Authors: Dorothy Hearst
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Dedicated to my sweet, stubborn Emmi, and to wolves, dogs, and all who strive to make a world worthy of them
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 legendsâand the unforgiving Greatwolves who ruled over usâforbade the wolves of the Wide Valley from having 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. Ãzzuen 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 convince 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 mother from the valley when I was just out of the den. Less than a moon ago, my mother 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 the 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 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 four 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.
Ãzzuen 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. Ãzzuen's human, BreLan, had left the valley almost half a moon before and Ãzzuen longed for him.
Every wolf in the valley knew how clever Ãzzuen 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.
Ãzzuen 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 Greatwolfâa deeper, meatier scent than that of an ordinary wolfâand 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.