The inside of the hut was smokey. Killian woke up under a warm layer of bear furs. His father poked at the fire burning in the center of their home, it's plume of smoke rising up and out of the hole at the apex of the hut. His mother tended to his baby sister.
"Good morning," said his father. "Here, eat." He handed Killian a bowl of thin stew made from the dried meat of the deer his uncle had killed before the winter set in. Killian slurped up the warm liquid and chewed on the tough bits. It wasn't appetizing, but it filled his stomach.
"Snow has fallen, but it's not so cold now," said his mother. "You should go outside and play with your friends."
"Don't go into the forest," warned his father. "You are not a hunter yet."
Killian dressed in his winter furs and bounded out of the hut. The village was covered in a quieting blanket of white. White smoke billowed out of each of the huts, streaks against a gray sky. The conifers that towered around the village, protecting it from the wind, were weighed down with a white dressing of snow. Few others were out yet, except for his two cousins who, when they spotted him, ran and leapt through the snow towards him.
"Are you ready?" asked Shyla. She was three years older than Killian, with bright eyes and braided hair, and carried a spear.
"Ready for what?" replied Killian.
"Your first hunt," said her brother Finn. He was five years older, tall as Killian's father, and already an accomplished hunter. He went sleeveless even in winter to show off the muscles in his arms.
"I can't," said Killian. "I'm not ready to be a hunter. I'm not trained."
"There's nothing to it," said Shyla, wielding her spear in the air as if sighting an animal, "you just find something that moves and throw." She made the motion but didn't release the spear.
"You're not any good yet," mocked Finn.
"I will be," said Shyla rolling her eyes.
"I don't know," said Killian. "There won't be any animals around here anyway."
"This way then," said Finn. He started running towards the edge of the village and the path that led to the stream where they got their water. Shyla followed. Killian didn't want to go in the forest, but he also didn't want to play by himself in the village.
"Wait up!" shouted Killian.
He followed and all three went deep into the forest where the trees were tallest. The ground was normally marshy, but now it was frozen over in icy pockets. Finn slowed to a walk and silently signaled to Shyla and Killian to be quiet, and they did. Then Finn crouched and crept forward, his eyes locked on something in the far depths of the forest ahead.
"See there?" he whispered. Shyla and Killian crouched next to Finn. Through the tree trunks they could see a wolf with gray fur, standing in profile, who hadn't noticed them yet.
Shyla handed her spear to Killian, and he accepted it.
"Go get it," whispered Finn. "Stay quiet. Be careful of your footing. And when you throw, be certain."
Finn nudged Killian on the back, and he moved reluctantly. The village had problems with the wolves in the past. They were fast and clever and worked in a team. This one was alone, but Killian was still small enough that it could attack him. If he threw and missed, there was no telling what the wolf would do.
Killian crept closer and closer to the wolf. Suddenly it stretched its neck up and called out; steaming breath escaped it's mouth and Killian could see its teeth. He felt cold at that moment, and his forehead began to sweat. The wolf turned and looked away from him, and at something in the forest beyond. He felt this was the moment, and raised the spear, pulled back his arm, and then whipped his body forward, throwing not just from his hands but his whole body, just as he'd seen his uncle and father do when they'd taken him out with them.
The spear left his hands, and soared in a clean arc between the trees. The stone point penetrated the wolf's flank and it yelped out, stumbled, then fell, trying to bit at the spear. It's fur was rapidly stained with red.
Killian ran forward, excited and warm inside, triumphant. He stopped a few feet from it, still wary of the wolf's teeth and claws and cunning. Finn and Shyla cheered behind him and he could hear then coming towards him in the underbrush.
Then he looked down at the wolf's face, and into it's eyes. He saw fright and sadness, and then he saw his mother's eyes in the wolf's, and he saw the life leave her. The wolf stopped breathing and was still. The warmth began to leave him again. There was another sound, coming from where the wolf was looking when he speared it. Two wolf cubs crept out of the underbrush. Their tails were curled under them, and they sniffed at their mother's body, and looked up at Killian. They began to whine.
Killian picked up one of the cubs by the scruff of its neck. It hung limply from his grasp. It did not scratch or claw. It did not fight. He placed it in his other hand and cradled it against his chest. He felt its warmth even through the fur he wore. He could feel it's fast heart beating and each breath it took. The cub stopped whining. He picked up the second cub and cradled them together.
Finn and Shyla approached him. They looked at him in silence, and at the cubs he held. Shyla pulled her spear out of the mother wolf, and Finn picked up the body, slinging across his broad shoulders.
"That was an exceptional throw," said Finn. "I'm impressed."
Killian nodded. Finn set off back to the village. Shyla followed and Killian trailed behind. He didn't want them to see the tears on his face.
When they reached the village, most of the villagers were up. His mother was cleaning a deer skin and making it ready to cure in the air, and his father was patching the hut with a slender tree branch. They both stopped what they were doing and watched as the trio neared. Finn dropped the wolf by the entrance to Killian's hut.
"Did you do this?" asked Killian's father.
"No, it was Killian," said Finn, smiling.
Killian looked at the ground. His father frowned.
"You did this?" asked Killian's father.
"Yes," said Killian. He watched his tears drip into the snow.
"You went into the forest and disobeyed me?"
"Yes," Killian nodded, "but I'm sorry."
His father was silent for a moment, then put his hand on Killian's shoulder.
"The forest is very dangerous, even if you're with Finn and Shyla," said his father. "You should not go there unless you're with an elder."
"I know," said Killian quietly.
His father knelt down into the snow and touched Killian's chin with his thumb.
"What have you got here?" he asked, pointing to the cubs peeking out of Killian's furs.
"It was a mother wolf I speared," said Killian. "I didn't see them until she was dead."
He pulled out the cubs one by one and handed them to his father. His mother came over to see them too.
"They have no mother now," he said. "I know they are our enemy, but I have to raise them, even if they are not of our kind. They would die of starvation in the forest."
"You have wisdom, son," said his father. "And I'm proud of you. It's not muscles that make a good man. Even now you are a better hunter than most. Let's raise these cubs together, and if we're lucky, they'll become good members of the village."
Killian dried his tears and smiled.
As winter turned into spring and then summer, and the days grew long, the cubs grew as well. They spent every moment of the day running around Killian's legs, and at night they curled up with him in the hut. He taught them to eat politely, to guard the hut, and to point at animals in the forest when he accompanied his father and uncle on their hunts. The wolf cubs were so useful to the village and so loved, that Killian became the talk of even the neighboring villages. And soon, all the wolves in the forest were not seen as enemies, but as equals.