A tree trunk's rough bark bit into Galen's back, the massive oak cutting off any hoped-for escape. He swallowed hard, wide eyes transfixed by the glowing orbs of a least a dozen wolves that had fanned out around him. Having been taught to count to twelve by his uncle, who'd often sent Galen to market to sell eggs, he knew there were at least a dozen. Any number beyond twelve was deemed irrelevant by the farm folk.
Wasn't this the point in his dreams where the forest lord swept in, saving Galen before taking him away from farm life forever?
Two shaggy predators crept closer while the others held back. One of the two, a particularly large example of wolfhood, growled, and Galen imagined it egging the other on, saying, "It's just one puny human! Kill it!"
In fact, the pack's primary female had said, "He doesn't look like a criminal to me. Go check!"
"Me go check?" the second wolf, a much smaller male, whined. "You're the Alpha Bi--"
The larger wolf cut him off with a particularly vicious snarl. "Don't you dare call me that!"
"B...b...but it's the customary title! Passed down through generations."
The she-wolf's long, pointed nose nearly touched the other wolf's, and shegrrr'd deep and low. "It may be the customary title, but I swear, if you call me Bitch one more time..."
Galen watched the exchange between the two wolves, imagining they were fighting over which got the first bite.
So terrified he could scarcely get the words out, Galen stammered, "I... I... ha...have a b...ba...babe with me. The forest lord grants safe passage to any with a b... ba... babe." When his captors didn't immediately scamper off into the woods, uttering the wolf equivalent of "Why didn't you say so?" he added weakly, "Or so I'm told."
The larger female wolf gave a nasty sounding rumble from deep in her throat. Galen heard, "Dibbs on the kid!"
The smaller male wolf rolled his eyes and lolled his tongue. It looked to Galen like a flea was troubling a place he wasn't permitted to scratch in public.
An enormous black wolf pushed past the encircling furry bodies to join the front two, with a growl even more threatening than the others'. In all honesty, compared to the new arrival and the female, the smaller male didn't look dangerous at all. For a moment, temptation goaded Galen to jump and shout to see if it would run.
The new wolf approached cautiously, a monstrous creature that reminded Galen of the paw prints he'd found earlier on the path. The beast eyed Galen with keen interest. The female growled again, defending her claim, in Galen's eyes.
Actually, the she-wolf had told the newcomer, "Erik, I don't care if you are kin, touch the child and die!"
In rather meek and mild-mannered tones, for a wolf, Erik replied, "Yes, Aunt Eydis."
"That's a human, you know," the female pointed out.
"Of course it's a human! I can smell it from here. It's not like I haven't seen them before." He lifted his nose into the air, sniffing. "It smells rather ripe, in my opinion."
His father's litter-mate glared with narrowed, yellow eyes. "That's the babe he carries. Needs a good changing if you ask me."
When Erik didn't reply, she repeated, "A hu-man," as though speaking to a cub. A rather young, rather dim-witted cub. "A human carrying a baby, invoking the name of the forest lord."
"Oh!" Erik replied, the candle wick igniting. "But shouldn't the human babe we expected be this lad's age by now?" He pointed with his snout to Galen."Took his time in getting here, didn't he?"
Galen's eyes were fixed on Erik's mouth.
The she-wolf gnawed a cockleburr from her paw. "You know how prophecies are."
"He could still be a criminal," the smaller male suggested helpfully. A hint of pink tongue swiped at his muzzle.
"Don't you think about anything but eating?"
"Well, my mate is pregnant," the small wolf replied, with self-satisfied smugness.
Erik's eyes shifted back and forth between Twin One and his aunt. Neither budged. "Fine! I'll go!"
Desperately praying for a means of escape, Galen watched the wolf crouch, crawling ever closer. He pulled the baby tighter to his chest, watching the monster with horrified eyes. It stopped directly in front of him and... sniffed his crotch?
Galen could possibly have counted every one of the wolf's teeth, if not for that unfortunate "twelve" limitation, when it grinned.
"Not a criminal, has seen eighteen summers, and is a virgin!" Erik announced triumphantly. He lowered his nose and sniffed again. "Seven inches," sniff, "make that seven and a half inches," sniff. "Folks, I think we have us another village throwaway!"
"Bet?" Twin One growled.
"Bet!" Erik agreed. "Three gold coins!"
Twin One smiled until Erik added, "The little coins."
"A-hem," Aunt Eydis cut in. "Don't talk 'size' and 'virgins' when there's a wee one present! Speaking of which," her eyes glazed with maternal affection,"it's past the little one's bedtime. He should be snuggled in the den with his new little pack mates. Can we get a move on?"