Tracks is a Shadow Sprawl story, written by Terri Pray.
Artwork by Samuel Pray, created using Daz 3D, Photoshop and Filter Forge.
Run! Change shape now and run, before he claims you. You’re better than this, better than him, get away before he makes you weak, forces you to become less than who you are. Alpha, not beta. Alpha female who should find the right male to build a pack. A strong pack, one that would rival this one, perhaps would even challenge Rome itself.
Rome - a place she had wanted to see, but would forever be denied. She snarled at the thought and then fell silent, her teeth clamped shut even as she listened. If someone had heard her, realized how angry she was, then any hope she had of avoiding the marriage would be gone. Rome wouldn’t welcome her if she approached the city. Her blood was that of the enemy and she’d been warned of the fate that would await her if she attempted to enter the city.
A slave, that’s what she would be. A slave wife, used to breed the next generation but then again how was that much different from the fate that awaited her if she remained, if she let this male claim her. A breeder, like her mother and so many other women before her. That was all this pack wanted or expected from women, the next generation and, until recently, the women of the settlement hadn’t even been allowed to leave in order to collect herbs or plants without being under the watchful eyes of one or more of the men. So, they’d worked in groups of five or more, just as they did in the fields, while the men grumbled, drank and planned hunts. Only in her lifetime had this changed, with the women now allowed to wander and collect what they needed. No woman had tried to run in over twenty years, so they were deemed safe, under control… beaten.
“They aren’t all like that,” she set the basket down and retied the leather strap on the end of her braid. The words didn’t help even though she knew it to be true. Some of the men didn’t like the set up, but the Alpha had the final say in how the pack was handled, what rules were put in place and what would happen. The men who argued with him, at least visibly argued, died in accidents or vanished. Dead, murdered by the Alpha or those who answered to him. Some might have found homes elsewhere, but the majority would be dead. It was safer for the pack that way, or so the Alpha claimed.
Evil, that’s what he was. He might be the Alpha but he was a dark heart that struck terror into the souls of everyone else in the settlement.
Death take him, if the gods were kind they would hear her curse.
Say it, speak the words, let the curse take shape and lash out at him.
“Gods damn the man, may his cock shrivel and drop off. May the gods strike his liver, heart and kidneys, may his sight be taken from him and his teeth rot.” She snarled the curse as she looked down at the settlement. He wouldn’t be able to hear her from there, yet still she watched to see if someone would appear and look up at her. Nothing. Not a single man or woman looked up from the settlement. She could see a couple of figures moving through the village, stopping to talk, but the threat never appeared.
She muttered under her breath and then turned, walking as she took care with each step, watching the trail beneath her feet. It wasn’t the safest path as it was one that was seldom used, except by her. She knew every rock and dip, any new tracks stood out to her and yet she refused to take it for granted. Footing that had been stable one week, might crack and crumble beneath her feet the next time she used the trail and the last thing she needed was to fall. There would be no one around to help her, no one she could talk to and who might listen to her. Instead she had been told what would happen in the coming days, the man who would become her husband, mate to her wolf, and her choices had been stripped away from her.
Don fur, tooth and claw. Run, hunt, be away from this place. We can be free, safe to find our own mate, one who would be a match for us. He is out there, I know he is. He would accept us, welcome us, it would be so easy. Come, let us run.
Fabia tensed, the wolf, her wolf, growled and paced beneath her skin, urging her to escape, but wouldn’t that be the action of prey? It was one thing to hunt, it was another to run. She turned, looking back at the small home that had belonged to her family for two generations. A home she would be forced to leave behind if her father had his way. She couldn’t run, but dare not stay, so what was the answer.
Not prey. Alpha female doesn’t bow down to a beta male. We would be hunting one of our own, a male worthy of us. We will not be bound to a beta. No, we will fight and claw and growl.
Beta, yes, she knew the man was that and her wolf didn’t like the idea of being tied down to Egnatius, not with the way he had acted around her and around her family. Yet the marriage had been arranged. Her father had decreed that this was how it would be. Falina was already married with children of her own, three so far, and she was miserable. Bound to a man who, like Egnatius, was a beta. Her twin’s wolf hated the man, hated the wolf within him as well, and yet there was nothing she could do now that the marriage had bound her.
Now the same fate would be hers.
No, we will leave for our hunt. No beta mate, we will not allow it. Not like litter mate.
“She should have run, I’d have gone with her,” Fabia muttered and hefted the basket on her hip. Sister wolf, littler mate, twin. Blood and flesh grown in the same body, nursed at the same breast and yet one had been trapped by marriage, while the other had been found too aggressive to make a proper wife. So she rejoiced in the limited freedom she had found in the chores she performed. Yes, gathering herbs and other small things had opened up a world of small pleasures as she’d worked to fill her basket or leather sack with herbs, mushrooms, moss and grasses, whatever she knew the household needed, along with a few things she knew it didn’t need. Her mother didn’t like moving away from the home, not now that she had more grey in her hair than black, nor did her father like her mother being out of sight for too long, but an unwed daughter, one who had run off several potential husbands so far, was less of a loss if she was taken by the beasts or fell afoul of loose footing that sent her down through the rocks to her death. No, a son would be a loss, a daughter - one less mouth to feed. At least until Egnatius had stepped forward to offer for her.
