“You don’t have to do this,” my elder brother Cyrus said as he paced the floor of the home I shared with my younger brother Oslo. Our parents were long gone, and now it was just me and my two brothers. Cyrus was married off with two pups of his own and little Oslo lived with me.
I looked up at him. “Yes I do. It’s mandatory, Cy; the summons says that the most dominant female—”
Cyrus cut me off, looming over me with his towering height. “I don’t care about the summons! The king will have plenty of wives to choose from, no need to get killed trying to—”
“Excuse me?” I stood on my tiptoes and poked him in the chest; now it was my turn to cut him off. “You don’t think I can win?”
Cyrus looked slightly ashamed. “Zara, I trained you myself, I know you are a powerful warrior, but to go against all of the most dominant females in Fallenmoore just to win the king’s hand?”
Silence descended on the room. I didn’t want this opportunity, especially not with Axil Moon. We had a history, one that I tried to forget every summer. Cyrus knew that. But we had received a mandatory order and I was no coward.
“To enter the Queen Trials means death,” my little brother said from his spot on the couch, looking up at me like a scared little boy. At twelve years old he could fend for himself if I died, but I was like a mother figure to him. He’d have no one to tuck him in at night or show him the ways of the wolf.
“What about the status this would bring to our family?” I asked them. “The positions of power you and Oslo would get if I won?”
My brothers were dominant – but not dominant enough to be alpha of our pack, and yet not submissive enough to be taken care of by its members either. They fought over resources and had to fend for themselves, like most midpack wolves. If I entered the trials and won, not only would I become queen of our people, but it would also launch both of my brothers into a place where they were paid dues simply for breathing. The family of the queen wanted for nothing. New furs every winter, food and lodging that was all gifted by the king, and they were given places of honor in the royal wolven army.
My elder brother crossed his arms and assessed me with his gaze. I was twenty summers old now; he could not deny that I had grown into a woman. I could hold the stare of even the strongest male members of my pack without cowering and my muscles looked like they’d been carved from stone. I was no longer the little scrappy girl he’d taught to fight by the riverbank. I was third in command of this pack, just under the alpha and his second. That was no small feat for a female.
“Zara, if you win, you would have to marry King Axil. You’re okay with that? After your history together?” he asked.
“What history?” my little brother piped up
“You don’t need to know,” Cyrus and I both shot back.
I swore I could still feel Axil’s lips on mine when I closed my eyes at night and thought about those two summer months at the dominant wolves training camp when we were fifteen.
My first love. Or what I’d thought was love when I was just a little pup. I was basically a mother to my little brother even then, constantly weighed down with the responsibilities of household duties. Axil had been a breath of fresh air. I hadn’t known he was the prince at the time; I lived in a tiny village far from Death Mountain, where the royal court resided. We’d laughed and talked for hours. Kissed under the moonlight and danced until our feet felt like they were going to fall off. For two months straight I ate, drank and breathed Axil Moon. It was only when his elder brother caught us making out that last day of camp that I realized who he was, and everything came crashing to a halt.
I could still remember the fight they’d had right in front of me.
“I love her,” Axil had told his brother.
“You don’t love women like that, Axil; you bed them and move on to someone more suitable from Death Mountain. You’re a prince, start acting like one. Let’s go, before someone sees you.”
I’d been crushed. Axil had spoken of a future together, of wanting to visit me and me him, of one day wanting to marry me. I’d expected him to tell his brother to eat dirt but instead he’d lowered his head and walked away without another word.
He just left. Throwing me away like villager trash. It’s not like I had any idea he was Prince Axil, brother of King Ansel, or that I’d just had a fling with royalty that would never happen again. I was beneath him.
“Zara.” Cyrus brought me back to the moment.
I looked my brother in the eyes, holding his gaze easily. “Yes, I would marry him. To prove that a villager from the Mud Flats can make a queen,” I snarled, a growl building deep in my throat. And to prove to Axil Moon and his brother that I was good enough. Status did not make a queen in Fallenmoore. Brute force, dominance, cunning and power in battle did. The trials were a literal fight to the death – or forfeit, but no one with any self-respect did that. You would be torn apart by your pack and bring your family shame for three generations.
My brother appraised me differently now, walking around me in a slow circle. “That’s the attitude you would need to win this.”
We were back in our roles of coach and student. I’d been sparring with Cyrus since I was three years old and barely learning to shift into my wolf form.
“Dorian would be sad to lose you. You will need his permission.” My brother spoke of our alpha. Cyrus was right. As the most dominant female member of our pack I would be a loss to the Mud Flat pack. I kept all of the other dominant women in line but if I did this, if I won the trials, I would bring great honor to Dorian and all of my packmates. I was still holding my brother’s gaze, waiting for his approval. In our weird little family, he was like a father to me and I wouldn’t enter without his okay.
The summons came in as a mandatory invitation, but if the alpha of the pack didn’t want to let that specific female go, or she was already spoken for romantically, another could be sent in her stead. Morgan could go in my place; she was the next in line of succession where dominance was concerned.
