Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language and violence.
We travelled for hours, setting a pace that even horses would have had a tough time keeping up, only stopping once to rest and drink our fill of a shallow stream. As the sun began to dip below the horizon I spotted some movement on the road in the distance.
A group of haggard people trudged doggedly down the hard-packed dirt below us. They were clearly exhausted from their hurried flight; my new eyes could see that even from this distance. They continued on anyway, propelled by fear. Patrick's caravan, although caravan had always been a generous term, was really just him and his family. They catered to the needs of small towns like ours with tools, cloth, seeds and provided a means to sell small goods further on at the city.
I pictured the faces of Pat and his family. His wife Milinda, a grumpy, rotund woman and his two sons Rafe and Dorin. They had a few other tag-alongs as usual; there was safety in numbers after all. They had one large covered wagon, almost a carriage really, it carried their wares and doubled as their home while the others mostly slept beneath the stars.
Jaron shifted back to human form. Everyone turned to look at him, backdropped against the helpless caravan in the distance.
"Now that the full moon is passed there's no point keeping anyone alive. Kill them all but we won't play with them too long as we're too close to the city. It's unlikely anyone else will be on the road but keep alert. Let's do this quietly. Hunt." He shifted back, to lead us quietly down the hill through the trees.
Even knowing it was coming the command hit me like a blow. My hackles rose. Jaron had commanded us and I had to do it. Flashes of the chase, the exhilaration, the feral pleasure at killing the doe and the intoxicating power rolled over me, but...I wouldn't do this. I refused to kill them simply because Jaron wanted it and some new twisted part of me desperately wanted it. Warring emotions and desires welled up inside me. My refusal to kill Pat and his family clashed with my own twisted desires and the pressure to obey once more, but this time there was more than my pride and disgust at submitting on the line. I realised while I’d been standing frozen, fighting with myself the others had begun creeping forward through the underbrush. A few hesitated a moment before following, those I recognized as June and Mils in particular. I glanced at Dad, he seemed to sense me watching and met my eyes. A grimace sat heavily upon his features, as if he didn’t like it but it had to be done. The others didn't seem to have any qualms over killing innocent people and marched forwards seemingly unconcerned, they had lost themselves to Jaron's influence. Even begging my own father to leave he refused, acting as though we didn’t have a choice. We had a choice! Watching them stalk forward filled me with fury and my gaze locked on Jaron. He had done this. I thought of everyone who’d died, building my anger further and tempering my determination not to simply submit. I used the rage pulsing in my veins as a weapon to beat down my craving for bloodshed and fight Jaron’s command. I stood staring, my gaze locked on the caravan in the distance, fighting with myself until a thought came to me.
I am not part of this pack.
Something shifted. A great weight lifted from me. I felt no desire, no pressure to follow Jaron's command any longer. I am not one of them because I am not like them, and there's no way I'm just going to allow this to happen. Thinking quickly, there was no chance I could fight them all so I did the only thing I could think of.
Raising my muzzle to the sky, I howled as long and loudly as I could. Jaron's head snapped around to glare at me from the head of my former packmates as they crept through the underbrush towards the caravan. His eyes glowed with rage. Unable to help themselves some of the others joined my howl and looking down upon them from the hilltop I saw them abandon all attempts at stealth and bolt towards the road. Grabbing the two closest to him Jaron bared his fangs at me and gestured, growling something I couldn’t hear. Deciding it wasn't in my best interests to wait around I turned and took off at full speed into the forest.
My paws pounded against the earth as I sprinted faster than I ever had or ever could have before all this. Low hanging branches slapped and tore at my fur as I dodged between the trees but I felt little more than dull painless impacts on my pelt. Ignoring them I ran on, feeling my ears swiveling atop my head as I focused my hearing backwards, trying to pick out sounds of pursuit. There, very faintly under the air rushing by, the sound of panting and pounding footsteps on the forest floor. I wouldn't allow myself to be stopped. I wouldn't allow myself to be under Jaron's influence again or whatever else they might do to me or force me to do. I ran, faster and faster, leaping fallen logs and babbling brooks, forcing my way through the underbrush.
The sounds of pursuit continued as I ran for some time until breaking from the trees onto an open road. With all my attention focused behind me on the pursuit I had failed to see the road wasn't empty. A sharp whistling sound then pain exploded suddenly in my left calf. I yelped and lost my footing, falling directly forward to smash muzzle first into the hard-packed dirt of the road, sliding forward from my momentum. Glancing at my leg an arrow stuck out from the side. Raising my eyes, I met the gaze of a band of heavily armed travelers standing before what was clearly a merchant's wagon. Every eye was locked directly on me.
