~ UNTIL SUNRISE ~
The smell of cinnamon and maca surrounded me like a thick cocoon, the sickly sweet mix of spices causing my eyes to water from the burn it left in my nostrils. No matter where my head turned, the scent followed and I internally cursed the pungent oil that covered my entire body, my hair that I'd woven into a simple side braid being the only part of me that I hadn't dared put it. Not even my cheeks had been spared, which I regretted immensely.
"Cinnamon represents passion and love," she'd told me as she handed me the bottle that morning after she gave a rather loud rap of knocks to my bedroom door. "Maca represents new life. It's a traditional formula that's been around for a millennia and it's important that you put this everywhere for extra luck." So I had.
Although it had dried almost instantly after I'd painted it on with the rough brush Callie had also provided me with, the substance left behind a sticky sheen to my skin that reminded me of dried paste. And the smell—
"Run through streams and with the wind if you can. It'll make it harder for Henrik to scent you," Callie informed me, gliding a few steps ahead of me. "Also, whatever you do, don't try to hide or climb up a tree thinking you're some sneaky shit. You'll just corner yourself."
I hugged my waist and took a large step forward, attempting to keep up with the Lycan female whose ability to manoeuvre herself so effortlessly through the woods left me envious. A curse slid past my lips as a frustrated hiss when I stubbed my bare toes against a rock and I stumbled.
Noticing the growing distance between us, Callie paused and looked back at me, her makeup-free caramel skin looking beautiful in the early morning glow. Callie was dressed in a simple robe that was almost the exact replica of mine: white, mid-thigh, and so thin that it did nothing to hide our nipples that were peaked quite painfully because of the cold wind that blew every few minutes. Her hair was twisted into a thick bun on the top of her head with a couple of smaller, curly strands along her hairline sticking into the air. While she resembled a goddess as always, I looked like I'd just rolled out of bed and grabbed the nearest article of clothing I could find.
"So how many people will be there?" I questioned, tiptoeing carefully around every twig and small rock that my human eyes could see past the dense grass brushing against my calves. Of course, it wasn't very effective and I bit my tongue and glowered in frustration when a twig stabbed my heel.
The location where we were celebrating Heat was only three miles away from the palace and completely unreachable by a carriage because it was in the dead center of the woods. During that hour walk, all sorts of things stuck themselves to the bottom of my feet—dirt, leaves, twigs, grass, pebbles—which added onto my already overwhelming sense of regret for not wearing shoes. But, not wanting to stand out anymore than I already would be by being a human and the queen, I'd decided against them after hearing Callie and the others participating weren't going to be wearing them. How I hated my pride sometimes.
My nerves had finally made their appearance the night before while I was reading a book on methods used by different cultures to treat illnesses, a piece Ingrid had suggested randomly during our weekly tea. I was sweating and my hands were fumbling to turn the pages by the time I made it to the chapter about acupuncture and the different pressure points in the body. Although I knew there was nothing to be truly fearful of, I couldn't help but feel a little anxious about participating in something that pushed against the boundaries of my human customs and beliefs.
Because Henrik had retired to another room in the palace for the night due to the tradition that mates shouldn't touch until Heat's sunrise, I was left restless and tossing like a floundering fish for hours, staring out the windows and listening to the owls. Although his scent lingered on our bed and his presence was technically there in my mind, it wasn't the same.
It wasn't enough.
I missed his arms around me, the way they'd surround me in warmth and protection, and the small pecks he'd leave on my head until I fell asleep while I traced the scars on his arms.
I even missed his snores.
"Only a couple hundred. There are only one to two locations in every pack. Some people, especially older mates, prefer to do it a bit more privately and some don't do it at all." Callie shrugged, stopping and turning her head off to the side as a sound that I couldn't detect met her ears. When she resumed walking, so did I. "I just do it because I like sex—and celebrating the goddess of fertility, of course. Thanks, Fertil!" She sent a smile up to the cloudless sky.
I snorted but the sound was cut short, my heart skipping a beat, when my ears suddenly registered the chatter of many coming from in front of us.
The past few weeks had been shockingly calm, not even a hint of a panic attack or nightmare there to taint my nights. Even during the full moon, which usually was a somber time we all dreaded, Ingrid and I had shared many laughs while we told embarrassing stories from our days in Amaryllus and complained about our over protective males.
