I appreciated the company of Gunnar and Tyra in their wolf form. But as the day progressed, they went back to their human lives, and the sun was setting. The question of my sleeping place stood in the room.
They wanted me to stay in their guest room in the house, but I declined. It was one thing to sleep in the bungalow to be out of the eyes of humans, but I didn’t want to stay in their house as if I was a pet dog. Instead, they tidied up a small space in the barn next to their house, insisting that sleeping somewhere outside wouldn’t be safe here either.
Tyra kept reminding me of what she said to me under the apple tree, and that being alone wasn’t safe. I knew she wasn’t wrong, considering I still doubted Bertram would give up on driving me away from here soon.
It was going against my natural urges as a wolf to hide away in human buildings once again. But when even my wolf wanted me to agree, I knew I was unnecessarily stubborn. That I was stuck in a wolf form as an adult bothered me more than I wanted to admit.
I laid down on the blanket Tyra provided me and wished I could be a human right now. As much as I loved to have my wolf back, not being able to be human felt odd, too. It’s all I have known for the past years, and now that I couldn’t be one, I felt lost. Quite ironic, how we always want things we can’t have. When I couldn’t turn into a wolf, all I wanted was to be a wolf again. Now that I can’t turn into a human, I crave to be that. In the end, I just want to be normal. As normal as I could be as an ancient wolf, anyway.
The next morning, I woke up freezing and with an aching back. I glanced around the barn. The sunlight was shining through the slits of the wooden planks, making dust glitter in the air. I didn’t know when I changed back during the night, but it must have been a few hours ago, otherwise, I wouldn’t feel this cold.
I wrapped the blanket around me and stood up on unsteady legs. The comforting presence of my wolf in the back of my mind made me smile, despite the aching muscles. She seemed content, and happier now.
Pushing open the barn door, even colder air greeted me. My teeth chattered uncontrollably as I walked around the building. A hammering in the background disturbed the chirping of the birds, and I followed it, wondering who was causing such noise so early in the morning.
I didn’t have to walk long when a shed came into view. The door was ajar, and I couldn’t stop myself from peeking inside.
Heat hit me in my cold face, taking my breath away for a second. I stepped inside, spotting two ovens in the back, fire burning inside of it. To the right, I found shirtless Gunnar, slamming on a piece of metal with a hammer.
With every swing, the muscles on his back tensed, and small drops of sweat jumped off his body. His body looked a lot more toned than I expected it to be. He didn’t wear tight clothes, so it was never obvious to me. I stepped closer, seeing the tattoo I had caught a glimpse of on his arm spreading around his back.
“So, this is what you are doing in your free time?” I asked, my voice hoarse.
Gunnar tensed, turning around slowly. A smile spread over his face when his eyes landed on me. “Oh, look at you, not stuck anymore?”
I moved closer, eyeing what he was working on with curiosity. It looked like it was going to become some sort of sword. “Apparently.”
He turned back to his work and continued to hit it. “It’s good to see you back.”
From the corner of my eye, I looked at his tattoo, trying to see it properly without appearing like a creep. “Nice tattoo.”
He stopped his work and looked at it for a moment, before dunking it in a bucket, steam emerging out of it. He nodded and placed it aside, grabbing a towel from the table and wiping his face with it.
I turned to him, pulling the blanket closer around me. Seeing Gunnar like this made me feel self-conscious, a feeling I never felt in the presence of someone before. A man’s no less.
Gunnar turned his right arm to me. It started on his upper arm and wandered around his back, all the way to the other side, and ended on the left side of his chest.
I stared at the black wolf head, a swirly half circle drawn around it. It almost looked like the wolf had wings.
He followed my gaze and pointed at it. “That’s the alpha rune.”
I knew some packs were using tattoos to show ranks, but we never did that. I always thought it made them look quite cool when I met wolves with similar tattoos before. But I couldn’t remember they called them runes.
He nodded. “The alpha male has a black wolf looking to the left. The alpha female has a white wolf looking to the right, and together they form a circle.”
“Tyra has one too, then?”
“Yes, but hers is different. It also has a shadowy outline of the black wolf, representing the male counterpart she lost.”
My heart sunk thinking about that. “Why would she get it? Wasn’t it sad to always be reminded of her loss?”
He smiled. “It’s how she shows pride in him. It’s her proof that she was proud to be his counterpart. Besides, she doesn’t want to forget they used to be together before. At some point, they will reunite again after all.”
