Authors: Delia Sherman
he great white wolf ran through the woods. Snow weighed on his back and shoulders, cold and heavy and wet, but he did not notice. He was on the hunt and he was hungry, though not as hungry as the pack that ran behind him, panting clouds of hot breath into the cold, damp air.
The pack was a coyote pack, and it smelled of rotten meat and motor oil. These are not natural smells for a coyote pack, and a wolf is not a natural leader for coyotes. There was, in fact, very little natural about this pack, except its hunger. It was a hard winter and game of all kinds was scarce.
A sea wind whipped the snow into the white wolf’s eyes and brought a new and curious scent to his super-sensitive nose. He stopped and sniffed thoughtfully. A boy. Young, human, full of rage and terror, and, yes, raw magic as well. Making for the enemy’s territory. As was he. Curious.
With a furious howl, the wolf wizard Fidelou leaped forward, outpacing even the wind with his long strides. The scent grew stronger — the quarry was near. Ahead lay the Stream that marked the boundary of his enemy’s land, the Stream that no magic could cross. The wolf wizard howled again, with triumph this time. He would give the boy a choice — to join the pack or feed it. He didn’t care which.
But when Fidelou reached the Stream, all he saw was a clumsy trail in the snow leading to the pine tree he had felled last autumn in an attempt to bridge the enchanted water.
The wolf stood on the frozen bank and raised his nose to search the air again. He smelled salt and goats, chickens and cows and sheep and fish. And — wonder of wonders — the boy, moving straight for the enemy’s lair. While his pack muttered and whined around him, Fidelou shook the snow from his shoulders and thought. If this was so, his enemy’s last defenses must be weakening. Fire and Air had faded long ago, prey to Fidelou’s attacks and their own inherent instability. Water and Earth, however, had stood firm. Until now.
And if they fell, he, Fidelou, would confront his enemy at last, and their battle would be spoken of as long as stories were told.
But first, the boundary must be tested. Fidelou turned away from the Stream, lowered his great head, and bared his long teeth, growling. The pack instantly groveled at his feet, bellies sunk in the clinging snow. Fidelou looked them over. A mangy bunch of curs, each more useless than the last — except perhaps his lieutenant, Hiram, and the she-coyote, Audrey. He would not risk them. That one cowering at the back, though — Doc, the so-called mechanic — was a fumble-fingered fool, unable to repair anything more complicated than a motorized bicycle. He would do.
Fidelou fixed the lean coyote’s amber eyes with his own fiery gaze and growled. Whining pitifully, his head drooping almost to the ground, the unhappy coyote slunk forward and onto the ice. The wolf wizard watched as he padded cautiously to the middle of the Stream, taking care not to step on any of the rocks breaking the frozen surface. Except for the panting of the coyotes and the occasional eager whine, the woods were still. And then,
The ice broke open under the coyote’s feet, plunging his hindquarters into the black water beneath.
The pack howled as their packmate scrabbled at the broken ice, searching desperately for something to hold on to. The current pulled him down, and with a final yelp, he disappeared under the ice.
Then the earth trembled beneath the coyotes’ feet, and stones flew from the far side of the stream and rained down on them. Yipping and yammering, the pack turned and fled inland.
But the white wolf remained on the bank, balanced on the heaving earth, the stones bouncing off his thick pelt. He lifted his nose to the invisible moon and howled, a long shivering note of rage and defiance, then turned and followed his pack.
ick Reynaud didn’t know where he was. He’d left the last town a while back, and now all he knew was that he was somewhere near the coast. No lights or houses or gas stations, only trees, black against the cloudy sky, with the road glimmering faintly between them. Night was falling, along with the temperature. He was cold and hungry, and not far from being scared.
As far as he could tell, it had been two days since he’d stood on the highway with his thumb out, waiting for a truck to pick him up and take him as far away from Beaton, Maine, as the road would go. It had taken a while, and the driver who eventually stopped was pretty suspicious. But it had worked out all right in the end.
Nick smiled. He’d fooled that guy but good. Getting him to believe Nick was going home instead of running away had been easy. Persuading him to drop Nick outside Bath had taken some fast talking, but Nick was good at fast talking. Sometimes he’d even been able to talk Uncle Gabe into beating up on his cousin Jerry instead of him. But not nearly often enough. Which was why Nick was running away. Again.
The first time had been three years ago, right after his mom died. He was only nine at the time, it was winter, and he didn’t have a plan or food or anything, so it was probably just as well that the police had picked him up before he got too far. The second time, he’d been almost eleven and much better prepared. He took off after school with a bag of chips and a hot dog and twenty bucks he’d earned doing odd jobs for Mrs. Perkins next door. When his cousin Jerry caught up with him at the bus station, Nick had been buying a ticket to Bangor. After that, Uncle Gabe made Jerry walk Nick to and from school every day.
Jerry was sixteen, and as far as Nick could tell, his greatest ambition in life was to beat up every man in Beaton by the time he turned twenty. He liked to practice on Nick.
Nick had put a lot of time and thought into planning his next escape, and he thought he’d done a pretty good job. He’d boosted a map and a flashlight, extra batteries, some trail mix, and a bottle of Coke from a gas station. He’d stuffed his emergency kit and some clean clothes into Jerry’s old backpack and hid it under his bed, ready to grab when he saw a chance to make a clean getaway.
Things hadn’t worked out according to plan.
The week before Christmas, Nick had gotten into another fight at school, and the principal had called Uncle Gabe to come pick him up. After getting yelled at by his boss for leaving work early and lectured by the principal about Nick’s bad attitude, Uncle Gabe was ready for a few beers. When they got home, he gave Nick a couple of licks on account and locked him down cellar, promising him the rest of his larruping later.
Nick decided he wouldn’t be around later.
He crept up the cellar stairs and listened at the door. A deafening hubbub of revving, screeching, and crashing told him Uncle Gabe was watching the stock-car races, turned up high. Nick figured he could probably blow the house up right now, and the old so-and-so wouldn’t notice until he was halfway to the moon. With a last wistful thought for the backpack upstairs under his bed, he smashed a crowbar through the nearest window, scrambled out into the scrubby backyard, and made tracks.
As he trudged through the snow, Nick couldn’t help thinking about the flashlight and the trail mix he’d had to leave behind. It could have been worse. He had his jacket and boots, and the suspicious truck driver had stood him a hot dog and a Coke. But his boots were old and his jacket was thin and the hot dog had been a long time ago. He felt like he’d been walking forever. His belly was as empty as a hole in the ground, his feet were like concrete blocks, and he was shivering like a wet dog. He wanted to rest, but everybody knew sitting down in the snow was dangerous, and he hadn’t run away from Uncle Gabe’s belt so he could freeze to death. He put his head down and pressed on.