One-hundred and seventy-NINE, one-hundred and EIGHTY! Gordon glanced at The Lady to confirm his count – but she was still mouthing the numbers. He had to admit that he was a little excited – he'd probably counted too fast. Gordon had never seen this done before, after all. Poor Taylor was in there with a punctured throat, two neat slots in each side of his neck. Pouring out blood. That image made the rabbit more than a little anxious – he rather liked Taylor... even if the kid was shacked up with a teenage wolf. And a boy-wolf at that. A moment later, The Lady glanced over at him, and nodded. Gordon flung the door open-
It wasn't like he expected.
Taylor almost looked like a nursing mother – except with a wolf at his throat rather than a baby at his breast. The look on his face was the same though, and the relaxed posture of his body. He was stroking Tristan's head with one hand, front-to-back, while the other held lightly onto one of the arms with which the wolf was holding him. If not for all the bright red blood dripping from Tristan's mouth and running down Taylor's chest, it might have been a tender scene – and the lamb didn't even seem to notice that he had company now.
Neither, of course, did Tristan. For the wolf, the two halves of his heart had finally merged – the person who loved Taylor, and the wolf who wanted to feed on him. They were both satiated, and the heart understood the wolf who understood the heart – and they were one. It was a union that came instinctively to prey – but predators had to learn it. And now that Tristan had – he was reveling in it, and the only thing that mattered to him right now was that it was Taylor's blood in his mouth.
The Lady and Gordon took up their stations on either side of the pair, and slid over the make-shift tables that held the needles and thread they would need. It had been agreed that The Lady would do the stitching, while Gordon would stem the blood flow, and watch, and learn.
"Taylor?" The Lady said calmly, "That's enough. Push him away now."
Taylor heard the words through the contented glow of his mind, and lowered his hands to Tristan's chest, pushing lightly. It was another signal. The wolf opened his jaws – the goat and rabbit watched carefully to make sure his teeth pulled completely out of the lamb's flesh – and backed his head away. At the same time, he straightened up and opened his eyes, looking directly at Taylor's.
The Lady had told Gordon that they were going to stay that way for hours.
Gordon quickly put his hands at the key pressure-points on Taylor's neck to slow the blood-loss from the open veins, and The Lady got to work. They talked freely, knowing that neither of the boys were going to hear them anyway.
"Good – he didn't go all the way through. When you have two holes to close – per tooth – it gets quite a bit trickier," The Lady said.
"I bet. So – you'd have to rotate the vein until you can get to it or-"
"No – you sew up the inside wound first, working through the outside wound."
"Damn... how can-"
"You have to stretch it open. Like I said – it's tricky. It's usually only a problem with very long-toothed predators. Lucky Tristan isn't a full-grown wolf yet. And by the next time someone has to do this, Taylor will be significantly bigger too."
"More pressure there, Gordon – it shouldn't be bleeding that much. And check the other side, too. Yes, 'next time'. You thought this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience? Give it four or five years – they'll be wanting to do it again. Both of them. Then probably a decade after that, then in their 50's after that, and maybe once more before they're too old. Five times is the norm. Some do it less, some more... depends on a lot of things. I knew a cat and mouse pair back in Civilization wanted to do it yearly! We managed to talk them into every other year..."
"Gods. Were they at least boy and girl?"
The Lady smirked at him briefly before turning back to her work, "Yes, they were, Gordon. Does that make you feel better about it?"
"A little..." he had to admit.
"Idiot bunny-man. Maybe I should have taken that bob-cat girl after all. She couldn't have been worse than you."
"I'm not that bad..."
A snort erupted from the goat, "No, Gordon, you're not. And you will learn – I just hope I'm alive to see it, is all. Watch your pressure – you're putting him to sleep. Don't try to stop ALL the bleeding... Not until I have one vein sewn up. Almost done with the first wound. Three more to go."
After nearly an hour, Gordon and The Lady were finished. They wiped up the worst of the blood on the two boys' fur, checked Taylor's eyes to make sure he was still conscious, and then left them there alone again. It was dark in the cabin now, except for the light of a single oil-lamp.
They were just staring into each other's eyes for another hour, before something finally emerged in Taylor's mind that he had to voice.
