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Winter of the Wolves
The tall moor grass rippled in the wind along a hill bathed in cool, silver moonlight. Only the light of stars could be seen to guide the way of those below. A faint glow on the horizon offered the presence of the sun, for soon dawn would break. Small scrubby bushes dotted the hill, swaying and rustling in the breeze. A chill wind started to blow; winter was to be soon. I could feel it. The icy scent of the season to come, that of the soft white snow and harsh, piercing winds, filled my nostrils as I inhaled the air of the autumn night. A few pine trees here and there also added their odor to the breeze as I stood along the line of tundra and taiga. I shivered in the cold; my brow furrowed in concentration as I carefully followed my scent trail back to the den I presently resided in. My glowing silver fur was plastered to my back as the arctic wind blew down from the north.
With my muzzle pressed to the ground I trotted along a ridge. I must get home before sunrise, I thought. The night was still, except for the tundra grass waving in the wind, but it was spooky. I had heard many a tale of the Ice Wolves that roamed these tundra moors, the pure-white ghosts of wolves long passed. Shivers went up my spine as I thought of the stories the older wolves had told to me when I was but a pup, tumbling about our summer den site. My tail was cocked in a position of fear, between my hind legs but curved so that the white tip would show. My tail, instead of being pure gray or silver, was silver on top with a white underside and tip. Most of the underside of my body- my belly and legs- was white, a flag I could flash for defeat or to show that I am on top.
By now, I could not only hear the howls of my pack as they communicated to other packs, miles away on this barren landscape, but I could smell the warm scents of home as well. Hopefully, Strong Elk and Swift River would not be angered at my tardiness. I had promised to return to the caves where we were sheltered by midnight, and now the moon was sinking lower in the sky.
I froze as I heard the wind roar through a crack in one of the rocks that made up a steep cliff on one side of the hill I now passed. I started to sprint, my heart beating fast with fear. Oh, I should have never gone out in this windstorm!
My pack had sent me out in search of a nearby river at which we would be able to drink. We had arrived at this region of our territory two sunrises prior and now were exploring this new terrain. The cavern in which we were now settled had been used for centuries before by the wolves of our pack, long ago. Our pack was one of the oldest surviving packs in the Northern Country. The pack’s name, which to some is hard to say, is a word of the old language- Larevah’yia, which means ‘Winding River’. Anyhow, I had found a burbling stream with plenty of clean, pure mountain water from the alpine tundra that stretched along the horizon. By the time I had found it, the sun was slowly sinking below the horizon and I knew I must get home as soon as would be possible.
Thankfully, I had great endurance for long-distance running, and I tore through the rugged tundra grass. The long tendrils whipped my legs and tried to entangle me, but I ran far too fast for that to be capable.
The moon, a slender crescent in the sky, peeked through a low valley in the mountains ahead as it continued sailing through the night, as low in the sky as it could be without leaving this hemisphere. The shadowy trees were a blur as I charged across the moor, a strong tailwind in the rear to increase my speed. Finally, I could see the large cliff in which the cave’s opening appeared.
I slowed down and eventually stopped near the base of the cliff. The cavern was a little ways up the cliff, so I hopped from boulder to boulder as I picked my way up to the ledge. Now standing just outside the cave, I barked a small call to let them know of my return. As I waited for the reply call, I looked around at our new resting place. The cave was far inside the mountain, with a long, narrow passageway leading to the main cavern. Small bushes grew in cracks between the boulders, sheltered from strong winds. The mouth of the cave faced the east, where when morning arrived we could see the sun and rise up. But now, in the dense night, darkness shrouded the beautiful meadows and malevolent shadows emanated from the solid objects surrounding me.
A welcoming howl echoed from inside of the deep grotto. Pricking my ears, I trotted swiftly into the tunnel. The rough stone floor was cold to the pads of my paws and the sharp stalactites and stalagmites looked like fangs in the night, jaws ready to snap on the incognizant victim. Stone sculptures carved by millennia of dripping water clung to the wall, looking fierce in the night. Home.
I could smell the warm scents of my pack, and could hear them scuffling in the dark. I began to lope along faster until the stone tunnel I was in opened into a very large cavern with networks of caves leading off of the main ‘room’. My pack was scattered around the clearing; some were lying on mossy rocks, conversing about the day’s events; some were play fighting and learning new ploys to use against the other packs in case of a territorial battle. Pups tumbled outside of the Whelping Cave, and pup-mothers chatted quietly with each other, all the while keeping an eye on their young. Glancing around, I saw that most wolves in our pack of almost thirty wolves had returned to their dens to sleep.
