Chapter One

Aleckster never forgot the day a pack of wolves attacked him. 

Or the day he first heard the Elf maid’s song. 

He recalled it being a bright, warm day, both suns burning hot in the summer sky, held at bay by the oversized cumulus passing overhead.  Heavy gusts of wind blew through the trees, making them sway and dance.  The leaves rustled a sweet tune in tandem with children’s laughter rolling up from the forest.  A small throng, noble and common alike, chased each other between the trees, reenacting famous battles from centuries ago.  Fought upon the very soil they played on now, every child in the Eastlands knew the story of the Battle of Jade Forest.

“The enemy is retreating!” Aleckster called out.  “Bring them down with a volley of arrows!”

Rather than real arrows, they picked up stones and sticks to pelt the other children with.  The recipients lifted sheets of bark fashioned into makeshift shields to protect themselves from the barrage.  The missiles clattered against the wood, and the play commenced.

While younger than most of the boys playing in the woods, the others had no qualms about letting Aleckster take charge.  He wished he could say it was because he was the strongest.  Sure, he stood tall for his age, but skinny.  Tommen and Kirk, the blacksmith’s sons, beat him in wrestling matches every time.  He wished he could say it was because he was the fastest.  His long legs often landed him second or third place in a race, but Malyn, the miller’s daughter, ran faster than all of them.  He would have been content being the cleverest, but Ryon, the post master’s son, had already read one hundred books.

It’s because my father is LordThey all see their parents bowing and doing whatever he says, and they think they have to treat me the same way.

Being the second-born son of the Lord of the Eastlands sometimes hindered him from making friends.  A lot of commoners despised nobles, and showed no reserve in bullying him when the opportunity presented itself.  Sometimes, he tried to play the part of a commoner, but his way of speech always gave him away.

Not to mention how much I resemble Father…

Aleckster, his older brother, Charles, and younger sister, Jessa, all favored their father.  Sandy-blond hair, blue eyes, and a slender build.  Their mother’s hair was a few shades darker, and she had green eyes, but she too was tall and thin.

The Balewyn family spent every summer at the logging town of Oakheart with the Greenglades: cousins on his mother’s side.  It was the first stop on his father’s months-long trip to collect taxes from the lesser lords of the land.  They stayed and visited for a week or two which allowed Aleckster time to play with the other children.

“Cut them down!” Aleckster commanded.  “Slay the traitors!”

At this, he rushed into the fray with a stick to serve as a short sword.  A smile of elation crossed his face as he swatted away the others’ sticks with ease.  He might not be the fastest, or the strongest, or the cleverest—but he was the best at fighting.  Wyatt, the castellan of Wolf Haven, tutored him every day in swordplay and archery.

With a growl of frustration, a stout boy named Brendan caught Aleckster’s stick and wrenched it from his hand.  Hot-tempered and prideful, he never took kindly to losing to someone half his size.  To further his victory, he hurled the stick into the woods and turned to shove Aleckster to the ground.

“Ow! What did you do that for?”

“It’s no fair sword fightin’ with you,” Brendan complained, brushing his long dark hair out of his eyes. “We always lose.”

“Maybe if you practiced more you wouldn’t lose,” Aleckster pointed out, dusting off his grass-stained clothes.  These are new!  Mother’s going to be upset with me.  He packed an old tunic to wear for playing outside, but was so excited when Malyn and Ryon came to get him that he ran off without changing.

“Maybe if I ‘ad a master-at-arms to teach me ‘ow t’fight, I’d be able t’practice!”

Aleckster gave Brendan an exasperated look.  Scanning the ground, he found a stick long enough to serve his purpose.  It wasn’t as nice as the discarded one, but it would do.

“First of all,” he began, “you’re standing all wrong.  Your feet should be shoulder-width apart.  Hold your shield up front, but keep your sword back.  Like this.”

Aleckster demonstrated. 

This brought a halt to their battle reenactment, and transitioned into a prolonged swordplay lesson.  They ran through the same drills he learned back home.  He put them against each other, and walked them through one-step sparring just like Wyatt did.  They caught on fast, and one thing was certain: he wouldn’t have as an easy a time disarming them when next they battled.

“See, Brendan!” Aleckster goaded. “It’s not as hard as you think.”  Grinning from ear-to-ear, the butcher’s son hacked away at imaginary foes.  His stick howled and whistled with each swing.

A rumbling stomach betrayed Aleckster’s hunger.  Looking up through the trees, he noticed the first sun had already set.  This marked it well past dinner time.  Turning back to the direction of the town, he found it nowhere in sight.

Mother told me to stay close, he remembered.  I’m going to be in trouble.

