Humanskin: Pack Mentality

Dear Readers: I am in the process of world-building, creating a common setting for a group of stories and longer works. An earlier piece posted on this blog, “A Different Kind of Werewolf Story” introduces a set of characters that I revisit in this piece. Enjoy it, and please let me know what you think! Also, look forward to the next chapter of Afterglow: Godfall–and if you haven’t, take a moment to read the first installment. As always, thank you for your interest and support!  – Alexander C. Chirila

1.

Old Mother had tried to save the little girl, but it was too late. She was supposed to have been the newest member of the pack, one of the youngest awakened to the Totem’s gift. They had watched her for nearly a season. The snows covered the sleeping earth and the vibrant scent-trails of autumn faded into the muted palette of winter. Colorful pockets of warmth were hidden among the blacks, whites, and browns of midseason frost; bear-dens and foxholes, bird’s nests and underground warrens.

The smell of human cookfires drifted in billowing clouds, torn by the wind into bands of thick scent. Burning fat, crisping hides, firewood, death, sweat, blood, and the overpowering fog of humanity hung over the western foothills. How noisy they were! Iron and Snow found it difficult to imagine how the others could have spent so much time surrounded by so much noise. Even at night, in the deep hours between moonset and sunrise, the pack could hear them rustling and breathing, crying aloud in their nightmares and shushing their children to bed.

The little girl would wait until her mother was asleep, wearied by a day of toil in the settlement. Then she would sneak away, silent as a born hunter, and stalk small prey among the dogwoods. She did not hunt as the humans hunted, with traps and tools. She pursued her prey, running it down and biting through fur and flesh with teeth that were made for rending and tearing. There was no question that the Totem was with her.

The pack kept near her, day and night. Her scent-trail became familiar to them.

Rust and Coal adored her. He had even risked contact, though the Alpha had warned them against it. One night the girl had chased down a rabbit; she crouched over it, preparing to tear into its soft abdomen. When the wind changed she caught the pack’s scent and froze. But she wasn’t afraid. She eagerly scanned the trees as if anticipating the appearance of a long-awaited friend.

Rust and Coal slinked cautiously forward, ignoring the warning growls of the Alpha. The girl sighted him. She didn’t move. When he came closer, no more than a breath away from her, she lowered herself down and nudged the fresh kill towards him. He bowed his head and obligingly nipped at the carcass, leaving her the greater portion. When it was done he brushed past her, allowing her to touch him, and loped into the night-shadows of the surrounding forest. The Alpha punished his disobedience, but a little bit of bloodshed wasn’t enough to cause Rust and Coal to regret the risk he had taken.

Soon, the Fever would overtake her. Young as she was, she wouldn’t be able to hide it; the symptoms would manifest and the wolf would wax strong inside of her. Old Mother prepared the ritual tools she would need to free the girl from her original humanskin when the time was right.

They had all been born with an original humanskin. Each of them had been weaned on human milk and nurtured by human mothers. They came to the Totem only later. Overtaken by the Fever, they had chosen exile over quarantine and death. Driven to the staggering precipice of madness by the visions, they had each of them ranged far into the wild. Old Mother had found them all, bringing them flailing and frenzied to her dwelling-place.

She had torn through their tightening shrouds of frail skin. Their screams became howls, echoing among the rounded, forested mountains of Appalachia. Only Iron and Snow had seen the ritual firsthand. Her practiced hand, guided by a bloodline as old as the world, had never failed to release the wolf from the dying chrysalis of human flesh.

At last the Fever came. Her human mother hid her away. A Fever-stricken would not be allowed to live, child or otherwise. It had happened before; an entire settlement wiped out, left rotting under the baking sun and reeking of death.

It had been known by different names in the beginning, when the healers in the World That Ended still believed they could defend their species against it. Before the packs of humankind fell by the droves, rotting alive in their dens while the healthy among them vied like rabid dogs over the corpse of their civilization. By the time the Fever had run its course, the cities were dead, the tribes of humankind scattered into small settlements huddled against the vengeful wilderness. Traces of the Fever still remained, but things were different: the Lineages had awakened, for so long dormant and hidden in the blood of the Old Mothers. Those who belonged to the Lineages were called by the Fever. Some wise-men may have known what it was, having seen it before even in the World That Ended…but most men believed it was the plague returned to finish off the few survivors that had escaped.

They all knew how it was done; all of them except Iron and Snow. The victim would be weak and sluggish for several days. Then, on the fifth day, the delirium would begin. There were fleeting glimpses at first, and strange sounds; a sense of disembodiment. It would progress until it seemed a great crack had appeared in the reality of things, a crack though which poured endless rivers of indescribable vision and sensation. At this point, unless the individual was a solitary wanderer—as Bone and Sand, the ghost-wolf, had been—the settlers would quarantine the Fever-stricken. If the symptoms persisted, as they often did, the victim would be killed and his or her body and belongings burned. His or her family would be quarantined until they were deemed clear of the Fever. This, at least, was the merciful approach.

