Gray skies dimmed the forest below, concealing the sun in a veil of clouds. The morning dew lingered on the foliage, dampening Ronelle’s pelt as she limped through the undergrowth. The wounds she sustained in the vicious skirmish were throbbing miserably. Even with Aryn’s strongest warriors beside her, she had still suffered the fangs of ruthless Vektreni. In that way, perhaps she repaid the debt owed to them. They had salvaged her life, and in return, she risked that life in a battle that was not hers to fight.
While she despised those heathen-pup-snatchers and wanted justice for the Arynians, Ronelle could not help but feel that she was in over her head. She wanted to aid them in bringing the girl home, but the missing juvenile returned on her own, a she-wolf grown and changed by her experiences. The conflict then escalated to violence and bloodshed.
A war was not what she had in mind when she agreed to stand beside the Arynians and repay her debt. Ronelle was no soldier, in fact, her entire culture rejected violence and bloodshed… A sentiment that had likely lead to their demise.
But this… This was not her fight. She was not an Arynian. They had made that fact abundantly clear over the last season. While she had developed a few, friendly relationships, Ronelle was still treated like an outsider--and worse--a potential threat. It had begun to feel like she would never earn the skeptical pack-wolves’ trust. And perhaps that was how it should be. She was an outsider, and outsiders brought the Arynians so much strife. She could not blame them for their hostility--not when she would have done the same herself. Sighing, she sunk to her belly and gazed out into the morning forest.
The morning was dull as Alcatraz surveyed his pack. Yet another conflict with Vektren left even more Arynian’s injured, and the Lord of Aryn was in a low mood. This was getting out of paw, and Alcatraz was struggling to come up with how to work toward an end with this. It would only be a matter of time before someone was killed. A final battle. Is that the best solution? It had crossed the dark wolf’s mind. It surely would have been his recommendation in his youth. Why not gather all forces and attack Vektren with everything they had? Win or lose, it would be over. As tempting as that was, however, Alcatraz knew that was not an option. There was too much at risk. Wolves would surely die. How could he lead them to such a fate. There was the opposite solution… move Aryn. It was nearly as unbearable to consider as the first option. The weakness that would show, being chased out like a sniveling cowards. He could never lead his pack that way either. But is pride worth someone’s life? Lord Alcatraz didn’t have any answers. All he knew was that it could not keep going on like this.
That was when Alcatraz caught sight of Ronelle settling down by herself. The brown she-wolf had been involved in the recent scuffle, and it had left her injured. We will risk our lives for you. As long as you are in our community, you must be willing to do the same. She had proven during that battle that she was willing. She had not run, she had fought for the pack that had taken her in, and had the wounds to prove it. She already had the strength and loyalty of a true Arynian.
The Alpha got to his paws, padding over to her. “Good morning,” Alcatraz greeted her, a gentle sort of solemn in his voice, “Do you mind if I join you?”
She flinched at the vaguely familiar voice of Aryn’s patriarch. She had not been expecting anyone to notice her. Most of the pack were busy with preparations or preoccupied with more troubling thoughts.
“Lord Alcatraz…” she tried to smile, but the display was lacking in enthusiasm. “No, of course not!” She hastily scooted over to make more room for the larger wolf. “You’re welcome if you wish.” Her bushy tail swished over the place beside her.
She studied his face for several, quiet moments. “... is something on your mind?” The she-wolf asked him hesitantly as if she might have been overstepping boundaries with the question. “Well, besides the obvious…” Ronni added, paws fidgeting in a subtle display of embarrassment.
Alcatraz let out an appreciative grunt as he settled down beside the grey she-wolf, sighing once he made himself comfortable. He looked at her with his brows furrowed and a frown on his maw when she asked the question. “Am I so easy to read?” The ghost of a smirk revealed the facetious nature of his comment. He did indeed have something on his mind, countless things in fact. And his brooding temperament lately would make that clear to anyone. The only mood the Lord of Aryn was good at hiding was the happy one.
“The obvious,” he answered. Being a Lord was not carefree even in peaceful times, there was always resource management to think about, and the safety of every member, whether this patrol would be enough in this location, whether the hunt would be successful or the Clan would go hungry, were the herbs appropriately stocked before the frost. There were endless worries as an Alpha to a pack. Far more than he would like to deal with by his nature, in all honesty. So this ongoing situation was all the more difficult for him.
Alcatraz had no doubt that he belonged at the head of Aryn beside Athena. There was no other place he could be. But even so there were certain times on occasion where he would reflect on their situation… and he would wonder what the heck he was doing here. A reckless vagabond who had abandoned his family and made a life for himself traipsing the world alone, hunting and fighting and meeting others, seeing the sights, living his life as a wolf should, by his own desires and whims. That was what he had been, before he fell in love, and had a pack, and children, and responsibilities. Alcatraz was well into his adulthood, nearly past his prime in fact. A wolf at this point in his life should be strong and wise and brave, able to handle any trial in unruffled stride. And often, with the help of his rather robust ego, he felt that way. Sometimes he felt like the king of all the world or equal to it, nothing was unvanquishable to one of such political status and physical capabilities. But there were certainly times as well, such as now when his packmates suffered repeatedly before his eyes as he looked on powerless, when he didn’t feel that way at all. There were times when he felt more like the frustrated juvenile who had run away all those years ago, too proud and inexperienced, believing he was capable without actually being. Within he sometimes did not feel like the tough and noble Alpha he portrayed to others. He was just an outcast rogue, in far over his head.
