Brutal, was the only way to describe it. Brutal, bleak and barren. That winter had been colder and fiercer than any that Elha had known. It didn’t help that she had been cast out by her family.
“You must go now,” her father had said. Her mother agreed.
She could understand why they wanted her to leave, and she bore her family no ill will. There was not enough food for them all, and little enough chance that they would all survive the relentless winter weather. Her brothers and sisters and mother and father would have a better chance without her. As the eldest daughter, she must now make her own way in the world.
“Yes, I will go, but I will not die alone in the forest. I will survive,” she said in a low growl, as she left, pissing on a tree stump so that they would never forget her name. As she loped off into the forest, she howled back at them.
“You will see me again. I will return. Hear my voice.”
“Go far away,” the pack replied as one. “Do not return and steal our food. If you survive, we may see you again, but after the winter and not before.
As she disappeared into the endless trees, her scent trail followed her until it, too, vanished amid the gathering snowfall. And then she was alone. Unseen by eye or nostril. Alone in the forest with only her coat to protect her from the harsh elements. Already she felt the pain of hunger gnawing at her stomach. Three days since her last meal and that was only the scraps left from some scavenged carrion. She had eaten according to her rank, first after her mother and father, her elfa and ulfa, leaving little enough for the pups. But the truth that determined she should feed before them, also meant that she could no longer remain in the pack. She must hunt and kill alone. The scant remnants of the meat she had eaten three days ago were now but a dream to Elha. At this time, she had no thoughts of finding a mate, only of finding a meal.
Yet there was no prospect of finding food in this blizzard. To her chagrin, she could just hear the grumblings of rabbits and the chattering of rats, safe beneath the snow-covered earth. Beyond that, all she could hear was the howling of the wind and the almost silent patter of the snow falling and drifting. She could smell little other than the snow, which had no scent at all but blotted out all other scents, suppressing even the ever-present background aroma of pine. She could not even smell the damp earth, which was covered in the thick blanket of icy emptiness. She would find nothing to eat that night and so decided to conserve her energy for after the storm.
Scraping a shallow burrow in the snow, amid roots and leaves, she curled around on herself, allowing the snow to drift up against her back, the resulting snow cape protecting her from the bitter, searching winds. She did not sleep, conscious of the need to remain alert to any passing danger, aware that she was still within the border of her family’s territory, as well being close to the territory of a rival pack. For a while she allowed her eyes to half close against the wind-driven snow, but forced herself to stay awake and alert, prompted by her instinct to survive.
The next morning, half buried in snow, she waited and rested, conscious of the need to move on, yet too weary to waste energy simply roaming in the woods. Raising her snout to the wind, she was able to lock into the scentscape, picking up traces of animal here but nothing of carrion. She could also clearly detect the scent markings of the rival pack, with patches of the strong, musky smell that characterized wolf boundary. She must be careful not to roam into their territory. Before the winter arrived the ulfa, father of the rival pack, would have welcomed her as a second mate. She would have had food, hunting with a new pack, as well as a breeding partner. But that was then. Now the thought would be only of food and shelter. She was now an outcast, hungry and starting to feel the cold, as her flesh shrank through lack of nourishment. She must find food to survive and much more food if she were to thrive.
Elha resisted a passing urge to urinate. She must hold her waters to avoid losing heat. She was also reluctant to leave a scent marking until she was much further away. Catching a snowflake or two to wet her tongue, she raised herself on all fours and continued the march, deeper into the woods, away from the rival pack’s territory, further away from her former family, and into the unknown. For now, she was without kin.
The wind and the snow abated a little and she could see the drifts of white, piled high up against tree and root for some distance. She continued to lope onward at a relaxed but purposeful pace, conscious of the need to clear the rival boundary and to find her own hunting ground. Anxious as she was to make distance, she must also control her progress and conserve her energy. If she found live prey, she would need all she could muster for the chase. With that thought, her eye picked out a pinprick of subdued but still bright color against the bleak aspect of the forest. Approaching, she found a lone, shriveled berry, peering out from a snow-covered twig. Plucking it between her teeth, the insignificant fruit was instantly crushed, producing a tiny stab of sharpness that would make no impression on her hunger. She looked out for other berries but found none and so continued on her way.