“Go ask him. If he says yes, I’ll train you,” my brother finally said, breaking eye contact with me.
Cyrus was a well-sought-after battle trainer. He might not have been dominant enough to be an alpha, but his cunning and strategy in fights was unmatched in our area. He’d even traveled to Death Mountain to train some of the Royal Guard. What he lacked in muscle he made up for in intelligence.
“I’ll tell him. Not ask.” I corrected my brother’s submissive thinking.
Cyrus chuckled. “Good luck with that.”
Dorian was a fair alpha, tough at times, but fair. The term ‘tough love’ must have been coined for him. When I was thirteen, I stole some extra food from the community storeroom because I was bored and he starved me for four days and nights with water only. I never stole food again. Dorian earned respect; he didn’t ask for it blindly.
Nodding to my brother, I grasped the summons that had come from Death Mountain. It had gone out to all cities and villages in Fallenmoore and this one had my name on it. I wondered if Axil even knew that I’d be coming or if his advisors had sent this to me. It had been five years since I saw him, a boy who was now king.
I swooped down to ruffle my little brother’s hair.
“Be right back.”
Oslo seemed sad, and I knew he didn’t want this for me because it could take me away from him. Bending down, I looked him right in the eyes, holding his gaze. “If I become queen, you can come live with me at Death Mountain palace,” I told him, and his entire face lit up.
I nodded and he glanced away, no longer able to look into my eyes. He was the most submissive in our family and it made me want to protect him all the more.
“What if you die?” he asked, his voice small.
Cyrus reached out and roughed him up a bit, shaking his shoulders tightly and forcing Oslo to punch him to get him off. “Then she dies with honor and we will howl her name at the moon every year in remembrance,” Cyrus said.
Cyrus was right, dying during the Queen Trials was a great honor.
The contest to become queen only happened when the king needed a wife. My mother traveled to the city and saw the trials with Axil’s father, and three years ago I’d followed the one with his brother Ansel closely from here, but I never got to go see it in person. Axil took the pack from his brother the following year in a challenge fight, leaving him alive as a mercy.
Stepping out of my home, I made my way across the village square. The pack was out and about. Some of the women were skinning a fresh kill and a few men were in wolf form, sparring off to the side and practicing their hunting takedowns. A fresh hut was being built for a newly married couple and the sun was high in the sky. It was a beautiful day in our sleepy village but I knew if I did this, I would be yanked from my normal and into the bustling capital city of Death Mountain.
I knocked on the door of Dorian’s home and he called out immediately. “Come in, Zara.”
I grinned: damn, his sense of smell was second to none. I opened the door and found him eating a plate of meat and potatoes. His wife was tending a pot on the stove and nodded to me as I walked in.
Amara was the most submissive member of our pack. She rarely ever made eye contact and avoided confrontation at all costs. She was a peacemaker, which I loved about her. Any civil dispute was brought to Amara first to see if there was a more harmonious outcome possible. If that wasn’t the case, it was brought to me and I was the harsher problem solver. They called me ‘the punisher’ because I liked to dole out penalties like those that Dorian had given to me, in order to teach wolves lessons they would never forget. Until you had felt the pangs of hunger eating your stomach inside and out, you didn’t know what it was like to want to really want to steal food, and you’d never do it out of boredom. It toughened me and taught me things I felt would serve me better than a slap on the wrist.
I pulled up a chair, dropped the summons in front of my alpha and then sat down.
“I got one too,” he said, sucking on a piece of meat and then he looked up at me and I held Dorian’s gaze. My alpha was nearly as big as a bearin. He was packed with muscle and though he was over forty winters old, he moved with the speed and grace of a trained killer. His short-cropped hair was dark brown, threaded through with gray that bled into his salt-and-pepper beard. But it was his eyes that held me now, deep brown with flecks of yellow; they felt like they pierced my very soul when I looked into them.
Dorian and I sat there for a full minute just staring at each other while Amara whistled to herself and stirred whatever was in the pot on the stove. It felt like a heavy weight had settled over my shoulders while my mind wanted me to look away, but my willpower was much stronger. Just when I thought I might go insane holding that stare, he spoke.
“You really want to do this?” he asked and I broke his gaze to look down at the summons, catching my breath after the sustained eye contact. I had to show him I was capable of this, that I was strong enough to do it.
“I do. I want to bring honor to our people and show the fancy king and his brother that a girl from Mud Flat pack can wipe the floor with any of his city wolves.”
My alpha grinned but then his smile faltered. “And competing for Axil Moon’s heart is okay with you?”
My breath hitched. Dorian had been the one to pick me up from camp that summer. After Axil had broken me, Dorian, Amara and Cyrus had been the ones to help put me back together. He knew how badly Axil’s rejection had affected me.
I met his stare, trying to hide the vulnerability I was feeling. “I have to. I need to show Axil Moon that he was wrong about me.”
Dorian nodded curtly. “Then I have one condition, Zara.”
“Name it.” I sat erect.
