Between the three wagons in the gypsy caravan, Karalynn knew hers was the best. It was the only one made all of wood, even the roof, so she could climb up on the very top and get the best view. Karalynn could see everything from the top of her caravan, all the way from one horizon to the other. She saw a herd of giraffes way off to the west, their long, graceful necks reaching up into the trees. To the east, a herd of springbok bounced through the grass, leaping high over the plains. Ahead, the road they took led towards the northern mountains, dark blue-violet silhouettes against the reddening sky.
‘Uncle Hamilton!’ Karalynn shouted back to the wagon behind her. She had to whip her hand up quickly to stop her hat flying off in a gust of wind. ‘Look at the springbok!’ she called, pointing with her free hand.
As she watched the bounding herd, Karalynn caught sight of something else in the grass around them. Dark shapes speeding along in menacing waves. She could hear their sharp yips and barks from across the distance, and realised now why the springbok were fleeing. They were being hunted.
‘Aren’t they beautiful?’ Uncle Hamilton shouted back. He couldn’t see the wolves from his lower perch.
Karalynn gripped the wooden railing around the edge of the roof with white knuckles. She willed the springbok to jump faster, but the wolves were closing in on one trailing behind. For breathless heartbeats, Karalynn watched the wolves leap, three at once onto the springbok.
And then they disappeared, hidden beneath the waving golden grass.
Karalynn let out a long breath, not taking her eyes from the patch of grass where the wolves had vanished. Her fingers tingled cold in her tight grip on the railing, and she could hear her heartbeat in her ears. Every now and then, she saw a dog-shaped head lift above the grass, heard an excited yap over the hushing of the wind.
‘Wolves,’ she squeaked. She managed to pull her eyes from the scene and looked down to where Papa drove the wagon. Mama sat next to him, the bright red and orange colours in her headscarf flapping in the wind. ‘Wolves!’ she said again, trying to shout, but her voice would hardly go above a whimper.
Mama looked up with dark, concerned eyes. ‘What’s the matter, Karalynn?’
Karalynn didn’t try to talk again, only pointed over where the wolves were devouring their prey.
Mama followed her finger and sighed. She said something briefly in Papa’s ear, then climbed up onto the roof.
‘They won’t hurt you,’ she said, bringing an arm around Karalynn’s shoulders. Already Karalynn could feel the chill of her fear begin to melt, but the wolves were still there.
‘They ate the springbok,’ she managed to whisper.
‘Shh,’ Mama hushed, hugging her tighter. She began to rock gently from side to side on the roof. ‘You’re safe, sweetie.’
‘Shh, shh.’ She rested her head against Karalynn’s with another heavy sigh. ‘That’s how nature works, sweetie. It’s harsh sometimes, but the wolves have to eat, too.’
Karalynn nodded and curled up against her mother’s side. What Mama said was true, she knew, but why did the wolves have to be so vicious? She took a deep breath and watched the mountains ahead instead. Birds flocked towards them in tight formations, speckling the sky with their black silhouettes as they headed for bed.
‘Time for us to settle down for the night, too.’ Mama patted Karalynn on the shoulder, then bent over the edge of the roof. ‘Ready to pull over, dear?’ she called to Papa.
Papa lifted his ragged hat in answer, then pulled the wagon off to the side of the road. Karalynn held tight to the roof as the wagon rattled over the rough ground. The other two wagons followed, forming a tight circle around where they would light the campfire.
Karalynn climbed down from the wagon and jumped to the ground. She patted the two horses on their stripy black and white shoulders in thanks for their safe journey, then went to help Mama unpack the wagon. It had been a warm day, and was set to be a warm night, but Karalynn didn’t want to sleep out under the stars tonight. The wolves would be fresh in her mind for some time yet.
‘Can you sleep with me in the wagon tonight?’ she asked quietly.
Mama held the back of Karalynn’s head in one hand, and kissed her forehead. ‘Of course, sweetie.’
Karalynn smiled and kissed her back, then climbed into the back of the wagon to fetch Papa’s bedding. The wagon was easily big enough for four, but she knew Papa would prefer to sleep outside. Besides, Papa snored too loudly.
It wasn’t long before the fire pit was dug and the campfire lit. Mama and Auntie Madelina soon had a pot of stew swinging over the flames, sending delicious smells into the air around their camp. The warmth of the dancing flames and promise of a full belly was enough to wash away the lingering fear of the wolves. Karalynn smiled as she watched the firelight dance over the brightly painted wagons.
After they had finished eating, Mama stood and clapped her hands together over her head, two quick claps followed by one longer one. Karalynn cheered and quickly took up the beat. Her aunts, uncles and cousins around the fire cheered and clapped in unison, all except Uncle Hamilton who took up his violin and began playing to the beat.
The beat extended to Mama’s feet, her dusty boots thumping against the earth in that same pattern, her metal charms rattling loudly from her ankles, wrists and around her waist. She grinned at Karalynn and gave her a candid wink, the firelight making her face even warmer.
‘Faster, Hamilton!’ she chanted.
Karalynn clapped louder, bouncing on the ground in her urge to get up and dance, too, but she wanted to see Mama dance, first.
Mama twirled on the spot, her tie-dyed red and orange skirts whipping around her like the fire she danced next to. She caught hold of her skirts and spun with them, dancing in fabulous jingling circles around the campfire. All the while, Karalynn and her family clapped and cheered her on with Uncle Hamilton’s jaunty violin.
‘Me too! Me too!’ Karalynn cried, reaching her arms up. Mama laughed and took her hands, pulling her up with a grunt of effort and swinging her around.
Karalynn laughed aloud and danced with her mother, the wolves all but forgotten. Hours later, exhausted but perfectly happy, she crawled under her blankets and quickly fell asleep.
She didn’t know what time she was woken up, but it must have been late. She could hear the wild, almost maniacal laughs of a pack of hyenas, then silence.
‘Mama,’ she whispered, feeling her heart begin to race again, and her fingertips prickle with fear. ‘Mama!’
Mama cleared her throat and rolled over, propping herself up on one elbow to look at her daughter. ‘What is it, sweetie?’
The hyenas answered for her, laughing wildly in the night before falling silent again. They were louder, closer than last time.
‘Wait here,’ Mama whispered, and Karalynn was too scared to tell her otherwise. She watched with wide eyes as Mama climbed out the back of the wagon and into the night. The only light came from the stars and the full roundness of the moon. The fire had long since died.
Mama moved as quietly as her jingling metal charms would allow her, and Karalynn could hear her family slowly waking up as Mama shook them.
All the while the hyenas drew closer. Karalynn pulled her blanket up to her nose whenever she heard their laughter. She wondered if maybe it had been these hyenas she had seen yesterday, and not wolves at all. The hyenas sounded far more threatening, laughing as they closed in on their prey.
Karalynn shivered and curled tightly into one corner of the wagon. She couldn’t see anything outside except the speckled stars and a sliver of the moon peeking in from behind the roof. The plains were dark with only the faintest hint of silver. It was just enough that she could see a dark shape slink through the grass between her wagon and the next.
Karalynn’s breath caught in a hard lump in her throat, and she sat frozen under her blankets. The hyenas laughed again, sounding threatening and delighted at the same time. Karalynn couldn’t even blink as she stared out at the night.