"Tris... I'm sleepy..." he said.
To an outsider, that might have sounded a little mundane, after an experience like that. But the fact was, there simply wasn't much to say about it what they'd just done – that hadn't already been said without words.
But now that words had been spoken, there were some things within Tristan demanding to get out. Trouble was – the wolf wasn't able to say them. Not because he was embarrassed, or shy, or because he wasn't in the right mood. It was simply that the words to describe what he was feeling didn't exist.
Nonetheless – he had to try, "Taylor... uh... there's so much I wanna say..." he began, and tried desperately to find the right words for even one of them, "But, uh, I can't."
"That's okay, Tristan. Can we go to bed now?"
"Yeah, Tay – sure we can."
After several attempts to walk, Tristan ended up carrying the lamb to their tent. Gordon and The Lady watched from their places around the fire.
After the boys were inside, The Lady looked over to gauge Gordon's reaction. He was staring at the ground.
After a pause, the rabbit said simply, "They really are in love, aren't they..."
The Lady smiled to herself, and said under her breath, "Well – I'll be damned."
The middle of January – and it was cold, dead, and miserable. By this time, Tristan was wearing clothes all the time, every day. He had a leather vest with pockets, and pants. He was still getting used to the idea of the moccasin-like shoes, though. Taylor was still resistant to wearing clothes at all - it wasn't that cold to him – but he still had to stand still for fittings every few days, so he knew what was coming.
Finally everything was done. They had wine skins to hold water, hundreds of pounds of food – mostly salted or dried meat, dried fruit, and some beans. There were tools, and furs, two more bows and almost a hundred arrows. The two sleds were stacked six feet high with gear and food. There were no pack-animals – the nearest horses were six hundred miles away, so Tristan and Gordon were going to have to pull the sleds themselves. The Lady was too old, and Taylor was, of course, too young.
The snow wasn't so deep where they lived to require snow-shoes, but they were going to have to cross the mountain-range in winter, so it was going to get a lot worse before it ever got better. Mountains, then desert, then more mountains – Civilization was a long ways away.
Was it worth it?
"You excited about tomorrow, Tris?" Taylor asked as he snuggled up to the wolf for the night.
"Yeah. Well... yeah."
"You don't sound exited..."
"Well... I'm a little nervous, Taylor. I mean... y'know... we're actually going and everything. I was kinna getting to like it here. And both Gordon and The Lady keep going on about how... hard it's gonna be..." and dangerous, Tristan thought, especially for you.
"We'll be okay. I know we will."
Tristan sighed, "Even if we will, Tay – why exactly are we going? We're fine here, aren't we? You're learning herbs and stuff, I'm learning Combat and other things from Gordon, we have lots of food... What's gonna be so great about Civilization?"
"I dunno... maybe being around other people like us, for a change? Besides just The Lady and Gordon? Seeing what a whole city of people like us looks like? You... you don't wanna go, Tris?"
That was the question the wolf had been thinking about for two weeks now. It wasn't so much that he didn't want to go – who wouldn't want an adventure like that? - it was... well...
"What I really want is to go back home – back to Town – and for it to be okay that we're together... y'know?"
"Yeah..." Taylor sighed – an unusual sound coming from him, "I know. Maybe things'll change there, someday – ya think?"
"Not really, Tay. Not by themselves, they won't." He pulled Taylor tight and rested his muzzle against the top of Taylor's head, as usual. "So we gotta go. Try to get some sleep, Tay. Gonna be a long day tomorrow."
As with many of their conversations, this one too ended with, "Okay, Tris."
Taylor just liked to say his wolf's name, sometimes.
The way to get through mountains is to follow the water. Often it isn't the most direct way, but by the very nature of water to find the easiest route, it's usually the best way. They headed upstream – The Lady, Tristan pulling a sled with Taylor by his side, Gordon pulling a sled and bringing up the rear. The first day, The Lady told stories of Civilization – of washing-machines and steam-power, of city streets and free concerts. No, they weren't fur-less just because they wore clothes. Yes, machines did some of the work - but then again, machines had to be worked on, too. It was going to be a rather different world, apparently. And Balance? Balance just somehow worked out - even though no one really knew how, much less tried to control it themselves.
