Cran Palto | Books | Raheem




Chapter 33

Silence is better than words. Action is better than silence.

—Uden Askrite, decorated veteran of the Second Mech War

The first glimmer of dawn made the trees near the animal pen stand as misshapen ghosts in the misty fog of early dawn, still and heavy with moisture, their great arms hanging as though they had given up and were just waiting to be cut down.

Ipsena and Yigars arrived at the animal pen and brought water to the beasts, filling the trough with buckets of water from the creek.

Yigars was brushing the donkey’s coat on one side of the pen as Ipsena was bringing the last bucket to water. The two adult bison stood by the trough as the baby bison was drinking, its head down, tongue darting into the water.

Suddenly, all four animals were on alert. The donkey pushed itself off the ground and away from Yigars in a bound that resembled the splash of a rock falling in water. It then sprang into a fast trot and rejoined the bison, who had formed a tight circle around the baby. The male had lowered its head, horns forward, and pounded the ground hard with its heavy front hooves.

Ipsena dropped the bucket and slowly made her way to Yigars, who was scanning the far side of the pen, blurry and faint in the pre-dawn light.

“Get back to camp. Go!”

“And you?”

“Right behind you. Warn the others!”

Ipsena turned and ran back to the gate. Yigars walked backward toward the gate, keeping his eyes on the far fence.

He recognized the elongated, dark shape that leaped easily over the back fence of the pen: a wilderwolf. A large one, too. The animal disappeared into the uneven grassy ground of the pen. Yigars turned and ran as fast as he could.

Agra felt the coolness of the night on her skin and stirred, somehow frightened by the unexplained prickling of her skin. She stood, dressed, and took her spear and bow.

Vaega was up too, dressing immediately without speaking a word.

Trion was still snoring, sleeping completely unaware, a contented smile on his face.

Vaega placed her hand on his chest, nuzzling him.

“What… Good morning, Vaega.”

“Get ready. Something’s wrong.”

Trion sat up and saw the room. Agra was at the door. She had taken Yigars’ bow along with her own and was about to go out. He swung out of bed and got dressed.

When Agra opened the door, she saw Ipsena running toward the cabin. She was waving with both hands, leaping over plants in the garden.

Agra bounded forward, meeting up with Ipsena.

“Something’s in the pen. It spooked the animals.”

“Where’s Yigars?”

“He told me to come to warn you.”

Behind them, Trion and Vaega emerged from the cabin. Trion had the pistol and Vaega had her bow.

“Can you shoot with a bow?” Agra asked.

Ipsena didn’t answer.

“Okay. Spear then?”

Ipsena shook her head. She had been an expert at turret-mounted ship-cutters, but this didn’t matter now.

At the gate, Yigars appeared. He seemed frightened, even at that distance. They all ran to him.

Agra handed him his bow, along with a dozen arrows.

They heard the bison bellowing, their deep rumble full of anger and fear.

Yigars kept his hand on the gate, shutting it. “We cannot go out there.”

“What’s out there?” Agra asked.

“But the animals!” It was Vaega.

At the cabin, Daroo was standing in the doorway, waking up and finishing tying his vest on.

“We can’t take on a wilderwolf with just the four of us fighting, especially not with bows. We need hand-held weapons.”

Agra lifted her spear. “I’ll go fight!”

Yigars made a sad, resigned face. “Don’t. You wouldn’t last a minute out there.”

Daroo arrived at a trot. He looked at Trion and his pistol. “Do you have a rifle?”

“Yes, but only nine bullets.”

They could hear the donkey braying frantically.

“They’re alone out there!” Vaega nearly shouted.

Daroo leaned closer to Trion. “I only need one.”

Trion leveled his right eye at Daroo, gauging his statement. Daroo remained calm, impassible even.

“I’ll get the rifle.” Trion turned around and sped off toward the workroom.

The male and female bison bellowed frantically, both sounding shallow and out of breath.

“They’re fighting for their lives! We must help them!” Vaega shouted, brandishing her bow.

Ipsena’s face crunched up as though tears were trying to come out, but she was fighting them back. She turned away, hands bunched into tight fists.

