Alcatraz splashed up onto the river bank, stopping ankle deep in the gently running water to look back and make sure his companion was following. When he saw the dark she-wolf he leaped up the bank and into dry land. The yips and howls of their companions were far behind them now. It appeared that they had lost them. That was a relief… Alcatraz was quite relieved they had made it out of there alive.
Alcatraz panted for breath as he trotted along, looking around the land as he tried to get his bearings. They needed to find a place to shelter… he looked back at Athena, ”Hey… you okay?”
he asked her.
Her wounds were really starting to sting, now. Exhausted, limping, Athena nearly fell into the icy stream as a badly chewed leg gave out on her way down the decline. She did not whimper, only gritted her teeth and got back up, tail raised in defiance. Following Alcatraz, the black female half-jumped, half-clawed her way up the opposite bank, not even stopping to shake the freezing water from her fur.
The cries of their pursuants were fading in the icy wind, but Athena knew such voices could be deceptive in a storm. They couldn’t slow down. Not yet. She should be happy to be alive, she knew, but it was a day without victory and her pain soured the blessing of being still able to breathe. “I’m fine.”
She replied quietly, keeping her gaze focused ahead of them. That was all she said for a moment, until Athena thought about the fact that Alcatraz was probably experiencing discomfort of his own, even - or especially - since the idea of running had been his. Looking over at the muscular he-wolf, she asked, “Are you?”
Alcatraz faced back forward as she answered, slowing his pace so she could keep in step with him. Now that they were not quite running for their lives, the big male’s adrenaline was fading and he was beginning to feel the full extend of his pain. His flank and shoulder stung and throbbed like fire. His foreleg also bore a pretty nasty bite, and perhaps the worse of all due to his dependence on the appendage to escape. He only hoped that the hybrids had truly given up the chase. ”Fine.”
he answered curtly. He knew that they were both keeping a facade to appear strong to the other. But that was not a bad thing, especially since they were not entirely out of harm’s way just yet. Alcatraz finally saw a pile of large rocks jutting from the forest floor, and between two of them was a shelter of some sort. As he approached he caught the faint scent of bear. Perhaps one had once resided here. But it was long gone, it appeared. Still, Alcatraz was weary as he lead the pair to the den’s opening. He sniffed carefully, narrowing his eyes. It was not a large cave and he could see the back even from outside. It was empty.
He glanced at Athena, ”Come on. Let’s get inside… hopefully the scent of bear will keep them away if they come this far.”
Alcatraz stood outside the entrance, waiting for Athena to enter first so he could take one glance around their surroundings before following.
The cave was little more than crook between two stones, but at least it would offer some shelter from the elements. Athena wasn’t sure the scent of bear would dissuade the mongrel pack, given their readiness to mob two healthy, full-grown wolves, but she didn’t say anything to disagree with Alcatraz. Both of them needed to rest and nurse their wounds, or soon enough the mob would catch up to them anyway, and the two of them would be in much worse condition.
Her fur brushed against his side as she passed. Athena’s ears swivelled attentively, but her eyes were dull with pain and exhaustion. Falling heavily to the cold stony ground, she let out a hissing sigh. The wounds along her legs and stomach burned sharply as they pressed against the ground, though she did her best to keep from touching the worst of them. “Not one of my better days, I’ll admit.”
She japed humorlessly. “Though I imagine it would have been much worse if not for your heroic entrance.”
With a wan smile, Athena let her head fall to the ground. She was so exhausted, even joking was hard. But the wolf imagined that no manner of wear could stop her from feeling the shame of defeat, or for being so careless as to get caught off guard in the first place. “It seems I’ve made quite the damsel of myself.”
Alcatraz followed her in, watching as she slowly lowered herself to the ground. The pain was bright in her icy gray eyes and Alcatraz had to admit it was a painful sight to see for a she-wolf so strong and capable. Alcatraz circled around her and sat down at her side. His movements were slow and pained, but he kept his strong jaws clamped shut. He leaned down toward her to sniff her wounds. Her thin legs were laced with punctures and bruises and her belly fur was torn and ragged. He ran his tongue a few times over her front foreleg to try and clean some of the blood that was caking the short dark fur.
He lifted his head and looked attentively outside for a moment. He was half expecting the pack to appear from the shadows of the trees, but not yet had he heard even a sound from them since they entered the cave. Perhaps the pack had given up...he turned back to her as she spoke.”You were the hero,”
Alcatraz said, his voice quiet as he referred to her valiant refusal to surrender. His gruff voice echoed well in caves, he had noticed over the years, so he tried not to speak too loudly, ”albeit a stupid one.”
he added dryly. Alcatraz often enjoyed praise, and took pride in the approval of others. But lately he had been feeling less showy, less arrogant. So instead of basking in the praise as he once would have done, or pushing it off with a compliment in return as a polite wolf would have done, Alcatraz often resorted to blunt words, believing them the best way to point out mistake in others that he believed should be fixed. ”I’ve never seen a damsel so keen on dying in combat.”
