Breath pluming, exposed flesh stinging in the biting wind, the lone figure turned up the thick, fur collar of her cloak and continued through the sleeping village. Maralee’s boots crunched through the snow’s icy crust as she patrolled the deserted roads. The leather gauntlets on her lower arms protected her from Wolf bites, but not frostbite. She flexed her hands to maintain dexterity and blew a warm breath on her stiff fingers, before returning her hand to the familiar hilt of the sword at her hip.
The night was uncommonly quiet, even for the dead of winter. Wild creatures dared not venture out on a crisp, clear night such as this, when the moon was full. Soon the Wolves would invade the village, leaving behind a wide swath of human decimation. Something about the perfect orb of glowing light ignited a blood lust in the creatures. The packs partook in a frenzied feast of human flesh once every twenty-eight days and so the lady hunter watched, and waited, and kept her sword at ready.
Maralee did not know the people of this village; had never laid eyes on any except the innkeeper. She had arrived in Sarbough by hired sleigh only hours before, having traveled from the distant village of Relwood. She was not aware if the people of this village were of strong character or weak, but this did not matter. A person was a person no matter their qualities and a Wolf was, at its very core, a monster.
A faint crunch gave Maralee pause. She listened intently, but heard only her own ragged breaths. A strong presence lurked behind her and instinct was a trusted ally. She spun around, drawing her sword in one fluid motion. She held the long, sliver blade before her in both hands at her waist. She scanned the lane, finding nothing there but crisscrossing sleigh tracks and footprints in the snow.
“A dangerous night for a stroll, little miss,” a deep voice reverberated from the shadows.
Maralee pivoted in the direction of the voice, her heart hammering. The man pushed away from a wall and stepped into the wide lane. He was tall with midnight black hair except for a white lock that draped over his left eye. His long coat accentuated the broad cut of his shoulders and chest. With the moon to his back, Maralee could not make out his features, but something about him made the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end. She took a step backwards despite herself. She faced packs of vicious Wolves fearlessly, but human villains were a different matter.
His hand disappeared into a pocket and Maralee lifted her sword, shifting from defense to offense.
“I’ll warn you, sir,” she said, her lilting accent identifying her as native to northern Dubwar. “I know how to use this.”
“I never doubted it.”
Was he mocking her?
The man drew his hand from his pocket and brought something to his mouth. A flame lit his features and Maralee found him young despite the lock of white in his untamed, collar-length hair. The flame died and the tip of his cigarette glowed red in the darkness as he inhaled deeply.
“Cigarette?” he offered, reaching into his pocket again. “Hand rolled. Quality tobacco.”
“I do not partake in sinful pleasures.”
He made a sound of amusement and drew the cigarette away from his mouth. “Pity.” He took another drag before tossing the cigarette into a snow bank. It extinguished with a small hiss. “I don’t recall seeing you around here before. Do you have a place to stay?”
“I have a room at Smithy’s inn,” she blurted, then bit her lip, too late to catch her slip.
“I’ll walk you back,” he said, taking a step closer. “I didn’t catch your name.”
“Because I didn’t offer it.” She returned her sword to its sheath with a faint scraping sound. She wasn’t prepared to bring harm to a human anyway—she exterminated vermin, not people. “If you’ll excuse me.”
She turned to continue her patrol, trying to convince him, if not herself, that she found his presence of no concern.
The persistent man fell into step with her. She paused once more, looking up into his eyes for signs of misdeeds. His eyes, a pale shade of brown—amber—had an unsettling, feral quality. Catching the limited moonlight, they almost glowed, like an animal’s. He smiled at her crookedly, and her heart gave an unexpected lurch. She became conscious of his height, which must have been several inches over six feet, as she did not reach his shoulder. The aroma of tobacco and oiled leather, along with the earthy scent of his body, surrounded her. Was it possible for someone to smell dangerous? Her thudding heart believed so.
“If you insist on taking a midnight stroll on the night of the full moon, then I insist on escorting you,” he said.
