Cover image for Night of the wolf
Title:
Night of the wolf
Author:
Borchardt, Alice.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Ballantine Pub. Group, 1999.
Physical Description:
454 pages ; 25 cm
Language:
English
ISBN:
9780345423627
Format :
Book

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Summary

Summary

As the powerful forces of a conquering Rome sweep across ancient Druidic Gaul, an epic battle erupts between the shapeshifter Manael, a werewolf, and Dryas, the powerful Druid priestess summoned to destroy him.


Reviews 1

Publisher's Weekly Review

This pseudo-historical fantasy sequel to last year's The Silver Wolf needs an exhausting amount of novelistic foreplay to stoke its climax, the assassination of Julius Caesar. Maeniel, the man who was empowered in the previous novel with the ability to turn into a wolf, now meets menopausal Dryas, a fiercely independent warrior from the White Isle's northern highlands. Dryas has been summoned by Archdruid Mir as the Celts' last hope to stem the Roman invasion by assassinating Caesar. First, though, she is supposed to seduce and kill Maeniel, who has been savaging Mir's people to punish them for having sacrificed a Celtic princess with whom he had an affair. (Their libidinous entanglement provides grist for several sexy flashbacks.) Many pages later, Maeniel and Dryas have become allies and are in Rome as the fateful Ides of March approach. Borchardt effectively conveys her sympathy with wolf psychology, but she rides militant feminism into the ground. Her dialogue runs to the cheesy, especially the vaporings of Caesar's doomed wife, Calpurnia, and the stock chitterings of stereotypic gay Roman epicureans. Undigested chunks of familiar Latin and Shakespeare constantly impede the action, so that hunky primitives and gratefully lustful middle-aged temptresses notwithstanding, Borchardt's attempt at mingling wolves and women, Avalon's mists and the debauchery of Rome turns out irrevocably sterile. Author tour; foreign rights sold in Germany, Holland and the UK. (Aug.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved


Excerpts

Excerpts

THE WOLF AWOKE. HE LIFTED HIS HEAD FROM his paws. Above, the moon was full, but only a drifting ghost through the mixed pine and cedar on the mountainside. The rest of the pack slept. He alone felt the touch of ... he knew not what. Wolves don't grieve. Not even for themselves. He rose and went through the rite of fur straightening, then drifted down silently to a stream formed by overflow from a lake above. It was just wide enough to mirror the sky in its water. Since she died ... no, since she was killed, he had awakened every night at this hour, an hour when all else sleeps ... remembering. The night has rhythms of its own. Rhythms that resonate in the flesh, blood, and bones of all earth's creatures. Man, alone, has forgotten them, forgotten they ever mattered. But to the wolf, they came as memories, memories not his own, fragments of a dream. He touched an immortal consciousness as old as life, the experience of a creature not yet self-aware and so immortal. The first of our kind, swimming in the water column of the Cambrian sea. At this time in the night, it ceased the flexions of its muscular body and drowsed in a shimmer of moonlight. He, the wolf, understood that a catastrophic disruption of his consciousness had taken place, depriving him of the birthright handed down to him by that first dreamer of the ocean sea. His muzzle shattered the image of the moon in the water in the way sorrow shattered his sleep. Above, the drifting clouds drowned the moon. Near their kill, the wolves of his pack slept soundlessly and without dreams. The air around him was cold. It was late autumn, nearly winter again, but he felt a fire within himself--a fire that the wind from the glaciers towering over the mountain passes couldn't quench. A fire that heated his skin under his heavy winter coat. Fire! They were creatures of fire. And fire followed them everywhere. The smell of burning always tainted the air around their dwellings. Earth, air, fire, and water. All living beings on earth partook of those elements, but of them all, only man was the master of fire. Why? How did they seize such power? Nothing in his memories could tell him. When his kind first met them in the darkness and struggle of the world's winter, they controlled flames, extinguishing and kindling them at will, their only advantage in a ruthless battle for simple survival against the omnipresent night and cold. Otherwise, they were pitiable, naked things. Pitiable, naked things like he himself was, at this moment, because as the last rays of moonlight were caught by the drifting clouds, he became a man. He remembered that she said--she told him--fire was a gift of the gods. He had laughed at the word gift. He had already seen enough of the humans to know they stole and despoiled without conscience or compunction and read in the minds of the gods the things they most wanted for themselves. Worship and submission to the feckless, arbitrary commands of those who maneuvered themselves into a position to rule their own kind. "A gift," he had asked, "stolen perhaps?" "Perhaps," she answered with a shrug. "The thieves were mocked by their theft, because, as always, power is a two-edged sword." But power, the man by the stream thought, whatever it costs, power is life. Without the theft, they and all their kind could never have survived that long-ago endless winter and they would have been winnowed out, as were so many others. The man stretched his arms upward as if to embrace the moon, just as the cloud in its passage was silvered at the edges by the returning glow. Then the silver light shone full in his face. He wondered what the gods really did want. She, whose touch gave him the power to change from wolf to man and back again, seemed careless of worship and had never asked for thanks. And, indeed, he didn't even know if he should thank her because, like fire, this gift brought suffering and sorrow in its wake. A gift garnished with cruel knowledge and an awareness of absolute loss. Then