When the weather was kind, summer was a good time to be a hunter.
The hunting party had ridden out behind Blacksnake, heading north along the Holt's River to where the forest thinned out into scrubland. From the line where the great trees ended, it was a bowl of open vistas that stretched all the way to the great Guardian mountains, just visible on a clear day on the northern horizon. When the season of death-sleep advanced over the land, then the clickdeer arrived in the north end of the bowl, to breed and wait out the winter below the mountains. But they would not arrive for months yet, and now, as summer advanced, the open meadows were host to travelling herds of branch-horn, fattening themselves on the grasses and preparing for the rutting season to come.
Wolves and elves might prefer to sleep at night, but the habits of the branch-horns made them adapt their plans. The big deer were active byday, grazing in the meadows, returning to the cover of trees and bushes to bed down at night. Blacksnake ordered a dawn hunt, catching the herd in ambush as it emerged from the forest edge and began to fan out over the plain. Though the year's new calves made tempting targets, it was on the yearling bulls, with their new antlers still covered in velvet, that the hunters concentrated. The bulls were fast, too fast for wolves alone, but the spears and bows and tactics of the elven hunters gave them and their wolf-friends more choice in their targets, letting them leave the does and calves to grow and breed more game for turns to come.
Now, Windsong sat on the crest of a low hill that offered long views all around. A few short trees crowned the crest, and from the lowest branches three elk carcasses now hung. The four elves, their wolf-friends, and a few of the pack's unbonded who had followed them had fed on the fresh kills; then they had strung the bodies up, finishing gutting them and letting the blood drain. The rest of the hunters had then curled up with their sated wolves in the shade of the trees, resting until dusk came and they would butcher the game for wrapping and loading on a travois to take back to the Holt.
Now, it was Windsong's turn to stay awake and keep watch. Below, several bowshots away, the branch-horn herd had recovered from the threat of the hunt, and was grazing again. In the distance to the east, she could see the long, bright line of the Holt's River. Keeping watch in this terrain was no sinecure. Aside from discouraging eager scavengers ravens, crows, foxes, and vultures alike from coming too near the elves' kill, it was important to keep an eye out for bears. They were to be found all along this stretch of the river, drawn to it by the fishing, but they could and did kill branch-horns as well, and the scent of this kill might draw them despite the strength of the wolf-pack's numbers. A show of that strength would see the bears off, and it was Windsong's job to give warning if that display was needed.
The golden-haired huntress knew what to look for, and knew her task was an important one. Even canny old Half-tail, her wolf-friend of many seasons, was dozing rather than staying awake to keep her bondmate company and that meant that Windsong could not doze at all. In time, she could awaken Longshot, and he would take his turn at this, but that time had not yet come.
So she sat with her back leaning against Half-tail's flank, regularly scanning the horizon in every direction. She passed the time conjuring up in her mind a picture of every bird whose song rang out in the heat of the day, enjoying the opportunity to hear them and to practice copying them; her own skilled whistling versions of their calls disturbed her fellow hunters no more than the birds themselves did. As the sun fell past its zenith, she played a game with herself and with the songbirds, trying to see how many she could fool with her mimicking into thinking that a rival was trying to encroach on their tiny territories.
The first warning she had that something was wrong came when the branch-horn herd in the far distance began to move, faster than their normal grazing amble. Then, even the redbird with whom she'd been exchanging challenges fell silent. Windsong stood, taking a few steps towards the edge of the tree's shadow, one hand gripping her bow and the other shading her eyes. The bright light of day made her squint but, she realized, less than she'd had to earlier. The daylight felt dimmed, somehow.
After a few moments of watching, she knew she wasn't imagining things. The elk were on the move now, drifting back in the direction of the forest edge, where they bedded for the night. Windsong frowned. Why would they be doing that? It wasn't that long after midday, and in summer, days stretched out forever, it seemed. It ought to be long hours yet before the herd retired for the night.
It disturbed her more to realize that one by one, all of the friendly daytime birdsong had ceased. Even the hum of insects was changing; only one sound filled the growing silence, and that was the rising and falling click-click-click-buzz of cicadas in the trees a sound that usually started in the late afternoon, as dusk was coming.
