The trail of blood was leading the hunters straight to him.
Normally, he would have outrun them long before now, but with his right flank wounded by the shotgun blast and with him unable to rest or transform in order to heal quickly, he was simply losing more blood, more energy and slowing.
He tried to sense his brethren but they weren’t near. They weren’t due for hours.
He’d arrived early, too early.
Something had drawn him to this forest, so much as called out to him.
And, as usual, he followed his instincts.
He’d gone early and transformed so his senses would be sharper in order to seek out whatever it was.
Therefore, he’d been distracted and, if he was honest with himself, cocky. He’d smelled the hunters but he’d never expected they’d be a threat. Humans rarely were.
As he ran, he sensed it again, out there. It was close, whatever it was and the pull of it was so strong, it made him momentarily lose focus.
This cost him. He wasn’t watching where he was going. He wasn’t scanning the landscape.
He skidded to a painful halt, the snow blossoming out in white wings at his sides. A sheer rock face in front of him. A dense forest of pine trees, difficult to maneuver especially injured, to his right. Hunters at his back and to his left…
Wearing a pink hat, scarf, boots and mittens and a navy coat, her long blonde hair falling down her shoulders.
Her green eyes were on him.
She couldn’t be more than five, maybe six, alone in the snow, in the forest, in the dead of night.
What the fuck? He thought
She had to be lost. Her need for rescue was what he must have sensed.
But he could feel no fear from her, not even of him and in this form everyone and everything feared him.
But obviously not her.
She was gazing at him calmly as if she took moonlit strolls regularly and further, as if she could see him plainly in the dark.
As if she was one of his own.
Impossible, he thought.
First, she was blonde. There were no blondes of his kind. None. Not in history.
Second, he’d smell it and she smelled starkly human.
He considered transforming. However, even if the cold couldn’t kill him, he didn’t relish the idea of transforming into a six foot six inch naked man with a gunshot wound to his thigh in front of a child. Not to mention, the hunters, who were gaining and who he could far more easily attack as a wolf (which was not forbidden, but frowned upon even if there was no alternative as it seemed would soon be the case).
But it was forbidden to change in front of a human who didn’t know about their secret culture.
Even for him.
He heard the hunters crashing through the snow and branches, getting ever closer and he turned swiftly and growled low.
It was his vast experience there were two different kinds of human hunters.
There were those who took what they called their “sport” seriously and behaved, in their way, honorably.
These, he knew, were not those kind of hunters. Therefore, if they weren’t careful (which they would not be) they could hurt her.
He couldn’t allow that.
In fact, he’d die to stop it.
The force of this knowledge startled him but he knew it instantly and instinctively straight down to his immortal soul.
The hunters crashed through the trees into the clearing where he stood and leveled their shotguns at him.
He growled again and advanced, giving them their target.
Surprisingly, so did the child and she did so rapidly.
“No!” she shrieked, taking the hunters’ attention and before he could move a muscle, she slid to a halt in front of him. She threw her arms wide as if to shield him with her body.
He tore his gaze from the hunters and stared at her in stunned surprise.
“My puppy!” she cried. “You hurt my puppy!”
“Get away from that animal!” one hunter bellowed, the barrel of his gun moving subtly, aiming away from the child.
“Jesus,” another muttered. “What’s a kid doin’ out here?”
“My puppy!” she shouted again, turned and lifted up on her toes so she could wrap her arms around his neck, pressing her face into the thick fur there. “You hurt my puppy!” she repeated on a wail as if her heart was torn apart. Then, not detaching her arms from his neck, her head rounded on the hunters again and she yelled, “Papa is going to be so mad.”
“Kid, I said, get away from that animal,” the first hunter ordered.
She ignored him. “Papa went all the way to Alaska to get my puppy for me and he got out tonight. He wouldn’t come when Papa called and called and whistled and called and we were so worried, so, so worried, we couldn’t get to sleep. We were looking for him, looking all over. Papa is just out there…” She took an arm away to point vaguely in the direction from where she came. “We were looking for him and Papa is going to be sooo mad that you shot my puppy!” She ended on a shriek, throwing her arm around his neck again, holding on tight and pressing her face into his fur, her body beginning to shake with false sobs.