he was wolf again, satisfied to extinguish a comprehension of life that he didn't, at the moment, want. He remembered fire, and only fire--that spirit, that everlasting ambiguity that could protect, create, and destroy. And the wolf set out, the only wakeful creature in a sleeping world. Being aware and knowing awareness was a gnawing curse ... a curse to be extinguished in blood, fire, and vengeance. How did he know who the man was? He had seen. Why was he sure of his guilt? To the wolf this would have seemed a ridiculous question. He had smelled it, with a certainty that could not be denied--the scent of guilt that is beyond resolve, or anger, or fear. Even his most ancient ancestor swimming in that first sea had seen, had known. And somewhere its rudimentary consciousness had been able to store the information presented by its deployed senses. Humans, in their blindness, think intelligence has one path--theirs! But his brain--older and wiser, though not as acute--knew knowledge has many facets and routes. None of us is any one thing. No more than a bush, a tree, or even an unloved weed is. We are all a combination of many factors, shapes, sizes, odors, movements, habits. Each impinging on the consciousness of others--others we never notice. So the wolf knew this man. He had marked him, along with those others, in the hour between day and night, in the place that was neither water nor land, never guessing the man's fell purpose until it was too late. Too late to stop him and the others from the completion of their task. A task his mind, as a wolf or human, could never comprehend, understand, or, for that matter, forgive--not in the year since, not ever.Now the man in question had seen his tracks near the watercourse that ran past his farm and so was on guard. This one was not the only man whose guilt the wolf had felt, had seen and smelled. But the first had had no suspicion he was hunted and so had fallen easily into his trap. This one gratified the wolf by suffering more than the first. So he had deliberately prolonged the stalk for several months. Now it was time to see who would emerge the winner in the contest of wills. The wolf moved silently onto a deer trail, through a dark second-growth forest toward more settled lands below. As he traveled, the night wore on. The earth gave up its heat. Air movement ceased. Dew began settling on the grass and bushes. The hunters of midnight and dawn slept, with either full bellies or empty, as did their prey. Nothing stirred at this hour. The wolf looked down at the farmstead. The house was round with a conical thatch roof. A bare, tramped, corduroy yard led to a round barn very similar to the house, differing only in being smaller and open at the sides. Near the barn stood the wolf's target--a wicker sheepfold. The house and barn were set at the edge of a wheat field that led to a graveled stream, its channel forming another tiny tributary to the river in the gorge. The farmer had begun taking the sheep in for the night. The wolf moved from his perch to the wheat field. It didn't offer much concealment. The stalks were only tall enough to brush his shoulders and belly. Curlicues of ground mist hung over the laden heads of grain and they wet the wolf's fur as he pushed his way through.The bare earth between the rows was cold under his feet. As he neared the farm buildings, he dropped lower, slinking along the ground, looking for all the world like a bit of dust driven by a breeze moving across the furrows. However, an alert observer would have noted, in this darkest hour before dawn, there was no wind. A mastiff the size of a calf was sleeping chained to a post in front of the sheepfold. So confident, the wolf thought, you are asleep. How silly. I would not sleep if I were nearby. Well ... you will not awaken. The dog didn't. The wolf dropped into the sheepfold. The sheep, awakened from sleep by a roaring predator among them, tried to flee in all directions at once. Two went into, not over, the sides. The sheepfold disintegrated. The terrified animals bolted into the yard and then the ripe wheat. One old ram tried to make a stand. The wolf flanked the lowered horns and slammed into his shoulder, sending him rolling. Nerve broken, the ram fled with the rest. The wolf paused. He stood in the yard, panting. One of the sheep impaled on the broken wickerwork of the ruined fold was making the night hideous with hoarse cries of anguish. The other hung dead beside it. There was a light in the circular farmhouse. Inside, a woman screamed curses and imprecations. The wolf sat down, tongue lolling. It should take them a little time to get up their courage. A few seconds later, a man charged out of the house, spear in one hand, torch in the other. Two others, armed only with cudgels, followed more cautiously. The first gave a horrified glance at the dead mastiff, then at the ruined sheepfold and the two--by now the one who'd been crying out was dead also--dead ewes. And the wolf sitting, taking his ease before them all. He charged the wolf, spear high. The wolf turned, then vanished into the darkness, the way a puff of dust does when taken by the wind. The farmer, incensed almost beyond reason, chased him into the wheat field--followed, very much more slowly, by the two others. The wolf heard one of them whisper, "Let's go back to the rath. It's gone, fled. We can search in the morning." The wolf flattened himself expertly against the ground amidst the thick growth of wheat and slunk forward. The farmer shivered. He raised the torch higher and shifted his grip on the spear shaft. His perspiration made the rough wood slippery. He could feel sweat on his brow and more running from his armpits. He couldn't see his two companions, only a circle of darkness beyond the torchlight. He waded through a sea of ripe, red wheat. It stirred, softly rustling in the dawn wind. Dear God! Dear God! No! There was no wind. The air was utterly still. The wolf hit him high between the shoulder blades. A pair of unbelievably powerful jaws crushed his shoulder and left arm as he fell--the arm that held the torch. He saw it flip out