The caribou was dead. Spencer paced around it, every paw placed carefully as he considered both the momentous damage done to the ribcage of the great cervid and the rate of decomposition in the remaining carcass. Would the meat be unspoiled enough for him to risk feeding it to his family? It would be a meal enough to carry them through the oncoming snowstorm…
As though to tempt him, the wind whipped around, howling through the narrow crevice he’d been travelling through to the rabbit runs. The mountains were hard to traverse at the best of times; right now, with a blizzard bearing down on him and a hungry week behind them, finding this corpse was a boon he probably couldn’t turn his muzzle up at despite the nauseating concept of eating half rotted meat. Pushing doggedly through the snow with the thought of his family at home driving him, he shook the wet from his fur—mostly unsuccessfully—and peered up and back at the midnight sky above despite, from his calculations, it being about noon. There was no sun here to be found, and hadn’t been for two months now. Light was a distant memory.
He sniffed the meat, recoiling a little at the sickly-deep-rot smell of it. The cold had preserved it longer than it would have lasted anywhere other than this far-northern mountain range in the deadly grip of the polar night, but it hadn’t preserved it completely. Under the snow that Spencer’s paws struggled to walk upon, jagged ice nipped at him. The animal had died in the barely frozen water.
There was a sound that echoed despite the muffling properties of the snow—Spencer’s head snapped around, blurry vision working even harder in the dim non-light as his ears flicked back and forth to narrow down the gravel-crunching noise of something sliding down the nearby scree slope. Whatever the something was, it was heavy, slow, and when it grunted with the exertion of not falling hard… Spencer knew.
The bear didn’t know he was there, not yet. It was focused on following the scent of the dead caribou, the grind of stones crushed under its great weight replaced by the sound of snow compacting as it shambled over. There was every chance that Spencer could use the distraction of the easy meal beside him to slip away into a nearby crevice and back to his den before the bear caught his scent, especially since a bear out this far into winter would be starving and sluggish.
Thus, he stayed perfectly still until the presence of the bear loomed in the darkness beside him, the stink of the meat covering his scent. Oh, the bear probably smelled wolf—it just hadn’t realised the wolf was still there, and Spencer took the chance to admire the size of the creature beside him. What a remarkable beast, truly astounding—the bear paused, lifting its snout from the carcass and turning to look at him through the shadows.
Spencer bolted, hearing a startled grunt behind him as he squeezed into the crevice he’d come here via, moving easily through the snow-free space despite how the narrow rock bit at his sides. Behind him, the bear snarled, but it could never fit to chase him through here. The benefit of being on the edge of starving.
In the months since they’d come here, Spencer had gotten very good at finding the smallest places to sneak through. Emily would be proud, once she was free of the pups and able to follow him to explore their new world.
But, for now, having fled the reluctant possibility of the dead caribou as a meal, his stomach twinged. Three days without a meal now and, if he was hungry, Emily would be starving considering that she was nursing three pups on their limited diet. What was he going to do? They were depending on him… after all, this was technically all his fault.
Still pondering this, he didn’t notice that he wasn’t alone in the crevice right up until he tripped over his surprise companion, catching it quickly as it squeaked and tried to flee. It was only when he had it pinned under him that he realised what it was.
Oh no, he sent, feeling Emily’s distant regard turn to him. This is a problem.
It was a problem.
Emily lingered in the mouth of the den, like a shadowy void against the lighter gloom within. All he could see of her was her lowered head and the occasional glint of her eyes as she tipped her head back and forth to examine what he’d brought home.
Do we… eat it? she asked warily, stretching her nose out to sniff at the quivering creature that had followed him home.
I mean, we could. Spencer shrugged, realised she couldn’t see him shrugging, and chose to just stare at the animal too. I don’t know if I can, you know…
He really didn’t. It had followed him home. Some weird part of him—despite how many goats he’d killed for them—felt kind of responsible for it now. And it was just a baby, just like his babies…
Oh no, Emily said, shaking her head at him. I’m not doing your dirty work. You can’t bring home a baby reindeer and then hand it to me to kill, that’s not fair—how did you even get it here?
I didn’t get it anywhere! he protested. I fell over it and then it followed me bleating. I think it’s confused. But we are hungry, so…?
Both shifters looked at the white-blur of the baby caribou, still standing there with its knobbly legs knocking together. Even as they stared, it took several stumbling steps forward and nuzzled at Emily’s shoulder, bleating again before clearly going to attempt to nurse.
