Copyright © 2015 by Stephanie LaRue
This is a work of fiction.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means including photocopying, recording, or information storage and retrieval without permission in writing from the author.
Edited by Anne W. Riley
Interior design by Stephanie LaRue
Please send typo/error feedback to:
This file includes the first couple chapters of The Burning Woods as a sample.
In the land of Ashtil, men ruled over the mountains, rivers, deserts, and woods. Those men lived peacefully, taking little from the land they called home. Peace existed among the clans for centuries. But an unforeseen change festered deep within the land.
Over the course of a single night, the moon lost its luminous silver shade. Silver changed to gray and gray to white. During the cycle of the white moon, sickness set in and an irrepressible transformation eradicated what sanity those men harbored. Bones cracked and splintered, forced into new structures. Thick muscles developed on even the scrawniest bodies. Fingers and toes grew long and thin and toenails sharpened into claws capable of filleting the hardest meats. Teeth erupted into razor-sharp canines and snake-like tongues slithered between elongated jaws. Brown, charcoal, and white fur sprouted out of pores, concealing agile bodies. The creatures gained strength, but lacked the heightened senses of a true wolf. Standing upright, the beasts nearly resembled the stature of men, but they were not quite humans or wolves.
Werewolves had replaced men.
The transformation altered more than their bodies; it poisoned their minds. Blood was spilled throughout the lands. Werewolves lacked control of the outcome, acting solely on a thirst for blood.
When the changing moon receded from the sky after a month-long cycle, werewolves became men once again, forgetting about the monsters they’d become. Only a loss of kin provided evidence of their cruelty. Droves of wolves died in the jaws of their kin during the early days of transformation.
It required decades of bloodshed for the wolves of the clans to lose the wild, untamed werewolves of old. The mountain wolves of Moldra changed faster than their cousins. The river clan of Ritelia and the desert clan of Batix adjusted to the change soon after their northern cousins. Sadria, the woodland clan, embraced the savagery, and was the last clan to adapt to the transformation. Men changed at will, unhindered by the yearly cycle. The moon no longer controlled the transformation and the thirst for blood lost its hold. Power and domination replaced bloodthirsty desires and a different kind of change claimed Ashtil.
The Sadria clan sought to claim the lands of their cousins. The other clans begged for peace, but their desperate pleas went unanswered. The clan of Sadria, having the strongest forces, did not give in to defeat for another two decades. Pride drove their craving for dominance; the wolves sought victory or death.
War raged until the lush, thriving Sadria Woods could no longer provide sustenance and the Sadrian wolves relinquished their weapons. Starvation set in and forces were depleted. The clan of Sadria ceased being the greatest clan among the three, and for some time, disappeared into obscurity. Contact ceased between the cousins and a refusal to accept humans into their lands, further alienated the Sadrian wolves. The Sadria Woods also became known as the Burning Woods and the four clans of old dissolved into three.
Nestled deep in the burnt woods of Sadria, caves stretched into low-lying mountains. Among gray rock and blackened soil, werewolves lived and worked, in human and wolf form. Heat inundated the land and smoke rose from its inner depths. The dead land secreted chemicals from charred trees, a toxic mixture of fire liquids released on the Woods during the war. Tattered banners flapped in the wind. The Sadria brand—a single tree with an S springing up from its middle—danced on the fabric. Black towers of bark smoldered where lush forests once existed, a constant reminder of a war long ended.
Nestled along the banks of an ash laden river, rows upon rows of limp crops were worked. Half of the clan collected tainted food amid the dying woods. Men, women, and children offered the same vacant expressions while they clawed at the soil. Gloomy, yellow and black eyes were recessed into skeletal faces. Black rings circled every eye. Coats reeked of filth and teeth were rotten.
Wolves sat in the middle of rows, heads down, eyes barely open. Broken nails and arthritic fingers toiled the rough soil, yet each day the clan fared no better. Lower level clan members worked until fingers bled and fell from sockets, and backs bent and curved.
Howls echoed across the land. Crop workers’ heads snapped up, eyes pointed toward a wolf standing watch off to the side. The werewolf’s fiery eyes slanted and his lips curled into a sneer. It opened its long mouth and barked.
Workers rose to their feet, not bothering to dust themselves off, and shuffled into a single file line. The wolf nipped at the hand of the first person in line and the procession began.