Worse noises than the hyenas’ laughter came from the centre of their camp. Shrieks and yelps of pain from people and hyenas alike, thwacks and cracks of wood against flesh, shouts of anger and always the high-pitched, crazed laughter.
Another dark shape flashed past the wagon, followed by two more, and then the yips and barks of the wolves joined the fight. The canines snarled and screamed so that Karalynn couldn’t hear her family anymore.
The hyenas yelped. Their laughter seemed to turn towards fear and then, miraculously, to vanish. The terrible sound died away as the hyenas ran scared into the night.
Karalynn trembled, paralysed by fear at the back of the wagon that had once seemed so safe. She could still hear the wolves outside, their hot panting breaths and snuffling noses as they explored the otherwise silent camp.
One poked its head into Karalynn’s caravan, its paws on the edge of the railing.
Karalynn gasped, her mind too frozen even to scream.
The wolf ducked its head so its nose was hidden. It looked at Karalynn with eyes that glowed silver in the moonlight, and its ears seemed to flop a little when it saw her. It looked back briefly over its shoulder with a quiet whimper, then crouched back and leapt up into the wagon.
Karalynn found movement enough to curl even deeper into the corner, though she didn’t take her eyes from the murderous creature.
The wolf stopped with one paw in the air. Its tail hung limply behind it, and it dipped its head low, not meeting Karalynn’s eyes as it recommenced its slow, careful approach. It seemed to favour one of its front legs over the other, and Karalynn could see glistening blood on one paw.
‘P-please,’ Karalynn tried, her throat making barely any noise at all. ‘Go away.’
The wolf pricked its ears up. It looked up without lifting its head, then it sighed, nodded once, and turned away. It lifted its injured paw gingerly as it jumped down from the wagon.
Mama never came back.
The realisation of all that had happened washed over Karalynn in a stifling wave. Tears she had been too scared to notice before now flowed hot and stinging. Her sobs were muffled and quiet as she held her blanket over her face. Anything to hide the reality that surrounded her.
Somehow, though, Karalynn must have fallen asleep, because she was woken by the maniacal laughter of the hyenas. She did scream, this time, only to realise their laughter had only been in her nightmare. Three times more the hyenas woke her. Once, the chilling sound echoed after she was awake before disappearing once more into the night.
By the fifth nightmare that dragged Karalynn from her sleep, the pale golden glow of dawn touched the savannah outside the wagon. She watched the waving grass for a moment, then realised she wasn’t alone. A second body kept her warm, his rough hand stroking her hair.
‘Papa?’ she asked quietly.
‘Shh,’ he hushed. ‘I’m deeply sorry, little one.’
Karalynn had been taught about the dangers of people she didn’t know, but after last night, any person was a comfort.
He was nothing like Papa, Karalynn now realised. Instead of smelling like campfire and horses, this stranger smelt of leather and something tangy and unpleasant. His long legs stretched out in front of him, crossed at the ankles and clad in leather pants and tough boots. His other hand, the one that wasn’t stroking Karalynn’s hair, rested in his lap. A bright blue cloth was tied around it, from his wrist to his knuckles, and stained dark on the back.
‘What’s your name?’ he asked, in a voice that sounded as though it wasn’t used to being quiet.
‘Karalynn.’ She frowned at the hair on his arm. It was patchy, some blond and some black. ‘What’s yours?’
‘Niccolai,’ he answered.
‘Is that Auntie Madelina’s scarf?’ Karalynn asked, recognising some of the pattern on the cloth around his hand.
Niccolai turned his hand over to look at it. He let out a heavy sigh. ‘I’m so sorry, Karalynn,’ he repeated. ‘Come on. It’s time to go.’
‘Just… go,’ Niccolai almost snapped. ‘Away.’ His voice growled deep in the back of his throat as he spoke. Karalynn watched his bandaged hand form a fist in his lap.
‘Are you angry?’ she asked quietly.
‘Not at you,’ Niccolai assured her, his voice softening again. He patted her shoulder. ‘Come, little one. I need you to trust me.’
Karalynn hesitated a moment, then pulled away from his arm to look up at Niccolai’s face. He looked scary, with dark, heavy eyebrows and a thin, scraggy beard, but somehow, the way he smiled had Karalynn smiling back at him. It was a wide, hopeful smile that stretched across his whole face and crinkled the corners of his dark eyes. His hair, mostly blond with a single dark streak straight up from the middle of his forehead, was pulled back behind big ears into a long, loose tail.
‘I’ll trust you,’ Karalynn agreed with a nod.
Niccolai’s smile relaxed a little, then he curled his legs under him and crawled to the back of the wagon. He jumped down and held a hand out to Karalynn to help her down, casting a brief glance towards the campfire. ‘Don’t look that way,’ he said, a little of the growl returning to his voice.
Karalynn nodded and crawled towards him, holding her blanket tight in one hand. She sat on her heels and looked at his hand as a thought came to her. ‘Can I ride on your shoulders?’ He was so tall it would almost be like riding on top of the caravan.
Niccolai’s shaggy eyebrows lifted in surprise, then he smiled again. ‘Of course you may.’ He turned around and crouched down so Karalynn could climb up.
Karalynn hooked her knees over his shoulders and held her arms around his forehead as Niccolai straightened with a grunt of effort. She closed her eyes as instructed and turned her face away from the campsite.
‘You’ll meet my family shortly,’ Niccolai told her. ‘See that big chunk of rock over there? That’s where we’re camping tonight. We’ll look after you, I promise.’
‘The wolves and the hyenas took them all, didn’t they?’ Karalynn whispered. Her eyes prickled even as she had them shut tight.
Niccolai’s head shook, just as much as her grip would allow him. ‘The hyenas did, yes,’ he corrected. ‘Not the wolves.’
Karalynn carefully opened her eyes. ‘I heard wolves, too.’ The sun was rising behind them, but she dared not turn around to look at it. Instead she spotted the rocky outcrop Niccolai had pointed out to her. It looked something like an enormous elephant, with a herd of smaller ones lumbering along behind it.
‘There were wolves,’ Niccolai agreed. It sounded like he had something else to say, but he kept his mouth shut.
‘What is it?’ Karalynn prompted. She ran her finger over the black streak through Niccolai’s messy blond hair.
Niccolai made a sound between a growl and a sigh. ‘The wolves,’ he said carefully. ‘They’re my family. And me.’
‘You?’ Karalynn frowned in confusion. ‘But you’re a man.’
Niccolai nodded. ‘And a wolf, when the moon is full in the sky.’
The gypsy girl shook her head ‘You can’t be.’ Her voice was small.
Niccolai stopped and reached up, lifting Karalynn from his shoulders to set her feet back on the ground. He crouched down in front of her, taking both her hands in his.
‘The wolf that jumped into the back of your wagon,’ he said, his rough fingers gently massaging hers. ‘The one with the injured paw.’
Karalynn stared at his right hand. Auntie Madelina’s bright blue scarf was crusted with blood where he’d tied it. She snatched her hands away, clasping them to her chest as she took a fearful step backwards. ‘No,’ she whispered, shaking her head. Her scalp was prickling, and she could hear her heart thumping against her eardrums.
Niccolai said nothing. He knelt in the grass, hands resting against his leather-clad thighs as he watched her. His eyes were patient, quiet. He didn’t look any different, but everything about him had changed.
