Chapter Three

It took two days to reach the part of the forest fit for hunting.  New logging towns and military outposts opened in the Eastlands all the time.  This chased the animals from their habitat and deeper into the forest.  Their travels brought Aleckster closer to the Forest of the Elves and wolf dreams haunted him every night.

It’s just a dream, he told himself.  But he knew better.  The pack was real.  The dream was real.  And the Elf maid’s song was real.  Pretending otherwise served no purpose nor prevented their coming.  As usual, he felt powerless—a feeling he loathed.

“I think today is the day,” his father said, invading his troubled thoughts.  “We’ll find you a worthy trophy.”

“I hope so, Father.”

Perhaps Aleckster could find an animal and bring it down with his bow before the pack arrived.  Last time they tore him to pieces, and would have eaten him alive if not for the Elf maid’s intervention.  She would not be there this time.  While he could not predict the behavior of wild animals, Aleckster maintained the feeling that the pack posed no threat.  In fact, he felt quite the opposite.  The alpha wolf seemed compelled to assist him in his hunt.

I don’t need any help.

To prove this to himself and his family, Aleckster left the camp and wandered into the forest—due west, away from the pack.  He walked with slow and deliberate strides like his father taught him.  The leaves and twigs still crunched and snapped underfoot.  Perhaps he made no more noise than usual, but became aware of it in attempt to be quiet.  Countless foxes, rabbits, a few snakes, and even a young doe crossed his path.  All scattered at the sight of him, not a one the kind of trophy fit for the son of a High Lord.

He stopped at midday and ate his sack lunch.  Crusty bread, a hunk of salted ham, some nuts and dried fruit, and water to wash it all down.  He continued his search for a prize to bring home and climbed some of the tall trees to get a better view.  From that vantage, he found some bear tracks.  After climbing down to take a closer look, he wondered how his father managed to kill something so large with nothing more than a long knife and a bow and arrow.

I’m more likely to get eaten.

He followed the tracks until they disappeared into some dense bushes.  The sun started its journey down in the sky. Still several hours from camp, he needed to leave now to make it back before dark.  Defeated, he turned and made the long hike back where the others drank ale and told stories.  For them, this was nothing more than a camping trip.  There for moral support, they went out to search for game worthy of hunting—if they felt like it—and steered Aleckster in the right direction.  Most of them sat lounging around a campfire when he returned empty-handed.

“I saw a coyote due north,” Uncle Alvin told him.  “Not much meat on his bones, but he growled at me something fierce before he ran off.”

“He doesn’t want a coyote,” Terrance objected.  “He can do better than a starving dog.”

“I saw a stag,” Wyatt offered.  “You said that’s what you wanted.  It was following the river south which will lead us to Faewater eventually.  But there’s miles of forest between here and there.”

It will also lead us closer to Oakheart and the Forest.

“Was it as big as the one Charlie got?” Aleckster inquired.

“About the same size,” Wyatt affirmed.  “Maybe a little smaller, but its antlers are nothing you’d be ashamed to hang on the wall.”

I suppose it will have to do.

Aleckster turned in for the night in hopes to get a fresh start the following morning.  The wolf dreams came as expected.  The pack stopped to drink from a stream, probably Faewater River, and rested.  Their hungry bellies rumbled as they howled mournfully at the moons.  The white moon remained hidden.  The blue moon waned whilst the red moon waxed, growing fuller each night.

He awoke with a sense of urgency, wishing to reach the stag before the pack.  Leading the company south, Aleckster quickened the pace.  The men behind him made comments about how excited he must be for the hunt, thundering through the forest in such a hurry.  Really, they just wanted to slow down.  None of them possessed any urgency.  The longer the hunt lasted, the longer they could take a break from their wives, their children, and their responsibilities.

It took all day to find the tracks belonging to a sizeable stag like the one Wyatt described.  They found them not far from a stream fed from Faewater River.  After a few miles, as the river widened, the tracks led into dense woods.  With dusk approaching, Terrance called the company to halt and to make camp near the water’s edge. 

Ned and Kelly packed poles, lines, and hooks for fishing and caught a dozen trout between them.  Ned made a meal out of fish fillets, fried potatoes, chunks of ham, and some scrambled eggs.  Having a quiet dinner with no fire would have given them greater chances to find something on the hunt, but Aleckster couldn’t bring himself to deprive everyone else of the comradery.

His father and brother removed two stringed instruments and a tri-tone drum from their packs.  A trade cog from the Guild Cities across the sea came selling all kinds of exotic musical instruments at the Jade Harbor market two years earlier.  Flutes, horns, drums, and woodwinds beyond count.  The three of them spent the better part of an afternoon giving them all a try.  By the time the shop closed, his father purchased an entire cartload of instruments to take home to Wolf Haven.  Most he gave to the bards and fools entertaining at Castle Ironwood, but kept three guitars and three drums for them.

