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CHAPTER 4

WRENLEE, THREE MONTHS LATER

“She used to hang around in the shed, waiting for him. He had to tell her to her face that they weren’t mates, and she needed to leave him alone and stop throwing herself at him. It was so embarrassing.” A female is whispering to a new worker who just started on the wall.

At least she’s trying to talk about me behind my back. The breeze is blowing in my direction, though, so I can hear everything. I pretend I don’t and keep my head down, but if anyone’s looking, my burning face will give me away.

“I saw him at the fight Friday night,” the new female whispers back, giggling. “I’d wait for him in the shed for him, too. Did you see him lay out that male from Salt Mountain?”

“The beefy one or the blonde one?”

“Well, both, but I’m talking about the blonde one. I thought Clay was going to rip his throat out. It got so vicious. The bell rung, and they kept going, and all those males had to jump in to pull them apart.”

The females shudder exaggerated little shivers and giggle, moving along down the ledge with their empty buckets, taking their time. The wind is whipping hard today, coming down from the north. It carries voices down from the training yard and making the scaffolding creak. I can’t hear Clay, but I know he’s there.

Sometimes, I glance up and catch him at the railing, staring down. I always look away quickly, and an irrational wave of anger squeezes my throat closed. All the whispers and snickers and lecherous stares from the males are his fault. And mine. I’m angry at myself, too.

At least none of the males try to corner me. I was expecting it. That’s how they are when you get a reputation, but I only have to deal with leers and the occasional muttered slut or whore. Probably because the day after Clay disavowed me, my father got into a bar brawl at the Spade and Shovel, and a fighter broke almost every bone in his body. Dale and Emmett jumped in and got it pretty bad, too.

It wasn’t Clay who beat Father, but the damage was bad enough that no one’s willing to chance messing with me.

The worst is that I miss Clay. I miss sitting in the shade of the scaffold while he worked overhead, how all the ordinary things were sharper and sweeter. The sunshine was softer, the air was purer, and the raps of chisel on stone were clear as bells. I miss looking forward to something. Everything is back to normal now, dull and dusty.

At least the ashbalm has finally taken root. I have Clay to thank for that, and I’m angry about that, too. His wolf marks a perimeter around the garden, so the rabbits are no longer a problem. More mysteriously, he did something to the dirt. It’s mostly still dry and inhospitable, but he’s mixed it with what looks like the soil used in the town’s landscaping, so it holds just enough water to let the seedlings grow.

I don’t want to owe him anything, and I don’t want him to know about the ashbalm. It’d be wrong to hate him. I knew it was wrong to meet him; I knew it could come to no good. But at night, sleepless in my top bunk listening to Father’s piteous groans, I run that scene at the shed over and over in my mind.

Eldrick asks, “Is she your mate?”

And Clay says, “Yes.”

He lies. For me. Because saying I’m not his is a bigger lie.

And I know that a righteous male never fails to tell the truth, even in the face of death, and I know that such a lie inevitably would be discovered, and the shame then would be a hundredfold, and that even wanting him to tell such a lie for me is vile and dishonorable.

Still. When I’ve pressed one ear to my lumpy pallet and smothered the other with my thin pillow, trying to muffle the sound of Father’s wolf howling his impotent rage and the neighbor’s pounding on the walls, I imagine him saying, “Yes.”

And my heart beats faster, and my chest tightens, and I’m not sure if I want to cry because it would have been so sweet or because it is so impossible.

And I am angry, too. I’m furious that he’s up there with the Claws looking down on me, and that his name is on everyone’s lips on Saturday mornings after the fights, and they say things like he has the confidence of a young Alpha Fireside, and that at the end of the season, when he faces off against Killian Kelly, the legendary flipshifter of Quarry Pack, it’ll be even money.

The higher he gets, the smaller and lonelier I feel, and I’m angry because I didn’t feel that way before. I was fine, and now I’m not. Even my wolf is irritable, pacing all the time and craning her neck. She’s only calm at the garden when she can scent him, even though he’s not there.

Another strong gust of wind blows through the valley created by the wall and the river, and there’s a general clanking and complaining of the scaffolding.

And then there’s a loud thunk a few feet away on the ledge, nearly startling me out of my skin, and a half full bucket of mortar rolls on its side.

“Goddamn it,” John Broom swears. His round face appears over the edge of the platform twenty feet above me. “Wrenlee, I’ve got my hands full. Can you bring that back up?”

I’m already rising to my feet. I’ve never had a problem with John, despite the putty knife incident, and lately, he’s been downright kind. He and his brothers keep me busy most days, and they don’t ogle me or call me names. They don’t try to talk to me either, and that’s fine.

I grab the bucket, hook it over my elbow, and then twist my shirts and tuck them in my smock strings to free my legs. Since the temperature has been dropping by the day, I’m wearing my thick wool tights, so at least the gawkers won’t get much of a show. The bosses don’t like females climbing the scaffolds, but sometimes, it’s unavoidable.

