Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Dire Pup

a Tale from Ivy’s Youth

            “A wolf is a wolf,” said the elder Wood-Mage.

Ivy, the young tracker who had gone to the trouble of capturing the cub, did not understand.  She wondered, Is this good or bad?  Two days prior she had proudly led the cub into the village on a twine leash she herself had woven.  It was no small matter to divert the two grown females guarding the litter. But, she smirked, nothing the scent of a new slain boar could not overcome.  After she was certain the females were gone into the vale to investigate the new death she had run near-silently to where the pups were at play.

Not being choosy, she grabbed the first she could from the litter of three.  The other pups watched her trot away into the tall grasses and then disappear, the gangly legs of their brother angling oddly under her arm.  She swept into the reed-cover, her movements soundless as the wind.  One day more was spent in a stand of oak perhaps a league upwind, to make sure the adults were not tracking their lost child.

By then the pup had a name.  She called him Tumas, after the marshes near where he had been born.  Following the usual boasting and envy getting among those her own age, concerns from the elders clouded her pleasure and made her the center of a different sort of attention.  Council was called and now both she and the young dire-wolf were before them.

For his part, Tumas was still bound by the leash.  Only now it was attached to a stake in the earth.  He lay in the dust before them, black eyes watching the proceedings.  His pelt was already beginning to grow long and the ends were matting with dirt and dense tangles of fur.

“Perhaps three moons old,” Albayth continued, “and as tall as a lamb.”  Others near him nodded.

Was this good or bad?  Of course a wolf is a wolf.

“Return him,” he said.  “He is out of place.”  Again, the others nodded.

She swore a little to herself and before thinking asked, “How?  The pack may have moved by now.  They must be wary.”

“The bringer must learn to bring forth again.”  And then, “Set out tomorrow.”

This, she decided, is not fair.

“He is now a risk.  And you brought it to us.  A wolf is a wolf.  These kind speak among themselves.  Already last night he howled for long minutes.  Who knows but what could hear those cries?  Who knows but what shall answer.”

When she had been allowed to go to the human town last summer, the children there had pets; dogs on ropes, birds in wicker cages, one family even had a goat used neither for cheese nor milk.  This luxury she wanted, a pet.  But humans slept easily in their town, in their houses of lumber and stone.  It was gated and surrounded by wall.  Her village had not that luxury, either.

Albayth’s eyes widened.  Ivy nodded, no more questions.

She woke before dawn, dressed, slipped her small traveler's pouch over her shoulder and took only the thin-hafted javelin, same as before.  She went to where Tumas lay, near the center of the elder’s yurts.  He had howled again during much of the early evening.  She untied the cord from the stake.  The pup stretched itself and yawned. Knowing both the positions and the wariness of the night wards, she left the village on the same path she had used days before.

The land descended through tall fir and pine.  The needles amassed on the ground and masked the noise of their passage.  At the bottoms, she held to a cliff-line of shale and flint and then descended further into a sharp ravine.  That morning a brace of pixies saw only a slender elf maid, gold-skinned by sun and wind, hair youth-brown, not yet auburn, leading as it were a tall dog on a leash through early morning mists.

The forests gave way to the grasslands where Pepper trees and oak began to grow.  She paused at a stream and they both drank.  And at this point she was standing on the edge of the truly wild lands.  Ivy examined the ground for tracks.  Her quick grey eyes noted nothing unfamiliar or dangerous.  She broke and ate a portion of pemmican, offered some to Tumas.  He would not have it.  She picked it from the ground and put it back in her pouch.

From the stream she could see the small bump on the horizon that was the copse of trees where she had slept three nights earlier with her new pup.  From there she knew it was a long morning’s walk to where the pack roamed.  If they were searching they could easily be nearby. She looked at Tumas who stared back at her, his eyes shining like small pots of black ink.

They crossed the creek and made for the trees.  The scrub gave way to the grasses that were as tall as she.  The air warmed and changed, she smelled the swamps to the west.  It was a bright day and the sky was rich blue, the king in His robes of blessing.  The clouds were a thin spray of gauze and her thoughts wondered over many things as they walked.

By late afternoon she again sat in the woven stand, built into the tallest tree.  From that height she felt she could see everything.  Behind her was the tree-line of the forest and further to the west the dark line of marsh.  To the south was a small valley where she had slain the boar and to the north the grass extended and widened as a sea whose limits she did not know.  Nightfall was near.  She pet Tumas and pulled bits of dirt from his coat.  They napped.

She awoke in the dark with inspiration.  She hefted the cub and climbed from the tree.  She untied the rope from his collar and stood.  Tumas looked at her, shook himself, and walked in the direction he knew as home.

