I scrambled to the nearest tree, attempting to get off the ground to cover my tracks. My hands were cut and bleeding from falling down a rocky shore moments before, but I kept pushing forward. Each breath was like swallowing glass as I was pretty sure that the Hunters broke most of my ribs on my left side, but I kept going. I reached the nearest branch about thirty feet above the ground. After hauling myself to it, I clung to the trunk, panting as I tried to collect my thoughts and think past the pain coursing through my body. I listened. For the yelling of the Hunters, for any sign that they were catching up with me. Nothing. Trembling, I dug my nails into the bark as I listened to the darkness. I just needed a place to lay low until I could assess my injuries.
The forest grew darker, the trees seeming to wither into skeletal husks. Even the birds hushed themselves. Rustling sounded in the trees. The last of the light slipped away. A guttural howl rippled in the distance, like two rocks scraping against each other. Every hair on my body rose. The Hunters were nearing. They were full-fledged Shifters. They knew this darkness better than me. I had half a mind to stay on this branch until morning but knew I was trapped if the Hunters found me.
I began shaking again. I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply, focusing on staying alive. I had been running for over ten years; I wouldn’t stop now. Gathering the last of my energy, I ran down the branch just as something crashed through the brush nearby, snarling viciously. I pushed off the end of my extension and launched myself into the tree across from me. The wolf below me loosed a whine, but I paid it no attention. Tree to tree, I jumped so fast to put any distance between us. Cool command had my eyes widening, shifting as I ran down another branch and jumped to the next. I landed, and the night forest became bright. I kept my attention on the trees in front of me.
My confidence grew until I jumped to another branch, and it snapped beneath my weight. Panic tore through me as I tumbled through the air, my body barking in agony as I shattered through wood, pine, and leaf. Down and down, I fell until I hit solid ground. There was no air in my body for a few seconds as I struggled to catch my breath. I had to keep moving. I tried to scramble to my feet, and the mud squelched as I swung my arms as I teetered and slipped. Before I could make my next move, leaves crackled behind me, and my gut dropped as I slowly turned around to see glowing red eyes low to the ground. The silhouette of the eyes slowly came out of the bush, revealing a wolf. His lips curled over his gleaming teeth as he slowly approached me, a low growl emitting from his chest. It was just one Hunter.
I could take one Hunter; I had in the past on pure luck. Convincing myself that I could do it again was proving to be complicated. The grayish wolf gave a slight lunge towards me with a loud snarl startling me as I slipped once more in the mud and fell on my ass. The wolf stalked towards me as I groaned once more. More rustling sounded all around, and more wolves emerged into the clearing. All with blood-red eyes and all with their teeth bared. The first wolf had been a distraction so that they could surround me. Now there was no escape. There was a total of five wolves around me. The biggest one with dark black fur huffed a breathy laugh as he moved to be in front of me.
“Finally,” he growled, panting slightly. “I can promise you there is no escape now.” My lips puckered and trembled as a whimper slipped past them.
“Please,” I begged quietly. It was my last resort at this point. “I didn’t do anything.” The leader let out another chuckle.
“Don’t play stupid with me, Traitor.” I narrowed my eyes at him in confusion.
“What—what do you mean?”
“I’m not going to give you a chance to find out. Pretty soon, you’re going to be begging for death.” With a loud snarl, he bunched his headquarters, preparing himself to leap. When he launched, I closed my eyes and waited for the crushing of his canines in my skull. Before it could come, a loud thud followed by a whimper echoed through the clearing. Reluctantly, I opened my eyes to see a giant beast pinning my assailant to the ground. My savior had the smaller wolf’s throat in his jaws, squeezing slightly, causing another whimper. I glanced around the clearing to see the other Hunters crouching low to the ground, and I didn’t blame them. More wolves entered, all with shades of dark fur and bright blue eyes. Their size also gave away what they were. They were at least three times the standard size of a wolf. I gasped in shock.
“Guardians.” I breathed. Guardians were at the top of the food chain, protecting our King Alpha, who ruled over all the packs. The King himself explicitly chose each Guardian. To challenge a Guardian would be to challenge the King. The Hunters whimpered and cowered lower to the ground as the aura in the clearing grew stronger. It was the Guardians emitting their dominance, and if I were a full fledge Shifter, I would be right there with them, cowering and whimpering for mercy. But I could still feel it in my human form; it was like having a weight just sitting on my chest, and the only way to get rid of it was to submit. Two Guardians survived; the other Hunters watched as two more Guardians took up either side of me. I jumped, and my breath hitched as a cold nose nuzzled my arm. I looked to my right to see a pair of brilliant, warm blue eyes staring at me. He had pure white thick fur like freshly fallen snow. His aura was suffocating as I tried to catch my breath. He must have realized that he was overpowering me because he lowered his aura, allowing me to inhale sharply.
