“Lead with kindness. Lead with grace. Always wear a friendly smile on your face."
Ellie Knight read the words she had hanging on a banner above her mirror in her bedroom one more time before she took a deep breath, fixed the recommended smile onto her face, and headed out for the day. She had a lot on her agenda, as always, but it was nothing she couldn't handle. Even though she'd just turned twenty-three a few months ago, she'd been leading the Swift Wolf Pack for almost two years now, ever since her father, Michael, had decided it was time to step back a little. Though he still handled a lot for her, he was no longer the Alpha. Since Ellie was his only child, she'd taken over that leadership role, one that typically went to a male. Michael had told her a long time ago, though, that he knew she could handle it. Ellie was just as strong as any male wolf shifter he'd ever known and probably a better leader because she had nurturing qualities from her mother mixed in with his protective nature. Still, every morning when Ellie got ready to leave her home, she had to remind herself of the phrase her mother had taught her when she was a little girl. It was always best to be kind, graceful, and friendly.
The sun was just climbing above the mountains in the distance. Ellie couldn't help but stop to admire the beautiful view for a few moments. The wilderness around her was wild and untamed, much like herself, and she loved running through these woods in her wolf form, breathing in the crisp forest air, drinking the fresh river water, and looking up at the azure blue sky. When she was younger, before her mother died, she'd had all the time in the world to frolic in the woods. Now, she had a lot more responsibility, and those forest runs were few and far between. Whenever she got a chance, she'd take a moment and breathe in the fresh air, admire the mountains, and remind herself that her pack was truly blessed to live on such beautiful lands.
It only took a second before she was on her way to her first stop. A new class of cadets was training in the clearing. She could see them from the lane that led from her house to her office. Led by one of her fiercest Omega fighters, Rob, this group was certain to be whipped into shape in no time. At the moment, she could see them going through a series of calisthenics, getting warmed up. She had to walk over and check out the new class, to let them know she was interested in how it was going.
About thirty pups from twelve to seventeen years old stood in even rows in front of Rob, going through the same motions as he was performing. At the moment, they were stretching their legs, holding one foot behind them as they balanced on the other. She could tell she was making some of the younger students nervous, so she made sure her smile was encouraging. Some of these students were just about done with their initial training and would move on to training in the gym in smaller groups soon. Others were just starting. Ellie remembered her time in this initial training fondly. It had been the Beta at the time who'd been her trainer, Oscar. He was a great warrior, though he had retired now. He even had grandkids. Her father never let Ellie forget that he and Oscar were the same age.
“Nice job, you guys,:" Ellie called, giving the cadets a wave. She patted Rob on the shoulder, careful not to cause him to lose his balance. “Keep it up!"
“Thanks, Luna Ellie," Rob said with a proud smile. She gave him a nod and continued on her way.
Luna Ellie--that's what she preferred to be called, even though she was the leader of the pack and could've been called Alpha Ellie, despite her gender. She still insisted everyone call her father Alpha, despite the fact that he wanted to let that title go. She wanted to be the Luna, like her mother, who had been so sweet and kind to everyone, but Ellie's warrior side wouldn't let her only be the Luna. It had come as a compromise to her father. Lead the pack; be called Luna. Even though a few of the other nearby pack Alphas liked to joke that Swift Wolf didn't even have an Alpha, Ellie didn't think it was funny and would gladly put any of those fellows in their place, should they care to make the joke to her face.
On her way to her next stop, Ellie saw three familiar faces heading out of the mess hall and had to stop to razz them. “What are you guys up to? Causing trouble this early in the morning?"
Cane, Hans, and Seth were like little brothers to her, even though they weren't even related to one another. All three of them were eighteen and had just moved on to the next portion of their training, which gave them more freedom to hang around and cause trouble--but always in a good way. The three boys were basically inseparable, and Ellie adored all of them. Since she had no siblings, she'd latched on to them when she was younger, and the boys always treated her like the big sister none of them had.
“We're just on our way to take a run through the woods," Hans said with a grin on his face. “You wanna come?"
“Ugh, I wish I could." Ellie sighed. That sounded like a lot more fun. “But I can't. I've gotta meet my dad to train and then I have a meeting with Beta Andrew."
“That's too bad," Seth said, his sunken face showing he meant it. “Maybe next time?"
“Yeah, I'll take a rain check," she said, ruffling his dark hair. “Have fun--but don't go too far."
“We'll stay away from the border, sis," Cane said, a twinkle in his blue eyes that made her wonder if he was telling the truth.
“You'd better." The boys grinned and headed off, and Ellie continued on her way to the private gym where she spent an hour each morning training with her father. There was no one she trusted more to make sure she was in the best shape possible.
“There she is!" Michael Knight said, winking at her as she came through the door of the small room next to her office. It wasn't glamorous, but it had everything she needed to work out. “Let's get to it, young lady. I'm not getting any younger."
Ellie shook her head. He loved to say things like that to her to remind her that he wanted her to get married and have kids already. She narrowed her eyes and put on her boxing gloves. Her father got behind the punching bags, and Ellie started her usual routine and kicking and punching. It was a great cardio workout and also helped with her muscle development.
While her father was always very encouraging and gave her tips about her form while she was working out, he often took this opportunity to catch up with her about how the pack was doing as well. They spent their time in the gym talking about pack politics, neighboring packs, and any other concerns. Ellie almost always went from the gym to the shower to a meeting with her Beta, who was probably off training himself right now, so it was good to touch base with her father before that meeting.
Except this morning, he didn't want to talk business. He wanted to talk personal.
“You know, Ellie, I was thinking...."
“Oh, no," she groaned. “I know that look."
“What?" Her father pretended to be innocent. “I don't know what you're talking about."
She shook her head. “Sure you do. You're going to say that you were thinking it was about time I started looking for my fated mate." She rolled her eyes.
“Well, so what?" he asked, defensive. “Don't you think it is, too? Most people find their match by the time they're twenty-one. You're practically an old lady."
Ellie kicked the red punching bag even harder than usual, jarring her father for his remark. She knew he was just trying to get her dander up. It had worked. “Dad, let's not talk about this right now, okay?"
“If not now, when? I'm not getting any younger either." Her eyes went to his dark hair that was touched by gray at the edges, above his ears. He had more wrinkles than he had the last time she'd really stopped to look, too. He had a point. She knew he didn't want to be the Alpha any longer, and she could respect that. She just wasn't interested in sharing her pack with anyone else.
Still, she knew he wanted to say his piece. “Are you going to try to convince me to hold a Goddess Moon Ball again?" she asked, fighting the urge to roll her eyes.
“It's the only way to find your fated mate. You know that."
“I don't even believe in all of that stuff, Dad. You know that." While she did believe in the Moon Goddess, she didn't think having someone else pick out the love of her life for her was a good plan, not when she was in charge of so many other people's lives. Marrying for love seemed… selfish.
“So… what do you want? To marry some warrior or something? Some tough guy?"
She laughed at the way her dad had chosen his words and slammed her fist into the punching bag. “Something like that. I don't want to meet some guy and fall in love with him, with stars in my eyes, and no common sense in my brain. I think a dance is a sure fire way to make sure I am not thinking with my head, Dad."
“Fair enough. Fair enough," he said. “But… I still want you to get married."
“Well, you'll have to figure out something else," Ellie said, delivering another blow.
A few moments later, her father started laughing, giving Ellie pause. “What's so funny?" she asked him, struggling to catch her breath as she stood motionless for a few moments.
“You don't want a dance? Fine. I've got another idea. A better idea."
“What's that?" she asked, but she wasn't sure she wanted to hear the answer.
Michael grinned back at her. “A tournament."