"Hey, Tris. Can I help pull your sled?" Taylor asked.
"Thanks, but I got it," Tristan said, glancing over his shoulder at the rabbit. The truth was, he simply didn't want Gordon to think that he couldn't do it. He could – and he'd show the damn rabbit that he could.
What the wolf didn't understand was that Taylor wasn't asking because he thought it was especially hard for Tristan to pull the sled... It was just that he was feeling small, and young, and unworthy. Again. Everyone understood that – except Tristan.
"Yo, Taylor," Gordon piped up from behind the pair, "If your boyfriend don't want any help, I could sure use some. C'mon back here and I'll tie ya in."
That deflated Tristan's pride instantly. Gordon was asking Taylor to help him? Gordon? The rabbit-man had the strongest legs Tristan had ever even heard of... what kind of game was he up to? And not only that – but now Taylor would be out of his line of sight, and that bothered him almost as much as the smirk he was imagining on Gordon's face.
They trudged on that way for several hours, until it was time to take a short break for lunch. Dinner was the big meal while underway, breakfast somewhat smaller. Lunch was whatever you could stuff in your pockets from the previous meals.
Taylor sat next to Gordon. Well, they were still roped to the same sled, after all. He had an excuse. But he knew exactly what he was doing.
When it was time to get going again, Tristan said, with forced innocence, "Taylor? How about pulling with me for awhile now?"
"Oh – well, I'm all tied in to Gordon's sled now, Tris. Maybe I'll pull with you tomorrow. If Gordon says it's okay."
The rabbit looked down at the boy as the ropes came tight. Why had Taylor said that? What did he have to do with-
"If Gordon says? What's Gordon got to do with it?" If Tristan was trying to hide that he was pissed-off, he was doing a bad job of it.
Listening to the wolf's reaction, Gordon understood, and grinned to himself. Taylor had said that on purpose, just to make the wolf mad. It had worked, too.
Taylor replied with, "Don't get mad at Gordon, Tris. At least he wanted me to help him. You said you didn't need it."
"Oh... Fine!" Tristan huffed.
Gordon had to laugh. He ruffled Taylor's mop of snow-white hair, "You're all right, kiddo."
"Not bad for a little kid, huh?" Taylor said, smiling.
"Gettin' bigger all the time, Tay. Guess wolf-boy up there doesn't notice, though."
Tristan looked suspiciously over his shoulder at them, and Taylor giggled.
The second day, they came to a waterfall. At least a hundred feet high - so they weren't simply going to climb it and drag the sleds behind them. It was going to take some Engineering. Gordon came into his own again, and by afternoon of the following day, the pulleys were up, the rope strung, and the block-and-tackle in place. Taylor could have lifted those sleds to the top by himself, if they'd let him.
Once at the top with all their gear, while Gordon disassembled and re-packed his lifting equipment, the others stood looking out over the cliff at the valley they had just left behind. It would be the last they'd see of anything even close to "a home" for... a long, long time.
The Lady looked over at the wolf and the lamb, as if considering their presence for the first time. "I always thought I'd have more..." she said, mostly to herself, "But maybe this is another of those cases of Quality versus Quantity. Maybe you two are enough."
"Enough for what?" Tristan asked.
"I don't know, Tristan. To spread the word, I guess. To enlighten the masses who still live more like animals than people. To carry the torch of Civilization." She sighed heavily. "I had dreamed of bringing thousands of people back with me... or at least hundreds. I was such a fool..."
Gordon had finished tying things down on the sleds and joined the three of them as they stared at the scenery of the valley below. "People are stupid," he said, voicing his pessimism at the nature of People in general, "Ya try to tell 'em, but they won't listen. Instead, they just throw you out of town for questioning their dearly-held but stupid beliefs."
"Yes - I did it wrong, I see that now. I thought I could appeal to logic, to rational thought. I never realized there would be so much resistance... Taylor? You said you came searching for me because of a legend?"
"Yeah. I mean - yes, ma'am. The story was that the Old Goat lived in a shack by a stream, about a day west of town. No one had ever been there or seen it, though. They said he - uh, the Old Goat, I mean - could fight off anything that came after her. Even bears, they said. I always thought it was some kind of weird road-story or something..."