“Alright!” Aleckster announced. “I think it’s time we—”

“Well!  Look at what we ‘ave ‘ere!”

This exclamation came from a group of five older boys poised on a hill.  Sneering, they formed a circle around them.  Each one carried a quarterstaff.  These weren’t raw branches scavenged from the ground, but hardened weapons from the smith.

“Get out of here, Aaron!” Kirk complained.

“Yeah!” Tommen added.  “You can’t play with us!”

Aaron offered his younger brothers a wry expression and ignored their pleas.  Notorious for having a streak teetering on the edge of mean and cruel, most of the younger kids were afraid to go anywhere near him.

“I ‘ate to break up your sewin’ circle, but Pa sent me to round y’up for dinner,” Aaron shot back.  He snagged Kirk, the older of his two younger brothers by his thick mop of messy brown hair.  Yanking him to one side, he pointed at Tommen, and then at the empty space on his other side. 

The frightened boy didn’t hesitate to obey.

“You ever see such a sorry sight of pansies?” Aaron asked his friends.  Their mocking laughter bothered Aleckster, but he didn’t dare let it show.  Aaron was the kind of boy to flog them all with his quarterstaff just for sport.  Kirk and Tommen got the worst of it.

“We was learnin’ how to swing a sword proper before you came along,” Brendan whined.  Aaron’s eyebrows crawled up his forehead in masochistic amusement.

“Were y’now?  You ‘ear ‘at, boys?  The butcher’s son’s learned to swing a sword!”

This started another round of jeering from his cronies.

“Leave him alone!” Tommen whined.  The little eight-year-old couldn’t even budge his older brother who was fourteen.  Aaron smacked him on the head in frustration, knocking his brother to ground. 

Tommen began to cry.

“I’m tellin’ Ma what you did,” Kirk threatened.  In a flash of anger, Aaron snatched his little brother by the shirt and pulled him close.

“You do ‘at and I’ll give you a beatin’ so bad you won’t be able to go to the festival,” Aaron snapped.  Loath to relent by the look on his face, Kirk surrendered.  Turning his attention back on Brendan, Aaron twirled his quarterstaff with notable skill, brandishing it as a challenge.

“Well go on then,” he said. “Show me what you learned.”

The conflict of whether to meet the challenge or run away played out in a visible display on Brendan’s face.  Hoisting up his bark shield and stick, he planted his feet in fighting stance.  For only a moment, he glanced down at the ground, and Aaron came in like a storm.  With one mighty swing, he broke the bark shield into splinters.  Brendan tried to parry the strikes with his stick, but his attempts proved feeble and futile.

“Ow!” he exclaimed. “Alright!  I yield!  Stop!”

Even after throwing his stick to the ground, hands up in surrender, Aaron continued to pummel the poor boy, laughing all the while.  Curling up into a ball on the ground, Brendan covered his head and took his beating with as much dignity as one can muster on the ground.  The blows persisted far longer than necessary, and Aleckster could stand it no longer.

“Stop it!  Stop this instant!”

Aaron stopped, smiling with malice at the prospect of another challenge.  He left poor bruised Brendan wallowing in the dirt, nursing his wounds.  Strutting forward, quarterstaff balanced across his broad shoulders, he peered down at Aleckster.

“Did you ‘ear ‘at boys?  Our little lord has given me an order.  ‘Pose I should do as ‘e says, lest ‘is father ‘as me put in the stocks.  Wait a minute!  At’s right!  ‘Is father’s not ‘ere—nor ‘is older brother.”

Aaron stood so close Aleckster could smell the foulness on his breath.  He did not dare to look away, refusing to be intimidated.  His father taught him if he didn’t stand up to boys like Aaron, he would run from them his entire life.

“So what if I don’t want t’stop?” Aaron demanded. “What are you going t’do ‘bout it?”

Aleckster threw his bark shield and stick to the ground.  Rolling up his sleeves, he maintained eye contact with his adversary.  A head taller, and twice as wide, he’d never win in a wrestling match.  Fast as he was, the older boys long, powerful legs would overtake in him in no time at all.  This would have to be a test of skill.

“Tell one of your boys to let me have his quarterstaff,” Aleckster challenged, “and I’ll show you what I’m going to do about it.”

“Why would I do ‘at?”

“I’ve got a stick and shield made of bark,” Aleckster pointed out. “You’ve got a quarterstaff.  That’s not fair.  Unless of course you’re afraid of a fair fight.”

Aaron’s brown eyes boiled with anger as his lips twisted into a snarl.  Aleckster stood his ground, satisfied to see him take the bait.

