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Fleet picked at the little grass remaining in the clearing, a wedge of sky teasing him with its sense of space. His legs itched to run, to gallop until he couldn't breathe, to pound the earth so the world passed by in blur. He never had. He'd spent all his two years of life locked in this dense forest of giant oaks, horse chestnuts, and elms.
He wandered over to where Sapphire, his dam, dozed. "Tell me again about racing with the wind."
Sapphire opened her eyes and shifted her weight. "Why? We must stay here."
"I want to see the wide open spaces you've told me about. I can't imagine grasses like you say, as high as our chests. How can water rush in streams?" He nibbled her rump and swished his tail to keep the flies off her face.
She didn't reciprocate. "Leave me be. I'm tired. Something's not right, but I don't know what."
Fleet flicked his ears. He couldn't detect anything untoward. With a heavy sigh, he left Sapphire to her worries, and snuck out of the clearing as she closed her eyes again. She was old and rarely wanted to explore, only ever moving to find fresh grazing.
Following the trail back the way they had come the previous day, Fleet broke into a trot. Darkness enveloped him under the dense canopy. The hairs down his spine prickled. A heavy lump churned his guts. He could go no further. Sapphire was right — something threatened. He broke into a canter and hurried back to the clearing.
A huge wolf slunk across his vision, heading for the oak where Sapphire grazed. He neighed to warn her and galloped over. Pain seared his rump. Sharp claws gouged his hide. The stench of rank breath accompanied a deep growl. Fleet lashed out with his hind legs, spun around, and thrashed his forelegs on the wolf's back.
It ducked beneath him and leapt at Sapphire. Its curved fangs closed on her neck. She reared and struck out with her front hooves. The wolf smashed against her chest, knocking her over. The air filled with the metallic smell of blood as her flesh was rent by its fangs. "Run!"
He ignored her command and charged, neck stretched forward, teeth bared. His hooves skidded on the wet grass as he neared the wolf.
The beast spun on sturdy legs. As tall as Fleet's shoulder, its maw opened wide, its tongue slick with gore.
Fleet raced into the trees, trying to draw the wolf away from Sapphire.
Neither of them followed.
He slowed and listened. Nothing. Not even the birds raised a warning. He returned to the clearing, every hair on end, nostrils wide, and blood streaming from the gouges in his hindquarters.
Sapphire lay on the far side, her sides heaving.
The wolf streaked out of the shadows on silent paws, drool dribbling from its gaping jaws, straight at him. It leapt.
Fleet reared in defence. Before the wolf reached him, it fell across Sapphire's body, a wooden shaft protruding from its throat.
Fleet skidded to a halt and dragged the corpse off Sapphire, gagging on the foul taste of the fur. "We must flee! There might be another one!"
Sapphire peered at him through slitted eyes. "I told you to go. Why did you come back?"
Fleet blew into her nostrils. "To save you."
Her head slumped to the ground. "A man shot it. You can trust people. They help horses."
Her breath came in shallow, rapid rasps. "Upright beings. One saved your life. You must thank him. There's so much I haven't taught you."
She thrashed and groaned. She writhed and gasped. Her body shuddered.
Then she went limp. Her eyes opened, their vivid blue dimmed to smoky grey. She struggled to breathe. "A vision ... so terrible ... a black and red horse ... with twisted horns ... an army ... of bloodwolves ... Save horses ... from destruction ... All horses ... You."
"Me? What can I do? I don't even know any other horses." Fleet trembled and sweat trickled down his legs.
Bloody froth bubbled from her lips. "The unicorns ... are meant to protect us ... Find them ... Warn King Streak ... Promise me!" Fleet lowered his head to hear better. "What am I meant to do?"
"Go east ... Streak must know ... Promise."
Fleet shook his mane in confusion. "I promise to do whatever is necessary to save the herds. But I need to know more. Who are the unicorns?"
There was no reply.
* * *
Sapphire's final words rang in Fleet's ears, nagging him to move, yet he couldn't leave her. Sorrow swamped him like a winter fog, chilling his heart. He'd known no horse other than his dam. He had never met his sire or any of his siblings. But instinct ran deep — he desired to run with his kind. He wanted to be part of a family, dreamt of mock battles with other stallions and showing off for the fillies. Instead, he was alone with no idea how to find other horses, let alone unicorns.
And Sapphire's words confused him. How did people help horses? Who was King Streak? The only stories he had heard were of King Thunder, his sire. When he was a foal, Sapphire's eyes would glaze over as she mentioned the stallion's name. Then with a snort she would mumble something about needing to find thistles or dandelions and trot off without finishing the story.
How can a horse have horns?
The wolf's carcass lay where he had dragged it, its neck sagging on the ground, its legs and tail sunken into the leaf litter. The taste of the putrid coat lingered on Fleet's tongue. No amount of water washed away the taint. A sense of being watched made the hairs on his back prickle, every nerve afire with the impulsion to flee. He needed to get far from this place of death. The smell would attract other wolves.
