WOLF CODE : A SHELTERING WILDERNESS
Copyright © 2015 by Chandler Brett
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner in any media without the written permission of the publisher.
1 WHITE WOLF
Kan awoke with one thought—he had to find her.
Pushing off cold rock, he stood and focused on the valley ahead. A labyrinth of snow-dusted trees stretched in all directions. Towering pines, spruces, and firs dominated skeletal oaks, birches, and maples, the multitude surrendering ground only to a great river snaking into a lavender horizon. Monstrous gray mountains, tipped in winter white, guarded the valley’s boundaries on the far left and right. As thick clouds invaded the sky and ushered in an early twilight, a biting wind drove him back. Was there any hope he could find her in that wilderness?
Breathing in deeply, the black wolf approached the edge of the overlook, checked the distance to the ground below, circled in place, and finally jumped. The rush of the fall ended when he broke through icy crust into softer, engulfing snow below. He kicked his legs, twisted, and pulled himself up out of the hole. Once he regained his footing, he shook himself and settled into a steady trot, following the slope of the hill down to the forest line. The movement felt good; it helped to shake loose the stiffness in his legs. In little time he came to the edge of the trees, a place where several branches jutted up out of the snow like misshapen claws.
When he spotted a familiar spruce, Kan ran to it, pushed past the low-lying branches, and began to smell the base of the trunk. The scent was too weak. Whining, he clawed to clear away the snow and ice, and after he had burrowed several inches, he thrust his snout deeper. Yes, this was the marker, the border of their territory; he had not been mistaken. The smells sparked memories of running with his mate, under the evergreens, past streams, sharing in the hunt, enjoying the freedom of the mountain woods.
Yet something was wrong; the scents were thinner than he had expected. Members of the pack had not passed this way in many days, perhaps weeks. What did this mean? What had disrupted the pack’s patrol? What kept them away? He whined again, scratched at his trench in the snow, and then marked the spruce trunk with his own scent. Though there were advantages in leaving no signs of his passage—avoiding unwanted trackers who might cause trouble for him—he placed his marker in the slim chance she might circle past him in the woods, so that she could follow his scent if necessary.
Jumping away from the spruce, he paused to examine the woods before him. Branches above creaked under the weight of accumulating snow, and shadows obscured the path ahead. A heavy stillness rested beneath the trees. Why had the pack retreated? Were they in danger? Was she okay? With growing concern he dashed forward.
Tracking while it was snowing was difficult; the wind, moisture, and white blanket would cover, dampen, and disperse scents. With his snout low to the ground, breathing in the frosty air, Kan followed as best he could, relying as much on familiarity of place and routine as on the smells he could differentiate. After several minutes he spotted the pack’s next marker at the base of a Korean pine, sniffed it, and discovered that it was just as neglected as the first. Lifting his head, he listened closely. There was little sound in the woods, most of the animals apparently having migrated or gone into hibernation. Kan continued onward, studying the terrain for any signs that could help him understand the neglected markers or give him a clue to her present location.
His mind flashed with possibilities; he wondered what it would be like if another wolf from the pack found him first. It would be a gamble whether he would find a friendly greeting or a fight, for pack politics could have changed while he was away. Even if she were there to soften the tension by being the first to approach him, the first to nuzzle in close, to sniff him, to bite playfully, there still might be a male who decided to take advantage of the moment to make a move to exert dominance over him. Leaving the pack for any extended time created an uncertain return, and if she were not there—he did not want to think of that—but if she were not there, then there would be an even greater chance he would find conflict.
He made good time as darkness descended, but an unexpected scent suddenly brought him to a stop. Lifting his snout, he breathed in the odor and studied it; there was now another reason to be cautious. He quickly scanned the forest around him, snow dominating the landscape even under the trees, only the tips of some leafless twigs peeking out. Taking a few cautious steps forward, he focused on the trees nearby and found what he was expecting, long, deep gouges a few feet up one nearby pine, the scratch marks of a tiger. First, the size of them troubled him—he had never seen gouges that large—yet as he studied them, he began to find their location equally disturbing.
