Chapter five -The Warning
I made it back unharmed.
By the time the tree line ended and my house came into sight, I was exhausted. All my strength had faded away together with those wolves, and I was left feeling drained of all energy. I’d had adrenaline ups and downs before, but never like this. This was new.
And with a lack of a better word, it felt… wrong.
“I’m telling you, we don’t have time for the police! They’re going to tear him apart! We have to do something, we have to go back there and-“
I’d already reached the front porch when I realized that all the lights were on, and there was a group of people standing outside. After a few seconds, I realized that they were my gang of friends. Among them stood Evelyn, apparently pleading with the others. Right in the middle of her sentence, her eyes fell on my and she screamed.
“CHASE! Oh my berry- are you all right?!”
She stormed off the porch and slammed square into me in what seemed to be a mixture between a tackle and a hug. Behind her, I could see Bobby and Tristan. Their usually neutral faces were now pale with worry, and they too quickly came down, followed by Luke and Jamie.
“Dude, what happened? We saw you storm off on your horse, and then Red came back alone and said you’d been attacked by a pack of wolves!”
“Are you okay, man?!”
“Chase…?” Bobby said softly. Even with Jamie and Luke freaking out in the background, it seemed to be the only thing that I heard. I slowly stepped forward, placing a single hand on his shoulder.
“Sorry, guys. Party is cancelled.”
The house was quiet. Mum and dad had returned. They’d asked what had happened to our boy’s night, but quickly gave up when I stayed unresponsive. I locked myself up in my room instead, refusing to talk about what had happened.
They’d left me alone.
Silently, I looked up at the ceiling. I had tried to go to sleep, but my mind was too full of thoughts for fatigue to kick in. Too many things had happened. Too many questions unanswered.
Why’d that pack of wolves let me live?
Because that is exactly what they had done. I would not romanticize it- they were hunters, and I’d been their prey. By all logical standards I was supposed to be lying dead in the woods by now. They had let me go, and they had been very obvious about it.
That was not normal behaviour for a pack of wolves.
I’d spent the night with barely any sleep. The morning after was spent in a tired haze, doing my daily chores on auto-pilot while my mind wandered. It made me not notice my surroundings until he was standing right next to me. Casually, the boy leaned over the fence that marked our territory.
‘Hobey, Chase. What’s with the complicated look?’
His name was Liu. He was part of a group of people at the edge of town that called themselves Wanderers- gypsies, traveling freely between towns and cities at their own pace. Liu’s group had appeared years ago, taken a liking to the Appaloosa rivers, and never left again. Their chief, Hotupa, assured the little town that they were only there temporarily, but no-one believed him- not even his own people. But that was all right. The Wanderers were a happy folk, rarely causing trouble. And their food was delicious. Our mayor loved gypsy food, and so they were allowed to stay.
Liu also happened to be one of my best friends. In contrast to the group at school, I did not have to act as a leader around him. I did not have to keep him in line, or assert dominance. He simply did not care. Liu would do as he pleased no matter who ordered him around, and I respected him for it. We were equals in a way that me and my group were not. I could tell Liu anything, even the craziest stories, and he would not judge me.
But even Liu would probably have no clue as to what to do this this particular story.
‘Long night, that’s all,’ I answered, dodging the question. Liu instantly picked up on it. His eyebrows rose, but the dark-skinned boy did not pursue the matter. Instead, he moved on to another topic.
‘Are you free this afternoon?’
‘Yeah, I’m almost done here. Just need to finish up with Angus here.’
‘Mind stopping by our place later? Your dad helped us out of a pinch at the vet the other day, and my people want to thank you. I think they’re baking something. Chief told me to go drop it off tonight-‘
‘But you’re too lazy to do that, and bringing me in to come fetch it saves you a lot of time,’ I jokingly finished his sentence. Liu shot me a guilty look, but quickly replaced it with a grin.
‘Sure, man. I have time to kill, anyway.’
‘Not spending it with the little redhead?’ Liu joked.
‘Not spending it with the little redhead.’
I finished the horse’s brushing and gently petted him on the back, signaling that I was done. Angus walked away.
