Dacko was awakened by a shiver.
For a few seconds, he was only aware of the agitated sound of his breathing and the feeling of panic that slowly faded from his chest after hitting him with the force of a fist. He wondered if he had had a nightmare, the kind that fades from memory upon awakening, and snuggled further under the blankets that covered him up to his chin. Despite the arrival of autumn, the summer heat had not yet left the Valley, but Dacko had not yet been left by the cold that had awakened him. He tried to go back to sleep, curling up even more in his bed and closing his eyes tightly, without any success. After a few moments he assumed defeat with a sigh and sat up still wrapped in the warm furs.
His home was small and more or less squared, occupied for a quarter by the round bed dug out of the ground and lined with furs. A few steps away from the bed, in the center, was the hearth hole, in which several pieces of firewood had been lying intact and perfectly arranged in a pyramid shape for days. He had a cooking structure too, which rested against the wall next to the bed, unused for as long as the fire. At the back, in front of Dacko, dug into the rock were storage spaces filled with baskets and vases covered in dust. On the ground lay his latest project, a shapeless mass of dried clay and a handful of abandoned tools. A step had been extracted from the rock, now occupied by several pairs of winter shoes, and carved wooden shelves of clothing had been placed along the left wall. The only window, on the left wall, was small and round, covered by a worn leather parapet. From a natural hook in the rock hung a sturdy leather harness; in one of its pockets was hidden the metal blade of a knife.
Dacko stood up, dropping the warm furs on the bed, except for one which he wrapped around his shoulders, and exited the home. It had been built by taking advantage of a natural stone wall and digging several cubits down, freeing steps leading up to the wooden door. The rest of the structure had been raised with logs the thickness of a neck firmly fastened together and covered with cob for better insulation, and at its highest point, next to the rock wall in front of the bed, a tall man could touch it by stretching out his arm. From there the rafters sloped slightly to the door, where Dacko just brushed the roof with his hair. The roof had been constructed of progressively thinner and tighter logs, branches and reeds, with a top layer of carefully woven straw with the exception of a gap designed to let the smoke from the hearth escape.
When he pulled aside the curtain at the entrance and breathed in the cool but not cold air outside, the sense of alertness had not yet disappeared. He was surprised when he noticed the coolness of the rain resting softly on his bare skin. He hadn't heard the drops falling; it seemed more like a mist slowly falling on him than actual rain. He sniffed the breeze for reasons to be worried, but the smells brought to him by the wind were common and ordinary: he smelled forest, rain, his packmates, old wood and the remains of fires. But he was still uneasy, and he was beginning to believe that it had nothing to do with the nightmare. All around him, the Hearth slept while the wolves rested. Dacko should rest too, he should return to his bed and close his eyes until his stubborn subconscious returned him to the world of dreams, but for some reason he found himself walking barefoot towards the entrance of the Hearth, where the two long rock ledges that surrounded the settlement closed in an embrace, leaving only a gap of a few feet in the wall. His ancestors had been wise to choose that jagged rock formation as a shelter from encroachment and the elements, and generation after generation, Rainwinds had continued to build their individual homes in the shadow of the protective crags, forming the common Hearth, the heart of the Steep Forest.
Dacko shivered as a gust of wind rushed through him. The air wasn't cold, but the currents that began to rise out of nowhere were, and the boy pulled tightly over his chest the sleeping pelt he had brought with him, which was the only thing that covered his naked body. Perhaps that was another sign that he should return home and try to sleep for a few hours, or so he wanted to think, but without knowing how or why, he saw himself walking through the Hearth, along the walls of the houses of stone, wood and mud, towards the entrance. His instinct, that jumble of impulses and alarms that every wolf learned the hard way to listen to, stirred restlessly within him, as if warning of a distant and unidentified danger. Dacko told himself that perhaps, if he changed, he could go into the forest and follow those instincts wherever they led, but he was reluctant to leave the Hearth by himself and in the dead of night. It was suspicious, or so Daichi would say, and the leader was eager for Dacko to give him an excuse to turn his packmates against him. However, Gärn was on patrol to the west, and for all he knew, Nadja had things to do that night as well. He considered for an instant asking one of the others to accompany him, but dismissed that idea quickly. No one besides Nadja and Gärn would be willing to follow him into the woods in the wee hours of the morning just on a hunch. They risked word getting out that they had accompanied him on an unauthorized patrol, at a time when the boy was little more than a pariah on an official level.