But of course he had to stay as iron-willed as ever, or at least seem it. Showing weakness or confiding in his subordinates would only cause them to fear. He had to be a strong leader for them. “How are your wounds?” Alcatraz asked, glancing over at Ronelle as he continued their conversation. That was the only reason he was here after all, he wanted to check on her.
She gave a gentle laugh at his inquiry, then shrugged. “Only if you have the uncanny ability to assume the expected,” she replied with good humor.
His next question surprised her. “My... wounds…?” She mused, feeling the raw gash on her scruff throb now that her attention was on it. In truth, the female was touched that Lord Alcatraz noticed. She had already accepted that Aryn’s leaders would be too preoccupied with their own to worry over an insignificant guest. It did not make a difference to her—she had not fought alongside the wardens for recognition, but because it was the right thing to do. She could not leave them to get flayed by those monsters.
And yet… she could not see herself fighting for them again…
This is not your war, a voice from deep within reminded her.
“Oh, right, yeah…” she quickly recovered after the long pause, “it’s fine. I’m fine. Just a scratch.” She did not want anyone fussing over her, not when she had taken up so much of their Vicars’ time in her first days among them. “...Thanks for asking, though.” She added, casting a warm, appreciative glance at the he-wolf. Then the guilt came, darkening her features.
Alcatraz watched her curiously as she paused. She seemed caught off guard at the question, as if surprised he would ask about her well-being at all. Which Alcatraz was a little surprised at in return. She had fought for Aryn, bled for Aryn. Of course such a sacrifice from one of their newest prospective members would be noticed by the Alphas! “I would like to thank you, Ronelle,” the Lord of Aryn said. “You are new to Aryn, and a lot is asked of you.” He himself had asked it of her in fact, when she first joined. “But you showed loyalty to your companions and courage in the face of danger. Not every wolf would act with such honor.” Yes, there were many loners who would have cut and run at the first sign of trouble. “You are a guest, but you have more than proven yourself, and will be welcomed as a full sister of Aryn if you wish.”
The guilt intensified as Alcatraz went on to praise her. She would do well to take his praise and wear it with pride, but she could not bring herself to accept his generous words. Yes, she had acted bravely and honorably, but not out of loyalty. She was merely paying a debt she owed.
“Ah…” his last statement sunk to the bottom of her stomach like a heavy stone. She squirmed uncomfortably beneath the pressure. “That’s very generous of you, m’Lord.” Once again, she was faced with a decision to lie or tell half-truths. She could easily accept his offer and become a true Arynian. She could be proud of the recognition she earned through valor, but that would be dishonest—to herself if no one else. These wolves, kind as some were, were not her wolves. The majority of them did not seem to care for her at all. Not in a cruel way, of course, but certainly with indifference. And mistrust.
She loosened the tension in her shoulders, deciding once again to be honest with Alcatraz.
“But I don’t think I can rightfully accept…” she could not bear to meet his gaze, expecting to have offended the patriarch with her response. “I’m grateful to the kindness your kin have shown me over the last few moons. And even more grateful for your kind words and encouragement. It means a lot to me…” Her paw traced circled in the dirt below them, trying to ignore the crushing guilt her words were evoking. “The truth is… I wasn’t acting out of loyalty… I was merely paying the debt I owed. Your kin took me in and saved my life. Even when past experiences proved that doing so was a risk to your family’s safety. So… fighting on your behalf and risking my safety was the right thing to do.”
Finally she worked up the courage to look into the Arynian Lord’s eyes. “I’m sorry I can’t give you and your kin more than that… You deserve loyalty. It’s just... I’m just… not right for Aryn.” It hurt to admit. Part of her wanted to fit in, to finally settle down and have a true home.
But the loner was no good at following all their rules. She feared she would never adopt their faith, for doing so would mean forsaking hers. And without doing so, she would never be one of them. Not truly. Even if she had managed to fully acclimate to their culture, she would always be an outsider. The Arynians were a clan with large families. Most of them were kin and knew each other intimately. It was one of the things she admired about them, but it made her feel extraordinarily lonely too.
“It’s just that… This isn’t my war…” she went on, shifting her gaze towards the gray sky. Thunder rumbled in the distance, reminding her of the storm that was brewing between the rival factions. “I feel like I’m in way over my head with all of this… like I’m caught in the middle of a conflict I have no business being in.” Letting out a long sigh, she gave a helpless shrug.
“Does that make me a bad wolf?” She asked quietly. Was she even capable of standing by something—or someone—no matter what? Her history suggested that she was a fairweather friend, sticking around when times were good, but ditching when things took a negative turn. Once sickness overcame Heyl, stealing the life of her dearest friend, she fled. She wondered if she would have eventually left Tsuii and Tollek had they not been separated. She supposed her lack of desire to find them again answered her question. And now she was leaving Aryn in the middle of a war.
