The kill was fresh. Farscout knelt in the torn earth, reading the crushed bones and confusing welter of tracks. The marshbeast cow had been an old one; the exposed teeth in the heavy, torn jawbone were yellowed and worn. The wolf pack which had killed her had chased her from across the river into this low, barren vale.
The intruder pack numbered seven adults. They had killed the cow at least four days ago, then spent their time since close, eating and resting and chasing off any scavengers who tried to steal from their kill. Only after the carcasses had been reduced to bones, and those bones cracked open for the sweet marrow inside, had the intruding pack left.
Farscout rose to his feet. He pulled the protective cap off his quiver and brushed cautiously at the fletched tips of the arrows within, scanning the forested slopes of the valley around him with sharp, pale eyes. It wasn't uncommon for outsider wolves to test the Holt's boundaries. The Holt's pack patrolled a territory that was more than eight days' ride from one end to the other. Patrolling those borders had been Farscout's self-appointed duty for more than seven centuries, and during all that time, he had chased off more intruders than he could remember. Experience from over those long centuries had taught him the dangers of complacency.
**Bracken,** he sent, summoning his wolf-friend. The old wolf had gone to mark the places where the intruding pack had left their own claim. Bracken came trotting back to him, bristling all the way down his spine from ruff to tail-tip. Then the old wolf stopped and turned to look up the forested slope.
Farscout looked that way as well, already afraid of what he would see.
Two wolves stood at the top of the near ridge. A heartbeat, and then there were four. Bracken's dark-tipped ears flattened, and his graying lips writhed back from his teeth in a snarl. Farscout nocked an arrow to his bowstring and took aim on the leader of the intruding pack.
Then, his fatal mistake. He recognized a familiar face among those intruders, and in that moment of recognition, he flinched from taking the killing shot.
The second wolf in that line stood a shoulder taller than her packmates. He knew her by the cream and grey mask of her face, and by the splash of white down her chest. She was one of Whirl's daughters from the she-wolf's first whelping, birthed in the same litter as Goldspice's Peakrunner. Whitechest had been the dominate pup in her litter, and had been pitiless with her brother and sister. Young wolves who didn't bond as pups seldom stayed with the pack for more than two or three years; this daughter of Whirl's had left the pack while still a yearling. And apparently she had won her place in a new pack -- something most lone wolves died trying.
Bracken's snarl wavered as three more of the intruding pack breasted the ridge. Then the entire band surged downhill toward Farscout and his wolf-friend. Farscout took fresh aim, let his arrow wing toward the male beast at the pack's lead, and flung himself onto Bracken's back without waiting to see whether or not he had hit.
There was a shrieking yelp; Farscout had hit. Bracken spun and bolted for the other side of the vale. Farscout threw a glance back over his shoulder, saw the pack leader down, but saw Whitechest leading the pursuit now, her pack at her heels. Farscout set another arrow to string and tried to make a shot, knowing if he could take her down, the five lesser wolves might give up the chase.
He took the shot. As he released it, the she-wolf made an enormous leap aside. The arrow missed her, but luck put one of the pack racing behind her right in its path. That wolf screamed and tumbled with an arrow in its shoulder, but Whitechest didn't break pace. She continued the chase, her jaws writing in a snarl.
Bracken was running full-out, but after his first burst of speed, the younger wolves behind them began to gain. Farscout took aim again for Whirl's daughter, but the big she-wolf was wise about her elf-kin and knew the danger of the bow. She again leapt aside, narrowly dodging Farscout's arrow. Whitechest's pack was narrowing the distance between themselves and old Bracken quickly; there was no chance of outrunning them, and Whitechest surely wouldn't give up the chase until she had run them down. Watching their lead vanish, Farscout turned his old wolf straight towards the river, hoping it would provide an escape. Then he took another shot, aiming this time for one of the lesser wolves. A rangy black-tipped male went down, Farscout's arrow in its neck. He took careful aim for the next beast, and brought that intruder down as well.
That left only Whitechest and two of her pack still in pursuit. An older, wiser she-wolf would have given up the chase, seeing her mate dead and three more of her pack either dead or crippled. But Whitechest had always been the pup of her litter who burned with ambition, and even in wolves, ambition could drown out good sense. To Farscout's dismay, his next shot skimmed its target, but did not strike true. Bracken was nearly at the river now, but the old wolf's pace was failing, and suddenly the intruder pack was on them.