The last few times Kan ran with the pack, they had come on signs of a tiger possibly encroaching on the farthest edges of their land. The scents were strange since tigers and leopards normally kept to themselves, offering no real threat to the wolf pack, but this marker, deep in wolf territory, now gave testimony that a large tiger was hunting on land the pack patrolled. Certainly the pack would have sighted this competing predator in the middle of their woods—that had to explain the neglected markers Kan had found earlier. What drove this tiger, though, into open competition with the wolves? Scarcity of prey, no doubt. A starving tiger, particularly one of this apparent size, became a significant problem for the wolves. The pack would be in danger not only in the loss of food, but wolves traveling alone through the forest, as he now was, could become this predator’s next meal.
A crunching sound from behind startled him. Quickly he turned and scanned; there was something large moving a distance away behind several trees. Kan felt the presence of another. Reacting, he growled, bared his teeth, and crouched, ready to defend himself. At first all became still, save for one of the creaking branches above, but then he caught sight of movement between the branches several leaps away, a dark form raising its antlered head. For a moment its eyes locked, frozen in panic, with Kan’s, the uneasy communion between predator and prey. When instinct took over, the elk finally kicked and dashed away in the other direction, leaving behind a mist of snow and the scent of fear drifting in the wind.
Resisting the temptation to give chase, holding firmly to his purpose, Kan relaxed a little. As he straightened, he found himself, out of habit, throwing his head back into a howl, announcing to his pack the sighting of prey. When only silence followed, he regretted not controlling the impulse. Was his pack anywhere near enough to hear the signal? The tiger certainly heard it and now knew a wolf walked in the woods. Would the call bring the beast down upon him? The lone howl would reveal he traveled alone. No hungry tiger would pass up such an advantage in a hunt.
Kan had to pick up his pace. Resuming his search for the next marker, hoping he was moving away from, not toward, the tiger, he jogged faster, his paws shifting rhythmically through the snow. The ground sloped up for several yards and then finally gave way to a large icy rock overlooking a lower bed cut out by a river, the one Kan had seen earlier from a distance. At the river’s edge, the view opened up to the left and the right. Though the pack smell was stronger, it was not as powerful as he had expected, and now the snow was falling harder, frosting his muzzle.
Strangely, there was the faint scent of something else on the air. What was that? He pushed forward, his desire to catch up with his packmates running strong. As he had done many times before, Kan dropped from the rock down to the bed several feet below with the intention of following the river along to where he expected to find his pack. This time, though, as his paws broke the fresh snow, he caught movement in the corner of his right eye and heard a peculiar growling increasing in pitch and volume as he turned.
At the edge of the thick darkness of the river-worn alcove, directly under the rock ledge from which he had leaped, lay some sort of carcass, well-scavenged, ribcage exposed, and behind it, just visible, a squat form squirmed in the shadows. Kan had barely identified it when a mass of black fur, led by a tight ball of a head, jaw open and teeth forward, shot out at him, charging through the snow. Before Kan could flee in the other direction, the wolverine had knocked him back, coming up under him, clamping sharp teeth on his left side.
Kan shifted his weight, just barely holding his balance against the wolverine. He struggled to push the attacker off, but it would not let go; instead, it wrapped its arms around his body, scraping and digging with its claws. Kan jumped and turned, trying to shake himself free, but the wolverine was closer to the ground, had better footing, and reaped the benefits of first sighting. Unable to escape the wolverine’s hold, Kan felt one of the attacker’s teeth finally break into his side; he yelped in spite of himself.
The pain brought new effort, and Kan reached and bit toward the wolverine’s snout. The first time he missed, filling his mouth with snow, but the second time he hit the mark. The wolverine finally lost his grip, and Kan was able to spring free. At the moment when he thought he would escape, though, Kan felt a sharp pain clamp down on his back left leg. He whipped his head back to see the wolverine’s teeth deep in his leg, blood clumping around its mouth and running down into the snow.
Now fueled by anger and pain, Kan twisted to bite down on the back of the wolverine’s neck. It took several tries to get a good grip on the wriggling form beneath, but he eventually found it. Even though he had gained a commanding hold on the wolverine and was biting down with some force, his stubborn opponent refused to let go of his leg, so Kan shook his head and bit harder, finally feeling his teeth tearing into some flesh beyond the ball of fur in his mouth. The wolverine finally let go of his leg, but then rolled and dug its claws into Kan’s chest. With the release of his leg, trying to minimize the wounds from this new attack, Kan pushed off, first slipping, then getting just enough purchase from the rocks beneath the snow to clear the reach of the wolverine. Without looking back, he ran, splashing across the river.
