The woman's knotted Redwood skin warmed under the touch of a delicate hand. She had been caressed many times in her slumber, rested against and struck by stray balls and frisbees, and, even once, kissed by the blade of a sharpened axe before more people touched her— surrounded her with wide arms and icy steel chains until, once again, she was at peace. This touch, though, was different. It held wisdom— a kinship, and the woman stirred.
The muted voice of the person outside further roused her, and her ears pricked. The touch turned to a rough knock, and the woman unfurled, stretching until her bones cracked. Her spine pop, pop, popped as she straightened and craned for the voice.
Again, the words barely reached a murmur, but its tone, like a lullaby, drew her nearer. From the pith, through the heart and sapwood. Nearer still until her whole face was pressed up against the inner bark of the Redwood.
She couldn’t stop the movement once it had begun. Over twenty years hidden inside didn’t stop her from flowing through the pores of the bark like melting ice cream in the hands of a leisurely child. Her bare feet curled in the dewy patch of grass, and she blinked in the dusky light.
Before her, a woman.
Almost a mirror of herself. A whisper swirled on her tongue and threatened to fall from her lips as the woman took a step closer. Behind her were three men who dwarfed her with their size but not their presence.
No, she held far more power behind her liquid amber eyes than the beings who curled protectively around her. She blinked again as the whisper grew corporeal, and her lips formed the shape. Years of silence meant her voice sounded more like a gust of wind through the park— Clove Park. She tried again, this time taking a step forward, away from her dryadic home to the woman.
The woman smiled— a sad little thing.
Ten years later.
Kalina ‘Sylvie’ Hart didn’t believe life could get any better. She hadn’t aged a day in ten years, her three mouthwatering mates fulfilled her wildest dreams with earth-shattering sex that none of her smutty romance novels could even touch, and she finally found her calling beyond the expectations of her royal mate bonds. She was a teacher, and though she would never claim it aloud, she was a healer.
Amira, the ancient and frail pack healer, had taught her everything she knew, from setting broken bones to creating a poultice for literally anything, and Sylvie loved her. The eclectic grandmother she never had. But whenever she brought up the Fates, Sylvie would run quicker than she could say ‘chosen one.’
Sylvie scrolled through one of her husbands’, Kian’s, magic embued apothecary online shop on her laptop, searching for something…
She hummed quietly and clicked add to cart with a slight grin.
Absinthe, Henbane and Sea Holly. All useful medicinally, but that wasn’t their purpose this time. No, Fae Queen Kerensa of the Evergreen Court needed an extra kick in the Gala punch. Sylvie wouldn’t partake, of course, but she couldn’t say no to her sister-in-law.
She inhaled sharply and looked up from her screen as ten-year-old twins, Iris and Sage stood in front of her desk. Even before their first shift, the children were sneaky and quiet as mice. Sylvie closed her laptop and leaned over the desk, resting her chin on steepled fingers.
Sage offered an encouraging smile to Iris, who swayed from foot to foot.
“Uh,” Sage cleared her throat and stepped in front of her sister with a furrowed brow. “We’re finished our bookwork, Alpha. And we were hoping. Well… could we go to the Tournament?”
Sylvie bit the inside of her cheek to stop the smile. Sly little shifters. “And who told you about that?”
“Well, Alpha Rowan did, but he told us not to tell you he told us, but lying is bad, right Alpha?” Sage stared at her with the widest green eyes.
Sylvie nodded. “Back to your table, Sage.”
“Yes, Alpha.” Iris and Sage scuttled back to their seats while the other ten children in her class wriggled excitedly.
“What else did Alpha Rowan tell you about this Tournament?”
Daniel and Cedar’s hands shot up immediately. She pointed at Cedar.
“He said that after our first shift, we could start the Tournament too.”
Ugh. That was only months away, and she couldn’t bear the thought of her gaggle of ten-year-olds sparring and beating each other to a pulp. Shifters or not. She’d been all of their teachers since they were babies and still remembered the night they were born.
Daniels’s hand stayed up, so with a twitching mouth, she picked him next. “And, and he said you were the best fighter in the whole pack! He said you weren’t allowed to join in anymore ’cause it wasn’t a fair fight!”
Twelve sets of eyes in the class twinkled in awe, while two, Cedar and Delilah, looked like they wanted to see the truth behind Alpha Rowan’s words. She observed them squirming in their seats and decided they probably wouldn’t ambush her in her chair.
It was partly true; she was one of the best fighters in the pack. She and Claudine took turns winning the Tournament for six years until the children started beating each other up. Sylvie decided she would shelter them longer from the violence she unwittingly exposed them to.
