The bitter reek of blood mixed with the sweet scent of pine and morning dew. Kyah’s nose wrinkled against the smell as she emerged from the underground burrow. Her pale skin flushed with the increase of her heart rate. The tips of her fingers pulsed almost painfully—her body’s warning that something was very wrong. She clutched her shawl, fending off the chill skittering down her spine.
The forest was much too quiet.
Kyah inhaled deeply, closing her eyes to track the direction of the blood. Her breath plumed before her in a silver cloud with each exhale. With her bare toes sinking into the damp leaves of the forest floor, she sprinted west. The smell of blood intensified with every step. She clenched her jaw, wondering why no one had come for her, but in the back of her mind knew it was much too early—there was too much blood.
“Spirit please, not another.” The prayer spilled from her lips as she hurried between the giant redwoods and dodged the branches of pines clawing her.
It wasn’t long before she found the wolves. The pack was gathered near the border of the territory, their strong bodies of gray and brown fur forming a circle around something Kyah couldn’t see. Her stomach sank at the stillness of them all. She stumbled as she rushed forward down the sloping terrain. Twigs snapped beneath her toes, yet none of wolves acknowledged her approach. Every lupine eye was fixed on the ground.
“Let me pass!” Kyah huffed, nearly choking on the stench of blood. The nearest wolf, barely older than a pup, backed up to let her slip through the circle. Nadie was crouched near the center, head hung low.
The exact thing Kyah had prayed not to see was sprawled out before her. Black pools of blood clung to the leaves, splattering the remains of the pale skin. The mutilated body was unrecognizable. The eyes were gouged out and the mouth was a gaping hole of splintered teeth. Its chest and abdomen were ripped open, organs and entrails spread out along the ground. Like all the others before, nothing was eaten, only slashed and gnawed. Just senseless death.
A cold nose pressed into Kyah’s sweating palm, grounding her. She didn’t know which wolf had come to offer her comfort, but she leaned into its sturdy body.
“We have to move her.” Nadie’s wild, knotted white hair fell over her face as she spoke without looking up. “The rest of the tribe cannot see this.”
Kyah glanced down at the wolf beside her. The animal’s clear amber eyes reflected
the sadness that festered in her gut. She was thankful for the pack. The wolves offered them companionship and safety. But sometimes, even the strongest of wolves could not protect them all.
“Thank you,” she whispered, stroking its head. It whined softly as Kyah left the warmth of its brown fur to kneel. Nadie’s gaze was frozen on the body; fisted hands smeared with blood. Kyah lightly touched Nadie’s shoulder, but she did not stir.
“Do you know who she is?” Kyah asked.
Nadie’s hands unclenched, splaying out as if straining to touch the lifeless hand mere inches away, but then she dug her nails into the skin above her knees. Her face crumpled, tears welled in her eyes but one never fell.
“Not…not yet,” she stammered.
This vulnerability was foreign on Nadie’s face. Neither of the two women were strangers to death—yet in the early morning with no one but Kyah as witness—Nadie didn’t have to hold herself together. She was free to feel her grief and Kyah was not going to stop her.
Nadie’s nails dug into her skin far enough to draw blood; a few more scars to add to the hundreds that crisscrossed her flesh. Kyah silently squeezed Nadie’s shoulder. Even the birds were even quiet as the moments passed.
Eventually, Nadie sighed. “We should bring her to the Den.”
Kyah’s stomach churned as she glanced back down at the body. There wasn’t much left holding the corpse together and it was a long way up to the Den.
Kyah gnawed on her brittle nails. “We should wrap her up. It would make it…easier.”
Nadie glanced helplessly down at her bare legs. She wore nothing more than her short, deer-skin dress. Kyah wondered how she bared the chill in such clothes. Nadie never seemed cold. Her blood was as fiery as her soul.
yah unwrapped her warm shawl, stifling a shiver as the cold wind caressed her exposed skin.
“This might help,” she offered, holding it out to Nadie.
Nadie held the shawl with reverence. Her eyes wide as she drew the it to her chest.
“Thank you,” she said, voice thick. “I appreciate your sacrifice.”
She closed her eyes and whispered a quiet prayer. They did not speak again until Nadie’s eyes fluttered open.
“Nadie,” Kyah murmured, “this is not your fault.”
Nadie stiffened. “This should not have happened.”
Kyah shook her head. “No, this should never happen, but it’s not your fault. You know what’s to blame for this.”
Nadie’s crimson eyes flared with something deeper than hatred. “I know what they are,” she spat between clenched teeth. “But this happened on my watch. The burden falls on my shoulders.”
“Enough, Kyah,” she snapped, raising a hand. “Let us get her to the Den before the others wake. Now.” Nadie slipped smoothly back into her usual, commanding self. She was the leader, and even though Kyah wanted to protest, she had to respect her position in the tribe.
Together the two of them wrapped the body in Kyah’s shawl. It wasn’t easy, and every time Kyah’s fingers grazed the broken, dead flesh a spike of nausea shot through her. There was no thrum of life—nothing but cold emptiness. Kyah looked away as Nadie retrieved some of the more delicate pieces of the body and placed them carefully into the cocoon of fabric they were fashioning.
They did not speak a word as they finished the task, lifted their fellow tribe member, and made their way to the wolf’s Den.