Once upon a time, men could tread the Easrune Wood without fear. But those were days long past as Reed walked with stealthy poacher’s steps and an arrow in his bow. Midsummer moonlight filtering through the canopies of dark leaves above illumed the wood in patches of pale lunar glow. He was no stranger to night and shadow, but it was Reed’s keen ears and not his eyes that told him that whomever stalked behind his cloak was a fine hunter indeed.
But not his equal tonight.
Reed had caught faint traces of breath and padded footfalls drawing closer for an hour while he awaited the right moment to strike. Running a thumb along the fletching of his arrow, the gentle crunch of a leaf betrayed the stalker only paces behind him. He stopped, snapping the bowstring taunt as he spun around to place an arrow in their throat.
The wolf froze under Reed’s hard gaze, its eyes wide and locked on his drawn arrow.
The poacher lowered the aim of his weapon from the height of the man he was expecting to that of the grey wolf with its tail held high. “You’re a lucky one tonight. I don’t have time for you, wolf. Get. Shoo!”
With unblinking amber eyes, the wolf lowered its tail and backed away from the man. Relaxing his bowstring, Reed pulled it taunt again when the animal stopped and raised a snarling muzzle.
“Hunter! To your side!” the she-wolf shouted with a woman’s voice.
An axe swung from Reed’s left where he thought a tree stood a moment earlier. Granted a split second to react by the she-wolf’s warning, the red cloaked poacher thrust the limb of his bow into the oncoming blur. It impacted with the blunt haft of the axe, blocking the attack with a snap that splintered the bow in his hands.
Reed staggered backward from the impact and dropped his shattered bow. Still holding the arrow in his hand, his attacker lumbered like a nightmare onto the trail. Moonlight revealed the skeleton of a man with all its empty recesses and hollows, but overgrown and merged with uneven sinews of leafy wood. Its eyeless sockets leered above an open jaw spilling a sprig of green and black elderberries like a lolling, monstrous tongue.
The poacher shook-off his shock as the thing lifted the woodsman’s axe in its hands for another chop. Tossing the arrow aside, his hand dove under the leather of his cloak and drew his hunting sword. He barely managed to batter the blow away. Retaliating with a backswing, the thing slammed the butt and shoulder of the axe into his waist. The strike impacted with the strength of a mule, and the blow sent Reed crashing to the verdant ground as the grip on his blade was lost.
Gasping for the air that had been knocked out of him, Reed pushed himself up and the axe head imbedded itself deep into the mossy log where his head had lain an instant before. The monster pulled the weapon free with a lurch, hauling it back for a lethal swing as the poacher’s vision still swirled.
“It’s heart! It’s vulnerable at the heart!” the she-wolf shouted darting in from the side. Clamping her muzzle onto a root-like shin, she yanked the thing off-balance.
Reed felt the spoiled swipe of the axe blade missing his neck, brushing through the whiskers of his red beard. As the monster prepared to hack the wolf, he spied the fletching of his arrow beside it and lunged. Snatching the shaft, he grappled the nightmare of bone and wood and slid it between a gap in its ribs.
Something burst within, and a gush of black, sappy juice covered Reed’s hand as he left the arrow deep within the thing. The she-wolf released her bite and backed away as the grotesque skull on its shoulders turned to Reed with the stiff groan of tightening timber. Its arm now frozen in mid-swing, all animation drained from the monstrosity.
“It will never move again,” the wolf panted.
Reed shook droplets of black off his stained hand then buckled over on the trail as he caught his breath. “A, servant? Of the… Old Man of the Elders?”
“Yes, one of his Woodsmen, ” the she-wolf replied looking to Reed.
The poacher nodded as he probed his side and found nothing broken. Bracing himself on a tree he stood up. “I was expecting a cult of men, not monsters or talking wolves.”
The wolf looked up to the standing man. “And I expected another of his minions… But your kindness proved you otherwise.”
“I’ve heard tales of talking beasts, but I have never met any before you, she-wolf.”
“My kin have learned hard lessons teaching us that men are difficult to trust.”
“Your kin are wise, ” the man said wiping his hand on brown trousers. He then lowered the oxblood hood of his cloak to unveil a head of long orange-red hair that matched his beard. “I am Reed, and I owe you my life.”
The wolf lifted her tail and nodded. “You may call me what you like, Reed. My mother called me Autumn.”
Reed retrieved his hunting sword from a bush. “I give my word to repay you, Autumn. But—”
“—You have the hair and smell of Rose… are you her kin?”
He froze with sword half-sheathed and glared. “I am her father. Does-, does she still live?”
Autumn’s amber eyes nodded in the dark. “The Old Man of the Elder Trees won’t harm her until the stars are right. At midnight.”
Reed’s shoulders sagged as he sighed. “Praise Huntaine, I’m not too late—”
“—Don’t thank your Gods yet, we have little time left. Follow me!”
The grey wolf turned and lowered her tail as Reed nodded. “I’ve already searched these woods for days—”
“—I doubt your skills not, hunter, but the grove has always been warded so that men cannot find it without magic. Come!”
He re-cloaked his head and took a moment to hide the broken bow before following. “I understand that he’s a wizard, but what are you if you can find him?”
Autumn padded through the underbrush with the poacher behind her. “I’m neither a man nor man-kin, but your eyes should tell you that.”
“Fair enough. How do you know of my Rose and her plight?” Reed asked picking up his pace.
The she-wolf bounded over a mossy stone and looked at the man. “Because you and I are the same! We both have a daughter held captive by the Old Man of the Elder Trees!”
