The Secret of Cawley’s Skull



Chapter 21


          Wolves …

          I should have guessed that sooner or later Wolves would enter my life. They seemed as inevitable a part of my future as Mom seemed a part of my past.

          “I am not going up a tree with Bandy,” I said, but judging by the way my bowels felt, I would happily have gone up a tree, with or without help from Bandy. I felt like running away in all directions at once. I was so afraid, I laughed. “HA! I’m not hiding up any old tree and let those wolves eat you, Mish-Shka. NOT ME, BY GLIMMIT”

          “That’s kind, Daks. Very considerate. But I’m afraid the tree is no longer available, anyway.”


          Bandy said, “He’s right. It’s too far away. You’ll never make it on those stubby legs.”

          “NO TREE?”  I searched frantically for a shorter way to the contorted pine. A way the others couldn’t see. A quick leap over a tall rock, or a hedge to scuttle through. “Not that I’d go up a tree, Mish-Shka. I’m sure not going to leave you to them. You can depend on me. No tree? Are you sure?”

          Mish-Shka gave me a curious look, calculating and thoughtful. His eyes filled with serious intentions, then lit up from the inside with that peculiar moon-fire. I shivered, trying to think of something to say, but he allowed me no time to speak. “TO THE TREE, FAWRLINGSWAD!” he commanded, and in one fluid movement, he scooped me up. He took me like a rubber ball and ran.

          He was not gentle. How his teeth didn’t puncture my belly and spine, I can’t guess. My head hung out of one side of his jaws and from the other, my hind legs dangled like twin, dead mice. If he had chomped down, I would have been bitten in half. Mish-Shka ran with a percussive lope and with every step, it felt like I was being crushed. The icy surface raced by beneath me, but that was all I could see. And I couldn’t see even that very well, not with my eyes were rolling around like dried peas.

          The great hound was still running at his full stride when he spat me out. I rolled over twice before colliding with the rough bole of the tree, and in that split second before Bandy snatched me up by an ear and scaled the knobby pine with my stunned flesh in tow, I heard a horrific snarl and glimpsed a burst of silver-gray, erupting in violence with the slate-gray that I knew to be Mish-Shka.

          Up a tree is never an appropriate place for an Ogg to be. But being there afforded me something that most Oggs go a life-time without—a bird’s perspective. If only having a bird’s perspective of one’s predicament were always a good thing.

* * *

          What I saw, when my vision cleared and my mind settled enough to absorb the view, was this:

          They had come from nowhere and nothing, as though they were born out of the barren rock and moonlight. With the exception of the one—young, I think he must have been—beast who had made the fatal mistake of reaching Mish-Shka ahead of the rest, the pack formed a circle around the base of the tree. And a more deadly looking circle I hope never to see again. There were twelve or fifteen of them, and every one had enough fang showing to tear the bark off a stone forest. Mish-Shka was directly below me, back against the trunk. His spine was arched and his ears lay close against his skull. The fallen one at his feet still twitched, his throat torn away, his blood freezing even as it spread through the snow. With a voice like ice, Mish-Shka told the rest, “More than one will die, Wolven. You will not take us without paying a dreadful price.”

          A female screamed. “MY SON … my son …” and she broke from the circle, leaping at Mish-Shka. He dodged to one side and took her by the flesh of her neck. His entire body jerked and the she-wolf went flying over his shoulder. The sound of her neck snapping echoed back from frozen peaks. Some of the pack edged away, confused and fearful, while others foamed with rage and lunged forward, testing the hound and gauging the threat he represented.

          “Is it worth it? Are you hungry enough to sacrifice a few more of your tribe?”  Mish-Shka was fearsome, even from my vantage over his head. Muscles rippled across his shoulders like something was about to surface from inside him. “Are you hungry enough to eat through a torn throat?”  I couldn’t know what affect this bravado was having upon the wolves, but it made me feel even less confident of our position. Mish-Shka wouldn’t have been wasting breath on such talk if he thought there was any chance of surviving this battle.

