The Winter of Wolves Sample

“Hey guys, welcome back to my channel. Today’s survival tip is on how to keep your legs silky smooth while honeymooning in the wilderness for an unspecified amount of time.” I unsheathed the large hunting knife with a low whistle before displaying it for the cameras. “This guy should get the job done nicely.”

My live audience consisted of a large black crow perched atop a moss-covered branch, but I wasn’t about to let it stop me from having a little fun while I waited for my new husband, Brendan, to return from his wood-gathering expedition.

The bird’s beady gaze swept me from head to toe in a decidedly judgy manner, which wasn’t entirely unwarranted. In its defense, I had initially mistaken it for a raven, something Brendan had been all too eager to correct. Apparently, the two were distinguishable by their tail feathers, among some other details I didn’t care to recall.

I’d promptly forgotten almost everything from my crash course in bird identification, save for the fact one’s tail was shaped like a wedge and the other’s was more like a fan. Unfortunately, I was still ignorant as to which was which.

Avian slights aside, it was also entirely possible my feathered companion’s skepticism stemmed from my lack of height and obvious love of carbs, making me just about the last person on earth anyone would expect to be doling out bushcraft skills.

It was a fair assessment.

The makeshift shelter at my back, constructed entirely out of fallen branches and forest debris, had obviously been erected by someone with at least a passing knowledge of living in the wild. That someone was most definitely not me.

Using my fingers, I scraped the limp strands of hair off my damp forehead before turning my attention back to the camera. The anti-frizz serum I’d painstakingly worked through my long dark curls earlier in the day had already fallen victim to the Oregon humidity. If I didn’t think I’d be mistaken for a raven-haired Bigfoot, I might have been tempted to find the local meteorologists who had predicted a mild start to summer, so I could wring their damn necks.

SPF 50 trickled down to settle in the crevice between my chin and neck as I bent over to run the edge of the blade up my leg, taking care to keep my pressure light. It would be just my luck to end up on the dinner menu for every predator in the nearby vicinity.

“I imagine those of you watching at home are probably wondering how a city girl like me ended up with someone like Brendan,” I said, forcing the corners of my lips up into something resembling a smile.

The crow cocked its head to the side, watching me through narrowed eyes as if to say: Yes, Eilidh, I really fucking am.

It wouldn’t be the first time someone had questioned how the wilderness survival television star and lifelong adventurer wound up falling for the librarian with a serious aversion to the great outdoors.

“Look, I get it. On paper, we’re complete opposites—”

Something buzzed near the side of my face, close enough that I felt the tip of a wing as it grazed my temple. I swatted wildly at the air, brandishing the hunting knife like a sword.

Probably just a mosquito.

A massive horde had been stalking my pale flesh since the moment we arrived. Seemed one of the nasty little bloodsuckers had finally found the perfect opportunity to strike. 

Then again, the roughly one million acres of national forest were home to a wide variety of insects and creepy-crawlies, any number of which would no doubt love to sink their fangs or stingers into me.

After suppressing a small shudder, I checked my surroundings and adjusted my grip on the knife handle, doing my best not to dwell on thoughts of what might lurk within the thick sea of green laid out before me.

The crow, who had been forced to listen to me drone on about nothing for the better part of thirty minutes, tapped one of its long talons against the bark of a low-hanging branch above my head.

Well, get on with it, it seemed to say.

“Someone’s impatient,” I said under my breath while squinting to get a better look at the strange creature. Brendan had said the birds were extremely intelligent but failed to mention their human-like mannerisms. I definitely would have remembered that piece of information.

Instead of using its talons to skewer my eyeballs, the crow welcomed the attention and began preening. The afternoon sunlight breaking through the trees gave its glossy black feathers an iridescent sheen that was impossible to look away from.

“Like I said, we may seem like complete opposites at first, but if you really think about it, we’re both changing the world through our work. He teaches people how to survive in the wild through his show, and I teach people how to better themselves through books, which is basically the same thing. The city just refused to give me the budget for a fancy camera crew!”

I paused to laugh at my own joke before carefully running the blade over another patch of hair. “We actually met at the library. Brendan was teaching a primitive skills class for adults and obviously fell madly in love the second he saw me.”

He had, too.

Meanwhile, I’d assumed he was one of the vagrants who loitered near the library, with his long dark beard and funny hat, and brought him a cup of coffee and a couple of singles from my purse. 