He tottered forward, his hindquarters stiff and sore from the wolf's claws. North was wolf territory. To the west lay the country Sapphire had fled. A desolate wasteland of bogs and marshes bordered the southern lands. A dense thicket of blackberries barred the way east. But Sapphire had said east. With a last glance at her corpse, he nickered a farewell, and used his broad chest to force his way through the prickly bushes.
With each step away from the carnage, the air smelled cleaner. In stark contrast, his sense of isolation grew. His hooves made no sound on the soft moss and leaves that carpeted the ground. Only the chirruping of robins and chats reached his swivelling ears; no slow breath of his dam, no reassuring tread of her hoof falls.
A twig cracked.
Fleet shot into a gallop, fearing another wolf. Branches slashed his face and tangled his mane. A fallen tree blocked his way, too high to jump. Spinning to face the threat, he smashed his head against an overhanging limb. He backed up and reared in frustration, tearing open the wound in his rump. He pawed the air against an invisible enemy, sending fire searing down his hind legs from his injuries.
The air remained free of wolf scent. He couldn't even detect a hog. Or could he? A faint whiff of long-dead hogskin drifted from above. But hogs didn't climb trees. Looking up, Fleet shied.
A strange creature with wooden shafts slung on its back crawled along a branch, the scent of hog emanating from its coverings. A meat-eater!
He bolted south.
* * *
Yuma slumped as he watched the horse gallop away. "Don't go into the bog, my beauty." In his years of being surrounded by horses, he had never seen such a magnificent specimen. The stallion didn't appear to have a single white hair on him, not even a tiny star on his forehead. Only the festering wounds from the wolf marred the black coat. His neck and rump were thick with muscle, belying the youth evident from his narrow muzzle.
After hefting his pack and quiver onto his back, Yuma swung his rope over his shoulder. Should he continue to follow the horse or not? Already his laced boots squelched and the late summer sun warmed his jerkin and leggings. He daren't remove the hogskins as they prevented chaffing and would only be more to carry.
When he had first encountered the two horses, he had recognised the chestnut by her deep blue eyes. She had been the boss mare near his home until the lead stallion had been killed and the herd dispersed. By the way in which the old mare chivvied the black horse, he was her colt, not a bachelor keen on establishing a herd. Surprised to find the pair so deep in the woods, Yuma had followed them from his vantage point in the trees, curious to see where they led.
He'd been startled to encounter a lone wolf. The creatures rarely ventured to the warm south and he had never seen one on its own. It had been a lucky shot that found its throat and killed it. He'd loosed his arrow without thinking, wanting to protect the horses that usually helped his clan. The flint tips were suitable for coneys and squirrels, and, when he could get close enough, hogs. He'd never hunted wolves — they were far too large for people to tackle, especially with such thick coats.
Although Yuma had been tempted to skin the beast for a bedroll, the stench of the fur had made him gag. The wolf had probably been sick, which was why its pack had pushed it out. Or maybe the wolf's deformity was the reason it was on its own. It was unusually large with humped shoulders and peculiar teeth, and streaked red instead of grey. He had extracted two of the overgrown incisors as a gift for any potential lifemate. The enormous fangs would look good on any piece of jewellery, even better than hog tusks. He doubted he'd ever see another pair like them.
Yuma had travelled east before, often attending the annual summer gathering of the clans at Oaktown to trade his flints for hog products, though usually he took the easier route along the river. This time he hadn't been able to resist following the horses.
He had been angry when his father, Tyee Valiant, had demanded he remain at home this year to care for those too sick, old, or young to make the arduous journey. Yuma suspected Tyee wanted to instil responsibility into him, knowing eventually he must take over as leader. Against tradition, Yuma had no interest in taking his place as Chief of Waterfalls clan.
Returning from Oaktown a moon ago, Tyee had finally agreed to let Yuma travel. "You're twenty-five. Don't come back without a partner. I need grandchildren raised here to learn our ways, not those you've probably sired all over the country who I'll never meet."
Many a woman would have accompanied Yuma back to Waterfalls. Instead, each year after the gathering, he wandered off to explore the world, collecting anything of interest and visiting other clans. He revelled in playing his pipe, swapping tales over a few ales, and carving figures. And every winter he returned to his village alone.
Alone like the stallion. The horse acted as if he had never seen a person before, nervous at Yuma's approach and ignoring the signals people used to communicate with the herds. How could that be? The horses he knew relied on people to feed them through the winter as much as the clans relied on the horses to chase hogs during hunts. Deciding the mystery was worth wet feet, he trudged in the handsome stallion's hoof prints, each filled with water to Yuma's knees. At least the heavy going would slow the horse down, too.