          I scratched at Bandy’s paw wrapped tightly around my ear, but his grip only tightened. “Bandy, let me go! You … you wolves … leave us alone! GO EAT SOME FISH!” The raccoon was straddling two spindly limbs and my front legs were splayed over one of them. My bottom hung down like a heavy peach, yet we were well above their reach. Mish-Shka, standing on his hind tip-toes, might have brushed my bottom with his snout, but the wolves couldn’t touch me.

           “There’s nothing you can do, Daks. Nothing! Hold still or we’ll both be off here and down those gullets.”

          “LET ME GO!”

          The squabble between Bandy and me distracted the Wolves and diluted some of their fury. When I became aware their eyes were on me, that they were watching my tantrum unfold, I was embarrassed. I pulled a bit farther up onto my perch and tried to lay my ears back like Mish-Shka. “Leave us alone, you wolves. If you don’t eat us, we … we … WE WON’T EAT YOU!

          It had none of the power of Mish-Shka’s gory threats, but I was fresh to the art of threat-making.

* * *

          Half of the pack broke out in slathering laughter and the rest snorted with disgust. My embarrassment swelled. I had committed myself to a course, and I had no choice but to continue on it.

          “That’s right, wolves. We’re migh-tee hungry. Hungrier than you ever were in your stinky lives. You didn’t think about that, did you? That we might eat you!”  A few of them still snickered, but most quieted down, stunned, as though they’d never heard insane bluster before. “I, by myself, could eat two of you without getting rid of the cramps in my belly. And I can’t even count as high as Mish-Shka can eat. The last time we ate wolves, he ate thirty or forty, at least! AND HE WAS STILL HUNGRY!

          One by one, my audience sat down on the ice. Their eyes sparkled with dismay and moonlight. “After we finish you off … you scrawny, stinky wolves, I’ll bet we have to go find a couple of … of badgers! Just to fill Mish-Shka up! And I suppose you all think this is just a simple raccoon here, holding me back. HAH! He’s the worst of all! A monster! His temper is … just is … horrible! Why … why, he kills for the pleasure of it! He gives lessons in killing to MEN! That’s right, and he kills wolves for practice! He’s killed more wolves than …”

          “Enough!” The order came sharply from a huge fellow, not quite as big as my Mish-Shka, but he towered over the others. His scars alone looked older than most of them. He glared at me until he was sure I would say no more, then turned to Mish-Shka. “Ogg, is this windy runt something you’re proud to have with you?”

          Mish-Shka unclenched, releasing some of the tension from his body. His voice was strong. “Very proud, Valk-Hund. He’s a fine friend and a brave comrade, and he’s worth his weight in sharp teeth.”

          The beast thought for a moment, his head cocked to one side. “I have never before been threatened with the fury of a Rawl’Colmb.” A younger wolf sitting next to him laughed aloud and the elder gave him a rap on the head with his jaw. The laughter stopped, but not completely and not quickly. The impulsive wolf rolled to his side and covered his snout with his paws to suppress his amusement. The old leader asked me my name and I told him.

          “Daks? What a curious name,” he said, and the other wolves echoed his wonderment.

          “Daks? … Daaeegz? What kind of name is Daks?”

          I could have licked Mish-Shka’s face when he said, “Yes. It’s Daks. And there’s not one good reason to change it.”

* * *

          “I am consumed with questions, Ogg, and it might comfort you to answer them before we take your flesh.” The scarred old wolf seemed congenial enough. Yet his interest in us was temporary relief at best, since he still seemed intent on dining at our expense. “Whatever brought you up here? This place is for only the strongest of creatures. And why are you traveling with a Rawl’Colmb and a human’s lap toy?”

          “Are you always so curious about your next meal’s history? Look here, Valk-Hund, if we are to be nothing more than tonight’s nourishment, how can it matter what our travel arrangements are?”

          The wolf shrugged. “We all need a share of curiosity, don’t you think? I suspect you haven’t survived as long as you have without some wonder in your heart. And neither have I. Besides, I’ve found that a confessional soothes the prey … comforts them. Dining is best enjoyed in a relaxed atmosphere.”

          Just loudly enough for me to hear, Bandy whispered, “Marvelous. We’re being tenderized with conversation.”