Emily growled at it, earning another sad bleat as the creature skittered away back to Spencer, leaning against him and trembling.
I don’t think it knows we’re wolves, Spencer added. Its mom is dead, so I guess it’s looking for some kind of comfort? And it’s probably hungry.
We’re not adopting a baby reindeer. I don’t know if you’ve realised, but we’re hungry, Spencer. Us and those three kids you’ve got in there who are trying to devour me wholly. You know we have to eat it, right?
They looked again at the calf, which bleated again in a thin, reedy voice that carried.
Spencer really didn’t want to kill it. It wasn’t a goat.
What if we deal with it tomorrow? he suggested, feeling queasy. They weren’t far enough away from who they’d used to be, before everything that had happened, that he was comfortable with murdering something that seemed to trust him so innately. There’s a blizzard tonight… if we leave it outside, the cold may solve our problem.
And then we can eat, Emily finished, retreating back into the den and growling again when the calf went to follow. Fine. Okay. But if it doesn’t work, one of us needs to deal with it—letting it starve would be cruel, and we need the meat.
It was still alive come morning.
Spencer emerged into a light that wasn’t really light, just a hazy pre-dawn gloom that nevertheless made the white calf stand out brazenly against the mouth of the den where it was huddled, watching him. Wide eyes blinked slowly, following his every move.
There were small squeaks behind him, the pups following with clumsy attempts at walking as they sniffed at the air and the fresh snow that had piled against the den, almost blocking them in. It was the male who found the calf first, pausing and going stiff with his little pointed tail quivering in the air like a shocked flag.
“Grrrr,” growled the black female pup, baring her tiny milk teeth at the calf and falling over before she could make good on this terrible threat. Despite now being stuck on her side, stumpy legs kicking and her round puppy belly making it impossible for her to right herself, she kept up growling with rrrrrrrrs that probably sounded tremendously fierce to her.
But the honey girl, the little twin—the one that Spencer had privately named Felicity in his mind, because she was a bright ray of pure happiness even when this winter seemed to drain the life from the rest of them—marched right on over to the calf and bumped her nose against its muzzle, snuffling wetly. Spencer watched curiously. Emily lingered deeper in the den, just observing.
And the honey girl—little Felicity—sneezed, squeaked, and then licked the calf’s nose.
Great, said Emily wryly. How do we tell her that her new friend is lunch?
Oh no, said Spencer again, his heart sinking.
The calf remained. Spencer’s thin hope that it would accidentally stumble off the cliff-face their den was tucked into faded over the next few days as it proved not only startlingly resilient but also very agile despite its young age.
Did you know that reindeer and caribou are essentially the same creatures, with caribou being the North American version and reindeer the European? he was telling the little female honey pup on this day, sitting outside with her while Emily nursed the other two within the den. There was light barely breaking the horizon, a promise of oncoming sun he knew would barely last fifteen minutes. It was fifteen minutes he was spending with his daughter though, watching that light grow and fade as clouds shifted thickly across the low polar sky above. The calf was sitting beside them, a careful gap between them and its eyes locked on that gleam of sunlight. Watching it, Spencer continued chatting to his infant daughter, This little guy is the same creature as those that pull Santa’s sleigh in the story. Did you know that some European variants of the Santa tale instead had therians like us as those that drew the sleigh? Some even have Santa himself as a great therian bear, although they fell out of favour when the myth became more mainstream.
Felicity—although he really needed to stop calling her that before Emily heard him, since they weren’t out of danger of losing their children to this winter yet—yawned and peeped at the calf, the fading sunlight just enough for him to see her wide blue eyes just beginning to darken into their adult colour.
Also, did you also know that as an adaption to this arctic environment, caribou have lost their circadian rhythms? Spencer added. Felicity looked at him, her eyes wide. I know! How amazing is that?
But all he got in return was a feeling of cold/happy/hungry/hello from the baby as she rolled onto his paws and began to chew busily at his leg.
This lesson might be a little advanced, Emily sent from inside the den, her tone amused. Spencer grinned at himself, lowering his head to nudge Felicity with his nose while watching the calf stand and stumble over to the cliff walls to chew at the scraggly bushes that clung grimly there. Is the animal dead yet? I’m hungry.
No, Spencer sent quietly, watching the calf eat with its little tail flicking. Want me to go hunt?
Depositing his daughter back in the den, Spencer emerged to find that the sun was gone once more. The night collapsed overtop of them.
Stop thriving, he told the calf firmly as he walked past it. We’re going to eat you eventually, you know.
