lower to the ground, glaring between prickly green brambles and across
the glade at her prey. He had been elusive, dodging and circling her
like no wolf before. She didn’t think he was from her forest. The local
beasts were relatively dumb. This one, though… This one was another
She had first seen him running with the pack months ago. He only stood
out because he was a little darker than usual. He was no larger than
most, no faster. Just a touch darker. Then she had watched the pack
make a kill, and she saw what distinguished him.
He was no bigger, no faster, but darker and far more vicious.
The average wolf was a cruel, dumb beast, to be sure. He would steal meat from his own cubs, even eat them himself, if he was
he hungry and given a chance. More than once had she let
the father wolf do the dirty work for her, once she had dealt with the
mother. She felt that it made the whole process neater.
This wolf… When they dragged down the deer, he didn’t even start eating
before he snarled and snapped at his neighbors, tearing into their shoulders
and eyes. Not until there was a meter’s worth of clear area around him
did he begin to eat, and then he often paused to snarl. When he was
done, he stalked off out of sight, and only then did the ousted wolves
return to their meal. There wasn’t much left, for a single doe was little
to the hunger of such large, brutal beasts.
However, she had made use of the advantage he had given her, attacking
the distracted yet not ravening pack, and managed to take out a few
before they fled.
It was becoming difficult to kill them by any way aside from snares. She was glad for the change of pace from
the tedium. She was starting to wonder if the beasts could smell the
death on her.
She had seen him again several times since. He had even aided her once.
She had been stalking a mother and her young cubs for a week. The mother
was a wily one, moving the cubs to a new lair every few days, always
keeping right ahead of her. Finally, she reached the lair, but the wolf
had reached it first. The mother and her three cubs had all been slaughtered.
It was obvious that they had been killed for sport, not food. They had
been ripped apart, but the meat and organs were all uneaten and the
silvery fur floating like dandelion puffs on the breeze. She had found
it unsettling, unnerving, and so had the other animals. Even a forest
as populated with ruthless predators as this one was usually full of
birdsong and the buzz of insects, but all was silent. She had been stalking
wolves for many years now, and they never behaved this way. They never
killed, except when they needed to. She looked up from the gore, and
into the yellow eyes of the dark wolf, staring at her across the clearing.
She tensed and gripped her axe more tightly, waiting for him to spring.
Instead he snarled and bolted.
She had walked on pins and needles for the next month, even taking a
week off from hunting to replenish her cache of roots and greens. She
had needed to build a new cupboard for all the roots she had collected,
but she went the month without seeing the wolf.
Then she returned to the hunt, singling out the pack he had first been
spotted in for extermination. One by one they fell, whether to her dagger,
axe or traps. Over the years she had learned much about the hunt, especially
where wolves were concerned. There wasn’t much they could do to surprise
her anymore, and this pack was no exception. Instead of struggling to
protect herself, she had become efficient and tidy.
She killed wolves in her dreams. But she couldn’t kill this one.
It avoided her most skillful traps, or gnawed through them before she
could get to him. His trail was undetectable. Even when she was watching
him herself she could barely discern where the marks were. And he was
very difficult to spot, dark fur blending with the dark loam, brambles
and tree trunks like a shadow. She had begun to wonder if maybe she
hadn’t finally gone mad, and was hallucinating. It wouldn’t be a surprise.
Most people assumed she was mad already, but that didn’t matter. Whether
she was trying to slay a real or imaginary beast, she needed it dead.
She had left her cloak in the cottage when she left to find him. She
hated to, but she hardly had any choice. As hunting went it was extremely
impractical, getting in the way and giving her away. Now she was uneasy,
unaccustomed to the lightness of her shoulders, the easy movement of
her arms. She was naked and exposed, but she could not turn back. She
was so close, so very close now. She could see him, snarfing down the
hare in the glade. The blood glinting off his snout was the only thing
she could see clearly, besides his eyes. They were yellow, a fairly
common color. They were staring at her. She was staring back. Her hand
gripped her axe more
tightly, seeking comfort in the familiar, worn grain. She had whittled
the handle down herself, so
as to be able to grip it better. After all, it wasn’t
made for a woman. She had gotten it from a woodsman, in exchange for
a night’s shelter, and it had served her quite well since then, doing
everything from chopping her wood to chopping the heads of beasts.
Now she fingered the blade again, full of irrational fears that it had
become dull in the last five minutes. It remained as sharp as ever,
and she cut her finger. She winced a little, and the wolf froze. His
eyes seemed to glint, and she tensed herself, waiting for the spring,
but he resumed his meal calmly.