          Mish-Shka kept close attention on the entire pack as he spoke. By twisting his head slightly or shifting his weight just a bit, he let them know he would not be taken by surprise. “Rather than concerning yourself with our comfort, Valk-Hund, why don’t you and your tribe leave us be. That would be the most soothing thing you could do.”

          The wolves murmured angrily among themselves, but the elder smiled. “Your name, war-hound? What is it? Mine is Kruk.”

          “Kruk. I have heard of you, Kruk. The forest echoes with stories of Kruk and the Midlands Wolven. I am Mish-Shka. They call me Gray Mish-Shka.”

          Kruk whistled softly. “The forest tells stories of Gray Mish-Shka as well. Is it true that you killed Horak the Grizzled?”

          Mish-Shka’s ears perked up. “I had good help.”

          “Still … it was Horak the Grizzled.”

          Bandy snorted. “You know, Daks, if there weren’t canines around to flatter other canines, you Oggs would never hear anything good about yourselves. Thank your Oggy gods for mutual admiration.”

          My ear, the one Bandy was using as a handle, was steadily climbing through all of the many levels of pain. I twisted, trying to free myself. “Bandy, shut up. And let me go.”

          “Foolish Daks. The only thing separating you from a great deal of stomach acid is myself and the vertical properties of this tree.”

          “Then pull me all the way up, so I can stand. This is humiliating … my butt hanging out like this.”

          I pulled and clawed, and with Bandy’s help, reached an unsteady stance with my back to the trunk and my feet on a thin limb. By the time I gained my balance, the wolves were all staring at me again. The same young fellow who had laughed at me shook his head and commented so that the whole pack could hear, “Just think, Kruk. Somewhere, sometime, some long-dead Valk-Hund mated with something he shouldn’t have, and here is this chubby, tailless, runted, half-witted mongrel as a result.”

          Mish-Shka let go a venomous snarl and the circle of wolves jerked away. “You ignorant shit! One more word about Daks and you will be the next to feel the blood spill from your throat.”  The young wolf hunched his back and stiffened his legs, but his tail was so far between his legs that he could have taken the end of it in his mouth and pulled himself over backwards.

          Kruk was not so easily intimidated. He stepped forward. “Calm yourself, Gray Mish-Shka. I can assure you my immature companion will not insult your comrade again.”

          The rash wolf protested. “But, Kruk … I only . . .” He didn’t—couldn’t—finish. In a blink, Kruk was up and swiveling on his hind legs. He came down on the other’s back, crushing him to the ice. The younger Wolf flipped over and tried to push off the attack with legs flailing, but to no use. Kruk took a rear paw in his jaws and the other screamed with pain. The reprimand took only seconds, and when it was over, the impudent fellow limped away on three legs to a snow bank and licked his wound in shame. Kruk regained his calm, regal pose and turned back to Mish-Shka.

          “I apologize. I have struggled to show my family that dinner and cruelty do not have to be the same thing, but the young ones are hard to teach.”

          “How true. Some things are universal. We share a great deal, Kruk. But contrary to what my compulsive companion Daks has said, we have no plans to eat you. And anything we have in common loses its significance next to the fact that you still intend to eat us.”  Mish-Shka paused and took a deep breath. Even from my bird’s-view, he seemed to grow in all ways—taller, wider. More powerful. “Now … (he took in another breath) … I’m having difficulties keeping a sense of civility to this conversation under those circumstances, so I ask again that you either leave us to go in peace, or commence your supper. That is, for those of you who will still be alive to eat once I go down.”

          Bandy whispered in my ear. “Listen to this lunatic chum of yours, Daks. He challenges them!”

          “Shhh! Mish-Shka knows what he’s doing.”

          “My motto is ‘Keep ’em talking‘. They can’t fill their mouths with both words and flesh. Why, I once talked my way out of a tricky predicament with a baldy-topped eagle by … “

          The more Bandy said, the louder he got. The Wolves’ attention once again shifted our way. “Bandy! Be quiet! Just be quiet!”

          “But the geez, here … he invites them to come and get it. The swill calling the swine, it is. I should have recognized his suicidal tendencies from the beginning.”