Although it was just the three of us, Jerium had not made a single appearance the entire night again, an occurrence I realised was becoming more frequent over time. When we journeyed to his room to invite him to join our little gathering, his bedsheets were crisp and untouched, all of the window curtains were pulled shut, and not a single sign of his presence was there— almost as if he hadn't been in his room all day. Ingrid and I had drunkenly shrugged it off at the time, not having a clue as to where the hybrid could've run off to, and went back to Ingrid's room to finish off the last half of our bottle of wine.
As my feet slowly padded their way closer to the edge of the woods and the voices of excited Lycans became louder and louder, uncertainty creeped its way into my mind.
Maybe this was a bad idea, I thought to myself, quivering with anxiety as I thought about what would be taking place shortly. I was a married woman, had been one for over a month, and I was no stranger to sex. But having sex in the middle of an open area with the high risk of others seeing was an entirely different beast to slay and I was afraid I lacked the courage to go through with it.
My promise to Henrik and myself to be a part of this celebration was the only thing that kept me going. Although it was strange and even a bit perverted in my and any human's eyes, I knew Heat meant a lot to Henrik. And that was enough to make it mean something for me too.
We stepped through the last bit of trees and into the large clearing, my eyes nearly falling out of their sockets from how wide they stretched while staring at the sight in front of me. Almost a thousand males and females stood in the mile-wide field, all naked as the day they came into being, ranging in so many different colours and sizes and shapes that my mind immediately compared them to a rainbow.
I gulped, my cheeks becoming so hot they put fire to shame.
Instantly, every head turned to stare at me, bowing and subtly smelling the air but never ceasing in their whispering, and I suddenly felt very self conscious, my hand gripping the bottom of my robe until my joints protested.
"Hey," Callie nudged me to a halt, noticing my sudden nervousness. She gripped my shoulders and leaned in close so that the only things I could focus on were her eyes, whispering so lowly that only we could hear it. "You don't have to do this if you don't want to. Henrik would understand and help create a believable excuse."
I knew she was right, but my self-deprecating thoughts dissolved quicker than sugar in hot water when the said male, my mate, walked to the front of the crowd, only in his underwear. The sight of him had my brain going fuzzy and my mark began to tingle, sensing that he was finally near.
Henrik's nose lifted into the air, no doubt smelling every drop of oil on me. His eyes looked like two suns from all those kilometers away, even when he cocked his head to the side in confused concern after he noticed Callie's intense stare on my face.
I let out a breath. "No, it's fine." I couldn't tell if I was telling this to her or to myself. But with a last nod of my head, Callie released her hold on my shoulders and I found my hands fumbling with the knot on my robe. Once it was undone, I met Henrik's heated gaze once more and I slowly—teasingly—let it slip off my shoulders until I was as naked as everyone else, shivering when the early morning wind caressed my skin the way I wished Henrik to.
Any hint of fear or hesitation that I'd let consume me earlier vanished when I saw my male bare his teeth in primal appreciation, a noticeable bulge already forming under those tight briefs of his—a physical promise of what was to come.
As I began walking down the field, nobody's eyes dared travel down below my chin. In fact, a lot of them chose to talk amongst themselves, no doubt as used to seeing people naked as much as when they were clothed. And I gave them the same respect, smiling at those whose gazes met my own but, for the most part, kept my sight set on where I was heading.
"Chasers are on the right. Runners on the left," Callie told me, taking my robe from my hands and tossing hers and my robe in a nearby pile of other discarded white clothing. From what I'd seen from my quick glance, her body was as perfect and beautiful as her face, made up of pure curves with only a few thin swirls of black ink along her ribcage.
"Ok," I replied curtly, my eyes turning back to focus on the only thing that mattered anymore: my mate.
I made my way towards him without hesitation while Callie turned to head towards the runners. He'd discarded his boxer briefs by the time I stood a few feet in front of him but I kept my eyes secured on his face, knowing the risk of me breaking the no-touching rule would increase drastically if I didn't.
Henrik growled lowly at me, a sound that came from deep within his chest before passing through gritted canines, while he stared at my breasts, taking in every detail before trailing down to the place between my thighs. Then my husband turned his head to the crowd and pulled back his upper lip to bare his teeth, snarling in a ferocious way that a couple months ago would've had me flinching. Although everyone there was mated, I understood it was important to his instincts as a Lycan and their king to display his dominance while we were both in such an intimate and vulnerable position. They all bowed without hesitation, as I knew they would, confirming they were no threat to either of us, and turned their attentions back to each other.
"I'll try not to run too fast, old guy," I teased, noting that his chest was covered in oil as well. My tongue darted out to lick my lips, appreciating how the added shine on his skin made everything attractive about him stand further out, his muscles, scars, tattoos...
