Set 14,000 years ago in what is now Southern Europe, Promise of the Wolves is told from the point of view of Kaala, a young wolf born of a forbidden, mixed-blood litter. An outcast after her mother is exiled, Kaala struggles to earn her place in her pack. But her world is turned upside down when she rescues a human girl from drowning. Kaala and her young packmates begin hunting and playing with humans—risking expulsion from their pack and banishment from their home in the Wide Valley.
When war between humans and wolves threatens, Kaala learns that she is the last in a long line of wolves charged with keeping watch over humans in order to prevent them from losing touch with nature and thus destroying the world. But to do so she must solve the great paradox of wolfkind: though wolves must always be with humans, humans cannot abide the presence of wolves, and every time the two come together, war ensues. Kaala must choose between safety for herself, her friends, and their human companions and the survival of her pack—and perhaps all of wolf and humankind.
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It got cold. It got so cold, the legends say, that rabbits hid underground for months at a time, the elk took to living in caves, and birds fell from the sky as their wings froze in midflight. It got so cold that the air crystallized in front of the Wide Valley wolves as they hunted. Each breath seared their lungs and even their thick undercoats did not protect them. Wolves are made for winter, but this was a winter beyond all wolves. The sun stayed always on the far side of the Earth, and the moon, which before had been a vibrant beacon, chilled to black dimness.
The raven king said it was the winter to end the world. That it would last three full years and that it was sent to punish those who ignored the will of the Ancients. All Lydda knew was that she was hungry, and that her pack could not hunt.
Lydda wandered away from her family, not bothering to sniff for whatever voles or hares she might find along the way. Tachiim, her leaderwolf, had told the pack that the hunt was off, that the elk that ran the Wide Valley were too scarce, and the pack too weak to catch the few that remained. Now they merely waited for the colder chill of death to replace the chill in the air. Lydda would not wait. She had walked away from her packmates, and especially away from the pups with their bones clearly visible through their fur and their hungry eyes. It was the duty of every wolf in the pack even a youngwolf like Lydda to provide for the pups, and if Lydda could not do so, she was not worthy to be called wolf.
Even the light outer layer of her fur weighed her down as she forced her way through the deep drifts of snow. Ravens flew above her head, and she longed for wings to carry her to the hunting plain. Lydda was looking for the largest, fiercest elk she could find, and she would challenge it, fighting it to the death. Weak as she was, she knew it would be her death.
Lydda reached the crest of the snow-covered hill that overlooked the hunting plain and dropped to her belly, breathing hard. Suddenly she stood, her pale brown fur bristling. She smelled a human, and she knew that she must keep her distance, for it was forbidden by ancient laws for wolves and humans to come together. Then she had to laugh at herself. What did she have to fear? It was death she was seeking. Maybe the human would help her on her way.
She was disappointed when she found him, his back against a rock, weeping. He was, like she, barely grown. He looked about as threatening as a fox pup. He was thin and hungry like the rest of the creatures in the valley, and the long, deadly stick his people carried lay harmlessly at his side. The human raised his eyes as she came near and Lydda saw fear, then acceptance, then welcome come to them.
"Have you come for me, wolf?" he asked. "Take me, then. I cannot bring food to my hungry brothers and sisters for I am too weak to hunt the fleet elk. I cannot return empty-handed to my family yet again. Take me."
Lydda looked into the human's eyes and saw her own despair reflected in them. He wanted to feed his people's pups just as she did. The warmth of his flesh drew her and she found herself stepping slowly to him. He threw his sharpened stick far from his side and opened his arms, baring his neck and his belly to Lydda so that, if she wanted to, she could easily tear the life from him. Instead, she stood perfectly still, watching the human. She had not looked long at a human before. She had been warned against doing so.
"Any wolf consorting with humans will be exiled from the pack," Tachiim had said when she and her littermates were pups. "They are equal to us as hunters and see us as prey. You will be drawn to them by a force as powerful as the hunt. Stay away or you are wolf no longer."
Lydda looked at the young human and she felt the pull Tachiim had mentioned, as she would feel the pull of one of the pups in the pack, or of a wolf who could be her mate. Confusion shook her as she might shake a rabbit she had caught. Her mind warned her to run away, but her heart felt as if it would leave her chest to get to him. She imagined herself lying beside him, chasing the cold from her bones. She shook herself, and stepped back, but found she could not break the hold of his eyes. A cold gust of wind pushed her from behind and she took one step toward the boy. He had dropped his arms, but raised them again, tentatively.
She stepped into his open arms, and stretched her body across his legs, placing her furred head against his chest. The boy wore many layers of prey skin in an attempt to keep the cold away from his lightly furred body, but still she felt the warmth of him. After a moment of surprise he closed his arms around her. She did not let her gaze leave his face.
For a thousand heartbeats they lay together, the wolf's heart slowing to match the boy's and the boy's quickening to match the wolf's. Lydda felt the strength rising within her, and the human boy must have felt it as well, for they both rose as if one and turned to the hunting fields.
