A wolf doesn’t choose his wolfwalker,
He can’t help being drawn to your side;
There’s a tiny place in his brain and yours
Which seeks the other’s mind.
It’s a need, a desire, a hunger in both,
An addiction that pulls like a chain,
It resonates between you, like the sun
Blinding and swamping your thoughts,
Like the wind rising and falling, falling,
Like the packsong calling, calling.
It binds you like two halves of a knot
That cannot come undone.
—excerpt from Who Hunts the Wolves
Afternoon, just west of Willow Road . . .
The wolf watched from the shadows with a predatory sense, an animal tang of hunger. Evening was approaching fast, when color would shift into shades of grey and the air would grow cool with danger. The young wolf knew what would come with the darkness. He was a year old, experienced enough that the hunt was no longer fearsome, but still young enough that it was something he eagerly sought. This time, he hunted alone.
He hunched beside the roots with a waxleaf tickling his fur. He flicked his ears absently. The yearling liked the weak warmth of spring. Deep winter was hard hunting, especially since it would be two more years before he came into his full strength. Spring meant creatures weak with hunger or heavy with their young. It meant easy running in soft earth, not deep drifts of snow. He inhaled quickly, trying to catch the scent of his prey. From the shadows, his golden eyes stared unblinking, seeking even a blurred glimpse of movement, but the thick hedge remained impenetrable to his gaze.
Overhead, dark vines climbed along the spiny barrier bushes. The vines here were old enough that they stretched up into the arch of trees that hung over the man-made trails. They were two wide streams of white, those man-trails, made of wood so firm it was hard as stone. He’d run on such trails in winter when their wood-warmth kept them from freezing. At night, they glowed like the moons, and the humans used them like highways, clattering this way and that. They didn’t seem to care that any hunter could hear them. They didn’t care about scents, either, for dozens of strange, nose-clogging odors clung to that long line of movement.
It was hard to separate out the things from which the odors came. Some were forest smells carried along with the man-things, like the smell of the danger-fang, the tano, and that of the tiny, venomous weibers. Others were strictly man-scent: sharp smells, unpleasant ones, metal grease and oils. Then there was the smell of the spiny barrier that the yearling crouched behind. It was a man-thing, too, planted deliberately, according to the pack elders. It stank to keep the beasts away and wouldn’t harm the wolves. Unpleasant, yes, but the other side meant safety.
The yearling’s ears flicked again at an impression of motion much closer to his position. He was not mistaken. At the base of the bushes, slow blue flowers closed their soft, hungry mouths on the gnats that fluttered nearby. Everything was thickening and strengthening, not just with spring, but with the coming dusk.
On the other side of the hedge, the behemoths rumbled, unaware, unflinching, unstoppable. Rishte could hear little over their noise, but he knew his prey had moved beyond him. He scanned the roadside fruitlessly. He could feel the creature like the prickling of fur when one steps up to a trap. It was waiting, faintly wanting him as much as he wanted it. Calling for him to approach. Like an itch just under the skin, it clawed at his consciousness.
It had been there all day. At dawn it had begun to tug like a packmate on the rough edge of play. In the grey light of morning, it had crept through the forest. It had grown stronger as the pack moved out warily to hunt the thin eerin that grazed eagerly on fresh spring grass. It wasn’t like the danger sense of the beetle-beasts that was making First Father so worried. It was more subtle, like a fern touching an ear or the sweep of wind-grass across the back, and it was stronger to Rishte than the others. Then the midmorning warmth had begun to saturate the air, and the sense of it had become sharper and harder to ignore. Since then, it hadn’t stopped pulling, digging at his mind.
The young wolf flexed his paws as if ready to run. He stayed low, where it could not see him. He feared its eyes, the bind- ing eyes. Pack Mother said that human eyes could trap a wolf like a dog. They could fill a mind with nightmares, split him off from his pack, and starve him for the grey. He believed her. There were images in the older songs of things the Grey Ones feared. He could feel that in his prey. But still he watched its passing. He couldn’t help it. Nor could he help reaching out toward its mind. It pulled like a tether, and he howled back, scratching at its mind.