“My condition is that you do not forfeit,” he stated. “I want you to be queen or to die trying.”
Chills rushed down my spine and I swallowed hard. Of course I wanted that too. I’d always been taught it was dishonorable to tap out, but … if it really came down to it, could I just … allow myself to be killed to keep honor in my pack?
I had the distinct feeling this was another one of his lessons. To see how badly I wanted this, how ready I was for it.
He leaned forward, his eyes suddenly gleaming with emotion. “Zara, you have always been my favorite. But if you bend the knee to some pompous city wolf, I will have to kill you myself and I don’t want to do that.”
Amara stopped stirring and made a whining sound in her throat. But Dorian’s words gave me pride, there was a compliment layered deep somewhere in there.
“I will win or I will die trying, Alpha,” I promised him.
He reached for the paper and handed me back the summons. “Then reply yes. I assume Cyrus is training you?”
I nodded. “Yes, Alpha.”
“You only have two weeks to prepare. I’ll help train you as well. And Morgan will join us.”
My heart pinched with pride. For the alpha to take time away from all the busy dealings of running a pack of over fifty wolves was a big deal.
“Thank you, Alpha. I’ll make you proud,” I vowed and stood, grasping the summons tightly between my fingers.
He gave me a curt nod and then went back to tearing into his elkin meat. As I turned to leave, Amara streaked across the room and pulled me into a hug.
I was caught off guard at first. Dominant wolves weren’t big on displays of emotion so I wasn’t keen on hugging, but Amara was like a second mother to me. When my own mother died in childbirth with Oslo, I was only eight years old. My father, the last alpha of our pack, before Dorian, had died a few months prior in a bearin attack on a hunting trip. Our entire family was devastated with the loss of our mom and dad.
But the pack had rallied around us, to help make sure we had what we needed until we came of age and could fend for ourselves. They brought food, blankets, came to clean the house and play with us. But it was Amara, who was in her early twenties at the time, newly married to the alpha, who had come every single night for four years and sung me and Oslo to sleep. She would pat our backs and sing old songs that my mother used to when I was a young babe. She taught me how to feed Oslo from a milk bag and to change his soiled linens.
I never forgot that kindness.
“I’ll miss you.” Her voice cracked and my throat pinched.
“I’ll miss you too, Amama,” I said, and she burst into laughter.
Amara had become a second mama to me, so I called her Amama for a while as a young child and it was what Oslo called her now.
When she pulled back, she was crying. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d cried.
“Alright that’s enough, you’ll soften her too much,” Dorian told his wife with a smile and I grinned.
After leaving their hut, I opened the summons again and read it for the tenth time.
To: Mud Flat pack
The royal wolven advisors who serve King Axil are requesting your most dominant female wolven, Zara Swiftwater, to appear at Death Mountain in two weeks’ time to enter the Queen Trials.
Winner takes the throne.
Please send your response via courier immediately. A dominant replacement may be sent.
Name of contestant or replacement:
I stepped inside our house and retrieved a quill and ink from my father’s old desk.
Cyrus was silent as he watched me write Zara Swiftwater in the contestant’s name spot and then yes under Alpha approval. I handed it to him.
“Dorian and Morgan will help train me as well,” I told him.
He looked impressed at that, and through our pack link I could feel his excitement mixed with apprehension over his little sister entering the trials. As a wolven packmate, there were times when you didn’t even need to speak, one could sense the others’ thoughts or emotions as if they were your own. And because he was my brother our bond was especially close. As a pack, we could all speak to each other mentally in wolf form but as humans there were just wisps of feelings floating by that you had to intuit.
Cyrus walked over to the storage locker we kept by the couch that had all of my training equipment inside. Flinging it open, he looked at me. “I’ll get this to a courier. You get ready, we start right away.”
“We have two weeks,” I pled. Training with my brother was no small feat, he took the task very seriously.
“We should have started six months ago,” he growled, and left the room.
I peered over at my little brother, who was watching me from the couch, and tipped my chin high, hoping to look strong and unafraid. When his bottom lip quivered as he tried to hold in his tears, I sighed. He was so much like my mother, always wearing his heart and emotions out in the open. I was more like my father, physically strong, mentally tough and slightly emotionally dead inside. It’s just who I was and how I operated. It was a survival technique.
“Listen, kiddo,” I told him. “This is the way to bring honor to our family name and to the pack. I will not disappoint us.”
Oslo frowned, tucking his knees up to his chest. “I don’t care about honor. I just don’t want you to get hurt.”
I knew in that moment I’d babied him too much and that he was far too soft to survive even midpack. He’d be a submissive like our mother and be relegated to menial tasks within our village, and that saddened me. But maybe that’s what he wanted. A life free of hunting and fighting and all the things that got my blood pumping. He was twelve now and this was when your wolf really settled into who they were. A dominant or submissive.
Walking over, I ruffled his hair. “Well regardless, I’ll make everyone proud anyway.”
It was either that, or a body bag. I wasn’t a quitter. I would bend the knee only if it were broken from my leg.