The alpha wolf pursued the lone doe through the forest. Weaving between trees, he kept his eyes fixed on her bounding legs, the prospect of a fresh kill motivating him. They found her with her family drinking from a nearby stream. When the alpha howled to alert the pack for a chase, the deer scattered. The doe was the slowest, the weakest, and the smallest, but large enough to satisfy the empty pit in his belly.
The footfalls of his pack following close tickled his ears. To his left and right, the beta of the pack and a swift female pulled ahead to flank their prey. The swift female wolf reached the little doe first. Her jaws snapped down on the delicate flesh of her leg, ripping flesh and fur free in a snarl. The beta closed in seconds later on a flailing front leg, preventing her from escape. In a sprint, the alpha wolf silenced the screams by ripping open the little doe's throat. Raising his face to the shining blue moon, the alpha howled in victorious elation before returning to lap up the hot, sweet blood.
Aleckster woke up from his dream howling at the top of his lungs like a wolf. The taste of blood and deer flesh still fresh on his tongue turned his stomach. Throwing the covers off in a scuffle, he managed to crawl his way to his chamber pot to retch. Looking down at the contents of his dinner with a sore stomach and a headache, he fought the urge to throw the porcelain basin across the room for the satisfaction of breaking it to pieces. He reined in his anger and decided against having to mop up vomit.
The door to his bedroom burst open and Teena, one of the maids, stuck her head in.
“Are you alright, milord?”
“Fine, Teena,” Aleckster snapped. “Just a little stomach sickness.”
“I heard howling and I thought—”
“I told you I was fine! Get out!”
She made a sour face and closed the door in a huff. Aleckster could care less about her hurt feelings. He’d trade her offense for his inner turmoil if he could.
Rising from his place on the rug, he moved to his bedroom window and opened the shutters. The city of Wolf Haven shimmered in pale cerulean moonlight from his view. His bedroom faced west high in Castle Ironwood. The gargantuan stone structure stood high above the trees, surrounded by a moat and reinforced walls.
He learned in history lesson earlier that day the original castle was made of wood cut from nearby trees in the forest. The ancestors of the men of the Eastlands were among the first to set foot on the continent and settle. Their neighbors, the Elves, did not take too kindly to their cutting down so many trees, and attacked the loggers on more than one occasion. Rather than see the conflict come to a feud, Forrester Balewyn arranged to meet with the Elders of the Wood to reach a peaceful agreement.
The men of the Eastlands were allotted a certain number of trees each season, limiting the number of structures they could build. They harvested the wood, treated it and saved it to build Castle Ironwood. The elves were so outraged by the erecting of this structure, it started a second conflict among them. The Battle of Jade Forest ended in many deaths on both sides, and Castle Ironwood was burned to the ground.
Decades had passed since the men of the Eastlands started the settlement, and they managed to make allies of the dwarves of the Wood Clan across the sea. After finding mines rich with gold deposits, they opted to purchase and import materials from overseas. The stronghold cities of Jade Harbor and Wolf Haven emerged from these endeavors and clear borders between the territory of Elf and Man came as a result.
The second and current version of Castle Ironwood was so large that even Aleckster, who had lived there his entire life, had not explored its endless corridors. In the days of his ancestors, they kept their dead buried in crypts underground, lower than even the dungeons. Nowadays, the men of the Eastlands buried their dead in cemeteries like the rest of the realm. Because of his love for the history of his house, Aleckster loved going down below with a torch, reading the inscriptions over the tombs and finding his long-dead relatives.
I bet none of them suffered from wolf dreams, he thought bitterly.
Three years had passed since that night in the Forest of the Elves. He was thirteen now, nearly a man according to the culture of his people. The sensations he felt faded the further he traveled from Oakheart, but they still tormented him to this day. Especially when any of the moons were full. He could feel the itch of their flea bites. Their hunger pangs riled up inside him even after having eaten a full meal. Some parts of his soul stayed with the pack, and when one of them died, a part of him died with them.
In the same respect, parts of the wolves stayed with him. When fights broke out among the boys he played with in Wolf Haven, where once he would have restrained himself, now he found his aggressive temper too feral to ignore. On one embarrassing occasion, one of the castle steward’s sons had reached for some apple slices on Aleckster’s plate. In reaction to the theft, even in jest, he snarled at the boy and bit him on the hand hard enough to break the skin.
