The Wolf in the Distance
In the weeks that followed their trip to the Burrow Wayde, Brandyé spent many hours sitting before the fire or watching the flurries from behind the large round windows, but what flew through his mind was not flame and snow, but the clash of steel, the cries of battle, and the smell of blood and dirt. He found the thought of such a battle fascinating, for he could not truly imagine such scenes of death and horror; they were outside his experience and his comprehension.
The idea that men could hate each other so deeply that they would desire to bring death to their own kind was difficult for Brandyé to grasp, but he had no difficulty at all picturing the terrible demons that brought destruction upon the brave soldiers of the east. Great monsters, their size exaggerated grossly in his mind, towered over the soldiers on the field of battle, high as ten men, and crushed soldiers underfoot as they stomped across the fields. Their clubs swung madly through the air, spikes jutting elbow-length from the shaft, and clawed at the earth and the men who ran before them.
The wolves, too, were terrifying for his thoughts to behold. Picturing himself as a soldier of the east, he saw great jaws approach him, a mouth that gaped wholly as wide as his own body, glistening teeth bared and bloody. The beast’s fur bristled along its flanks, each hair stiff and sharp as a razor. And the eyes—mad, evil eyes that glared red at him and desired nothing but the death of the flesh before them.
And, inescapable in the midst of such gruesomeness, the demon lord stood high above all others, tall and proud, black armor drawing all light around it and drowning it in darkness. In Brandyé’s inner sight, he had no face to speak of; his helm, thorned with black steel, hid from sight what countenance he might have had, but through the eyeholes, which were large, there was nothing in them at all. Emptiness stared out from blank sockets and held him in fascinated horror, unable to move. And his blade was fearsome. The demon lord wielded the blade—as long as the length of a man—as effortlessly as a feather, and bore it in his left hand, which Brandyé thought was odd. The blade’s edge did not run straight, but rather had been forged to small points along its length, as though its purpose was as much to saw and hack as it was to pierce armor and flesh. Near the tip of the blade there was a large, inward curve, as though a piece of the steel had been cut or torn away from it. Its color was also black, apart from the grip, which was bound in leather the shade of blood. At the base of the blade was a six-pointed marking—a large, curved V with a smaller A behind it.
Brandyé was struck by the clarity of the demon lord as he pictured him. While the beasts, the soldiers, and the sights of battle were sometimes clouded, the demon lord did not waver: Brandyé saw him with equal clarity each time he allowed his mind to wander, and above all he saw the blade and came to know its marking and its missing piece as well as his own face in the mirror. Brandyé named the blade End of Eternity, though he knew not where this name came from.
Brandyé was not fearful of these thoughts, but rather dwelled on them enthralled, and saw himself as the bravest of warriors. Sometimes he was swinging his blade, hewing at the legions of wolves and monsters, an army of men behind him, encouraged by his own fearlessness. Other times, he saw himself among the kings of the east as the demon lord closed in upon them, and he alone stood to face him. He brought his sword up to meet End of Eternity as it bore down upon him, and as the two blades clashed, his own held strong, and the demon lord was brought to his knees. Brandyé wrested End of Eternity from the demon lord’s grasp, and with renewed strength drove it through him bodily, thus bringing an end to the conflict between east and west.
And as much as these thoughts occupied him often, the one that overcame him more than any other was the sight of himself, held aloft over the field of battle and looking down upon the struggle laid out before him. And he saw the demon lord from afar, bearing down once more upon the kings of old, and knew that he was being carried on the back of the very dragon itself, and to Brandyé this was a thrill beyond the measure of any other. As he looked down upon the demon lord, so too did the dragon turn its great head there and bore down upon him at such a great speed that Brandyé felt the wind threatening to pull him off the back of the dragon entirely. Closer they came, and the dragon opened its jaws and sent flame upon the demon lord, and thus he was conquered.
Reuel saw Brandyé lost in these daydreams and humored the many questions Brandyé had about this latest tale, but he knew also that at the age of twelve, it was time to turn Brandyé’s incessant curiosity to more practical matters. Among the chores and household duties that he had, he began to task Brandyé with discovering and learning things about the real world around him. Housebound as they were during the winter storms, Reuel helped Brandyé understand how their home’s heating system worked. He taught Brandyé to make simple tools, and more importantly, helped Brandyé to understand how and why these tools worked the way they did.
It was important to Reuel that Brandyé be able to think for himself and do what he must to answer his own questions. One day Brandyé expressed an astonishment that birds could stay aloft simply by flapping their arms, and so Reuel said to him, “Go and observe birds, and tell me when you have discovered how it works.” For days Brandyé watched, perplexed, until one day he noticed that the hawk he was watching tucked its wings in slightly as it brought them up, and kept them firm when it brought them back down, beating at the air. It seemed that it was able to push against the air in one direction, and slip through the air effortlessly in another.