He growled again but this time in a frustrated and almost impatient manner, clawed hands clenching and unclenching at his sides. I could feel his need to touch me seeping through the bond and I felt the same, wishing I could throw my arms around his shoulders and rub my already aching breasts against him.
So, knowing the longer I stood next to him the harder it would be to tear myself away, I gave Henrik one last amused glance before walking away in the direction of the large group of runners who'd huddled off to the far left side of the large mile-long clearing, fully aware of Henrik's stare on my ass and loving every second of it.
"Raena!" My head snapped to straight ahead of me, where Callie's voice had come from, seeing the said female waving her hand high in the air to get my attention while also gaining many more in the process.
Excusing myself as I wove through the tall males and females, I hurried over to her and the female she was standing next to, whose dark skin was covered in faint, thin lines of white ink tattoos that resembled beaded jewellery hanging around her arms, neck, chest, and back. Her warm and almost amber-looking eyes absorbed my appearance wearily, wide nose hesitantly rising in the air. Although she was a strong-looking female, with broad shoulders, thighs rippling with muscles, and abs that were as defined as any male's, she appeared quiet and reserved. A perfect balance, I thought.
"Raena, I'd like for you to meet my mate, Neit. She's going to be a runner as well." Callie gestured to the female giddily with her head. Although she was excited to be near her, I could see the desperation in her eyes to touch her. I could feel it as if it were my own. My heart swelled with understanding, the mate bond inside me already begging me to turn around and run back to Henrik. "My female, this is Her Majesty, Queen Raena, and one of my closest friends."
"An honor to make your acquaintance, Your Majesty," Callie's matd uttered with a low bow, her hair blocking her face as she did so. Her voice was quite raspy and deeper than the average female's, but it fit her beautifully.
"The honor is all mine. It warms me greatly to finally meet you," I replied, my words genuine, and I saw Callie's face light up to where her eyes were blinding.
Neit, I'd been unformed by Ingrid, didn't care for royal life. Although she'd at first given it a try, she soon felt smothered and depressed by it, preferring to live in her quiet village, where she could do what she loved as a children's physical trainer and live alongside her family. Callie, wanting her mate to be happy, supported her and didn't force her to stay at the palace and Neit, in return, didn't force Callie to leave. The two loved each other, that I could tell just by looking at them. But I knew Callie and I could see how much it upset her to be away from her mate for weeks to sometimes months at a time, so much so that just talking about Neit brought her pain.
I thought I'd seen Callie happy before but nothing could compare to the way she looked at that moment, standing next to her mate and finally introducing her to me. The sight warmed my heart and I wondered, after experiencing such turmoil after only twelve hours apart from Henrik, if there was anything I could do to persuade Neit to stay just for a little while longer.
"Well, I better get going," Callie said, her tone almost sounding regretful. Neit nodded and watched Callie walk away longingly, her large bottom lip sticking out slightly as she wrung her fingers, looking lost without her other half. "Raena, make us some strong heirs, ok?" Callie turned back around to say lightheartedly and my stomach dropped to my toes, staring at the back of her bun like it was the head of the worst kind of monster.
"Relax, Your Majesty. It's fun, I promise," Neit told me with a laugh, running a hand through her hair and I wondered how she kept it so straight without the hint of frizziness. Oriana, with her hair that she used to humorously compare to a lion's mane with a perm, would've loved to have known her secret. The thought made my stomach clench with sadness. "Looks like it's about to start," Neit commented and the field suddenly quieted into even lower whispers that had every hair on my body standing as straight as needles.
My heartbeat quickened and I looked over in the direction she was staring in and saw a beam of sunlight beginning to shine between the mountains. All the runners went quiet, bending their knees into sprinting positions, and I mimicked the action awkwardly while looking at Neit, who was beside me, for reference, unsure the entire time if I was doing anything correctly.
Scanning every inch of the field that I could, my eyes naturally flickered over to the group of chasers, females and males alike staring hungrily at somebody on our side of the field.
Instantly I spotted Henrik staring at me from the same place in front of the crowd. It was like he hadn't moved at all in those past few minutes and I was sure that was the case. My gaze dangerously flickered down to his crotch and gulped, my stomach clenching at the sight of his impressive length. He smirked at me and gripped himself with one hand, giving a teasing tug that had my body heating up, my abdomen clenching in thought of what was to come.