“Cody, give him your quarterstaff,” Aaron commanded.

“No,” he risked.  “Pete, you give him your quarterstaff!”

“Why do I have to give him mine?” Pete protested. “He asked for yours!”

With a growl of frustration, Aaron tromped over and yanked the quarterstaff from Pete’s hands.  As the posse’s runt of the litter, he did not dare to oppose the leader.  One word or action out of turn and he’d become the object of their tyrant’s fury. 

Aaron tossed the quarterstaff to Aleckster who caught it.  Rather than brandish it and show any skill, he heeded Wyatt’s advice.

“Never show a man what you can do,” the castellan would say.  “Keep him guessing.  The moment he gets overconfident, you’ll have him right where you want him.”

Aaron followed no such advice, twirling the staff, making it whoosh as he swung at imaginary foes.  Big and strong as he was, he was nothing compared to Wyatt.  Mean as an old wolf, Wyatt expected Aleckster to be tough, and often left him with welts and bruises from head-to-toe.  Hardened by rigorous training, taking a few blows from Aaron’s quarterstaff didn’t scare Aleckster in the slightest.

Aaron came in hard and fast with a basic combination attack all-too-easy to block. Sidestepping, Aleckster kept his quarterstaff up and at the defensive, ready for another bombardment.  After a second helping of having his blows deflected, Aaron charged forward, pulling his staff back for a two-handed swing.  This left a gate open, and Aleckster capitalized on it.  Coming in at the ribs and the knee, he knocked his opponent off balance.

Crack!

The wood slapped against Aaron’s ear, robbing him of his equilibrium as he winced, reaching up to nurse the wound.  With a long, hard sweep, Aleckster knocked his feet from under him.  Rather than follow up with a downward strike that would have broken the boy’s nose, he relented, staying in stance.  The idea of hurting someone, even someone as terrible as Aaron, bothered Aleckster’s conscious.

Boys solve problems with their hands; men solve problems with the minds. 

The voice belonged to his father.

“Now leave us alone,” Aleckster said. 

He tossed the quarterstaff to Pete and started back towards the town.  To his surprise, Aaron stood to his feet in a flash and came swinging.  Skill and form forgotten, he lashed out with all his might.  Aleckster ducked just in time to avoid the blow and started backing away.

“Get him!”

His gang of ruffians charged at once, and turned and Aleckster bolted, wishing now he had kept the quarterstaff.  With nothing to carry, he stood free to sprint away.

“Run, Aleckster!” Brendan’s voice called out from behind.

And run he did.  He’d been in enough fights already to know that five-on-one were not odds in his favor.  If he could count on his friends to jump in and help, it might have been a different story.

If I come home late, dirty and beat up, Mother will lose her mind.

Amused at the prospect that his mother’s wrath inspired more fear than the older boys beating, Aleckster picked up the pace, weaving through the trees.  He didn’t bother looking back, but he could hear their shouts as they pursued him.  The word ‘coward’ bounced off him like a pebble, dismissed considering the circumstances.  Before long, word of his teaching Aaron Smithson a lesson by way of quarterstaff would reach every boy and girl in Oakheart.  Perhaps he would seek a rematch.

Probably not…he’d never risk losing again.

After a few minutes of running, the sounds of their voices faded away in the distance, and his surroundings changed in appearance.  The paths disappeared, replaced instead with a blanket of leaves and vines.  The sun pierced through small places here and there, but overhead, a canopy of tree leaves weaving together covered the forest in shade.

“Whoa!” he exclaimed.

Fireflies danced in the distance like sparkling stars.  Flowers with petals of such vibrant color gave off unnatural light, glowing in the shade.  The leaves and grass shone greener than normal, and the air tasted floral and sweet.  The forest came alive with thriving wildlife.  Birds.  Squirrels.  Deer.  And more bugs than Aleckster knew existed.  Most disquieting of all, a grave song rang out with the wind.  So faint in volume, he thought his ears were playing tricks on him.

I’m not supposed to be here.

Entranced by the beauty of his surroundings, it took him a moment to realize where he stood: the Forest of the Elves.  The town of Oakheart rested on the northern border of the forest.  While the rest of the world now passed Elves off as no more than myth, the people of this town insisted upon their existence.  At night, one could hear their song from within the trees.  Solemn, lonely, and sad.  Others said Elf children sometimes wandered to the edge in order to spy on the world of men.

A piercing screech turned his gaze upward.  Overhead, a family of flying squirrels took flight, gliding from one branch to another in attempt to flee.  A moment later, a red-tailed hawk swooped out of the sky to try to catch one of the younglings. It missed is mark, and the little squirrels escaped.

