The Wolf and the Lamb
"Taylor..." The Lady said, after giving the lamb sufficient time to panic over his boyfriend. Taylor didn't answer. He was still alternately rubbing Tristan's chest and shaking his head, trying to get the wolf to wake up.
"Taylor," she tried again, "Taylor!!"
He looked over at her, "He... he won't wake up..."
"I can see that, Taylor. He'll be all right - and we have work to do. Our men have been going through hell on our behalf - now it's our turn to take care of them. Come over here and start clearing off a place we can lay them comfortably, I'm going to start unpacking the sled. We need to work fast, Taylor, or their joints and muscles are going to freeze up on them. I'd like to leave this place tomorrow, not next week."
Taylor looked down at Tristan's unconscious body again, trying to decide what to do. It felt wrong to just leave him lying there like that... "He'll be okay?"
"He'll be okay," The Lady said, untying the ropes that held the sled's load in place, "Now, make me a place to lay out these bear-skins..."
Taylor reluctantly complied, and cleared a place next to Gordon's also-unconscious body, throwing the bigger stones out into the six-foot-high snowbank that the avalanche had left behind. The deep snow started like a wall about twenty feet away from the cliff and went on, one presumed, forever. Close enough, anyway.
The Lady and Taylor hefted the two bodies onto the bear-skins, and then she said "All right, now make us a fireplace, build a fire, and start melting us some water. We're going to give the men a hot meal - as much as they can eat. You and I will split whatever's left over. Once the food is cooking - we will start to work keeping their legs limber. I imagine we may find a few injuries, too. I can see from here that Gordon's feet must be bleeding... We'll have to check them out thoroughly. Chop-chop, Taylor," she said, pulling more blankets and skins from the sled, and laying them out over the two bodies.
While Taylor melted snow over the fire, the Old Goat inventoried her potions and elixirs, setting some aside and putting others back where she got them. She also set out the things for the stew: salted meat, potatoes, carrots, peas. Quite a lot of each ingredient, too. It was going to be a thick stew.
Once the food began boil, The Lady had Taylor start melting more water in a skillet - the only other pan they had, now that the second sled was lost. Then she went over and knelt on the bear-skin, removing Gordon's covers from the waist down.
"Taylor - watch what I do to Gordon. You do the same to your wolf." She began lifting his feet up, flexing his knee and hip joints. Taylor followed suit.
"They're so stiff.."
"They're going to get stiffer. Don't go too fast now, gently, gently. Once they wake up, it is going to be quite painful for them when we do this. And we are going to be doing it for the rest of the day and most of the night. Find a position you can be comfortable in. All right - other leg now."
This went on for two more rotations - one leg then the other. Finally The Lady instructed Taylor to take off the wolf's shoes, and they used the skillet-water to wash the blood from the raw cuts on the wolf's feet, and then the rabbit's. It was the application of The Lady's home-made disinfectant that finally woke Gordon and Tristan up.
Gordon - "Hey... Hey! HEY - goddammit!"
Tristan - "Ow! What the fuck!"
"Good afternoon, boys," The Lady smiled, "Have a nice rest, did we?"
"Tristan!" the lamb cried out - not nearly so witty as the goat.
"I... I made it?" Gordon said in wonder, "I didn't think there was any way I could - OUCH! What the hell is that stuff!"
"Keeps your fur soft and young-looking. Sold only in the finest salons." The Lady smirked.
"Gah! Why don't you just use a red-hot knife and get it over with..."
Tristan grinned at him, "Oh don't be such a baby, bunny-man. It only stings for a little while before – OW!" he yelled, then looked accusingly at the lamb at his feet. "TAYLOR!..."
"Sorry, Tris. I was gonna warn ya, but... you were talking..."
"Fuck! Fuck, fuck, fuck FUCK!" the wolf cried. His cuts were somewhat deeper than Gordon's. It did in fact "only sting for a little while"... but it stung a lot!
"You were saying about being a baby, wolf-boy?"
"Shut the fuck up..."
"Hey, that reminds me - really dumb move going back to push on my sled," Gordon said, remembering what had happened, "The avalanche might have got both of us, instead of just me, y'know."
"Gods - I save your damn life, and you tell me it was a dumb move."
