“Do you know why we howl at the Moon, pup? We howl to mourn the pack She took from us…”
A story from Erik K. Osbourne & Diana Calloway
“Daddy, will I be like you and mommy when I’m grown up?”
His fingers stilled, curling against the light switch as he turned to look over his shoulder at his daughter. She blinked back at him warily from beneath her mop of curls, hugging her favorite stuffed dog to her chest. She looked so small in her big new bed, the one he’d put together with his own two hands. He wondered if he’d made it too big—but as his wife kept reminding him, she needed room to grow.
Sometimes it still startled him, that they’d made a tiny person together. That this little thing would continue to grow and surprise him with questions like this one.
“What do you mean, sunshine?” he asked, leaning against the door frame.
“You know,” she whispered. Her lower lip trembled.
“I don’t,” he confessed, stumped… until it hit him, all at once. “I… Oh, Maya, is this about what we showed you the other night?”
She hung her head, not meeting his eye, and pulled her stuffed animal further up under her chin. That was all it took to have him across the room in an instant, sitting down at her bedside and leaning in to kiss her forehead.
“I’m not going to be mad,” he told her. “Tell me.”
“…Wolfs eat people.” This was followed by a whimper. “We read a story at school today and the wolf ate the little girl up. Wolfs are always the bad guys. I don’t want to be bad, daddy.”
“That will never happen.” He tilted her chin up until she was looking at him straight, smiling. “You could never be really bad. Besides, do you think Mommy and I are bad?”
There was a pause as she sorted through that argument, her eyebrows knitting together.
“Well…” She frowned. “No. But…”
“People are scared of things they don’t understand.” He ran a hand through her unruly hair. “Like why you were scared of the dark, remember? Because you couldn’t see if anything was there. That’s all those stories are, sunshine. People being scared. You just need to come see more of what Mommy and I do and you’ll understand, and then you won’t be scared anymore.”
Maya put her small hand on his. Once again he was struck by how much bigger he was, and he felt a surge of terror that what he was telling her was wrong. That he was bad… or at least that he was so much bigger and stronger, and he could so easily hurt her.
“Okay,” she told him. And then after a minute, she added, “Can I be a brown wolf? Rufus is brown.”
Rufus was the stuffed dog.
Just like that, his fears melted away. He laughed and tucked the blanket more securely around her.
“We’ll see when you’re older, okay? We won’t know until then.” He stood and walked toward the bedroom door for the second time. “Now get some sleep, okay? School tomorrow, and then we’re going to see Grandpa.”
“G’night daddy,” mumbled Maya.
He flipped the switch, plunging the room into shadow.
“Nash. Hey, Nash. Come in, Nash, this is Earth speaking to our fearless leader.”
“What?” snarled Nash Whitney, lifting his head and leveling a less-than-amused glare at Fiona McCollum, the redheaded and befreckled piece of work who was giving him a shit-eating grin across a disembodied engine.
“Hi boss,” she told him. “They’re here.”
He wriggled the rest of the way out from under the tractor, wiping motor oil from his brow with an already well-blackened rag. He tossed his torque wrench to the side, where it clattered and skipped along the steel floor of the garage.
“Who?” asked Nash.
“Uh, everyone.” She raised one eyebrow, then the other. “You know. For the tribunal? Didn’t you get the call?”
“No.” He ran his fingers through his hair and then massaged his temple, not even caring that he was marking his face up right before he was—ostensibly—about to make an official appearance before what amounted to his entire extended family. “They probably were hoping I’d miss it.”
“They don’t like you much lately,” put in Fiona, helpfully.
“I noticed. Thanks.”
“Whoooa there, big man.” She put up her hands and took a step backward, circling around him. “Don’t bite the messenger. You know I’m Team Nash.”
“Too bad for me.”
Fiona guffawed and punched him in the shoulder, following him out of the garage and onto the trail that wound around the edge of the Whitney property. She was as bouncy as ever, and he found that annoying but vaguely reassuring at the same time. If Fiona had time to laugh, it couldn’t be too serious of a matter. Even if it was serious enough for a full tribunal council.
“What did I miss?” he asked her.
“Oh, it’s this local kid. Turns out he’s one of ours. The mother’s not, though, which is why we didn’t know about him ’til now. She didn’t know either until he started to change.”
“And why does that call for a meeting of the elders?” Nash wanted to know. A half-breed wasn’t the norm, but… “The elders can frown about mingling with outsiders on their own time, can’t they?”
“He changed in a public park,” he was informed.
Oh. Well, that was a little more serious, he reckoned. Nash grunted.
“And he’s young to be turning.”