Werewolves, in human and wolf form, ventured out of every corner of the woods. Frail bodies hobbled down thin trails along the wide central caves and across the ash covered river. Patrol wolves nipped and barked at the citizens, quickening the pace when it slowed too much.
Along the borders of Sadria, patrolling werewolves surveyed the land. Most citizens wouldn’t dare crossing the boundaries, though it wasn’t unheard of. Every so often someone threw caution aside and sprinted toward freedom. The escapees were always captured at the base of the Moldra Mountain range.
The eastern border, along an endless marsh, saw little action. A handful of wolves covered the length of the fence line separating the two lands. Silver wire ran along the fence posts and barbs stuck out of the wire. Sunlight glinted off the sharp metal.
Adriala stood at the fence, staring out at the scenic marsh, its abundant wildlife and varying colors. Muscles protruded from lean limbs and dark brown fur covered her frame. White specks dotted her ears and face. Yellow eyes stayed on the forbidden land beyond the fence, staring blankly. She twisted a wilted, ash caked flower between her toes and looked out at a bed of perky wild flowers within the bounds of the marsh.
She adjusted her neck, allowing a glint of light to shine across her eyes as she gawked up at passing birds. They’d never land, she thought, not inside the Woods.
Bringing her head down, she returned her attention to the marsh. The beauty was within reach, but no amount of stubbornness could convince her to stray into forbidden land.
“Adriala, must you escape your duties so easily?” Wilken asked, skidding to a stop on his hind legs, out of breath.
Adriala spun around. Wilken’s troubled gaze was upon her.
“We have been summoned,” Wilken said. His head swayed from side to side as he steadied his fragile body. His lightly colored coat consisted of coarse hair and his wiry limbs held little muscle. Big yellow eyes bulged from his skull and oversized teeth jutted from his upper jaw. He lumbered when he walked and his head bobbed along on broad shoulders.
Adriala placed her paw over the dirty flower and smashed it under her heel. “Must you worry so much?” she asked.
“We are meant to uphold such laws, not break them for a silly wish.”
Adriala barked. “I am allowed my thoughts,” she said, brushing off Wilken’s concern.
“The others might notice eventually,” Wilken said, flopping on the ground.
“Most wolves have worked so long they do not know they are eating rotten foods when the elders hold plenty of spoils.”
Wilken sighed. “When the meats are spoiled for months on end, it can be difficult,” he said. “You are lucky that the elders are blind to such activities. Though, it does not excuse your absence.”
“My silly daydream is one you share, I would not be so quick to mark me a criminal,” Adriala said, pawing at a misplaced stone. She shoved the stone aside and lifted a vine dripping with slightly wrinkled berries, a day from spoiling completely.
Wilken’s strict demeanor faded and he licked his lips. “You mustn’t be so careless…” Wilken said, his voice trailing off.
Adriala sighed. She knew Wilken was right, and it pained her to admit it. One day the elders might very well persecute wolves for staring into space for too long.
She lifted the berries and tilted her head back, allowing a berry to fall into her mouth.
“We should go,” Wilken said. His gaze lingered on the berries. “Finish your lunch,” he added.
Adriala pushed the berries toward him, attempting to dissuade his concern. “You take them,” she said. “I’ve eaten plenty.”
Wilken glanced at the berries, wiping drool on his coat.
“Wilken, you must eat,” Adriala said.
After a bit of hesitation, Wilken licked a berry up on his tongue, chewing it and swishing the juices around in his mouth. Then he sniffed the vine and stared curiously at Adriala. She gave a nod. Wilken leapt after the vine, swallowing the berries whole. After he’d eaten every berry, he licked juices from the dirt. Adriala recoiled, a wounded expression on her face. Forced to witness Wilken’s desperation, she thought of the luxury of being the only pup birthed to her parents. What little rations they received wasn’t enough, but it was far more than Wilken would ever see.
“If not for you, I would have been sent to the Dark caves long ago,” Adriala said.
“And I would have wasted away,” Wilken said, sniffing the ground for more berries.
Adriala licked at her shiny coat. Wilken stared longingly at her full coat of fur. He scratched at his own hair and clumps of it fell out, leaving bald spots.
“It’ll grow back, perhaps you’ll get a full winter coat this year,” Adriala said.
“I doubt I’ll grow half of what you have. My kin believe they must birth more pups, fewer rations.”