Simple as that.  This bringer has brought forth again, she said aloud to herself.  One night in a tree, then home I’ll be, an old proverb taught to the children.  She returned to the stand and sat.  She ate another half of pemmican cake.  It was dry and she wished for water.  But that will have to wait until tomorrow.  And it was thoughts such as these that distracted her so that she did not see the rustling grass moving in a long arc around the trees.

She heard a yip and a heavy wet growl.  Ivy peeked over the edge of her nest and saw Tumas directly below.  Points of silver shine stared at her.  He turned his head behind him and growled quick.

Then there was an even deeper howl, and then another, a third, and fourth.  She stared beneath her and watched them emerge; three females and male, he as tall as a horse.  Their thick manes of matted fir bristled nearly straight from their necks to their tails.  The eight black eyes with pin-pricks of red stared at her.  One of the females, a young Ivy guessed, jumped at the tree but fell short by half.  They circled and growled, yapping in almost vulgar snarls.  She saw their white teeth and blood-red tongues and she wept.

After a while she lay down in the middle of the stand.  She did not sleep but did not look down. Ivy played endless variations in her head.  How they would leave, how Tumas might speak to them on her behalf, how that something would happen and they might be satisfied to merely frighten her.

At dawn, with the first fingers of sun, she looked again.  Carefully, as carefully as she might, peeking over the edge of the stand and her heart quickened.  Two of the females were still there, both as tall as she.

Ivy had no illusions of outrunning them.  She had no illusions of killing them with her javelin.  She looked at the spear, less thick around than her wrist, and doubted even a village warrior could kill a dire-wolf with such a thing.  Her mouth was dry and small trembles made her close her fingers into fists.

Strips of clouds came from the north though at times the sun blasted through them, creating wedges of gold on the land.  During the day she ate pemmican.  The adult wolves were never far and at times the grass would move where the pups played and roamed.

This is my second day without water.  I have but one more.  She collected her options but could find only three.  She could sit, or run, or fight.  Each led to the same conclusion.

Once during the last hour of the day the male and the other female returned.  They growled and snarled among themselves.  The pups lay on their haunches to the side.  She could no longer discern the one she named Tumas.  As the final bars of light closed over the west, the pack trotted into the grasses.

Ivy closed her eyes and listened.  She heard nothing, not even a night bug, not even a cicada.  Pins of gold, fireflies, darted in clumps before they too darkened.  Peeking once again over the edge of the stand, she saw nothing.  Rising a little she scanned in each direction.  Neither motion nor creatures were to be seen.

She clutched her javelin and after a deep breath descended.  She paused on the ground, knowing how quick they were.  Seeing nothing she set off at a trot towards the tree line.  At a good pace it would take her a third of a night’s passage to reach the creek.  She was nearing three-hundred steps when she heard a deep growl behind her and she swore.

Behind her heart, fear grew wings like a spreading net and she sprinted as hard as she could.  But no matter.  To her side she saw one of the females, loping at half-speed.  She heard rusting grass along the other side and behind her more sounds of padded feet.  After perhaps another fifty steps she stopped.  Before her, less than a javelin cast distant, was the hulk of the male, head down, the black rim of his mouth upturned.

Ivy gulped great draughts of night air thinking how strange it would be if her last thoughts were of thirst.  With her javelin before her she turned and turned again.  But the wolves did not advance.

Then, from the grasses, approached the pups.  Their fur bristled and in half-crouches they roamed within the boundaries set by the adults.  They snarled and yapped among themselves.  The elders sat back like dogs, grinning.  Ivy knew but could not articulate it; they were letting the young ones kill her.

Tumas, she said. Just then one of them ran and leapt at her throat.  She pushed him back with her javelin.  He rolled and came back to his feet.  Then a second, hoping to pin her from behind, leapt.  Ivy stepped to the side and turned in the direction of the third, hearing the jaw snap close to her ear, and then felt the spittle splay on the back of her neck.  Ivy thought, I’m not going to be able to do this.  This one prepared to leap full upon her and she knew the others would join.

It seemed at the last, though perhaps she had a few more moments, there stood Albayth, long curved blade in hand.  He spoke new words, words she had never heard before, “Aarngmafell Aaringus Slidalsk,” and then was a sound like pottery crumbling.  The two elves were suddenly on the other side of a receding wind. The fur of the dire-wolves pushed back gently and they began to look to one another.

There were slight bird-like yelps from them.  They turned their heads to either side, looked away into the night sky, and then loped off into the grasses.

Ivy felt the Wood-Mage take her hand in his.  “We must yet run.  This will hold only for a while.”  He sheathed his blade and they set off together through the night.

“How?” she asked.

“At the village," he said to her, "save your breath for the village.”

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