Father gave me a beating for that one.
A series of similar events over the years earned him a reputation as a troubled child. Most of the children he played with wanted nothing to do with him now; he had precious few friends, and most of them in Oakheart. Much as he loved to be reunited with them, he dreaded returning. Whether the moons shone half, full, a sliver, or not at all, the proximity stirred things in his spirit he preferred to keep at rest.
Aleckster brought his reading chair to the window and stared at the full blue moon until the sun rose and chased it away. The nervousness of its profound effect faded and the anticipation of the significance of today took its place. Welcoming the distraction, Aleckster opened his dresser and admired the new leathers his father had commissioned for him. Gloves, grieves, bracers, a spaulder, a jerkin, and boots, all studded with the finest steel. It was heavy, but tailored to fit him perfectly. In times of war, the men of the Eastlands wore full plate like the rest of the realm, but for hunting and keeping the peace, they preferred the mobility of leather.
He stood before the mirror and looked at his reflection with a pitiful sigh. The armor was magnificent, but he wished the same could be said of the boy wearing it. His sandy-blond hair was an unruly mess. His complexion was the worst-case scenario someone his age could hope for: red and covered in pimples. Peach fuzz adorned his lip and a few wiry hairs sprouted from his chin. Hardly the trendy mustache and spade-shaped beard his brother Charles started wearing as of late.
“Already dressed and ready to go I see.”
Aleckster turned to find his brother standing in his doorway.
“I didn’t hear you come in. How long have you been standing there?”
Charles strode in with a smirk on his face. Seven years older, tall, lean, and handsome, he wore his long hair back in a loose tail. He too was dressed in fine leathers for a hunt. His did not squeak as much as he moved as they had been broken in already. On the breast of his jerkin, two wolves howling at the moons had been stitched in bright green thread to display the sigil of House Balewyn. Aleckster found himself thankful his did not have such adornment. He hated the constant wolf reminder what with the name of their capital city and the banners hanging all throughout Castle Ironwood.
“You were so busy admiring yourself in the mirror,” Charles goaded. “I didn’t want to interrupt.”
“Shut up, Charlie,” Aleckster shot back. “I was not admiring myself.”
“Really, you’re worse than Jessa,” his brother pressed. “Shall I fetch you some ribbons and a brush from her wardrobe.”
Aleckster gave him a sour look and rolled his eyes. Rather than let his brother pester him further, he started for the door. Father would be expecting them in the training yard now that it was daybreak. Charles caught him by the wrist, spun him around, and put him in a submission hold from behind.
“Where you off to? Father sent me to fetch you. We’re to meet him in the yard.”
“Where do you think I’m going?” Aleckster snapped. “Let me go.”
Charles giggled, tightened his hold, and gave him a little shake. With gritted teeth and a feral growl, Aleckster smashed his elbow into his brother’s ribs. He bypassed the steel studs on the front of his jerkin and punished the leather with his blow.
“Ow!” Charles barked. He released his hold on Aleckster who bolted out the door and into the hallways. He ran until he reached the grand staircase at the end of the hall and took the stair two at a time in case his older brother decided to chase him and deal out any measure of revenge. Taking a detour through the kitchen, he snatched up a few pieces of crispy bacon set out on a linen napkin to absorb the grease. Careful not to get any stains on his new leathers, he gobbled down the salty meat and wiped his fingers on one of the aprons hanging from the wooden pegs in the corner.
After his hurried breakfast, he dashed to the north end of Castle Ironwood where he found his brother and father waiting for him. Several other men gathered round them, passing the time with small talk and bawdy jokes. Aleckster recognized his father’s younger brother, Sir Alvin Balewyn on his father’s side, his mother’s brother, Sir Richard Greenglade, and Wyatt, the castellan, all three dressed to for a hunt. While they all offered smiles at his arrival, Charles stood with arms crossed.
“How did I beat you here?”
“I stopped by the kitchen to fetch some bacon,” Aleckster replied. “I ate it all and I didn’t leave any for you.”
“A nuisance and a glutton,” Charles sneered. “You really are the pride of our house.”
“That’s enough out of the two of you!”
