BRONWEN FRASER – NOVEL EXTRACT
FROM THE WILDERNESS
Blackthorn’s skin crawled as he stood at the edge of the Stone Path. It was a cold morning and the sky was clear, but swathes of freezing mist hung in the valley, drifting over the Stone Path in thin, translucent layers.
He wasn’t entirely sure what he was doing here. Only two sunrises had passed since Birch had explicitly told him that no wolf in the pack was to come within sniffing distance of the place. And yet here he was, no more than a howl from where Cherry was killed.
He had come across this new, unexplored stretch of Stone Path much sooner than expected – yet another piece of evidence of how fast They could build. As far as he had been aware, all that had been here before was a swathe of Broken Land.
But what had really caught Blackthorn’s attention was the gang of bighorn sheep wandering across the hard black stone. The group was made up entirely of rams – the ewes were probably still up in the high mountain meadows, nursing their lambs. At this time of year the rams should be up there too, but Blackthorn suspected that the abnormally cold weather had driven them down into the lowlands earlier than usual. The sheep had panicked and scattered when Blackthorn first appeared, but he had no intention of hunting them. He may have the biggest appetite in the pack – as Pine so often liked to remind him – but even he was not fool enough to try and take on a fully-grown bighorn ram single-pawed.
No, what Blackthorn was more interested in was the way the sheep were licking the flat black stone so enthusiastically. The ground he stood on was frozen rock-hard and the tired grasses along the verge were encrusted with spiky cases of glittering frost. But the surface of the Stone Path was free of ice – in fact, it looked dark and wet. It was splotched with whitish stains, and it was these that the sheep were licking as though their lives depended on it.
Blackthorn shivered and cast a nervous glance over his shoulder. He was supposed to be on the other side of the territory, scent-marking the mountainous western border. Birch would be furious if he caught him here – and rightly so. But Blackthorn had to find out why all the prey was coming to the Stone Paths. He wasn’t putting any of his packmates in danger by coming alone, and his discoveries might benefit them all in the end.
Very hesitantly, Blackthorn bent down and swiped his tongue over the rough rock. To his surprise it tasted not fumey and foul as he’d expected, but salty. He wrinkled his muzzle and passed his tongue around his jaws. At least the sheep seemed to like it. Perhaps the salt was part of the reason why so much prey was being drawn to the Stone Paths, but he suspected that there was more to it than that.
Blackthorn stood quite still, twisting his ears to catch any approaching sounds. The shapes of the bighorn sheep drifted in and out of Blackthorn’s sight, wreathed in mist, but the clouds of warm breath that bloomed from their muzzles glowed golden in the early sunlight. Any sound that pierced the still air seemed as sharp and clear as ice. But it was very quiet. All Blackthorn could hear was the relaxed clicking of the rams’ hooves on the stone, and the shrill alarm call of a blackbird somewhere above his head.
The peace shattered.
Two beams of harsh yellow light glared through the swirling sheets of mist, and for a moment every dancing ice crystal trapped in their path glinted like a golden star. A roar cut cleanly through the chilled air –
The world was rent apart with noise as the earth-runner exploded out of the fog and screamed down the Stone Path.
But Blackthorn was already running. Broken, bloody images seared across his mind; he couldn’t see. His veins throbbed with terror, and his breath came in short, tearing gasps. He didn’t care where he ran, as long as it was far, far away from the earth-runner, with its brain-tearing roar and blazing eyes. The noise faded behind him, but he didn’t stop. It was some time before he was aware that he was amongst trees again; that he had already run far beyond the Broken Land.
His vision was spinning, and his eyes wouldn’t focus. All he could see were blurred patches of green and brown and grey. He crept jerkily under a tangle of yellowing bilberry and crouched there, shaking from his whiskers to the tip of his tail.
Finally, after what seemed like a lifetime, Blackthorn slunk out of his shelter, glancing edgily from side to side. He had to force himself to keep going as he headed back towards the Broken Land, following his own wildly weaving scent trail. He knew that he must look jumpier than Wren, with his ears and tail twitching and his eyes flicking between the trees as if death lurked behind every trunk. Some Beta you make, he told himself crossly. Stop being pathetic.
But he couldn’t forget Cherry’s twisted, lifeless remains, nor the sickening thud of impact as the earth-runner collided with her body. This second encounter with the monstrous creature, now that he knew what it could do, was almost more than his nerves could cope with.
Finally, Blackthorn came within sight of the Stone Path again. The heat of the rising sun was strengthening with every heartbeat, and by this time much of the mist had burned away. The wet Stone Path steamed as Blackthorn crept closer, the hissing vapour shining in the warm sunlight like the breath of the sheep.
What had become of them?
Instantly forgetting his fear, Blackthorn quickened his pace, pushing urgently through the dripping deadwood. At last he jerked to a halt in the now wet grass on the verge. He was torn between relief and irritation when he saw that the bighorn rams were still there, drifting lazily over the Path just as before, licking it so intently that it looked as if their tongues had been attached to the stone. But something had changed. There was a dark, motionless shape lying in the centre of the Stone Path, and almost in the same instant that Blackthorn saw it, the sharp tang of blood hit the back of his throat.
Blackthorn slunk closer. Yes, it was one of the sheep – a huge ram, with magnificently curling horns that looked as though they had been carved from the rocky slopes where it had been born. Blackthorn felt unexpectedly sad to see this majestic creature sprawled on the Stone Path, with its strong legs splayed stiffly outwards and a great bloody tear in its flank. The guts that had spilled out on to the salty stone were drying fast, but they gleamed faintly in the sunlight. The golden eyes with their odd, horizontal pupils were glassy and blank, and the sheep’s tongue was still poking out. Blackthorn tried not to think of Cherry, but the memories were rising in his mind in an irrepressible wave.
Blackthorn shook his coat out vigorously. It was just a sheep, after all. Not a member of his pack. They’re safe, he told himself firmly. They’re safe.
He looked up. The other sheep were still wandering around on the Stone Path, licking eagerly, with their fellow’s body lying in their midst. They didn’t seem to even have noticed, let alone care. They simply carried on licking the black stone as if nothing had happened. Blackthorn shivered.
Yes, the ram’s death was another reminder of how dangerous the Stone Path could be – but it was also food, and the pack had had precious little food for the past moon-cycle.
Blackthorn bared his teeth, bushed out his fur aggressively, and darted on to the Stone Path. Instantly, the sheep scattered, their eyes rolling fearfully in their heads and their hooves clattering wildly as they took off down the Stone Path. They had run a few hundred strides when they seemed to notice that the wolf wasn’t chasing them. Snorting and shifting uneasily, they gathered into a ragged cluster on the Path and, one by one, fell back to their urgent licking.
Despite himself, Blackthorn grinned. He slunk over to the dead ram and positioned himself next to where its belly was laid open to the sky. His empty stomach contracted painfully. It smelled delicious. But he couldn’t tuck in – not yet.
Every muscle tensed, Blackthorn peered up and down the Stone Path and listened intently. His ears strained to catch the faintest rumble, the slightest tremor of disturbed air.
All was quiet and still.
At last, he bent his head over the carcass of the ram and started to eat.
Bronwen is from Northumberland and is currently studying at Cambridge, as well as fiction she is interested in nature writing and ecological non-fiction.