"Uh – stories we kids tell each other while we're on the way to and from the pastures."
"I see. So after all the preaching and ranting and lectures - not that many even attended - I ended up as a legend amongst the children. The weird Old Goat who fought bears and lived in the woods. And after all this time, I still don't know what I should have done differently!" she snorted in derision at herself, "Well. No matter. Shall we carry on, gentlemen?"
They all turned to go. Tristan asked, "Ma'am? One thing - why bears? When Tay told me the story, I thought that was kind of odd. Not mountain-lions, or wolves, or coyote-packs, just bears..."
The Lady kept her eyes looking forward as she said simply, "My husband was a bear."
"That's enough, Tristan. Some other time."
Things settled down to the drudgery of hiking. Gordon showed Tristan the fine-points of trail-blazing - how to recognize the points-of-interest where there would be likely to be a marker, how to make new marks, and refresh old ones. How to use a compass. It was also part of Tristan's job to continue "marking territory" with his urine. He was enough like an animal-wolf that they wouldn't follow the scent of prey when the thought some other wolf was already stalking them. The Lady kept showing Taylor new plants, fungi, and even minerals as they came across them. They all carried walking-staffs now. The lady had insisted. Tristan and Taylor wondered why, until one day when within the space of a quarter of a mile, the trees, grasses, and moss just stopped. Suddenly it was bare snow-covered rock for as far as they could see. It looked... harsh. Taylor finally put on his shoes.
But it was the week after that when they came to the most awesome thing they'd seen so far.
"What the fuck is that?" Tristan said.
Gordon answered, "That, wolf-boy, is a glacier. It's like a river of ice - and we're gonna cross it. Here's the best part - looks like it'll take what, a day? Maybe two? More like a week and a half. You can't judge distance in the mountains when there's no trees around - rock just looks like rock. But I can guarantee ya - it's a long way across. And dangerous too. You can get killed pretty easy on a glacier. Now we're gonna see what you're made of, Tristan." He sounded a little smug as he said that.
"Gordon? That's enough," The Lady said.
It was the next day before they got to the edge of the glacier, and they decided to go ahead and spend the night there before crossing. For one thing, The Lady had some explaining to do -
"As you can see – it's a very uneven terrain out there. A lot of up and down. What you can't see is the crevasses. Cracks in the ice, some of them a hundreds of feet deep. Some of them are mere inches wide, others are yards. And because we're here in winter, they're all covered with a thin layer of loose snow. Fall into one and you will die. Therefore, we're going to change things around a bit. We shall all be tied together by ropes now. I will go in the lead, then Tristan, Taylor, and Gordon with the sleds behind him. We will have to go around most of them – but we may be able to step across smaller ones. I will decide. The most important thing is – no one shall ever go anywhere without being roped to someone else. Including to the bathroom. Are there any questions?"
No one said anything.
"Good. Now let's all get some sleep tonight. You may hear something like thunder – don't worry about it unless you hear someone give the alarm. Avalanches occur quite often, this time of year. You'll get used to them. And we will now begin standing watches. I'll take the first one, until midnight, then Tristan – his night vision will come in handy for us – and Gordon will have the morning watch."
"What about me?" Taylor asked, "I can do a 'watch'..."
"Taylor... you're a growing boy. You need-"
"I want to take a watch! Please? Let me do something?"
The Lady rubbed her chin, "I'm afraid not, Taylor. You're too young, you cannot see very well at night, and the last thing we need is you getting sleepy in the daytime. No."
So there he was again – the baby of the group. Loved – yes, liked – yes, thought of admirably – yes, but still a lamb. Still the smallest and weakest of them all, the one everyone had to watch out for since he was too young to watch out for himself. Taylor tried his best not to cry.
During his mid-watch, Tristan spent a lot of his time watching Taylor sleep. He felt bad for the boy. He could imagine what it must be like for him... And he felt guilty himself, for even getting Taylor into all this. He was the older one, he should've just stayed in the Town, regardless of how much the sneaking around was "getting to him". He could have handled that, he thought. If the the current hardships were just on himself, he could even handle that. But watching Taylor, knowing how bad he felt... was hard to deal with. Maybe he should wake Taylor up, have a heart-to-heart. Try to explain things... but no. The lamb was dozing away, he'd be all groggy and out-of-it anyway, if Tristan were to do that. Why the hell did you have to be so YOUNG? Tristan wondered to himself. How the hell had that happened, anyway?
