A/N: Hello loves! I know I'm being mean for that cliffhanger last chapter - mostly for what it implies for the ships. Some of you have been asking about who Bella ends up with. I know everyone is curious, but no matter how much anyone asks, privately or in reviews, I will NOT reveal the final pairing. Part of the reason I'm not posting the final pairing is because that seems like it's cheating the growth of the characters and their relationships throughout the story. If I were to post that Bella ends up with Edward, people would riot (and for good reason) because of his actions so far. If I were to post that Bella ends up with Jacob, I think half of you would ditch the story in an instant. So, as of right now, Isabella will be attached to both male leads and you'll have to wait until the end to see who she picks. Kind of like how it goes when you read an actual book with a love triangle in it! Sorry, I know I suck, but that's how it is. Anyway, I hope you're still able to enjoy this story with that added bit of uncertainty! Thanks for being wonderful readers and reviewers! I love you bunches! XOXOX
Days seemed to blend together in the forest.
While at the River God's palace, each hour was drawn out in excruciating boredom, each night a battle to be won, here Isabella could truly enjoy her time. She could spend whole afternoons talking to Emily or winding new routes through the forest. Mostly, she helped with the simple things: gathering wood, washing clothes, patching up wounds when friendly play between brothers took a turn towards deadly.
Her skin grew darker, freckles appeared across her cheeks, and she smiled more. Emily told her that the forest was to blame for her better moods. It had a way of easing the mind and grounding its inhabitants, allowing them to enjoy every moment. Sometimes, Isabella forgot that things such as the river or the forest had sentient properties, a magic so ancient not even the gods knew how it worked. The difference was that while the River God aimed to control the river's power, the Shapeshifters gave into the forest and let it guide them and in return it gave them its strength. Emily told Isabella that was the key to a good life, and why the River God would never truly be content. He would always be striving for something he could not obtain, though Isabella had a feeling that she was speaking about something other than the river as well.
Though she had many questions unrelated to the lore of the land, Isabella did not push Emily. She came off as a natural giver, someone who liked to talk and weave stories. Eventually, they would stumble upon the right topic of conversation, and more truths would leak out. Isabella was no longer as hard pressed for answers. She could wait as long as she needed. Now that she was away from her husband's toxic presence, it was like a weight had been lifted from her shoulders, and with it came ease of mind.
Now, she and Emily stood in the middle of an open field collecting wildflowers to dry. Baskets full lied at their feet and yet the meadow was still full of blooms. They had been picking all afternoon, though Isabella hardly felt tired. She had grown stronger; she felt it in her bones.
"I must admit, it feels nice to share the company of another woman," Emily said, carrying her baskets over to where Isabella stood.
"I agree," Isabella replied with a smile, pulling up a handful of lilacs. "The only other companion I had in the palace was made of wind."
"I remember my aura well," Emily mused, as if thinking back to a dream long past. "Zephyra, if I remember correctly. A curious little sprite. Always shying away from me and the answers I sought."
"Mine was named Plia. I thought we were friends, but she betrayed me. Though in the mistake of trusting her, I suppose I only have my own foolishness to blame."
"Do not be too hard on yourself," Emily chided, placing a comforting hand on Isabella's shoulder. "Such a hostile environment, starved from any friendly face, is enough to drive anyone desperate."
Isabella tried to take her words to heart, but could not manage it. She still felt foolish, like she had a larger roll in her untimely exit and the unseemly manner in which it happened. She had that whistle for days, weeks even. She could have sounded it at any point but still kept fiddling with it as if it were toy, unsure of how to use it. Only when the whistle was lost did she decide she needed it, like a child who had cast something away only to want it back at the first sight of it in another's possession.
If she were more proactive, if she had only acted on her heart instead of her unsure mind, she could have saved herself the pain of betrayal. Isabella would have never been as close to Plia or as indebted to her for healing her ankle. They would have barely reached beyond the master-servant dynamic. Instead, Isabella learned to lean on Plia as a source of information and comfort, and now she had to question if anything about their relationship was real at all.
"It sounds as though we had similar experiences," Isabella commented, trying to return the focus to Emily and not on her own misgivings.
"A snake such as our husband, so set in his ways, can easily shed his skin. A terror one day, and a gentleman the next, but he cannot change the venom that courses through his veins."
"Our husband..." Isabella noticed, confused. "You mean to say you two are still wed?"
"Seeing as though I took my oath and did not die, I am just as bound to him as you are," Emily replied simply yet tightly, the fact obviously displeasing.
"Is that why you do not call Sam your husband?"
"Yes," she sighed, as though the admission pained her. "By the laws of this land I am unable to marry another while my first husband still breathes, yet he is allowed to collect as many wives as he desires. Even though I am out of his reach, I can still feel the River God's hold. I will never truly be rid of him. Neither of us will."
