Chips of sticky bark scattered on the snow. Hod wrenched his axe from the fir trunk, hoisted it. His shoulders knotted, lifted under furs and wool. Steel bit deep again into white wood.
A rhythmic, hollow clop of steel on tree echoed in the silent wood. Wedges, bleeding sweet sap, dropped to the snow. Hod shifted his blistering grip on the haft, circled to the reverse of the trunk. He began again.
The blade slammed deep into the fir, widened a triangle in its flesh. Wet sap and frost, like flat spiderwebs, shone on the chilly wedge of steel, glimmered under the setting winter sun. Hod grunted, grit his teeth. The fir quaked with every strike.
With a long, corky whine, the trunk began to tip. Hod hopped away, watched his handiwork tumble. There was a slow series of cracks; a quick, snapping crash. Snow burst about the toppled bole, began to settle. Hod huffed, surveyed his work.
Ice slipped, spattered to the forest floor from broken branches. With a few rustlings and clicks of glassy debris, the wood was silent once again. Hod stretched, rolled his shoulders, groaned.
From some nearby hilltop, a cry went up: A long, high rattle, like teeth dropped down a washboard. Hod froze.
The woodsman hunched his shoulders, scanned the trees with wide eyes. Branches shifted, not far away. A ripple of motion bled through the trees, barely there.
Another rattling caterwaul sounded, terribly close. It was dry and piercing; a sound made in no throat imaginable. Hod squeezed the haft of his axe, watched the shadowed spaces beneath pines' branches.
Something shifted there. Something with rustling, furred legs and shining eyes. Hod saw it scuttle in the dark, silent on the crunchy snow.
Slowly, it emerged, clicking throatily. One leg poked from the dark, set a hoof-like print in the snow. Seven more undulated, rippled from the branches, conveying a low, hunched body. Mandibles hung close to the ground, twitched neath a cluster of roe-eyes set in fur.
The arachnid stared at Hod, worried its sickle-jaws. It stamped with thick, hairy limbs, gouged the snow.
Hod widened his stance, locked his two eyes with the creature's many orbs. He held his axe high, stamped with one foot. In response, the spider jerked at him, clicking. A snort of air kicked up snow, huffed by the thing's heaving breath.
Slowly, Hod approached the beast. He whipped the axe to and fro, watched steel flash, duplicated, in eight glaring mirrors. He grumbled, croaked deep in his throat, matched his adversary's breathless clicking. The beast widened its serrated fangs, crouched even lower. In an instant, it leapt.
Eight hairy feet threw up gouts of frozen soil. The beast crashed inches before the woodsman. Jaws twitched before his legs, wide and sharp as logging tongs. Long front legs hung over his head, lined with black hooks. Hod merely twitched an eye, blinked away snow.
The spider clacked its jaws, huffed again, ceased its clicking. It lowered its legs, ruffled its brindled fur. Slowly, almost calmly, it hiked itself up, turned its abdomen under elevated legs. A dollop of stringy goo landed on Hod's boots.
The thing turned on the spot, scuttled back into the darkened fir boughs. Hod didn't watch it go. He loosed a long-held breath, made swiftly away from the valley of the wolf spider.
"You hear that?" said the old man. He turned an ear to the shadowed trees. Firelight wavered in the grooves of his wrinkled jowls.
Powell cocked her hooded head as well, listened. Out in the the snowy foothills, there echoed a hollow clocking. She frowned. "Woodpecker?" she mumbled, prodded the campfire with a stick.
The old man chuckled, revealed a dearth of teeth. "No bird. You 've never been this far south, Ranger Powell?"
"It shows. Else you'd know the howl of der volfsspinner," said the man. He coughed briefly, spat into the fire. "The wolf spider."
Another clicking howl went up, replying to the first. Dull, distant, nearly lost in the crackle of the fire. Powell smirked. "Don't suppose they're itty-bitty little spiders, are they?"
"No, Ranger. Worse. Much worse."
"Come on. It sounds like there's only a few," said Powell.
"Aye, but that how it is." The old fellow shifted on the his stump, jowls wobbling. He shook a finger at Powell. "Don't roll your eyes, fraulin. These beasts hunt alone. Jaws like sickles, they have. Larger than wolves, they are, and silent. Only howl to mark their territory. Never on the hunt."
"Aye," said the man. He coughed, wheezing. "Dead quiet, when they hunt. Could be one here now, at the light's edge. We'd never know."
Powell tossed her stick in the fire, looked to her tent. "Think I might turn in. Lot of walking, tomorrow," she said, rising. "Thanks for being such an entertaining guide."
The name "wolf spider" is a dreadful misnomer.
A wolf is a social, cooperative creature that hunts in packs. A wolf spider hunts alone. It is as antisocial as creatures come.