Fabia’s gaze narrowed on the path.
Rome, that was where she belonged. With the other pack, the other bloodline. They would welcome her but only if she found a way to break free from those who still answered to the son of Remus.
The pack Alpha, dangerous, headstrong and he had already lived far too long. Yet they didn’t have to hide it from the others, from those who weren’t wolves or lacked the ability to call upon other powers. Rome had lost its first Alpha because of the long lives of their kind. Oh how Lotu loved to spread that tale, how Romulus had fled beyond the walls of Rome in order to hide what had become of him. Of the magic in his blood. The pack wouldn’t have cared about his years but the humans, especially those of the Sabine lines, had begun to suspect something when the Alpha’s wife, the seer, had died.
No grey in his hair, according to those who had brought the tale.
Just stories. The Alpha’s couldn’t live forever, could they?
Then why had Lotu lived this long and yet still looked young? He wasn’t the only one. She knew of many who had already enjoyed longer lives than the human women who had been brought into the pack. Her own father had buried two wives now, both women stolen from other tribes or in her mother’s case, from Rome itself. A daughter of the Sabine line, gifted with the ability to bring shifter children into the world. Twin daughters, one of which had born children, daughters all three. Rare, beautiful daughters with wolves of their own growling and pacing beneath their skin.
Precious women and yet nothing more than bartered goods in the eyes of many.
The two viewpoints clashed and failed to make sense, at least to her. A woman easily replaced if something happened, yet a woman of worth because of her blood and gifts from her father, as if her own mother had nothing to do with her ability to become wolf.
Fabia spat and looked back at the now distant house.
No, this place wasn’t for her, not anymore.
She paused, fear rippling through her body. No. It couldn’t be him. He didn’t have the spirit to follow her out beyond the village. He wasn’t a hunter, or a tracker, he was quiet, a man of little heart or soul. Yet she couldn’t deny the voice or its owner.
Move, shift, run!
“Fabia, I know you’re up there!”
How far away was he? She hitched up her skirts and picked up the pace. The further away from the settlement she moved, the harder it would be for Egnatius to catch up with her. She grasped the basket, knowing that tossing it aside would only give him another way of confirming which path she had taken, and moved quickly along the path. Scrub and trees reached out to snag at her robes and she paused, taking off her sandals, stuffing them in the basket before she continued. She had a better grip on ground this way, her balance improved and she broke into a jog.
“Come back, you’re only making it harder by running from me!”
His voice wasn’t as close now and she smiled. The faster she moved, the easier it would be to escape him.
“Don’t make me shift!”
Shift then, weak male. Shift and I’ll show you my teeth.
Her wolf snarled, clawing within, eager to escape and find a way to face the male. She’d fight for her freedom, fight to the death if she had to. Anything was better than being trapped in a marriage with a man like Egnatius.
Let me out, let me show him what we’re capable of. He should be afraid of us. Always afraid of us.
Yes, she liked that idea. But if they fought too close to the settlement, it would alert others and the Alpha would be drawn into the fight. Not something she could risk. Not this time at least. She was an unmated female, unmarried woman, and belonged to her father. She has no right to choose her own life, her own path, but wasn’t that the way with all women? This wasn’t Sparta, though she knew very little of the legendary warrior people who let their women train and speak their minds. All she knew were a few stories about the men who had stood against the Persians, but had that happened or was it nothing more than a legend passed on to any who would listen?
She tensed. He was closer now, picking up speed. Not something she had expected, not from the soft, annoying male. He didn’t even train, not that she’d been able to find out, with the other men. He sat, drank, gambled but nothing that made sense if he wanted to be a man of worth.
“Stupid female, don’t you know what I’m offering you? No one else has been willing to take you in. If you run away from me things will only become worse. Your father will sell you, or give you as a second or third wife, you will be little more than a slave.”
As if she would be anything more than that if she went through with the marriage to Egnatius? She wasn’t a fool but they treated her as if she couldn’t think for herself. That had always been the way of it, at least here, who knew if women were treated the same way in Rome?
A scent caught her attention, new, not someone from the settlement but definitely male. Strong, confident, arrogant and very, very male. She closed her eyes and inhaled, tasting the air. No, she didn’t know this one. He lacked the acrid taint of those who answered to their Alpha. Taint. Odd, she’d never thought of it that way before, but she hadn’t been the first to mention it. Her mother, when they’d been younger, had said the same thing but only a handful of times before their father had corrected matters. Anger bubbled beneath her skin, adding to the frustration of her wolf.
Females should be able to walk away. We should not be forced. It’s not the way of a true pack. Those who the line of Romulus would not treat their females that way.
How did her wolf know such things? They’d only known a handful of women from Rome, and some had been on the way to Rome but never made it there before they were taken. It didn’t make sense. They had been women stolen from their homes to add to the strength of Rome, where had their choice been? Hadn’t they been little more than breeding females, just as all females were within this settlement?
Yet something continued to nag at her. A knowledge, an understanding that it wasn’t supposed to be this way.