Storm, was Windsong's first thought, the most obvious explanation for the continued dimming of the light. A bad storm, probably, if the elk were moving ahead of it into shelter. Even as her puzzled eyes scanned all of the horizons, and saw few clouds, all far off to the south, she was moving to rouse her fellow hunters.
**What is it?** Blacksnake asked immediately, when she woke him from his doze. He had faith in her as a level-headed hunter; he knew she wouldn't wake him for anything unimportant. His dark eyes blinked uncomfortably as he scanned around for the expected threat.
"A storm. I think," Windsong replied, shaking Longshot's shoulder. Then she concentrated briefly on a sharp enough send to wake Quick Fang, knowing better than to poke or prod the fierce white-haired huntress awake.
"I don't see stormclouds," said the Hunt Leader, standing now and shading his eyes, rotating in place.
"Nor do I," she told him, and though she wasn't a strong sender and didn't prefer it, she knew the best way to fill the rest of her huntmates in was to share those impressions that had alarmed her. "The light has dimmed from what it was not long ago. I know it," she added out loud, for emphasis.
"The branch-horns are moving," Longshot commented, now that they were all awake and aware.
"It is too early for them to be heading back to their sleeping-places," Quick Fang agreed. The expression on the younger huntress's face looked almost angry; she didn't like it when game behaved in ways that it should not.
By now all of the wolves were awake and alert too, responding to the elves' disquiet.
"Could the storm be moving that quickly, that the animals can sense it but we can't see it?" asked the young archer; but he sounded doubtful, as if he didn't believe that idea, either.
"Ask your wolves. They would feel it coming, too. And so would we." Blacksnake had moved out into the strangely weak sunlight weaker than the light of a winter day. He was holding his hands out in front of him, staring at them, at the way the light was falling on them. He said, "This isn't a storm coming."
"Well then, what else could it be?" Windsong asked, reasonably. Game and birds did not just start acting this way without a reason. She was beginning to doubt her own senses, but she didn't doubt their instincts.
"The sun," said the elder.
"But why --?" Reflexively, Windsong almost looked up at the daystar, stopping herself just in time. Full daylight was no friend to elven eyes. Longshot did look, quickly, before he ducked his head, rubbing furiously at his watering eyes.
"You can't look at it directly." Blacksnake's voice was laced with scorn for having to remind the youngster of something that even little cubs learned quickly. "Do it this way." The elder crouched down suddenly on the grassy swell of the hill, and he laced his fingers together, holding them above his knee where the leather of his breeches was stretched smooth. Beneath his hands, light filtered through the tiny awl-point holes between the fingers.
Quick Fang scowled at him suspciously, before crouching herself and copying his posture. Windsong chose to kneel beside Longshot as he did the same, leaning to one side to see while the black-haired archer leaned to the other. Blacksnake was watching the little points of light on his knee intently, an odd half-smile on his face. "There see the circle shape? That's a reflection of the sun."
"There's a bite taken out of it!" shouted Quick Fang, sounding startled and affronted at the same time. Longshot's head jerked as he almost looked up again to confirm what the tiny circular shape on his leg showed them.
Blacksnake chuckled, as good-natured as Windsong had ever heard him. "That 'bite' is Mother moon sliding between us and the daystar, that's all," he told them.
"I think I remember Snowfall leading a Howl about something like that," said Windsong, thoughtfully. Faint, fleeting images came to her from fireside tales of her childhood a silver moon-wolf chasing and swallowing the golden sun.
Longshot nodded, his blue eyes round and fixed on the reflected image. "Me too. Look the bite is getting bigger!"
Windsong glanced sidelong at the elder, with his silvered hair like the moon-wolf of her imagination; watching him watching the image with such a pleased look on his face, you'd think he'd caused the show in the heavens himself. "How did you know?" she asked him.
"Seen it before," he replied simply. "A very, very long time ago. Started to wonder if I'd ever see it again." There was a strange note in his voice, not wistful, not sad, but some reaction to the reminder of the weight of years on uncounted years. Then his hands broke apart and he stood quickly, and the expression on his face was almost eager. "Come on, cubs the best part's almost here."
