“I’m sorry,” Gunnar said and dropped on the floor behind me, placing his head on top of my back.
I didn’t answer. I wasn’t even sure what to say to him.
“I was angry at Bertram, and let it out on you. I shouldn’t have done that. It’s not your fault he is behaving this way.”
I sighed. “I know I’m only causing trouble for you, and honestly, I wish I could leave, but I doubt you agree with my sentiment.”
“I can’t and won’t hold you hostage. If you want to leave, you are free to do so. We never intended to make you feel trapped. We only want to make sure you and the people around are safe. I wouldn’t want you to switch into a wolf in the middle of the supermarket.”
I wanted to protest and deny those claims, but then I remembered what had happened earlier. “I doubt that would happen. She only takes over when she feels I won’t be able to protect us. But you still have a point.”
“There is no reason to rush the process. The trust between you and her might not be established again, but you are doing well.”
He licked my head, and I closed my eyes for a moment. “Doing well for a lost cause like me?”
Gunnar stopped, and I glimpsed up to meet his eyes. His eyes were warm, the coldness from earlier vanished. It was a relief to see that. Seeing him looking like that made my stomach turn.
“Don’t say that. You aren’t a lost cause. With all the things that happened to you, and with losing your wolf and pack, we expected there would be a few bumps in the road when you got your wolf back.”
“Gunnar, what do you know about what happened that day? Between the two packs and what happened to me?”
“I think I told you before, but no one actually knows what happened. We only heard rumors here and there, but overall it must have been quite the massacre.”
He continued grooming me as I stayed silent, enjoying the affection he showed me. It had been a while since I experienced this sort of interaction as a wolf, and I missed it.
After a few minutes of silence, I decided to tell him about it. It was only fair that he would know about the story of that day. My heart hammered in my chest, and I let out a shaky breath. “Would you like to know?”
He stopped and placed his head on my back again. “Would you be ready to tell me?”
“I don’t think I will ever feel ready, but it’s as ready as I could be.”
“Then I would like to know,” he said, and moved even closer to me.
My tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth as I tried to find the right words to start. I had never told this story to anyone before, and I feared reliving the past.
I took another deep breath and looked into his green eyes as he waited for me to start. He didn’t seem rushed or annoyed by my hesitation. It looked as if he was ready to wait the entire rest of the day if he had to.
“Hundreds of years ago, my pack used to have a very large territory, and because it was so large, we had an allied pack to protect it,” I started, trying to remember the story my grandparents told me. “Our focus was on protecting a so-called power place, a castle up a hill in the forest of my hometown. It held significant meaning to my ancestors, and it needed to be protected at all costs. The allied pack that was guarding the place with us was the Vindictoria pack. Usually, they were spread further away from us and their base was more on the outskirts of the territory, but a handful of Vindictoria wolves were always close by.”
Gunnar’s ears perked up. “It’s the place people still see as important even now, considering they wanted to claim the territory for that.”
“Yeah, remember I told you I didn’t believe in that? My parents didn’t either, it’s my grandparents who believed it. They also were the ones to warn us from the Vindictoria pack. We were supposed to stay away from them, as they are the enemy.”
He huffed. “I suppose your grandparents were right about not trusting them. Your alliance mustn’t have worked out.”
“Not at all. That’s why I’m so surprised the alliance works for your pack.”
“I think that’s because we are spread apart over different countries, so we don’t need to decide on things together a lot. We aren’t exactly sharing one territory. This way, everyone has power over their territory, but we know we can count on each other.”
I nodded and placed my head on my paws. “I guess that makes sense. But anyway, one night, the alpha of the Vindictoria pack decided to kill our alpha. His goal was to gain control over everyone and to take over the pack and fuse them. I never exactly understood what the castle had to do with it, but my grandparents said that it was so powerful, and in the wrong hands, it would cause immense damage. Which sounds rather surreal. It’s only a castle, after all. But they were fighting to the death that night, and when my pack found out about the attack on their alpha, they defended him. This is, of course, not honorable. You would know it best, but when alpha fights, no other wolf should interfere. They saw a reason to do so, though, and they killed the alpha and his small group of wolves he brought along. When the Vindictoria pack found out about the death of their alpha, plus the other wolves, they believed we have planned it. We had been betraying their trust, and they said it was cowardly to attack their alpha as a group, especially when he didn’t have as many wolves to protect him.”
