I sit in my room, peering out the window. Normally there wouldn’t be much to see, just the lush forest and an occasional animal scurrying by, or between, the other cabins. There’s only five others, spaced out around us. Our ‘village’ isn’t like the human kingdom, Saffron, nestled in the center of the forest. We are scattered, taking up only the space nature has allowed, rather than tearing it down for the sake of huddling in together.
My eyes land on my sister, who stands below, her expression serious as she addresses two of her advisers; Abden and Kirsa. They’re talking about the goblins that have entered our territory, again, in their attempts to reach Saffron. In the hundred years since these lands were granted to us, we’d repelled countless attacks like this one, yet each was still taken just as seriously as the last.
Though none were more uptight about it than Sila, who had spent the past twenty minutes consulting the advisers on who would be sent to back up the first wave; the veterans and best hunters among our tribe.
I already know that my name won’t be brought up, I’m not ’old enough’, just a boy as far as tradition is concerned. A bitter laugh chokes me when my friend, Gurn, makes the cut. He’s only my elder by two weeks, but because he had his coming-of-age ceremony a few days ago Sila grants him the opportunity to prove himself? It’s not fair.
Resentment bubbles up within me, I feel my jaw clench as I glare down at her in her black furs, stained from countless hunts. Her hair, black as the night of a new moon, blends with her clothing. I find it fitting, a dark mass obstructing me on my path.
She looks up at me, golden eyes glowing in the moonlight, and waves me off. I let out a deep, guttural growl as I turn away, my eyes landing on the large brown pelt laid out on the floor. It had belonged to a bear, until I’d taken it from him. I grin at the memory, the praise my teacher had given me, he told me I had become a man, a hunter, that day. Though Sila was too fixated on tradition to care.
The previous chief, my great uncle, was laid back and fairly well known for bending the rules. Not that it had gone over well. But his time caught up with him, he passed peacefully in his sleep a month ago, at the ripe old age of 96. Now that Sila was chief, the rules were back and more rigid than ever.
It was undeniable that she won the alpha tournament, no matter how much I wished otherwise. She’d out maneuvered each of the pack’s favorites and pinned them on their backs, dominating them. Not to mention everyone else who chose to go for the title. But I still couldn’t believe it, each morning since I woke wondering if it was all a dream.
You would think there’d be some perks to my sister being in charge of the pack, like being allowed to fight with my brethren a mere week before my coming-of-age ceremony for example, but no. ‘Traditions are to be upheld, not broken’, was the excuse she gave me, before she’d gone out to announce today’s ‘hunters’. I feel frustrated, but what am I supposed to do? Just charge off anyway? Maybe I should.
I run my fingers through my shaggy, thick hair, craning my neck a bit when it tickles my collar bone. Am I actually going to do this? Sila will be mad, but I’m not a weak little boy anymore, I will be sixteen in less than a week. I have every right to fight with the others, formalities be damned! So I have my answer. I’m going to disobey my sister, the chief, and prove myself to her and everyone else.
I sneak out through the kitchen window, hoping that I’m quiet enough not to be caught by my sister’s sensitive hearing. Landing on the balls of my bare feet, I run off into the trees without looking back. I know there won’t be much time before Sila and her advisers follow, they’re sure to notice my scent growing distant.
Quickly, I catch a whiff of my brethren and those vile things, easily distinguishable from the smell of animals and the various plants that call our woods home. Their kind always reek. I can never decide whether they smell more like a rotting carcass or fresh crap. I’m closing the gap between us, I’ve never been this close to the goblins before! I can’t help but shiver in excitement, despite the assault on my nostrils.
There is nothing like the thrill of the hunt, the raw adrenaline is addicting and the recognition that came with a job well done was more than enough to urge my desires on. I don’t dare stop to transform, fear of Sila catching up keeps my feet pounding on the dirt, as though I’m being tugged along by some invisible force.
I join my brethren, bursting through the dense trees and receive a curious look from my teacher, Balt. His bright blue gaze asks why I’m here, as he shakes blood from his sleek black coat. Even in wolf form, he looks more intimidating than anyone I’d ever met. I wonder if he’ll force me to go back, or allow me to stand at his side. It’s hard to tell with him, my teacher was the most unreadable man I’d ever met.
I don’t have the chance to answer his silent question before I find myself dodging an axe, instincts moving me before I’d consciously sensed the attack. Kicking the ugly green creature square in the throat, I finally allow the animal to take over. My body begins to convulse, pain searing through me as my bones seem to shatter apart, only to reform. Then my muscles begin doing the same, I briefly regret my fairly muscular build before a new sensation has me hissing all over again.
