Shhh! Make no sound!” warned Toli in a strained whisper. One hand covered Quentin’s mouth, and his other dripped with the water that he had splashed in his friend’s face to wake him.
Quentin struggled from sleep, blinking the water out of his eyes, puzzled at first; then he caught a look at Toli’s wide eyes and tight lips. Concern mingled with fear lurked there.
Toli removed his hand with another warning for silence.
“What is wrong?” Quentin barely breathed. He rolled onto his side, pushed himself up on an elbow, and followed Toli’s gaze into the forest. There was not a sound to be heard.
He peered into the night. All was darkness; the fire had burned out, and it appeared to Quentin several hours yet before the dawn. A thick, overcast sky shut out any light from moon or stars. The forest round about lay in deepest gloom.
Just then, one of the horses whickered softly, and the other answered nervously. Quentin, straining both eyes and ears into the darkness, saw and heard nothing. He waited and was about to speak again when he saw a slight flicker through the trees some way off: a ghostly shape, gray-white against the black trunks of the trees. Low to the ground. Moving swiftly among the dense undergrowth. A thin, pale shape.
It disappeared almost as soon as Quentin had seen it.
“What is it?” Quentin asked, leaning close to Toli. He could see the tense expression on his friend’s face and felt his rapid, shallow breathing on his cheek.
The word pressed itself into Quentin’s mind slowly. At first it seemed to have no meaning; but then, like a slap in the face, he realized their danger. Wolves! They were being stalked by wolves!
“How many?” he asked quietly, trying to make his voice sound calm and unconcerned, and failing.
“I have only seen one,” said Toli in the barest whisper. “But where there is one, there are others.”
Unconsciously Quentin reached for the only weapon he had, the gold-handled dagger of the king’s knight. His fingers tightened around the hilt as he drew it from his belt.
He glanced at the smoldering remains of their campfire, wishing that it would spring magically to life again. Wolves are afraid of fire, he thought. He had heard that somewhere and wondered if it was true. As if reading his mind, Toli leaned over and placed his face close to the smoking coals and blew on them. His face glowed duskily in the feeble firelight, and for an instant a single flame licked out. But lacking fuel to feed it, the flame winked out again.
The horses, close behind them but invisible in the darkness, jingled their bridles as they tossed their heads to free themselves. “We must loose the horses,” said Toli, “so they may fight.”
“Will it come to that?” Quentin asked. He had no experience in these things. He felt out of place and strangely indignant about it, an emotion that puzzled him.
Just then Quentin caught another flickering glimpse of a gray shape floating among the trees to the right of them. This time the animal was much closer.
“They are closing in,” said Toli. Quentin realized he had been holding his breath.
“What are we going to do?” asked Quentin, shocked because he did not have the slightest idea himself what to do.
In answer to his question, Toli handed him a stout branch, one they had gathered for the fire. It was hefty enough to use as a club. With the club in one hand and the knife in the other, Quentin felt only slightly more confident. “Keep low,” Toli warned. “Protect your throat.”
Toli stood slowly, and from a long distance behind them they heard a mournful call of a wolf. Quentin’s stomach tightened as if someone were squeezing it. The eerie, hollow cry was echoed by another on the right, not nearly so far away. Toli placed a hand on Quentin’s arm, clenching him in a steel grip, drawing him to his feet.
Suddenly they heard a low, menacing growl from the left, very close. Quentin turned toward the sound and saw a gaunt white death’s head floating right at him out of the forest.
“To the horses!” screamed Toli, spinning on his heel and diving forward.
Quentin turned in the same instant and flew to Balder’s side. He found the animal’s head and slashed at the reins that tied him to the branch where he had been tethered for the night.
The mighty warhorse jerked free and reared upon its hind legs as it spun round to face its ghost attacker. Quentin dodged out of the way as a heavy, iron-shod hoof whistled through the air where his head had been an instant before.
Balder neighed wildly, flailing the air with his forelegs. The wolf, plunging at them from the forest, swerved and bounded aside to avoid Balder’s flying hooves.
Out of the corner of his eye, Quentin saw another wolf dashing in from the side. He leaped forward and swung the makeshift club high over his head, yelling at the top of his lungs as he did so. The yell surprised him as much as the scared wolf, who hung back in its attack just long enough for Quentin to land a blow square on its long snout. The wolf ’s jaws snapped shut with a teeth-cracking crunch as the club fell. The animal let out a pleading yelp and backed away.