"No one asked ya to, ya stupid goddamn wolf."
"Idiot fucking rabbit."
"OUCH! What the HELL?!" Gordon and Tristan each looked at their particular tormentors with pleading in their eyes, but got no sympathy back.
"Isn't there some way we can knock them back out again?" Taylor asked The Lady.
The stupid wolf and idiot rabbit both stared in shock at Taylor - it was the first sarcasm they'd ever heard from him - then looked back at each other. Then they burst out laughing.
Although neither of them had actually "gone" anywhere, it still felt good to be back.
"Oh man – I forgot what hot food was like..." Tristan said with his mouth full, to no one in particular. "Tay? Aren't you having any?"
Taylor was starving, and the smell of the hot stew was only making it worse. Much worse. He stole a glance at The Lady, but wasn't hopeful. She pretended not to see him at all – which gave him his answer. "Nah – we ate while you guys were still out. I'm already stuffed..."
"Oh," Tristan said, buying the story because he was too busy eating to question it. "Uhm... is there any more?"
There was, and he and Gordon both had another helping, while Taylor and The Lady went to work on their stiff legs for a third time.
"Only a little bit left, gentlemen – might as well finish it off..." she said when she was done.
"Yeah – uh, if Gordon doesn't want-" Tristan began, but the rabbit interrupted him.
"I think me and wolf-boy are about full enough, ma'am. Maybe you and Taylor can finish it off."
"Well, I dunno about you, but I'm-"
"Tris? Look at me," Gordon commanded. The wolf turned his head questioningly. "We have had enough. We are full. Okay?"
Taylor finally couldn't stand it any longer - "Uh, well, maybe I will have a little. More. A little more, I mean..."
Tristan got it, and rolled his eyes at Gordon, "You may be right about that 'stupid wolf' thing..." he said quietly.
"Help yourself to the rest of it, young man," The Lady told Taylor, "I'm still full from earlier."
Taylor was too hungry to call her bluff, and finished off the stew, albeit with a side-order of hot-faced guilt.
Soon, both the rabbit and wolf were asleep with full bellies, and Taylor and The lady worked their legs again. Not long after that, Taylor, who was already lying beside Tristan because The Lady had told him to "find a comfortable position", closed his eyes just to rest them for a moment. He fell asleep too.
The Lady kept a lonely watch – exercising both the men's limbs alternately - from then until the small hours of the morning, then she too stretched herself out under the bear-skins next to Gordon, and went to sleep.
It had been a very long 46 hours.
The next day, once they were all awake, it was back to cold jerky and dried fruit for breakfast. They hadn't carried enough wood on the one sled to have the luxury of another fire, so they had to pack snow into wine skins and carry them next to their own bodies to melt it. Tristan and Gordon were helped painfully to their feet, and made to stumble around like drunken best-friends, arm-in-arm, to loosen up their stiff legs. The Lady gave Gordon bitter herbs to chew on, she said it would ease the pain. Since Tristan's mouth wasn't built for chewing, she also gave them to Taylor. He was to chew the leaves – and then swap spit with his boyfriend. It wasn't as erotic as it sounds... Gordon, of course, thought it was "gross", and everyone laughed at him for saying so.
But it helped, and within an hour both the rabbit's and wolf's legs felt almost good as new.
They stayed there under the cliff until noon, and then finally loaded up to get moving again. Tristan, Gordon, and Taylor pulled the sled. So that made it a little easier in one way – but it was also time to use the snow-shoes, so that made it harder in an entirely different way. They trudged on.
And on, and on, and on – for a week and a half before they ever saw a tree again. Then they just kept right on trudging for the rest of that day until they came to a snow-bank that was deep enough to dig a cave into. Tristan and Gordon dug out the cave while The Lady and Taylor collected wood for – luxury of luxuries – a fire. They stayed there for three days. Tristan went hunting, while Gordon re-sculpted the worn runners of their sled. They even managed to bathe – in a somewhat chilly fashion.
In the afternoon of the third day, when they knew they'd be leaving in the morning, Gordon had an odd suggestion:
"Y'know, I think me and The Lady should take a look up the trail for a bit. See what we're in for," he said casually, talking to Tristan, "You an' Tay be okay here by yourselves?"