The calf shook its undeveloped antlers at him in a playful bounce, bleating and springing in a tight circle. Spencer laughed, realised he was laughing, and looked around nervously to see if Emily had noticed.
It wouldn’t do to get fond of it; for the time being, they were wild wolves and wild wolves ate calves.
When Spencer returned with two hares in his jaws, the calf was gone. It was a relief, although a small part of him felt sad as he considered how slow and inevitable its starvation would be. But it was for the best, right?
These thoughts lingered into he walked into the den, shaking his fur out to shed the sleeting rain that had started up only to find that there was an extra fuzzy shape in the gloom curled up asleep by Emily.
Don’t say a word, Emily grumbled, lifting her head and huffing at him as the caribou slept happily by her side. It was raining and horrible out there and the boy was worried.
Oh yes, we can’t let the boy worry, Spencer teased, dropping the hares by her and sneaking around to kiss his three babies, sniffing the calf as he went. What now? Do we keep it?
Emily was silent.
Still smiling and keeping his amusement very close at hand so she didn’t sense it, Spencer curled over the other side of her—he couldn’t cuddle the pups right now, not with his fur wet and icy—and closed his eyes while she washed his ears.
It was peaceful, in this little den with the four parts of his heart alive and real beside him. Some part of him he’d never had before thunked slowly to life inside him, and he dozed off feeling warm and content despite the terrible weather outside and despite all the distance between them and their home that they’d eventually have to traverse.
Increases in the circumference of their heads are an important measure of brain development, Spencer explained cheerfully, responding to Emily pointing out how large and ungainly their children’s heads were. In therian infants, this leads to a transitional period between when a normal wolf would be mobile and when a human infant would be mobile, where the therian pup in theory should achieve locomotion but is instead hampered by the disproportionate weight of their skulls.
So, you’re agreeing that our children have giant heads, Emily teased, chasing the male pup down and dragging him back by his tail as he tumbled and rolled towards the cliff edge. There was no real danger; they weren’t fast enough to sprint off the edge, especially not as they kept overbalancing forward and landing on their noses. The male pup, in protest, began to cry loudly, tears streaking his fur and his little puppy wails echoing.
Of course, Spencer said, pinning the black female down as she, out of all of them, seemed to have figured out ‘running’. We all had large heads as infants. Their bodies will catch up within four months and they’ll be upwardly mobile from then onwards. We’ll need to find a new den before then.
Otherwise you’ll fling yourself right off that edge, won’t you? Emily asked the pup she was wrangling, Spencer grinning doggily at how even her mind-voice switched to the higher pitched ‘adult talking to children’ tone with every word carefully pronounced. Yes, you will, yes you definitely will.
The puppy paused, a fuzzy feeling of yes and childish giggles floating into their minds.
Oh! said Emily, looking up at Spencer with her eyes wide. Did you hear that??
They’ll be communicating soon, Spencer said smugly. Therian children communicate early, since they’re already in the stage where they thrive wholly on closeness with their family. It’s likely the pups already communicate secretly amongst themselves, on a different wavelength from us. They just haven’t realised that there is more to talk to us about other than their instinctual messages of ‘hungry’ and ‘cold’.
There was a soft clatter of stone, the calf appearing and trotting right over to Emily with no fear as it licked at the puppy and then bounced away in a clear invitation to play that the puppy was too young to answer, at least to the larger calf. Spencer, after a brief moment of consideration, crouched and then leapt at the calf, play bowing and twisting away when it leapt and sprung away.
What are you doing? Emily asked wryly, but the puppies all let out a chorus of giggles in their minds as they tried to chase them both and fell over. You’re all going to fall off the cliff, that calf included.
At least we’ll die laughing, Spencer sent back, feeling the stress and terror of their captivity and flight well and truly fade away as their mountain home protected them, this mountain home they’d made their own.
The puppies grew quickly, the calf growing alongside them as Spencer went out of his way to bring roughage home for it as well as the food it grazed on its own. Sometimes, now that it was bigger, it followed him out on his hunts, eating as it went and showing no fear as he killed goats and dragged them back with it following placidly. It was a female, Spencer noted, although he didn’t tell Emily this. She was adamant that they should stop caring for it because it wasn’t what wolves did.
Spencer never pointed out that they weren’t really wolves; they were therians, which meant they were just as human as they were animal, and humans since the dawn of time had showed a startling proclivity towards caregiving.