It sounded hopelessly romantic, yet at the same time suffocating. “What if she finds someone else to love?”
Gunnar tilted his head to the side. “There is nothing wrong with that. But she will probably never find one that will make her feel as complete as Aloysius did. The gods blessed them, and the runes were proof of that.”
I gulped as my heart ached for her. Will she ever be able to move on and let go of the pain? Does she even want to?
I remained silent for a moment, stomaching the information. Gunnar watched me, letting me have this moment.
I cleared my throat. “What about the people who lose their alpha title? What happens to them?”
“Depends on how they stepped back from it. If they step back fair and square, the swirling circle around will be changed and it will almost look like it’s bleeding a bit. It symbolizes a fight they lost in honor. Otherwise, the spot will be colored completely black, only leaving a black circle.”
“Have you seen anyone with such a mark before?”
He nodded. “Once or twice. Most don’t want anyone to see it, because it’s shameful.”
I nodded, but I was unsure what to think about that. Something like that would be unheard of in the human world. But it seems accepted in the wolf community. Remembering the shameful deed the pack did who attacked us, I could understand though. I would want everyone to see how dishonorable they were.
I pointed to the tattoo on his arm. “I have seen tattoos like that before.”
He ran his finger over the black ink on his upper arm. “I assume your pack wasn’t as traditional as other packs, but usually every pack member receives a tattoo when they turn eighteen. It’s the day they officially get a place in the pack. They fight for their rank and can even challenge the alpha. Your parents will design the very first rune for you. It will always hold a special meaning for you. It’s meant to give you a blessing or a trait.”
I liked the idea, even when it was slightly scary to let the parents decide on something that will cover your skin forever. It’s something you should decide for yourself. What if you don’t like it?
I saw the different symbols on his arm in a different light now. “Your tattoo is pretty large, though. Are they all from your parents?”
He grabbed a bottle of water and gulped it down. I stared at a drop of water running down his chin, dripping onto his chest. When I realized I was openly staring at him again, I lowered my gaze, feeling my face heat up. My wolf chuckled in the back of my mind.
“Are you making us act like a creep?” I asked her, but I only received another round of chuckles. So, yes.
“Only one is from my parents. I received the others from my pack. Whenever you do something honorable or good for the pack, you will receive a new one. They are supposed to strengthen and protect you.”
I leaned closer to get a better look at his arm. “What does the rune from your parents mean, then?”
He smiled and ran a hand through his hair. “That’s usually a pretty private question to ask someone.”
My chest tightened as my face felt even hotter. “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t know. You don’t have to tell me.”
“It’s okay, I don’t mind.” He pointed at a swirly symbol on his arm, almost looking like a heart. “My parents said the rune they gifted me is supposed to represent loyalty, bravery, and love.”
“That sounds very sentimental. I didn’t expect that if I’m honest.”
He laughed. “My parents were very loving people, and they wanted me to treat people right. Especially my family. They always told me that ‘only who is willing to love unconditionally is also brave enough to fight in any battle’.”
My heart galloped in my chest as he said that. He looked at me with soft eyes and a smile on his face, almost as if the message was meant for me. My mouth went dry, and the air felt impossibly hot around us. I dropped my gaze and cleared my throat. “That almost sounds like love is a battlefield, if not worse.”
“Is it not?” He asked, rendering me speechless. “It’s not a battlefield in the sense of life and death, but a battle of emotions. It can be a struggle, filled with heartbreak and tears, just like it can be filled with joy and victory. If you want to love, you have to fight, just in a different way.”
I stared at him again. There was a pain in his eyes that took my breath away. “Did you have to fight that way before?”
He smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “I had many fights in my life, but never one of those.”
I couldn’t believe that a man like Gunnar didn’t fall in love before. He looked stunning, was kind, and was an alpha.
He pushed off the table and stepped in front of me. I craned my neck to look at him and held my breath. Gunnar looked down at me, unspoken words in the air. I was about to step away when he grabbed the shirt from the desk behind me.
“Good things take time. Loving unconditionally requires the right person to love. I’m in no rush,” he whispered and stepped back.
I let out a shaky breath, unable to look at him. This all felt a bit too intense for my liking.
“Also, this isn’t just my hobby, it’s my job. I create custom-made blades.”
I nodded and glanced up at him, my skin still tingling.
He smirked. “Come on, let’s go inside. We can eat breakfast together.”
Gunnar ushered me out of the shed into the cold air. But this time, it was exactly what I needed.