With her hand resting on the large door, she took a deep breath, wondering if she really should push it open or just back away slowly, run down the icy stairs and back home. She was late, so late her entrance in the Gathering house couldn't help to be noticed.
She glanced at the crescent moon peeking out from behind dark clouds against the black sky, it wasn't six in the evening yet and night had already announced its presence. Trying to gather what she had of courage to face the rest of the pack, she blew her snow-wet blonde hair out of her eyes, sighed, and leaned her forehead against the door.
Her pants were wet as well, clinging to her legs, she had slid on the snowy sidewalk as she ran and had fallen on her ass. Damn snow. Now her thick jacket was covered in mud. It had been embarrassing, but luckily no one was around, the small town felt positively deserted. She knew it was because of this pack meeting, she had heard people talk about it all day. Everyone wanted to be there. And she was late.
Her father would be angry, he had already stressed the importance of being on time several times. Too many times to count. She groaned loudly, already imagining the silence that would spread in the Gathering house as she pushed open the door, all eyes would be on her. Again. And especially the eyes of her father as he, once again, gave her that knowing look, the look that promised another lecture when they got home. She would be in trouble. Again.
But, when she finally did manage to open the door, it was not silence that greeted her. No one even saw her walk in. What met her instead was chaos. Shouting. People practically screaming at each other. She couldn't make out one voice from the others. Rows and rows of chairs, scraping along the wooden floors as the people sitting on them could barely stay put.
"I'm telling you, we can't let him!" one person shouted, the headmaster of the school in town, Mr. Woodright. He ran his hand through his thinning white hair and continued, "It'll put the whole pack in danger."
"You can't judge a wolf by his fur," another interjected, Dr. Edward Mallard, the town's physician. She had fond memories of him as a young pup, always smiling and laughing. When she got in trouble with her parents, she could always count on an understanding friend in him. "You have no proof of your accusation," he simply stated.
Her eyes wandered to the back of the Gathering house, to the raised platform. There they sat, the Elder Council, they gave her chills. All four of them former Alphas, and it showed, the entitlement, the self-righteousness they held in their eyes as they sat there in silence, listening intensely to the pack's outcries. They are to be revered, her father always told her, and as former Alphas, they outranked everyone but the current.
Which led her to her father, who sat in the middle, in front of the Council. Calm as ever he reflected on each statement silently. His expression gave nothing away, his elbow resting on the armrest, his thick finger against his lips, listening, his bushy eyebrows knotted together in deep thought. She couldn't remember a time her father had been anything but the strong silent type, never having to raise his voice for the sheer power behind the tone and the impact of his words. He was a good Alpha, the best, she had always had the utmost respect and admiration for him. He held the whole pack's loyalty as only a true Alpha could. Behind him a tall broad man stood, hands clasped behind his back, his stance straight and alert. George, his Beta. He had been to their house many times for dinner, she always found him to be an unbelievably boring man. But he was strong, a good leader, and her father had been impressed with him from the start.
"He's a murderer!" a woman shouted in the back, but she had no chance of seeing who that woman was. The room erupted in shouts again.
"Hey!" a voice whispered in her ear, "Hey, AJ, over here." Someone took her by the hand and dragged her along, pressing them against the wall, as far away from the shouting maniacs as they could come, before they reached the corner.
"What's going on?" AJ asked, crouching down with her friend, Lily. "I haven't seen the pack this divided on anything before."
Lily grinned and ran a hand through her short black hair, then she bit down on her black-painted fingernail, she was so excited she could burst. "You've heard about the lone wolf?" she asked. It was a rhetorical question, of course AJ had heard about him, it was all over town and the reason the pack meeting had been called. "He's been crashing in the old hunting shack in the forest, the one by the stream, and no one knows how to handle it. Isn't it exciting? I've never heard of a lone wolf before. A pack-less wolf," Lily continued in one long breath. "How exciting!"
