Spirit of the Wolves

Excerpt

I crouched at the edge of Fallen Tree Gathering Place, a freshly caught rabbit warm and limp in my jaws, my haunches trembling. The Swift River wolves were preparing for a morning hunt, touching noses and speaking quietly to one another. Dawn light filtered through the branches of two tall oaks that stood guard at the clearing’s edge, dappling the Fallen Spruce that divided my pack’s largest gathering place.

No, not my pack. I was no longer a Swift River wolf and Fallen Tree was no longer my home. It was the place where I had learned what it was to be wolf, to run the hunt and howl the song of the pack, but I no longer knew if I was welcome there. I had chosen my task over my family, and my former packmates were as likely to chase me away as they were to greet me. I was tempted to turn tail and run, but in the last hours I’d seen a packmate murdered, survived a fight with a human who had sliced open my haunch, and climbed painfully out of a pit I’d thought inescapable. I wouldn’t turn coward now and forsake the wolves who’d raised me. I had just one chance to get them to listen to me, and if I could not, they would die.

A soft grunt drew my attention to a patch of moss just outside the gathering place and to the human girl asleep upon it. TaLi, whom I loved as much as I would my own pup. Her legs were drawn up to her chin, and she shivered under the preyskin clothing the humans wore to keep warm. When I was four moons old, I had pulled her from the hungry waters of the Swift River, saving her life and breaking one of the most sacred rules of wolfkind. Our legends—and the unforgiving Greatwolves who ruled over us—forbade the wolves of the Wide Valley to have any contact with the humans, and I should have left TaLi to die. I could not do so, for the moment I first looked into her dark eyes and smelled her smoky scent, I knew I could never leave her.

A dark gray wolf sat guard next to the girl, his ears pricked and his silvery eyes alert. Ázzuen was my best friend and the smartest wolf I knew. He was also the wolf I trusted most in the world. TaLi would be as safe with him as with me.

The girl stirred, and her long dark headfur fell away from her face, revealing the jagged cut on her forehead. At the sight of the wound, a sudden fierce anger rose up in me. TaLi was mine to protect, but I hadn’t been able to stop the human male DavRian from hurting her when he injured me. He had wanted TaLi for his mate, and when she’d refused him, he’d gone crazy. He’d killed my packmate Trevegg and TaLi’s grandmother, and wounded me. I stifled my growl. I would get TaLi to safety, but I couldn’t let my birthpack die to do so.

Lowering my ears and tail as I would to greet wolves I didn’t know, I turned back to the gathering place and walked slowly across the mossy ground. I set the rabbit down and whuffled to announce my presence. Minn, a thin, weasel-faced wolf, saw me first. He was a year older than I and had never liked me, which didn’t bother me much; I’d never liked him either. Werrna, Swift River’s warrior secondwolf, saw me next. Ruuqo and Rissa, the pack’s leaderwolves, followed her gaze. Ruuqo frowned, but Rissa opened her mouth in a wide grin. Her scent of spruce and oak brought with it memories of my first hunt, of running through the territories with my pack, and of warm milk and a safe den.

“Kaala!” she said, eyeing the rabbit. “You don’t have to bring gifts to Swift River. You’re always welcome here.” She lowered her white-furred head in greeting. “Have you decided to stay with us after all?” The hope I heard in her voice made my throat tighten. She wanted me to stay with the pack. I could not do so.

“I came to tell you something,” I said.

“We already know about Trevegg,” Ruuqo growled. “And the old woman.”

“Something else,” I said. I wanted to meet Rissa’s gaze to let her know how important my message was, but a wolf not yet a year old couldn’t just stare into the eyes of her leaderwolf. I looked over her left shoulder instead. “You have to come with me outside the valley.”

Because outside the valley was where we needed to be, and quickly. When I defied my pack and the Greatwolves to be with TaLi, I discovered that our legends were lies, and learned the true Promise of the Wide Valley wolves: we were to be guardians of the humans and to watch over them for all time. For, left on their own, the humans thought of themselves as different from all other creatures and would destroy the very forests they depended upon to survive. It was up to us to prevent this. In the time before time, a wolf named Indru had promised the Ancients that we would get the humans to accept us into their packs and thus embrace the world around them. The Greatwolves had lied because they wanted to keep power over the humans for themselves.