Together they crossed the plain toward the prey and, without speaking, selected a buck. The elk shook his head nervously when they came near, revealing his vulnerability. Moving like the sunlight, Lydda ran behind the elk, fatigue lifting from her legs. She ran the elk and ran him, confusing and tiring him. Then, in a burst of speed, she drove him toward the waiting boy. The boy's sharpened stick flew, sinking deep into the elk's chest and, as the beast stumbled, Lydda tore the life from his belly.
As Lydda ripped into the flesh of the elk, dizzy from the smell and taste of food at last, something heavy knocked her aside. The boy had shoved in to take his share. Growling, she reasserted her place and the two of them ripped at the carcass. Before she was too full to move, Lydda remembered her duty, and began to tear at the beast's haunch to bring some of it home to her hungry family. By the time she had worked it loose, the human had cut through the other haunch with a sharp stone and was tearing away at more of the prey. She took the heavy leg in her mouth, glad she was not far from home. Given strength by the new meat in her belly, she set off for her pack.
She was so caught up in her full belly and the taste of good, fresh meat, that she forgot for a moment about the human. But she turned as she reached the edge of the forest and looked to him. He had stopped as well, the heavy leg of the elk slung over his thin shoulders and an elk rib dragging from one hand. He raised his other arm to her. She dropped the haunch, and dipped her head in acknowledgment.
Her packmates smelled the good meat even before she reached the sheltered clearing. When Lydda approached them, the adult wolves looked in disbelief at the meat she carried. Gently, she set it down.
It was little meat for so many wolves, but it was meat, and that meant hope. It was the first real meal the pack had eaten in well over half a moon. Once the pack realized the meat was real and not a death dream, they crowded around Lydda, forgetting their weakness in their joyful greeting. Lydda stepped aside, bowing to Tachiim, offering him the meat. He touched her gently with his nose and signaled to the pack to share the meat. Then, along with the other wolves still fit enough to run, he set off along Lydda's trail to find her kill.
Lydda turned to the pups, who were mewling at the smell of the fresh meat. She bent her head down to them and, as one weakly nudged the corner of her mouth, regurgitated her food for them. Though her starved body craved the meat that she gave up for the pups, their joy in feeding was worth it. The pups of the Wide Valley pack would not starve again.
Lydda leapt after Tachiim and the others to share in what was left of the kill. So excited was she by her successful hunt, so pleased to provide for her pack, and so giddy from her encounter with the human boy, that she did not notice the new and growing trickle of warmth in the air, so slight it could be mistaken for a dream.
Lydda and her boy rested against the rock where they had met, in a patch of warm dirt newly revealed by the melting of the snow. For one full cycle of the moon, the wolves of Lydda's pack had hunted with the humans. For one cycle of the moon they shared the humans' meat and played with their young, and ran with them in the light of the dusk and of the dawn. Lydda spent every moment she could with her human, for in him she felt as if she had found something she did not know she had lost.
They sat together against their rock, and Lydda curled herself against the boy's strong legs as he ran his fingers through her fur. Sun shone upon them and Earth reached up blades of grass to greet them. Moon waited jealously for her turn to see them again. And Sky Sky spread all around them, watching.
For the Ancients had been waiting. Waiting and hoping. They did not really want to end the lives of creatures.
Copyright © 2008 by Dorothy Hearst
14,000 years ago
The legends say that when the blood of the Wide Valley wolves mingles with the blood of the wolves outside the valley, the wolf who bears that blood will stand forever between two worlds. It is said that such a wolf holds the power to destroy not only her pack, but all of wolfkind. That's the real reason Ruuqo came to kill my brother, my sisters, and me in the faint light of the early morning four weeks after we were born.
Wolves hate killing pups. It's considered unnatural and repulsive, and most wolves would rather chew off their own paws than hurt a pup. But my mother never should have whelped us. She was not a senior wolf, and therefore had no right to have pups. But that could have been forgiven. Much worse than that, she had broken one of the most important rules of the Wide Valley, the rules that protect our bloodlines. Ruuqo was only doing his duty.
He had already given Rissa a bellyful of pups, as was proper for the senior male and female of the pack. Unless given permission by the leaderwolves, no other wolf may mate, for extra pups can be difficult to feed unless it is a very good year. The year I was born was a time of conflict in our valley, and prey was growing scarce. We shared the Wide Valley with four other packs of wolves and with several tribes of humans. While most of the other wolves respected the boundaries of our territories, the humans did not they drove us from our own kills whenever they got the chance. So the Swift River pack did not have food to spare the season I was born. Even so, I don't think my mother truly believed that Ruuqo would hurt us. She must have hoped he wouldn't notice our Outsider blood, that he wouldn't smell it on us.
