***CONTENT WARNING: DOMESTIC VIOLENCE***
I race uphill along the switchback that leads to town, through the towering riverfront gates, down the grand boulevard, past the market square, and into the narrow, winding lanes of the Ditch quarter.
I have only one thought—beat cousin Emmett home. If he tells Father his version of events first, I’m dead. There’s a joke that despite the dirt behind his ears, no one’s prouder than a Ditch male, but it isn’t funny, it’s true. Father will not countenance the packmates on his crew whispering that his daughter is a no better than a bitch in heat, and that’s what they’ll say.
I’ve ruined myself. And for what? A few kisses. What have I done?
I careen to a halt at our weather-beaten front door. The window sashes have been thrown up to let out the late afternoon heat, and Mother’s dingy but clean curtains snap in the breeze. Voices drift out to the street. Loud. Angry. Father. My oldest brother Dale. Emmett.
My wolf skitters backward inside me. I’m too late, but I never had a chance, really. Emmett can shift, and I can’t, not until I go into heat, and I’m not going to go into heat. Clay Pulley isn’t my mate and everyone knows it now. Everybody knows what I’ve done. I’m going to be sick.
I reach for the knob, my hand shaking so much my fingers slip. I have to face things head on. Dread is almost always worse than the thrashing, even with the belt. Nothing can hurt as bad as Clay yelling for me to get like I’m a mangy stray dog.
I suck down a deep steadying breath, and my stomach knots.
The door flies open, yanked from my fingers. Before I can even throw my arms up, my father’s palm cracks me across the face.
“Whore!” he shouts.
I taste blood. Behind him, Mother screams.
I drop into a crouch, baring my neck, protecting my belly with knees.
“What have you done, you stupid female?” He snatches me by the braid and drags me into the narrow hall. I clutch my hair so that he doesn’t pull it out, but I can’t get a good hold, and it hurts, it hurts. My shoulder slams into the corner of the oak table where Father keeps his hat. My feet scrabble at the wood floor, but he’s too strong.
“Papa, no!” my younger sister Annabelle shouts from the stair. She’s his favorite, the prettiest of us. She still hasn’t figured out that it doesn’t matter.
“Shut your mouth,” Father yells. “And all of you look and see what happens if you bring shame to this house!” He hops on one foot, yanks off his thick-soled boot, and swings it at me. Immediately, I tuck into a ball, as small as I can.
The hard rubber glances off the back of my skull, and my ears ring. I cover my face with my hands, my kidneys with my elbows, my soft belly with my knees, but it’s no use. I can’t cover everything. He cracks the heel against my back, my sides, my shoulder, my hips.
My wolf howls for help, leaping for the boundary between us, but she’s stuck inside me, and I’m stuck in a ball, wedged between my father and the wall, as blows rain down on my soft human flesh.
Mother and my sisters scream and cry, crowding as close as they dare in the narrow hall, reaching for me and then snatching their arms away when the boot whistles through the air, their wolves howling back to mine in their chests, shaking dust off the rafters.
“Annabelle, no!” Mother yells, and I peek up in time to see my younger sister throw herself between the swinging boot and my body. The heel glances off her temple, and she staggers, collapsing drunkenly over the side table. Her recklessness has the effect of first blood.
Mother shifts. My sisters swarm. They block Annabelle and I with their bodies while they flail their arms like windmills and kick wildly, their screams mingling with the howls in their throats. Mother’s wolf springs for Father’s throat, but she’s a small, scraggly creature, and Father easily backhands her into the wall. The drywall cracks. She knows she can’t win against him. Mostly she doesn’t try, but still, sometimes she does.
Emmett and Dale are shouting from the doorway to the kitchen, and Father trades his shoe for his fists. Mother shifts and lays naked, crumbled half against the wall, half on the floor. Somehow, between the arms and legs and flying braids, she catches my eye.
“Run,” she mouths.
I can’t leave them here like this. It’s my fault. I brought this on us all.
With great effort, Mother bares her teeth, flashing her still-elongated fangs in my direction. “Run before he kills one of the little ones,” she says, and even though I can’t hear her over the tumult, I can read her lips.
I force my aching, bruised body onto hands and knees, and chin tucked and shoulders hunched, I crawl for the door. Over my head, my sisters launch themselves at Father with renewed energy, howling and hollering at the top of their lungs.