          I snapped. There was no stopping that raccoon. An unceasingly moving mouth, he. The wolves were all watching with saliva on their teeth and it was the most unnerving sensation, to realize that I was but a few chews and a swallow away from being nothing more than a frozen wolf turd on a flat rock in a lonely, forsaken place.

          So I snapped, forgetting what a shaky foothold I had on the tree. Forgetting even what a shaky foothold I had on a future. I forgot everything but how annoyed Bandy made me, and I bit him on the nose. It was only a small nip. I caught just the bittiest portion of his snout between two of my least important teeth, but Bandy reacted as though I were smashing his heart. He howled and shook his head. “OWWW! Daks … you bit my nose!”

          I fell …

* * *

          . . . but not straight down. Nothing that happens to me ever seems to happen in a straight line.

          Had I fallen solely through the agency of my own clumsiness, I might have fallen in a straight line, directly onto Mish-Shka’s head. But it was Bandy’s reaction—overreaction, I have to think—to the insignificant little pinch I administered to his nose—overly sensitive nose, I have to think—and the violent way he bounced his head around which knocked me out of the tree. My trajectory placed me onto a hard spot, quite near to the exact midway point between Mish-Shka and Kruk. The fall didn’t hurt much, but the vision of Kruk towering above me, close enough to reach out and swallow my head, caused me to pee in my place.

          The wolves came to immediate attention, poised on crystalline toenails and ready to converge, ready to turn the center of the circle into a smear of Ogg gore. I strained to fill my lungs and the harder I strained, the more I peed. A puddle gathered around my feet, and I ran the risk of freezing in my own fluids if I didn’t move soon.

          Mish-Shka’s bulk was hovering over me, nose to nose with Kruk. He’d come forward like a guardian thunder cloud as soon as I hit, and away from the tree as he was, his flanks were exposed. They could rip away the back half of him with impunity.

          Some of them tried. There was a frenzy of movement behind me, a chaos of heavy paws and throats thickened with rage. Mish-Shka wheeled in defense, to protect his unprotectable rear. With no idea how to contribute to my own survival, I watched Kruk gather his muscles and prepare to strike. His face, the face that seconds ago seemed wise and content, turned savage and wild. As the spark in his eyes went from twinkle to feral fire, a strange urge—an exciting and evil urge, not even a fully-formed thought—twisted in my mind. I could have turned on my friend and joined this pack of savages, as though the blood that fed my heart was more their blood than Mish-Shka’s, more of the stone and ice than the warmth of loyalty. My muscles tingled and ached, caught between the appeal and the repulsion of it, and for a moment, the appeal prevailed. For a moment, I was part of that lusting mob, out for a kill.

          Later, when I tried to explain and apologize for that wild impulse and for what I might have done if Bandy hadn’t joined the fray, Mish-Shka was sympathetic. “Don’t feel guilty over how you felt, Daks,” he said. “I was almost ready to rip away at myself. That’s what wolves do to you. That’s what wolves are.”

* * *

          During that same subsequent conversation, Bandy reluctantly admitted that he missed. That he meant to come down on Kruk’s face, just as he had with Anna-Bar. He meant to claw at Kruk’s massive head and tear the wolf’s face away even while Kruk tore away his guts and the rest of the pack tore away his spine. “Daksie,” he told me, “I knew we were goners from the moment I first heard them following us. There’s usually no escape from wolves, once they take it in their heads to eat you. They’ve got one mind among them, you know. One mind and many, many teeth. That makes them about the worst thing in the world.”

          I had to ask. “Worse than men, Bandy? Surely they’re not worse than men.”

          He sighed. “Daks, if you have to compare everything to men, men will rule you forever.”

          I thought his answer incomplete and irrelevant, but Mish-Shka nodded in agreement.

* * *

          If cascading blood has a voice, it must sound like the snapping fangs and shrieks that came from behind. Still, I couldn’t turn. I couldn’t let myself see what was becoming of Mish-Shka, couldn’t allow myself to become involved even visually in his death for fear that I might want to contribute.