When I discovered their deception, responsibility for the Promise fell to me. I had failed and if I could not succeed soon, the Greatwolves would kill me and all those I loved. If the humans didn’t do so first.

“Why would we leave our home?” Ruuqo’s dark-rimmed eyes narrowed as he glowered down at me. He could still make me feel like I was a smallpup when he looked at me that way. I took a breath and then another.

I had one last chance to keep peace between wolves and humans. Ruuqo had chased my from the valley when I was just out of the den. Less than a moon ago, she had sent a wolf to me with a message: I was to meet her outside the valley, at a rock as large as a hill, and I must do so for sake of all wolfkind. I was not to tell Ruuqo or Rissa. The only reason I could think of that she would send such a message was because she had the answer to the Promise. Until I had that answer, the Swift River wolves were not safe.

“DavRian’s blaming us for killing the old woman,” I said to Ruuqo. “He’s telling the other humans that all wolves are vicious, and that they have to get rid of us before we slaughter them. They didn’t believe TaLi when she told them it was a lie. They’re coming for us.”

Ruuqo growled and Rissa looked stunned. I don’t know what I expected. Perhaps that they would have a plan for how to get out of the valley, or that they would tell me what to do, but all of them just looked at me as if I should have the answer. As if I were the adult and they the half-grown youngwolves.

“The Greatwolves will protect us from the humans,” Rissa said at last. “They said they would.”

Milsindra, the Greatwolf who most wanted me dead, had told her that. It was one of her many lies.

“They won’t” I said. “If the humans start murdering wolves, the Greatwolves will say we’ve failed in the Promise and they’ll kill us. They want to kill every wolf who shares my blood.” Rissa was my mother’s sister, and every wolf in Swift River was related to me.

“They said we would be safe,” Rissa insisted. “And they told us you could leave the valley unharmed.”

“They’re lying. Like they always do. You’re in danger.”

“We can protect ourselves,” Ruuqo said. “We’ll fight the humans if they come for us, Promise or no. If they can even find us with their weak noses and useless ears.” He snickered. “We’re staying.”

“You shouldn’t go either.” Werrna glared down at me. “Rissa will have pups in a little over a moon, and we’ll need help feeding them.”

It was even more reason to leave. Pups would make them that much more vulnerable.

I tried once more. “The Greatwolves won’t help you. They’ll kill you.”

Ruuqo picked up the rabbit in his mouth and carried it away.

One by one, the others turned away from me. Minn began to dig a hole next to the small hill the pack used as a lookout. Rissa and Ruuqo spoke quietly to one another. Only Werrna continued to watch me reproachfully. A few moments later, Ruuqo barked sharply and all five of them darted from the clearing and to the hunt. I backed away and out of the gathering place, the taste of failure once again bitter on my tongue.

Ázzuen was waiting for me by the moss patch, still guarding the sleeping TaLi. When he saw me, he stood, stretched out his long back, and trotted to me. He had shed his winter fur, and his lighter spring pelt showed a lean wolf, almost fully grown.

He touched his nose to my face. His scent of juniper and Swift River wolf eased the tense muscles between my eyes.

“They won’t come?”

“No. They think the Greatwolves will protect them.”

He cocked his head to one side. “Most wolves won’t listen to the truth if they don’t like what they hear,” he said.

“They’ll die if they stay.”

“Not if we get to your mother in time,” he said. “She’ll tell us what we need to do to keep the Promise and they’ll be fine. We can leave the valley now, find Neesa, and get back before the humans or Greatwolves do anything.”

He looked toward the eastern mountains at the valley’s edge, his tail wagging. “We can do it,” he said. Ázzuen’s human, BreLan, had left the valley almost half a moon before and Ázzuen longed for him.

Every wolf in the valley knew how clever Ázzuen was. If he thought we had a chance, we just might.

My chest ached at the thought that I could be with my mother in a few days’ time. I hadn’t seen her since I was a newborn pup, and I missed her so much that every time I thought of her I had to hold back a whimper.

Ázzuen started to say something else, then his eyes widened and he woofed a warning. I caught the scent of spruce and mud and fur and whirled to meet the gaze of the one wolf in the valley I least wanted to see.

