Author: Chris Cook
High above the plains and slopes of the Kingsway Highlands, a hawk circled lazily, oblivious to the rolling hills and swaying trees, but keenly picking out every scurrying shape, every motion driven by more than wind and rain. For a moment its gaze fixed on a lonely figure walking north in a valley far below. But only for a moment, before it turned its eyes to more likely prey.
Egan cursed the driving rain as he tramped along the sodden path from his cabin to the northern wood, his cloak doing little to keep out the damp chill in the air as the wind tossed it around him and tried to drag his hood from over his head. An onlooker, had there been one, and had he noted the man's strong crossbow and the sturdy knife sheathed on his belt, might have wondered why a hunter would walk miles to the north, when the cabin he had set out from was barely a stone's throw from a thick wood southwards. But Egan knew, like his father, and his father before him, that it was the northern wood that offered the better game, whose meat and pelts had kept him and his ancestors well fed and handsomely paid for as many generations as he could remember.
Nevertheless, Egan was not hopeful for a catch today. It had been a week since he had gathered the few possessions he needed and set out from his home in Kotram. A week of sleeping in a bare cabin, listening to the howling wind and the rain lashing at the roof and walls, and so far every day when he made his rounds he found his traps empty. His hunter's instinct, drilled into him by his father and honed every day since childhood, told him his chances were no better today. But still he made his rounds, swearing as his hood whipped back and rain spattered his face, dragging it back, and cursing the damned animals for avoiding their usual haunts.
Finally rounding the edge of the valley's side, he reached the wood and followed the path beneath its branches. The thick foliage, spread by trees growing close to one another, caught most of the rain, leaving it to drip through in irregular streams as the wind shifted their leaves, but by and large offering shelter. Egan unwrapped his bow from its oilcloth, just in case, and used a corner of his cloak to rub the water from his eyes.
The first trap, on the edge of a clearing twenty metres into the wood, was of course empty, but Egan's spirits were not unduly lowered by that - it was only habit that led him to keep setting it there, for it rarely snagged anything larger than vermin or, if he was lucky, a rabbit. Checking the trap he found that - once again - it had sprung on its own, the steel jaws closed around a stray branch dropped from above, nearly slicing it in two. He set his crossbow aside and, with some effort, pulled the jaws apart, using his knee to nudge the lever back into place, holding the trap open.
His head jerked up as he heard a rustling of leaves and a mournful keening wail that set his teeth on edge. Hurrying, he grinned as he saw a sodden, furry form crouched over the next trap ten metres further into the wood. He drew his knife and whistled quietly as he recognised a wolf, with good meat on it and a fine, smooth coat that he knew would fetch a rare price. The animal jerked around as it heard him approach, trying to face him, but it could only move so far.
"Damn," Egan muttered as he came closer, seeing the wolf's head caught between the trap's jaws, which had bitten deep into its skin. He mentally assessed the damage as the beast stared up at him with scared, angry eyes. There was no way he could salvage the head, the neck was too badly torn, but the pelt from its back alone would still be valuable for common use, if not as the decorative piece that furs with heads made. On the bright side, the animal was held securely enough that he wouldn't have to go back for his bow - it was always difficult to make the killing shot somewhere where it wouldn't spoil the pelt.
"Damn you, why couldn't you have snagged your leg," he muttered anyway, kneeling down to draw the blade of his knife over the wolf's throat, silencing it. The wet, bloody body heaved once, then lay still. Egan braced himself and heaved the steel jaws open, kicking the dead wolf out of the way and setting the lever again. He noticed that it was not exactly where he left it, and indeed the chain tethering it to the nearest tree was taut.
"Pulled it a way, did you?" he said to the corpse, shifting the trap back to its original position, carefully hidden among the bushes. He stood up, surveying the camouflage and finding it adequate, then froze as he heard a low, menacing growl from behind him.
Turning as slowly as he could contrive, he saw the wolf staring at him. It lay just as he had left it, sprawled limply on the ground, blood oozing from its throat and the cuts gouged out around its neck, but its eyes were fixed on him, and full of hate. Slowly, painfully, it shifted, its claws scratching the earth for a moment, then it gathered its strength and slid its forelegs underneath itself, lifting its body. Its head hung at an odd angle, but its eyes never left Egan.