‘You,’ Karalynn squeaked.
Niccolai nodded as she searched for words.
She swallowed, finding her mouth dry. ‘You killed Mama.’
‘No!’ Niccolai’s face sprang to life. His teeth snapped in a frightened snarl. ‘No! We didn’t—Karalynn!’
Karalynn was running. Tears nearly blinded her as she fled back to the caravans. She could still see them, not far off, their brightly-painted rooves peering up above the golden waves of grass.
She screamed as a pair of strong hands grabbed her under the arms, swept her from the ground and caught her in a tight hug.
‘No!’ she cried, pushing and kicking until Niccolai would let her go.
‘Karalynn, listen to me! We were trying to protect your family!’
‘No!’ She kicked him hard in the stomach, and finally he let her go. He shouted after her as she ran, but Karalynn wasn’t listening. It was enough to know he wasn’t chasing her anymore.
It wasn’t long before she ran out of breath and staggered, shaking and scared, into the camp.
The sandy soil smelt of blood, and there were mounds of dirt in a circle around the fire pit. Seventeen in all, one for each member of Karalynn’s family. A stake had been driven into the ground at the head of each mound. Sitting on that one was Papa’s hat, propped against another was Uncle Hamilton’s violin, tied to another was Mama’s jingling belt of charms.
Karalynn knelt before Mama’s grave, the mound of sandy earth blurring amidst her tears. She wondered if her eyes would ever be dry again. She felt so heavy, so exhausted from all the crying. Each time she lifted her gaze, seventeen mounds of earth brought her down again.
She was going to learn how to make Grandma’s famous rabbit stew tonight. There would be no more dances of laughter and light around the campfire, no more rides on top of the wagons to see the savanna.
Karalynn wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and took a deep breath, then walked on her knees to Uncle Hamilton’s grave. She took up his violin, running her fingers over the cracked old varnish. He had taught her only one tune, too fast and frantic for a funeral tune, and she wasn’t very good at it, but she wanted to do something.
She took another breath and closed her eyes, heedless of the tears that were second nature now, and held the violin under her chin. She positioned her fingers over the strings, held the bow how Uncle Hamilton had shown her, and began to play.
It was her favourite, always bright and frenzied when he played it, though she was much slower. Her notes were shaky, as much from her quivering fingers as her lack of ability, but she could see the campfire behind her eyelids, smell the smoke and the horses and hear Mama’s laughter and everyone’s clapping. She kept playing, even when the notes she played no longer resembled the song in her head. Anything was better than the silence of the wind and the dust.
The sun was high in the sky when finally her music stopped. Mama and Uncle Hamilton blew from her mind and the seventeen mounds of earth were back, but now her eyes were dry. She almost looked right through the graves now. She was so heavy…
She set the violin back against the stake marking Uncle Hamilton’s grave and curled up between Mama’s and Papa’s. At least they were still together, she thought, and closed her eyes.
The high-pitched laughter of the hyenas shocked her back into wakefulness late in the afternoon. She sat up in a cold sweat, holding her breath to listen for the hyenas, but around her was just the sound of the wind through the grass. The jingling from Mama’s charm belt drew her eyes back to the grave.
She frowned then, really seeing the graves for the first time. All seventeen of her family members had had their graves dug, been buried, filled in and marked. It could only have been the wolves who had taken that care.
Karalynn stood up and looked towards the two elephant-shaped rocks that marked Niccolai’s camp. They’d been trying to protect her, he’d told her, and she wanted to believe him. Even as she had kicked him and run with her hands over her ears, she’d wanted to believe him.
Her memory showed her the previous day—was it only yesterday?—when she’d seen the flock of gazelles. A pack of wolves had taken one of the beautiful animals down, leaping on it with claws and snarling teeth.
She shook her head. That wasn’t Niccolai and his family, she reminded herself. He was a man by day. It was only when the full moon rose at sunset that he was a wolf.
She shivered and hugged her arms around herself, almost turning away from the stone elephants, but a dark shape in a nearby tree caught her eye. She held her hand up to shade her eyes from the late-afternoon sun. A man was sitting on the branch, one leg hanging down as an arm held the branch above him. He was watching over the savanna, head slowly turning as he scanned the grass. Karalynn didn’t need anything more than his silhouette to know it was Niccolai.
She saw him cringe when he noticed her watching him. She hugged her arms around her waist as her skin prickled and her heart quickened. She wanted to trust him, but the howling of the wolves in her mind still frightened her.
Niccolai dropped his arm from the branch above him and hung his other leg down, but he didn’t move to climb down from the tree. Karalynn took a deep breath and turned to her mother’s grave once more.
‘Watch over me, Mama,’ she whispered, then began walking away from the campsite. Her legs were shaky as she approached the wolf-man’s tree, and she could hear her heartbeat in her ears. It took all her courage to give him even a timid wave.
‘Did you dig my family’s graves?’ she asked.
Niccolai nodded, a small, hesitant movement. ‘We did,’ he answered.
The wolf-man cleared his throat, clasped his hands in front of him, braced them against the branch he sat on. He was just as nervous as she was, Karalynn realised. ‘We’re not animals,’ he said carefully. He was worried, but his gaze was strong as his eyes met hers. ‘We were all people before we became wolves. We’re people still.’
Karalynn watched him, knotting her fingers in her skirt before looking awkwardly at her feet.
‘I’m going to come down now,’ Niccolai warned her. ‘Is that all right?’
Karalynn nodded and looked up. She wouldn’t run this time.
Niccolai nodded and smiled at her, as warm and easy as when she’d first met him, before everything had changed.
He fell backwards, knees hooked over the branch, then let go. His body flipped back in mid-air before his boots landed with a heavy thud on the sandy earth.
Karalynn grinned despite herself. ‘Now you’re just showing off.’
Niccolai looked up at the branch and gave a shrug, then there was that wide, welcoming smile again. ‘Maybe,’ he admitted, dusting his hands on his pants. His right, she noticed, was no longer bandaged with Auntie Madelina’s scarf.
Niccolai opened his hand to her. The wound had healed completely, leaving only the pale white marks of the hyena’s teeth. ‘I heal quickly,’ he explained, the wary note back in his rough voice.
‘Did you keep Auntie Madelina’s scarf?’ she asked him.
He nodded, pulling the blood-stained blue rag from his pocket. ‘Would you like to tie it to her stake?’ He held it out to her.
Karalynn flinched, taking half a step back before she shook her head. She reached out carefully, keeping her eyes on his as she took the scarf. Niccolai held his hands up defensively and backed away.
‘I’ll keep it,’ Karalynn answered. She would have to wash it first, though.
Niccolai knelt down in front of her with a heavy sigh. ‘Karalynn, I am truly sorry for what happened to your family. Please believe me when I say we tried to protect them.’ His eyes dropped to the sand between his knees. ‘We were too late. I’m sorry. I know what it is to lose your family to those monsters.’ His teeth barred at the last.
Karalynn frowned back to the elephant rocks. ‘I thought your family was over there.’
Niccolai shook his head, then shrugged. ‘I call them my family now,’ he agreed, ‘but my mother, my father, my brothers and sister… The hyenas took them all. It was only me and my cousin who lived. She was bolder than I, and thought the wolves were as much our enemy as the hyenas. She struck at one with a plank of wood and he bit back at her, then he bit me, too. It’s the bite that turns a man to a werewolf,’ he explained. ‘Kristopher bit us both so we wouldn’t be alone in the world.’
