Thursday, April 28, 2016

Moment of Truth

Sergei stood among the trees, his long black coat and black slouch hat turning him into just one more looming shadow. He looked down on the shabby little cabin in the hollow. It sat right on the border of Hancock territory, just far enough from the hub of power to be overlooked. If Damien Hancock knew who’d taken up residence there, he wasn’t showing interest, testament to his arrogance. It was Zhere Ghan who’d seen a danger in this particular chess piece, and wanted it off the board.

He prowled around the cabin twice, drawing ever closer. He found no wolf-sign in evidence. Warner Hancock wasn’t about to announce his presence until he was ready. Would the current crop of Hancocks even know his scent? Doubtful. They wouldn’t see much threat in an aged Alpha, his child bride and an infant. Only a Ghan would hear a challenge in a newborn’s cry.

A thin curl of smoke ghosted out of the chimney. From within he heard the chime of a girl’s laugh.

The front door, when he gingerly tested it, was locked. The back door off the kitchen was not.

One of his targets, the infant’s mother, was standing at the sink. Her laughter cut off on a squeak when Sergei threw open the kitchen door and stepped into the cabin. Her eyes grew wide and her mouth formed a perfect O. Soapy water dripped from her fingers. She stared at him in shock for only a moment, then grabbed a saucepan that still smelled of beef gravy and swung it at his head.

A poor weapon, poorly handled. The girl was no fighter. The saucepan missed his chin by a wide margin. He caught her arm easily and squeezed until she dropped the pan. She struck out with her free hand, fingers aimed at his eyes. He caught that arm as well. She snarled and snapped at air with her human teeth and kicked his legs. She might as well have been striking at a redwood.

From the little room just off the kitchen he heard a baby cry.

And a roar. Warner Hancock charged out of the bedroom and launched himself at Sergei. He’d grown too old to shift; he was forced to defend his family in his human form. Sergei shoved the girl away and grabbed him by the neck. A simple thrust through the open doorway sent him tumbling into the back yard. One threat disposed of.

He turned toward the other and was hit by wiry muscle and leaping fur. The girl had gone wolf. He caught her by the scruff of the neck, like a cub, and tossed her outside after her husband. Then he shut and bolted the door.

The infant continued to wail. He followed the sound into the little bedroom.

# # #

Ilsa hit the ground, rolled, scrambled upright and threw herself at the door. She clawed at it frantically while Warner first tried the latch, then slammed his shoulder and then his foot against it. Neither helped. “The axe,” he panted. “Where the hell’d I leave the axe?”

She forced herself still, nose working and ears pricked. Her own panic, more than the reek of tiger musk, nearly choked her.

She couldn’t hear her baby any more.

Both doors were locked. The axe would take too long. She had to get in there now.

The window. She’d been cooking. She’d left the kitchen window open.

She dashed around the corner of the cabin and leaped for the window. Her paws scrabbled at the sill before they found purchase. Ilsa hoisted herself up and shoved her wolf body through the opening. She landed with her paws in the sink, slipped, and tumbled onto the rough wood floor. The impact jolted her back into her human form. Warner was right behind her, levering his aged body over the sill.

Ilsa didn’t wait for him. She dashed into the silent bedroom and skidded to a halt.

Sergei stood beside the bed with Anitra cradled in his arms, crooning a lullaby in Russian. The infant sighed and snuggled more firmly into his huge arms.

“So tiny,” he said. He did not even look at Ilsa. “I have not held baby in long, long time. Such a little bit, to cause so much trouble.”

Shaking, Ilsa took a step forward. She held out her arms to him, silent, pleading. He handed the baby to her. She all but snatched Anitra from him. The baby squirmed and growled a little, but didn’t wake.

Warner charged in with the axe raised. He stared with mouth agape at the tableau.

“You must leave here,” Sergei said. “Is not safe.”

“No shit,” Warner snarled. “Where the hell’d Damien dredge you up?”

“Not Hancock. Zhere Ghan. The tiger lord has plans, and you are in his way. You need to go.”

“Go where? We go into town and the wolves’ll get us, just as soon as they figure out who we are.”

Sergei looked at the wall above their heads. “West of here, on other side of mountain, is farm owned by lion and wife. They will shield you. They owe me favor.”

Ilsa eyed him doubtfully. “Lions?”

“With no love for either Hancock or Ghan. His wife is young and looking to start family. She will welcome chance to practice.” He smiled down at her and her baby. “Husband does as she tells him. He is well-trained American male.”

“Ain’t that the truth,” Warner said with a snort. He lowered the axe. “West of here, over the mountain? There’s nothing that way except—”

“Armed turkeys. You will be careful, yes?”

“So Abram Turkle’s still around? Why didn’t you say so?” Warner cackled. “That old son of a buzzard. Maybe we can strike a deal. I wouldn’t mind having him at my back. At least he and his clan can shoot straight.”

“Is best you go now, before others come. I will show you trail.”

# # #

The two wolves gathered up their belongings—mostly things for the baby—and set out along the path Sergei pointed out. He gave them a long head start, then followed at a discrete distance. Warner must have known this mountain once, because he never once wavered from the trail. They crested the mountain and found the farm with no trouble. Sergei watched from concealment as the lion and his tiger wife opened the door. The wife had Ilsa and her infant inside before the lion could even get his rifle up. He held a brief and bemused conversation with Warner before the elder wolf was also ushered in. Only then did Sergei turn back.

His arms still felt the slight weight of the baby. So little, so helpless. Undeserving of death.

A grown tiger, on the other hand, one who would order such an atrocity—that was another matter entirely.

With purposeful strides he retraced his steps across the mountain, aimed for the Ghan compound.


Serena Shay said...

Sergei, you big softy...well for a baby that is, I'm glad you showed them to some sort of safety. Seems like maybe Sergei needs a baby of his own, you know, when the danger in town passes. :)

Pat C. said...

C'mon. You didn't really think I'd have Sergei assassinate a baby, did you? ;)