Life gradually resumed back to its normal pacing over the next few weeks.
Xander’s health improved with each passing day, the fever broke and his constant state of breathlessness eased as he was able to gain footing. He had not seen Salem for three weeks straight, ocassional passing silhouette through the windows of his house and sometimes Xander would hear his heavy footsteps out in the yard early in the morning.
Salem did not ask for him.
Xander spent his days isolated in the bedroom, listening to stories from Ameena about her life back in Morocco, her pack and the different rituals compared to those of his country.
He had asked her once, during a passing moment, about her marriage and the reason as to why it happened if they had mates as well.
“Our mate bonds are severed from birth.” Ameena explained, fingering her black pawn on the chess board placed between them.
Xander’s hand stilled, eyes lifting from the board and searching her own downcast face. Soft wisps of sienna burned hair slipping from beneath her peach colored hijab. There was a certain sadness that draped in her aura, ghosts of it clinging to the steeling of her spine and confident curved shoulders. “How so?”
Her silence was deep, a void that left him suspended to the steady rhythm of his own heartbeat.
“Each person is born with a mate and markings to locate their significant others, such as birthmarks, hair streak colors, markings-” eyes, Xander thought idly, “scarification, sometimes even different body anatomies like an extra finger or toe.”
“Arranged marriages has remained rooted in our culture since the beginning of time. Our ancestors believed it to be far more supreme compared to that of the mating bond. Arranged marriages are much more suitable because it creates connections between two families, like a pact.”
Ameena moved a knight, “Majority of the time, it is the alphas that take part in arranged marriages. Daughters are married off to sons and alliances are created in the process, it strengthens the pack, bonds are formed and children with ‘superior’ and ‘noble’ genes are borne from it.”
Xander’s silence urged her to continue, “My father is an Alpha of the Moon Walk pack, we are found on the East of Rabat next to the Straits of Gibraltar,” her eyes were a deep, earthy brown- the color of the earth after torrential rains.
Glistening like an old copper penny being examined in the warmth next to powerful flames that were licking the safety glass door of an old fireplace, “Do you know where Morocco is, Xander?”
The intensity of her stare was matched with his own calm one, the question was neither degrading nor vicious. It simply was.
“No,” Xander moved a pawn, “I do not.”
Ameena nodded and studied the board with a hum, beneath the table, her foot tapped a soft consistent rhythm. “Would you like to know where it is?” The way she asked had him inconspicuously curious, a need to learn something of the unknown. A child from a different world other than his willing to share knowledge.
“I would,” he paused, “if you do not mind.”
When she laughed, it was soothing in the semi-dark room. “Of course I do not mind,” but the laughter died down as her hand moved on the board, He did not see what pawn she shifted. His gaze was trained on the gentle furrow of her thick brows, darker than the abyss itself.
“I knew that I would eventually be sold off in marriage. My father would constantly talk about the Moon Shine pack, how beautiful and fertile their land was. How handsome their men were. Maybe even their women for their were no rules of how many wives an Alpha chose to have. He simply could.”
“My sisters had been married off to different packs and I was the last one remaining. However, I did not want to marry.” There was an ease to her voice despite the painful tightening of her mouth at the memories. Xander felt as though he was treading on dark still waters. “My mate was finally found and our bond was severed.”
how was it severed? He wished to ask but held his tongue.
Ameena seemed to have heard his silent question for she smiled, “Mine was a birthmark on my left shoulder,” his eyes flickered to her shoulder hidden beneath a peach matching sweater, “It was burnt off.”
“Oh.” He paused moving a pawn, then asked the question that burned the back of his curious mind. “How did it feel?”
“For the pact to be severed?” Ameena blinked, eyes rising heavenward thoughtfully. “It was intense. Painful. Probably the most pain I have ever felt in my life. As though someone is ripping your innards out, but slowly, because they wish for you to bleed out.” They lowered to his own, “Afterwards, a hollowness settles. One that never leaves you.”
