The rain that fell intermittently upon the Steep Forest was fine, almost like mist, the kind you ignore until, before you know it, has soaked you to the bone. It reflected the moonlight and gently bathed the leaves on the trees and the mosses on the rocks, which drank eagerly from that early autumn nighttime drizzle. Summer had been dry and all the creatures of the forest were grateful for the newly arrived wetness.
It fell also, almost like a caress, over Nadja's mottled fur, down in the undergrowth. The she-wolf's white, gray and reddish spotted coat provided perfect camouflage under the shadows of the trees, swaying gently in the breeze. What really concealed Nadja was the humidity in the atmosphere, which trapped and muffled tracks, but hiding wasn't something she was worried about yet.
She stepped carefully, with silent paws on the leaf bed, but she did so out of respect for the forest and its song, and the other creatures around her. She felt safe in the heart of her home, though her steps were leading her towards the border, down the mountain, where great dangers would lurk. But in that instant, during those moments, she was the only predator in the forest, and therefore it was her responsibility to guard its peace and silence.
She took a deep breath and the rain-dampened scents surrounded her. Dozens of faint traces of lesser creatures crossed here and there, some fresh, and most healthy. The forest was recovering from a scorching summer, she thought to herself contentedly, and told herself there would be good hunting soon. It would be needed, for the pack's reserves were low, and winter would come soon and be harsh. But she wasn't there on a hunting mission. Not that night.
That night was a patrol night. A simple mission entrusted by Daichi himself: to check the marks of the Steep Forest, to make sure that there had been no intruders in the last few days and to renew the scent signs. The usual thing for such missions was to send two people together, but the pack was too busy replenishing food supplies now that the prey were returning. It was the same reason they hadn't patrolled the border with Stormcloud territory for so many days. So Nadja was walking alone down the mountain towards the east, where the creek and the beginning of the pine forest served as a natural border with the Cloudy Forest.
She slowed her pace when she could hear the rushing of the water. Her hearing was remarkably keen, so that still meant she was quite a distance away, but there were trackers with the same or superior talent as her living in the woods on the other side of the stream, and she didn't want to draw their attention. She felt the trees nearby tighten around her, as if seeking to give her a sheltering and concealing shadow, and she thanked them in a short, silent prayer. She ducked her head to sniff the damp ground, but her ears gave away her alertness.
She approached the first scent marks, conscientiously scratched and rubbed logs that gave off a strong, if somewhat old, Rainwind scent. She scratched conscientiously at them to leave her own trace. There was no sign of enemy presence, but there was still some distance to the border, so she wasn't finished.
From there the scent marks became more common, and Nadja took her time to renew all the ones she encountered on her way. She even detoured on more than one occasion to reach one, so that her route drew a series of erratic curves until she could see the stream beyond the trees. She approached it with extreme care, not making the slightest noise and on the lookout for any suspicious smells or sounds, but after a few seconds of vigilance without perceiving anything she took a few licks of cold water and scratched her head and neck on a nearby tree. She could smell Stormcloud marks beyond, in the first pines of the Cloudy Forest on the other side of the strip of no-man's land between the two masses of trees, but there was no sign of them having crossed it. She relaxed a little.
She began to walk her side of the border towards the south, going over the markings and sniffing out anything that caught her eye. She knew how important her mission was, but she had never been very good at staying focused. She would travel some distance, get distracted by something and quickly plant her ears back on alert. Anyway, it was good for her to have something to do alone, away from Hearth, accompanied only by the rain and the breeze in the leaves. There she could breathe without feeling everyone's gazes riveted on her and especially on Dacko, as if expecting them at any moment to... do what? What did they all expect of them?
She was well aware of how delicate her situation was, as the daughter of an overthrown pack leader, and how it was not even close to the precarious balance in which Dacko, who had been his heir, existed. She felt somewhat guilty for having accepted the task while her brother remained locked up in Hearth, awaiting a chance to prove that he was still loyal to the pack even if it was led by the man who had killed her father, but dismissed the thought with a snort.
He was my father too, she thought bitterly. And Dacko had been robbed of his inheritance, but he was a grown man who would prove his loyalty when given the chance. He wouldn't be the first overthrown prince to accept his new place in the pack and be recognized as a valued member. The pack had Daichi's promotion all too fresh, only a moon and a half had passed, but they would get used to it. Nadja, on the other hand, was almost eighteen and was running out of time to get her adult name. She needed this kind of assignments more urgently, she told herself, because Daichi was much stricter than Jakharo with the names he bestowed. And Jakharo had been so, but in a very different way.
What seemed like an eternity ago, when she was fifteen, not long after Dacko had earned his name, she had sorrowfully asked her father if she would ever get one, even if she couldn't fight or run much and was much weaker than her siblings. Jakharo had comforted her:
"Fighting and running are not the only ways to forge your name, Nadders," he had told her, "and you don't have less strength than Dacko or Heko, you are just different. You have strength of spirit, of heart, and much more than them. You are brave, you are loyal and one of the smartest wolves I have, and those qualities will give you your name one day."
