The winter had been hard, much harder than usual. The pack had come down from the mountains, to seek food where the storms and snow had not driven all prey away. Last winter too had been hard, with a cold, wet and hard spring and summer following. There was only one cub left of an initial litter of five, a cub who, by now, should have been almost fully grown, but who was still small and too weak to survive another winter. The litter that should have been born less than a year ago never survived the cold, bitter spring. And so, the cub was the only one.
Had the winter been better, he would have been forced to hunt with the rest of the pack, and probably make mistakes, but it was the way he would learn. But now they could not afford any mistakes, nor could they afford to watch him when a failed hunt could mean death, and so, he wasn't much of a hunter.
He wasn't quick either, and so he couldn't even keep himself fed on mice and other small rodents and birds. Since the food was scarce, he was thin, and always hungry.
The second winter had come, even colder than the first. The wolves starved, and started dying. So the wolves were desperate enough to dare to challenge the humans, the rulers of the lowlands.
At least this hunt had been good. The wind had not been so hard that it kept the wolves away, but most humans stayed inside their huts in this weather, so the sheep would not be missed for some time yet. The kills had been easy, very easy, and all of them had full bellies when they returned.
But the wolves were scared. Their leader did not act as they expected him to do. When the killing-frenzy had taken them all, when the smell of warm blood had been so strong, so hypnotizing that even a human could not have driven them away, when the hungry jaws had sunk deep into soft throats, their leader had stopped them. He had forbidden them to continue the killing, and would only allow them to eat what they had already killed, instead of killing, and only eating the best parts of the prey, the parts that would give the most nourishment.
They did not understand, nor did they like it. But their leader was strong, and big, so none of the wolves dared to challenge him. Instead they obeyed. Now they were on their way back to their chosen lair, with meat to the two who had stayed behind. And, being wolves, they soon forgot, the memory of their leader's strange behaviour faded from their minds, like snow under the spring sun.
When the storm ended, the killing was discovered. The people in the village feared, for they saw the beginning of a new Wolf-Winter, where wolf and man would again fight for survival. Children were kept inside, even at daytime, and the men started to carry their spears again wherever they went, even if they were only visiting their neighbours.
Fifty years had passes since last Wolf-Winter, and few remembered it. But all had heard the stories; how Tamree had lost his five years old daughter to the wolves, and in revenge had slain the great black wolf that was the leader of the pack, and the village had driven the rest of the pack away with fire and iron.
The villagers had always feared the wolves. They were vicious, and the legends were full of stories where wolves killed both children and cattle. The men were not warriors, and they did not trust the hunters to kill the wolves. Some of the hunters were closer to the wilderness than to the village, and all the villagers had heard Ranjo's story of his son, one of the best hunters at his time, who had turned away from the village, and left them. He had later returned in the shape of a giant bear, killing sevaral of the villagers before the other hunters brought him down.
The pack leader was confused. He did things that seemed strange to the other wolves, but he could not explain. They did not understand why he had done as he had. He knew that if he had not stopped the killing, there would be no sheep left next time they needed it. Also, the less sheep the humans lost, the less likely they were to hunt down the pack.
He was not sure why he was different from the rest of the pack, nor did he remember when it had happened. But he understood that he did things that seemed strange to the others, so that he would have to watch out for challengers, even now.
It was dark, but suddenly the moon broke through the clouds. It was almost full again, and the packleader stopped to howl his feelings to it. He didn't understand this love for the bright, shining thing that hung there, out of reach. He just loved. And longed. And that too, was something the other wolves would not understand. Only his son, his cub, seemed to share his love for the moon, and he seemed to understand more than the other pack-members. But his son was young, and would probably not survive the winter. He hated the winter.
Some part of him hated the humans too, although the fear was greater. Until the humans came, the wolves were the lords of this forest, the wolves hunted, and there had been enough food for all. This was long before he was born, but it never occured to him to ask how he knew. He hated the humans for driving the food away with their noises, and stinking lairs. He hated them for killing wolves when they did not eat the meat. He hated their stinking villages, smelling of fire and iron and death, the villages that forced the wolves higher up into the mountains. And it seemed like this hatred would drive him insane.
Four days passed. The pack was hunting, though this time not for the easily killed sheep. The leader still remembered, and took the pack away from the village. The other wolves could remember easily killed food, and where to find it, but their leader insisted, and they obeyed.
They soon found the fresh tracks of a deer. They followed, and soon the chase made them forget.