"Then we are bound by the same fate. Sisters, in a sense."
Emily smiled, though it was laced with weariness. "Yes, the lucky sisters, the ones blessed enough to find a way out of a terrible life and forge a happier one."
Happy. Still such a foreign word, though one to which Isabella was slowly becoming accustomed. Between the sun and the easy way of life in the forest, what did she not have to be happy about? Her nightmares plagued her less often; painful memories crept us less frequently. She could sleep without fear that someone was waiting in the doorway to sneak in and have their way with her. She could enjoy things without guessing at an ulterior motive. And yet, some lingering part of her mind wandered back to cold, stone walls and wondered about all the unhappiness she left behind.
"What do you suppose will happen to him now?" Isabella pondered, her voice quiet.
Was it ridiculous to feel badly for him? Was it shameful, given all he'd done? The Elders had taught her never to be cruel, to turn a cheek and accept that things on this side of the river were different. That a wife was to be gentle, loving, and kind. Isabella had done all those things and look what good that did her. But that did not mean that her heart had gone rigid. Though he had caused her pain, she felt ill at the thought of another creature suffering by her hand.
"The cycle shall go on as it always does. He will wait a year and wed another bride from the village," Emily replied with the same certainty one would use to say the sun will rise in the morning.
"And she will die."
Emily paused. A heavy silence ensued before she replied, "Yes."
It was a hard thing to hear. Emily had told Isabella that none of the brides, to her knowledge, had lasted longer than a year from their first arrival. Whether it be through a failed escape or some other means, they all met the same fate. Emily did not know how, nor did she always think that the River God was responsible, but nothing good came out of being a wife. Emily had watched generations of young women arrive wide eyed and eager to meet their husband, only never to return.
"Is there anything we can do to stop it?"
"My first few decades as an immortal, I tried to save those girls," Emily said, fingers running over flower stems idly before ripping them up by the roots. "I did everything in my power to get them to see what awaited them in the River God's house. But they did not listen, or if they did, it was far too late to change anything. They did not believe, and so I grew to accept that they would never come to believe."
"How? How could they be so blind?" Isabella asked, her tone taking on a whiny quality. Perhaps it was her frustration at the situation. Perhaps it was because of her refusal to believe that nothing could be done.
"You are not like the others, Isabella. You seek the soul of things, the essence of life. It is what drew Jacob to you like a moth to a flame," Emily explained, one hand framing Isabella's cheek, patting the skin lightly in a maternal gesture. "Most of those girls, like yourself, were so young...so naive and foolish. They heard the word 'chosen' and saw it as a blessing. They saw his lavish palace and servants and did not care about the man inside. All they cared about was living like a queen, and to have a wild woman come from the woods and try to take their things away...they would not stand for it."
Isabella was going to protest when a horn sounded from afar, low and rumbling through the ground. Emily's head snapped to the direction of the pit, her eyes wide and lips pinched. Whatever the horn meant, it did not seem good.
"What was that?" Isabella asked.
"Pack meeting," Emily replied, though outside of the evening hours, such an event seemed out of place. "Come. There is only one thing this could mean."
"And that is?"
"The Omegas have returned."
Emily pulled Isabella down the hill, their baskets long abandoned in the field. They were no longer important.
Emily was consumed with a manic kind of energy, nearly pulling Isabella's arm out her socket as she ran to the center of camp. They passed Shapeshifters harboring an equal amount of distress in their eyes, buzzing around as if unsure of what to do. Weapons were distributed, words of warning exchanged. Emily asked everyone she passed if they had seen Sam. Everyone told her to look towards the pit.
The pit was a flurry of activity. Until that moment, Isabella had never once realized how many Shapeshifters there truly were. In the shroud of night, their shadows all blended into one. In the light of day, she saw that there were dozens. Dozens of frantic, hyped warriors begging for a fight did not spell well for anyone.
Isabella lost hold of Emily who ran into the crowd towards Sam without hesitation. Immediately the panic set in. Isabella had no idea what was going on and her only life line had just abandoned her. She recognized no one and nothing. It was just a sea of bodies and spiraling tattoos. Being so much smaller, it was only a matter of time before she was trampled underfoot.
Thankfully, by some divine intervention, strong arms pulled her out of the fray and held her close.
"There you are," Jacob let out a sigh, surveying Isabella up and and down to assure that she was still in one piece. "Praises be that you are alright"
"What is going on? Emily said something about Omegas. What does that mean?"
"Nothing good," Jacob ground out, searching for a quieter, less hectic place to go.
