Secrets of the Wolves Excerpt

Chapter 1

I caught the delicate scent of distant prey and stopped, digging my paws into the earth. Lifting my muzzle to the wind, I inhaled, allowing the distinctive ice-and-hoof aroma to sink to the back of my throat. Snow deer, in our territory and on the move. All at once, blood rushed to the sensitive spot just behind my ears. My mouth moistened, and every muscle in my body hungered for the chase. Next to me, Ázzuen stood as still as I was, only his ears twitching. Then his dark gray head began to sway, pulled between the lure of prey and our task.

“We can’t go after them,” I said. “We have to get to Tall Grass.”

“I know that,” he replied, panting hard. We’d run most of the way across our territory at full pelt. “I’m coming.”

Neither of us moved. I could, just barely, restrain myself from following the prey-scent, but I couldn’t bring myself to move away from it. Neither could Ázzuen. The small cluster of pine trees in which we stood blocked out the early morning sun, allowing thick drops of moisture to form on Ázzuen’s fur. His entire body now strained toward the prey. As a fresh gust of deer-scent washed over us, I closed my eyes.

A painful yank on the fur of my chest made me yelp. I glared down to see dark eyes peering at me out of a gleaming black feathered head and a sharp beak poised to jab at my paw. I stepped back. Tlitoo raised his wings as if to take flight, then strode forward to stand under my chin, staying within stabbing distance. His winter plumage made him seem larger than a not-yet-year-old raven should, and his tail and back were speckled with the snow he’d been rolling in. He stared a beady challenge at me, and then at Ázzuen, who jumped aside to get out of beak range and buried his nose in the snow, trying to freeze away the deer-scent.

When Tlitoo saw that he had our attention, he quirked softly.

“The Grimwolves are exactly fourteen minutes behind you, wolflets, and their legs are much longer than yours. They will catch up.”

My throat tightened. I’d thought we had more time. The Greatwolves had ruled the Wide Valley for as long as any wolf could remember, and all wolves were required to obey them.

An angry howl made all three of us cringe. Stop! The command in the Greatwolf Frandra’s voice was clear. And wait for us. Stay at the pine grove. We will come for you.

“How do they know where we are?” I demanded. “Their noses can’t be all that good.” We’d heard rumors that the Greatwolves could read the minds of other wolves. Ázzuen claimed the Greatwolves made up those stories themselves.

“They smell us and they smell pine,” he said firmly. “And they’re guessing.”

“It doesn’t matter, wolves!” Tlitoo rasped. “The longer you blather, the closer they get!”

I took a deep breath, calming myself. The Greatwolves would catch up with us in the end, and when they did they would be angry. But I was determined to make it to the Tall Grass plain before they found us, no matter what the consequence. For on the morning wind there rode another scent, one even more potent than that of the snow deer. A scent of sweat and flesh, of smoke and pine, of meat cooked over fire: the scent of the humans who shared our hunt. The ground beneath our paws was softening with the beginnings of the thaw, and the breeze that ruffled our fur sang of winter’s weakening. For three nights, the Ice Moon had narrowed to the smallest of crescents and then faded to darkness. And with the waning of the Ice Moon, the wolves and humans of the Wide Valley could be together once again.

It had been three moons since we’d last seen our humans, on a cool autumn morning when the humans and wolves of the Wide Valley had nearly gone to war. If we had done so, every wolf and human in the valley would have been killed by order of the Greatwolves. I had stopped that war, with the help of my packmates, and in doing so had convinced the leader of the Greatwolves to spare us. In exchange I had made a promise: that for one year I would ensure that the wolves and humans of the Wide Valley did not fight. If I succeeded, the Wide Valley wolves and humans would live. If I failed, the Greatwolves would kill us all.

The next night, a heavy snowstorm howled into the Wide Valley, warning us that the hungry days of winter neared. Wolves and humans, along with every other creature in the valley, would have to struggle to survive the harsh winter, and so the Greatwolves gave us three moons to prepare before we took on the task of keeping peace between human and wolf— as long as we stayed away from the humans during that time. Today was the day our task was to begin. But two nights ago, the Greatwolves had ordered us to come to them as soon as the Ice Moon waned. Instead, awoken by Tlitoo’s warning, we’d fled.