Karalynn twisted the scarf in her fingers. He looked so small then. His rough voice was empty as he spoke, as though he still felt alone, even with his cousin and his new family.
‘You’ve never recovered,’ she murmured.
Niccolai straightened with a grunt. ‘The pain will lessen,’ he told her, ‘but it will never leave completely.’ He shook his head to banish the thought, then offered her his hand. ‘You must be hungry.’
Karalynn hesitated a moment before she accepted his hand. Goosebumps prickled her skin at his touch, and she tried not to cringe away from him. His smile made it easier.
They walked in silence for a time, Niccolai’s hand rough and foreign around hers. Papa’s hands had been rough, too, but that was from holding the reins and tending the horses. Papa knew how to be tender with his hands. He knew how to hug and ruffle Karalynn’s hair. Her own hand felt so small and vulnerable in the hunter’s grip of Niccolai’s fingers.
Niccolai cleared his throat and rubbed the scrag of his beard with his free hand. ‘Some of my family can be a little intense,’ he warned her with an apologetic smile. ‘We all of us have similar stories. The hyenas play a role in all of them.’ Karalynn heard the snarl in his voice when he mentioned his enemy. ‘They have been at war, the wolves and the hyenas, since long before I was bitten. We hunt as any man does, but the hyenas are worse than common bandits. I can’t apologise enough for your family being caught in the middle of our war. I’m sorry, Karalynn.’
Karalynn looked up at him and squeezed his hand. ‘I don’t blame you,’ she told him. Her shoulders relaxed as she said it, and she gave him a quiet smile. ‘You were trying to help.’
The wolf-man nodded his agreement, but his eyes were fixed ahead.
‘Tell me about your family,’ she tried, just to change the subject. ‘Who am I to meet?’
As they walked through the swaying grasses to Niccolai’s family, he introduced them all to her, one by one. She learned of Kristopher, the one who had bitten Niccolai and turned him to a wolf and who was now his closest friend; of his cousin Anouschka, who had grown even fiercer and almost scary; of Hedeon and Svetlana, who played the roles of father and mother in the unusual family. There were a dozen in all, all of whom had lost someone dear to them at the teeth and claws of the hyenas.
The elephant rocks grew as they neared the camp, and Karalynn heard voices, loud and vicious as they were carried on the wind. She clung tighter to Niccolai’s hand.
‘They’ll welcome you,’ he promised, squeezing her hand back. ‘They all wish to avenge your family’s deaths, as much as their own. Any of their anger is directed at the hyenas, never their victims.’
His words only helped a little. When Karalynn saw two of the werewolves break way from the camp, it was all she could do to keep herself from hiding behind Niccolai’s legs. They seemed to almost fly over the long grass, and their laughter sent chills up her spine, reminding her too much of the hyenas.
‘Careful!’ Niccolai yapped at them, and the pair dutifully slowed their manic approach. ‘She’s just a lamb.’
‘Of course,’ the man said. He bowed his head and rested a hand over his heart. ‘My apologies.’
The woman slapped him in the back of the head with a laugh. ‘Now, why are you never that chivalrous with the rest of us?’
‘My family,’ Niccolai said, holding a hand out to them by way of introduction. ‘Kristopher and Anouschka, this is Karalynn. Be gentle.’
Karalynn thought she heard a snarl of warning behind the last. Anouschka gave a slight nod of acknowledgement and knelt down before her. Both she and Kristopher had Niccolai’s blond hair and dark streak, the same toothy but somehow comfortable grin. They really could all be family, and Niccolai and Anouschka could be twins.
‘You’re more wolf than lamb, aren’t you?’ Anouschka said through a grin.
Karalynn could only stare at the wolf’s teeth. ‘Papa always called me a springbok,’ she mumbled. ‘Or a giraffe, or other animals that like being up high.’
Anouschka’s grin only stretched wider, until it seemed most of her face was teeth. ‘Cute,’ she said, crinkling her nose and reaching a hand out to muss Karalynn’s hair.
‘We’ll make you a wolf soon enough,’ Kristopher promised. ‘Niccolai, you escaped hunting duties today so you’re helping cook.’
Niccolai shrugged his acceptance, then turned to Karalynn and spoke in low tones. ‘You won’t become a wolf, I swear it.’ He squeezed her hand again.
‘I’ll be brave,’ she promised him. She took a deep breath and held tight to Niccolai’s hand as they followed the other two wolves back to the rest of their family.
They truly did look a family, all with the same black streak in their blond hair, the same big ears and easy, toothy grins. Karalynn wondered what they had looked like before they had been changed into werewolves.
Niccolai introduced her again with the same words, warning them to be gentle to the new lamb. The response was the same, too—good-natured grins and the promise of making her a wolf. She hoped they didn’t mean it literally, and only that they meant to make her braver and stronger.
Niccolai, however, appeared unimpressed. As they ate around the campfire in the light of the dying sun, he said little, only snapping his disapproval whenever the subject of making a wolf of Karalynn was raised. By the time the cooking pot was empty, it seemed as though the other wolves were teasing him for his protectiveness.
The sun set, the moon rose and the sky turned dark. The darkness brought a fearful chill to Karalynn’s skin, but Niccolai promised her the hyenas would not disturb them tonight. Like the werewolves, they only turned into actual hyenas on a full moon. He offered her his blankets for the night, and Karalynn gratefully curled up under them.
‘Thank you,’ she said, yawning softly.
‘We’ll collect your own from the caravan tomorrow,’ he told her.
Karalynn shook her head. ‘Not just for the blankets,’ she clarified. ‘Thank you for saving me, and for not letting them turn me into a werewolf.’
Niccolai brushed the hair from her eyes. ‘They never will, not while I watch over you.’ He smiled again at her, and this time Karalynn felt nothing but warmth from the action.
‘Thank you,’ she repeated. She closed her eyes, finally feeling safe again.
She awoke five or six times to nightmares of the hyenas, but each time Niccolai was there to comfort her. He held her in the safety of his arms, promised her they wouldn’t come back, that he would protect her, and a hundred other things she barely heard.
‘I hate them,’ she mumbled, her words muffled by tears and Niccolai’s soft leather vest. She’d lost count of how many times she had been woken by the hyenas. ‘I hate them all.’
Niccolai stroked her hair, his rough hands catching on the strands.
‘Will I ever be able to sleep again?’
‘You will.’ Niccolai’s voice rumbled deep in his chest where Karalynn rested her head. ‘It will take some time, but the nightmares will go away.’
‘How did you make them go away?’
The werewolf didn’t answer immediately, and Karalynn lifted her head to see him frowning—glaring?—at Kristopher where he slept. ‘I fought them,’ he said finally. ‘With tooth and claw, I fought them. When I realised I was much stronger than they were, they ended.’
‘I’ll fight them,’ Karalynn mumbled. She yawned widely, feeling sleep weigh on her eyelids once more. ‘I’m stronger than nightmares, too.’
But still the nightmares came. Niccolai and his family could protect her from the real hyenas, but the battles she fought against the hyenas in her dreams were for her alone. Night after night they woke her, leaving her shivering and panting for breath through a dry, cold throat. She was scared to go to sleep because of them. She wasn’t stronger than they were. The nightmares had won.
