The snow fell harder every year. And it never stopped. In spite of the thick coat of fur, the old elk shivered.
In all the twelve years of his life, the elk had never seen anything else but snow. He had heard the same stories from his mother as she had heard from hers. For generations, there have been tales that somewhere to the south, there were still lands free of frost and cold, where the sun shone over open fields of green grass. Nobody had actually seen it with their own eyes, of course. To the old bull, those were just stories- legends to keep them believing, migrating, surviving.
There was a chill in the air. Winter was creeping up, which meant it would get even worse. He sighed as he looked up and stared at the horizon. As far as eyes could see, the ground was covered with loose snow. There were tufts of yellow prairie grass here and there, but not nearly enough. The scarcity of food was just as dangerous as the cold. Who knows how many of them would die this year from starvation alone?
The rest of the herd was grazing at a distance. The female group had headed further south. They were maybe a day’s ride away, led by capable matriarchs. The elk lowered his head again, tugged on a shrub with his teeth, and resumed chewing. His old ears failed to register the approaching danger.
The snow muffled the steps of the wolves. They kept their heads low as they advanced. When they reached the top of the nearby hill, the leader signaled the group to stop. About a dozen wolves froze, waiting for the order to engage their prey.
“Adamant,” called the wolf nearest to the leader. He had dark brown fur covering his upper body. He continued in a low growl, “Are you sure about this? Look at the elk. It hasn’t shed its antlers yet. We’re not exactly in our best form either. It may be too risky.”
Adamant, the alpha of the pack, turned to the wolf and bared his teeth in an unmistakable sign of anger. “We have no choice, Furor. We cannot starve anymore. The fate of the whole pack rests upon us.”
A female wolf with burnt sienna coat stepped forward from the other side of the alpha. Her name was Ether. She was his mate. She touched her snout gingerly to Adamant’s shoulder, and he lowered his gaze back to the prey, foregoing his anger and frustration. “We have children back at the camp, Furor,” Ether said in a gentle tone, “And the pregnant females. They cannot go hungry anymore, even if we can.”
“Of course, Ether,” Furor looked down guiltily, “I meant no disrespect. I was just being… cautious.”
“Gray Cloud,” Adamant spoke over Furor’s last word, tilting his head towards a strong gray coated wolf to his further right, “You know what to do.” Gray Cloud nodded, and as Adamant looked at Ether, so did she.
The vanguard sprinted forward, led by Ether to the left and Gray Cloud to the right, with the lighter and faster wolves of the pack on their heels. Adamant, Furor, and the rest tensed the muscles of their front legs, ready for the perfect moment to jump in.
The snow muffled the sound of approaching death so well that the elk did not register the wolves until he saw them rushing in from both sides, trying to surround him. He immediately cried out, as loud as he could, alerting the rest of the herd. As they started running, so did he, but even then he knew that it was too late.
“Now!” cried Adamant as Gray Cloud circled around in front of the elk, making him stumble. Adamant and the rest of the pack darted forwards, trying to flank the elk.
The elk lowered his head and jerked the antlers aimlessly. Gray Cloud was expecting it. He rolled back just in time. The wolf behind him, a younger female named Faith, was not so lucky. The sharp point of the antlers slashed at her neck, spraying the snow with warm blood. She staggered back, wounded but alive.
To the left of the elk, Ether seized the chance. She jumped at the elk and bit into his neck, making it scream louder. The wolves rushing in from behind scrambled as the elk started to throw his legs out randomly, shaking his whole body in a desperate attempt to get free from Ether’s hold. It worked. The final jerk of the neck threw Ether off at a distance. She landed safely on the snow and started to get back up.
Adamant knew this was the opening they needed. He growled and jumped at the elk’s hind legs and Furor followed their leader. Furor’s jaw clasped tight on the left hind leg of the elk, but Adamant missed as the elk once again threw out his legs. The hooves clashed against Adamant’s chest, making a loud cracking sound. Adamant fell on the ground with a faint whimper.
By this time, Gray Cloud had regained his footing. He jumped at the elk, biting at the shoulder, right above where Ether had already attacked. With Furor already gnawing at his hind leg, the elk felt dizzy in pain and fear. When the rest of the wolves closed in on him, he knew it was over. In a matter of minutes, the elk was on the ground, finally defeated. His eyes slowly dimmed as he bled out while the wolves snarled and circled.
As most of the pack made sure the elk was dead, the rest went back to help the wounded. Ether rushed to Adamant’s side. He looked badly hurt, but alive. Adamant decided not to tell her what he feared- that he had broken a couple of ribs. It strained him to walk, but tried his best to put up an appearance that the wound was not serious. Faith had also survived. There was a gash at her neck and she had lost a lot of blood, but when Gray Cloud helped her up, he knew she’d be fine with some rest.
