The forest was lounging. Its sounds were slow and comfortable. He moved quietly, the only trait he had inherited from his forefathers and, ironically, what kept him safe from them. Not that he saw them very often. He hadn't for awhile. Long ago, he had begun moving away from their home, and now he only ever sometimes heard their howls.
Deftly, he moved between the trees, the rabbit hides tied about his feet silent on the soft snow. Up ahead, the coyote stood with his head turned back to the man, excitement evident in his stance and bright eyes. Unaffected by his companion's eagerness, the man continued on steadily. The first snare was beneath an outcrop of sharp rock protruding through the snow like a warning of the trap it harboured. A fat grey rabbit was caught in the circle of rope. Taking his small knife from his belt, the man slit its throat.
"You and I are going to eat well tonight, my friend," he said to the coyote. The beast tossed its head and turned, trotting off to the next snare.
There was a smaller rabbit, old and rather grizzled, in the third snare. Of the five he had set, only those two were fruitful. He let the old one go and carefully reset the snares. When they had retraced their steps to a small cave, the man prepared the rabbit while the coyote settled down beside the fire.
The night descended calmly, as it usually did in this part of the forest. The coyote stood after awhile and went out, his silver fur flashing in the moonlight. The man banked the fire and stowed what meat was left between packs of fragrant herbs. From a narrow stone ledge, he took a roll of tattered blankets and laid them on the ground. Closing his eyes, he slept…and dreamt.
A girl sat by his bedside. Her face was covered with tattoos and lines of worry. He was wrapped in thick blankets under a heavy wolf pelt. Sweat ran down his face and neck. The skin covering the window fluttered every time someone passed by. He could see patches of snow and black cloaks and fearsome warriors.
The fire flickered. People came and went. Sometimes the girl left, but she always came back. Her voice, when she spoke or sang, was soothing. The heat receded after days of torment, but things remained unfocused. Eventually, he was allowed to leave his bed to sit by the fire. He asked for pieces of wood and a carving knife, and a young man with cheerful eyes brought them.
He carved and carved. Piece after piece of wood was tossed aside; none of them were right. The girl protested, urging him to stop, but he refused. He had to do this; it had to be perfect.
He was surrounded by wood shavings. They piled higher and higher. He was covered in them, buried, drowning. He needed to breathe. Slowly, he stood and stumbled past the sleeping girl and out the door. The air was cold outside. He shivered, thinking of the wolf fur he had left inside. He didn't turn back.
The forest loomed before him, dark and silent. Snow and twigs crunched beneath his bare feet. He was cold, so cold. His fingers were numb on the handle of his knife, which he still carried in his hand. Everything around him was pitch black.
He stumbled suddenly and fell face down in the snow. His head struck something hard. The last thing he felt was the blade of his knife cutting into the side of his thigh.
He awoke to bright morning sunlight. The coyote was not there, which was odd, but it had happened once or twice before. The man fetched the pail set outside to catch the drip of melting snow, and poured the water into a stone bowl near the fire. He took the rest of the rabbit, leaving a few strips for the coyote before going out to check the snares. He skinned the two young rabbits he caught and cooked and stored them in a leather pouch, again between the packets of herbs.
He spent the rest of the day restlessly sharpening his knives and moving things about the cave. Some time after noon, he went out to walk among the trees and search for the coyote. A set of wagon tracks caused him to reconsider and he turned back. When night fell, he nibbled on some of the fresh rabbit, though he felt no real hunger.
The coyote still had not returned.
For awhile, the man stood at the entrance of the cave, looking out at the dark forest. Hours passed and he retreated inside to tend the fire. Taking out his bedroll, he tried to sleep, but rest would not come with nothing but fleas for company. He tossed and turned irritably. When he grew warm, he tossed aside the blankets, only to be met by a chill wind from outside. Owls hooted the darkness and something scratched at the cave rock.
The man sat up, thinking it might be the coyote, but all he saw was a ferret scurrying away.
At dawn, he rose and went out with a bow and quiver. It had snowed the night before, covering the tracks he had seen the day before. He scowled at himself for not having followed them when they were still fresh. Aimlessly, he wandered through the forest, seeking the coyote's usual haunts. The beast was nowhere to be found. Travelling further away from home, he searched the snow for fresh tracks. It wasn't until midday that he found anything. It was a camp, just left that morning by the depth of the wagon tracks heading out. He would have left it be if it weren't for the patch of blood near the fire. It wasn't fresh, merely having avoided being covered by the snow by the warmth of the fire next to it. The man approached it, bent and sniffed. Human.