She pulled her feet under her, kneeling forward to spring herself, and
he growled, hackles rising. Her lips twisted into a snarl of her own,
as feral as the animals she hunted, and she hurled herself through the
underbrush at it. He sprang, and they would have met in mid-air, had
she not thrown herself to the ground and rolled beneath it, swinging at
his legs as she went. There was a nauseating crack, and he stumbled.
She figured that she had broken one of his hind legs, and this appeared
to be true. He spun to face her as well as he could but his left rear
leg collapsed under him, and he let loose a piercing howl of pain. She
smirked, now confident that this was no demon wolf
from the depths of hell, here to exact vengeance on her. This was a
wolf, just like any other. A dumb, brutal, vicious beast. She slipped
on the rabbit blood, and felt her leg wobble and crunch beneath her.
She dropped her axe and stared at the wolf. It seemed to smile back,
cheekily. She looked up, and saw that there was no moon tonight. Her
eyes widened as she thought
frantically back to all the sightings of the wolf, and
she gasped as she finally made the connections. This particular beast
was a hound from hell. It was one of the monthly night frights her grandmother
had so often warned her of, that her father had threatened her with.
She snatched up her axe and began
to back slowly away, panicked, trying to remember anything she had heard,
had learned that might help her, but her mind was blank. The creature
snarled, and slunk towards her, no longer pretending to be hurt. She
whimpered, pulling her axe closer to her chest and…
Swung. The blade sliced into the air, making it sing, and connected
squarely with the neck of the wolf-creature. There was a snick, and
as she checked her arm, barely able to pull in the powerful swing, blood
spurted from the thing’s neck. It emitted a loud gurgling noise, a sound
which would have been a howl, but for the fact that its throat was full
with blood. The golden eyes brightened, full of malice and then dulled
to a cloudy white, and she breathed a sigh of relief. The blood kept
flowing, pouring across the ground in an unnatural torrent, soaking
her dress and herself like a warm bath, and she was glad that she had
left her cloak behind. She ripped some makeshift bandages from the hem
of her petticoat and used some nearby branches to make a splint. Fortunately, it seemed
to be merely a sprain, instead of the breakage she had assumed.
As the blood flow abated, she unsheathed her skinning knife and went
to work. Normally she would have tried to preserve as much of the meat
as she could carry, but now she just sliced the skin from the corpse
and left it. She was in no condition or mood to deal with the meat,
and it was doubtlessly poisoned. Not that she was sure, for she had
never heard of a predicament like hers before.
As she stomped her way through the underbrush, wincing every other step
and cursing tree branches, roots, brambles, blackberry bushes and tussocks,
she wondered how she could have been shortsighted enough to risk her
neck hunting down a nightmare creature. It was common sense, and anyone
would assume she was a complete fool, for being so rash and eager to
hunt it down. But she had.
And that was what gave her pause.
It had been stupid, shortsighted and foolhardy, but it had been successful.
She had been hunting wolves all these past years, and this was the first time she had gone beyond them, worked past
her area of expertise. And it was the same. The nightmare had reacted,
acted, looked, like an especially savage wolf. Come to think of it,
she had never seen any un-wolf-like behavior from any animal. They all
acted pretty much the same, all simply concerned with breeding and feeding
themselves. All animals were essentially the wolves that she loathed.
This conclusion was quickly reached, and she brooded on it as she walked.
She reached her hut, and stretched the skin across the framework that
her grandfather had built so many years ago. The hut was old, and practical.
It served her purpose quiet well, although it was quite bare. The old
pine slats on the roof would need attention soon, she knew, but that
didn’t matter much. She would manage when the time came. She entered,
and dragged the large cauldron over to the stove, and began to fetch
water. Hard work soon filled it, and the fire soon brought it to a boil.
She stripped her clothes, and dumped them in, fetching her cape from
the peg by the door. She wrapped herself in it to keep out the chill,
and began to examine her leg. It really was only a sprain. She had remarkable
luck, to be sure. She had never heard even the slightest rumor of anybody
escaping a night lurk so lightly. It was, she decided, probably an especially
stupid lurk. But one nonetheless.
She removed her clothes from the pot and set them out to dry. Black,
her mother had long ago decided, was an excellent color for messy girls.
She had had no reason to deviate. She pulled some of the wolf furs off
the walls and made a nest in the corner with them and her cloak. Tomorrow,
she decided, she would begin in earnest. It would do well to branch
out some from wolves. They would always be there, but for now… there
were other problems to tend. Red shut her eyes and drifted into deep
dreams of hunting.