“This kill should be enough for a couple of days,” Adamant addressed the hunting party as they gathered around him, “Now we just need to…” He stopped abruptly. His ears perked up. There was a faint howl in the wind. “Is that…?” he asked.
“Swift Paws,” Gray Cloud answered the unfinished question. He ran up to a nearby hill and looked at the distance. A younger wolf was running across the snow towards them. “Yes, definitely,” he said, “It’s Swift Paws.”
The brief joy of the pack at the kill seemed to evaporate. Swift Paws was their scout. He was stationed at the camp. He would not come unless it was urgent. Everyone looked at each other, their expressions worrisome. Adamant stepped ahead to greet the scout, walking slowly because of his wounds.
Swift Paws came to a halt before Adamant. He was panting. “Adamant… the camp… it’s… not good.”
“Easy, young one,” Adamant said in his characteristic deep growl, “Take a breath and tell me what the trouble is.” At his words, Swift Paws seemed to calm down a bit. He took a couple of deep breaths and then moved closer to Adamant. The rest of the pack watched tensely as he whispered something in Adamant’s ears.
When Swift Paws was finished, Adamant stared at him. The alpha tried his best not to look shocked or surprised, but Ether knew her mate too well. “What is it, dear?” she asked.
Adamant didn’t answer at once. He looked at Ether, and then at Gray Cloud. Then he spoke, “Ether, come with me. There seems to have been some… trouble at the camp. Gray Cloud and Furor, I task you with the responsibility of bringing the carcass to the camp. Everyone else here will help you.”
“Of course, sire,” Furor said, bowing his head courteously, but Gray Cloud did not speak. He kept looking at their leader. His wife, Summer, was at camp. She was one of the pregnant females. Did something happen to her? Did another pack attack their camp? But Adamant did not utter a single word more. He left, followed by Ether and Swift Paws.
The journey back to the camp was uneventful, but tiresome. It wasn’t easy, even for a pack of wolves, to drag an entire elk carcass back all the way to the camp. Worried about his wife at the camp, Gray Cloud could barely focus. He helped as much as he could, but it was Furor who instructed the rest of the wolves. He didn’t seem to mind being in charge for a change. Faith walked by Gray Cloud. Nobody expected her to help in her weakened state. She sensed Gray Cloud’s mood and kept quiet.
When they arrived at the camp, it was almost dusk. Gray Cloud looked around quickly, but could not see any explicit signs of violence. The pregnant females had been inside a cave. The entrance to it was still guarded by two older but strong and fierce female wolves. The rest of the pack- the old, the sick, and the children, were spread around in the clearing in front of the mouth of the cave. At the center, sat Adamant, Ether, and Grim, the oldest male of the pack, in his dark coat streaked with gray fur.
The pack moved the carcass to a side and then the wolves surrounded their leader. Gray Cloud could tell that Ether looked worried and Grim looked angry and perhaps scared. It was hard to read Adamant’s mood.
“My friends,” started Adamant when they had settled down, “Something has happened.” There was absolute silence. Not a single breath could be heard. Adamant continued, “We need to make a decision. You know that I have never imposed my own will on you. It is a harsh world and we are only as strong as we are united. In the past, whenever we decided the fate of the pack, the decision was made by all of us. Together. This is another such day.”
Adamant stopped. He looked at Grim beside him. The old wolf stood up. “It is a matter…,” he said slowly, carefully pronouncing every word, “…regarding the Prophecy.”
Gray Cloud’s heart stopped. This could not be happening. Not today. Not now. Not here. His fur stood on its end, as did several others’. They have known about the Prophecy since they were cubs. But some new cubs and a few of the pairs that had joined the pack earlier that year, looked confused. They had not been told about it yet.
Even though most of the pack seemed mortified with fear, Grim seemed to acknowledge the puzzled expression of the few. So he said, “For those of you who do not know, the Prophecy has been in our pack for generations- decades, maybe centuries. Some say it was uttered when the world was green and yellow, when snow fell only once a year and melted away again. We do not remember. But we remember the words.”
Grim paused and looked at his audience. He seemed to relish the attention he was getting. Then he recited the words of the Prophecy:
“The hunt grows barren
When evil winds blow,
Brings forth a child
As white as snow,
And greets an end
To the world we know.”
