1 The three brothers had been hard at work since the sun had shown the first traces of pink over the hills to the east. Now it was slowly sinking to the rim of the western cliffs, and Owen ap‑Jones, the eldest of the three, straightened his back painfully and leaned on the handle of his hoe. "That's enough for today," he said. Wearily, he surveyed the field he and his brothers had been working on all day. It was poor ground, hard and filled with rocks, and difficult to till. The task wasn't made any easier by the quality of the tools they had to use. The metal was soft and easily deformed. Owen glanced down at the blade of his hoe and frowned as he noticed three new notches in the edge and one section where the blade had curled back on itself. He'd have to hammer that out overnight and file out the notches before the tool would be serviceable again. Even though the field wasn't a big one, he estimated that it would take them another two days' hard labor hacking rows, removing rocks and turning the thin topsoil before they could begin to plant their crop of beans. He shrugged. Life as a farmer in Celtica was hard. The land was better suited to mining. But there were no deposits of ironor silver on their land, and their only choice was to farm or starve. Gryff and Dai, Owen's younger brothers, both stopped working as he spoke. "Curse this ground," Gryff said bitterly. He kicked at a rock close by his foot, sending it skittering. "We'll spend hours, days, hacking away at it, and for what?" Neither of the others answered, so he continued. "For beans. Beans! Who can live on beans?" Dai shrugged. "Well, we do," he replied. Gryff was the youngest brother and was inclined to be the moodiest of the three. Owen and Dai had learned to accept life as it came. Complaining about their lot, they knew, was a wasteof time and energy. Life was what it was, and no amount ofwhining or ranting would change that. Their father had died at a relatively young age, worn out from the effort of tending their field and providing for his family. At least, Owen thought, the three brothers could share the work. "Let's go," he said now, putting an arm around his young brother's shoulders. "Mam will have supper ready for us." "Bean soup," Gryff muttered angrily. Although, at the thoughtof food, his stomach rumbled. They had eaten at midday, stopping for half an hour for a meal of bread and cheese washed down with watered ale. There had been no breakfast. The farm could only provide two meals a day, both of them simple and without any appetite appeal. "Bean soup, bread and cheese," he continued, listing the unvarying contents of their daily menu. "Who can live on that? The miners eat meat twice a week, and they have porridge on the other days." "So they say," Owen replied. He wasn't sure that the miners in their village of Poddranyth were completely trustworthy about the quality of the meals they enjoyed. Miners were notoriously mendacious. Still, he thought, they probably lived better than he and his brothers did. "We should be ready to plant in another two days," he said, hoping to change the subject. "Two days!" Gryff exclaimed. "Two days grubbing and hacking and hoeing. If we had a donkey and a plow we'd get it done in half the time!" "We don't have either," Owen said in a reasonable tone. But Gryff wasn't to be diverted from his litany of complaints. "David ap‑Davis has both. He could lend them to us!" David ap‑Davis was another farmer in Poddranyth. But he had three fields, all on better, more fertile ground than the single rocky plot that the ap‑Jones brothers worked. As a result, his crops were larger and he could afford to sell some of his extra produce to the miners in the village. "He'd charge us for them," Dai put in gloomily. Gryff's anger flared once again. "Aye, that he would! And at a crippling price! He'd never think of lending them to help us." "Why should he?" Owen said. "A mule only has so many hours of work in its life. And chances are our rocky ground would damage the plow. He'd have every right to charge us." There was no real answer to that, Gryff knew. But his brothers' stolid acceptance of the life they shared continued to annoy him. He glared at the rocky ground as they trudged away from the half-prepared field toward the village. It was a two-kilometerwalk, and mostly uphill. Their elongated shadows preceded them,rippling strangely over the uneven ground. Owen sighed, glad that Gryff's complaining had finally died away. It was the same every day. His brother would continue to complain about their lot until he came to realize that complaining would never change it. It was their fate to labor in the rockyearth, hacking and ripping at it with their inefficient tools, planting a new crop each season and subsisting on what they couldgrow. They had the field and three goats, who provided them with enough milk for their cheese and a little extra to trade for flour. In addition, their mother kept half a dozen hens who gave them a meager supply of eggs and, on rare occasions, a bird to roast or boil. And that was life for a farmer in Poddranyth: an unvarying, repetitive pattern of exhausting work, constant, nagging hunger, boredom and weariness. There was little joy in it. But it was what it was. And Owen knew there were others who were in even harder straits than the ap‑Joneses. Eventually, he thought, Gryff would come to realize it and accept it. They crested a hill on the path. On one side of the narrow road, the ground fell away in a steep, shale-covered slope into a valley. On the other, the cliffs rose sheer and bleak. In the distance, a kilometer away, they could see the gray huddle of houses that made up Poddranyth. There were a score of them--all similarly built from stone and weathered timber, with dried mud