of his hand, fly free, and land about ten feet away. He had a few seconds to realize the ripe wheat was tinder dry ... The wolf paused on the mountainside and glanced back at the dreadful tableau behind him. The man he'd felled no longer struggled. He was a blackened shape lying in a sea of flame. Another one of the cowardly followers was on fire, running madly through the fields, spreading the flames even faster. The third escaped. He and the other women from the rath were holding the farmer's wife back, keeping her from dashing frantically and uselessly to her death. Closer to the tree line, the wolf looked back again. The wheat fields were a lake of flame. The house was now involved, wood and thatch throwing a column of fire at the sky. Even the apple and quince orchards burned, as wheat had been planted in rows between the trees. The surviving humans fled down the watercourse toward the river and safety. THE MAN WHO GREETED BLAZE WAS FEEBLE, WHITE haired, and nearly blind. Oh, ye gods, Blaze thought. How many years has it been? He remembered a healthy, vigorous man in his sixties. This man was eighty if he was a day. He tottered ahead of Blaze into a one-room house, really a ramshackle thatched hut. The fields, once intended to feed the old Druid, were neglected and empty of livestock, filled with tall weeds. Someone had been tending the small kitchen garden and fishpond. Onions, leeks, and turnips flourished near the door. With a sigh, Blaze followed the old man into the house. Mir should have been replaced years ago, allowed to live out his life in peace. Sent home to Ireland where he could be cared for by his family. But in these troubled times, not one of his fellows had cared enough to bother. Or had been able to take the time. The interior of the house was dark, the only light a small hearth fire. A woman bent over an earthenware pot sunk in charcoal near the flames. Mir pointed to her. "My wife," he said. "I can't remember her name." The girl lifted her head and Blaze saw she was very young, no more than sixteen. He looked more closely and realized she was horribly scarred. Her face was crosshatched with swollen stripes. She looked as if someone had taken a very sharp blade, then slashed and slashed. When she saw Blaze, she tried to smile. A twisted grimace was all she could manage. "Go away," Mir said. "We men need to talk." She nodded and pulled the pot out of the coals. "The stew is done?" Mir asked. She nodded again and slipped out. Blaze and Mir sat down at a table. Blaze looked out at the green and gold sunlight beyond the door. He shivered. Being in this house was like sitting in a cave and staring out on the bright world beyond. He watched the girl cross the overgrown meadow and vanish into the pines. A very strange odor hung in the room. It was rising from the bubbling pot. "What sort of stew is that?" Blaze asked. "I can't say," Mir replied. "I never eat it. I make do with a little bread and cheese. My people give me leftovers from their own tables. And my garden fills in from time to time." "She's a bad cook?" Blaze asked. "I don't know. I just don't care to eat the things she cooks. I once saw her put a snake, a handful of grasshoppers, and a dove into the kettle. The snake was alive. It got away. So were the grasshoppers; some of them got away. The dove was dead, its neck wrung, but it was not cleaned and still had all its feathers. Then she tossed in three live mice. I was able to rescue the cat before she added it to the brew. It ran away, though, anyway." Blaze shook his head as though trying to clear it. "The cat ... ran away?" "Yes," Mir said. "She picked it up by the tail. The cat didn't like it." "Why does she do such things? Have you asked her?" Blaze queried him. "She doesn't talk," Mir answered. "Oh," Blaze said. Mir shrugged. "She belongs here with us. She needs protection. She isn't dangerous and she's warm at night. I could do worse. I will designate someone to take her when I am gone. But I didn't call you here to talk about the half-wit, but the wolf." "Ah, yes," Blaze said. "The wolf. This wolf that behaves like a man." THE NEXT NIGHT THE BIG GRAY LEFT WELL AHEAD of his pack. It was his duty to do so. He had attacked humans, thereby risking the lives of his companions. Humans did not discriminate. They saw all wolves as ravening killers and would destroy, sometimes after torture, any wolf they could catch. A retreating glacier had carved the pool eons ago. It was part of a small stream fed by snowmelt in the summer and by native artesian springs in winter. Somehow the water never froze. The wolf had long wondered about this and had been puzzled by his own bent toward curiosity. His kind seldom bothered about such things. The first people to come to the valley called it the Lady's Mirror. The Lady in question was already ancient by then, clouded by a host of other deities, but still remembered, especially during her hours, dawn and dusk. At those times, the inhabitants of the valley avoided the place, fearing they might see her walking there and be accosted, to who knows what end. The Lady was revered, respected, loved, and feared. Meetings with her could be very unlucky, and besides, who knows what a goddess is thinking? Perhaps they also avoided the place at such times because they knew it was the haunt of wolves moving down from the mountains at dusk to hunt in the valleys below. At dawn they gathered again, returning to their dens beyond the tree line. The sun was sending up long rays from beyond the western peaks when the wolves came to drink. The sunset forest sighed in the wind's passage. The water, true to its name, mirrored the dark forest of spruce and fir, the sun-flushed evening sky. The pool ended in a falls flowing in shining smoothness over a flight of black basalt steps into another smaller lake. From there it became a torrent cascading down a steep slope into the roaring flood racing through the valley below. He approached the pool cautiously, searching through all the nearby coverts where bowmen could hide. He feared an ambush. He found nothing. Oh, someone had been there all right. An old