The wind blew in gusts, and snow drifted down in large flakes, circling Mahn as he trudged through knee-high drifts. He pulled his hood loosely over his thick, curly black hair on his head. His red cheeks were flat against his face, forming a sharp jawline. He shook off his cloak and kept moving through the snow to stay warm. The sled he was pulling was empty, except for a heavy ax and bow saw lay on his sled, his tools for felling and cutting the timber he collected. The ax glistened, even under the overcast skies, its heavy handle polished, and head sharpened to a fine edge.
Mahn could not see the sky, but he knew it was late afternoon. He had been making his way through the forest to a place that was full of good timber they used for fuel back in Neuasut. Even though the woodsman could not see any tracks from his last trip, he knew the way well. He remembered trees, rocks, and other markers that helped him navigate through the thick forest of conifers.
Felling trees was one of his jobs, but he enjoyed the task. Though he did not do it every day, it was a break from the monotony of life back at the keep in Neuasut. There was not much to do there except talk to the few soldiers who wintered in the keep and practice their martial arts with them. There were a few books, but he had read them all repeatedly. Beyond that, he basically just ate and slept. Being out though gave him a break from that life, something he had known for several years.
Mahn came out of the trees into a clearing with several stumps from his previous fellings. He grabbed his ax and found his next tree. The boy tapped the trunks of several trees and inspected the limbs overhead to find one that would be prime for cutting–not green but also not rotten through. He found one about eighteen inches in diameter, and he gave the tree a good whack with the ax’s blunt side. Snow came off the tree and fell to the ground and Mahn stepped out of the way as it did. He hit it a few more times before the tree completely emptied its snow. Mahn reversed the ax and started taking swings at the trunk with large wood chips flying off the tree with each mighty swing. He notched out the tree, wanting it to fall back towards the clearing away from the other trees. Once he formed the notch, Mahn went to the other side and cut away large wood chunks with the ax. He fetched his saw and cut through the tree until he heard it give way, creaking. He stepped back, and the tree gracefully pitched precisely as he intended and fell to the ground, splashing in the snow.
He started the methodical rhythm of chopping the trunk into sections that he could haul back to Neuasut on his sled. The chips flew about him, and he worked almost machine-like as he cut through the long log. Before too long, he had gotten through the trunk. Mahn pulled the first section out of the snow over to his sled. He placed some skids on the side of the sled and rolled the section into place.
By now, Mahn was warm all over, even in the freezing temperature. He took a moment to cool off a bit, pacing about the clearing before he went back to the trunk to start work on a second section. After cooling off, the boy retrieved his ax and resumed work. When he had taken a few swings, he looked up and saw standing at the edge of the clearing a lone wolf, whose piercing blue eyes stared hungrily at Mahn. Mahn paused for a second and pulled the ax close to his chest, but the wolf did not flinch. Mahn picked up a limb section he had cut from the tree and hurled it towards the wolf. It landed near the wolf, who retreated into the trees behind him out of sight.
Mahn went back to swinging the ax, chopping away at the trunk. Not long after he had started back, he heard a blood-curdling howl. He paused and inspected the edges of the clearing again, but did not see the wolf. He went back to swinging the ax again, this time more vigorously and swiftly, taking out larger chunks of wood from the tree. Mahn finished the section, laid the ax down, and moved the second section towards the sled. He placed his skids along the edge, rolled the log upon the sled, and returned to the trunk, always being mindful of his surroundings. He retrieved his ax again, but before he could get in the first swing, he saw the wolf on the edge of the clearing.
Soon, he saw a second one pass behind the first one. The second wolf disappeared in the trees, but appeared again to Mahn’s left at the edge of the clearing. Mahn’s eyes darted back and forth between the two wolves, noticing the second was smaller and with more grizzled fur. It stood with its front feet apart, head down, and back arched.
Mahn heard another sound, and he looked to his right, where he spotted a third wolf. He cautiously started back towards his sled, keeping his ax close to his chest in both his hands. The wolves held their ground as Mahn moved. The boy was methodical in his steps, not making any sudden moves or giving any sign of aggression as he walked. He carefully replaced the posts at the corner of the sled to keep the sections from rolling off. He took up the harness he used to pull with, and he started walking away from the wolves, pulling the sled with him.
