There were four of them in the litter. Felix was the biggest. He could stagger about on unsteady legs when he was only two weeks old, and was sticking his nose out of the den just a few days later. The next pups were Thora and Varg, who were inseparable from birth. It was impossible to tell where one ended and the other began in the whirl of grey fur and wagging tails. And then there was Luna, the runt of the litter. She had small ears that were usually folded back against her head and dark fur that made her hard to spot in the thick undergrowth.
In Luna’s mind, every rustle, every shadow, was a potential threat. A bear with claws twice as long as hers could be hiding, or a dreaded two-footer who could kill from a distance with heat and noise and smoke. But mostly her mind was filled with images of snarling wolves, who looked exactly like Felix and Varg and Thora, all grown up.
Luna couldn’t explain where her fears came from. She had never seen bears or two-footers, and her siblings would surely never harm her. But the terror was a constant darkness on the edges of her mind.
The other wolves in the pack kept a close eye on her, as she crept through the forests around the den, step by cautious step, sniffing the air continuously. Nothing could attack her, not while she was still a little pup and the pack was all around. But she would never survive, they thought. Poor creature. A tiny, fearful thing like her would sicken when the snows came, or be by trampled by a deer on her first hunt. Felix, on the other hand, was strong and and would no doubt lead a pack of his own one day. And Thora and Varg could be excellent hunters if only they stopped chasing each other’s tails.
In summer, when the pups were old enough to go on short hunts, the whole pack left their hunting grounds and travelled for many days. They covered ground fast. While Felix trotted in front and Thora and Varg ran around chasing squirrels, Luna kept close to her parents and the other hunters. The further they went from the den, the more dangerous the world seemed to her. Again and again she saw herself surrounded by wolves. Their teeth glinted, their growls shook the earth, and they were looking at her with cold hatred. She shook herself. Focus on what’s in front, she said in her mind. The ground under her paws was soft with crumbled old leaves. And the air was getting colder with every step. They were heading north, towards the mountains.
Wolf packs from far and wide made this trek every year so that new pups could be presented to Old White Eyes, an ancient wolf who lived alone in a cave at the foot of the mountains. For three days and three nights every year, while the packs were in Old White Eyes’s hunting grounds, there was a truce. Old White Eyes would settle disputes and split up packs that were becoming too big. Yearlings would teach each other hunting tricks, and the slightly older wolves took the chance to seek out potential mates for the coming season.
Luna’s pack was the last to arrive at the clearing that stretched out in front of the cave. There were wolves everywhere. Dozens, perhaps even hundreds of them. They all turned to stare at the new arrivals, and Luna wanted nothing more than to turn and run. But Felix nudged her flank, and then Thora and Varg raced past and she was swept up by them, and before she knew it, the four of them were piled up by the mouth of the cave. The rest of their pack followed more sedately. Her father howled, and out of the cave stepped the biggest wolf Luna had ever seen. He was twice the size of her mother. His muzzle was grey and his eyes were pale and sightless. This must be Old White Eyes.
“We have four pups,” said Luna’s father.
Old White Eyes sniffed each of them in turn.
“One day, you’ll take over from your father,” he said to Felix. “But only if you are fair and clever as well as strong.”
Felix straightened up and moved his ears ever so slightly forward.
Old White Eyes moved on to the scruffy heap of paws and tails that was Thora and Varg. “You two should remember that prey are not stupid. Do that, and there’s nothing you can’t take down together.”
Luna shrank back as Old White Eyes bent his head to her.
“You are afraid,” said the old wolf. “But you won’t be afraid much longer. The moon will be up tonight. You’ll understand.”
And then Old White Eyes turned and went back into the cave.
Later that night, Luna was curled up between a couple of large boulders, trying to ignore the fear that crept into her stomach and slunk into her bones. Something was going to happen. She imagined all the wolves in the clearing with their teeth bared, howling for blood. But their growls were all in her mind. The night was silent. The pack leaders had gone into the cave to discuss important matters with Old White Eyes.
“Everything that happened last year,” Luna’s mother said, when Felix had asked her what they were talking about. “And everything that should happen next year. You mustn’t disturb them.”
Spread out around Luna lay her pack mates. Her mother and the hunters were dozing. Felix had pushed himself between Varg and Thora so they would stop scrapping. He snored a little in his sleep sometimes. A full moon rose above the treetops. It was the first time Luna had seen it clearly. Its light turned Felix’s tail a ghostly silver. She watched as the moon rose higher and a little patch of moonlight crept across the ground towards her.
The moment it touched her paws, the world shifted. Sounds, smells, light - everything grew muffled, as if she had fallen into the ground. The wind was suddenly chilly. And her paws… They didn’t feel like her paws anymore. Her limbs were strange and unwieldy. She whined, and a thin, mewling cry came out of her throat.