Unable to resist the temptation to take a closer look, Aleckster pressed forward until he found a tiny stream.  Bursting with minnows and tadpoles, the stream widened to a small river snaking its way through the forest.  As if pulled into a waking dream, his sense of time drifted away as he explored.  A nagging voice in the back of his mind reminded him he ventured into forbidden territory.  According to the stories, anyone who wandered in never returned.

That’s absurd.

Just yesterday, he saw a few silk gatherers go into the forest and return with silk worms native there.  While they probably never wandered too deep, the men of the Eastlands ventured in from time-to-time.

During the day, he remembered.  And never alone.

Looking around, suddenly aware the second sun must have set, he twirled in circles, trying to gain some sense of direction.  With no view of the sun, and the thick canopy shielding the stars, the realization of being lost crept into his mind and awakened his fears.

“Ryon!  Malyn!  Brendan!”

He called out for his friends by heard no reply.  Looking around in desperation for anything familiar, he set eyes on the stream and followed it.  His father told him to follow running water to find his way home.  People needed water, and it would lead somewhere.  But out of the forest, or deeper within?  Daylight receded, and thick darkness fell upon the world around him.  Without the glowing flowers and fireflies, Aleckster would not have been able to see that path before his feet.

A low, rumbling growl brought him to halt and turned his blood to ice.  Eyes darting to his right, he caught sight of the largest wolf he had ever seen.  Shaggy fur, massive paws, yellow eyes gleaming, and lips curled to reveal long white teeth.  The wolf stopped drinking from the stream on the other side to stare, hungry jowls dripping.

Keep moving, a voice in Aleckster’s head prompted him.  Spurning the terror surging through his body, he turned away from the wolf and continued his course. 

Awwwoooooo!

A long, mournful howl echoed through the trees.  The chorus of the nearby pack calling out in reply rose in up in a bone-chilling song. 

Panic hit Aleckster like a kick in the balls, and he broke out into a run.  He didn’t make it far before rustles in nearby bushes closed in.  The wolf pack’s footfalls grew louder than the sound of his heart hammering in his head.  In his peripheral, a flash of bright gray fur caught his eye.  The wolf leapt up and clamped his jaw down on the tender flesh between the neck and shoulder.  The weight of the massive beast landed heavy upon him and knocked him to the ground.

Curling up in a ball, Aleckster did his best to guard his neck and face.  The wolf tore flesh and fabric from him in bloody shreds.  The pain made him scream, but he would not give up.  He crawled on his hands and legs to get away.  Another wolf caught hold of his calf, ripping through muscle with its ferocious bite.

Wailing in agony, Alecktser flailed as the other wolves closed in, enduring ever snap and bite.  Amidst the adrenaline quickening his mind, he became keenly aware that he was about to die. And in the most painful way he could imagine.  Fighting, he punched at a wolf and it clamped down on his wrist, snapping through the bones with a snarl and a shake.

Somewhere in the chaos, an ethereal melody washed over the forest.  In stark contrast to the carnage, Aleckster closed his eyes and listened.  The hypnotic soprano lulled him to stillness and serenity like a dream.  He laid still and opened his eyes.  To his relief, the wolves stopped trying to eat him alive.  In unison, they turned their heads to the trees.

A tall, lithe creature with long purple hair and iridescent skin sat perched from a branch above.  The clothing and features remained hidden in darkness, but Aleckster recognized the silhouette as female.  Awareness of all things, the pain, the force holding him to the earth, and even his own will shattered into dust.  Swirling into an unseen river of sound, the song continued.

The Elf maid jumped from the tree to the ground, making not even the faintest of sounds as she landed.  In long, deliberate strides she approached, singing all the while.  The wolves bowed their heads to the ground, keeping their hind legs up as if paying homage.  Aleckster would have bowed too if not lying in a mangled, bloody mess.

From every corner of the forest, wolves gathered to hear her song.  Their eyes glowed bright yellow in the darkness as they surrounded Aleckster.  Their hungry, salivating maws dripped warm and wet on his body as they leaned down and started licking.  The massaging tingle of their tongues coursing over his wounds made him sick to stomach.  Nausea swelled up from within, forcing his mouth to water.  His muscles seized as twitched and shook and grunted.

Blood rushed to his face with such force he could feel things inside him breaking.  Teeth clamped together in a grind so strong he worried they might shatter.  One of his molars was loose.  Rather than pry it free, he force it back down in the socket.  Numbing pain streaked through his jaw like fire as the tears trickled down his cheek.