Nash stopped in his tracks, giving Fiona a Look. It didn’t escape his notice that she was pretending to be very interested in the sun that was sinking behind the trees to their left.
“How young, Fiona?” He crossed his arms.
“…You’ll see for yourself,” she answered, glancing at him guiltily before trotting up the path ahead of him at a brisk jog. “He and the mother are here too!”
With an irritated grumble, he took off after her. Up ahead loomed an old, dilapidated barn building. Nature had long since reclaimed it; vines crawled in and out of the windows, and the wood was rotting and weather-worn. The doors hung open. Nash could see the faint electric glow of lanterns from inside, and as the breeze picked up, the low murmur of hushed conversation prickled his ears…
Fiona ducked inside the barn.
“He’s here!” he heard her exclaim brightly. “We can start now!”
Steeling himself for whatever surprises awaited him, the alpha of the Three Rivers Pack stepped into the chosen meeting place of his council.
She could handle this.
Grace Colton could handle anything life threw at her. She could break a temperamental horse by the time she was eleven. She graduated high school with honors and doubled up on majors in college. Got knocked up during a weekend of poor choices and raised a kid by herself for six years. Threw punches at particularly obnoxious soccer moms. Gave a room full of stuck-up parents the middle finger and still managed to take over the PTA.
Standing here in an old barn, surrounded by a crowd of people—some she knew and even more that she didn’t—she wasn’t about to be intimidated. Especially considering they hadn’t checked her for weapons and she had a gun tucked into her boot. If worst came to worst, she’d shoot her way out.
Because this was about her kid. And she would do anything for her kid.
Even if her kid was a wolf.
It really was a great day for the park. It didn’t matter that there were playgrounds at the school and a set of swings back at the house. When your kid wanted to go somewhere specific because he liked the slides better and there were different rocks to look at, that’s what you did.
They needed to get home so she could start dinner, though. Grace checked her watch. Daniel was on his second “just one more time”, running huge circles around her bench and a line of trees. This was good. He’d burn out all that energy and be happy to get to bed early.
Only, Daniel was starting to get that look on his face. Any mother worth her salt knew when her kid was about to do something colossally bad, and in the past few weeks Grace had discovered which one was the worst.
“Daniel, don’t you dare!” she shouted.
He giggled and continued to run faster in his wide circle, then took a sharp turn towards the treeline.
“I mean it! Don’t you do—”
Too late. Grace cursed under her breath as she shot to her feet and took off after him. His tiny little body was already shifting shape, his socks and shoes tumbling off first. She snatched them up. His pants, underwear, and shirt fell away in short order. Grace’s swearing intensified as she stooped to grab those too. Now she was chasing a nearly pitch-black wolf puppy into the woods behind the park.
“Daniel!” she growled in her best listen or die mom-voice. He was an adorably devilish little shit, but she was more terrified than amused. Grace slipped out of her coat and with one big leap she threw it over his furry form. She went rolling head over heels, her captured bundle trying to wiggle its way out of her arms. By the time she yanked her coat down from around his head he was back to being a grinning boy again.
“What did I tell you?” she asked sternly, struggling to mask her fury.
“Um… Oh. I forgot.” At least he had the sense to look sorry about it. Grace sighed.
“You can’t forget again. It’s just like your books. Special little boys can’t grow up and be extraordinary men if they get caught,” she explained, trying to shove his shirt over his head and get his arm through the holes. Thankfully the park was deserted right now or this would have been—
Somewhere ahead of her, a twig snapped on the trail. Grace glanced up and spied the silhouette of a person approaching through the trees.
Shit. Shit shit shit.
“Are we in trouble?” whispered a tiny voice next to Grace, bringing her soundly back to the present. She looked down at the little boy beside her. Just barely six years old, he had dark hair and dark eyes and was presently holding tight to her edges of her coat. Daniel could handle just about anything too, but this time was different. This was about him… and in all the ways she had hoped to avoid.
“Maybe. We’ll be fine though.” Grace wanted to gather him tightly in her arms, but that wouldn’t be convenient if they needed to haul ass out of there. Instead she just glanced down at him with a reassuring smile and ran her fingers gently through his hair.
“Are you going to shoot people?”
How did—Grace almost laughed. If the situation weren’t so serious, she would have. “Probably not. They just want to talk.”
The whole atmosphere of the barn changed when someone new entered. From the way he was so cheerily announced, he was obviously someone important. Grace turned, crossing her arms, and scowled at the guy from over her shoulder.
The mom was glowering at him. Good. That meant she gave a damn.
…The mom was Grace Colton.