They played in silence, neither willing to speak up after the short but painful conversation.
Ameena knocked off one of his priests, “Your chess skills are tragic, Xander.” She watched him smile, eyes softening. “How about you? Have you met your mate?”
Her smile widened, “How is she?” Ameena whispered.
Releases gas a lot.
“My birthday’s next week!” Xander’s gaze rose to the branch above his head. Eyes landing on his mate who was crouched low, lollipop in mouth and shoved to one cheek, the jeans she wore had been stained with dirt on the knees, blue long sleeve rolled up to her elbows and red converse shoes. Idly, he wondered if her mother constantly opted to dress Elliot up as a boy. Her curls had been cut shorter, barely brushing the nape of her neck.
Xander was sprawled out beneath the tree, dictionary in hand. He lowered it to his chest and pillowed one hand beneath his head. “Is it?”
Elliot’s head bobbed vigorously, shifting the lollipop to her other cheek. He could smell it from where he lay. Blueberry. “Ten.”
“Ten.” He repeated and she sat on the branch, legs swinging impatiently.
“I can’t have my friends over, only Charles and Clarry.” His mate moaned at the thought of the two golden haired children and Xander’s mouth twitched.
“Do you not like them?”
Her small shoulders rose in a mild shrug, indifference set in her expression. “Charles is okay... Clarry’s a cry baby.”
He remembered both of them. Clarry especially. Xander winced at the memories of her high pitched wails in Elliot’s backyard. His mate was lucky enough to have hearing aids, switching off the sounds whenever she’d wish to.
“Why only two?”
“Dad said it’s not safe enough.”
“Not safe enough?”
“Not safe enough.”
He studied her briefly. Eyes searching the familiar copper green ones, as though the answer would be written in her childish innocence. “Did he mention what made it not safe?”
Again, her shoulders rose. “Nope.” Shift lollipop to other cheek.
Xander watched her swing back and forth for a moment longer before raising the dictionary back. Yet, he could not see the words, only ink stains blurred on tattered yellow pages. His mind refused to focus, shrouded with curiosity of her sentence.
Not safe enough.
Had something happened while he was sick?
Surely Xander would have known. Salem and him were always in the woods felling trees, moving down stream and occasionally walking up to the borders for inspection. Then again, it had been weeks since Xander last took a proper stroll through the woods. Let alone met with Salem.
His presence had been scarce. Scent barely lingering on his property. Xander would lay awake at night, listening to the pulling of his truck out on the driveway, gravel crunching under worn out tires then boots. Slamming of a door, low sounds, far too low for Xander to make anything of it.
Had he not gone to the party, Xander would have approached Salem and asked him of the current situation. But he had gone to the party, he had broken the one rule he wasn’t meant to, he had ultimately cost Salem a high bill considering a pack doctor had to travel back and forth from the town to his room simply because Xander could not stay away.
“What you thinking of?” Elliot was hanging upside down by the knees, wide eyes searching his own lazily.
Xander set the dictionary down and gazed at her, his mind far away. Then he began to rise, brushing leaves and dirt from his pants. “Have you seen the borders before, Elliot?”
“Borders,” his mate blinked then shook her head, “Nope.”
“Do you want to see them?”
“Yup.” She lifted herself up to a sitting position on the branch before leaping off into his awaiting arms. Xander set her down and together they made their way down the hill and towards the river. “What’s a border?”
He thought about her question then flipped the dictionary open, at a loss for words. “A border is a line separating two political or geographical areas, especially countries.”
Her converse snapped twigs and dried leaves, “So are we crossing countries?”
“No,” he was unable to hold back the smile as they followed the river into the forest, “In this case, a border separates packs from each other.” He hoped she knew what a pack was. He hoped she knew what wolves were as well.
Recognition crossed Elliot’s features, “So we’re going to see pop’s border?”
In the heart of the forest, they followed the idle river’s bank. It carried all the debris that fell in from above slowly downstream. Large boughs sprouted from the trees and reached into the murky water as if trying to scoop up the swarming fish. Although the warm water was an olive color from the swirling mud and algae, Xander could see the underwater wildlife flourish in the shallow part.
