Wolf Neighbours – Chapter 5

Miter had nearly fallen into the stagnant water when Gove had pushed him aside, and he hadn’t seen the arc of her throw — it was like Mabek had disappeared when he turned around again.

She must have connected, though, from the way she was gasping into her hands.

He gently touched her shoulder, and she twitched violently.

“I’ll go get your ax.”

The water was deep and murky; here and there splintered trunks of dead trees loomed beneath it, and Miter was very careful as he crept along the huge rotten cedar. Mabek was unresponsive — had she thrown well enough to kill? Miter had trained for years and never been that good.

But as he crept up and knelt near the hole the rogue guard had carved into the rot as he fell, all of Miter’s thoughts of humble human combat fell away.

What lay in the hole, limbs akimbo, ax buried deep in the side of its neck, was not Mabek.

It was undeniably a black bear. Its eyes had rolled back in their sockets; blood dribbled from its neck down around its forelimbs. It was not at all a guard.

But Mabek wasn’t entirely absent. In its gaping, toothy jaws, the bear held most — but not all — of his head.

The mist pooled into the cavity of the tree as Miter knelt there, transfixed with horror.

And then he slipped, just enough to lose his balance, and flattened himself against the trunk instead of falling in the water — and the tree shuddered beneath him, cracking and snapping — and Miter looked up in time to see the bear, with its grisly prize still wedged in its mouth, and Gove’s ax still buried in its neck, slip through the broken wood into the murky waters below, and disappear.

He gently crept backwards from the hollow, where bubbles were slowly drifting up to the water’s surface, and pushed himself back to his feet.

Beside him, Gove had gone still; she didn’t seem to register his voice as he whispered;

“We’re cursed.”

Wolf Neighbours – Chapter 4

“So it was definitely a person?”

Miter nodded, pausing to scan the terrain. “Yes, maybe wearing leather boots; they’re not dressed for the swamp.”

Gove tapped her clogs together. “Rusk gave me these; I didn’t really get it till now.”

“She gave me my first pair, as well.”

Gove patiently kept behind him as Miter tested damp ground with his walking staff.

“You’re not from here either?”

He shook his head. “I’m from the coast.”

Gove paused in case he wanted to elaborate further, but he wasn’t forthcoming. “How, um, how long have you been here?”

“More than five years now—” Miter froze for a moment, and she held her breath— “I can hear them.”

Gove shifted her grip on her axe and tried to step as quietly as she could; the ground was wet and sucking at her feet.

Miter led them in a careful circle around their target, until they came up against deeper water. It was pooled up against the base of a cliff, where it had killed off scores of huge old trees; their half—submerged corpses were covered in slime and moss.

“Step where I step.”

Gove nearly fell off the tree trunk she was creeping along when she saw him.

“It IS a guard!”

He was hunched over weirdly, up to his knees in the water, and he had most of a peccary under his arm. But there was no mistaking the red tunic and blackened armor. He heard her, and when he spun around, Miter froze as well. Gove heard him gasp, and then in a tone of forced friendliness, he called;

“Mabek? What are you doing here?”

Then the guard — Mabek — dropped the peccary corpse and leaned forward unnaturally and made an awful, gutteral, nasal roar — and then pulled himself up onto a sprouting fallen willow trunk and lumbered towards them much too quickly.

Gove had played a similar moment out in her mind many times, and without thinking about it, she pushed Miter out of the way and threw her ax.

The strange guard had just leapt onto a huge fallen cedar when the ax hit him. It stuck in his neck as he fell backwards with a grunt — and his weight pushed him through the bark into the soggy rotten core.

Gove froze. She hadn’t meant — it wasn’t supposed to actually kill him — and she could just see the remains of his face where it emerged from within the rotten wood, a horrible rip running from nose to ear. She fell to her knees on the slime—covered boulder and buried her face in her hands and screamed.

Wolf Neighbours – Chapter 3

Miter had to take a few minutes to calm his own herd down after the peccaries had been driven away, back towards his new neighbour’s plot. She didn’t seem like an experienced herder; but then he hadn’t been either, at first.