Nash’s eyebrows knit together. Otherwise he didn’t let the recognition register on his face, but he remembered Grace alright. Raymond, Montana was a small enough town. They were both from old farm families. They’d gone to the same schools—albeit Nash had been a few years ahead. The last time he’d seen Grace Colton might well have been in high school; all he could remember was a fresh-faced fifteen-year-old with pigtails and a sparkle in her eyes.
The woman standing in front of him sure wasn’t sparkling.
“You’re late,” Ellen Rainbird hailed him from her seat on a musty bale of hay. She blew a wisp of grey hair out of her scowling face.
“Good to see you too, Ellen.” Nash strode into the center of their gathering, eyeing the boy at Grace’s side. The boy was… young, yeah. Couldn’t be more than six. The hair on the back of Nash’s neck stood on end a bit as he processed that. Normally, young wolves didn’t start turning until they were closer to twelve—at the onset of puberty, basically. A child this young starting to change was almost unheard of.
Slowly, Nash walked in a circle around Grace and the kid, sizing them up. He was sure all of the elders wanted to speak up now, was sure they all had a piece of their mind to share on this event… but they didn’t. Wouldn’t, not until Nash was done.
Nash stared into the boy’s dark eyes. Familiar eyes.
He got down on one knee, his greasy jeans collecting hay dust from the dirty wooden floor, and held out his hand to Grace’s son.
“I’m Nash,” he said, his voice losing some of its sharper edges. “What’s your name?”
Grace tensed when he started circling, and wished she hadn’t. Daniel was irritatingly perceptive, so when she tensed his tiny hand squeezed tighter on her coat. She forced herself to relax, but that almost went up in smoke when… Nash? (Yeah, that was his name. She only remembered because it was weird) knelt in front of her son and held out his hand. Grace nearly threw out a booted foot to kick him right in his grease-covered jaw.
Instead, her arms uncrossed and she rested a hand protectively on the crown of Daniel’s head.
The boy did not share his mother’s stony features. He was a little nervous (and that may have just been because his mom was nervous first), but mostly he just looked curious. More importantly, his mom wasn’t saying anything yet so that meant this was where he was supposed to show how brave and smart he was.
“Daaaaan-yil Col-ton.” He stressed the syllables while reaching out to grasp the man’s hand, squeezing and shaking extra hard. That was the way his uncles taught him to do it. A man’s handshake! they’d said. “Your barn smells like cow poop.”
Grace’s upper lip disappeared between her teeth as she tried to decide whether she was upset or wanted to laugh.
“Barns usually do,” answered Nash. He released Daniel’s hand and got to his feet again, hooking his thumbs into the pockets of his jeans. “Do you know why you’re here, Daniel?”
He kept his eyes locked on the little boy’s, ignoring Grace for the time being. This wasn’t about her… though he did find himself wondering if he’d known she had a kid now. A memory niggled at him. Something about the town darling getting knocked up, and no one knowing who the father was.
That matched up with Daniel giving only his mother’s last name. And, much as Nash disliked it, with having a werewolf father. He hadn’t been kidding when he’d mentioned the elders’ disapproval to Fiona; there was a reason it was rare for werewolves to have children with normal humans. If the guy had even known it was his when Grace got pregnant, he might not have been willing to come forward.
But if Nash was right, this boy was one of theirs.
Daniel immediately looked up at his mom. Grace found it difficult to hide her displeasure at the questioning, but she gave a quick nod and flicked his hair before retracting her hand from his head. That was all Daniel needed. Suddenly the shy and nervous little boy was gone as Daniel gave Nash a look which left no shadow of a doubt that this was Grace Colton’s boy. He let go of his mom’s coat and puffed up. Now that he had permission, he was animated and ready to go.
And that meant a blur of words.
“I’mma WOLF! Not a big wolf, jussa puppy wolf. And it’s s’posed to be a secret because farmer’s don’t like wolfs and boys aren’t s’posed to be wolfs but I TOLD her there were other wolfs cause wolfs smell like wolfs. You’re a wolf—” he pointed at someone leaning against a beam, “and you are and you are…”
His listing and pointing continued around the room until almost everyone in the crowd had been pointed out. With each identification, Grace grew increasingly uncomfortable. She was now giving the room an entirely different sort of scowl.
“And YOU are,” Daniel finished, pointing at Nash too before he glanced up at Grace with that devilish I told you look that was starting to drive her crazy. “I like wolfs. Wolfs are an end-table part of the echo system.”
That scholarly pronouncement was accompanied by another glance at Grace to be sure he got that information right. Grace had an arm wrapped around her waist and a hand covering her mouth now to stifle her her amusement, but she nodded again.
