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A Rebel's Best Friend

By Marian Mendez
Page 3 of 4

Blake returned, empty-handed, disgusted with himself. Fine woodsman he was. He couldn't find a single deer, although tracks were everywhere. "Vila, how's Avon?" he shouted, immediately seeing that something was wrong. Vila was filthy, scratched and smeared with dirt, with muddy stripes down his face like tear-streaks. He was huddled on the ground, surrounded by the embers of a dozen fires. "What happened?" he shouted, on realizing Vila was alone.

"I only went for water," Vila wailed. "I was careful, Blake, really I was. I had fires all around him. They shouldn't have got him."

"What happened!" Blake grabbed Vila's shoulders and shook, hard. "Where's Avon?"

Vila started to cry, without shame or any attempt to hide his grief. "Avon needed water. He did. He was dying. I went back to the stream. I ran all the way, Blake, but when I got back he was gone. They got him. They ate him." He pointed to a tattered pile of clothes. "They ate him!"

Stunned, Blake examined the clothes. Except for the old marks on the tunic, there were no bloodstains. Then he examined the ground. There were wolf prints, but no sign of blood anywhere. "Vila, the wolves couldn't have eaten him. There's no blood."

"Well, then where is he? I looked and looked and I couldn't find him anywhere. He couldn't have gone by himself. He was burning up, Blake."

"Maybe he wandered off, feverish."

"He couldn't even stand when I left." Vila wiped his face, smearing the dirt around. "And do you even care?" he shouted, suddenly angry. "He didn't want to be here. I don't want to be here." He looked at Blake. "And you didn't even get the damn deer!"

"That's right. It's all my fault. Now calm down. This isn't helping Avon any."

"Nothing will." But Vila stopped shouting and sat down, hugging his arms around his chest and rocking back and forth. "He's gone."

"We'll go back to Gerrat. He'll give us our bracelets," Blake said grimly. "And then Jenna and Cally will help us search for Avon."

Vila sighed. "I didn't even get to bury Gan. I'd like to be able to do that much for Avon."

"Don't talk like that." Blake grabbed Vila and yanked him to his feet. "We'll find Avon. Alive."

"Sure we will," Vila said dully. He looked past Blake's shoulder and yelped. "Look, there's one of them!"

Blake whirled, gun out. Another wolf. This one was larger than the ones that had attacked them, long legged and sleek, with a glossy, chestnut brown, coat. Under any other circumstances, Blake would have called it magnificent. He hesitated, staring at the animal, which gazed at him calmly. Vila picked up one of the firebrands and moved forward, determination on his face.

Blake held out his hand. "Don't, Vila."

"He ate Avon!"

"No. Look at his belly, Vila. I doubt he's eaten anything in days."

Vila let the stick droop. "I don't care. We should still kill it. It's a wolf, isn't it? You Son of a Bitch!" he shouted at the animal.

The wolf opened his mouth, tongue lolling in a canine grin, tail wagging lazily.

"Maybe not." Blake shook his head. "It's not acting like a wolf. And all the wild animals we've seen have been white. Maybe it's a dog."

"How is that any better?" Vila said, remembering a few vicious watchdogs he'd run into in the course of his career. Only the wealthiest Alphas could afford them, but they were worse than any electronic alarm system, in Vila's book.

"Dogs, Vila, can be trained to track."

Vila eyed the animal skeptically. "And you think it could find Avon?"

"Worth a try." Blake knelt and softened his voice. "Here boy. Come. Come on, boy."

The animal snorted and barked at Blake without moving.

"Well, it's definitely a dog. Wolves don't bark."

"And dogs don't come to you." Vila smirked. "Maybe you're just not calling him right." Vila looked at the animal, and yelled, "Hey, you. You dirty, stupid, hairy monster."

It growled.

"Yeah, so what're you going to do about it. Come and get me." He made an obscene gesture, and was unprepared for the response. The dog flattened his ears and came, jumping against Vila and knocking the thief to the ground.

"Blaaaaake!" Vila wailed, from underneath the huge, hairy body. He shrieked when he felt something cold and wet investigate his ear, then a warm, wet swipe of tongue across his face terrified him. "Blaaaaake, he's eating me!"

"No, he isn't." Blake got a good grip on the beast's silky ruff and pulled it off Vila. Up close, the dog was even more impressive. It was half again the size of the white wolves, but so gracefully built, it appeared smaller. It gave Vila another grin, then sat, ignoring Blake's hand on his coat. "See, he's tame."

"Yeah, sure." Vila backed away anyway.

Blake tapped the dog on his muzzle gently, getting a narrow-eyed stare and a soft growl. "With this nose, he should be a hell of a tracker." The dog snarled and pulled itself out of Blake's grip, leaving a handful of fur behind. "Show him Avon's clothes, Vila. Let him get the scent."

Reluctantly, Vila held Avon's tunic out to the dog. The animal looked at Vila's face first, then sniffed the tunic, as if being polite. Then it curled up, yawned and fell asleep. "Well, that did a lot of good."

"It was only a possibility." Blake went back to his pack, which he'd dropped when he saw Vila. "We'll go back to the village."