someone with a light step. He sensed this and saw no cause for alarm. When he reached the pool he found it deserted by all but swallows skimming for insects over the glasslike surface. The women who bathed below the falls had been there and were gone. Women reminded him of those tender parts of prey animals, and reduced him to something as close to guilt as a wolf could ever feel. Yet he found them irresistible. A female wolf at midwinter, all fangs, her belly swollen with whelps, eyes blazing yellow with fear for her unborn young, was often her mate's best argument for celibacy. But human women were a walking seduction. They covered their naked pink and brown skin with cloth almost as soft as fur was. Hairless, they felt like flower petals, velvet, silken, and fragrant. The hot places of their bodies misted the air at their groins with a variety of odors, some enticing, intoxicating, and, finally, as they approached orgasm ... maddening. But most succulent of all was their surrender. At the finality of desire, they yielded bonelessly, melting around his body, into his arms, and into their own boundless pleasures as though they yielded to death. Indeed, when the first he embraced reached the culmination of her desire, for a moment he feared she had perished in his arms. Only the loud, persistent drumming of her heart reassured him that he had not, in his own urgency, destroyed her. They are slaves, he thought at first, shaped by the torrent of their own males' desires the way the water-smooth stones in the riverbed were sculpted by the unending flow. Drawn by Eros himself from the earth's womb and shaped only for the delight of the savage killer mates who surrounded them and sought madly to possess them as often as possible. They were created head to toe to madden. There was nothing about them that could not inspire pleasure. Small, high-arched feet, narrow ankles, curving smooth legs, silken thighs, velvety buttocks, a spine one could follow to the nape of the neck with lips and tongue while they squeaked with delight, writhing and purring with ecstasy like wild cats. And the breasts. Ah, God, those things. Wolves are born blind, struggling against each other for their mother's teats in the dark. Those breasts as he cupped them with his hands and sucked with his lips brought back the memory of that first triumphant spurt of milk into his mouth. The soft globes, shaped almost like cups, were a reminder of a giving world where a man might drink and fulfillment pour into his loins, heating his whole body the way that first warm taste of life had told him he would live. Haunted by the first fear of independent life that he would not reach warmth, food, and love--the abject terror that he would not survive. That first taste told him that he would--it tracked its way into his stomach and the warmth filled his whole body. The dark wolf huntresses concealed their endowments except when they needed to feed their pups. The women didn't. They pushed their soft beauties into plain sight, reminding men of woman power, making them sit up and beg. Yes, at first he thought women slaves, playthings of their savage mates. Why not? Didn't these women know even the fiercest of beasts go in terror of man? Surely they were slaves to this endless unstoppable male lechery. Or did they first create it, then encourage it until the obsessed and goaded male became a creature of his desires rather than the possessor of them? A creature of the woman who gratified him.He had encountered her in a dark wood, she who changed his mind about men. To his nose, the aromatic signals their bodies were giving off would have attracted him in preference to food. The men were clustered at the edge of the wood, and raw sexuality and violence hung about them like a thick mist. At the other end of the wood, the sacrificial victims were gathered. The dozen young girls, standing with the dark-robed priestesses, were grouped near a pile of smoldering logs. They were naked and their skins gleamed with oil. Some green herb had been thrown onto the fire and the women were dancing slowly, uncoordinatedly, in the thick fumes, half steam and half smoke, rising from the sputtering fire. The wolf knew the rite. He had seen it before. He also knew men fought among themselves for the privilege of joining the chase. The procedure was a simple one. When the rising moon's tip touched the top of the standing stone, the girls would be driven into the grove. The men would follow. The girls were sixteen, at most, and all virgins. They would not be virgin when they emerged in the morning. Some would be weeping. All would be bleeding because if they didn't bleed when entered, they would be flogged by the men until the blood came. And some, not a few, would be crowned with flowers and have strange smiles on their faces. The gray wolf found himself drawn into human shape by the powerful magic hanging over the grove. Every hair on his body had stood up like a cat's. Then, as though drenched with icy water, he was a man, the spring night air cold against his skin. He gasped, shivered all over as the canine in him tried to shake off what felt to it like a waterfall of ice. He stood shivering violently, his eyes fixed on the women. The priestess who had been watching the moonrise shouted something to the group guarding the girls. He heard the slap of a switch on flesh. The girls milled near the fire like frightened mares; one screamed. They tossed their heads, long hair flying. The priestesses held long, flexible willow canes. The women twisted and turned, screaming, trying to escape the blows. But still they fought, refusing to enter the wood, less afraid of what, after all, amounted only to a switching rather than face what awaited in the darkness under the trees. It wasn't until they saw the men coming full tilt across the meadow--charging silently, fists clenched, eyes wild--that they broke and ran. The one he'd chosen, a lithe, black-haired girl, flew through last year's autumn leaves like a wounded deer. Fast as she was, he could have had her in seconds, but with the deliberate skill of a predator, he held back