I didn’t realize my mistake until a patron walked up to ask for an autograph. While I worked to live down my mortification, Brendan struck up a conversation and asked for my number, later admitting he knew then that I was the one.

It was one of the many things I loved most about him. Most people only saw the avid outdoorsman with his own TV show, but I fell in love with the man he was once the cameras stopped rolling. Brendan wasn’t afraid to share his vulnerable side with me, a rarity in a world that taught men to mask their emotions.

Despite our vastly different lifestyles, being with him was easy. 

And seventy-two hours ago, he made me his wife. It still didn’t feel real, even though we’d been together for five years and engaged for the past two. 

In the days leading up to the wedding, I’d wrestled with a strong sense of foreboding, this nagging feeling I was going to wake up and discover it had all been a dream.

But the day had gone off without a hitch.

And even though I was spending my honeymoon in Laurel Falls surrounded by cameras, instead of some all-inclusive tropical resort where the drinks came with colorful little umbrellas, I was deliriously happy.

The crow suddenly straightened to its full height, tail feathers fanning out like a peacock’s. Its intense focus was no longer on me, but on something out in the forest.

My scalp prickled uncomfortably as I turned toward the tree line, following its gaze. At first, I couldn’t make out anything beyond the normal sights and sounds of the forest. Then, I heard it. 

In the distance, birds were calling out to one another. They worked in perfect harmony, repeating the hauntingly beautiful sound until their voices blended into one. The crow added its caw to the mix, and I realized it wasn’t a song at all.

It sounded more like a warning.

One for sorrow, 

Two for mirth

Three for a funeral, 

Four for birth

Five for heaven

Six for hell

Seven for the devil, his own self

I didn’t know where I’d heard the morbid nursery rhyme, much less why it had popped into my head at the worst possible moment. A shudder ran the length of my spine and, without Brendan nearby to calm my fears, I couldn’t shake the ominous feeling that something was terribly wrong.

Twigs and branches snapped as though something large was tearing through the trees, prompting a large group of the birds to take to the skies. I scrambled to my feet and spun in a circle, but the shrieking mass overhead made it impossible to determine where the noise had originated from.

“Eilidh!” Brendan called out, sounding almost cheerful despite the chaos surrounding us.

The hairs on my neck lifted, and I froze, unable to respond. On our first official date, Brendan confessed he hadn’t known how to pronounce my Gaelic name when he initially read it on my name tag at the library and, until I introduced myself, questioned why any parent would saddle their child with the name Eyelid.

Somehow, the nickname stuck, and he hadn’t bothered to call me anything else.

Until now.

“Eilidh?” the voice repeated, followed by a low chuckle. “Can you hear me? I think I got turned around out here!”

It made no sense. He was born and raised in Laurel Falls—had spent his summers as a teen running guided tours through this very forest, for crying out loud. If anyone knew this area like the back of their hand, it was Brendan.

I didn’t believe in the paranormal, but as the thing that sounded like Brendan called out to me again, I couldn’t help but recall the stories the locals had shared of a mythical creature that could mimic human voices.

The Multnomah people called it wechuge, a malevolent spirit that used mimicry to lure people deep into the wilderness.

“Eilidh!” the voice bellowed, sounding so much like Brendan that I gravitated toward the sound.

I didn’t realize how far I’d wandered from our campsite until something yanked me back. Before I could utter so much as a squeak, a hand clamped down over my mouth.

“It’s me, it’s me,” Brendan hissed against the shell of my ear, moving his hand down to squeeze my shoulder. Unlike before, terror now filled his voice.

“That was you, right? Calling for me?” I turned to look up at him, but his pale face and wide eyes only confirmed what I already knew. The sounds truly hadn’t come from him. I clutched the front of his t-shirt in both hands, anchoring myself while trying to come up with a logical explanation for what I heard.

He shook his head and quietly admitted, “I don’t know what that is, but we can’t stay—”

“Eilidh!” the voice trilled again, sounding much closer than it had only moments before. “Where are you, my love?”

Don’t answer it, Brendan mouthed before lifting me in his arms. I held on tight and kept my eyes on the tree line over his shoulder as he hurried back to camp.

It was the same way he’d carried me over the threshold of our home the night we got married. A small part of me feared it would be the last time he held me, like maybe my bad feeling had nothing to do with the wedding and everything to do with the thing lurking in the forest.