Standing, he looked about. He wanted to leave, uncomfortable at being in a place where other men had been such a short time ago, but something urged him to stay. He began to search the lower branches of the tress surrounding the camp. Knife marks, a scrap of cloth, and…a tuft of fur.
The man took it, frowning. There were no tracks nearby, but he knew the fur came from the coyote.
Without even stopping to consider, the man swung about and began dashing along the wagon trail. He didn't get very far before he was forced to stop for breath. Though he was stronger than he had ever been at the home of his fathers, he was still not so fit as most those of that tribe.
Panting, he leaned against a tree, then looked up at the sky. It was still early afternoon. These men, whoever they were, would be slowed by the wagon, but they had half a day's advantage on him. If he went back to the cave for weapons and food, he could still travel a considerable distance before nightfall. For the first time since leaving the place of his birth, he wished he had a horse.
Muttering, he jogged back to the cave. There, he packed lightly, tying the rabbit meat and a waterskin to his belt next to his knife, and collecting what spare weapons he could. Once again following the wagon tracks, he forced himself not to run, though the urge was great. At the edge of the forest, he paused. He had been here before, of course. Since leaving his father's home, he had moved father and farther away, thusly coming closer to the edge of the forest. A time or two, he had even considered leaving altogether, but had eventually persuaded himself to stay.
The wagon tracks led out of the forest.
From the shelter of the sparse border trees, he gazed out at the snow-covered valley before him. The coyote was out there; his only companion and friend.
Resolutely, he stepped out of the forest and into the valley.
Rhian sighed, staring out across the passing fields as she walked along beside the mule. Up ahead, her father led the old packhorse. She could hear her mother scolding her brothers as they dallied behind her. Pulling her cloak more closely about her, she shifted nearer to the mule for warmth. It was hard to believe it was nearly spring in this dismal cold.
"How much farther until we reach Hale's, Father?" she asked, coming up beside him.
"Not much longer," he replied. "Another day or so, and we should be there."
Rhian hid her disappointment behind her hood. What she would give for enough horses to carry them all to her uncle's farm, where his wife would doubtless have a fire and a rich stew awaiting them. They had left their home town of Moswil five days ago, and the journey had been trying on everyone. Her brothers were restless and moody, more prone to run off to mischief with each step, and Rhian's mother's nerves were frazzled. Another day or two might be the death of her. Stifling a sigh, she drudged on.
Mist still hovered over the patches of snow and slush littering the way. It blurred and contracted the world. Rhian caught a glimpse of movement, like a startled shadow. The figure paused as they drew closer, and she could make out the form of a tall, lean man shifting his weight anxiously.
"Good day to you, neighbour!" her father hailed the stranger.
The man seemed to hesitate, caught between greeting them back and melting back into the fog.
"How do you?" her father continued, obviously oblivious to the other's uncertainty.
Father and daughter drew even with the stranger. The man hesitated a second longer, and then stepped forward. Rhian couldn't stay her gasp. He looked like a wild man; he was a wild man. His hair looked as if it had not been cut in seasons and was riddled with leaves and twigs. Half his face was hidden by a rough beard just as knotted and untidy as his hair. His clothes consisted of ragged breeches, a threadbare cloak and scraps of rabbit fur tied about his feet. A bow was slung over one shoulder, pulling back the cloak to reveal a tattered shirt and a belt laden with knives, a pouch and a waterskin.
Rhian unconsciously took a step back from him. Gods, but he looked more frightening than the Wolf she had seen last summer. Her father hesitated a moment, clearly as surprised as she at this strange man's appearance. Then he handed her the packhorse's reins and stepped forward.
"Are you lost, stranger?"
The other man opened his mouth, but no sound came out.
Surely he must have been taken by the fairies, Rhian thought to herself.
"I'm looking for…a friend," the man said. His voice was hoarse and his words slow, as if he were unused to speaking. He looked down at the wet road, then back the way he had come.
Rhian's father cleared his throat. "Well, now, neighbour. Does this friend of yours have any goods to sell?"
The wild man blinked. "Goods?" he repeated.
"Aye. The spring fair's acoming soon. Many's a person that's going there 'round this time."
The man shifted, and Rhian could see the thoughts flashing in his dark eyes. "He…he has a coyote," he said at last.
Rhian's father raised his brows. "A coyote can fetch a good price at market these days." Within the shadows of her hood, Rhian frowned in disdain. He deserved to be driven to madness by the Fey if he associated with such men as those who captured and sold wild animals.
"I…see." He shifted again, looking about at the paths he had to choose from. After a moment: "Where is this fair?" His voice was surer now, deep and resolute, almost dark.
"Calel'd be the closest."
"Calel." Recognition flashed in the man's eyes. "Which direction?"