It wasn't a good time to be friends with Dacko, son of Jakharo.
He felt there was something eerie in the silence surrounding the Hearth, the heart of the mountain in the Steep Forest, as he walked through it. The moon illuminated the ground he stepped on brightly enough that he had no trouble walking the crags and slopes that the nod was filled with, but he felt comforted when he reached the large bonfire in the center of the lower area, near the main entrance. The crackling of the flames drove away the silence and its warmth soothed some of Dacko's nerves. And yet...
He had already reached the entrance to the Hearth, and still hadn't made up his mind. At times he thought that what he was doing was stupid, that if there was any danger more people would notice, that he had already gotten himself into enough trouble and that he had to go back to bed, but the next moment that sting, that pressure in his chest, came again, and his hair stood on end. He pursed his lips, closed a fist around the skin he wore on his shoulders, undecided, and suddenly a voice startled him.
"What are you doing out here this late, boy?" a male voice called across the fire. Blinded by the flames, Dacko didn't recognize him at once, but the tone of voice and the smell coming through the rain allowed him to identify him.
He walked towards him. The claw marks running down his left cheek from brow to jaw filled his face with shadows that danced with the swaying of the fire, but Dacko was relieved to see him. Rhogo had been one of his father's most loyal men. He was a man of difficult character, but extremely loyal to the pack.
"I couldn't sleep," he answered quietly, taking a step closer to the rock from which the warrior had spoken. Are you on guard today?," he asked, noticing that Rhogo was standing on the last stretch of the natural wall that defended the Hearth.
"The boy and I," he nodded.
The man pointed with a gesture to the other side of the entrance, where a blond boy sat, leaning on his torch, staring into infinity trying not to fall asleep and not even noticing his presence. Dacko saw him yawning and blinking, and could not help smiling slightly. The boy, as Rhogo had called him, was Rhadu, and he was thirteen years old. He had only recently changed for the first time, and was still getting used to his new body and what came with it... including watches. Everyone in the pack had had to do a thousand and one night watches at the beginning of their lives as wolves, and he remembered with some fondness alternating his days of intense training with patrols, watches, hunting parties... Or those others when he rotated with the other younglings to help the artisans, or the healers, or the fishers, or even the long days of taking care of the pups. It was a hard but rewarding time in a young one's life, when he was beginning to define their place in the pack and learning to be the best Rainwind they could get out of themselves. It had been particularly hard for Dacko, whose future was written in advance and placed him at the head of all those wolves. As Jakharo's son, he had to study the history of the pack, memorize the Rainwind family tree and master the forgotten language of the Ancestors, and ultimately learn everything that was expected of him. So much had been expected of him...
Thinking of his father and that time of training wiped the smile from his face, and soon a new jolt of anxiety demanded his immediate attention.
"Rhogo..." he began, searching for the words to ask her permission to go out alone, at night, into the forest and because of a bad feeling without any basis. His mouth felt dry and he could not finish the sentence, intimidated by the veteran warrior's brownish amber eyes.
"You're going to get into trouble, aren't you," the burly warden guessed. He was older, older than his father and Daichi, and he didn't hold a good place in the herd for nothing. The young Dacko, secure in his heritage, would have ordered him to let him pass. The adult Dacko, relegated to one of the last hierarchical positions in the pack, ducked his head and bit his lip.
"I have a bad feeling..." he tried to start explaining, but was suddenly silenced by the huge hand that the warrior put roughly over his mouth, almost knocking him down.
"Sh!" and he touched his ear with his other hand.
Dacko obeyed and tuned his ear, in time to catch the distant echo of a howl that ripped through the air and ended quickly and abruptly, as if the wolf had been silenced in the same way the veteran warrior had silenced him.
He noted with embarrassment that even the apprentice, Rhadu, had jumped up and was now calling in their direction. Even the half-asleep thirteen-year-old had noticed the sound before him. Anguish grew within him like a torrent, and the pressure on his chest became so deep that he found it hard to breathe.
"What was that?" cried Rhadu. The blond boy looked to Rhogo for answers, his yellow eyes wide and sparkling, anticipating a change if the tension increased.
Dacko's heart was pounding and racing as he pushed Rhogo's hand away from his face.
"An alarm," he replied, more to himself than to the boy, before the warrior did. He raised an anxious glance at Rhogo. "The border," he said aloud, "Who's on patrol there?
