Chapter 1The wolf passed through the forest like a shadow. Its coat was a collage of earthy tones. The boy’s eyes followed the wraithlike hunter as it glided through the snow.
“Don’t be a coward or you'll just die” said the old warrior in a harsh whisper.
The boy gripped the bow’s sturdy handle trying to release the tension in his nerves, his breath visible upon the air, slowly floating in front of his eyes before disappearing.
“Concentrate on your target, be sure of your shot, and don't do anything foolish.” the old warrior exhorted.
The boy slid down the small snowy rise. He picked an arrow from the quiver. His blood was a rush of adrenaline coursing through his body. His senses on edge, he was aware of all that surrounded him. He was aware of the bitter cold that gripped the land, the falling snow, and the dull light that escaped through the thick canopies of the evergreen forest. He took a deep breath. His nostrils flared painfully red from the cold; the crisp aroma of sap filled his lungs.
“I am ready”, he whispered as he slowly made his way back up the snowy mound, fully aware of the old warrior's harsh eyes.
He scanned the forest; his mind was on fire. He was so painfully aware of everything.
The old warrior plunged a heavy hunting knife into the frozen earth next to where the boy sat.
The boy looked at the knife.
“In case you miss.”
The boy nodded.
“When the wolf approaches the bait, take a handful of snow and place it into your mouth.”
The boy raised his eyebrows questioningly.
“It’ll hide your breath.” the warrior grunted.
And with that the old warrior slid down the snowy mound and disappeared behind a cypress into the wilderness.
Scanning the woods the boy tried to pick out the subtle signs of the wolf’s passing. He grabbed a handful of snow. Heightened by his sense of awareness, the coldness made the inside of his mouth scream. Instantly the vaporous breath that surrounded him disappeared.
As he sat, the boy began to worry if the wolf had somehow sensed his presence. Or maybe the wolf might end up circling and coming from behind where he sat.
His alertness made the silent world around him roar with activity - the creaking of the trees, how the play of dull light cast strange shadows throughout the forest, even the snow that gently brushed his face.
He winced as he placed more of the burning snow into his mouth. His teeth crunched down on the powdery crystals; his heart stopped. He had caught a glimmer of the wolf’s enormous form ghosting between two cypress trees ten yards away from the deer carcass.
His breathing slowed. His muscles burned as he notched the arrow. He shifted his weight ever so slightly, bringing the bow level with his shoulder.
Passing from shadow, the wolf entered into the dull light of the small clearing. Its step was impossibly smooth and powerful. Its mane was thick and wild. The wolf’s eyes were a deep red that did not match that of a normal wolf’s eyes, nor did the wolf’s great size.
Freezing with a gut wrenching terror at the sight of this horrendous creature, the boy knew instantly that this was no ordinary grey wolf. This was a dire wolf, a huge monstrosity that dwarfed its distant cousin the grey wolf. Dire wolves were not common in this mountainous region.
His mind raced. He knew he would not fire the bow. Its pull was not powerful enough for such a beast. Firing the bow would be his end.
The dire wolf entered into the small clearing and glided to the carcass. Its hackles raised as it licked its chops, drooling over the easily scavenged meal.
Ever so slowly, the boy tried to work his way down the embankment.
Sounds of the dire wolf's raucous feasting emanated from the clearing, masking the noises made from his boots knocking loose clumps of frozen debris.
He froze as the sound of bone crunching ceased. The dire wolf stood over the mutilated carcass, its nose raised to the sky, tasting the air with its powerful senses.
His heart pounded with terror as his mind raced desperately for a solution. He knew the dire wolf smelled him, that the wolf now licked its chops for reasons other than a week old frozen deer carcass. The beast had sensed him. Sensed a true meal; a warm meal.
The beast worked its flaring nostrils side to side, trying to pinpoint the source of its prey.
Gripping the handle tight, he strained to pull the bow to its fullest potential. He knew that if he missed he was dead, that once the giant beast located him there would be no escape. There was no way for him to alert Cogar, the older warrior, to his mortal peril without alerting the wolf to both of their whereabouts. No, the only thing the boy could hope for was possibly injuring the giant creature enough so that maybe he could run away.
He steeled his nerves. Taking careful aim, he sighted the beast's left shoulder.
The wolf found him, locking him in its gaze. The boy froze in fear, his green eyes held by the intensity of the beast's wild gaze. The beast started forward as it issued a low rumble.
He let loose the arrow. Its flinty head punctured deep into the beasts shoulder, finding its mark.
Wrenching the knife free from the frozen earth, the boy spun and made a wild dash down the hill and through the dense snow packed thickets. Ignoring the thick twisted briars that ripped and tugged at his clothes he fought his way through to a barren snow field. He knew he had to make it to the other side quickly if he was going to escape. Plunging into the snow, he sank to his knees. Panting hard, he slowly made his way onto more solid ground. Looking over his shoulder, he felt his heart sink. The wolf had entered the clearing.
