Today sees my first proper Fiction Fursday attempt! This story was suggested by Jason over at Aethereal Engineer. Jason is a brilliant writer of short fiction so of course he sent me away last week with a fantastic idea. He suggested that I write a story with fantasy elements in it but set it in a world with technology or culture no further advanced than the Neolithic period. I realised as I was halfway through writing this that I was more than likely being influenced by Jason’s own epic story, The Old Man of the Elder Trees, which is a brilliant read. This realisation gave me pause but I decided to finish it nonetheless. I hope that doesn’t mean I’ve cheated!
Anyway, it was great fun to write a fantasy story again and I hope you all enjoy what I came up with. It’s a bit longer than my recent stories but I hope it’s exciting enough to keep your interest! Pop by next week for another Fiction Fursday, and if you’d like to suggest something for me to write about in the coming weeks then please write it in the comments section.
Stonefur the Mighty
By Adam Dixon
Winter’s fingertips had started to brush the land, signalling its rapid approach. Jeb shivered as a bitter wind swept through the trees, rustling the leaves and snatching at his hair and beard. He and his brothers moved through the forest as one, their bare feet treading silently upon the grass. The four men were clothed only in hide loincloths to maximise their freedom of movement; they would need to be very fast that day. Jeb hoped that the green daub the Shaman had provided would mask his scent as he had promised. He and his brothers were covered in the sticky mixture, giving them the added effect of camouflage whilst they hunted. Their quarry still had sharp ears so stealth was necessary too, but any advantage offered to them had been seized upon.
Jeb’s brothers each carried a spear made from a sturdy tree branch with a sharpened flint blade tied to it. Jeb carried the only bow and his quiver contained just four arrows. The blades and arrowheads had been fashioned over the course of two days, requiring patience and multiple attempts before success. The experience had served as a stark reminder that their people were not hunters anymore and that cultivating the earth and raising cattle had softened their warrior’s edge. No matter, they had skill enough to do what was needed that day. Jeb grimaced and hoped that the Shaman would hold up his end of their bargain; this was dangerous work for mere promises.
They soon reached the clearing they had been guided towards. A stream flowed through the forest to the north, meandering around a pile of rocks and fallen trees. Lying upon the largest trunk at a distance of one hundred paces was the biggest wolf Jeb had ever seen. It was as tall as a horse and as wide as a bull, its lithe muscles visible beneath its white-flecked grey fur. Jeb stared, transfixed by the beauty of the animal and by the icy fear which caressed his limbs. He had never seen a Great Wolf before and he was humbled and scared. He instantly regretted his task but shook it from his mind with grim determination and held his fear at bay. This needed to be done. Stonefur the Mighty must be brought down that day.
Jeb signalled to his brothers with one fist raised, not taking his eyes from the resting wolf. He saw them fan out in different directions to form a rough semi-circle around the beast. Jeb noted with appreciation that their limbs were poised and ready and their eyes were alert. He knew they were prepared for whatever may happen. Offering a silent plea to the gods and goddesses to watch over them, Jeb signalled again and crouched down. Stocky Horeb and slender Orrin moved forwards, no longer muffling their steps. Jeb notched an arrow to his bow and pulled the string back, sighting the beast along the shaft. The men advanced fifteen paces before the Great Wolf looked up. Its yellow eyes glared across the clearing at the two humans, noting their raised spears. Stonefur growled deeply as a warning and raised itself up on its powerful legs, preparing to spring. Jeb released his held breath and fired.
As the bowstring snapped Stonefur’s eyes flicked towards the sound. It tried to leap from the trunk and out of the line of fire but Jeb’s aim was true and the arrow buried itself in the Great Wolf’s shoulder. The beast bellowed in fury and landed on the ground as blood welled up and stained its fur. Roaring it tensed its hind legs and bounded towards the humans. The events of the next few seconds seemed to pass in slow motion. Jeb blew a shrill note and Horeb and Orrin ran off in opposite directions. His third brother, Jonas, charged forwards and hurled his spear. Again Stonefur attempted to dodge the attack but was caught by surprise. The hefty projectile slammed itself into the wolf’s side as it twisted mid-charge, the force of it knocking it back a step. Another furious roar rang out into the forest, causing nearby birds to take off from their perches in fright. Jeb fired another arrow as the wolf turned towards the now unarmed Jonas, causing only a superficial wound in Stonefur’s left ear. This bought his brother enough time to draw his flint axe from his belt. Usually that axe would be used to chop firewood, but its purpose was far more dangerous that day. Jeb whistled again and Horeb and Orrin drew their arms back for a throw. Their spears flew across the clearing, both finding their mark. Stonefur yelped and whimpered, blood pouring from wounds in its right hind leg and left shoulder. It was still in the fight, though, dislodging the offending weapons as it leaped towards Jonas. Jeb’s next arrow flew over Stonefur’s head and he watched in horror as Jonas was rammed to the ground. The man screamed and tried to ready his axe, but Stonefur was upon him and crushed his head with one snap of his jaws. With fangs painted crimson with blood Stonefur turned to face the archer. Jeb fired his final arrow, dropping the bow as it flew and snatching up his own axe. The arrow launched itself into Stonefur’s chest, forcing a pained roar from its mighty throat.