‘They haven’t,’ Niccolai assured her as they sat around the campfire after dinner. ‘You’re stronger than you know.’ He cleared his throat awkwardly and nodded towards the moon. It looked full to Karalynn’s eyes, except Niccolai wasn’t a wolf so it couldn’t be. ‘It will be full tomorrow night,’ he said, as though he were to blame for what it would do to him. ‘Would you still like me to stay with you?’
Karalynn drew her knees up to her chin and looked fearfully at the moon. ‘You don’t change, do you? You’re still Niccolai?’
The gypsy girl nodded. ‘The hyenas scare me more than you do,’ she said, trying to make her voice sound braver than she felt.
Anouschka laughed. ‘You haven’t seen him in a fight with them yet! Tooth and claw, he goes at them.’
‘Anouschka!’ Niccolai growled, flashing his teeth at her.
His cousin only shook her head with another laugh. ‘She can’t stay a lamb forever, Niccolai.’ She spread her hands to encompass the group of werewolves. ‘A wolf pack is no place for a lost little lamb.’
Karalynn could hear the telltale rumble at the back of Niccolai’s throat that always came when one of his family made that threat. She reached out to take his hand before he could snarl back at his cousin.
‘You don’t scare me,’ she told the laughing werewolf.
Anouschka shook her head. ‘I wasn’t trying to,’ she said with a shrug, then grinned again and ruffled Karalynn’s hair. ‘You’re more wolf than you know. Good night, little sister.’
Only two nightmares bothered her that night, but that was only because she lay awake most of the night. ‘I will be brave,’ she promised herself. ‘I will be brave, I will be brave.’
There was a new sort of excitement among the werewolves the next day. Karalynn kept clear of them as much as she could, hiding in the shadow of the elephant rocks and watching from afar. Only Niccolai seemed not to share their anticipation. He went about his day the same as ever, calm and methodical, never raising his voice unless it was to warn them away from Karalynn.
The shadows lengthened and the dry silver grass turned to gold. Karalynn watched the sunset with prickling skin and trembling fingers. The werewolf family gathered around the coals of their campfire to watch, many of them running around and jumping up and down like excited children.
Niccolai left them to it and carefully approached Karalynn, hands in his pockets and shoulders hunched. His brow was drawn and worried as he sat down beside her.
‘What’s wrong?’ she asked him.
Niccolai shook his head. ‘Nothing you need worry about.’ He sighed and squinted at the sunset. ‘I never like this.’
Karalynn hugged her knees. ‘Is it really so bad?’
The werewolf shrugged and stretched out as he had in the caravan, his legs crossed at the ankles and folded his hands in his lap. ‘Not on its own,’ he admitted. ‘I was a hunter before I was bitten. Flying over the grass in moonlight, the chase, the hunt… That much is a part of me, but being a wolf is the only freedom I have anymore. The rest of the time, I’m more trapped than any villager. Because of this one night a month, I can never live with normal people.’ He turned to Karalynn. ‘They fear me more than you do.’
Karalynn rested one hand on his and looked up at him. ‘I’m not scared,’ she said.
To her left, the sun was just touching the horizon, but it was the eastern horizon that drew her attention now. A faint sliver of silver touched the edge of the savanna.
Niccolai cleared his throat and carefully disentangled his fingers from Karalynn’s. Already hair had begun to grow more coarsely through his skin. He curled his legs under him and turned to face her, kneeling in the soft sand. ‘Watch my eyes,’ he told her. ‘Only my eyes. I promise you, I’m always Niccolai.’
Karalynn swallowed and took his hands again, just to keep her fingers from quivering. She fixed her eyes with his, not daring to look away.
Niccolai sat perfectly still as his skin darkened with the hair that covered it, black across his cheeks and terracotta over his brow. The big, rough hands that held hers shrank to bony paws with long, blunt claws. His nose turned black and stretched into the muzzle of a wolf, but still Karalynn watched his eyes. They stayed the same, dark and friendly and always Niccolai.
He pulled his paws from her hands and sat before her, completely a wolf but still completely Niccolai.
Around the campfire, the wolf pack howled. Karalynn jumped and her heart thumped in her chest.
Niccolai stood and prowled in front of her, huge wolf’s ears pricked and alert as he watched his family leave. His coat was beautiful, Karalynn realised, dappled as though by sunlight in black and cream and terracotta.
It wasn’t until well after the wolf pack had disappeared from Karalynn’s hearing that he turned away from the campfire. It wasn’t a wolf’s face that looked back at her, just Niccolai’s a bit different. His dark eyes still held the same concern for her.
‘Thank you for staying with me,’ she said with a smile to match.
Niccolai nodded and smiled as well as a wolf could, his mouth pulled open and eyes crinkled at the corners. It was odd to see on a wolf, but he wasn’t a wolf, not really. He only looked like one for the moment.
Karalynn pulled her blanket up over her as the evening sucked warmth from the landscape, but she was far too wide awake to lie down yet. She watched the moon, rising golden from the savanna and up into the night.
Niccolai settled down beside her, his big black ears twitching at every sound Karalynn couldn’t hear.
When finally she lay down and closed her eyes, she slept deeply with neither dreams nor nightmares to disturb her. She awoke the next morning fresh and rested.
Niccolai was a man once more, long legs stretched out ahead of him as he watched the sunrise.
Karalynn rubbed her eyes and stretched her arms over her head. ‘Have you been awake all night?’ she asked.
Niccolai smiled. ‘Wolves don’t suffer fatigue,’ he said, though Karalynn could see the circles under his eyes. ‘You slept all night,’ he noted.
She sat up and wrapped her arms around him in a hug. ‘Thanks to you,’ she told him.
Under the werewolf’s protection, the nightmares lessened until they only woke her once every month or so. But, while the nightmares diminished, her hatred of the hyenas only grew. She wasn’t scared of them anymore, but she never forgot what they had stolen from her. Sometimes she would dream of the campfire, of the smell of the horses pulling the caravan and the jingle of Mama’s charm belt, but then she would wake up, her eyes moist, and realise it was nothing more than a memory. It was on those mornings that she hated the hyenas even more.
She tried to convince Niccolai that she could look after herself on the full moon, that she wouldn’t awaken terrified of her sleep. She could see he missed the hunt and the small glimpse of freedom it afforded him, but he insisted on staying by her side. Karalynn knew why. It wasn’t so much the predators that worried him, nor even the hyenas, but his own family. He had promised her he wouldn’t let them turn her into a wolf, and he intended to keep that promise.
Though she would never tell him, she dreamed on some nights that she ran with them, flying through the grass, the wind rushing past her ears before her teeth tore into the hyena that had killed Mama, the one that had killed Auntie Madelina. She awoke almost wishing she could join the wolves on their hunt.
Karalynn had been living with the werewolves for several years when, on the night of a full moon, the pack brought back a rescued victim of the hyena’s attacks.
The noise of their return had woken Karalynn, filling the night air with sharp yips and excited howls. Among the wolves a man stumbled, holding his arm as though injured. He was around Papa’s age, maybe a little younger, with receding mousey brown hair and strong shoulders.
Niccolai made a worried whining noise at the back of his throat and stood, taking a few steps forward as the wolf pack led the man over.
