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A fat puff of snow swirls and dances as it falls between frosted branches, traipsing across pine needles to tease them with the unfulfilled promise of its company, wafting indolently with the delicate breeze for endless moments before sighing to rest atop one of the ever-growing crystalline drifts.
No one sees except the wolf.
The rise and fall of his prominent ribs beneath dull, black fur made gray with snow barely disturbs the still afternoon air. The steamy cloud of his breath grows fainter with each hour he passes hidden in the underbrush where he collapsed in his flight from the poacher, the cascade of blood now gelled matted into a scab around the neat hole through his haunches. The gentle hiss of falling snowflakes on the forest floor ebbs and flows into a sweet lullaby filled with promises of eternal rest.
As he lowers his eyelids for what will surely be the final time, he hears a new sound, muffled yet distinct. His mind sluggishly acknowledges the danger, fighting the desire to slip into dark sleep. But if he is going to die today, it will be in peaceful solitude, not harried by an opportunistic scavenger.
Long seconds pass as he struggles to open his eyes. The sound comes closer. His heartbeat quickens. He cannot open his eyes. A gust of wind rustles the heather. The sound stops. His eyes open.
It’s a small human child. Female, by the scent. She’s wrapped in a cloak speckled with snow, standing within lunging distance and silently observing him. The raised hackles along his spine lower, but his guard does not fall. One of her cloth-covered hands is raised. This would not be the first time one of these has attacked him.
He bares his teeth as a warning. She does not run away.
“Whatsyer name?” she says, leaning her head to one side.
What is it? He has one, he knows. But he cannot remember, so he does not answer.
This does not trouble her. “Mine’s Rosy,” she says.
She leans over to peer at him beneath the low canopy of heather. He can see she is holding something, now that she’s closer. A string leading up, out of his dimming vision. He inhales to form a growl, but he cannot press it out. The sound dies in his throat as a wet cough.
The child’s smooth face crinkles in the middle. “Are you sick, doggy?” she asks with concern.
She takes a step forward, the string trailing as she moves, dragging an unseen thing high above her. This time his warning growl manifests. But it generates no fear in her eyes. She is not afraid of him.
This will not do.
Summoning the last of his strength, knowing he will never again lay down with breath in his body, the wolf rises on three legs to face this threat. He looms over the child, showered in snow as the heather is disturbed, and growls again, willing it louder. But he cannot sustain the display. The sound chokes out, ending in a pitiable whine. Indignity bows his broad shoulders. His wounded hindquarters sag. Pride is all that keeps him upright.
The girl waits for him to stop moving before she takes another step towards him. The fog of her breath encircles his muzzle. Were he healthy, he would tear out her throat for daring to come so close.
“Don’t be sad, doggy. I know what’ll make you feel better.” She pats her leg with her free hand. “Come here.”
Instinct tells him to flee or to fight, but he can do neither. And so, the wolf obeys.
He lowers himself to the frozen ground, forelegs outstretched, muzzle aside to show he means no harm. She kneels and removes the cloth from her hands one at a time, careful not to lose hold of the string. Snowflakes melt when they touch her tiny pink digits. She wraps the loose end of the string around his right paw, just above the dewclaw, and ties it with simple knots, so different from the kind the hunters use for snares. Then she lets go. He startles when the string goes taut, and she gasps with wide eyes, but all is well. He lifts his great head to look up at the thing floating above them. She claps her hands with delight.
“There! All better,” she says. “I was gonna give it to Gramma to cheer her up, but it looks nicer on you.”
The wolf looks at the string tied to his foreleg, following its vertical trail to the curiously-shaped object in the air. It has no weight at all. He glances back to the hole in his haunches, then drags himself up to all fours. The blood remains and his strength has not returned, but the pain is gone. Perhaps this child is a healer.
She smiles to show him all her teeth. There are gaps. “You wanna come with me to Gramma’s?” she asks. “She likes doggies, too.”
The wolf cautiously shakes his tail once, twice. The girl squeals with delight, deems him a “good boy,” then turns away, starting towards a path that’s been covered by snow since her arrival.
With a pronounced limp that makes the floating talisman bob madly, he lopes to her side, staying close to keep her warm. She pats his shoulder. He is content. Alive.
“My, what a big heart you have,” he says.