Only on the other side did Kan confirm that the incensed animal was not following. Obviously hurt, the wolverine stood dazed, yet still growling, teeth bared in a horrible grimace, daring him to come back. They stood a moment glaring at each other until the wolverine was finally satisfied and turned to retreat into the darkness. Only the broken ribs of the stripped carcass remained in view.
Kan did not like the thought of being bested by this wolverine—what would his packmates think? He was not interested in the carcass and would have preferred avoiding the fight altogether. What had it accomplished? It was so stupid. He was soaking and chilled now, cuts on his chest and side, and a long torn stretch on his leg, which he sniffed and licked despite the pain. It was going to be a problem, but he did not have time to rest. If he was going to find her, he had to press on.
After taking a drink from the cold water, still wary of the wolverine, Kan resumed his quest, following the bed alongside the river, stepping around the icy rocks, now limping to take as much pressure off the bad leg as possible. He began to worry. The smell of blood from his wound would announce his presence sooner than he would have liked, and it made him an even easier target for the Amur tiger roaming this forest. It also would complicate the politics of his return to the pack. If another wolf saw a weakness, then there was certain to be a challenge. Trying to counter these anxieties, he focused on finding the gait that was the least painful, yet could cover the most ground.
The flow of the river was strangely comforting in the darkness; it spawned memories of a happier time. In the summer he would come here with her to play, to cool down, splashing in the water at the river’s edge. On the first run, he would chase her up the bank, nip at her tail, twist, and then she would chase him back down. In the winter they were more cautious about getting wet. With this thought he noted the irony of the chill on his chest and legs, wet from his run from the wolverine. She would laugh at him for his sloppiness.
He finally sensed he was nearing his destination—that gave him strength—yet he did not hear the howls and the barks he associated with this space. Surely the pack would have sensed his presence by now, two or three of them at least, bounding down, scouting ahead to be first to greet him. No one came, however. What was wrong? He climbed out of the riverbed, hobbled his way up over the icy rocks, past several more trees, and finally entered a familiar clearing. The pack’s scent was strong around him, but a quick scan revealed that no wolves currently found shelter there. Kan stood alone in the snow, tired, confused, his leg throbbing.
Sniffing about, he discovered the pack scents were indeed weaker, days old now. Differentiating the scents, Kan identified the alpha male and female, as well as several mid-ranked males and females, and the omegas at the bottom; he did not linger over any of these. He was searching for hers. When he eventually did find it, he breathed it in deeply, some of his anxiety fading. For a moment he was comforted with a vision of Lana, milling among the others in the pack; the peacemaker, the soul of the tribe, she moved with grace, wisdom, and beauty. In the next moment, though, the scent drifted, and Kan shook off the dream, for it could not satisfy. He wanted to see her in front of him now, her amber eyes glowing, her fur thickened for the winter. He wanted to feel the captivating mystery of her presence. Above all he wanted to know she was safe.
Why was she not there? Why had the pack abandoned this spot? What would have caused them to leave? He should have picked up on the signs, the neglected territory markers, the scratch marks of the tiger, the scavenging wolverine—the pack would have allowed none of these when it was running strong. Where did they go? Frustrated, looking for some answer, Kan threw back his head and howled, his voice sounding loud and long in the night sky. When he needed a breath, he stopped to listen, but again there was no reply. Releasing the pain in his leg, the desperation of his search, and the concern over the absent pack, he howled again and again.
When no answering call echoed back, he felt the urge to drop into the snow, to give up. His quest had failed. All he had found so far this evening was a spooked elk, an inhospitable wolverine, and the ghost of a tiger. All he could show for his effort was a mangled leg and several scratch marks on his chest. He needed to rest.
But he had not come this far to stop now. She needed him, so fighting against the impulse to give in, he breathed her scent again and set to work inspecting all corners of the site, carefully distinguishing the directions of the most recent markers. He eventually determined the pack had moved, apparently as a group, toward the south. He left his own scent markers in the abandoned camp, next to hers, and took off after the southern trail, relying more on his nose than his eyes in the dark night.