Milsindra stalked forward on long legs, her muscles rippling under light brown fur. Dark flecks colored her pale eyes and malice darkened her disposition. She smelled of Greatwolf—a deeper, meatier scent than that of an ordinary wolf—and of spruce. Her scent was marred by an undercurrent of bitterness that I thought must come from her malevolent nature. Like all Greatwolves, she was half again as large as an ordinary wolf. I started to shake, and my mouth went dry. Milsindra believed that I was a danger to wolfkind. She was also in a battle for the leadership of the Wide Valley Greatwolves, and my taking on the Promise was one of the things in her way.

She stood over TaLi, her teeth—twice as long as mine—almost touching the girl’s face, her breath ruffling TaLi’s headfur. I held my own breath, hoping that TaLi wouldn’t awaken to see the jaws of a Greatwolf over her. A moment later, Milsindra’s mate, Kivdru, a shaggy, dark-furred Greatwolf, strode into the grove, knocked Ázzuen onto his back, and stood atop him. Ázzuen scrabbled under Kivdru until the Greatwolf dug his huge paws deep into Ázzuen’s belly. Ázzuen went still.

Milsindra smiled, her teeth sharp, her eyes cold, and her message clear. She and Kivdru could kill those I loved best and there was nothing I could do about it.

I raised my chin to her.

“You promised we could leave the valley safely,” I said, my heart pounding so hard I could hardly hear my own voice. “You told Ruuqo and Rissa you wouldn’t hurt us if we left.”

“And yet you have not gone,” Milsindra purred. “You came back here. Your problem, Kaala, is that you cannot decide which pack you belong to, wolf or human. It is one of the things that makes you so dangerous. It is what makes you the drelshik.”

Drelshik. It meant cursed wolf. Our legends told of a wolf born to destroy wolfkind. Such a wolf, the legends said, would be of mixed blood, would bear the mark of the crescent moon, and would treat humans as if they were wolf. My mother had mated with a wolf outside the valley and I had a moon-mark of pale fur on my chest. When I found TaLi and led some of my packmates into an alliance with the humans, many wolves came to believe I was this drelshik.

“Or the drelshan,” Ázzuen gasped from beneath Kivdru’s paws. The legends also said a mixed-blood wolf, the drelshan, would come to save wolfkind. Half of the Greatwolf council believed I was the drelshik, half the drelshan.

“You will keep your muzzle shut unless I tell you otherwise,” Kivdru growled. He lowered his head and took Ázzuen’s neck in his jaws.

I hurled myself at Kivdru, hoping the force of my leap would tumble him off Ázzuen. I would have had more luck toppling an oak tree. Kivdru swung his huge head into my side and knocked me to the ground. I landed hard on my wounded haunch, and yelped in pain. At least Kivdru’s teeth were no longer at Ázzuen’s throat.

TaLi came awake then, roused by the fight. She looked up at Milsindra and gasped, then scooted backward so that her back rested against a tree stump. She held her stone blade out toward the huge wolf, gripping it in both hands. She was one of the few humans who knew of the Greatwolves and of their role in the lives of wolves. If she was afraid of Milsindra and Kivdru, she didn’t show it.

“Are you all right, Silvermoon?” It was her name for me, because of the moon mark on my chest. That mark was also another sign that I was the wolf of legend.

The humans could not comprehend our speech, or the language of any of the other creatures of the woods, but sometimes I could make TaLi understand me in other ways. I whuffed softly at her to let her know I wasn’t hurt. She loosened her hold on the stone, got to her feet, and bowed unsteadily to Milsindra and Kivdru. She had grown so rapidly in the past few moons that her long legs and arms made her awkward.

“Greetings, Lordwolves,” she said formally.

Milsindra whuffed a laugh and took a step toward the girl. Then she looked over her shoulder at me and opened her jaws.

“If you hurt us any of us, the Greatwolf council will find out,” I said desperately. “They said we could go. Zorindru is still leader of the Greatwolves.” Zorindru was an ancient Greatwolf who believed that I was the savior, not the destroyer of wolfkind, and had sworn to help us with the Promise.

Milsindra turned away from TaLi. Three long, stalking strides brought her face to face with me. She kept walking forward, forcing me back into the trunk of an aspen. I heard Ázzuen growl in fury. When my rump hit the tree’s rough bark, Milsindra bent her head to mine.

