Promise of the Wolves

Excerpt

Chapter 1

14,000 years ago

The legends say that when the blood of the Wide Valley wolves mingles with the blood of the wolves outside the valley, the wolf who bears that blood will stand forever between two worlds. It is said that such a wolf holds the power to destroy not only her pack, but all of wolfkind. That’s the real reason Ruuqo came to kill my brother, my sisters, and me in the faint light of the early morning four weeks after we were born.

Wolves hate killing pups. It’s considered unnatural and repulsive, and most wolves would rather chew off their own paws than hurt a pup. But my mother never should have whelped us. She was not a senior wolf, and therefore had no right to have pups. But that could have been forgiven. Much worse than that, she had broken one of the most important rules of the Wide Valley, the rules that protect our bloodlines. Ruuqo was only doing his duty.

He had already given Rissa a bellyful of pups, as was proper for the senior male and female of the pack. Unless given permission by the leaderwolves, no other wolf may mate, for extra pups can be difficult to feed unless it is a very good year. The year I was born was a time of conflict in our valley, and prey was growing scarce. We shared the Wide Valley with four other packs of wolves and with several tribes of humans. While most of the other wolves respected the boundaries of our territories, the humans did not — they drove us from our own kills whenever they got the chance. So the Swift River pack did not have food to spare the season I was born. Even so, I don’t think my mother truly believed that Ruuqo would hurt us. She must have hoped he wouldn’t notice our Outsider blood, that he wouldn’t smell it on us.

Just before dawn two days before Ruuqo came to end our lives, my brother, Triell, and I climbed eagerly up the incline of soft, cool dirt that led from our den to the world outside. Dim light filtered into the deep hollow of the den, and yips and growls from the wolves outside echoed off the walls of our home. The scents and sounds of the world above intrigued us, and anytime we weren’t eating or sleeping, we were trying to sneak outside.

“Wait,” our mother had told us, blocking our way, “there are things you must know first.”

“We just want to see what’s out there,” Triell wheedled. I caught the mischievous glint in his eye, and we tried to dash past her.

“Listen.” Our mother placed a large paw over us, pressing us to the ground. “Every pup must pass inspection to be allowed into the pack. If you do not pass, you do not live. You must listen to what I teach you.” Her voice, usually soft and comforting, held a worried tone I’d never heard before. “When you meet Ruuqo and Rissa, the leaderwolves, you must show them you are healthy and strong. You must prove that you are worthy to be part of the Swift River pack. And you must show them respect and honor.” She released us, gave us one more worried look, and bent to wash my sisters, who had followed us up to the mouth of the den. Triell and I retreated to a corner of the warm den to plan what we would do to become part of the pack. I don’t think it occurred to me that we could fail.

Two days later, when at last we emerged from the den, we saw Rissa’s five pups already stumbling around the clearing. Two weeks older than we, they were ready to be presented to the pack and given their names. Rissa stood slightly back, watching, as Ruuqo looked over the pups. Our mother hurried us to join them, though our weak legs made us stagger.

Mother stopped as she looked around the small, dusty clearing. “Rissa is letting Ruuqo make the choice to accept pups or not,” she said, her muzzle pulled tight with anxiety. “Bow to him. You must show him respect and win his favor. The more you please him, the better your chances at survival.” Her voice grew harsh. “Listen, pups. You must please him, and you will live.”

The world outside the den was a jumble of unfamiliar and intriguing smells. The scent of the pack was the most powerful and exciting. All around us, wolves had gathered to watch the pup welcoming. At least six different wolf-scents mingled with the smell of leaves and tree and earth, confusing our noses and making us sneeze. The warm, sweet air beckoned, drawing us out and away from the safety of our mother’s side. She followed, whining softly.

Ruuqo looked at our mother and then looked away, his gray face unreadable. His own pups, all of whom were bigger and fatter than we, yipped and trembled around him, licking his lowered muzzle and rolling on their backs to offer up soft bellies. One by one he sniffed them, turned them just a little this way and that, carefully checking for disease or weakness. After a moment, he accepted all but one of them into the pack by taking each small muzzle gently in his mouth.