Farscout swung the bow as Whitechest lunged forward. He clubbed her hard enough to deflect her attack, but another of the intruder pack had Bracken flanked. The younger wolf was smaller than Farscout's old wolf-friend, but he was strong, and when he shouldered Bracken hard, the old wolf staggered and went down.
The sideways momentum from the fall flung Farscout to the left; he hit the ground with more care for his bow than his bones, and rolled to his feet clawing for an arrow. But Whitechest remembered her elf-kin enough to disdain the old wolf in favor of his rider. The she-wolf lunged for Farscout's bow, tearing it from his hands.
Farscout drew his knife. Whitechest shook her head, dropping his splintered bow with its string torn asunder. The young wolf who had shouldered Bracken into his fall had Bracken by the throat, but the canny old wolf was a veteran of too many wolf-fights to be taken easily, and had an equally tenacious hold on his opponent. The pair thrashed and snarled in combat. The third remaining member of the intruder pack hung back anxiously, uncertain of which target to attack.
The river was at Farscout's back, only steps away. He knew his best chance at survival was to dive for the river. Whitechest would not follow him into the swift-coursing Brownbear, but leaving now would be abandoning Bracken to sure death.
Whitechest didn't give him time to consider the decision. She lunged for him; it was a half-hearted manuever meant more to test his footing than get her teeth into him, but the move was enough to decide her third companion. That wolf sprang in at Farscout as Whitechest danced away. Farscout side-stepped a collision that would have knocked him from his feet. Over-confident and not understanding the nature of its two-legged prey, the wolf rashly pressed a second attack and caught the hem of Farscout's coat as it flared wide. Farscout took that opening and plunged his knife into the side of the beast's neck.
The mortally injured wolf shrieked and dropped; the stone knife was caught in the beast's bone, and Farscout either had to let the weapon go or be pulled down with the screaming wolf. He let the knife go. In the same moment, Whitechest sprang for him. Farscout went down beneath the she-wolf's weight. He saw the flash of her teeth and flung up one arm. The she-wolf's jaws closed on his forearm, slicing easily through the leather of his coat and the buckskin of his shirt beneath.
Teeth tore into his arm. Farscout kicked out, catching the she-wolf hard in the belly. Whitechest's grunted for wind, but her jaws were locked, and Farscout could feel his bones begin to crack. Desperate, the tracker grabbed up a fist-full of her face-fur in his free hand, and seeing her yellow eyes glaring into his own, Farscout gouged a thumb into the closet socket.
Whitechest shrieked in agony. An older, wiser wolf might have withstood the pain and made her kill, but instead, Whitechest released her grip on his arm. He kicked again, and blinded, the she-wolf staggered aside. Farscout rolled, scooped up the first river rock his hands could find, and flung it at the she-wolf. It struck her in the side of the head, nearly in her damaged eye. She gave another shriek of pain, and fled in retreat as Farscout followed that first stone with a second.
Farscout scrambled after the wolf he had stabbed; his injured arm failed him and he had to try twice before he could reclaim his knife from its corpse. The second wolf had fled after Whitechest, leaving a blood trail spattering its tracks. Farscout looked after the pair just long enough to be sure that they were no immediate threat, then staggered to Bracken's side.
The old wolf lay savaged, his throat and belly both torn. Farscout knew at a glance that he could do nothing for his long-time partner. He touched the wolf's grizzled head tenderly, echoing the touch with a gentle, wordless sending. The familiar rough-edged presence that was Bracken was aware of him, but after a heartbeat, even that acknowledgment dimmed and faded.
Farscout knelt where he was beside his dead wolf-friend. He looked up again, searching after the fleeing intruders and keeping track of their progress until they were out of sight. He gave himself that length of time to grieve in silence, then he lifted his voice in a howl -- not a mournful one, not that yet for Bracken, but instead a victor's howl, to test the will and intentions of the vanquished. If Whitechest and her sole surviving companion weren't running for their lives and the Holt's border, then they would answer that challenging call.
He waited, welcoming the silence of their answer, then moved painfully to tend to his own wounds before tending to the empty shell Bracken had left behind.