Chapter 5

Hope took a bite of her roasted turkey and looked around the bonfire, watching her clan as they mingled among the locals. It had been three days since her big fight with Bron and Kat, who left right away for another job. The caravan had now reached the farming community they visited annually. The clan helped with the big harvest and prepared the fruits and vegetables from the crops and gardens to sustain them through the winter. The caravan would get a portion of the food in return for their help. After getting settled in a big empty meadow right outside the community, they joined the locals for the big bonfire with dancing,games, and a feast. 

Each harvest season began with a festive affair. This lets many rekindle friendships from the previous year or meet the newcomers. The Ulric clan had been traveling with this caravan for four years now and this would be their third year attending the big harvest. They would remain here for a month or so, helping in the fields, gardens, with the livestock, and some hunting nearby. Some would also help with the canning and preserving of the crops and vegetables and meat brought in. Then, when everything had been gathered, they would receive the payment for their help, to be divided among the families in the caravan. 

Hope smiled as she noticed Tali following behind the older children as they dashed around underfoot chatting and laughing. Although she was the youngest and smallest by at least a few years, she didn’t let that stop her from following the other kids. Tali stumbled and almost fell in the dirt, but Aria and her brother Alex caught her. Antony’s children had always done their best to watch out for the younger children. Hope chuckled as Alex, who was 11 and the oldest of the clan’s children, knelt and lifted Tali on his back for a piggyback ride. Tali giggled and wrapped her small arms around his neck as he ran to catch up with the other children. 

Hope allowed her gaze to wander over the people gathered, instinctively seeking out those in her clan to reassure herself of their safety. She spotted Ani on the other side of the fire sitting at a table with her brother Ant, Quinn, Dante, Dustin and his wife Terra, as well as many of the locals. Hope recognized one man, one of the local doctors, chatting animatedly with Quinn. Ani and Terra talked to the Mayor’s wife and Ant, Dante and Dustin were in a lively discussion with the Mayor of the farming community and leader of the caravan. Hope watched the older men of the clan easily converse with the Mayor and caravan leader. 

Why couldn’t one of them lead the clan? They obviously had the experience and knowledge, as well as the charisma needed to interact with others in leadership positions. How would she, a young woman who had just turned twenty mere months ago, be able to command as much respect from other leaders? The elders of the clan had also been fighting mercs much longer than she. 

Scar plopped down next to Hope, sat at an empty table, and slid a drink in front of her before taking a sip of her own. After a moment she set her

cup down and, following Hope’s gaze, spoke to her friend in a soft but firm voice. 

“Hope, you can’t compare yourself to them. Yes, you are young and don’t have the experience or knowledge to command respect from those who do not know you just yet.” She paused chuckling at the frown Hope had turned and given her before continuing. “But you are one of the strongest people I know, not physically, but in your heart. You are like a mother wolf and the clan. and any you call friend or family are like your cubs. And may the gods help the poor fools that try to harm your cubs.” 

Hope couldn’t help but smile at the picture her friend painted and nodded. She was fiercely loyal to those she deemed friends or family and would do anything in her power to protect them. But unlike Bron, built like a tank to drive through his enemies, and unlike Warren and Scar who could both intimidate with a look as well as back it up in a fight, she looked like a helpless porcelain doll. She used her fork to move her food around on 

her plate, burying peas in her mashed potatoes. Finally, she looked up and across the fire again towards the group she had been watching and said, “How am I going to protect them, Scar? The reason they are in so much danger is because of me. The scientists constantly hound us with mercs, all because they want to place me in some lab and study my freaky genes.” 

Scar laughed, making Hope glare at her. She clapped a hand on Hope’s back, wincing in apology when Hope let out a small, pained noise and sat rigidly to ride out the pain that shot through her still badly bruised back. 

“Sorry, hun. I forgot.” Scar said quietly. “You protect your family the same way we always have. We kill any mercs that find us. We keep on the move or around large groups of people. They won’t attack a community like this with anything less than a small army and doing that would draw a lot of unwanted attention to them. So, while we are here, we will continue training and let Luke do his best to find where the bastards are. Then we can end the problem once and for all. Now that you’ve gone through the Alpha Gene Phenomenon Luke talked about, we’ll need to test your abilities and work on sharpening them.” 

“That may help keep me alive, but how will that help me lead the clan?” 

“That will come in time. Hades, show some patience Hope. We are all still grieving Warren, no one expects you to step up and fill his shoes immediately. We’re not heartless. He was the only father you knew, and you need a little time to re-find your feet. Once you do, we’ll tackle this new challenge just like he taught you,” Scar smiled at Hope. 

“Head on,” they said in unison and Hope laughed, feeling lighter than she had in days.

“That’s right,” Scar said, still chuckling, “Never run from your responsibilities, they’ll just bite you on your backside.” 

Hope groaned at hearing one of Warren’s favorite sayings. She had no idea where he had gotten it, but he had said it to her almost constantly as she grew up. Remembering their wolf genes, she smiled at the new image the saying invoked. She could just imagine her responsibilities taking the form of wolves chasing her and leaping up to take a chunk out of her backside. 