"Yeah, exciting," AJ repeated sarcastically, "It's probably just a strange old hobo." She tried not getting too excited, but it was hard. Nothing out of the ordinary ever happened here, everything was always the same, day in and day out, like a normal pack. Like a normal boring pack. Even something as dumb as a homeless wolf coming to the area was kind of exhilarating she had to admit. "Why is he being called a murderer?"
"I don't know," Lily confessed, "But what I wouldn't give to find out."
"You have no proof of that!" a voice cut through the rest of the shouts, "Who says he is a murderer?" It was Dr. Mallard again, his voice loud and clear and took a few by surprise.
"The Darktimber pack," someone shouted, "They say he is a murderer, and they should know." The room erupted again, shouts and screams.
But as soon as it had exploded, as soon did it die down again. The Alpha had risen from his chair. No one dared speak when he had the floor. His voice rumbled through him when he opened his mouth, his words reverberated through every person present. "If he had been a murderer, like you seem to suggest, then the Darktimber pack would have killed him. Blood for blood, the wolf way. They shunned him instead. He is a loner, he is no threat to us. We will leave him alone, leave him to himself. If he does not bother us, then we do not bother him. Understood?"
"But Alpha Winter-?" someone in the crowd dared to question.
One look from her father shut him up. There was no questioning the Alpha's orders, everyone knew it. Most of all AJ. "I have spoken," he announced, "The meeting is over." She caught sight of the Elder Council behind him, their lips thin and stretched over their teeth, keeping the displeased growl from their lips. And they weren't the only ones displeased about the ruling, judging by the grumbles and mumbles throughout the large hall.
"Lily!" AJ heard someone call in a whisper and then saw someone walking along the wall trying to get to her, his massive grin being the first thing she noticed, pointy nose and sharp chin and a mop of shaggy black hair. Jared. "Me and Dave are going down to the hut later tonight, just to check this weirdo out. You in?" Jared was Lily's brother, older by only a couple of years. Up until last summer, AJ had considered him her friend as much as Lily was. Would it ever stop being awkward between them?
Lily almost couldn't nod fast enough. "Are you serious? Of course, we're there!" She nudged AJ with her elbow. "Right?"
AJ rubbed her side, Lily sure did have sharp elbows. She almost didn't dare look up at him, she was well aware that the invitation hadn't extended to her and she felt self-conscious bursting into his plans. "I don't know, maybe we should just leave him alone? You heard the rumor, some people say he's a murderer," AJ coughed out awkwardly, trying to get an easy out.
Jared watched her indifferently "Don't tell me you're scared," he laughed, but there was no humor there.
"She's not scared," Lily quickly announced, nudging AJ with her shoulder. "We're coming."
"Aren't we too old for this?" AJ mumbled but neither of them heard her. The pack was leaving, shuffling their way out of the Gathering house, mumbling between each other.
"She's coming," Lily stated, giving AJ a pleading look, squeezing her hand.
"Oh fine, fine," AJ huffed and snatched her hand back.
"You know, if you're not grounded," Lily quickly added.
"Grounded? Why would I be grounded?" AJ asked. Then she felt the heavy hand on her shoulder. She almost didn't want to look behind her to see who that was, but she already knew. "Hi Dad," she breathed.
"Evening Alpha Winter," Lily squeaked, before scurrying away.
"Alpha Winter." Jared greeted him with a nervous nod before he too disappeared.
"Alina Johanne Winter," his voice rumbled, "You were late again."
"Dad, I'm sorry, I lost track of time, and-" AJ couldn't finish that sentence, she had used it too many times before. The truth was, she just became distracted too easily. And pack meetings were always so incredibly boring it rarely mattered if she was there or not, the same old business every Thursday. Although to be fair, this Thursday evening had clearly been more eventful than most.
The place had cleared out now, there was no hiding behind any last friendly doctors or pack members hanging back. The only people left in the Gathering house were the Elder Council still seated, talking softly to each other and George the Beta who had joined them.