“Explain yourself before I rip your throat out for trespassing.” My savior growled menacingly at the Hunter beneath him. The Hunter whined as he tried to roll onto his back to show submission.
“I’m sorry, sir.” The Hunter whined. “I didn’t realize how far we traveled. Please forgive us.” The Guardian snarled.
“And the girl? Why are you hunting her?” The white wolf nuzzled my arm again, and I realized he was trying to get me to stand on my feet. I slowly encircled my arm around his neck, worried that any sudden movement might have him attack me. My fingers tangled themselves in his fur, the softest thing I had felt in years. He slowly raised his head, pulling me up until I was steady on my feet. He was so tall I barely stood at the height of his shoulder. I didn’t dare move as I watched the lead Guardian.
“We’re Hunters, sir; it’s what we do. We hunt.” The Guardian snarled and latched his jaws around the Hunter’s throat again, putting more pressure.
“You should be killed for that reason alone.” The Guardian let go of his throat and turned towards me. The Hunter remained where he was. I examined the lead Guardian as he slowly stalked towards me. He had dark brown fur that almost blended into the night with the same brilliant eyes as everyone else. He towered over me, and I trembled in the spot, and he lowered his face to sniff me. He growled and bared his teeth as he turned back to the Hunter. “She’s not even of age! She hasn’t even had her first shift!” He growled loudly, his dominating aura flooding the area. The Hunters buried their faces in the ground, trying to submit as much as possible. “She is now under the protection of the Guardians. Anyone who comes after her again will be punished by death. Now leave!” Without needing to be told twice, the wolves got to their paws and raced back into the darkness. The lead Hunter got to his paws, but before disappearing with the rest of the pack, he glared at me. His blood-red eyes burned into me, and then he was gone. The leader turned back to me, his ice eyes fixing solely on me. I involuntarily clutched the white wolf’s fur tighter as he approached me. His predatory stare made my knees tremble. Or they could have been shaking because I hadn’t eaten anything in days. He stopped before me and lowered his head to be at eye level with me. “You’ll be coming with us.”
“P-p-please.” I stuttered. “I don’t want to cause any problems. I’ll just go. I promise I won’t come back.” The Guardian huffed and shook his head.
“That’s not your call. You’re under our protection now. You’ll be speaking to the King Alpha about your fate.” I could have passed out from fear. The King Alpha? I think I would rather have died with the Hunters. “You look like you’re about to drop dead right here. Connor will give you a ride back.” The Guardian shouldered past us as the three other Guardians fell in line behind him and disappeared into the woods. Connor, the white wolf, knelt next to me, his underbelly fur tainted with mud. I looked down at his face and could have sworn he gave me a reassuring grin. Reluctantly, I grabbed a handful of his fur and hauled myself onto his back. He didn’t move until I was situated behind his shoulder blades. Slowly, he rose and turned to follow the group. I clung to his neck fur for dear life to keep myself from swaying. Whether I was clinging too tightly or not, Connor gave no sign that I was hurting him. It felt like the walk took hours, but we finally broke through the trees to a massive manor surrounded by white brick walls and an iron gate. The estate was veiled with ivy, with patios and balconies coming off its sides. The iron gates opened to a gravel drive, and we walked through them to where a fountain sat halfway to the manor’s entrance.
Standing next to the fountain were two men talking. The smaller one was slim and lean, with blonde hair and brown eyes. The other male was tall with dark hair, and when he turned towards us, my breath hitched in my throat. The strong dominating aura was coming off him in waves, giving himself away. The Alpha King. He was the most beautiful male I had ever seen. As we approached him, everyone except for Connor shifted back to their human form. They stood naked before their king, but no one in the courtyard was phased. It was natural being a Shifter. Couldn’t really keep clothes on when you Shifted into a wolf.
“Cody.” The king greeted the head of the group.
“My king.” Cody returned the greeting, baring his neck in submission.
“What was the trouble on the border?”
“See for yourself, Lord King.” Cody waved a hand in my direction as he stepped aside along with the three other males. Connor knelt back down to the ground so I could easily slide off his back. The King never took his eyes off me as he slowly approached me, his aura getting stronger and stronger. I wanted to do nothing but kneel before him and submit, but something kept me standing upright. Connor stepped aside so the king could circle me, looking me over from head to toe before stopping back in front of me. He towered over me in human form; his wolf form must be massive. I lowered my eyes from him to show any sign of submission to him. Tight fingers pressed against my chin, forcing me to tilt my head to look at him. My eyes locked on his deep brown eyes with a hint of green around the irises. His nostrils flared, and a muscle feathered in his clenched jaw. He was gorgeous, and I must have looked like a disaster in his eyes.
