Wexridge, Wulfric Estate.
Early spring, 1882
Caleb Wulfric isn't like most boys his age. He has a secret, one that even his own sister doesn't know about. One that goes back generations, passed down the male bloodline. His secret; he is a wolf shapeshifter, just like his father, and his father before him. A fate his dear sister Dorothea escaped simply because she is female. Dorothea was the first female born to the family in over a century, giving their father doubts of her origins. A man that could never be described as gentle or loving. Not even so much as some tough love. But after the arrival of Dorothea things only got worse. His paranoia was too much to bear, causing him to become a true monster.
"Pleeease, Caleb. You know mother will fret if I go alone," Dorothea pleaded, giving him her biggest and brightest puppy dog eyes.
"For one hour, nothing more," Caleb sighed, unable to refuse his sister anything.
Though truthfully he was glad when she asked him to join her and the friends she'd made.
Caleb always felt like an outcast. Many of the children avoided him. He suspected he knew the reason even if they did not. It didn't bother him much, but he did enjoy their company from time to time, and he definitely liked to be out of the house.
"You're the best," Dorothea beamed, her smile lighting up her face as she practically bounced up and down with excitement.
She had no need for him to accompany her, she knew these woods better than most. Perhaps not as well as him, what with his frequent trips and runs through them of an evening, but she would never lose her way, and the lake was not very far either.
"Sorry, I didn't hear you. Can you repeat that a little louder?" he teased, chuckling as he ran a little ahead of her, only laughing harder when she pouted and tried to catch him.
"No fair. You always win at races."
"Perhaps today might be the day you beat me, sister. Shall we try?"
"No," she grumbled with a stomp of her foot on the ground.
"But, I really think you might beat me today. I didn't get much rest."
Though reluctant at first, Dorothea really didn't require a lot to convince her to try. She was always trying to win and prove she was big, but running was one of those things she would never better him at.
Today would be different however. Caleb would let her win, just to make her happy.
"You really are slow today," she called over her shoulder with a small frown.
"Not if you keep talking."
He didn't wish her to know he was allowing her to win by holding back, so he made sure he caught up to her as she spoke, falling only a little behind her when she gave it her all.
"I, I did it," she shouted, panting as she leaned against a tree behind her. "I finally beat you."
"Why, aren't you tired?"
"I am. I have more experience at hiding it. It's not very gentlemanly to pant and sweat. You should practice."
"I will," she declared with a very serious expression to which Caleb couldn't help but burst out laughing.
"Dottie!" a female voice screeched, drawing his attention as a young girl flung her arms around his sister. Her reddish hair an unusual shade.
"Thank goodness you're here," she continued, her words muffled against Dorotheas hair.
"They keep throwing bugs at me."
Caleb glanced over to the water where two boys wadded in the shallows, laughing at one another whilst they grabbed more handfuls of insects, the pair tossing them in the girls direction. A harmless prank but one the irked Caleb nonetheless, especially at seeing the young girls distress and her tears as she stepped back from his sister and looked across to him.
"That's my big brother, Caleb."
"He's handsome," the girl whispered, the pair chuckling when they looked his way none the wiser that he could in fact hear them.
"You should marry him. Then we can be sisters," Dorothea spoke, another huge smile on her face, mirrored by the girl.
"Don't be silly, Dottie."
Caleb rolled his eyes and allowed the girls to continue chattering about nothing in particular, while he headed toward the lake.
He loved the springtime, when nature was coming back to life after the cooler temperatures of winter. The animals now awake and free. The trees and plants regaining their colour and sprouting anew. And the smell.
Caleb closed his eyes and inhaled all the scents around him, from the pine of the evergreen trees that circled the lake and the rich soil beneath his feet, to the flora and fauna of the flowers beginning to blossom not too far away.
But there was another scent that tickled his nose. Something vanilla and sweet.
Caleb opened up his eyes and startled, so absorbed in the woods that he hadn't noticed Dorotheas friend approach him. Her large blue eyes that reminded him of the lake behind her staring up at him as she tilted her head, her red hair tumbling over her shoulder.
