The dire wolf is identical to its cousin, except larger, faster, smarter, and stronger. They are said to be an aberration of nature: the product of magical meddling. Whatever their origin, they have been a plague to humanity since before the oldest written records. While a normal wolf is, for the most part, shy around people, the dire wolf seeks humanity as its prey. There is no fear in a dire wolf, just hunger.
I stiffened as I heard the hunter’s cry, but I had no experience with dire wolves. It was, for all I knew, a normal beast. Regardless, I realised the error of my earlier boast. I was not really an adventurer for I’d faced no adversity.
“I never did find out what to do with a wolf…” I muttered to myself. I supposed fire would be a good start. Not that I was panicking. I just wanted to be cautious…
With the tinder I had already gathered, I lit a small blaze. Gradually adding the larger piece of wood, I built a more formidable fire. I did not, however, have enough combustibles to last the night. When the fire was strong enough, I removed a torch and began searching for further fuel.
All the while, my ears were tuned for intrusions into my space. I yearned to hear the wolf cry once more, to assure me of its distance.
“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” I counselled myself. “You are fine. Everything is going to be fine.”
Of course, it wasn’t.
When I thought I had ample wood to perpetuate my fire throughout the night, I settled myself against a large tree. I kept a torch handle near my left hand and my father’s hunting knife in the other.
And then, I tried to sleep. I assumed it would be near impossible to do so, but I needed to occupy my mind with something other than fangs and claws. I had always been a sound sleeper, so this idea of being half-alert while resting was a new one.
My head nodded forward and I caught it. I guess the faerie’s power had expired. I closed my eyes again and my neck bobbed again. I could feel the fire growing smaller so I opened my eyes to add another set of logs to the coals.
Two blood-red discs peered at me from across the fire. I screamed. My hand fumbled for my makeshift torch, but it had been shortened with continued burning. I tossed it back into the fire, hoping its handle would turn to flame and scare the beast.
The dire wolf was the most terrible thing I had ever seen. Its shaggy grey coat was matted with blood. Its red eyes glowed in the infrared spectrum. I should have been dead already except dire wolves are never satisfied with surprise assaults. They needed to hear their victims screaming – see them flailing – before ripping them to shreds.
I rose slowly to my feet, the knife pointed towards the fiend. It was, of course, hopeless for me to escape and this thing would never have been frightened of so weak a fire. I could not outrun a dire wolf, nor could I kill it. The wolf would have to be practically on top of me before I would be close enough to cause any damage with the hunting knife. And by then, I’d be subject to its claws or maw.
I wished I had learned how to use a bow! But even if I had, I don’t suppose I would have had the courage to battle the beast. It is one thing to consider how you would react in a threatening situation, and quite another to actually perform the feats you had imagined.
The dire wolf took a single step (more like a half step, really) and I was fleeing – the exact reaction a creature like the dire wolf loves. Branches slashed at my face and vines tripped my feet. I kept running. My breath came heavy, thick with desperation. I had nowhere to run to, no one to rescue me.
I turned back to see where my pursuit was, but I could not see the predator in the night. Nor did it make any sounds. I leapt over a fallen tree and suddenly it was before me. I stumbled back, tripping over the tree I had just leapt over. My hands caught the ground behind the tree, and I let my feet tumble. I landed in a heap on the ground, staying there only long enough to roll over and pitch myself in the opposite direction.
I had not run long in that direction before it halted me again. I had the coolness of mind to be outraged by its games. Like a mouse, trapped between the giant paws of a cat, I was being batted back and forth.
It occurred to me that a beast like a wolf would be unable to climb, so the first opportunity I spotted, I pulled myself into the branches of a tall tree. I was four meters up when the wolf came bounding towards the tree. With a powerful leap, it landed on the branches of a tree opposite the one I was climbing. It leapt higher and higher, zig zagging between trees.
My hands lost their hold and I fell backward. My legs smacked into a branch as I tumbled. My course was redirected with the impact, sending me diving to the ground headfirst. I managed to roll my body somewhat and caught a branch before impact. I felt my arms were to be yanked out of their sockets as the weight of my fall came to a halt. I didn’t dwell on the pain, just dropped the remaining distance and sprinted away again.
