Authors: Ambelin Kwaymullina
“However this ends, you’re probably going to find out some things about me, and they’re not nice things. But, Ash, even after you know, do you think you could remember the good? And whatever you end up discovering – try to think of me kindly. If you can.”
Ember Crow is missing. To find her friend, Ashala Wolf must control her increasingly erratic and dangerous Sleepwalking ability and leave the Firstwood. But Ashala doesn’t realise that Ember is harbouring terrible secrets and is trying to shield the Tribe and all Illegals from a devastating new threat – her own past.
I was wolf.
I was one among the thirteen that were the Pack, and everything was as it should be. Mostly. I had no shaggy coat of reddy-brown fur, and couldn’t run as fast on all fours as the others. I tried to make up for it by moving as quickly as possible on my inadequate two legs and by growing out my hair, which was almost the same as fur. It was the right colour too. Brown, like my skin. Except my skin was covered, hidden beneath the blue jacket, shirt and pants I needed as protection against the cold. The differences between myself and the rest of the Pack made me want to pace and shake out the fur I didn’t have. But doing that would reveal my worry to the others, and worrying – when our territory was free of other predators and when the Pack was healthy and prey plentiful – wasn’t wolf. And I was wolf.
There was a stirring in the warm darkness of the den. Pack Leader raised his head, sniffed once, and rolled to his feet. Ears pricked and noses lifted as everyone waited for instructions. Pack Leader’s golden eyes focused on me. The others flopped back into sleep, while I leaped into a half-crouch. I couldn’t stand completely, because I would’ve hit my head on the dirt ceiling of our underground burrow. Besides, standing upright made me tall in an unwolf-like way. Pack Leader loped out, and I followed, darting under the tree root that arched over the mouth of the den.
Outside the world was cold and grey with the light that came right after sun-wakes. As I wriggled out the wind tore through the forest, rushing into my ears and sending my hair flying. It was making strange, whispering noises that almost seemed to be words. I barked, loud and fierce. The odd breeze went away. I cast a hopeful glance at Pack Leader to see if he’d noticed my victory. All he did was sit down, lift his nose and sniff again. There was obviously
out here and it wasn’t the wind.
Anxious to please him, I sniffed as deep as I could. Scents raced up my nose and exploded into my head. I took a single, giddy bound into the forest, then skidded to an undignified halt. How embarrassing. Not daring to look at Pack Leader, I held myself still, doing my very best to make it seem as though I’d been trying to find a better position to smell from. This time I separated out the scents, searching for whatever had made Pack Leader bring me out of the den. Rain, coming later today. The sharp tang of eucalyptus from the leaves of the huge tuart trees, and the lighter, minty smell of the peppermints that grew beneath them. The muskiness of treecats slumbering in branches high above us, the sweet headiness of waratah flowers and … oh, rabbit! I yipped, bouncing in place. Pack Leader didn’t move. He wasn’t taking me on a hunt, and my head drooped. He didn’t seem to think I was worthy to kill with the other wolves, or even to share in the meat.
He’d see, though. I was a good wolf.
I went back to sniffing, finally catching the scent of something that was not forest, or prey, or wolf. It belonged to the ones that the wolves thought of as the
Pack. The human pack. Two were headed this way. They drew closer, near enough for me to make out their individual scents. Pictures flashed into my head, first of a thin, olive-skinned girl with long black curls. Then of a male, tall and brown, with eyes that were the colour of tuart leaves. I knew these humans. I couldn’t remember how, but it was well enough to give them wolf names.
. And … wait, there was a third, walking behind the others. I knew him too. Pale skin, blue eyes, black hair.
. Limbs quivering with joy, I put my nose to the air, breathing in his smell. I wanted to run through the forest and scamper about Flies High as if I were a silly pup.
Until my joy was swamped by a crashing wave of dread.
I lifted my lip, and growled. Pack Leader snapped at me, and I cowered, bewildered.
Flies High isn’t a threat?
Then why did I want to chase him away?
The humans came into view, walking through the trees. They were wearing the same coverings I was, except in different colours. Blue on Looks Ahead and Fleet Foot, greeny-brown on Flies High.
With a wary glance at Pack Leader, I opened my jaws, releasing a low breath that had a tiny rumble at the edges. Pack Leader’s ears flicked in my direction, but he let it pass.
The humans stopped. Fleet Foot spoke. “I think we’re scaring her.”
scaring her,” Flies High said.
Somewhere, a wolf howled, a single, lonely note of distress. I twisted, searching for the hurt wolf. The sound seemed to be everywhere and nowhere, and I realised it was coming from
my head. Bewildered, I whined at Pack Leader, who fixed a golden gaze on me. He didn’t speak, but I understood him.
