Alex pushed aside the flap of the makeshift tent, and the fire sputtered in the sudden breeze, snapping loudly. Alex dropped it again, then slipped past it into the semicircular clearing. Briar was nowhere to be seen. Probably off foraging for her own meal, Alex thought. Watcher, though, was clearly visible, balanced on his hinds and one forepaw near the river. In front of him lay a leather mat, on which were arranged a number of small piles of roots, leaves and berries, each separated from the other by a space of a few inches. As Alex came nearer, he lifted his head from his own concentration and nodded a greeting.
“I am sorry, Mr. Demont, about last night,” The wolfman said quietly, his ears flattening against his head as he spoke. “It was not the outcome I had expected.”
Alex didn’t answer right away; he instead took a seat opposite the spread from Watcher, resting his elbows on his knees and steepling his fingers in front of his face. “I… don’t know what I was expecting,” he said, finally, not making eye-contact with the wolf. “To want something so badly, and then be told that you can’t have it… I don’t know what to say.”
Watcher nodded once, his tail dragging on the ground behind him. “I wish that I could offer some words of comfort or advice.” He reached out with one paw and clasped Alex’s shoulder. “I truly expected—”
The Child of Man held up his hand, palm out, silencing his companion. “What’s done is done.” His voice came out flat, but there was a weight to his words that Watcher had never heard before. “I’ve dealt with it, it’s behind me. I can’t go back to complacency now, not knowing what I do. Just what I’ve learned, what I’ve seen in the last month, means I want to know more. Even if I’m not one of you, I’m not giving up. I said I would help Shadowdance, and I meant it.”
The part of his statements that truly frightened him was their simple truth. Failing to find within what he had so hoped to discover had not been a shock, but simply one more realization of something long-since known and never admitted. That was, after all, the point of such a journey. There were no lies in the soulscape, only self-delusions laid bare. That had, in its own perverse way, softened the impact of the revelation, leaving him oddly calm. He kept thinking that he should be livid or broken, either one, but that he could neither rail against his beliefs nor cry over them was disquieting.
The wolf smirked, his tail wagging slightly. “It is good to hear you say that, Mr. Demont, and to see you awake so early as well. I feared you would oversleep.” The wolfman’s tail wagged once, punctuating his words.
At that, Alex could only cock his head to the side quizzically, folding his hands in his lap. “Too long? It’s not like we’re on a schedule, are we?”
Watcher sighed. “Sadly, we are. Given yesterday’s attack, we must be prepared for anything, and waiting will only give our enemies the chance to plan another attack. We must find out what their next move will be, and prepare for it.”
“Hunh?” The shaman’s words caught Alex totally by surprise. “How do we do that? Do we even know who the Shepherds are?”
The wolf’s ears perked in a slight smile. “I have a few avenues of research open to me. Not all Children of Nature have turned their backs on the world of Man.”
Alex scowled, then cocked his head to the side, squinting. “Just who are you, anyway, Watcher?”
Watcher’s ears smiled gently, his tail wagging. “I am a Child of Wolf, Mr. Demont, and a protector of my people. I maintain my contacts because they help us in our fight for survival. In turn, I serve them as our kind served the children of Man in generations past, as a healer, mystic and shaman.”
Alex still wasn’t reassured; he crossed his arms, fighting to keep his expression neutral. “You said when we were coming here that you considered protecting others to be your duty. What happened?”
A snarl rippled across Watcher’s muzzle, but it vanished just as quickly, his ears and tail drooping. “You have the right to ask that question.” He rose from his kneeling position, folded his arms in front of him and turned his gaze to the shallow river, watching the water as he gathered his thoughts. When next he spoke, his voice came out very soft, and very tired.
“I was mated, once, some number of years ago,” he said to the air in front of him, as much to his own past as to Alex. “Her name was Mirror’s Smile, for the hours she could pass happily simply by studying her own reflection in a shallow pond. I had only recently come into my true nature when we first met, and still spent much of my time commuting between the worlds of Man and Nature, exploring the best that each had to offer.” He smiled, wistfully. “She truly was that, for me.
“She had Pledged herself to a tributary of the Mississippi, one that started somewhere up in the Appalachians and wound its way inland. She taught me every inch of its banks, and I learned to love it as I did her. My job in the world of Man bade me travel often, and so I took advantage of it, meeting with Mirror’s Smile every spare moment available to me. We walked the length of her river together, from spring to mouth, more times than I can remember. She was everything to me, Mr. Demont, and I would gladly have done anything for her.”
He lowered his muzzle, still not meeting Alex’s gaze, instead staring at the ground, his arms by his sides now, paws balled into fists. His tail hung limply behind him, his ears flat against his skill. “One morning, she awoke with a cough, and she said her joints felt sore. I went to fetch her water, but the river tasted oily and slick, and we both knew something was wrong. We began travelling upstream, watching the trees to either side of the riverbed grow grey and weary, and the grass dying the further we went. One morning, we awoke, and the water itself had run black during the night. Someone had poisoned the river, and in so doing had poisoned my mate.”
