Humanskin: Pack Mentality

Dear Readers: I am in the process of world-building, creating a common setting for a group of stories and longer works. An earlier piece posted on this blog, “A Different Kind of Werewolf Story” introduces a set of characters that I revisit in this piece. Enjoy it, and please let me know what you think! Also, look forward to the next chapter of Afterglow: Godfall–and if you haven’t, take a moment to read the first installment. As always, thank you for your interest and support!  – Alexander C. Chirila

1.

Old Mother had tried to save the little girl, but it was too late. She was supposed to have been the newest member of the pack, one of the youngest awakened to the Totem’s gift. They had watched her for nearly a season. The snows covered the sleeping earth and the vibrant scent-trails of autumn faded into the muted palette of winter. Colorful pockets of warmth were hidden among the blacks, whites, and browns of midseason frost; bear-dens and foxholes, bird’s nests and underground warrens.

The smell of human cookfires drifted in billowing clouds, torn by the wind into bands of thick scent. Burning fat, crisping hides, firewood, death, sweat, blood, and the overpowering fog of humanity hung over the western foothills. How noisy they were! Iron and Snow found it difficult to imagine how the others could have spent so much time surrounded by so much noise. Even at night, in the deep hours between moonset and sunrise, the pack could hear them rustling and breathing, crying aloud in their nightmares and shushing their children to bed.

The little girl would wait until her mother was asleep, wearied by a day of toil in the settlement. Then she would sneak away, silent as a born hunter, and stalk small prey among the dogwoods. She did not hunt as the humans hunted, with traps and tools. She pursued her prey, running it down and biting through fur and flesh with teeth that were made for rending and tearing. There was no question that the Totem was with her.

The pack kept near her, day and night. Her scent-trail became familiar to them.

Rust and Coal adored her. He had even risked contact, though the Alpha had warned them against it. One night the girl had chased down a rabbit; she crouched over it, preparing to tear into its soft abdomen. When the wind changed she caught the pack’s scent and froze. But she wasn’t afraid. She eagerly scanned the trees as if anticipating the appearance of a long-awaited friend.

Rust and Coal slinked cautiously forward, ignoring the warning growls of the Alpha. The girl sighted him. She didn’t move. When he came closer, no more than a breath away from her, she lowered herself down and nudged the fresh kill towards him. He bowed his head and obligingly nipped at the carcass, leaving her the greater portion. When it was done he brushed past her, allowing her to touch him, and loped into the night-shadows of the surrounding forest. The Alpha punished his disobedience, but a little bit of bloodshed wasn’t enough to cause Rust and Coal to regret the risk he had taken.

Soon, the Fever would overtake her. Young as she was, she wouldn’t be able to hide it; the symptoms would manifest and the wolf would wax strong inside of her. Old Mother prepared the ritual tools she would need to free the girl from her original humanskin when the time was right.

They had all been born with an original humanskin. Each of them had been weaned on human milk and nurtured by human mothers. They came to the Totem only later. Overtaken by the Fever, they had chosen exile over quarantine and death. Driven to the staggering precipice of madness by the visions, they had each of them ranged far into the wild. Old Mother had found them all, bringing them flailing and frenzied to her dwelling-place.

She had torn through their tightening shrouds of frail skin. Their screams became howls, echoing among the rounded, forested mountains of Appalachia. Only Iron and Snow had seen the ritual firsthand. Her practiced hand, guided by a bloodline as old as the world, had never failed to release the wolf from the dying chrysalis of human flesh.

At last the Fever came. Her human mother hid her away. A Fever-stricken would not be allowed to live, child or otherwise. It had happened before; an entire settlement wiped out, left rotting under the baking sun and reeking of death.

It had been known by different names in the beginning, when the healers in the World That Ended still believed they could defend their species against it. Before the packs of humankind fell by the droves, rotting alive in their dens while the healthy among them vied like rabid dogs over the corpse of their civilization. By the time the Fever had run its course, the cities were dead, the tribes of humankind scattered into small settlements huddled against the vengeful wilderness. Traces of the Fever still remained, but things were different: the Lineages had awakened, for so long dormant and hidden in the blood of the Old Mothers. Those who belonged to the Lineages were called by the Fever. Some wise-men may have known what it was, having seen it before even in the World That Ended…but most men believed it was the plague returned to finish off the few survivors that had escaped.

They all knew how it was done; all of them except Iron and Snow. The victim would be weak and sluggish for several days. Then, on the fifth day, the delirium would begin. There were fleeting glimpses at first, and strange sounds; a sense of disembodiment. It would progress until it seemed a great crack had appeared in the reality of things, a crack though which poured endless rivers of indescribable vision and sensation. At this point, unless the individual was a solitary wanderer—as Bone and Sand, the ghost-wolf, had been—the settlers would quarantine the Fever-stricken. If the symptoms persisted, as they often did, the victim would be killed and his or her body and belongings burned. His or her family would be quarantined until they were deemed clear of the Fever. This, at least, was the merciful approach.

Mercy was often a luxury of the rational mind.

The little girl’s mother couldn’t keep her condition hidden away. Humans asked too many questions. The pack knew this was coming. The people began to secrete fear. It smoked through the air, a pungent tang that played and tugged at the pack’s instincts.

The day came when an overeager neighbor ran to one of the elders and announced that one of the settlers had been taken by the Fever. That was all it took. Word spread, like maggots through rotting meat, and not an hour passed before the settlers swarmed around the little girl’s dwelling-place. Agitated and gibbering they clustered and gestured. At last the settlers’ leaders came forward and held council.

The men of the encampment chose their brand of mercy. They dragged the poor girl kicking and screaming from her sweat-soaked cot and over to the tanner’s field. They made certain that her flesh did not touch theirs. They threw her down with as much compassion as their terror would allow. One of them drew a pistol. He made ready to shoot her.

Her mother had run after them through a gauntlet of restraining arms and blows, yelling for her daughter. ‘It’s not the Fever,’ she shouted, ‘It’s not the Fever!’ The men did not listen. She threw herself over her daughter and the bullet meant for the little girl found her instead. The crack of the shot echoed against the mountains.

The sky was a thick red color over the empty vastness of the west. Above the mountains the first stars gleamed from the cobalt heights.

The girl managed to squirm out from under her mother’s dying body. Covered in blood, her breath pluming in the winter’s bitter cold, she staggered into the field. She stood there, bewildered. Her eyes scanned the shadows of the woods. She was looking for him. She was looking for Rust and Coal. She could scent him, waiting for her just beyond the field.

She took one step forward, then another. The man with the gun pointed it at her, his hand trembling. The mob surged behind him, urging him to shoot. He swallowed and straightened his arm, trying to call up the strength for it. He failed. He lowered the pistol.

Then the little girl howled.