I met Ázzuen’s eyes and filled my throat with the cool morning air. The Greatwolves had lied to us too many times. With one last look in the direction of the snow deer, I leapt over Tlitoo’s snowy back and sprinted toward the Tall Grass plain, folding my ears against the wrathful howls of the Greatwolves.

When we reached the Wood’s Edge Gathering Place, a few steps from where the trees met the Tall Grass plain, we found Marra pacing restlessly, her pale gray fur flecked with dirt and leaves. She darted over to touch my nose and then Ázzuen’s with her own, her muzzle quivering with impatience.

“Ruuqo and Rissa are on their way here with Trevegg,” Marra said quickly. “The rest of the pack went after the snow deer.” I had sent her on ahead to warn the leaderwolves that the Greatwolves followed us; we hadn’t wanted to risk howling. Tlitoo could have flown to them more quickly than even fleet Marra could run, but he had refused to leave us. He’d been agitated since waking us at dawn. Even now, he stalked back and forth between me and Ázzuen, clacking his beak impatiently.

Marra must have run like a hare to get back to Tall Grass so quickly. She wasn’t even winded. She barely took a breath before speaking again.

“MikLan and BreLan are out there,” she said. They were the two males that she and Ázzuen hunted with. “And your human, too, Kaala.”

I didn’t need her to tell me that. The aroma of humans had grown overpowering, one human-scent in particular nearly knocking me off my paws. I felt a familiar yearning deep in my chest. TaLi and I had run the hunt together and slept side by side. She was as much my packmate as any wolf and her fragrance as much a part of my being as my own skin.

“Did Ruuqo and Rissa want us to wait for them?” Ázzuen asked, taking a few steps toward the plain, then looking back at us. His tail began to wave. Ruuqo and Rissa were the leaderwolves of the Swift River pack. All wolves must obey the will of their leaderwolves, especially wolves like Ázzuen, Marra, and me, who at nine and a half moons old were not yet quite considered adults.

“No,” Marra replied, averting her eyes. “Rissa’s ribs hurt her today, so the pack moves slowly.” Rissa had injured her ribs in a fight with a maddened elkryn three moons before, only steps from where we now stood. It still hurt her when the weather changed.

“Ruuqo said we should try to talk to the humans before the Greatwolves get here.” Marra licked a paw, still not meeting my eyes. “You could have saved me the trouble of warning the pack, Kaala, with all the noise the Greatwolves are making.”

I narrowed my eyes, not entirely sure I believed Marra. She wasn’t above stretching the truth from time to time, and I doubted Ruuqo and Rissa would want youngwolves like us to defy the Greatwolves without our pack leaders at our side. I had worked hard all winter to regain the leaderwolves’ trust and didn’t want to lose it again.

“We could wait,” I said. “The pack will be here soon.”

“So will the Gruntwolves!” Tlitoo retorted, slapping his wings against his back. “You did not run all this way to stop now. What is the point of making the Gripewolves angry for no reason?” He picked up half a pinecone in his beak and hurled it at me. It bounced off my shoulder. Slugwolf!” he screeched.

“We are the ones who know the humans best, Kaala,” Ázzuen said, sensing my indecision.

Just then a furious and startlingly nearby Greatwolf howl shook the air. My legs made up my mind for me. I was running before I realized it, bolting from the safety of Wood’s Edge with Ázzuen and Marra at my tail. We broke through a line of spruce trees and onto the Tall Grass plain where we could at last see our humans again.

Six of them stood around a mound of dirt and snow, poking at it with the blunt ends of the long, deadly sharpsticks they used for hunting. We loped across the plain slowly, not wanting to startle the humans. Tall Grass was a large plain, where we often hunted horses and other grazers. The humans were halfway down the length of it and intent on their dirt mound, so they didn’t notice us at first. TaLi’s scent drifted more strongly than ever across the grass, but I couldn’t pick her out among the humans. All three of the females had flat, dark fur like TaLi’s and were dressed in bear and wolverine skins against the cold. None of them, however, was the right shape to be TaLi. Had I somehow mistaken her scent? I slowed down. Tlitoo lost what little patience he had when Ázzuen and Marra slowed, too.

“Plodwolves!” he shrieked. He flew over my head, scraping my ears with his sharp talons, beating his wings hard to reach the humans. He soared low over their heads. Several of the humans leapt back, startled, and looked up at the raven. That was when I saw her.