“Arphita!” I looked up, ears pricked, as my name was called.
Two very powerful looking wolves strode up to me. Their heads were held high and chests thrust out- anyone could clearly see their importance. And in truth, they were important. I knelt to the ground respectfully. It was none other than Sóron and Sáphre- the leaders of my pack.
“Have you found an outdoor water source?” questioned Sóron. I nodded quickly.
“Complete with fish and insects,” I replied, thinking about the way the annoying gnats had buzzed about my ears. Thankfully, the cold season of winter was almost upon us, and the bugs would hide in their winter nests. My ears lowered against my head in disappointment as I thought now of the ice-wind freezing the stream over.
“Also, Arphita, the pup-mothers found a waterfall, far back in the Whelping Cave. If your stream freezes over, we can still find water,” Sáphre voiced my thoughts as if she had read my mind. Creepy, how she did that.
Sóron now spoke. “Rest up, young wolf. Tomorrow I will send fit wolves to hunt for the pack, and you are fit to go. Tell you brother Farrír and sister Náphia that they shall accompany you and seven others on the hunt on the morrow.” I bowed my head once again and padded across the cavern to the cave I shared with the yearling females, my sister included.
The cave was a small passageway with a large room at the end, the floor of which was coved by a layer of grass, moss, and soft pine needles to make a comfortable resting area for us. Three out of the five yearling females were curled up in the mossy mix, their sides heaving as they breathed. My sister was licking the mud from her feet; a tired glaze was visible in her eyes.
“Náphia,” I whispered. “Sóron has told me to tell you to rest up, for we are participating in tomorrow’s hunting mission.” My sister nodded sleepily.
“When do you suppose we leave?” she asked tiredly.
I shrugged. “Well, we usually leave around the time the sun is high in the sky, and I suppose tomorrow shall not differ much, right?”
“Right,” she agreed, closed her eyes and lay down on the moss. I turned and slipped back through the passage to find my brother.
I found him playing Chase-Hide with some of his acquaintances. I watched them for a moment as the tossed a caribou hide between them, clearly in teams. A large, almost pure-white male by the name of Garrata-Hyiel (which meant ‘Deep Snow’ in the old language) was now in possession of the hide, my brother Farrír was trying to tear it from his mouth. Finally, my brother got a hold of it in his powerful canines and ripped it from the muzzle of the other wolf. Dashing across the cavern, he dropped the hide on a rock that symbolized a makeshift goalpost. The young males were probably practicing for the spring tournament, where many packs in the area met on the hosting pack’s territory to play Chase-Hide. This year the tournament was with the Tona-Mecketh tribe of the western mountains. From what I’d heard, our team had won the tournament for seven season-cycles in a row. Now, my brother had tried out for the team after one of the older players had retired; he was now a senior wolf. The captain of the team, Rónur, had not decided which wolf would take up the retired player’s position.
Rónur was watching the young males play Chase-Hide with interest, as most of the players had tried out to fill the vacant position. I saw him eyeing my brother with interest, and hope flared through me as I prayed to our god Natúk for my brother to make the team. After my brother had scored his goal the group of wolves split apart for the night. Farrír was congratulated by many of his friends; I assumed that he was one of the few on his team to score. I took the opportunity to slide between the furry bodies to where my brother was chatting with one of his good friends, Tuphik.
“Well played, Brother,” I congratulated him as soon as I stepped up to him. “I’m sure Rónur will pick you for the team!”
“Thank you, Arphita,” he responded, dipping his head in modesty. I could still feel the happiness and pride that seemed to emanate from his pelt. He, too, had seen Rónur considering him.
“Farrír,” I continued. “Sóron and Sáphre would like Náphia, you and I to join the hunting group tomorrow at noon, and they wish you to get good rest, for we are traveling fast to reach the caribou herd.”
“Sure, I’d love to come. Let me get a drink of water, and I’ll go back to my cave soon after.” Farrír began to trot towards the Whelping Cave, where the newfound waterfall was located.
“Good night!” I called after him. Irritated shushing noises came from the many caves with wolves, trying to fall asleep but could not with my shouting.
“Sorry!” I whispered so they could hear. No reply followed, so I cantered back to my den. Now all four of the females that shared my den were asleep. I turned in a circle a few times to soften the mossy mix and then curled into a bundle of fur beside Náphia. Closing my eyes, I prayed for a dream, fearful of a nightmare.