Just before dawn two days before Ruuqo came to end our lives, my brother, Triell, and I climbed eagerly up the incline of soft, cool dirt that led from our den to the world outside. Dim light filtered into the deep hollow of the den, and yips and growls from the wolves outside echoed off the walls of our home. The scents and sounds of the world above intrigued us, and anytime we weren't eating or sleeping, we were trying to sneak outside.
"Wait," our mother had told us, blocking our way, "there are things you must know first."
"We just want to see what's out there," Triell wheedled. I caught the mischievous glint in his eye, and we tried to dash past her.
"Listen." Our mother placed a large paw over us, pressing us to the ground. "Every pup must pass inspection to be allowed into the pack. If you do not pass, you do not live. You must listen to what I teach you." Her voice, usually soft and comforting, held a worried tone I'd never heard before. "When you meet Ruuqo and Rissa, the leaderwolves, you must show them you are healthy and strong. You must prove that you are worthy to be part of the Swift River pack. And you must show them respect and honor." She released us, gave us one more worried look, and bent to wash my sisters, who had followed us up to the mouth of the den. Triell and I retreated to a corner of the warm den to plan what we would do to become part of the pack. I don't think it occurred to me that we could fail.
Copyright © 2008 by Dorothy Hearst
Reading Group Guide
1. What do the three rules that guide the covenant of wolves in the Wide Valley -- to stay away from humans as much as possible, to never kill a human unprovoked, and to mate only with wolves inside the valley -- reveal about the tensions between wolves and humans in this region? How did this covenant originally arise, and what roles do the Greatwolves and the krianans play in transmitting this to the packs that inhabit the Wide Valley?
2. "'You must stay and become part of the pack. Do not come for me until then. You have promised.'" How does the forced departure of Kaala's mother, Neesa, from the Swift River pack affect Kaala's standing among her fellow wolves? Why do the Greatwolves support Neesa's being exiled, but refuse Ruuqo when he wants to kill Kaala because of her mixed blood? To what extent does Kaala's existence in the Swift River pack depend on the Greatwolves' ongoing protection of her?
3. How would you characterize Ruuqo's relationship with Kaala? To what extent does Kaala strive to win Ruuqo's admiration and respect? In what ways does Ruuqo thwart Kaala's efforts to obtain romma? How are Ruuqo's feelings for Kaala complicated by his own brother's being exiled for interacting with humans?
4. "My legs shook and my head whirled. My chest began to burn like the very fires the humans kept, and I felt as if an invisible vine had wrapped itself around my heart, and now pulled me over to the human homesite." How does Kaala's attraction to the humans in her midst betray her unique heritage? Why does she risk being exiled from the pack to help save TaLi?
5. In Promise of the Wolves, author Dorothy Hearst gives the reader a deep look at wolf life from the actual source -- the entire novel is narrated from the perspective of Kaala. How did the insights you gained from seeing the world through the eyes of a wolf impact your appreciation of this novel and the wolf as a species? If you could have asked Kaala any questions about her experiences, what would they be?
6. "Trevegg walked over to him. 'No wolf is a pack unto himself, Ruuqo,' the oldwolf said softly." How does the author explore the similarities between wolves and humans in Promise of the Wolves, and why does she choose to juxtapose them repeatedly? Why might the human-wolf relationship elicit anxiety or fear in some cultures or societies? How is this anxiety related to long-standing historical assumptions about wolves?
7. Throughout Promise of the Wolves, other animals -- including the raven Tlitoo and the elkryn Ranor and Yonor -- are given voices that wolves can understand. How do some of the more fantastical elements of this novel -- the fact that animals can communicate with humans and with one another -- affect your regard for this work of fiction? To what extent did you find yourself appreciating or being distracted by some of the more fantastical elements?
8. "I'd thought my feelings for TaLi were wrong and unnatural. Now this wise and ancient human was telling us that it was not so, and that so much of what we'd been told about the humans -- and about our own history -- was untrue. How could I believe her?" Why do the Greatwolves mislead Kaala and the other wolves in her pack, and why does TaLi's grandmother, a krianan, choose to expose their deception?
9. Kaala is helped along her journey by many: her mother, Neesa; her aunt, Rissa; Zorindru and the other Greatwolves; her packmates Ázzuen and Marra; Trevegg; Tlitoo; Lydda, the spiritwolf; and TaLi and her grandmother. Of all of these aides, who do you think is most responsible for her survival and why? How does Kaala's development over the course of the novel, from outcast and misfit to mature she-wolf, reflect the typical arc of a fictional protagonist? In what respects is Kaala like other heroines in novels you have read?
10. "'I started a journey that you must complete, daughterwolf.'" What role does Lydda, the spiritwolf, play in Kaala's awakening to her heritage as the wolf that can unite wolves and humans? How do her interactions with Kaala throughout Promise of the Wolves reveal her allegiances? Why do you think the author chose to begin and end the novel with glimpses of Lydda, and how did her decision to do so affect your appreciation of this novel as part of a continuum, or larger story, about the wolves in the Wide Valley?