Tim Stead - Fantasy Writer

1. The Great Forest

He ran for the pleasure of running. The full moon silvered the canopy above him, and the trees were limned pillars of darkness that he wove into swift patterns. They were his canvas and running was his art. His feet drummed steadily on the leaf litter, making the uneven forest floor as smooth as a king’s highway beneath him, beating counterpoint to his heart. He felt every muscle move, every sinew stretch and slacken, every breath course cold down through his mouth, fill his lungs and escape again.

He heard birds and other night creatures, faint calls of alarm at his passing, movement in the low bushes as all life shrank away from his path, ceding the forest to him, worshiping him. An owl called, mournful, questioning as he turned, sweeping left, north, moving to where he knew the forest floor fell away down to the river.

The darkness was illuminated by scent. There were sharp, bright notes. Here a deer had crossed his trail, fresh, recent, and with a fawn. The smell was sweet with the promise of meat, the iron taste of blood, but he did not turn again. Here a fox, musty and clever, on a hunt of his own, perhaps. Emotion stirred at the fox’s scent, a memory from long ago. He remembered sadness and loss, but it was all part of the night and he wove that, too, into his running.

The trunk of a fallen tree, thrown across the path in some great forgotten storm loomed from the dark, and suddenly his feet were not running, but stretching, reaching into a pause, leaving his heart to beat alone for a moment. He soared high above the obstacle, flying, feeling a moment of cooler air and drawing it down into his core, making it part of him. It was as though he remembered every movement before it occurred, expected each footfall, hummed along to the beat of his heart. It was all so right, so true.

His fore legs took the impact as he struck the ground, passed the weight to his hind legs, and he raced away again, feeling the land give way, begin to bend downwards. He eased his pace, weaving tighter threads around the trees, dancing, almost, down the valley side.

At the river he stopped, listened to its song, heard its laughter. The river always mocked, but it was a kind mockery, a liberty taken by an old friend, long forgiven, never forgotten. He dipped his muzzle into the cool water and drank. The cold liquid brightened his throat, spread to his chest, but he was warm from running, and it did not chill him. It was a delight, like a breeze on a sultry day, like sunlight after a long dark.

He raised his head and stood still, as unmoving as the rocks, eyes wide, ears cocked, waiting for every sound, every particle of light, every mote of scent. He felt the lightest of airs ruffle the fur down his back, bringing with it an entire book of the forest; animals and their lives, their deaths, their fear, all scents painted above the trees, the leaf mould, flowers, grasses, and in the very last the scent of snow.

It was perfect, and he was perfect in it, a part of glorious perfection. How could he ever want to leave all this?

He trotted into the river. It was shallow and swift, but he bounded through what depth there was out of sheer exuberance, splashing joy and contentment into the air, laughing as all wolves laugh, with his body. On the far side he stopped and shook the water from his coat distributing happiness and water into the night.

He caught another scent, familiar and strange all at once. Another wolf. A pack? He turned his head and followed the lure, up the far bank of the river, across a broad clearing full of cold stars and moonlight, plunging into the comfort of the forest again. Now he ran as a hunter, led by the nose, taking a winding trail that mirrored the steps of the one he tracked.

There was something dark in the scent, something not right. He was coming up fast on the other wolf and he slowed to a trot, casting about for something that would tell him more, head low to the ground. There. He had it. Corruption, infection, a wound gone bad, and something else.

He stepped into the same space, a deferential step, not aggressive, not challenging, but a step of greeting. The other wolf knew he was there before the step. It was a wolf, after all. It knew him at once. It knew him as all wolves knew him, by scent, by look, by the authority of his presence. It bent its legs in obeisance, snarled its submission.

He, in his turn knew. This was an old wolf, a weak wolf; one who could no longer run with the pack. Outcast. He could see its ribs through the thinning fur, smell the ulcerated sores that would not heal, and in its eyes there was a shadow. Even at night he could see the shadow. This animal was dying.

He touched the old wolf’s mind with his own.

Do not fear, Grey Father, you are my-pack now. You are safe.

The thought eased the old one’s mind, and he relaxed. His poor condition was even clearer as he drew close. He was barely able to stand on shaking legs. For such a one as this hunting would be a pathetic search for grubs and beetles, the forlorn hope of carrion and the time to eat before the crows chased him away. It was a long downward spiral, a fall into damnation that no wolf deserved. The Grey Father was near the bottom of that fall. For a long time he had been unable to find enough to eat, and his muscles were wasted to knots about his bones, his eyes were dim, his teeth hurt whenever he bit down on anything.

And yet this shadow of a wolf still clung to life, scraped along the jagged edge of misery because it knew no different. Life was life, and however worthless, it was all that the old wolf possessed.