He curled his neck to the side, his chin pressed deep into his thick mane as he licked at his injured shoulder. The skin beside his scar particularly bore a quite bothersome wound, especially with less fur to lessen the impact of the bite.“Stupid heroes rarely last long enough to spread tales of their escapades.”
Shutting her eyes as Alcatraz’s rough tongue soothed her injuries, Athena found herself leaning against him ever-so-slightly for a bit of warmth. It was a cautious touch, if he gave the slightest hint of discomfort she could easily back away. And yet, despite everything else that had happened, she couldn’t help but hope… hope… well, for now she just hoped she wouldn’t have to reposition herself again.
Opening her eyes a fraction, Athena raised an eyebrow and let out a half-laugh. “Truly? In my experience damsels are quite as eager to die as martyrs.”
Her expression grew serious once more as she watched him attempt to reach the bite on his shoulder. “Here. Let me…”
She offered, not as a question. With a gentle, precise touch the she-wolf cleaned his wound. It was only the right thing to do. After all, they hardly knew each other well enough to even call themselves friends. Didn’t they?
Alcatraz let the she-wolf lean against his strong form, putting particular effort into keeping himself steady and firm so to be an adequate support to his exhausted friend. The loner had met many friends lately, a surprising amount the more he thought about it given his less than friendly nature, but none intrigued him quite as much as this dark she-wolf. She had an aura of authority and power beneath her refined grace that made him wonder who she was, and where she had come from. Certainly not the vibe given off by one who had been a loner their whole life. Alcatraz knew there was much more to Athena than he was currently aware. And he was interested in knowing more.
But not now. Perhaps they could swap tales later, but right now they had the present to focus on. His reaction to her witty rebuke was a good natured grunt as he attempted to lick his injured shoulder. It burned, but luckily he did not feel pain like the pain he had felt when receiving his previous scar. This one would probably leave no permanent mark.
Alcatraz withdrew his head as Athena’s neat muzzle moved in to assist him. He watched her as she worked, carefully cleaning his wound with gentle strokes. He smiled a bit, finding himself appreciating the gesture more than he expected he would.
But he was never one to be comfortable with pampering. After a few moments the wound was primarily clean and he shuffled slightly, moving his injury away from her soothing licks, ”That’ll do,”
Alcatraz said, but he quickly added, ”Thank you, Athena. It feels better now,”
to ensure his withdrawal had not offended her. His words were not a lie, either. The warm sensation has soothed the uncomfortable burning, and even if the pain was present, Alcatraz knew that it was on its way to healing… assuming he didn’t jump into any more fights in the near future, anyway. ”Are you feeling better, now that we have had some rest?”
Alcatraz asked her, hoping that she would not need special attention from any medicine wolves or whatever they were called. He had no mind for such a thing.
With a strained laugh she looked back out into the night. ”Oh much better. I even think I might head back out there, and teach those mangy half-breeds their place.”
Obviously she wasn’t going to do that… but it felt good to say it. “Though it wouldn’t be fair of me to steal all the glory. Seeing how they insulted your dignity as well.”
Leaning back carefully, Athena tilted her head as she studied the gruesome scar under Alcatraz’s fresh wounds. What manner of beast could’ve managed to cause such a mark? She’d seen few wolves in her travels who could match Alcatraz’s talents. Even the mob they’d just faced had been unable to score something to match it. “...It must have been quite the brute to give you that.”
Athena remarked, motioning to the scar by a flick of the muzzle. It wasn’t as if they were going anywhere tonight, and the story piqued her curiosity. Still, she was careful to avoid pressing him, and was content to let the story remain untold if that was to the he-wolf’s preference. He probably had secrets. She couldn’t fault him for that…
Alcatraz let out a small grunt at her confident words, but smiled all the same. They had been defeated, that much was clear, and it was equally clear how much Athena hated admitting defeat. But her spirit was inspiring. Although she was not planning on going back, clearly, it was certainly better to adopt the mindset that they could
win if they wanted too. An amused, ”Mmph,”
was his very convincing response.
Alcatraz narrowed his eyes, looking at her sideways without moving his head as she pointed out the large patch of missing fur on his shoulder. ”It was,”
he said, putting his head on his paws dismissively. He did not like to speak of the day. It was much too humiliating, the memory too terrifying. The first time and only time until now that Alcatraz had met his match. But now he could add another defeat to the list. He closed his eyes with a sigh. It was difficult to cope with such wounded pride, Alcatraz had learned, but that was also when he learned that pride was a petty thing… he opened his eyes again. Perhaps this story would be worth telling to this she-wolf, who was so similar to him in many ways. Perhaps she could learn from his experiences as well.