The first, larger wolf came out of the clearing closer as Mahn moved. When the first wolf moved, the other two came in closer. Mahn spotted a fourth one. He now realized they surrounded him. He dropped the harness, readied his ax, and waited. The seconds ticked by, but the wolves did not make any moves at first, but they circled.
Mahn grew impatient. “What are you waiting for?” he snarled. “Come and get me!”
Mahn spun, trying to keep track of the circling wolves that eyed him as they watched and waited for the slightest error in Mahn’s movement. Beads of sweat formed on his forehead and the back of his neck. The boy noticed the hair on his arms rise and chills moving up and down his spine. He gritted his teeth in anticipation. He could almost feel their thoughts, knowing that at any moment, the wolves would make a move. The chill turned into a rush. His white-knuckle grip on the ax became slippery from his sweaty palms. His eyes glowed yellow as his face went flush. The rush escalated from heat to a burning sensation, and it burned as heat reciprocated between his head to his feet. He went from fear to fury, from poise to power.
When he did, the first wolf attacked. Mahn instinctively knew when it came to him, tossing his ax in the snow. He turned to meet it. The wolf bounded through the snow and leapt at Mahn. Mahn, wide-eyed and frenzied, thrust his right hand out as the wolf came at him. He caught the beast mid-jump under the throat while the beast was snapping its jaws at Mahn. Mahn squeezed, crushing the wolf’s throat like a nut in a vice. The wolf yelped, then went limp in Mahn’s hand as he held it up. He tossed the beast aside and turned to face the others.
The second wave of wolves came, this time two at the same time. Again, Mahn anticipated their moves. One leapt at him, and the other attacked his legs. Mahn, in a fluid motion, caught the flying beast by its forelimb. Using its momentum, he grabbed it with both hands and swung it around like a club and smashed the wolf into the second assailant. The second wolf let out a loud yelp, was knocked off balance, then retreated. Mahn was still swinging the other wolf where he brought it around over his head and smashed it into the sled. He heard the crushing of bones, and the animal went limp.
The remaining two wolves again attacked in tandem, this time coming at Mahn from the same side. One came up at the boy, trying to knock him over, while the second one went for Mahn’s legs to assist. Mahn deflected the leaping wolf’s attack, trying to knock him over while landing a kick on the beast going for his legs. He deflected the jumpin wolf’s attack and grabbed it by its hind legs while the wolf clawed to escape his grasp. Mahn pulled the beast by its hind legs and suspended it in the air as it tried to paw away. He threw it into the other wolf, who was making another advance. This distracted it, and Mahn kicked the animal, knocking it to the ground. He placed his boot at the animal’s throat, stomped the animal’s head with his other foot, and the animal laid still in the snow, with both animals in the snow.
Mahn looked about himself, spinning around rapidly looking for anymore assailants, hunched forward with his hands opened, palms forward. He was panting and dripping in sweat. Soon, the fury burning in him faded to a tingling sensation, and his eyes returned to their normally placid brown. Mahn regained his composure and fell to his knees in exhaustion.
When he had finally regained some strength, he stood about and looked around the clearing. Mahn was trying to make sense of what had just happened. His head swam and body ached, as if he had felled a dozen trees. He could now feel the chill of the air creeping into his sweat-soaked clothes. Mahn managed to stand to his feet, and he stumbled forward, taking a few steps back towards his sled. Along the way, he saw his ax in the snow. He reached down and grabbed it. It was utterly pristine. He carried it a few more steps back towards the sled, and he stumbled again. This time, he fell and braced himself with the ax.
Mahn hobbled along a few more steps, using the ax as a crutch, but it was no use. The boy collapsed to his knees again. He looked up at the gray sky. At first, he thought it was nearing sunset because it was getting darker. However, he realized it was not getting darker, rather his vision was getting dimmer and dimmer until the point that it went completely black. He felt himself fall forward with his face hitting the cold snow, and then nothing else.