The scent hung faintly in the still air, tickling the animal's nose, hinting at memories long since set aside. Glancing furtively to left and right, the hound slipped away from the scavenging wolf pack, crunching a lone trail through the freshly laid snow.
There— sticking out from a crumbled white heap, the outline of a man's leg. Bounding closer, the dog sniffed cautiously, then with increasing excitement it began to claw away the snow, revealing a second limb. Somewhere, deep within the frozen tomb, the faintest whisper of a groan slipped from frost-bitten lips, proof that life yet lingered.
The hound sank its teeth into one of the creaky leather boots, focussed on pulling the buried figure from the snow drift. But with a sudden yelp it found itself flying backwards as the boot slipped treacherously from near petrified toes. Scrambling to its feet, it cocked one ear and listened attentively lest its cry might have attracted the attention of the nearby wolves. Relieved that no answering bark was forthcoming, the dog resumed the slow, tedious task of clearing away the snow from the rest of the man's body.
By now it had realised that the buried form was not that of its master. Many moons had slipped by since it had been stupid enough to pursue a surprised caribou down the unmarked trails. The trapper had whistled for its return but the foolishness of youth had compelled it to fly over the next ridge, unprepared for neither the sudden ditch that had driven the breath from its body nor for the half-buried tree root that had plunged its world into darkness. By the time the dog had staggered clumsily to its feet, all that remained of its master and canine companions had been barely visible sledge tracks that soon vanished in the frozen wastes.
The wolves had come upon the hound that same night. The fight was short and bloody and useless. Mere seconds later and its throat would have been torn out, its blood left to stain the unending snow, a testament to the unquestioned superiority of the wild. But a she-wolf had intervened, nipping the lead wolf on the shoulder, claiming the dog's life in lieu of some long-forgotten favour. Ultimately she had taken the dog as mate, bearing seven pups in two litters, three of which had survived the long winters when food seemed as distant as the warmth of the sun's embrace.
The man's head was visible now. Desperate with equal measures of anticipation and fear, the dog tore off the layers of cloth and licked the exposed face, probing with its tongue between colourless lips. Suddenly, the figure coughed. One eye quivered, then opened a crack. Moments later the man's head shifted, breaking free from its icy confinement.
“Get out of here, you mangy cur.”
The words were barely more than a whisper, but their tone was unmistakeable. Hesitant, bewildered, the dog backed off two steps. It watched as the man tore himself free from the snow's grasp and clambered uncertainly to his feet.
“You keep your filthy hands off my furs. They're my ticket out of this God-forsaken place. Get away!”
Distant memories tiptoed tentatively through the animal's mind. Its master had sometimes ranted like this, more usually after drinking heavily of the brown water he carried everywhere in a metal tin. But this man ought to be grateful. By now he should be stroking the faithful hound, muttering thanks for the unexpected rescue, fondly tickling the tips of its ears.
The man picked up a branch and hurled it feebly at the dog. The wood fell short but the message didn't need repeating. Turning tail the dog disappeared between the trees and didn't stop running. A short time later, the tirade of insults turned to howls of terror as the wolf pack tracked down the source of all the disturbance. Thereafter the only noise was that of the crunching of bones.
That night, as the moon dragged itself wearily through the heavens, the hound crept into its camp among the tall pine trees. Nuzzling the distended belly of its mate, it lay down and pondered the injustice of fate. In heroic self-sacrifice it had offered to abandon the companionship of the wolf pack for the sake of a human in real and desperate need. But the man had rejected the dog's love; had scorned it; had paid dearly for his vanity.
Exhausted by sorrow, the adopted 'wolf' fell asleep.
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