Felix woke with a start. Something was very wrong. There! What was that sound? And there was a strange scent too. He nudged Thora and Varg and went to wake his mother.
She jumped up, hackles raised, nose twitching. “A two-footer!”
In an instant, all the wolves in the clearing were awake.
“It smells like two-footers!”
“Are the two-footers attacking?”
“There! By the boulders!”
The wolves crowded around the boulders, where a small creature was crouched. It had long, thin limbs and no fur, except a matted tangle of dark hair on its head. Its eyes were huge and dark and darted from wolf to wolf. Then it whimpered and hid its face.
Thora and Varg pushed forward to stare at it.
“It’s very small, isn’t it?” said Thora. She cocked her head to one side.
“Bet I could take it in a fight!” said Varg.
“Touch it then, if you dare!”
Before Varg could dart forward, his mother had seized him by the scruff of his neck and dragged him back. His sister nipped his tail, and the two of them rolled around on the ground, batting each other’s ears, before they settled down again.
“This one is still a pup,” said an old hunter. “Give it time, and it’ll grow big and learn to spit fire like the rest of them!”
Felix peered at the strange creature. “So what do we do with it? Shall we go and ask the pack leaders?”
“No, we can deal with this ourselves,” said his mother. She turned towards her pups. “Where is Luna?”
Thora disentangled herself from Varg and peered around. “Not here! She was sleeping by the boulders!”
“Where the two-footer is!” Felix growled.
There was a horrible silence, broken only by little snuffling sounds that the two-footer was making. Then, one by one, the wolves began to growl.
“Did I hear that right?” said a scruffy yearling. “A two-footer killed a pup?”
“Curse the two-footers!”
“Let’s kill it!”
“Before it spits fire at us!”
The old hunter jumped up onto the lowest boulder and leaned down with his teeth inches from the two-footer. It shivered and tried to make itself even smaller.
“It must’ve eaten the poor pup whole,” the hunter said. “Look, there’s nothing left! Not even a bit of fur!”
Felix took an uncertain step forward. “That’s impossible.”
“What do you mean?” asked his mother.
“This two-footer isn’t any bigger than Luna. It can’t have eaten her.”
“You’re right!” Thora darted forward. “And if it did, then why would it stay here? Why not run away? We were all asleep.”
“Yeah,” said Varg. He nudged the little two-footer with his nose. “Look, it’s afraid of us. Like prey. Why would it come and lie down in the middle of our pack if it’s afraid of us?”
The old hunter considered this. “It’s strange,” he said finally. “But two-footers do strange things sometimes.”
“I don’t think it’s a two-footer,” said Felix. “I think this is Luna.”
He went to stand next to Varg, and felt Thora come up beside him.
The old hunter stared at the three of them. “You are all mad. You pups have never seen two-footers before, you don’t know how evil they can be. This one has just killed your sister.”
“Then where’s her body?” said Felix. “Her scent is strongest here, by the two-footer, but there’s no blood. She’s not dead.”
“She might be soon,” Varg said. He was sniffing the two-footer. “She hasn’t got any fur, now that she’s a two-footer.”
“We can keep her warm,” said Thora.
And the three of them draped themselves over the two-footer, which soon stopped shivering. A moment later, their mother curled around them.
Felix spoke to the old hunter. “We can ask Old White Eyes and the pack leaders what to do when they come back. Perhaps they can turn Luna back into a wolf. We will look after her until then.”
“And what if she’s dead, and this is just a two-footer?”
“Then they’ll know what to do about that too.”
When Luna woke up, she could hear and see and smell like she always had. She was snug and warm with her siblings piled around her. Old White Eyes stood before her.
“Are you still afraid?” he asked.
“A little,” said Luna. “It felt very strange. What happened?”
“You changed, young pup. Into a two-footer. It will happen every time the light of the full moon touches you.”
“No one knows. It’s rare, but useful. It makes you the most powerful wolf here.”
“I didn’t feel powerful.”
“Two-footers are not particularly strong, or fast. They can’t smell or hear as well as we do, and they can die of cold very easily. But they see things that are not there or that haven’t happened yet. And then they act as if those things are there. It’s a very particular kind of clever. They use it to hunt. Two-footers can make their prey come to them.”
“Oh,” said Luna.
“It’s a useful skill that you have,” Old White Eyes said. “But not only for hunting. A wolf with a little bit of two-footer cleverness can help his pack in many ways. Or her pack,” he added. “Come with me, little pup. I’ll teach you what you need to know.”
With some difficulty, Luna extracted herself from her sleeping siblings. She stood in front of Old White Eyes, still a little unsteady on her paws.
She could see herself reflected in the old wolf’s sightless eyes.