The hand was removed from her shoulder and the Alpha stood back, his thick arms crossed over his wide chest as he looked down his nose at her. "You can't keep doing this, AJ, you're too old to be running around like this. You are the Alpha's daughter, you are supposed to be here on time. You are supposed to set the example."
"I know, dad, but I-" Again she was stumped, she really had no excuse. She had gotten caught up trying on different shirts, and then got distracted when she found the lavender dress in the back of her closet and just had to try it on again. There was no way her father would understand that. "I'm sorry," she breathed.
"You can't just keep being sorry," he stated, "I need to see some commitment from you, you'll be eighteen in only three months. Do you understand that? In only three months you'll get your wolf, and things are going to have to change." AJ nodded. She wasn't completely sure how things were going to change, becoming an adult didn't seem to change much for all of her friends that had had already turned.
"Henry," a smaller hand caressed her father's right arm and her mother appeared behind him. "She's sorry, can't you tell? Go easy on her." Her smile seemed to melt her father's icy stare a little, and he ended up sighing as he unwrapped his arms, running his hand through his unruly hair, it used to be a dark brown but was now more silver than anything. Just like his wolf. He had jokingly always said it was AJ's fault, her and her disorderly ways, causing him to go gray before time. Her mother was a head shorter than the Alpha but every bit as powerful, no wonder the two of them chose each other. Two people couldn't have fitted better together. Her mother's blonde hair was tied back in a thick, long braid that cascaded down her back and her large green eyes shined in the light. She was the most beautiful woman AJ knew, a good choice for the Alpha female. "Let her go for tonight," she said.
AJ breathed a sigh of relief when she could tell her father had given up. "Alright, Penny," he grumbled, "But you are not off the hook, young lady." He raised a thick finger at AJ as a warning.
"I know, Alpha," AJ said and nodded.
"Let's go home," Penny urged them.
Alpha Winter glanced at the Elder Council and his Beta who stood waiting for him. "Go on without me, I have business to attend to."
Penny reached up and kissed his cheek. "Don't be late."
"I won't, dear," he murmured and then lowered his gaze to AJ. "And you and I will have to have a talk when I return."
"Yes, Alpha," AJ mumbled before being ushered out of the Gathering house by her mother, head hung low, slightly embarrassed about the whole thing. She didn't even speak the whole way home, just trudged through the ankle-high snow, down the main road of the town. The only road the small town had. The Alpha's house was at the end of it, the biggest one. Not that they needed all the space anymore, her sisters had all mated outside of the pack and moved away. AJ was the youngest and only one left. Which meant she had always been coddled, always been a little more sheltered than the others, but that never bothered her too much. Until now. She was sure her sisters were never forced to attend pack meetings, she was sure they were allowed to run wild everywhere they chose. She didn't see how her turning eighteen would change anything.
"We might as well eat without him," her mother said as she stomped the snow off her boots and walking into the house. "I'm starving."
Dinner was a quiet affair, part of AJ was thankful her father wasn't there, she knew exactly what he was going to talk to her about, but another part of her just wanted to get the lecture over and done with. It didn't matter anyway, she had more important things to think about. Like apparently she would go to the old hut that night. She groaned inwardly, she didn't want to, it was dark and cold and she had no desire to check out some old man living in what was, essentially, a shed. It felt wrong. She only went along with it because Lily made her. And partly because of Jared. He was always ignoring her and she didn't know why, he went out of his way to avoid her, to not invite her to things like he used to. This was the first time he had acknowledged her presence since their falling out. And she wasn't even sure why they had fallen out at all.
She discretely checked her phone while stuffing another bite into her mouth. Twenty to eight. I wonder if it's too early to pretend to go to bed? she thought. She faked a yawn.
"Tired?" Penny asked. "Not enough fresh air, a young wolf like yourself should get more fresh air."
"I don't have a wolf yet," AJ answered. She faked another yawn. "Oh mom, really, I think I need to just go to bed early today."
Penny shrugged. "Your dad will be disappointed, he wanted to talk to you tonight."
"I know, I know," AJ said in another muffled fake yawn, "But I'll be here all day tomorrow as well."