The whole pack remained silent. Some had closed their eyes. Some looked at the ground. Most had their tails tucked away between their hind legs. Gray Cloud felt the same. The Prophecy was their most feared legend- a warning of the end times. As the years became colder and prey became more and more scarce, many feared the day of the prophecy was nearing. But was this really it?
“I have been afraid of this day since three moons ago the coldest of winds from the north started to blow.” Grim was still speaking, “And now… I’m afraid…” His words faltered and faded away.
“Gray Cloud,” called Adamant, and Gray Cloud jumped. His mind was blank from fear and confusion. He felt dizzy. “Your mate, Summer, has given birth to four healthy cubs today,” Adamant went on, his voice slow but steady, “And one of them… is white.”
Gray Cloud could feel the eyes of the whole pack on him. He dared not look at them. He dared not speak. A heavy silence hung in the air. Finally Adamant spoke, “I’m afraid we must reach a conclusion regarding this matter. All of us.”
“As I have said before,” Grim spoke, “We must kill the child. It’s the merciful thing to do.”
A murmur of agreement rose from the pack. Gray Cloud could recognize Furor and a few other voices. “Yes, yes!” They seemed to be saying, “Kill it before it brings an end to all of us, to the world!” The murmur was becoming louder. Gray Cloud himself had no idea what to think or do or say. Then another voice spoke.
This voice was faint and weak, but firm. A female. Gray Cloud looked up and saw it was Faith. She was looking at Ether and saying, “But… my lady, does it not also say in our creed that murder of an innocent and helpless wolf is the worst of the crimes against the gods? That doing such a thing would surely doom us forever?”
“Innocent!” Grim cried before Ether could say anything, “Did you not just hear the Prophecy, child? This cub would bring an end of the world!” Other voices, angry and frightened, echoed the same concern.
“But,” Faith said, “Isn’t the cub innocent until then? Until he does something…?”
“And then it would be too late!” It was Furor who cried this time. “Are you willing to bet the whole world on one cub, girl?”
“What if…” Ether finally spoke up. Her voice demanded much more authority than Faith’s, so everyone stopped talking. She continued, “What if that’s what the Prophecy refers to? That we shall break one of the most sacred tenets of our creed to subvert the Prophecy and bring us our own ruin?”
“Then we shall have a vote,” said Adamant, “As is our custom. How many of you would risk the death of the cub?” Many wolves stood up, including Grim. Gray Cloud did not look up to see who else did. He himself kept sitting, looking at the ground.
“And how many of you would like to spare him?” Adamant asked when the wolves had sat down again. Gray Cloud could sense that others stood up, including Ether. He himself could not find the strength to stand up. Once again, he kept sitting.
“I see.” Adamant said after a while, “Then we are at an impasse. The cub is wanted equally dead and alive by the pack.” He paused and said, “Gray Cloud, you have not told us what you want yet. It is your child after all.”
“That is why… I cannot…” Gray Cloud muttered.
“Very well,” said Adamant, “Then the decision falls to me.” Gray Cloud looked at their leader. Adamant looked at Ether for a few moments and then said, “The cub lives… for now.”
Many looked uneasy, but none dared to speak against the alpha. They just looked at each other.
“We shall honor our creed until there is a clear reason not to,” Adamant said, “The cub shall be a member of our pack until that time.” He looked at Gray Cloud and said, “We shall call him North Wind, named after the harsh and cold wind that heralded his birth. Do you object?”
Gray Cloud shook his head.
“Very well. That’s settled then.” Adamant said with a tone of finality.
Adamant gave the command to bring forth the carcass and the gathering began to disperse. Ether came up to Gray Cloud and said, “Summer is weak. Go to her. I’ll bring you your meal.” Gray Cloud nodded and started walking slowly, his head hung low.
Inside the cave, the other pregnant females seemed to have moved further away. Summer laid near the mouth of the cave. He cubs squeaking near her. The white cub, North Wind, was there. It looked just as innocent as the rest to Gray Cloud, but what did he know? He feared the Prophecy as most of them did.
“What did they decide?” Summer asked weakly as Gray Cloud approached her.
“He lives,” Gray Cloud said. He licked her face in affection.
Summer did not say anything for a while. Then she spoke with a low snarl, “I do not want him.” She pushed the white cub away a little with her paw and dragged the rest of her children closer to her chest.
Gray Cloud did not know what to say or do. He did not know what to feel for his fourth child. His head hurt to think. He just laid down beside Summer.
The white cub felt confused and puzzled at being pushed away from the only other wolves he had known in his short life. But he was a newborn. He did not understand the complexities of things such as emotions. He whimpered and shivered a bit as the north wind started to blow again. He went to the nearest corner of the cave and curled up, trying his best to protect himself from the cold.