“I figured we could play a few songs to pass the time,” his father suggested.  He ran his fingers across the strings, turning the knobs at the end to correct the tuning.  Charlie followed his example, grabbing the guitar with four thicker strings.  The drum, Aleckster knew, was for him.  They practiced for years together and had become quite good.  Serendipitously, each of them favored one instrument over the others.

“Won’t the noise scare away the animals?” he worried aloud.

“No more than the fire and your Uncle Alvin’s loud mouth,” Lord Terrance replied.  “I know you’re eager to hang your trophy in the great hall, but try to enjoy yourself while we’re out here.  It’s supposed to be fun.”

And so the men of House Balewyn played the tunes they practiced at home.  When they played a familiar song, the others, save for Wyatt, joined in singing.  He smiled, nodding his head to the beat, whittling a piece of wood.  Uncle Richard, who had been silent for most of the trip, sang in a rich baritone pleasing to the ear.

“Well sung, Uncle Richard,” Aleckster praised.

“It’s too bad my son Randal is not here with us.  He’s the one in the family with a gift for singing.”

Aleckster had heard his cousin sing before, and knew him to be talented.  Randal wanted to join the king’s army; he told Aleckster as much during their last visit to Oakheart.  Randal trained night and day with the castellan in preparation to enlist when he came of age.  Too bad.  His singing voice was beautiful, but his swordplay was shit.  Aleckster was four years younger than Randal and still beat him every time they sparred.

After hours of music and song, they all retired to their tents to sleep.  In Aleckster’s dreams that night, he saw his prized stag, scared away by the wolves stalking it from a distance.  It turned east where the trees of the forest thinned and clearings tended to appear, and to Aleckster’s dismay, the pack intercepted the stag.  He awoke with a sour feeling in his stomach.  They were close now and he could feel them.  The scratch of their fleas.  The hunger in their bellies.  The primal instinct to hunt swimming through the very blood in their veins.

Go home, he pleaded.  I don’t need your help.

The idea of the pack hearing and understanding, much less obeying, left him feeling foolish.  Should he call off the hunt?  Go home and hunt in the woods north of Wolf Haven?  No.  If he turned north, the pack would follow.  He knew that somehow, aware of their emotions and intentions through the mysterious connection they shared.

Silent as a shadow and quick as whisper, Aleckster rose from his tent and stepped out into the dead of night to gather his weapons.  The rest of the men slept in their respective tents while the fire’s embers clung to the last orange flickers of life.  Uncle Richard’s snoring droned on in a steady rhythm.  Rather than bother with the horse, Aleckster set out on foot.  The clearing where the wolves found the stag was nearby.  He knew because he could see it in his mind’s eye.  Every sight, thought, and sensation the pack experienced pressed against his own consciousness, too vivid to ignore.

It took a long time to get clear of the camp, tiptoeing so as not to wake anyone.  Once he traversed a few hundred yards away from the camp, he broke out into a sprint.  He need not worry about chasing the pack away; they were expecting him.

Aleckster emerged from the tree line at the top of a hill, looking down on the clearing.  The waxing red moon outlined in the forest in a shade red the color of blood set ablaze.  A thousand feet from where he stood, the wolf pack fed upon the stag—his stag.  All of the fear and anxiety at seeing the wolves obliterated in the moonlight.  Rage sparked inside his mind like flint and tinder, igniting his emotions in a whirlwind of fire.  Some cross between a growl and a bellow escaped his mouth as he cried out and charged.  Nocking an arrow, and drawing back his bow, he let it loose into the alpha’s flank.

The wolf yelped, jumping away in surprise.  The rest of the pack, tense at his sudden movement, fled out of fear and respect for their leader.  He turned his gaze to Aleckster and a feral rumble sounded from within.  As the two met eyes, the understanding became clear.  No words needed spoken.  The two of them would contend for the right to lead the pack.

Aleckster drew, nocked, and loosed another arrow.  This one struck the massive wolf in the paw, crippling him.  He yelped again, but it turned into a snarl of frustration fast.  One signal from him and the entire pack would rip Aleckster to pieces.  But no.  Not this time.  The old beast was far too proud to call for help against a boy.

The alpha wolf rushed forward, hobbling on its injured front paw.  The speed and ferocity of his movement surprised Aleckster.  Without the injury, it would have already been in the air diving for his throat.

Not today.

Anticipating the lunge, Aleckster defied his instincts, ducking down and dashing forward.  Dropping his bow and reaching for his long knife, he stabbed the soft underbelly, using the wolf’s momentum against him.  The flesh flayed open in a bloody gash, and the wolf fell to the ground with a whimper.  Every attempt to rise turned in failure.