He nudged me, and I pressed my body closer to his. “From their perspective, it was understandable to think that. I can see their point, but I know we were always a peaceful and non-violent pack. It was important for my grandparents that we were honorable and kind wolves, and we weren’t supposed to strive for power. Instead, they always spoke about balance. They never clarified what they meant by that, though. Anyway, the Vindictoria pack was furious, and the two packs fought each other for several years until they retreated and settled down in a different territory. They never stopped talking about revenge and that at some point we would get what we deserve for being the traitors we are.”
“That’s why you reacted so strongly when Bertram called you a traitor,” he said.
I nodded. “I struggled to believe that an old story like that would still be relevant hundreds of years later. Not to mention that I never even met anyone from the Vindictoria pack before, and in my mind, it should have been something long forgotten. I believed my grandparents when they said our ancestors didn’t betray anyone, but there was no proof of that. It was word against word. But outsiders looked at the situation and assumed the Vindictoria pack was right. Why should a smaller group of wolves attack a larger one? It didn’t make sense, and it still doesn’t. In the past, several packs didn’t even want to have anything to do with us anymore. Only when new generations were born, it slowly turned into a shadow of the past.”
I glanced at Gunnar. He looked at me with interest and didn’t seem unsettled by what I told him so far. A small part of me was afraid he would think we were traitors after all.
“The sad thing was that the bad blood within our packs remained. The younger generations of the Vindictoria pack grew up with hatred towards us, calling us traitors, murderers, and cowards. They didn’t believe that we didn’t start the fight, and only protected the territory and that castle,” I said, shaking my head. “But as I said, they weren’t the only ones not letting go. My grandparents warned me about them, even if I didn’t want to have anything to do with it. They never wanted me to forget that people who did nothing to me were my enemies.”
Gunnar remained silent and snuggled closer, probably feeling my anxiety building up. I felt fine talking about the past, but what was about to come now almost made me choke up thinking about it.
“It changed when a new alpha got chosen for the Vindictoria pack, all fueled up by history. On our side, my father was also very much involved in our history, thinking we still had to fix what we did wrong hundreds of years ago. Other than my grandparents, he thought we had a certain responsibility towards the pack. The Vindictoria alpha knew about the sentimental nature of my father and the peace he sought between the packs. That’s why, eight years ago, he invited my pack to his territory, planning to rest the case. My father accepted without hesitation, even though many fellow pack members were suspicious. Not to mention that he invited us to their territory, not even on neutral ground. But my father, for the first time since he became the alpha, ordered us to listen to him. And so we did.”
My pulse skyrocketed, and I felt nauseous. Speaking about it was like reliving it all over again. Gunnar leaned against me, helping me to feel grounded. It reminded me I wasn’t alone and that no one could hurt me right now.
“It all started peacefully, very different from what he had expected. All of us believed it might actually be the start of something new and that the younger generations finally moved on from the dark history that connected us. We all weren’t remotely part of what had happened after all. They showed us around the territory, showing off the beautiful nature, and acted like they wanted nothing more but peace. Even speaking about an alliance again. We were surprised by their behavior. From what we heard about them all the time was that they were supposed to be rude, dangerous, and violent. It was all part of the plan because what we failed to realize was that they had pushed us into the corner. They led us up to a cliff, surrounded by water. There was nowhere to escape, and that was the position they wanted us to be in. It’s when they attacked us out of nowhere, slaughtering my pack without mercy or the chance to defend ourselves. They said this was the long-awaited revenge for what we had done in the past, and that we finally experience what their ancestors had to endure back then. I still remember how my mother pulled me over to the edge of the cliff, away from the attack, as if it was yesterday. She frantically put the necklace around my neck and shoved me down the cliff, whispering foreign words I couldn’t understand. All the way down, I stared at her pale face as tears rolled down her face. Right before blackness overtook me, I saw a wolf jumping on her back and biting her throat.”