He made a decision, and reached out again, touching the wolf, taking away its pain, lending it strength, making it again something of the wolf that it had once been. He could see that wolf, the young, strong hunter that foreshadowed this remnant; tireless, keen eyed, unaware. Nothing changed, of course. The old wolf was still an old wolf. Its muscles were still wasted and the sores that plagued its body still seeped away its vitality, but it felt strong again. It felt whole.

He could see the life filling it up, limbs straightening, head lifting.

Will you run with me, Grey Father? Will you hunt?

The response was almost comical. The skinny old wolf bounded like a cub, revelling in its new strength. Spinning once, it stood poised and ready, head cocked, waiting for his lead.

He ran again. This time he hunted in earnest, winnowing the scents of the forest, sorting the fresh from the stale, picking one from many. He did not run as he could, but paced himself to the old wolf’s limits. They ran together. They ran as a pack along the course of the river, moving upstream, keeping the sound of the water to their right. The dark trees rolled past again, but now they were spectators, and he resented them. He shut out their questions and focussed on the scent, the right scent.

He found it quickly, and gave voice, increasing the pace of the run slightly. This would be a good hunt. They ran on, quiet for the most part, closing on their prey quickly because it was unaware of their pursuit. The scent belonged to a small deer, a creature not more than two and half hands high with a good turn of speed but little stamina. It was easy prey for a master hunter, a beast that relied mostly on stealth and its small size to protect it, but that was not enough tonight.

As they closed he swung away from the scent, ceding the kill to Grey Father, increasing his pace to move around their prey. Confusion would kill it better than sharp teeth and tireless legs.

In the end it was neatly done. He sprang from cover just a moment before the old wolf, turning the deer towards its death, and the killing bite was not missed. Grey Father executed his part with some skill, and again he saw the wolf that had once owned that used up body.

They stood together in the satisfaction of the kill, panting in unison, feeling the brotherhood of the hunt as all wolves do.

Eat. It is your kill.

Grey Father looked at him, surprised, uncertainty in the pause of his neck and head. The old wolf longed to eat, but the law was clear. The dominant wolf ate first. It was the first law of the kill.

I make the law. Eat.

He did not hesitate a second time, but tore at the carcase, releasing the hot blood, bathing his face in it, swallowing chunks of red life.

He watched while the old wolf ate. He was not hungry. As he watched he felt himself watched in turn. The trees were an audience, as if the night itself leaned over and peered down upon them. He shook himself to banish the feeling, which was akin to guilt. He watched.

Why have I done this thing? Why do I doubt what is within me? He struggled with thoughts that were too big for his wolf’s mind, which stretched and overflowed in every way. For wolves there was the law. It was simple, it was small, and to breach the law was to incur the momentary anger of the pack. Wolves did not hold a grudge. The law was about life and death, strength and weakness, but it was not enough, not for him. The law said what is dead is dead, what is lost does not return, and there is no place for sentiment.

Grey Father had stopped eating. In truth he had not eaten very much at all. His stomach had shrivelled after so long without a proper meal, and now he stepped back, licking his reddened chops with a long tongue, relinquishing his place at the kill. Touching the old one’s mind he felt satisfaction, pleasure, the comfortable pressure of a full gut, and the glow of pack-belonging.

Sleep. We will sleep together and be warm.

The old wolf obediently turned a few times and settled into the dry leaves; an ancient ritual. He followed suit, laying his back against the other, allowing the warmth of his body to be shared. He reached out for the last time and touched Grey Father’s mind, bringing sleep, a weary, deep sleep; the sleep of the hunt. He lay, eyes open, staring at the night, and listened as his companion’s breathing deepened. He lay quite still and allowed time to pass unchallenged. He was aware of dreams, simple dreams, dreams of the hunt, dreams of strength and running, dreams of blood, but gradually they faded, and the dreams became dreams of sleep, and then of nothing at all.

He waited until the old wolf’s body had begun to cool and stiffen before he stood. His heart was filled with a melancholy that he knew would pass. Death was part of a wolf’s life in the way that any journey must have a destination; any river must have a source and an end in the sea. Only he, only Wolf Narak, was apart from death, immune to time and age and decay. It was a lonely thing.

He stood for a moment, looking back on the still form of Grey Father, in the judging silence of the trees, in the mocking laughter of the river. You are not wolf, they said, you are not part of this. You are something else. But he remembered the light in the old wolf’s eyes as he lay down to sleep forever. Grey Father had died within the pack bond. He had died with a full stomach, without pain. It was all that a wolf could ask of death.

I am not entirely the wolf, he admitted to the forest. I bring with me the light of other days, the understanding of what I once was, what I still am, and I am the better for that.

What kind of god would I be without kindness, without compassion?

He turned from the sight of death and set of along the river bank towards Wolfguard at a steady, tireless run.

Copyright © Tim Stead 2011