“She’s getting away!” Emmett shouts, but he’s too far away and my sisters are too frenzied for him to get to me. Soon enough Emmett and Dale are sure to shift, and my sisters will scatter, but for now, the males aren’t rushing to Father’s rescue. You reap what you sow.
Gasping for breath, I stagger to my feet as soon as I’m outside. I don’t have to think. There’s only one place I can go.
I limp as quickly as I can up the lane, ignoring the biddies peeking out their upstairs windows as I hurry past. The Ditch quarter abuts the Low Wall, but you have to follow it a ways before you reach a gate. When I was a pup, I was confused as to why it was called the Low Wall when it’s twice as high as a grown male. I didn’t understand that it’s low in relation to the Moat Wall which rises almost five stories above the river.
The Moat Wall protects the alpha and his circle and their majestic riverfront homes. The Low Wall deters most of the ferals and other dangers from the forest, and those it doesn’t, we in the Ditch quarter are supposed to distract and dispose of before they reach the nice parts of town.
When I get to the old wrought iron gate at the end of Cook Lane, I suck in my belly and slip through. It’s rusted half open, and weeds have grown up around it, tethering it in place.
To the west is the manicured field, mowed in a checkerboard pattern, surrounding the alpha’s bonfire, but here, there’s only a yard or so of trodden grass and barren patches before the woods begin. There’s a half dozen paths hidden in the undergrowth, trails to the clearings where the moonshiners build their stills and fishing holes where young Ditch males try to catch dinner before it swims past to the Fishers’ nets downstream.
The path to my hiding place veers off one of the fishing hole trails. All Ditch pups roam the forest when their parents chase them out from underfoot, and my sisters and I were no different. I found this path a long time ago. It leads to a pretty glade surrounded by gnarled oaks with grass as thick and green as velvet.
My sisters and I used to hide out here, playing Mama Had A Baby And Her Head Popped Off with dandelions and fighting each other with stick swords.
I thought since the grass grew so well that it’d be a good place to plant my herbs, but apparently, I was wrong. When I lurch into the clearing, huffing and holding my side, my garden is as sorry as it’s ever been. There are a few spindly survivors here and there. A lot more of what my Auntie Peg calls invaders. Thistle. Creeping Charlie.
There’s a bit of comfrey still holding on, but its leaves are being nibbled. I’ve dealt with the slugs and the other crawlies. It’s probably a rabbit.
All of a sudden, the adrenaline that got me this far leaks out in a rush, and I collapse onto my butt in the lush grass beside my sad little dirt plot.
If I could shift, I could mark the glade and no rabbit would dare encroach, but my wolf is stuck inside me, huddled in a corner, shivering and scared. It isn’t fair that our wolves can’t come out until we females find our mates. It isn’t fair that we’re designed to depend on the most volatile, inconstant animal in creation.
I kick the dry garden soil with the heel of my leather-soled, lace up ankle boots. They even dress us to be weak. I couldn’t hurt a fly with the soft sole of my shoe.
I lower myself to my back, every bone and bruise complaining, and stare up at the blue sky. It’s high today, a far away vault.
Some Ditches who build, like Clay, have steel-toed boots. I could figure that out. Hunt up some metal scraps from the junk heap behind the supply shed and sew them into the fabric. My luck I’d stub my toe and break it.
I turn my head, rest my cheek on the cool grass, and look at my palm, calloused from the wooden bucket handles. I close and straighten my fingers. I wish I had claws. I’d rip Clay’s face off. I’d see for sure if there is something under there like I’d convinced myself, or if he’s just a male who was kind to me so that I’d let him ruin me for nothing.
None of my aunties or friend’s mothers will invite me into their kitchens anymore. No one will sit near me at bonfires. It’s acceptable to give Fate a chance, to keep distant company with a male, but there is a line a female mustn’t ever cross. Her future mate’s pride must not be offended.
I know that as well as anyone, but I got too wrapped up in wishful thinking. I thought that since I wanted to kiss Clay so badly, he must be my mate.
Tears drip from the corner of my eye and fall in a zigzag down my cheek. It was so sweet. I did not know I could be so wrong.
I cannot bear this feeling, like discovering that my legs won’t hold me. I cannot stand it, so I’ll give myself ten more seconds. Then, I’m going to sit up. I’m going re-braid my braid, and I’m going to decide what to do.
I don’t stay where I’m put. I was supposed to work in the kitchen, but I convinced Father to let me work with the builders when they asked for females and pups to run errands. I got myself a shovel and a trowel by keeping a sharp lookout. I found this spot. I sold good hunks of stone destined for the scrap heap to the bakers on Cooks Lane to repair for their ovens, and I bought seedlings and the potting soil and a hoe.
