The slope must have been steeper than it looked. He was out of breath and shaking by the time he reached the top, either from exhaustion or from the bitter cold. But he'd always known this was the perfect place.
Far below him the river, the trees on the far side, and the snowy plains beyond shone in the brilliant moonlight. Far away to the south were the mountains he'd never reached. His eyes weren't what they had been when he was young, but he thought the scene was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.
The mountains made him sad. He had always planned to explore them some day, but some day had never come. Oh well; tonight he was leaving on the greatest journey of exploration of all. And there couldn't be a more perfect night for it, or a more perfect place.
He planted the butt of his best spear on the ground and leaned on it as if it were a walking stick. Lifting his silvered muzzle to the moon, he emptied his mind and let his soul rise to sing to the Goddess. He would sing silently tonight, but it would be his most beautiful--
His nose wrinkled. He smelled beer. Beer and woodsmoke, leather and-- the old wolf sniffed deeply, nodded a bit, and sighed-- that horse. Him again.
He heard a clink of pots and the sound of hooves kicking away the snow. A spray of the stuff hit him on his tail and the back of his legs. He growled deeply. "Go away."
Scuff scuff scuff. "Make me."
"Go away now, Herd Meat, before I rip your throat out!"
"Don't make me laugh, Carrion Breath. You're too old and too slow. Don't waste your strength trying."
He shook his head in exasperation. "Why. WHY do you bedevil me so?"
"You've forgotten why? I haven't. The pain of the scars on my leg wouldn't let me forget, even if I wanted to. I will follow you forever for what you did."
"I should have eaten you when I had the chance."
Behind him twigs and small branches snapped. The smell of smoke became stronger. An orange glow flickered on the snow around him. That horse had been carrying glowing coals in one of the clay pots. The horses had learned that trick from the wolf people years ago.
The horse said "Indeed, it would have been simpler to eat me. Although not so good for you when my herd found us."
"We had nothing to fear from a bunch of grass eaters."
"If you say so. For whatever reason, you didn't eat me. I've always wondered why."
"Because I was an idiot, that's why. I'd never even dreamed of a creature who looked and smelled like prey, but had hands, carried the flint-tipped spear, and could speak-- or could make sounds that seemed like some kind of barbarous speech, at least. You were interesting. I thought you might be useful. Silly me."
"You're silly indeed, trying to get away from me like this."
"You won't stop me."
"No," the horse said, almost too quietly to hear. "No, I won't. Want some beer?"
"I want to stop you, Hoarfrost, but I won't."
Hoarfrost sat down in the snow, turned halfway away from the beauty of the full moon so he could look back at the horse. The fire between the horse's feet was a cheerful, steady glow now. Even after all these years the wolf had trouble reading the expression in those wide-set eyes.
"You say you haven't come to stop me, yet you build a fire and you offer me food."
"The fire is for myself. I feel the cold more than you. And strong beer isn't food."
"I can't drink it."
"Of course you can! You can't stomach our food. I wish I knew why. But you've been drinking our beer most of your life. I wish I had something else to offer you. A rabbit, a rat, anything. Who would have thought I'd be sorry these creatures DIDN'T try to come steal our grain? But I'm more sorry about that than I have been about anything in my life."
"You tried, Dapple. You did your best, even though hunting was so far outside your nature. May the Goddess bless you for trying. But there's no meat. There is nothing left for me but to leave on the greatest hunt of all. It would be an affront to the Goddess to delay my hunt, on such a perfect night as this, by drinking deep of your strong beer."
The horse laughed, although there were tears in his eyes. "We know more about the strong beer than you do, old wolf. None who wish to live would drink of it in the forest beneath the icy winter moon. You will feel warm, yes, and then you will sleep, and wake no more."
"That is even worse! We show the Goddess our courage by facing the Night, the Journey, the cold and the pain, alone."
"And so you did. You went forth to your Goddess, alone. If your Goddess shone her light in my eyes to wake me, so I could see you and follow, that is Her decision and mine. Not yours."
Hoarfrost nodded slowly. Dapple rose from his seat, presented the pot of beer to the wolf, and returned to his fire.
The wolf opened the pot and drank deep. "Ahh.. I remember the first time you gave me this. Old friend, I never thought it was in you to follow me into the woods this night and then not try to bring me back to your fireside."
"Would it do any good? I can't even catch you a rabbit."
"You are no hunter. You are what you are, and that pleases me. Thank you for the beer. You should go now. Watching me go to sleep would be too hard for you to bear."
"Nothing could be harder. And that's why I will stay."
Hoarfrost drank more of the beer. He did feel warmer now. "I almost think I understand you. Living with us has made you horses into wolves, just a little bit."
"And you wolves into horses, Beer-Guzzling Carrion Breath."