Adriala barked and rolled over, landing close to Wilken. She inspected his fur. “And I couldn’t run as well as you do,” she said. She laughed part human and part wolf noises.
Wilken snapped his jaws shut. A growl moved from his throat as he rolled away from Adriala.
“It is a wonder you can unwind those legs to move so quickly,” Adriala added.
Wilken snarled. “We should go, it’s been too long already,” he said, turning to face the trail, hiding a smirk.
Adriala nipped him on the tail. “Let’s walk. I’m in no hurry to watch my kin be condemned,” she said.
Low clouds blocked out the sun, painting the sky gray, a fitting look for the sentencing. Smoldering trees marked off the sentencing grounds. Smoke and fog concealed most of the area. Rustling feet and a low hum of voices traveled through the woods. A crowd formed behind a short stone wall. Those in wolf form marched up and down the barrier. Dozens of patrol wolves hovered at the edges of the crowd, ready to pounce on unruly guests.
Adriala and Wilken sat in wolf form, on a mound of dirt and soot, slightly elevated above the gathering. Adriala kept her eyes on a thin outline of the cave opening. Concealed behind smoke and fog, hid the Dark Caves. The cries of her kin reverberated deep inside.
Most members tuned out the sounds, Adriala honed in on the noise, searching for life among the dead, for old friends and cousins. Fewer cries echoed as the years progressed; most wolves hadn’t died, they’d simply given up.
“Are you going to cheer?” Wilken asked.
“No,” Adriala said, turning her head away from the caves, a sudden rush of anger coming over her.
A bloodthirsty frenzy had engulfed her kin. They wanted to see the traitors brought to justice, as long as their own kin remained unharmed. Adriala despised them, shooting accusatory glances at persons acting extravagant in their support of Roaden.
Cool winds wafted across the caves and the smoke cleared, revealing several silver stakes driven deep into the soil. Beyond the stakes, smoke whirled around the cave entrance, a jagged shaped circle resembling a wolf’s open jaws and cavernous throat.
“There are more than usual,” Adriala said. Her eyes jumped from one stake to the next. “And last time I counted one more stake than the time before,” she said, her voice rising.
“I see it too,” Wilken said.
Over the last few months the number of imprisonments had increased. Adriala could hardly remember if previous estimates were merely miscounts. This time, she was certain. At least two more stakes bulged from the soil, two more prisoners bound to die. Had crime truly risen in the last two weeks? She counted the stakes again. The number did not vary.
A vicious growl quieted the murmuring pack. Heads snapped toward the trail. The crowd parted. Bound and naked men and women stumbled through the opening. Tears streaked their dirty faces, and more than a few had soiled themselves. Wide eyes studied the crowd, searching for sanctuary among kin. There was no comfort to be found. Kinfolk refused to acknowledge passing cousins among the guilty, averting their gazes elsewhere. Showing sympathy for prisoners would see the perpetrators imprisoned too.
The crowd groaned and screamed vile comments at the prisoners. Patrol wolves tightened their grips on the accused and dragged the creatures toward the stakes. Ankles and wrists were bound to the metal, smoke rising from bodies. Cries drowned out the crowd. Silver melted into the prisoners’ backs. The crowd eased its verbal assault of the condemned wolves and stared wearily at the dangling bodies and rising smoke.
“What do you think they did?” Wilken asked.
Adriala inspected the prisoners’ faces for an answer. “Probably caught picking scraps off the floor,” she said. Her stomach twisted into knots the longer she gawked at the poor devils. Any one of those wolves could be her, or Wilken, or her parents, imprisoned by a corrupt system. Most crimes involved wolves determined to live a single day without hardship, taking scraps from the floors of the elders or merely voicing concern for their kin. “Must they be so vile?’ she asked, under her breath.
The crowd quieted down. Roaden, the pack leader, strolled out of the caves; a sword of silver bounced at his side. He was a scrawny man despite the size of his rations. An auburn tint colored his shaggy brown hair. Narrow eyes sat in a triangular face and he stood nearly seven feet tall, an uncommon height among the clan.
The pack cheered and hollered while Roaden made his way along the stone wall. Adriala and Wilken moved their mouths along to the noise. No one noticed their ambivalence, and Adriala and Wilken would have denied it if anyone did.