She continued at a faster but still measured pace, gaining more distance from her family and from the rival pack. The soft snow slowed her but her splayed paws helped to keep her from sinking too deep. Progress was tiring but she continued on her way, taking in the meagre background scents that still rose above the frozen carpet. Some ways were familiar to her, others less so. As she ventured onwards, she picked out her own way, sometimes through paths that had been trodden before, sometimes choosing a new path through the trees and the undergrowth. On and on she loped through day and night, ever conscious of the gnawing hunger that tore at her insides, ever scanning the way ahead and all around. Scanning for the sounds and smells of prey, carrion and wolf.
After another day and night of progress, she picked up the sound of a babbling stream running through the forest. She bounded on toward the sound, keen to quench her thirst and explore the land beyond. As she reached the stream, which cut a deep gash into the snowy ground, she halted, taking in a multitude of scents, none of them wolf. With her head low to the ground she traced the outline of the stream but found no sign of wolf claiming ownership of the water.
Crossing the brook, Elha again checked for any trace of wolf scent on the other side of the stream. There was none. She must have cleared the pack’s territory. But wait. There was the hint of another scent. Could it be carrion close by? She was not sure. Moving her head from side to side she picked up a more detailed picture and found the direction. Following the trace for a while it became stronger until she was able to pinpoint the source beneath a snow drift against a rock. Digging down into the snow she found it. A ragged bird, frozen near solid in a white shroud of snow. A bird that must have fallen unnoticed by any other predator.
The find brought Elha’s hunger again to mind, but she resisted the urge to eat it there and then. She must take it to a safe place or risk attracting others. As it was, the distraction of finding her first meal in four days meant that she failed to notice the approach of a wolf that had been tracking her, silently, from downwind. As Elha began to canter away with the bird held in her jaws her senses came back to her. Hearing and scenting wolf at the same instant she broke into a gallop, too late. The rival was upon her with a leap and a bound. She turned to face him, growling.
“Drop it!” shouted the stranger. “It is mine.”
Elha, placing the bird between her forepaws barked back in her loudest voice:
“No, No, No, No, No, No, No!”
Head pointing forward, fangs extended, she continued a blood curdling snarl of warning.
“Stay back. I am Elha. I am strong. Hear my voice.”
“That food is mine. Leave it,” ordered the stranger, showing his own fangs and pointing forward, close to Elha, but not close enough to risk a bite. “Step away and I will leave you a morsel. Better that than risk my anger. I am vengeful.”
“You are nothing. You will feel my fangs. I will tear out your throat.”
The snarling, shouting exchange continued with both wolves reluctant to give ground. The male was bigger, with stronger hindquarters but Elha would not back down. Without warning, she leapt forward in a single bound, sinking her fangs into the male’s shoulder, the power of her leap causing him to fall into a backward roll. The bite was demonstrative, not deadly. Elha was not a reckless killer. Releasing her grip instantly, Elha leaped back to guard her bird with her forepaws.
“Go now before you feel my fangs cut deeper.”
The male recovered himself and leapt forward to face Elha.
“My blood is high. Smell my anger. I will leave you this time. Eat well, sister, for next time you will feed only after I have fed.”
Elha growled at the familiarity. “There will be no next time, cur. Begone!”
With a further exchange of blood-curdling howls, the male turned and walked off, leaving his name on the tree by the stream as he passed it.
Elha was not interested. Dismissing the incident, she picked up her bird and sprinted off in the opposite direction, finding a patch of heavy undergrowth to settle in briefly as she tore the diminutive carcass apart, trying to dispense with the feathers.
Meat from a bird hardly constituted a meal but there was sufficient to keep Elha going until she could find something more substantial. Refreshed by the food and stimulated by the confrontation, Elha pressed ever onward through the forest.
With the snow and wind still moderating, Elha was able to move faster and more comfortably, putting further and further distance between her and the other packs. From time to time, she would stop to take a glimpse into the scentscape.
Days went by as she continued to patrol what was becoming her new territory, at least until the winter broke. There were no further signs of carrion. With so many hungry predators abroad, the chance of finding food lying untouched was slim enough. She would need a kill soon to stand any chance of survival. With the days perceptibly longer now, and a moderation of the winter chill, she found she could detect the movement of prey. Twice she had followed a herd of deer at a distance, only to get too close, too soon, scattering them before her. She must be careful not to expend too much energy on pointless pursuits like this when she could not hope to trap and bring down a deer on her own. She must also be careful to avoid injury. Deer were maddening creatures which, when panicked, lashed out with their horny hooves and could break a wolf’s bones, leaving it at the mercy of the forest.