At least, he thought, the snow has dropped off. Only an occasional flake now drifted in front of him. While tracking was a little easier, he still had to contend with his leg, which was burning now despite the cold. He would have to take a break, after hobbling for some distance, and try to lick his wound. Fortunately, the forest seemed rather quiet. Quick shadows occasionally did appear and disappear, but he did not have time nor the desire to identify them.
Coming on a short spruce, he inspected its trunk and found a marker with a scent more acrid—at last, one that was fresher. He had found his pack’s trail. After lifting his head and howling, he listened as his call faded into the night. Was he correct? Were they nearby? He searched the silence for a hint of a response, the night air icy on his muzzle. A returning howl immediately surprised him. For a moment he doubted, but then another voice followed and then another. Although the pack was still miles away, Kan yipped in excitement.
Listening closely, he sought to identify the voices. The first howl had to belong to Danuwa. Of course, he would be in the scouting party. How strong had Danuwa become in his absence? How would Danuwa receive him? Much would depend on who else traveled in the party. Who were the others? Those voices belonged to Noya and Sasa, the twins, from the same litter as Danuwa, but of radically different temperament. Kan was glad to hear them, for they in the past had been close to his beloved, running with her on many hunts. And then there were two other howls mixed in. Even though Kan could recognize both of them as young males, he could not identify them specifically; they were not familiar enough—they had to be the pups from the litter born last spring. That made only five total, a small group from the pack. Where were the others?
Kan continued to search for Lana’s howl among the others, but when he still could not locate it, fear crept in. Why was she not calling? Where was she? Was she hurt? Abandoned? Or was she truly gone as he feared? And how was he going to face these others, wounded, if she were no longer running with them? For one uncertain moment, he did not know what to do—and then he committed. For good or ill, he was going to find them. If she is gone, he thought, then let them turn on me.
Though in pain, and anxious about how his former packmates would receive him, Kan limped on, occasionally stumbling. This part of his journey was punctuated by occasional calls, that with time grew closer. As the five wolves approached, he learned from their howling that Danuwa was in the lead, and that the two other male voices were close to him. Noya and Sasa also were running nearby. Kan began to hope they would be able to temper their brother as they had sometimes done before. The tenor of Danuwa’s voice troubled him, and when it sounded obviously near, Kan paused to lick his leg again to lessen the smell of blood with saliva. There could be trouble, and he must not appear weak before the patrol.
As the scent in the air confirmed Danuwa was near, Kan remembered an earlier time when Etsi, the mother of the pack, had given birth to a large litter of seven pups. Even when she had lost two of them, the five remaining had become a challenge to the seven adult wolves. Each adult, including Kan and Lana, had been required to help. From the beginning Danuwa had stood apart from his brothers and sisters. He was a troublemaker even then, Kan thought.
One day stood out in Kan’s memory. Several in the pack were chasing the pups back and forth through a field of tall, golden grass. While he was still trying to decide whether to join, Danuwa had broken off from the others to chase and nip at him. It was all part of the game, but when he thought Danuwa’s bites were getting too intense, Kan had rolled the presumptuous pup onto his side. Instead of turning his belly up as the other pups in the litter were doing, Danuwa growled and bit up at Kan’s neck. Not wanting to be a part of this challenge, Kan opened his mouth wide and clamped down on Danuwa’s muzzle. He held the pup in place, but the growls continued. Finally Kan gave up, released him, and ran over to the others, hoping someone else would distract him. The ploy worked, for the alpha male, the leader of the pack, had jumped on Danuwa and put him in his place.
Now in the chill of night, Kan looked for a place to greet the wolves who approached; he wanted as much an advantage as he could get. As soon as he found a tree that had fallen partially to the ground, another tree holding it up at an angle, he stepped carefully along its trunk toward a high perch where he could see who was coming first. It was not long after he was in place that he spotted a swift shadow bounding through the distant snow. Stealth is not on his mind, Kan thought. He intends to intimidate.
Several trees away, the shadow slowed, and Kan knew the other wolf had spotted him. A low, guttural rumble, not yet a growl, sounded as the shadow continued moving toward him. In the dim light, the darker fur of Danuwa’s undercoat, snout, and eyes blended into the darkness, leaving visible only the lighter fur of Danuwa’s exterior coat in a mask eerily resembling a skull.
