His breath came in great ragged gasps mixed with the racking cough of an exhausted old man. His long unkempt silver hair was slick with perspiration and glistening beads of sweat slowly dripped from a long grey beard. His ancient body was tired and slow but his dark eyes burned with the brilliance of a thousand suns.
Gnarled old hands gripped a weathered oak staff with a large intricately carved head, in a low combat stance. The staff was older than he, handed from father to son through many generations and it was without peer. Its engraved runes of warding and health glowed with a soft pulsing yellow that slowly strengthened his battered body. His eyes never left those of his foe.
The giant black wolf waited patiently thirty cubits away, just out of strike range. Its breath drawn in ragged, rapid pants and its head hung low with exhaustion, its red unblinking eyes never left those of the old druid. The mountain wolf was old too, his once jet black coat now a mottled grey that gave way to white at the many points of battle scarring that adorned his muscular flanks.
Blood slowly dripped from its many fresh wounds and in particular from the socket of a torn out canine fang and pooled on the dirt under the wolf’s powerful jowls. The old wolf wore a massive armoured leather collar that had saved its life many times over. The runic engravings encircling the collar glowed a dull green, slowly strengthening the old beast. The survivor of many battles against both man and animal the wolf was not only big in stature; he possessed a ruthless cunning borne of many years and many fights.
He waited patiently.
The ancient druid winced as he tore out the fang that was embedded in his thigh but his eyes never faltered, never removed their steely gaze from his foe even as he placed the tooth in one of the shriveled leather pouches that hung from the rough hewn belt at his waist. Both his arms and legs were bloodied, sporting multiple puncture wounds from their battle and yet he felt no pain. Such is the intensity of war.
A light zephyr caressed the forest clearing before tugging at the ancient druids clothes and ruffling the old wolfs fur. Neither of them moved, neither of them yet had the strength for another assault and neither of them would give an inch. Their eyes locked and bodies broken, they waited until the eternity of an hour had passed and the magic wards had again filled them with strength.
The wolf moved first. It wheeled sideways to the druids right and watched its old foe instantly react and turn to square himself full frontal. As the druid’s movement was almost stopped the wolf took one step to the left and its cunning was rewarded when the ancient human failed to adjust his stance. The wolf knew the old man was weaker on his left side and it planned to reverse its last successful attack to trick him and gain victory.
In an instant it surged forwards at great speed baring its fangs in a feral snarl. The ancient druid held his breath and held his ground. The cunning old wolf feinted to the right before bounding left and driving in low towards the old mans left leg. Like lightning the ancient one pivoted backwards on his right foot and slightly hunched his torso to the right as well.
The wolf saw the flaw in the druid’s defense and faked low just before hurling itself high for the ancient ones throat. The wolf was not the only one who possessed animal cunning however and it realised too late that it had been set up. The druid had used the pivot and hunch not only to bait the wolf but also to generate the right body position to deliver a devastating blow with his staff.
Quick as a flash the head of the staff arced up and smashed the old wolf in the side of the skull with a resounding crack, sending it corkscrewing through the air before landing in a crumpled heap. The old wolf was out cold. The ancient one stood over the beast and raised his staff to the sky with a victory cry, a broad smile breaking across his weathered features. The killing blow never came however; instead he crouched low over the beast and examined its wounds. Seeing no permanent damage other than the lost fang he reached for one of his pouches and poured an arcane mixture of fresh herbs firstly onto the wolfs wounds and then onto his own.
He sat and waited patiently.
They had both journeyed to this sacred forest clearing every solstice for the last ten summers, just as their fore-fathers had done for millennia in a ritual as old as time itself. The ancient druid travelled from the lowland settlements whilst the old wolf journeyed from his home in the icy mountain peaks.
Quietly waiting in the summer sunshine the ancient one reflected on past battles with this mightiest of foes and concluded that even though this year he had won, the old wolf had still bested him on more occasions. A jerk from the old beast’s head signaled its return to consciousness but the druid remained seated, he was in no danger.
The old wolf staggered groggily to its feet and bowing its head, cast its eyes to the ground in an admission of defeat before slowly turning around and heading for its mountain home. The ancient bearded one slowly arose too and limped painfully from the clearing towards the lowlands. As per the millennia old agreement between druid and wolf, they would both be back in two weeks to the day for the victor’s payment.
The druid did not have to manufacture a magic collar this year and for that he was grateful. It was a time consuming and exhausting process to imbue inanimate objects with magic and especially difficult to construct something that complex in two weeks. The collars endowed the wearer with super natural healing and guaranteed the instant death of any human foolish enough to grasp it. The human victory prize however, was the largest male cub from the previous spring’s litter. The ancient druid had delivered each pup he had ever won in combat by hand to whichever village champion needed a partner inside his directorate.
The competition was simple and sacred. If the wolf won then another of its kind became immune to the touch of man. If the druid won then another wolf was bound into the service of man.
Time is a wheel of change but some peculiar strings of reality remain an intriguing constant the ancient one mused as he wound his way through the undergrowth of the huge old forest, every painful step carrying him closer to hearth and home.
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