Their father, Lord Terrance Balewyn glared at them with stern blue eyes. His leathers were hidden beneath a cloak lined with gray fur and held in place by a silver broach fashioned in the shape of a snarling wolf with emeralds in the eye sockets. Charles stood taller than Father now, and broader of shoulder, but the furry bulk of the wolf-pelt cloak gave him a commanding presence even among of men of larger stature. Aleckster loved his father, but he also respected him.
“Don’t be so hard on them, Terry,” Alvin said. “Brothers quarrel; such is the way of things. Were we so different when we were their age?”
Terrance tried to hold back a smile as he shook his head.
“No,” he replied with a chuckle. “I suppose not. Today is a big day for Aleckster though. I don’t want it spoiled by the two of you bickering.”
“Yes, Father,” they said in unison. When he turned away they continued to make faces at each other. Aleckster loved his brother too, but that didn’t keep him from getting on his last nerve.
The reason today was so special was because Aleckster’s thirteenth birthday had come and gone a week earlier. Spring rain over the countryside delayed the hunt from happening right away. It was customary for highborn boys of the Eastlands to go on a hunt when they turned thirteen. Used as a rite of passage, considered as men once they returned, the better the trophy, the better the bragging rights.
Aleckster was very young when Charles went on his hunt. He returned with the biggest stag he’d ever seen. Its antlers were mounted in the great hall next to the bear head from his father’s hunt decades earlier. Aleckster was determined to bring back better game than his brother. That would shut him up for a while.
His mother disapproved of the hunt and was not shy about saying so. The fact she had not come down to the yard to wish them all luck and bid them farewell came as no surprise. She referred to it as ‘cock measuring’ and a ‘pissing contest.’ Aleckster had never participated in either of those activities, and tried to explain to his mother that a hunt was a different matter, but she remained planted in her opinion.
No matter. She’d just spoil the fun if she were here anyway.
The stable master saw their horses shoed and saddled. Aleckster’s father gave him a good bow, a quiver of arrows, and a long knife for the hunt. His father’s squires, Ned and Kelly carried long spears in case they encountered wild boar. They were not native to the forest, but had recently migrated in the last ten years or so. The inhabitants of Wolf Haven loved it when highborn boys brought home a boar as their trophy. The tusks were harvested as a keepsake but the rest went to the kitchen for a feast.
“Anything particular you’re hoping to find on your hunt?” Uncle Alvin asked as they mounted their horses.
“I’m want a stag,” Aleckster replied.
“Just like Charlie,” Alvin beamed. “I was the same way when I was your age. I wanted to be just like your father. He landed a bear, of course, lucky bastard. His makes a better trophy, but I brought home a deer large enough to feed the castle for two whole days!”
Aleckster had heard this story half a hundred times. He rolled his eyes.
“So long as the stag is bigger than Charlie’s I’ll be happy, Uncle Alvin.”
He said it loud enough for Charles to hear. His brother gave him a sidelong look from his horse, but turned quickly into a smile and a wink. Even without him using words, Aleckster understood his brother had forgiven him for the altercation earlier and wished him nothing but the best of luck on the hunt to come. The two of them fought a lot but never stayed angry for long.
“Alright, men,” Terrance announced. “Let’s ride.”
“Aren’t we waiting for Mother?” Charles asked.
“The sun is up; she’s probably half-addled from greenleaf by now.”
Lady Gemma Balewyn was not a happy woman. She spent much of her time alone in her room sleeping, or crying, or crying herself to sleep. Not fond of ale or wine like Terrance, she had developed a fondness for greenleaf in recent years. Maintaining that it helped with her sadness, she partook every day, much to Terrance’s chagrin. He said it made her aloof and inattentive to her duties as the Lady of Wolf Haven. Aleckster didn’t understand why his father hated it so much. It did make her scatterbrained, but it also lifted her spirits. Aleckster was too young for greenleaf, but after this hunt perhaps he would find out for himself what all the fuss was about.
The guards opened the gates and lowered the bridge to allow the party to head out. Per tradition, Aleckster led. He took the southeast road and would follow it for miles until they reached denser woods. Their travel trajectory made Aleckster nervous; it was the same general direction as Oakheart and the Forest of the Elves. The intensity of his dream the night before still troubled him, and traveling closer might provoke more.
He never told a soul about that day, and probably never would. A thousand times he opened his mouth to tell his tale to his family, and a thousand times a voice inside his head cautioned him to silence. The older he got, the more thankful he became that he kept his secret. He did not want to end up like Tyman Bakerson.