She still competed, but far later in the night and usually with the winning male. Naked.
Swallowing, Sylvie returned her gaze to the children and stood, smoothing her black dress pants and olive green blouse. “Has everyone finished their bookwork then?”
“And you marked each other’s work?”
“Fine. But you stay out of the fighting squares, you understand me? Stay in an orderly line!” But the children were already out the door, squealing and hollering with unrestrained joy.
Sylvie finally smiled, straightening a pile of writing books on her desk before following them out of the repurposed barn doors. When Rowan had proposed using the abandoned Vampire nest building for a school, Sylvie first requested a kitchen instead of the wall-to-floor fridges and some bloody manageable doors.
She ran her hands down the soft sanded pine and closed the doors behind her before making her way along the cobbled path. After walking that path so many times, the veering tendrils that snaked off to different homes, she could check off each one by the number of steps she took.
Her house was closest and had the biggest path to the south. Amira’s cottage was next, followed by the mated pairs Emma and Tomas’, then Lia and Joseph, Rosie and Claudine, Ren, Seone… on and on the paths wove until they reached the training field.
While the original squares were knitted through trees to remain hidden in the forest, with Kians warding to hide them from humans, they could create a more open space. It was perfect for sparring along the northern quadrant, the field large enough to hold thirty fighting pairs with a larger cutout square in the centre for no-rules fighting.
No one used that square except for Sylvie. With her Fae powers able to manipulate tree roots and plants at her will, she had to find accommodations to stop destroying the fighting pitch.
The central square did just that. To the south, rows of markers and dummies sat waiting to be nailed by their growing arsenal of arrows, guns and tranquilisers.
“Alpha! You’re here,” Claudine hollered from a nearby square as Emma squirmed in her grip. “Didn’t think you could show your face after the last time.”
Sylvie clenched her teeth and narrowed her eyes. Yes, Claudine had won the last time she competed, but only because Sylvie was two days into her period and bleeding a fucking river in her pants.
She thought to retort but instead headed over to Emma’s daughter, Delilah, as she stared wide-eyed at her mother about to bite Claudine’s forearm.
“Are you alright?”
“Yeah,” Delilah said in an exhale. Her eyes sparkled as Emma took a chunk out of Claudine, and Sylvie chuckled.
Claudine wrestled her arm from Emma’s half-shifted jaw and flipped her over, pining her arms overhead.
“Nursery,” she bit out.
Sylvie nodded and peered toward the old packhouse, lovingly named The Nursery. They had so many infants born in the last ten years Sylvie didn’t even know how to keep up. Luckily, the children seemed to come in batches conceived only on super moons, so they weren’t overrun.
Mila and Seone taught the gaggle of seven-year-olds, Ren and Sadie cared for the four-year-olds, and Rosie took on her first group of three one-year-olds. Sylvie peered at her watch.
One PM. Nap time.
She glanced around the other squares and spotted each child in her class, all watching their parents with glowing expressions, and she sighed. There was no sheltering them anymore. She could only hope they could see the beauty in the fight and the discipline instead of giving them any excuse to beat each other up.
Probably wishful thinking.
Her eyes cast along the furthest squares, and she paused. The central cutout was in use. A giant bear shifter clawed and huffed at a shirtless, tatted male. Her male.
She shuddered. Sylvie and bear shifters didn’t mix. The first one she met tried to eat her and lost his head, and the second beat the living shit out of her. This one, though, was one of the newer members of the pack.
Without thinking, she found herself weaving through the fighting bodies to the edge of her uneven square, still scarred from her last spar, roots jutting out and offering tripping hazards to her lithe mate.
Under the midday sun, his tattoos glistened from a layer of sweat. His rippling abdominals stretched and flexed as he dodged the barrage of attacks from the bear.
Watching him dance around the destroyed square filled her belly with butterflies, and she wandered to the edge.
His movement shifted as he prepared for the final strike. Sylvie smiled. She wasn’t going to let him win that easily.
“Where’s E, baby?”
“Office,” Rowan grunted. “Finishing off the deal with the human.”
Sylvie hummed. After all three of them hadn’t so much as gained another freckle in ten years, Elias finally relented and organised the sale of the ‘face’ or frontperson position of Fletcher Enterprises.
Rowan skidded back as a punch almost landed, and she smirked, earning a stern look from her mate. She knew precisely where Elias was. She knew where all of her mates were.
All the time.
After ten years of the most incredible lives, their bonds strengthened twentyfold. They could be left blindfolded and deaf in the forest and find each other like magnets, with Sylvie at the centre.
