Protecting His Own
The moon rose high, pale, resplendent, even in its lesser glory, over the cloud topping mountain peaks.
Its light blanketed the mountainsides with shadowed shades of blue, and ribbons of black, somnambulant clouds drifted like silk masks across the white unseeing stars.
A massive brindled black wolf emerged from his den, and howled, deep and long, into the ebon heavens, and the pack emerged, pouring down, through and around the trunks of the primeval pines like spilled ink.
They gathered, and sat around the Alpha, his blue eyes with tints of glacial frost shining in the lunar glow.
Below them, the village slept, and all that moved was the smoke from their dying fires unfurling into the sky for the wind to sweep away.
Game was scarce this season, the pack themselves being responsible for most of it, and
the two-leg pack killers had come for them, and culled some of their number.
Under Alpha’s leadership, they went to cull some of the men; if the men were out hunting, they culled whoever remained.
The howling of men, unpleasing to the ears, filled the woods when they came upon the savaged carcasses of their cubs and females, and the battle was now joined in earnest.
Men set the trees on fire, and fought with fangs outside of their bodies. Some fangs flew, others they held, and some men used the wood to beat and break them.
The wolves had smelled the meat of some of their own burning in heaped pyres, seen the skin of their pack mates draped over shoulders and branches, and sent out the call for others to join.
The pack swelled with newcomers, and the road filled with four-legged travelers.
Fate would decide the battle here.
Quickly and without light, the women and children moved out of the village, not daring to make a sound.
Grateful for the brindle's heralding howl, the sentries did their work efficiently; word had spread, and the villages that remained began to packing and moving, leaving the wolves to the hunters.
With gestures to be silent, they left, hoping that, if the pack breached the defenses, by the time they realized no one was there, the people would be safe in crossing the river, where their scents would be lost, and the wolves wouldn’t follow.
Randell's mother began waking his brothers and sisters, struggling with the little ones, who resisted waking at first.
“The wolves are coming, children. We must go!”
As they dressed and bustled and fussed, Randell slipped away, unnoticed for the moment.
His father had gone to stand with the men who would fight against the pack.
Randell hid in the woods in the opposite direction from where the villagers would leave. His wooden sword and shield were with him, and his heart burned somewhere between fear of what was to come, and pride in helping to turn it back.
The children were safely outside, and his mother walked through the house looking for him.
“Randell!” She shout-whispered, but Randell didn’t respond. She called him a few more times, her face worried.
“Catherine, we must leave. I have your children.”
“I can’t find Randell.”
“He’s probably with his father…”
“I can’t let him fight the wolves; he’s too young…”
“Then you’ll have to trust that he will be protected. We can’t delay.”
Another long howl split the night, and another wolf gave answer, and the pack joined in the ethereal, primal chorus of a timeless slaying song as they rolled down, a living avalanche of killers with blood in their eyes.
Randell stepped from his hiding place.
His dad was toward the middle of the line, but on his side of it.
As he went toward him, meaning to surprise him, he stepped on a twig and snapped it.
The man closest to him looked in amazement, then alarm.
Other men turned to face him, and his father, seeing the commotion at the end of the line, saw him, and his face crumbled in dismay.
The howls began to turn to snarls and growls as the wolves drew close.
His father ran to him, and snatched him up in his fists.
“You shouldn’t be here!”
“I wanted to help!”
“Damn it! Randell…!”
His father was angry when he thought he’d be pleased.
The wolves broke the tree line.
“Gods, they’re black, the lot of them!” one of the men cried. “Archers!”
Arrows sifted through the wind.
“Phelan, get rid of the boy! We’re going to need your blade; hide him someplace!”
“Go back to the house.” His father turned him and gave him a hard swat. “RUN!”
With a loud shout the men closed the distance; arrows flew, knives and swords were drawn, and man and beast embraced each others’ flesh for a long and bloody dance.
Randell took off, feeling every bit a coward, but the look on his father’s face, one he didn’t understand, spurred him on. They would talk about it later, he knew, but it was hard to see.