The pack managed to bring the deer down, hampered, more than they, as it was by the deep snow, and this kept them away from the humans, for a while. They forgot, only a memory of easy prey, and warm blood was with them, in their dreams. But the leader did not forget, and the night after the deer was killed, he returned, alone.
The night was cold and clear. The full moon shone brightly down on the twenty-odd huts. But something about it seemed not right; it was as if an evil eye looked down on them, and the men whispered among themselves of shapechangers, and manhunters, and of demons.
The women too felt the tension in the air, and they kept the fire burning brighter then they would otherwise, to keep the demons away. Some of the smaller children cried in fear when they heard the first howl, and the men gripped their spears, but did not leave the safety of the huts. This was going to be a very long night.
The packleader looked down at the village. Here lived the hated humans, and he wanted to kill, tear, to destroy them, like they destroyed the wolves. In a flash of precognition, he saw what the wolves would come to, how their number would diminish, how they would be hunted down by humans, for their fur, and to dampen the humans' fear of the wolves.
He saw how the humans would hunt down and kill many of the great predators; for fear, so that in the end, the humans would truly rule the world.
Had he been human, he would have prayed now, for he felt a fear like he had never before. This fear was not for himself, nor for his pack; it was for the world, and for all who lived on it. And against all custom, he gave voice to his fear, and howled. And this too, was new to him. He had known fear before, the fear of a sharp hoof, or the teeth of a silent, stalking cat, but never had he felt fear for something he could not smell, could not smell, could not touch.
He did not know how long he stood there, before he entered that dream-world which he never saw in the waking hours. But suddenly he was somewhere else, and he knew that this was not real, and he was afraid, in yet another way. This time, it was the fear of something he did not understand. And then he realised that he was no longer alone. He looked up, and saw her, the She-Wolf. Silver-grey she was, clear against the dark hills. She called him, and he had no choice but to go to her.
When he reached her, he whimpered, baring his throat. But she looked at him, and he knew that he had no reason to fear her. Then he heard a voice inside his head, and with it came understanding, as it had never been before.
"I can see your fear, my little one, and I share it. But I fear for more than your pack, and your lives. So many packs are in danger, and not just the wolves. The great cats, the bears, and the humans too.
"Yes, my child. The humans have, more than any of my other children, the capacity for greatness. And so, they have also a great capacity for evil. The humans will be your greatest enemies, and your best allies, if you choose to walk the path I have set you on."
His hackles rose, the thought of humans as anything other than enemies forced a whimper from his throat. She touched his head gently, and he stopped before the whimper turned into a growl.
"Your pack, my dear, is lost. It will not survive the winter, but you knew that already." Yes, though only in that part of him that was not quite wolf. But it was the wolf in him that accepted, like it accepted all deaths.
"But for you, my child, you and your sisters and brothers, for you there may still be a way. It will be dangerous, and the humans will hate you, even more than they hate you now. But you wil have weapons to fight the forces that oppose me, and a greater understanding.
"You will be protectors of all my creatures, of all my children, even the humans. If you do not wish this burden, I will take it away again, to leave you like you were before. But I need you now, as I need all my children."
Understanding, and questions.
"Protectors? Will there be no more hunts? No more fresh meat and warm blood?" Uncertainty. Worry.
"Oh, my child, there will be hunts. But only to survive, to live. No hunts for fun, like the humans sometimes do. Only survival. Like you have always done."
And in a flash he saw what would be. He saw the great predators bow to the humans, but he saw a new breed arise. The Children of the Goddess. The Chosen. The Protectors. He saw the huntings and the killings, the fires, how the humans would hate and hunt them, how the children of the Chosen would be hunted, and tortured, and slain. And there would be humans among those hunted, humans among the Chosen, and the other humans, those dark ones that hated so much, they would hate the humans more than his own kind, more than any of the other Chosen. But he also saw that this was the only way left.
It was a very simplified version. A simpler picture made for one such as him. Behind it, he sensed something vast. A great conflict, but one was not yet able to comprehend. It would come, in time, if he lived that long. But now he was still wolf enough to accept, and not ask 'why?'. The 'why?' was a human thing, after all. He lifted his head and met the eyes of the Goddess.
Had he still been wolf, this would have been a challenge, but now he was more than wolf, and in his eyes was now resolve, courage, and acceptance.
"Let it be as you will. Let me join your new children," he thought at her, and he felt the understanding flow into him. What he was, how to use his powers, and what rules to follow. For there were rules, but they did not seem hard to follow, and so he lifted his head again, and howled, but this time only joy filled his voice, and a little sadness for what he had been and would never be again. But he was still, in the manner that mattered, a wolf, and so, the loss meant little. Regret for the cub who would never live to see another spring, for his mate, and for the rest of the pack. But it was the way of the nature, it could be a cruel mistress, and loss was part of their lives.