“Ipsena!” Agra called out to her.

Ipsena turned around again, eyes red, mouth hard. “What?”

Agra thrust her spear into her hands. “Use this. Channel your anger.”

Ipsena took the spear. Her knuckled whitened around the shaft.

“You’re strong,” Agra said, putting her right hand on Ipsena’s shoulder. “Be strong. It’s your first fight. It won’t be your last.”

“It’s not my first fight,” Ipsena blurted out.

Agra held Ipsena’s gaze. “Stay near me.”

Trion came back running. He handed the rifle and five bullets to Daroo, who checked the weapon.

“I’m ready.”

A high-pitched, pitiful cry came from beyond the gate.

“The baby!” Vaega cried out.

Yigars tightened his hand around the handle of his bow. He stared at the ground, deciding what to do.

“Right. We go. We must stay together. Present a bigger threat.”

“Okay,” Trion said, holding the pistol at the ready.

Yigars opened the gate; they all rushed outside, forming a tight circle. Agra, Vaega, and Yigars had notched arrows and held their bows at the ready. Ipsena walked between Yigars and Agra in front, spear-tip facing out.

They saw both bison running, turning, running again, kicking up grassy mud. On the far side of the pen, the donkey was standing still, trembling, eyes wild.

Yigars sprinted, and they all followed at speed, even Daroo. At the edge of the pen, Yigars unbolted the gate, and they pulled it open. The air was heavy, oppressive, dense with moisture from the night. Yigars pushed forward, stepping carefully. “The bison are panicked. We must not get too close.”

Then they saw it: the dark shape of the wilderwolf. Its fur was black and deep brown, and around its face, matted with blood. It was feeding.

The adult bison trotted away and joined the donkey on the far side of the pen.

The wilderwolf had seen them. Daroo kneeled on the grass, brought the rifle up, and aimed. Before he could shoot, the beast sprang out to the left, then bounded away, keeping low to the ground, its great shape visible to all.

Agra and Vaega drew their bows, but the beast was too quick. It bounded over the fence and disappeared into the forest beyond.

Vaega and Yigars rushed to the baby bison, but there was no helping. Its throat had been ripped out, its windpipe crushed. The wilderwolf had opened a hole in its flank and eaten its heart.

“Poor, poor creature,” Yigars said, standing back up.

Vaega straightened, wiping blood on her leather pants. “Let’s take it back.”

Ipsena was staring at the corpse of the baby bison. Vaega bent down to the hooves to lift it up. “It’s meat. The fur will be useful.”

Daroo shouldered the rifle and began helping Vaega. Trion holstered the pistol into his belt and helped.

Yigars, however, was on alert. Agra and Ipsena had followed his lead and faced in the forest’s direction.

“He’s out there, watching us,” Yigars said.

As Vaega, Trion, and Daroo lifted the baby bison and began pulling it away, a growl rose from beyond the fence. It grew and faded again, but each time seemed louder and closer.

They stepped back, retracing their steps to the open gate, which remained half open. They would be there in a moment, and from there to the camp.

The growling stopped, and the silence that followed was even more ominous. Yigars urged them. “Quickly, we must return to camp.”

The growling came again closer and louder yet, from the fence that led to the gate. Then, at the opening of the gate itself, the shape of the wilderwolf appeared. Its blood-yellow eyes stared hungrily at them; its long sharp canines unveiled when it pulled back the skin under its nose with a feral sneer.

The growl transformed into a guttural cry as the wilderwolf opened its mouth wide in a display of dominance.

Yigars raised his hands and bow above his head, far to each side, and roared in response.

Daroo fired.

The wilderwolf had moved at just the right moment and the bullet grazed it, ripping skin and fur from its hind leg.

Agra and Vaega shot arrows, but the beast moved too fast, its great elongated shape fluid and powerful.

Trion pointed the pistol from the end of his extended arm, following the wilderwolf as it raced to the left, looking for a weak spot in their defense. Vaega saw the pistol swing toward her and ducked to avoid it. Trion pulled his arm back. He’s been so focused on the target he’d almost hurt Vaega.