Brandyé was proud of his discovery, and Reuel was pleased, for it was a sign to him that Brandyé was indeed growing into a person of a critical mind. He did not know where Brandyé’s life would lead him, but he suspected that it would not be that of a farmhand.
Brandyé soon found he was alone in these pursuits, however, for the other children of the town scorned and mocked him, and even Elven seemed not to understand the simple pleasure Brandyé had in finding answers to questions Elven had not even thought to ask. As such, Brandyé began to spend more time alone, walking through the snowfields and rocky moors in his quest ever to find new things. One of his favorite places to go was the open spaces to the north behind their house, and he became familiar with the land for some miles around.
One day he found himself unusually far from home, and realized that he had passed clear over the last hill and descended into the wide flat plains that stretched so far and wide beyond. He had never been quite this far, and knew well his grandfather’s warnings about the mountains, which now seemed ever so slightly nearer than usual. They were still many miles distant, but he began to worry that Reuel would be concerned for him and made to turn back.
As he did so, a flash of light crossed his eyes some way to the east, the lowering sun glinting off something in the snow. Intrigued, he set off toward the light, forgetting Reuel and his concerns. The glimmer faded in and out, and he wondered what it could be.
To his disappointment, it was merely a stream, flowing fast under the snow. The sun had melted enough snow that the stream was exposed for a moment, and it was this that had been shimmering in the sun. Not wanting to think this detour a waste of time, Brandyé knelt by the stream for a moment and dipped his gloved hands under the water. They were leather and well-proofed, and he hardly felt the cold as he brought a handful of icy water to his mouth and drank, the cold shocking and refreshing. The drink seemed to awaken a thirst in him he had been unaware of, and he drank several times more from the clear stream.
Finally he stood, his gloves wet and his hands finally beginning to feel cold, and turned to retrace his footsteps. As he did, his gaze happened upon a line of firs some distance away, and in a heartbeat his blood grew as cold as his hands. He had thought the plains here deserted, yet among the trees, shadowed but certain, something was moving. It was distant, but to his eyes it seemed huge. The trees were tall, their first branches some five or six feet above the soil, yet this creature moved so that its head seemed to brush the needles and pines. It slunk on all fours, and though in the dimming light it was hard to discern, its color seemed a muted and mottled gray. He knew it was folly, but in size, color, and manner it resembled nothing so much as the terrible, enormous wolves from his grandfather’s tale at the Burrow Wayde.
In and out of the trees it wove, and then disappeared entirely from view. Brandyé stood transfixed, his mind racing for thoughts as to what this creature could be. It was far too large to be a dog, and seemed that it might even be larger than Farmer Tar’s horses or Gloria’s cattle.
His heart beating fast, Brandyé continued to watch, but nothing happened. He began to feel it must have retreated deeper into the woods, when suddenly it reappeared from the end of the line of trees nearest him. His heart leaped into his throat and he was suddenly frozen, for there was now no doubt: this creature was a perfect likeness for the demon wolves he had pictured in his head. It was impossible, of course: they had been pure fabrication, the imaginings of a boy. Yet here, terrifyingly close, stood the very beast that had driven fear into the bravest of ancient soldiers.
For many moments the beast stood still, and Brandyé began slowly to step backward and away from it, sickeningly aware that there was nowhere for him to hide.
Then without warning he sank deep into the snow and felt the dismal shock of cold as his feet were drowned in ice water. The stream was fast, and before he could recover from this sudden drenching, he felt one of his boots swept clean away, leaving his stockinged foot bare in the water.
At that moment, at his movement, the wolf’s head snapped up, and Brandyé saw its gaze settle directly upon him. Had there been any doubt about the creature before, there now was none: its eyes glowed red, bright even against the gold of the setting sun.
Time stood still; the sun refused to set, the sky refused to change, and the wolf refused to lower its gaze. It held Brandyé under its power, and he remained still, hoping only that it would not move toward him, for he would be unable to move, unable to run, and would fall victim to whatever terrible fate the creature chose to bring upon him. He had never before known such terror, and knew for the first time that his life was in true danger.
And then he saw it move, take a pace toward him, and he trembled from more than just the cold. His breath held in his throat; his heart stopped beating. Onward it came, moving faster now, and yet Brandyé could not look away, could not even close his eyes. Despite the distance that still separated them, he could see the bristles of its fur, the steam of its breath, even faintly hear the crunch of the snow under its paws, and knew that he was about to die.