Rust and Coal went feral, breaking away from the pack and the concealing shadows of the forest. The mob was fixated on the little girl; they didn’t even see him coming. A young male had strayed close to the edge of the woods. He heard the rustle of tall grass and the low growl, turning too late. Rust and Coal hamstrung him; his warning cry turned into a gasping wail.

The crowd looked towards the sound.

The young male’s shrieking warped into a bloody gurgle. Rust and Coal looked up, his muzzle slick with blood, the ribbed cartilage of the boy’s windpipe dangling from his teeth. The man with the pistol trained it on him, but his target was too far and there were too many people in his way. He started to run forward, momentarily forgetting about the little girl. She did not waste the opportunity. She broke into a run, her bound hands stretched out before her.

Rust and Coal darted around the other side, trying to distract the man with the pistol. The mob rippled and shifted like a school of fish surrounded by circling sharks. The girl had almost made it—a few steps further and the welcome dark of the forest would have enfolded her. The pack would have protected her.

But the man with the pistol was not the only man who had brought his weapon. A second, older male brought up his long-barreled rifle and leveled it at the small, fleeing figure. There was just enough light to see her, and that was all he needed. He fired. This was a weapon born of the precise machines that still worked in the World That Ended. The girl’s body was hurled sideways by the impact of the bullet.

Iron and Snow was the closest to her. She was a deer’s long stride away from him. He knew the wound was fatal the moment she hit the ground.

The man with the pistol fired on Rust and Coal and missed. The wolf ran towards the downed girl, pausing long enough to seize her by the fabric of her clothes and drag her into the forest. The two men met in the field and ran forward; after a few paces the one with the long-barreled rifle stopped and gripped the other man’s shoulder.

‘No,’ he said, ‘why bother? That wolf wasn’t the only one; the rest of the pack has to be nearby. They must have smelled the Fever on the girl. Let them have her. They’ll finish her off if my bullet didn’t. We can post a guard to make sure the settlement’s safe.’

‘But she could wander back…the Fever…’

‘Didn’t you see what just happened? Look,’ the older man said, ‘this all went down wrong. Her mother’s dead and the girl will bleed out long before the wolves make a meal out of her. Look at the blood!’ he pointed to the darkened grass, nearly indiscernible now in the gloom.

The younger man relented. ‘Her mother was probably infected anyway,’ he said.

The mob dispersed as the last of the daylight drained behind the world. The wolves waited, protecting the girl in the deeper dark of the forest. They waited for Old Mother to come and take the girl to the Totem’s Pool by the hidden paths of the mountains. Old Mother would surely save her. She was an unparalleled healer. She would save the little girl. The pack would be complete, then. Old Mother would save the little girl.

But the tiny wolf trapped inside that weak, broken shell wasn’t strong enough to hold on. The spirit fled, leaving only the rigid cold behind. By the time Old Mother came, it was too late. The girl was dead. Old Mother gathered the body into her arms and started back, the pack sullenly keeping pace with her steady, trackless step.

 

* * * *

 

This was a Wolves’ Moot; a pack gathering. Old Mother sat on the broken trunk of an old oak felled by lightning a few seasons past. She was silent, listening to the growls, howls, ululations, and subtle variations of the pack’s language. The wolf-speak had come easily to the human-born members of the pack, who even in their former lives could understand the melancholy symphony that haunted the moonlit night.

Rust and Coal was calling for revenge.

Night and Stone, the Alpha and eldest member of the pack, snarled at the younger wolf. Vengeance was not the way of the wolf. If the pack had gotten to the girl earlier, they could have safeguarded her. It was a failure; no more, no less. What would vengeance accomplish? It would draw attention to the pack and to the Totem. The wolves knew what humans did to the sacred. They destroyed it. It was best to move on.

Smoke and Copper moved closer to her mate, her eyes fixed dangerously on Night and Stone. She was careful to moderate her body language, but there was no mistaking the intent in her eyes. Iron and Snow knew she was instigating Rust and Coal to challenge the Alpha; but for all his stubbornness and ferocity, Rust and Coal was not ready to make a bid for leadership. Smoke and Copper was the younger of the two females in the pack. She was also almost feral; more vicious than Rust and Coal, very nearly uncontrollable. Old Mother was the only one she really listened to. She heeled to the Alpha, but only because he dominated her—as he dominated all of them. Old Mother had chosen him first, and he had earned his position many times over. Still, Smoke and Copper did not respond well to his leadership.

Sooner or later, she would goad her mate into challenging Night and Stone. The old wolf would not go easily.

Bone and Sand, the ghost wolf, did not give expression to his thoughts. He never did. He only listened. Iron and Snow suspected that Old Mother knew his mind, as she knew all of their minds. She kept his secrets.

Ice and Soot snapped at Smoke and Copper. It was a warning; she would not abide the younger female’s challenge in front of Old Mother. The pack waited to see whether Smoke and Copper would snap back. Iron and Snow was almost certain she would, but not this time. The younger wolf lowered her head and back-stepped slowly away from the confrontation. Ice and Soot’s curled lips and furrowed snout smoothed, her amber-gold eyes glittering in the moonlight streaming through the trees and setting the small clearing aglow.

‘The humans have done what they always do,’ Old Mother told them. ‘If we attack them, we will have no choice but to protect the Totem at all costs; until all of them are dead or fled. Had we a larger pack, I would drive them from this place. They are too close to the Totem as it is. I fear that it is only a matter of time before the winter drives them deeper into the mountains. Then, we will have a choice to make. But now…’ she sighed, ‘we are not in a position of strength.’

Night and Stone looked at each of them in turn, dominating them, pushing them into submission with an unseen force of presence and strength that did not abide resistance. He would not fall until his ability to dominate the pack visibly weakened. Iron and Snow suspected that Rust and Coal was waiting for that moment. Until then, the unwritten laws that governed their little society would remain the axis around which their actions revolved.

Still, in the World After, things were different. These wolves had been human beings once, and they were able to clothe themselves in human flesh again. Some trace of that humanness lingered, sewn into the mind of the wolf. Was Rust and Coal ambitious enough, reckless enough, to challenge the Alpha before his weakness showed itself?

Iron and Snow loped after Old Mother, leaving the rest of the pack to prepare for the Night Hunt. This was something the young pup loved: to walk beside the Guardian of the Totem, Heiress of the Lineage. If she was so inclined, she would speak her mind to him. He didn’t always understand her thoughts, but it was enough that she trusted him.

She followed an uphill trail that crested one of the smaller peaks in the range. You could see the mighty Atlantic from the promontory, crashing against the eastern hills of the Appalachians. In the distance, over the black sheet of the ocean, lightning flashed behind smoky layers of gray cloud. Thunderheads marched towards the moon, slowly erasing the reflected band of sparkling light that carpeted the waves below.