And as the polar night began to break over them, the sun appearing for increasing periods on the misty horizon, it was well and truly time to move on. Spencer left the den for a day and a half, ranging across the slowly waking mountain range as he searched for a new home that was as safe as the one they were leaving, but without the sheer cliff beside it that beckoned to newly mobile pups with too much curiosity to balance out their good sense. The calf ranged behind him, happy to plod along at her own pace as he explored, occasionally stopping and looking out across the valley beside them as distant caribou calls sounded.
You could go to them, you know, Spencer said to her, pausing and listening too. Be with your own kind.
But the caribou couldn’t understand him, just stood there with her wide ears turning and hooves flat on the stony ground.
We’re lost too, he said after a moment, going and sitting next to her. The sun was rising, barely visible above the mountain peaks they were sitting upon. A cold wind blew. They would watch the sun rise, scoot around the horizon as thought tethered to the ground, and then vanish again, but it was never a sight that Spencer tired of seeing. Did you know that? We live over there, further than you can possibly imagine.
And he pointed his muzzle towards the distant southeast, where hundreds of miles away DC stood with Emily’s pack waiting for her. Not his though. His pack was behind them, waiting for him to find them a new home to grow in.
The calf lowered her head, seemingly staring where he was pointing.
Yeah, we had family too, Spencer said quietly. They took us away from them, I guess like how you lost your mom to the bear. Except we can go home, if we fight hard enough to do so. You can’t ever. And you know you can’t come with us when it’s time to go, right? We can’t take a caribou to DC.
She snorted, plodding away to a leafless bush that she gnawed at as he watched.
Spencer thought about it, before following and nudging her with his shoulder—she was tall enough now that this didn’t really bother her—and deciding to tell her a secret. After all, she couldn’t tell anyone.
I wish we could stay here forever, he whispered to her, licking her flank and earning a grunt from her as she turned her head to nudge him back. I’ve never been happier than I am here, with my family. We don’t need anything but each other… we could live out here, happily, right? With no Aaron or pack or my family ruining things… no expectations to fail, nothing to lose… we’d just be happy. And together. Which we won’t be back there…
Because he knew; once they returned home, Emily would leave. She’d take the pups and go to a wolf more deserving of them, and he’d become a home for weekends and every other holiday. On the outside looking in again, where he belonged. And that was okay, really, or at least he told himself that—because it was what was best for his children, and for Emily.
But a selfish part of him wanted them all to himself, his pups and the woman he knew he was dangerously in love with. She was his heart in this mountain, the beating beacon he could find no matter what; she was the light at the end of this winter, the goal to strive for. Her happiness and survival drove him, beyond all else, and it wasn’t just the chemical mess of having pups with her. No, he’d loved her long before that, and she could never know this.
The lighthouse man had seen it, seen that dangerous secret, the one Spencer didn’t even want to voice to the calf beside him.
Let’s go, he said sadly, turning his back on the sun and following a thin deer track down into the valley. Emily will be hungry soon, and she can’t leave the pups to hunt.
Placidly, the calf followed.
He found a den. It was narrow at the opening and wider within with sandy floors and no scent of bears. There were rabbits nearby and goats not too far off, and a waterway that would melt soon enough and give them water. More dangerous for him, as to hunt he had no more of his narrow pathways to slink through away from predators, but he’d never cared about himself above them before and he wasn’t going to start now. It still wouldn’t really allow for Emily to hunt, since it opened to a valley that he knew bears would travel through to follow the migrating caribou and because there were eagles above, but that was okay. He’d just work harder for them.
And maybe, he thought as he raced home to tell Emily what he’d found, taking no care with his paws as he bounded up sheer scree-cliffs as nimble as any goat, just maybe Emily would decide that this was life. That she really did want to stay… that maybe she loved him too…
Fantasising wistfully about a life with her that didn’t have an expiry date at the end of it, he leapt from one rock to another and then up one further still, teetering on it as he turned to see if the calf was still following. She was, much more carefully choosing where to place her wide hooves, and he bounced impatiently on the rock. It had been a day and a half since he’d seen his family, and he wanted them, wanted with a bone-deep hunger that ached.
He cast out, feeling Emily’s mind reach back to him with a warm feeling of welcome that he had to struggle not to respond to with a wave of giddy lovehihellomissyou. Instead, he just sent back a feeling of accomplishment and the notion of home, letting him know he’d been successful.
