Stormfeather Ch. 06byTaLtos6©
The trouble with writing in this genre is that somewhere, somehow, you have to stick in some reasons why and how to make it all work. Well I got a lot of that out of the way in the last chapter. :)
Every once in a while, I write a chapter with the thought in mind of seeing the scene as Hollywood might do it. This is one of those chapters and I hope it's enjoyed.
So if you're a fan of Stormfeather, clear the decks, get settled in comfortably, and imagine that you're watching your boy work here. ;)
Beyond the buildings of Amy's farm, there was a more or less gradual rise to the ground. It could be a bit of a chore, but to walk up that rise led one to the caves, the old burial mounds and a stream fed from the plain above that. The stream eventually wound its way down to pass not far from the farmhouse, which is why the house had been built there in the first place.
But there was another feature to this stream. Before it wound its way down the grade, it passed through an arroyo that it had carved its stream bed through the middle of. It was an odd little place, full of sounds and echoes, an almost magical, naturally-formed space with the stream entering at one end, flowing through a pool, and leaving at the other. Some animals came here from the land below and some made their way from the plain above. All of them came for water. Sometimes there were strange meetings between the kinds of animals, but usually everyone only wanted to drink and more usual meetings were postponed until later.
Right now, as the night began to yield to the increasing light of day, a bruised and desperate creature is trying to reach that spot before her last reserves of strength leave her.
The red wolf knew it would be daylight soon as she padded wearily through the cold stream.. She didn't dare move quickly for fear of making more noise than the quiet burble of the shallow water that she was walking through to hide her tracks and scent. More speed was largely out of the question anyway. The thin mist which rose from the water helped a little to hide her and she was thankful for that, though it chilled her slightly. She hadn't thought that it would be coming off the water at all tonight.
Every little bit helps if you're the one being hunted.
Mostly, she just wanted to find a quiet place to be allowed to die in, because there wasn't much else for her to do, the way that she felt. The pack that she'd been born into had all been killed, her entire family gone in minutes. A juvenile just past her first year, she wasn't the largest female and guessed it to be the reason that she wasn't one of the primary targets, At least she'd managed to get away in the darkness and confusion while the large strangers made the effort to be sure that there were no survivors. They'd missed her somehow, but she was almost certain that her slim luck wouldn't hold for very much longer.
The fight hadn't lasted long. There were only four of the interlopers, but they were so powerful that none could stand against them. Even the smaller female among them was far larger than her and looked to be easily triple her weight. Mostly, she'd been beaten with their teeth early on in the fight, the blows coming from their open mouths before they'd gotten down to the killing. What passed for hostile and more or less accidental swats from their forelegs had knocked her down and bowled her over more than once, they were that large and strong. She'd also been bitten many times, but thankfully there seemed to be no blood from any of the wounds that she'd taken the time to examine in the darkness afterward.
At least her reflexes hadn't failed her and she'd had the luck to be able to roll with most of the blows and seen her one chance to escape as her parents took on the largest intruders in a hopeless and desperate melee. The absence of open wounds on her was a blessing in spite of one of her eyes swelling almost shut. If they'd had the scent of her blood to follow, she wouldn't have gotten this far.
She knew of only one place above ground where she might be able to live out the night and just maybe the next day. She didn't know if she wanted to live that long, the way that she hurt. Everything on her ached now and she was almost too exhausted to go on, but this seemed to be her only option. She didn't have the strength to make for any of the other dens, and anyway, they'd seemed to know just where to look. They'd only have to dig her out to finish what they'd begun.
She made her way down to the place where the stream opened into a pool. The little arroyo was filled with the mist which rose from the water and it made seeing anything difficult. She stopped to consider. If only the water were warmer, she'd have tried to lie low there with her head just above the surface, but it was just too cold for that, and besides, if she got out afterward, there was always the smell of her fur as it began to dry. She knew that it would be like a homing beacon to their noses.
Worried and near the end of her reserves of strength, she half-limped over to a small alcove in the rocks. She got in as far as she could and turned around to face outward. It didn't offer all that much of a defensive position, but it was the only one available. If they found her here, it wouldn't matter much anyway. She eased herself down painfully with a quiet, exhausted groan and waited for either the reprieve which she judged was unlikely or a hopefully quick death when she was found.
Stormfeather was up before the dawn and working his way to the caves. He hoped to find the elder there, but again found the entrance deserted. He looked down in case there were indications of the elder's passage. His eyes opened wide at what he saw in the thin moonlight.
After a moment, he knew that whatever had made them moved on four legs. It was the size of them that caused him some concern. He made out four individual sets, and what he noticed then caused him more concern.
They only went out. There were none going back in. They were recent, he knew, but still hours old.
He followed for a short time until he lost the trail on hard stone not porous enough to hold a scent. He stood up to look around, and seeing nothing, he turned to go to the arroyo.
She opened her eyes at the sounds of someone approaching and tried to prepare herself for her final desperate struggle. After a minute, she knew it was only a single animal, not the four whom she feared, and there were not enough sounds even for one of them, no matter how stealthily they came. Though large, this one moved much more quietly. She lowered her head again and kept watch.