‘I am disappointed,’ Old Mother said suddenly.

She didn’t turn to Iron and Snow, but spoke out over the steep drop. The wind whisked her voice away, down through the slopes below and the frothing surf beyond. ‘The Lineage must be stronger if we are to hold our own against the settlers. If we cannot grow our numbers, it will be as before, in the World That Ended. They will hunt us down, powerful as we are, and drive the Totem into a silence so final that no upheaval will awaken her again.’

Iron and Snow waited for her to continue, laying his head on his forearms. She said nothing for awhile. The thunderheads overtook the moon; the lightning broke through the cloud bank, streaking through the space between sea and sky.

‘I had counted us fortunate to find a sister so close at hand,’ she said. Now she turned to look down at Iron and Snow. ‘There is nothing quite like the taste of hope turned to bitterness in your mouth. Still, there is one more door open to us.’ Iron and Snow raised his head. Old Mother frowned. ‘When the pack returns from the Night Hunt, I will tell them.’

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Fiction: Totem Cycle, part 1

‘They’re vintage,’ the trader held up a yellowed bundle of papers, ‘newspapers from the World That Ended. You won’t see anything like them. Not here. Maybe on the other side. But here…? I can see that you’re interested. Look at them. See that headline? It’s from 4 years before the War.’

‘I don’t know…’

The trader smiled knowingly. ‘This is knowledge, right here. I’ve already read it. But I don’t know anyone else who has. Come on; you only know the stories people tell you. This here,’ he tapped the newspaper, ‘is the truth. The absolute, unvarnished truth. In fact, it’s priceless…’ he frowned, ‘…but I can’t carry them anymore. See, my father entrusted them to me, but I’ve already lost so many of them. Half of them were stolen by Red Robert’s people…’

‘You survived an attack by Red Robert?’

‘I was traveling with a caravan. Me and one other survived, a blacksmith living down near Arizona Bay. He could tell you. I lost 3 more in the rain last season. You remember it? So I’ll give you the rest for a good deal. I’m telling you, this is a last-chance opportunity here.’

‘I don’t know that I have anything to trade…’

The trader scanned the old hunter quickly, assessing what he could see, guessing at what he could not. A hunting rifle, and not one of those made since the War. No, this was an antique even older than his newspapers, kept in impeccable condition. The old hunter wouldn’t want to part with it, or with any ammunition he carried for it. His clothes were soiled and torn in places, but the belts that held his knives and tools were fairly new.

‘I’ll take one of your knives. I’ve only got an old hunting one, but it’s in bad shape.’

The hunter frowned. ‘A knife for a few pieces of old paper?’ He shook his head. ‘The knife is more useful, whatever those papers say. What can I do with them? Stories are better than the truth. Who is ever going to ask me for the truth?’

‘Alright then, you tell me.’

‘Tell you what. You come back with me, break bread at my table, and we’ll talk. You can tell me the latest word, and we can trade over those newspapers.’

‘How do I know you won’t just kill me?’

The hunter snorted. ‘This would have been a better place for it. There’s no one living in these woods for miles.’

The trader considered the offer for a moment, but his stomach had already decided the matter for him: ‘Sure, sure. Why not? It is as you say. How far is your home?’

‘Not far. You’re lucky I was on my way back. These woods aren’t safe after dark.’

Their footsteps shuffled through wet brown leaves, thick on the trail and sodden with last night’s heavy rain. The late afternoon sun dipped behind the trees, shimmering between leaves the color of sunset. The air was cold and crisp, but not yet biting with winter’s harshness.

The two men did not speak again while they walked. The trail had been level beneath a ridge of small, rocky peaks; now it fell suddenly, cutting deeper into the forest below and winding through the western foothills of the Appalachians. The smoke of cookfires rose into the still air and deepening blue of the cloudless sky.

‘What do you call this settlement?’ the trader asked, breaking the silence.

‘Forthright,’ the hunter answered.

‘I’ve heard of it. It’s one of the largest settlements in these parts, isn’t it?’

‘Shouldn’t you know? Where were you going?’

‘To the District Barony,’ the trader answered after a moment.

The hunter glanced at him over his shoulder. ‘The Barony? Are you a fool, or a liar?’ he stopped and looked hard at the trader.  ‘You couldn’t get within fifteen miles of the Barony. The whole city’s surrounded by a ring of marauders, scavengers, and butchers that would kill you in a heartbeat and trade your wares between themselves…and make no mistake: your organs, whether they’re healthy or not, can still fetch a bargain.’

The trader met the hunter’s eyes steadily. ‘You’ve been there?’

‘When I was young and stupid.’

‘Well, that’s where I’m going,’ the trader said. ‘I’ve haven’t anywhere else to go. Besides, I have a few tricks up my sleeve,’ he added enigmatically. ‘There are places even the marauders, scavengers, and butchers won’t go.’

The hunter chuckled derisively. ‘You mean the swamps? That’s been tried. There’s a reason no one goes there. There’s just no way to make it through the swamps alive. No way. No one’s been in or out of the District Barony in thirty years.’

The trader shrugged and lapsed into silence. The trail widened into a small, shadowed clearing. A sentry tower stood in the center, a scaffolding of wooden beams topped by a small shed. The guard standing watch leaned over the railing, an arrow notched and pointed at the trader. When he saw the hunter he nodded but did not lower the bow. ‘Devin!’ he called out. ‘How was the hunting today?’

Devin looked up and waved. ‘Some rabbits is all.’ He motioned to the trader. ‘Met a trader on the trail. Invited him to break bread with my family.’

The watchman lowered the bow but kept the arrow notched. ‘Where’s he going?’

‘Says he was headed here, to Forthright,’ Devin lied. ‘He’s got some old newspapers to trade.’

‘Newspapers?’ the watchman thought about this for a moment. ‘From when?’

‘I have a series from 2100 to 2115,’ the trader called out, ‘in good condition.’

‘Let me take a look at them,’ the watchman said. ‘Come up.’

The trader smiled and ascended the tall ladder, followed by Devin. The watchman shook hands with them both. ‘Good to see you, Nick,’ Devin said warmly. ‘How’s Sam?’

‘She’s fine,’ Nick answered, ‘healer’s looking after her. How about Annie and Winn? They getting on?’

‘I would have taken them with me, but Annie’s been feeling out of sorts for the past couple of days.’

‘Want me to tell the healer to pay a visit?’

Devin shook his head. ‘No, it’s nothing serious. Really. You know those kids have always been sensitive. It’s just the winter coming on. They’ve always been able to feel it.’

Nick looked as if to press the point of the healer, then relented. He nodded towards the trader and said, ‘Alright. Let’s take a look at what you’ve got there. 2100 you said? That when the War started?’