He rose and slunk along the road, slipping through the brush like a ghost to follow the deafening monsters. For a quarter day’s run, he had followed his curiosity, till he’d been all but run over with sound. He’d had to force himself to approach the hedge that stank like rotting stingers. The noises didn’t hurt his ears, but they masked other sounds so that he felt uneasy and vulnerable. Another monster banged by, and he cringed at the rumbling that his human ignored. He wondered how it could hear anything, even its own thoughts under that torrent. A lepa flock could descend on them all like a rockfall without them knowing.
The line of monsters curved again, and he knew they were starting to circle the den-hill. He was actually closer to his pack home now than before. The thought gave him some comfort, although he wished the human would leave the monsters and follow him to a quieter place. Its eyes would not be so terrifying if he met it within the pack. He was beginning to feel a need, not just a desire, to explore this odd and itching packsong.
The dying breeze ruffed the grey-and-white fur unevenly across his back. He had disturbed a monkeybush that morning, and two spurs were now caught back by his shoulder. He twisted and bit at them irritably, but they were hard-tangled and sharp as the human’s mind. He snarled quietly, then turned back to the road. His paws itched to run, to flee from the monsters and scent of men. But that mental needle stuck in his thoughts, changing the tone of his voice in the packsong to one of long- ing and distance. The sense of muted smells, oddly sharp tastes, and smoothness instead of fur—they confused him. They had blinded his mind all day so that he’d actually slipped off a boulder at dawn when crossing a stream with the pack. Grey Helt and Second Mother had laughed, but Pack Mother had been grim as if facing a full-grown worlag. After that, Helt—First Father—had turned the pack back to the den, cutting off their hunt. Rishte had lagged behind, first slowing, then turning east, away from the pack, as he heard the strange voice in his mind.
Now he was close, close enough to smell what he sought. He saw them now, the humans. He could see their eyes. Flat, wary, they looked his way often, and there was no trap, no binding. He barely even felt them, just the one human he sought. Even amidst the musk of the riding beasts, even above the man-scent, he could smell that one in his mind. The feel of legs moving, tottering, never quite falling forward—it made his ropy thighs tense. He crept closer to a break in the brush. The grey shades shifted. He could see the monsters now. Huge—they were bigger than badgerbears, bigger than the boulders at the base of the cliffs. They made a line as long as a glacier worm.
Fear knotted his belly as if he were still a cub. Humans. Danger. The mind that seemed so close to his seemed to turn and look out to the forest. Instantly Rishte backed deep into green-black shadow. He tasted the edge of those thoughts. It could feel him, yes. It was seeking the predator who watched it, the wolf who gnawed at its mind. Rishte flattened down like a poolah against the soil, but the sunlight glinted in the human’s eyes, and it was blind as it looked toward the shadows. Then it was moving on, moving away, leaving him behind.
He didn’t realize how far he’d slunk back until his hind leg slipped on a slick pile of leaves. His black-rimmed eyes stared toward the road. It was looking back again, he could feel it. He scrambled to his feet, but did not run. He had to see its eyes, but fear held him fast. The human was more focused now, as if it knew where he was. Poised on the wide trail, he wanted to race back to First Mother and the strength of the pack. He was too far out of the hunting grounds, where even the poolah were wary. A wolf alone, without his pack? His thoughts stretched out like grey spiderwebs to test the air for hunters. He should go. It was dangerous to stay, but he wanted that human.
He growled low in his throat. It was moving away—he was sure of it. It was growing more distant already. His nostrils flared with disappointment. Then he smelled . . . water. He licked his lips and tasted the flat sense of it on his own tongue, felt the tepidness of it slide down his own dry throat as the human-creature swallowed. It pulled him, that sensation. The visceral sense of it clung to his mind like a leech. He howled his frustration in his mind.
