Afew more days slipped by. I was so glad to be alive, I was savoring every moment of it. My body had healed almost completely, though faint bruises lingered in certain places. My strength had returned. I was full of energy, ready to go.
I barely noticed the cold. I'd grown used to the nip of the wind and the chill of the snow. The occasional strong blast set me shivering, but most of the time I felt as natural wandering about naked as the wolves.
I'd been accepted as an equal member of the pack now that I was back on my feet, and I was constantly out hunting - since I was able to run faster than the wolves, my services were in great demand. I was gradually coming to terms with the way they thought and communicated. I couldn't read their thoughts, but most of the time I had a good idea what they were thinking - I could tell by the way they hunched their shoulders, widened or narrowed their eyes, perked or dropped their ears and tails, growled or barked or whined. On the hunt, if Streak or another wolf wanted me to go to the left or the right, he only had to look at me and twitch his head. If a she-wolf wanted me to play with her cubs, she howled in a certain soft way, and I knew she was calling me.
The wolves, for their part, seemed able to understand everything I said. I rarely spoke - there wasn't much need for words - but whenever I did, they'd cock their heads intently and listen, then reply with a yap or gesture.
We moved around a lot, as was the wolves' way. I kept an eye open for Vampire Mountain, but didn't see it. That puzzled me - the reason the wolves met out here in the wild was to converge on the mountain and eat the leftovers that the vampires threw to them. I decided to ask Streak about it, although I didn't think he'd be able to comprehend my question or fashion a reply. To my surprise, when I mentioned Vampire Mountain, the hairs rose on the back of his neck, and he growled.
"You don't want to go there?" I frowned. "Why not?" Streak's only reply was another growl. Thinking about it, I guessed it had to be the vampaneze. The wolves must know about the purple-skinned invaders, or else they'd simply sensed trouble and were steering clear of the mountain.
I had to do something about the vampaneze, but the thought of going back to Vampire Mountain scared me. I was afraid the vampires would kill me before I had a chance to explain about the vampaneze. Or they might think I was lying and take Kurda's word over mine. Eventually I'd have to return, but I was delaying as long as possible, pretending to myself that I was still recovering and not fit to make the trip.
My three broken fingers had healed. I'd set the bones as best I could - very painful! - and wrapped the fingers together using long reeds and leaves. The thumb on my right hand still stuck out at an angle and hurt when I moved it, but that was only a minor irritation.
When I wasn't hunting or playing with the cubs, I thought a lot about Gavner. I got a pain in my stomach whenever I recalled his death, but I couldn't stop thinking about him. The loss of a friend is a terrible, tragic thing, especially when it happens suddenly, without warning.
What really sickened me about Gavner's death was that it could have been avoided. If I hadn't run away, or if I hadn't trusted Kurda, or if I'd stayed and fought with Gavner - he'd still be alive. It wasn't fair. He didn't deserve to die. He'd been a brave, loyal, warmhearted vampire, a friend to all.
Sometimes when I thought about him, I was filled with hatred and wished I'd grabbed his knife and killed Kurda, even if it meant my own death at the hands of the vampaneze. Other times, a sweeping sadness would come over me, and I'd cover my face with my hands and cry, wondering what prompted Kurda to do such an awful thing.
The wolves were puzzled by my behavior. They didn't spend much time grieving for their dead. If they lost a partner or cub, they howled miserably for a while, then got on with their lives. They couldn't understand my mood swings.
To cheer me up, Streak took me out hunting with him late one evening. Normally, we never went hunting by ourselves, but the pack was settling in for the night, so we went without them.
It was nice to be on our own. A drawback to running with a pack is that you have to be very organized - if you make a wrong move that ruins the hunt, you're treated with disgust. Now that it was just Streak and me, we were free to lollop along as we pleased and make idle detours. It didn't matter whether we caught something or not - we were in search of sport, not prey.
We tracked a couple of young, frisky reindeer. We didn't expect to catch them, but it was fun to follow them. I think they sensed our harmless intentions because they kept turning back and running at us, then tossing their heads and fleeing. We'd been tracking them for almost fifteen minutes when the two reindeer reached the top of a small mound and paused to sniff the air. I started after them, but Streak growled and drew to a halt.
I stopped, wondering what was wrong. Streak was standing stock-still like the reindeer. Then, as the reindeer turned and bolted back toward us, he nudged my legs with his snout and took off for a clump of bushes to the side. I followed quickly, trusting his more highly developed senses. We found a thick bush that gave us a clear view of the mound and lay low behind it.
A minute passed. Two. Then a figure appeared over the mound. My eyes were as sharp as they'd ever been, and I recognized the far-off vampire immediately - Mr. Crepsley!
I started to get to my feet, overjoyed, and opened my mouth to roar a greeting. A low growl from Streak stopped me. The wolf's tail hung flat behind him, the way it did when he was anxious. I wanted to rush forward to greet my old friend, but I knew Streak wouldn't be acting this way without good reason.
Lying down flat beside the wolf, I kept my eyes on the mound, and soon the cause for his concern became obvious: behind Mr. Crepsley marched five other vampires, and in the front, carrying a sharp, polished sword, was the would-be Prince and traitor - Kurda Smahlt!