What she saw almost caused her to quake, but she managed to hold still. She'd never seen anything like this one before. There was enough about the creature for her to feel some sort of kinship to it, not that it had changed the outcome the last time she'd felt this way. The four interlopers had been something like her kind as well, and that had gone terribly. She hardly dared to breathe.
He walked quietly to one end of the pool and slowly eased himself into the cold water after removing his breechcloth to keep it dry. A quick look at the sky told him that he was here in time. He stood still, bent slightly at the waist, his hands beginning to throb from the cold liquid that they were immersed in. But he'd been correct about the time. The first trout who'd come nosing along only beginning to think about food found itself airborne as his hand flipped it out onto the bank where it lay flopping in surprise.
The sound of his motion almost caused her to jump, but she forced herself to lie still. She could barely make him out like this in the mist, but it took only a minute for her to realize that he wasn't hunting her, he was after his breakfast. She'd seen the fish before and had wanted a way to get one for herself, but she wasn't built for it and had to settle for any half-eaten ones left by others.
He held still and waited for the next trout to happen by. His nose told him of a slightly different smell here, though it wasn't really out of place. He knew that many animals came here to drink and the place held many of their residual smells. Another trout flew onto the bank.
Amy had been up long enough to make herself some coffee and look around. She saw that he was gone somewhere and hoped that he hadn't left altogether. She was sure that he wouldn't just leave without a word to her and seeing his weapons here meant that he must be around somewhere. She set her empty cup down with a shrug. The water would be cold, but that couldn't be helped. If she were here alone, she'd have waited until midday, but she thought that right now she'd have the best chance at being undisturbed, and the simple truth of it was that she needed a bath, cold or otherwise.
She found her mother's largest towel. It was the softest, and since her mother's death, she'd been the only one to use it. Amy pulled on her jeans and a cotton shirt, and then saw her new moccasins. They'd be perfect; she thought and almost wished that he were here just to thank him for the gift of them again. She was almost out of the door when she went back and picked up her old pistol as an afterthought to begin the walk up the rocky slope.
He stepped back out of the pool and moved the six trout there together. He waited only for the last of them to stop thrashing feebly. After this exercise of will and self-control in the icy water, he didn't want to chance losing one to a lucky flip back into the pool. He crouched on one knee, waiting and listening for a moment as the water dripped from his wet black fur.
He glanced up at a motion in the slowly thinning mist and he knew that he was in a bit of an uncomfortable spot. Before he could do anything to warn her, Amy appeared as a ghostly form in the fog and quickly took off her clothes to step into the pool. He had no idea what to do now. He thought about it briefly and decided to go back to the form that she'd known him by before she caught sight of him like this. It was bad enough as it was, he thought. If she saw him like this, she'd likely be frightened, no matter how many times she'd told him that she'd been prepared to see him this way.
But another motion caused him to freeze. He stared hard through the mist. What he saw following her almost defied belief.
Amy's passage had not gone unobserved. The four of them had only thought to have a quick drink before going back to the cave where they'd left the other place they'd come from. Things were now looking even better, they thought. This looked as though it would be a suitable new hunting ground now that the smaller competition had been dealt with. And now they'd found a meal. They knew that these two-legged beasts could be tough to hunt if they were in groups with their sharp sticks, but there was only one of them here, and the females were even easier to kill than the males.
The red wolf hiding in the alcove wondered how this could get any worse. First the large black one and then this human with the light skin and patchy fur. Now the very same four-footed killers who had ripped up her own pack were here, and even if she could summon up the strength to run, there was no chance of it at all. She tried to make herself even smaller and trembled slightly as she slowly eased herself back, deeper into the alcove.
Amy set her blanket and revolver down on the bank, stepped in quickly, and had just come back up after ducking her head under. She had no intention of staying long, she was just going to wash quickly and get out, now that the coldness had driven out the cobwebs.
When she turned to the bank a few seconds later, the largest of her pursuers was right there and began growling. That set the other three to begin, and after the initial shock of it, Amy saw her only hope of defense out of her reach. The large male was almost standing on her pistol as he leaned forward and considered the timing of his onslaught. This would be easy from his point of view. Getting the body out of the water for the meal was the problem.
He hesitated as he heard his brother begin to snarl in alarm to be joined almost immediately by the two females. Something was wrong by their sounds. He looked back and saw them looking past him. Turning his head the other way, the fur along his own neck and shoulders began to rise and he joined in the snarling chorus as he backed up a step cautiously. He had a lot of grudging respect for what he saw, but with a meal right in front of him he sure wasn't going to back down.
All of them against only one, he thought.
He liked the odds.
Amy followed their line of sight and saw him. She recognized him instantly from her drawings and knew that this had to be Stormfeather in his feral form. She was uncertain of the outcome of this, but felt better immediately. She only hoped that he'd been truthful about her not needing to fear him when he was in this shape.