Something cut back at him through the grey. It was the human. Yes. It was listening for him again. He howled again, and its mind shifted, turned, touched his so faintly that the wolf almost whined out loud. He was on his feet before he realized it. He loped after the moving monsters. He brushed through catear shrubs with their fuzzy cones. He worked his way warily around the tangled start of a greendup patch, then hurried through wispy ferns. Then he halted again abruptly. The human was no longer riding away along the line of behemoths. It was on the ground in splintered sunight, moving toward the forest. There was a steady drum, heavy, like that of a bollusk, unnervingly even as only two feet hit the white road, over and over, left, right, left, right.
Rishte’s lips curled back in eagerness. The human slowed and crossed the second wide man-road. Closer now, it came through the brush. A surge of joy flowed into the young wolf’s mind like the hot moment of biting into a hare. He stretched out his mind. Come, he sent eagerly. Come.
Now the human was ahead on the trail. Sweet-musk. It smelled like sweet-musk and leaf dust, not the bitter-musk of Grey Helt after a run. Rishte’s nostrils flared as he sucked in the odor and set it in his mind. Leather, oil, water, metal, smoke and meat, bitter roots, and that sweet-musk scent that was all its own: human—and female, he realized.
He filtered the scents and moved toward the creature carefully, listening for her movements. Loud she was, like a clumsy eerin. Beneath her voice, her mind was sharp, like a claw barely sheathed, or a broken stone. There was a cold spot there, as if part of her thoughts were frozen. The sensation triggered a deep memory, and Rishte growled low in his throat. There was a deadly threat centered in the female’s mind, a danger the wolves avoided. It was something that had become stronger in the forest in the last few years. It was even in the minds of men, as if they could sense it and now directed their violence around it. And it was in the mind of that human.
The human female—the woman, pack memory supplied—didn’t seem to notice the hard spot in her mind. Instead, her thoughts flowed around that spot like blind water over a branch. Rishte’s ears flicked as he reached carefully toward the rest of that mind. The woman didn’t have the hard focus of some of the humans the Grey Ones sensed. The wolves had always avoided those kinds of men. There were memories passed down, as recently as two father-mothers ago, of such hunters. Such men had tried to chain wolves to them through fear and death instead of the bond. Rishte knew that wolfwalkers had saved the Grey Ones then, but this female wasn’t a wolfwalker. Still, she knew the pack. She had the tone of wolves in her thoughts. And that death-spot in her mind might be as yellow and harsh as a thin winter sun, but the rest of her mind was as grey as any packmate.
Rishte lifted his head and howled softly.
To the east, the woman halted. Then she raised her head and howled back. The sound rose and then fell, fell, fading into shadow, exactly as she should answer. Rishte’s hackles raised at the unfamiliar rightness of it. Finally, he howled his answer. Then he loped away on the trail. She followed as if she had understood.
The woman’s coverings brushed against ferns—he could hear that behind him like the rasp of a tongue. He could hear her every step, but the sounds were sharp in his mind, not his ears. He paused, and she came closer, but the noise of the monsters was still too loud behind them, and he turned onto a different trail to take her back to the pack. She would stay with him now, he was certain. She had glimpsed him in the shadows, and even though there was a chill in her mind, her eagerness mirrored his own. Come, he sent again. This way.
He didn’t stay to meet her eyes, but broke into an easy jog. The woman picked up the pace. Rishte hesitated at a bend in the trail, but she saw him turn in the late sunlight, and now ducked beneath the branches. He sent a shaft of approval through his mind, and she seemed to laugh. I’m coming, she seemed to sing.
Rishte’s lips curled back as another scent lifted on the evening breeze. He sniffed the air quickly. They were still near the grouse hills and were working their way up the ridges toward the den, but other hunters were beginning to stir. They would have to be quick to avoid the poolah he could smell on the failing breeze. He slipped onto another trail, and the woman didn’t argue. Good, good. Her voice was already changing, smoothing out on the edge of his packsong. Now that he could hear her, her eyes were no longer frightening. That sharp iciness deep in her mind, that was worrying, but he’d take her to meet Pack Mother. Grey Vesh would know what to do to fix her if Rishte brought her home.
Excerpted from Wolf in Night by Tara K. Harper. Copyright © 2005 by Tara K. Harper. Excerpted by permission of Del Rey, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.