Darkness rested, full and heavy, between a pale web of branches. It warped and stretched the cold air so that there was a vastness above and a crawling density in the grass. The scents that rose were encased: dead water, heatless wood, dormant earth. Under veiled stars, the stillness of winter broke slowly. There was a crush of frost, a whisper from the bare crowns, then the pale web produced a wolf.
Silence became deeper. Fur seemed to pour and freeze as the wolf stopped. In the darkness, its shape was a uniform white, soft-contoured and dim. Yet, it had caused a sudden concentration in the clearing. Its snout turned toward the depth of the sky, ears aligning unhurriedly, shoulders lurching. Dark lines pencilled the predator’s clarity of the gaze. At the cue of a distant howl, it began circling the grass with long-legged strides. One circle, two circles, three circles. An edge of blue was left where the eyes had passed. Such a wolf had not walked these woods for a very long time. No one was there to know, but unknowing life shaped itself in response. The wolf lay down. High trees became a skyward circle around the spot, focusing darkness and light on the ghostly fur. With a low hum, the wolf began to melt. Knotty fingers stretched in ecstatic supplication, lanky hair ran like rivers.
He called himself Sanarid. Why? For years uncounted, he had cut his life into incomprehensible patterns. Three grass circles at midnight. Blood on the east wind. There was no memory of intention behind most of his actions, yet he was guided by a force that was as intent as it was fickle. He burned. He had become form and rhythm when all else was gone. He swelled and withdrew like the tide, fell and furrowed like the wind. As he rose from the frozen grass, the forest seemed to rise with him—high around an eerily upright creature, a looming shade of white.
Blood on the north wind. Blood on the south wind.
His hands were darkened. Under his nails, jutting cruel hooks, were the remains of life. His hair tangled around the broken limbs of another creature, protruded into fleshy whiteness—a mockery of horns created from arm or leg. Paw or hoof? They were too broken. The memory of these intentions, too, was lost. Had he needed meat, or simply hungered for death? Had he been angered? Very likely. He had one anger that was swift and meaningless as grass fire. Another that was slow and cool and never ended. The fire did not matter. Grass grew again. Death was of no account except to fill the pattern. But he did remember his pack. They needed him.
They needed to increase.
Once, there had been cubs. Had he been a cub? That could not be. He had always been fanged and looming. But cubs had been his. Before the isolation was broken, when they lived in the far woods, there had been daughters and sons. Perhaps most of the ones now living belonged to him. If they did not, they should. He framed the moon in his pale eyes. Its reflection cast out glinting blue into the winter night. He became two piercing circles in the dark. From afar, those circles were death. He knew their effect—saw the stall, heard the stifled pain, followed the flight—and his mind caught the color. Blue. Blue waves.
Waves? There was an image in his mind that crashed and shook with waves, screeched with sunlight, as if it existed before he was steadied into patterns. His hands rubbed against the rags on his legs, trailing congealing blood. He was thinking about the past for the first time in many years.
The pack had come across the sea. They all knew that. First, we hunted freely, beast and wild man. All was ours. He shook his hair in canine fashion. This was not the memory he wanted—it was not his image. But he could not stop now that it was begun. Then came the ploughers and the silver hunters. For many years, we walked west and they built west. We were fewer. They understood better. They killed us with silver. We were driven deeper into the woods. Iron came on rail and meat in vast herds. Stone rose into towers. At last, there was the great war. It marched through the woods. It swept us under fire and pushed us on the bayonet. Where are we now? This brought him to the present. But where was he?
Blood on the west wind.
He was on the waves. He came across the sea from a dark forest. He ate new meat, and he ran west, and he fought other packs. He lost, and then he won. He ate the plougher among his sheep and laughed with the trapper by the northernmost rivers. He had their women. He hunted the sled dogs for a lifetime. He felt a soft tongue, thrilled to a scent, saw solemn dark eyes become human. He ran with his pack through the ferns. He walked with them among the stone towers, wearing costume after costume. One night, he was bit by a rattlesnake and lay curled on red dirt with the moon in his fur. He heard his sons yelp again and again. Daughters disappeared into the woods. Then there was another soft tongue. Always another, until they did not seem soft. On the fields of the great war, he feasted. He flourished. He was the fire, and he drank from the bayonet. The carrion became his joy. He tore it in ways he had not imagined before, and he felt again the thrill of the soft tongue. Except now it was warm blood. Cold flesh.
What then, what then? Scents and faces blurred. One mate was like the other, one cub was all cubs. He killed and lived. His pack was a ferment, a liquid, a mass. So many had died. Death was of no account except to fill the pattern. But they needed to increase. They needed to live.
It did not occur to him that he had lived too long.
Sanarid stepped slowly across the stiff grass. With a sickly wet sound, one flesh-covered bone fell from his hair. And in the distance was another howl. His fangs emerged in ghastly mirth, slim smile and rasping laughter, white against the drying blood. The pack was coming for its new home. They all listened to him now—those that were left. Because of his age, they believed that the legend was his memory. It swept us under fire and pushed us on the bayonet. Where are we now? He had carried deep secrets from across the land and from across time, patterns to shape the pack as well as himself. Rituals. He had greater cunning than any other beast. With his darkest rituals, he had even made the carrion serve the pack. Martyrs of the war became shambling flesh frozen in time. Flesh to serve his flesh. And he had understood what needed to be done.
The pack was dying. He was the only one who knew this clearly. Where are we now? Thinner and thinner were they in the woods. This was not fate or will. They simply had to drink from the bayonet and become stronger. There was a depth of violence that was hostile to the builders and the ploughers, and that depth was their hope. He would topple the stone towers. He would harness his own flesh and his darkness to make the pack all that was old and strong. All that was undying and unyielding from the beginning. They were his children. They were himself. And for preservation he would kill. He would kill. Kill. Kill.
Where was he? What had he been thinking? His mind clouded with the moon, and old memory slipped. There was only his fire. He drew the threads of the present into his hands. As the howls gathered and gained force, he raised both arms toward the vastness above. Blood was on the wind. Blood was in his eyes and on his fingers. From his hair dropped the mangled remains of a wolf’s paw.
They needed to increase. They needed to live. He needed to kill.