Another yelp sounded behind him, and Quentin started toward Toli to lend a hand. He had run not two steps when his foot caught on a root, and he went down.
As he fell, Quentin sensed a motion behind him, and before he hit the ground with a thud, he felt a weight upon his back. Without thinking, he threw an arm over his head as the wolf ’s long teeth raked at his exposed neck. He felt the dagger in his hand and tried to wrench free his other arm pinioned beneath him.
He felt the wolf ’s teeth caught in the sleeve of his tunic, tearing at his clothing. He squirmed under the weight of the animal, trying to bring the knife up and into the wolf ’s belly.
The knife flashed up, suddenly free, and Quentin looked beneath his arm to see the body of the wolf flying sideways and folding in midair as if it had no backbone. Then he saw Balder’s head tossed high above him as he prepared to deliver another similar blow to any predator daring to come within range of his lightning hooves.
“Kenta!” Toli cried. Quentin looked around to see his friend holding four wolves at bay with his whirling branch. Three others were working at the other horse, closing in for a lunge at the frightened animal’s throat.
Jumping to his feet, Quentin found his club in his hand and raced toward his friend. “God Most High, help us now!” he screamed as he ran.
One wolf broke off its attack of the horse to meet Quentin in full flight. Quentin lunged with the club, but the wily creature dodged and caught the club in its mouth. The wolf jerked backward with such force it nearly pulled Quentin’s arm from its socket as he let go of the club. He brought the knife up before him as the wolf gathered itself for another lunge.
Toli screamed something unintelligible, and Quentin saw a wolf standing on its hind legs with its paws on Toli’s back, jaws snapping wildly.
There was a growl before him, and Quentin looked down into the wolf ’s evil yellow eyes. The wolf snarled savagely and bared its cruel fangs, coiling itself, snakelike, for a strike.
Then Quentin heard a squeal from the bushes beside him. Another wolf ? It did not sound like a wolf. He heard more squeals and the sound of something big crashing recklessly through the underbrush.
The wolf heard it and turned its baleful eyes from Quentin to look at the brush behind it.
All at once the bushes erupted in high-pitched squeals and the crashing sound of small hooves tearing among the branches. Dark shapes like boulders came dashing through the clearing from the far side of the forest.
The dark forms raced headlong into the wolves, squealing and snorting as they ran. The wolves, snarling in terror, turned to face this new foe.
One of the dark creatures brushed by Quentin, nearly knocking him off his feet. It was then that Quentin realized the squealing shapes were those of wild pigs—boars and sows.
The wild pigs, led by a huge boar with long, curving tusks, bolted with a fury into the thick of the wolves. Toli leaped aside as they came crashing into the clearing to engage the wolves.
Fur flew. The tear of flesh and meaty crunch of living bone being splintered could be heard amid the yelp of the terrorized wolves.
The large white wolf, the leader, which had begun the attack, barked once and made a dash for the forest. Those of his marauding band that could still run turned tail and followed him as the pigs snuffled after them.
In moments they were gone, and Quentin stood fighting for his breath in the center of the clearing. All that could be heard was the receding crash of the wild pigs in thundering pursuit of the fleeing wolves.
Then Toli was beside him, peering into his face in quiet wonder. Toli’s face was wet from sweat and blood from a small cut over his eye. “Are you all right, Kenta?” he asked, touching Quentin on the arm with his fingertips.
“Yes, I am fine. But you are bleeding.”
“I am not hurt—just a scratch.” He turned to where the sounds of pursuit were dying away in the forest.
“I have never seen anything like it,” breathed Quentin. “Have you?”
Toli shook his head. “It is known among my people that wild pigs will sometimes fight off a wolf that threatens their young. But this . . . this is a mighty sign. Whinoek has raised his hand to protect us.”
“The god must care about us very much,” said Quentin, remembering his desperate prayer only moments before.
“Yes,” agreed Toli thankfully. “But there is something else.”
Quentin waited for him to say what it was.
“There is plenty of game in this forest for wolves to pull down— deer and pigs, the old and sick. Much safer than taking on humans with horses. Wolves do not attack men—only rarely, in the deep of winter when food runs scarce and they starve.”
“What made them do it?” Quentin’s eyes went round. “Nimrood?”
Toli gave a cryptic shrug and raised his eyes to where the trees met overhead. The small patch of sky showed a dull iron blue. “The sun is coming up soon. We must be on our way.”
Together they set about calming the horses and breaking camp as quickly as possible. Though neither spoke, it was clear to both that they wanted to be far away as soon as possible.