The birds were still sounding the alarm as we reached the center of camp, except for the crow, which had gone unnaturally still on the branch. Had its eyes not been tracking our every move, I might have thought it was dead.

Brendan set me down next to some cooking supplies before going to retrieve the knife I’d abandoned in the dirt. “Hold on to this,” he whispered, pressing it into my palm. “We’ll take the packs and leave the rest, okay?”

He knelt to retrieve a handgun from his own pack and began loading it while I stared blankly at the recording light on one of the nearby cameras. This was supposed to be a low-key honeymoon. We were going to get some cool footage of Mount Wy’east and the falls for Brendan’s online channel, giving viewers a glimpse of where he’d grown up.

The gun was nothing more than a precautionary measure, just in case any bears wandered into our camp. Even then, he’d assured me he would fire it in the air to scare them away.

But that thing was no bear.

I looked down at the knife in my hand. I had limited experience with the weapon, save for culinary feats and short shaving skits for the camera.

Now he wanted me to use it to defend myself?

I was a thirty-seven-year-old librarian, for fuck’s sake. Not Indiana Jones. My body had been built for comfort, not speed, and—oh my god—I was going to die out here. I could see the headlines now:

Fat Bride Devoured on Woodsy Honeymoon.

I struggled to slip the pack over my shoulders, my breath coming out in short, panicked bursts. While fastening the buckles with numb fingers, I tried coming to terms with my inevitable demise and all the life experiences I was going to miss out on.



Watching our children grow into adults.


Seeing Brendan’s gorgeous long hair turn from dark brown to gray.

As far as bucket lists went, it was pretty pathetic. But according to my OB/GYN, I was already of advanced maternal age—practically elderly in medical terms. I couldn’t afford to squander my remaining childbearing years off on some grand adventure.

Although, given what we were facing in the woods, dwindling egg counts were really the least of my worries at the moment.

The forest fell deathly silent just as Brendan slipped the gun into his hip pocket. He jerked his head up in shock and searched the sky before pressing his hands to the earth, muttering, “No. That’s impossible—”

“Earthquake?” I croaked, feeling the vibrations through the soles of my hiking boots.

He shook his head and moved closer to the ground. The tremors magnified in strength, shaking the leaves on trees and forcing the birds to once again leave their roosts.

Flocks rose together above the trees, moving in a spiral pattern like a winged tornado. They didn’t appear to be fleeing as much as hovering, almost as if waiting for something.

“Run,” Brendan whispered just as the first tree fell with a resounding crack and all hell broke loose. 

They began falling in rapid succession, a line of destruction that seemed to be headed straight for us, but I couldn’t move. It was as if my brain had reached its limit of disbelief and couldn’t accept one more abnormality.

“Go!” he growled, shoving me forward. “Follow the birds and don’t look back!”

“Follow the—what?” I looked up at the funnel of birds, wondering how in the hell I was supposed to follow something that wasn’t going anywhere. “Wait! I don’t understand!”

The crow spread its wings wide and began flapping them violently, as if to draw my attention. When it left the branch, I jogged after it for several feet before turning back to find my husband wasn’t following.

He was standing frozen in the middle of our camp, staring wide-eyed into the forest. My blood ran cold when I followed his gaze and saw that the trees weren’t falling over. The tops were being snapped off one by one. 

No earthquake could do that.

“Brendan!” I screamed, starting toward him.

The crow grazed my scalp with its talons as it flew in front of me, using its wingspan to prevent me from getting any closer.

“No, I’m not leaving him!” I ducked beneath its hovering form and managed another three steps before it was on me again. This time, it skipped the pleasantries and went right for my hair, ripping several strands from my scalp as it tugged me back. 

“What the hell?” Brendan exclaimed, fumbling for his gun as he jerkily backed away from the campsite.

I watched in horror as the top of a nearby tree fell, landing steps from where my husband had just been standing and crushing the shelter he’d assembled. But it was the sight of elongated fingers wrapping around the trunk that sent me running in the opposite direction, no longer caring where I ended up, as long as it was far away from that.

“Come back, Eilidh,” the voice crooned, no longer using Brendan’s voice, but my mother’s. The same mother who had died eighteen years ago. 

