Elreth was late. If her father, the King, noticed, he would have her hide. She pressed her lips thin as she slipped through the forest of the WildWood. She didn't even pause in the shadow of the Great Trees that were peppered all over the Tree City, but thicker here at the edge of the amphitheater. With their massive branches that rolled out parallel to the dirt and their large, upward pointing leaves bigger than her hand, they provided some cover if you didn't want to be noticed.
But her father was already on the stage growling his displeasure when she trotted up the raised lip of the circular arena to look over the amphitheater, so full of watching Anima, there was barely room to move between them.
Her father paced the stage, the long, sleeveless vest that was practically his uniform swinging around his knees. Its thick fur collar framed his face like the mane of the Lion within him. He always stood proud in these moments, his massive shoulders back, no shirt beneath the vest so they could see the rippled muscles that still slicked his torso, despite his increasing age. At almost fifty, he was still shameless. She teased him about it constantly.
He snarled something and his voice echoed across the morning air, but she ignored it, grimacing as she slunk through the crowd, twisting between the people, whispering apologies, until she made it to Aaryn, her best friend. Aaryn saw her coming and glanced at her from the side, his strong jaw tight and his ice-blue eyes piercing behind the strands of silver-white hair that always seemed to need a cut.
When she reached him, he edged aside so she could fit between him and Gwyn on his right. Gwyn smiled, her bobbed blond hair swinging as she nodded a greeting, but her lips were tight. Elreth smiled, then turned back to Aaryn, rolling her eyes. Gwyn's very obvious yearning for Aaryn was getting old. Elreth hoped she'd move onto someone else soon.
'What's going on?' she signed to him in the finger language they'd developed when she was ten, after her father roared at them for talking during training.
'Nice to see you, too,' he signed back, but the jab wasn't accompanied by his usual smile, or the hooked finger that meant it was a joke.
Elreth frowned and signed again. 'Sorry. Hi. What's going on?'
'There was a fight yesterday. Snakes and horses. Must have been bad. He's really upset,' he signed, using the clawed fingers they used to symbolize a predator Anima's bared teeth. 'Almost as bad as you when you're pissy.'
She drew a quick cross at the apex of her thighs—a rude gesture she'd created specifically to imply he had no balls—but even when he snorted, she didn't smile back. Something icy was sliding down her spine.
The Tribes were fighting?
Elreth turned to the stage. She'd assumed this was just another of her father's dramatic addresses, something he always did when he needed to bring the people on his side of whatever Kingly decision he'd made. But Aaryn was right, the man on the stage was not her patient, good-natured father, who liked to laugh and tease, and steal kisses from her mother.
The man on that stage was the King. The angry King. The Lion. He stalked the space, shoulders back and chin down, eyes fierce and teeth bared. He was Reth, the King of Anima, and as Elreth paid attention to his booming voice echoing across the morning air, her uneasiness grew.
"…I have been patient, and your Queen has been patient, but it appears you will not be moved—your hearts will not be moved! We cannot allow this distance among the people. We cannot allow tension between the tribes—all of us have seen where that leads. We lived through the division of the tribes that took us to battle and almost destroyed us. So, you leave us no choice!" he snarled, scanning the crowd.
Breath quickening, Elreth searched for her mother, the Queen, and found her standing further back on the stage, face tight, eyes on her mate, her arms folded beneath her breasts. She looked angry, and… afraid? Then she caught eyes with Elreth and something fierce entered her gaze.
But after a moment, her mother just looked back to her father, stress and worry on every line in her face. What was going on?
Her father glared and paced the front of the stage. The amphitheater was a semi-circle centered on it, the rows of wide, grassy levels—each large enough for a full-grown male to lay down—rose, packed with Anima on every inch. All the tribes were there in their natural human forms, the people of the lions, the birds, the horses, and serpents—even the few wolf packs that remained loyal to the King. More people were scattered on the grassy tops, and gathered under the trees behind the small arena. With their Anima hearing, they didn't have to be close to know what was said.
Every Anima of age stood, riveted, as her father glared at them.
She'd been rushing to get here and hadn't paid attention to the people. But now she sucked in a long, drawn-out breath and let herself scent the tension and confusion of those around her.
'Big problem,' she signed to Aaryn, the hair on the back of her neck rising.
Aaryn nodded and signed back, 'Never seen him like this before.'
Elreth had—but only when he spoke of the days when he'd almost lost her mother. The days when the whole Lupine tribe still walked the forest of WildWood and… holy shit.
'What started the fight?' she signed quickly.
'What do you think?' Aaryn's face went flat as Elreth's darkened.
It had to be the disformed. She gave the little sign—one hand cupped around the other fist, but thumbs up, instead of curled as they would have been for the general Anima.
Aaryn just nodded, the little muscles at the back of his square jaw twitching.
The disformed were Anima who couldn't shift into their Beast forms. The Anima of generations past had always regarded them with suspicion. But her parents had worked hard for twenty years to begin integrating them more fully into the tribes. And they'd had some success. Especially with the younger people. But recent months had brought drought, and struggles over resources. The growing population of disformed had become a point of contention in the tribes that had a higher percentage of them.
Aaryn, as a disformed himself—and worse, a disformed wolf—had borne the worst of Anima prejudice since his earliest days when it was clear he couldn't shift into beast form. Add to that, he was the son of one of the traitorous wolves that had almost ended her parent's rule right before Elreth was born. He'd only been four when his father died in the battle. But now, twenty years later, the increase in the disformed population still raised resentment in some circles. And those circles were not silent.
Elreth lifted her hands to sign a question, to see if Aaryn was okay, when her father's voice rang out.
"The disformed will be asked to leave the Tree City, but allowed to remain in WildWood. They will be given their own tribe and encouraged to make their own way—"
As the crowd began speak, their voices rapidly becoming more insistent, Elreth froze, her heart pounding.
"No," she breathed.
Voices began to rise around her, mostly in surprise, but there were a few who showed excitement because they'd always been against the integration of the disformed Anima into their tribes.
Elreth's stomach plummeted to her toes—then rose again on the flames of her anger.
Aaryn's scent spiked in a strange tangle of fear and rage. She could hear his heart—as familiar to her as her own—pounding.
"Did you know about this?" he breathed.
"What?! No! Of course not! You know I'd never—"
"It is not the solution we would have chosen, but after physical conflicts yesterday between tribes, you leave us no other option!" her father snarled over the hubbub of the crowd below. Her mother's face lined with worry. "We will not allow another war between tribes!"
Dread clenched Elreth's stomach.
"He thinks he's going to make me leave?" Aaryn growled, bristling, his hands clenched. He moved to step forward, but Elreth fisted his shirt to stop him. He looked down at her, his piercing blue eyes furious.
It was instinct to fight anything—or anyone—that threatened someone she loved. Elreth didn't even think.
"If you will not hold to all your people, you don't deserve any of them!" she yelled, whirling to face the stage as the entire gathering turned to look for her with a murmur of shock.
But her father's eyes snapped straight to her face.
And then he bared his teeth.