I’m careful as I climb, holding the metal bars with both hands and wedging a foot firmly in each crosshatch before I haul myself up to the next. The wind is constant now, calming to a stiff breeze and then swelling to a gale before gentling again. High overhead, the tops of the tall trees towering over the town’s steep roofs sway and toss their red, orange, and yellow leaves like lion’s manes. Every time I inhale, my lungs fill with cool green river water, leafmeal, and crisp northern air.

It's beautiful, even more so because my heart is raw. I keep my eyes glued on my handholds, but I can feel Clay’s gaze on me. I can feel anxiety knotting in his gut as I swing the bucket over the edge of the scaffold, and I hope it’s not my imagination. I hope he cares, and he’s biting his nails.

I could climb right back down, but the air’s too clean up here. I can think for the first time in months, and my wolf is strangely silent and on edge. She senses danger, and so do I.

John Broom grunts in surprise as I haul myself up next to him. The wind blows and the scaffold creaks. My blood pumps faster with fear, and it’s a relief. It sweeps all the hurt and loneliness and shame away.

A male shouts from above, but a gust carries it away before I can make out the words or the voice.  

“Best get on down now,” John says. “I’m coming down myself just as soon as I finish this here.” He’s wedging a stone into place, his brow furrowed in focus.

The platform sways, but they’re designed to. The brittle bow breaks; the supple bow bends. I gaze down to the lazy, sparkling river, flowing mutely eastward, and the forests past it that sprawl all the way to the horizon, as far as the eye can see.

I know that Salt Mountain, Moon Lake, and Quarry Pack lie in that direction, as well as the forests where the Last Pack live burrowed in dens like we’re told folks did a hundred years ago. There are human towns and cities, too, teeming with millions of souls starving for connection to the earth and the animal selves that they lost touch with sometime during our prehistory when they became one thing, and we became another.

I’ve never seen any of these places with my own eyes, and I’ve never longed to like my sister Annabel, but on a day this clear and lovely, I can’t tear my gaze from the horizon where the ground smudges into the sky.

Another gust kicks up, plastering my shift and smock to my back and setting my skirts to snapping in the wind.

A howl somehow rises above the racket, and my wolf leaps to attention. A moment later, the plywood sheet I’m standing on lurches, knocking me to my knees. Metal screeches.

“Get down!” John shouts, but it’s too late. In slow motion, everything falls apart. The platform leans drunkenly forward, away from the wall, teetering at an impossible angle as the bucket slides as slow as a pat of melting butter toward the edge. “Wrenlee, jump!”

John races the same way as the bucket, and an instant before he leaps, he shifts. The last I see of him is the hindquarters of his mottled brown wolf disappearing into over the edge.

I can’t jump. I’m falling. The scaffold is tilting over, crashing to its side, and I tumble, my arm somehow hooking over a metal bar, and I dangle over empty space, the river stories below my kicking feet, screams and wind roaring in my ears.

I’m hanging by my armpit. I swing my other arm, but there’s nothing to grab, nothing to pull myself up on. My wolf scrambles inside me, helpless and terrified, my legs pumping in mid-air like a criminal doing the hangman’s jig. I’m going to die. The fall is too far.

I did this to myself. All my misery and misfortune—all because I reached for something I shouldn’t have. I don’t want to die angry. I swing my legs harder. My shoulder is seconds from breaking, I can tell, and I don’t what to go so soon, alone, like this.

There is a thump. Shouts. The scaffold shakes. I scream.

Clay’s head and chest appears over the platform edge, now vertical above me. He reaches for me, but I’m much too far below.

“Hang on,” he yells, and then hollers over his shoulder, “Hold tight.” The others must be using their weight to keep the scaffold from toppling into the river.

The bar slips, or I do. My arm is giving out. It’s shaking and numb. Above me, Clay gauges the distance, scouring the plywood for handholds, but there aren’t any, and it’s too far.

I am happy that he is here. That I get to see him before I go. His face is hard and sharp, and it hurts to know he isn’t mine, but still, he’s beautiful. I try to smile.

Our eyes lock. His pain and desperation tear into my chest like grappling hooks. Metal screeches. The males erupt in shouts.

The scaffold careens forward.

“Wrenlee, shift!” he roars, and he leaps.

My limp arm slips free, the metal bar sliding through my numb fingers, and I’m falling, but it’s not painless. My bones are snapping. My muscles tear, and I scream, but my voice is gone, and the color of the world is wrong. I flail, but I have no hands, I’m upside down, I’m going to crash into the river, but no, a split second before I hit the green surface, I’m snatched from the air and tucked against a hard chest.

Clay catches me, and in that instant, he twists so that his back slams against the water, and we rocket straight to the bottom. The cold stops my heart, and I can’t breathe. I can’t see. I struggle, but he’s got me in a vice grip, and he’s pushing up. We burst into the air, and it’s even colder, and bright, and folks are shouting high above, running down the great stair.

With pained effort, Clay swims us to the shore with one arm. The other cradles me to his body. The echoes of his fear screams inside me. I can feel him.

He crawls onto the rocky shore on the far side of the wall and collapses to his side, gasping for breath. My wolf wriggles free from his hold and stands on her own legs for the first time. They wobble. They’re thin.