‘I don’t know what’s up with you. Even us gypsies think she looks good, and she’s all googley-eyes over you. You really don’t want to get to know her a little better?’
I shot Liu a look in return, but didn’t comment. Liu raised his eyebrows again.
‘Okay. But don’t go all sour patch on me if I throw in a little competition,’ he finally winked.
‘Heh. Be my guest.’
My thoughts wandered. It had been the gypsies that first warned me about going into the woods. About a danger lurking there, in the darkness. Others had laughed it off as mere superstition. But as I had been a little kid, I’d believed them. And now it turned out to be true. Not the monsters in the night that I had expected there to be, but still… something about them was off. Not normal.
And I had a feeling that those gypsies knew exactly why.
‘Actually, Liu, how about I come pick up that package now?’
It was about time I paid them another visit.
The camp was on the edge of the village. Although lively and carefree, the inhabitants took great care not to become so noisy that they bothered the rest of Appaloosa Plains. Plus, their festival food was great, and free. It was a good arrangement. I liked going here. It was always peaceful.
Though this day, it was slightly different. As I strode in, I could see people walking all over the place- more so than usual. The peaceful atmosphere was still there, but the camp looked emptier than before. Almost as if people were making room for something… or someone.
‘What’s going on?’ I asked Liu. He looked at me sheepishly.
‘Oh, yeah. That. Well, we’re expecting some distant family to visit in the future. About fifty of them, in fact.’
‘Fifty?! That’s three times your group’s size!’
‘Yeah, that’s why we’re making room.’
‘How distant are we talking about?’
‘Haven’t seen them in years. You know us, though. One big family even after years apart. Plus, if there’s some girls close to my age in that group, then I’ll finally have a chance to find a bride.’
I raised a single eyebrow.
‘Liu, you’re fifteen. You don’t have to worry about that for years to come, man.’
‘Gypsy customs, Chase. My dad married when he was sixteen, you know.’
I shrugged, dropping my protests for now, and moved on.
‘When will they arrive?’
‘In a few days, at most. I think that their plan was to ride to Hidden Springs and spend the fall there, but there was a change in schedule.’
‘You can tell me that. Doesn’t your family usually travel in small groups, too? Will they split up after their visit?’
Liu averted his gaze. He kicked a loose pebble, not looking me in the eye.
‘I… don’t think so, Chase. Dad has plans of us going with them. Nothing certain yet, But I wouldn’t put it past him.’
‘Liu, you’ve never left Appaloosa Plains as long as I’ve been around. Why’d you leave now? Your people seem comfortable.’
‘Oh, you know… safety in numbers and all.’
That made me frown. And not just because of the fact that he was avoiding eye contact. Something was going on here. My gut feeling told me that this was about more than a temporary family visit, if it involved Liu leaving.
‘Okay, out with it. What is going on?’
For a second, it seemed as if he was about to answer me. Liu hesitated for a second, then opened his mouth. But before a word could come out, he was called away.
‘Liu! C’mere for a bit. We need a strong back.’
‘Wait here,’ Liu said to me. ‘I’ll get you your gift in a bit, okay?’
With that, he walked off. I was left alone, in the middle of the camp.
But I didn’t mind. In fact, this was the perfect chance. Because taking care of a gift was not why I had come here in the first place.
My eyes wandered. They were looking for Damar, the gypsy elder. She was the wisest member of their group, and the one that Hotupa, the chief, often went to for advice. She also happened to be Liu’s grandmother.
I found her near the fireplace. She seemed to be resting, not participating in the hustle and bustle of the other gypsies in the slightest. As was normal for elderly people, I guess. I nodded to myself and approached her, just as she stood up and headed for her tent.
‘Damar? Hold up! I have some questions!’
Slowly, the gypsy elder turned around. For a moment, there was a very cold look in her eyes, a silent judgement of how I dared approach her out of the blue like that.
Then she recognized me, and the harsh expression faded.
‘Chase Adams! I haven’t seen you in weeks! Come here, my boy.’
She hugged me with a smile, a hug that I happily returned. I liked Damar. Ever since my first visit to the gypsy camp, way back when I was still a toddler, she had been exceptionally kind to me. In fact, she had treated me exactly the same as her own grandson, Liu, teaching us the same things and telling us the same stories. She even had a nickname for me- emal. I’d loved it, though I had no clue what it meant. Since then, Damar been the closest thing to a grandmother in my life.