until they were deep in the grove, enmeshed in thick, black, velvet night. The only light from the stars, dense, brilliant, glowing dust everywhere the sky could be seen through the branches above. He caught her. She screamed. His wolf senses told him about a bed of ferns. He threw her down, knocking the wind out of her for a second. Not for a wolf was the savage penetration. She was already screeching and kicking, clawing at where she hoped his face was in the darkness. He wanted to smell, to touch, to taste, and, finally, to drink her substance. He buried his head at the most exciting spot his wolf's brain could find. A place whose emanations outstripped all the rest. Her groin. He lapped vigorously. Her screams and struggles changed to something else. She lay still. He found structures not existing on wolves. Delve ... the place was soft with a rich taste. She was kicking violently, but not at him. Something else here to suck. She gasped, moaned, laughed wildly, then howled, giving rent to such noises as he felt might shame a bitch in heat. Arching her body back with her buttocks pounding the ground. He tried to pull away. She caught his head between her thighs, his hair in her hands. He found himself wanting to drink her dry. He tried. She was swollen, normal; wolves also did this. Other things were not so normal. She heated like a branch charring in a fire until she seemed one burning with fever. Her heart thundered. It went on and on until she reared up and shouted, "Quench me! Do it now!" "Pain," he said. The unpracticed word was almost a snarl. "By all the gods!" Her body shuddered; her nails dug into his back, scoring his skin. "Do you think I give a damn about pain?" But she did. He found out when he forced admission to her intimate domain. She fell back, biting the side of her open hand so as not to scream, her body suddenly drenched with perspiration. "Wait," she whispered, placing her other hand palm open against his chest. She was breathing rapidly, deeply, not quite panting. "The sacrifice is a good one. I feel the blood. He takes his tribute, the male spirit, the bull of the woods. A woman's pain, her terror, her blood belong to him. I have given him mine, as I was chosen by lot to do." Maeniel, now more man than he had ever been, tried to draw away. His mind chased the words through the blind pathways of his brain and couldn't find them. He wanted to say, "No more, you're hurt, bleeding. Your god should be content." But he couldn't fashion the thought into speech. "No," was the only reply he could manage. He tried to free his member from her body. She embraced him, pressing his lips to hers. Her teeth met through his bottom lip. Red rage wiped out all wolf and all humanity. For a second he was, as she wanted him to be, a conscienceless primal being. He completed the act of penetration brutally, vengefully, finally. Her skin went cold, her heartbeat faltered. For a moment he thought he'd killed her, but then she stirred. She wept, but her skin was warming faster and faster. Seemingly almost against her will, a deep throbbing began. "Oh, no," she sobbed. "It will hurt. I can't stand it again." "Not now!" he said. For a moment she was balanced perfectly between pleasure and pain, then pleasure tripped the scales and they were both caught up in a firestorm of mutual desire that burned away caution and hesitation. They explored each other's bodies passionately, constantly, with unceasing energy, as the night wore on. The moon set and then the Pleiades. All that remained were the cold, lonely stars when the dawn wind began to blow. She was melting with exhaustion when she surrendered to him for the last time, the final pulsations of her body drawing him into flame. She lay in the ferns, a rag of flesh, breathing the deep, strong inhalations of sleep. He found another, a man, also sleeping, clutching a half-full wineskin and wearing a woolen mantle. He woke when Maeniel took both. A blow of the gray wolf's fist returned him to the arms of Morpheus. She swallowed the wine without waking, snuggled under the mantle. He found a bay tree nearby and crowned her with the victor's laurels. The mist was a silver glow among the trees as he left her for the sun to find. Memory faded. Over the mountains the sun was sinking into the clouds. The wolf circled the lake, then trotted down the falls themselves, breasted the water in the lower pond. Helpless, his head clearly outlined against the perfectly still water, he invited attack if any huntsmen were concealed in the trees. None came. The wolf reached the shore, puzzled. Men were vengeful creatures. The wolf was sure they would greet him here. But no. He reached the soft, beige sand beach at the edge of the lake, loped out of the water, and shook himself dry. He owned them his superiors in cunning and, for that matter, in cruelty. He couldn't imagine what they might be planning. Some incomprehensible madness like the one that had taken her? Guilt. A feeling known by dogs and wolves as well as men. None enjoys the emotion. The gray wolf didn't either. He didn't like remembering her. The memory of the fleshy passion they'd shared was tainted by the image of her ending. For a moment, the wolf felt terror that he sometimes walked on two legs. They were cruel with an inventiveness and a delight he couldn't comprehend. Yet he partook of their nature. In fact, he was being tempted away from his wild innocence more and more often. This frightened him, but she and others of her kind drew him onward. It would take him a hundred years to find out she really hadn't been beautiful. She hadn't been young, either. She had borne three children; one died in infancy. She brought up the other two; they were grown when he had met their mother. After the gray wolf found out about this, he was grateful. Grateful they hadn't met earlier and she had led a good long life before they had their chance encounter. The sun dipped below the mountain. The evening breeze ruffled the lake's mirrored surface and the wolf's fur. He saw the man. My, the wolf thought, he is a clever one. The wolf froze. The observer stood in the