‘No, no,’ the trader replied, ‘the Third World War started in 2110. But, see, a great many things happened in the decade preceding the War. Scandals and court cases, skirmishes and embargos, revolutions and invasions. It’s the truth of what really happened!’

Nick smiled. ‘Does it make for a good story?’

The trader looked bewildered for a second. ‘Of course!’ he answered at last. ‘It’s the best story there is!’

Nick nodded to a woolen cloak hung from a nail in the corner. ‘I’m sold. I can’t read all that well, but my grandfather used to tell me stories about history. Said he used to read books. Imagine that! Well, since he died I miss those stories…if these newspapers of yours are anything like that, I’ll trade you that cloak there for a few of them. How about it? Winter’s coming on, and it comes down hard in these parts.’

The trader looked over the cloak, rubbed the material between his fingers, examined the seams. ‘Fine,’ he said at last. ‘It’s got a few years on it, but it’ll hold for another season. Go on—look them over and take a few that you like. October 14, 2103 is a good one. That’s a nail in the coffin for sure.’

Silence hung in the shed, broken only by the rustle of old paper and muttered exclamations of interest from Nick. Devin had taken the rifle from his back and laid it on the knotted wooden railing; his hunter’s eyes scanned the trees. The sun was going down behind the hills in the west. A few minutes and it would be gone.

The season was turning, and the leaves were changing in that bittersweet pageantry of color that marked the end of summer. The mountains stretched out on either side to the north and south, fading into shades of deepening blue. The birds had stopped chattering among the trees. A blanket of cold wind settled with a whistle of harsh breath over the sentry tower. Devin shivered…

…and heard a series of howls rising up from the forest.

They washed over the treetops like a wave of sound, lapping softly up against the wooden frame of the tower. Everyone looked sharply up. Devin readied his rifle. He glanced at the trader; the man did not appear in the least bit afraid. He was looking out over the forest as if he knew exactly where they were coming from. Devin leveled the rifle’s sight in that direction.

‘How many?’

‘It’s been at least 15 for the past three nights,’ Nick answered. ‘They came past Darwin’s post last night, and he killed one and clipped another. It was 17 that night. Joey swears that 20 of them came past his tower two nights before that, and that was the night we lost Tom’s kids and 5 heads of cattle. I’m telling you, if we don’t figure out a way to stop them, we’ll be left hungry for the winter…already they’re starting to talk, saying that our stores won’t make it into February.’

Devin grunted.

‘You won’t be able to stop them,’ the trader said softly.

Nick looked at him sharply. ‘Don’t say that,’ he growled. He glared at the trader contemplatively and said, ‘Where did you sleep last night? They would have eaten you alive anywhere in these woods…’

‘They’re big woods,’ the trader snapped, then pointed. ‘Pay attention; here they come.’

They broke out of the gloom, loping towards the tower. There were 16 of them. It was the largest pack Devin had ever seen. Their yellow eyes gleamed, lips curled in snarls of rapacious frenzy. Their rust and soot colored coats tangled behind their ears and gathered in thick manes behind their jaws. Others were the color of iron and midnight, and several were pitch black.

The elders said that the old wolves had been different; more like to avoid a man than attack him outright. Things changed. Hearing howls in the woods was a death-knell to any group of travelers few in number, armed only with knives and tools—even guns were no guarantee. The wolves had plenty of game to eat, to be sure; but they preferred the blood of men.

Devin waited and aimed with patient precision. Only when he was sure of the shot, he fired. The rifle thundered out across the canopy and the muzzle flash was bright in the twilight. There was a cry as one of the animals was thrown against its side. The echo of the shot struck the mountains. Devin was already reloading.

Nick released an arrow, but the shaft thudded into the soft ground. He notched and loosed another, just missing one of the wolves. They spoke in growled utterances and sharp yips, coordinating a predator’s strategy. Circling the tower, an overzealous wolf made an attempt to scale the scaffolding and tumbled down, glaring up at them in cold spite.

‘We can’t possibly get them all before they reach Forthright,’ Nick said through clenched teeth. ‘What are they going to take this time? Our children?’ He hissed in desperate frustration, notched another arrow, and let it fly. It struck through the wolf that had tried to scale the tower. Devin fired the rifle again, taking another wolf down.

The pack gathered and started off towards the town. Nick cursed and rang the sentry bell. The old iron clanged and Devin listened for the reply; another bell answered, in the east tower beside the city walls. Whoever was in the fields outside the walls would be running in; the stragglers and those too far away to make it in time would have to rely on luck and the aim of the guardsmen. Others, living in the houses and shacks outside the settlement, would bolt their frail doors and wait it out—but the wolves were known to break into homes, and God help anyone with a wailing infant among them.

‘I’m gone,’ Devin said, hastening down the ladder. When he reached the ground he broke into a sprint towards the settlement. If the guards were able to scatter them, he might have a shot at one of two of them.

He underestimated his vigor—he’d been trekking all day, and his legs were not the legs of a young athlete anymore. He had to stop within sight of the settlement; the wolves were barely visible as dark shapes moving quickly toward the gray face of the city wall. It would be a wasted shot, most likely, but it was the only shot he had. By the time he gathered his strength to run again the wolves would have scattered, each smaller pack looking for a kill. He propped the rifle against the crook of his elbow, got down on his belly, and followed one of the darting shapes. The sentry on the east tower fired, and a small cloud of dust shot up next to one of the wolves; it paused, momentarily distracted, and Devin fired. The bullet took it in the head.

The pack scattered. Every shot now was wasted; they stayed out of the spheres of light cast by the lanterns atop the wall, groups of two or three moving quickly through fields and outlying houses. Annie and Winn…! Devin rose and charged forward with renewed energy; he knew his grandchildren. They wouldn’t have gone in behind the wall without him. Winn was good with a shotgun, and he would keep it loaded and handy; but against three wolves…! He increased his pace, fueling his aching muscles with panic and desperation.

Devin finally saw the red brick of his small house, the green door, the herb garden; he listened for any sound of struggle or pain. It was quiet. The wolves were around here somewhere, he had seen those three heading in this direction…he readied his rifle and slowed his pace, approaching the house cautiously. He had rushed to defend his grandchildren, but he was a likelier kill than anyone behind closed doors.

The thought occurred to him just in time; one of them had been watching him from behind the house. It charged at him, moving faster than he could possibly hope to point and shoot. He dropped the rifle, drew one of his hunting knives, and braced himself. He anticipated that the wolf would lunge; he would bring up his forearm, let it try and bite through his coat, and stab it through the heart—but he anticipated wrong. The wolf came in under his arm, turned its head, and tried for his hamstring. He twisted his leg out of the way, but it cost him: he was on the ground, scrambling to get up. Too slow, too slow…

The wolf came over him, its jaws snapping over his face, its wild yellow eyes glowing against its charcoal fur. It was near 180 pounds of snarling wolf, but Devin managed to push up and throw it off him for the split of a second he would have before it came up again—just enough to grab the knife, and follow through with a hasty stab on his hands and knees.