One heartbeat. Two heartbeats. They seemed to have slowed.
"Nadja," he answered, and Dacko felt as if punched in the stomach.
Three heartbeats. Six. Ten. Fifteen. They were accelerating. He lost his breath and adrenaline began to flow through his veins. Something else, too, was beginning to run with his blood.
"Nadja and who else?" he murmured, almost pleading.
Dacko, shaken by those two words as if struck by lightning, lost his breath and opened his eyes wide. A crack came out of his voice as he managed to speak.
He walked toward the veteran warrior, his eyes sparkling with fury and disbelief.
"Nadja is alone!?" he roared, and with a speed he didn't think he was capable of, he threw the sleeping skin to the ground and summoned the wolf within him. That substance released along with the adrenaline reacted ready to his command, and soon that feeling of life and strength, of infinite power, broke through him.
He didn't get to crunch the first bone, because Rhogo stopped him, pushing him violently against the uneven stone wall and breaking his concentration.
"Get a hold of yourself, boy! You're not a pup anymore."
Dacko was in no mood to listen to a scolding. The change had been interrupted, and the burst of energy he should have used to unleash it threatened to disappear at a moment's notice. The torrent was overflowing him, and he had to use it or let it go. It was excruciatingly painful to hold back, but the warrior's two great flashing eyes were glaring at him from too close. He couldn't. He couldn't...
"They'll kill her!" he screamed, tearing his throat in the process. His agitated mind was already half-animal, and he could only see Rhogo standing in his way, while the ever-shrinking rational portion of his brain kept picturing Nadja, little Nadja, being torn to pieces by a pack of angry wolves. "My sister, Rhogo!" he appealed, clawing at the arm that held him and kicking the air to no avail. "Let me go! They'll kill her, they'll tear her to pieces! My sister..."
"Your sister may already be dead, boy. And you will be too if you run off into the forest alone," the man interrupted, not having the patience to bear it. The boy has gone after Daichi. He'll set up a patrol and we'll go fix this. I'm going to let you go, can you do me a favor and stay quiet to save us trouble?
Nadja went out alone. Because of some asshole who sent out the patrols. And she might be dead, he growled to himself, and glared at Rhogo, but he threw the last kick and, without waiting for an answer, the man let him go.
"If you want to kill yourself, go ahead," he snarled. "But I'm not going to run out and get you back."
Dacko didn't move. Seething with anger, feeling himself burning inside from holding back the torrent of energy he couldn't afford to waste, cursing and pleading in equal parts, but he didn't move. Not knowing if Nadja was still alive or had died, or was being tortured at that moment, not even realizing hir cheeks were wet, he struggled not to fall to her knees.
Please. Please. Please. Get out of there, Nadja. Get out of there alive... Don't let them take you, they can't... Please, Great Agorak Founder, I beg you... Don't let them take her to their Hearth. He had only heard in passing what the White Dread did with his prisoners, and he begged all the spirits he knew that if they were not going to get there in time, if they were not going to get her back safely... He begged that his sister would die before she arrived before the Stormcloud leader.
They were the longest five minutes of his life.
He felt his heart beating again, life filling him again and his lungs once more accepting oxygen as the Rainwind leader finally arrived at their side. Dacko was shaking violently when Daichi, in a velvety voice, asked for a report that the boy did not hear. He could only hear the blood pounding in his ears, and his eyes were tense and fixed on a lost spot on the ground.
Hold on, please. Please, Great Agorak Founder, he asked again.
"Dacko"" Daichi called to him, and the boy felt his bright amber eyes pierce through. "You'll stay and cover Rhogo's post while he goes out to fight."
"No way," he replied instantly, his voice hoarse, but Rhogo sprang to his defense before the leader could show offense.
"Fury will make him reckless, Daichi. Let him come."
Daichi gave a grunt of agreement and turned to return home, leaving the patrol behind him. Dacko, still grateful to the veteran warrior, took a quick glance at those who composed it. Garevan, Gärn's father, who shared his dark hair, blue eyes and fierceness in battle; Jorik, a good fighter somewhat older than Dacko; Rhogo himself, whose strength could not be doubted; Linos, who was already beginning to cover himself with orange and white hair, and finally young Rhadu. Except for the little boy, who was nervously concentrating on unleashing the torrent of energy needed to adopt his animal form, they were all experienced warriors. At that moment, extremely worried as he was, he did not think of the danger the thirteen-year-old boy would be in. It was a good patrol. If they arrived in time, they had a good chance. If they got there in time...
