As Shadowdance lay panting, recovering from his overexertion, human thought intruded on his animal reverie, wondering with some embarrassment how he planned to return his kill to the tent. If he had been alone in his Protectorate, there would be no question; anywhere he wished to bed down for the night would have served equally well. Now, though, he had guests, one of whom was not meant to subsist on the berries and roots that Briar had been scrounging for him, no matter how tasty they might have been. Alex needed meat, and it seemed only fitting to share his first successful kill with his healer.
He turned, getting his paws beneath him again carefully, stretching awkwardly to prevent his muscles from seizing. Here and there throughout his body he felt twinges of soreness that went beyond the complaints of overtired muscles. One foreleg in particular seemed ready to collapse if he wasn’t careful, probably pulled in an odd direction while his claws were lodged in the buck’s shoulder. He grinned at that, tongue lolling, savoring the memory.
That pain, unfortunately, meant a challenge in returning the deer to the lodge. Lugging a carcass any distance when he was healthy would have been a challenge. Still weak from the poison and now injured from the hunt, he almost considered abandoning the feast, or eating his fill and then catching some smaller game for Alex. The thought made him cringe reflexively, though, wolf-mind rising within him. However strange the Chlid of Man was, Alex had helped save his life and was still tending his sickness. He deserved no less than to be treated as a packmate.
Shadowdance sat back on his haunches, whining softly, licking his nosepad in apprehension as he arched his back, willing his body back into a more human stature. His legs stretched, throwing him forward briefly onto his bad foreleg with a muffled yelp. He steadied himself on his other paw while the digits grew into proper fingers, tipped in short black claws. Soundlessly, smoothly, the rest of his proportions shifted away from the lupine, towards the human, until where before had crouched an unremarkable animal, now knelt the Child of Wolf, his ears back against his head, balancing on his knees and good arm, cradling the injured one to his chest.
When the changes had run their course, Shadowdance rose to a crouch, his tail hanging limp behind him. Just thinking about trying to lift the deer onto his shoulders, even if it was smaller than average, made his injured arm throb. Complaining, though, wasn’t going to move the carcass any closer to the lodge or the others. He turned the body as best as he could, letting as much of the blood drain as possible to lighten his load, then squirmed his shoulders under the buck’s body, letting the legs drape around in front of his chest. The added weight against his shoulder sent shooting pains through the limb, but he ignored them as he worked, letting the wolf-mind ride high within. He was alive, and his packmates needed his help. Beyond that, any physical concern was at best a secondary consideration.
The buck’s uneven weight made him stagger as he walked, but with the bulk of the load on his good shoulder, the ache in his other was manageable. Lifting his muzzle, he inhaled deeply, drawing in the scents floating on the wind. There, hovering in eddies and currents in the cool, dry breeze, came the traces of sweet smoke from the lodge, revealing the way back to the makeshift camp. As soon as he registered the direction, his feet began moving, his tail and ears perking as he thought of sharing his catch with the others.
Finding the game couldn’t have taken him more than an hour, and hunting it down still less, but in that time, he had run quite a distance. Injured and burdened, the sun had vanished behind the trees by the time he could hear the crackling of the fire within the makeshift hut as well as smell the smoke it produced. By then, other scents had joined the first, Watcher’s faded musk, Briar’s and Alex’s more immediate ones, and the clean bite of fresh water. Shadowdance sighed, at once grateful to be close to the others and sharply longing to stand within the borders of his own Protectorate again.
Soon, he told himself. The flames were gone, his sickness cured. Some amount of pain would linger, he knew, while he helped heal the land, but it was a suffering he could accept, knowing that his home would thrive again one day. He had but to return and begin working on repairing the damage that had been done, tending the trees, herding game back into the area and then hunting it to acceptable levels as the vegetation grew back to acceptable levels. If he worked hard, it might even return to how it was within his lifetime. His ears flattened briefly, tail drooping at the realization, but he had Pledged himself. Nurturing the land was his sworn duty, one he would follow even unto death.
Shadowdance barked a short laugh at himself. Here he was, worrying about the future like some Child of Man. For how long had he survived happily in the ever-present now of the wolf-mind, rising from that state only when necessity or desire dictated it? He let his catch slip from his shoulder, hitting the ground with a wet thud as he threw back his head and hoarsely howled, a weak but triumphant cry that rang throughout the clearing.