Alcatraz listened to Ronelle in silence as she spoke, taking her words in, and what they meant. He was silent for moments after too as thunder rumbled again, a distant and thoughtful glint in his yellow eyes. He was not angry, or offended, disappointed perhaps, but mostly he was feeling something else entirely. A nostalgic and sad sort of understanding. Then he finally spoke. “I belonged to one pack before Aryn. The pack I was born to. It was attacked when I was a pup, in much the same way Aryn was just recently.” He didn’t need to go into detail, of how he had watched his father die, among other brutal sights. Those memories were his and his alone. “Ever since that day I couldn’t feel comfortable anymore. I was angry, restless… afraid. I left before I was a year old.” Alcatraz shifted his position and paused briefly. He was a proud wolf, proud to a fault in fact. He once hated to think of how he fled his birth pack, seeing it as a great mistake of his past that dishonored him. “I was a loner for years, and when I helped Athena found Aryn deep within I was afraid once again. Afraid that I couldn’t handle it, and would abandon Aryn as I had my old pack so long ago… ”
But even if he felt shame for it, was it truly a mistake? That “mistake” was the only thing that brought him here, to where he undoubtedly belonged. As time went by and he thought on it he realized that it wasn’t really a mistake at all. It was the pull of fate, pointing him in the direction he needed to go. He could see himself in Ronelle; the uncertainty, the desire to find something more but feeling as though it is wrong to leave what she had. He looked at Ronelle, “But I didn’t abandon them. I stayed through peace and war, even became an Alpha, and it’s been years since. I thought myself in the wrong for many seasons after leaving my birth pack, but I wasn’t. It simply wasn’t where I belonged. Aryn is where I belong, the pack I would do anything for, it’s my home.” Never had truer words been said, he reflected. “You are not a bad wolf, Ronelle, you are simply finding your Path. As I have, as many have before you. You allied with Aryn to repay a debt. Now it’s time to find a pack to ally with because it’s your home.”
The Aryn Lord’s words struck a chord within the solemn she-wolf. Their stories were… unexpectedly similar. It was a small comfort in a world engulfed by puzzling moral dilemmas. It helped to hear him say that she was not bad. And his final piece of advice encouraged her.
“I… I think you’re right. I do want to find my home. More than anything in the world,” she told him earnestly. “Everytime I visit packs like Aryn, or even travel with groups of loners, I feel… sadness. I feel out of place, like I’m not a part of their world. I want my own family. We don’t even need a territory, or a pack—or anything! I just want them. I want us.”
She paused to look out over the beautiful forests, but found herself missing the shores. “But throughout my travels, I’ve never been able to find that… not truly. Maybe…” Her brows furrowed with thought. “Maybe my home lies in the past. Where I came from. I wasn’t born in Heyl. They only took me in after my birthpack was broken apart. I never had a chance to be one of them. My family was stolen from me before I had that chance. Maybe it’s time I tried finding them again. Maybe they’re just as lost and afraid as me?”
Alcatraz listened to Ronelle’s explanation. That seemed a simple solution, luckily, as he remembered Ronelle saying she had been a pup in Heyl. Heyl was an ally of Aryn, and they were safe and whole, the sickness long passed. She may even get an escort to return to them. Though that was when Ronelle revealed that she wasn’t born in Heyl. He perked his ears slightly in interest at this news. Broken apart…
Some wolves could find home wherever they went, some could find it with friends they meet along the way. But the blood within some wolves runs thicker, and only with their kin and birth culture could they feel like they truly belong. If Ronelle’s heart had only ever been in one place, even as she tried to fit in elsewhere, then that is where she should go. “That may be,” Alcatraz agreed. “Familial bonds are some of the strongest. Perhaps your pack has reformed elsewhere, if you know where to look.” It was a daunting task in the Alpha’s mind. It was years ago that this pack must have broken up. Its members could be anywhere. But perhaps there are some around, maybe in Heyl, who could know more of Ronelle’s origins. Either way, it seemed the best way forward for the conflicted young she-wolf.
“Yes,” Ronelle agreed, “and I think I know where to start.” Her sea-green eyes were shining with hope. Then she turned her gaze on the Lord of Aryn once more, warmth swelling in her chest. She wished she had more time to spend in his company. She could have learned a great deal from the wise, old patriarch, but she had already stayed too long. If she was going to find her family, she better start looking. No more distractions.
“Thank you, Alcatraz… For everything,” she dipped her head respectfully, gratitude ringing in her voice. Then she winced, remembering those she would be leaving behind.
“I’m not particularly fond of goodbyes…” She told him, her bushy tail fidgeting behind her restlessly. “So… if you could tell the others--especially Seven--that I’ll miss them…?” Ronelle gave a sheepish smile. She did not want to tell anyone she was leaving, for fear of being convinced to stay. This was something she needed to do. She had to. “I hope our paths cross again one day… Goodbye, m’Lord.”