If placed in line with most other wolves, Roaden would be deemed unfit for such a role. Nothing about him described a leader. He lacked reasoning skills, understanding, and compassion for his role. His bloodline consisted of ruthless leaders who executed their own mothers and fathers. Roaden’s own father watched hundreds die of starvation in an attempt to weed out weaker members. Survivors of past leaders considered Roaden’s reign a relief. In his first year of control, he raised rations during summer months and outlawed executions. As a result, support grew to an all-time high.
The crowd grew quiet. The elder council strolled into the area. Each member of the five wolves walked on their hind legs, decked out in customary green robes. They stood along the tree line, nearly parallel to Adriala and Wilken. The elders clasped their gangly half human and half wolf paws together in unison and held them in front of their waists; dark yellow eyes scrutinized the crowd before them
Folkin, the oldest elder, a stern man with gold eyes, waved his hand to hush the pack. He commanded the place better than Roaden. Folkin glanced at the men and women on either side of him. Heads bobbed, permission was granted.
Roaden bowed to the elders and took his post near the prisoners, sword in hand. Every patrol wolf rose from its settled state and stood on its hind legs, scrutinizing the crowd.
“They’d send their own kin to their deaths if it meant kissing the feet of Roaden,” Wilken said.
“What else are they to do?” Adriala asked.
Wilken didn’t have an answer. As much as Adriala and Wilken despised their kin for such devotion, there was no denying the need to show it.
“It’s sad,” Adriala said. “But what are they to do?”
“Leave this place,” Wilken whispered.
The lead patrol wolf, Reina, snapped her jaw shut, catching Adriala’s attention. Reina stood on her hind legs and peered out over the mass, snarling at members in the back. She appeared monstrous compared to her kin. Black stripes ran around her ears, combining at her neck and stretching into a black line down her back. Pearly white canines were used to cut the throats of convicted cousins. Solid yellow eyes highlighted a fierce gaze.
Her biting gaze rested upon Adriala.
Without taking her eyes off the lead wolf, Adriala nudged Wilken. He brought his eyes up from the ground and stared at Reina, stiffening. Reina flicked her head. Adriala and Wilken rose to their hind legs, appearing like monstrous figures above the gathering. Weary eyes traveled up the mound and the long bodies of the patrol wolf cousins. An intense pang of guilt rose in Adriala’s belly. Striking fear in her kin wasn’t in her blood.
The pack settled down.
Roaden grinned at his followers. “My kin, I thank you for your admiration and unwavering discipline,” he said. “It has been another month of increased production.”
Wolves barked and men cheered. Adriala observed the thin faces and frail bodies of her kin. She scoffed. If increases existed, no one of the lower levels saw such a profit.
Seeing the crowd’s enthusiasm, Roaden continued excitedly. “Your deep devotion to this clan does not go unrecognized.” A round of applause echoed through the woods. “My kin, today we find ourselves fighting to remain the last great clan of old. We did not give in to the humans like our cousins and we will not give in to criminals within our clan,” he said, pointing at the moaning beasts behind him. “We live by the old ways; we strive to remind ourselves of our kin who sacrificed everything to save Sadria. We thank them.”
Roaden addressed the prisoners. “This young pup has committed the crime of theft,” he said, raising the sword, he lifted the prisoner’s head.
The black-haired boy resembled several wolves, men, and women in the crowd, direct relatives who couldn’t bear to look at him for too long.
Wilken whined. “He is of the Hordon cousins. They have the lowest rations of any member.”
Roaden moved to the next wolf, a young girl, barely a year older than Adriala, a teacher, though education came last among clan priorities.
“This beast refused to honor her duties, her chores became second to her devotion to her lover. We must remind ourselves that the clan comes first,” Roaden said, pointing the sword at the next prisoner, a young man, the girl’s lover and a dedicated teacher.
“More teachers,” Adriala said.
“We’ll have none left by the year’s end,” Wilken said.
Roaden called upon the next three prisoners—a wolf convicted of vandalism, another charged with verbal assault of an elder, and the third accused of defying Reina’s command. But not one wolf was considered worse than the final prisoner. A hush came over the pack as if any of the wolves knew the exact crime.
Roaden stepped up to the criminal, a man Adriala barely recognized, a worker of the crops. Roaden moved the sword along the wolf’s neck. The prisoner did not cry. He stared straight at the leader, a look of defiance in his expression. Roaden shifted his weight, standing uneasily on bent legs.
“And this one will die for leaving the bounds of Sadria,” Roaden said.
The crowd made a collective gasp.