woods near the top of the hill. He had chosen his position carefully. The breeze blew his scent away from the wolf, and he waited in the long shadow of one of the pines. Only the dark outline of one shoulder and the unmistakable silhouette of a human neck and face gave him away. As the wolf watched, the day faded, his eyes gathered in the last light, and he saw a gleam--the white of a human eye. He turned his head deliberately and studied the observer, letting him know he'd been seen. The man made no move, threatening or otherwise, so the wolf slipped into the water, swam the pond, and was gone. What is it? Blaze wondered as he made his way back to Mir's house. All he'd seen was a wolf. True, the thing was a very large wolf, bigger than most men. The thick gray pelt suggested a mountain hunter, one who made his home in the high passes, moving with his fellows across glaciers. Blaze had seen him clearly in the shadows near the lake. But that thick gray and white pelt would be invisible against snow. Blaze shivered and not entirely at the rapidly deepening chill of evening. Yes, one struggling along through the drifts might look directly at this gray creature and not see him until he realized he was staring into a pair of large, yellow-brown eyes only a few feet away ... and ahead of him. By then, there would be time for only a few seconds of prayer. He'd heard of men taken by these aristocratic wild killers, even men traveling with large armed parties. When he was told the stories, he'd always felt some impatience with these fools and with their escorts, who had sometimes been brought before him, asking for mercy. Telling their tale of having lost a companion or an important individual, and pleading it was not their fault, saying they either heard no cry or only a very brief one. Then, when they quickly retraced their steps, of finding only a few drops of blood soaking into the snow. After seeing this one, even at a distance, he suddenly felt a great deal more sympathy for their plight. As he was pushing his way through an exceptionally thick patch of undergrowth, he heard a whisper of sound behind him. Blaze's mouth went suddenly dry and he found his knees weren't steady. Mir claimed this wolf was sometimes a man, and seemed always able to think like a man. The creature had seen him and there was nothing to prevent the giant predator from misleading him by going off in one direction, then--as soon as he was out of sight--turning and following him through the dark wood. Blaze punched at his clothing and found the lantern Mir had given him under his mantle, hanging by a strap from his shoulder. He kindled a flame quickly by striking flint against an iron ring on his finger. As the wick caught, he realized his hands were shaking. He lifted the lantern high and saw he was in a small clearing. The boughs of a huge oak stretched out over him. The ground under him was covered with a mosaic of brown oak leaves. He almost turned to look back, but realized at the last moment he really didn't want to. "Father of the gods, protect me," he whispered as he passed the big oak. At just that moment, he saw the fire Mir had kindled in the clearing in front of his house. He heaved a sigh of relief and hurried onward. When he reached the edge of the wood, he stopped for a second, intending to blow out the lantern. Something tugged at his mantle. Thinking it was caught on a twig, he turned and reached down to free it. The eyes were only inches away. He knew he screamed. Screamed like a woman. He hadn't believed he could scream like that, but he did. He tore free of the mantle--the wolf had it--then flung the lantern at the wolf's back. Somehow, without seeming to move, the wolf dodged the flaming missile. Blaze ran, ran as he didn't think he could still run ... like a terrified twenty-year-old. Mir was awaiting for him at the door. Gasping, Blaze looked back across the empty clearing. The bonfire continued to crackle, flames whipping with small tearing sounds, points reaching for the heavens above. At the edge of the forest he saw his mantle, lying like a dark splotch near the flickering lantern slowly being extinguished by the damp leaves. "Tell me," Blaze gasped hoarsely. "Tell me I didn't dream that." "No," Mir answered in a weary voice. "you didn't. Try not to worry about it too much. Go inside. The people hereabouts have honored you with the best of mead and there are covered dishes, roast meats, and fish on the table. I'll go fetch the lantern and your mantle." "No," Blaze cried hoarsely, clutching at Mir's arm. "He might still be nearby." Mir gazed at him sadly. "I'm sure he is. He but played with you. Had he wanted you, he would have taken you before you ever reached my home. I have known for a long time he could take me any time he wanted. "The night, the night after ... she ... died, I awakened. I believe it to have been the ninth hour, the longest, darkest of the night. The forest was silent; at that time even fish ghosting in deep pools at the river bottom sleep. But he sat awake, upright on his haunches, tail around his body, near my hearth. His eyes glowed green in the firelight. Such a look he gave me, and I knew whatever our intentions--my intentions, her intentions, even--he didn't ..." The old man's voice trailed off. "Well, no matter. I'll fetch the mantle and lantern. You go inside and eat." Blaze entered the house. The hearth fire blazed high. As promised, there were a number of dishes on the table. Savory aromas rose from them. The girl he'd seen earlier lay on the bed sleeping, her thumb in her mouth. He poured himself a cup of wine. The beaker rattled against the neck of the cup. He gulped the dark fluid. Mir returned, carrying the mantle and the lamp. "I know you didn't believe me before. I know what you thought. 