It will be over soon.
The dark wolf lay in a vulture’s shadow. His breathing was shallow, his body inert. The first touch was gentle, despite the beak being sharp as a dagger. The next nipped his soft furry belly, releasing a red trickle. Half-closed glassy eyes stared, the wolf’s jaw agape. Tissue thin as a sheet held in his entrails, and the blood of a lifetime.
The blood of the last wolf.
With a convulsion, his lean body jerked and spun, his paws now planted on the sandy soil. The bullet shaped head was held low, large dish ears angled back. His jaws were parted, baring eager serrated teeth. A deep resonant growl broke through the silence of the morning.
The vulture swept wide its wings and with a single flap was in the air, landing several meters away.
Fur dominated by black with hints of gold and white was tousled by the damp breeze under the high orange sun. His coat was faded, in places worn thin with age, lending the old painted wolf a ghostly appearance. He stood, coiled, every sinewed muscle taut across his slight body. The white of his tail was in the air, narrow hips crouched. Every claw was dug into the ground, eyes dark as onyx flashed with an implacable rage.
“Death comes for us all. When it comes for Blackthorn... it
shall know my name.”
The white-backed vulture stared at the dead wild dog, now returned to life. Another flap of its broad wings and the bird was aloft to continue the hunt for corpses.
Vibrant leaves fluttered on a giraffe thorn acacia tree, the flattened green crown obscuring the dark red wood and the thousands of paired white thorns covering the branches. From under the leaves came a series of kuk kuk kuk kuk calls. Black wings speckled with white fluttered as the red-billed hornbill took flight, soaring over the wetlands. Mixed acacia forest stretched into the distance surrounding the vast flat grass plain, now drenched with the late summer rains. Stands of tall herringbone grass topped with green florets on reddish stalks were scattered across the bushveld between broad pools of muddy water.
Reed cormorants and darters picked through the contents of the pools, while sacred ibis stabbed their needle thin bills into the sand. A baboon family waded through a distant pond, grazing on grass strands and flowers. The mother held her arms above the wet as she stepped gingerly, her balance thrown off by the infant clambering over her back.
Close by, a male hyena skulked around the trunk of the giraffe thorn acacia, head held low by a long neck. His powerful shoulders were hunched forward, black spotted coat splatted with mud. Dark maroon eyes furtively looked toward the painted wolf, down at the ground, and back to the wolf.
The brilliant green of grass seemed to stretch on forever, meeting the sky on the edge of nowhere. Toward the horizon, the spiraled horns of greater kudu danced as a bachelor herd browsed from a thicket. Waterbirds soared, gliding in to alight on the standing water. Steady snoring calls of common platanna frogs filled the air.
A pack could thrive in these lands.
Blackthorn stepped forward, head down, scanning the ground before him. Prints crisscrossed the sandy soil. Deep hoof marks of wildebeest and cape buffalo were mixed with the cattle-like prints of eland and kudu. A single track of leopard prints disappeared into the grass. Scattered clawed paw prints of hyena could be seen stretched between puddles and pools, with occasional white calcified dung middens.
There were no tracks of painted wolves.
Blackthorn looked behind him at the few claw marks of his in the soil, the slight depressions moist, eroding with each raindrop. Soon, they would be washed away.
The only sign a wolf inhabited these lands. A whimper in the storm.
He sensed the presence of another hunter, but could not tear his gaze away from his tracks.
The male hyena ducked behind a tall grass tussock as he approached Blackthorn, who finally turned to face the visitor. “You are hoping I will join you in the hunt.” The dark wolf
allowed himself a grin, white teeth gleaming from his parted jaws. “You would do better to follow another.” He turned to leave.
Grass rustled to his side. The male hyena had bounded before him. Still with downcast eyes, his long neck dipped beneath Blackthorn’s. Nostrils flared as the scavenger sniffed the wolf.
Blackthorn tensed, lean muscle rippling beneath his hide. A quick look about revealed no other hyena in the area. He sniffed, and the strange, acrid smell seared his nose. Foul to him, yet somehow not offensive.
“Your scent betrays no malice.” Another sniff. “Your clan has abandoned you, has it not?”
The male gave no sign of understanding, eyes still cast toward his feet as he moved slightly closer.
“You must be lonely indeed to seek a companion in me.” He remained tense. “Ill fortune is the only kind I have had.”
The hyena took another step with his paw on the moist ground. His pant was ragged, as though he held back a labored cry.
“And you would not hesitate to sate your hunger on my dead flesh.”
The head and powerful jaw were nearly on the ground in supplication.
“Perhaps you think me a fool.” He gazed across the flood- plain at the distant grazing herds of eland and wildebeest, birds fluttering over their numbers. “And a fool I would be to consider this.”
A glance upwards, the dark red eyes meek under a raised brow.
“You do not understand me. Or you are quite mad.”
The hyena took a step back, powerful shoulders still hunched.
“So it must be.” Blackthorn gave one last snuff, like a sneeze, and straightened up.
The hyena relaxed, and stood by the wolf’s side.
