Flamefur the vixen loped through the icy woods, her pads crunching the frozen moss. A distant yip made her heart flutter. Cubs! Her heart sang with eagerness to return to her cosy earth, to the warm nuzzling welcome of Black-Ear and Dusksilver.
The squeak echoed again. Prickled with curiosity, she zig-zagged through the slushy undergrowth to the ridge. A muddy clearing rimmed by towering pines, the mud churned up by the padding of many paws and littered with bone shards. A yawning black tunnel guarded by a huge jagged boulder at the foot of the slope.
She crept closer, sniffing the air. No doubt the cubs would be dozing in the Den while the adults were out hunting.
Suddenly a huge grey beast slunk out from behind the boulder. Lean and shaggy, as big as a deer with gleaming golden eyes. Flamefur’s breath froze: a wolf! Nightmare tales for her cubs, ravenous monsters of shadow and fang who devoured all prey they found. Sheep, cattle, even the baying hounds that ran her brothers down; wolves killed as they wished, and held no fear of Man. The wolf’s scarred muzzle wrinkled into a snarl as it stalked towards her. Breathless, she edged back. The pack had left someone to guard to the cubs. Stupid, stupid!
The cub-watcher advanced on her. Flamefur averted her gaze and whined in deference. Sorry! Don’t attack!
Go away! The cub-watcher growled. Slowly Flamefur withdrew to the far side of the clearing. At the tree-line she looked back. The cub-watcher was glaring after her, hackles raised, teeth bared. She shivered and trotted into the pines.
The chilly winter night descended as she trekked on. Frogs croaked in the reeds. An otter surfaced and stared after her. At the foot of a gnarled oak she stumbled upon a vole and crunched it down, the red meat warming her belly. In her mind she could already smell the musty tang of her earth, her mewling cubs clambering over her as she nose-nuzzled them to suckle. I’m coming home, she yelped joyfully, and leapt over the twisted root.
The noose jerked around her neck and slammed her down into the frozen earth. Snare! She choked and writhed, her paws scrabbling for purchase as she struggled uselessly. The noose bit into her neck, dragging her down. Tighter. Tighter. She inched backward, gulping air as she keened. Her panic soaked the snow in a gush of stinking urine. The chilly night air was soiled with the fear seeping from her fur.
Think. Think! She had seen rabbits caught in the Man-Filth’s traps; their agonised hysteria only tightened the snare until they blacked out and died. She twisted and jerked. No use. Each effort only brought a savage clench from the noose, cruel cords cutting into her throat. The stars flickered and dimmed above her. Sucking in a desperate breath she wailed in despair.
A raven circled overhead, mocking her with its bubbling chuckle. Exhausted, she slumped into the frozen earth, sickened with dread. My little ones, her misery knotted her guts like thorns. Black-Ear and Dusksilver, I couldn’t keep you safe.
Bushes rustled. A hulking grey shadow melted out of the undergrowth. Flamefur chittered with fright: the wolf again!
But no. This one was broader, heavyset with age, his shaggy fur glistening with silver. His snout unmarred by scars.
Flamefur shrank back, baring her teeth in a defiant snarl. ‘Come to kill me, Scat-Stinker? I won’t go quiet!’ If she couldn’t claw him, at least she could bite.
‘The snare’s fixed into that stump,’ he rumbled. He tugged at the stake with his teeth, then padded closer to sniff at her. Flamefur twisted and bucked, the noose tightening around her throat.
‘Keep still,’ he growled. ‘I can’t help if you don’t keep still.’
‘What can you do?’ she rasped. ‘ – Kill me? Well, do it – do it!’
He snorted, sank onto his paws…
…And rolled onto his back. Baring his stomach.
She stared, astonished. No Hunter ever showed submission to a rival. It was Forest Law, stronger than blood or bone.
‘My name’s Renn. I’m not. Trying. To hurt. You,’ the wolf rumbled. ‘We ain’t all as bad as you think.’ He crawled closer, ears flattened. The universal sign for Friend. Harmless.
Flamefur edged backwards, whimpering as the noose bit into her throat.
The wolf snuffed close. ‘Here. Let me.’
‘How do I know you won’t go for me throat?’
He snorted. ‘What good’ll that do me? I don’t fight foxes.’ His fangs gnawed at the rope. The snare loosened. A pause; then, ‘Besides, no good meat on ’em. All sinew ‘n’ bone on you scroungers.’
She bared her teeth proudly. ‘Maybe this scrounger’ll rip yer ear off.’
‘Maybe she will.’ He chewed and tugged, voice muffled. But Flamefur could still hear the dry smirk in his tone. ‘Maybe Miss Scrounger will sprout wings ‘n’ fly. Maybe she’ll grow old ‘n’ grey ‘n’ ga-ga, just like me.’
The ropes parted. Flamefur slumped onto her paws with a groan of relief, gulping ragged breaths as delicious as cool spring water. She shivered as the wolf tenderly licked her wounds clean, rough-warm-damp rasping over the raw gashes. ‘Thank you,’ she nuzzled against his flank. ‘Are we friends?’
He grinned. ‘We sure ain’t enemies. I lost a brother to Man’s wires last spring. You stole two of his chickens two moons ago. I watched you. Very cunning.’