“You are disrespectful as well as dangerous, youngwolf. I told you that your involvement with the humans would bring death. You should have stayed away and left things to wiser wolves.” She pulled her lips back still more. “Though, perhaps it was for the best. Now I can convince the council that that old fool is too age-addled to lead.”

“What fool is that, Milsindra?”

The voice was cool, almost friendly. Milsindra startled and swung her head toward the ancient Greatwolf who sat calmly at the edge of the clearing. Zorindru returned her gaze through half-lidded eyes.

Two other Greatwolves settled on either side of the oldwolf, their ears pricked and their haunches tensed as they guarded him. They dipped their heads to me. Jandru and Frandra were the Greatwolves who watched over the Swift River pack, and they had helped me more often than they had harmed me. They also supported Zorindru’s rule of the Greatwolves.

Milsindra dug her back claws into my chest before stepping forward to address Zorindru. Her voice was calm, but her flanks quivered. Zorindru was her leaderwolf, even if she did defy him.

“You were wrong, Zorindru,” she said. “A wolf is dead at the spear of a human, and it’s this drelshik’s fault.” She jutted her chin at me. “We need to get rid of her and all who share her tainted, human-loving blood.”

Zorindru stood. He had ruled the Greatwolves since long before any wolf I knew was born. He was so gaunt that his spine showed through his ragged fur and he seemed much frailer than I remembered.

He stared at Kivdru, who still stood atop Ázzuen. Kivdru glared back. Zorindru held the younger wolf’s gaze so long, I was ready to howl to break the silence. Then the oldwolf lifted his lip. His teeth were worn down, and I wondered if he could still even hunt for himself, but his snarl held enough power to make Kivdru lower his ears and step off Ázzuen, who scrambled to his feet, coughing.

Milsindra stalked over to Zorindru, her haunches still shaking. She was half a head taller than he was, and her muscles showed as clearly through her sleek fur as his bones showed through his. Still, she seemed to fear the ancient wolf. When she spoke, there was entreaty in her voice.

“The humans killed the oldwolf, for no reason at all,” she said. “It’s only a matter of time before they start hunting wolves throughout the land. Humans and wolves always fight. It’s happened over and over.”

It was the greatest challenge to fulfilling the Promise. Wolves had to stay with humans to keep them from feeling separate from the world around them, but every time wolves and humans came together, they fought. I was supposed to change that.

“We told the drelshik that she, her pack, and her humans could live if she was able to keep peace between humans and wolves,” Milsindra said. “She hasn’t done so. The only solution is to get rid of the humans and the wolves who run with them. I don’t like killing youngwolves, but those of her blood cannot stay away from the humans.”

“You told us we had three moons,” Ázzuen interrupted. “It’s only been one moon since we started.”

Kivdru leapt for him again, then staggered back as a large, black feathered shape dropped from above and slammed into him. The raven spread his wings wide as he landed in front of Ázzuen and stared beadily at Kivdru.

Tlitoo was a young raven, but his head still came up to Ázzuen’s chin and his wings were nearly as wide as a wolf is long. That, plus a thick beak and sharp talons, made him a formidable fighter. He had been my friend since I was a smallpup and a staunch ally against the Greatwolves. He was also the Nejakilakin, the raven who could move between the worlds of life and death. He could bring me with him, and could also take me into the minds of others. But I was the only one who knew that.

I took advantage of the distraction he’d caused to check on TaLi. The girl was standing on her tree stump, watching us carefully, her stone blade still clutched in her hand. She was safe, for now.

Tlitoo eyed Kivdru and spread his wings.

Gruntwolves think they rule,
But sometimes must be humbled.
Ravens help with that.” 

Ravens often spoke in this strange way. I usually found it annoying, but when I saw Kivdru’s frustrated expression, I wanted to lick Tlitoo from beak to tail. For some reason I’d never understood, the Greatwolves were wary of ravens. Kivdru stepped back.

“The youngwolf is correct,” Zorindru said, inclining his head toward Ázzuen. “There is not yet war between the wolves and humans here.” His tawny eyes met mine. “How do you plan to make sure it stays that way, Kaala?”

“I’m going to find my mother—” I began.

