The young man stopped, placed the axe beside the chopping block and rubbed his aching shoulder, where the freshly-healed scar tissue ached. It was then that he noticed how quiet the woods had become; too quiet.
They were here.
He couldn’t see them, but he knew instinctively that it was true.
He glanced nervously at the rifle, propped up against a tree only a few feet away, and yet it might has well have been back beside his bunk in the log cabin for all the good it would do. He would never reach it in time. When they attacked, they would come like the north wind and rush across the small clearing where he was working.
He could hear the voices of the other men back in the cabin. The hunters were preparing the evening meal and winding down after another unsuccessful day’s hunting. It had been a poor week for all of them, and now he knew why.
They had been watching, and the game had sensed their presence. He should have sensed it too, but he had been in another world. His judgement had been clouded by his current predicament. He was still coming to terms with his problem, and his mind had been focused solely on that.
She stepped out from behind a massive oak and he gasped in surprise. Silver grey, and standing three feet high at the shoulder, she was an impressive sight. She held herself with regal majesty as she looked over at him.
Fear trembled in his belly, but he did not flinch from the she-wolf’s gaze. This was going to be worse than anticipated if the pack’s matriarch was at the fore.
On soft silent feet, she strolled across the clearing until she was standing before him. Her eyes never left his.
“Why have you come?” he asked. He had known that they would pursue him, that he could not escape, but he had expected to hear their howls as they approached. He had expected the baying of the hunt, and a pack of hungry males looking for revenge. He had never thought it would be the matriarch who came.
He could sense the others now. They were all around. The whole clan had come looking for him. He knew it, even though he couldn’t see them. He could feel them from deep within his tormented soul.
The other men in the cabin were still oblivious to the threat around them. Hunters all and used to living off the land, they were still blind to so much of nature. They were as close as he could find to the wild within mankind, and yet, they fell far short of what he needed. Still, it had been better than being alone. Even a monster like him could not face life alone.
“You are not a monster!” the matriarch protested. Her words were more facial expression and body movement than human words, but he could understand her, nonetheless. He had grown up with her at his side, a constant watcher as he grew. Human words were not needed.
“I am!” he insisted, clenching his fists in impotent rage. “I am a monster and an outcast. Have you come to kill me?”
Her eyes showed her pity, “Don’t be foolish. Of course not. We have come to take you home.”
“Home! I have no home now. How can I come home?”
“You will always be one of us, my son. You will always have a home.”
“… But I challenged the pack leader. I was banished.”
“It is the nature of the young to challenge their place in the pack. Your father knows this and understands.”
He glanced at the red angry scar tissue that marred his shoulder. He had been lucky that it wasn’t a few inches higher. He could have had his throat ripped out.
“You must come home, my son. We can help you.”
“No one can help. I am cursed.”
Sadness crossed her eyes. There was no denying that her son was cursed. Something had happened, and the pack did not know how to cure his ailment.
“Can they help you?” she asked, her nose pointing towards the log cabin, and the rank odour of humans that she sensed there. “Do they possess a cure?”
“No,” he replied. “They do not know anything about it. They are blind to what is right in front of them. They think I’m human, like them.”
The wolf smiled softly. “Come home,” she pressed. “We can help. We can learn to come to terms with your curse.”
The youth looked skyward. It was getting dark now, and the moon was starting to rise, big and round. He would be cursed to live in this gross form for another few days yet, before the power of the moon faded and he could again take his natural form. He wanted to howl at the moon in frustration, curse it for what had happened to him, but all that came out was a choking sob. He was tired of being alone. He missed his pack. They were everything to him.
He was nothing without them; less than nothing.
Sensing his sorrow, the matriarch lifted her head and howled at the moon. In the trees the rest of his pack followed her example, giving voice to his feelings.
Panic ensued, as the humans in the cabin finally noticed the large pack of wolves that surrounded the clearing. By the time they had overcome the panic and grabbed their weapons, the pack was gone. So too was the silent young man who had come to stay with the hunters. All that remained of the strange youth was the clothes he had worn.
Naked, the were-man ran with his brothers and sisters. Together they would find a cure, or if not a cure, at least a way to come to terms with his affliction.