He'd not met many people with hair the colour of her own, and certainly none with blue eyes.
She was quite pretty as girls go.
"Come play with us," she insisted, taking him by the hand with a big grin, not in the least bit bothered by touching him.
Many didn't wish to even come close clearly sensing something different about him, but she wasn't affected in any way. Her small hand warm and delicate in his own, much like his own sisters, bringing a smile to his lips.
"What are we playing?"
"Hide and seek."
"No fair. He's bigger than us. He can reach places we can't," one of the boys grumbled, wiping his mucky hands down his breeches.
"Then perhaps I can do the seeking. I doubt you can hide from me," Caleb retorted knowing a boy such as him would not back down from a challenge in front of two girls. One of which still clung to Caleb's hand, Dorothea on her other side.
"I bet I can."
The girl, Elara laughed and claimed she would find the best place to hide, releasing his hand before she ran off past the boys with her tongue out. The one who had grumbled chasing after her quickly while Caleb stared down at his hand, a smile on his lips.
"One. Two," he began to count, chuckling when his sister gasped and sprung into action as he closed his eyes and continued. "Three. Four."
Caleb squeezed his eyes tighter and held his hands over his ears to distort the sounds.
He wanted to make this trickier for himself by relying on his senses alone. He didn't think it was going to take him long to find any of them, but this way, they might stand a better chance.
"Ninety nine. One hundred."
Caleb opened up his eyes and glanced around the clearing, unsurprised to see one of the boys feet sticking out from beneath a bush, wincing when he realised it was a bramble and the boy was likely to be snagged on the prickles.
"Ow," he groaned, yanking his shirt free and tearing the material.
The boy's mother was going to be furious.
Caleb winced, imagining how his father would take to seeing him in such a way, ice coursing his veins hoping that Dorothea had the sense not to hide somewhere quite so foolish.
He strolled a little deeper into the trees and sniffed the air unsurprised by the vanilla scent lingering around him, except he didn't see her anywhere. He did however spot Dorothea huddled just inside a small opening inside one of the large oak trees. The space most likely an abandoned animal home.
"Found you," he called, tugging on her arm to help her free.
"Oh. I thought I'd be last for sure."
Hide and seek was not a game the two of them played often, but Caleb had tried to make it last as long as he could by pretending not to see her right away. Perhaps he had done the wrong thing to make her think her hiding skills were better than they were.
"At least I wasn't first," she cheered, pulling faces at the boy pouting on the log by the water as he continued to remove the prickles from his clothes, the pair bickering whilst Caleb continued his search.
He could still smell that vanilla scent, faint but he was certain Elara was nearby.
A creak of sound made him freeze, unsure where it had come from, seeming to reverberate from the trees.
Caleb stood still and glanced all around him when he heard it again.
He headed toward the noise his heart quickening the moment he realised what that sound was.
It wasn't a twig or some other debris on the ground as he'd first thought, but the sound of a branch cracking beneath someone's weight. The splitting of wood growing louder as he rushed through the trees. A piercing scream filled the air a moment later.
No, no, he couldn't be too late. He pushed himself a little harder, needing to reach her before she fell and hurt herself, even if it meant showing everyone how fast he could really run. He couldn't sit back and let her fall just because people might look at him a little strange.
Just ahead, he saw her clinging to a branch a little ways up, tears rolling down her cheeks.
"Elara," he called, "let go."
She shook her head, her hair a wild tangle around her face.
"I'll catch you."
She shook her head harder, the branch creaking once more, jolting her, but she clung tight making his heart pound.
She needed to let go and aim for him, otherwise she would hit on the branches below her.
“You’re not big enough to catch me,” she muttered quietly, glancing down at him from her alarming height.
It was a good job that he had come after all. If she fell from such a height, she could hurt herself quite badly.
“Believe me, I am strong enough to catch you.”
She regarded him a moment longer, her hand maneuvering a little on the branch readying herself to release it when the blasted thing cracked more and jerked her, only making her cling tighter, shaking her head profusely.
“I told you girls shouldn’t climb trees,” the boy Caleb had yet to find laughed, from his own perch in a tree behind, only much lower to the ground.