sealing the gaps between the uneven surfaces. The shallow-pitched roofs were covered in split-stone shingles, and smoke rose from most of the stumpy chimneys. "Nearly home," said Owen, with a note of relief in his voice. At least the house would be warm, and that would be a welcome sensation. The perspiration of the day had soaked his clothes, and it was cold under the evening wind. If Ma's chickens had provided a few extra eggs today, they might be able to trade for a jar of ale from the small tavern that served the village. It didn't often happen--the hens were as poorly fed as the family--but he could hope. Maybe he could-- The thought of home comforts was interrupted by a low-pitched, blood-curdling growl. The hair on the back of Owen's neck stood on end in a primitive reaction to the sound. He stopped in his tracks and looked around, noting that his brothers had also come to a halt. "What was--" Gryff began, but Dai nudged him with his elbow to silence him. Instinctively, the three brothers edged closer together, gripping their hoes protectively, raising them not as tools but as primitive weapons. They stood back to back, facing outward as they searched their surroundings for the source of the threatening sound. It came again, louder this time and with a definite note of challenge in it, as if reacting to the sight of the men's hoes. And again, the brothers' blood ran cold at the sound. "Look," said Owen, gesturing at the cliff above and behind them. Five meters up, a narrow ledge ran along the glistening rock face. On it was crouched a nightmare shape. It was at least three meters long and stood a meter and a half high at its front shoulders. Its front legs were longer than the rear, giving it a hunchbacked appearance. It had the face and general appearance of a wolf, but no wolf they had ever seen or heard of was the size of this one. Its powerful shoulders were tensed, and the thick ruff of fur around its throat was raised, making it appear even larger than it was. It was covered in thick, matted fur, mainly gray but marked with several black patches. A black stripe ran from its left shoulder down the leg. As they watched, stricken with terror, it opened its massive jaws, baring long, yellow canines, and snarled again, louder this time and even more threatening. Its yellow eyes looked around for a path down to the roadway where the brothers stood transfixed. "Move . . . slowly," Owen said in a soft voice, and huddled together in a defensive circle, the three men began to edge away from the horrific creature. As they moved, it raised its head and roared out a challenge to them. "Stop!" Dai said, and they froze in place. The creature lowered its head, and the shattering snarl died away to a low, threatening rumble. Again, it scanned the cliff face between it and them, searching for a way down to the roadway. It took a pace down, finding a footing in the rock. Then another. The three farmers moved again, shuffling away from it. As they moved, its head came up and the massive fangs were bared once more. The warning snarl froze them in their tracks. As they stopped, it stepped down a further two paces, its heavily clawed paws seeking and finding purchase in the steep rock face of the cliff where none seemed possible. "What is it?" whispered Gryff, his throat dry with terror. "It's a direwolf," Owen told him, in the same low tones. A direwolf: a beast out of myth and fable, belonging to an earlier age. As a lad, Owen had heard tales whispered around the fire about these huge, savage killers. But as he grew older, he began to believe the stories of direwolves were just that--stories, fables, myths. Direwolves didn't exist. Or, if they ever had, they had disappeared from the earth centuries ago. Yet here was one facing them. Stalking them. His knees shook underneath him as the killer came farther down the cliff face. Then, with one final bound, it covered the last two meters and landed, crouching, on the path behind them. A cold hand of terror clutched Owen's heart. The beast took another pace toward them. It was barely ten meters away now. Its eyes locked on them, gleaming with hatred. Its massive lips curled back from its yellow fangs, and drool dripped from the fangs onto the dirt of the road. Head down, heavy tail sweeping ominously from side to side, the creature began to advance on them. Owen felt his bladder trying to release with terror and foughtagainst the sensation. Somehow, he knew, if he showed his abject terror, that would be the end of him. The battered hoe in his hands seemed a totally ineffective defense, but he brandished it anyway, interposing it between him and the dreadful beast that was slowly slinking closer and closer. Any moment now, he sensed, it would-- "Run!" screamed Gryff, his nerve finally breaking. And as he said the word, he turned and bolted down the track toward Poddranyth. A split second later, Dai followed him, running as if the hounds of hell were on his heels--as indeed one was. Owen faced the beast alone for a second. Enraged by the movement of the two men, it raised its head and howled in fury. As it did so, Owen turned and fled after his brothers. But he was older than they were, and his joints were stiff. His muscles were sore and weary after a day of hard labor in the fields. He heard the quick rush of the dread creature behind himas it bounded in pursuit, heard its feet growing closer, clawsscraping and rasping on the stones underfoot, and he realized he would never outrun it. Ahead of him, Dai and Gryff heard a long, drawn-out scream from their older brother as the direwolf ran him down, dragging him to the ground. Then the screaming stopped. Excerpted from The Royal Ranger: Arazan's Wolves by John Flanagan All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.