He wiped the hot tears hard with his forearm and kept running, hearing the shouts and screams and yelps behind him, and then something else.
Something was chasing him, and he could hear its panting breath.
With a fresh shot of adrenaline, he ran harder, but the thing behind him didn’t stop.
Realizing he wasn’t going to make the house, he turned, and put everything he had into the one blow he would get.
He caught the wolf on the side of its mouth, even as it crashed into him and they rolled for a bit together. Randell cried out from the impact and felt his sword pop out of his hand.
The wolf scrambled over him, or tried to, but Randell had put his hand all the way through both handles of his shield, something he hadn't always done when instructed, but this time, securely in hand, he used it to hit the wolf and push him off.
The wolf’s mouth was bleeding, and its tongue was torn, but it didn’t run off.
They used the brief respite to size each other up.
The wolf was young, its brindle still mostly short. Randell had seen the older ones up close, so he knew.
Its eyes were a milky hazel, a startling effect against the unbroken black of its fur.
The wolf was wary, but began to circle.
Randell circled with it, but the wolf had put the sword behind him, so Randell would have to get through him in order to get it. He thought the wolf would make a full circle, but he didn’t, and reversed direction.
They would be here all night trying to fake each other out, and failing that, tire each other. Randell was already beginning to feel the edge of adrenalin wear off, and he would not have the strength to fight once it did.
The beast was not going to let him get to the sword, so he really only had one option left.
He opened his mouth, and screaming at the top of his young lungs, he charged, and the wolf ran toward him, its tongue hanging, a tattered banner, from the corner of its mouth, slavering bloody spittle as it came.
Randell pulled back his shield, and as the wolf leapt, he slammed it into the wolf’s chest.
There was a flash of light, almost blinding, as the wolf’s body came apart, flying in several directions, spinning arcs of blood and gore as it spattered across the open field.
What in the name of the gods…?
Randell stood, uncomprehending, looking over the handiwork of his butchery, the light slowly dissipating, phonemes sliding across his vision.
Shields don’t cut…
He heard the voices of the men getting nearer.
Without thinking, he ran toward them.
A wolf that had just torn out a man’s throat looked up from the corpse at the new threat, and rushed to meet it.
It snarled as it leaped for Randell, he ducked, thrust the shield up and caught the wolf in the chest.
Again the flash of light, and the wolf snapped apart like kindling twigs.
The battle on the field came to a complete standstill.
The eyes of men and wolves alike were riveted on Randell standing in their midst, spattered with blood and gore and fur.
But Randell was looking at one wolf, the one with blue eyes, who was standing over the bleeding body of his father.
“Leave him alone.”
Men and wolves cleared the opening, not quite knowing how or why.
The Alpha went into a crouch, lips pulled back over reddened teeth, a deep rumbling growl emitted from his throat that put the hair on every man’s arms and necks on edge.
Randell went into a stance of his own, smelling the meaty blood on his shield, the tang of fear, the musk of hunters, sweat, and exhaustion, and the mingled breaths of human and animal, his senses sharper than ever, his eyes seeing every detail.
His father’s blood pulsed thick and thin with his heartbeat; he was still breathing, but Randell couldn’t allow himself to focus on that.
The brindle filled his sight, his father’s blood on its muzzle.
But the shield was exacting a cost, and he couldn’t lift it as high as he first did.
Energy was leaking from him, the initial adrenaline gone, replaced by a cold fearlessness, but a creeping tiredness.
His shield arm was trembling, even as the circle tightened, and the Alpha was much larger than the other two.
Randell could hear his own heartbeat, his own breathing, reverberating along with the snarling wolf.
He was a tuning fork of savagery, all vibration, all sense distilled into one act of revenge.
One of the cloud masks slipped over the moon, hiding its light, and the Alpha, sensing its moment had come, feinted to run straight at him. Randell lowered his body, brought the shield up his eyes, but then the Alpha sliced back to Randell’s left to avoid the shield.
Randell, turning to compensate, slipped on some gore and fell on his stomach, his arms splayed awkwardly on the ground, the shield in no position to make contact.
And the Alpha ran forward, and leaped.