'Doddering old fool living in a tumbledown shack at the edge of the waste. He has kept company with the birds and deer, the deep forest loneliness and his mad little wife far, far too long. His brain is turned.' That was what you thought, wasn't it? Eh?""I suppose I might have," Blaze sighed. "Well, I don't now. I most emphatically don't now." Mir nodded. "He is a curse. We must be freed from that curse. You are the greatest of our order still remaining in Gaul. Help us." Blaze sat down at the table. Absently, he poured himself another cup of wine. His eyes narrowed as his fear faded and he began to think. FAR AWAY, THE WOLF MET HIS PACK IN A GROVE where a wooden female image held sway. Sometimes, at certain feasts, women cursed with barrenness came here to dance in the moonlight. They asked the Lady--she had no other name--for a child. Supposedly it was death for men to come here, but many braved the gesa and sneaked in, concealing themselves in the trees surrounding the image. They did so because the women danced naked, danced themselves into hot desire, and they would often couple in supple abandonment with those whose voices charmed them into the darkness and whose hot spill of seed might quicken the empty womb. After all, bees in the drunken springtime plunder the dreaming orchards by both sun and moonlight. What couldn't be earned in the marriage bed might be stolen by starlight. But all this came about in the springtime. Now it was autumn with the mountain winter hurrying in on its heels. Now only the wolves danced and played here in the chill moonlight. They rolled in the short, brown grass, rubbed their heads and jaws against her pillared image, and, at last, sang to the rising moon before the hunt. NO, SHE HADN'T BEEN BEAUTIFUL, BUT THEN HE'D never understood the canons of human beauty. How quick they were to try to hammer something so effervescent, so changeable into a narrow mold. Catch the wind on a net or freeze the play of sunlight on moving water, then you will know what beauty is, but you still will not have been able to lay hold of desire, the fire in the belly that brings us to triumph, heartbreak, or despair. He had been determined to make the human she in the grove his last. Her pain had scared him. No bitch wolf knew such suffering and perhaps none found it the gateway to the almost transcendent pleasure she displayed so freely at the last. So he stayed away from the lake and devoted himself to his duty--leading the pack, keeping them fed, ensuring the weaker members were protected, and maintaining proper order. Perhaps if he hadn't lost his leader counterpart, the she who complemented his powers among the females, he might have escaped the trap awaiting him. But the pack's great female died under the claws of a bear and, for a season, he had no proper mate. The winter had been harsh. No individual but he could remember a harsher one. The Romans haunted the valley--though he didn't know them as Romans, only as heavily armed, mounted men who carried powerful compound bows and wanted wolf skins for some purpose of their own. A pack living in the valley was decimated. He led his to the heights. The men encamped in the valley slaughtered game with both hands. And, as winter wore on and the snows deepened, prey became more and more difficult to find. So when his pack pursued a lean elk into a snow bank and pulled him down, they weren't about to yield their prey to a snarling bear who appeared and tried to take it from them. He and she were the leaders. They knew their duty. As the stronger, he led the attack, circling the bear, snapping at her, distracting her while the wolves fed on the steaming meat and blood of the fallen elk. The ravenous bear, her reserves of fat exhausted by the long winter and drained by her cub, wasn't intimidated or drawn off by their tactics. She turned back toward the feeding wolves and was nearly able to maul one of the yearling males. The wolves drew away, snarling, from the carcass. They had to have the food, and the gray knew it. A few of the older members of the pack were already weak. He could tell by the smell of the air that a blizzard was sweeping across the pass. If they didn't feed now, the wind and freezing temperatures would end some of their lives tonight. He faced the bear, backing her away from the kill with an open-mouthed roar of fury. She reared on her hind legs and swiped at him. He wasn't quite quick enough and she left a strip of fine marks all along one side of his body. He circled, trying to get behind her, but she followed him. The she-wolf leaped, diving for a haunch. The bear whipped around, dropped to all fours, and in a movement too rapid for the eye to follow, sent the she-wolf rolling, yipping, spraying blood into the snow. But the pack mother had given the gray his chance. He went for the giant thighbone. The bone crumbled in his jaws. He was able to leap away just in time to avoid a last vicious swipe of the bear's claws. The broken bone leaped out through the skin like a javelin. The bear gave a cry of anguish, spinning 'round and 'round, snow packing under her paws as her blood pulsed, fountained from the shattered leg and drenched the snow. 'Round and 'round she went, snapping desperately at the wound that was killing her until, at last, h er struggles ended and she sank down in the scarlet pool and died. Ignoring the bear's stiffening body, the wolves returned to the kill. The she-wolf stood, shook off the snow, limped over, stood next to him, and took her share. The blizzard's first clouds reached them. Snow flurries spattered their fur even as they cleaned the elk's bones. The bear was only a mound of white near the bloody scraps of the kill when they finished. The she-wolf limped away from the elk and the rest. He knew where she was going--to the den where she had borne her pups for many seasons. Her head was down, her ears back. She was limping badly now, and looked as if she were in great pain. The rest had another shelter and they would seek it. He followed her. The den was beyond the tree line. Up and up she went. The snow flurries had settled into a steady downfall that seemed to grow thicker by the minute. The sky was a uniform deep gray that imperceptibly darkened, washing color out of the world, then slowly strangling light. He moved behind the she over the high windswept waste. The light was blue-gray when they came to the den. The entrance was choked with snow. She wiggled in and