Mercy was often a luxury of the rational mind.

The little girl’s mother couldn’t keep her condition hidden away. Humans asked too many questions. The pack knew this was coming. The people began to secrete fear. It smoked through the air, a pungent tang that played and tugged at the pack’s instincts.

The day came when an overeager neighbor ran to one of the elders and announced that one of the settlers had been taken by the Fever. That was all it took. Word spread, like maggots through rotting meat, and not an hour passed before the settlers swarmed around the little girl’s dwelling-place. Agitated and gibbering they clustered and gestured. At last the settlers’ leaders came forward and held council.

The men of the encampment chose their brand of mercy. They dragged the poor girl kicking and screaming from her sweat-soaked cot and over to the tanner’s field. They made certain that her flesh did not touch theirs. They threw her down with as much compassion as their terror would allow. One of them drew a pistol. He made ready to shoot her.

Her mother had run after them through a gauntlet of restraining arms and blows, yelling for her daughter. ‘It’s not the Fever,’ she shouted, ‘It’s not the Fever!’ The men did not listen. She threw herself over her daughter and the bullet meant for the little girl found her instead. The crack of the shot echoed against the mountains.

The sky was a thick red color over the empty vastness of the west. Above the mountains the first stars gleamed from the cobalt heights.

The girl managed to squirm out from under her mother’s dying body. Covered in blood, her breath pluming in the winter’s bitter cold, she staggered into the field. She stood there, bewildered. Her eyes scanned the shadows of the woods. She was looking for him. She was looking for Rust and Coal. She could scent him, waiting for her just beyond the field.

She took one step forward, then another. The man with the gun pointed it at her, his hand trembling. The mob surged behind him, urging him to shoot. He swallowed and straightened his arm, trying to call up the strength for it. He failed. He lowered the pistol.

Then the little girl howled.

Rust and Coal went feral, breaking away from the pack and the concealing shadows of the forest. The mob was fixated on the little girl; they didn’t even see him coming. A young male had strayed close to the edge of the woods. He heard the rustle of tall grass and the low growl, turning too late. Rust and Coal hamstrung him; his warning cry turned into a gasping wail.

The crowd looked towards the sound.

The young male’s shrieking warped into a bloody gurgle. Rust and Coal looked up, his muzzle slick with blood, the ribbed cartilage of the boy’s windpipe dangling from his teeth. The man with the pistol trained it on him, but his target was too far and there were too many people in his way. He started to run forward, momentarily forgetting about the little girl. She did not waste the opportunity. She broke into a run, her bound hands stretched out before her.

Rust and Coal darted around the other side, trying to distract the man with the pistol. The mob rippled and shifted like a school of fish surrounded by circling sharks. The girl had almost made it—a few steps further and the welcome dark of the forest would have enfolded her. The pack would have protected her.

But the man with the pistol was not the only man who had brought his weapon. A second, older male brought up his long-barreled rifle and leveled it at the small, fleeing figure. There was just enough light to see her, and that was all he needed. He fired. This was a weapon born of the precise machines that still worked in the World That Ended. The girl’s body was hurled sideways by the impact of the bullet.

Iron and Snow was the closest to her. She was a deer’s long stride away from him. He knew the wound was fatal the moment she hit the ground.

The man with the pistol fired on Rust and Coal and missed. The wolf ran towards the downed girl, pausing long enough to seize her by the fabric of her clothes and drag her into the forest. The two men met in the field and ran forward; after a few paces the one with the long-barreled rifle stopped and gripped the other man’s shoulder.

‘No,’ he said, ‘why bother? That wolf wasn’t the only one; the rest of the pack has to be nearby. They must have smelled the Fever on the girl. Let them have her. They’ll finish her off if my bullet didn’t. We can post a guard to make sure the settlement’s safe.’

‘But she could wander back…the Fever…’

‘Didn’t you see what just happened? Look,’ the older man said, ‘this all went down wrong. Her mother’s dead and the girl will bleed out long before the wolves make a meal out of her. Look at the blood!’ he pointed to the darkened grass, nearly indiscernible now in the gloom.

The younger man relented. ‘Her mother was probably infected anyway,’ he said.

The mob dispersed as the last of the daylight drained behind the world. The wolves waited, protecting the girl in the deeper dark of the forest. They waited for Old Mother to come and take the girl to the Totem’s Pool by the hidden paths of the mountains. Old Mother would surely save her. She was an unparalleled healer. She would save the little girl. The pack would be complete, then. Old Mother would save the little girl.

But the tiny wolf trapped inside that weak, broken shell wasn’t strong enough to hold on. The spirit fled, leaving only the rigid cold behind. By the time Old Mother came, it was too late. The girl was dead. Old Mother gathered the body into her arms and started back, the pack sullenly keeping pace with her steady, trackless step.