Adriala moved forward on the mound to get a better look at the wolf. Nothing distinguished him from the other crop wolves— hunched shoulders, black hands, and bloodshot eyes—were evident. Purple bruises covered the wolf’s toes and fingers. Adriala rotated her head to look at the snow-crested peaks of the Moldra Mountains.
The man had attempted a route to the north, a mistake, especially during late fall. Most escaping wolves attempted to trek those mountains. Perhaps they thought wolves of the Moldra clan waited with open arms. Adriala knew better. Moldran wolves lived miles away, down the range, among the highest peaks of the mountain range.
Patrol wolves circled the group, saliva dripping from open jaws.
“Take them to the caves,” Roaden said.
The patrol wolves dug their teeth into the prisoners’ flesh. Bodies peeled from the stakes. Remnants of skin melted against silver. The prisoners fought the grasps of their cousins, kicking and whimpering and begging for their lives as their captors dragged them inside the caves.
Adriala’s eyes remained locked on the man who crossed the boundaries. He fought the hardest, biting and clawing at his captor. It took multiple wolves to drag the man inside.
Adriala watched the caves until the prisoners disappeared amid the darkness, screams still echoing. The other members of her clan began the trek down the trail, to the main caves. Conversations focused on the man who had crossed the boundary.
“We must return to the borders,” Wilken said, slipping off the mound.
Adriala did not answer. Her gaze lingered on the caves.
Wilken lifted himself up to the mound and nipped at Adriala, breaking her gaze. “Come on,” he said.
Lowering herself onto all fours, Adriala hopped off the mound, still staring at the cave. Cries no longer echoed.
Roaden and the elders circled the grounds, stopping at the mouth of the cave. Reina and her main pack of wolves strolled over, bowing their heads.
“She’s become less agreeable,” Wilken said.
“He’s giving her more power,” Adriala said, glancing back to the Dark Caves. “I must be more careful. Times have become dire. I didn’t think it possible.”
Adriala and Wilken’s thoughts lingered on the outcome of the sentencing. Each week, more and more clan members faced execution. But few wolves noticed the rise in persecuted kin. So much had transpired in the last hundred years, making it difficult to differentiate between what was new and what had always been.
Dry winds battered the land, mingling with smoke and heat. Adriala’s robe hung on a post, flapping in the hot breeze. Sharp features appeared prominently in her human form. Small, piercing eyes sat in a thin face and pointed cheekbones stuck out. Dark waves of hair danced on her back.
Sweat dribbled down her chest. She opened up the top of her shirt, allowing wind to dry her skin. Adriala stared down her designated path—a straight line snaking along the fence line. She strolled to the end of her route and peered out over the two sides of the fence. There wasn’t another wolf in sight—no one to see her slip through the fence, no one to catch her plucking a flower from the vibrant vegetation.
Shaking the thought of leaving from her mind, Adriala observed the dead woods, her home. Far off in the center of the Sadria Woods, workers scraped mold off potatoes, elders sang happily in their glistening homes, and growls rumbled from patrolling wolves’ throats. Adriala’s fantasies usually drowned out the constant hum of the burning trees. She worked to reacquaint herself with the sounds of her home, refusing an encounter with the silver stakes.
Giving the marsh a final glance, Adriala started on her way, returning to her original location. When she reached the other end, she turned and went down the path again, continuing the monotony.
Each shift went on like that from sun up to sun down. Some wolves complained of the lifestyle. Adriala welcomed the endless marching. It afforded her time to think, to ponder life within the Woods.
Upon arriving at the other end of her post, she stopped and ate what little potato skins she had scrounged together from the previous night’s measly dinner. Her mouth ached from constant starch and leathery skins, so she swallowed bites whole. She kept her back to the marsh, fighting off the fantasies she was accustomed to having during patrols. Behind her, the marsh continued to sing, birds sailed in the sky and insects danced atop the water. Despite her attempts to ignore the marsh, Adriala peeked at it, checking in on its beauty.
Adriala finished her meal and stood up, dusting ash from her clothes. Just as she was to begin her work, Roaden and his guards appeared down the fence line, strutting straight toward Adriala’s post. He was looking off, in the direction of the caves. Adriala started down her path, in the opposite direction, pretending not to notice Roaden coming up behind.
Once she reached the end of her post, she stopped and waited, hoping Roaden and his guards might take another route. They did not. Inhaling deeply, she brought her feet around and traveled back down the trail, toward Roaden.