And then, when it was no more than three or four hundred yards from him, Brandyé heard a sudden shuffle of snow and breath at his back, and the wolf’s spell was broken. He looked behind him, and a sudden warmth flowed through him at the sight of Farmer Tar, descending upon him from the hill above.
“You fool, lad!” he said. “What’re you doin’?”
“Farmer Tar!” Brandyé shouted. “Be careful—it’s nearly here!”
“What’s nearly here, boy?”
“Look—look to the north!”
Farmer Tar glanced up for a moment, then looked back down at Brandyé. “What’re you on about?”
And as Farmer Tar began to haul Brandyé out of the snow and the stream, Brandyé looked back to the wolf, only to find that it was gone. Speechless, he stood beside Farmer Tar, now finally feeling the chill from the ice and snow and water.
“What’s the matter?” Farmer Tar asked. “Seen a ghost or somethin’?”
Brandyé shook his head, unable to speak.
“You shouldn’ be out so far. Look at what’s happened to you. Come on, let’s get back before you freeze to death.”
Brandyé nodded miserably, beginning to shiver dreadfully, and together they started back up the hill. “Here,” said Farmer Tar, removing his own coat, “put this on.”
Brandyé gratefully wrapped it around himself, and as they neared the top of the hill finally found his voice. “I saw it,” he said. “It was huge.”
Farmer Tar’s brow furrowed. “What did you see?”
“A wolf, I think,” Brandyé said between chattering teeth. “But bigger. It was a wolf out of Grandfather’s stories. It was as tall as I am—taller, perhaps. It was in the trees—I think it was hiding—and then it was gone, and then it was back, and it started coming for me!”
Farmer Tar’s frown deepened. “You saw a wolf. So what? You’re right: they’re out here. They look for hares an’ such. Not men. They’re like as dogs.”
Brandyé shook his head. “This wasn’t a dog. It was huge. And its eyes—they were red, they glowed red. It was looking directly at me. It knew where I was.”
Seeming suddenly reluctant to speak, Farmer Tar grunted. “Nonsense,” he said finally. “Wolves don’ get that big. An’ their eyes don’ glow. An’ they don’ look at men. It saw somethin’ behind you, perhaps. You was against the sun—it wouldn’ have seen you.”
“I know it did,” Brandyé protested. “And what about its eyes? I shouldn’t have been able to see its eyes so far away, but they shone red.”
Farmer Tar looked away. “Light playin’ tricks on you,” he muttered. “Nothin’ but the settin’ sun. Was a wolf you saw, I believe you, but no monster. Such creatures are silly fantasy.”
Despite the cold, Brandyé felt his face grow warm. Even with what he now knew about his grandfather’s embellishments, his stories were certainly not silly. “I’m sure of what I saw—” he began, but Farmer Tar cut him off.
“You didn’ see what you thought you did,” he said with conviction, and Brandyé knew that was the end of the conversation. “Let’s get on home. Your grandfather’ll be worried sick about you.”
Brandyé lowered his head and said nothing more. Slowly he trudged through the snow with Farmer Tar toward his house. Just before they descended down the hill, however, Farmer Tar turned to look to the north, his gaze lingering on the row of trees in the distance.
When Reuel arrived home that evening, carrying a basket laden with carrots and onions and potatoes, it was to find Brandyé still on the rug before a high fire, naked feet stretched toward the flames. Brandyé did not turn as he came into the parlor, and Reuel was the first to break the silence. “How was your day, son?”
Brandyé did not answer, and this was unusual. Reuel had the sense, however, to know Brandyé was brooding and did not interrupt him. Instead, he retreated to the kitchen and began the preparations for supper.
Later, as they sat in dim warm firelight over steaming bowls of winter stew—potatoes, carrots, leeks, lots of onion, and half a flank of lamb, smoked and diced—Brandyé was yet silent, and Reuel began to wonder what cause his grandson had for such quietness. Finally he knew he must ask, and said quietly, “Speak to me, son.”
Brandyé merely looked at him for a moment. “I saw something today,” he said finally.
Reuel returned his gaze calmly. “Tell me what you saw.”
“I thought I knew,” said Brandyé, “but now I’m not certain.”
“Then tell me what you thought you saw,” said Reuel, “and together we will decide if it is certain.”
Brandyé hesitated, then took a breath and said, “I saw a wolf.”
Reuel raised his eyebrows. “A wolf? Well done, son; they are not easy to spot. Most will hide from men, and only appear to hunt. Was it seeking food, do you think?”