Music swept through the air as a group of locals and those from the caravan broke out their instruments and began to play. They sprang into a lively tune that had people laughing and moving to the open area around the fire to twirl and clap their hands as they followed the beat. Some women held up their long skirts as they stomped to the beat and flirted with the men. Soon many men and women spun around the fire together, laughing and dancing. 

Hope smiled as she watched members of the clan pulled into the festivities. They smiled and laughed for the first time since Warren’s funeral pyre a week ago. Hope looked at her clan enjoying themselves, they all deserved the release it provided. Scar laughed and told Hope she wanted to find some stronger drink. Hope warned her to stay out of trouble to which Scar gave her a ‘who, me?’ grin and stalked off, humming, and swaying to the music. Hope giggled and turned back to watch the dancers, her feet tapping to the music. 

“Would you like to join them?” a voice asked from off to Hope’s side and slightly behind her. She gave a small jump and scolded herself for letting someone sneak up on her before turning to see a tall young man smiling at her. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you.” 

“You didn’t,” Hope said and narrowed her eyes at him. Tall with an athletic build and dark skin, his dark hair flopped into his blue eyes and he reached up to brush it away. He wore a dark colored t-shirt covered beneath a jean jacket and work-jeans and boots. He smiled and shifted closer, extending a hand. 

“My name is Leo.” 

Hope hesitated and Leo’s grin broadened in challenge. She reached up and took his hand in a firm grip, giving it a shake, and said, “Hope. Nice to meet you, Leo.” She noticed the rough calluses on his hand and decided he must be a local. 

“Nice to meet you as well. I have seen you a few times around the caravan but haven’t had a chance to greet you.” He chuckled at her startled look and sat next to her, still not releasing her hand.

“I don’t recognize you from the caravan,” Hope said and gave a gentle tug on her hand to try and remind him to let go. Instead, he brought up his other hand to cup hers. 

“I just joined a few weeks ago. I saw you on patrols and again during the funeral pyre. I was unable to attend but wanted to give my condolences.” 

Hope frowned and cleared her throat, “I’d appreciate my hand back please.” 

Once he released it she continued, “We didn’t invite anyone from the caravan. We prefer to grieve in private.” 

He nodded, “I understand. Still, I know it is hard to lose someone you love.” 

Hope picked up her cup and took a sip watching Leo. She couldn’t recall seeing him, but then again, she didn’t know everyone in the caravan and had been a bit distracted lately. First with Warren’s death and the mercenaries attacking the same day as the funeral pyre, then hearing his will and her big fight. It had been an eventful and stressful week. She set her drink back down and said, “Thank you.” 

Leo gave her a small smile and looked over their shoulders at the dancers. “You looked as though you wanted to join them. Would you like to dance?” 

Hope smiled and gave a small nod. Leo didn’t seem like a threat, and she deserved to relax and enjoy herself some. Her smile widened when Leo gave a small whoop and jumped up once again offering her a hand. She took it and laughed as he pulled her towards the dancers. She let herself go and flow with the music, stomping and twirling around. They danced for hours, finally collapsing on the nearby grass when the musicians took a break to get refreshments. The moon had risen high in the sky and Hope and Leo lay there gazing at it as their breathing evened out. 

“Be right back,” Leo said and jumped up and headed towards the tables of food and drink. He returned shortly with a plate of snacks and two bottles of water. She smiled and took the bottle he handed her and took a long drink from it. He settled next to her and for the next hour or so they chatted as they ate the meat, cheese, crackers and some fruit that he had brought over. Leo cracked jokes and Hope found herself trying not to choke on her snacks when she couldn’t help but laugh. They spoke about some of their travels and people they had met along the way. He asked once about the funeral but seeing her face start to become serious immediately changed the subject to a much lighter one. 

What seemed like hours later, people started to drift away to their sleeping places and Leo and Hope said goodnight. She hummed on her way back to where she had parked her bike next to Scar’s. Too nice of a night to sleep on the bus, she thought and pulled a sleeping bag from the bike’s back compartment and laid it out. 

“Oi! Stop the racket, some of us would like to keep our hearing,” Scar said glaring at Hope playfully. Hope laughed and looked over at Scar’s sleeping bag to see her friend covering her ears. Hope stuck her tongue out at the older girl and curled up on her own sleeping bag with a happy sigh. Scar dropped her hands and propped herself up on her side to study Hope and said, “You seem happy. Did something good happen?” 

Hope’s smile grew as she thought about Leo and nodded before replying, “Yup. I met Leo.” 

Scar frowned slightly and asked, “Who is Leo? A local?” 

Hope shook her head, “Nope he joined the caravan recently. He came over and we talked and danced.” 

Scar huffed and plopped back down in her sleeping bag. “Well, be careful, you don’t have much experience with men, but take it from me they are nothing but trouble.” 

“I will. He’s just a friend anyways,” Hope said with a big yawn.

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