The Lady caught on immediately, "Yes... yes, that's a good idea, Gordon. Just to make sure we're not in for any surprises. We'll be gone for... an hour?" She winked at the rabbit.
"More like two, I think," he replied.
So they left, and it didn't take Taylor any time at all to think of something he and Tristan could do while they were gone. They hadn't had any privacy for almost a month, now. Tristan, however, seemed to be absorbed in re-stringing the web of his left snow-shoe.
Taylor giggled to himself – no wonder there were fewer predators than there were prey. He simply pulled the snow-shoe out of Tristan's hands, took one of those hands into his own, and led the somewhat bewildered wolf into the cave.
"Gordon..." The Lady said, once they were out of ear-shot, "That was a rather nice idea. It surprises me that it was your idea. Was it? Or did Taylor feed you hints..."
"No ma'am. My idea, I'm afraid. Just thought they could use some... time, is all."
"Oh really... A wolf and a lamb, both boys, and him – what, 12 years old?" The Lady said, mocking the Gordon of last fall.
"Yeah, well... Those two were made for each other. Even I see it now. It ain't how we rabbits do things – but then, they're not rabbits. And besides, I don't exactly do things the rabbit-way neither. So I can't rightly hold anything against them, now can I? And besides, I like Taylor."
"Heh, all right - I like the wolf, too. The stupid son-of-a-bitch. You happy now?"
"In a way... But I'm sad in a way too, Gordon."
"I'm sad because your apprenticeship is now over. I have nothing more to teach you, bunny-man, that you can't teach yourself. And furthermore, I have absolute confidence that you will keep on learning. I see it every day. You may therefore consider yourself a Master of Blood and Teeth, Gordon. You are released. Here – trade me staffs. There's supposed to be an elaborate ceremony... but this will have to do."
Gordon looked her in the eye, and took her walking-staff, handing his own to her. Then he stared at her a moment longer. Then he smiled.
"So – I can leave now."
"Indeed. Just as you've always wanted."
"Uh-huh. You sly old... goat. Now I can go. Now that you know there's absolutely no chance in hell I'm goin' anywhere but where you want me to - I can go."
"You're choice, Gordon," she said in all seriousness.
He had to laugh. "Right. Well, it just so happens that I think I'll be making a trip to this 'Civilization' place you've always told me about. How's that sound? Maybe you'd wanna come along?"
"I have two more apprentices, Gordon. Wouldn't be right for me to leave them behind..."
"Oh no! Of course not!" the rabbit fairly roared with laughter now, "Bring 'em along! Hell, let's all go!"
Just over a week later they found themselves coming down the mountain range and out of the snow. A week after that, and they were at what The Lady called 'Base Camp'. Despite the high-sounding title, it consisted of a run-down shack next to a stream – and absolutely nothing else.
They were to stay there a month in order to prepare for the crossing of the Desert, she told them. This desert – which sounded more frightening every time The Lady spoke of it, was still too far away to see – a good two day's walk - but they had been noticing the trees getting thinner as they moved west. She said that water would be available for about their first two weeks, once they headed out again – and then they wouldn't see it again for a month. Unless it rained. That was why they were crossing in May – at least there would be a chance. They were going to need that chance because when they'd lost that sled, they'd also lost half their wine-skins. What was left just wasn't enough. Not nearly. And it was unlikely they'd be able to manufacture thirty more in the time they had.
Tristan was detailed to hunt almost immediately, in order to rebuild their food reserves. That meant he'd be away, on his own, most of the time, sometimes even over-night. Leaving Taylor behind. He didn't like that.
"One condition," he told The Lady after she'd explained this to him.
"Yeah, 'condition'. I want you to start teaching Taylor Combat lessons."
"Tristan..." she explained, "We do not have time-"
"I'd do it myself – but I won't have time, either. I want him to be able to take care of himself – the way Gordon can. Teach him weapons, teach him Natural, teach him whatever way you think is best, but I want him to learn how to fight."
"I can only give him a couple of hours a day, Tristan."
"That's okay. He's smarter than me – he'll pick it up fast. Give him things to think about – he's good at that. I'd ask Gordon, but I imagine you'll have him too busy as well. So I'll do what you want, ma'am – but I want Taylor trained. By you," the wolf said. It had a tone of finality he didn't really intend, so he added, "Please?"