He stared at her, uncomprehending but wary of the wolves. ‘What’s going on here?’ he asked her. ‘Do these wolves answer to you, girl? Call them off.’
Karalynn shook her head. ‘They’ll be men again when the moon sets. They saved your life.’
A number of the wolves yapped appreciatively at her words. Niccolai stood still, eyeing them carefully to make sure they didn’t make a move towards Karalynn. The sunrise was only minutes away, but it only took a snap of their jaws to turn her into a werewolf.
‘Did they bite you?’ she asked as the thought came to her.
The wolves answered her with toothy grins before the man nodded, his face dark. Karalynn could hear the growl deep in Niccolai’s throat as he glared at his family.
‘You call that saving my life?’ the stranger growled. ‘I’ll probably catch some disease now. And what do you mean they’ll be men?’
Karalynn looked over to the moon, where it was just touching the savanna as the sun crept into the opposite end of the sky. ‘Watch,’ she told him.
She had seen Niccolai’s transformation dozens of times now, and she was well past being afraid. The stranger was frozen to the spot as he watched, his mouth hanging open and half-forming words of disbelief.
Niccolai stood silent only for as long as it took for his mouth to be able to form words once more. ‘You should have given him the choice!’ he yelled, his voice as vicious as any wolf’s bark.
Anouschka only gave him a derisive laugh. ‘Like the choice you’ve forced on your little lamb?’
‘I am no lamb!’ Karalynn shouted back at her. She had learned by now that a lamb was what the wolves called normal people. Anouschka was always mocking her for it, making her feel weak and helpless.
The newcomer found his voice amongst the rabble going on around him. ‘What are you talking about? What are you people?’
‘Werewolves,’ Niccolai snarled, glaring straight at Anouschka as he said it. ‘And now you’re one of us, too, whether you wish it or not.’
Karalynn had never seen him so angry. She rested a hand on his forearm to calm him, fearing he might attack Anouschka where she stood.
Kristopher slung an arm over the shoulders of their newest family member. ‘He’ll love it, won’t you… erm…?’
‘A-Alecsander,’ the stranger supplied. He swallowed. ‘The hyenas that attacked, are they like you, too?’
Anouschka snarled. ‘We are nothing like them,’ she snapped. ‘The hyenas are savages. Even outside the full moon they’re more animal than human.’
Alecsander licked his lips. ‘So at the next full moon…’
Anouschka grinned viciously back at him. ‘You’ll join us in the hunt for them.’
The grin Alecsander returned her with sent shivers up Karalynn’s spine, but they weren’t shivers of fear. She almost felt excited for him. ‘They will pay,’ he growled. ‘For what they did to my family, they will all pay.’
Karalynn watched him enviously over the course of the month. She knew everything about these wolves, she’d lived with them for years, but this stranger was more a part of their family than she was, just like that. He joked with them, planned the upcoming hunt with them, he was one of them. Much as she tried to deny it, Karalynn was still just a lamb.
On the evening of the hunt, Niccolai sat down beside her as ever he did. His arm slid comfortably around her waist, but she didn’t want comfortable, not tonight.
‘I want to be a wolf,’ she told him.
Niccolai shook his head. ‘You don’t,’ he rumbled. ‘You’ll never have a life again.’
‘I hardly have one now,’ she reminded him bitterly. ‘My life ended the day the hyenas stole it from me. The wolf pack is all I have now, but none of them will see me as family while I’m still a lamb.’
Niccolai rested his head briefly against hers. His fingers twitched nervously at her waist. ‘I don’t want to see you become one of them,’ he said carefully. ‘Theirs is a life built on revenge. The war with the hyenas is all they can see. You don’t want to live your life in your past.’
‘As you have?’ she accused. ‘I can go back to civilisation no more than you can. What can a girl who’s grown up with wolves do in a normal town? I can’t bake bread, I can’t sew, I can’t sing or dance.’ She waved a hand at the wolf pack. ‘This is the only life I know now, and yet I’m not a part of it.’
Niccolai had no answer for her. He sat in silence until she could feel him changing beside her, his bones shifting under his skin as his touch grew rough with wolf’s hair. While his family howled in excitement at the moon, Niccolai only sighed.
‘Coward,’ Karalynn muttered, watching the wolves race off with their newest brother. ‘You say they’re the ones living in the past, but you’re the worst of them.’
Niccolai flopped down beside her, his head resting on his paws.
‘They’re trying to shape their future and rid the savanna of the hyenas, while you sit here with the only human you’ve got left, wishing for the life you haven’t had in years.’
A growl rumbled at the back of Niccolai’s throat, a quiet warning that she knew he’d never act on.
‘Even I know I can’t go back,’ Karalynn pressed. ‘But here you stand, years and years on, still clinging to something that can never be.’
Niccolai snapped an angry bark and jumped to his feet, glaring at her with barred teeth.
‘You’re just a coward.’
He barked again, but the warning was hollow. She could see the fear in his eyes as easily as if he were still a man.
‘Go on, then,’ she said, holding her arm out. ‘Bite me. I dare you. If you don’t, I’m sure Anouschka will when she returns.’
Niccolai shook his head vigorously, a frustrated gesture accompanied by an irritated whine. He clearly wished he had words to come back at her with.
‘You had words before but said nothing,’ Karalynn reminded him. ‘Coward.’
He stared at her, a helpless pup in the face of the words he had to know were true. For a moment, she wondered if he was going to run off and leave her on her own, but he only licked his nose and sat on his haunches before her.
Karalynn closed her eyes and let out an irritated sigh. ‘I really can’t be rid of you tonight.’
The wolf nodded, then he stood and padded closer. He licked his nose again, then bent forward and licked Karalynn’s cheek before lying back down beside her.
Karalynn touched her fingers to her cheek. With no lips, it was the closest Niccolai could come to a kiss, and it spoke far more than his words ever could.
‘Fine,’ she conceded, wrapping herself in her blankets. ‘One more month. But the second the moon sets, you’re explaining that.’
Niccolai huffed, his breath kicking up a cloud of dust in front of his nose.
Karalynn huffed back at him, then turned away and curled up to sleep.
Niccolai woke her with a gentle shake the next morning. The sun had only just peeked over the horizon; he would have only just turned back into a man.
‘I’m no coward,’ he growled. Clearly, the long night of waiting hadn’t diminished his anger. ‘I’m not stuck in my past, and I’m not clinging to a wish that can never be.’
Karalynn arched her back as she sat up, stretching her arms over her head to work out the night’s stiffness. ‘Prove it. And don’t think I’m letting you get away without explaining that kiss, either.’
Niccolai took a deep breath and knelt in front of her. His eyes were dark and determined. Whatever he had to say took all his courage for him to say it. ‘There is a cure.’
Karalynn half-raised her eyebrows. ‘That’s hardly—’
She frowned. ‘So after last night, are you—?’
‘From a true love,’ he interrupted again. His eyes were still locked with hers. ‘On the night of a full moon.’
Karalynn’s frown didn’t shift. She watched his determined eyes grow more fearful with every heartbeat. This man who had saved her as a child, taken her into his family and made to protect her from them at the same time… He was more scared and alone than she ever had been.
He swallowed nervously. ‘Karalynn?’
‘You liar,’ she whispered.
‘You made me trust you.’ Her confused frown shifted to a glare of anger. ‘You made me love you.’