found a corner piled with dried moss. She lay still. He followed, resting next to her, lending her the only support and help he could. His big, warm body stretched out next to her. He heard her sigh, the same sound she made after sex. The previous springtime's loving hadn't taken. She was having a barren year. Her eyes were closed and her muzzle rested on his back, just below the neck. He curled his body around hers as well as he could. Outside, blue evening became black. The wind howled louder and louder as the blizzard ripped through the mountains, tearing at the naked stony peaks and the glacial heights with frigid fingers, wrapping any unsheltered, warm living thing in a cocoon of icy death. Wailing, sobbing, moaning, and, at last, screaming out the triumph of cold and dark over light and warmth. Of an eternal frozen death over the fleeting loves of a transient springtime. He didn't know when she died. All he knew was that sometime in those blackest, wildest, cruelest hours before dawn, he woke to find he could no longer feel her heartbeat and that in spite of his warmth, her body was cooling. When he moved, her head slipped from his back and landed with a soft thud on the moss. She lay on her side, jaws slightly open, the tongue protruding a bit between them, eyes staring unseeingly out into the last darkness. He rested his head on his front paws and awaited the dawn. When it came, he slipped out of the den. The storm had passed. Sun shone on the snow. The sky was blue. He returned to the den. She lay where she'd been before. He pushed her with his nose and found her already stiffening. He turned and went outside. He became human. God, it was cold, but this wouldn't take long. He pulled at the snow above the entrance to the den. A miniavalanche ensued, sealing the entrance not just with snow, but with rock and pebbles that had been piled on the granite slab that formed its roof. When he was finished, he turned wolf again and marked the den. He marked in a way humans don't understand, the way wolves mark traps. This is a place of death. Stay away! Wolves don't grieve. What he had done showed respect for what she had done and been. No more. Then he left to join the rest under an overhang where they'd found shelter from the storm. She is young, Blaze thought disapprovingly as she rode up to Mir's hut. Too young to be what she purports to be. "You are?" he asked. "Dryas," she answered. She was mounted on a beautiful blood bay mare. She wore a leather overblouse and a dark, divided skirt that hung almost to her ankles. It was thickly embroidered with gold at the hem. The long brown mantle that covered her shoulders was clasped at her breast by a broach formed of poppy flowers and leaves. "Did you come through the Roman lines?" Blaze asked. "They patrol the countryside of Gaul everywhere." "I wasn't far away," she answered. "Most of the ruling men seem to be gone, but a few of their women remain. Some retain power. They wanted my advice on how to survive now that the Roman conquest is complete." She dismounted, keeping the reins in her hands. "The answer is, we can't," Blaze snapped. "Our only hope is to continue--" "Oh my, yes,'' she said irritably, "and tempt these demons to slaughter and mutilate the remainder of our menfolk and sell more of our women into slavery, a slavery that is only a slower kind of death. Don't be fools, I told them. Preserve what you can, make any accommodation you must, but live. Teach our traditions to your sons and daughters. The old world is finished. A new has begun, and who knows where it will lead?" Blaze fixed her with an icy stare. "That is what I would expect of a woman's counsel. No more. No less. But I didn't invite you here for a lesson in politics." She pulled off her leather cap. A coil of long black hair fell from under it and spread fan-wise down her back, crackling a little with electricity. "I wouldn't expect you to ask. You men have done so wonderfully well up to now. At least half the people in this wretched realm are dead or carried away as slaves. The rest, their lives shattered, scramble for survival among the ruins of all they once held dear. And you, Arch Druid of Gaul, send letters to me asking that I dispatch one of my women--and you dare to specify an attractive one--to play the whore with a ... a ... wolf. What nonsense have you connived at?" Blaze's face went scarlet with fury. He stepped toward her. To do what he had no idea; he'd never struck a woman in his life. But her words scalded the deepest part of his being, the place in his soul where his people's agony was his own. She dropped the cap and the horse's reins and shrugged the mantle aside. She wore a sword. In less than a second, it flashed in the sun. "Back off," she whispered between bared teeth. "One more step, I take your hand. Another and it will be your head." Mir, who had been standing by quietly, just as quietly stepped between them. "For shame," he said. "For shame," he repeated, looking at Dryas. "He is unarmed, and I so old a child could overpower me. And it is cruel to berate a brave man over things perhaps no one could change. My girl, outstanding member of your order that you may be, there is a truth that age teaches. We do all we can, but sometimes fate takes us by the throat and we are helpless." Dryas stepped back and sheathed her sword. "Forgive me, my father," she said respectfully to Mir. "I have been long in the saddle. What I have seen here sickens me." At this moment, the girl Mir called his wife stepped through the door and looked at Dryas. "Oh," Dryas whispered, taking in the vacant stare and the hideously scarred face. "In the name of all good spirits, you didn't tell me you had this kind of problem." Mir stepped aside. "Do what you can," he said. "I know that those of your order can often ease the despair of those driven beyond reason by private grief, and sometimes even reclaim the lost. Help her if you can." The girl drifted toward Dryas, who took her by the hand and led her into the forest. Excerpted from The Night of the Wolf by Alice Borchardt All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.