"Very well, Tristan. I'll see what I can do. I suppose it wouldn't hurt to start him on the basics, anyway... and perhaps a few more lessons on swordsmanship. I will formulate a plan for him. You just worry about getting us meat. It's a deal, then?"
They shook on it.
And the days went busily by. Gordon disassembled the remaining sled, and used the wood to make two travois – basically two long sticks attached to a harness, the other end of the sticks dragging along behind the puller, with cargo attached in between. There were a couple of improvements: he encased the dragging-ends of the poles with iron to withstand the rock, and carved flip-down skids that looked something like miniature skis for them, to be used when crossing sand. The leather harnesses he and Tristan would wear needed to be modified too. The snow-shoes - rather than being discarded, or recycled - were thoroughly dried, then oiled, then wrapped, then covered with clay, then buried. New shoes were made, old clothes were repaired, and in lieu of attempting to craft a new bow - he simply didn't have time - Gordon decided to make himself a couple of spears. He'd never made a spear before. Figuring out what would and wouldn't work was exactly the sort of thing the rabbit got into with gusto.
While Tristan hunted, and Gordon engineered, Taylor and The Lady gathered. Not just food, but medicinal leaves, roots, bark - even insects. She would usually give the lamb some Blood and Teeth training after lunch, and he'd spend the rest of the afternoon practicing what she'd taught him whenever he had a chance. At night, they'd gather around the fire just as they'd done at The Lady's shack before. And just as before - Taylor would be Taylor.
"Tay... c'mon, you know the bunny-man doesn't like it when you do that..." the wolf said when Taylor surprised him with a nosing.
"Ahem," Gordon said to get their attention, "Actually, Tris... I'm pretty much over that. You two go ahead and... well, go ahead. But I don't wanna see no more than that, got it? So if anything... comes up, I expect you to find your own privacy. You understand?"
"It's a deal. Y'know, Gordon... I bet we could find you a girlfriend once we reach Civilization... You need one, I think," Tristan teased.
"I told you - I ain't up for that. I'm greedy with my life - want it all to myself."
"Uh-huh... you just haven't met the right woman... Or... Have you ever even considered another man? Who knows, you-"
"Shut the hell up, wolf-boy..." Gordon rolled his eyes in exasperation.
So things settled into a pattern, and everyone knew their responsibilities. It was a busy - but really, pretty sweet - time. It sure beat 'the road'.
One day at the end of April - still two weeks before The Lady had planned to leave - all that changed. Taylor and The Lady were out drug-hunting.
"That's where you got that stuff you put on Tris's tongue?" Taylor cried in disgust when the lady showed him. Black juice dripped from the millipede's body where she had broken it open. She collected it in a small jar.
"Afraid so, Taylor," she laughed, "Medicine can be an icky business. Now, find me another one just like this. Try that pile of wet leaves there, and there should be more under the log - if we can manage to move it. Oh - and if you see any yellow salamanders - we can use those too."
"I'm scared to ask what for..."
"You shouldn't need to ask 'what for', young man. You are supposed to be able to tell me what it's for..." she looked at him archly.
"Uh... yellow salamanders... Oh! You take the skin, and dry it up in the sun - not over a fire, because that'll ruin it - and then you powder it up."
"And it makes?"
"Uhm... it makes... little red frogs make poison, I remember that... yellow salamanders... make..."
"Sleeping poison, Taylor."
"Yeah! That's right!"
The Lady sighed, "Thank you, Taylor. I thought it was..." She smiled. Actually, Taylor seemed to have developed a knack for memorization. His trick was to draw what he wanted to remember. Even if he only drew it in dirt - it was the act of drawing that did the trick.
Towards late afternoon it was time to head back to Base Camp. They were about four miles away, by that time, but the going was easy in the sparse woods. Taylor was walking behind The Lady, going over in his head the Combat moves she'd shown him that day. Occasionally, he'd pull a maneuver to get a feel for it, and then run back up behind her again. The Lady got used to it - kids have energy like that. She surely didn't.