Hang in there, Nadders, he said to himself. Freed from the need to hold back, Dacko released the energy, which flowed immediately with renewed strength, coursing through his entire body with nothing to hinder it this time. He closed his eyes, redirected that precious torrent and commanded himself to change.
His jaw was the first bone to snap, crack and shift. Dacko crouched down, with a grunt that was more animal than human, and let the wave of crunching and ripples run through his entire body. He barely felt pain as muscles and bones ripped and welded back together, or as hair, thick, short and light brown, began to grow all over his body. His teeth grew and shifted, repositioning themselves along new, long, ready jaws. A furry tail grew, and he watched as the hands with which he rested on the hard earth changed, shrunk and became padded, while his fingers shifted in place and shape and his nails lengthened and curved. He could not see the same change in his feet, no, in his hind legs, but he felt it. Finally, his eyesight sharpened, his sense of smell multiplied and his ears pricked up as he took in a million new sounds. He breathed his first breath of air, and felt it coursing through him. The whole process took but a few moments.
As a final cherry on top, his eyes twinkled with that wild glow that characterized them; too strange to be human, too human to be wolf. Beside him, only young Rhadu was having trouble with his change. After a few long moments of whimpering and grunting, the young animal gasped from exertion. It was a dark cream wolf, almost yellowish, with grayish ears and back and a light belly. The youngest of the group, and the only one lower in rank than Dacko.
They had already wasted too much time. He looked at Rhogo, the highest ranking warrior and therefore the leader of the patrol, and the gray and white wolf with the scarred face shot off into the forest, with the rest behind. Dacko rushed in pursuit, followed closely by Rhadu.
Behind them, the pack was waking up.
Although hierarchically, his position was almost at the end of the group, Dacko was the one who knew Nadja's scent best and without realizing it, he overtook them all to guide them through the cliffs that sprouted out of nowhere in the forest. He caught a scent, intermingled with those of other wolves, and growled furiously as he recognized the distinctive scent of Stormclouds. If any of them had dared to touch Nadja, he... He...
He was also the first to leap out of the forest and land on the black and white back of a huge wolf, bigger than him and at least twice Nadja's size. He managed to wring a howl of surprise and pain from it before the fight really began. The Stormcloud, though caught by surprise, recovered quickly and shook off the Rainwind violently, to immediately respond with a serrated lunge very close to Dacko's ear, forcing him to retort. Blinded by the fury of battle, he did not see the small orange and gray body spotted with red lying motionless by the stream until Linos came to his aid and Dacko had a moment to breathe. Just then he turned his head, with blood of his own and others dripping from his fangs and fur and every hair on his body bristling, and his aquamarine eyes met the hairy, motionless lump.
Nadja, he thought, and ran in her direction, only to be cut off by another Stormcloud, a giant brown male covered in scars and with a bleeding wound on his muzzle.
"What do you think you're doing?" the Stormcloud snarled furiously, and suddenly Dacko saw himself reflected in the wolf's green, green eyes.
Then he recognized him.
"You are Yawö."
"And you are dead."
He was surprisingly fast for his size, and Dacko had his reflexes to thank for the fact that the bite with which he lunged at him caught him in the shoulder, not the neck, with a lash of pain coursing through him. He accepted the challenge with a growl that sounded like a roar. He responded with ferocity, dancing for long minutes a dance of death next to the body of his little sister, whom he had not seen move. The wolves clashed, clawed at each other, clawed at each other's throats with their teeth, and blood spurted in all directions. All around them, despite the numerical advantage and the surprise factor, Rainwinds were not scoring a quick victory. Rhadu was supporting or maybe hindering Rhogo as he tangled with another male and Jorik jumped on his back. He had a deep gash in his side, but didn't seem to notice it as he struggled to get the Stormcloud to give up. Dacko had abandoned Linos earlier with the black and white one, and now the young cream and white was holding him at bay with the support of the towering Garevan, the only one along with Rhogo who exceeded the size of the invaders. The silent forest in the early morning had filled with the sounds and smells of battle, and all prey fled in panic.