Tyman, or Ty, worked for a bakery in Wolf Haven. They were one of the few families in the Eastlands zealous to the Yaruvian faith, and very outspoken about it. One day in autumn last year, little Ty proclaimed to have received a vision from the god of Light. In his alleged vision, he saw the city of Jade Harbor destroyed by two dragons with riders, and said it would happen before winter came. His family assembled those who held true to the faith and proclaimed the doom across the land. They even went so far as to beseech Lord Terrance to evacuate the city, request he ignored. Winter came and went with no dragons or riders. When the prophecy proved to be a farce, clergy members of Sanctus Dei came and collected the boy to take him away to an asylum and he was never seen or heard from again.
Some said he made it up for the attention. Others said the boy was crazed. A few people, mostly his own kin, said he simply misinterpreted the vision and that one of these days his vision would come true and everyone would know that he was not crazy or a liar. Aleckster could only imagine what people would say if he told his tale.
It doesn’t matter because I never will.
They made came in a clearing just a mile or so from the road. Lord Terrance told his squires to build a fire and set up camp. In an hour or so, they sat gathered around a proper bonfire, drinking ale and telling stories. Their tales consisted of hunts, battles, drunken mishaps, and sexual conquests. Aleckster always wondered what it would be like to be with a woman. He liked girls, and there were plenty of pretty ones working in the castle who blushed and giggled at him.
“You’ll marry a noblewoman worthy of your hand,” his mother once said. She caught Aleckster flirting with one of stable master’s daughters. He brought her a bouquet of wild flowers—Charlie told him girls like flowers—and she gave him a sloppy wet kiss right on the mouth. He had been so giggly and nervous to kiss her back, and his mother spoiled the moment with her interruption anyway.
Lesser lords from the realm came with their young lovely daughters when they visited Wolf Haven. All of them wanted to offer their daughters’ hands in marriage to Charlie, however. He was the oldest, and more importantly he was heir to Wolf Haven. Someday he would be Lord of the Eastlands, and if he married one of their daughters she would become Lady and their children the heirs.
No one gives a shit about the second son.
Part of Aleckster envied his older brother, and the other part pitied him. Knowing from birth what you would grow up to be took away the pressure to decide, but also eliminated any options. His future as Lord of the Eastlands was carved in stone, but for Aleckster a host of opportunities lay before him. He might take Wyatt’s place as castellan, or join his father’s army and climb the ranks. If he had his way, he would study the history of the kingdom of Azur’nth until his beard grew so long and gray it touched the floor. But his father would never allow it.
“Start a trading company like your cousins,” his mother once suggested. “It’s in your blood, after all. You’re a Balewyn through and through, but the other half of your family is Greenglade, and we have always been merchants.”
Balewyn Trading Company…
He liked the sound of that. He would have to buy boats to ferry goods back and forth from Jade Harbor to the port cities across the sea. He would get to travel the world and go on adventures, and that didn’t sound so bad.
One adventure at a time…
Right now, he needed to think about the hunt. He left the circle around the fire and found his tent. After cozying up inside his sleeping sack, he fell asleep fast.
As the blue moon rose high in the night sky and bathed the Forest in its glow, the alpha wolf peered northwest through the trees. Another hunt had begun and the wolf-boy required the aid of the pack. Having never led his pack out of the Forest before, the alpha wolf found himself hesitant to do so now. Regardless, the song of the Elf maid was law; he and his pack were sworn to serve and protect their kin.
In a long, mournful howl, he alerted and summoned his pack. They were once small and few, but the Elf maid’s song helped them grow strong and many among lesser wolves. It would take days and nights of running to reach the wolf-boy. The howls of his pack rose in the night as they gathered round their leader.
When they had all assembled, he started off in a sprint. Out of the forest, and away from the only home they’d ever known, the pack ran to join the hunt.
Aleckster awoke in a cold sweat, gasping for air. By the sunlight peeking through his tent, he slept well into mid-morning, but he felt as if he had run miles and miles.
They were supposed to diminish with intensity as the moon waned, but this dream was stronger than any he could remember. He had four legs and could feel the earth beneath his paw pads as he sprinted through the forest. It was more than seeing through the eyes of the alpha wolf; he was the alpha wolf.
It was just a dream, he told himself. He didn’t believe it. The pack was coming for him whether he liked it or not.