God, she loved being at the centre.
Rowan circled the bear and jumped impossibly fast onto his back, hissing in his ear. “Shift, now.”
Unable to fight the Alpha command, the bear shifted into his human form. Hayden. He had come from one of the packs that had disbanded off the coast. His tan skin swam with blood and sweat.
“Wanna tell your Alpha why you chose this fight?”
Sylvie raised her brow and crossed her arms as Hayden turned to her with twinkling eyes.
“I wish to be your protector?”
Rowan’s face swam with an unreadable expression laced with mirth as Sylvie kept hers a mask of composure.
“You don’t even know me. Why do you wish to protect me?”
“You are the chosen one, Alpha. Chosen by the Fates themselves.”
She needed to tell Rosie to stop telling the new shifters her life story. Sylvie hummed, and a smile curved up her lips.
“I am quite capable of protecting myself, Hayden.”
His brows lifted. “I meant no offence.”
“Why don’t you give him a taste?” Rowan purred, earning Sylvie’s glare and Hayden’s open-mouthed gape. He was thinking of a different type of taste, but Sylvie knew what Rowan meant.
She peered over her shoulder, spotting the dozens of eyes on her, and she smiled with a soft exhale through her nose.
“Maybe another time,” she purred right back before turning and walking along the square’s edge.
“Continue,” she said when Rowan didn’t resume the sparring. “Or are you afraid you’ll lose?”
Rowan snarled and shifted immediately, forcing Hayden to submit. He fell on his ass with a heavy thud and bared his neck with a choked whimper. She rolled her eyes as Rowan’s dark wolf tilted its head at her, waiting for approval.
Well, he wasn’t going to get it.
Big, bad, Alpha.
She’d show him a big bad alpha later that night. A warm pair of brown arms encircled her waist, and she sank back into them.
“Stop teasing,” Kian purred into the shell of her ear.
“I was not.” Sylvie spun in Kian’s arms and stood on her tiptoes to kiss his lips. He obliged with a smile before lifting a discreet brown paper bag beside her face and giving it a shake.
“If you wanted drugs, why didn’t you just ask?”
She remembered her unfinished purchase and kept her breathing even. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“I saw the email address.”
“I don’t even have an email.”
He squeezed her and nuzzled into her neck. “Don’t lie to me, Wife.”
“Never, husband,” she said with a wink.
He handed her the bag and kissed her forehead. “Thought Kerensa might like them a bit more palatable.” She opened the bag and counted the three vials of liquid.
“Looks good, I guess.”
“Yes, better than the powder form you almost paid for.”
“Elias paid for technically.”
“Gotcha.” He winked this time, and Sylvie melted into him with a giggle.
“How’d you even know about it being Kerensa? The Gala is supposed to be hush hush.”
“You aren’t very quiet, my love.”
She groaned into his chest. His ability to sense her every emotion was both a blessing and a frustrating curse. After ten years, she still hadn’t managed to surprise him. With anything. Not even a birthday gift. He kissed her head again and lowered his lips to her ear.
“Now behave, Elias is on his way home.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” She couldn’t hide the smile in her voice.
“Don’t be a shit.”
“I guess you’re rubbing off on me.”
“I can think of something else to rub off.” She pressed her body against his before realising where they were and straightened, shivering when Rowan’s fiery breath arced down her back.
“No fair,” he said lowly. “I get you first after the Tournament.”
She chuckled against Kian’s chest and turned her head just enough to see him over her shoulder. “If you don’t get your sweaty ass away from my work clothes, you won’t be getting anything.”
He wrinkled his nose at her and backed up before jerking his head towards home.
“Better hurry, or you won’t get a head start.”
Her heart raced, and the crimson mark on her chest tingled. Elias was almost home. Kian chuckled as she peered up at him with a wild look.
“Go,” he said, laughing, and she darted past him and the sparring squares. Most of the shifters had left for a late lunch, so she didn’t have to awkwardly explain herself as she sprinted through the trees at Vampiric speeds.
She rarely ran so fast anymore because of how much it drained her, but when she was at her fastest, she could clock 65 kilometres an hour, keeping up with the quickest shifters but only in short bursts.
She had to make it before him, though.
Cutting out of the forest and onto the main stretch of road, now more of her own personal driveway, Sylvie waited for the roar of his engine. Less than a minute later, Elias rounded a bend, and she squealed, darting across the road into the thick brush for one of the more exhilarating homecoming rituals she had insisted upon over the years.
“Catch me if you can!”