The breeze has a pleasant coolness to it.
Eventually, he came to a halt where it began to run deep and stared at the opposite end of the river where small upward hill lay. Beyond that was the borders. His attention drifted to the young mate who had stooped by the river to dip her finger into the cool water, rubbing it on an algae stone amused.
The last time they decided to trek in water, her hearing aids got damaged.
With a sigh, Xander stooped low and took off his converse then socks, stuffing them inside and typing two ends of the laces together. He could her eyes on him, burning curiosity, “I’ll have to carry you to the opposite end so your ears don’t get wet.” or any part of her really. He had to be cautious with her immune system.
Elliot’s smile was wide, borderline eager and nearly bursting at the seams. “Will you carry me up the hill?”
“We’ll see once we cross.” He would.
Xander placed ends of his tied laces over her neck, his shoes hanging on either side of her then sat on the bank as she climbed his shoulders, legs resting on his chest. Gripping her ankles to steady her, he stood and faltered at the sound of sharp inhaling. “Are you fine?”
“The ground is far.” Her hands gripped either sides of his face tight and he grimaced. “You’re going to rip my skin off, Elliot.”
“Sorry.” Her grip did not loosen.
Xander could not help the chuckle that escaped him. Of all the things that could scare his young fearless mate. This was it. He stepped into the river, the water cold against his skin.
Swamp-like vegetation and old, rotting trees crept into the river’s edge and created slimy pools of debris from withered leaves, twigs and lemna. Above the mass of water, high branches wove tunnel of green leaves like archways in a church to protect from strong sunlight.
At the deepest point, the water sloshed up to his knees before descending as he crossed to the opposite end. He found the path uphill and trekked through it. Eventually, Elliot’s grip loosened as her confidence grew though mildly.
“Moss.” She pointed at a tree’s bark.
“Moss.” Xander repeated.
The baseball cap he wore lifted from his hair and he had a feeling she wore it to shield herself from the sun. Her chin rest atop of his head lazily as she pointed out at random things that crossed their path.
Her hand clasped the front of his forehead, “Rock.”
Their game had no rules. Simple names, simple repetition. It filled the comfortable silence. It brought a sense of relief and calmness in the chaotic world around him.
The footpath meandered through the woodland, weaving it’s way through the strong scent of wild garlic, passing by bluebells and snowdrops and being completely buried beneath a canopy of =withering buds. Hoof-prints and footprints were trodden into the overused dirt path that seemed to continue forever; each muddy print unlocking a memory of days gone by.
When she ran out of simple words, Xander took it upon himself to educate her. He pointed at a random set of prints in the wet mud, “Those are beaver’s prints.”
“Beaver,” his mate repeated above him, the steady beating of her heart close to his ears. “And those are humans?”
His gaze followed the line of her finger catching sight of the prints, he squinted. “I suppose so.” Perhaps the alpha’s border patrols had made rounds recently considering the prints were fresh in the wet mud.
He stepped over a felled tree and stooped low over a branch. The upward climb took longer than expected with their game, constantly stopping to point out random prints and flowers and birds. Nature was second skin to him. Especially trees. Years of working for Salem had taught Xander more about trees than he did food, or words.
“Pine... Oak... Cedar...” He pointed out every tree and stepped towards them in order for his mate to run her hands against the rough or smooth barks. Then explained their uses, how he cuts them down, transport, the various diseases, the best seasons for logging and when reafforestation occurs.
Elliot listened quietly, taking in his words like sponge would water.
Eventually, they reached the top of the hill and Xander stilled as a cold breeze blew past them, ruffling his curls. He gazed at the drop below then horizon beyond. Tall amazonian trees fifty feet below them, stretching into the distance until mist obscured it completely.
His grip tightened on Elliot’s ankles as she tipped precariously over him in order to glance at the drop below. “Where’s the border?”