But then she heard something -
She gave no indication, didn't turn her head, didn't say "sssh!" or change her stride in anyway. Anyone watching her wouldn't have noticed even the smallest change in her behaviour. Except that, every now and again, both ears would point the same direction - behind and to the right. That was it.
"Taylor - listen to my instructions. Do not say anything, do not look up at me as if you're listening. Just keep doing whatever you're doing, pretend nothing is going on. There is a boulder coming up on our right side. I am going to pass by very close to it - and when we are just beyond it, I want you to hide yourself there. We are being followed. If you understand, say 'uh-huh'."
"Uh... uh-huh..." This didn't sound good at all. The lamb's heart quickened. He thought about taking out his sword - then remember that The Lady had said to pretend nothing was happening, so he didn't. Besides - he wasn't supposed to take it out until he intended to actually use it, and so far, he didn't see anything to use it on.
He peeled off from behind the lady and hid in between the boulder and a cedar-tree growing beside it. He would only be visible from the direction The Lady was going. But - she was still walking away... was she going to leave him there? For how long?
His question was soon answered, as two coyote-people sprang at the goat from someplace Taylor couldn't see. That bothered him - that he couldn't see where they had come from - then it occurred to him that if he couldn't see where they had come from, they probably hadn't been able to see him hide, either.
The Lady was pretty damn smart...
There was something weird about the coyotes, though. Their muzzles were jet-black, all the way up to their eyes. The rest of their bodies was the normal coyote-gray color. As they snarled at her, Taylor saw even more - the insides of their mouths were as black as the outside. Their teeth almost seemed to float in front of their faces as they ran to attack her. Taylor thought of yelling - then thought better - he'd been told to hide, after all.
The Lady just kept walking, but whirled with her staff when the first coyote was within range, smacking him right in the side of the head with it as she lashed out. He rolled awkwardly off to one side. In the same motion, she knelt down and bowed her head - almost reverently, it seemed - as her staff recoiled back into her other hand. Now she was holding it at two places, shoulder width apart, horizontally in front of her. The other coyote leapt for her with it's mouth open, and she held the staff up neck-level, jamming the wood in between its jaws. She quickly straightened back up, bring the hapless coyote's head up with her, then she jumped and kicked him in the gut with both feet, propelling each of them away from the other. She flipped over herself backwards, landing on her feet. The coyote landed absurdly on his back, and rolled ass-over-head twice.
It was amazing to watch what The Lady could do. Taylor had never seen anything like it - except perhaps Gordon, when he practiced with Tristan. But The Lady was far smoother than Gordon ever was. Watching Gordon was watching a fight. Watching The Lady was more like dance. As the two coyotes scrambled back to their feet to try again, she remained a island of serenity in an ocean of chaos.
One strange thing, though - she was only hurting them. Why wasn't she killing them? It was certainly within her power to do so... Taylor had never seen The Lady kill, but he knew perfectly well that she could. As he watched her gracefully send the coyotes flying a second time, he counted three opportunities the goat could have used to kill her attackers outright. Why wasn't she? Was it really that much of a game for her? What if... what if there were more of them?
There was, it turned out. Two more of them. They stepped into his field of view, only about ten feet away. And they weren't looking at The Lady.
They were looking at him.
He'd been spotted. And to make matters worse - he was cornered in his hidey-hole. The two coyotes snarled at him, and the bright white teeth seemed to glow against their blackened muzzles. They were trying to frighten the young lamb. It worked. Adrenalin pumped into his bloodstream.
That was their first mistake.
The two coyotes exchanged glances, and one nodded. They were deciding who was going to get the fun of the kill. The one who didn't nod - a female - turned her attention back to Taylor. She snarled again, and took a single running bound before she jumped into the air, intending to pounce down upon the boy from above. While she was pushing off for her leap, she saw the lamb turn his back to her, which she thought was very odd, all things considered. Since she didn't understand it, she ignored the boy's action.
Her second mistake. That was all she was going to get.