Be calm. I am your Pack Leader, and I am here
Looks Ahead took a step towards me and paused, waiting to see what I would do. I didn’t do anything, because I wasn’t afraid, at least not of her. Pack Leader was here, and besides, Looks Ahead was – a pup? No, that wasn’t quite right. She was full-grown and yet somehow pup-like, in need of protection and not a threat. She reached me in five hesitant paces and crouched down. “Ash? We all miss you. Don’t you want to come back to us?”
More pictures flooded into my mind. A fire. Endless caves. And a lot of human faces – brown-eyed, blue-eyed, dark-skinned, light-skinned … I didn’t like it. It reminded me of a time when I was not wolf, which was impossible. I had always been wolf. I gave my head a furious shake, trying to get rid of the images.
Looks Ahead straightened, and spoke to the others. “I think we should tell her.”
“She’s here because she couldn’t cope,” Flies High replied. “Telling her might push her right over the edge.”
“She always comes when we need her!”
“Ordinarily, yes. But I think we can all agree this behaviour isn’t normal. She’s running away, Georgie. And I’m not sure she even knows what she’s running from.”
I didn’t understand what the two of them were talking about, and the third one, Fleet Foot, kept staring at me. “Connor, do her eyes seem a little yellow to you?”
For some reason, that made them all stare. I bared my teeth, ready to spring if they attacked. Then Flies High turned away, running a hand through his hair. “They
gold. I should have seen it.”
The howling wolf that only I seemed to hear returned, keening in pain. I pawed at my skull as Fleet Foot spoke. “My animal is a hawk, remember? I have better eyesight than anyone else in the Tribe.”
Looks Ahead glanced from them to me and back again. “You think she’s changing into a wolf?”
“I don’t know,” Fleet Foot replied. “We’ve really got no idea what could happen to her. No one in the Tribe has ever lived with their animals the way she’s been living with the wolves.”
“I live with my spiders!” Looks Ahead protested.
“It isn’t the same,” Flies High said. “You aren’t trying to
a spider. We have to tell her. And if it doesn’t work – I’m using my ability to drag her out of here.”
I didn’t know what an ability was, and the wailing of the wolf in my head seemed to mean it wasn’t anything good. I lunged, snapping at Flies High.
Looks Ahead shouted, “That’s enough!”
There was a powerful note of command in her voice, and I froze, astonished. She wasn’t a pack leader, but she sounded like one. “You have to listen to me now, Ash. This is important.”
She crouched down again. Then she tilted her head to one side, blinked pale green eyes, and spoke three words that shattered the world into pieces.
“Ember is missing.”
Ember is missing
The words reverberated through my body. Everything split into two as different realities competed for dominance: the world of wolves – fur and den and Pack, and that of humans – clothes and cave and Tribe. I longed to abandon myself to the wolf world. I couldn’t.
Because Ember was missing and she was important.
A face appeared in my mind. Round cheeks, red hair and fair skin. Strange eyes, one blue and one brown.
Grabbing hold of the image, I followed it back to the other Pack, the other world. A kaleidoscope of pictures came together, the same ones I’d seen before, only now I understood them. The fire we cooked our meals on, the caves where Ember had her lab and Georgie made her maps of the future, and where we all slept when the weather was cold. The many faces of the Tribe.
What was I doing here? I was filthy, covered in dirt and crouching on the ground. I straightened, and reeled. Too tall, too high! But I forced myself to stay upright, staggering to the nearest tree and waving the others away when they moved closer. I leaned against the trunk and the dizziness eased, the tuart giving me the balance I couldn’t find on my own.
. I dug my fingers into the rough grey bark and pressed my feet into the earth, needing to connect to the forest that had been my home ever since I’d run away from my parents.
When the dizziness was gone, I glanced over at Looks Ahead. No, at
. “Wharrrrr …” I stopped. My words were coming out as growls. Human sounds, I had to make human sounds. At least I couldn’t hear the howling anymore, although I didn’t like the silence in my mind either. There was an emptiness, where something should have been.
Being a human was already complicated. “What … do … you … mean, missing?”
“She didn’t come back from Gull City. Do you remember, she went to see the Serpent? We don’t know what happened after she got there, of course–”
“Stop!” Images were popping into my head. Buildings and winding streets. Waves pounding on sand. And an enormous glowing snake. “I can’t underrrr … understand you.”
I gave up on speaking, directing a forlorn glance at Pack Leader where he lay in the dirt. He turned his head away. I had to deal with this on my own.
Flies High – Connor – broke the silence. “Ashala.”
Hearing him say my name was as shattering as hearing “Ember is missing”, although for a different reason. Connor was the only one who ever said it that way, drawing the word out over three beats.
. I love you.
Memories of him sparked like lights, a lightning storm of shared laughter and adventure and passion. It became at once easier and harder to find my centre as a human instead of a wolf. Easier, because I remembered being a leader, a fighter, a girl. Harder, because I knew what I’d done to Connor, the thing that had sent me fleeing to the wolves to begin with. My skin heated in shame and I stared miserably into his blue eyes.