“I have neither need, nor want of an escort, sir.” She picked up her pace again.
“I’m Nash.” His hand touched the small of her back to direct her around a deep rut in the lane.
At his light touch, her heart faltered and began to race. She glanced up at him again, puzzled by this unwarranted reaction. He graced her with another mischievous smile. A blush crept up her throat and spread over her face like fire. She ducked her head and rushed forward, moving beyond his bewildering touch.
“You are a particularly obstinate female.” He easily caught up with her again, as his stride was longer than hers.
She stopped abruptly and glared up at him. How dare he insult her!
“Will you just leave me be?” she said.
“Once I have returned you safely to your lodging.”
Maralee growled in frustration. “See here, you—”
Her eyes narrowed. “See here, Nash,” she said. “I am not the damsel in distress you take me for. I came to this village for a reason and nothing you say or do will dissuade me from my purpose. I am well aware of the dangers that befall villages on the night of the full moon. I am a Wolf Huntress by trade and you needn’t concern yourself with my welfare.”
This seemed to ruffle his calm. “Wolf Huntress? You kill Wolves?”
“Yes. I have come to protect this village from an unusually large pack and my job would be a lot easier if you would just go away. I require strict concentration and do not wish to be responsible for your safety during the slaughter.”
He took her by the arm, his touch no longer gentle, but punishing. He turned her in the direction of the inn and forced her to move forward.
“Let go!” she demanded.
She pulled on her arm and tried to plant her boots in the crusted snow, but he dragged her along as if she were a ragdoll.
“You’ll not be killing any Wolves tonight, Nameless Lady. It is my duty to protect this village.” He didn’t even slow as she continued to struggle against him.
So this was the reason he persistently tried to ensure her safety? She infringed upon his territory? The village undoubtedly paid him handsomely to keep the Wolves at bay. She knew from experience a single Wolf carcass of a particular species returned a hefty bounty. His reasons did not excuse his bullying however. Maralee refused to submit to his tyranny.
“I said let me go!”
A long howl in the distance drew a gasp from Nash. He paused and listened to the answering howl seconds later.
“They’re coming,” he said, his grip loosening.
In his distraction, Maralee managed to pull free of his grasp. She dashed forward in the direction the Wolves’ calls without a backward glance. She drew her sword as she ran, her cloak flapping like an ominous, black bat.
At the edge of town, Maralee halted between two wooden houses, readying her sword, listening, watching for any signs of motion. The Wolf pack emerged from between the trees at the end of the lane, their shining eyes glazed with madness in the light of the full moon. There were at least thirty of them—the largest pack Maralee had encountered. These weren’t typical wolves. They were nearly twice as large and much heavier, with a keen intelligence Maralee knew was their most dangerous asset.
When the Wolves caught scent of her, they stopped their progression, wicked teeth bared, hackles raised. Growling and snarling, the lead Wolf charged forward. All four paws lifted from the ground as he leapt for Maralee’s throat. She slashed the beast across its middle with her solid silver blade. It dropped to the ground, instantly dead. More Wolves charged. Maralee lifted her sword, preparing for the onslaught of what promised to be a difficult battle.
An arm grabbed her from behind and dragged her across the road. Her assailant shoved her into a shed and barred the double doors from the outside.
“Hey!” she cried, banging on the door with the palm of her free hand. “Let me out of here! I demand to be set free this instant!”
A snarl on the other side of the door answered her plea for freedom. Persistent claws scratched the door. A sniffing snout pressed against the crack at the base of the door. Maralee stabbed in that direction, but found no mark. The bar holding the door closed rattled. Soon, they would get into the shed. Little things like doors never stopped them. Maralee took a step backwards and held her sword at ready. At least, they could not sneak up behind her while she was inside.
A long, loud howl sent a shiver down her spine. Holding her breath, she lowered her weapon and pressed her ear against the wooden door. That man, Nash, was out there amongst the monsters. And just who did he think he was? Locking her in a shed! Who else could be responsible this madness?
