It was far too early.
The worst of it was that the harvest was only a week away at best. He’d been preparing for it, oiling his sickle and weaving the rope to hold the bales together. Now the entire crop would freeze in the night. Bartle sighed.
He had been depending on the harvest, just like every other year. His farm wasn’t small, but a large portion of his land was covered in forest. He’d once had plans to cut it back, and had made some headway in that endeavour, but the loss of his daughter three winters ago seemed to sap his will to the work. He sighed again.
Shanna had been hit harder. She would visit the grave every day, recounting its events to the cairn. Bartle felt a twinge of guilt; he’d not been to the graves close on a month. The day his wife had died stood stark in his memory. He doubted he would ever forget it.
She’d gone into the woods to pick wildflowers, hoping to decorate their kitchen for the coming harvest season. The crops had come in exceptionally well, and the harvest would provide enough for them to really push the tree line back. They were both excited, already looking forward to the next year’s harvest, which should be even larger. Bartle had already begun thinking about a barn, perhaps some chickens.
He’d been working in the field, inspecting the crop for rot and disease when it occurred to him it had been some time since Shanna had left. He’d found her propped against a tree, clutching the bouquet in bloody fingers, smiling wistfully. She’d been mauled, perhaps by a bear or a wolf; Bartle was too beside himself to be sure.
He was pulled out of his reverie by movement at the corner of his eye. Two dark shapes had detached themselves from the tree line and disappeared into the crop. Bartle knew they were wolves, driven from the mountain and the forest by the coming snow. Their prey would have easily frozen to death in the too-early winter, and they were looking for food.
Bartle turned on his porch and strode into the kitchen. The sickle was lying lazily on the kitchen table next to the whetstone and small flask of oil. He scooped it up and went back outside, then stood in the cleared area in front of the porch. His muscles taught, the sickle felt dangerous in his hand. His breathing was steady; he wasn’t afraid of death, but he did want it to be on his own terms.
He heard the first one to his side, the rustle of the crop and the thudding of its paws on the packed ground. He spun and brought the sickle up defensively, somewhat clumsily. The wolf leapt, snarling, but Bartle knew it would. He stepped to the left of its arc and brought the sickle upwards into its belly.
The impact nearly wrenched his shoulder out of its socket. As he stumbled, he heard the wolf give a short, sharp yelp, but it lay still where it fell, the sickle underneath it. Bartle heard a growl and rolled desperately. He felt hot, wet fur brush his arm as the claw bit into it, but the teeth never came.
The roll was uncontrolled, and in a moment Bartle found himself on his back. He flipped over, but as he was coming up the second wolf bit into his arm, hard. The wolf braced its feet and yanked hard, throwing its head to the side. Pain shot up his arm, but Bartle’s cry was anger, not anguish.
He pulled the wolf down under him with his arm still between its teeth, awkwardly planted his knee on its neck and pushed downwards with all his weight. Stubbornly, the wolf held on. Bartle realised he had nowhere to go now. The muscular neck was too tough for him to strangle the wolf and he had no weapon. The wolf also had no reason to let go, and unless it did soon it would break his bone.
Desperately, Bartle looked around. He realised that the fight had brought them within arm’s reach of the first wolf.
And his sickle.
He lifted his knee and rolled forward over the prone wolf before it could react. This left him on his back, and he realised the sickle was out of reach. Grabbing a handful of fur, with a bestial roar he pulled the dead wolf over him and on top of the other wolf. He couldn’t put a lot of force into it, but in the confusion he felt his arm come free.
The second wolf scrambled away, and Bartle took up his sickle in his good arm. He’d had enough.
The wolf backed away, snarling and growling as Bartle advanced on it. Realising it had lost the initiative, it turned and fled into the crop. Bartle heard it running, and saw it disappear into the trees.
As the adrenaline left his body, he realised the snow had now covered the ground. The pain in his arm was returning, and he knew it needed tending to. The wolf body on the ground was steaming.
He buried his sickle securely in its flank, then dragged it nearer the house. He could dry the meat, and the wolf’s hide would make good armour against the cold.