Jacob was jostled by his brothers, encouraged to pick up arms which he refused. No one pressed him much though, as if expecting him to decline. Compared to the others, he was something of a pacifist. Isabella had no doubt he would fight for his home if it came down to it, but she admired that for a creature of such strength he was reserved in his displays of might. It was one thing to have power and another to use it wisely. This was where Jacob and her husband differed. While Edward put his power on display, Jacob held his in reserves. It would make for an interesting match, for she truly did not know who would come out on top if the two did have to go to war.
That was a war for another day. The battle now were these Omegas that seemed to be causing so much trouble. Sam was standing on top of one of the logs around the pit shouting out commands to those closest to him. Insults and orders were thrown in every direction, slurs aimed at one person in particular.
"Who is Leah?" Isabella asked Jacob quietly from where they now stood on the outer fringes of the group. She had heard the name muttered under breaths like a curse. Everyone was shifting nervously on their feet, buzzing with a manic energy. This Leah person must have been quite important to cause such a disturbance in the pack.
"The only female Shapeshifter, and a powerful one at that," Jacob replied, trying to peer over the heads of his brothers to get a better look. "She and Sam were mates for centuries...until he met Emily. Leah did not take the news of her replacement very well."
"I can imagine," Isabella agreed, feeling a pang of sympathy for this unknown woman. "Is that why she left?"
"One of the reasons," Jacob sighed, frowning as if debating whether or not to continue this story. "The night she left, the pack held a vote whether or not to grant Emily immortality. Sam, being the Alpha, held sway over the majority; no one wanted to oppose him, and for good reason. But Leah was well-respected, one of the pack's greatest providers and protectors. There were those who favored her over Sam that did not think including Emily was a good idea. They stood their ground but when they lost the vote, Sam cast them out as Omegas, the forsaken, for their disloyalty claiming they could no longer be trusted."
"How many were there?"
"Six. Leah, her brother Seth, and four of their staunchest supporters," Jacob replied, his eyes harboring an old pain, as if he were still mourning their loss. "We Shapeshifters are rooted in our traditions. Since Sam cast them out, they are no longer allowed contact with the pack. If we were to cross paths, we would be forced to fight for dominance of the territory. It is why they roam the outskirts in the furthest reaches of the forest."
"So why choose now to come back?"
"That has yet to be determined, though the reason would have to be a dire one. Leah is a skilled fighter. She would not take such a risk if it were not necessary. Just setting foot this close to camp is enough to invoke battle," Jacob said nervously. It was then Isabella noticed that he carried tension of his own, a nervous energy that rippled through his muscles and sparked in his eyes. "That is why everyone is so uneasy. When Leah left, she fought her way out. My brothers and I carried her wounds for decades. There is no telling what she will do upon her return."
Isabella mulled this information over, storing it in her ever-growing mental collection about the Shapeshifters. The puzzle was starting to come together, though she still felt as if there were pieces missing.
"Is she the one who did that to Emily's face?"
"No," Jacob replied, his tone tight as if Isabella had stepped into rocky territory. "And even if she were, that is not my story to tell."
Howls ripped through the far end of the clearing, wild and untamed. The pack stopped their squabbling, newly focused as six wolves burst through the trees, bolting towards the pit at lightning speed. At the head of this pack was a wolf physically smaller than the rest, but no less intimidating. Fur the color of steel shone in the sunlight, dark eyes fixed on Sam. It was a majestic display; Isabella was too busy being awed when she knew she should have been others halted when the grey wolf did, flanking its sides. Isabella heard the snap of bones, the tear of skin, and suddenly there were six human figures where the wolves used to be.
Leah must have been the grey wolf, Isabella thought to herself as she picked out the only female amongst the males standing in the center.
She held no shame as she bared her naked body to them, taking her time retrieving a robe from the satchel she had tied to her ankle. She was toned and tan and fierce, her scars only serving as warnings as those who dared to oppose her. Her hair was cropped bluntly to frame her chin, emphasizing her long, graceful features. A tattoo swirled on her upper arm, same as all the others, though it had been augmented by another hand. The loops and curls dipped to graze her collar bone and shoulder blade, marking her as inherently different. Sam did not seem to appreciate the gesture.
When the new Shapeshifters were fully clothed, Sam stepped forward and welcomed them, though he looked as though he would much rather eviscerate them.
"Leah, you have come home."
There was something smug in his tone, as if he were expecting her to come crawling back to him. Isabella felt a rush of hope that Leah would knock him down a peg.
"Do not think I have come to fall at your feet," she snapped, and the rest of the Shapeshifters growled at her impertinence. All except Sam who was locked in a war of wills with the woman across the pit. They stood nearly at eye level, and though Sam was physically larger, Isabella had a feeling that Leah knew how to best him in a brawl.
"Then why dare to show your face? You know the laws."
She smiled dangerously, as if daring him to make a move. For a moment, Sam actually looked hesitant.