“That’s right.” Nash studied the beaming little boy carefully. “You’re one of us. We’re all wolves here… except for your mom.”
“That’s right.” That was Ellen Rainbird again, finally reaching the limit of holding her peace. “She’s not cheete. She’s not even ashishkawuuhawate.”
“She’s ashkoota,” contradicted another elder, Billy Still. “Her family has been in Raymond as long as yours, Ellen.”
“That’s not the same, Billy, and you know it.” She tossed her braid over her shoulder as she squared her stubborn jaw.
“I’m not done,” Nash reminded her, earning another look fit to kill. He ignored her and instead looked Daniel up and down again. “Daniel here is pack, and I think he’s tribe enough even for you.”
“Not by his mother—”
“That doesn’t matter. You know that.” His voice hardened. “We’re not the Black Creek. If you have a problem with that, you know where to find them.”
“Hey now,” Fiona piped up, straightening from her slouch against a beam. She gave Daniel a grin and a wink. “Let’s not scare the lad, shall we? The real issue here isn’t what to call him. It’s that he’s running around unsupervised.”
This was great. Not only were they going to pull Wolf bullshit with her, they were going to pull the native card on top of it. Everybody in Raymond had a little native in them somewhere. And by the way she was outnumbered, Grace had to wonder if the whole damn town were a bunch of wolves too.
Jesus fucking Christ. They were all wolves?
This was just—
“He IS supervised,” Grace finally interjected, her voice only one step down from shouting. “I don’t know what the hell is going on with the lot of you and your pack but he’s MY kid and I don’t like the scope of this conversation. Me and my kid are none of your business. The only reason I came here was to tell you to mind your own damn business.”
“And prolly not to shoot anybody!” Daniel added helpfully.
“Probably not,” confirmed Grace. “But we’ll see if I like what they think they’re going to do about this. You’re obviously not taking my kid unless you WANT to get shot. And I can see y’all don’t like the idea of a—what was that word?—not cheete woman with a wolf kid. So? Gonna give me a wolf nanny?”
“Nanny’s not the right word, but you’re in the ballpark,” Nash agreed with a wry twist of his mouth. His eyes flashed. “No one’s taking your son, but you don’t have a leg to stand on right now if you want to try and tell me you can handle raising a wolf kid on your own. Today was proof of that.”
“Nash—” Fiona began, but he held up his hand to cut her off.
“No,” he argued. “Save it, Fi. Today could have been much worse if anyone else had been in that park.”
It could have been a normal human, and their secret would’ve been exposed. Could have been one of the Black Creek pack, which would have launched all kinds of political nightmares—possibly even a feud. Or it might have been one of the new pack in the area, and who knew what they would do.
“Look, Miss Colton. I don’t have a problem with you or your son or what kind of blood you’ve got.” Nash heard murmurs of dissent mill around the barn, but he kept going. “What matters is that you’re pack now. Both of you, whether you like it or not.”
“COOL! We’re a wolfs pack!” chimed Daniel with excitement. As far as he was concerned, this was the sweetest thing ever. Not only was it okay that he was a wolf, he could run around and BE a wolf. With other wolfs! That was now written all over his face as he clutched Grace’s coat with both hands and started tugging sharply. He was two seconds away from exploding into fluff. Grace could just feel it.
“I suppose that’s settled then.” Grace most certainly did NOT like it. She was ready to argue, but she knew when to pick her battles. Surrounded by a good portion of the town with her young son in tow, she wouldn’t get very far. They weren’t taking Daniel, and they didn’t seem intent on locking them both up on some sort of wolfy nature preserve. They were just going to stick her with a babysitter. THAT she could handle.
“Sit on your judge-y tail puffs all you like. Obviously, none of you have ANY idea what it’s like having a six-year-old that can turn into a pup whenever he gets the itch. Better choose Nanny McWolf carefully.” For the first time during the tribunal, Grace flashed a wide, cocky smile. She stepped backwards and wiggled a finger for Daniel to follow.
“C’mon kiddo, we need to get you in the bath. They’re gonna talk about us all night.”
Fiona glanced between Grace’s retreating back and Nash’s face, ready to pounce, but Nash shook his head at her. With a little salute, Fiona plopped down on a bale of hay and tucked her knees up under her chin.
“She can’t just walk out,” Ellen fumed, as if Grace and Daniel couldn’t still hear her. Her face darkened like a storm cloud. “She hasn’t been dismissed.”
“Well then I’ll just have to go dismiss her,” Nash replied testily, already on the Colton family’s heels. “I’ll be right back.”