There was no way the man would survive a battle with a pack that size. With fangs longer than her fingers, Wolves inflicted mortal wounds. Maralee wore gauntlets when she fought them for a reason. Circulating anecdotes suggested if bitten by a Wolf, a human would transform into one of the mad beasts. Maralee knew better. Multiple scars on her right arm proved these rumors false.
Another howl. Wolves panted and sniffed beneath the shed door, but the scratching stopped. Another howl, a yip, and the beasts moved away.
What was going on? Had the Wolves overpowered Nash? Were they invading the villagers’ homes even now? It couldn’t be the case. Things were too quiet. No screams of terror and pain. No growling, snarling chaos. None of the sounds of slaughter that had haunted Maralee’s nightmares for fifteen years.
She had to get out of this shed before it was too late. She struck the door with her sword. The blade was too thin and the metal too soft to do more than scratch the wood’s surface. She wiped the blade clean of blood and sheathed it before searching blindly around the pitch-black interior of the shed for a more effective tool.
Her hands found a rake in the darkness, followed by a hoe. A shovel. An ax. With a self-satisfied smile, Maralee took the ax in both hands and approached the door. She lifted the ax over her head and struck. A board splintered, leaving a crack. A band of moonlight crossed the floor. She pulled the ax free and hit the same location. The board broke off, leaving a space large enough for her arm. She dropped the ax on the floor, stuck her arm through the opening and lifted the slab of wood barring the double doors.
Maralee pushed the doors open and rushed out into the frigid air. She drew her sword, searching for signs of the Wolves. Other than paw prints in the snow, all traces of them had vanished.
Maralee caught sight of Nash kneeling over the Wolf she’d slain. Long fingers stroked the dead animal’s fur and eased the Wolf’s blank eyes closed. The man lifted the animal into his arms and stood, cradling the Wolf’s massive body against his broad chest. Its head lolled against his shoulder.
Nash headed for the woods. He glanced back at Maralee just before disappearing into the trees and she recognized the shimmering on his cheeks as the moonlight’s reflection on the paths of his tears.
Before the cursed full moon set, Nash buried his older brother, Cort, beneath the colossal tree that marked the graves of his father and grandfather. Their mother, a pale gray wolf, and his brother’s tawny-furred widow, leaned against one another for comforting support. Cort’s two young sons, both purest white, and his only daughter, the same gray shade as her recently deceased father, howled forlornly as they watched their uncle complete his unsavory task.
That woman! Why hadn’t she just listened to him? Cort would still be alive if she had simply done what Nash had asked of her. And what kind of wicked sword did she possess that could slay an immortal being so effortlessly? It couldn’t be the same one used to murder his father and grandfather. The last of the Wolf Hunters had died fifteen years ago. How could another have arisen to prey upon his pack?
As soon as Nash smoothed the rich soil over his brother’s grave, his mother approached and looked up at him, her large, amber eyes full of questions and pain. She whimpered and Nash sank to his knees to wrap his arms around her broad neck.
“I’m sorry, Mother,” he whispered. His fingers burrowed into the thick fur at the back of her head as he tried to comfort her. “I was able to control the pack, even in their frenzied state beneath the curse of the full moon, but that woman…” Nash’s eyes narrowed as he remembered her wide, innocent-looking silver eyes, so contrary to her true monstrous demeanor. “There was no controlling her at all.”
As the moon sank behind the distant horizon, his mother’s fur became smooth, warm skin and her arms moved to circle her youngest son’s waist. “You know who did this?” she asked.
“I do not know her name, but I spoke with her. She couldn’t be dissuaded.”
“But how did she do it? Nothing but silver can kill one of us.”
“It only makes sense if the blade of her sword is silver. She claimed to be a Wolf Huntress, but I don’t see how she can be,” Nash said. “The Wolf Hunters are all dead. Our secret died with them. Right?” None of this made sense. They’d had fifteen years of peace, and now, some silver sword-wielding Huntress invades their territory. How had she discovered their weakness?