I might not be strong or brave, but I’m dogged, and if that hasn’t done anything for me yet, it will. It has to. I don’t know any other way.
I exhale. It hasn’t been ten seconds, but I don’t need them all. I hoist myself upright, swallowing a whimper of pain, blinking away the tears.
I scowl at my dirt patch. It’s easy enough to know what to do next. Weed. Worrying can wait. I can’t stop the sun from setting or the ferals deep in the woods from howling. It’ll happen no matter how I feel. Wallowing in fear isn’t going to make anything come out right.
I keep telling myself that as wave after wave of rising panic crashes over me. I pull weeds, and mutter to myself that nothing is ever as bad as I imagine it to be, and then my brain spits up the image of my mother’s wolf crashing into the wall, and I have to start telling myself all over again.
I’m mid-wave when a stick cracks a few feet behind me.
My heart launches itself into my throat, and a voice, somehow wavery and powerful at the same time, rings out, “Is it just little old you, then, Wrenlee Ditch? From the stench of fear, I thought I’d come upon a sacrifice of unmated females surrounded by a pack of ferals.”
An old female with long silver hair strolls into the clearing. She moves as if she’s decades younger, all swishing hips and grace. She’s wearing a gauzy patchwork skirt, a flowing blouse, and a hip bag.
It’s the gray witch.
Oh no, oh no, oh no. She only shows up when a female is in desperate straits, when a heat goes bad or a baby is coming out the wrong way. Somehow she knows when she’s needed, and there’s a knock at the back door, and all the pups are shooed up to bed early.
Males pretend they don’t see her come and go in the shadows, and females only speak about her in whispers, and only after tossing a pinch salt over their shoulders.
I must be in terrible trouble. Is Father going to disavow me? Am I going to be cast out to live among the lone wolves or traded to the Last Pack? Or maybe he’ll throw me to the ferals, so they can rip me limb from limb. I should have never looked twice at Clay Pulley. I should have never wondered anything about him. I didn’t mean to risk my life. It was only kisses.
“I am sorry. Please help me,” I say to the gray witch, my panic climbing to a tsunami height.
“Actually, Wrenlee Ditch,” she replies, cocking her head and sizing me up. “I was hoping that you could help me.”
Despite all the manners my mother taught me—and her admonishments about how to protect myself from the mystical, tricksters, and the fae—I stare at the witch with my mouth open.
She raises her thin gray eyebrows.
My wolf yips in my chest as if she somehow recognizes the female. The witch’s wolf rumbles in reply, a fond acknowledgement, like a “there, there, I hear you.” It alleviates the tension enough so that I can close my mouth.
Keeping an eye on me, the witch squats, brushing her gnarled fingers across the tops of my few clumps of comfrey. “Quite an accomplishment,” she says.
My face burns, and my aching muscles tense. I didn’t see a blow coming. I thought she was good, and that Mother’s warnings were more about treading lightly around all magical folk.
The witch frowns, and then her eyes widen. “Oh, no. You misunderstand me. The soil here is…persnickety, for lack of a better term. The fact that it let you have your way at all is a minor miracle.”
The heat leeches from my cheeks, but I’m still stiff as a soldier. “P-Persnickety?”
The witch rewards me with a smile. “Finicky? Ornery? It’s a son of a bitch, not to put too fine a point on it.”
I glance down at the dry clumps surrounded by lush green grass. I can’t lie; I’ve had the thought more than once.
“I think it needs watering more often. It seems to suck moisture down in seconds.”
The witch cackles. “It’s an asshole. The more you water it, the drier it’ll get.”
I sigh. This day cannot get more bleak.
The witch comes to stand next to me. She seems bent and slight, but when we’re shoulder to shoulder, we’re at eye level with each other, and she seems sturdier. Close up, the worst of her wrinkles somehow seem to fade. Maybe from a distance, shadows make them seem deeper. She smells like patchouli and coffee. Even though it’s a strange scent—there’s not enough money for Ditch females have a cup of coffee in the morning, too—it feels familiar. Reassuring.
“It doesn’t want what you want.” The witch shrugs. “There’s nothing you can do.”
“What does it want?”
She grins, and a gold tooth in the back of her mouth catches the light. “That is exactly the right question to ask, my dear. What indeed?” She stares dreamily at the dirt for several, long moments, and then she turns to me. “What is it that you want, Wrenlee Ditch?”
