“Look at the teeth, boy,” Grayne’s father said with awe ringing in his voice. From their concealed location on a rocky overhang, the boy and his father had an excellent view of the slaughter. Even though they had a higher position and were upwind of the dire wolf, Grayne wondered if they should move away before beast finished her meal.
The ten-year-old boy and his father had been on the trail of the pair of cows that had wandered from the herd. This was an unspoken lesson to the boy that although there was strength in numbers there wasn’t much in the seven kingdoms that could stop a dire wolf.
“What do we do?” he whispered. The boy had learned much from his father in ten years. The man was cautious, but never afraid. The strength and wisdom of the gigantic man was enough to banish any trepidation from the boy’s heart and mind.
“Nothing we can do. That cow is dead and I’m not gonna risk our lives to avenge its death,” his father said through a forest of red whiskers. “Though, a dire wolf pelt would fetch many coins.” He seemed to consider the idea for a few seconds and shook his head vigorously to clear the notion from his skull. “We’ll go back and tell old man Rynyn that his cows are dire wolf food, and I’ll begin work on a stronger fence.”
Grayne could not take his eyes of the monster feasting on the not-quite-dead cow. Its powerful jaws took great bites out of the wounded animal. The boy blanched as the salty fetid aroma of the poor beast’s blood and entrails wafted into his nose. He turned away trying to hide his reaction from his father. He tried not to feel sorry for the poor creature as he heard the wolf’s jaws rip the juicy flesh from its bones.
“C’mon, boy. Let’s go before she decides to make us dessert.” Grayne’s father pulled him to his feet and the two moved hurriedly away from the grisly feast.
They ran through the forest for many minutes until Grayne’s father slowed and Grayne was more easily able to match his speed. “Let that be a lesson to you, son.”
“Sir?” Grayne looked up questioningly at his father.
“You’re never too young to learn this knowledge.” His father looked down at him and said, “Though she may be beautiful, never forget that the female of the species is alway more dangerous.”
“Yes, sir,” Grayne agreed as his father tousled his hair.
With the mystery of the missing cows solved, father and son walked quickly and quietly through the leafless late-autumn forest. Grayne soon forgot the scene of death behind them and became entranced by the sights and smells of the wilderness. He was wondering silently where all the animals were when a “Wssst” from his father stopped him mid-stride. He turned slowly to see the big man a few dozen meters behind him. The man seemed paralyzed, frozen in place scanning the forest for something unseen and deadly.
The boy didn’t hesitate. He spun and sprinted as fast as his legs woud carry him. Dry branches and leaves cracked and snapped furiously as Grayne trampled over them in a tremendous flurry. He didn’t dare turn to check if his father was behind him, but the man made enough noise stomping through the forest that Grayne knew he was catching up.
As he traversed a small hill, Grayne lost his footing and slid painfully face-first into a steep wet valley. Branches and stones slowed his decent as he came to an undignified halt. Slowing only slightly, his gigantic father scooped him up with one arm and continued his rapid downward decent. Jumping over downed branches and stumps, the man barreled the forsest down. Although the two were in incredible danger, Grayne was never afraid for he knew there was nothing alive, man nor beast, his father couldn’t handle.
From his perch on his father’s shoulder, Grayne craned his neck upward and looked at their path of destruction into the ravine. Deep cuts in the earth where his father slid and jumped were alongside his own smaller openings. There were no signs of pursuit.
Suddenly he saw her and his heart stopped.
At the top of the hill stood a magnificent beast. The monstrous she-wolf that had killed the cow hours ago stood sniffing the air, seeming to see their trail with her nose. Then she lowered her head and looked directly at him.
His father lifted him from his shoulder and suddenly Grayne was face to face with a tree limb. His father commanded, “Grab it, boy. Climb! As far as you can! Climb!” Grayne grappled the jutting tree limb with his arms and legs frantically.
By the time he swung around and looked down at his father, the big man had unslung his axe from his back and stood ready. The mighty two-handed chopping axe looked small compared to his giant of a father and pathetic compared to the female dire wolf that was just beginning her rampaging descent toward the two.
The big man did not look away from the she-beast. “Grayne, climb as far as you can. Do not look down! Do not stop climbing!”
Grayne scrambled to find branches to raise himself up, desperate to follow his father’s orders. He panicked when a branch snapped under his weight, but he lashed out and grabbed hold of another stronger branch, narrowly avoiding crashing to the ground.
He risked a glance and saw the she-beast leaping catlike from stone to open ground and to a rocky outcropping as she combined her jumps with coordinated running to speedily and safely make her way toward her prey. She was grace and power incarnate. Grayne swallowed hard and kept climbing.
In a moment in which time stood still and the forest was silent, Grayne heard his father’s final words. The forest was quiet, and even the monster seemed to slow and hold her breath.
The forsest was hushed as Grayne heard his father say, “I love you, son.”
The monstrous juggernaut slammed snarling into the man with the force of a runaway boulder. The two rolled along the forest floor in a chaotic pile of snarling teeth and violent curses. In moments, the fight was over. The outcome was never in doubt for any concerned as Grayne heard his father’s final moan seep from his already-dead lips. The crunching of bone was mixed with the boy’s flood of emotion as the creature shook the last bit of life from his father with her blood-filled jaws. He wept uncontrollably from his perch.
The dire wolf released her kill and looked up at Grayne with cold blue eyes. Grayne stopped sobbing as her gaze calmed him with its piercing fury. Fresh from the hunt and the kill, her eyes were alive with joy. She left the dead man as she moved toward the tree, but let out a shrieking whimper as she took her first step. Grayne could see her right front leg was crippled, smashed apart with his father’s axe. Now with the energy of battle gone, the reality of her wounds hit her.
Confused and hurt, the beast dragged herself a few paces away from the dead man and the treed boy. Blood still dripping from her jaws, she paused on the snowy ground and licked her wound. The man’s blood mingled with her own as she began the fruitless task of caring for her mangled leg.
His father lay there, looking like a bag of meat, no longer the man of power and wisdom Grayne had idolized for all of his short life. Anger filled his stomach giving fuel to his emotion. The embers of sadness and grief turned to a firestorm of rage in his gut as Grayne began to climb down the tree. He moved quickly and heedless of his own safety or the scrapes and bruises he sustained as he clambored down. He dropped the last few feet and landed on all fours next to his father. Blood was still pouring from the man’s open neck.
The boy’s face was blank and did not show the sickening heat in his stomach as he picked up his father’s bloody axe. The axe was only meant for chopping wood and not intended for battle, yet it looked enormous in the hands of the boy barely more than four feet tall. He found the strength to lift it, however. Unwavering, he carried the axe over to the wounded wolf. Her eyes looked at him and their power was gone. Once a mighty killing instrument, she was now weak and feeble.
The boy’s grey eyes returned her stare with cold determination. Grayne raised the axe, and with strength that belied his size and age brought it down on the once-ferocious wolf. With a single blow he split her skull in two and ended her suffering.
He turned away from the dead creature and toward his own dead father. He dragged the axe, which was suddenly made of lead, to his father’s body and set about the task of burying the man deep enough in the cold ground as not to be unearthed by anything or anyone.
The ten-year-old boy had ended the suffering of the wounded dire wolf, but his had only just begun.