“Get back here! I didn’t give you permission to leave. How dare you ignore me like this!”
Egnatius. She turned, snarling, facing the man who had dared to follow her from the settlement. “I’m not yours.”
“Is that what you think?” He shook his head, his dark hair half covering his eyes as he approached. His top lip curled in the same contempt that rippled through his voice. “You really are foolish. You haven’t even bothered to learn the lessons that are taught to all women within our pack. What makes you think that you’re outside of the pack laws?” He took a step toward her, but showed no sign of shifting form. His gaze narrowed on something on the trail between them. Anger furrowed his brow, his voice now a snarl. “Who are you meeting? Ungrateful woman. You finally have a man willing to wed you and you run to meet some other man!”
What was he talking about? She scowled, struggling to keep her wolf under control. “I don’t know what you mean.”
He took a step closer, gesturing at the trail. “Tracks, woman. Do you think me blind that I could ignore such a thing? Just because I do not choose to waste my days in the hunt, doesn’t mean that I never learned to read the signs.” He snorted and continued to walk toward her. “I’d have to be blind to miss them. Even then, I’d be able to smell him.”
Stand, don’t back down. Yet she wanted to move away from him, from the danger he offered her. This man, this male, was dangerous in more ways than she wanted to think about. He was weak, at least compared to her own wolf, but he was still a man and in the pack, the men ruled. Not once had there ever even been an alpha female named and numbered among them. Only males answering to Luca and the females he bred with.
“Who is he?” Egnatius pressed, his hands fisted at his sides.
“I don’t know. I’ve never met him and this is the first time I’ve stumbled over his tracks or caught his scent.” But was that the truth, the full truth? She clawed through her memories, searching for a hint that she’d come across the shifter before.
“Liar!” He lunged at her.
Instincts kicked in. She dropped the basket, hit the ground and rolled, avoiding his grasping hands. Her wolf took over, shedding human form, tearing its way through cloth and robe until she came up on her feet, all four of them, baring her teeth at the man in a long, deep snarl.
“I didn’t give you permission to shift, woman!” He snapped at her, yet remained in his human form. “Return to your true form. Now!”
Foolish. Thinks me weak. Thinks me beta. She continued the snarl and darted at him, snapping at his stomach.
With a yelp he jumped back, eyes wide, the acrid scent of fear soaking into the air around him. “Stop that. You’re only making it worse for yourself.”
Worse? What did he know? How could she make it worse when he was the danger, this man, her father and the men of the pack. Men who thought women held no true place in the pack. Yet battles were fought over women, raids planned in order to snatch women who could add to the pack. Did they not see the hypocrisy between their words and their actions?
“Change, woman. Now. If I have to shift to remind you of your place, I will and…”
“And what?” A new male voice cut through Egnatius’ words. “You’ll do what? Try to force a female who has no interest in you? Is that how Lotu and his pack do things?”
She inhaled, tasting his scent. Her body reacted, heat and need rippling through her as she searched for the source of the voice. Mate. This one would be a strong mate, worthy of us.
No, she didn’t want a mate. Wasn’t that why she was running from Egnatius? Except this man was different. She knew it without even seeing him. This was a man who would want her to stand at his side, not behind or kneel at his feet. She sat, lifting her nose as she inhaled again. He was strong, more so than any she had met within the settlement.
Stronger than Lotu? It was a possibility, but she didn’t know enough about him in order to make a judgment and yet hope blossomed.
“Come out where I can see you!” Egnatius commanded. “Or would you linger in the shadows like the coward and woman stealer you are.”
“Coward is it?” A low laugh, deep and rich, vibrated through the air before a man, gloriously naked, walked out through the trees and into view. “Let’s put that to the test… shall we?”
“You do not deny that you steal women?” Egnatius pushed, his attention fixed on the newcomer.
“No, why would I? Both packs have been guilty of that in the past. Though Rome, the pack that calls it home, has walked away from such things. We take willing wives now, as it was always meant to be. Some born within our walls, others from the people we would form bonds with. Yet Lotu continues to steal. Sometimes taking wives and true mates from our pack. That is something we can no longer tolerate.”
Her gaze moved over his form, bold and strong, muscles lean and adding to the beauty of his body. Yes, beauty, that was the only way of describing it. Sweat glistened across bare muscles, his long dark hair flowed down his back and her gaze found the taut, perfectly formed curve of his buttocks as he moved closer to Egnatius.
“You speak of stealing yet here you are, ready to spirit off my woman.” Egnatius nodded toward Fabia. “She is mine and I will tolerate no interference from the likes of you. Be gone before I call down the rest of the settlement.”
“Too weak to stand for yourself, boy? Is that it?” The newcomer grinned. “No wonder she runs from you.”
Fiona tipped her head to one side, watching, waiting for the cry, the summons that would bring the men from the settlement.
“Prove me wrong, if you can.” The man continued. “Challenge me, protect your people and your woman, or offer me your throat and cower like the untrained pup that you are. I give you a choice, challenge or submit. If you win, then you can claim your woman and name yourself the better man, the better wolf. Lose and I take the woman with me, to Rome.”
TBC Next Week.