Woman and Wolf
Silent, unmoving, Thym awaited the Frost Queen’s wisdom. The monarch’s rigid gown splayed out before her, its frosted-feather weave conjuring a dying phoenix in the she-wolf’s mind. Evoking despair, the mental image wounded the hope Thym sought in the elemental goddess. ‘Help us beasts survive,’ she wanted to shout. ‘My forest burns—those I swore to protect engulfed by flame and smoke.’ Yet the nature guardian restrained herself until the queen’s trance ended, and hoar frost edged her midnight-blue mane white.
“I have seen it,” the Frost Queen whispered. “Follow Eagle River. Seek the black earth that burns.”
“Black earth?” the she-wolf said, staring into diamond-dust eyes. “What must I do?”
“Tear out the salamander’s heart, for it is the fire that devours your forest.”
“Salamander?” Thym said. “I will burn.”
“To protect you, I grant my breath. Come child of the forest, kiss me and taste the ice of my heart.”
As Thym approached, the queen’s fragile dress fractured underfoot. The monarch did not protest, so closer still the guardian drew, lips parted. . . .
Barbed ice shredded Thym’s lungs. Instincts raging, clawed fingers arched, ready to strike. Chaining her savage defence with will, the woman within accepted the goddess’ gift until her mane turned ice white. As Thym withdrew, the Frost Queen repeated, “Find the salamander in the black earth that burns. Tear out its heart and save your forest.”
The guardian bowed low, then dashed from the palace on four paws.
The wolf raced along a snowy ridge shadowed by the Frost Queen’s ice palace, nested in cloud on the mountain’s peak. Four-toed footprints, the tracks left when she had rushed in search of aid, lay underfoot. Ahead, stretched three days travel, three days for her forest to become cinder and ash, and blackened trees devoid of leaves to fall on charred earth. She needed swiftness. As the pale moon climbed above the ice palace, Thym stopped atop a rocky outcrop. Gazing at the saffron glow bleaching the horizon, the wolf yowled. A breeze answered. Soon, the zephyr grew stronger, its wail whipping ice crystals from the snow. Then as the wind spirit raged closer, it thundered a greeting before carrying the nature guardian aloft.
Soon, liquid flame pooled across the horizon. As closer the wolf drew to her forest, the fire unleashed an endless roar. Battling fear, the guardian looked with amber eyes, glinting red, to a smoke-veiled canopy, and glimpsed beasts breaking through undergrowth. Her gaze then turned in the direction of Eagle River, the water that would guide her to the black earth that burns.
A surge of heat—the firestorm’s vanguard, ploughed into the wind. The wolf tumbled, hit leaf and branch, and fell through a lattice of crisscrossing deadwood. Though needle litter softened the impact, Thym stood, winded. Peering into ruby light and shadow, she smelled a musky scent. Antler crowned, a buck leapt through pale smoke, followed by his herd. Thundering hooves churned earth, and terrified eyes flashed by. Then, eerie silence, soon pierced by a whisper … wail … a howling gale.
The wolf leapt and ducked deadwood, skirted mossy rocks, then descended a wooded hillside towards the battlefront. The wind, reformed, fought beside her, forcing back the blaze that chased the exodus of forest beasts. Despite her ally, Thym’s courage waned. With tail bowed low, she cowered before fear’s demands: ‘Turn back, leave this land. Surrender it to flame!’ From deep within, the woman’s reason rose to wrestle fear: ‘The Frost Queen’s breath is not yet spent. I shall kill the salamander.’ Yet as the firestorm’s tendrils blackened the wolf’s frosted hide, doubt aided fear: ‘I cannot reach the black earth that burns.’ Doubt and fear summoned terror. Terror executed reason. Thym fled. Through blazing undergrowth the beast crashed, and tumbled into white water.
Eagle River’s water glistened like rime on Thym’s coat. Through a gauntlet of boulders that sought to crack bone, snag and drown, the river had guided her. Now she stood on the black earth that burns.
Peat, steaming and blood-veined, stretched before the shapeshifter. Collapsed earth, pits in the peat, revealed a subterranean inferno. On one pit’s edge the wolf-woman stood upright on her hind legs, and howled. Hot coals shifted. Again Thym howled. A figure, cloaked in acrid smoke, rose to meet the issued challenge. Thym leapt backwards, avoiding grasping claws.
Slithering over the pit’s rim, the salamander rose high on a serpent’s tail, and flexed its four clawed hands. Thym gauged how best to tear into its cherry flesh, and rip free the heart of the fire. She thought too long: the fiend tail-slapped the ground, opening a chasm that spouted flame.
Singed, the leaping she-wolf landed on all fours. Ears pricked, she listened for danger while assessing her adversary. The fiend, wary of its icy prey, calculated. The forest guardian stood proud, allowing the salamander to view her underbelly’s glacial-blue tint. Again, the hellish elemental raised its tail.
Earth cracked. Fire and cinder erupted where Thym had stood. Landing before the salamander, she struck. Claw met flesh, cutting deep, but found no heart as the fiend deflected her attack. Retreating, the she-wolf shielded herself from magma that sprayed from the inflicted wound. Flame licked grey fur, scarring it midnight blue.
Blistering malice poured from reptilian eyes as a flickering scimitar rose from each of the salamander’s four hands. Again, its tail thumped the ground. Again, the she-wolf leapt, avoiding shifting earth. On landing, Thym faced the fiend’s charge, its blur of burning blades weaving a web of death. With but one hope—the goddess’ breath, she endured the scorching scimitars and tore deeply into viscous flesh. Withdrawing, she cast aside the molten mass, but no beating heart.
The salamander slithered towards the shapeshifter. With maw cast wide it revealed fangs tipped with magma, and the fiery vortex beyond. Thym’s eyes reflected the vermilion doom erupting from the fiend’s soul. To defend, she exhaled the last of the Frost Queen’s breath. Flame and ice met. Water vanquished fire. The she-wolf’s breath engulfed the salamander, whose scales, once burning coals, hardened to a paralysing crust. Thym speared stony flesh.
Obsidian skin cracked and flaked as the salamander thawed. Free, the fiend embraced the raging she-wolf and bit. Fangs punctured flesh, injected magma, and a woman wearing a vermilion shroud fell. In her slender fingers, charred and rigid, beat the heart of the fire.