[takes place between Book I and Book II. Warnings: blood, animal death]
If he could afford it, he would have let this one go.
The fighters were his favorite, the ones that would never flag, never rest, never give into the fear. The ones that wouldn’t lay still until their necks were crushed between his teeth. This was one of those. A fighter, and smart too, with just a single, fatal flaw:
This wisent was ancient.
Which to Ruyak was another good reason to let it go, if he’d had the inclination. Old wisent are about as chewy as meals come, and this one wasn’t going to be around long enough to be stewed. As soon as he had his teeth around it he was going to eat it.
The thickly clouded spring sky made for deep morning shadows, hiding the wisent in the depths of the trees it fled through, but this wouldn’t be enough to save it either.
The wisent turned sharply at a big pine, its cloven hooves scrambling on the wet needles. Smart! A trick like that must have saved its hide many times in the past, but its old legs weren’t what they used to be. The turn was clumsy and Ruyak had already adjusted.
The forest opened up, a clear path, so Ruyak put his head down and hauled. One stride, two, and his claws were knocking the wisent off its feet. The beast bellowed a last attempt at escape, but it was too late. Ruyak always went straight for the neck.
With precision that he hardly had to think about, Ruyak plunged his canines into the wisent's neck and, twisting his head, snapped it. The wisent spasmed once, then grew still, but Ruyak kept his jaws clamped around it while he waited for its heartbeat to fade. This was his habit with single prey. Not only did it give him a moment to catch his breath and decide whether he wanted to break in or wait and clean his catch, there was also something calming about it. Something reassuring, if a little bit melancholic.
But blood was filling Ruyak’s mouth with a satisfying gush, and before he could even catch his breath he was already chewing the thing’s head off.
It was the first fresh meat Ruyak had tasted in five months. He would make the most of it.
“Ha! You’ll eat anything, I swear." Renge's taunting cut through the sounds of snapping tendons.
Ruyak’s ears twitched back reflexively as his brother approached, but he didn’t acknowledge the quip. The old wisent, a tough and tedious meal, was taking some effort to chew through.
“Don’t worry," Renge snorted, sauntering over, "I wouldn’t bother eating that even if you offered.”
Ruyak grunted wordlessly and spat a bloody wad of wissent fur out on the half-frozen ground.
“Charming. You know you could have left that one for stewing? There are plenty of others you could have broken in with.”
Ruyak rolled his eyes. “What do you want, Renge?”
“Just checking to make sure you aren’t choking to death over here. Good thing I came, you’ll be gagging any moment eating that.”
With a hearty whump, Renge cuffed Ruyak on the back and chuckled at the annoyed growl he got in return.
“Fine, you grump,” Renge laughed, “I’ll leave you to it, but don’t forget to chew.”
Ruyak inclined his head to gnaw with sharper teeth. Bones crunched in his ears as he watched Renge begin to leave, then hesitate as though snagged by an invisible string, standing silent.
“What?” Ruyak grunted around a mouthful. “Change your mind? I’ve got plenty to spare.”
“Actually…” Renge turned back to his younger brother, and his demeanour darkened, turning thoughtful, with an uncertain crease between his eyebrows and a squint at Ruyak sidelong. “Kadu’s found a uh… a trail.”
So what? Ruyak would have grumbled, but Renge’s words hung stagnant in the air, ringing in Ruyak’s ears. “A trail?” he asked instead.
“I think you should come take a sniff before we follow it.”
“Why? What is it?”
Renge scoffed and flicked his ears, sober attitude dissolving as he finally moved into the forest. “Yeesh, if you’re so set on chewing through that hunk of leather, don’t let me stop you.”
“Wait! Wait, I’m coming,” Ruyak jumped after him, the half-eaten wisent forgotten.
A moment later, Renge and Ruyak were emerging into a meadow thick with foliage and brush. Kadu was waiting on the other end, looking bored. When he saw Ruyak, his eyes flashed with anger.
“I told you to check on him, not bring him!”
Renge shrugged. “Misheard, I guess.”
“You’d better not have told him.”
“Told me what?” Ruyak asked, but the scent hit him on the breeze, and he knew. Stale and vague, but unmistakable, even from a distance. His hackles prickled.
Meanwhile Renge was staring unsubtly at him again, as a direrodi would stare into a dark hole waiting for the creature it heard within to pop out. No doubt Renge wanted to know whether Ruyak recognized the who more than the what, but for that Ruyak would need a better sniff.
“Just go back and guard the catch, Ruyak. Stay out of this,” Kadu snarled, not seeming to notice Renge’s behavior.
“What, don’t want to invite me along?” Ruyak smirked, but Kadu wasn’t fooled.
“Of course not! You’ll just interfere like she used to.”
Ruyak snorted dismissively and circled around closer to the trail, head low. He only needed one good whiff...
“Quit it!” Kadu lunged at him with flattened ears and wild eyes, and Ruyak flinched away. “You’re not coming!”
A threat by Kadu was not one to be taken lightly, but this was vital knowledge. A beating meant little.
“I was just curious,” Ruyak murmured, creeping closer. There was nothing to see in the brown grass, but he could guess where the trail would be, the easiest path for a creature to take through the brush. Kadu growled low, and Ruyak breathed in…
No, it wasn’t her.
Ruyak immediately retreated, not wanting to take chances with Kadu, who snorted as Ruyak circled back around to put Renge between them.
Renge was watching Ruyak closely, gauging his reaction, and whatever he saw on Ruyak’s face seemed to settle him. He joined Kadu with a spring in his step, looking relieved, and a little excited.
Ruyak wandered a little farther away and looked vaguely up at the sky, doing his best to look bored and disinterested, but a twist of nerves was knotting itself in his chest. The scent may not have been the one Ruyak knew, the one he would have fought tooth and claw to defend, but whoever it was, they were about to have a very bad day.
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