"Word has reached my pack - "
"You have no pack," Sam corrected, enjoying the way Leah's face crumpled into fury.
"As you wish," she sneered, lip curled. "Word has reached your rejects, who now choose to follow me, that the River God possess a sword with the capability to slay our kind."
Sam actually growled. A low, threatening sound rumbled through the crowd. Weaker Shapeshifters actually whimpered and glance nervously to their neighbors. Jacob only sucked in a breath, as if preparing for a storm.
"Which one of you has been talking to the Omegas?" Sam demanded as he turned his sights on his pack. He looked livid, out for blood. No one volunteered any information, and Isabella did not blame them for keeping their silence.
"We deserve to know!" Leah insisted, her pitch rising. "Were you ever going to tell us?"
"You and the others forfeited all right to the security and knowledge of the pack when you left!"
"This is no longer politics, it is life or death!" Leah shouted, her arms flailing while her supporters stood in silent agreement behind her. "Despite our differences we have one thing in common: our enemy. One day you will need the strength of my pack, and that day is sooner than you think."
"You think so highly of yourself Leah. Your ego will get you and your pack killed," Sam spat.
"That may be, but it is your pride that will kill yours," Leah fired back. Isabella swore she heard the pack take in a collective gasp.
Sam stiffened, yet he did not engage. Leah had stumbled upon a wound ages old, a wound she knew was still festering, and tore it open. Isabella could tell that Sam was a prideful man. In the moment, he seemed resigned to it. Perhaps this was a fear he often thought about in the dead of night, one he snuffed out in favor of believing that everything was within his control.
"We have nothing left to discuss," Sam dismissed, turning his back on his former mate. "Get off of my territory before I tear you limb from limb."
"Glad to see some things never change," Leah sniffed, looking as Sam as if he were a pathetic waste of her time. After all, she had travelled all this way and risked her life, as well as the lives of her pack, for nothing. Sam deserved so much more than her disdain. He deserved her fury.
Leah whistled and her pack fell in line behind her. They moved through the crowd which parted for them instantaneously. The pack gave them wide berth, as if they had the plague. Isabella did not have to be told that it was a shunning technique. She had experienced such things on her own during her time as a Chosen, forced into life as a stranger in her own village. It was a fate she would wish on no one.
"Leah..." Jacob cut her off as she passed. A risky move, but one she allowed.
"I do not know why you follow him, Jacob," Leah sniffed, looking upon him as if he were some kind of disappointment. "We all know who the true Alpha should be, and it is not that brute."
Whatever words Jacob was going to say died on his lips. Leah pushed past him and he did not try to gain her attention again.
When the Omegas were out of sight and Sam claimed he could no longer pick up their scent, the sun had sunk half way down the sky. Dinner would have to be forsaken that night as there was no game caught to be served, something Isabella's stomach did not agree with but she did not complain. She was just grateful things did not end in a bloodbath.
A few of Jacob's brothers gave him odd glances as they passed by. As the only one to talk to the Omegas, Jacob risked being outcast himself, but no one approached. No one said a word. Sam merely glared Jacob's way, the two men staring each other down before Sam gave in and turned towards Emily. He stroked her hair lovingly, embracing her tightly as if assuring himself that Leah would not be able to take her away.
Jacob averted his gaze and began walking towards his hut. Isabella followed closely behind. His behavior complied with his need to talk to Leah had her suspicious.
"Were you the one to tell her?" she asked.
It wasn't that she cared one way or another. She would not judge his actions if that was what he feared. She simply needed to know, and after coming from such a dark and uncertain place, she needed transparency. The wonderful thing about Jacob was that he knew that and understood her compulsions. Even though an admission could get him in trouble, he let himself be honest with her.
"I let the word loose to the dryads in the hopes it would reach her...I can only hope I did more good than harm," Jacob confessed, looking torn.
"You were right to let them know," Isabella said, placing a comforting hand on his chest which he covered with his own. "I may not know the politics of your people, but everyone has the right to protect themselves."
Jacob sighed, as if trying to come to grips with the situation. "Sam can never know of what I did."
"And he never will," Isabella assured firmly. She would not turn on him, not after all he had done for her. Still, there was something else that weighed on her mind, another curious part of the exchange that had Isabella's mind spinning trying to connect the dots. "What Leah said, about the true Alpha, she didn't mean you...did she?"
"Another story for another day," Jacob replied wearily, not as a rejection, but a promise of something to come. "It is late, and time to retire for the night. I can escort you back to your hut, if you wish."
While it was not the answer she was looking for, she respected his wish for space. She understood that she had pushed him far enough for one day and didn't want to rehash painful memories on top of the day's turmoil. So, taking his arm, she allowed him to escort her up the hill. They parted in front of her doorway, and Isabella wondered as she watched him disappear down the trail when it was that she started wanting him to stay.