He was lucky; the knife went into its throat and it bit down on the empty air, whining in sudden pain and drawing hastily away. It loped quickly off, shaking its head and losing blood. Devin panted tiredly and got up. Where were the other two?

‘Winn!’ he shouted, ‘Annie! The wolves are here…!’ Devin stumbled towards the house. Why haven’t they responded? He slammed himself against the door and threw it open.

They were sitting at the table, looking at him as if he were raving. Annie, Winn, and the trader. Annie was putting down a tray of fresh bread and Winn was looking over the newspapers; the trader was smiling at him as if passing a secret between them. Devin took a moment to process the scene, his heart thudding in his chest, his knife clutched in his hand, his torn pant leg trailing blood over the floor.

‘What happened?’ Winn cried, rising from the table and moving forward.

‘Wolves…’ Devin answered, slowly trying to come to his senses. He stared at the trader. ‘How did you get here so quickly? You were still at the tower…’ he focused on his grandson. ‘When did he get here? Didn’t you hear the bells? There are wolves in the camp!’

Winn stared at him, then glanced back at the trader. ‘Bells?’ he asked wonderingly. ‘I didn’t hear any…wolves? Are you sure?’ he looked again at his grandfather and moved quickly to take up the shotgun beside the door. ‘I know this man—he’s traded here before. He told us you were with Nick at the tower, and that you were on your way.’

‘Grandfather…?’ Annie set the tray down and moved towards the sound of their voices.

‘Annie,’ Devin said, moving forward, ‘step away from him.’ Annie backed away from the trader. Winn looked at him questioningly, but Devin didn’t have time for explanations; as far as he was concerned, this man was dangerous. He would have seen the man moving toward his home; how did he get here so quickly…?

He started with the basics. ‘Who are you?’ he demanded. ‘You’re no trader. You said you were for the District Barony…why? You knew where the wolves were coming from; you had no fear of them. What’s your business here? Answer me!’

The trader put up his hands. ‘I come with a warning,’ he said. ‘I should have gone about it differently…but if I had told you the truth from the beginning, you would have shot me in the woods and left me for dead.’

Devin smiled dangerously. ‘I’m like to shoot you right here. You’re a stranger. No one would question a man defending his family against an intruder. You’ve nothing to lose by telling me the truth now. I guarantee that it will go poorly with you unless your explanation satisfies me.’

‘Very well,’ the trader put down his hands. ‘They’re coming for your granddaughter.’

Winn and Annie both started talking at once; Devin stared at the old trader, trying to make sense of what he was saying. With another ear he listened for the wolves, prowling around the grounds outside.

‘Annie,’ Devin said, ‘open the door.’

Outside, there were two men standing naked in the cold and dark. There was no shame in their nakedness; only a quiet, subtle danger that shone in eyes the color of gold. Still, Devin was momentarily grateful that his granddaughter could not see. Winn leveled the shotgun on them, as did he; they were often of a common mind, he and his grandson. He hoped that was enough to get them through this alive.

‘Who are you?’ he demanded, wondering why he didn’t just shoot them. Winn was waiting on his signal.

The men said nothing. They simply stood outside, waiting for a signal of their own. From the trader, no doubt. Devin turned, another question ready on his lips…

The old wolf stood on the wooden table, its hackles bristling in threat, lips curled over the feral horror of its exposed gums and vicious teeth.

The naked men bowed their heads in submission.

‘The Totem has chosen your granddaughter,’ one of them growled. ‘She will come with us.’

‘The hell you say,’ Devin replied. He turned and fired on the old wolf…

 

 

 

 

 

A Different Kind of Werewolf Story

What follows is the first half of a story entitled “Humanskin.” It presents a different take on traditional werewolf mythology, employing a setting and perspective that is unique and provocative. If you enjoy it, please “like” it.  Share this narrative with anyone you believe may appreciate it. I write first and foremost for my audience, so let me know if I have one! Thank you for your time, and I hope you enjoy it. Look for the second half of the story to appear soon.

Alexander Chirila 2013

 

Humanskin

I am going to kill Old Wolf today.

The others are expecting this. They see me trying him. I know that, when I was a man, I would not have killed him. I would not have killed anyone. But it is good that I should kill Old Wolf today. It is good that I should take his place as alpha.

Tonight, we hunt with purpose.

The humans’ dwelling-places are encroaching. They do as they did before; they burn, they destroy, they spread and they consume. We will remind them that this is our territory. They will come for us, but we know their weapons. We know their movements. We know their scent.

We run between the dogwoods and falling leaves, quickly over the uneven earth and through the tall grass. Winter is in the bitter wind, in the early morning frost. We lope alongside a river. It is clean, good water. Dark, slippery pebbles shift as we pad upstream. The mountains are blue in the predawn. The distance between their round, forested peaks is measured in shades of blue.

I can smell a buck somewhere on an adjoining peak, separated by a narrow valley. I am hungry, but I can wait. Normally, White and Gray would break off from the pack and see to her own belly. Even she obeys tonight.

She knows that I want her, that I would take her as a mate. She belongs to Old Wolf, and he guards her jealously. He is old, and his eyes are weak. He is no longer fit to be the alpha. It is time for him to find a new place.

The wind shifts, west to east. The scent-trails of cookfires cut through the forest in visible ribbons. On the surface of the ground, there is a fine mesh of varied smells. The more intense seem to move and shift, while those weathered down by time and season are still and faint. There are trails within this network; the footprints of an animal, the burrowing of insects. Our own signatures mark our territory like signposts stapled to trees.

I glance to my right—Black and Rust is darting agilely through a tumble of boulders; young, strong, and just coming of age. Full of piss and vinegar. Damn fool made a play for Soot and Snow last night, but my brother checked him. Nearly took his eyes, and would have served him right. Old Wolf intervened, but Red and Coal nearly made the bid for alpha there and then. Better that he didn’t. My brother should know that my time has come.

* * * *

I don’t like wearing humanskin. I must have been comfortable in it once, when it was mine. I just want to claw it off now. It feels fragile, thin, vulnerable. When I wear it, I remember snatches of things, like pieces of dry tendon sticking to an old bone left out in the sun. I can’t put them together.

Human speech is getting more difficult. I don’t talk to the others—there’s no need. I can read their body language better than if they were whispering their innermost thoughts into my ear.

