Cub held his hand to his mouth and exhaled into it, adjusting the other on Marah’s ice-caked mane and flexing his shoulders experimentally. The tension in the small of his back was almost unbearable; he had slept little the night before and there had been a crick in his neck when he struggled from bed in the moonlight that morning, though his excitement had masked it. There had been a great deal of jesting and leg-pulling as the boys scarfed their cold meal, many bets placed and boasts made, but Cub was too preoccupied to take part. Thunder-son had laughed at him in his careless, goodhumored way and attempted to draw him into a wager, saying, “I have an hour on you, Cub; I’ll take my quarry first.”
And Cub, on his way to the stables to wait for the others, had thrown an indulgent grin over his shoulder and returned, “We’ll see.”
The first trembling excitement had sunk by now into a core of desire for the hunt, a hound’s longing for the scent and the chase and—finally—the kill. His body was relaxed and his heartbeat steady, but every nerve was straining and he knew that Marah’s were as well. He moved his fingers over her damp shoulders, counting the red freckles from memory while his gaze darted from thicket to thicket.
“Spears,” came Lord Peregrine’s voice at last, as akin to the forest as the drip of the icicles. Through the boys’ dogpack went a stifled sound of movement like a snake over the ground; it was good, Cub found, to have the weapon in hand and the feel of its carvings beneath his palms. It was encouraging.
On and on they went, the silvering light and birdsong beginning to hint at dawn, and still they saw nothing and smelled nothing. The silence among the boys grew tense as each thought the same horrible thought: what if there was no hunt that day? With an effort Cub turned his mind to other things, while one hand felt the grooves on his spear and the other ran nervously through Marah’s mane. He thought of Kit, wondering where she might be today and what she might be doing. He thought, with the cooler mind of a hunter, that it was a good day for his first hunt: a wind from the west to blow their quarries’ scent to them and their own scent away, and pervading cold to make the wolves’ bellies growl…
The horses flung up their heads and danced at the sudden closeness of the howl and the boys, throwing off all of Peregrine’s restraint, gave tongue like dogs. Cub’s voice rose above the others until his spine thrilled with it, and before he knew clearly what he was doing, his knees were hard in Marah’s ribs and they were lunging forward as one. His body warmed against the winter air as the hunter’s pleasure swept tingling through his veins and Marah, narrow and agile as an arrow, was alive in every muscle as she plunged over limbs and tumbling bushes toward the howl.
Only one, Cub thought briefly, and it was hungry.
Marah was gathering herself up and Cub’s legs tightened instinctively around her barrel as she made the last lunge to meet the wolf—a massive brindled creature, red-eyed and gape-jawed, streaked with frost across its fine head. It whirled with another short cry as Marah and Cub attacked, too hungry and furious with the starved world to run, and as they danced the hunt-dance with it Cub howled back. This, he thought as his spear glimmered quick as a kingfisher, was bliss: the heat of his own blood in his temples and the drum of Marah’s dancing hooves, and all the while the danger and fear of losing flirting at the back of his mind.
They fought on every inch of that small clearing, the three of them. Marah and the wolf were all that existed to Cub, and the mare was so much a part of him that even she began at last to fade from his brain; only the blazing eyes in the ash-coloured face were important. He and his quarry locked gazes and never broke them all the time that they fought—save once, when a panting breath clouded the air around the wolf’s muzzle and Cub lost sight of the two red gleams. In that brief moment he lost his control over the fight, and behind the screen the wolf gathered itself up and leapt.
He saw a flurry of grey and black, felt the damp heat of breathing on his skin, and then the huge body hit him across the breast and he was falling, falling with an unbearable weight on him. The breath exploded from his lungs as he hit the ground and rolled through the morning frost; the wolf was hard on him, scarlet tongue lolling, and Marah was dancing at the corner of Cub’s vision as she tried to find a moment to attack. Claws like ivory scrabbled at him and the cold air stabbed into his chest as they ripped his tunic wide. And Cub, his mind briefly clearing, was furious. With a shout he caught the animal by the throat, braced his own body against the ground, and sank his teeth into the shaggy warmth of the wolf’s neck until his jaw seemed ready to break. The skin broke and blood filled his mouth; the beast clawed and bit at him in a flurry of pain and still Cub held on, his body pulsing with the will to succeed.
He did not know how long he kept his teeth in the wolf’s throat or how long he lay with the cold ground at his back and hot fur on his chest, but at last he became aware of a horse’s whickering nearby. The wolf was unmoving and unbreathing. Cub loosed his stiff fingers from its skin and opened his mouth, spitting blood, and the motion brought him to an unpleasant awareness of pain all over; he lay still again.
Then hands were taking hold of the wolf and dragging its carcass from him, bringing the winter air down on his wounds. He gasped, blood trickling from his lips, and someone cried out, “Ai, he’s alive after all!”
Cub blinked up at the boys who surrounded him and struggled, still hissing and spitting, to gain his feet. Peregrine stooped and helped him with a dozen others hands trying to assist as well. “That was a fight royal!” the lord said, casting an eye over Cub’s bites and scratches. “A fight for a wordcrafter to tell of, if we had one. You’ve earned yourself a name with that, lad.”
Cub, dizzy with adrenaline and bloodloss, managed a reply that his own ears did not hear and then caught at another boy’s shoulder to steady himself on. It was Thunder-son, and with a panting laugh Cub said, “I won the wager—eh?”
“You won the wager,” the red-haired boy agreed, not drawing his eyes from the blood on Cub’s teeth. “I’ll not contest that.”
“And that,” Justin concluded, leaning back, “was how Ethan won his name and his first wolf pelt. Did I tell it well for not having been there?”
The men howled their pleasure like wolves themselves, though Ash objected, “I wasn’t as ridiculous as that. I don’t care for your rendering of me; you make me sound a brat.”
“That’s because you were,” Ethan returned, lounging on one elbow with a spark of laughter in his Gypsy-eyes.
“I was not,” Ash repeated, and over the men’s mockery Justin cried,
“All right, Ash, next time I’ll tell the story of how you won your name. Will that appease you?”
Ash raised his mead in acknowledgement and the fire played tricks on his wild hair as he jerked his head at Tawny, saying, “So, and make Tawny look the fool this time.”
“You can make me look the fool,” Tawny interposed, “but I’m going to bed. Good-night.”
He rose and one by one the others followed until only Justin and Ethan were left by the dying campfire. The Wordcrafter, beginning to cool down from the sweaty warmth of story-telling, put his arms around his knees and rocked; Ethan picked a glowing twig out of the embers and held it up for inspection, remarking slowly after a moment, “You know…you made a great deal of that up.”
Justin crooked a smile and shrugged. “I know. But they don’t.”