by Bill Hafoc Rogers
©2011 Bill Hafoc Rogers
The slope must have been steeper than it looked. He was out of breath by the time he reached the top. He was shaking, too, either from exhaustion or from the bitter cold. But the climb was worth it. Hed always known this was the perfect place.
Ahead, a steep treeless slope dropped to the bend of the frozen river. He was above the level of the treetops on the far side. His eyes werent what they had been when he was young, but he thought the light on the snowy pines and the distant mountains to the south was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.
The mountains made him sad. He had always planned to explore them some day, but some day had never come. Oh well; tonight he was leaving on the greatest journey of exploration of all. And there couldnt be a more perfect night for it, or a more perfect place.
He planted the butt of his best spear on the ground and leaned on it as if it were a walking stick. Lifting his silvered muzzle to the moon, he emptied his mind and let his soul rise to sing to the Goddess. He would sing silently tonight, but it would be his most beautiful
His nose wrinkled. He smelled beer. Beer and woodsmoke, leather and (the old wolf sniffed deeply, nodded a bit, and sighed) horse. Naturally, it would have to be that horse again.
He heard a faint sound behind him. Then the clink of pots and the sound of hooves kicking away the snow. A spray of the stuff hit him on his tail and the back of his legs. He growled deeply. Go away.
Scuff scuff scuff. Make me.
Go away now, Herd Meat, before I rip your throat out!
Dont make me laugh, Carrion Breath. Youre too old and too slow. Dont waste your strength trying.
He shook his head in exasperation. Why. Why do you bedevil me so?
Youve forgotten what you did to me? I havent. I still see the scars on my leg. The pain of those scars on a cold night like this wouldnt let me forget, even if I wanted to. I will follow you forever for what you did.
I should have eaten you when I had the chance.
Behind him twigs and small branches snapped. The smell of smoke became stronger. An orange glow flickered on the snow around him. That blasted horse had been carrying glowing coals in one of the clay pots. The horses had learned that trick from the wolf people years and years ago.
The horse said, Indeed, it would have been simpler. Although not so good for you and your pack when my herd stumbled upon you two days after.
We had nothing to fear from a bunch of grass eaters.
If you say so, although other wolf packs might say otherwise. For whatever reason, though, you didnt eat me. Ive always wondered why.
Because I was an idiot, thats why. I was barely more than a cub, and my pack was fresh from the Lands of Sunset. None of us had ever met creatures who looked and smelled like prey, but had hands, carried the flint-tipped spear, and could speakor could make sounds that seemed like some kind of barbarous speech, at least. You were different. You were interesting. I thought you might be useful. It shows how wrong a silly young cub can be.
Indeed, you were silly. You still are, trying to get away from me like this.
You wont stop me.
No, the horse said, almost too quietly to hear. No, I wont. Want some beer?
I wont stop you this time, Hoarfrost. I want to, but I wont.
Hoarfrost turned away from the beauty of the full moon to look back at the horse. The fire between the horses feet was a cheerful, steady glow now. Even after all these years the wolf had trouble reading the expression in those wide, empty leaf-eaters eyes.
You say you havent come to stop me, yet you build a fire and you offer me food.
The fire is for myself. I feel the cold more than your kind would. And strong beer isnt food.
I cant drink it.
Of course you can! Ive seen you drink it many a time. Our food, our grain and hay, no, you cant eat that, or we wouldnt be here tonight. I wish I knew why you cant stomach our food but you can enjoy our beer as much as we do. If I knew, it might make a difference.
I cant drink. Hoarfrost sighed. You know why Im here.
Yes, and Im more sorry for it than I have been about anything before in my life.
Its not your fault. You tried.
Yes. Who would have thought Id ever be sorry that rats and rabbits didnt come to try to steal our grain?
You tried, Dapple. You did your best, even though hunting was so far outside your nature. May the Goddess bless you for trying. But there was no meat, and I was too old to go with the pack on their long hunt. Now even the small game is exhaustedeven the rats are gone. There is nothing left for me but to leave on the greatest hunt of all. It would be an affront to the Goddess to delay my hunt, on such a perfect night as this, by drinking deep of your strong beer.
The horse laughed, although there were tears in his eyes. We know more about the strong beer than you do, old wolf. None who wish to live would drink of it in the forest beneath the icy winter moon. You will feel warm, yes, but only because the beer will make your body stop fighting the cold.
That is even worse! We show the Goddess our courage by facing the Night, the Journey, the cold and the pain, alone.
And so you did. You went forth to your Goddess, alone. You didnt ask a foolish old stallion to follow you. If your Goddess shone light in my eyes to wake me, and bade me to come and ease your passing, that is Her decision and mine. Not yours.
Hoarfrost nodded slowly. Dapple rose from his seat, presented the pot of beer to the wolf, and returned to his fire.
The wolf opened the pot and drank deep. Ahh I remember the first time I tried this. It tasted strange then, too, and yet I have come to like it. Old friend, I never thought it was in you to follow me into the woods this night and then not try to bring me back to your fireside.
Would it do any good? Bringing you home would be easiest for me, but I have no meat for you. I cant even catch you a rabbit.
You are no hunter. You are what you are, and that pleases me. Thank you for the beer. You should go now.
I will stay with you and see you on your way.
But isnt that hard for you? Your kind were always so strange and sad about death.
Nothing could be harder for me than to see you leave. And thats why I will stay. Because its hard.
Hoarfrost drank more of the beer. He did feel warmer. If Dapple hadnt warned him of the effects of the strong beer, hed have thought he might survive this night. I almost think I understand you. Living with us has made you horses into wolves, just a little bit.