Alcatraz lifted his dark head, his large muzzle turning toward Athena as he resolved to retell the tale. “This scar was given to me mere months ago… by a Blutwald brute. The biggest I had seen. I was young then,”
age wise, he was not much younger than he was now. But mentally, it felt like he had been but a child. ”A lone wolf, on his own for years, never a battle lost, never a scar marring his pelt. I believed that none could match my strength, my skill, my experience.”
He looked toward the entrance to the den, ”But that wolf was larger than me, and he was trained in murder.”
The dark wolf paused a moment. Although he had learned where his pride had landed him, it was still difficult for him to let go of it all completely all the same. ”He threatened me, but I held my ground. I… bit off more than I could chew, so to speak…”
Alcatraz trailed off. It had been a turning point in his life. The point when he had acknowledged that he was not infallible. ”It is difficult to accept defeat, Athena. But we must remember our priorities. We can die at the claws of countless hybrids, or we can run to fight another day. Running may seem cowardly, but death is so ruthlessly final. My pride may have told me to stay those months ago, but my reason was stronger. If I had stayed a would have died. And then what? I would have amounted to nothing.”
Alcatraz was not one for many words, but he had a lesson to teach. Athena was one of the bravest wolves he had ever met, but bravery alone does not make for a worthy life. ”Have you really grown that much in mere months?”
She queried lightly, but her eyes were serious. She remembered well the fire that had forced her to lead her pack into exile. Those had been hard months. Athena had grown up in them. ”I have heard stories of Blutwald… It seems there is no end to the horrors they orchestrate.”
Her brother Hedge would have been right at home in it… no doubt.”I’m glad you made it out alive.”
She said when he trailed off. What else was there to say? Her gaze darted briefly downward as he then admonished her, purveying the wisdom of running to survive. Folding her ears back, Athena suddenly looked distant. ”You’ll forgive me if I disagree…”
As much as his survival meant to her, she couldn’t find it in her to agree such a choice always brought about a better future. Running had been the one greatest sin she’d ever committed. As much as Alcatraz was still a stranger to her, she felt somehow that she knew him better than she’d know anyone in quite a long time. To her great surprise, the lone she-wolf realized she considered Alcatraz a friend.
He couldn’t possibly understand the story she was about to tell him, she’d never told anyone before, or what that meant. But Athena wanted him to know. ”My homeland lies far West of here. Aryn was bountiful, we’d thrived there for generations beyond counting. It was a place steeped in tradition. Our strength lay in our unity. And all those seasons ago… I-“
The words stuck in her throat for a minute, and she hesitated briefly, swept away by a sharp internal debate ”I was it’s alpha. I was charged with the care and guidance of the entire pack. So when drought and wildfire gutted our home and left naught but a charred ruin, it fell to me to decide our fate. I chose an exodus.” I chose to run.”It was my decision to leave. My blame to bear. Starvation, illness, the elements… other wolves. I watched these things claim my packmates one by one. Even… Even my own mate. The madness took hi
The pain that clouded Athena’s eyes was easy to see. This was a wound that had never truly healed. ”They left or died until it was me, alone. And run though I have, that shame remains inescapable. Cowardice is a fate worse than death. The finality of it would be preferable to this... unending emptiness.
“I am nothing now, a nameless, rankless drifter without a home or a family. And it is because I fled. If I had never given the order to abandon our home… none of this would have happened. The others could have been spared.”
Having finished her tale, Athena studied Alcatraz intently. ”I don’t want pity. It was a lesson well learned and fairly paid for.”
She awaited his judgement. She hoped he would understand.
Alcatraz listened to her with narrowed yellow eyes as she told her story. It sounded like Athena was once a great wolf, and for some reason that did not surprise Alcatraz. She carried herself with the dignity and grace of an alpha. And as far as Alcatraz could tell, she still was a great wolf.
Her story was a long and tragic one, and it landed her right here. Once a strong, powerful she-wolf surrounded by loving friends and family. And now she had nothing. The pain in her gaze, especially when speaking of her lost mate, was difficult even for stoic Alcatraz to witness. He knew what it was like to lose a dear friend, to watch them die before you. But this wolf was her mate, so the pain must be even greater. Alcatraz blinked slowly at her as she finished. ”Or the others could have died from the lack of food and water. I’m sorry for your losses… I do not pity you. I respect you. But a wolf cannot blame themselves for leading in the way they believe is best. Leaving to find lands you could actually live on seemed the best and only option. No one can predict the future…”
He paused a moment. He knew that his small words would mean very little to the jaded Alpha, but he believed what he said. ”We can only try our best…”
Alcatraz paused a moment before glancing up at Athena, ”And you are far from nothing. You are alive, and you are healthy…somewhat.”
he added in a bit lighter tone as his eyes flicked to the various bites that marred her lovely black pelt. And then his voice was back to serious, ”You have survived through the pain and suffering, remaining dignified and courageous. You are stronger for it. The strongest wolf I have ever known.”