“Welcome pups,” he said. “You are part of the Swift River pack, and each wolf of the pack will protect you and will feed you. Welcome Borlla. Welcome Unnan. Welcome Reel. Welcome Marra. You are our future. You are Swift River wolves.” He ignored one small, raggedy pup, leaving him to the side and refusing him a name. Once a pup is named, every wolf in the pack is pledged to protect him, so the leaderwolves do not name a pup they think might die soon. Rissa crawled back into her den and brought out one limp form, a tiny pup that had not survived to greet the pack. She buried it quickly at the edge of the clearing.

The pack howled a welcome to its newest members. Each wolf bounded up to the pups in turn to welcome them to the pack, tails wagging and ears pricked in delight. Then they began to play, chasing one another and rolling in dirt and leaves, yipping in excitement. I saw them dance with joy, a joy inspired by pups no different from us. I nudged Triell’s cheek.

“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” I said to him. “You just have to show that you’re strong and respectful.” Triell’s tail wagged gently as he watched the pup welcoming. I looked at his lively eyes and small, strong neck and knew we were just as healthy and worthy as Ruuqo and Rissa’s pups. My mother had worried for nothing. Soon it would be our turn to win Ruuqo’s approval. Our turn to be given our names, and granted our places in the Swift River pack.

Ruuqo lowered his eyes as he approached us. He was the largest wolf in the pack, broad across the chest and taller by an ear than any other Swift River wolf. The muscles under his gray fur moved commandingly as he left his own pups with the rest of the pack and stalked over to where we stood. He hesitated. Then he bent over us and opened his great jaws. Our mother stepped in front of us, blocking him.

“Brother,” she begged, for she and Rissa had been littermates, and had joined the Swift River pack together, “you must let them live.”

“They bear the blood of Outsiders, Neesa. They will take meat from my children. The pack cannot support extra pups.” His voice was so cold and angry that I began to tremble. Next to me I heard Triell whimper.

“That’s a lie,” our mother said as she raised her head to look up at him, amber eyes unwavering. She was much smaller than Ruuqo. “We’ve managed before when prey was scarce. You’re just afraid of anything different. You are too much of a coward to lead the Swift River pack. Only a coward kills pups.”

Ruuqo growled and slammed into her, pinning her to the ground.

“You think I like killing pups?” he demanded. “With pups of my own standing not two wolflengths away? Your pups are not just ‘something different.’ They smell of Outsider blood. I did not bring them into this world, Neesa. I did not break the covenant. That is your responsibility.” He took her neck in his teeth and bit down until she yelped, then he stepped off her.

Mother scrambled to her feet when Ruuqo released her, and backed away from him, leaving us to face his deadly jaws. We all ran back and clustered around her. “But they are named!” she said.

My mother had given us names at birth, in defiance of wolf custom. “If you have names,” she told us, “you are pack. He will not kill you then.” She named my three sisters after the plants surrounding our den, and named my brother Triell for the dark of a moonless night. He was the only black wolf in her litter and his eyes shone like stars from his dark face. She named me Kaala, daughter of the Moon, because of the white crescent on the gray fur of my chest.

Triell and I stood trembling beside our mother. My sisters cringed on her other side. We had believed our mother when she told us we could find our places in the pack. I had laughed at her worries. We believed we needed only to act like wolves worthy of pack to be accepted. Now we understood that we might not even be granted a chance at life.

“They are named, brother,” she said again.

“Not by me,” Ruuqo said. “They are not legitimate and they are not pack. Stand aside.”

“I will not,” she said.

A large female wolf, almost as big as Ruuqo and scarred along her face and muzzle, leapt upon my mother, forcing her aside. Ruuqo joined the large female, forcing our mother away from us.

“Pup killer! You are not my brother,” she snarled at him. “You’re not fit to be wolf.”

Even I could tell my mother’s words hurt Ruuqo, and he growled and chased her back to the mouth of our den, leaving us alone on a rise on the warm side of the clearing. The large female guarded her. Then Ruuqo turned to us. Rissa stepped forward, leaving her pups crying and trying to follow behind her. She stood beside Ruuqo.

“Lifemate,” she said, “this duty is as much mine as yours. I should have kept closer watch on my sister. I will do what must be done.” Her voice was deep and rich and her white fur shone in the early light. She smelled of strength and confidence.