It was with this thought that she reluctantly broke off tracking a herd from downwind when she noticed another scent mingling with the usual smell of deer. Now was that or was it not blood? One of the herd must be injured. She turned and again moved stealthily towards the slight sound of hooves hitting the soft carpet of snow.
As she followed the scent trail and the faint sounds of movement, she could definitely discern the smell of blood. Increasing her pace, careful not to make a sound, she was clearly gaining on the herd. She followed them at a distance in the hope that the injured animal would be left behind. Although Elha had chased deer before, never before had she hunted alone. She had followed at the heels of her mother or father, both wolves who had spent their lives at the chase.
Elha gained ground on the herd and there was now no doubt about the smell of blood from an injury. She could just see the last few animals of the herd, trailing at the rear but at that distance could not possibly see which of them was weakened with injury.
The herd crowded around the injured fawn, urging it on, despite the perceptible limp. They could not allow it to fall behind where it would be in danger.
Elha pressed forward knowing that the herd would soon notice her and scatter. Her options were limited. Desperate for a kill to satisfy her now agonizing hunger, she found it hard to be patient. On her own she could not hope to head them off for another wolf to intercept, nor could she corral them into a narrow pass to slow them down. All she could do would be to run into the center of the herd in the hope of catching the injured animal which, so far, had eluded her.
Throwing caution to the wind, Elha bounded forward at a sprint, heading straight for the herd, hoping to close the gap before they realized what was happening and bolted. Almost at the same moment they became aware, heading away together before scattering in all directions as Elha came nearer. Resisting the temptation to chase one deer and then another, Elha continued to head for the center of the herd, dodging any flying hoof, remembering a hard rap on the head she once received from a panicked deer.
Of the scattering herd, only two deer remained, one adult and the injured fawn. Without hesitation, Elha made directly for the fawn, ignoring the adult which was rearing its hindquarters, ready to kick back.
Elha managed to duck under the thrusting hooves to grab the haunch of the fawn, bringing it down with a thump before releasing it and leaping away from the adult, which was still kicking. Turning, she headed for the adult. Fangs leading and with a hissing, shrieking howl she leaped at the deer, which jumped to one side and bounded off into the forest.
Noise abated, Elha could hear the pathetic bleating of the fawn, now desperately trying to raise itself up on its legs so that it, too, could escape. All in vain as, within moments, the ravenous wolf fell upon it, jaws gripping its neck, fangs sinking deep, the neck instantly broken by the wolf’s powerful bite.
No time to drag off the carcass. Predators from miles around would have heard the cries, could smell the kill, and would be closing in on her right now. Tearing open the abdomen, Elha buried her snout into the carcass, ripping out the prized liver, which she devoured in moments. Proceeding to eat first entrails and then flesh, it took but minutes for Elha to consume a considerable volume of meat, before she noticed the unmistakable scent of bear.
And there it was, bounding towards her, growling a loud warning as the great brown giant reared up onto its hind legs, running towards the feeding wolf. Tearing off a limb from the dead fawn, Elha leaped away from the carcass. One swipe from one of those mighty paws would crush her skull. Several wolves might frighten off a bear but alone she had no chance. Leaving the remains of her kill to the bigger carnivore, Elha leaped off into the trees, bearing the bloody, tattered remains of the leg.
Much further away, as she located a quiet spot in a clearing, atop a grassy mound, to finish her meal, the sun broke through the late winter clouds. Basking in the unexpected warmth, Elha, replete as she was, still managed to gorge the rest of the meat before resting, licking at the marrow from the crushed end of the bone.
As she basked in the late afternoon winter sunshine, Elha, her stomach distended and painfully full, rested so that she could digest her feast of young venison. With eyes half closed she contemplated the comforting feeling that she now had food enough inside her to last for some days to come if need be. She was full, warm, sleepy and, taking in all the sights, sounds and scents of the forest around her, she was content.
Adding to her contentment, she began to notice another feeling from within. Hardly perceptible at first, but there, nonetheless. Soon she would begin to feel the need to mate. Dreamily, Elha thought of the male she had bitten in the forest. She recalled his sleek but muscular form, his ample hindquarters, and was glad she had not caused him serious injury.
She thought of the name he left for her on the tree by the stream and, dozing in the warmth and with the soporific effect of digestion, she fell into a sleepy dream.
Elha dreamt of leading her pack through the forest, her mate beside her.
Episode two: Elha ventures into the forest