Her father pointed to the right. "That'away. About three days on foot. My family and I are headed the same way, if you'd like to travel with us."
Rhian sent her father a furtive look of panic. He was inviting this savage to join them?
Indecision reigned on the stranger's face, and for a moment Rhian hoped that he would refuse and be on his way. But then he nodded curtly. "I…thank you."
Rhian's mother and brothers had caught up to them. The boys peered curiously at the stranger, and Rhian could just see the trouble begin to brew. Rhian's father introduced his wife, Edwena, his two sons, Lorcan and Caolan, and his daughter. Turning to the stranger, he inquired, "And what'll be your name, neighbour?"
Hesitation again. Rhian thought it almost looked as if he wasn't sure that he even had a name.
Stolen by the fairies, indeed.
"R-Raul," he said at last.
Rhian's father was quiet a moment, and she sensed her brothers still. Raul was a Wolf name. "Well, then. I am Brennus." He stuck out his hand. Raul took it slowly and they shook. "Heading for my brother's farm, we are," he added, taking the packhorse's reins from Rhian and turning to the right. Raul fell in beside him, though a bit farther than most would. Brennus glanced anxiously at their new companion, who made no attempt to reply.
"Had a shop of my own back in our little village. Make arrows and bows and such. Moving to Calel – that's where we're headed after my brother's farm. He lives just half a day from the town." Still no reply. Rhian knew her father was a voluble man, but she wondered if his chatter was due more to nervousness than amiability.
Brennus nodded succinctly. "Just packed up the family and set out." Lowering his voice, he added, "Got the lady in a might uproar, that did."
He chuckled, but Raul just blinked blankly. Brennus cleared his throat uncomfortably.
"Where would you be from, now, friend?"
A pause. "The Midnight Forest."
"Ah." Brennus seemed to relax at that, for some strange reason. In Rhian's opinion, there was nothing comforting about anyone who came out of the Midnight Forest – especially if they had the name of a Wolf. Oh, she knew the king had made peace with that tribe thirteen summers ago, at the end of the Krasian invasion, but they were still savages in her eyes. Untrustworthy barbarians who had raped countless women and stripped them of their babes. Warily, she crowded closer to the mule.
"You're a Wolf, then," Brennus said, more as a comment than as a question.
Rhian saw Raul's shoulders stiffen beneath his cloak. "No. I am no warrior."
He made no further comment.
Rhian heard a soft scuffle behind her, and then Lorcan dashed past her and up to Raul's side. "What are you then?" the boy asked, chin held arrogantly high. Raul stared down at him, as if not sure what he was. Though no one stopped walking, Rhian thought her family must all be holding their breath.
"I'm a hunter," Raul replied at last.
"Are you then?" Brennus said from his other side. "Do you hunt for trophies or bounties?"
Raul turned his attention back to him and blinked slowly. "For food."
Brennus looked slightly taken aback by that, and silence fell on the group. Rhian peered closely at Raul. He walked with an animal furtiveness, seeming more beast than man. As if sensing her stare, he turned his head, and their gazes clashed. His eyes weren't dark at all, she realized. It was only the shadow of his hair and beard that made them seem so. Now that the sun had started to burn away the mist, she could see that they were light grey, intelligent and keenly aware, though somewhat dazed.
Noticing their shared looks, Brennus cleared his throat. Raul turned back to him with an expression of pure incomprehension. Rhian looked down at the dirt road, grimacing at the dust clinging to the hem of her dress.
They travelled until noon in silence. Raul produced some cooked rabbit from the pouch at his waist, and the group ate that with Edwena's bread and some berries the boys had picked along the road. After eating, they set off again.
The boys had dared each other into walking on either side of Raul. His eyes twitched from one to the other. Every now and again, he would quicken his step and when the boys matched him, would slow down again only to have them follow. Rhian shook her head at her brothers, sure that Raul would lose his temper with them. Yet when she raised her eyes to his face, a small smile of amusement lined his mouth.
As the sun slid lower in the sky, he varied his steps more, sometimes taking exaggerated strides or merely shuffling along; sometimes hoping on one foot or the other, sometimes with both. Always, the boys followed his lead. Edwena, who now walked beside Rhian laughed at their antics, and even Brennus relaxed somewhat and smiled indulgently.
Raul swung around and began walking backwards. Rhian was surprised to see the bright grin flashing from behind his beard. When their eyes clashed, he regarded her with such an unassuming expression, that she caught herself almost smiling back. Instead, she turned her head and stared hard at the mule's load.
A.N. Well, here's my new story. It's going to be quite a bit shorter than Fear Not the Wolves, by my estimation. I'm going to try and have regular updates, but I don't think I can make any promises. Hope you're all have a great summer. Ciao.