She was taller, even after only three moons. Her legs and arms were long and very skinny, like someone had been pulling on them, and she moved awkwardly, as if balancing on a loose rock in the river. Ázzuen had stumbled around like that earlier in the winter, when he suddenly grew taller than any of us other pups and hadn’t yet accustomed himself to his new height. A small whuff of surprise escaped my throat as I realized that TaLi would not be a child much longer. When I had pulled her from the river, not six moons before, she had been smaller and much more solid-looking.

BreLan, the young male who hunted with Ázzuen, spotted us. He gave a glad shout. That was all it took for Ázzuen and Marra to charge full speed toward the humans. I hesitated, suddenly uncertain. Many humans hated and feared us. Trevegg, the elderwolf of our pack, had warned us that even if our humans liked us now, they might change their minds as they matured. I couldn’t help but wonder if TaLi, now nearly grown, might no longer wish to run the hunt with me. I stole forward, watching her for signs of fear or rejection. She raised her hand to shade her eyes against the early morning sun. Then she gave her huge, bared-tooth smile, set down her sharpstick, and galloped toward me.

“Silvermoon!” she bellowed like an elk stuck in the mire. It was her name for me, because of the moon-shape of white on the light gray fur of my chest.

I broke into a run and met her before she had taken ten steps on those ridiculous legs. I placed my paws gently on her shoulders, taking care not to hurt or startle her. She threw her arms around me and hurled her weight against me. I allowed her to topple me over and she landed on my ribs. Grunting in delight, I rolled her onto her back, and we wrestled in the dirt until I stood atop her chest, panting. The scent of her filled me, bringing back in a rush the memory of the day I first found her. She had been struggling for her life in the unforgiving waters of the Swift River, and I had pulled her to safety. It was forbidden by ancient laws for the wolves of the Wide Valley to have contact with the humans, and I should have left her there on the riverbank to live or not. But I couldn’t. Within moments of looking into her dark eyes, I knew that leaving her to die would be like abandoning part of myself in that river mud. Ázzuen and I returned her to her home, an act that some in the valley claimed had led to the battle at autumn’s end.

I pressed my nose against TaLi’s soft skin, inhaling as much of her scent as I could.

“Silvermoon, you stink,” the girl said, pushing me off her chest and sitting up.

I wasn’t sure what she meant. Ázzuen, Marra, and I had dug up one of our old caches of horse meat and had eaten some of it the night before, which should have made my breath smell good. But you could never tell with humans. I cocked my head, considering what she might mean.

“You smell like you rolled in something dead!” she accused.

I panted happily. I had indeed rolled in something dead. The old horse meat from our cache. All three of us had rolled in it so we could let our pack know we’d eaten it and that there was some left over for them. Horse meat was good eating. I pressed myself against TaLi to share the scent with her.

A look of horror crossed her face. “Silvermoon! You reek! Get away.” She shoved me again,  hard. Those scrawny arms were stronger than they looked.

“She means you smell very bad,” Tlitoo offered, settling himself beside me and running his beak through his wing feathers. He plucked out one feather, examined it, and threw it aside. He was calmer, now that we were with the humans. It infuriated me. He had been frantic when he had awoken us. He told us we had to convince our humans to go into hiding until he found out what the Greatwolves were doing. He wouldn’t tell me why, only that we and our humans might be in danger if we didn’t.

“I know what she means,” I snapped. But I wasn’t entirely sure I did. Once, wolves and humans could communicate as easily as one wolf speaks to another, but no more. Most creatures can understand one another at least a little. We can speak to ravens as if they are packmates, and to dholes and rock bears almost as well. We can even understand some prey. Somehow, though, almost all of the humans had lost the ability to understand other creatures. A few could converse in Oldspeak, the ancient language that all creatures once spoke. Even fewer could understand us when we spoke normally. Ta- Li’s grandmother could understand both Oldspeak and our normal language, but she had spent a lifetime learning from the wolves. TaLi and I were both learning Oldspeak, but neither of us knew it well. Most of the time I understood TaLi when she spoke, but I could rarely make her understand me. And I had to make her understand me. It was the reason we’d risked provoking the Greatwolves. I paced in a tight circle, desperate to find a way to  communicate our message to TaLi.

