Legions Of Fire – Snippet 36

The wolves continued to howl. Two were noticeably ahead of the remainder of the pack. Corylus knew he could outrun them; but if he did that, their ten or a dozen fellows who were loping comfortably behind would bring him down exhausted not long thereafter.

At the edge of his consciousness, Corylus sometimes caught glimpses of streets and buildings. He didn’t recognize anywhere in Carce for certain; he couldn’t even swear that what he thought he saw was the city in which he had started this night.

He would trade this forest for passage to the shadow-city, though, no matter what might be waiting for him there. He’d seen the bodies of wounded men whose friends hadn’t found them before the wolves did.

The leading wolves yipped in excitement. Corylus didn’t dare look over his shoulder — a slip would be fatal — but he knew that the pair had him in sight.

He lengthened his stride, knowing it was just a matter of time. No matter what he did, the result would be fatal.

A hundred feet ahead, a rock the size of a twenty-oared ship humped from a clearing. The soil nearby was too thin for firs to grow into giants, but a mix of small cedars standing shoulder to shoulder with dogwoods surrounded it instead.

A tangle of multiflora roses covered half the outcrop. A figure hunched on top — a wolf? But better to deal with a single enemy in front than to have a dozen tear you down from behind. The roses would keep even wolves from coming at him through them.

The figure stood. It was a woman clad in a shift as thin as the moonlight.

Corylus sprinted, ducking to crash through the band of small trees. He supposed losing an eye to a cedar twig would be a cheap price if it got him to the relative safety of the outcrop; he’d still avoid it if he could.

He staggered to the base of the sandstone outcrop. It was six feet high and nearly sheer on this face. After his run he would have had trouble vaulting to the top if he’d been barehanded, but he thrust the staff behind him and pivoted himself up.

The wolves who’d been on his heels wormed out of the thicket instants later. They were young males, best fitted to push the quarry’s pace while the more experienced members of the pack saved their energy for the kill.

One of them leaped. Corylus had his footing. He gave the wolf a two-handed blow over the head with his staff.

The wolf yelped, thumped into the side of the rock instead of landing on top, and sat down on the ground whimpering. His companion thought better of attacking directly and instead circled the injured animal.

Corylus’ hands stung. The thick Cornelwood staff had gotten home perfectly. It should have dashed the animal’s brains out instead of just stunning it. These beasts looked like wolves and they weren’t much bigger than the wolves he was familiar with on the frontier, but they were much heavier built. A skull that could absorb a blow like the one he’d just dealt must be as thick as a wild bull’s.

“You’re a strong one, aren’t you?” a throaty voice said. “Your mother would be proud of you.”

Corylus glanced at the woman; he’d almost forgotten her. He supposed she could knife him or simply shove him off the outcrop, but even so she would have been a lesser evil. “My mother?” he said, feeling a little silly when he heard the words come out of his mouth.

The rest of the pack slipped through the undergrowth, appearing on all sides of the rock simultaneously. They’d waited till they had him ringed to close in. They were silent now, save for an older female who whined as she sniffed the injured animal, then licked the bloody pressure cut in the middle of his forehead.

The bone hadn’t been broken, though. The young male got to his feet, wobbly but apparently alert.

“I knew her, yes,” the woman said. “Frankly, I thought she was too skinny to be as full of herself as she was, but I suppose I shouldn’t speak ill of her now.”

Even the brief glance Corylus had given her was enough to show that this woman beautiful in a lush, full-breasted fashion. He thought that her garment was pastel, not white, but by moonlight he couldn’t guess the hue.

“Ma’am?” he said. “Am I dreaming?”

She laughed like a brook gurgling. “Goodness,” she said, “I don’t think much of your taste in dreams if that’s what you believe this is!”

A wolf on his left sprang. It hadn’t snarled, but Corylus had seen its haunches quiver. He slammed it in the throat, this time using the staff as a spear instead of a club. It was like punching a bullock, but the wolf spun hard into the ground.

Corylus pivoted. The wolf which had poised to jump from the other side instead circled and whined, looking up at him sidelong.

“Ma’am!” he said. “Keep behind me. I’ll hold them off as long as I can.”

The pack’s leader was huge, the bulk of a big man. He must easily weigh two hundred pounds. He had scars on both shoulders, and his left ear had been chewed to tatters. He stared at Corylus from beneath bony brow ridges, calm and murderously determined.

“I don’t see that there’s much ‘behind’ when they’re on all sides,” she said, “but they won’t bother me. Normally I wouldn’t interfere with them either, but for your mother’s sake –”

A wolf leaped from the right. Corylus batted it on the nose, throwing it back with a yelp of pain. He’d stopped trying to deliver killing blows: that risked him losing his balance to no particular end, given how rugged the animals were.

As expected, the leader with two younger males behind him was already coming up the less abrupt slope to the left. Corylus stabbed at the big wolf’s shoulder with the end of the staff, then swiped sideways to shove the wolf on that side off in a cartwheel. It was like lifting a wagon one-handed, but Corylus’ muscles were up to the job under the goad of fear.

The third wolf slammed its teeth into the fluttering hem of his tunic. Corylus punched, this time with the short end of the staff. He heard the beast’s lower jaw crack, but he fell to one knee and the leader was on him again.

A coil of rosebush looped the big wolf’s hindquarters and pulled him away. He snarled and bit at it. A cane slapped him across the muzzle; the thorns drew bloody furrows like the nails of an angry woman.

The bush dragged the wolf back and released him, sending him tumbling. He scrambled to his feet, snapping and growling, but he didn’t rush in again. The other wolves backed also.

Corylus stood, using his staff to brace him upright. His mouth was open gasping in air. He tasted blood; he must have bitten his lip. His whole body was trembling and he was queasy with exertion.

“You shouldn’t be here, you know,” the woman said.

He could barely hear her over the roar of his own blood in his ears. He bent forward slightly to help him breathe better.

“I didn’t mean to come,” Corylus wheezed. “I don’t know why I’m here.”

He’d banged his right knee hard on the rock. It was already swelling, and the skin was torn; he’d have a bruise for a week.

The wolf leader had been sitting on his haunches, licking the shoulder where Corylus had stuck him. Now he got to his feet, growled, and barked curtly. The pack vanished into the undergrowth much as they’d appeared, though he heard the male with the broken jaw whining long after he had disappeared from sight.

“Here, let me smell you,” the woman said, kneading her fingers through Corylus’ hair and drawing his head down to sniff his dark curls. Out of reflex he resisted, but she was unexpectedly strong; he got the impression he would pull his hair out by the roots before he broke her grip on it.