Ipsena wanted to keep the spear pointed at the animal, but now she was in the rear, and she could not aim it directly without endangering the others.

The beast landed on its front paws and changed direction in an instant, now traveling left to right around them, blocking the exit to the pen.

Vaega and Agra drew their bows to shoot. To the right of Agra, Ipsena took a step out of the circle and brought the sharp spear-tip closer to the wilderwolf.

They could clearly see its fur, matted with blood, flowing with each motion, guided by every jolt and jump of the muscular beast underneath.

Vaega shot. The arrow passed by its left ear, then whooshed away harmlessly. Agra shot too, aiming for the middle of the head with the malicious red and yellow eyes fixed on her.

Again, the beast moved before the arrow struck. It burrowed into the fur but fell to the ground. Agra notched another arrow, but before she could draw again, the wilderwolf sprang forward and rushed them, aiming at the narrow gap between Vaega and Agra.

The shock was immediate. They all ducked instinctively, shouting and screaming with fear. All but Agra, who felt searing pain in her side just below her left shoulder. The wilderwolf had her in its jaw, the tip of its fangs sunken into her flesh. The pain was blinding and her mind stopped processing other senses. She was vaguely aware she was no longer standing—she felt she was flying, flung, spinning out of control as a satellite in unplanned de-orbit.

Ipsena got up again first. She hadn’t lost her grip on the spear and now pointed it at the beast just two meters away. She watched, horrified, as it swung Agra from side to side, her head and limbs bobbing in every direction. She caught sight of Agra’s face; it was expressionless, the mask of one who is aware death is near.

Ipsena dared not strike, not wanting to stab Agra by accident, so stood there, transfixed, face hard, tears in her eyes.

The wilderwolf dropped Agra and leaped at Vaega, mouth wide open, Agra’s blood arcing out from its serrated lips.

Vaega ducked aside; the jaws snapped shut against her leather tunic.

Ipsena let out a grunt and thrust the spear into the side of the beast. It let go of Vaega, who stumbled and crawled away.

Holding the spear-tip firmly into the beast’s flank, Ipsena screamed in sheer anger. She took another step, pushing pushed with all her weight against the wooden shaft. The leather Trion had tied around the pole of the spear for Agra such a long time ago held firm, and Ipsena gripped it even tighter, then shoved with all her strength, with a violent cry: “Die!”

The wilderwolf tried to bite her, but the spear kept its bloody, snapping fangs just out of reach of her forearm.

“Die!” she screamed again, her arm and shoulder muscle bulging with the effort while her feet, one forward and one back, kept her in balance.

To her left, she saw the flash of muzzle-flame from Trion’s pistol, one arm’s length from her. The loud bang immediately gave way to an eerie, dull silence. She could not hear.

She didn’t hear Daroo’s shot, or the yell Yigars let out when he shot an arrow into the wilderwolf. What she felt was the beast faltering.

She took another step forward, pushing the spear. The blade was entirely within the fur, and slick, red blood and other viscera were squirting and dribbling out of the gash of the blade.

Then it was gone. Pushing away at once, it leaped out of reach and over the fence, and disappeared into the forest.

Vaega stood, bewildered. She stared at the others for a moment; her face scratched, muddy, and trembling. Her gaze fell on Agra, who was not moving but remained lumped where she had fallen.

“Help me!” Vaega shouted as she ran to Agra. She kneeled at her side and examined her. Beneath her leather vest, which had borne the brunt of the teeth, a chunk of muscles had been ripped along her side and back, exposing her ribs.

Trion and Yigars came to help tend to her. Vaega stopped the bleeding, then checked her pulse and breathing.

“Take her to the infirmary now.” Vaega commanded.

They left the baby bison and carried Agra back.

Daroo walked back with Ipsena, who had dropped the spear and had simply stared, unblinking, into the rays of the rising sun until he’d picked up the spear, taken her hand, and spoken with gravel and wheeze in his slow, measured voice: “Come with me warrior. Your bravery has saved us.”

As her eyes had slowly turned to him, he had held her hands in his and looked up into her eyes, for she was much taller than he was. “Thank you. Thank you. Come. Come with me.”

Next chapter: Hopes and Hops

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