He caught up to the mother and son just outside of the barn, letting the door swing shut behind him. The sky was already dusky and grey by now, the sun barely a sliver on the horizon. Nash moved to head them off, stepping into their path and holding up a hand.
“I know you’re pissed,” he told Grace. He glanced down at Daniel’s pudgy face, then back to the hardened woman whose tough-as-nails visage was still sparring against Nash’s memories of a young girl with her whole life ahead of her. “And probably a few other things. Be pissed, that’s fine. But don’t be too proud to take a little help.”
He stuck out his hand again, this time to Grace.
Grace stared down at his hand as if it were a snake. When her eyes rose to meet his, the look didn’t change much either.
“I understand that I need it, BELIEVE ME.” She pointed behind her towards the barn doors. “But I’m not taking part in that bullshit, and no tribunal of old assholes are going to try to tell me how to raise my kid. I’m accepting your Nanny McWolf crap, what more do you want from me?”
Daniel glanced back and forth between them, still pretty excited about the entire thing. “Are there a LOT of wolf club meetings? You dun have to go Mummy, I can go! With the Wolf Nanny and you can take the wine bubble baths!”
Nash pressed his lips together, biting back a sharp retort. He reached up to smooth his rejected hand over his scruff before he let it fall to his side.
“Nothing,” he said instead. “I don’t want anything from you.”
The wind picked up, tearing at Nash’s clothes and hair—and even the barn door, which swung open and then shut again with a bang. Nash glanced over his shoulder. He wondered whether they’d all started voting on someone to replace him yet. He’d probably better get in there to head them off at the pass and settle the matter at hand. Wasn’t like he was doing much good out here.
“…Have a good night, Miss Colton. Daniel.”
When Nash stepped back into the barn, things were right about where he expected.
“—not right, an outsider like that coming in here and spitting on our traditions,” Ellen was saying in Apsaalooke tongue. Nash wondered if she realized that most of the pack spoke enough to get the gist, and Nash himself better than most. The little old woman was standing on top of an old tin pail in the middle of the barn, holding full court. “She doesn’t understand. She will never understand. If the boy is to be one of us, we should take him—”
“No,” interrupted Nash, cutting off her tirade.
She turned, slowly, hopping off of her perch and crossing her arms.
“The Elders are speaking, boy,” she said, scathingly.
“And now the Alpha is speaking,” he rejoined. He looked around at the gathered pack members—some young, some old, some with pale faces and some with native tan. The Three Rivers pack was the largest pack in the area… too large, maybe. Too many differences. It was no wonder they were squabbling all the time.
“Grace Colton doesn’t understand, you’re right. Give her a little time. She’s scared like hell for her kid right now, and some of you didn’t exactly make her feel welcome. But she is not an outsider. She is pack now, and you will treat her as pack.”
He walked past Ellen, picking up the pail and turning it over in his hands.
“She needs guidance,” Nash went on. “So do your damn job as Elders and guide. Choose someone to help her kid learn to harness his wolf. Choose someone to help her learn about us.”
“Are you calling for a vote?” Ellen again, a note of challenge creeping into her tone. Nash was willing to bet she’d said something while he was out of earshot to quell any dissent from the ranks, since no one else had spoken up since he’d returned.
A victorious glint flashed through the old woman’s eyes.
“Very well,” she said. “The boy is young and unpredictable. You all remember the last time there was a pup so young, how easily it can go wrong. The mother is an outsider. We can’t trust such a task with just anyone.”
Murmurs coursed around the room, but Ellen held up her hand.
“I think there is only one who is up to this task. I nominate Nash Whitney. The alpha should be the one to teach them.”
Immediately, Nash tensed. Trust Ellen to find a way to get back at him. He didn’t have time for this, didn’t have patience. And Grace Colton sure wouldn’t be thrilled to see him showing up to hang around with her kid, not after tonight. He opened his mouth.
“I agree,” Billy Still piped up.
Nash turned to stare at the man. Billy Still wasn’t the noisiest of the Elders, but he was one of the ones whose voice held the most weight with the pack. Usually he was the one Nash counted on to be the voice of reason, and until just now Nash had counted him as one of his only allies among the old guard. Billy met Nash’s eye from across the room and held it, unwavering.
“It’s what is best for the pack,” Billy said. “Nash, you understand better than anyone.”
“Billy,” hissed Fiona, her face going white as a sheet.
“…No, it’s alright.” Nash narrowed his eyes, finally shaking his head. “You can stop the vote. If no one objects, I’ll do it.”
The barn fell into a hush.
So. That was how it was going to be.