He cleaned himself up at the little well by the road, and put on a fresh sleeveless tunic. There was an unseasonable fog drifting at about knee height, rippling in what little breeze was coming up from the river. Despite it, the heat was building, and the oxen would need water.

He had two buckets with a woven strap between them, and he was hauling them over his right shoulder, leaning a little heavier than he liked on his walking staff, when he realized his neighbour had come back. She sat on her heels beside the broken gate he’d set aside to repair.

“You don’t have to do that —” he grunted, as he sat the bucket down, “— I’ve got it.”

She turned and leapt up. “I can’t not! I can’t afford to replace what my hogs ate, so…” She wiped her hands on her shorts and extended her right hand to him — and as usual, he waved her off.

“Not much of a grip in this hand.” He flexed his right palm and partial thumb, showing her the scarring where all four fingers ended before the first joint.

She nodded.

“Well, I’m Gove.”


“Sorry we had to meet this way. I just got settled, I’m in the next house over.”

“Welcome to the swamp, Gove.” Miter settled himself onto his working bench, tucked his walking staff underneath it. “You’re not from around here?”

Gove sat back down on the ground and picked up the post she’d be shaping.

“No, just, you know, needed a new start.”

Miter thought she might be young enough to be his daughter.

“Anyone else come with you?”

“No, that’s, you know. That’s probably why the pigs got out, honestly — I wasn’t much of a herder before!” She shook her head. “Could have been worse, I guess. I’ve got all but one back now.”

“I had to learn fast with this herd too.”

Gove looked at the herd, eyes widening at the thought of wrangling animals that large.

“Good job not getting trampled to death.”

As they talked, and Gove shaped replacement posts for the gate, the sun was slowly obscured by clouds.

The mist was rolling in thicker as the sky turned grey, and finally Gove looked up and frowned.

“I thought you at least got hot summers up north.”

Miter hummed. “We do. This is strange weather to have just after solstice.”

“Maybe that’s what spooked my peccaries?”

“You think they were spooked?” Gove brushed the wood chips off her lap and wiped her ax off on her wrap belt. “Definitely. I was inside when I heard them go off — I swear they scream almost like people — and before I could get out there the fence was down.”

Miter frowned. “You know, my herd was off this morning too.” He gestured to the smallest muskox. “They had the little guy against the house and the rest of them grunting and stomping in a circle around him when I came out with the corn.”

“Was it misty over here?”

Miter waved his scarred hand through the thickening mist. “Not quite like this, but yeah. Rolling in from the north.”

Gove looked behind her, into the woods. “In from the swamp. I swear I see all sorts of shapes in there out of the corner of my eye.”

“That’s the way of it.” Miter laughed to himself. “I could swear this morning I saw a guard walking between the trees —”

“A guard!” Gove was on her feet immediately. “There’s guards here?”

Miter leaned back. “Not full time. I’m sure I was imagining it. Wrong season for the north circuit to be here.”

But Gove wasn’t listening. Her eyes were wide and she gripped her ax with intent.

“I’ve been robbed by the guard before. They just do whatever they want.” Her gaze was clearly focused on something in the past. “I’m not standing around while this happens again!”

She leaned her posts against the gate, half turned to leave, then turned back quickly. “I’ll finish this, I swear. I — I need to go get my pig back.”

Miter wasn’t sure what to think. As she marched into the woods, he called after her.

“You’re going straight into the swamp?”

“That’s where I’d hide if I stole something!” She paused as Miter pushed himself back up to his feet.

“Don’t go in there alone. Let me track this thief for you.” Gove’s head tilted, confused.

“If you want?”

Miter sighed; he couldn’t let her drown in a bog over one peccary. “Let’s start at the beginning.” Miter gestured back to the road with his staff. “Where they got out in the first place.”

Gove watched Miter move carefully ahead of her through the forest, just as confident a tracker on dry land as he was through mud. The mist wove through the trees between them, and the grey sky peeked through willow branches that rattled in a breeze.