It was the signal the birds had been waiting for. They descended over us like a blanket as their frantic calls rose to a crescendo.

The crow let out an ear-splitting caw of its own from above my head while keeping a loose grip on the ends of my long hair as it guided me off the trail and deep into the wild unknown.

“Don’t turn around!” Brendan commanded, pressing his hand to the small of my back to keep me from stopping.

Unruly green undergrowth brushed against the tops of my thighs, making me want to jump out of my skin with every step. Still, I forged ahead, fighting the compulsion to stop and look back.

It felt as if we’d been running for hours, yet we hadn’t encountered a single person. No hikers or fellow campers. Not even a friendly forest ranger who just so happened to specialize in killing supernatural monsters.

No one.

My muscles were on fire, and I was making an odd wheezing sound with each breath that sounded exactly like an old smoker’s laugh. The crow slowed just long enough for me to hack at the branches and vines in my way with the knife before urging me onward. It didn’t stop again until we reached a small clearing near the base of the falls and the supposed dwelling place of a guardian spirit.

According to legends, the two sons of the Great Spirit Sahale made the unfortunate decision to fall in love with the same woman. Like most maidens in mythical stories, she’d been cursed with great beauty and indecision, and couldn’t bring herself to choose between the two men.

Clearly not familiar with the ancient proverb of bros before hoes, the two waged a war against each other in their bid to win the fair maiden’s affections, destroying much of the land. Upon seeing the destruction, the Great Spirit grew angry and, as great spirits were known to do, smote the three.

To mark the place where each lover fell, the Great Spirit raised a mountain peak. The ground shook violently as the peaks rose high above fir trees, sending a cascade of boulders tumbling down a basalt overhang to form a waterfall near the base of what would later become known as Mount Wy’east.

The Multnomah people called the falls tamanawas, a Chinookan word that meant ‘friendly guardian spirit.’ However, if there had ever been a spirit tasked with watching over the forest and all who dwelled within, then it had likely fled when the land was stolen from the Chinookan people and renamed in honor of Frank Laurel, the white settler who claimed to have discovered the falls during an expedition to the area.

Still, there was something about the area that lent itself to the old stories. The red cedar and spruce trees surrounding the falls were exposed to full sunlight, yet they’d grown at sharp angles. Enormous trunks and branches had twisted around each other to form a canopy. It reminded me of outstretched fingers reaching for something and an icy chill traveled down my spine despite the heat.

It wasn’t until I got my breathing under control that I noticed the deafening silence, as if the entire forest was holding its collective breath in anticipation. Even the sound of water cascading over the falls seemed strangely muted.

“Please tell me this is normal.” I turned to find I was alone. Again.

“Bren?” I called out, knowing he couldn’t have been too far behind. I’d felt the pressure and heat of his hand on my back almost the entire way.

I turned in a small circle and yelled his name again, searching for any sign of him among the trees and boulders. The crow watched me from atop one of the gnarled branches for several seconds before disappearing into a thicket of trees. Moments later, it emerged again. Alone.

Ignoring the shakiness in my limbs, I retraced my steps, the need to find him overriding my fear of what might be lying in wait. I moved through the maze of green, screaming Brendan’s name until my throat was raw.

There was no response, not even the buzz of a lone mosquito or the whisper of a breeze to break the eerie stillness that seemed to have settled over everything.

I forced myself to turn around when the light began to fade, knowing there would be no chance of finding my way back in the dark. There was still a remote possibility Brendan had flagged down a ranger. If so, my best option was to hunker down by the rock overhang until someone found me, which wouldn’t be terribly difficult considering it was located just off a widely popular trailhead.

The odds of Brendan abandoning me to go find help were slim to none, but it was the only theory my addled mind would accept.

As if privy to my thoughts, the crow had exchanged its branch for a moss-covered stone near the edge of the stream. I followed the rugged and slippery trail down while marveling up at the waterfall spilling over the side of a one-hundred-foot lava cliff.

Whether it resulted from a vengeful spirit or simply a volcanic eruption from the long dormant Mount Wy’east, the view was second to none.

I sank down onto a fallen log near the bird with a heavy sigh, giving my aching muscles a much-needed reprieve. Obviously, I was in shock. It was the only plausible explanation for why I wasn’t in the throes of a complete nervous breakdown.

Instead, I just felt empty. Numb.

