I needed a couple of weeks to cogitate on the path the story would take toward the impending end. I've cogitated.
The enemy of my enemy . . .
That evening the Small Dog caught a flash of silver among the trees at the edge of the back yard and the soft fall of foot pads on the forest floor. It was so quick and so faint as to leave the less attentive thinking they had simply dreamed it. But the Small Dog was on alert and had been for weeks.
He had begun running the boundaries more often shortly after the Visitor began sleeping with the Boy. Another set of eyes in the house meant he could look toward the safety of the outside.
Head weaving, trying to catch the scent, he crept into the woods, spreading his steps as far apart as possible, with long pauses in between. The broken light around him shifted in the wind and he listened. The trees trembled, and he looked. His nose worked the air, inhaling, separating and cataloguing rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, foxes, a hunter from months before and the deer who’d circled back behind and waited for him to leave.
Shivering with excitement, he scanned and waited for all the pieces to fall into place, absorbing every detail—leaves moving, faint rustles, bird calls, and smells. There. A coyote inside his own borders. A female, to be exact, was a few yards away, frozen against a backdrop of shadows. In the half darkness, he could make out her ribs, an incongruently round belly, and her filthy coat.
The Small Dog bared his teeth. Are you lost or do you wish to die?
Coyotes were not a brave race, preferring to flee rather than to fight unless there was food at stake. This one was trembling with the urge to run and he could sense her fear. His nose twitched with her stench as he stepped closer. He knew the smell of Coyote well, a mixture of the dead they rolled in, the carrion they ate, the acrid air of the unwashed. But hers was tinged with something more. And as he looked more closely he realized she was favoring a shoulder and in tracing the slope of it in the darkness his eyes fell on a tear in the skin that exposed muscle beneath. He’d smelled blood, and lots of it. She was in no shape to fight, much less run.
You’re having a bad day.
Her hackles rose higher and she showed the full length of her long incisors. I can still kill you.
Only if I lay down and let you. It was common knowledge that a starving Coyote pack sometimes attacked and drove out the weak when there were new pups. The outcast would die from their wounds and there would be less competition for food. Did they drive you away?
The family did not do this.
Her teeth flashed again in the semi darkness. I am too fast.
Then who? Ordinarily her problem would be nothing to him. If she died out there in the forest it would be one less coyote to chase his rabbits and mark his borders. But even wounded coyotes were not usually careless enough to cross them.
Let me escape and I will tell you.
Even if he had been inclined to attempt an attack, he knew that even hurt she could do a lot of damage to him before he killed her, damage he might not recover from. But maybe she didn’t know that.
Her head rose higher, her ears swiveling as she swept the surrounding terrain with her eyes. My brothers are waiting just over the hill.
So she was bait. And I am supposed to chase? Why should I believe you?
You could follow me and fine out.
So run then. He stretched and yawned, heavy on the bravado. I haven't tasted Coyote in years.
The young Coyote still didn't move. He could smell her desperation. Our pups. All dead.
He didn’t care one way or another about the coyote’s young either. But again, his senses tingled with the significance.
Who’s killing your—and flash of insight. The Queen. She’s killing your pups.
We failed her last time. We are not to fail again.
Finally the last detail fell into place. The swell of her belly. The young female was pregnant. The Queen had killed the other pups to force the Coyotes into obedience; knowing all they had left were the unborn and they’d do anything to protect them. This one, and probably others, were wounded trying to protect them. This ambush was a desperate attempt to demonstrate the pack’s allegiance. She was probably the bottom of the order and the alpha, who was probably pregnant herself, had sent her because she was dripping blood and would attract his attention.
She read his silence correctly. We are supposed to begin with you.
Because he ran the boundaries and sounded the alarm. So why tell me this?
You've beaten them before. She would have been raised listening to the evening prayers of the dogs in the surrounding hills and valleys. The family had probably her they were all lies. She was counting, hoping against hope, the family was wrong.
I seem to remember a feast on the night the Old One killed your Queen. Don’t you miss easy pickings?
At this she shifted restlessly, looking toward the top of the hill. Her siblings would be coming soon to see what held her up. She ate our pups alive.
The stark reality of the image made his own narrow hackles rise. The Queen would kill the dogs as easily as she killed the pups and sup on their remains.
Run back and tell your family that I am an old coward and refused to leave the comfort of my own territory. And he snarled and charged her, his piercing war cry reverberating off the hills. She bolted from her hiding place.
He followed her at half speed to the borders and watched as she disappeared into the trees.
The Woman called from the house. It was getting dark and she would be concerned.
He made a show of returning slowly, slinking the last few yards, in part for the benefit of the Coyotes who might be waiting, and in part so the woman would think he was surrendering apologetically.
She carried him into the house like she did so often, and he threw a few tray licks at her face, his tail wagging.
On their way through the house, he sighted the Hound. I have news and a plan.