Then Taylor rolled over, still asleep, but now facing Tristan. Taylor's arms stretched out and then re-hugged the bundle of clothes he was using as a pillow – his hands clutching at the material.
Just like they had clutched at Tristan's own hands, that first day, as he led Taylor through the woods.
Tristan couldn't help but smile as he felt his heart flutter just at the memory of that moment. Oh, yeah... THAT'S how it happened...
What Taylor couldn't know was that he had nothing to worry about. Before the next day was out, the lamb was going to prove himself very handy to have around.
Their cleats crunched quietly across the snow-covered ice, with The Lady in front poking with her staff, looking for holes. She'd taken the precaution of tying a rope to her staff so that she could affix it to her wrist. Last time she'd done this, it had slipped out of her hands and fallen into a crevasse, and she'd had to use an arrow from then on, bent over double at the waist as she tested the ice. Lesson learned.
It was so tedious! The others waited behind her. Sometimes it seemed obvious that there were no cracks in the ice – along the spines of ridges, for instance – but still she checked, and they followed along behind her, one step at a time. There wasn't even anything interesting to look at. It was so boring...
Until – without warning, she fell, and disappeared from sight.
"BRACE!!" Gordon screamed, and the three of them tried to dig their cleats into the ice extra-firmly, waiting for the slack to come out of the rope. When it sprang taut, Taylor was nearly lifted from the ground, since the ropes around both Tristan's (in front) and Gordon's (behind) waists were so much higher than his own. But they didn't budge, and The Lady slowly climbed her way out of the crevasse, only a little out of breath from the shock of it.
When they'd re-grouped, she said "I guess I've gained a few pounds over the years – that shouldn't have happened. Tristan? You've been watching me, and you're a good bit lighter than I am, do you think-"
"I can do it! I'm lighter than any of you!" Taylor cried.
Before The Lady could even react to the boy's offer, Tristan said, "Yeah – okay. I can-"
"Tris! I can do it! I'm the lightest!"
"Taylor," the wolf said, resigned to hurting his boyfriend's feelings yet again, "Look, I know you want-"
"Please, Tris? I've been watching her too! I know just what to do! It's not hard – and I probably weigh half as much as you do! Well... maybe a little more... But please Tris? Please let me do it..."
Tristan looked at the others for support as he prepared to deny Taylor's pleading. The Lady seemed to be looking at him more curiously than anything else, as if she was wondering what he'd do. And Gordon was watching him sharply. Tristan got the feeling that he was being tested somehow.
Yeah, so Taylor was lighter – but he was just a boy! Furthermore, Tristan was supposed to be the one to take care of Taylor – not put him in harm's way! If something were to happen to Taylor...
But, he was the lightest... and, he was a clever kid...
"I want another rope on him," the wolf demanded, and then began issuing orders - "No – I want two more ropes on him! I get one, and Gordon, you get the other. Taylor – take off your sword, you won't be needing that. Ma'am – let him have your walking-stick, it's longer than his. And the order's gonna change: ma'am – you'll be behind him, so you can tell him what to do. Then Gordon, because he's the strongest. I'll be last, in front of the sleds."
Taylor was looking at him wide-eyed, "You mean... you mean you'll let me do it?"
"Yeah, Tay – like you said, you're the lightest. But you be fucking CAREFUL up there, you hear me?! If you start goofing around, I promise you I'll make you sorry!"
Taylor smiled widely, beaming at him, "I'll be careful, Tris. I know how wolves are about promises."
Gordon saw Tristan's tail curl between his legs, and his ears folded down. Wolf-boy was embarrassed. He'd done the right thing – against his will, perhaps - and Taylor had embarrassed him for it. How cute was that? Suddenly, he realized – you really couldn't hold it against someone for falling in love with a kid like that. Even a wolf. Even a boy-wolf. He chuckled to himself. Poor Tristan never had a chance...
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