Cort’s widow, Rella, wrapped a thick robe around his mother’s shoulders. “Here, Stacia, you’ll catch cold.”
Stacia accepted the robe to cover her nakedness and rose from her crouched position. She stared down at the grave of her eldest son for a long moment. “It is your responsibility to do something about this, Nash,” she said in a wooden tone. “I will leave the method up to you. You have twenty-seven days until the next full moon.”
Nash nodded. As a Wolf Guardian, it was Nash’s responsibility to ensure the safety of his pack. He’d been the first in over five hundred years to be born into the pack without the curse of the full moon. He had all the benefits of his species. He could shift from Wolf to human form effortlessly. He was immortal. However, the curse placed upon his people did not affect him. He was the only Wolf who did not go mad under the glow of the full moon. For this reason, tremendous responsibilities fell on his shoulders.
“I’ll take care of it,” he promised. “Wolf Hunter or not, she won’t slay another of our pack.”
His mother turned her back to him then, walking slowly towards the village hidden within the dense forest. He knew she was dying inside, but as leader of the pack, she was forced to remain strong. He wished she would yell at him, hit him, hurt him. Anything would be better than her quiet acceptance and feeble demands.
“Uncle Nash.” His niece, Carsha, tugged on the sleeve of his leather trench coat. She was in her human form now that the moon had set and she could control her shifting. He squatted down in front of her, stroking her dark gray hair from her cheek. “Why did you put Daddy in the ground?” she asked, amber eyes wide with inquiry. “He’ll be all dirty when he wakes up.”
Death was such a rare thing in their pack. Elder Wolves, those nearing three hundred years in age, disappeared when they felt they’d become too frail to offer any value to the pack. The elders never returned because they poisoned themselves with silver. His kind was immortal, but they did age, albeit slowly. Three hundred years was long enough to grow weary of living and ritual suicide was considered and honorable death by his pack. Nash had no words to comfort the young girl or to explain a senseless death. He had only confronted its heartrending burden himself once before, when the Hunters had slain both his father and grandfather fifteen years ago.
“Carsha,” he said, his voice hollow, “your daddy won’t wake up.”
She looked confused. “But Uncle Nash—”
“Come, Carsha,” her mother said gently. She held her hand out to her small daughter. “Let’s go home. It’s late.” Rella refused to look at Nash or acknowledge his presence.
“I wanna see my daddy,” the little girl murmured, her eyes filling with tears.
“Carsha!” her mother snapped.
Carsha trotted over to her mother and took her hand, silent tears spilling down her cheeks as the pair of them headed for the village. Cort’s nine-year-old twin sons, Lark and Lord, shifted from their human forms back into white wolves and followed behind—tails limp, heads low.
“I want to see your daddy, too,” Nash whispered to Carsha’s small, retreating form.
The scent of freshly turned dirt hung heavy in the air. Nash looked down at Cort’s grave. The black earth blurred out of focus. Staring despondently, he was unaware of the passing time until a new day streaked the sky with orange and pink. He stepped forward and used his pocketknife to carve the name Cort into the tree beside his father and grandfather’s names. When he had finished, he traced the letters with his fingers.
He couldn’t really be dead. It wasn’t possible. Cort had always been the likable, outgoing one. Easy to smile. Easy to laugh. Friend to everyone. Unguarded with his love. An attentive husband. A doting father. He had only been a hundred and thirty, not even half way through his probable lifespan. Nash had always felt so washed-out beside his gregarious brother, but he would gladly forfeit his own life to have him back. He had a wife. Children. Nash had no one. And now that his brother was gone, he had less than no one.
Unable to express the depth of his grief in his human form, Nash removed his coat and dropped it on the ground. The rest of his clothes followed and once naked, he took his other form. Fur blacker than the night, with a white patch across his left eye in the shape of a crescent moon, the Wolf sat at the foot of the mounded dirt, lifted his snout to the sky and howled his anguish to the trees of the forest.