The Price of Survival (S1, E2): Gut Decisions

Season Content Notes: attempted genocide (off screen), child murders (off screen), prejudice, violence

 

It was only for the cubs-to-be that the wolf endured the touch of death on their skin as long as she had. Her brother understood human things and promised her that so long as they didn’t fight the human Pack Mother the new cubs would be safe. The wolf had already failed their cubs once.

So she had not listened to her brother’s words or the words of the human Pack Mother. She could when she wished to, but with the knife resting on their skin she burrowed down into her brother’s hold fighting her instinct to attack or flee.

Finally, the knife moved, their bonds were cut, and her brother released her.

She felt his relief, but also his fear that the human Pack Mother was only playing with them, as a cat played with its food.

She burst from her brother’s skin, endured the disorienting feel of fur growing and bones shifting.

Immediately she backed away from the human Pack Leader, giving a warning snap toward the blade the human still held, but keeping her head and tail down, her ears soft. She could kill every human in this room, though she might die in the doing. But the cubs. Even without Navin’s reminder, she would never have forgotten the cubs.

Backing up, she stepped over Navin’s human things. That upset the protector-humans for some reason. She would have simply moved away, the human things meant nothing to her. But Navin’s shirt. That human thing meant much to her brother. Still, Navin urged her to leave it be, to not anger the humans. She pawed it once and moved off to the side. She was far enough back from the human Pack Mother to feel safe and her brother assured her that the others would not attack without the Pack Mother’s permission.

The sideways move brought her closer to some of the humans. For the first time, she caught the scent of death and wolf. It was old that scent, but it lingered. She knew that scent.

Without moving, she and her brother looked closer at the humans they had dismissed. Looked and saw–

The human Pack Mother was speaking, “Do you understand me, wolf?”

Rage and grief rode them, but both knew their duty. The wolf looked back to the human Pack Mother while her brother did his best to soothe them both.

The wolf cocked her head a moment, then tried to imitate the human ‘nodding’. It was an odd movement, but the humans here wouldn’t understand her otherwise. “Come here.” the human commanded.

With Navin’s encouragement, she moved closer, staying clear of Navin’s human things that so upset these other humans. She didn’t like going back to the reach of that knife. Not when she knew she could not defend herself. But it needed to be done.

She walked until she stood before the human Pack Mother. Then, slowly, laid herself down and, holding tight to her brother, stretched out her neck as he had done only a few minutes since.

Thankfully, the human Pack Mother kept the blade away. Instead, she demanded to see Navin once more.

Immediately, the wolf retreated, and Navin rose up through her skin. These were human matters, and she was happy to leave them to him.

Once again in his own skin, Navin knelt again with his hands behind his back. It might be that the queen was toying with him, but he was beginning to think not. Not toying, testing. And he and his sister must jump through her hoops for as long as she demanded. No matter what.

Alfhard studied the man before her, not sure what to make of him. She had, more through their desperation than her skills at war, conquered the wolves. But to conquer is not to rule. If Navin was any measure, she did not understand them enough to rule them effectively, save that as with all people, they would do anything for their children.

Even as a wolf, Navin had, in the end, offered his throat.

“Stand.”

He did, with the same calm gaze that was all the expression she had seen from him.

“Very well, Pack Father–”

He shook his head, startling her into silence.

Only Navin knew how hard it was to maintain that calm face, but he knew it well. “I have given you throat, majesty. You are Pack Mother now. I am only a wolf.”

That stunned her, she had nearly as much control as Navin, but the shock showed on her face. “Why?”

“If I died with no clear successor there would be chaos and Caldelon would pick us off in the confusion.” Now it was he who took comfort from his sister. She had no name a human throat could voice, but through their soul-bond, he called to her and she came. She wrapped herself around him, crooning to ease his pain and grief. “I could not allow that.”

How much must it have cost him, Alfhard wondered, to offer up not just his life, but everything he was? She held his gaze steadily as she said, “Return Sir Wolf’s honors to him. He has more than proved his right to them today.”

For a moment, she had the satisfaction of seeing his eyes widen in surprise, then he bowed to her and when he looked up again he once more wore his mask.