"Will they help us?"

"Yes." Blake's determination was obvious. "One way or the other, they'll help us." Blake strode off, with Vila at his side.

The dog lifted his head, yawned again, rose, stretched, and trotted off after the two men. It caught up with them quickly, then went past, flicking an ear in acknowledgement as Blake called out to it. The animal stayed nearby, scouting ahead, then returning to them, as if reassuring them that the way was clear.

Vila liked the idea. Let the hairy thing scare off the other hairy things. He decided it would be wise to befriend it and began talking to it whenever it reappeared. Besides, Blake was too upset to talk to him, and he needed someone to talk to. The dog didn't seem to mind.

On one of their rest stops, it even deigned to take food from Vila's hand, with an attitude of conferring an honor on him. It lifted its lip when he tried to pet it, but allowed the caress. Vila buried his face in the soft fur while the dog made grumbling noises, ending with a long-suffering sigh as it resigned itself to the situation. Vila hadn't slept the night before, so Blake wasn't too surprised to return from fetching water to see him sleeping, leaning on the dog. The reluctant pillow rolled one brown eye up at Blake.

"Vila." Blake nudged the thief. "Get up."

Vila rolled over, still clutching fur. The dog had had enough. It shook itself loose and walked off stiffly, offended. "Hmm?" Vila asked, sleepily.

"We have to keep moving."

"Right." Vila got up. "Had the funniest dream, Blake. All about these girls in red fur."

The dog growled, then lifted its head, sniffing the air. It cocked its head to one side, then barked sharply and ran off. "I think whoever owned that dog kicked it out because it's crazy," Vila commented.

"Oh, I don't know," Blake replied. "I rather like him, " remembering the protective way it had been curled around the sleeping thief.

"You would."

After a few minutes, Vila began whistling. He said it was just nerves, but Blake noticed how he kept looking, hoping the dog would return. Vila finally shrugged and said, "All right, he's crazy, but he was company. Gave me something to think about besides- well, you know."

"Yes, I know." Blake said, thinking about Avon. He was still in a sullen mood when Vila stopped him, one hand on Blake's arm.

"I hear him."

"Who? Avon?" Blake whirled. "Where?"

"No. The dog."

In a few seconds, Blake's less acute ears registered the sounds. He pulled out his gun. "You're right. It is the dog. And something large. Coming toward us."

"Er, shouldn't we get out of the way, then?"

"I don't feel like running, Vila. Would you rather be attacked from the rear?" Blake settled into a firing stance, legs braced, waiting. Unhappily, Vila copied him.

The barking grew louder, interspersed with enraged, bellowing noises and the crash of branches and the thud of a heavy body forcing its way through the undergrowth. Still, Blake was not prepared for the creature that emerged from the underbrush directly before them. It was a deer, in the same way that Liberator was a ship. It must have topped two meters at the shoulder and the rack of antlers was nearly that wide. It flared great, red-rimmed nostrils at the men and lunged for them. Blake shot, and was relieved to find that the great deer did not share the wolves' immunity. It reared high, crushing bushes and cracking branches, then fell to the ground, stone dead.

Blake whirled again, snapping the gun up, at another sound, but it was only the dog. Panting, it skirted the blood-drenched ground fastidiously and came to the men. It nudged Blake, then lay down.

Vila stared at the dog, then at the huge, white, mountain of stag. "Well," he said weakly, "I guess you've got your deer."

The dog came to attention once the deer was skinned. "Help yourself," Blake said, indicating the vast carcass lying in the underbrush.

The dog stared at the deer, then gave Blake a level look that seemed to say, "I did my part."

Blake shook his head and smiled. He hacked off a large steak. "Rare suit you?"

The pelt and horns made a heavy, messy package, but Blake shouldered it without complaint. It might be the price of Avon's life. Provided he was still alive and they could get Gerrat's people to help find him before it was too late.

"It's getting dark, Blake," Vila commented. "Are we going to stop?"

"You know the answer, Vila. Avon may not have the time. We can see well enough by moonlight to travel."

"But the wolves..." Vila looked around. "At least we should carry torches."

"I've got my hands full. Of course, if you could carry something besides your supplies..."

"Oh, all right." Vila dropped his red chest to the ground and gave it a farewell salute. "What a waste. That'll teach me to be prepared."

Vila was so tired his feet were dragging and his arms ached from holding a pair of torches aloft. He was reduced to stumbling blindly after Blake. If it wasn't for the dog occasionally nudging him, he would have fallen asleep on his feet long before now.

"Vila." Blake's voice was quiet, but something in it alerted Vila.

"What?" Vila looked up at last, and was surprised to see the distant lights of Gerrat's village. "Hey. We made it."

"Not quite." Blake pointed directly before them at the patches of white moving toward them. "Our friends are back."

"No, no, no. This isn't fair. We've come so far. Blake, I'm so tired," Vila said softly.

"I know, Vila. Stay close to me. Maybe they won't attack this close to the village." Blake started walking again, slower. He was tempted to take one of the torches from Vila, but didn't dare put down the pelt even for a moment. If the wolves got it, all they'd gone through would be for nothing.

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