“At the bottom of the hill.” It was a sharp drop that disappeared beneath darkness. Below them, the sound of a roaring river.
“Are we going down?”
“No,” he replied calmly, “It’s too dangerous.”
The icy grey sky restlessly grumbled. Thick blackened clouds dragged down by the heavy rain which it held in its delicate frame. It groaned, as though struggling to withstand the burden of the weight which the rain held. Thunder clapped in the distance, the air now dense with the scent of rain.
They stood staring.
A cold wind rustled their hairs. His thumb brushed the raised goosebumps on her calves.
“Are you cold?”
Time elapsed in the comfortable silence as they gazed at the view before them.
“It’s really nice.” Elliot murmured, then rested both hands on the crown of his head and placed her chin.
He hummed in response.
“What’s beyond the borders?”
“What do you mean?”
“Are there more wolves? Or humans? Or both? Or nothing.”
He mulled over her question for a moment, teeth sinking into his inner cheek.
“I do not know.” He admitted, “Perhaps wolves.” No one ever spoke of what lay beyond the borders, or maybe they did. He would not know. All he knew was the land he grew on. Yet now that she asked, he did truly wonder what lay beyond the borders.
“I’ll ask my pa tonight.”
Xander inhaled a measured breath, “Will you tell him that you visited the border?” His tone was calm yet slightly strained. He did not wish to influence his mate to lie but at the same time if Elliot happened to spill her forbidden adventures with him... punishment would be the least of his worries.
The thought of it brought a sharp ache to his chest.
“Nope.” Elliot replied easily, she may have been a child but she was a wise one. Or at least could read atmospheres.
Xander’s tension eased from his shoulders, visibly slumping. “Okay.”
“Okay.” She repeated.
His mouth twitched, “Okay.”
“Which clouds?” She inquired in an almost adult-like voice and Xander could not help but laugh at her interrogation.
“Nimbus,” he replied proudly. She had, after all, taught him.
“Good boy!” Her hands drummed the top of his head vigorously and he grimaced only to falter as something wet touched his cheek.
Xander peered at the sky, “Rain.”
“Rain rain go away-” his mate began singing as he turned from the cliff’s edge and began the long trek back to her home through the down winding path, “- come again another day-”
“I doubt your singing will hold the rains back, Elliot.”
He knew she heard his joke yet chose to continue singing at the top of her lungs even as the clouds opened with a sigh of relief, soft precipitation dropping on either of them, lightly soaking through their clothes. Xander fell in tune to her off-pitch singing.
He stopped, eyes snapping around the woods instantly. “Where?”
“There-” Elliot spoke evenly while pointing out tracks on mud.
He tensed sharply, fingers digging into her ankles unconsciously only to loosen at the sound of her whine. “I’m sorry,” Xander apologized before approaching the tracks hidden strategically behind a bush. He had failed to see it when ascending to the top of the hill.
He had failed to see them because they were not there in the first place.
The torrential downpour increased exponentially. He should have diverted away from the sight of paw prints, but he did not.
Xander stepped towards the prints and crouched down, ignoring the tightening vice-like grip of his mate’s hands in his hair seemingly mirroring his own feelings. Reaching out, Xander touched the paw prints now filling with water and raised his fingertips to his nostrils sniffing at it.
He did not know that scent.
The Shadow Pack, that which Elliot belonged to and the only pack within the borders all carried familiar scents for the sake of belonging. He knew they had similar scents because Salem had the same faint scent as Charles, and Charles and Elliot and Elliot as her mother. The scents spread throughout the pack to mark out rogues and outcasts. Enemies.
Xander knew Elliot’s scent.
He did not know the scent before him.
“Xan...” his mate’s voice dropped to that of concern, fear evident in the stillness of his body. He could not hear her. He could not see what was before him anymore. All senses had dulled out only to sharpen instantly, hairs along the nape of his neck prickling as an electric current surged through him.
He did not notice them.
He did not see them.
He did not hear them.
He could feel them watching.