Serell woke to a stinging pain. Sitting on the damp ground with his back to a tree, he looked up, the forest canopy blocking out much of the morning light. What there was of it, at least. The overcast sky gave the woods an ominous feel and water droplets struck his face from a pine branch several feet above.
He’d been on the run for nearly a day. Serell hadn’t heard the voices of his pursuers since dusk, but he figured a large, dark-skinned man such as himself could only hide so long.
The burning. It demanded his attention again. Serell glanced at his right arm, a large gash stretching across his bicep. He put a hand to it and winced. Applying pressure to the area did little to relieve the discomfort. The bleeding had ceased, but the puffy red skin around the wound worried him. An infection could be forthcoming if it hadn’t set in already.
Soft footsteps against the moist earth.
Directly in front of him.
Serell reached for his knife, the injured muscle causing him to grimace as he clutched it.
Between two bushes, the intruder emerged. White with scraggly fur and hazel eyes, the wolf stopped and stared. Serell exhaled, making certain to take steady breaths. Any sudden movement could be seen as an act of aggression. As the wolf approached, Serell’s breathing picked up, but only faintly. The animal gave no sign of being a threat, and the knife offered some security if his hunch proved to be wrong.
The wolf sniffed his pants, gradually moving higher to the lacerated arm. A shiver escaped him as its snout came within inches of the wound. He wanted to cringe but kept still. Serell maintained eye contact with the animal. Only when the wolf’s tongue touched his arm did he look away and recoil ever so slightly.
An intense burning followed, the pain quickly escalating. Serell feared he would soon pass out, so what came next shocked him. Like a candle flame being extinguished, the throbbing ceased. The wolf stopped licking, and Serell glanced at his arm. Though the cut remained, the surrounding tissue had healed.
When Serell looked up again, the wolf was standing at his feet. It turned away, took a few steps, and then glimpsed back at him. Serell nodded his head in appreciation. The wolf continued to gawk, though, as if wanting him to follow. Serell got to his feet and sheathed the knife.
“Would you like company?” Serell said.
He felt ridiculous for asking. Wolves didn’t talk. However, after what he had just witnessed, Serell chose to keep an open mind. The wolf bobbed its head, Serell only partially surprised at the animal’s response.
He followed the wolf, which walked at a constant pace and never looked back. Within a few minutes, Serell caught a whiff of smoke. With the recent bout of rain, a forest fire seemed out of the question, but a campfire was certainly possible. The wolf led him into an opening soon after, and Serell smiled at the sight.
A large pot hung over a fire with bowls and utensils scattered about. The wolf moved toward the fire, putting its nose to the pot and nudging it. Serell was certain the animal had been burned by the heat, but it didn’t whimper and showed no physical signs of distress. He wandered over to look inside the pot. Some sort of stew. It bubbled softly and smelled of venison and vegetables. The wolf nudged it again and stared at him.
“I can eat this?” Serell said.
The wolf nodded.
Serell debated. If the rightful owner came along and found him meddling, there could be trouble. Serell’s rumbling stomach voiced its displeasure, ultimately making the choice for him.
He found a ladle and poured some stew into a bowl. Serell blew on it, letting the steam dissipate before lifting a chunk of meat to his mouth. Pure delight. Serell scooped it down with haste. As much as he wanted more, he let the food digest. With a full stomach and his arm on the mend, Serell eased onto his back, quickly dozing off.
A snapping of wood forced his eyes open, and a man with an axe appeared before him. Serell slid a hand along his waist, feeling for his knife, but only the sheath remained. The knife was gone.
“Are you looking for this?” the man said, holding the blade Serell so eagerly sought.
Though the unkempt stranger possessed good size, he paled in comparison to Serell. Yet, the man had an advantage over him, and he stood with unflinching confidence. He threw the knife into a thick patch of underbrush, well out of Serell’s reach.
“I’m not a wagering man,” he said, “but I bet you’re the one they’ve been looking for.”
Stepping forward, the man kept the axe in hand. Serell rolled to his side, attempting to escape the path of the weapon should the stranger choose to use it, but the blow never came. He turned to look. The wolf had positioned itself in front of the man, successfully separating the two combatants.
Glancing down at the animal, the stranger pondered his next move. He took another step, trying again to close the gap, but the wolf stood its ground. Snorting in disappointment, he appeared to come to an agreement with the animal. With a jerk of his head, the man motioned to the woods.
Serell wasn’t the type to back down from a fight, but he knew when to leave his pride behind. Without hesitation, he got to his feet and ran. After reaching a thicker part of the forest, Serell went from sprinting on two legs to resting on all four. Nature had a way of sympathizing with the deeds of man. Even when that man was part animal himself.