Playtime was about nearing its end. The dire wolf halted me in the open. Without a tree to climb or hide behind, I was defenceless. My hand closed on the knife, or it should have closed on the knife, but I had lost it somewhere in my scrambling escape.
That left me two choices: die fleeing or hold my ground. I leaned forward, resting my hands on my knees to catch my breath. The dire wolf moved toward me, picking up speed. Its paws dug into the dirt and it launched itself at me. I felt its awful weight crash down on my shoulders. Claws dug into the tender flesh of my arms as my back slammed into the ground.
The dire wolf reeked of rotted flesh; its breath was a hot steam on my face. In those moments, with my bare throat exposed to its murderous mouth, I had grown remarkably peaceful. Drool splashed onto my chest as a growl of conquest escaped the predator. It barred its stained teeth, probably hoping for a final squeal of terror before ripping out my throat.
I gritted my teeth, determined not to allow the beast that final pleasure. Its head recoiled and then lashed at me.
The sensation of blood pouring over my chest.
And yet… no pain.
An arrow protruded from the dire wolf’s left eye socket. The creature howled in anger, deafening me. Another arrow was fired, this lodging in the right eye. The dire wolf shuddered, the center of its nervous system pierced. Its strength fled its limbs and the monstrous body came crashing down on me.
I tried to remove the bulk that threatened to crush my ribs, but my arms, pierced by those horrid claws, could not tolerate any strain.
My silent protector rushed to my side, his arms clutching under the dire wolf’s belly. He struggled to move the beast, rolling it to the side. It was agonizing; the weight came to rest wholly on my right hip until he finally managed to cast it off me.
I gulped back tears, refusing to subject him to another outburst. Instead, I favoured him with a weak smile. “Tunic,” I whispered, half-delirious.
He didn’t spare me any sentimentality, but rather fixated upon my injuries. His fingers gently pulled the fibres of my torn nightgown from the claw wounds. I took a few deep breaths and then spoke, “You lied to me,” I accused as he tended to my wounds. “When you were teaching me to you use the bow,” I clarified after a moment. “You deliberately missed the target, didn’t you?” I flinched in pain as he touched a tender spot. “You didn’t have to patronize me,” I snapped.
He stopped his work and met my eyes. I grinned.
He shook his head and rolled his eyes.
It dawned on me that, though I had been teasing him now, two weeks ago I would have taken offense. I marvelled at the changes in me. In the past, I might have disassociated with him for his pity. He had only sought to save my vanity – the same vanity that I had clung to so dearly – but I would have perceived it as a slight. Now that my body had nearly been shredded by the behemoth of a dire wolf, I could not be happier that he was such an accurate shot.
When my wounds were cleared of fibers and dirt, Tunic pulled a vial from his pocket. It carried a small quantity of a luminous purple liquid. He carefully trickled a drop or two of the liquid into each scratch. Each drop burned as though he was pouring spark seed oil into the wounds. He had to hold me down with his spare arm as he continued to administer the liquid. When my shoulders were tended to, he began feeling my bones for breaks. Miraculously, I had nothing broken. I supposed that, perhaps, the faerie magic had lingered in small amounts of protection.
“All finished?” I queried, beginning to sit up.
He shook his head sternly, so I lay back down. He paused, studying my face. His finger touched my forehead and swept my long bangs to the left and then right. He moved in for a closer inspection; I had not even realised I had been injured there.
I felt a soft peck on my forehead. Then he moved away from me, gesturing that he was done. He let out a sigh of relief and let himself fall back into the grass.
I fixated my eyes on the stars, pretending they were the object of my attention. He’d kissed me… The bastard had saved me and then planted a seal of affection on my unworthy face. And he’d done it so coolly. This was obviously retribution for my goodbye kiss after archery. Yes, I stared at the stars, but only because it gave me freedom to study Tunic in my peripheral vision.
I wanted to say something. There were so many questions to ask. But he looked exhausted. I couldn’t help but empathize. I may have been the one attacked, but he was the one who had to destroy the beast. Two shots, in the dark, nearly simultaneously in timing: I could never handle that sort of pressure. If we had to redo the scenario, I would definitely elect being assaulted again.