Then he was back on the hill. Looking down on the village, the lights, he could still smell the humans, their fear and hatred, and he started to walk down to them.
The women screamed as he flung the door open and entered. When the humans saw that he was, in shape, like them, they relaxed, although the men still looked at him with suspicion. He told them his story; he had been hunting, but the lack of prey had brought him further away from his home than before. And he had been lost, when he heard the wolf... It felt strange, that, to tell a story that was not true. One day, he would learn how to shape his words so there would be no lies, and he would never be able to lie as well again, but tonight, the Goddess was with him still. And so they believed him.
They wished him welcome, and gave him food and warmth, and he saw that the younger women looked at him, and he knew that his Goddess had chosen his shape well.
Arja looked at the stranger. He was handsome and exciting. Much more so than Brahen, the man who was to be her husband. His dark hair was longer than most men wore it, blue-grey eyes that saw more than most, and he was tall and strong. And he moved differently, as if he wasn't afraid of his own shadow.
She was not sure why he had feared the wolf, he did not seem like the kind that scare easily, and she thought him likely to go out again, and kill the wolf with his bare hands. A flash of romantic hope, maybe he had noticed her, and used the wolf as an excuse. But she knew that was stupid, and pushed the thought away from her. She was just a girl, and not even a pretty one.
She lowered her eyes when he caught her watching her; she knew she was being rude, and had earned a beating. But he just looked back at her without a word, and she felt herself blushing. She, who never blushed, and always knew what to say, how to act.
One of the women brought him food. It was hot, and smelled of burned meat, but the taste wasn't all unpleasant. He ate, and smiled to the woman, gently, hesitating. He wasn't yet used to the way humans bared their teeth when they wanted to be friendly, but it seemed to calm both the men and the women, and so, he too was content. For now.
Arja watched, trying to make herself as small as possible. She doubted that anybody would be sent away now, but still, this was men's business, and she was not really supposed to listen. The men started talking again. They had been discussing how to get rid of the wolves, and now they turned to the stranger. "You might have noticed the wolves," her father said. "They have come down from the mountains, and now we fear they will threaten our children and our sheep. They raided our pen a few days ago."
The stranger nodded. "They do that from time to time," he said. "Lack of food where they live force them down to the settlements."
The men looked at him. "So," Aryj's father said slowly. "You know about wolves, do you? How do you suggest we handle them? We were thinking of using poisoned meat." All of the men were watching him.
Arja too watched the stranger, though less openly. A chill crept down her back as she saw his posture change slightly. "Poison?" he whispered softly. "You want to poison my kin?" The last word drowned in a great roar, and terrified Arja wathced how the stranger's shape changed, and he became a horrible monster, with fur and teeth and claws, claws that tore her father's throat before he could even scream, and then there was only blood and death.
He knew he looked little like the wolf he had once been. The fur had the right colour, and his head was still something like that of a wolf, but he was far too big, for one, he was even bigger than a man, though smaller than a fullgrown brown bear. His voice was that of a wolf, though, snarling and growling, he could not manage to make those mewling sounds that the humans called language, not in this shape. But the rage was all human.
The wolf/man turned slowly. The men were dead now, and he knew that those who still lived would be no threat to him. He could hear the men from the other huts, and knew that he had only a few seconds to act. He was on his way out when he saw the girl, the one who somehow reminded him of his own cub. She had looked at him all night, and he felt something stir inside. Not quite sure why, he reached out and grabbed her, and fled out into the moonlight.
He could not return to the pack. He was no longer one of them. But neither was he like the humans from the villages, who did not dare to follow him into the night, even to rescue their lost cub. A wolf would have followed, even if it had dared do nothing, it would have stalked the thief, watched, and waited. Finally he stopped and put her down. She was looking at him with big terrified eyes, reminding him so of the smallest of his own cubs, the one who had been afraid of everything. He had not lived more than a few weeks. Suddenly he felt sorry for her, and took the shape he thought she would be most comfortable with.
The girl cried out when he reached out to her, and he stopped. Suddenly he realized what he had done. He had killed her father and her brothers, and carried her away from her home. No wonder she was scared. But then again, he felt this strange stirring inside, and he wanted her to be happy, to smile at him again.
"I am sorry," he said. It was bad, he was not so good with words yet, but it was the best he could do. And it was a beginning.