"Fine, fine, off you go. Goodnight, sweetheart." Penny kissed her forehead. "I'll take care of the dishes."
"Thanks, mom, goodnight." AJ smiled at her mother and dragged herself up the stairs, making a big show of exhaustion, but at the last step, she couldn't help jumping up and running down the hall to her room. Once secure in there, she rummaged through her clothes, trying to find the warmest, it would be so cold. Her thoughts started wondering, thinking about what he would look like. Maybe old and crippled. Or maybe even young and handsome. No, that was dumb. She snorted at herself. She should stop thinking about it. What she should be doing tonight was probably try to talk to Jared, yeah, that's what she should do. Try to clear things up a little.
But thoughts of strange lone wolves running through the forest kept intruding in her brain, no matter how much she tried pushing them out. What was he even doing there? As far as she knew it was just an old hut, there was no heat other than an old fireplace, no indoor plumbing or kitchen. How could one even live there? Especially since it was winter and one of the coldest they had had in many years. She pulled her covers up over her shoulders as she sat on the bed, she could hear the snow and wind hammering on the window and it made her shiver as if cold. She wasn't, the house was nice and warm.
She looked out of her bedroom window, into the night, she could see out over the treetops. For a second she thought she could see smoke rising from the direction of the old hut, but that must have been her imagination running wild, it was too dark to see anything. She huffed at her stupidity and shook her head with a short laugh. Who could live in a hut with no toilet? She shuddered at the thought. He must be a creepy, old weirdo.
A door slammed. She stood up from the bed. Her father was home. She had been so lost in her thoughts she almost didn't hear him. She tiptoed over to her bedroom door and placed her ear to it, trying to hear her parents, desperate to know if she was off the hook for once.
"To bed early?" her father grunted, "She's only trying to avoid me, the pup." His boots hit the floor.
"Well maybe if you weren't so hard on her?" her mother broke in, "You know she doesn't mean it, she tries her hardest."
"I know, but she's so close to her birthday now. It's time, Penny, it's time we told her."
"She wouldn't understand."
"She will understand, she's my daughter, and she will do what is best for this family and for this pack." AJ couldn't hear what her mother replied to that. Her voice was so hushed. Her father continued, "George is a good match, Penny. He would take good care of her. She can't find a higher ranking wolf."
AJ scoffed at the door. George? They better not be planning what she thought they were planning. George? Her father's Beta? Sure, he was strong, a good wolf, a good leader. But he was so old. She thought back to his twenty-ninth birthday last year. Ok, so not completely old. But he spat when he spoke and she had seen the way he ate. Oh no, no! Her parents could not do this to her. "You mean you can't find a higher ranking wolf," she heard her mother correct him. "She is a child. She doesn't care about high ranking wolves. She's never even had a boyfriend, Henry."
"Way to make me sound pathetic, mom," AJ grumbled.
"She is turning eighteen soon, once she has her wolf she's old enough to be mated. George does not have a problem with it."
"Of course he doesn't!" her mother yelled.
"She's promised to him and you know it." Promised to him? Had it been possible, AJ would have pressed her ear closer to the door. She was damn sure she hadn't promised anything to anyone. "Please try to understand," her father now begged. Alpha Winter? Begging? Her mother must be furious. "It's the way it has always been. The Elder Council couldn't stress it enough tonight. The Beta is unmated, the Alpha's daughter is of age. It's tradition, Penny." Once again she couldn't hear her mother's answer, if she answered anything at all. "I can do nothing about it."
"You are the Alpha, you can do something." AJ heard her mother slam her hand down on the table. That only ever happened when she was really angry.
"I may be the Alpha but I still have the Council to deal with," her father retorted, although his voice lacked his previous conviction, instead he sounded defeated. "I've invited George over for dinner on Sunday, we'll talk to AJ then. And this is the end of it."