Ruuqo licked her muzzle and rested his head briefly against her white neck, as if gathering courage from her. Then he shouldered her gently aside, moving her away from us. The rest of the pack stood around the clearing, some of them whining, some merely watching, all keeping a distance from Ruuqo, who now stood towering above us. Even now, I sometimes look at him and see him standing over me, ready to grab me by the neck and shake me until I stopped moving. That is what he did to all three of my sisters and then to Triell, my brother, my favorite.

Ázzuen says I can’t possibly remember what really happened that day since I was only four weeks old, but I do. I remember. Ruuqo took my sisters, one by one, in his jaws and shook the life out of them. Then he picked up Triell. My brother was lying beside me, pressed up against me, and then he was not. The warmth of his flesh and fur was suddenly gone from my side, and he yelped as Ruuqo lifted him far off the ground. Triell’s eyes held mine and, forgetting my terror, I struggled to stand on my back legs to reach him. My weakness betrayed me and I fell to the ground as Ruuqo’s sharp teeth closed on Triell’s small, soft body. He grasped my brother in those teeth and crushed his small form, until the bright light of Triell’s eyes flickered out, and his body sagged and then was still. I couldn’t believe he was dead, that he wouldn’t lift his head again to look at me. Ruuqo dropped him beside the limp bodies of my sisters. And then he turned to me. My mother had crept back from the mouth of the den. Now she crawled forward on her belly, her ears flat against her head and her tail invisible beneath her, begging Ruuqo to stop. He ignored her.

“He does what he must do, Neesa,” an old, gentle wolf said to her. “The pups bear Outsider blood. He does what any good leaderwolf must do to protect his pack. You shouldn’t make it harder for him.”

I stood, looking up at Ruuqo’s massive height. Cringing and pleading had done my brother and sisters no good. When Triell’s body left Ruuqo’s jaws and landed on the earth with the softest of thumps, my trembling turned to fury. Triell and I had slept and fed as one. Together we had dreamed of winning our places in the pack. Now he was dead. I bared my teeth and copied the growl I’d heard in Ruuqo’s voice. Ruuqo was so startled he stepped back and shook himself before coming for me again. Anger swept away my fear, and I leapt for his throat. My weak legs took me only to his chest, and he easily cast me aside. But Ruuqo looked as though he’d stared the Deathwolf himself in the face. He stood still, watching me for a long moment as I snarled with as much fury as I could summon.

“I’m sorry, littlewolf,” he said softly, “but, you see, I must do what’s right for the pack. I must do my duty,” and he bent his head and opened his jaws to crush me. The other wolves of the pack cried out in distress, trembling and pressing against one another. Dawn was turning to day, and the bright light of the morning stung my eyes as I looked up at my death.

“I think this one wants to live, Ruuqo.”

Ruuqo froze, his jaws still open, his pale yellow eyes wide and startled. Then, to my amazement, his deadly jaws closed, and he raised his head, flattened his ears, and stepped back to greet the newcomer.

When I followed his gaze, I saw a wolf larger than any wolf could be. His chest was level with Ruuqo’s muzzle, and his neck, which seemed to me to be nearly as high up as the beams of sunlight now filtering into the clearing, was thick and strong. His voice rumbled with amusement. He had strange green eyes, unlike the amber eyes of the adult wolves of my pack, or the blue eyes of the pups. After a moment, another huge wolf with the same green eyes and a darker, shaggier coat stalked up to stand beside him.

All the wolves in my mother’s pack hurried from the edges of the clearing to greet these strange and frightening creatures. They approached respectfully, lowering ears and tails, and dropping to their bellies to offer the larger wolves the greatest respect.

“They are the Greatwolves,” my mother whispered. She had crept close to me when the large wolves entered our clearing. “Jandru and Frandra. Two of the only ones left in the Wide Valley. They speak directly to the Ancients, and we all answer to them.”

The Greatwolves graciously accepted the greetings of the smaller wolves.

“Lordwolves, welcome.” Ruuqo spoke respectfully with his head down. “I do what I have to do. I did not authorize this litter and I must care for my pack.”

“Second litters often are allowed to live.” Jandru bent his head to nuzzle Triell’s still form. “As you well know, Ruuqo. It was only four years ago that you and your littermates were spared. A long time for you, perhaps, but not for me.”