Jeb rushed forwards, yelling at the top his lungs. Stonefur bound towards him with terrible speed. Jeb waited until it had launched itself into the air before diving forwards into a roll. He felt the wolf’s gigantic frame pass over him, his feet touching the hard muscle in its stomach as he spun. He came out of the roll in a sprint and dashed towards his brothers. Stonefur skidded to a halt and turned, panting. Its eyes flicked between the three men as they approached with their axes drawn and determination in their faces. Jeb noted that its haunches were trembling and his eyes were misting over; it was shaken and the loss of blood was slowing it down. Stonefur shook its head and growled, seeming to become drowsy. Jeb and his brothers began to spread out. The wolf backed up towards the trees, its growls and warning snaps becoming weaker. It glanced at the thick forest and seemed to make a calculation. Before it could make a run for it Jeb and his brothers charged, screeching as they swung their axes at the beast. Stonefur roared and lunged at Jeb, who leaped back nimbly before driving a fierce blow home. His axe bit deep into Stonefur’s solid shoulder and the thin blade snapped. Jeb backed off, holding the now-useless weapon raised. Stonefur’s yellow eyes met Jeb’s and an understanding flickered between them; the wolf was acknowledging defeat. Jeb felt his chest constrict as a wave of compassion and deep respect welled up inside him. Horeb and Orrin continued to rain blows on to the dying wolf, who collapsed with a thud, blood matting its fur. Once it fell the two men also backed away, exchanging glances with Jeb. Jeb raised a hand to them.
“It is done,” he panted. “We need fight no more, my brothers.” The two men nodded, and Orrin ran back to Jonas. He knelt before the dead man, tears leaking from his eyes and soaking into his beard.
“Poor Jonas,” he said, his voice croaking. He turned his face away from the crushed remains. “He was always too keen to fight. At least his sons can be proud of him now.”
“Aye, brother, that they can,” Jeb said softly, still watching Stonefur. He felt sorrow at Jonas’ death but he felt the need to honour his killer. The wolf’s golden eyes had closed and its breathing was becoming shallow. Jeb knelt down beside its great head and laid a hand on its snout. Stonefur twitched at the contact but did not open its eyes.
“You fought well, Great One,” Jeb said. “It was our honour to do battle with you this day.” A weak growl issued forth from Stonefur’s throat and then it lay still. Stonefur the Mighty was dead.
Later that day as the sun lowered itself into the embrace of the horizon, Jeb made his way up a steep mountain slope. He had scrubbed the green daub from his body and was dressed in his hides and furs to combat the chill in the air. He carried a heavy blood-stained sack made from skins over one shoulder and a shallow clay bowl in the other. Crimson blood slopped to and fro as he walked but Jeb was careful not to spill a single drop. After walking a good distance the ground began to level out and Jeb stopped to rest. Gazing around him he noted the height he had reached; he could see the tops of trees from the forest and distant smoke rising from his tribe’s dwellings. Jeb dropped into a crouch and closed his eyes, meditating on the events of the day.
“You have returned, tribesman,” a thin voice spoke. Jeb opened his eyes and saw that the Shaman had appeared in front of him. He stood up cautiously, wondering how the man always managed to move without a sound. The Shaman was very old, that much was immediate and obvious. His hair and beard were grey, a feature which awed Jeb as not even his grandfather had lived to see his hair change colour so completely. The man’s limbs were still strong, but he showed signs of arthritis and carried a gnarled staff to aid him as he walked. His green eyes were still sharp and intense, reminding Jeb of the keen awareness of the hawk. He was dressed in loose animal skins and bracelets made from bone rattled on his wrists.
“I have, Wise One,” Jeb said, stepping forward. He placed the blood-filled bowl on the ground before the Shaman’s feet before reaching into the sack. Using both hands, Jeb lifted the massive head of Stonefur the Mighty from within, grunting with the effort. To his surprise the old man dropped his staff and lifted it from Jeb’s hands as if it were no heavier than an infant. The Shaman stared down at the Great Wolf’s remains, a wild light touching his eyes and an unpleasant smile creeping across his face.
“Oh, tribesman, you have done me a great service today!” The Shaman rasped, his voice charged with emotion. “This wolf has plagued my waking thoughts for nearly twenty years! A good fight he gave you, of that I am certain!”