Parts of his soul leaked out in his blood, lapped up by the wolves.  He tasted it on his tongue too.  It tasted good.  Like food.  Like life.  He and the wolves melded together to become a single being.  With his own body in such pain, Aleckster willed what remained of his being to spread out in equal portions throughout the pack.  Through their eyes he looked down in despair of what remained of his body.  He looked like a bloodstained piece of meat, his clothing shredded and ruined.  He thought about his mother finding him that way and wanted to cry.

A teardrop sparkling with the light of the moons escaped from the corner of Aleckster’s eye.  The pack turned their eyes upward to watch the tree canopy open like a curtain and the clouds roll out of view.

All three moons shone in the night sky.  A sapphire, a ruby, and a diamond so bright the stars around them faded from view.  The Elf maid weaved between the wolves, none of them minding her presence.  She reached down to touch Aleckster’s body.  Wanting to get a good look at her, he willed himself back into his body and opened his eyes.  The pain and discomfort returned, and the path between his soul and the pack’s stayed in his awareness. 

But it was worth it.

Her curious and compassionate eyes stared down at him like glittering amethysts, the same otherworldly color of her hair.  Her heart-shaped face, dainty nose, and full lips parting in dazzling white smile charmed Aleckster in a moment.  She was so beautiful, and he loved her when he saw her.

When her finger touched his face to wipe the tear away, Aleckster felt his body leave the ground.  Like a feather floating upward, the moonlight swirled around him like the current of a gentle stream.  The rigidity in his body drifted away as he relaxed and fell limp.  Suspended by unseen threads, he hung there and waited.

Awwwoooooo!

The pack howled and Aleckster’s body reassembled itself.  Bones became intact.  Muscles reconnected and flesh stitched back together.  The strength of their collective bodies and spirits made him whole.  He tried to move, but found himself paralyzed by the rejuvenating collaboration of the Elf maid, her song, the moonlight, and the pack.

As the canopy of trees crept together, and the clouds rolled in to block the moonlight, the stream set him down on his feet.  The pack receded like water rolling outward, and only the Elf maid remained.  Bathed in faint shadows of the forest, she stopped singing and spoke.  Aleckster did not understand the language, but marveled at the strange and beautiful sound her voice made.  Like voices speaking in harmony and unison at the same time.

She pressed her fingers to her lips and let out a short, shrill whistle.  At the sound, a massive, shaggy wolf trotted forward and stood at her side.  She stepped forward and reached down to take Aleckster in her arms.  So tall, it reminded him of his mother reaching down for him when he was just baby.  Lifting him from the ground, she draped his body over the back of the wolf.

Lying on his belly in a bed of fur, Aleckster stared at the Elf maid, speechless.

She sang again, this time a lullaby.  He tried to resist, but fell into a deep sleep.

*     *     *

He awoke three days later, his family hovering around his bed.  Laughing and crying, they looked excited and relieved to see him open his eyes.  In his stupor, he said nothing as they showered him with hugs and kisses.

“I was so worried!” his mother exclaimed.

“Glad you’re back, Son,” his father affirmed.

“What happened to you?” his brother Charles demanded.  “When we finally found you, your clothes were torn to pieces and drenched in blood.”

This brought the chatter to rest, as his family turned and looked at him for an explanation.  His younger sister, Jessa, reached up from her place at his bedside and took his hand in hers.  Her bright blue eyes were curious and full of joy.

“I don’t remember,” Aleckster lied.

After this, they pondered aloud at a thousand scenarios as to what might have transpired.  How could they explain him going missing?  What happened to his clothes?  Whose blood covered his clothing.  All the while, Aleckster remained silent and tried to come to terms with the truth.  No one would believe him.  It sounded like a story someone made up.

“Your eyes have changed,” Charles said.  The family gathered around him and had more to ponder.  The physician came in and inspected them, offering no known medical explanation as to how one’s iris would spontaneously change color.  Aleckster asked for a mirror, and his mother retrieved a handheld mirror from her cousin’s quarters for him.

Their report was true.  Aleckster’s eyes were bright yellow in hue.  Wild, predatory eyes.  The eyes of a wolf.

After taking it a few days, his family packed up and prepared to make the journey the next town.  Collecting taxes had been put on hold, and their stay with the Greenglades lasted longer than it was supposed to.  When it was time to leave, Aleckster said goodbye to his friends, and climbed into the wagon with his mother.  He rested his head on her shoulder as he watched the Forest of the Elves fade away.  The horses carried them up the road and away from the town of Oakheart.

Even from a distance, he could feel the pack.  Running.  Drinking.  Hunting.  Howling.  Parts of stayed imprisoned within, never to be reclaimed.  He wanted to forget what had happened, but knew nothing could ever make him forget.