in his throat so he could speak.

"The patriarch. . . your father doesn't want anyone to pass the halls besides himself." he said hoarsely. Myra bend at the waist slightly to bring her face level with his, and smiled warmly at him. Tarren blushed and found it even more difficult to breath.

"He's our father." she said softly. "He won't mind, I promise."

Tarren knew that Karn would mind very much, but right at that moment the fear of his wrath was not so terrible, and Myra's smile was so warm, looking at him with her big, round eyes.

He stepped aside, and she smiled at him again. Tarren would have happily suffered the anger of both Karn and Gerran together if she were to just keep smiling at him. They passed by into the halls, and Tarren returned to his position with his back to the doorway, beaming and lost in the memory of Myra's smile.

"Well that was easy." said Serina. "I think that's the first time I've seen you be charming, Myra."

"It was easy." Myra agreed with a shrug. "I don't know what all the fuss is about. Anyone can do it."

"I think he's a bit sweet on you." said Katherine with a grin.

"Of course he is!" said Serina, and tapped her nose with her finger. The sense of smell among the Were-folk was powerful, but Serina's nose was infallible. She could smell the hormones coming off the boy, and had seen his pupils grow at the sight of her. Myra frowned.

"Don't be absurd!" she snapped. Her tone was severe, but Katherine spotted that Myra's cheeks flushed pink, and grinned to herself.

They reached the resting chamber, the room where each cub was brought each night to sleep. Each of them pressed their ear to the door, and could hear the hiss and crackle of the fire, and the soft breathing of someone sleeping soundly. Moving slowly and carefully, Serina opened the door without making a sound, and the three of them stepped inside. At first it looked like there was no one there, just a pile of sleeping furs in the corner, but then they looked closer, and gaped at what they saw.

"Human." Serina muttered, and wrinkled her nose. The smell was unmistakable, and very distinct because it was so rare. Humans always kept their distance from the Were-folk, and the two peoples had very little to do with one another.

They came to their senses quickly, and moved back out of the room, silently shutting the door once more.

"That explains why father kept him a secret." said Myra. The look of distaste was apparent on her face, like she'd tasted something bad.

"He's so small." said Serina. "Like a child."

"That's not him." Katherine said. She was feeling very angry again. The fury rose in her chest, and her eyes shone with the force of it. Myra and Serina took a step back at the sight of her.

"What do you mean?"

"I mean that I don't know who I will marry, but I certainly know that it's not him!"

"But if he's who was summoned. . ." Serina started.

"I don't care about the summoning!" Katherine snapped, very loudly. "Humans are weak and pathetic, to be pitied and tolerated. To suggest that that thing in there is who The ancestors chose is more than a joke, it's an insult!"

Then she stormed off, leaving the other two to catch up.

On the other side of the door, Matt was wide awake. A few moments ago a loud voice had woken him up, only for him to hear someone yelling. He didn't have to try to hear what was said. Matt didn't sleep again that night.