They had been waiting for hours. Well, maybe not hours, but at least it felt like it had been a very long time. Many eyes fixed on the silhouette of the mountains above them, the silver light of the stars just outlining their jagged peaks high above. Around them, wind whispered in the long grasses, waving the stems against one another like a symphony of a hundred whispering voices. They were all saying the same thing in slightly different voices. A hundred individuals all hissing the same soft words.
Wait. Wait. Wait.
One of them stood. His hairy outline made him seem huge, though his puny strength was nothing compared to the huge fangs of the mountains. Raising arms to the sky, the others could see the matted tassels hanging from him, the places where scars were picked out in starlight, where his fur would never grow again. The marks of a hundred fierce battles, fought to protect his family.
He had waited long enough.
Lifting his heavy head, he straightened his curved back and stood tall, towering over them, seeming to loom up to the very stars. Then he raised his scarred muzzle, opened his maw, and howled. He howled to summon the moon, to call his pack to join him, to express his loneliness to the broad, unforgiving sky. He howled for the generations that had been whelped, raised, and buried on the uncaring slopes of the mountains that had spawned the life of the world. He howled until his lungs were burning for want of air, and then, still alone, he stopped. The night rang with his howl long after the echoes had died away, a testament to the strength of his voice and the way he led his family.
But no one had joined him. Not one of his females, of his cubs, of his brothers had lifted their voices to join his.
He had called to them, and they had not answered.
They sensed what he was only beginning to realize.
They were not alone.
A challenger answered his howl with a low, authoritative growl. It wasn't one of his brothers or any of his cubs. It was a newcomer, large and shaggy. He, too, wore the scars of battles on his hide, but his ears weren't ragged with tears and bite marks. His tail wasn't cut short by the bear's teeth. His legs were strong and whole, and his eyes glowed bright green in the darkness as he approached, walking on four powerful legs.
The alpha lifted himself to his full height, his hind legs holding him steady where three would have failed him. But this newcomer didn't need to sacrifice balance for steadiness. He broke into a lope, then a run, then a full charge, teeth bared in a silent snarl.
The alpha wouldn't leave his family without a fight. He howled again as he met the challenger head to head, shoulder to shoulder, bite to bite. Claws tore, jaws snapped, eyes blazed. The new and the old. The alpha and the outsider. It wasn't just the alpha's life on the line. If he lost, then there were some of his cubs that were still young enough to fall prey to the newcomer. He would run them out at best, to starve in the forest or on the plains below. At worst, he would kill them himself and eat them to keep himself and his family strong. His mates. He cubs. His territory.
The alpha fought, but he knew even as he struggled to keep himself above his opponent's gnashing teeth, that this would be his last fight. Even if he won, this would be the last time he defended his family.