Wolf Neighbours – Chapter 2

Gove jogged through the swamp, easily following the trail of destruction. A small herd — eleven! only eleven! — of peccaries could absolutely tear up the place when left to their own devices. The low-lying mist pooled in ruts they’d carved in the soft ground on their way through. The sun was peeking through the trees, sparkling off the water to her left, spotlighting eddies in the morning’s mist as the breeze worked its way through. It was only now getting hot enough for the bugs to wake up, which was a mercy.

Gove hit her herding stick against trees in frustration as she lost the trail; she wasn’t a tracker, and when the herd had left the soft ground for rocky turf she had no idea how to tell where they went. She was walking in a widening circle when she caught a noise on the breeze.

She ran through a stand of dead trees, cursing her hogs and whatever chaos they’d gotten into, and pushed her way through a thorny berry bush, only to stand up on the other side, shake herself off, and realize her peccaries weren’t alone.

The herd had broken into another fenced paddock — she could see exactly where they’d smashed open the gate — and were harrassing six or seven huge unhappy muskoxen. Clinging to the back of one of them was a man, as discombobulated as his animals and also cursing the pigs.

Gove stood there stunned at the chaos for a moment, and finally summed up her feelings: “Shit.”

The man’s head snapped up and he turned his exasperated stare on her. “Please tell me you’re here for these monsters.”

Wolf Neighbours – Chapter 1

The fog was thick, obscuring the rippling roots of the twisted cedar trees, and the dead lower branches kept pulling at his sleeves as he ran. Behind him, the ground shook and the branches snapped, but he couldn’t stop to see how far behind it was.

In the trees, skittering noises told him his pursuit was being watched by the small creatures of the forest — but he couldn’t pause to try and join them in the branches — and what would it be worth, with a creature like that at his heels.

All he could do was run, and run he did, stumbling over roots and rocks, sliding on damp moss and cutting his hands on tree trunks studded with broken limbs.

The grunting breath of his pursuer felt like it was pressing on his neck, and when a huge boulder blocked his path between the trees, he couldn’t let himself think about it — he just veered left, downhill, down slippery clay wet with the mist.

He barely noticed when his feet started to splash instead of stick in the sucking mud — and it was too late when he realized he’d run into a ravine. The thin creek wove deeper between steep slopes, and as the water reached past his knees he knew he had to get out of there.

He pushed along the bank on his right, feeling for handholds, until miraculously he found where it turned into a gentler slope, lined with saplings and ferns. Behind him, something large and heavy was splashing down the creek — was it just the fog distorting noise, or was it — no, the white bear was too close, he could see its silhouette, hear its low growl, and he knew as it approached that it was slowing down, the better to corner him.

Mabek had no choice left — up the wet clay bank he climbed, pulling on the doomed saplings like ladder rungs.

As the trees were torn out by their roots from his weight, he dragged himself further and further up, and behind he heard the white bear gnash and roar as whiplike young willows and maples tumbled down to block its path. The trees were older and stronger as he climbed higher, and through the mist was the glow of the sky, of a wide open space just beyond this ravine. Could it be the road? Were those human shapes in the fog?

“Captain!! Guards! Bear!!”

Behind him there were crashing noises as the creature threw itself up the slope, tearing out what growth Mabek hadn’t destroyed himself, and as he turned to look, he felt himself slip in the clay, sliding on his belly for too long before he could catch himself on a knotted root.

“Yaska! Captain!” The bear behind him grunted with effort as it pulled itself closer. “Help!”

But the grey silhouettes were sharpening, and at the top of the slope stood not his troop, not his captain, but a pack of grey wolves, ears perked and hackles up — and then he felt it — five dagger-length claws latching on to his calf, pulling him back down the slope — throwing him back down the slope with frightening strength. As he landed on his back in the stream, he looked up the far slope and saw more watching eyes in the trees; and as his doom crashed back down the slope to take its prize, it was no comfort to know that his end was witnessed by black bears and bobcats, raccoons and possums and smaller chittering shapes he would never get to see. All was the white bear.