They were winning, but not quickly nor cleanly. There would be wounded that night, provided no one took a fatal blow, and Dacko stood a good chance of taking one. After the furious outburst at the start, exhaustion was beginning to take its toll on him, and he was thinking more clearly, or as clearly as he could think in the midst of a death fight. Although the Rainwind had managed to inflict more injuries on his opponent, the Stormcloud had delivered more than one excruciating bite, and his bumping and shoving was not doing him any good. He had yet to see Nadja breathe, though he couldn't swear to it. Finally, when Dacko had begun to play defense, weakened by wounds and blood loss, Garevan and Linos came to his aid after making the black and white wolf flee howling in pain. The three of them together managed to force Yawö, the Stormcloud warrior chief, to defend himself until his last subordinate surrendered and the gigantic brown wolf found himself alone and surrounded. With a final growl of menace, he scurried off into the bushes and Garevan allowed him to do so.
Dacko watched him go as his strength left him and fatigue and wounds pierced the weak protection adrenaline offered him against pain. He staggered, but managed to force himself to stand.
Nadja, he reminded himself. He turned quickly, perhaps too quickly, for a terrible dizziness engulfed him, but he forced himself to rush over to the motionless, blood-covered body they had abandoned over the stream. He sniffed it full of anxiety, touching its blood and water soaked fur, licking its ears and calling to it. She was so covered with wounds and her fur was so matted with dried and wet blood that her distinctive scent was almost camouflaged, overtaken by the stench of blood.
"Please, please, Nadja," he called, nudging her gently with his muzzle, and was unaware of the others gathering around him, "Please answer, please, Nadja....".
"Dacko," a nearby call dulled. He ignored it.
He delicately licked an ugly wound near the back of his sister's neck, still calling out to her, while inside a hand of long icy claws closed around his heart. They were late. They were late. Too late. Oh, Nadja. It was all his fault, it was him who should have died in her place. He should have protected her, he should have come as soon as he heard the call, he shouldn't have waited for Daichi....
Daichi, he growled to himself. He...! He organized the patrols, he must have known that Nadja was alone! Why did he send her out alone?! Did he want to kill her?! That's what he had achieved. Oh, Nadja...
Nadja did not answer, and Dacko would have cried if he could. Soft whimpers escaped from her throat without him being able to help it, and the words of his packmates sounded distant and incomprehensible.
"I'll kill him... I'll kill him for this..." he growled aloud, as fury swept over him and made him tremble, "I'm going to...!"
"Dacko!" Rhogo's exclamation threw him off balance, and the boy, on pure instinct, ducked his head and ears in submission. The veteran was baring his teeth at him from above.
"She's alive!" he heard Rhadu's surprised shriek from behind him.
At that moment he forgot the grave threat he had just uttered towards his leader. He forgot Rhogo, his fury and that promise. He turned to Nadja, sniffed her anxiously and realized that, indeed, the frightened and surprised Rhadu was right. The she-wolf's side was slowly rising and falling, and when she pressed her head to his chest, Dacko could hear her faint heartbeat. A second earlier he would have sworn she was dead.
She was breathing. Her heart was beating. She was alive.
"We must take her to the Hearth!" cried Garevan, gently pushing Dacko out of his way and slowly regaining his human form to gather the she-wolf into his arms. Amazed, breathless and exhausted, Dacko did not consent to be separated from her all the way. Too upset to change forms, he stuck to Garevan's heels, sniffing the air above him anxiously and trotting at his own pace.
Garevan was slower as a human than as a wolf, and the stress ate Dacko's heart, but when they crossed the gates of the Home and, under the watchful eyes of the entire assembled pack, entered the healers' home, Nadja's heart was still pounding, wounded and stubborn as she was. He was vaguely aware of someone treating his own wounds, but he missed the moment when he regained his human form, and his mind was no longer present when they dressed him and forced him to lie still on a bed. He had no strength to complain, no energy left to move.
However, when dawn finally came to the Hearth, it found him by Nadja's bedside, covered by a blanket and with his hand gently resting on his sister's back. He was rudely awakened by a well-placed touch on the ribs, which took the breath away from the wounded boy.
"Will you please explain to me whose hide I have to tear off for this, Dacko?"
Dacko didn't open his eyes immediately; without looking, he had recognized the woman's voice, and when, despite his body's complaints, he forced himself to turn in on himself to look at her, the two deep, angry, dark blue eyes he expected were glaring at him. That was Gärn.