Of Wolves and Men.
By Gemma Steele
Snow lay thick upon the ground, and the close-set trees were like dark skeletal hands clutching at the colourless sky. Glassy icicles clung to their stark branches, shining palely in the weak dawn light. A single bead of water hung from the crooked tip of one of these icy stalactites, on the verge of falling, the featureless sky reflected in its curved, mirror-like surface.
In the muddy, frozen streambed below, there was a weak yelp. This was followed by a faint scrabbling sound. At last, the pitiful figure made it up over the verge and collapsed, painfully, on the thinly-packed snow. The droplet had woken her from a state of light, fitful sleep.
She was tired. She had been running so long and so hard that time had blurred beneath her feet. She had experienced fierce hunger as she’d fled, but it had long since passed beyond the urgent, painful kind of hunger to become just another form of tiredness. She had gulped mouthfuls of snow and murky streamwater to assuage her thirst – if it were not for this, she might well be dead. Even now, fatigue threatened to engulf her, promising a slumber so deep that she would never wake from it.
She stumbled upright, her sides rising and falling shallowly beneath thick, matted grey-brown fur. Her ribs rubbed awkwardly against her skin, her darting amber eyes dull and cloudy.
Her brother. They’d been separated sometime after they’d crossed the river further to the west. She had to find him. She had to.
She padded alongside the stream’s path, panting hot, thick clouds of breath before her. Her fur was dark and grimy underneath, flecks of mud splattered across her flanks, clumps of dirty snow sticking to the upper layers like cheap Christmas flocking. She had lost a lot of weight; she needed to hunt, but she didn’t even have the strength for that. She needed her brother.
The scent of man came first. That came as no surprise – they’d wandered too close to human territory. Their hunger had driven them to it. Still, she regretted that decision, in so far as something fuelled by desperation and a lack of options could be called a decision.
Her angular, shaggy head jerked to the left. Men? Only a couple, by the sound of it, but they might still see her.
She paced anxiously for a moment. Couldn’t run. Couldn’t hide, not in pure virgin snow like this. She crept behind a stout tree and closed her eyes, gathering her mind as best she could. Her greatest chance for survival relied on not letting her thoughts get away from her. On the upside, it wouldn’t use up too much of her meagre strength. She concentrated tiredly…
… and changed.
Her skinny, hairless body slumped against the vast roots of the tree, too weak to hold itself up. Her oddly-proportioned limbs were thinner and frailer than she remembered. A wild dark mess of hair framed her still-angular face, partially obscuring her half-closed amber-brown eyes. Dark rings circled them, and her bloodless, chapped lips parted to gasp for air. When she exhaled, her breath came out in a soft whine.
Hearing the men approach her hiding place, she wriggled deeper amongst the roots, her shed fur wrapped tightly around her torso. Frozen in an attitude of absolute concentration, she looked like a frightened child who is moments away from being caught. Despite this childish air, her body had oddly mature proportions, as though it had grown up faster than she had. She clutched at her robe of fur with stunted fingers, years of accumulated dirt beneath her worn yellow nails.
At last, they walked past her at a good distance, making their way goodness only knew where. She waited until she was certain they would neither see her, nor return, then forced herself upright by sheer force of will.
One hand braced against the trunk, she took a moment to steady herself. At first, her body wanted to stand on the balls of its feet only, its weight held forward and her head craning towards every new noise or flicker of movement. She was feeling the cold a little more than before, but had trouble remembering to hold on to the pelt which was no longer attached to her skin.
She didn’t dare change back. Before, she’d needed speed, strength and stamina to outrun the hunters. Now those things were more likely to get her killed than to save her.
Part of her wanted to turn around and abandon her brother. But she ignored it, knowing that she couldn’t stand to be without him. Even discounting her feelings of kinship, she needed him to survive. Right now, her chances of making it alone were as good as nil.
Determined to outwit death, despite her instinctive fear of human paths, she made herself walk through the deep snow and thinning trees to the road the men had used. She skittered, then drove herself across it, her fur wrapped around her like a protective cloak. It was terrifying, but she was partially numb to terror now, just as she had already grown numb to hunger. Necessity towered over everything else, driving her onwards in search of her brother.
The air was cold and crisp, almost sharp, and the scent of man was still strong. But now there were faint traces of something else – something musky – as well. She recognised it immediately. Smiling a decidedly lupine smile, she padded onwards through the drifted snow, her now-damp lower legs turning to gooseflesh.