And you wolves into horses, Beer-Guzzling Carrion Breath.
Ha! That is true, also. Thank you, old friend. It seems so warm, and I have never seen the moon so beautiful. Who would have thought, when a wolf-cub bandaged and tended a wounded, fever-wracked colt, that they would run so far together for so many years? And now I am dying of cold, hunger, but above all of age. While you are still young.
Your weak eyes deceive you. I am old, too; not as old as you, but old enough.
So says the Herd Stallion.
Your words remind me of my shame At the last new moon, I asked my nephews son to become consort to my mares to improve our bloodline.
I dont understand. Hoarfrost drank more beer. The pot was almost empty now.
It means we both knew he would defeat me in the Spring Challenges, butand may your Goddess protect meI have somehow become too honored in the eyes of the Herd to suffer that humiliation. He will be Herd Stallion in fact, while I will be allowed to continue as Herd Stallion in name for what days I have left. My heart and the ache in my hips tells me those days will be few.
We have run long and well, but none are fast enough to outrun Time.
Truth. Dapple sighed. I could wish that I might lie down by your side and travel with you tonight. For us the Land Where The Sun Goes At Night is summer days, rich grain, ripe apples, and deep peaceful sleep in warm nights, forever. I could wish to hear the music of your howls, wolfkinds beautiful howls, in those nights.
Hoarfrost blinked awake. What? You like our music?
Why would we not? We hear, and we sleep knowing that you prowl the night keeping enemy-wolves away. We know that the deer who come to eat our apples or grain will never reach it, nor even the rabbit dare a nibble. Your music adds beauty to the night and bids us sleep in peace. Sun-At-Night will be sad indeed without the music of wolves under the full moon. And besides that, what good is a lazy, warm evening without you to come in for a jar of beer and a story by the fire?
It was so warm now, and the light of the moon filled everything. He looked into that light and thought he saw beyond it, and he smiled. But we will both be there, old friend. I can see it now, everything made of light and love. The Great Hunt would be nothing without the peaceful fields, the warm fire in your huts, and you at the end of the day. The Goddess would not deprive us of these things.
We will tell the stories of when we were young and too foolish to know that we were enemies. I will wait for you there. I see the fire in the great hut? Hall? The place where the Goddess lives. I see your place there, and mine, even now. The songs we shall sing, the stories we shall tell! And the beer, such beer we will enjoy. Do you hear?
Yes. I hear and my heart soars.
Dapple? I only wish that what the Goddess moved us to create I only wish something of it will endure.
I hear, friend. If She can hear the prayers of an old horse, if She will grant them, so will it be.
Hoarfrost smiled and closed his eyes to sleep.
The sun rose higher across the sky each day. The snow began to melt. Near the riverbanks the first green grass of Spring appeared. Then one day came the first of the untold numbers of buffalo, moving up from their wintering grounds in the lowlands.
The next morning Dapple heard the distant howls from far downriver. So he was waiting outside the village when the wolfpack trotted around the trees at the distant river bend and came on toward him. In his hand he carried a beautifully-carved spear, with a gleaming leaf-point. It was decorated with two eagle feathers and a string of red and blue stones.
The wolves came close, then stopped. Their leader came forward.
Silverlight, Dapple said, bowing his head.
Dapple. The wolf came close and looked at the spear in the horses hand. Father?
Dapple presented the spear to her. He left on his journey in the last full moon of winter. Im sorry. We tried to find food for him, but we could not.
Silverlight took the spear. Turning it in her hands, watching the light flash from the point and the colored stones, she sighed. I had hoped you might save him to see one last summer. But when we left, I knew that without a miracle from the Goddess I would never again see him in this world. He stayed behind because he knew he would slow us down. Because of his sacrifice, we found meat before any of us starved.
I am glad his sacrifice was not in vain.
It never is, if the intention is honorable. And he was the most honorable wolf I ever knew. How did it happen? At the place on the river bluff, where he always said he would go?
Yes. Dapple swallowed and tilted his head back, looking up at the clouds. But in the end I couldnt let him go alone. I went with him, and stayed with him to the end. After it was over, I couldnt bring myself to leave his bones to the creatures of the woods. He rests now beneath the newest mound, the one furthest in the direction of the dawn.
Dapple kept looking upward. Silverlight frowned. Why do you present me your throat for judgment?
I took Hoarfrosts body home with me. I dealt with him as we would a hero of our own people. I have dishonored your customs and your Goddess, may she and you forgive me. Perform justice as you see fit. But after that, I beg that you lay me by his side, that we may journey to Sun-At-Night together.
Silverlight reached out and touched Dapples cheek gently, pressing the horses muzzle down until the horse and the wolf were looking into each others eyes. The wolfs mouth was open without teeth much exposed, and her ears were up; Dapple knew this was a wolfs smile. It was strange to see that smile and tears on her face at the same time.
Dapple, my fathers friend; my friend. Why would I enforce judgment on you for what you have done? There are no wolf-people and no horse-people. There is one People, the People are one, and the People are all of us together. For as long as the river flows, for as long as Spring follows Winter and the Goddess waxes and wanes.
Dapple felt the tears in his own eyes. Do you hear your daughter, Carrion Breath? You wished that what we made might endure. There is your answer. Go on your Great Hunt in joy. When you reach those bright lands watch for me, wait for me. I come, soon.
Dapple? Are you well?
Dapple smiled. I am better than you can imagine. Come to the fireside, my friend. There we will share songs, and stories, and the good strong beer.