I’m shivering. It’s harder to feel things, sense things, smell things. I have to paw through all this debris in my mind—I want to see my family again—to find the simplest thing…

For all his weaknesses, Old Wolf remembers everything. He remembers when he wore his own humanskin. He remembers himself. He walks upright without difficulty. The first time I walked upright, I tottered and reeled, flailing my arms like a bird with broken wings. I’ve gotten better since then, but the pebbles are slippery with mist thrown off from the cascade pool. My brother laughs when I fall—he is not my brother—and I try to growl at him. My throat cannot make the same sounds.

Black and Rust changes so quickly. He dons the humanskin smoothly, effortlessly, and it is an irony that a born wolf should so easily wear the mask of a boy. It is a face I always think I recognize. He watches me clutch at the embankment for support, standing with his flat white teeth showing in his face. Impudent pup.

I see White and Gray rising from a stand of cattails, her smooth shoulders flexing as she stretches. I must have wanted other human females—I loved my wife—when I was a man. Then, their skin must not have seemed so thin, or delicate; their shape must not have seemed so awkward and ill-suited to the harshness of the unforgiving earth. She is different. Somehow the wolf is visible, like a new moon on a clear night.

There is an impulse that tears through every single coherent thought, an electric need snagged on an exposed livewire. I just want to take all this energy and do something with it. I want to fight, I want to hunt, I want to range over the wide earth…

She soothes me.

My brother and his mate help one another rise. Red and Coal casts a vicious human eye at Black and Rust. It is the eye of jealousy. He is right to be anxious. When Black and Rust grows, he will become the strongest among us. He is a born wolf. When the time comes, he will make a play for Soot and Snow, and there is a chance he will emerge the stronger. I know that my own time as alpha will be short, when he grows. It is a thing as inevitable as the turning of the world in the dark.

Further up the ridge, away from the cascade pool and the Totem who guards it, there is a ramshackle little hovel assembled from bits and pieces of the world that came before. The world that ended. The old woman who assembled it is the last living heir of an ancient lineage dedicated to the service of the Totem. The Totem herself is a focal point, a living crossroads between worlds.

‘Very few people know about the Totems,’ my wife told me once. We used to walk together for hours to get away from the settlement. Our normal route would take us west, towards one of the many decayed roads that linked the dead cities together. On this day, we went into the mountains.

She would tell me stories of her life in the dead city; about the gangs, the fever breakouts, the starvation, paranoia, and violence. When I asked her why anyone would cling to those crumbling tombs of glass and steel she told that me that many people believe the wilderness is worse—reclaimed by ‘a Mother Nature pissed off at the world.’ Yes, I would tell her, the earth is pitiless and unfriendly…but at least it is alive.

She would also tell me stories about Her Great Journey South, a lonely exodus of refugees that trekked the abandoned roads in search of new homes and new lives. I always imagined that if you could fly above the country, as they say people once did, you would see campfires flickering here and there in the blackness between settlements. Wandering bands of refugees huddling over their light, surrounded by dangerous mystery.

Lizzie was huddled around one of these lights on the night she heard the story, in the company of a strange group of travelers—they were wolves wearing humanskin—who explained that ‘when the world ended, it left a wound. The wound had been there for a long time, but the people had sewn it up with their roads and machines, skyscrapers and subterranean tunnels. The wound bled inside, never clotting up. There was too much poison thinning the blood. But afterward the Fever, with no people to keep stitching the wound, the sutures broke open and the tainted blood poured out. But that’s how it’s done—the poison needs to come out so that the blood can run pure again.

‘When the earth took back what was hers, her children came with her. The Spirits of things. The Totems. They spring up in places where the pure blood flows again. There are people who can see them. They say that in the world of man, the medicine of the Spirits was quieted; but after the world ended, it was reignited. Old lineages that had dripped sleeping down the generations were awakened to power.

Old Wolf is already speaking to old mother by the time the rest of us drag our awkward bodies up the trail and into the clearing. Black and Rust is probably inside already, dining on the lavish meals she prepares for us. ‘I used to cook,’ she once told me, ‘but I have no children to cook for except for the six of you. And you’—she’d laughed in a way that reminded me of a little girl bounding through a field of wildflowers—‘can’t enjoy what I cook unless you wear the humanskin.’

It is she who advises Old Wolf, and we who listen. It is she who knows when the Totem will sheathe us in humanskin, that we may walk among our enemies.

‘What news?’ Old Wolf asks her.

She glances at me. Does she know that I will kill him tonight? Of course she knows. She will say nothing of my intentions to him. She never interferes in the business of the pack.

‘The humans are gathering tonight,’ she says, ‘to deliberate.’

Black and Rust appears in the doorway behind the old woman, his mouth stained with elderberry juice, his eyes glaring. Of all of us, he is the fiercest defender of the Totem. She is at the heart of our territory; she is the caretaker of the blood that binds us to one another and to our ancestors. To him, she is an undying surrogate to replace the mother that tried to sacrifice him in his infancy.

Old Wolf growls; he does not seem to suffer the strictures of his humanskin throat. ‘Their hunting parties kill our brothers and sisters. They push closer to the Totem with each season. Any further and they will find her resting-place. I know what humans do to the sacred.’

He knew. Old Wolf was among the first to be given the Spirit of the Wolf after the wilderness swarmed over the empty habitations of the world that ended.

‘You have harried them for too long,’ old mother says. ‘Now it is time to go for the jugular.’ She grins and draws a bony finger across her thin neck. ‘Go in among their dwelling-places; attend this gathering and be wary of their suspicions. Your attacks will have stirred them into a vengeful frenzy—but this is what we intended. They fight for their survival. We fight for our dominion.’ Her eyes narrow. ‘Show them the boundaries of their territory.’

‘Let me be the one to lure them,’ Black and Rust says, ‘I am the fastest of the pack.’ Old Wolf looks at my brother. Red and Coal says nothing, but his silence is plain enough to understand. The alpha grunts, and the upstart pup bears his flat human teeth in a triumphant snarl.

With the matter settled, the others are ushered into the hovel by the old woman. I remain outside for a moment, staring at an old tin board with the drawing of a woman holding a glass Coca-Cola bottle. I remember that drawing. Old Matheson’s General Store. Trinkets and relics from the World Before. My father loved that store; for every derelict and ruin of bits he could tell the most wondrous stories.

‘You came from this place,’ Old Wolf was saying. ‘If you are not strong enough to find your way out of it again…’

I bear my flat human teeth in response to his not-so-subtle challenge. ‘There is no trap of theirs that can snare me.’

* * * *

‘I know what you’re planning,’ Black and Rust says, interrupting my reverie. I turn from the cascade pool to regard his approach.

To the others, Black and Rust is a trickster. A mischievous spirit, both man and wolf, comfortable in both skins. Old Wolf does not entirely trust him. My wolf-brother would just as soon finish him. Soot and Snow tolerates his impertinent advances. It is only with White and Gray that he behaves like a pup; they roughhouse with one another, and he always comes away with nicks and scratches. I’ve no doubt that she could overcome her mate, but that is a human thought. She will remain with Old Wolf until he is defeated.