“That was a time of plenty, Lordwolf.”

“One pup does not eat so very much. I would have her live.”

Ruuqo did not speak for a moment, unwilling to risk Jandru’s anger.

“There is more, Lordwolf,” Rissa said, stepping forward. “The pup is of Outsider blood. We cannot break the rules of the valley.”

“Of Outsider blood?” There was no longer any trace of laughter in Jandru’s voice. He glared at Ruuqo. “Why didn’t you tell me that?”

Ruuqo lowered his head even farther. “I didn’t want you to think I had so little control of my pack.”

Jandru watched him a long time without speaking and then turned to my mother, speaking to her in real anger. “What were you thinking, risking the safety of your pack?”

Frandra, the female Greatwolf, spoke for the first time. She stood even taller than her mate, and her voice was strong and sure. Her eyes shone from her dark fur. She spoke so loudly and startled me so much that I leapt back, falling on my backside.

“Easy for you to say, Jandru, when you can breed wherever and whenever you please without consequence. She did not conceive alone.” Jandru looked abashed and lowered his ears just the slightest bit. Frandra watched him for a moment and turned her great head to my mother. “But why did you allow them to live long enough to call themselves wolf? You must have known they could not live. You should have killed them when you bore them.”

“I wanted them to be pack. I thought they would be important.” My mother’s voice was soft and frightened. “I dreamed they would save wolfkind. In some dreams, they stopped the prey from leaving the valley. In other dreams, they drove the humans away. Always they saved us. See how fearless she is?”
I stood again, and tried to still the trembling in my legs, to look like a wolf worthy of pack.
“Lordwolves, my sister has always wished to have a greater role in the pack,” Rissa said. “Sometimes her dreams have led us to good hunting, but she’s always wanted pups.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Jandru said abruptly. “The pup’s of Outsider blood and cannot live. Do what you must, Ruuqo.”

Jandru turned away, almost stepping on me, so I growled at him, too. “I am sorry, Smallteeth,” he said. “I would save you, but cannot go against the covenant. May you return to the Wide Valley again.”

I felt the unfairness of it like the cold, damp wind that seeped sometimes into my mother’s den. How could a creature be so great and not be able to do what he wished? I began to look again around the clearing, searching for a place to hide. I turned to run. Frandra stepped over me, placing her own body between me and Ruuqo’s sharp teeth.

She growled.

“I will not let you kill this pup,” she said. “So what if it is not what we usually do! Things are changing, Lifemate, and we must change with them. The humans are taking more prey than ever before, and each day they grow more out of control. The Balance has already been upset and we can wait no longer to take action. We must change and change now.” The Greatwolf looked down at me. “If she’s of the blood, so be it. Letting this fierce one live may have consequences, but it may also be our hope. The will to live is too strong to ignore. We must listen to the messages the Ancients send to us.”

“Frandra,” Jandru began.

“Have you lost use of your nose and ears, Jandru?” she snapped. “You know we are almost out of time. And we are failing.”

“I won’t take the risk,” he said. “We did not give permission for this exception and we cannot go against the Greatwolf council. That is my decision.”

“The decision is not yours alone.” Frandra met his eyes steadily. “Do you want to fight me? Come, fight me if you will.”

Jandru stood still as death for the briefest moment. Frandra spoke again.

“Look at her chest, Lifemate,” she whispered softly, urgently, so that only Jandru, my mother, and I could hear her. “She bears the mark of the moon, the mark of the Balance. The council is rigid, and they do not always see what is before them. What if she is the one? Maybe the Ancients have chosen this one for us.”

“I have named her Kaala, daughter of the Moon,” my mother said.

Jandru looked at me a long time. He flipped me over onto my back to better see the moon shape on my chest. As he held me there with a paw nearly as big as my body, I tried to think of something, anything, I could do to convince him I deserved to live. But I could only stare into his strange eyes as he decided my fate. Finally, he stepped away from me and bowed to Frandra.

“Give her the chance,” he said to Ruuqo. “If it’s a mistake, the Greatwolves will bear the burden.”

“But Lordwolves,” Ruuqo began.

“You are not to kill this pup, smallwolf.” Frandra towered over him. “The Greatwolves make the rules of the valley, and we may grant exceptions as we so choose. We have good reason for sparing this pup.”