My voice broke, and a whimper left my throat. It was one of those pictures that won’t ever leave my memory. The ones that follow you in your dreams and shake you awake. My wolf whined in my head, crying after our family, and her heart was breaking as much as mine. She couldn’t remember the last memory of my mother, because she had already been locked away then. I felt bad for having her being part of her memory now. I had forgotten she didn’t know.
Gunnar licked my muzzle as I tried to calm down again. A few minutes had passed before I could continue.
“It was a miracle that I survived the impact on the water. I damaged my spine and hit my head on a rock, but I still somehow made it out of the water before drowning. I was in immense pain, but the most painful was the gaping hole I felt inside me. Losing my wolf overpowered everything else I felt, even the loss of my family.”
My wolf hummed in agreement. She couldn’t exactly explain to me what happened to her, but I could feel it, and it was filled with loneliness in a timeless space. It didn’t feel like years to her, more like falling asleep one day and waking up the next, with all the raw emotions still lingering in the back of her mind.
“I probably survived because the Vindictoria pack was so full of themselves. They didn’t even make sure that I died, and assumed I wouldn’t have survived the impact. And, with what I know now, they also felt my wolf disappear and with that, my pack’s signature. They had no reason to believe I was still alive.”
Gunnar placed his head on his paws and looked up at me. “From what we got told what happened, everyone believed there was no way anyone made it out alive.”
“I never knew what the rumors were exactly. What did the people say?”
He sighed. “After it happened, it of course wasn’t a secret for long, especially because the Vindictoria pack was pretty proud of their achievement. Killing an entire pack is not a simple task, after all. If it’s fair and square, anyway. But they claimed they invited you to settle an old conflict, but then they got attacked out of the blue and only acted in self-defense. Since the rumor about all members of the pack being traitors was still going around, plenty of people accepted the truth without questioning it. But we didn’t believe it, at least most of us didn’t.”
“Tyra told me that our packs had a conversation about an alliance in the past before. Apparently, we also handed over part of our territory to you because it was too large for us to take care of.”
He nodded. “Indeed. I was still young, but the alpha never gave us the impression that we had to think badly of you. But years later, after we heard of the incident, we didn’t want to involve ourselves. In the end, we thought all of you had died, and there was no one left to defend, and we had no proof to defend your honor, either. We probably should have looked into it more. Maybe we could have found you earlier.”
I shook my head. “I wouldn’t have involved myself in such a thing, either. Not when there was no one to save, but I wished my pack wouldn’t have died with such a reputation. Bertram made me experience for the first time that people actually thought badly of us. It’s only natural that the other pack members are cautious of me, too.”
Gunnar growled, his body vibrating. “Bertram always looks for a reason to stir trouble. His brother was very invested in conspiracy theories, and I never shared it with you, but he was in contact with the Vindictoria pack before he died.”
My stomach dropped. “What do you mean?”
“They have a certain reputation in the wolf community and are known for being rather extreme. Their ideals are very focused on more freedom for ancient wolves, and their revenge story hit the right spot for other extremists. Bertram’s brother was always very unhappy about the secretive way we lived and tried to take over the pack several times. He even hired lone wolves to assassinate part of my family. I think it rubbed off on Bertram, but I hope he can still redeem himself. I don’t believe the others see you as a traitor.”
I had a hard time believing that, not after seeing how the people reacted when Tyra showed me around. Besides, we had two separate incidents in the past, and both times, it looked like we were at fault. I’m sure some people would be inclined to believe such a rumor. But I didn’t want to argue with him.
“What did the humans think happened? Someone must have realized that a group of people just went missing.”
I laughed bitterly. “We didn’t have many contacts with humans, so they might have assumed we moved away. The wolves threw the bodies into the ocean after, and some bodies have been washed ashore, but they also couldn’t conclude who they were. They assumed it was an accident.”
He scoffed. “They didn’t know you had any relation to them?”