Clearly Elara had been trying to prove to him that she was just as capable if not more so.
“Shut up,” Caleb growled, glaring at the boy over his shoulder to which he silenced and bumped down out of his own hiding space, groaning at the scraps he received.
“Shall I climb and get you?”
“No!” Caleb and Elara shouted in unison.
“The branch will certainly snap with the two of you up there,” Caleb groaned, stepping slightly to his left, quite sure this would be the position she would fall to, without finding himself hit upon the head by the branch.
“You, promise to catch me?”
Elara squeezed her eyes shut and loosened her grip, but it was already too late. The branch gave out one more deafening creak and snapped, tumbling down and smacking against the branches, breaking several on its path. Elara managed to let it go and miss most of those in her way, all except one that managed to slice across her upper arm making Caleb cringe.
Quickly he stepped across a little more, dodging the hurtling branch that spun as it caught the last branch on its way down, and reached forward to grab the girl, snatching her from the air and clinging her to his chest.
A moment later and the girl threw her arms around him, and sobbed into the crook of his neck.
“Wow, you really caught her,” the boy said in awe, staring up at him with wide eyes.
“Elara, Elara!” Dorothea called, running as fast as her legs could take her, tears flowing down her own cheeks as she joined in the embrace and held onto them both. “I’m so glad you’re ok.”
“It, it hurts,” she sobbed against him.
Caleb didn’t say a word, just spun around and began to head back home.
She was slight in his arms. Not much different in size from Dorothea, her weight accustomed to him from those times he’d carried her to her room when she had fallen asleep downstairs. The walk back home would not take him too long, he believed he would manage to hold her all the way.
“What can I do?” Dorothea asked, rushing to keep up with his longer strides.
“Run ahead and tell mother. She will know what to do.”
Dorothea froze, nibbling on her lip when Caleb glanced back at her.
“Father won’t be home yet. Don’t worry.”
Both of them knew what would happen if their father was home.
He would wait for Elara to leave of course, but the moment he thought her far enough, he would shout and holler, aiming his fists at Dorothea, before Caleb blocked his path and took the brunt of his force. Then he would grow madder and hit him again for standing in his way.
He would likely do the same when he saw the state of Caleb's shirt, covered in the girls blood from her still oozing wound.
“Nearly there,” he reassured her, and perhaps partly himself, hoping that he was right that father would not be back yet.
Caleb paused by the backdoor, staring into the kitchen before he took a deep breath and treaded lightly into the room.
“Mama is coming,” Dorothea called, rushing into the kitchen from the other entrance, carrying some rags and hurriedly filling a bowl with some water.
Caleb sat the girl onto the counter and tried to pry himself from her grip, which was surprisingly difficult with how hard she clung to him, but eventually he got himself free and stared down at his ruined shirt, gulping when he heard footsteps rushing toward the kitchen, praying it was only his mother.
“Oh good heavens,” she gasped, taking the damp cloth from Dorotheas hands to wipe across the girls arm who only sobbed harder.
“I’m afraid it's quite likely to leave a mark, sweetheart,” his mother sighed, peeking beneath the cloth at the wound, shaking her head when it continued to bleed.
“Caleb, press down on that for me whilst I call the doctor.”
Caleb nodded and stepped back toward the girl whose bottom lip trembled.
He couldn’t bear the sight of her upset like this. He hated to see others cry, and he had seen it so often at home.
“Such a clumsy girl,” he tutted, trying for a joke, which only earned him a glare from the girl instead, but it was much better than her sadness. “Perhaps I should teach you to climb trees a little better, and which branches to avoid.”
“I, I would, like that,” she replied quietly, her breath hitching as she tried to control her tears.
“Thank you, for catching me,” she continued, leaning forward to press a light kiss to his cheek stunning him into silence, before his mother came back to the room and placed her hand over the cloth where his had been.
She kissed him.
He’d never been kissed by anybody that wasn’t his mother, sister or grandmother.
It wasn’t on his lips as he had heard others doing, but still, his heart was racing.
His first kiss.