“He did, Wise One,” Jeb said flatly. “My brother, Jonas, died during the fight. At nine-and-twenty his final days were approaching, but he was a good man, brave and strong.” He left the accusation hanging in the air. The Shaman ignored it. Jeb sighed and shrugged.
“Now that it is done, I must ask you something, Wise One,” Jeb said. “Why did you require our aid to vanquish the Great Wolf? Surely your magic would have been sufficient to bring him down?” Again, Jeb aimed the accusation carefully. The Shaman snorted and glanced up at him, scorn in his eyes.
“Fool! Of course it would!” he snarled. “But the beast and I had an accord! We were never to directly oppose one another, not that it is your business to know such things! You required aid for your people and I required the death of the Great Wolf, there is nothing else to say.”
“As you say, Wise One,” Jeb replied wearily. “I have kept my end of our bargain and now I beg that you keep yours.”
“Yes, yes, of course I shall!” The Shaman scratched his beard in irritation, supporting the huge head with one hand. “My word is my honour, as it is for you. Come to my dwelling, tribesman Jeb, and bring the blood with you.” Jeb scooped up the bowl and trotted after the Shaman, who was talking to the bloody remains he approached a hidden cleft on the mountainside.
“Ahh, I finally have you, Stonefur! Heehee, but you have given me the run-around all these years! Heeheehee! If only you had stayed with me instead of insisting that you be with ‘your kind’! We could have accomplished so much together! You foolish old dog, you!” Jeb walked on in silence and thought about poor Jonas. He had little desire to speak with the old man who had demanded so much from him. He wanted this ordeal to be over so he could return to his wife and children. The Shaman squeezed through the cleft and moved into darkness. Jeb followed, pressing his chest against a wall of stone in order to keep moving. The stone was cold and jagged, ripping Jeb’s clothes and nicking his skin as he pressed on. After several claustrophobic minutes Jeb emerged into a wide opening within the mountain, blinking as a burning torch appeared by his head. As Jeb shielded his eyes and allowed them to adjust he became aware of the Shaman muttering somewhere nearby. He squinted through the amber glow and saw the old man crouched by a fire-pit, the blackened ashes of a small fire piled inside the stones. The Shaman was pouring the blood of Stonefur onto the mound in sprinkles, chanting and moaning in an alien language. Jeb moved away from the torch on the cave wall and watched the Shaman with interest. Suddenly, the Shaman thrust out a hand.
“Give me your necklace,” he commanded. Jeb hesitated. The necklace he wore boasted the fangs of several wolves and bears connected by a length of twine, each one coloured differently with age. It was a necklace which had been added to and passed down through the male side of his family for six generations.
“Give it to me, man!” The Shaman barked, his sharp eyes glaring at Jeb. “Lest you wish me to stop and let the wolves rip your tribe apart this winter!” Jeb tore the necklace from around his throat and tossed it to the Shaman. The man caught it deftly and continued his chanting. He placed the necklace on to the blood-soaked ashes reverently, waving his bony fingers in weird movements over it. Without warning the mound caught fire, ashes and all, with a bright green flame leaping up to the low ceiling of the cave. Jeb’s brain told him that it was impossible but his eyes grew wide as he watched. He set his jaw tightly as the trophies of his ancestors blackened as the dancing flames licked them, tasted them. The Shaman went on chanting from his crouched position, his eyes closed and his voice low. A pungent smell filled Jeb’s nostrils as the Shaman worked, forcing him to cover his nose with his hand. Ten minutes passed and the flames flickered away to nothingness. The necklace had joined the ashes. The Shaman rose to his feet.
“It is done,” the old man said solemnly. “The spell I have cast will keep the wolf packs and bears away from your dwelling throughout the winter, no matter how hungry the beasts become. They will wither and starve rather than invade your lands. Your tribe will be safe.” Jeb released a breath he didn’t realise he had been holding.
“Thank you, Wise One,” he said, bowing low. “My tribe and I are forever in your debt.”
“No, you are not,” the Shaman said bluntly, staring at the smouldering ash pile. “We made a bargain and both sides were kept, there is no debt. Now, please leave me. I wish to be alone.” Jeb nodded and retreated back the way he had come. As he left the darkness of the tunnel and stepped out into the fading light of the evening, he chanced a peek over his shoulder. The cleft in the mountain had disappeared; he would not be able to locate the Shaman again. Jeb shrugged and began the long walk back to his family. A great weight was lifted from him and he felt happy in the knowledge that his family would be safe. They would bury Jonas that night and continue their existence unmolested by the hunger of wild beasts. As he walked, Jeb whispered a prayer for the Great Wolf Stonefur the Mighty, and bade the gods treat him and his brother as warriors in the afterlife. They deserved that much.