"When?" she had asked, impatiently.
Jakharo's laughter had been warm and comforting.
"In due time, my child," he had squeezed her shoulder affectionately. "Your name will come to me when the time is right; it will tell me when to give it to you. False names are worthless. When your name comes to you you will be glad you waited for it. There is no dishonor on it happening at eighteen, twenty, or thirty," he had assured her.
For him, who had been a Rain Heart, that was easy to say, but Nadja had taken him at his word. However, now, almost two years later, she remembered those moments with nostalgia and bitterness: in Jakharo's pack it would not have been a dishonor to receive her name at the age of thirty, but in Daichi's it would. And Daichi wouldn't give names to the force of the spirit, whatever that meant.
She couldn'trisk her already complicated position in the new pack, she thought, and a bramble of anxiety clawed at her chest from within. She struggled to control it, stopping for a moment to breathe. Daichi himself had charged her with this mission, she told herself, and this was an opportunity. If she proved loyal, if she proved useful, she would have his name and secure her place in the pack. She would never regain her former status, but she could... What was that?
She had gotten distracted, but her senses were picking up something now. She had walked further south than she thought, and was close to the corner of the territory, and she sensed something strange in the atmosphere. It was as if the whole forest was warning her of some danger she couldn't see, as if it were silently shouting at her. Carefully, she approached the next mark, an old dead tree stump, and sniffed at it. And she froze. There was a trail, and it was very fresh.
A shiver ran through her, and it took all her willpower not to move in the slightest. With all the feigned calm and disguise she could summon, she looked around. The stump was at the bottom of an embankment, and thick bushes covered her vision at the top. The smell of Stormcloud was fresh, thick, strong, and impregnated everything. It was the ideal place and time for an ambush.
Run, said a voice in her mind.
Her paws seemed to move of their own accord as, kicking up a bunch of wet dirt, she bolted north, up the mountain into the heart of the Steep Forest. She heard a rustling of leaves behind her, and fangs tried to cling to her back. They failed to grab hold of her, fortunately, and a wolf she dared not turn to look at could only tear off a patch of spotted fur. It hurt, and Nadja could smell the blood flowing from her wound, but she redoubled her efforts to escape. She heard behind her the footsteps of two... no, at least three pursuers. Very close, closer and closer....
Soon her chest began to burn. She forced her paws as hard as she could, forced them to run faster than ever, letting her instinct take her through the hidden paths of the forest that her body knew, but the hunters did not. With her heart pounding in her ears, Nadja ran for her life. She had to get to the Hearth: there were always patrols close by. Well-trained warriors who would help her, and scare off and hunt down her pursuers. She was confident of that, at least, because her knowledge of the forest was the only thing that was delaying the moment when they would catch her. And when her body failed, as she knew it would... that wouldn't be enough.
How had that happened? Why were those warriors in her territory, on the embankment, lying in wait? Were they waiting for a patrol to ambush it? It had been days since they had sent one! Had they camped there? Was it a coincidence that they had set that trap coinciding with her approach? And why would they do such a thing? Stormclouds had always been feisty and border skirmishes were common, but they were at peace! Winter was coming! No pack wanted to to have seriously wounded hunters in winter! It was no time for fighting. That should have been a routine patrol and....
A surge of pain shot through her as her hind legs hit the ground. Her body had failed. With a howl of pain, she forced herself to keep running despite the agony exploding inside her with each stride, but she couldn't keep up. A wolf as black as the night that surrounded them and much larger than Nadja caught up with her, and stared into her with a pair of yellow eyes in which she could have sworn there was pity. Again, jaws lunged at her back, but this time its grip was firm and Nadja found herself dragged several bodies across the forest floor, with a huge brown male pinning her firmly to the ground. His eyes were green and wild, his muzzle was covered with scars and he showed a distinctive broken fang. Her soul fell at her feet. She recognized him: Yawö Stone Skin, of the Stormclouds, the most terrifying warrior in the Valley second to the White Dread.
He shook her off without any trouble, as if she weighed no more than a puppy, and released her. The other hunters had already surrounded her, but Nadja struggled to get up; her legs trembled and a trickle of blood dripped down her side from the wound on her back. She was in pain again when she touched the ground with her right hind leg, and she couldn't put her weight on it, so her balance was even more precarious.
"Kainan, get her," Yawö ordered. Nothing had come out of his throat, since wolves had no vocal cords, but that did not make their language any less complex. There were signals in the ears, in the tail, in the position of the head, in the smell and in dozens of gestures and noises with infinite combinations, each wolf with its own voice. Altogether, it was enough to send messages that had nothing to envy in complexity to human words. Nadja's mind collected all the signals, many of which she did not consciously perceive, and transformed them into a voice that she listened to almost as if she were hearing it. It was an abstract, subjective language, more precise the more you knew the speaker, and there was a chance that the receiver might have understood a slightly different message from her.