“What is your name, love?” His voice was low and gentle, but authority clouded his tone. I opened my mouth to answer, but I became entirely speechless. Seconds passed that felt like minutes. I swallowed hard, trying to get my mouth and brain to work in unison.
“Rie—Rieka, King Alpha.” My voice came out as a squeak, barely more than a whisper.
“Rieka…” He said my name like it was a puzzle piece he had been searching for for a long time. “And what were you doing on my land, Rieka?” Again, I became speechless, unable to answer. His aura was suffocating. I wanted nothing more than to submit to him and let the weight of his dominance overtake me. When I didn’t speak, Cody cleared his throat.
“King Conri, she—” Cody began to speak, but the King cut him off with a vicious growl thrown over his shoulder.
“She can answer herself. Now, tell me, Rieka, what were you doing on my land? Do not make me repeat myself. I do hate repeating myself.” I swallow again, begging my body to fight against his aura.
“The Hun-hunters, Lord King.” I breathed. “They were chasing me.” He studied me for a moment, looking me up and down again.
“I don’t know, your grace.” He pursed his lips in thought.
“I have given her the Guardians’ Protection from the Hunters, my king,” Cody informed him.
“And as such, she will have to earn her keep.” The king muttered quietly. “Unless you would rather take your chances with the Hunters?” He raised an eyebrow at me in question. Earn my keep for protection? That seemed fair enough. I couldn’t take my chances out there with the Hunters still probably lurking around the borders. I lowered my eyes in submission.
“I’ll do whatever it is you ask of me, sir .” The king finally let go of my chin before sniffing the air heavily. I probably smelt like filth.
“Are you injured?” I was going to be working for the King for his protection. There was no way I would let on that I couldn’t do the work they asked of me.
“No, King Alpha.” I barely raised my eyes to see his nostrils flare and his jaws clench tighter.
“Follow me.” He turned on his heel, and I reluctantly followed him, eyes from everyone in the courtyard watching me. He led me through a giant pair of dark oak doors into a magnificent foyer with a mahogany staircase. He led me past the stairs to the kitchen, where women were bustling about, trying to prepare for what looked like dinner. My mouth began to water at the smell of cooked meat and dinner rolls. Rosemary simmering over a roasting chicken, fresh bread in the oven. When everyone saw the King enter the room, they all stopped for a second to give a quick bow or bare their neck to him but returned to their work. “Annika.” Within seconds, a beautiful young lady wearing a dark blue dress and a white apron appeared before the king, giving him a curtsy. She had thick brown hair tucked neatly in a bun, her heart-shaped face fitting with her full lips and bright green eyes. She was beautiful, despite the four-inch scar going down the left side of her face, over her eye.
“Yes, King Conri?” The king waved a hand in my direction.
“I have a new servant for you to Train. Find her some clean clothes.” Annika gave another curtsy.
“Yes, Lord King. Follow me—?”
“Rieka,” I whispered as I allowed Annika to lead me through the kitchen and into one of the back halls that was dimly lit. The hallway was filled with rooms; some doors were ajar, allowing me to peer into them as I passed. They were little rooms, some with bunk beds, most likely for the servants. Halfway down the hallway, Annika stopped by a little closet and stepped inside, pulling me in with her. She tapped a finger on her chin as she looked me over, trying to decide my size. Annika turned to the shelves and looked through them before grabbing a pair of dark pants and a blue shirt. She handed them to me, and I gingerly took them from her. She looked at my feet.
“Hmm, you have such tiny feet, but I believe…” her voice trailed off as she turned back to the shelf and reached towards the back before pulling out a pair of black flats. “These should fit. The bathroom is at the end of the hall, but—” Before Annika could finish her sentence, the door to the closet opened. The king stepped in and leaned against the doorway with his arms crossed over his chest. “Is there something I can help you with, my king?” The king shook his head once and remained silent. “Okay, Rieka, I’ll show you to the bathroom so you can change.” Annika tried to leave the closet to show me, but the King remained in the doorway.
“She can change here.” The blood drained from my face. Annika looked just as astonished as I did.
“Sir? She—” The king fixed his gaze on Annika, his hazel quickly flashing electric blue once.
“She lied to me. She changes here.” Annika bowed her head.
“Yes, King Alpha. Do as he says, Rieka.” My heart was beating so hard I thought it would break more of my ribs.