The Price of Survival (S1. E5.)

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

Aswathi was not a happy man as he stood by his cart and waited for the new ‘cargo’ he was to carry. He had been hauling for the army for two years, he and his mule, Stubborn. It was good steady work, paid well, and mostly kept him out of the city. All good things, as far as he was concerned.

He’d arrived late the night before with another load of food and fodder, to find the world (or at least the army) had turned upside down. And he would now be carting /wolves/.

He’d been told to expect children, pregnant, and injured wolves, two wolf-guards, and a squad of army-guards. Transport to the same base he’d been carting supplies from. Why? Who knew? Not him.

Stubborn, unlike his person, was quite happy to stand and eat some of the surviving grass with no worries for the future. A sunny day, food, no work, and no predators are a mule’s idea of heaven.

Stubborn’s heaven was abruptly shattered as an army squad escorted a group of wolves and a single — very pregnant — woman through the lines and right up to Aswathi’s cart.

Elisabeti barely noticed the carter trying desperately to calm his mule. She was focused on helping the other wolves into the cart. The army humans, of course, just watched her and made the occasional joke. There had been supposed to be two warriors traveling with them as well, but something had gone wrong somewhere — no one told her what, of course — and their guards were now among the injured.

Thankfully, most of the wolves were able to hop in on their own, injured or not. But one had a damaged rear leg that made jumping… difficult. And of course, there were the other two wolves who were expected to give birth in the next month. They weren’t nearly as mobile as they used to be.

Not that she was either. When she finally got the others in, she had to turn and look for someone — some human — to help her in.

The wolves didn’t feel safe around the army, which is why all of them but Elisabeti were traveling as wolves. She didn’t have a choice. Having chosen nearly 9 months ago to spend her pregnancy human, it was far past too late to change her mind.

Luckily for her, by then Aswathi had the mule calm enough (for the moment). Stubborn did not like all these predators suddenly crowded in behind him. And he liked the idea of needing to work nearly as little. But he trusted his person and would do a great deal for the promise of an apple to snack on. So Aswathi saw the wolf-woman ask the soldiers for help and be just… ignored.

Aswathi didn’t like wolves. Was, in fact, near as frightened of them as Stubborn. But he knew what his father would say if he ever learned Aswathi had failed in his duty or turned away someone needing help for no reason but fear.

So he took a deep breath and approached her. “Ma’am? You can sit on the bench with me. It’s easier to climb onto than the cart bed and we can keep each other company.”

Elisabeti was taken aback by the offer from the strange human. And one who was afraid of her in a way the army-men weren’t. But she gratefully accepted and did her best to settle comfortably on the narrow driving bench.

“Thank you. I am called Elisabeti.”

Aswathi made sure everything was secure and chirruped to Stubborn, who took off at a fast walk. If he hoped to leave the predators behind, he was disappointed. But Aswathi was just relieved to have an easy start to the trip.

Neither of them said anything for a while, but the quiet meant Aswathi (and Stubborn) could hear every whine, scratch, and even occasional growl or snap from the cart. Desperate for a distraction he asked the first thing that came to mind — “Why aren’t you a wolf?”

Elisabeti started and turned to look at him. “Oh… you don’t know about us, do you? I can’t. Not until the baby is born.”

“Why no– oh.” Aswathi’s brain caught up with his mouth and he paled. “The baby can’t…”

“Not until around 3 months. Most of us can only get pregnant in one form. I’m lucky, I could choose. My wolf and I… we chose this, and now it’s too late to change our minds.”

“Oh.”

They were quiet a bit longer, then it was Elisabeti who broke the silence. “Do you know where we are going?”

Aswathi shrugged. “Today we are going to an army depot. We got a late start, so we won’t get there till after dark. After that, I don’t know. They’ll have another load of supplies for me to load up and take to the front, but no one told me what they were… where you are going. I don’t think they’ll keep you at the depot long, though. There isn’t a lot of room there.”

And it was Elisabeti’s turn to say, “… Oh.”

“Do you know… I was told there would be children?”

Elisabeti’s face turned grey and she swayed in the seat. Worried, Aswathi grabbed for her, holding her in place. To his surprise, she didn’t shy away. Instead, she clung to him. “You don’t know? They didn’t tell you?”

“Tell me what?”

Elisabeti grasped for words. For clear thinking. Should she say anything? What if he — or the guards riding on either side of them — weren’t supposed to know?

But that was ridiculous. There was no way to keep it secret, and the Packfather wasn’t a fool.

“There are no children. Caldelon killed them all.” She swallowed and rubbed her stomach. “That’s why they are sending us away, why we’re willing to risk being separated from the pack.” She closed her eyes. “Why the Packfather surrendered.”

Aswathi dropped the reins in shock. Stubborn grumbled and turned to stare at him. After a moment he fumbled to pick them up again and Stubborn resumed following the road. “Do… did you have…”

She smiled sadly. “No. No. I had waited, you see. I had… but my nieces and nephews, my friends’ children… and these past weeks, knowing that if we couldn’t do something, it would be my baby next.” She glanced back into the cart where the other pregnant wolves had crowded forward to press themselves near her. She buried her hand in the fur and warmth. “It would be all of our babies next.”

Again, there was silence. Aswathi had no idea what he could say, what could anyone say? And Elisabeti was lost in her thoughts and memories for a time.

Finally, one of the other wolves chuffed and nudged her hand. She wiped her tears and laughed a little. “Indira reminds me of my manners.

“Thank you, human.” She paused and raised her voice, looking to the guards as well. “Our thanks to all of you. We know you do not like us, fear us, or hate us. But you take us and our cubs to safety, and we are grateful.”

Aswathi flushed, and the guards looked down and muttered something indecipherable before announcing they would ride ahead to check the bridge.

Blinking back tears of his own, Aswathi smiled. “You remind me of my own manners. I am Aswathi, and the glue-pot-to-be there is Stubborn.

“Unfortunately, you don’t get one of us without the other, which is how he got his name.” Shoving aside his fear, he looked over his shoulder to include the other wolves in his story. “You see…”

He launched into the story of a young mule who would not stop following him everywhere. It was a silly story, and he made it sillier with every telling. More silly than ever now. He was rewarded with Elisabeti’s watery chuckles at several points and read gratitude again in her eyes.


Return to:
The Price of Survival, S1 E1
The Price of Survival, S1 E4

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The Price of Survival, S1 E6

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