“If they could see me—” Blackthorn’s voice cut off so abruptly the hyena glanced toward him with alarm. The wolf took a deep breath, closing his eyes, and exhaled long and slow.
“If only.” He looked down at the stranger, who dipped his head 4 at his gaze. “A curious pair we shall be.”
Together they padded across the mud plain, into the acacia
brush. The hyena moved with an ungainly lope, mouth hanging open as he tasted the air. The wolf jogged lightly upon the ground, ears folded back, head down, tail out, his dark eyes seeking the first kill of the day.
Robust antelope clad in coarse grey fur stood erect and alert on the edge of a broad languid pool. A dozen were at attention, long funnel like ears all directed across the water. Each of the males in the herd held their horns aloft, ribbed and curved upwards to the rear. One took a mouthful of grass, chewing absently.
Blackthorn stood on the opposite bank examining the young male waterbuck ram. He padded along the edge of the lightly rippling surface, peering into the dark waters.
“I see no erosions indicating crocodiles entering this pond.” He glanced at the hyena. “Still, we must be cautious.” The surface was a smooth mirror, disturbed only by a scattering of bugs. The eyes of the herd watched the wolf intently. As he reached a shallow sand bank that spanned the pond, the waterbuck began to move in the opposite direction away from him.
“I will not escape their attention. Not like—” He glanced back to the hyena, who followed him at a distance. Peering at the waterbuck, he saw they still focused upon him alone.
“Make your way around this pool.” He gestured toward the waterbuck herd. “They may not be as wary about you.”
The hyena stared at him.
Blackthorn furrowed his brow for a moment. He bared his teeth, which made the hyena recoil for a moment, then he gave a long look to the herd, then back to the hyena.
He looked at the ground, long neck angled down, and he gave a low mooing rumble. He threaded his way into the tall grasses, disappearing from view.
“Vervloeks.” Blackthorn hissed to himself. “I should not have expected that oke to listen to a wolf.” He shook his head and looked across the pool again toward his prey. “I can cut you down without a pack to assist me.” Loping quickly, he crossed the sand bar. Before he returned to dry ground, the waterbuck herd had splashed into the pool. As he drew closer, the rams all clambered out onto the mud on the opposite side. Blackthorn reversed his course, but before he placed a paw back on the sand bar to cross again, the males had begun to slip once again into the cool water.
“Bliksem.” He snuffed. The waterbuck continued to watch him without expression.
The entire herd suddenly splashed into the pool again in a panic, one left behind on the bank. His only cry of alarm was a snort, mouth wide, horns high as it stumbled to the ground.
The male hyena chuckled, its heavy jaws clamped on the hind leg of the waterbuck, the staccato crack of bone audible even above the splashing of the herd.
Blackthorn lost no time sprinting around the pool, and bore down on the injured waterbuck. The hyena’s eyes were wide, its grip on the flank of the buck was a vise.
With a bound, the wolf seized the snout of the waterbuck, and planted his paws on the mud. Even with the damp he was an anchor, and despite the buck outweighing him by tenfold, it could not move.
The hyena loosed his hold, his eyes slits, his mouth wide, conical fangs and hefty canines on display. Jaws locked upon the buck’s shoulder, and it was dragged down.
Blackthorn let go of the snout and ripped open the abdomen, spilling the intestines onto the ground with a gush of maroon that poured into the water.
The hunters eyed one another for only a moment, and each set to devour the antelope’s organs at haste. They did not quarrel, nor did they make a sound, each bolting down kilograms of meat in minutes. The ribcage was pulled open as they worked together to dismember the beast, muscle torn away from bone by shearing teeth. When their bellies hung low, they paused in their ravenous feeding.
The hyena looked up and Blackthorn followed his gaze to see the vultures circling above. A lappet-faced vulture glided in to land close by, folding its great black wings. White backed vultures were close behind.
The wolf gave a nod, and they padded off as the scavengers swarmed over the ruined carcass, grey fur disappearing under a snarl of white and black feathers.
Blackthorn thought for a moment the hyena was smiling at him, teeth bared, and mouth hanging open releasing a streamer of drool.
“Clever chappie, you are.” He shook his head free of a biting fly, large ears slapping his skull. “You must have a name of a sort.” He canted his head to one side. “Though I am not sure what.”
The hyena uttered a deep groaning sound, long and low, a sound that could only mean pleasure.
“Kreun, then. Kreun.” Allowing himself a smile, he chuckled. “I suppose naming you for a groan works well enough.” He turned to look back at the swirling pile of vultures, his brow raised. One of them hopped away from the carcass and turned toward the dark wolf. Blackthorn wondered if it was the same bird that meant to eviscerate him earlier.
“Every moment of life is stolen from my enemies.”
Kreun gave a low whine.
“The bushveld still surprises me, even after all the seasons
that have passed.” Blackthorn regarded his companion. He closed his eyes to the sun and allowed the warmth to wash over him. “The path shall take us.” His obsidian eyes opened again to see the hyena examining him. “As it takes us all.”
They moved together into the thick growth of high grasses, the tall stalks folding in place behind them as the savanna swallowed them whole.