Robert has waited long enough. The dark grey sky over the Tripyramids has begun to lighten, and the winds have picked up. The crisp breeze has become a cold, grating gust, a last gasp of winter. Flakes of snow begin to blow across the open lot below his thicket in the brush.
Lark left while the moon was still in the sky, but it is long gone now. The black clouds toward the valley’s sunset end have obscured its passage, but its silver glow no longer strains to break through the storm.
Robert is nothing if not loyal. Lark commanded him to hang back and watch, and that’s what he will do.
Even when he heard barking in the valley far to his left, he stayed in his makeshift burrow. When he heard the shots of firesticks on the mountainside, he remained still. When he sensed a calm break in the actions of the men, he ambled out of his hiding place and looked around, but never let the fenced lot below leave his view.
It’s quiet now, and Robert returns to his burrow, where he must decide whether to strike the vigil. He cannot. Lark told him to wait, and he will. But there is little doubt that the barking and shouting he heard had something to do with his patrol.
It might have been a mistake, Robert knows. The pack is careful to never let themselves be seen in the village, and certainly not during daylight. Lark must return soon, or much of what they have built over many turns of the sun will be dashed like debris against the banks of the flood.
Robert remembers how it nearly came to pass the previous summer, when a member of the pack was caught in one of the men’s snares. A devious device. They appeared throughout the lower valley, anywhere within a half-day’s walk for a human.
It became obvious what and where they were. They were always near a trail cut by the men, and always near where men thought a wolf might forage. Staying in the wild undergrowth was still fairly safe.
The bumbling foolishness of man’s assumptions brought some levity for the valley’s residents, but the humans did manage to place some of their traps in troublesome locations, if only out of dumb luck.
It was the chance meeting between a human and a wolf, too close to the town, that caused the menace of these traps to spread. When the men came close to catching the unfortunate soul caught in the snare, it confirmed their fears.
And then came the spinning bird.
None of the valley dwellers had seen or heard this fearsome machine before, though they had heard stories of them from elders. Their thropping blades filled the valley with a din that seemed to cut the very air. Trees shuddered as they rose from the cleared lots they were kept in.
What nobody had ever mentioned was the metal rain. This brought a new measure of terror to the valley’s creatures, especially the wolves. Though bobcats, foxes and bears also fell to the projectiles the men blasted from the machines.
Since the summer, the pack relocated its den, and agreed to never again traverse the village while on their roaming.
Robert watches the lightening sky over the mountains above the human base. The snow seems to swirl and spin in the wind, the chill growing sharper with every gust. The spinning bird will not fly in this weather, he knows, and that is fortunate.
Lights appear in the murk, as one of the human trucks returns along the access road. Robert ducks into his burrow and waits. When the truck rolls through the opened gates, it stops near a pen at the end of the largest building.
Four men step out of the vehicle, and with them, a large dog. Robert freezes at the sight of this. It’s dark grey, and shaped much like a wolf, but he can tell it’s much tamer. It wanders, seeming forlorn, to the edge of the fence close to Robert’s hiding spot.
The men carry something out of the rear door of the truck. It is another dog, about the size of the first one. And it is clearly inert. Its neck is coated thickly with red blood, shining in the light of the men’s headlamps.
The men from the gate carry over a roll of tarp to the truck. Robert has seen these before. Many of the valley’s human residents use them for covering their rolling carts and piles of cut trees. They lay it down, and the men place the dog in its center.
Then he sees the men reach into the truck for something else. With great effort, they tug and pull at a sheet of cloth. The dog turns and growls at the object on top. They finally pull it out of the truck and nearly drop it. It takes all four men to virtually drag the thing to the gate of the pen, where they drop it inside, and then scurry out like mice fleeing a footstep. They hastily latch the gate and slap one of their steel locks into the clasp.
The object in the pen is covered in fur, grey and mottled, larger than either of the dogs. Robert shudders as he realizes what he’s seeing.
It is Lark.
The men stand away from the pen and begin to shout at each other, pointing at the hillside, recounting their story. There is questioning, then angry bickering. Some of the men point at each other instead of the hills. One man steps toward the dead husky and kneels, lighting one of the paper reeds men use to breathe ashes. Robert can sense a broad array of emotions here.
From the thicket where he hides, Robert cannot determine whether his friend still breathes. The dog may have already detected him, so there is no purpose in revealing himself to the men, as long as the critter seems preoccupied. The dog paces between the wolf’s pen and his dead comrade, until finally the men resolve their banter and head inside the building.
For a moment it seems they are going to leave the creature wandering in the blowing snow. But one opens the door and holds it, giving a loud whistle, and the dog obediently trots through the door into the relatively warm, lighted space inside.
Robert darts quickly from the hiding spot and reaches the tall fence near the pen. He knows he may have only a few dozen breaths to find out if Lark remains living. There is nothing he can do to help in any case. Not without the pack.
The dead husky lies nearer to the fence, and Robert can smell the decay already beginning. Lark’s scent is apparently normal, and he can make out the rise and fall of the wolf’s fur on his collar. Lark is drawing breath. Robert has seen all he needs to see. He begins to race up the mountain away from the human base, when the door to the structure opens again.
A man steps out, holding a tangle of leather straps, and a long leash. Shouts and laughter are heard through the door behind him, as he carefully walks toward Lark’s holding pen. Another man steps out holding a long metal stick. He gives the other man a pat on the back, and unlocks the pen. The men in the doorway leave just enough of a gap to keep watching.
The first man steps slowly into the pen while the second closes the gate and locks it again. They look at each other for a moment, and the man inside the pen gingerly steps toward Lark. The second man extends the long metal pole through the fencing until it reaches the sleeping wolf.
The man inside then kneels over Lark’s head. With surprising dexterity he wraps the item around his muzzle, and begins to wrap the other bundle around his chest. He strains to lift the wolf to thread the straps beneath, but is finally able to connect the thing together. He clips the leash to it, and ties the other end of the leash to one of the pen’s outer fenceposts.
He takes the metal pole from the man outside the pen, holds it toward Lark as he backs away. Whatever the pole is, Robert is sure that Lark would ignore it and lunge at the man’s throat, crushing it as he shakes the man like a bag of chicken nuggets. They are very lucky he is asleep.
With a very cursory final glance at his work, the man backs toward the gate, where the other man unlocks it. He steps out and shuts the pen with a gush of relief. Upon locking the gate once more, the two men exchange another hand slap, and there is a cheer from the doorway.
Robert has seen enough. The humans’ intentions are unclear to him, but though Lark’s course has changed, it remains a life path, and not the alternative. Robert heads up the hillside once more, as the greying sky and gathering snows envelop him, and all that is visible in the valley.