In a series of moves The Lady had taught him and made him perform at least a thousand times, if not more, Taylor turned his back, his right hand going to the sword he carried at his left hip. He pushed the hilt down as he pulled it out, thereby pivoting the blade up. By the time he was facing the other way, the sword was free of its scabbard, and since his back was to his attackers, it was already pointed the right direction. The lamb continued his turn - it had never actually stopped - his body coming back around behind the sword which seemed to be frozen in place. At the same time, he dropped to one knee, and brought his other hand around to grip his weapon two-handed, in front of him, at arm's length, angled up. The tip of Taylor's sword now occupied the space that his chest had only a moment before.
When The Lady had first shown him this move, it took Taylor five seconds to complete it - he used to count them. One thousand, two thousand, three thousand... By now, he could do it in "one th-".
The coyote yelped as she impaled herself on his sword. She died instantly, falling on top of Taylor in a lifeless warm heap twice his size, the shiny but bloody blade sticking up from the middle of her back.
The other coyote screamed, "TABOO!!", and the two who were fighting the goat came running.
As Taylor awkwardly rolled the body off himself, he saw three coyotes - mouths hanging open in astonishment - staring down at him. Before The Lady could even think to say anything, all three of them were running away at top speed yelling "Taboo! Taboo!!"
Now The Lady could see what had happened - Taylor had killed a coyote.
Oh, bloody hell... she thought, "Are you all right, Taylor?" Her voice had taken an oddly anxious edge.
"Y-yeah. I... I killed... I didn't mean to..." the lamb said, the shock of what had just happened finally sinking in on him.
"You had no choice, Taylor. I know it feels strange to you - you should talk to your wolf about it when we get back. And we must hurry now - we have just run out of time. We shall leave our Base Camp in the morning. We are unprepared..." she seemed to be talking to herself now, "... but there is nothing to be done about that. If only they hadn't found you... they would have eventually given up trying to take me down. Well... no matter now. Come." She came forward and put out a hand to help Taylor get up.
Taylor was still shocked by what he'd done, but one thing he could tell from the goat's tone - even if he wasn't quite registering her words yet - he'd done something bad, somehow. Why was she making him feel that way? She was the one who taught him how to kill!
"W-What's wrong... Wh-"
"I'll explain as we head back. Wipe off your sword - blood will make it rust. Grab your things - we must go."
He obeyed, zombie-fashion. Prey aren't supposed to kill. It was Wrong. But... what choice did he have? And did it count even if he hadn't actually meant to? Should he really have died, rather than killed? What made that right and the other wrong? While he asked himself these questions, The Lady explained:
Black-Face Coyotes roamed up and down this side of the mountains with the seasons. They were nomads. There were hundreds of them - far too many to feed themselves if they stayed in one place for too long. So they really had no choice but to roam. And as a result of that, they were a very primitive people: they had no weapons, no domesticated animals, no written language - they didn't even build shelters. They simply didn't have the time for any type of Progress that they couldn't carry on their backs and hunt at the same time. This is what kept them primitive.
The four they had run into were doubtless Advance Scouts - the rest of the pack would be two days behind them. The fifth scout (they always came in squads of five) would have left to report back to the General already. Every other day one scout headed back, while another came to take his or her place. They were very efficient. The Black-Faces had been doing this a long time... And this year, they were early.
The black muzzles and mouths were dyed. It made them more fearsome-looking, and allowed them to identify each other. It was also part of their religion.
And that religion was the problem - Black-Faces never attacked other predators. Usually they hunted and lived off of animals - but if they did happen to come across a Person - and if that person was a prey species - then it was considered a Sacred Duty to kill them and bring them back to the pack to share in a ceremony. People-meat made them stronger, they believed. Which is why they also ate each other, from time to time.
But for a prey to kill a predator - was the worst sacrilege possible. Such a thing turned the whole world of the Black-Faces on it's ear, undermined the foundation of everything they believed in, everything they had ever believed in, for as far back as... forever. It was "taboo".
The entire pack would band together to "erase the event from the world" - by destroying the body of the prey responsible until nothing remained. Even the bones and teeth would be smashed with rocks... it would be as if that person or animal had never existed in the first place. It was their way of keeping Order in the world.
When you're a nomad - you need the world to be orderly. Surprises are a bad thing. Your life depends on the change of the seasons, on being where the food is when the food is there. If something interrupts that - you starve.
Taylor had disturbed The Order. Three Black-Face Coyotes had seen it. They would all be coming after him.
Ready or not, it was time to go.
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