'Gods in heaven damn you,' he berated himself, 'you know better than to set a beast free without making damned sure it's dead!' Even in his fright, Egan wondered at the wolf - it had been dead, surely? He had seen the life drain out of it with his own eyes, felt the slackness as he kicked it off the trap's lever.
The wolf took one step forward, and Egan's fear got the better of him. He bolted, crashing through the bushes and bracken towards the path. Behind him he heard the growl following him, and his ears chilled him by picking out the soft sounds of leaves crinkling underneath silent paws.
He looked ahead and felt a surge of hope - there was a rider ahead of him, a strong white horse with a man astride it.
"Help!" he bellowed, "for pity's sake, help! Wolf! Help me!"
He burst into the clearing just as the rider calmly turned, and Egan halted and staggered back a step, danger momentarily forgotten, as he saw the empty sockets staring at him from beneath a faded black hood. His eyes darted - the hands on the horse's reins were bone, the leather boots in the stirrups were torn and stained, the steel breastplate beneath the cloak rusted and streaked with grime. He had only a moment before the sounds of the wolf's loping gait behind him took over his mind again, and he darted away from the terrible vision.
Snap! For a second Egan thought the wolf had him, as he crashed to the ground with his ankle exploding with pain, but when he looked down it was steel, not teeth, that had pierced his leg. Damning his carelessness he turned over, crying at the pain, and dragged himself forward, hopelessly trying to escape. Behind him the growl grew ever closer.
He screamed as the trap halted him, its chain taut and its jaws slicing into his flesh ad he tried to escape it. He had only a moment before he felt himself dragged by a searing pain in his back, then he screamed again and again as the wolf savaged him. With his back torn to ribbons it flipped him over, snapping at his hands as he vainly tried to defend himself, is muzzle gouging into his stomach when he was too weak even for that.
He had no more screams left in him, only bitter tears, yet some part of him recognised it when his hand fell against a wooden stock. Laughing against the pain he closed his fingers around the crossbow and slid it around, dragging it across the ground and over his chest to aim with a shaky hand at the creature killing him. The wolf looked up, somehow sensing the threat, and for a moment it was still, its jaws and fur dripping Egan's blood as well as its own. Quick as lightning it snarled and leapt forward, and Egan pulled the trigger.
The bolt passed between the beast's jaws and slammed into its brain, jerking it back. Instantly all its strength left it and it fell sideways, coming to rest beside Egan, the tip of the bow still hooked on its jaw, the bolt protruding from the top of it head. Egan lost his grip on the stock and dropped the weapon, his fingers twitching as he tried to move them again. The pain was gone, but all that was left in its place was cold.
Hooves thudded into the ground near Egan's head, and he opened his eyes to see the white horse beside him. Its master dismounted and looked down, with its empty, pitiless eyes, on the dying man and the dead animal, their blood staining the ground and mingling in the pools of rainwater.
"Come on then," Egan snarled, "take me you bastard."
The eyes looked at him for a moment, seeming somehow contemplative, then the figure stalked around him. It knelt down, and with all the care of a mother tending to her child, lifted the wolf into its arms, smoothing its ragged fur with bony fingers.
"Me, damn you!" Egan whispered harshly.
The figure paid him no attention as it returned to its horse and mounted, settling the lifeless wolf gently onto the steed's back in front of it. Egan lost the battle to keep his eyes open, and only heard the hooves fading away into the distance.
In the night sky, a foul creature circled, looking for prey. Its leathery wings beat slowly as it scanned the landscape far below, ignoring the rocks and trees, seeing only the tiny forms of living things, and regarding them with mindless hatred. For a moment its gaze fixed on a lonely figure tramping slowly along a valley far below, its arms hanging limply by its sides, its eyes staring deadly forward, the wreck of its foot dragging behind it, making it lurch with every step as it put weight on the bleeding stump. But only for a moment, before it saw there was no life in the thing, and turned its eyes to more likely prey.