Roaden smiled as he approached from the opposite direction. “You are the only wolf I’ve seen who does not stop for anything other than lunch,” he said, looking out at the marsh.
Adriala licked her dry lips. “I seek to stay busy my leader,” she said, giving a tense bow. “I follow the laws of old.”
Roaden gave a slight bow, surprising Adriala. His guards exchanged concerned glances. Ignoring the curious gazes, Roaden waved a hand. A signal his guards immediately accepted by trotting away.
Roaden faced the marsh. “You’ve been granted a great view.”
Adriala glanced at the marsh and back at Roaden. “It does not rival the Sadria Woods.”
“I prefer the mountains myself,” Roaden said, gawking up at the tip of a mountain peaking over the trees. “It is almost a shame we didn’t get the great range of the Moldra Mountains over our dreadful cousins.”
“Yes, my leader,” Adriala said, glancing up at the white peak.
Roaden clasped his hands together and smiled. “We have the Woods, as it should be,” he said.
A chill struck Adriala’s bones. She felt stuck, trapped by Roaden’s sudden interest in her work. Any wrong step or misuse of tone might see her sent to the Dark Caves. She peeked at her faded patrol path, a way out.
Roaden pointed his eyes down at the rough trail. “Do you enjoy this work?” he asked.
Releasing a strained breath, Adriala said, “I do.”
Roaden smirked. “Reina said you weren’t talkative.”
Adriala stared down the path. “It is unwise to leave the boundaries unattended for too long, my leader.”
Surprise flashed in Roaden’s eyes. “I appreciate your diligence,” he said. “Please, continue.”
A forced smile curled onto Adriala’s lips. She bowed her head and started down the path, convincing her stilted legs to move. Her heart raced as she listened to Roaden and his guards conversing behind her.
By the time she reached the end of her post, Roaden was gone. But the fear stayed, rushing through Adriala’s veins like an illness.
Scowling patrol wolves lined the clan up at the main cave entrance. Crop workers cleaned out their robes and endured a stiff pat-down. Over the last week, no one had dared stealing contraband from the crops, so night call ins progressed fairly quickly. Wolves emptied pockets and robes, pawing at workers, inciting fear.
Adriala waited near the river for the daily send off, tightening a robe around her throat. Although the day had ended, she had not shaken the feeling of dread upon having Roaden address her. She hadn’t been in his company too many times since childhood, back when he was considered fairly normal, not a murderous dictator.
Upon finishing his own work, Wilken met Adriala along the river. A gray robe was fastened around his neck and dark, stringy hair was slicked back on his head. He resembled a boy more than a man outside of his wolf form.
“Why was Roaden so far from his jewel encrusted throne?” Wilken asked.
“He’s onto me,” Adriala said, tearing at her robe with lengthened nails.
“There is no crime to convict you of,” Wilken said, grabbing Adriala’s hands.
She released the cloth. Holes marked the robe. “What if our assumptions are true?”
Wilken shrugged his low hung shoulders. No answer would suffice. They watched the last of the clan stroll into the caves.
“More and more wolves are being imprisoned,” Adriala said. “I know I have seen more wolves go to the caves in the last month than I have in my entire life. Our numbers are too great and food is short.”
Wilken nodded. Adriala knew his stomach ached for food. She knew he hadn’t eaten. He’d be lucky if scraps awaited him for dinner.
“Then we must not give reason for it,” Wilken said. “Those criminal wolves were a bit meddlesome. We mustn’t allow ourselves to be so foolish.”
Adriala turned her attention the cave. The rest of the patrol wolves circled the opening, silently watching their kin descend into the cave. Reina barked and the wolves stood at attention. Adriala and Wilken started for the group.
Adriala nervously brushed out her robe and swiped hair out of her face.
“Relax,” Wilken said.
The duo joined the rest of the group.
“Nice of you to join us,” Reina said, eyeing Adriala.
“Of course, Reina,” Adriala said, biting her tongue.
Reina faced the group. “Roaden will join us shortly. I expect better behavior from you. He was less than impressed with our showing at the sentencing.”
Everyone straightened up, forcing the arch from their canine backs. Wilken and Adriala and a handful of other cousins presented themselves in human form. They simply planted their feet together and lifted their chins.