Atop the wagon a young woman screamed, gripping the man holding the reins beside her with white knuckled hands. Covered in dust, it was clear they had been on the road for some time.
A huge, broad shouldered man stood at the front, as big as me even in my wolf form. He held a red and blue painted kite shield before him, strapped to one arm like it weighed nothing at all. His other hand gripped the haft of a ball headed mace and a large hilt protruded over his right shoulder. Strong features betrayed nothing but calm caution as he stared at me warily from beneath short black hair.
Behind him stood a brunette woman who was probably beautiful underneath all the grime of hard travel. Wearing simple travel worthy garments under a bright blue cloak that appeared to be the only thing in sight clear of road dust. To her side and slightly forward was a short, stout man with a neatly trimmed blond beard. He hefted an almost comically large two-handed hammer and, much like the large man at the front, he wore a dull mail shirt. Finally, just beyond the woman, a hooded man stood with a large curved bow mid draw. He was in profile to me, swathed in leathers, his body radiating tension like a coiled spring.
With a now familiar whistle he finished his draw and released a second arrow. I threw myself forward further across the road in front of them but wasn't quick enough. I felt the arrow pierce my back then nothing but a fiery agony worse even than Jaron's bite. Reflexively I tried to draw air to scream but released only choking gasps instead. I lay in the cloud of dust that burst up around me from impacting the road a second time. Burning, furious pain wracked my entire torso and somehow robbed me of strength. Wheezing, I was stunned a moment and could do nothing but watch as the large man at the front took a step towards me.
The sounds of my pursuit grew loud enough for the travelers to hear and all but the archer turned towards the tree line I had arrived from. He notched a third arrow and I realized I was going to die unless I escaped this very moment. Fighting back the pain induced paralysis, I used my good leg to launch myself forward to the far edge of the road just as his third arrow left his bow, stabbing into the dirt I'd lay upon a moment earlier. Gathering what little strength I had left, I raised myself up on my arms and dragged my feet underneath me. Forcing myself into a lopsided standing position, I dashed with all the speed I could muster off the road into the trees. Roars erupted behind me. Not turning back, even when flashes of bright blue light filtered passed me through the trees, accompanied by the crackle of lightning and the scent of burning flesh. Stumbling through the underbrush in stark contrast to how easily I'd passed through it earlier, I continued forward away from the sounds of battle.
Leaning on trees and crawling over roots I continued, unable to think of anything but getting further away. Eventually, bubbling water reached my ears. A wide river split the forest before me. The current was fairly slow, and it didn't look so deep that I couldn't touch the bottom all the way across. Collapsing at the river edge, I took a few minutes to regain some strength. Looking down, I grasped the arrow shaft sticking from my calf and with a deep breath yanked it out swiftly. Tossing the arrow to the side, I felt barely anything compared to the excruciating pain radiating from my back. Clumsily reaching behind me, I attempted to grasp the arrow spilling streams of fire into my body. It proved futile. The arrow was lodged in my upper back where I could only graze it with my claws, nudging it just enough to send shivers of fresh agony through me.
More bright flashes filled the sky until suddenly all was quiet but for the river rushing by innocently beside me. Someone must have won, and I don't fancy the traveler's chances. I need to keep moving.
It was either stay here and die or try to cross the river and probably drown in my weakness. Not much of a choice really. Using what little strength I'd recovered, I pushed myself into the freezing cold water until I was able to stand without too much difficulty, the water itself taking most of my weight.
Wading further into the river, I struggled forward. Each step the riverbed sloped further away until water lapped at my neck. Desperately I dug my foot-claws into the riverbed, forcing my way through the water. Going to place my foot back onto the riverbed, I met empty water. In a dark forest, barely lit by what little moonlight filtered through the canopy above, I'd misjudged the depth of the river. Grinding my teeth, I had no choice. Pushing off from the riverbed I began to swim. Bolts of pain shot through me as I forced my arms to propel me forward. Not even the freezing water of the river numbed the pain of torn muscles clenching around the arrow burning in my back.
Gasping in agony I inhaled water. Panic clawed up my throat as I kicked my feet desperately trying to keep my head above the water while choking. I was drowning. Leaves and branches passed far above my head as the current carried me downstream, silhouetted against the moon which bore silent witness to my plight. The current pulled me under and for a few terrifying moments, nothing but water surrounded me, completely opaque, pitch black in all directions. I couldn't tell which way was up. My lungs burned for air and only found water instead.