“And you haven’t fought to free her knowing where she is?”
The hairs of Autumn’s neck bristled as they began to move down a wooded slope. “Dare call me a coward and I’ll put my teeth to your throat!”
“—I can’t enter the grove! The wizard always sets a circle knowing my kindred can find it! It protects him like a wall!”
The sound of running water met Reed’s ears in the night before a brook came into view at the foot of the hill. “And your child?”
“My pup is bound within by his magic.”
Wading across the shallow water, the she-wolf sniffed the air as Reed’s boots strode over uneven stones to reach the other side. “And my daughter Rose is with her?”
Autumn glanced up and down the winding brook and exited it. “Yes. She’s caused him much trouble while I’ve watched from afar… He’s ill-prepared for human-kin.”
Reed let the she-wolf once again take the lead. “Then I need you to take me to the Old Man of the Elders… and you need me to cross the circle where you cannot.”
She looked to him in the moonlight. “Yes, and save our children.”
“Who is he, Autumn? All I know is legend and rumor… That he is immortal. That to fight him in the Easrune Wood is begging for death.”
The she-wolf’s tail arched higher. “My kin know him all too well! He was once apprenticed under the Old Woman of the Elder Trees, and she was of a long line who tended the elder grove where Lueinana blessed my bloodline with speech and more. It was a powerful and sacred place, Reed, sire of Rose… Too many stories to recount now. And all long, long before our time.”
“Then just tell me about the Old Man, Autumn.”
“Again, many stories… But they all end the same. He betrayed and murdered the Old Woman generations ago, felling the grove and binding its power inside himself! That’s where the Woodsmen—”
“—The thing that attacked us?” Reed said pushing a low branch aside.
Autumn nodded. “The same! They were thirteen men like yourself once … One for each elder tree that stood in the grove’s circle. After your arrow tonight, they number nine.”
“They became monsters for him?”
The she-wolf turned past the trunk of an old rotten oak in the shadows. “Because of him… My grandmamma said that the Old Man used lies so that they would bear the curse of felling the trees in his stead. He bound them to his will afterwards.”
“Is he immortal, Autumn?”
She growled and spoke. “He’s wicked, a powerful wizard that subsists on stolen lives! But immortal? No… He guards his life too well to be above death by fang or blade!”
Autumn stopped and sniffed the air between two trees, and Reed used the moment to look up to the stars through a hole in the leafy canopy above them. “Then we do have a chance to save them.”
The she-wolf started off in a new direction as mist began to mix with the brush and fallen leaves at her paws. “Tell me Reed… Was your Rose born seven years ago this Midsummer’s Eve?”
“Yes. I will never forget,” he said matching his pace alongside Autumn. “Her mother died in birthing her.”
They treaded past a fallen tree and Autumn paused to look back at Reed before they crossed behind its overturned ball of roots and earth. “To lose your mate in such a way is a heavy burden to bear…”
“Rose has her mother’s heart. Her love of wild things, and the touch of foresight that made her outcast. So in a way she is still with me… Is that why the Old Man took her?”
“That I can’t answer, but I do know this: Every seven years the Old Man of the Elder Trees must sacrifice two children on the Midsummer’s Eve to renew his life for another cycle. These children are invariably born on the Midsummer’s Eve exactly seven years prior. ”
The poacher balled his fists and scowled. “Every seven years?! How long has this monstrosity been playing out?”
“Too long!” Autumn snapped with a snarl. “Fate has always conspired that they be born amongst my kin, but now we are so few—”
“—And this year he needed to find his second child elsewhere.”
The she-wolf looked to Reed and nodded as they passed through a band of moonlight and mist. “You and your kin aren’t burdened with the knowledge I was when my Snow came to me early seven years ago this night… How did you know to make your way here, hunter?”
Tightening his leather cloak and hood against a growing chill, Reed turned his eyes forward. “They struck while I was away. I returned to a home shattered by axe strokes. But crushed and whole, it was the elderberries that stained our cottage and not my daughter’s blood.”
The she-wolf turned her ears upward. “No pack to guard her in your den?”
“I’m an outlaw… She is all I have. And hunted as I am… I am all there is to save her.”
Autumn lowered her head and tail, stopping to paw the ground and sniff before looking up. “I’m… an outcast too, Reed. My mate thought that for the good of all, my snow white pup should die to deny the Old Man what he needed to live another seven years. He didn’t relent until my teeth were on his throat…”
The red bearded man looked down into the she-wolf’s amber eyes. “You fled with your daughter?”
“Far, far away with my white whelp. We saw our kin no more, but the Old Man still found us to steal my Snow away on the last full moon…”
Reed had never seen a wolf shed a tear before. Kneeling, he met Autumn’s eyes and extended an upturned hand. “Shall we face this devil as allies… or friends?”
The wolf placed her paw in his palm. “Both!”
Smiling as he nodded, Reed looked to the mist surrounding the pair and the shafts of moonlight it caught. “Are we close to his lair?”
“Very,” she said returning her paw to the ground. With a turn of her shoulder, the grey she-wolf pointed with her nose to a low hillside rising under the trees. “Past the hill. We’ll need surprise, for if they spy you my plan is ruined.”
“I hope it’s a clever plan… because I was going to shoot him with arrows.”
Autumn shook her head then sat down on her haunches. “Not much of one, but it’ll have to do. The stars won’t slow for us, and they are almost where he needs them to be!”
…Part two of The Old Man of the Elder Trees will be posted on Saturday, May 14th.
Copyright © 2016 by Jason H. Abbott, All Rights Reserved