She had also been the one to tell me about the monsters in the woods. If it was her, she’d believe what had happened to be the truth. I decided to tell her, right then and there.
‘What can I do for you, dear?’ she smiled. A smile that quickly faded when she saw the serious expression on my face.
‘Do you remember the stories that you used to tell me and Liu, about the dangers of the deep woods?’
‘Yes, I remember.’
‘It’s not just a bedtime story, is it?’
Her expression faltered.
‘A friend didn’t know. I went in at night to drag her out. We were attacked by wolves. They were ready to kill us – Damar, they let me go. Wolves don’t decide to let someone go once they’ve closed in for the kill. Those things were not wolves.’
The gypsy elder sighed. It was a tired, defeated sigh, and I instantly realized that she had been hoping she’d never have to talk about this. It made me feel slightly bad. But I had to know.
‘You have to understand, Chase, that the stories that we told you, we normally do not share with outsiders.’
‘I know. My group had no idea what I was talking about every time I tried to discuss it with them.’
‘That is because this tale is not one that is native to Appaloosa Plains. It is a gypsy tale, passed on throughout the generations.’
‘What do you know?’
‘I… cannot tell you.’
‘Why not? Those things are dangerous! I have to know how to defend myself from them, don’t I?’
‘They are only dangerous to certain people, Emal. Normal people need not fear them.’
I gritted my teeth. She was dancing around the subject. I was certain that she knew something. And she realized that I was aware of that, too. So why wouldn’t she give me a straight-out answer?
‘If normal people don’t need to fear them,’ I growled finally, ‘then why did they attack me?’
Another silence fell. Then, Damar gave me a look that I had never seen on her before. Hey eyes looked deeply into mine, gleaming with an emotion that seemed completely out of place. In her large, brown eyes, I saw pity. Mixed with sadness. If anything, that look confused me even more.
‘Emal… I have told you the legend before, yes? Of the Gate of Life?’
‘What, that tale of rebirth that gypsies believe in?’ I replied. ‘You told it to me when I was a kid. I’m a bit sceptic about it, sorry.’
Another strange look in my direction. Then Damar sighed again, and turned away from me.
‘Do not cast away stories as superstition too soon, Chase. You’re closely connected to this one, even if you do not know it.’
‘But what about-‘
‘Do not leave the village at night. The answer is the same as what you’ve always been told, Chase.’
With that, she left. I grumbled to myself, not at all happy with the conversation. She had not answered any of my questions. If anything, she’d confused me even more. She was keeping me in the dark on purpose. That was not like Damar.
And I hated being kept in the dark.
But she was the head of the gypsy community here, and if she had decided not to tell me, then there was nothing I could do. So I gave up… for now. Displeased, I sat myself down on the nearest hay bale and waited for Liu to finish up with whatever he was doing.
In the back of my mind, the encounter with the wolves still stung. They’d let me go, sure, but what if they hadn’t? I didn’t have claws or the like to defend myself. And you couldn’t outrun a pack of wolves. That was impossible.
Somewhere in the midst of my chain of thought, my eyes wandered to a little girl and her foal. They seemed to be playing tag – the girl would run away, and after a few seconds, the foal would catch up and poke her back with its mouth. Then the roles reversed. As I gazed upon the two of them, an insane thought came up in my mind.
Why wouldn’t I be able to outrun a wolf? Who said that it was impossible? I was athletic by nature. My body was getting stronger every day, and would be until well into my thirties. I was already stronger and faster than the rest of my classmates – and not to boast. Instinctively, I knew that I was. They were no challenge to beat.
But a wolf? Now that would be an accomplishment. The highlight of challenges. And if I couldn’t defend myself, then I might as well get pretty damn good at running away.
And there was a second reason, too. In those letters, my parents had said I was not ready. I still had no idea what I was supposed to be ready for. But what better way to start than being in peak condition?
With that, it was decided.
I had to be strong. I had to prove myself.
It was time to start running with the wolves- literally.