She heard her mother scoff something back and then stomp her way up the stairs. Yeah right, this was so not the end of it. She was glad her mother mirrored her own feelings. George? She pushed herself off the door. That was not what she had expected to hear at all. It was a dream, that was all, a bad dream.
She almost believed it when she woke up hours later, woken by the sound of pebbles hitting her window. She had slept on top of her covers fully dressed, not planning on sleeping at all. She checked the time on her phone. A little past midnight. Another pebble and she bolted out of bed. Opening the window, she waved at Lily who was standing in their garden, and as silently as she could she slipped out of her room, down the stairs and out into the night.
The snow crackled under her boot as she walked. The trees hid the stars and the light from the moon barely able to light up the path. If it hadn't been for the white snow they wouldn't have been able to make their way at all. It was cold, AJ was freezing and rubbed her arms through her thick jacket to keep warm. Jared and Dave were in the front, laughing and joking about the mad, old, lone wolf they were going to see. They certainly weren't cold, only wearing thin jackets and jeans. She scoffed at them in her discomfort. Obviously, finally getting your wolf came with some advantages.
"You're so quiet," Lily nudged her out of her stupor. She giggled and widened her grin. "What do you think a murderer looks like?"
"No one has any proof that he's a murderer," AJ mumbled, her breath solidifying in front of her in the icy air, making her rub her arms faster.
"I bet he's like one hundred years old," Dave said and turned as he walked so he started walking backward, facing Lily and AJ. "With no teeth at all." Lily burst out laughing at the face he made but AJ couldn't join in. She had spotted the hut. Nestled in between tall trees and the frozen stream next to it, it had flickering light streaming out through the greasy, dust-covered windows and smoke rose steadily from the tiny chimney.
"We shouldn't be here," AJ stuttered, stopping dead in her tracks. "We're trespassing."
"How can we trespass when this is our territory?" Jared hissed moving closer, Dave on his heels. They crouched behind a tree when there was movement in the window, a person moving around. "It's him!" Jared exclaimed in a whisper.
AJ hung back, not wanting to move an inch closer. "I think we've seen enough, let's just leave." She didn't want to come face to face with a raving lunatic. They were too old for these games, it was too dumb. And she was scared.
"Oh really?" Jared stood, facing her and she almost took a few steps back. His smile was twisted and made her uneasy. "You're scared," he accused her.
AJ scoffed at him. "I'm not scared," she said, lying through her teeth. She just wanted to leave, but she refused to admit to anything in front of Jared, not willing to give him another reason to think less of her. "I just don't think we should intrude."
"Alright. Well, if you're not scared," Jared started and gave a condescending, short laugh. "Go look in the window, I dare you."
AJ's mouth felt dry and she couldn't swallow. Had it been anyone else, anyone at all, she would have laughed and told them exactly where to shove their dare. She was too old for that. But because it was Jared, she suddenly couldn't move, all she could do was stare at him.
"See, told you, she is sca-" he started to say when AJ interrupted him.
"I'll do it," she snorted at him angrily. "I'm not scared," she continued, "I just think this is dumb."
"AJ, don't-" Lily called out but AJ had already started moving.
She tiptoed towards the house. This was so dumb. Of course, the person in there wasn't a murderer, absolutely no way. Right? She shuddered. He didn't deserve to be spied on like this. Oh, how she regretted her dumb decision. But she was almost there, and if she turned back Jared would make fun of her forever. Besides, all she had to do was look inside, not knock on the door or anything. What could go wrong? She was not scared, not at all. Maybe a little. Or a lot. She felt the snow crunch under her boots, if she could hear it then the madman in the hut probably could as well. Don't be stupid AJ, she scolded herself, Of course, he can't.
She finally reached the window, stood beside it for a long time while listening to heavy footsteps on the creaky wooden floor inside. She looked back over her shoulder to see Jared, Dave, and Lily watching her intensely. Lily was even biting down on her hand to keep herself from squealing. AJ caught herself rolling her eyes at the situation. It's only a little peek inside, just one little peek. No biggie. She forced herself to step up to the window, her fingertips hanging on the windowsill as she crouched on her knees in the snow, her nose level with the bottom glass pane. From there she could look in.