‘Do you?’ I ask him mildly.

He smiles. Both as a wolf and wearing the humanskin, he bears his teeth often. ‘You should do it,’ he says. ‘The time has come for it.’

I turn pensively back to the cascade pool. ‘Yes. The time has come for it. He is reluctant to attack the settlement outright. I can smell his unease. He is too cautious. Still,’ I add uneasily, ‘he is an elder. I am a member of his pack. He was chosen by old mother before all of us. What right do I have to vie for his place?’

‘It is the way of things,’ Black and Rust says.

I shake my head. ‘I envy you. Old mother brought you into this pack as a pup. Have you any human memories in you at all?’

This is a sore subject with him. Old mother had found him lifeless in the cascade pool. The child’s mother had drowned him and left him for dead in the water. Her footprints had been plain to see; the stink of her fear and regret hung like snakeskin from invisible branches in the air. When the pack had arrived in response to old mother’s summons—a call inaudible to the humans in their settlement—we had found her cradling a wolf cub.

The pup had been born a wolf sheathed in humanskin, able to shed one and take up the other with no need of the elaborate ritual conducted by old mother. For the rest of us, she observed the movements of the stars and listened to the murmuring voice of the Totem. When all the auguries of her craft deemed the moment right, she summoned us. We came, and amidst incantations and terrible contortions she implored the Totem to sheathe us in humanskin—what a torment it always is! With Black and Rust it is different. The magic is inside of him. He was born of it.

‘Only a woman of my lineage could have birthed him,’ old mother had said. She herself was a woman too old to bear children. Why would the pup’s mother have tried to destroy him? This is a question that remains unanswered even now.

Black and Rust joined our pack no more than a year ago, only a few months after I received the Spirit of the Wolf. I have known him for all of this life. I realize now, just looking at him in his humanskin, how quickly he has grown. As a wolf, it seemed only natural. In another several years, he will be full grown. Looking at him now, I realize how strange it is that he should so rapidly advance in age. To a human, he would appear to have grown a full ten years in the space of one. In another year, he will wear the face of a young man. Would the mother who birthed him even recognize him now?

Black and Rust looks at me. ‘I know that your time has come. I know that I would rather follow you than Old Wolf. All I have ever known is the pack. It doesn’t matter to me where I come from, in that world,’ he gestures towards the settlement, ‘any more than it matters to any of you. We all died to that world when we received the Spirit of the Wolf.’

‘It’s just that you’ve never had a chance to live in it,’ I say.

This startles him. He considers it for a moment, eyeing me strangely. ‘Maybe,’ he says, and I marvel at how easily human speech comes to him. Maybe. What a human word that is.

* * * *

There is a barren place in the foothills, like a burn-blister gutted out of the flesh with a clamshell. I used to call this place home. I remember settling down here with my father when I was a little boy. It used to be nothing but a gathering of tents in a clearing. We were a family of hunters and trappers; we weren’t  refugees from the dead cities. We knew the woods.

It is more than a gathering of tents now. The humans had smoothed out a crossroads and town square. Around it they had built up a town hall, general store, schoolhouse—like something malignant beaten back again and again only to crawl forward in the same, repetitive, inevitable way. There were only a few other children there, the sons and daughters of something new. They were always telling us how we were ‘something new.’ This is a new world, they kept saying, and we must learn from our mistakes. My best friend Nick was the son of the schoolteacher, Mr. Robbins. He was a haunted man, as all our fathers were, fled from the horrors of the world that ended. His father, Nick’s grandfather, had survived the Third World War, the Fever, and the struggle for survival that followed. They burrowed like maggots through the corpses of the cities until Mr. Robbins and his son fled into the open country.

He was a learned man, and he knew more about history than anyone in the settlement. ‘This isn’t something new,’ he said to me once, in confidence, ‘this is something old come back again. An age of monsters.’

‘Hey,’ Red and Coal growls, ‘pay attention.’

We are approaching the settlement from the northeast. In our true forms, we could have run from old mother’s den to the settlement in little over an hour. Wearing humanskin, we’ve been trekking since dusk; it is now well into the evening. While dulled, our senses are not entirely impoverished. We can see well enough in the dark.

We pause on a ridge overlooking the settlement. The torches around the town square are lit, as are many windows in the wooden houses that line the dirt road. Several night watchmen patrol the crossroads, meeting in the square to exchange a few words of an ongoing conversation before continuing their circuit.

After the world that ended, the humans began to creep out of their hiding-places. They were not like the ones that came before. They were neither soft, nor dull, nor cocooned in their chrysalises of metal and artificial light. They came as scavengers first, picking at the carcass of the generation that birthed them out of a dying womb. Now they come as settlers, trying to reclaim territory that we have since taken as our own. The men are dangerous and rough, tempered on the forge of a world no longer under the dominion of their grandfathers. To them a wolf is a wild dog, and it is no complicated thing to put a bullet into one, or into a dozen, even. They know better than to come alone; they learned that quickly enough. We taught them that lesson.

Now it is time for them to learn another.

We come down from the ridge. I am getting easily caught up in the clothing given me by the old woman; the fabric against my skin is distracting and disconcerting. I concentrate on my surroundings. A wave of wind rolls through the canopy of trees, shaking loose the leaves ready to fall and causing the bare branches to clack together. It feels like winter. It smells damp, like rain on dark loam. Ahead, my pack picks its way silently among the rocks and broken branches and dry leaves.

‘We finish them,’ Old Wolf says.

We reach the leveled ground of the settlement. I remember the last time I stood upright on this road, wearing humanskin. The fever left its victims with little choice. They were quarantined or euthanized outright, and then burned to nothing; medieval medicine at its best. There was a doctor among us, an elderly man with a proper degree from the world that ended. Cut-off from the machinery of modern medicine, he was just another healer in the wilderness, forced to learn his craft from scratch. He did what he could, bless his heart, but the fever had nearly slain an entire world. Its vector had cut a swath across the most populated places on the planet, reducing the entire human equation to an endgame of strategy and survival.

In the world that followed, despite the constant fear of sickness, despite the bitter mercilessness of a landscape that culled the weak with an overeager hand—there was still joy. Fragile, fleeting, and terrible in its contrast to the world beyond the small, flickering light it cast on the tired faces of those who tasted it. My family. My wife and son. The last time I stood on this road, it was to say goodbye.