At first, she was relieved to be on the right path, moments away from reuniting with her protective older sibling. Then, as she noticed that his trail was riddled with many others, she felt a sense of foreboding enter her heart. Men on horses, their olfactory ghosts baying for blood. They were on his tail all the way to the ridge, and then everything became confused.
The horses reared, her brother leapt, the men panicked. They had cornered him against a sheer drop on two sides, a thin ridge of stone blocking the third side, themselves at the fourth. They hadn’t expected him to go for the neck of one of the horses.
There was equine blood in the heavily-disturbed snow, speckling the barren earth exposed by the tumult of feet and hooves. Everything was milled together in one large, panicky mess. There were no further traces of her brother. Or at least, none that she could find.
Her heart hammering, she retraced her steps, sensing the more recent retreat of the hunting party. She drew a shred of comfort from the fact that their bloodlust seemed not to have been sated, and that none of them smelled even faintly of wolf. Had he escaped?
Her sense of smell was fading the longer she spent in this form, but she thought there was something at the edge of the ridge… a single set of tracks, man-tracks, leading down the steep slope. They weren’t very clear in her mind, but there was something markedly lupine about them. She couldn’t help but rejoice – however he had done it, he must be down there now, and safe!
She stumbled weakly down the slope, clinging to her discarded pelt, panting with tired relief. Her beloved brother! Safe!
Her dulling senses were all but useless now, but still she managed to spot a heap of sandy fur lying halfway down the slope, against the lee of a large, snow-laden rock. She heard herself make a soft yelping sound as she moved to meet it. The mottled brown fur, daubed with all those corn-yellows and shades of clay, was enough to confirm her success. She slowed a little as she drew nearer, shaking with excitement and fatigue.
As she reached his side, she saw that he had not heard her approach. Lying limp, his limbs splayed out, he looked as tired as she felt. He was larger than her, and roped with muscle. He too was thin with hunger and want, but he seemed a little better off than her. Together, they would be able to take down small prey, and then move off in search of better things.
Smiling, she collapsed beside him, her fur pooling around her waist. The cold didn’t bother her; she had her brother back, and that was all that mattered.
She leant over him, seeing how dull his sandy-brown fur had become, how weak and sleepy he was. Knowing how dangerous sleep could be, she shook him playfully, her whole body set to embrace him when he woke.
But as soon as her fingers were twined in his fur, her cooling flesh touched his. It was cold and soft, with a suggestion of stiffness which had now passed. His body rolled easily, as light and jointless as a doll. His chest lay unmoving, and she couldn’t feel the heavy double-thump of his heart against her fingers, no matter how much she wanted to.
It was as though a veil had fallen from her eyes. The stone behind him bore a dark smudge of blood where his back had broken against it when he’d been flung from the cliff. The man who had thrown him had come down to check that he was truly dead, and had then returned home by a different route, leaving his wolf-scented tracks behind.
A loud, ugly sob broke free of her lips, taking all of her hope and resolve with it. She collapsed against his damaged side, burying her face in his fur, her grimy fingers woven deep into his pelt. She wept and gasped and choked on her grief, curling up against him until her pale body was draped over his like a shroud.
She lifted her head slightly, feeling as though she was drowning in her tears and in the emptiness which came with them. She sought out his eyes, wanting to find something of him in them – some trace of him which had not been slaughtered, not been lost.
Ringed with black, his eyes stared into eternity, unaware that she was even there. They were the same dark caramel colour, shot through with honey and gold, just as she remembered them. But they were dull and empty, as she was, and there was no comfort to be had in them.
She collapsed back against him, her breathing now just a sustained, sorrow-laden whine which barely ruffled his fur. She was tired. She was hungry. She was cold. There was no part of her left which wasn’t hurting. She was lost, and weak, and alone.
When the dark cloud of eternal sleep crept over her once more, she put up only token resistance. Her instinct told her to fight back, but her heart wasn’t in it. She’d had enough of fighting to keep herself alive, just to be struck back down again; she just didn’t have it in her anymore. Without her brother, there wasn’t anything left worth fighting for.
Later, the hunters returned to retrieve her brother’s body. They found her lying beside him, a single bead of water nestled in the corner of her eye. The featureless sky was reflected in its curved, mirror-like surface.
There was nowhere left to fall.
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