She blushed, draping her brush over her eyes in embarrassment. The wolf laughed. ‘There’s a rabbit warren close to the rocks by Three Ponds. You’re welcome to hunt there; they’re far too gristly for our cubs.’
They touched noses. ‘I’ll remember this kindness,’ Flamefur smiled.
He bowed his head. ‘Travel safe, Miss. May the sun always shine upon you.’ Then he turned and trotted into the trees.
The full moon kissed the frozen pines as Flamefur returned from the warren, her belly sated with a stupid buck who’d been caught dozing in the open. Her throat still burned from that terrible struggle hours before, but the meat was a pleasant ache that warmed her bones.
A faint whimper sliced through the silence. Her ears twitched: beyond the ridge. She padded over the frozen earth, as silently as her laboured breathing would allow. In the gloom, she made out a birch tree badly scratched on one side. Too high for badger claws, too low for deer antlers.
Her neckfur prickled. The icy feeling of every prey in a forest: the feeling of being watched.
Something lay at the foot of the boulder.
The cub-watcher. Its flank had been ripped open, its throat torn to pulp. In the chewed-up earth she found tracks: rounder than a wolf’s, their outline blurred by fur.
Rising, Flamefur peered into the darkness. Nothing.
Odd for a lynx to attack a full-grown wolf. Mostly they hunted hares and squirrels, not fearsome brawny Hunters like this.
A whine from beyond the boulder. Fear prickled her guts like thorns.
Because of course. The lynx must have smelled the cubs, and the cub-watcher had leapt to their defence. It had put up a desperate fight to save the cubs.
And paid with its life.
Flamefur crept through the tunnel into a wide earthy hollow. A gleam of yellow eyes. A fluffy huddle shrank from her, trembling.
She whined to reassure the cubs, wagging her tail. But they were terrified. She was a stranger, and they’d just lost their uncle.
Backing out, she emerged from the Den – to glimpse a large shadow bound away from the slaughtered wolf.
She skittered after it, bristling with fury. Clear off! Her snarl ended in a coughing fit that choked her throat like pond slime.
The lynx leapt into a tree and draped over a branch, lashing its tail.
Flamefur tried barking for help, but only managed a feeble croak. The night was warm, the sickly-sweet stink of the slaughtered cub-watcher thick in her throat. The carcass lay so close she could touch it.
Too close. She should drag it further off, so the lynx could feed in peace. Let it take the dead to sate its hunger, and leave the living.
But while she was doing that, it might come for the cubs. She raised her hackles.
A twig cracked behind her. She whirled around. Saw only the boulder. But lynx are superb climbers: they leap on their prey from above…
There! The lynx crouched in the shadows, cruel eyes glittering. Odd that her arrival hadn’t frightened it off. Lynx rarely attack other hunters; they hunt by night, targeting the young and the sick.
The lynx dropped silently from the branch and began to prowl.
Flamefur raised her muzzle and shrieked a long warning that clawed at her injured throat: Help! Another spasm of coughing racked her body. Black spots danced before her eyes. Her throat burned. Her breath sounded like the crackle of dry leaves.
Then the horrid realisation dawned. The lynx knew she was injured. It had heard it in her voice and smelled it in her rank fur stench. Like the cubs, she was simply prey.
A movement at the corner of her eye. Two stubby muzzles emerging from the mouth of the Den. She barked a warning: Uff! Danger!
The muzzles shrank back inside.
A distant howl quivering on the wind, echoed from many throats. The pack! Flamefur’s heart leapt.
The lynx bared its teeth and hissed. Began circling. Fully twice her size, a mass of bristling muscle and tawny fur. Sharp fangs gleamed. And when the cubs nosed their way out again…the lynx would be on them.
Flamefur edged back into the mouth of the Den. Planted her paws into the frosty earth, legs braced like a mighty oak. She would guard the cubs until the pack returned, or die trying. One good bite, she thought. I should get one good crunch in before he tears me throat out.
The lynx slunk closer. Tale lashing. Eyes glittering. Flamefur reared up, jaws bared in a final defiant scream…
A blurred shadow exploded out of the frozen pines; before the lynx could even breathe Renn had bowled it over, two other juveniles snapping furiously at it. The lynx clawed and yowled but Renn lunged, and his jaws were deep in its throat, and he ripped upwards –
And the lynx’s life came away in his teeth.
A breathless silence fell. The other panting wolves were staring at Flamefur, hackles raised. She gazed back, swaying with exhaustion as the blood-fury leached from her bones. The lead female sniffed the meat that had been the cub-watcher.
A whine broke the hushed stillness. The cubs appeared at the mouth of the Den. The lead wolf’s hackles lowered, and she bounded past Flamefur to greet the cubs. Then another. And another. Flamefur’s legs wobbled under her, and she slumped into the icy mud.
A cold wet nose nuzzled into her ear. Then thick grey fur curled around her back, sheltering her battered bones from the winter’s chill. Rough-warm-damp brushed over her brow.
‘Took yer bloody time about it,’ she rasped in relief.
‘Nice to see you too, Miss Scrounger,’ Renn grinned.
This story is dedicated to April (author of Foxes and Poems 🦊), and Mathew (author of Blog of the Wolf Boy 🐺) – two fantastic writers who’ve really inspired me to stretch my creativity into new stories.
© 2019 | Tom Burton