They stood too, uncertainly, not sure what he meant or what else was in store. The tribe's Howls made for good stories, Windsong reflected, but sometimes they left out as much detail as they kept in.
"What's the best part?" Quick Fang echoed Windsong's thoughts aloud, as they moved to join the Hunt Leader where he stood, hands on hips, looking out over the long view to the west.
"You'll see," answered Blacksnake mysteriously, still with that enigmatic half-smile on his lips.
Quick Fang huffed in irritation, and crossed her arms, waiting with badly-concealed impatience. Windsong caught Longshot's eye, and he smiled a bit, then shrugged. Some of the wolves, their bondmates, came to stand with them, shifting restlessly. Quick Fang's Growler, the youngest of all of them, gave a soft whine. The unbonded wolves had gone back to sleep beneath the trees.
Windsong wondered if, like in the legends, the moon-wolf really would swallow the entire sun, and what that would look like.
In the time they had spent talking, the light had dimmed further and further. It didn't look anything like twilight. It looked a little as if there was a thin cloud cover over the sky, or a little like the light before certain storms but all around them, the sky was still a cloudless blue, and she knew without looking at it that the sun was still there shining, and that was what made it feel so wrong, and so strange.
"Almost there," said Blacksnake, softly to himself, "almost there!" and he threw up and arm and pointed to the west. "Watch!"
Still unsure what she was looking for, Windsong fixed her gaze on the west, and soon, far in the distance, far past even where the branch-horns had grazed, she saw it.
It was a shadow, the deepest shadow imaginable, deeper than beneath a raincloud, and the moment she saw it, she realized it was moving. It was moving fast, sweeping over the far hills and the trees. It was a line of darkness and it raced towards them with the speed of an eagle flying, spreading night-dark wings from horizon to horizon. They stood on the crest of the hill and could see the long shallow valley stretched out below them, and they had the best possible view of the rushing line of nightfall swallowing the ground, seeming to pick up speed as it approached.
For a moment, as the line reached the edge of the valley and sped their way, Windsong had felt within herself the beginnings of an urge to run, to flee what was bearing down on them, though rational thought told her that no wolf could outrun something that fast. But as soon as that urge swelled within her chest, it was gone, and she only felt excitement, anticipation. Beside her, Quick Fang's eyes were huge, her face shocked, her posture frozen; was she feeling the same urge, Windsong wondered? Or was she transfixed by the enormous wrongness of the scene, of something happening that should not, could not, but was?
The line of dark overtook them, swept over them, and they were in the strangest night that Windsong had ever seen. It was dark, like night, yet not entirely. The stars were suddenly there, bright overhead, but dim and reddish towards the horizons.
"And -- now you can look," said Blacksnake, and when she glanced at the elder she saw his face turned upward, bathed in a light that was not at all like moonlight. Then Windsong looked up herself, and forgot about comparisons.
There was a black disc in the sky where the sun had been, and all around its rim was a cold, fiery glow, streaked and fitful. It was not the sun, and not the moon, even though her reason told her it was both. It was something entirely new.
"It's beautiful!" said Longshot, though Windsong wasn't sure she was willing to go that far. It was an awe-inspiring sight, but it was so unnatural, and unsettling.
As if he agreed with her, Longshot's Icestalker raised his muzzle and howled, the sound taken up after a moment by the other wolves.
"How how long --?" Quick Fang asked, her voice subdued.
"Not that long. It'll be over soon." Blacksnake, for his part, sounded disappointed. "You may only see this once in your lifetimes, cubs. Enjoy it while you can."
Windsong shot him a dubious look, before she returned her gaze to the moon-hidden sun; the elder had a strange notion of enjoyment. She wondered if the rest of the tribe, sleeping the day away like normal elves back at the Holt, could see this. She wondered if her mate had roused their cubs to show it to them.
She found herself hoping so. As terrible as it was, in its own way, it was something she was glad she'd seen a legend brought to life, and the truth behind it.