It feels like needles are flying out of my skin, but it’s only my snowy white coat of fur growing, wrapping me in it’s warm embrace. The tips of my fingers seem like they’re splitting open, I know my claws are forcing their way out. The transformation is torturous, but something all of my kind must accept.
I swallow down most of it, but the teeth are the worst. Blood assaults my taste buds, the intense burning along my gums is too much. It’s as though I’m chomping down on a bonfire and the flames are still licking around my mouth. Despite my training, I can’t help the canine yelp that slips from my throat, as the shaking finally comes to a stop. If it hadn’t been for Balt having moved in to keep the enemy back, I likely would have been killed during transformation. I nod gratefully at him, then charge off into the fray.
I’m eager for the kill, rushing toward a small cluster of goblins, relishing the fearful look in their widened eyes. My teeth easily pierce the flesh of one, causing brief screams to erupt from its throat. The next meets its end at my claws, tearing a diagonal fissure from the creature’s throat down its chest. Slimy blood washes over the ground, dying it a sharp green as the enemy numbers fall. We are the predators of these woods, not them, and I am as happy to remind them as the rest of my brethren.
I’m lost in the frenzy, ripping, tearing away at their less agile forms. It’s so much more exciting than the drills. The beasts of the forest hold no weapons, no real intelligence, the pride that came with besting a goblin was on a whole other plane. The critters we practice on know to run, or put up little fight. The goblins know battle, they live it much as we live the hunt.
Each bite I take from their wrinkly green flesh only leaves me leaping for the next, then another, until my white fur turns green with blood. The approving nod I receive from my teacher pushes me forward into another group of goblins, I’m eager to impress him more, to solidify myself as a true hunter.
I land on one of the green creatures, knocking it on its back before I snap at it, taking a chunk out of one cheek as it squirms and screams beneath me. The next bite finishes him and leaves a fountain of blood gushing out of its neck. Balt takes the next kill from me, his sharp claws nearly separating the creature at its waist. He looks at me and I immediately know what he’s thinking, he’s testing me. He wants to compete. Pride swells within me, I arch my back, stretching before we both choose our next victim.
Like usual, it doesn’t take long to clean up and soon we were all back in our human form, relatively no worse for wear. The excitement pulses through me, a grin stuck on my once again human face, as I start over to Balt. I don’t make it halfway before a familiar voice has a chill running down my spine, straightening it.
“Arken!” Sila calls out for a second time, I can hear the rage in her tone. I expected it, but that didn’t keep my muscles from tensing up. Resentment swells within me as I turn to face her, why can’t she let me enjoy my victory? She sure enjoyed hers, in fact, she’s still enjoying it.
Gritting my teeth, I suck in the iron-y taste of blood and walk over to her. “Yes, Chief?”
“You disobeyed me.” Her eyes, somewhat darker gold than mine, narrow as she continues. “Or did you forget that you weren’t allowed to come here?”
“It’s not like I got in the way.” I can’t help but brag. “I took care of at least a dozen goblins myself.” I lick some blood from my face, it’s still warm, then wipe the rest away with my hand.
“You know the tradition, you aren’t to participate in these hunts until after your ceremony.” Sila’s tone reminded me of when I was younger and she would flaunt her age at me. I hated when she treated me like I was a child, even back then, but to do it now? It infuriates me.
My face hot with rage, I don’t realize how close I’ve gotten when I reply. “I’m not a child anymore, I’m a hunter!” My heart pounds in my chest, I blame it on my anger, I can’t admit my fear of her- not even to myself. Sila is ruthless. She’d stepped over our father in her quest for power, and she cares far more for him than she ever has me.
Her arms cross as she stares at me, leaving me to stew in the silence before she finally speaks. “Your ceremony will be pushed back one month, if you disobey me again I will make it a season.” Her tone is as cold as her expression, stabbing at me with no regard. Hitting me where it hurts most, my pride.
I immediately cry out. “That’s not fair!” My hands ball into shaky fists at my side, I open my mouth to protest more, but she raises a hand to silence me.
Her eyes are fierce, like golden swords pinning me where I stand. The thinly veiled rage I see within them freezes me as she replies. “Neither is me having to worry about my own brother going against my wishes.” With that she turns to walk away, only to stop after a few feet and look back at me from over her shoulder. Her expression softens, her frown no longer angry. “This is not just for my own selfishness, as you think. It is important to follow tradition and you know that, with my new status, you are likely to be the elders’ choice.”
I growl to myself as she walks away, the last thing I want is some dumb arranged marriage. Especially not one to some pampered princess, I bet she couldn’t last one night out here.