“No, they didn’t know I was part of it. And, they didn’t include me in any investigation either. It was the most surreal thing. When I woke up, I knew who I was, but everything inside me told me to lie. I had no ID on me, and since I haven’t been part of the human community, I also wasn’t in any database. My DNA or fingerprints led nowhere.”
“And they never thought the bodies that got washed ashore, without being able to identify them, and the girl who had the same thing happening, had something to do with each other?”
I shook my head. “No, which was a good thing. That way, no one publicly questioned who I was, and I didn’t want them to start a big news article about me. They suspected I had tried to commit suicide by jumping down that cliff, and they accepted my privacy. As much as I wanted to have the Vindictoria punished, I knew I couldn’t deal with them the human way. Wolf things are supposed to stay in the wolf community and are not meant to be dragged into the human one. So, all I could focus on was to leave their territory as fast as I could, before anyone might recognize me.”
Gunnar pressed his head against mine, and when he moved away, he nudged my nose with his. “Are you afraid of them?”
“If I’m honest, after a few years, I didn’t think about them much. I never returned to my hometown and when nothing happened, I felt safe. But now I know it’s also because no one even recognized me as a wolf, and I’m sure the word about a wolf from the Ruinas pack popping up out of nowhere will spread, eventually.”
Gunnar sat up. “We will protect you if we have to!”
I sighed and shook my head. “I know you mean well, but you shouldn’t go against them or get involved in this mess. I wouldn’t want you to risk your pack. I’m sure I will be fine.”
He didn’t answer, his eyes looking at a spot behind me, almost as if he was somewhere completely different in his head.
I sat up and searched his eyes until his gaze dropped back to me. “Gunnar, I want you to promise me that whatever happens, you will put your pack first. If protecting me means danger to your pack, don’t do it. I experience firsthand how it feels when an alpha acts selfishly, without considering his pack. Please, don’t be that way.”
He leaned in closer. “I promise you I will protect my pack. But Amalia, to me, it feels like you are part of it, too.”
I stared at him, speechless for a moment, my heart hammering in my chest. “You can’t think that way! It will bring you all in danger, and I don’t want that. You can’t associate me with your pack.”
I jumped up and paced back and forth. I didn’t want to admit that his words made me feel all fuzzy, and I wish I could accept them and feel like I was part of a pack again. But it would only be an illusion. I wasn’t part of their pack, and it was better that way. With all this dead weight on my back, I wouldn’t be a good addition to his pack. It was supposed to be something that should only burden me.
“What if you join then?”
I stopped in my tracks. He watched me with a calmness I could never muster in this situation.
“I can’t join your pack! If I don’t want to be associated with you, joining your pack was an even bigger no.”
My wolf agreed with me, feeling stirred up by that offer. She liked Gunnar and the pack, but she didn’t want to give up on being an alpha herself. We were still alive. The Ruinas pack was not dead, and she didn’t want that to change.
“Why not? If you joined us, I could protect you as part of my pack, and no one could speak about a foreign, lone wolf bringing trouble.”
I shook my head. “It would still be the same result. I would bring unnecessary danger to your pack. Besides, I have my territory, and my wolf doesn’t seem eager to give that up.”
“Are you sure that is the reason, or are you scared to have people you can call pack again? Scared to lose them all?”
My chest tightened as I stared at him, incapable of answering him.
“That’s it, right? It’s not that I don’t understand your reasoning, and I can also understand that your wolf doesn’t want to give up on the territory and to be an alpha. But if what you said is true, and the Vindictoria pack still holds a grudge, then having a pack might be the only way to survive. At least think about it for a while longer,” he said and moved over to me, nudging my face softly. “Thank you for being so open about this. I’m glad you can trust me. I hope you can rely on me more in the future. You’re not alone anymore.”
I stared at him, my thoughts racing. “I will think about it.”
He pushed his head against mine again. “That is all I want. You are very strong, I know that. But wolves are meant to be in a pack. That’s when we are the strongest. I would hate to lose you because you had been on your own.”
I knew he had a point. But I couldn’t bring an innocent pack in danger to save myself. It wouldn’t be the right thing to do. His pack doesn’t deserve the doom I might bring, as much as he thinks otherwise.