The flap of the lodge flew back at the sound, revealing the overgrown face of the Child of Man, Alex, the one who had served as his healer in Watcher’s absence. His tangled brown beard was shot through with grey, as was the hair atop his head, pulled back into an unkempt braid and tied with a leather strap. “Dancer! Where the hell have you been?” The man’s voice was a mixture of relief and anger. “You’ve been gone since sunrise!”
The wolf’s howl trailed away to silence, his muzzle falling naturally into a grin as he dragged the deer carcass forward with his good arm. “Hunting,” he said breathily, hunching forward, his injured arm cradled against his chest. “I brought enough for everyone. Where’s Briar?” He sniffed, but the rabbit’s scent was hours old.
Alex scowled, stepping out of the smoke-filled hut. “Out looking for you, hopping around the woods on one foot and hopefully not falling over. You could have told us you were going.”
“Would you have tried to stop me?” Shadowdance asked as he approached the lodge. He tried to drag his catch with him, but two ineffectual tugs on the hind leg told him that he was in no condition to move himself, much less the body of the buck. Weariness overriding excitement, pain displacing pride, the Child of Wolf crumpled to the ground beside his prey, tongue lolling, sprawled helplessly across the grass like a cub.
“Probably,” Alex admitted tersely, his anger showing. “You’re in no shape to hunt yet, certainly notâ€”” His voice then cut out suddenly, his nostrils flaring almost humorously. “You’re hurt!” His temper instantly defused as he dashed out of the lodge. His chest was bare, his shirt ragged at the hems and missing half its buttons, revealing a matted thatch of grey-brown to match his beard, his once-pale skin now tanned by wind and sun. His jeans were nearly black, slick with grime and dirt ground into them despite his repeating attempts to scrub them clean in the stream. He dropped to his knees next to the fallen wolf, fingers lightly tracing through his fur. “Turn over! Let me get a look at you.”
Startled and a little cowed by the sudden tone of authority, the wolf rolled over with a groan, then collapsed back against the ground, panting heavily. In addition to the patches of missing fur that had been singed by flameâ€”real or imagined the healer still didn’t knowâ€”were a set of angry red scrapes, the fur torn loose in several short, violent scratches. Blood caked and crusted in the cuts, the fur beneath them matted with crimson. “What happened to you?” Alex’s tension returned, wincing as he brushed dirt away from the wounds.
“The deer bucked,” Shadowdance replied between breaths. Despite the smile on his muzzle, he still whined slightly as Alex pulled on the fur around the tender skin. “He put up a good fight.”
Alex hmphed, unimpressed. “He could’ve killed you, in your condition. What else hurts? That’s not the only thing wrong with you, I can tell.” Without waiting for an answer, the stand-in medicine man lifted his hands and slowly sweeping them over the grey wolfman’s fur, his fingertips just touching the skin beneath, a gentle, almost maternal touch from neck to knees. “No broken bones, but your left shoulder’s swollen. You should let me sling that.”
The grey-furred wolf grunted, pushing himself up onto his knees. “Later, when I’ve returned,” he said, sounding much better than when he first arrived back at the clearing. “Someone has to go find Briar.” He tried to stand, but Alex’s hands were at his shoulders before he could move.
“Slow down, Dancer,” Alex said gruffly, scowling down at his patient. “You’re not going anywhere. You’ve already had your fun today. Now, sit down and eat. I’ll get her back.” He gave the wolf a gentle clap on the shoulder with the flat of his hand, then stepped forward towards the wall of greenery, in the direction he remembered the Child of Rabbit taking that morning. “She’s probably just stopped to eat something on the way.”
Shadowdance watched Alex walk away from the lodge, his eyes flicking back and forth between him and his meal, and he slunk towards the deer carcass, but then abruptly turned his head back towards the Child of Man. “But… how will you find her?”
Alex paused briefly, his hand resting on one of the old pines near the edge of the clearing. His fingers tensed against it, feeling the rough texture against his skin. He dug his fingernails beneath the bark, clawing at the wood beneath, pressing more dirt beneath his ragged, black nails, “I don’t know, Dancer,” he called back to the wolf. “I just know that I will.” Then he was gone from sight, his cloth-wrapped feet whispering against the fallen leaves and needles of the forest floor.