Sighting its prey, The wolf Ignored its arrow wound. Effortlessly gliding over the snow drift, its huge paws acted like snow shoes.
With nowhere to run, the boy stopped his struggling and turned to face the dire wolf, accepting his fate.
The wolf's eyes held a savagery that few beasts possessed; there was no emotion or passion, only survival. He was food, and food was survival. The simplicity of it made his skin crawl.
The boy and the dire wolf circled, sizing each other up. The snow crunching beneath his feet was a stark contrast to the soundless glide the wolf achieved. The boy decided if he survived that he would learn to move as the wolf did. The dire wolf furrowed its brow and pulled back its lips tightly. With a low rumbling growl, the wolf revealed its huge dagger like teeth.
The boy tensed, his entire world revolving around the moment. The only things that existed were the wolf and himself. Everything else stopped. In the camp where he lived, he had heard the warriors talking around campfires of their brushes with death. Some had explained feelings of brushing with the infinite, while others claimed to have seen their entire lives flash before their eyes. They had spoken in hushed voices with reverent fear in their eyes. Whatever the case, the boy figured that he would find out soon enough. Looking into the wolf's eyes, a deep understanding began to form in his mind. The simple nature of the beast's basic instincts had bothered him deeply at first, but there was something to be learned from it. A sense of calm overcame him. All he had to do was strike. The strike itself didn't have to be particularly fast or even strong, it just had to be right. A simple concept, but ever so hard to grasp.
He gripped the hunting knife tightly as the wolf stalked forward, its great head close to the ground. The boy back peddled quickly, trying to find his moment. Too late. Dread and dismay closed in around him as his boot struck a frozen chunk of earth, sending him sprawling backwards.
The dire wolf leaped forward through the air, its immense fangs bared, ready to end its prey's life.
Dread was momentarily replaced with a sense of perplexity. Why, even now with death so close, did his life not pass before his eyes? Maybe it was because he had lived only fifteen winters of life.
The boy did not get a chance to ponder the brevity of his life. A familiar hiss followed by a loud thunk filled the air. A thick black shafted arrow passed through the dire wolf, burying its broad head into the boy's abdomen. A sharp crushing pain radiated from his midsection as the wolf's immense weight crashed on top of him in a dead heap.
Red waves of nauseating pain erupted throughout his core, making every breath a struggle not to faint.
Soft footsteps came from behind as the old warrior came into view. His face was hard and deeply lined.
“Cogar, help me.” The boy struggled to breathe under the crushing weight of the dead wolf. The arrow's broad head sent tremors through his body as it slid in and out with each word.
The old warrior's expression was fierce as he scowled, “Haven't I helped you enough without causing myself further shame?” He sneered in disgust. “You should not ever ask another for help. There is always a solution to be found, you just have to be willing to do what it takes.” His hard lines deepened as he spat on the ground. The pungent weed he had been chewing made his spittle black. “Never again will I help you. Either you live or you die.”
“Pl...pl..please,” the boy finally managed, tears and pain blurring his vision.
With a look of distaste Cogar started away, calling back over his shoulder, “Do not come back to camp without my wolf, do you understand Marrow.” It wasn't a question, but a statement. With that, he was gone.
What seemed to be hours passing by was mere minutes as Marrow clung to consciousness. He laid pinned beneath the weight of the dead wolf, desperately searching for a way out of the mess he was in. The hunting knife lay on the frozen ground mere inches out of his reach, its dull handle the only gleam of hope he had of escape. Marrow laid back, his breath coming out in short bursts of steam. It had started to snow again, flakes landing lightly on his cheeks, his vivid green eyes dilating rapidly as he steeled his nerves for what had to be done. Before fear could grip him, Marrow exploded into a vicious push using his legs as well as his arms. The arrow slid out with agonizing slowness, cutting a shallow ravine in his skin as its broad head finally freed itself with a sickening tug. The pain was unlike any he had experienced. Marrow couldn't even scream, but instead whimpered in feverish pain.
The release of the arrow had given him the reach he needed. Grabbing the hunting knife, Marrow growled in defiance and plunged it deep into the dire wolf's thick shoulder, slicing and tearing and ripping until he was able to wriggle free of the gory mess. Marrow rose in triumph. The light had gone to the pale darkness of evening. More nocturnal hunters would be about soon, especially with the size of gore that littered the area. He cut a strip from his jerkin and tied it around his wound. Luckily, the arrow had not penetrated deeply, as surely he would have died on the spot. Taking in the scene, Marrow felt his wound begin to seep blood.