The Search for the Shapeshifting Warrior, part 6

Sean was sitting on the cliff in the bright moonlight. The sun had only just set, but the moon was already high and luminous, casting a shimmer to all the leaves that remained around him. It also shone into the opening of the cave where the wolves still rested, as well as the offering of jerky that he had only just left out front for them. Unlike his typical practice, he was waiting for the wolves this time. And he had high expectations.

As the second-youngest wolf loped out tentatively, he instinctively braced. But the wolf viewed him long enough to ensure that he was not likely to move, then grabbed the jerky and brought it into the shadows.

Sean fought back a feeling of impatience and frustration. He had hoped he could launch right into things! But no, as he had been warned, he needed to have patience with his animal neighbors, meeting them on their own terms.

He could hear the chomping and chewing in the cave. The rustles of movement were audible from his seat on the cliff, with fleeting glimpses of a tail or even a full rump as the wolf family negotiated the division of the jerky. Eventually, Mama Wolf walked out with a large portion, and the boys appeared, each gulping down a smaller piece, or chewing it delicately between paws.

He watched the second youngest, grey with brown streaks on either side, curl up around his jerky nearby. He watched the yellow eyes squinting with pleasure, and the teeth gently grinding down the hard meat so it could be savored. He felt the hard rock under the hard elbows, braced so that the sandstone was smooth underneath. He realized that he had curled into a nook that was perfectly contoured for his haunches, his belly, and his aching shoulders. He had run hard that day, chasing down a mountain goat up the inclines. The blood had gushed mightily between his teeth, and he had enjoyed it –

WAIT. Sean took a sudden, deep breath. Had he just done it!?!

Suddenly he was back in his human form, unaware of the four legs he had been coddling a moment before. Drat! He had done it just right. And then he let himself get distracted.

But instead of punishing himself – Grey wouldn’t want that, after all – he went back to watching the wolf. As the second youngest finished the last shreds of jerky, he was able to share the flavor, to savor the dregs of it. He happily paused afterward, snapping his jaws, then rolled onto his back happily.

Oh, how the sandstone did a marvelous job of cleaning his fur! He was so relieved to feel the scritching – the sheer pleasure rippled through him until he grunted with pleasure. Then he rolled back over and began the job of grooming.

All the burrs needed to be removed from his fur. He checked every inch – and made an interesting discovery. He was a she! She had to check the ripples of fur by her rump more than anywhere else, since the need for extra padding and warmth there meant that the fur was especially thick. She had to investigate her many corners and edges, and while his human self had never gotten close enough to either pups or grown wolves to inspect the hardware, as the young she-wolf he now had no excuse not to know!

S/he breathed deeply. Two more females were there. Now that s/he had acquainted herself with the smell of a she-wolf, s/he could now differentiate between the few of them present. It might have been harder in a larger group, since he specifically was new at wielding this unique sense of smell, but with just five of them it was easy.

S/he walked around the group, sniffing each. Other than one brother who thought she was trying to steal his jerky, the wolves had no issue letting her investigate. Mama smelled like female and age, as well as sickness. She had a bit of a cold coming on. The two boys were young and virile, and likely to be going to mate over the next few months. She thought about what this meant, and he suddenly knew – they would seek out mates to bring home. Meanwhile, she was awaiting such a mate, hoping her brothers could hold out and leave her alone over the next few moons. Her sister was the youngest – slower to develop, regardless of when she was actually born – and would likely need until spring before she mated. But in the meantime, they were happy to care for their mother and keep the food coming to her.

Suddenly her oldest brother shot upright. He gazed down the mountain, locking eyes with her for only a second in between tracking the prize. A pregnant doe was below. That was enough food to feed them over the next week, and close to home! Plus, she’d be slow, tired. They couldn’t turn down such a prize.

Mama arose to come along, but the boys zipped past her so quickly that they knew she could not follow. The younger girls then rose, indicating quickly that they would drive the deer home so that their mother could make the kill herself. Mama shook herself out and visibly put on her game face as the girls left her side. They waited for their turn to tag team the deer into their mother’s grasp.

Sean ran inside of this lovely she-wolf, feeling the rush of the woods around her. She was swimming in it, almost. The logs and brush beneath her were exactly where her feet needed them to be. She rushed like the wind, and no more audible. As she drew close to the smell, though, Sean began to feel a double-image. He had skin AND fur, suddenly. He had rushing hind legs, as well as aching human legs. He was – he was – he was crippled in the pain of his awakening numbness, and no longer involved in the hunt.

He sat, gently punching his numb calves and thighs, as the wolves rippled through the woods below. He had no idea that his alter-ego had run so far so fast – she was easily a quarter-mile from him now! He could tell, because her brothers had herded the deer onto the rough scrabble beneath the cliff, and as she floundered, the two girls were keeping her on task. None of them had to run far – certainly not far enough to wear out – but instead each of them had a specific stint they had to guard. No one had neglected their job tonight, and the deer was snagged.

Mama Wolf came out of the shadows below, and it wasn’t until she was about to lunge that the travesty of it hit him. Wait – his human brain suddenly cried – a pregnant mother is sacred! You don’t take two lives if you can live happily off of one!! How could they do this so readily –

He allowed his mind to reenter the space that the young she-wolf had occupied. He remembered the encumbrance and awkwardness of the deer, the relative ease with which they could trap her. And he also remembered the implied necessity – they simply MUST get themselves fat before winter. They simply MUST feed their sick mother full. And the deliciousness of this multilayered treat….

He turned around and vomited in response to the sudden, visceral experience he perceived. He did not need that awareness.

However, as his legs regained consciousness and he limped home, he was proud of himself. No, he was elated!! He had finally done it. He couldn’t wait to tell Grey every detail.

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