From the way Henrik's nostrils flared, I knew he could smell me and that, for some reason, just made me want him even more.
"Go!" a female from the back screamed and my head shot up to see the sliver of sunlight peeking over the mountains.
All at once, the runners leapt into action and Neit gave me a sharp slap on the back of my shoulder, the action releasing me from my shock and spurring my own legs to run. Somehow, I managed to stay in the crowd, never once falling behind, and I watched as some shifted into their wolves in the span of a blink, so quickly that I could barely register what had happened until a couple seconds afterwards, while a few remained human.
"Holy shit," I muttered, the realization of what I was doing slamming into me violently as a red-colored wolf leapt in front of me and nearly knocked me over. Its gold eyes assessed me for a split second before it darted off, disappearing behind the wood's wall of trees. I shook my shock off quickly, knowing I couldn't waste any time. "Shite," I hissed to the sky and regretted not at least wearing some type of support for my breasts, which bounced quite painfully with each of my harsh steps. I understood why most of the Lycans who shifted were female.
As I broke through the tree line, my legs almost moving as fast as my heart was beating, my thoughts drifted to Ingrid, who I was surprised hadn't fainted when I told her that I'd agreed to participate in Heat. It was then, her fingers working on a brand new quilt for Korstan and plate full of small sandwiches in front of her, that she told me that in her sixteen years of living in the Cursed Kingdom, she'd never celebrated Heat. Had never considered it. But she was happy for Henrik and I that I was willing to try his culture and thought it was a good decision overall since I was the queen.
But I couldn't see much good in it as I ran like a chicken in the midst of vultures. All around me, females and males—both human and wolf—ran chaotically and without much reason, dodging tree branches and each other when they had to and slowly spreading out until there were only a handful within my eyesight.
Eventually, I came upon a fallen tree whose trunk was so thick that it came to right below my breasts. Of course, the Lycans had no problem leaping over like trained stallions but I was left to hoisting myself up with my hands and swinging my legs over, cursing when a splinter lodged itself in my finger and I scraped the back of my leg. My feet thudded against the ground in a graceless landing and I yanked the tiny, annoying piece of wood out of my skin before shoving the wounded digit into my mouth, refusing to slow down for even a second no matter how much my body begged me to.
But my humanity caught up to me eventually and I stopped a couple minutes later, slumping over and resting my hands on my knees when the burning in my lungs became too much to ignore. Gasping for much needed air, I looked around and noticed with shock that I was all alone, not a sight of wolf or human anywhere and no hint of movement except for the occasional rustling of tree branches caused by curious birds.
Past the sound of my harsh breaths, I noticed the unmistakable trickle of running water and jogged towards it, sighing in what I supposed was relief when my eyes spotted a river. I stopped at its edge, making sure I could see the bottom, before I lowered myself into the slow running current. I cursed when I was submerged in the freezing water up to my neck, gritting my teeth as I began swimming towards the other side and thanking Tylem internally for teaching me how to no matter how many times I complained.
Callie better be right about this, I thought and finally placed my feet back on the river's slippery green algae-infested bottom before planting my hands on the edge and pushing my upper body onto solid ground, my legs doing the rest of the work.
A howl, rich and deep, pierced the air and was followed by countless others, the official sign that the hunt had begun. I paused as a shiver raked through my body and my mark pulsed in a familiar pattern, aching to have its creator near it.
"It can't be ten minutes already," I said to myself, my eyes widening and looking around, paranoid as if expecting Henrik to be right in front of me.
My mate took it upon himself at that very moment to open a door in his mind that he typically kept closed behind a wall of iron, causing me to gasp and nearly lose my footing. I could feel him—all of him—his arousal and excitement. The delicious way his groin pulsed for me.
I pressed my thighs together.
His heartbeat was quick, the organ pumping wild and untamed just like the soul that inhabited the same body. But not from how hard he was running—no. It was from how much he was looking forward to taking me there, in the woods and in an area where anyone could see him pleasuring me. And I welcomed it.
I wanted it.
I wanted him.
I'm coming for you, mate, he purred cockily and I shivered, pushing my freezing legs forward while ignoring the uncomfortable way soil moistened and clung onto the bottom of my drenched feet.
I didn't respond to his statement. I didn't need to.
With one last inhale of air, I started into a sprint, running in random zigzag-patterns that had no reason except to run as far as I could away from Henrik. Every so often I would rub my hand against a tree or rock before darting the other way, hoping that it would somehow confuse him.
If my mate wanted a chase, then I was happy to provide.