The Wolf

Title: The Wolf
Time Period: November, 120 A.E.
Characters Appearing:

Summary: Boy meets wolf.

In the Carpathian Mountains, even the leanest season after winter in the autumn that precedes it, and up on the slopes covered in dense, primeval forest, the air is already so saturated with the impending chill that frost forms on the golden leaves as veins of silver that refuse to completely thaw even when the sun is at its highest point in the sky.

Rivers carve winding paths over rocky terrain and through the woodland, but slow with every passing day as ice begins to form along their banks, slowly spreading inward until the deer are brave enough to trek across it in search of grazing fields that haven't yet been picked over by other herds.

Brown bears, woolly-coated wolves and lynxes with paws the size of dinner plates are best prepared for what's coming, but so are the men that hunt and skin them to cover their beds and line their coats with their fur. Fallen leaves camouflage steel traps with jaws filled with metal teeth designed to spring shut with enough force to crush bone.

Fortunately for the wolf caught in the foothold at the edge of one such river where the otters, muskrats and mink are plentiful, the paw stuck in its rusted grip is still intact. Unfortunately, it's only a matter of time before the hunter comes down to sweep the trail with his dogs.

He will have his rifle with him.

After piercing, curling growls and yelps filled the clearing, following the almost silent closing of the metal trap, it is now quiet. The animal's long pink tongue hangs limp between his teeth, expelling clouds of steam into the frosty air, a grin that does not mean the same thing to him as it might were he the shape of a man. Mud mingles with blood on its caught leg, and its front paws claw the ground to steer himself around, dipping his maw into the painfully cold mountain water, taking along draw of it. He lies on his belly in a twisted position made to accommodate his broken leg over the rest of him rather than bring him any comfort.

Perhaps the hunter will not come, and if he does not come, he will shine a howl into the sky and hope his brothers can find their way. And if he does—

He lies still, a head rested on the damp ground, trying to reduce his breathing so that his ribs don't rise and fall so obviously, so that steam doesn't flood through the air. If he is still and patient, he can kill a dog on his way to death, maybe earn a bite out of his trapper before he's shot.

A shadow skims over the treetops, blotting out the dappled light of the forest's floor, and a moment later a raven soars in low, buffeting its wings to slow its descent, and hooks its claws into a branch above the wolf's head. Its low, hoarse call draws another shape from the trees, though its footfalls are too light to belong to the individual who set the trap. The wolf knows because the figure appears too small to carry it any great distance, and holds no weapons made to confront or kill a predator of the wolf's size.

A pair of leverets with coarse fur and dead eyes dangles over one shoulder instead, and as the shape moves cautiously toward the trap, the wolf can see the hilt of a knife hanging low on a belt worn under a coat that won't be heavy enough after the first snow falls. When one hand lifts to peel away the wool scarf that covers nose and mouth, it exposes a thin, androgynous face no older than twelve or thirteen, with dark circles under much brighter eyes and a chin that comes to a stubborn point.

The fact that the child's hair is sheared short suggests that he's a boy, but that he's alone removes all doubt. After a few moments of indecision that involve him twisting a look over his shoulder to search the trail behind him, he purses his lips into a thin songbird's whistle to see if the wolf reacts.

Large triangle ears twitch in response and against the wolf's will, and so he lifts his heavy head, a dab of frost clinging to his cool black nose. Yellow-eyed and big, even for a wolf, with a dark, black undercoat building in for the winter beneath patchier greys and browns, all colours of rock and earth that bristle along meaty shoulders. This is not a starving creature nibbling at the edges of the wilderness for scraps, but one that kills elks, and maybe little boys too. Sharp intelligence evaluates the boy.

A low rumbling growl of warning ripples compulsive and deep in the animal's chest.

The sound makes the boy hesitate, booted feet anchored to the ground. He wears no furs, and although he's probably had the opportunity to at least rake his fingers through a pelt at some point during his life, it's unlikely that he's ever seen a living wolf this close before. Bending at the knees, he drops into a ginger crouch, lays the leverets down in the dirt, and looks him in the eyes.

It isn't a challenge, even if that's what this sort of body language communicates in the animal kingdom. He speaks a word in what sounds like a Scandinavian language and comes out harsher than intended.

The boy shows the wolf his empty hands.

So the wolf shows the boy his teeth.

Only briefly, however; it's a flash of a snarl and a reminder, muzzle wrinkling as if on a draw string to reveal ivory fangs, tasting the air, before calming again. The wolf licks his maw and then simply waits with expectant eyes, to see what the boy intends to do with its blunt-nailed hands.

A hunter would shoot the wolf first. Moving any closer without killing him invites death, and yet this is exactly what the boy does, but he's smart enough to approach the wolf from the side instead of head on, eyes lowering in a gesture of submission as he creeps toward the trap and hums a gentle melody at the back of his throat to bolster his own courage.

He touches the chain first, following it from the trap to the peg in the ground and then back again. The tips of his fingers graze a tong-like blade of metal on one side before applying just enough pressure to make the steel creak. No sudden movements.

Closer, the smell of blood and urine is a sharper tone beneath the general smell of animal.

And all the while, the wolf watches. At the sound of creaking metal, a wild animal might know a burst of adrenaline and an aggressive need to keep the stranger away from its on wounds, to twist around and take the boy's fingers. The wolf does not and instead rests quietly, using his eyes instead of his instincts to determine a next move. So far, his move is stillness.

It does not take the boy much time or effort to discover that he won't be able to force the trap's release with his hands until a time when he has more muscle on him. The blade requires more pressure, more weight, and so he rises back to his feet. One arm he stretches out for balance at his side. The other grasps a lower hanging branch than the raven sits upon, the large carrion bird now solemn and silent except for the occasional anxious rustle of ink-coloured feathers.

The boy swallows back a metallic taste in his mouth. If he was caught in a trap, he imagines, he might piss himself too.

Depending on what the wolf does next, he might anyway.

He takes careful aim with the heel of his boot and slams it down onto the release. When that doesn't work, he uses the branch to lever himself up and thrusts both his feet into it and applies steady pressure until the jaws pry open.

The wolf gives low, anxious whines as the boy works at the trap, but there is no attempt to attack; only an attempt to hold still until the trap releases him or the boy gives up. But then the jaws creak open, and a full bodied twist has the wolf's lamed paw free of the trap. Nosing at his own leg, the wolf runs his damp tongue over broken skin and bloodied fur, cleaning it properly, while he keeps one ear and one eye on the boy for all that he is more the threat in this scenario than his rescuer.

The boy's legs swing up and booted ankles hook around the branch, causing it to sway and dislodge a light peppering of pine needles that gather in the wolf's fur while he pulls the rest of his body after him. He has thought this through as much as this can be thought through; now out of the wolf's immediate reach, he shrinks back and bunches his body against the tree's trunk like an oversized marten without claws.

"Gå hjem," he urges the wolf in a fierce whisper. "Gå hjem til familien."

The wolf doesn't so much ignore the boy as he does take his time, before attempting to get up. He manages it, a bit, debris from the tree above and the ground below caught up in its damp fur, and a very tentative shake off does a little to loosen it. Still bleeding leg hovers off the ground, and he lurches further away from the boy. He will go slow, but the last thing he desires is a little boy running back to his settlement or nomadic cluster of whoever it was he managed to attach himself to in this world, and speaking of wolf-men. Caballero might have to tear out his throat.

He doesn't want to do that either.

One last golden eyed look backward is shot over the wolf's shoulder, before he starts on his way, sinking further into the mind of the animal he is, shutting out human complaint, and moving to catch up with his brothers at his own clumsied but inevitable pace.