“Too late, wolflet,” Tlitoo quorked, twisting his head almost all the way around to look behind him.

I followed his gaze. At the edge of the forest, about two hundred wolflengths down the plain, the bushes trembled. A moment later, two huge, shaggy wolves stalked onto Tall Grass. Even from a distance, I could see their gaze sweeping arrogantly over us and all six of the humans. Jandru and Frandra were the Greatwolves the Swift River pack answered to. They were also the ones who had been howling at us all morning. I had known them since they had saved my life when I was a smallpup and never knew if they were going to help me or threaten me, but I knew that they would be furious that I had ignored their orders. I didn’t want them anywhere near our humans.

I stood, and Ázzuen and Marra rushed to stand beside me. The three of us placed ourselves  between the humans and the angry Greatwolves.

“Now what?” Marra asked.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“Ruuqo and Rissa are at Wood’s Edge,” Ázzuen said, his nose lifted high to catch their scents. “We can lead the Greatwolves away from the humans and to the pack. Ruuqo and Rissa will know what to say to the Greatwolves.”

I wasn’t so sure, but it was as good an idea as any. Greatwolves are faster than we are over long distances, but a young wolf could outpace them over a short run, and I wanted Frandra and Jandru as far from the humans as possible. Once we got to Wood’s Edge, we could think of some way to explain our actions. I began to trot toward Frandra and Jandru. Ázzuen and Marra followed. We had gone only forty wolflengths when we heard Tlitoo screech. BreLan, MikLan, and several other humans were trying to follow us. TaLi pushed at them, yelling that they should stay back; she knew better than to be anywhere near angry Greatwolves. All the humans knew that giant wolves roamed the valley, but only a few knew of the Greatwolves’ role in humans’ lives. And the Greatwolves wanted to keep it that way.

The other humans weren’t listening to TaLi, and she wasn’t big enough to stop them. Tlitoo beat the humans about their heads with his wings, driving them back. I didn’t envy them. A raven’s wings are strong and, when spread, can be nearly as wide as a wolf is long. I’d been hit by them often enough to know it wasn’t pleasant. He was managing to move them, but not quickly enough. The Greatwolves were getting closer.

“Help him,” I said to Ázzuen and Marra. We had all stopped to watch the humans.

Marra dipped her head and set off toward the humans, but Ázzuen paused, clearly not wanting to leave me to the Greatwolves.

“It’s fine,” I said impatiently. Ázzuen had grown annoyingly protective of me in the last few moons. “Go!” I couldn’t wait any longer, the Greatwolves were getting too close. I started running. Ázzuen followed me for a few steps. “Hurry up!” I snapped at him. He still hesitated, then looked over his shoulder. His human, BreLan, was trying to follow him in spite of Tlitoo’s abuse.

“Be careful,” Ázzuen ordered, butting my shoulder with his head. He turned in midstride. “I’ll come if you need me,” he called over his shoulder.

I whuffed at the concern in his voice, then turned and ran in earnest. When Frandra and Jandru saw that I was coming to them, they stopped and sat, waiting for me. I lowered my ears and tail, as if asking their pardon for disobeying them, and I saw their expressions soften just a little. Then, when I was a little more than halfway between them and the humans, I turned sharply and bolted toward Wood’s Edge. I didn’t look to see if the Greatwolves were following. I knew they would be as soon as I heard Frandra’s angry bellow. Head down, I stretched my legs as far as they would go, kicking up dirt behind me.

Now that I was alone, fear tried to rise in me. I concentrated on running, knowing that it was up to me to make sure the Greatwolves didn’t go after the humans. To my relief, I could smell that our pack had indeed arrived at Wood’s Edge. The reassuring scents of my leaderwolves loosened a lump in my chest I hadn’t realized was there.

I didn’t slow down when I reached Wood’s Edge. I dove through the wolf-size hole in the low juniper bushes, crashed into the gathering place in a shower of twigs and dirt, and tumbled at the feet of the leaderwolves. Gasping, I got to my feet. Ears back and tail low, I quickly greeted  Ruuqo and Rissa, the leaderwolves of Swift River pack, and Trevegg, the pack’s elderwolf. They all accepted my greetings. Ruuqo looked me over coolly. I could feel every branch and bramble in my fur.

