CHAPTER #1

Ambushed

My paws steadily paced across the snowy forest floor. The dried leaves beneath my feet made slight crunching noises, adding to the various forest sounds compiled by the insects chirping, birds conferring, and trees rustling in the easy twilight wind blowing against our faces.

The sounds were relaxing and enjoyable, too much of a lullaby for my ears. I had to resist the temptation of turning away from the hunting party, going back to camp and curling up in my cozy den to rest. I had been up the entire night before with a stomach ache and other bothersome pains. Despite my incredible lack of sleep from winter sickness, I was still awoken early this morning at the rise of the sun. This usually happens when I am due to go on some sort of trip, such as hunting parties or security patrols, but not this time.

I was woken up by my perturbing denmate, Jati. With the little sleep I had gotten, it was certainly not a pleasing sight when I opened my eyes to see the young gray wolf boasting to me about his "awesome" catch, a large elk bull. I politely told him to dive into Bara Pond and stay there so I could possibly get some peace.

After my morning had been so abruptly ruined, I decided to emerge from my den at late dawn to take my share from the dawn hunting party's catch. I ironically ended up eating from Jati's bull that, to my surprise, actually existed. Since the rest of the pack had gotten up early and eaten, I was left to pick at the carcass.

From then until later at mid-day, when the sun was high, I was not needed for any type of patrol. I remained at camp, trying to catch up on my sleep, but still alert in case my pack should need me. I was happy to find that Bhumi, our Beta male, had not issued me to be part of any patrol until late that evening, at the peak of twilight.

Our pack has an organized, but simple, system of hunting at dawn and dusk, plus a security patrol or two to walk our territory and check for any new scents or intruders. It is organized because every season it must change; more security patrols in winter, to assure no hunters cross on our land for food, along with more hunting parties, to get more food ourselves. In the summer, we send many hunting groups to stock up on food supplies, taking part in the multiplication of prey from spring and winter mating. This is how our pack works; it's the same thing in spring and fall.

During this particular dusk trip, it's autumn. The news of successful kills is a scarce thing to hear about around camp, for the dearth of prey is upon us now. Herds of hoofed animals flee from our hunting grounds to find greener pastures, places with less winter snow and abundant forage. Birds, large and small, travel as well. Smaller mammals retreat to their homes most of the time. All that is left is a few elk, deer, and some small prey, often ill from this sickly season.

Our Alphas instruct us everyday to send an extra hunting party, usually when the sun is high, in addition to the dusk and dawn trips. This helps better our hunting chances. I was never informed of who was going for the dawn or mid-day parties prior to this hunt, as I was not part of them. I was fortunate to only be assigned this one dusk hunt, considering I am usually a part of several patrols in one day.

Walking through the forest with the group, my ears flicked forward to the scent of a large deer, a buck. I looked at my packmates who had come on this trip: Rahasya, Safeda, and our Alpha male, Catura. We had an exceptional hunting group of five wolves, including myself, but the fifth was missing. I paused in my steps with the others mimicking after me. Catura turned around to face me silently, as he was in front, leading. With Safeda at my left and Rahasya at my right, where was Jati? He was trailing from the back but gone now.

Suddenly, Catura flicked his ears against the wind where they stood upright, like mine did. I knew immediately by his tense muscles and careful stance that he had detected the stag as well. Rahasya had a sense of aggravation, however, as she waited for the smell to waft towards her, which didn't happen until several moments after we stopped. Her eyes lit up at how close the scent was, while Safeda showed no emotion. Having the group aware of the buck, I waited for our leader to instruct us to move somewhere. We had the wind in our favor, as it blew across our faces and not against our fur, directing any scents towards our hunting party instead of the targeted prey.

The buck was many paces from where we stood, hidden in a cluster of dead trees and thick bracken. We could barely see it, but more importantly, it could not see us.

Catura pointed to his son, Safeda, with his muzzle and directed him towards the left. He proceeded to show Rahasya, the she-wolf in this patrol, to the right so we could box it in. I was the only one remaining to continue forward with Catura, waiting for the he would give the signal to everyone to emerge and attack. We would be accompanied by Jati, if he could be found.

Both Catura and I began to pad forward, preparing to attack while waiting for the buck to become vulnerable by sticking his neck down to graze. Luckily, we were towards its tail, so it could not see any of us coming from the back or sides. I just hoped Safeda and Rahasya would keep low and quiet where they were.

I felt a change in the wind. It began to blow a bit more from the left instead of directly at us. I was sniffing rapidly, keeping the scent of the buck fresh in my mind. I noticed the slight smell of Safeda now that the wind was blowing from his direction, but it wasn't enough to give away his position. We kept walking, hackles raised and bodies slinking low across the ground with the snow seeming as deep as a rabbit's hole, when a familiar wolf scent swept across my muzzle. It was a wolf, not a she-wolf, so I was almost certain it was Safeda again. But then, as I have come to recognize our wolves with distinctly unique scents, I knew it couldn't be him.

I saw Catura pick up his pace, skipping a few steps, and I realized we were going in for the kill. He never signaled the others, including me, to follow and strike with him. Trailing behind my Alpha at his heels, confused, I scented the previous wolf smell coming across us again. Only this time, it was stronger, and I was able to analyze who it was.

Knowing the "missing" member, I was sure he didn't go missing at all. I knew exactly why Catura was running, so I followed his pace quickly and swiftly.

It seemed so sudden, the noise erupting through the forest like the cry of a dying—or fleeing—animal. Just as the leaves ceased their rustling, the sound died down, and all that was left was the faint sound of hooves retreating in the snow, my Alpha and I ducked underneath a raised thorny bush and emerged nose-to nose with Jati as he stood alone in the snow. The young and diminutive wolf stood stiffly in the clearing, his pelt dusted with snow and damp dirt. Catura growled profusely at the twenty-five moon old wolf, the snow on his cheeks falling off as he bared his teeth.

"Jati, did you leave the group earlier solely to mess us up?" growled our leader sarcastically.

Jati exhaled sharply and replied quietly. "No. I smelled the stag earlier and thought I could get it. Sorry." He didn't mean the apology at all; he was trying to save his hide.

I simply sighed angrily. I knew if I even attempted to yell at Jati, Catura would instantly tell me to shut my muzzle.

Jati began to speak again with a genuinely apologetic look on his face—he probably just realized the damage he had caused to the hunt—but was cut off sharply.

"Not good enough. Do you know what season it is?" Catura continued with another question, stepping forward with his dark eyes narrowed at the wolf.

"Autumn," Jati answered, acting as if the question were ridiculous.

"Yes, autumn. The time of deer mating. You should know better than to challenge an unpredictable stag alone during its mating season. They are wily; you never know when they might fight back powerfully. Those antlers and hooves can kill—unless you have help." Catura's statement was true, but it applied mostly to Jati. There were times when he would attempt to hunt large prey on his own and return with wounds. The rest of us know better. Catura constantly scolds Jati with a father's tone, always presenting a drawn-out explanation of why Jati's actions were wrong.