Kainan turned out to be the black wolf with yellow eyes. That his name did not ring a bell was a sign of inexperience; he was young, with few battle marks and quite a bit smaller than Gorvun, though still larger than Nadja and, as she judged when the Stormcloud dumped its full weight on her, much stronger.
There were two other warriors; Nadja could sense them, she could smell them, but pinned on her side as she was, with Kainan's breath on her throat, they did not enter her range of vision.She tried to calculate how far she was from the Hearth. She had howled in pain shortly before she was captured, had she been loud enough to attract the attention of a patrol? If there was anyone close enough, they would have recognized her even if they didn't fully understand the message. With her paw pulsing with pain and her vision somewhat blurred from the blows, she couldn't get her bearings, but something told her, deep in her heart, that she had failed. She was going to die there.
"What is your name? I don't know you," asked Gorvun. His voice was rough, coarse and impatient. He had circled around her to position himself where she could see him well and sat down.
Nadja cursed to herself, but custom demanded that she introduce herself, even to enemies, even (or perhaps especially) to the one who was about to kill her.
"My name is Nadja, daughter of Nuva Misty Step, of the Rainwinds," she said quickly, and waited, looking at the brown wolf, though not in the eyes. The storm clouds were bellicose and had after all attacked her, but they would at least return that courtesy, wouldn't they?
For a few long seconds, it looked like they weren't going to. Then the hunter nodded slightly.
"I am Gorvun Stone Skin, son of Gorvan Eagle Eye. My men are Zorn Swift Paw, son of Tharod Long Leap; Gavn Gray Flash, son of Gorvan Eagle Eye... and Kainan". That got Nadja's attention. An unnamed one, like her? "Of the Stormclouds, evidently. And I think you're lying to me, girl. Jakharo sired no female in his mate. Unless...
He approached and sniffed her. Feeling invaded, Nadja tensed, defensively.
"You're that pup he found ," he said, amused. He was too close, and a low growl made its way down Nadja's throat. An instinctive warning, albeit useless in that situation where she was no threat. However, the brown wolf pulled away from her and sat back down. "I've heard of you. And as far as I know, they should've left you where they found you."
She snorted. Did he think he could hurt her with that? That it was some kind of sensitive subject? Nadja knew whose daughter she was. He wouldn't hurt her by insulting her real parents or the circumstances of her birth.
"What are you doing in my pack's territory?" she snarled with a flick of her tail. She sensed the black wolf holding her back loosen his grip a little, probably unknowingly.
"The White Dread is thinking of expanding ours," Gorvun explained nonchalantly. "It's a nice, quiet forest - we've been waiting for weeks for someone to show up and talk to us! Honestly, the safety measures of Rainwinds disappoint me. It's as if Daichi doesn't care..."
He seemed to be waiting for an answer, but Nadja didn't know what to say, so she remained still. That seemed to annoy him, because he snorted and stood up.
"The point, kid, is that your leader promised us something and hasn't given it to us. So now I need you to remind him on our behalf. Don't look like that, we're not going to kill you, we're not savages."
She doubted that, but then the black wolf got off her, and nothing happened to her as she struggled to her feet. Her injured leg protested, but Nadja made an effort not to give a totally pitiful impression. She raised her head proudly, almost in defiance, in spite of the fear that was sweeping through her.
"And then you will go back to the Cloudy Forest?"
Gorvun showed her the equivalent of a smile that sent a shiver down her spine.
"When you get home, go to your leader. Tell him the White Dread wants his end of the deal."Nadja's head was spinning trying to figure out what deal the hunter was referring to, or maybe it was because it had taken a remarkable hit. In any case, she spent a few moments unable to move, before her body decided on its own to slowly retreat back towards the forest, towards the top of the mountain, all the while keeping her eyes on the wolves as if they were going to change their minds at any moment. However, she did not notice that the young black wolf had disappeared.
He had almost reached the bushes when the huge brown wolf flapped his ears.
"Wait a moment," he said, serious but with an underlying tone of amusement that sent another shiver down Nadja's spine. She knew she should flee, run away, everything around her screamed at her that she was in danger, but she was unable to move. "I said I wouldn't kill you, but we have a reputation to uphold, you know? Word can't spread that the White Terror hunters have gone soft. Don't worry, you'll live to deliver your message."
The three wolves, all bigger than her, all more experienced and all much, much stronger, surrounded her. Nadja's heart threatened to burst. She knew what was going to happen an instant before Gorvun said it, in a growl so low it sounded like a purr:
"Well thought out, I think your dead boy will do as a message."
Nadja raised her nose to the night sky and howled.
It lasted only an instant; the hunter's fangs, like a flash across her throat, silenced her.