 

* * * *

 

This was a Wolves’ Moot; a pack gathering. Old Mother sat on the broken trunk of an old oak felled by lightning a few seasons past. She was silent, listening to the growls, howls, ululations, and subtle variations of the pack’s language. The wolf-speak had come easily to the human-born members of the pack, who even in their former lives could understand the melancholy symphony that haunted the moonlit night.

Rust and Coal was calling for revenge.

Night and Stone, the Alpha and eldest member of the pack, snarled at the younger wolf. Vengeance was not the way of the wolf. If the pack had gotten to the girl earlier, they could have safeguarded her. It was a failure; no more, no less. What would vengeance accomplish? It would draw attention to the pack and to the Totem. The wolves knew what humans did to the sacred. They destroyed it. It was best to move on.

Smoke and Copper moved closer to her mate, her eyes fixed dangerously on Night and Stone. She was careful to moderate her body language, but there was no mistaking the intent in her eyes. Iron and Snow knew she was instigating Rust and Coal to challenge the Alpha; but for all his stubbornness and ferocity, Rust and Coal was not ready to make a bid for leadership. Smoke and Copper was the younger of the two females in the pack. She was also almost feral; more vicious than Rust and Coal, very nearly uncontrollable. Old Mother was the only one she really listened to. She heeled to the Alpha, but only because he dominated her—as he dominated all of them. Old Mother had chosen him first, and he had earned his position many times over. Still, Smoke and Copper did not respond well to his leadership.

Sooner or later, she would goad her mate into challenging Night and Stone. The old wolf would not go easily.

Bone and Sand, the ghost wolf, did not give expression to his thoughts. He never did. He only listened. Iron and Snow suspected that Old Mother knew his mind, as she knew all of their minds. She kept his secrets.

Ice and Soot snapped at Smoke and Copper. It was a warning; she would not abide the younger female’s challenge in front of Old Mother. The pack waited to see whether Smoke and Copper would snap back. Iron and Snow was almost certain she would, but not this time. The younger wolf lowered her head and back-stepped slowly away from the confrontation. Ice and Soot’s curled lips and furrowed snout smoothed, her amber-gold eyes glittering in the moonlight streaming through the trees and setting the small clearing aglow.

‘The humans have done what they always do,’ Old Mother told them. ‘If we attack them, we will have no choice but to protect the Totem at all costs; until all of them are dead or fled. Had we a larger pack, I would drive them from this place. They are too close to the Totem as it is. I fear that it is only a matter of time before the winter drives them deeper into the mountains. Then, we will have a choice to make. But now…’ she sighed, ‘we are not in a position of strength.’

Night and Stone looked at each of them in turn, dominating them, pushing them into submission with an unseen force of presence and strength that did not abide resistance. He would not fall until his ability to dominate the pack visibly weakened. Iron and Snow suspected that Rust and Coal was waiting for that moment. Until then, the unwritten laws that governed their little society would remain the axis around which their actions revolved.

Still, in the World After, things were different. These wolves had been human beings once, and they were able to clothe themselves in human flesh again. Some trace of that humanness lingered, sewn into the mind of the wolf. Was Rust and Coal ambitious enough, reckless enough, to challenge the Alpha before his weakness showed itself?

Iron and Snow loped after Old Mother, leaving the rest of the pack to prepare for the Night Hunt. This was something the young pup loved: to walk beside the Guardian of the Totem, Heiress of the Lineage. If she was so inclined, she would speak her mind to him. He didn’t always understand her thoughts, but it was enough that she trusted him.

She followed an uphill trail that crested one of the smaller peaks in the range. You could see the mighty Atlantic from the promontory, crashing against the eastern hills of the Appalachians. In the distance, over the black sheet of the ocean, lightning flashed behind smoky layers of gray cloud. Thunderheads marched towards the moon, slowly erasing the reflected band of sparkling light that carpeted the waves below.

‘I am disappointed,’ Old Mother said suddenly.

She didn’t turn to Iron and Snow, but spoke out over the steep drop. The wind whisked her voice away, down through the slopes below and the frothing surf beyond. ‘The Lineage must be stronger if we are to hold our own against the settlers. If we cannot grow our numbers, it will be as before, in the World That Ended. They will hunt us down, powerful as we are, and drive the Totem into a silence so final that no upheaval will awaken her again.’

Iron and Snow waited for her to continue, laying his head on his forearms. She said nothing for awhile. The thunderheads overtook the moon; the lightning broke through the cloud bank, streaking through the space between sea and sky.

‘I had counted us fortunate to find a sister so close at hand,’ she said. Now she turned to look down at Iron and Snow. ‘There is nothing quite like the taste of hope turned to bitterness in your mouth. Still, there is one more door open to us.’ Iron and Snow raised his head. Old Mother frowned. ‘When the pack returns from the Night Hunt, I will tell them.’

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