But before Navin had even finished his bow, one of Alfhard’s general’s protested, “Majesty, no.” He approached the dais and Navin’s nostril’s flared, as he caught again the scent of death and wolf his sister had noticed before. “Majesty, if you will not kill this beast that is your right, but he is a monster, not a man. And if you do not wish his death on your hands I beg you allow me to challenge him and kill him myself.”

Alfhard was surprised by the wolf’s sudden stillness. He seemed for the moment to barely breathe. Curious, she asked, “Sir Wolf?”

Somehow, in that instant, he changed. Not physically, beyond his eyes changing again to that bright gold. But suddenly she had no doubt that she was in the presence of /the Wolf/. The general recognized it as well, stepping back and reaching for his sword.

His movements slow and controlled, Navin leaned forward and spat on the floor where the general had been standing. “This man who calls me monster wears my cousin’s skin across his back,” Navin growled. “He still lives only because he is yours.”

“General.” Alfhard turned to the man who had held charge of her forces for three years. “The Wolf has been accused of being many things. But never have I heard it said he was a liar. I believe you told me that your cloak was a gift from some of your soldiers.” Ashen, the man nodded. “Go start an investigation into this. Now. And leave your cloak.”

The man’s fingers fumbled as he undid the catch and let his cloak fall to the floor. Then he turned and fled the room.

Then the Wolf was gone. It was only a man standing before her. And somewhat to her relief, even his mask was beginning to crack around the edges. He crouched down and ran a hand over the fur pelt that lined the cloak. “Thank you, Majesty.” He made himself stand and for the first time met Alfhard’s gaze. “Her human name was Lila Greyfur. We found what was left of her body in one of your soldier’s camps. It was not the first such. Nor the last.

“It would mean much to her family if this could be returned to them.”

“I will see to it myself.”

He dropped his eyes then, tired, so tired. He had at last completed all his duties.

He accepted his tunic from one of her people and held it close, but did not move to put it on. “By your leave Majesty, I would return to Long Valley and do what I can to hold off Caldelon until the rest of the pack can be moved to safety.”

Navin’s sister didn’t agree with his plans, but she understood how guilt drove her brother. She would not add to his pain by fighting against what he needed.

To Alfhard, it sounded like a sensible plan, but she hesitated. Her thoughts of how she did not know enough to truly rule the wolves echoed. But so did something in his voice, in those cracks at the edge of his mask.

He came here expecting to die.

“No, Sir Wolf.” She heard herself say. “I need someone with your experience and knowledge too much to let you race off to your death. You will remain here and advise me on matters involving your– /our/ pack.”

With that single statement, Navin knew, the queen and Pack Mother had won an instant advocate and ally in his sister-wolf. She was so relieved and happy with this forced reprieve that she crowded close, her fur once again flickering over his face. Perhaps he had reached some emotional equivalent of being punch drunk because something about the whole thing tickled his humor and he surprised himself by laughing for the first time since the cubs were killed.

“Very well, your majesty. I put my life in your hands. I cannot very well complain when you do not wish to let go your prize.

“My sister, for one, is grateful to you.”

Alfhard was stunned once again by Navin’s response. “Your… sister?” she finally asked, watching the strange dance of fur across his skin fade away. The mask slide across his face. “My wolf, majesty. She is my soul-sister.”

“Your wolf… is female.” Alfhard paused. “I see I have even more to learn than I realized.” She smiled and waved forward one of the pages. “Get Sir Wolf settled in one of the guest rooms and tell the Seneschal I want permanent quarters arranged for him as soon as possible.”

He bowed and followed the page out with the same calm confidence he had entered. But she thought she had begun to see what lay under that confidence. She looked forward to learning more.

The small suite the page led Navin to was comfortable, and there were no locks on the doors. Once the page left, he opened one of the windows and looked out across the grounds. A few minutes later, a single howl rolled across the land. Of course, there was no answer.

It took the wolf some time to get the bed arranged to her satisfaction. Especially since Navin wouldn’t let her shred the pillows. Eventually, she settled down with a sigh. Against all expectation, they had survived the day. Now Navin would need to learn how to live again. The wolf? She fell asleep to happy thoughts of ripping the general’s throat out.

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