Two other shadows, smaller than Danuwa’s, came trotting up behind him, stopping before they got within two lengths of him. While keeping his eye on Danuwa’s approach, Kan breathed in the scents of these two males and was finally able to identify them as the pups from Etsi’s last litter. They had gotten bigger since Kan had seen them last, and he wondered how loyal they were to Danuwa. This was not the welcome he had wanted.
Danuwa chose not to approach Kan face on, but to head toward the base of the tree. Following Danuwa step for step, Kan twisted slowly to the point where he was looking down the length of the tree at Danuwa. Kan could see his eyes now, could see the nervous energy and the cold ambition.
At this moment the two females, Noya and Sasa, emerged from the forest shadows. Although they warily kept their distance, they whimpered restrained greetings and wagged their tails. Danuwa did stop a moment to look them over before he placed a paw on the tree. If the encounter went badly, maybe the sisters would be able to keep the three males from killing him.
He had to put up a good front. Despite the pain that wagging his tail brought to his leg, he tried to stand tall for this inspection, demanding to be greeted as an equal. Danuwa confidently walked over Kan’s paw marks in the snow along the trunk and came to stand in front of him. Kan bowed in greeting, lowering his head to his front paws, yet keeping his eyes looking forward. Danuwa brushed up against him, mouth open, sniffing him—here was the situation that Kan had dreaded. Danuwa had approached tail wagging, but when he located Kan’s leg wound, he started to growl. Kan immediately tensed, and in a heartbeat, felt the masked wolf’s paw strike his flank. He tried to keep his balance, but his bad leg gave way, and he stumbled sideways, hit the trunk below him at the wrong angle, and rolled off, falling to the ground below.
As he tried to catch his breath and stand at the same time, Kan panicked and was not able to get out of the way quickly enough before Danuwa jumped down on him, pinning him to the ground. As he breathed in snow, Kan heard the growls of the other males nearby.
Here was the test; he had only a moment. Even with Danuwa’s weight pressing on his shoulders, Kan managed to push off with his front legs and twist out of the hold, leaping in the direction away from the other two approaching wolves. He had to use his wounded leg in the process and did not get as much distance as he wanted. He knew the others would be on him soon. Cutting sharply, he managed to get himself mostly turned around in time to face the charging Danuwa, who hit him and sent them both rolling, thrashing legs entangled, teeth gnashing wildly. Kan found himself on the defensive, trying his best to keep his opponent’s jaws away from his throat.
One lucky turn, and he was able to grab Danuwa’s ear, producing a yipe that kept the other two males at bay. Only temporarily, he knew. Danuwa pulled free and stood, head lowered, hackles raised, growling low. Just able to get to his feet, Kan crouched in answer, meeting his opponent’s stare. He had to end this quickly, or he would fall to the order of the pack.
Danuwa, though, with something to prove, charged again, hitting him hard. Kan managed to stay standing this time, but his opponent knew to press his attack, causing him to pivot onto his bad leg. He fell again, Danuwa biting down on his shoulder and then the back of his neck. When he tried to force himself up, Danuwa held him. Kan tried to twist free and failed again. He was losing his will; he felt darkness closing in. He did not want to surrender, but the snow was frigid on his chest.
Suddenly a heavy jolt from above pushed the pressing weight off him. Despite the burn where his opponent’s teeth raked the back of his neck, he felt some strength return. A familiar scent in the air filled him with hope, and he stood to see another wolf standing over his enemy, her mouth closed over Danuwa’s muzzle, the moonlight glimmering on her fur, her growl demanding attention. Here she finally was, Lana, his white wolf. He wanted to rush to her side, but instead found himself transfixed by her display of authority.
Danuwa struggled beneath her and was finally able to jerk free and stand. He glared back at the white wolf, and the other two females, who had joined her, before he cut short a growl, shook himself, and shoved the smallest male to the ground as he finally trotted away.
Lana turned around and walked toward Kan. When her muzzle touched his, the tightness in his shoulders eased. Dropping back into the snow, he felt her nuzzling in, licking his face and ears. Was she really there?
The other two females finally approached too, playfully nipping at him, joyfully barking. They offered a quick greeting and then retreated. He was back with the pack.
But he was too tired to care, and his leg hurt. Although he wanted to run with his mate, he closed his eyes and felt his breath heavy. He was aware someone licked his wounds.
Her voice fell softly on his ear. I’m glad you’re back, Kanati. I’m glad you found me.
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