"Ha! That is true also. Thank you, old friend. It seems so warm, and I have never seen the moon so beautiful. Who would have thought, when a wolf-cub bandaged and tended a wounded, fever-wracked colt, that they would run so far together? And now I am old, and dying, while you are still young."
"Your weak eyes deceive you. I am not as old as you, but old enough."
"So says the Herd Stallion."
"No more. At the last new moon I asked nephew to become consort to my mares."
"I don't understand." Hoarfrost drank more beer. The pot was almost empty now.
"It means we both knew he would defeat me in the Spring Challenges, but-- and may your Goddess protect me-- I have somehow become too honored in the eyes of the Herd to suffer that humiliation. He will be Herd Stallion in fact, while I will be allowed to continue as Herd Stallion in name for what few days I have left."
"I weep for you, Herd Meat. We have run long and well, but none are fast enough to outrun Time."
"Truth." Dapple sighed. "I could wish that I might go with you tonight. For us the Land Where The Sun Goes At Night is summer days, rich fruits, and warm nights, forever. I could wish to hear the music of wolfkind's beautiful howls in those nights."
Hoarfrost blinked awake. "What? You LIKE our music?"
"Why not? We hear, and we sleep knowing that you prowl the night keeping enemy-wolves away. We know that the deer who come to eat our apples or grain will never reach it, nor even the rabbit dare a nibble. Sun-At-Night will be sad indeed without the music of wolves under the full moon. And besides that, what good is a lazy, warm evening without you to come in for a jar of beer and a story by the fire?"
It was so warm now, and the light of the moon filled everything. He looked into that light and smiled. "I can see my place at the night fire of the Goddess, and yours close beside. We will tell the stories of when we were young and too foolish to know that we were enemies. The songs we shall sing, the stories we shall tell! And the beer, such beer we will enjoy. I see it. Do you hear?"
"Yes. I hear and my heart soars."
"Dapple? I only wish that what the Goddess gave us might endure."
"I hear, friend. If She can hear the prayers of an old horse, so will it be."
Hoarfrost smiled and closed his eyes to sleep.
One day came the first pioneers of the spring's vast herds of buffalo, moving up from their wintering grounds in the lowlands. The next morning Dapple heard distant howls from far downriver. He took Hoarfrost's beautiful spear, with its gleaming leaf-point, its two eagle feathers, and its strings of red and green stones. He carried it as he walked down the riverbank, away from his village.
Soon the wolfpack trotted around the trees at the distant river bend and came on toward him. The wolves came close, then stopped. Their leader came forward alone.
"Silverlight," Dapple said, bowing his head.
"Dapple." The wolf came close and looked at the spear in the horse's hand. "Grandfather?"
Dapple presented the spear to her. "He left us in the last full moon of winter. I'm sorry. We tried to find food for him, but we could not."
Silverlight took the spear. Turning it in her hands, watching the light flash from the point and the colored stones, she sighed. "I had hoped you might save him to see one last summer. But the mark of the Goddess was upon him. He knew that too. He stayed behind because he knew he would slow us down. Because of his sacrifice we found meat before any of us starved."
"I am glad his sacrifice was not in vain."
"It never is, in the eyes of the Goddess. Did he go to his special place on the river bluff?"
"Yes." Dapple swallowed and tilted his head back, looking up at the clouds. "But in the end I couldn't let him go alone. I went with him, and stayed with him to the end. After it was over, I brought him home. He rests now beneath the newest mound, the one furthest in the direction of the dawn."
Dapple kept looking upward. Silverlight frowned. "Why do you present me your throat?"
"I didn't leave him in the woods. I brought him home and dealt with him as we would a hero of horsekind. I have dishonored your customs and your Goddess, may she and you forgive me. Perform justice as you see fit. But after that, I beg that you lay me by his side, that we may journey to Sun-At-Night together."
Silverlight reached out and touched Dapple's cheek gently, pressing his muzzle down until the horse and the wolf were looking into each others' eyes. The wolf's mouth was open without teeth much exposed, and her ears were up; Dapple knew this was a wolf's smile. It was strange to see that smile and tears on her face at the same time.
"Why would I enforce judgment on you for what you have done? There are no wolf-people and no horse-people. There is one People, and the People are all of us together. For as long as the river flows, for as long as Spring follows Winter and the Goddess waxes and wanes."
Dapple felt the tears in his own eyes. Do you hear your granddaughter, Carrion Breath? You wished that what we had might endure. There is your answer. Go on your Great Hunt in joy. When you reach those bright lands watch for me. I come, soon.
"Dapple? Are you well?"
Dapple smiled. "I am better than you can imagine. Come to the fireside, my friend. There we will share songs, and stories, and the good strong beer."