          Kruk’s mouth curled into a smile, a dreadful grimace that was both hungry and resigned. Ah well, chat’s over. Let’s eat. He rocked backwards, to amass greater power so that he might sink his fangs into the depths of Mish-Shka’s heart. That’s precisely when Bandy catapulted away from his perch, his legs splayed out like a wind-sailing squirrel’s. He made it a good lot farther than I would have thought capable of so much raccoon fat and frizzy fur. With a season of strenuous exercise and strict diet, he might indeed have made it as far as Kruk’s face. But strenuous exercise and strict diets are not a raccoon’s style, so he made it only as far as my head.

          He came down as though I were an egg and he a roosting mother. A very rough roosting mother. It hurt. He drove my chin into the glazed snow and smothered me. My nose filled with the suffocating musk of raccoon coat and urine and fish, from the many meals that Bandy had dribbled down his front. I was raving mad, but thankful at the same time, for Bandy’s heavy butt shocked me out of that horrible wolf lust. To pull my head from beneath his sagging weight took all my strength, as though he were trying to keep me there, down and out, to shield my eyes from the imminent carnage. And when I did become free, I rolled over backwards once. I might have rolled twice, or even three times, but I came up against the body of another wolf that had tested Mish-Shka. A piece of his throat nearly as big as me was missing but he still twitched. One foreleg clawed at the air as though he were running in his death dream, loping through whatever alpine meadows or black forests that fill a wolf’s next life. His eyes rolled back in the sockets and examined me unthoughtfully, then iced over. His leg stopped moving, his running over.

          Three of them dead, and Mish-Shka was still on his feet. They could have surely taken him down in short fashion, had they attacked as a group. But whatever Wolven courtesy they possessed held them in check while Mish-Shka faced only one challenger at a time. Another strong male continued the attack and they were together on hind legs, a single, black silhouette framed against the moon. They might have been another wind-blasted gnarl of ancient tree, but for their heads thrashing about and their jaws searching for a hold. The others gnashed their teeth and sprang forward, never quite touching Mish-Shka, yet eager to take a piece of him.

          From another direction, Bandy hissed, “Back, Wolf! Keep your distance.” The raccoon stood on his knuckles, his back spread flat and his ears pointing forward to the old wolf. Every hair on his body stood straight out and his tail was erect. He was impressively ferocious, but was still so small. Kruk rose over him like granite death.

          “Keep a respectful distance, Wolf … unless you are prepared to deal with the wrath of a Rawl’Colmb prince!”

          Kruk held his place, but I doubt it was the wrath of a Rawl’Colmb prince that intimidated him. He seemed curious and a bit perplexed. Evidently, wolves aren’t accustomed to having their dinners fight back. I pranced about, not even knowing where my eyes belonged. Mish-Shka’s battle was inspiring. To see such savagery from so close made me feel like I was in the middle of a huge fire. But the standoff between Bandy and Kruk held its own fascinations. The raccoon snarled and snorted and spit and seemed every bit the warrior soul. He might have been convincing enough to back down some creatures, the sort that live in dirt holes and eat worms. But wolves are not that sort.

* * *

          Mish-Shka forced his opponent over backwards. The wolf scrambled to find a grip on the icy surface, but Mish-Shka’s height and power were overwhelming. They both toppled over. And me with no place to go.

          With Mish-Shka upon him, the wolf came down on his back and his head slammed into my ribs. The collision threw me into Bandy’s backside and in turn, Bandy was thrown into Kruk’s legs. The old beast took the off-balance raccoon in his jaws and threw him over his shoulder with a vicious twist, as though he were ripping the throbbing heart from a living chest. Bandy squealed once, a long and high squeal that lasted until he came down, and then he was silent and still. Kruk turned back to Mish-Shka and took a step forward.


          It seemed to come from everywhere at once—from all around and inside too. I was as stunned as the wolves, and I whirled around to see who had made such an accusation. But they were all staring at me. Even Mish-Shka, who had his snout buried in the fur of the fallen wolf’s throat, was looking at me with his eyes rolled open wide. Even the wolf under his fangs watched me.

          That part of myself which leaves me perplexed whenever it speaks, that part which sometimes can ignore how awful things might get, turned back to Kruk. “YES, YOU! KRUK! A COWARD AND AN HONORLESS VERMIN. THAT’S WHAT YOU ARE!”

          The ancient barbarian took another step forward, stiffly. The muscles in his legs twitched. I didn’t try to escape his advance. There was still no place to go.

