The two men began checking in daily on the lady wolf. The hunting lessons continued, but were now based around supplying her needs. As she neared the day of birth, they made a point of trapping the newly grown rabbits that had filled the forest. They would use quick-kill wire snare techniques, harvesting one or two per day to throw in front of the nook she had claimed on the back side of the cliff.
The morning came when they didn’t find their beloved wolf out of her cave. They debated the questions of privacy and danger, but as sundown neared they were itching from sheer curiosity.
They brought a thick slab of jerky for her, and prayed a little as they leaned in. Using a hand mirror, they reflected light into the space. It swayed drunkenly as Grey figured out the angle he needed to aim – and then they saw them. Four brand-new pups snuggled with their mama.
The two men suddenly turned into excited boys, giggling with elation and joy. They did their best to tiptoe out so they could hoot and holler, then remembered the gift they had brought. Feeling it was inadequate, Sean sought out a couple of chipmunks. They were fat so he was faster than they were – within ten minutes he had dispatched three of them. They offered the new mother the juicy morsels along with the large chunk of jerky.
Even with their fond relationship, she nearly snapped off fingers as they neared the pups! A quick dodge or two was necessary to avoid bleeding. They were apparently not allowed to reach out toward the new babies at all. The food was instead thrown to the back wall for her to root out later. The men backed away cautiously, then looked at each other. Even as they nervously shook out their hands, they couldn’t stop grinning. They were papas!
As the summer waned, the pups grew. Their strength built as the young man’s did. In fact, while they never cuddled in front of a fire, they seemed to treat each other as fellow trainees. The wolves would often turn up shortly after Sean had made a fresh kill, and Grey’s supposition was that they might be herding the animals in their direction. There was no real way to confirm, but they had been watching Mama – as they fondly called her – in her training sessions with the pups down-slope. They knew that the herding technique was what they had been working on.
It wasn’t until the first full moon of Autumn that they learned the full extent of their new relationship. Sean was out hunting, or more correctly, observing. He was watching the creatures come and go from the banks of the river, when he found himself delighted by a couple of bear cubs. He was happily laughing to himself, and even considered coming out for a better view, when a sound made his hair stand on end. He thought it was an earthquake at first. But then the sound truly met his ears, and he turned, slowly.
A very large, very unhappy mama bear had walked up to the berry bushes he had stowed himself inside. He had thought that providing food for his long day of observation was wise – but now the mother bear was thoroughly distressed to have to share. Furthermore, he was between her and her cubs. This was apparently strictly against the rules.
Sean tried to back away, but the raspberry fronds caught at his clothes. He was unable to extract himself. And her growl was quickly turning into snapping teeth. He needed to leave, now.
She swung her paw at him, claws extended – and in dodging her, he fell into the thorny branches. His feet were not able to regain purchase. He was flailing and suspended by the gradually collapsing bushes. His time had run out.
The mother bear suddenly yelped. She stood. She turned.
As Sean painfully rolled his arms and legs into the sawtoothed fronds, the lady bear reared back and roared. A young wolf was biting her paw, then rounding in mid-air, recoiled to safe ground.
Sean’s arms were torn, the ground stained pink and red by the blood of both berries and man. But the wolves held strong and just barely out of the bear’s reach until he had crawled away into the undergrowth.
They didn’t approach him closely as he regained his footing in the deeper woods. The bear family had reunited itself, now that the perceived threat was gone. Their playful splashing allowed Sean to take his time, but his injuries were bad enough that he still hurried. Between shock and pain, his vision was hazy, but he still found the right path.
The young wolves panted hungrily at his dripping blood when he spied them along the way, but they held their distance as they accompanied him home. He finally collapsed at the very edge of the fire ring, dragged the water jug to his lips for a long swallow, then lost consciousness on the ground.
He awoke next to the fire late at night. Grey was turned toward him, back to the flames, as he fiddled with a paper on his lap. “I fed the wolves.” He offered a tin mug of vegetables in broth. “They earned it today, apparently.”
Again, the boy found himself remembering how to speak to his master. He cleared his voice and mustered it. “They did indeed. How did you know?”
“If you were bleeding this much and they didn’t choose to eat you, then they were obviously helping you home from quite a scrape.”
Sean realized he had a blanket around him as he moved it out of his way so he could scan the treeline. “Are they still here?”
“They returned to their lair. But they stayed near enough that I could smell them, until I returned from my journey. Then the bushes rustled, and they were gone.”
“I see you got more paper. Any additional news?” The boy’s mind was beginning to clear, finally.
“Only that my young friend is dearly missed and supported by his village, and also now covered in an interesting grid of scratches.”
Sean looked to his arms – now strong and muscular. They had apparently been cleaned while he was oblivious, but scabs indicated a complex pattern. Apparently, as he dragged himself through the broken bushes, each arm’s pull in turn caused a line of scratches. His body had moved in such a practiced manner that it made sleeves of diamonds up his forearms. While he was sad that he would never truly be intact again, the pattern was stunning. “Wow.”
“Indeed! If you wanted to be prettier, I could have recommended easier methods.” He laughed to himself as he stowed the paper in the hut, then got his own tin of soup. And they settled to truly discuss their respective days.
After Grey had relayed his news, and then heard the whole journey from Sean, he sat back and pondered his empty tin. “You were blessed.”
“I was lucky, you mean.”
The older man laughed. “No, lad. You earned this. You earned loyalty, and took the opportunity the wolves gave you. They couldn’t have carried you home. Rather, you arranged your life ahead of time to allow yourself to succeed. You did the work, without possibly knowing how it would unfold, and it happened to lead you into the best results possible, despite all odds. Hence – you were blessed.”
The boy pondered this, then sat up a little taller. He took a deep breath. “I was able to stand up to any enemy. I succeeded at my last request. Oh my.”
For whatever reason, Grey found this hilarious. He dissolved into laughter, slapping his thigh and even toppling onto his side near the fire. Sean found himself laughing a little, then a lot. The joy of it let him forget his pain, relax his mind, and simply celebrate the moment. They laughed together until they cried, then they each wiped away the mirthful tears.
“So,” Sean hiccuped while grinning goofily at his friend, “you really have to tell me. Are you the shapeshifting warrior or not?”
“I HAVE answered you. I just do things!” He laughed a little extra, then relaxed. “But if you were confronted with that man right now, what would you ask of him?”
“Well, I think it’s time. I’d want to learn shapeshifting.”