Rudi was the wolf cubwho'd accompanied Mr. Crepsley, Harkat, Gavner, and me on part of the journey to Vampire Mountain. He'd been in a small pack that included two she-wolves and a large male whom I'd christened Streak. They'd left us to unite with other wolf packs close to Vampire Mountain.
Rudi leapt around me, barking with excitement. He'd grown since I'd last seen him: his fangs were longer and his fur was even thicker. I managed to lift my head and smile weakly. "I'm in big trouble, Rudi," I muttered as the cub licked my fingers. He cocked his ears and gazed at me seriously, as though he understood. "Big trouble," I repeated softly, then collapsed again.
Rudi rubbed his nose against my right cheek. It was wet and warm. He licked around my eyes and ears, then pressed his body against mine, trying to warm me up. When he saw how helpless I was, he took a few paces back and howled. Moments later, a second wolf emerged from the forest, larger, sleeker, and every bit as familiar as Rudi.
"Streak," I whispered as the wolf advanced cautiously. His ears perked up when he heard my voice, then he bounded forward. Rudi kept yapping until Streak snapped at him. The adult wolf sniffed me from head to toe, then barked at Rudi. They lay out flat beside me, Streak behind, Rudi in front, covering most of my body with theirs, transmitting their heat.
After a few minutes, warmth seeped through me. I flexed and unflexed my fingers and toes, working the worst of the chill out of them. I curled up into a ball, so the wolves could cover more of me, and buried my face between Rudi's hairy shoulders. We lay like that for hours, the wolves shifting position every so often to keep warm. Finally, Streak got to his feet and barked.
I tried getting up. Failed. Shook my head and groaned. "It's no use. I can't go on." The wolf studied me silently, then bent and bit my butt! I yelped and rolled away instinctively. Streak followed, and I leapt to my feet. "Stay back, you no-good -," I shouted, then stopped when I saw the look on his face.
I stared down at my body, then at Streak, and grinned sheepishly. "I'm standing," I whispered redundantly. Streak howled softly, then nipped my right leg lightly and faced the trees. Nodding wearily, I set off for the forest, and the wolves padded along beside me.
The going wasn't easy. I was cold and exhausted, and stumbled more times than I could keep track of. Streak and Rudi kept me going. Whenever I stalled, they pressed against me, or breathed warmly over me, or snapped to make me get up. At one stage, Streak let me grab the thick, long hair around his neck, and half-dragged me through the snow.
I'm not sure why they bothered with me - usually wild animals leave wounded companions behind if they can't keep up. Maybe they wanted to stay on the good side of the vampires, who gave them lots of scraps during Council. Or perhaps they sensed hidden resources within me and knew my cause wasn't hopeless.
After a long, hard walk, we entered a glade, where a large pack of wolves had gathered. There must have been twenty or thirty of them, lying about, eating, playing, and grooming themselves, all different colors, builds, and breeds. The wolves regarded me with suspicion. One, a dark, bulky male, padded over and sniffed me, then growled threateningly, raising its hackles. Streak met its challenge and growled back.
The two stood snarling at each other for a few seconds before the unwelcoming wolf turned its back on us and loped away.
Rudi ran after the dark wolf, yapping, but Streak barked angrily at the cub, and he returned, tail between his legs. As I blinked owlishly at the wolves, Streak nudged me forward to where a she-wolf was suckling three cubs. She laid a protective paw over her cubs and growled at us as we approached, but Streak whined and dropped to his belly to show he meant no harm.
When the she-wolf had relaxed, Streak stood and locked gazes with the female. The she-wolf snarled. Streak bared his fangs and snarled back, pawed at the snow in front of her, then locked gazes again. This time, she lowered her head and didn't respond. Streak struck the backs of my legs with his snout, and I dropped to the ground. As he nudged me on, I understood what he wanted me to do. "No!" I resisted, insides churning. "I can't!"
Streak growled and pushed me forward. I was too weak to argue. Besides, it made sense - I was cold and hungry, but too weak to eat. I needed to get something warm and nourishing into me, something that didn't need to be chewed.
I lay down and wriggled forward, gently shoving the three cubs to one side, making space. The cubs yapped suspiciously at me, then crowded around, sniffed me all over, and accepted me as one of their own. When my face was up close to the suckling she-wolf's belly, I took a deep breath, paused, then found a teat, closed my lips around it, and drank.