“Run,” Luke whispers, his rough tone leaving little room to argue. “Run and don’t look back.”
My heart is practically beating out of my chest, watching the royals ransack my pack lands, breaking through doors and letting themselves into every home that might conceal an unmated female. Being a commoner is bad enough, we’re hardly strong enough to fight a royal, and we are about half their stature alone.
Luke, my best friend since I was born, tries to push me into the woods behind our neighboring homes, but I’m too frightened. What if they smell me? What if they chase me? I won’t be able to outrun a royal and even more, what if his wolf tries to violate mine? I’ll be impure before my own twentieth birthday and that’s a sure way to be sent to the palace as a sex slave for the royals. Either that, or their personal punching bags.
I’ve never seen a commoner female return from the palace and the only time is have heard about what happens there is when a young girl, Callie from my North Woods pack, had tried to escape. She was seen taking a beating in the streets outside the palace, the stain of her blood still on the cobblestone. Everyone knew then what happens to commoners in the place, and I know better than to find myself stuck there one day.
My parents taught me a lot of things growing up, but the main point was to always be careful when a royal is present. One wrong look, one mumbled insult, and you will end up dead. They run the world, they make the rules, and they are brutal when they don’t get exactly what they want. All I can do is hope that they don’t want me. If they do, I’m already dead.
I’m unmated, only a year and half away from turning twenty to feel my mating pull, and until I’m claimed as a commoner, I run the risk of being taken by a royal and subjected to the same cruel treatment that Callie received.
The fear keeps my feet frozen, seeing the royals bust out of the house just two doors down from my parent’s home. They’ll be here soon.
Luke shoves me to move, his once cold eyes now dark and solid gray, begging for me to run.
“What—What if they see me, Luke? I could be killed if found running away from a royal.”
“Then I’ll try to get in there way,” he growls, his teeth clenched shut. “Please, Aurora, you have to run. They’ll take you away. Go.”
I finally feel my wolf whimpering, tired but willing as I shift, my clothes tearing off and left in the ground as I sprint behind my family home, ducking into the woods just before I hear another door slammed in by a forceful kick.
I worry they have seen me take off, prompting them to follow, hearing heavy steps pace behind me. I know they would have caught me already and I look back to see Luke’s wolf keeping pace behind me. He is running the same path as I am, trying to mask my scent with his own, but we won’t know for sure if the royals have my scent until it is too late. Their senses are even more heightened than ours, everything about their powerful bodies stronger than anything we could ever hope to be.
Faster! Luke barks into my mind, speaking quick into the mind link and making me wonder if they have already found our trail. Go, Aurora, hurry up!
I try my best to sprint faster, pushing myself further, but it’s still so early in the morning and I haven’t exactly prepped for a full sprint, uphill, while my heart palpitates with utter terror.
My wolf is too weak, too tired, and I collapse near the waterfall, the halfway point between our homes and the peak of the mountain range. I shift, tumbling mid-sprint, and fall straight into the edge of the shallow water. My elbows blister, bleeding as I try to catch myself and protect my head at the same time, scraping my knees and feet when I finally skid to a stop.
“No, no, no,” Luke breathes, shifting, standing in the shallow end of the water with me. He laps water over my body, wiping away the blood, and I realize soon he is trying to mask the scent of it with the dirty, clouded water. “They will smell your blood downwind,” he grumbles, working to cover me in water and get rid of any trace of blood.
I cover my face, the water temperature colder than I would prefer, but I know it’s better than being taken by the warriors back to the palace or having one of them claim me out here in the woods. I want to cry at the level of fear that pangs in my chest, innately doomed as a female commoner without a mate.
Luke stops, kneeling down beside me, his eyes darting all over the woods, both of us seemingly afraid that we are being watched from the woods, taunted before we will inevitably be ambushed. They’ll kill Luke, the man I’ve always felt would be my mate, and I’ll either be taken to the palace or abused and ravished right here in the woods far behind my family home.
“I’m scared,” I say, shivering both in terror and at the cold bite of the falls water.
“I know,” Luke says, whispering, trying to make himself small as he cages an arm over my side, looking around frantically, the sight of his worry only making me more scared.
Are you okay? My mom calls through the link, her voice just as hysterical. Royals just came through the house, tore everything up. They found your bedroom and demanded to know where you were, Aurora, they’re taking unmated females again!
I know, I reply somberly. Luke had me run and he came with me. He tried to run behind me to mask my scent. Did the royals take off behind the house and into the woods?
The pause of silence in my mind makes me weep harder.
No, they moved on. They went through Luke’s home and his parents said they didn’t know where he was. They vouched for you as well.
What did you tell them?
I said that royals had come through a few weeks ago and already took you. Luke parent’s thankfully heard me link over and said the same thing, she says simply but something in her voice worries me.
Did they hurt you?
Again, silence plagues the link before my mother gives into my question. One of them grabbed my neck and threw me across the room. They saw my mating mark, though, and your father ran home just in time for them to leave me alone.
So, you’re both okay?
We’re fine, she replies. Stay out there for a little while longer, just incase they wait to see if you come home, Aurora. There’s too many for us to barter with if they find out.
I agree, sitting up as my wounds still leak blood, the thought of the warriors of the royal pack sticking around to find me making my stomach churn. In the past we have been able to bribe one or two royal warriors with gold pieces or homemade tapestry from my mother’s shop in town, but if there are too many to barter with, they make take it as a refusal and royals do not appreciate being told they can’t have what they want.
I shiver in the breeze, Luke pulling himself closer to my hip, wrapping an arm around my back and pulling me into his side. I steal his warmth, curled up in a meek ball, both of us watching the hills below, waiting to see if we were tracked down or not.
“It’s your birthday tomorrow,” I remind him, trying to lighten the mood.
His cold eyes don’t move away from the trees surrounding us. “Being twenty isn’t nearly as special as it sounds, little one.”
“You’ll get to find out who your mate is,” I breathe, hopeful that the outcome benefits us both.
He finally breaks, his grin small but effective, pulling his focus off of the woods and down onto me. His eyes scan my long, wet hair, white in color where the blood didn’t soak into my scalp from another mark made when I stumbled. He looks into my eyes, the feeling making me shudder, and he must assume I am cold because it forces him to hold me closer.
I nuzzle into his warm, familiar side.
No matter what happens today with the royal warriors, whether they find me or not, I plead to the moon goddess in the heavens above that I at least get the one thing I’ve ever yearned for. We are commoners, poor and weak. We aren’t given many options for clothes, and we don’t earn a fraction of gold compared to what the royals have in excess, but the one thing we sometimes get to enjoy is the mating pull.
I just want to enjoy it with Luke.
A deep, growling howl is set loose below and a series of high-pitched screams follow shortly after. I jump at the sound, listening as a young woman begs for it to stop. Luke looks aside, cringing as I do, hearing the utter sounds of helplessness flood the valley below.
I press my hands over my ears to make it stop. It needs to stop.
I need the protection of a mate. I just pray that I am Luke’s.