The glare of the red moon shone down on rage running rampant.  Aleckster’s victory filled him with bloodlust.  He knelt and plunged his blade into the wolf’s neck, slicing downward as he withdrew it.  The smell of hot fresh blood filled his mouth with saliva, and before he realized what he was doing, he pressed his lips to the wound and lapped it up.

The sweetest flavor paired with a surge of primal energy chased away any thought of restraint.  He sucked the wound, swallowing as much blood as could fill his stomach.  After a moment, the whining of the other wolves distracted him.  They came one and two at a time to watch.  A few of the bolder ones growled and gnashed their teeth to let him know what they thought of his actions.  Leaving the sweet fountain long enough to let out roar at those who dared defy him, Aleckster let the moment sweep over.

The sound of distant song carried by a southern wind licked at his ears.  The wolves heard it too.  The words were too faint to make out and in a language he did not understand, but he recognized the tone.  The Elf maid sang from far away and her song’s power seemed unaffected by distance.  The hypnotic allure kept them all docile.

“Ah!”

Seized with pain unlike anything he ever experienced, Aleckster convulsed and shook.  Itching like a thousand ant bites spread over every inch of his flesh as long, course hair sprouted from his skin.  Teeth grew as his jaw extended, splitting his lips open as a scream of agony transformed into a canine howl.  The other wolves stared at him before turning their heads to the moon and howling.

It’s happening again!

That was the last conscious thought Aleckster remembered before the pain sent him into delirium.  His bones broke and reconnected inside his body with a terrible crunch.  His insides squirmed and splashed, changing sizes and positions as his body changed.  He didn’t need a mirror or even a dim reflection in the water to know.  Looking down his furry snout to see his paws told him enough.

The experiences of the alpha wolf burned in his mind like a hot iron.  Early memories of fighting siblings for a chance at his mother’s teat.  Sucking the sweet milk and growing strong. Memories of being a pup, playing and chasing all day.  Howling at the moon.  His first kill.  The taste of shredded flesh between his hungry teeth and the tantalizing smell of a she-wolf in heat.  The eruption of pleasure as he mated with her came to mind as well.  He remembered challenging an old male wolf for his place, and becoming the alpha.

When the flood of experiences coursed their way through his mind, the hair on his body receded.  The itching returned as fur revealed flesh.  His bones popped and snapped, his insides returning to their rightful place as he shrunk down again to the size of boy.  He gasped a sigh of relief when the pain stopped.  Rolling over to lift himself to his hands and knees, he retched.  A steady stream of crimson vomit ejected from his belly as he moaned.  Crawling on all fours away from the mess, he collapsed onto the grass.

Hoping and praying sleep would find him, the transformation started again from the beginning.  He changed to a wolf once more, quicker this time.  It did nothing to diminish the pain but did not last as long.  Before he could feel grateful, the change afflicted him again.  Countless times throughout the night, until he stopped struggling and surrendered, he went back and forth.  Boy.  Wolf.  Boy.  Wolf.  Only when the light of the rising sun chased the red moon from its place in the night sky did he take his human form and stay that way. 

After that, he passed out.

*          *          *

“Get out of here!  Go on!”

“Get a torch!  They’re afraid of fire!”

“Aleckster!”

“Gods, let him be okay!”

Aleckster’s eyes opened like his bedroom curtains in the morning.  Bright, abrasive sunlight pierced his eyes as he twisted his faced and struggled for them to adjust.  A clamor of voices, growls, and barking pounded in his head as he managed to sit up.  He awoke outside on the ground, covered in dried blood.  A few feet away, the mostly-eaten carcass of a stag lay between a pack of wolves, and men armed with swords.

“He’s awake!”

“Aleckster!  Be careful!  Don’t move!”

His memory of the night before slammed into him like battering ram.  He looked around and realized the pack stayed with him all through the night.  Now, they stood trying to protect him.

“Stop!” Aleckster said as Wyatt closed in on one of the wolves with a sword.  “Leave them be.  They won’t hurt me.”

The pack scattered, turning to run once they realized these men meant Aleckster no harm.  He marveled as they fled.  Their thoughts pressed up against his mind.  He could keep them out, but need only reach a little outward and every thought and emotion from the collective invaded his mind.  They took a part of him with them too, more than before.  The distance proved difficult to endure.

“Aleckster, are you alright?”

His father knelt and placed a hand on his shoulder.  Looking him over, no doubt disquieted by all the blood.  The new armor hung from him in ruin.  In transforming from a thirteen-year-old boy to a wolf the size of a horse over and over again, his clothing remained naught more than shreds clinging to his body.

“I’m fine; I’m not hurt.  They got my stag, but I killed the alpha.”

He turned and pointed to the dead deer and wolf in turn.

“What happened?” Terrance demanded in a stupor.

Aleckster looked deep into his father’s eyes and lied.

“I don’t remember.”