‘No!’ His teeth snapped in the same frightened snarl as she remembered when, years ago, she had accused him of killing her mother. ‘Karalynn, I’ve never—’
‘Liar!’ She scrambled back as he reached out to her. He wouldn’t confuse her with another kiss, not this time. ‘All your caring and your protection, all your strong words about choices and freedom, it’s all just been years and years of selfish lies. Even when I was just a child, I was nothing more than a way out for you.’
He raked his fingers through his hair, and Karalynn could see them shaking. She could have felt sorry for him then, but now she knew him for the selfish, lying coward he was.
He flinched as though she’d slapped him, but he didn’t say a word.
Karalynn shook her head and climbed to her feet. She could see the wolf pack leaping through the grass, their laughter carrying over the savanna to her. She took a deep breath and squared her shoulders before striding out to meet them.
She recognised Alecsander, the newcomer, among them, but he had changed since she’d last seen him in the daylight. Everything about him was more wolfish now. His face was longer, his grin wider, and he bore the dark streak of hair and the large ears of his new brothers and sisters. He looked exhilarated, wild with new life.
‘You’re a fool!’ Kristopher shouted at him, though his face was laughing. ‘A blind, stupid fool!’
Alecsander laughed back at him. ‘I’ll bet they never expected it, though!’
Anouschka shook a warning finger at him. ‘They’ll be after you first next full moon, just you watch.’ She waved when she caught sight of Karalynn. ‘Hello there, little lamb! Where’s your burly protector?’
Karalynn shook her head. ‘I’m not a lamb. I want to run with you next time.’
The werewolf gave her predatory grin as she approached, then hung an arm over her shoulders. ‘I always knew you were more wolf than lamb. Niccolai finally bit you, did he?’
‘No,’ Karalynn answered, her voice bitter. ‘He wouldn’t.’
Anouschka shrugged and dropped her arm. ‘I figured as much. Well, I can bite you at the next full moon, but you won’t turn until the one after.’
‘It can’t come soon enough.’
Anouschka laughed. ‘Nor for me, little wolf pup.’
For the first time, the wolf pack felt like her family. Where before they would only tease her with empty threats of biting her at the next full moon, they excited her by telling her all she would experience.
‘You can run so fast it’s as though you’re flying,’ Anouschka told her, her voice hushed and reverent. ‘Like a streak of lightning. We’re so fast even the hyenas don’t know we’re coming until we’re upon them, and by then it’s too late.’ She closed her eyes and breathed in deeply. ‘It’s freedom. You’ll wish it happened more than once a month. Soon, my wolf pup, you’ll know what you’ve been missing all these years.’
Karalynn turned to glare at Niccolai then. Every day he tried to talk to her, but every day his excuses sounded more and more feeble. ‘Why does he stay?’ she asked.
Anouschka shrugged. ‘Nowhere else to go. He tried living in a town, once, but of course they threw him out the second the full moon showed its face.’
‘But you took him back?’
‘Of course.’ Anouschka sounded surprised that Karalynn thought they would shun him.
‘But he’s a coward.’
‘Niccolai?’ The werewolf scoffed. ‘He’s the best hunter I’ve ever known, wolf or otherwise. Those hyenas are properly dangerous. It’s no coincidence we’ve only rescued one person since he stopped hunting and started guarding.’ She shook her head, lips pursed in grim regret. ‘There’s a good reason why none of us have tried to get past him, either.’
Karalynn shook her head, unable to see the deadly predator Anouschka spoke of in the hunched figure across the campfire. ‘There’s more than one form of cowardice.’
Anouschka shrugged. ‘Say what you will. You’re the one who makes him like that.’
Karalynn frowned at the woman who would be her sister. ‘Whose side are you on?’
‘He’s my family, more now than ever he was when we were just cousins.’ She set a hand on Karalynn’s shoulder. Her eyes were sincere, making her look even more like Niccolai. ‘Whatever he said to you last full moon in a heat of anger doesn’t change him. He still loves you, even after whatever it was you said back.’
Karalynn snorted and shook her head. ‘He never loved me. I was just convenient.’
‘Say what you will,’ Anouschka said again, and used Karalynn’s shoulder to push herself to her feet. ‘He’s only ever a pup around you.’
She stood and left the campfire to do other things, leaving Karalynn to glare across the flames at Niccolai. He couldn’t even meet her eyes.
Karalynn shook her head and stood. ‘Pathetic,’ she muttered under her breath.
On the day before the full moon, Karalynn felt a curious mix of excitement and trepidation. She had been ready all month, but now the time was upon her, and there would be no returning once she took that last step.
Niccolai fell in beside her as she was collecting firewood that afternoon. She thought he was going to try one last time to change her mind, but he only gave her a comforting pat on her shoulder and told her, ‘Good luck.’
She shrugged his hand from her shoulder. ‘I don’t need your luck.’
‘I can’t be there when they do it,’ he said. ‘I can’t passively watch you throw your life away.’
‘No,’ Karalynn agreed. ‘Because you think I’m throwing away yours, too.’
‘That’s not how—’
She spun on her heel, dropped the firewood and growled in his face. ‘Let me remind you, Niccolai, I won’t be breaking your curse for you. I did love you, once. But no kiss from me is going to save you now.’
‘I know that, can’t you see?’ He shoved his hands in his pockets and hunched his shoulders as he did when he was embarrassed. ‘But it’s not for me anymore. Maybe once, when I found you, I thought you could help me, but—’
‘Leave me alone.’
‘It’s because I still love you.’
‘Leave me alone, Niccolai!’
A third voice entered the argument then, a high-pitched, maniacal cackle that danced over the savanna. It was joined by another, and another.
Karalynn felt her blood run cold and her fingers start trembling. ‘Hyenas,’ she breathed.
‘They’ve come as men,’ Niccolai murmured as he scanned the grasses. He must have spotted them, then. Without a further word, he grabbed Karalynn under her arms and hoisted her up over his shoulder, and then he ran.
Years had passed since her life had been ripped to pieces by the hyenas, and she thought she had overcome her fear of them, but she was paralysed now, a little girl and a lamb once more.
She could see them in the grass now, tall, strong figures grouped together, too many to count as she was jostled around on Niccolai’s shoulder. They didn’t pick up a chase, only stood together, their laughter echoing in Karalynn’s memories.
They had disappeared from view when finally they returned to the elephant-shaped rocks. Niccolai slid her from his shoulders and back to her feet. She was too scared to care about the bruises his bony shoulder had given her stomach.
‘They’re coming,’ he announced breathlessly, striding across camp.
‘Now?’ Kristopher queried, squinting at the sun. ‘Moonrise isn’t for hours yet.’
Niccolai bent to pick up his bow and quiver, slinging both over his shoulder. ‘So get your weapons,’ he barked. He took up his sword, tested its edge with a thumb and shoved it in his belt. ‘Anouschka, bring everyone home. They were only advancing at a walk but we’ll need everyone. Bellinda, take the rocks with Ashaleigh when she returns.’ Every bark was an order immediately obeyed. Karalynn heard now the voice he always hid around her, the voice that was accustomed to being in command. ‘Benjamin, Natasha, Kristopher, in the trees. Everyone else hide under them in the grass until the hyenas approach, then we ambush them. Now, move!’