My wolf hobbles through the stones to the river side and peers down. Her soaked fur is matted to her shivering body, so there is no hiding the fact—she is a runt. Her ribs are the biggest part of her. Her haunches are puny, her head small, her legs even spindlier than my mother’s. It’s like she stopped growing too soon.

She stares down her reflection, and she realizes it, too. There’s something wrong with her.

Wolves are supposed to be strong and fast and vicious. That’s the deal. Even the lowest female Ditch has a beast inside of her. But not me.

My wolf looks behind her at the male pushing himself up onto his knees. He’s made of muscle, his soaked jeans clinging to his thick thighs, his tank sculpted to the slabs of his pecs and ridges of his abs.

He’s our mate, and that’s what we wanted more than anything, and everyone says he’s going to be a legend, and I am a runt, and he almost died because I was stupid and reckless. I almost died. My heart slams in my chest, and I shake. Drops of water patter on the stone shore.

Clay rises to his feet, taking a step forward. His boots crunch. My wolf cowers, her ears flattening. She inches backwards toward the river.

“Hey, you’re safe,” he says, reaching out a hand, palm open.

My wolf whines, scooting back until her tail brushes the water. She knows who he is to her, but he rejected us in front of the other males. He told us to get. Before, she didn’t understand that she was frail, but now she does, and she is scared. She licks her fangs, and they are small, not long or sharp enough to tear through fur or skin.

Clay takes another cautious step. My wolf back up into the cold river up to her haunches, crouching, her head tucked between her shoulder blades. She’s trembling so badly that she’s making ripples in the water.

Clay squats and draws his hand back. “We’re fine,” he says. “Come out of there now.”

My wolf doesn’t budge or blink.

He reaches out again. She whimpers and scuttles further back. People are arriving. Clay turns his head and snarls, and they’re smart enough to stop where they are. They cluster and whisper and stare. Here we are again.

Clay takes an exaggerated step backwards. “Please,” he says, quietly. “Come out. It’s cold.”

My wolf is not going to be tricked by him. She’s surrounded, outnumbered, and so very, very slight. He’s not helped her before. He sent her away.

“All right.” Clay blows out a breath, and he reaching behind his back and peels his shirt off over his head.

My wolf cocks her head. His skin is goosebumped, his dark nipples pointed. His hands move to his belt. Neither of us look away. He shucks his jeans and boots, and then stands barefoot on the cold pebbles, his long cock pale and dangling between his hairy thighs. He cracks his neck and rolls his shoulders.

With a final deep exhale, he breaks in front of us, elongating, shortening, changing. The air rings with the crunch of bone, but he doesn’t make a sound, and then he’s standing there on four legs, shaking out his thick, shiny pelt. I’ve never seen his color before. He’s white on his muzzle, inner legs, and chest, but his nose and haunches are almost orange, and the rest of him is rich brown mixed with a rusty red.  

My wolf whines and bears her neck.

His wolf chuffs a few times, ignores her completely, and trots into the river about ten feet downstream. He’s quick about it, dashing back to shore as soon as he’s dunked himself. Then he strolls back to where my wolf is frozen half-in and half-out of the water. He stares majestically into the middle distance.

My wolf peeks up at him. She’s ninety-nine percent terrified, but there’s a spark of curiosity in her.

He slides her a glance from the corner of his somber golden eyes, and then he gives himself a huge, entirely unnecessarily vigorous shake. Drops fly, spattering the stones and the river and my wolf. She gets a face full, and she sneezes, swiping at her snout with her paw.

And that, apparently, is enough for her. She clambers onto her shaking legs, picks her way onto the shore, and gives herself a good shake. Clay’s wolf sits on his back haunches and watches her. She begins to lick her fur.

Clay’s wolf saunters over, close, but not too close.

She keeps licking, but she’s watching. Her heart is pounding, but it’s not all fear now. She likes how he smells, even though he smells like wet fur and river water.

Clay’s wolf settles himself on his stomach, head high and alert, but otherwise like he has no worries or place he needs to be. I can feel him in our chest, though. He’s wired to hell.

My wolf finishes fussing and decides that she’ll settle herself on her belly, too, close to Clay’s wolf, but not too close.

The bosses start to shoo away the folks who came to see our shattered bodies. They grumble and trudge back up the stairs to the scaffolds, a few of which are laying on their sides. The one I fell from is upside down and sticking out of the middle of the river.

Staring ahead as if lost in thought, or at least not at all interested in the small, wet, raggedy critter beside him, Clay’s wolf wiggles an inch over. And then another. My wolf yips, but softly. Clay’s wolf begins to rumble. My wolf’s ears perk. He rumbles louder. She wriggles the last inch until they’re lying flank to flank.

My wolf yawns. Clay’s wolf nudges her with his head until her muzzle is tucked under his. He is so warm. Her heart finally begins to slow.

By some miracle, we’re alive, and we’re mates. What does it mean? And what happens now?

I don’t know, but for this minute at least, as the wind dies and ordinary, everyday sounds begin to reach our ears—the temple bell ringing the hour, the call of workers high on the ledges, the rush of the river—I don’t need to. I can lie here and listen to my mate’s tail swish and thank Fate for all of it.      

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