The crow hopped closer, cocking its head to the side as it inspected my hands. It was decidedly the least abnormal thing I had experienced all day.

“I bet you’re expecting a reward for saving my life back there,” I said, noting the various cuts and scratches marring my skin. A few were from the thick shrubs and stalky plants I’d run past, while the rest had come from hacking my way through thick undergrowth with a hunting knife. 

The blade was still in my hand, clutched so tightly that my knuckles had gone white. Almost reluctantly, I set it aside so I could retrieve my pack.

“Let’s see what we’ve got in here, so you can get back to your friends.”

It watched me rifle through the pack before nudging my hand open with its beak. Somehow, in my initial assessment, I’d missed the blood oozing from a large cut across my palm.

“Crap.” I inspected my hand, trying to determine whether the wound was deep enough to require stitches. In the waning afternoon light, it looked as if the bleeding had slowed. Still, as I was stranded for the foreseeable future, I didn’t want to take any chances. Besides predators with fingers that were taller than most schoolchildren, the forest was home to bacteria.

I removed my boots and socks and placed them on the log next to the first aid kit before stepping into the clear creek. My skin prickled with goosebumps as soon as my toes encountered the frigid current. I pushed past the initial shock of cold and waded out a little farther, stopping once the water reached my shins.

A sudden gust of wind swept over the falls as I bent to rinse the sweat and grime from my hands, whipping my hair against my cheeks in stinging slaps. 

From somewhere high above, a wolf shattered the silence with a long, low howl. The sound conjured up images of a war horn being blown in warning as it echoed off the cliff faces surrounding me. 

“Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me,” I muttered, blinking back the wind-induced tears. Nothing seemed to make sense anymore. I looked up, half-expecting to see a six-foot tall dire wolf waiting at the top of the waterfall.

What I found was a towering column of thick black smoke that stretched for miles into the slate blue sky. Not smoke, I realized a moment later, when bits of ash and debris began falling to the ground.

Either I was experiencing one hell of a shock-induced hallucination, or, after two hundred years of dormancy, Mount Wy’east had suddenly become active again. Instead of giving in to my long overdue meltdown, I began giggling. Uncontrollably. 

By the time my brain registered why the surrounding cirrus clouds were radiating away from the eruption, it was too late to do anything other than drop to my knees and plug my ears.

Less than a second later, the shock wave hit with a deafening boom that shook the earth. A rush of supersonic wind followed, knocking the air from my lungs as it slammed my body against the rocks.

The impact left me completely disoriented and struggling to move. My ears rang from the blast and had I not remembered to open my mouth, the violent change in pressure would have likely ruptured my ear drums.

I groaned, feeling as though the world’s largest fist had punched me in the chest. It took several attempts before I managed to sit up so I could survey the damage.

It looked like someone had detonated a bomb. The area above the falls had taken the brunt of the blast, leveling most of the trees.

“Worst honeymoon ever,” I wheezed, planting my hands in the creek bed to keep from toppling over again. My reflection in the water resembled something straight out of a horror film.

Jagged streaks of blood punctuated the thick layer of black ash clinging to my entire upper body. I frowned and lowered my head to study the braided mohawk running the length of my scalp, wondering how it had gotten there.

Despite my bloody face and oddly intricate hairstyle, I kept it together. At least, I did, until I saw that my once gray eyes were now glowing red. The orbs flickered off the water like eerie twin flames, ripping the unholiest of screams from my throat.

My screams morphed into anguished cries as I bolted toward the fallen log, slipping and stumbling over every small rock and downed tree limb on the way. Everything was sitting exactly where I’d left it minutes before, including the crow.

It didn’t so much as ruffle a feather when I began throwing the first aid supplies back into the pack while blubbering incoherently. After trying to wrestle my socks on over wet feet, I gave up and tossed them into the bag before forcing my bare feet into the boots.

“Come on. We can’t stay here. Volcano. Demons—water faces. Just need Brendan,” I rambled to the bird, looping the pack over my shoulder. “Have to go. Now.”


The word sounded as if it had come from everywhere and nowhere at once. It rippled through my body and reverberated in my bones, like the ringing of a giant bell. I clapped my hands over my ears and squeezed my eyes shut, pleading to wake up from what had to be a nightmare.

That was when the second shock wave hit, hurling my body hundreds of feet into the woods.

When I opened my eyes, the world was on fire.