Anouschka let out a whoop of excitement. ‘I’ve missed you, Niccolai!’
Karalynn stood trembling as the camp sprang into life. How could she have ever hoped to be a wolf?
‘Karalynn.’ Niccolai’s voice was soft once more as he knelt down in front of her, taking her hands in his. ‘I need you to hide.’
She nodded dumbly, her eyes darting between the activity of the camp and the savanna from where she knew the hyenas would be approaching.
Niccolai took her hand, and Karalynn found her legs moving as he led her to the elephant rocks. There was a cavity in there, a gap between two huge boulders where she could hide. She curled in between the rocks, hugging her knees to her chest as she’d done as a child.
Niccolai knelt before her and took her head in both hands, forcing her to look at his eyes. Always Niccolai. ‘This is the safest place for you. Whatever you hear happening outside, don’t move.’ He bent forward and rested his forehead against hers. He still had the same comforting smell she remembered, warm with the scent of leather and the tang of sweat. ‘I promise I’ll keep you safe.’ He gave her one quick kiss on her cheek, then swung to his feet and disappeared around the boulders. It wasn’t long before Karalynn heard him barking orders again.
In time, the camp fell silent. The wolf pack was hiding. For what seemed an eternity, all Karalynn could hear were the sounds of the savanna, the distant cry of an eagle and the rush of wind through the long silver grass. She could see nothing outside the rocks, only the bright blue sky overhead and the back of the giant elephant.
Bright blue sky, the tiny part of rational thought told her. Despite how long she felt she had waited, the moon would still not rise for hours yet. The wolves would fight as men.
Minutes or hours or days later, the afternoon exploded. The barks and yelps of the wolves almost made them sound as though the moon had risen. Steel clashed against steel as wolves and hyenas snarled and yowled, and over it all the crazy, twisted laughter that Karalynn thought had finally left her nightmares.
She closed her eyes and hid her face against her knees, just like the child she’d been when she had first encountered these monsters. Next time would be different, she promised herself. Next time she would have tooth and claw on her side. Next time she would be a wolf, brave and strong and built for fighting, but the words were hollow in her mind. She would always be a lamb.
A different sound came to her ears then, closer than the distant fighting on the other side of the campfire. It was a scuffling sound of leather boots against the sand. Someone was sneaking amongst the rocks, and by their heavy, ugly breathing, Karalynn knew it wasn’t someone friendly.
She backed up into her crevice, heart thumping so loudly she was sure the intruder could hear. If she was seen, she had nowhere to run. She looked up into the sky and saw Bellinda standing on the back of the huge elephant rock, but Bellinda was firing arrows elsewhere.
A boot scuffed against rock, closer than it had been before.
Karalynn swallowed, watching all the approaches before turning her eyes back to Bellinda. How could she get the wolf’s attention without attracting that of the hyena?
And then she was there, ugly and terrifying, beady little eyes pressed into a squashed face marked by scars. When she grinned, her hyena’s teeth seemed hardly to fit into her mouth.
‘Help,’ Karalynn squeaked as the hyena stalked closer. She swallowed and drew together all her courage. ‘Help!’ It was louder this time, a shout that the wolves on the rocks must have heard.
The hyena lept, snarling and grinning all at once as she brandished her sword. Two arrows rained down from the rocks above, one skittering off the rock and the second burrowing into the hyena’s shoulder, followed by yelps Karalynn could barely make out.
Her ears rang with steel and fear and it was all she could do to keep breathing. Surely the hyena had killed her by now. Surely this was death.
Another pair of arrows showered down, and these ones struck true. The foul face of the hyena collapsed in a heap, but Karalynn felt no better. Blackness threatened her vision, and all she could hear was her heart thumping in her throat.
Bellinda’s face was in front of her, fuzzy and indistinct. She was saying something, but Karalynn couldn’t hear. The wolf pressed a hand to her stomach and Karalynn howled in pain. She was only dimly aware of the wolf picking her up now, carrying her from the rocks and out into the fading sunlight. Pain was her world now.
She was on the ground again, blankets wrapped around her shoulders and a tight, throbbing pain in her stomach. She held her hand to her wound, finding it bound by another blanket.
‘Don’t move,’ Niccolai’s gentle voice told her. One hand stroked her hair and she could see his face above her, bathed golden in the sunlight.
The blankets made it hard for Karalynn to breathe. ‘What happened?’
‘You were stabbed.’ She thought she heard a crack in his voice as he told her. ‘But you’re safe now. When the moon rises, I’ll bite you. As a werewolf you’ll have the strength to recover.’ His fingers quivered as they ran through her hair.
‘How long?’ she asked. She cringed as another stab of pain wracked through her belly.
‘Very soon,’ he replied. ‘You only need hold on a little while longer.’
‘Gone. All of them. Our war is ended.’
She watched his face closely, saw his jaw clenched and brow furrowed in fear. His eyes squinted at the sunset, blinking fiercely as he urged it to sink faster. ‘It won’t be long now,’ he murmured, almost to himself.
Karalynn steadied her breath as best she could. She could see his face darkening with wolf’s hair, and he turned to look at the opposite horizon.
With what little strength she could gather, Karalynn lifted her arm and hooked her fingers around Niccolai’s neck. With a brief cry of pain she pulled herself up and pressed her lips against his.
Niccolai started backwards, allowing Karalynn to fall back to the ground with a wan smile.
‘No! Karalynn, you can’t!’ He looked furtively at the moon and ran his fingers over his face.
Anouschka sat beside him and pressed her wolfish muzzle under his chin. She gave Karalynn a puzzled look and blinked at the wound in her stomach. Then her ears pricked up, and she winked once as she caught onto what Karalynn was trying to do.
‘You’ve wanted a life as a man for too long to just give it up,’ Karalynn explained.
‘But never at your expense. I love you more than that.’ Niccolai rubbed his eyes with the heels of his shaking hands. ‘Bite her, Anouschka, please.’
‘What happened to giving me the choice?’ Karalynn asked.
‘This isn’t a choice!’ His teeth snapped fearfully, though he was a wolf no longer. ‘I won’t let you die. Anouschka, please.’
‘You can have your life now,’ Karalynn told him, cringing again at another violent stab of pain. This one lasted longer, too.
Niccolai shook his head. ‘It’s no life without you.’
Anouschka made an irritated huffing noise and whined quietly in the back of her throat. Her jaws snapped out, nipping Karalynn on the leg. Niccolai held his arm out so she might bite him too, but Anouschka only rolled her eyes. With another huff, she stood and turned her back, yapping at the other wolves as she left the pair behind.
Already Karalynn could feel the fog of pain begin to ebb away. ‘It won’t be a life without me, you fool.’ She made to sit up, but Niccolai pushed her back.
‘You’re still wounded,’ he warned her. ‘It will still be a few days before you’re healed.’ He stroked her hair, his hand much steadier now but still quivering slightly. He looked different as a man. His face was rounder, his teeth less sharp, and the dark streak had faded from his uniform brown hair. His eyes were the same, though, soft and careful.
He bent forwards to kiss her properly, warm and gentle.
Karalynn grinned at him as he broke away. ‘Do that again at the next full moon,’ she said.
Niccolai laughed and shook his head. His grin was less toothy than it had been, but it was no less his own. Wide and easy and always Niccolai.