Watcher drew in a shuddering breath, his voice cracking as he continued. “When my remedies failed, I returned to the world of Man, seeking out former contacts, trying to find some source of the poison, some cause of her illness that I could treat, but I found nothing. No-one with whom I spoke could tell me anything of what happened. It was all I could do to trace the truck that had brought the spill back to its source.”
“AllChem,” Alex breathed, his eyes wide.
The Child of Wolf nodded. “Someone at that company knows of us, Mr. Demont. That person has friends, powerful friends in high places, who wish to see us dead. Until now, they have settled for indirect warfare, destroying our homes. With the direct attack on Briar, I fear they have upped the stakes, and have become intent on taking matters into their own hands, no longer content to turn our connection to Nature against us.”
Alex absorbed this, staring into Watcher’s eyes so intently that his eyes burned when he remembered to blink, tearing at the corners. “So what happened to Mirror’s Smile?”
Watcher’s only answer was to turn his head back towards the river, the heavy fur of his tail hanging limp as it hid between his legs.
“I see,” was all Alex could think to say.
Watcher drew in a ragged breath, then forced his voice to some semblance of projected calm. “That is why I consider it my duty to protect the Children of Nature, Mr. Demont. I failed once. I cannot fail again.”
He turned around then, his eyes hard, his muzzle set in a stony grimace. “That is why I am all the more gladdened that you have awoken early. I must show you what you will need to know to continue to treat Shadowdance.”
Alex blinked, startled, the sudden segue catching him off-guard. “Bâ€”but what about you? Where’re you going? What about Briar?”
“Briar has already agreed to assist you; I spoke with her after you fell asleep last night.” The shaman knelt again in front of the small piles gathered on the flap of leather, motioning Alex to lean forward and study them. “I must return to the world of Man, to learn what has changed, and what we may do to stop it from happening again.”
“Butâ€”” Alex blurted, staring at Watcher in shock. “But….” His voice caught there, still stunned by the announcement. “And you want me to take care of Dancer until you get back?”
Watcher shook his head. “I am asking you to take care of Shadowdance until he is well.” His throat tightened, his hackles rising. “I am under no illusions as to the nature of my mission. I may well not return.”
“What? That’s suicide!” Alex spat grimly. “At least take someone with you. Heck, take me. I’m not one of you, anyway,” he added sullenly.
Watcher growled under his breath in frustration, his tail held tightly against his back in frustration. “Mr. Demont, I believe that you are far more than you believe yourself to be, and if you leave now you will turn your back on all of that potential. I am asking you to stay here and tend to Shadowdance while I investigate this matter further. Briar has agreed to assist you with finding more supplies and should be back soon with a fresh collection, but Shadowdance may still be feverish in the coming days, and he has already injured her once because of his confusion. This is why I wish your help.”
Alex smirked, shifting over his heels. “So he can injure me, too?”
That brought a laugh out of the wolf’s muzzle. “No, Mr. Demont, I believe that he will not attack you. In fact, I think even in the depths of his delirium he will see you as the larger predator.”
“But I’m not,” Alex protested, shaking his head. “I’m not a Child of Bear.”
Watcher’s ears perked, and beneath them the wolf grinned. “Man is the greatest predator of them all, is he not?” He looked overhead, through the canopy of trees. “I must leave soon, Mr. Demont, and I must know. You gave your word to stay and see Shadowdance back to health. Do you intend to stand by that?”
“Of course,” Alex said simply, clutching at his necklace. The bear’s claw poked at his palm, but the weight of it in his grip made him feel better.
Watcher smiled wider, his tail wagging once for the first time in many hours. “Excellent. Now, please, pay attention.” He stepped quickly through the piles of berries and roots, explaining how to prepare them, and what to administer when. Alex’s head swam with the pseudoscience that had to be involved, but when the Child of Wolf had finished, he felt he had at least a grasp on the whats and hows, if not the whys.
The Child of Wolf studied his stand-in critically, his ears folded back against his head in concern. “Are you sure you understand, Mr. Demont? It is imperative that you know what you are doing.”
Alex rubbed at his temples, trying to calm the throbbing there that he knew would mutate into a full-grown headache if he let it. “Yes, Watcher, I do,” he growled. “I still don’t get why this works, but if you say it does then I’ll do it. I trust your judgment on this. On a lot of things,” he added as an afterthought.
Watcher’s tail wagged again. “Trust me; I believe you can do this, for your own sake as well as Shadowdance’s.” Watcher knelt, placing his forepaws on the ground in front of him, and then his form blurred, shifting, his body adapting to a four-legged stance as easily as it had accommodated two. “Fare well, Mr. Demont. I will be back as soon as I can.” Then he turned, darting into the underbrush at a run and quickly disappearing from view.