The she-wolf treated methe same as the three cubs, making sure I got enough milk, covering me with her paws to keep me warm, licking behind my ears and around my face to clean me (I crept away when I had to go to the bathroom!). I remained with her for a couple of days, slowly regaining my strength, cuddling up to her and the cubs for warmth, surviving on her warm milk. It didn't taste good, but I was in no position to complain.
Pain racked my body as I recovered. Bruises covered me like purple leeches. My cuts weren't too serious - the cold restricted the flow of blood - but they stung like crazy. I wished I had some of Seba's healing spider webs to apply to them.
The more I thought about my slide down the mountain stream, the more incredible it seemed. Had I really done it, or was this some crazy dream? If not for the pain, I might have believed it was the latter, but dreams are painless, so it had to be real.
More incredible still was that I hadn't broken any major bones. Three fingers on my left hand were broken, my right thumb was sticking out at an alarming angle, and my left ankle had swollen up like a balloon, but otherwise I seemed to be OK. I could move my arms and legs, my skull hadn't been cracked open, my spine hadn't snapped in two. All things considered, I was in astonishingly good shape.
As the days passed, I stretched and tested myself. I still slept beside the she-wolf and drank from her, but I started getting up to take short walks, hobbling around the glade, exercising lightly. My left ankle hurt terribly, but the swelling went down, and it eventually returned to normal.
As my strength returned, Streak brought me meat and berries. I couldn't eat a lot in the beginning, but I sucked plenty of blood from the small animals he brought, and my appetite increased quickly.
Rudi spent a lot of time with me. He was fascinated by my bald head - I'd had to shave my hair off after it caught fire during one of my Trials of Initiation - and never tired of licking it and rubbing his chin and nose over it.
After four days (possibly five or six - I hadn't kept close track of time) the wolves moved on to a new patch. It was a long march - seven or eight miles - and I lagged behind most of the way, helped along by Streak, Rudi, and the she-wolf who'd been suckling me (she now regarded me as one of her cubs and mothered me the same as the others).
As hard as the trek was, it was beneficial, and when I awoke that night after a long, dreamless sleep, I felt almost as good as I had before my descent down the stream. The worst of the bruising had subsided, the cuts had healed, my ankle hardly bothered me, and I was able to eat normally.
That night, I went hunting with the pack. I couldn't move fast, but I kept up and helped bring down an old reindeer that several of the wolves were tracking. It felt good to be contributing to the pack after they'd done so much for me, and I gave most of my share of the meat to the she-wolf and cubs.
There was a nasty scene the next day. The dark wolf who'd objected to my presence when Streak brought me into the pack had never accepted me. He growled and barked whenever I came close and often snatched food from my hands while I was feeding. I avoided him as much as I could, but that day, when he saw me playing with the cubs and handing meat out to them, he snapped.
He charged at me, barking wildly, trying to drive me off. I backed away from him slowly, not showing any fear, but I didn't leave the pack - if I let him chase me out once, he'd never stop hounding me. I circled around the wolves, hoping he'd lose interest in me, but he followed, determined, snarling menacingly.
As I prepared to fight, Streak darted between us and faced the darker wolf. He bristled to make himself look big and growled deeply. It looked as though the dark wolf would back off, but then he lowered his head, bared his fangs, and lunged at Streak, claws extended.
Streak met the challenge, and the pair rolled away, biting and scratching at each other. The wolves around them hastily cleared out of their way. Some younger cubs yapped with excitement, but most of the older wolves ignored the fighting or looked on with only mild interest. They were used to fights like this.
It seemed to me as though the wolves were going to tear each other to pieces, and I ran around them, hoping to pull them apart. But as the fight progressed, I realized that, for all their barking, snapping, and clawing, they weren't doing a lot of actual damage. Streak's snout had been scratched, and the dark wolf was bleeding from a couple of bites, but they weren't out to really hurt each other. It was more like a wrestling match than anything else.
As the fight wore on, it became obvious that Streak was beating the other wolf. He wasn't as heavily built, but he was faster and sharper, and for every swipe to the head he took, he delivered two or three of his own.
All of a sudden, the dark wolf stopped, lay down, and rolled over, baring his throat and belly. Streak opened his mouth and clamped his teeth around the dark wolf's throat, then let go without breaking the skin and stood back. The dark wolf got to his feet and slunk away, tail between his legs.
I thought the wolf might have to leave the pack, but he didn't. Although he slept by himself that night, none of the wolves tried to chase him away, and he took his regular place in the hunting pack the next time they set out.
I thought about that a lot over the next day or two, comparing the way wolves handled their losers to how vampires handled theirs. In the world of vampires, defeat was a disgrace and more often than not ended with the death of the defeated. Wolves were more understanding. Honor mattered to them, but they wouldn't kill or shun a member of their pack just because it had lost face. Young wolf cubs had to endure tests of maturity, just as I'd endured the Trials of Initiation, but they weren't killed if they failed.
I wasn't an expert on the subject, but it seemed to me that vampires could learn a thing or two from wolves if they took the time to study their ways. It was possible to be both honorable and practical. Kurda Smahlt, for all his treacherous faults, got that much right at least.