A Balancing Wonderland Series Novel
Snow blanketed everything. It was the kind of snow that muffled sound and disguised jagged stone and bristly shrub into homogenous mounds. A breeze tried to become a gust, but quickly became mired in the overburdened branches of the trees, succeeding only in dislodging a few clumps of snow that plopped wetly on the ground cover.
One of the snowy mounds shifted, though not by any force of nature. A form extricated itself from the white backdrop enough to shuffle forward in a crouched position, the limbs of a human barely visible under white and grey marked cloth. A fur lined hood and white face covering allowed only a sliver of wind worn features to be visible.
Slodhe was not good at many things, but what he excelled at was tracking. In these lands, hunting could bring one fortune, if not fame, and that fortune had been his goal for the last two moon cycles. He had spent days learning the paths the great beast favored, learning her hunting grounds and patterns, so that he might become the hunter, and she the prey. It was not by chance that Slodhe now huddled on the outskirts of a clearing. If he strained his ears, he could barely make out the sound of water rushing over stone. Despite the thick snow, the moving water of a mountain creek kept a slender strip of riverbed accessible. The frigid water brought the woodland creatures forth, and he had learned the wolf he tracked would pass through here, when she was in search of a meal.
The tracker had been waiting for over an hour. His eyes darted up to the sky as clouds rolled in and he nestled deeper into the snow drift, determined not to miss his chance. His clothing was well oiled and resistant to moisture, but an outright downpour would force him to abandon his mission and risk having to start his pattern building anew. A lightning bolt fractured the grey sky and he counted the seconds until the rumble of thunder was belched forth. Twice more he did this as the cold tried to seep into his bones. Each time the thunder came closer on the heels of the lightning.
When the fourth peel of thunder crashed in unison with a flash of light in the sky, the hunter had to admit defeat. She wasn’t going to appear this evening. With a resigned sigh, the young man started to rise from his snowy mound as another bolt of lightning lit the darkening sky.
That was when he saw her. From the edge of the clearing, a massive white wolf emerged from the tree line. Slodhe froze, his gloved hands twitching as his brain tried to decide if he should go for his weapon or stay motionless. Finally, his hands, working on reflex, notched an arrow into his crossbow before his brain could scream at him to be still again.
The she-wolf padded forward, white paws sinking into the snow as she stepped out of the brush. The wolf paused, ears flicking in his direction, and for a fraction of a second, he thought her golden eyes locked with his. Just as quickly, the moment passed and she moved again, walking farther into the clearing and closer to the stream.
This was it. Slodhe was going to bring her down. Her pelt alone would bring him riches. Never mind that there was a bounty on her head. This wolf was one of the most cunning, most feared, in the lands. And it would be Slodhe that would claim the bounty. Fingers touched the base of the crossbow, bolt already loaded and ready to fire. All he had to do was bring up the weapon, aim, and-
“You came.” The short sentence rang clear through the crisp air and Slodhe’s head jerked despite his training. A figure had stepped into the clearing, facing off with the wolf. She wore a cloak made of wolf furs, the hood pushed back to reveal vermillion hair of an unnatural color. Her fiery red locks were the color of poppies and snapdragons, tinged with a hint of orange flame in the middle of summer. They had no place in this winter wonderland, and yet she strode forward wearing the pelts of a dozen white wolves, her right shoulder crested with the top half of a grey and black wolf’s head, the fangs grazing the leather encased arm that held a staff topped with a black polished stone.
The she-wolf bristled, hackles rising as a deep growl emanated from her chest to rival the thunder in the sky. The weak breeze from earlier, emboldened, danced through the clearing, rustling the fur on the woman’s cloak and making her hair flutter wildly. The wolf remained untouched by the phenomena.
The red haired woman tilted her head back and let loose a peel of laughter, bringing a hand to her chest as if to hold her mirth in check.
