Shadowdance’s nosepad hovered a hair’s breadth from the man’s face, his breath hot against bare flesh. The Child of Wolf put one claw beneath the man’s chin, resting its tip against the pulsing artery. “Give me one more reason, Shepherd,” he growled in his throat. He dug his knees into the man’s thighs, his toe-claws gouging his shins, his tail rigid, jutting straight ought from his back. A cough wracked his chest briefly, but rather than turn his head, he let the thin spatter of drool spatter his prey’s face, then licked his chops and grinned. “Sorry.”
The man’s face contorted in a sneer, but the corners of his eyes bent down in terror, tearing at the corners. He pressed himself back against the tree, trying to pull away from the wolf’s gamy breath. “You’re going to break my legs.” He was obviously struggling to sound nonchalant, but his lower lip trembled, making his voice warble.
“I doubt it, Mister… Parson,” Alex groaned loudly from his sprawl at the river’s edge, the last of his clothes pinned under rock, soaking away the stains in the current. “Dancer likes to play with his food.” As long as he kept the back of his head in the water, the throbbing in his head kept itself to a dull ache, but the sense of spiders crawling across his brain refused to go away. In one hand, he jingled the man’s keys; in the other, he held aloft their assailant’s wallet. He brought the folded calfskin back down in front of his face and squinted at it anew. “You know, Tom, you’re pretty young for an assassin.”
“Assassins kill people,” Parson spat back at him, immediately shying away afterwards as Dancer’s growl intensified. “I’m a game hunter. See my licence?”
Alex held up a laminated rectangle. “Right here. Says big and small game, includes cougars.” He flicked his wrist, sending the license adrift on the river, following the arc that Parson’s pistols had taken earlier. “If you’re lucky, somebody’ll find that. If not, they’ll find what’s left of you first. Who told you we were here?”
At that, Parson was silent, his lips pressed into a tight, flat line. He leaned back against the tree, closing his eyes.
Alex hauled himself to his feet, then slumped to one knee as a fresh blast of pain throbbed through the back of his head. With one hand on his knee, he forced himself to stand, then staggered over to their captive. He dropped next to Shadowdance, watching Parson carefully. “Listen, Tom… I can call you that, right?” A grin briefly flashed across his face, but slipped away just as fast, leaving behind a distasteful solemnity. “You came here to kill us. At least one, if not all of us. Right now, your guns are gone, you’ve got a Child of Wolf sitting on your legs, and it’s a long way back to your car. You have two options: you can start being cooperative….” He paused for emphasis. “Or I can let nature take its course.”
Only the distant buzz of a yellowjacket nest and the ripple of the river answered Alex’s threat after several seconds. He glanced at Dancer, then back to the Shepherd, pursing his lips and shrugging. “Suit yourself.” He pushed himself back to his feet and walked back to the river, ignoring Shadowdance’s eyes, stepping lightly carefully to keep Parson from seeing him stagger. He closed his eyes as he struggled into his jeans, trying to trying to block out the rattling in his head. Great Mother…. The words came, but then failed, and Alex let out a sigh. Now what? I can’t kill him. I can’t let him go. If there’s a way out of this mess, I pray You show me what it is. A familiar scent caught his nostrils and he smiled, not turning his head. “Briar.”
The Child of Rabbit stopped as she approached. “How… did you…?”
Alex turned, grinning and cupping the bear-claw necklace against his chest. “Scent. Speaking of which….” He motioned her over, then began sorting through the bundles of leaves in her arms, taking a few and twisting them between his palms, then sniffing. “These should work… they smell about right.” He took half a dozen and held them in the water, then crushed them together into a poultice, which he pressed gingerly to the back of his head. He drew in a deep breath through his nostrils, the scent of anise swirling in his nose. “That’s going to hurt for days,” he grumbled, his voice low. “By the way, thank you.”
Briar’s head cocked to the side. “For what?”
Alex turned and nodded towards the captive Shepherd. “If you hadn’t hit him, he’d have shot me.” He grinned. “I thought rabbits ran from predators.”
Briar’s ears flicked in response. “We run until we can’t, and then we fight back.” She glanced at Parson and shrugged. “There was no running from him.”
Alex sighed. “Tell me about it. Now that we caught him, though… now what?” He looked down at the ground, grimacing and shifting the poultice against the knot at the base of his skull. “I’m running out of ideas, fast.”
Briar rested a paw on Alex’s shoulder. “I wish Watcher were back,” she confided. “He’d know what to do.”
At that, Alex snapped his head up, though the stars swimming in front of his eyes made him groan. “Watcher.” He gestured to the Child of Rabbit, motioning her towards the sweat lodge. “Stoke the fire.” Her ears flattened against her head, but she nodded and dashed into the leather tent. He followed stiffly, then sank to his knees beside the hide on which Watcher had spread out his collection, sniffing and occasionally biting small bits of stem or twig, then grabbing a bunch into a pile. Great Mother, I am as Your cub, he thought as he searched. All I can ask is, let me be wrong about this. “Dancer!” He shouted, ignoring the pain. “Get Parson into the tent.”
The grey-furred wolf let out a confused whine. “Alex?”
Alex shook his head, pressing the poultice tightly to his neck and then scooping up the assembled pile. “Do it, Dancer. I hope… no, I fear I know what’s going on.” He stepped into the lodge, pausing briefly as the fresh wash of heat from the flames in the pit hit him. He stepped to the side, then squatted over his heels as Shadowdance escorted Parson into the tent, letting the flap drop behind him. Briar’s paw landed on one of Tom’s shoulders, the Child of Wolf’s on the other, pushing him to the ground.
Alex stared across the flames at his captive, trying to catch the man’s eyes. “Do you remember your dreams, Tom?”
At that, Parson’s veneer cracked. For a few seconds, almost too fast for Alex’s eyes to catch, Parson’s brows knit, and his cheeks rose in a squint, the corners of his eyes tightening in fear. “I don’t dream,” he spat as the moment passed.
Alex didn’t respond; he just looked to the Children of Nature, who were exchanging glances of their own. Shadowdance gave a brief wag of his tail, and Briar’s ears flicked forward. At that, he let his gaze settle back down on Tom, tossing the bundle of dried plants in his hands onto the fire. Almost immediately, a thick billow of smoke rose from the flames. “Tell me about your dreams, Tom,” Alex said, keeping his voice level. “Tell me where you dream.”
“I told you,” Parson sneered again. “I. Don’t. Dream.”
Alex shook his head. “Everyone dreams, Tom. Tell me yours. Are you in a forest? Is it a mountainside? Are you underground? Try to remember.”
Tom’s face contorted as if in physical pain. “I told you—” he repeated, when suddenly his face went slack, his eyes widening. “Forest.” The word seemed more dropped than spoken. “Sparse, with lots of ground cover.”
A smile slowly spread across Alex’s face. “Tell me about the weather, Tom. Is it warm? Cold? Day or night? Is it sunny or raining?”
“Snow.” Tom’s reply was too fast to be invented. “It’s… dusk, or just before. After sunset, but still with enough light to see.”
Alex nodded, then took a deep breath. “Close your eyes, Tom. Feel the heat of the fire, and remember. Listen to it crackling in front of you, and feel the wind on your back.” His voice settled into a steady rhythm, a gentle rise-and-fall that, combined with the smoke, quickly had Parson breathing deeply, his eyes closed, body slumping forward, held carefully upright by the two Children of Nature steadying him. “The sun has disappeared beyond the horizon, but the last rays of light are still more than enough to see.” His own eyes closed as he tried to call to mind the scene he was describing. “A light layer of white snow covers the ground, and more flakes steadily fall from the sky….”