Bloody hell but she was a cunning little human and, as a wolf, if he could laugh, he would.
Unfortunately, he could not.
Instead, he shifted his furry bulk into her and without delay she pressed closer.
“Fuckin’ A,” the third hunter mumbled, his eyes narrowed on the girl as he lowered his gun. “Is that Senator Arlington’s daughter?”
“Fuck!” the second hunter hissed, lowering his own firearm. “It is.”
“Kid –” the first hunter started in a soothing tone.
She pulled her face away from his neck and glared at the hunters. “Go! Go now! If you go now, I won’t tell Papa it was you.”
They hesitated, all their guns lowered now, their feet shuffling.
“Go!” she screamed, her child’s voice piercing the brittle air.
“Maybe we could talk to Senator Arlington,” the third one whispered his suggestion. “Explain things.”
“Yeah?” the first hunter asked sarcastically, turning angry eyes at his friend. “Do you want to tell Senator Arlington how we were out at night and you shot his precious daughter’s dog? Do you, Gary? Hunh?”
“That ain’t no dog,” the second hunter said, his eyes never leaving the beast. “That’s a wolf.”
“Don’t look like no wolf I’ve ever seen,” the third hunter noted and his voice turned greedy. “He’s huge. A beauty. Got to be a hundred pounds heavier than any wolf –”
“He’s a wolf, ain’t no dog,” the second hunter pressed.
“Jesus, Lloyd, you ever see a wild wolf stand calm next to a kid with her arms wrapped around his ruff?” the first hunter, clearly the brains of the crew, threw out.
“He’s a rare breed!” the child snapped, sounding adorably impatient, making it clear their squabbling was highly annoying and she had far better things to do. Her arms tightened as she continued, “That’s why Papa had to go all the way to –”
“All right, kid,” the first hunter cut her off, taking a step back while throwing his arm out to indicate his friends should follow suit. “Promise you won’t tell your Pa you saw us?”
“Promise you’ll stop hunting wolves in this region?” she shot back shrewdly, not sounding five or six but much older.
“Kid –” the first hunter started.
She interrupted him angrily, “Since you know you’re not allowed.”
The hunters stared at her in shock.
“They said she was weird,” the third hunter, having moved back several paces, whispered in a voice that he thought only he could hear.
“I’m not weird!” the child snapped and he swung his canine eyes to her in further surprise because he, of course, could hear. Even in the form of a man he had heightened hearing but he’d never known a human to have that kind of range.
The third hunter started then mumbled again, “Weird.”
The child’s body grew stiff with hurt affront.
The wolf growled.
All the hunters stared at the beast.
“Promise!” she demanded.
They were silent.
“I’ll tell my Papa…” she threatened.
“Okay, kid, we promise,” the first hunter assured her, moving back again.
The wolf and child stood still and silent, watching the hunters retreat. A pace, two, three, four, then they turned and made their way swiftly through the wood.
“Silly men,” she whispered irritably as she let him go and looked at him, her astute green eyes moving the length of him to his flank then she murmured, “Poor puppy.” She patted him on the neck. “Papa will fix you, he’s good at that. Let’s go home.”
She started walking away and he stood still, watching her, uncertain, even with his experience of all things human, inhuman and beast, what to make of the child.
She turned back.
“It’s okay, puppy,” she told him. “You can trust me. I’m not weird. Promise. It’s just…” she paused and quirked her head to the side. “Animals understand me. Papa says it’s a special gift.” She patted her thigh with her pink mitten. “Come on, we’ll take good care of you.” She lifted her hand to her heart, made a cross and grinned an immensely adorable grin the sight of which he felt in his gut. “Cross my heart.”
She turned again and marched away.
Not because of her promise she’d take care of him.
Instead, because he needed to protect her.
It wasn’t far, maybe a five minute trek (but annoyingly painful and lumbering for him), when they came upon a log cabin in the trees. Warm, welcoming lights flooded from its windows, a sparkling Christmas tree shown in one.