Reina continued. “My kin, we are doubling our efforts. From this point on, we look at every grievance with a critical eye. We have allowed too many wolves to slip past us for petty offences. Those offences make us appear weak in our demands. We must extinguish this issue,” Reina said. “Does anyone think they will be unable to fulfil what our leader has asked?” Wolves glanced to their left and right. No one stepped forward. “Good,” Reina said. “Look at every complaint, blunder, and infraction as worthy of being sent to the Dark Caves.”
Many of the wolves happily agreed, ready to exercise extra control. However, some wolves, including Adriala and Wilken, struggled to accept the situation. Most wolves only ever gave their immediate kin a verbal warning, too frightened, and unwilling to send anyone to the caves. Adriala’s head pounded as she attempted to comprehend the request.
“If I catch someone breaking clan law on your watch, I will hold you accountable,” Reina said, walking down the row of wolves. “Warnings have been given in the past, but this is not a warning. Wolves will be held responsible for crimes undocumented on their watch. I’ll be watching closely, and so will Roaden.”
Just then, Roaden moseyed out of the cave, followed closely by his most trusted guards. He glanced at Adriala. She felt it impossible to look away from him, for fear of seeming guilty of a false crime.
Reina bowed to Roaden and stepped out of the way, allowing him to address the wolves.
“What Reina means to tell you is we appreciate your work, and we would like to see each one of you excel further. This clan would cease to function without wolves such as you,” Roaden said.
Several wolves barked their gratitude.
“Continue to put in great effort and you will be rewarded,” Roaden said. “We’ve been a bit too lenient as of late. Please work hard to maintain our clan.”
The wolves nodded. Roaden bowed to Reina. She barked and the wolves barked back, relieving themselves of duty.
Reina motioned to Adriala. “Collect water for the bath,” she said.
“Of course, Reina,” Adriala said.
Wilken said his goodbyes to Adriala and headed into the cave. Adriala started for the river.
“Adriala,” a voice called to her, stopping her dead in her tracks. Her toes dragged across the soil as she brought her body around to face Roaden. Her toenails lengthened, penetrating the earth.
Roaden smiled. “I hoped to catch you before you hurried off.”
Adriala nodded politely, though she remained tense, clinching her teeth together.
“Off to fetch some water?”
“Yes, for the bath.”
“Commitment to work is a great value,” Roaden said.
“Yes, my leader,” Adriala said. “It keeps the clan functioning.”
Roaden cleared his throat and stepped toward Adriala, closing the distance between them.
Adriala tugged at her robe. “Is there something more, my leader?”
Roaden pulled at his collar, loosening it. “I wish to have you and your parents attend the elder meeting.”
Adriala gave him an incredulous look. “Are we allowed?” she asked.
“If a member invites you,” Roaden said, laughing.
Adriala knew of no wolf, other than those committed to the Dark Caves attended the council meetings. The feeling left her toes as she pressed them deeper into the hot soil. A sudden spat of tears sparkled in her eyes. She cleared her throat and looked down.
“Is something wrong?” Roaden asked.
Adriala raised her head. The tears disappeared. She cracked a smile. “No, Roaden, of course we shall attend the meeting.”
“As it should be,” he said. “I shall see you later.”
Roaden joined Reina at the mouth of the main cave.
Adriala hurried down the trail, toward the river. She rested beside the water, in thick coverage. Peering through low hanging limbs, she saw Roaden and Reina’s figures. Reina listened to Roaden speak, his hands flailed wildly in the air. Adriala tried eavesdropping. Though part wolf, her senses faltered due to dominant human attributes. The voices remained distant, faint whispers among the crackling Burning Woods. Dread overtook her, it was impossible to look away from the leader. Adriala felt what little freedom she had was quickly fading.
After Roaden departed, Adriala found a bucket near the river and filled it with water. She emptied it into a larger, wheeled bucket. She did this a dozen more times under the watchful eyes of Reina, the last wolf to turn in for the night.
(You can read the entire book by purchasing it on Amazon for 99cents.)
Adriala, a young werewolf, guards the fence line that separates her home from the outside world. Unlike other patrolling werewolves, she fantasizes about crossing the boundaries, to venture into forbidden lands. Inside the woods, life is bleak and Adriala's world is spiraling out of control. She's faced with an abusive husband, a wedge is driven between her and her best friend, and the clan is on the brink of starvation. Leaving seems like the best option, but it would mean abandoning her kin. Can Adriala overcome her past to save her clan?