She reached back, touching his mind again with sheer pleasure and he wagged his tail and leaned into that touch, curling back against it. For a second, just a second, their minds were woven together and he pressed closed, dangerously close to letting her feel everything he felt…
The rock shifted under his paws. He stumbled, looking down just in time to hear the groan deep within the mountain that denoted a—
He looked up, seeing the danger before he heard it. They were halfway up the cliff, with nowhere to go except down, and there was a rolling cloud of dust and dirt building above as the thawing mountain let go of what it held and sent it careening down towards him in a rockslide he couldn’t escape from. Emily was still in his mind as he realised: there was no getting out of the path of it.
Oh no, he thought, horror striking deep and echoing back as Emily registered his terror, and then the avalanche was upon him and he was dragged, yelping, down towards the unforgiving ground below.
He woke to something chewing on his ear. There was air around his muzzle but only barely, and he groaned as a terrible weight crushing his whole body grew even more terrible, something standing atop the rock that was killing him slowly and resolutely. But the something at his ear moved away, pawing at the rocks and dirt around his head… and a grim, thready light splintered down as blessed air broke through to his wheezing lungs.
He closed his eyes and drifted, feeling something in his mind racing towards him as a wet muzzle nudged at his open mouth.
Emily arrived in the darkness, finding him unerringly. He’d already managed to half drag himself out of the rock he’d been semi-buried in, the calf having pawed at the shale around his face so he could breathe.
The pups, he wheezed through ribs that ached but didn’t feel broken. Aside from everything hurting deeply, he suspected that he’d been very, very lucky. Nothing was broken or torn, just sore. The rock he’d been standing on—and the calf that had cleared his airways—had saved his life. Where are the pups?
Probably falling off the cliff, Emily said snidely, sliding carefully down to him and beginning to dig. She stunk of sweat and fear, trembling hard even as she worked hard to extract him. I put the fear of Hell into them if they left the den. It was all I could do.
You should have stayed with them, he sent back, horrified that their pups were alone and unguarded.
Really? Should I have, Spence? Because I don’t think you realise—if you die, we die. That’s how it works out here. I can’t do this alone.
He was silent, looking at her as she sniffed him all over, licking at parts that were sore or grazed.
I forgot, he sent back softly. I… I don’t value myself much. You know this. It’s hard to realise that I’m… needed.
And wanted, she sent back furiously, pressing her muzzle against his and holding it there, paw half curled over his shoulders in a terrified, trembling hug. You have no idea… I don’t know what to do without you. You scared the shit out of me, asshole.
Sorry, he said. Looking around, he spotted the pale blur of the calf nearby, standing on a ridge that had been swept clean by the landslide with her head lowered. She saved my life, you know. Isn’t that remarkable?
Absolutely, Emily responded, sounding like she meant it, really, under all her usual dry disregard. Come on. Let’s go home. All of us.
Limping and sore, Spencer followed her, glad to be alive to do so.
Midway, they realised.
Oh, said Spencer, stopping and looking back to where the calf was yards behind and trailing badly. Is she hurt?
Stay, Emily told him. She trotted over to the calf, disappearing in the darkness as her black coat hid her. Spencer waited, anxiously shifting about until he felt Emily’s mind touch his. Come here.
He went, finding her sitting beside the calf, who was standing with her sides heaving and nostrils flaring. Spencer winced when he saw her hind leg, smelling blood running freely and feeling something sharp against his nose when he touched his muzzle to it. Bone, for sure.
That won’t heal, Emily pointed out, her ears flat and voice glum. And she’s going to bring bears sniffing around if she bleeds all the way to the den.
Spencer swallowed. They didn’t really have any way of stopping her from following back to where she felt safe; there was no explaining to her that that would endanger them all. The safety of the mountains, the home it offered him, suddenly felt cold and desolate. This… this was the reality of it.
Sometimes, things went wrong in the space between one heartbeat and the next.
Emily was watching him. Go, she said softly. Go back to the pups. I’ll help her.
He looked at her, wanting to ask what she was going to do but too scared to voice it. He wasn’t a wild wolf, he wasn’t. He couldn’t look at their calf and see food, not while she was still alive and real and confused as to why she was hurting and they weren’t helping her.
Instead, he licked the calf’s muzzle, whined when she bleated curiously at him, and turned his back to limp away without looking back.
Emily returned home bloody and with food for them all, carrying it into the den and leaving it there for the pups to sniff at, unable to eat the meat as it was now without their parents’ help. Spencer licked her as she padded up to him, no words between them to explain how they felt about what had happened except that it felt like yet another step away from who they’d used to be, bringing them closer to the wolves this life was making of them.
But the caribou was dead and they were alive, and everything else paled in comparison to that.
Life went on.