When Ruuqo tried to speak again, the Greatwolf growled and, placing both her front legs on his back, forced him to the ground. When she released him, he scrambled to his feet and bent his head in submission, but resentment burned in his eyes. Frandra ignored his anger.

“Good fortune, Kaala Smallteeth.” Frandra opened her great jaws in a smile as she shouldered Jandru aside and trotted into the woods. “I will certainly see you again.” Jandru followed behind her.

As the Greatwolves left the clearing, my mother whispered urgently to me. “Listen, Kaala. Listen carefully. Ruuqo will not let me stay with the pack. I am certain of it. But you must stay, and you must live. You must do whatever you have to do to survive, and become part of the pack. Then, when you are grown and accepted into the pack you must come find me. There are things you must know about your father and about me. Do you promise me that?”

Her eyes held mine and I couldn’t refuse her.

“I promise,” I whispered. “But I want to go with you.”

“No,” she said. She pressed the soft fur of her muzzle to my face. I inhaled her scent. “You must stay and become part of the pack. Do not come for me until then. You have promised.”

I wanted to ask her why. I wanted to ask her how I would find her, but I didn’t get the chance. As soon as the Greatwolves were out of hearing range, Ruuqo turned on my mother and bit her savagely on the neck, drawing blood and making her yelp. He knocked her to the ground and as she fell, she shoved me out of the way with her hip. I stumbled backward, landing on my back. I staggered to my feet.

“You have brought chaos to your pack, my children, and me,” Ruuqo snarled, “and forced the Swift River pack into conflict with the Balance.”

Wolves do not normally hurt each other when they fight, since most wolves know their place in the pack and avoid conflict. But Ruuqo could not take out his frustration on me, and he certainly could not fight the Greatwolves. So he turned instead on my mother. She tried to fight back, but when Minn, a yearling male, and Werrna, the big, scar-faced female, attacked her, too, she whimpered and scrambled to the edge of the clearing. When she tried to come back to the rest of the pack, they attacked again, driving her away. I wanted to run back to my mother, to help her, but my courage had deserted me and I could only watch in terror.

Rissa took the closest pup, Reel, in her mouth and ran back into her den.

“Let me stay long enough to wean her, brother,” my mother said desperately. “Then I will leave.”

“You’ll leave now,” he said. “You are no longer pack.” He chased her to the edge of the clearing and each time she tried to come back, he and the other two wolves attacked her again. At last, bleeding and whimpering, she darted into the forest, her three attackers chasing her away.

When he returned, Ruuqo gave a commanding bark, and he and all the rest of the adult wolves except Rissa quit the clearing. They had only a few hours before the hot sun would make hunting impossible and Ruuqo had a pack to feed.

I wanted to follow my mother into the woods, but I was exhausted in body and soul and sank to the hard ground, cold even in the warmth of the morning sun.

Two of Rissa’s largest pups, the ones named Unnan and Borlla, swaggered to where I sat and looked me up and down. Borlla, the bigger of the two, poked me painfully in the ribs with her muzzle.

“Doesn’t look like it’ll live long,” she said to Unnan.

“Looks like bear food to me,” he said.

“Hey, Bear Food,” Borlla said. “Better stay away from our milk.”

“Or we’ll finish what Ruuqo started.” Unnan’s mean little eyes swept over me.

The two pups trotted toward the entrance of the den into which Rissa had disappeared earlier. On their way, Borlla swatted the smallest pup of the litter, the raggedy male who had not been given a name, and Unnan growled at Marra, another smallpup, and tumbled her into the dirt. Satisfied, they lifted their tails high and strutted into the den. After a moment Marra got up and followed, but the smallest pup stayed crouched where he had fallen.

I stayed alone in the clearing, waiting for my mother all that day, even as the sun grew hot and oppressive. I thought if I just waited long enough she would return for me, take me with her in her exile.

My mother did not return for the rest of the long day, or into the night, though I waited until the pack returned for their afternoon slumber and left again for the evening hunt, until the terrifying sounds of unknown creatures made me fear for my life once again. Still she did not come back. I was alive, but I was alone, frightened, and despised by the pack that was supposed to care for me.

Copyright © 2008 by Dorothy Hearst