* * *
Tired from wading through thick mud, Yuma stopped for a break. The last camp had provided a plentiful supply of nuts and fungi to eat as he walked, so he wasn't hungry, but his legs ached. Swigging from his bladderflask, he relished a few mouthfuls of precious creek water before setting off again. He didn't want to stiffen up and needed to be out of the wetlands before camping that night. He'd be glad of a longer rest. Biting insects swarmed and buzzed around his face, attracted by his sweat. The foetid air, humid with rotting peat, and his lank hair hanging down his neck, added to his discomfort. He extracted a twine from a pouch on his waist and tied the red mass into a horsetail that hung halfway down his back — another feature that made him different from the other men of the clan.
He hoped he'd reach a river soon. A wash would be welcome. "You'd better be worth this, my beauty."
By the time the sun shone overhead, Yuma was exhausted. His muscles cramped and his arms hung like pieces of firewood. Salt crusted his face. He regretted shaving that morning, a habit he had formed to advertise the sharpness of the flints he traded. At least a beard, even his ginger one, would give him protection from the harsh rays. He adjusted his pack and scanned the horizon for somewhere shady to rest.
A dark mound in the same direction as the horse's hoof prints caught his eye. It was an odd shape for a shrub. Curiosity spurred Yuma on.
The shape grew larger.
"You're not a shrub! Hold on, my beauty, I'm coming!" Yuma struggled through the quagmire, flapping his arms to keep his balance as the sucking mud threatened to trip him.
The horse was buried to the chest. Not wanting to end up in the same predicament, Yuma tested each step before advancing. He circled the stricken horse to approach from his head, cooing to him as he crouched low.
The ground gave way beneath his left foot. He floundered, cursing.
If he were still in the woods, he could find green saplings to weave into a mat. Nothing useful lay nearby; he had only what he carried. After removing his pack and quiver, he stripped off his jerkin. Sliding two of his arrows through the arm-holes, he made the leather as rigid as he could and spread it across the soaked ground. He sprawled across the makeshift base. Only his torso fit, leaving his legs dragging in the mud as he used his elbows to advance, dreading the onward journey wearing a mud-stiffened coat.
He squirmed forward. Having neared as close to the stricken horse as he dared, he rolled on his side to slip the rope off his shoulder, made a loop, and gestured in the hope the horse understood his intention.
The horse thrust his muzzle in the air and whinnied. He writhed to free himself. Instead, his body sank lower with each struggle.
Yuma's first throw fell short. He couldn't risk standing up to make his cast more accurate. He tried again.
The rope smacked across the horse's face. The stallion fought to turn away, thrashing his forelegs and tangling his hooves over the rope. His ears flattened to his neck and he showed the whites of his eyes as he sank deeper. Noxious gases burst from the bog, sounding like a great beast sucking the marrow from a bone.
"Come on, my beauty, you can do it!"
Caught under the horse's front legs, the rope pressed down on either side of his withers and snagged behind his elbows.
Yuma hung on as the stallion lunged against the restraint.
The horse's chest raised a hand's width. He lashed out again. The rope pulled taught between his forelegs. He heaved and lurched, and moved against the tug of the bog.
Yuma increased his efforts, taking the strain on the rope as he squirmed backwards like a lizard.
With each lunge the horse made more ground. Exhaling a mighty groan, he surged to his feet, his skin quivering as great gobs of muck slid from his body. His head hung to the rank earth.
Yuma flicked the rope free.
* * *
Fleet's tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth, his lips parched. He must get away from this bog, back to the safety of the forest that offered shelter, grass, and water. He was mad to think he could travel on his own. He scrambled clear of the squelching ooze and staggered back the way he had come, dragging his hooves over the uneven ground.
The upright beast trailed him from a distance. This must be a man. Sapphire had said he could trust people, and this one had saved him.
Scenting a pool, Fleet stumbled to the edge and nosed away the algae that swilled on its surface. He sipped through rank weeds but couldn't drink enough to satisfy his thirst. He needed to find a better place. First he had to ease his aching body. Underneath the dried mud, the wounds on his rump throbbed. He located a patch of moss and rolled to remove the crust from his coat. Squirming on his back reminded him of happier days with Sapphire.
His promise forced him to his feet. Dust flew as he shook from head to tail.
He must go on.
He would have to head northeast to get back on track. With a slight limp in his off hind, he followed the tree line, grazing as he went to rebuild his strength, keeping well ahead of the man.
Too slow. Other bloodwolves might be threatening horses as he dawdled along. He must locate King Streak. He broke into a shuffling trot. Almost immediately, the throbbing in his heavy legs dragged him back to a walk. The pain in his hindquarters built with every step.
The scent of water drew him on, his mind numb to all else. He focused on placing one hoof at a time, stumbling over miniscule stones or grass tussocks. His head hung low and his ears lolled as he staggered towards a steep bank. A vast river swept by. He had never imagined so much water could be in one place and move so fast.
Pain shrieked through his wounds. His head swam. He slipped down the crumbling slope and collapsed at the water's edge.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Bloodwolf War"
Copyright © 2019 Paula Boer.
Excerpted by permission of IFWG Publishing International.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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