Authors: Kathryn Lasky
Tags: #Fantasy, #Young Adult, #Adventure, #Werewolves, #Children
“And in our wolf language the word
simply means ‘owl.’ You see, my friend, it was the spirit of a Hoole that I followed when I led my kind here from our ice-locked land.”
—From the first book of the Hoolian legends
BEFORE SHE FELT EVEN THE FIRST twinge in her belly, the she-wolf set out to find a remote birthing den. She knew somehow that this birth would not be the same as the others. She had been traveling for days now, and she could sense her time was near. So far she had seen nothing that would serve as a den. There were several shallow pits, but those wouldn’t do. Pits offered no shelter, and though it was almost spring, the weather could turn treacherous in a flash. The pups could freeze. The sound of their fresh hearts beating so fiercely would grow dim under a thin glaze of ice until the hearts stopped, and there was only silence. This had happened before to the she-wolf. She had licked those three pups until her tongue was dry and bleeding from the cold shards, but she had not been able to keep up with the ice.
This was her third litter. And this time, she knew she had to get far away from the pack, away from the clan, away from her mate, and most of all, away from the Obea.
Finally, on the night of the fifth rising moon that now hung like an ice blade low on the horizon, she found a crevice under a rock ledge. She smelled it before she saw it. The scent of fox was distinct. She hoped it wasn’t a whelping den.
Just the fox, dear Lupus.
She sent up a silent prayer. She did not want to contend with fox kits.
And it had been just a fox—a fox waiting to give birth. The she-wolf routed her and took the den, settling in for her time. The fox smell lingered.
, she thought. It would provide another layer of concealing scent. She rolled in the scat that she found nearby and then snorted to herself as she imagined what her pups would think of their mum. No matter, they would live—and if need be, live away from the clan.
Then they came. Three pups, two tawny like their father, the other silvery gray. They were perfect in her eyes. Indeed, it took her a while to discover the one little flaw on the silver pup—a slight splay to his front paw. When the she-wolf examined it more closely, she saw that this paw had a dim tracery of a spiral, like a swirled star, on its footpad. It was odd, but certainly not a deformity.
And she told herself the splay of that paw was minor. He was not
, the ancient wolf word for “cursed.” It was such a slight flaw, and she had hope that the splay might lessen in the days that followed. The toes that pointed out might rotate back, and the tracery was so dim it wouldn’t leave a print even in soft mud. The silver pup was strong. She could tell by the way he sucked on her teat. Still, she was glad she had taken the precaution of finding a birthing den far away.
She dragged the pups one by one into the deeper recesses of the crevice, which thankfully had two or three tunnels that extended into a nesting chamber. Here she planned to stay wrapped around her pups for several days, nursing them in the quiet darkness as long as she could. She knew that soon enough they would become restless, and when their eyes finally opened, they would seek that pale thread of light that gleamed feebly at the den’s opening, drawn to it as strongly as they were drawn to the milk from her teats, as strongly as they would later be by the scent of meat. But if they could remain concealed, they would survive and the silver pup would grow stronger and stronger so that the threat of the Obea would begin to fade, like an old scent mark scoured away by wind and rain and snow.
The she-wolf would have only a few hours for such fanciful thinking.
In a world that to any other wolf might appear trackless, Shibaan, the Obea of the MacDuncan clan, had found the she-wolf’s trail. The laws of the wolf clans were harsh. The Obea was the female wolf in each clan designated to carry deformed pups out of the whelping den to a place of abandonment. Only barren she-wolves were eligible, since such wolves were assumed not to have developed maternal instincts. With no blood offspring, Obeas were devoted entirely to the well-being of the clan, which could not be healthy and strong if defective wolves were born into it. The rules were precise. The deformed or sick pup was to be removed by the Obea and carried to a remote spot where it would be left to die of starvation or be eaten by another animal. If the pup somehow managed to survive, it was permitted back into the clan as a gnaw wolf and became the lowest-ranking wolf in the clan. A
’s mother was never welcomed back. The clan must be rid of her and her mate, who had contaminated the bloodlines. If they were to survive, they must separate and seek new lives in different clans, for they were deemed to have
destinies marked by blight that might be set right only by finding new bloodlines.
Shibaan had learned to become suspicious when a pregnant female about to give birth went
, which meant “deeply away.” She was an experienced Obea and was not fooled long by the tricks of the she-wolf Morag. Shibaan had to admit that Morag was more thorough than most in covering her tracks. Morag had not urinated except in streams or the ice-free parts of the river. She had left no scent marks to declare her territory. The average wolf would not have noticed the clues to the desperate mother’s flight. But Shibaan was no ordinary wolf, nor was she an ordinary Obea. She found the subtlest of traces. A tuft of silver fur caught on some thistle. Scratch marks on a rock that had served as a foothold when Morag crossed a stream. A slight whiff—a scent message perhaps, not from Morag, but another. To Shibaan, it flared up like a signpost. The message was clear:
My territory, first lieutenant of the MacDermott clan,
a response to an outsider veering too close to MacDermott land.
, thought Shibaan,
Morag has crossed the MacDermott border. Daring!
Then there was the scent of fox, but not pure fox. Shibaan shook her head wearily.
I always find them, no
matter what tricks they play.
And she did. The fox scat outside the den even had a thread of fur, like a silvery pennant quivering in the breeze to announce that inside a she-wolf concealed herself, sticky with fox scat, but still redolent in the sweet fragrances of new pups and warm milk.
No fuss, no muss. The mothers of
never did put up a fight. They knew the consequence of re sis-tance—immediate death to all the pups.
Morag watched the Obea carrying the splay-pawed pup in her jaws until they were a dark speck on the horizon. How perfectly suited Shibaan was for this job! It was as if the years of performing her duty with unquestioning obedience had scoured away any kind of feeling or imagination. When Morag looked into the green eyes of the Obea, they were completely devoid of light, or depth, or anything that might reflect emotion. They were like dry stones, bleached of nearly all color.
The silver pup had allowed itself to be picked up by its neck scruff and had instinctively curled its body into carrying position. Did he not sense the Obea’s scent was different from his mother’s? Did the pup not mind the
milkless, dry, sterile wind of her being? The pup had nursed constantly—but constant had been just a sliver in the short day since it had been born. The pup’s eyes and ears were still sealed shut. It would be days before they opened. The pup’s only way to know his mother, the Milk Giver, was through her scent and perhaps the feel of her fur and the throbbing rhythms of her heart. Would he remember? But what did it matter.
A tween season storm was brewing, and these were the worst. Coming on the edge of spring or the cusp of summer, tween storms were full of rage, tumultuous winds, and slashing ice. Morag had felt it coming and seen the leaden skies sinking lower and lower, clamping down on the land like a trap for earth’s creatures. Her pup would be abandoned in the midst of this storm. And she herself would have to remain with the two other pups to await the Obea, who would return to lead Morag back to the clan. The Obea would carry one pup and Morag the other as they traveled that trail of shame. The news of the
pup would be announced, and Morag would have to leave the clan immediately, an outlaw. The surviving pups would be nursed by another wolf.