Brandyé shook his head slowly. “I don’t think it wanted food. I think it wanted something else. Grandfather—this was no ordinary wolf.”
“No? Tell me what you know of ordinary wolves.”
“Only a little, I suppose,” admitted Brandyé. “Farmer Tar says they’re scavengers, or hunt small animals. He says they’re like dogs.”
“He is right,” Reuel said. “A wolf is no more than a wild dog, one that does not take kindly to men and seeks to prey on those smaller than itself. Was the wolf alone? They most often are to be found in a pack, many hunting together.”
“This wolf was alone, Grandfather. But that’s not all. I understand what ordinary wolves are; both Farmer Tar and you say they’re like wild dogs. That’s how I know this was no ordinary wolf. What if I were to tell you this wolf would have been taller than both you and Farmer Tar?”
Reuel’s eyebrows lowered, and his face grew suddenly grave. “Are you certain?” he asked severely.
“Farmer Tar said the light was playing tricks on my eyes. He said such creatures don’t exist.” Brandyé lowered his head. “He said your tales are silly.”
“Farmer Tar, like so many others, son, does not believe in what he does not see. He will convince himself that things that ought not be, do not exist, even if his own eyes tell him otherwise. Tell me about this wolf. Not as Farmer Tar says it was; tell me what you believe you saw.”
“It was so large, Grandfather. I was terrified. It was in the trees in the valley to the north.”
“Why were you so far to the north?” Reuel interrupted.
“I lost track of where I was—I’m sorry. I know I shouldn’t have gone so far, but I was thinking about other things … I didn’t think there would be any danger. You’ve always told me that Consolation is protected from Darkness.”
“I have not said it is protected,” said Reuel. “Merely that Darkness has not yet found it. What else happened?”
“I slipped and fell, and then it saw me. It was coming toward me, and I was so scared. I thought it was going to kill me, but when Farmer Tar appeared, it suddenly vanished. I don’t know what would have happened if Farmer Tar hadn’t been there.” A thought occurred to Brandyé. “What was Farmer Tar doing that far away himself?”
“It does not matter,” said Reuel. “He was there, and you are lucky he was. Tell me about the wolf—what did it look like?”
“It was huge,” Brandyé said, shivering once more at the thought. “It was ugly and gray. Its fur was rough, and the head was huge. And its eyes … they glowed, Grandfather. They were red, and they glowed.”
Reuel was quiet for a moment. Finally he pushed his bowl away and stood. “We have finished supper,” he said. “Come sit with me by the fire.”
Brandyé took the dishes into the kitchen and set a large kettle boiling on the stove to rinse them with, and then joined his grandfather in the parlor by the fire. They had lit no other candles, and the glow from the flames cast flickering shadows over the walls and Reuel’s face. Reuel was looking into the fire and did not turn his gaze from the flames as he spoke.
“What you saw was a fierund,” he said. “A beast-wolf. They live in the Trestaé Mountains. It is a creature of Darkness.” He paused, and allowed Brandyé to take this in.
“Then the creatures of your tales are real?” Brandyé asked.
“You know this,” Reuel replied. “I may embellish the details of my tales, but of the creatures and men I would not lie. Fierundé are real. Darkness is real.”
“Have you ever seen one?”
At this Reuel paused and seemed uncertain what answer to give. Finally he said, “Yes.”
Brandyé looked at him with round eyes. “Did it try to attack you?”
Reuel shook his head. “That is a tale for another time, son. I am concerned right now with what you saw. In all my years, I have never seen one this close to Consolation.”
“Why do you think it was here?”
“I don’t know. It must have traveled far to be where you saw it; the north valley is many miles yet from the Trestaé Mountains.”
“What do you think it’s going to do now?”
Reuel pursed his lips and then said, “If we are lucky, nothing. It will retreat back to the mountains, and we will never hear of it again.”
“It seemed like it was looking for something when it saw me,” Brandyé said. “It was moving slowly through the trees. What could it have been looking for?”
“Again, I don’t know, son. Rather, I would ask, what did it find?”
Brandyé frowned as he thought. Then, with a dread realization, he said, “It found me.”
Reuel merely nodded, and Brandyé continued. “If it was looking for me … what would it want with me?”
Reuel shook his head. “It is a creature of evil, and it has the intelligence of a man. It is not driven by beast instinct, but rather by Darkness itself. A fierund would not hesitate to kill a man given the chance. It is more than likely that it desired your death.”
A shiver passed through Brandyé at his grandfather’s words. “Grandfather, you’re making me frightened.”
Reuel looked deep into Brandyé’s eyes and held his gaze for many moments. “You should be.”