Curiously, the burning sensation in my shoulder wounds had faded. I gently prodded them with my fingertip and, to my shock, found the wounds already closed. I sat up without feeling a twinge of pain. Whatever he’d done to my shoulders, they were wholly useful again.
Even if my shoulders were looking better, I was not. I was covered in sticky wolf blood and my nightgown was shredded. At the thought of the blood, I gagged. A wave of nausea rolled over me as I became, once again, alert to the rotting scent of the dire wolf.
“Let us depart from here,” I insisted. If I did not leave soon, I would be sick. I looked about trying to discern where I had come from. It all looked the same. “I don’t know where my camp is. I left my stuff there,” I growled in frustration at my own inadequacy.
Tunic identified the dire wolf’s prints – for all its stealth, the dire wolf was still a large animal. It left firm imprints in the ground. If that was Tunic’s plan, however it would not do; it had taken different trails and I needed to find where I had dropped my knife.
“Why does this sort of thing always have to happen at night,” I groaned.
Tunic gestured for me to follow him. “No,” I told him. “I am going to figure this out. I must have entered from this direction,” I turned around. I am almost certain I had run straight out here. I recognized a rock I had leapt over and continued in that direction, Tunic trailing behind. I led us back to the tree I had climbed and found my knife laying at its trunk. It must have fallen out when I’d tumbled into that dive. From there, things got confusing.
I glanced over to Tunic and he gave me a look that said, “Want a hint?” Of course, he had discerned my track already using his formidable hunting skills. I supposed even in the night he could see everything.
“What is it?” I asked.
He tapped his nose.
I frowned. What did that mean? I took in a deep breath, scenting the air. Smoke. He hadn’t seen my tracks in the ground; he had smelled my fire. There was no need to follow my wide-ranging trail; we just needed to find the origin of the smoke.
I ran my hand through my hair, a strand of loose hair remain entwined in my fingers. I peered at it to gauge the wind. I turned us about fifteen degrees to the right and followed that way. It was not wholly accurate, but it brought me to where I had searched for firewood.
“I suppose I still require education in tracking,” I conceded. I jogged over to my pack and found a bar of soap. “There was a stream not far from here, I am going to try and wash this blood off,” I gestured to my nightgown. “And when I return, expect a hundred questions, at least.”
Tunic held up his hand so I waited. He dropped his pack to the ground and opened the main flap. He gently removed the top item. The fire had turned to smouldering ash, so I could barely see its shape. He deposited the item in my hand. I unfolded it and held it up for inspection.
“Is this a tunic?” I asked.
I held it up to my body, though not letting it touch me. “Is this for me?”
He nodded again.
“Thank you!” I gasped. I couldn’t see his response in the dark, but I assumed it was a smirk. I folded it across one of my arms and then picked my way towards the stream. It felt glorious to remove that horrid smelling, ancient garment I’d called my shirt. I sprinkled water on my chest, trying to remove the stickiness. I scrubbed until all hints of putrescence had floated down the stream. Then I donned Tunic’s tunic.
It fit remarkably well. I thought it had been one of Tunic’s, but it fit too well. As in, it had been tailored for the female form not the male. This wasn’t a borrowed tunic; he had made it for me.
My hand felt the patterned stitching at the hem. I wished it were bright enough that I could see it properly.
I wrung out my old nightgown and contemplated leaving it. It was definitely not wearable anymore, but I figured that it might serve another purpose one day.
When I returned to camp, Tunic had fallen asleep. I doubt he intended to, for he slept upright with his arms cradling his knees and his head down. I hung my damp nightgown on a tree branch and then unlatched the fur from his pack. It was unusual for me to be the one administering care, but I rather appreciated the ability to repay his kindness. As I delicately draped the fur around his shoulders, it occurred to me that I’d no idea what he’d gone through to reach me tonight. I shuddered to think of what would have happened if he had not found me. I stretched out across the fire, feeling the echo of his kiss on my forehead until succumbing to sleep.