          He came so close. His knees bent my nostrils back and I could feel wet breath on my neck when he spoke. “I am no coward. I have never feared anything in my life.”  His voice was soft, like moss on the hardest stone.


          “A Rawl’Colmb pest. That’s all. Just a Rawl’Colmb.”


          Kruk sat back on his haunches. I no longer had to address the underside of his chin. A small relief, for it was putting a crick in my neck. “THAT’D BE THE BRAVE THING TO DO, IF YOU WERE A KING LIKE YOU THINK YOU ARE … AND YOU’RE NOT BECAUSE KINGS DON’T KILL POOR BRAVE RACCOONS ANYWAY … BUT IF YOU WERE A KING, IT’D BE JUST YOU AND MISH-SHKA.”

          “And the victor walks away? Is that right, little Ogg? If Mish-Shka kills me, then he … and you … pass?”

          A feeble voice, ripe with raccoon inflection, said, “Me, too. If Mish-Shka wins, I get to go too.”

          Once again, I had underestimated Bandy’s talent for survival. He was pulling himself up and shaking off the snow. It had an enormous calming effect on me. If I hadn’t seen Bandy rise again from the dead, I might have screamed everything I had to say at the top of my lungs forever after.

* * *

          “YES. . . er, uh. . .yes. That’s the thing, Mr. Kruk. If Mish-Shka kills you, all three of us go on our way, and the rest of your tribe here leaves us alone. That’s what a brave king would do.”

          The other wolves murmured amongst themselves, then fell silent, awaiting their leader’s answer. Kruk, with cocked head and quivering ears, examined me thoughtfully, as though I were something he’d found crawling through his dinner, rather than the dinner itself. Enough time passed that my resolve began to melt and run down my leg. I glanced at Mish-Shka. He had straightened up from his throat-hold on the fallen wolf and he winked at me. The wolf at his feet flipped over onto his stomach and watched Kruk.

          When the only sound on the mountain came from a breeze passing through ice crystals, Kruk opened his mouth. But before he was able to utter a word, a female spoke up. Her voice cracked with age and emotion.

          “No, Kruk. Don’t even consider it. You’re too old.”

          Kruk turned to his left and growled, “Gruewen, please. Stay out of this. I am no older than this Gray Mish-Shka.”  His irritation was evident, but it didn’t conceal a certain tenderness. Plainly, this ‘Gruewen’ was more than an incidental female to Kruk.

          “Old fool,” she hissed. Her coat was thin and she shivered with the cold. “He will kill you.”

          “No … no. He will not kill me, Gruewen. I will not fight him, so he won’t kill me.” Kruk sighed, and the entire tribe sighed with him.

          The wolf at Mish-Shka’s feet forgot where he was and said, “That’s the way, Kruk. Let’s forget this mongrel nonsense and finish them. I’m famished.” Mish-Shka took the fellow’s skull in his jaws and squeezed, just enough to remind him of his delicate position.

          Kruk came forward. “Mish-Shka won’t kill me … and we won’t kill Mish-Shka. Hound, you and your friends can go.”

          The circle erupted in howls of protest. “But he’s killed Glendrek and her son. And Brinkel. He killed Brinkel.”  Kruk shushed them.

          “And since when is self-preservation not a good enough reason to kill? Do our own codes not apply to others? Be honored we have met … and survived … a warrior such as this Mish-Shka. And be honored that we have met more courage from this fellow … this little Daks, and the Rawl’Colmb … more courage than I had ever hoped to see.”

          A most disconcerting thing then happened. Kruk prostrated himself before me, first to his knees and then down to his belly. He looked almost clumsy, self-consciously awkward. But because of the foolishness of his gesture, I didn’t for a second doubt the integrity of the act. “Daks,” he said, “there isn’t enough of you to make a decent meal, anyway. But you have satisfied a hunger that goes deeper than my stomach. And Mish-Shka, if we meet again, we will both take our chances, agreed?”

          Mish-Shka nodded to the old wolf and said a simple, “Thank you, Kruk.”

          I felt compelled to add, “And if we do meet again, Mister Kruk, I owe you lunch.”


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