“My dear girl, you can’t think that trick has any effect on me.” The woman ran her fingers across her forehead to brush away an errant curl of hair that danced before her eyes. She tucked it behind an ear and adjusted her furs, the wolf on her shoulder shifting restlessly.
Slodhe gripped his crossbow tighter and reminded himself to relax. Tight fingers could cause a misfire. He didn’t know who the scarlet woman was but he wasn’t about to lose his prize to her. As the wolf and woman drew closer together, squaring off as if for battle, he took careful aim. This prize was his, and no woman was going to get in his way.
The she-wolf tilted her head back and howled. It sent a chill through Soldhe and his eyes closed involuntarily. There was a chorus of wolf howls in the distance and when the tracker opened his eyes the red haired woman was pointing her staff at the wolf.
“None of that. I’m going to-” but Slodhe didn’t hear what she was going to do. As the woman spoke, the wolf launched at her, snow flying into the air from the force of the leap. Fangs clashed with metal and the black stone flared.
Lightning lit the clearing in black and white contrasts. Thunder crashed into Soldhe’s ears, deafening him. He shook his head, trying to regain his senses. This storm was unlike anything he had experienced. A wind had begun to race around the clearing, buffeting the tracker with branches and snow. He feared he would be spotted but the wolf and woman were locked together as energy crackled around them.
It took Soldhe a moment to realize the black stone on the woman’s staff was emitting a black string of crackling light that was wrapping itself around the wolf’s neck. Panic suddenly gripped the tracker. She was going to take his prize. This woman was going to steal his glory and his fortune.
Suddenly, Soldhe stood up, completely disregarding his prior caution of being spotting. The wind made his cloak snap furiously, threatening to throttle him if he attempted to stand where he was. Irritated at the disruption, the tracker leaned in to the protection offered by a nearby tree, it’s boughs forming a barrier against much of the wind.
He used a felled log to steady his crossbow and took aim. No woman was going to steal his prize. Closing one eye, Slodhe took aim, just as the black string of light began to lock around the wolf’s neck. As it snapped together, the crossbow let loose.
Instinctively, the red haired woman swung her staff, attempting to push the wolf away and simultaneously deflect the crossbow bolt. The move would have worked, had a 200 pound wolf not been clinging to the woman’s staff. The bolt hit the staff, directly where the black stone connected to wood.
There was a moment of stillness, where the sound of the wind came to a rushing halt, and Soldhe could distinctly hear the plinking sound of water falling from a branch. Then, time decided to play catch up. Branches shook and dropped their snowy loads in violent upheaval. Birds and rodents erupted from their resting places, and a sudden sensation of a booming explosion turning in on itself erupted from the clearing at the same time it collapsed on itself.
Soldhe missed the frightening sensation of waves of light and shadow radiating from the dislodged stone due to the fact that the bough that had previously protected him from the snow, unceremoniously dumped the wet stuff effectively burying him.
Slodhe sputtered, going against everything his tracker code had taught him, and flailed his arms trying to extricate himself from the snow enough to breath. When his head popped out of the wet fluffy stuff that clung to his eye lashes the clearing was empty.
Then he saw it. A form lay shivering in the snow, steam rising from her naked body. He ogled before realizing the temperature would surely kill the woman. Ripping his cloak from his shoulders, Soldhe ran to the form on the ground and wrapped the woman in the rough cloak. The tracker looked around for the wolf and red haired woman, mystified at what had just transpired.
“Where did you come from?” he muttered as he tucked the cloak around the shivering form. “Stay here, I’ll get you somewhere safe.” It was a foolish thing to say, and he cursed his stupid brain when he was around women. There was an ugly wound on her shoulder and she flinched and moaned when his fingers touched it. He didn’t notice the golden sheen that disappeared from her pupils as her eyes fluttered, and by the time he turned to study her face, her head had lolled to the side again and she was breathing rapidly. Wherever she came from, she wasn’t going to make it if he didn’t hurry.