I wake with a start, a scream yanking me from my peaceful dream. I’m up and standing on my feet before my brain can process what’s happening. There’s a rising chorus of growls coming from my right.
Their scrawny bodies are hunched over and their fur is standing on end as sounds like thunder rumble from the depths their throat and slip from between the cracks in their teeth. There are maybe fifty of them stalking out from the shadows of the trees, hungrily swinging their heads back and forth, scanning for threats and for prey. On the other side of the pack, one of them lunges onto a child close by, and I reach down to grab my bow and quiver off the ground. My adrenaline suddenly kicks in and momentarily covers up the sorrow I have for the certain death of this child.
And then I remember Lily-flor.
Frantically, I scan the area for her as I aim the arrow at the repulsive feasting beast on the other side of the village. I’m ready to shoot it dead even if there is no saving the child. The poor child…
The leader of the wolf pack looks up at me suddenly and lets out a nasty snarl, making my blood run cold. Its already dark eyes darken and its features seem to grow larger, its muscles bulging from its scrawny frame.
I aim my weapon at him as he turns and takes a step toward me, almost seeming to smile cruelly.
“Lily-flor!” I cry, looking away from the beast.
Lily-flor screams for me to watch out as the large beastly wolf jumps into the air, its jaws open and ready to rip into me. I shoot my arrow, hitting it in the shoulder. It whimpers slightly, but its momentum finishes carrying it through the air and it crashes into my body, making us fall to the ground. It snaps its jaws hungrily as I try to reach through our entanglement and push its snout away from my face. I’m strong enough to do so, but I don’t know how long I can hold it off.
Shrill cries and terrified screams circle all around me, from both my people and the murderous animals. I need to help. I need to do something…
A fire lights inside of me.
Suddenly the large wolf drops limply onto my body. I scramble out from under it, my back pressed against the wall of the house behind me. My breath catches up to me.
“Come on, Cressa-la!” Rai-si is holding a hand out to me, his bloody spear gripped tight in the other. Taking the offer, I jump up, my body tired only for a moment.
I grab my bow and quiver, throwing the wooden arrow-holder over my shoulder and placing an arrow into the bow. Adrenaline kicks in, and I shoot at the nearest wolf, making it recoil and turn around toward me. I shoot again, the arrow going straight into his skull and making him drop to the ground with a sickening thud.
“Cressa-la!” I hear.
I turn to my right. Lily-flor is backed up to a wall and covering her face, tears streaming down her dirty cheeks. Three wolves have her trapped. They know she’s one of the weaker tribespeople, one of the young.
I aim and shoot, Rai-si helping me free Lily-flor from the beasts. Moments later, she is safe and hugging me tight. A small tingle of relief washes through me.
“Thank you!” she cries, more tears falling down to her chin.
“Don’t cry,” I tell her, looking around for more danger. “You’ll need that water later. Don’t dehydrate yourself. Get into a house. Now.”
She obeys and I turn back around, sending another arrow soaring, only needing one this time to shoot another wolf dead.
“Enough!” Rai-si cries. Everyone lowers their weapons. The wolves are retreating.
The village cries out in happiness.
The last wolf limps off into the woods, looking back with a dark glare, as if it would taste revenge soon enough. It looks right at me, stopping me cold. Something about its eyes seems… human. As if there’s more than just an animal occupying its brain. And for a second, I see a flash of green shiver across them and one corner of its mouth turn up more than the other before it turns away.
A strange sense of calm pushes through my body.
It doesn’t take long for the sobs and cries of the people to take over the sounds of nature around us as we count our dead. Rai-si and the other Tribe Leaders call for our people to meet in a circle around them.
They stand on the platform that lifts them three feet off the ground. It’s placed in front of their row of houses and behind the Feasting Table, where we set, skin, and dress our killed food.
People hold and comfort each other over the loss of the children, over the loss of our people… I feel numb as I hold Lily-flor, and she hides her face in the loose animal skin of my shirt. I have lost no one as far as I know. I’m still alive and Lily-flor is still alive, and Nan-ah is most likely still alive. There is no reason to mourn right now. Not in front of the rest of the tribe, anyway. As soon as I turn eighteen, I will stand trial to become a Tribe Leader myself and I will have to be strong for my people. All of my mourning behind closed doors where no one can see. But right now I have to focus. I have to be strong for Lily-flor, if no one else.
“We have counted our dead,” Rai-si announces as the other Tribe Leaders line up beside him. Tani-mah, Kan-ner, Marin-na, Yurt-sah, and Lup-mem. They all stand with their faces hard as stone and absent of any emotion. “This has by far been the largest and strongest attack among the past moon cycles this year, but we were able to make the strangely powerful animals flee. I am proud of my people.
“However,” he continues. “We have lost a great sum of our people. Before the attack, we had one hundred and fifty-two tribespeople. Tonight we lost twenty babies, fifty children, and ten adults past the age of eighteen.”
Rai-si pauses, taking a deep breath, the slim crowd sobbing silently. I look around for only one familiar face. Nan-ah. I hope I just can’t see her… She is incredibly short, after all.
“Tonight, what’s left is,” he takes another breath and looks up at the crowd, sadness in his eyes. “Seventy-two.”
Mournful wails slip out from several mouths around me. I feel a knot in my throat. We are no longer the largest tribe. Wurn now is, with a population of eighty-seven. If they wanted, they could overpower us and they would do it without a second thought. They would enjoy every minute of it.
“Yurt-sah will list the fallen, oldest to youngest.”
Yurt-sah begins, and sure enough, the first name called is the one belonging to my past. Nan-ah.
Tears catch in my eyes and a knot forms in my throat. I can’t cry, I remind myself. Stay strong for Lily-flor.
“In respect and many thanks for these lost souls, you will be able to put your loved ones’ names on the Wall of the Dead. If you choose not to, we Tribe Leaders will do it for you. Marin-na will sing our Song of Death to say our final goodbyes. You are all free to sing along, my people, my wonderful people.”
Marin-na steps forward, her delicate brown feet making little noise on the platform she stands on. She begins to sing, the song seeming to come from the depths of her soul, the bottom of her heart, and everyone joins in, even me.
“You were a part of something bigger than yourself,
But you had to leave life behind so soon.
I was sure you’d live here forever,
But I must now face the sad truth…
The waves washed you away with their glory,
And the sun beckoned to you with its light.
Your ears heard me calling, but you knew
It was time for you to say goodbye…”
Melancholy notes of humming drift over the land as my people cry out in mourning for their loved ones, the people they had grown close to, the family they had fought for—fought with over the years. I close my eyes and let the song swallow me up once more as its lyrics drift through the air.