She wasn't sure what to expect of him. He wasn't wielding an ax, shouting obscenities or even blabbering to himself, although he did look like he could be a murderer if he wanted to. His chestnut-colored hair was unkempt, tangled into a big mess that looked impossible to sort out, and hung loose around his wide shoulders, his beard was just as thick and just as bad. His shirt was torn and badly patched, his pants worn, the large boots he was hammering around on the floorboards looked a hundred years old, covered in mud and drenched from the snow. But he didn't look mad, or insane, at all. He was reading. Turning the pages gently with large fingers sticking out from gloves with the tips cut off. He walked over to the table, it was right next to the window where she was sitting and her breath got caught in her throat. If she moved he would definitely see her. If he only kept his gaze in his book she should be safe.
His hand reached for a steaming mug on the table and lifted it to his lips. His forehead furrowed in surprise when the liquid had obviously been too hot and he quickly removed the mug from his lips and hissed, swore to himself quietly. His eyes lifted from the book and in one swift jerk of his head he found her on the other side of the window. AJ was frozen in the spot. His brown eyes narrowed dangerously and he slammed the book shut, throwing it on the floor as he thundered to the door.
She regained the control of her body just as he tore the door open, it slammed hard against the wall of the hut. She pushed herself off the windowsill, trying to get on her feet to run away but she fell back, landing with her back on a thick branch and she gasped in pain. Everything happened so fast after that, she heard Lily screech in surprise and Jared swearing, the man roared in anger as he ran out in the snow.
"What are you doing here?" he demanded, his voice gruff, hoarse as if it hadn't been used for a while. Then she saw them, run through the woods, quickly, leaving her alone there. The man threw a large, thick branch after them. It came crashing down the snow-covered bushes, crushing sticks and branches on the way. He whipped around and his wild eyes now focused on her. "Who are you?" he demanded, taking a few steps towards her. "What do you want from me?"
She forgot all about her painful back and scrambled to her feet quickly. And then she ran. Faster than she thought possible. She was sure she could hear the man behind her, sure he would follow. She then realized she was running in the wrong direction. This wasn't the way towards the town but she couldn't stop running now. Roots and bushes snagged at her pants, branches and twigs whipped her in the face, darting through the cold trees she almost slipped in the wet snow.
Suddenly there were no more trees. She didn't know where she was, an opening in the forest of some kind. Trees surrounded her but she could see the moon above, a few stars twinkling. She was panting, trying hard to catch her breath. Looking behind her, there was no one, the man wasn't chasing her anymore. There was only silence, and her own breath in the air. She took a step forward. The snow around her wasn't fresh, but it hadn't been touched, not by wolves or other animals. She began to think that strange when a crack was heard under her boot and she understood. She had run straight onto a small frozen lake, and it wasn't holding up.
Another crack. "Oh, oh no," she breathed and tried standing as still as possible. Would it even matter if she screamed for help? Lily would be almost home by now. The man in the hut? Would he even care? Yet another crack and AJ felt the ice give. She scouted desperately for a bank nearby, anything to help her. She couldn't see in the darkness. Another crack, and this time her whole leg fell through. And then the rest of the ice broke.
AJ screamed as she made contact with the icy black water. It felt like a thousand daggers piercing her skin. Knocking the wind from her lungs. She tried moving but it was no use, her body would not respond. She struggled in vain as the water pulled her under, it ran into her mouth, her nose, her eyes. She could see nothing, feel nothing but an all-consuming cold that burned so fiercely. Her wide-open eyes looked up at the surface, the moon was visible through the water, mocking her, fading as she sunk. Something moved, for a second the moon flickered as a shadow covered it. Then her vision failed her, the world turned dark, and she knew she was going to die. This was it.
As she fell from consciousness, the numb blackness taking control, she felt something against her hand, something soft, then something hard.
A faraway pain spread as something tightened around her upper arm.