The village flashed before my mind's eye. My friends and neighbors running from monstrous werewolves only to be caught, torn to pieces and killed; or worse, becoming monsters themselves and hunting their friends and family; my mind filling in the blanks for things I hadn't been there to see and making up others, bringing my worst fears to life. Jaron stood in the background watching it all. He was using us, them. His own personal vendetta more important than our lives.
My hind-paws met smooth, solid river stone and my visions ground to a halt.
I will not die here!
Using the tenuous grip I had on the riverbed, I launched myself forward with strength fueled by pure panic. I repeated my actions twice more before finally breaking the water's surface to grasp the long grass of the river bank. Digging my fingers deep into the soil I clawed my way up out of the water, to lie choking on solid ground.
Convulsions wracking my body, I coughed up streams of dark water. After a minute or so I finally stopped coughing, drawing in ragged breaths through burning lungs. Completely spent, I lay in the darkness just breathing, trying to ignore the pain.
How had I ended up here? Was it only a few days ago I’d been helping dad with the cider, training with Joe and talking to Finn about his plans for his sister's birthday? Lying dazed from exhaustion and pain everything just seemed so surreal. Perhaps if I just slept for a while I’d wake up and everything would be a dream, a horrible, excruciating nightmare.
My ears perked up. Leaves crinkling underfoot announced that I was being watched. Surreptitiously I sniffed the air. Immediately I could smell a single human upwind of me, a man. Has the archer come to finish me off?
There was a long moment of silence as I focused my ears, not even having the strength to raise my head. A few minutes passed and just as I was beginning to think I was imagining things, soft footfalls began further up the riverbank. Some kind of wrapped sandals made of a thin, wood-like material entered my vision. Well-muscled calves flexed as the man bent down until his tanned face appeared before me, his features only barely visible in the darkness. He had high cheek bones with prominent laugh-lines around his mouth and bushy eyebrows below dark hair the colour of mud.
"What have we here? Looks like you've had a very bad day." He spoke in an almost jovial manner. "I've never been quite this close to a werewolf before. From my admittedly limited experience you should be trying to rip me to shreds right about now." His gaze traveled over me as he spoke, evaluating. After a moment he returned to looking at my face, vivid green eyes staring deep into my own. The strange man didn't seem the least bit afraid of me, a seven-foot-tall humanoid wolf lying less than a metre from him.
"You seem far more sedate than any werewolf I've met before, not that it could really be said to be meeting them so much as them wanting to 'meat' me." He grinned, clearly happy with himself when I narrowed my eyes.
"Now, I can't be sure as I've never really tried to read the facial expressions of someone with a muzzle before, but it seems you understood that entirely and don't much appreciate my sense of humor. Perhaps it's the arrow in your back? No? Do you not have the strength to even growl?" His eyebrows rose in what appeared to be genuine curiosity. I bared my teeth, a growl rumbling up my throat. "So you do understand me! Fantastic!" He ran his eyes over me once more.
"Hmm. Less a wolf and more a pup I think." His gaze left mine and he raised his head to look across the river.
"Don't suppose you'd mind telling me about those flashes of light earlier? It's clear you had something to do with it." His head turned back to me. "Although, you don't appear to have any injuries sustained by magic." He paused, head cocked to one side curiously.
"What to do with you then." He asked, tapping a finger to his lips theatrically. "Are you a threat or aren't you? Are you one of the group who left tracks all along the southern edge of my forest?" Pausing a moment, he continued.
"I'll let you live, but you have to promise not to attack and tell me what happened." He stared at me until I nodded my head as best I was able. With that, he stood and stepped forward to grip the shaft sticking from my back. As soon as he touched it I whimpered, fresh agony rolling across my nerves.
"A warning first. If you do attack me or attempt harm of any kind in my presence you won't live to regret it." He spoke without the jovial tone of earlier, instead his voice was hard and without emotion.
Giving me no further warning, he yanked hard and fast, ripping the arrow from my back. I yelped and shuddered in pain as it jerked violently from my abused muscles. I could feel fresh blood well from the wound, adding another coat to the half-dried mess of my fur. The scent of burnt flesh filled my nostrils. With the arrow removed the pain dulled and I relaxed, feeling my body begin to shift back into human form as exhaustion finally overtook me.