“What did you do to annoy the Greatwolves, this time, Kaala?” he said, his voice mild. “We could hear them yowling all the way at the Alder Grove. We’re missing a good hunt in order to be here.”

Ruuqo was a large, deep-chested wolf, his fur a medium gray. In spite of his unruffled tone, his lips were tight with anxiety and a scent of concern rose off of him. He held his broad shoulders rigid as if ready for a fight.

I looked up into his dark rimmed eyes. If I lived to be as old as the ancient yew tree atop Wolf Killer Hill, I would never forget that Ruuqo had tried to kill me not long after I was born, that he had killed my littermates and exiled my mother, leaving me to fight alone for my place in the pack. If not for the intervention of the Greatwolves, I would not have lived past my first moon. I would never forget that when he discovered I was spending time with the humans, he had banished me, forcing me to leave the pack—a punishment almost certain to lead to death for a wolf not seven moons old. Not a day went by when I didn’t think of my mother, of what my life would be like if she was still with me. Since I had saved Rissa’s life three moons before, Ruuqo had accepted me back into the pack, and had even been grateful to me. But I would never forget. Though I owed him obedience and allegiance as my leaderwolf, I would never like him.

“Tlitoo came for us at daybreak,” I said, trying to get the words out before Jandru and Frandra  arrived. “He told us that the Greatwolves had changed their minds. I wanted to make sure the humans were warned.” In case the Greatwolves decided to kill them again, I thought. I saw old Trevegg watching me and stood straighter. He was always telling me that I needed to be more confident in my own strength.

“Changed their minds to what?” Rissa asked, stepping up to stand beside her mate. She was only slightly smaller than Ruuqo, with a bright white pelt unusual in a Wide Valley wolf. While Ruuqo had shunned me throughout my puphood, Rissa had treated me as one of her own pups. I often forgot that Ázzuen, Marra, and I were not of the same litter. When an elkryn had nearly trampled Rissa three moons before, it had been pure instinct that drove me to leap upon it, taking its nose in my teeth and distracting it so that TaLi and my pack could kill it. Since then, Rissa had almost treated me as an equal. A sister, rather than a youngwolf, and it made me nervous. Once she even called me Neesa, my mother’s name. My mother had been Rissa’s sister and they had spent their entire lives together until my mother had been exiled.

“I’m not sure,” I admitted. “He said there was trouble, and that the Greatwolves were coming and that we should go to the humans as quickly as we could. To warn them.”

“And you believed a raven without asking for details?” Rissa asked, amused. “You’re old enough to know better than that. And we told Marra that you were to wait for us.”

“And how did you expect to warn humans, anyway?” The snide voice came from my right. “You can’t even talk to them.” I looked at Unnan out of the corner of my eye, wishing with all my heart that Ruuqo and Rissa had left him at the hunt. I hadn’t bothered to greet him. He was Ázzuen and Marra’s littermate, and my greatest enemy in the pack. His small, weaselly eyes flicked over me. I ignored him and answered Rissa.

“It was Tlitoo. I trust him,” I said. “And the ravens don’t usually lie much about the Greatwolves.”

But Rissa was no longer watching me. She looked over my head, into the trees that surrounded the eastern end of Wood’s Edge, the direction the Greatwolves would be coming from. Her nose twitched and her ears shot up. Ruuqo growled, and Trevegg rose and stood rigid-legged behind the leaderwolves. All three raised their back fur. I heard Unnan gasp.

I pricked up my ears to listen for what had startled them all and felt my own tail stiffen. The Greatwolves were coming, as we knew they would. But there were too many of them. Only Jandru and Frandra had followed me from Tall Grass. Now, more than two dozen heavy paws crushed dry leaves and sticks, and the scents of seven Greatwolves blew into the gathering place, assailing our noses with the scents of anger and menace. When I was a smallpup, there had been only a few Greatwolves in the valley and most of them were old. Since the battle at autumn’s end, many more had come to the Wide Valley.

My heart pounded and my legs shook as I turned in the direction of the approaching wolves. As I felt the ground rumble with the growls of my packmates, panic closed my throat, so I couldn’t have whimpered if I’d wanted to. For the briefest moment, I considered running, but I stood my ground with my packmates, wondering if it would be the last time I would ever do so.  Greatwolves came in such numbers for one reason only—to kill packs of wolves that had displeased them.