‘Your memories of this place are better than mine,’ Soot and Snow said. This is true. The pack had taken her three years after I had torn free of my humanskin. We had found her buried underneath a heap of deer carcasses. She had been raped by the settlement boys, the darlings of our little community. Red and Coal had been about finishing her off there and then, but White and Gray had stayed his jaws and loped off to summon old mother. When she came she had bid us drag the broken human on a makeshift pallet all the way to the cascade pool. There she had performed her rituals and invoked the Totem, as she had done with all of us.

Soot and Snow remembered everything. Unlike the rest of us, her transition did not throw up a barred gate between her human life and her life with us. To her, it was all one continuity. Old Mother said this was remarkable; that normally, without this barred gate, the mind breaks against the strain. The wolf goes feral. When she first arose from the pool, we thought she was feral—the only choice would have been to finish her. It was Red and Coal who stopped us then. He recognized her anger for what it was. He knew what she wanted, above all else. She wanted it with one mind. Revenge.

The entire pack was ready, of course, but Red and Coal insisted that it be only the two of them. He had already chosen her as his mate. How the settlers had defended those three boys! I knew them. Knew them and hated them. Those little mongrels. They were treated so well, forgiven every sin. They were handled like princes, pathetic as they were, and their families let them have their run of the place, to piss on every damned bush.

I often wondered what the others must have thought, when they found the bodies horribly mutilated among the deer carcasses. Whatever they kept telling me about this ‘new world,’ it didn’t seem right that pain, suffering, violence and fear were the signs of a better dispensation. We were all survivors. As far as I was concerned, my father had rightly taught me the only rule worth following: you fight so that you and your family can survive; but unless your own survival depends on it, you must never endanger the survival of another. ‘We are too few in this world,’ he had said, ‘and we need one another.’

With their guns, hidden behind their walls and windows, the humans can pick us off. We can do a lot of damage, and we have. We can destroy stores of food, massacre their livestock and trample their crops—but we cannot so easily kill them. If they should come against us in force, we are outnumbered. Wearing the humanskin, we are vulnerable. In exchange, we can walk amongst them, allay their suspicions. One moment they will believe their numbers swollen with unexpected aid from a group of strangers. In the next, they will know that this is not the world of their fathers and grandfathers. This is our world now.

Old Wolf’s plan is too simple. I dislike it; he relies too heavily on the strategies of another world, another time. He takes advantage of Black and Rust’s eagerness to prove his worth. He intends that the pup should distract them with a ruckus. When they pour out of the town hall to investigate, we will be among them. If they expect a trap, they will be reassured when they find nothing but a rogue wolf causing trouble.

It is then that he expects us to shed our humanskins and attack them. He assumes too much; he assumes that the humans will accept our disguises—for they are disguises, regardless of whether we were human once. He assumes that they will take the bait and readily abandon the safety of the settlement. He assumes that Black and Rust is faster and more cunning than their hunters and trackers. He is placing the pack in danger.

Part of me thinks that I should have challenged him already. Still, I will not assume that the rest of the pack will accept my right to challenge him. If White and Gray defends him, my bid is lost and I will be disgraced. She must see how foolish he has become. I only hope that we can survive it—and that when it is done, his failure will stand in plain sight for the pack to see.

We approach the first of the houses on the main road. The night watchman spots us. White and Gray steps forward. The moment he sees her, his body language and posture change. The air is suddenly suffused with the unmistakable pheromones of his lust. She knows this, playing her disguise to perfection; nor is she awkward in her mimicry of human speech. She explains that we have come by road from a settlement just over the mountains. There was a settlement there, destroyed by a rival pack claiming the eastern Appalachians as their own.

The night watchman, regaining enough of his wits to look us over, notices that we have no weapons to speak of, nothing that could be perceived as a threat. Old Wolf looks like an elder. My brother and I are playing the part of weary and haggard. Soot and Snow clings to her man, just another refugee looking for safety in numbers. We have absolute command of our bodies. We have meticulously orchestrated every twitch, sigh, and gesture. We betray nothing that we do not wish to.

The night watchman agrees to take us to the town hall meeting; someone will provide us with a fair supper. He offers no guarantee as to our accommodations, but then none is expected. Strangers are not often welcome, and rarely anticipated. That we should be received at all is a gamble that we thought might not succeed. Old Wolf did not tell us whether he had an alternate plan.

The wilderness had received me, another one of countless exiles driven away by the fever. I had been so concerned for my newborn son and young wife that I had failed to see the symptoms in myself. It wouldn’t have made any difference if I had. Still, it was not until the fever took me that I realized what happened. There was time enough to gather some few belongings and say my goodbyes from a safe distance.

For nights the pack must have watched me suffer alone in the forest. I had taken shelter under a natural lean-to of moss-carpeted boulders and the fallen trunks of old growth trees. It rained every day and every night, trickling in glittering fever-enhanced streams from the canopy above. When it did not rain the insects droned on in the night and the wolves whispered in a language of breaking twigs and rustling leaves.

Old mother came to me on the fifth night. The way the fever works, you languish for days in agony. Your skin feels like the skin of some dead bird stapled into the raw muscle. My brain felt like a jigsaw puzzle assembled and scattered over and over again by a lunatic child. On the fifth night, the fever breaks. Just like that. The pain and brokenness is abruptly replaced by clarity. Perfect, uncompromising, enlightened clarity.

She came to me, and I saw her as she was.

‘Strange night for you to be coming through,’ the night watchman says as we approach the town hall. ‘You folks are going to have to explain some things,’ he says, ‘like how you managed to pass over the mountains unharmed.’

‘We never said we were unharmed,’ Old Wolf answers quickly. What a sharp mind he has! ‘If you’re talking about the wolves, we already know about them. We fought them off more than once—but not without loss.’ He nods toward White and Gray, who joins his play as if they had laid it all out beforehand. She bows her head, exuding sorrow and mourning. Old Wolf nods and turns back to the watchman. ‘In the first attack, they took her baby…’

‘Oh!’ The night watchman’s mouth opens in shamed horror. ‘I’m sorry—my apologies—yes, yes, then you already know…’ he recovers himself. ‘Yes, well, there wolves have been harassing us for years. I think they’re trying to run us off…like we’re in their territory and they want us out.’ He nods sagely, proud of his conclusion. He couldn’t possibly know how accurate he was. ‘Anyway, in the past few months, they’ve managed to destroy our stores and slaughter our livestock. We’ve had to trade with the western settlements. They’ve killed our men and women.

‘Everyone figured this was just the way of things; that the wolves were here before us, and they’re just trying to hold onto what’s theirs. But now, they’re saying that maybe something else is going on. It may sound crazy to you folks,’ he looks at us apologetically, ‘but they’re saying that maybe the wolves are being sent after us, deliberately, like someone sicced them on us…’ he shakes his head. ‘Anyway, I think I’ll let you hear all about it for yourselves. Just don’t get involved; the people are pretty riled up tonight. Just hang back and I’ll ask Maggie to look after you.’