The yellow eyes almost glowed as he knelt there tensely, his left knee down and his left hand on the rock surface. His right hand was on his raised knee. He'd have looked relaxed if she hadn't learned from her drawings of him. He was wound tightly. She could see the bunched muscles all over him. The snarls continued as she watched his right hand move to give her subtle directions. He indicated this with gentle waves of his fingers. He was telling her to duck down a little slowly and move out of the way as well.
Amy eased herself back carefully and let herself crouch a little lower, wondering how this would go.
Stormfeather wondered this as well, but made no sound. The four wolves that he was looking at were far larger than the usual Gray Wolves that he knew lived in this part of the world. The females were easily two hundred pounds and the males looked to be about two hundred fifty -- more than double the weight of the largest Gray Wolf. They were much larger than the grays and taller. Though their legs looked to be proportionately shorter, they made up the difference with their far greater weight and obvious musculature. This was another breed entirely. Bitterly regretting his choice to leave his weapons down in the house, he sighed to himself as he prepared.
This was going to hurt.
Three of them drew back another step as his own deep snarls began. By himself, he could drown out the noise of them all combined and in the arroyo, the sound seemed to come from the very stones of the place. The intensity of their sounds rose another notch in warning, but he matched the increase easily as the tension between the sides of this confrontation went to the next level.
Rather than let them just grow louder in answer, he took it up another step with his body language and the pack tensed even more as he lowered his head threateningly and pulled his lips back from long and wicked-looking teeth.
Whenever top-level predators square off, the fight - if it comes - is foreshadowed by posturing to allow one or the other some time to decide if discretion is the better course. In this small place, there was not enough room for one party to disengage quickly without the fear of a rear attack. No avoidance was possible here and so this fight was inevitable. Stormfeather knew this, but his own posturing was staged to unnerve the followers since their leader was too absorbed and single-minded to back down. Had he been alone here, he might have attempted a cautious withdrawal, seeing no reason to spill blood over pride. But with the dream-walker -- his only human friend - in peril, there was only one course open to him.
Amy pulled back from the bank even more.
The three followers eased back while doing their best to look as menacing as possible. They weren't sure about this now. But their leader hadn't changed his stance or his intent. There was food right here, and he wasn't about to just hand their prey over to this dark two-legged thing. It hadn't occurred to him that this threat might be trying to protect the one in the water. He could only think one way. He saw this as a fight over food which just hadn't been killed yet. He thought their chances were good and he'd sweat the details of dragging the human from the pool afterward.
The one who was hiding among the rocks wanted to hide her face at the sounds. In the pool, Amy began to tremble until Stormfeather showed her again that he wasn't without coherent thought. He stopped snarling for a moment but kept glaring at his opposition, since to look away now would almost certainly trigger their only possible response. His voice when it came was loud and rasping.
"Do not look at them now, Sheena. Look at me. They must face my challenge or leave," he said, careful to omit what he knew to be obvious -- that nobody was just going to leave peacefully now.
He clicked the nails of his left hand on the rock to draw her attention. When she heard the sound of it in the snarls, Amy's eyes went right to the spot. It seemed ludicrous to her, but she found herself looking at something else after a second. She had a good view of most of his masculinity from this angle and had a thought that men faced a disadvantage against threats from quadrupeds. Even what he was now looked to have this liability.
As terrified of the pack as the small red wolf was, her attention shifted to the crouching beast. She'd heard human speech before, but this was no human like any that she'd ever seen. She was more confused than ever as she lay staring at him. Which was the biggest threat to her? Who was hunting whom here? The fight would be on the opposite bank if it began.
Her mind began again to weigh her chances of a quiet getaway in the confusion until she saw the beginning of the large dark beast's slow and deliberate movement and she gave up all hope of a discrete departure as her eyes went wide. The only thing holding her mouth shut was the stone surface under her chin.
With nothing at all under her own jaw, Amy's mouth promptly fell open while Stormfeather played his last card in the final seconds of the standoff stage of this. Both Amy and the unseen wolf gaped as he slowly rose to his feet and tensed in readiness to do this thing while giving the intruders a good look at what they would be dealing with very soon.
Inside his mind, there were changes happening in final preparation. His vision narrowed slightly. Rather than glare at them as a group, his eyes flicked from one member of the pack to the next, searching for weaknesses, looking for past injuries which might require care on the part of one of them. He categorized their sizes and assigned a threat ranking to each one. It was totally unconscious on his part and he didn't think about it at all. It was just how he put together his plan for this.
He knew that he was ready when his preliminary plan clicked in his mind. It was already done and he'd visualized them lying dead.
In this form, the increased distance between his ankles and the rest of his feet gave him quite a bit more height. The sound of the wolves rose to an almost soprano wavering note as they took in seven full feet of resolute and barely restrained wrath.
He seemed to swell even more as he filled his lungs and then threw his head forward to signal that the negotiations were over. It began as a barking snarl but shifted quickly and the sound of his angry roar hurt their ears. Everyone within earshot knew that it was no longer a challenge, threat, or warning to leave.
It was a declaration of murderous intent.
All four wolves in the pack now took another step back, though it was already far too late to leave and they knew it. Amy had no choice but to stare at him. She wondered briefly what would happen now, but had her answer a half-second later.