“Which way did you say they went?” I asked Lucas once we were out on the road.
“West, up the mountain. Look, you can see their tracks.”
“Let’s go then.” I led the little party into the snow-silenced twilight. Each of us—the two boys, Cobbler, and myself—carried a torch made of a split piece of firewood and scraps of a tablecloth. In addition, I had a half-dozen green glowing orbs hovering around my head; making me look far more powerful than I felt. I didn’t hear any more wolves—but that certainly didn’t mean they weren’t out there.
“Alf!” I called as we trudged through the snow, following a road only distinguishable by the absence of trees. “It’s getting dark! Where are you?”
Rounding a bend, we spotted a dark, hulking mound in the middle of the road ahead.
The mound resolved itself in the flickering light of our torches into a cluster of hairy creatures. They were tearing at a motionless mass with sickening sounds: rending, growling, snapping, and gulping. One of the beasts raised its head.
It was a huge, shaggy black wolf, its head scarred and disfigured, its muzzle smeared with blood. One cruel eye caught mine. It barked once, and bounded away into the woods. The remaining wolves paused, torn between escaping and feeding. I leapt forward shouting, and flung my torch at the nearest one. The wolf fell head over paws, scrambling away from the flame, but got to his feet and fled, yelping. The others followed him into the darkness.
I gestured and sent my orb-lights forward. We approached the place the wolves had been, and saw what they had left behind to stain the snow crimson.
“You said they wouldn’t attack,” said James, staring at the half-eaten corpse of his friend. “You said they wouldn’t attack, Wizard,” he repeated, his voice rising in panic, “you said they wouldn’t attack!”
He turned as if to grab me—I slapped him.
“So I was wrong!” I shouted back. “I’m not a damned prophet!”
“Stop it, stop it both of you!” cried Lucas. “You’re not helping! Where’s the other fellow?” he asked.
I realized there were only two human bodies in the road: Alf and the potter. The rest of the blood belonged to three wolves; the hunters had not sold their lives cheaply. “Yes, where is Peddler? You boys said he went off by himself. Let’s hope he wasn’t anywhere near here.”
We carried the remains of our comrades back to the inn wrapped in their cloaks, Lucas and I taking Alf, and Cobbler and James (once he’d stopped crying) taking Potter. Once we arrived, we realized that burning the bodies properly would probably take all of our dwindling supply of firewood, and the ground was too iron-hard to even bury them, so we laid them in a snowdrift just outside the front door. It certainly wasn’t what the Saints required, but at least it was too cold for them to rot.
We didn’t even need to say anything as we came in; our faces told Charlie and the women what had happened. It no longer mattered that the peas were running low; no one could bear to eat. We just huddled around the fire while Mother Alys murmured prayers for our departed companions. The rest of us were too miserable to tell her to shut up.
With a blast of wind and snow, the inn door flew open. For a heart stopping second, I thought a wolf was leaping through the doorway. Then a voice rang out above our cries of alarm:
“Here’s one son of a bitch who won’t bother us again!”
It was Forest the peddler. He threw a dead wolf at our feet. His clothes were torn and blood-smeared.
“Where the hell have you been?” I demanded.
“Hunting,” he replied simply, moving close to the fire.
“With what?” I asked, “your table knife?” The bloody carcass he’d dropped was hacked and torn.
“Bastard jumped me, didn’t it?” Peddler said, staring into the fire. “Had to fight it off.”
I looked more closely. The wolf’s graying muzzle proclaimed it an older creature, though it must have still been of great size and strength while living. Added to the ones we had seen dead in the road, it made four wolves dead.
But we had lost six of our thirteen. Charlie was dead—the shock of the dead wolf had been too much for the old man in his weakened state. We laid him outside with the others. The dead wolf we flung into a ravine, in spite of Peddler’s protests that he wanted to make a cloak of it.
The corpses were gone the next day. Wolf tracks patterned the inn yard and made wide paths from the barn to the wood. Charity cried. Lucas and James cried. I felt like crying, but didn’t. The snow kept falling.