Clay. I want Clay Pulley.
I want him to be who I thought he was. I want that feeling back, that no matter if the work is hard and hot, no matter that the day is long, he exists, and I have found him, so there is something to look forward to in life after all. I want that not to have been one big, fat lie.
“Nothing that I can have,” I say instead.
The witch cackles again. “Well, you know what they say about doors closing and windows opening.”
My nose scrunches.
“Never mind,” she says. “It’s a human saying. I should get to the point. It seems that I’m in need of a gardener with a very particular skill set and a very specific patch of earth, and you are that gardener, and this cantankerous dirt is that earth.”
“What is the skill set?”
“Determination and desperation,” she answers brightly.
I grimace. She has the right female.
“Why this place?”
“I’m happy you asked. You ask the right questions, dear. Why? Why not? You’ll find that those are the start of everything. Adventure. Progress. Trouble.” She smiles at me. I wait. She blinks.
Am I supposed to say something now?
She blinks again as if she’s waking up and gives herself a little shake. “Well, how to explain—” Her brow creases. “For a living thing to thrive, it needs good soil, right?”
“And for soil to be good, it needs to have the things that a particular living thing needs to thrive, right?”
I nod again although this is all beginning to sound like an ouroboros.
“But some soils are bad, through and through, and some living things do not want to thrive. They’ve got bigger things in mind. Do you follow?”
I don’t, but I nod a third time.
“So what I have is a plant, a very, very valuable plant that I am going to need, well, desperately in—” She looks at her bare wrist and squints as if checking a watch. “I’d say about twelve months, give or take.”
She ducks down, grabs a stick from the ground, and pokes a clump of dirt by her foot. She’s wearing plastic sandals. They wouldn’t last a day working on the Moat Wall.
“This plant has schemes and dreams of its own, and right now, it needs a bitter soil, a hard soil, in order to grow. It needs persistence, you understand?”
My nod is more confident this time. I do understand. “How is it going to grow if the soil won’t hold water?”
She waves me off. “Now you’re asking the wrong kind of question. How follows why. You haven’t answered why yet.”
She waits, watching me expectantly.
“Why?” I finally ask.
“So it knows how strong it is, so it can be strong when it counts.”
For some reason, my eyes well, and bruised, raw feelings swirl inside me as if stirred by an unexpected gust of wind.
“What do you want me to do?” I can’t follow the witch any further down the path of this strange conversation. The sun is sinking, and in the distance, an eerie howl echoes deep in the forest. My real worries bear down on my shoulders like a yoke. “I’m not sure what’s going to happen to me when I go home. If Father will even let me stay. I—”
I cannot tell her about the shed and the scolding and the walk of shame. I can’t tell her how I brought turmoil into the house, got my mother and sisters hurt, how I ruined myself for a male who wasn’t my mate, all because he didn’t yell at me, and his muscles were beautiful, and he smelled like cool stone and white water and icicles, and he followed me home so for a few minutes every evening, I felt special and unafraid.
“I made a mistake,” I say.
Her smile is soft and kind, but her eyes twinkle when she reaches into the clever pocket hidden in her skirts and plucks out a shiny gold coin. “None are so bad that this won’t fix it,” she declares. “Take this to that father of yours. Tell him it’s from the gray witch, and that you’re going to be helping me.”
“He’s furious. I shamed him. His pride won’t let him just look past what I’ve done.”
She snorts. “He’ll soon find a way to buy his pride back. Mark my words. Now come with me.” She flips me the coin, I grab it with alacrity, and she heads into the trees. “I pulled up as close as I could with the trailer. You’ll need to carry the seedlings,” she says over her shoulder, and as we walk, she continues chatting a mile a minute as I follow her deeper into the woods. “Ashbalm is nearly impossible to cultivate, but the chance of finding it growing wild just when I need it is too slim. You’ll need to be clever and creative, but I have full confidence in you.”
I have no idea why, but her gold coin is a lifeline, and I am not so much of a fool to turn it down.
“What do you need ashbalm for?” I ask the witch when she reaches into the trunk of a car she’s somehow driven through the trees.
She hands me a cardboard tray packed with a dozen peat pots, each with a single teardrop leaf poking from the soil. “This particular crop? Revenge,” she says, grinning, and in that moment, with a last ray of evening sunlight filtering through the canopy and lighting her face with mellow gold, she doesn’t seem old at all.
She seems vital and alive and very, very dangerous.