Milsindra interrupted. “Your mother who broke the rules of the Wide Valley by whelping you!” She glowered down at me, deliberately turning her back on Zorindru as anger seemed to overcome her fear of him. “This old wolf and the fools who follow him believe that she has the answer to why wolves and humans cannot live side by side, and that her answer will allow us to fulfill the Promise. They believe that she will give this information only to you, her daughter, the drelshik. I think that humans will fight with us no matter what we do, and that you will only help them destroy us. The council, however, overruled me. They said you may leave the valley to find her.”

Zorindru coughed softly.

“It would appear that you are once again dissatisfied with my leadership, Milsindra, and the decisions the council makes under it,” the ancient Greatwolf said. “Do you wish to challenge me?”

Milsindra swung her head to regard him for a long moment, then looked away, lowering her tail. Zorindru lifted his.

“We will give her until Even Night to do so, Zorindru, that’s all.” Milsindra said.

There were two Even Nights every year, when day was as long as night. The next one was less than a moon away.

Milsindra raised her tail. “If she does not bring us an answer by then, we—and those who follow us—will take the Greatwolf council from you. We will kill the humans and the wolves who consort with them.” She dipped her head to Kivdru, and the two Greatwolves loped out of the clearing. Frandra and Jandru chased after them.

My legs gave out from under me. Now that Milsindra was gone, I could admit to myself how terrified I’d been. Zorindru lowered his nose to mine.

“Milsindra is under control for now, but not for long,” he said. “She is convinced that the only way to save wolfkind is to stop you. There are many on the council who are tempted to follow her, and I will not live forever. Find your mother, Kaala, and do so quickly. I can help fend off the humans—and Milsindra and Kivdru—until Even Night. After that, I can make no guarantees.” He dipped his head to me, and slipped into the woods.

I released a long, relieved breath. TaLi exhaled at the same moment. She jumped down from her stump and ran to me. She threw her scrawny arms around my neck, and hugged me hard enough to make me grunt.

Tlitoo warbled impatiently. “Wolflet,” he quorked, “if you get into trouble every time I leave you, we will get nothing done. I cannot watch you as if you are newly fledged.” He regarded me with beady eyes, the ruff of feathers around his neck puffed up in annoyance. “You should not have returned to your old pack. You are not of them anymore.”

“She had to try,” Ázzuen said.

Tlitoo regarded him for a moment, then darted forward, grabbed Ázzuen’s ear, and yanked. When Ázzuen yelped and stumbled away, Tlitoo dove for his nose. He was about to attack Ázzuen’s tail when a pale gray wolf trotted into the clearing.

Marra was Ázzuen’s littermate, a tall, fleet wolf who could outrun any prey in the valley. Her light gray fur was damp and muddy. A human boy ran up to stand beside her. He carried two of the preyskin bundles the humans called packs, one in his arms and one on his back, as well as two of the walking sticks some humans liked to use. His preyskin leg coverings were as damp as Marra’s fur. The two of them must’ve have come from the river. The boy was breathing hard. He fell to his knees and began to wheeze. Marra liked nothing more than to run, and the slow pace of humans—even of the human she loved as much as I loved TaLi—frustrated her.

“Are they coming?” she asked.

“They are too cowardly,” Tlitoo answered. “They will hide here like mice in a burrow.”

TaLi grabbed one of the packs MikLan had brought. Like us, TaLi had to leave the valley. Her grandmother had been training the girl to take over her role as krianan, or spiritual leader, of their village. The krianans were tasked with keeping the other humans in balance with the natural world, but many humans in the Wide Valley no longer listened to them. TaLi’s grandmother had made TaLi promise to reach the krianans outside the valley to tell them what was happening here. BreLan, the boy both TaLi and Ázzuen loved, was already there, waiting for her. Before I could get to my mother, I was determined to see TaLi safely there. I licked her hand, and tasted sweat and dirt.

“Now can we go, wolflet?” Tlitoo quorked. “We do not have time to dawdle.”

I couldn’t argue with that. We had less than a moon to find my mother and return to the Wide Valley with a way to fulfill the Promise. I tried not to think of what might happen to Rissa and the rest of Swift River in our absence. I couldn’t help them by staying in the Wide Valley.

I took a deep breath. I was only ten moons old. For most of my life, older wolves had made decisions and led the way. That time was past. TaLi shifted her pack on her shoulders. Ázzuen and Marra watched me expectantly.

I yipped once, and led my packmates from the aspen grove. We had no time to waste.