Blacksnake's statement interrupted the tired but happy banter of the hunting party as they headed back to the Holt with the bounty of their expedition, loaded down with bundles of Preserver-wrapped buffalo meat and rolled hides and herbs that only grew on the far eastern plainslands fringe of their territory. The elves looked up toward where the hunt leader was pointing; off against the distant haze of trees, a circle of buzzards rotated low over the ground.
"We should lope over and check it out," said True Edge, nodding at Blacksnake across the large travois they were hauling. "See what we can take before other scavengers pick it over."
Blacksnake glanced over his shoulder at his party. "Go. Take Notch and Foxtail with you."
The two elves in question looked at each other. Notch took Foxtail's spear as she shucked off the bundle of hides she was carrying, passing them to him as well. He returned her spear to her once she had mounted Briarfoot, then tossed the hides on the meat-laden travois. There was no need for Notch to unburden himself, though. The only thing he carried besides his own spear was the wolf-pelt he wore like a cloak; it was his wolf Numbnut, who had taken a hoof to the head during the hunt and was killed instantly. Notch was philosophical about it — "He died happy, with a smile on his face," he'd told the others — but was still hard to lose a wolf-friend.
True Edge handed off his side of the travois to Cloudfern, who had given his basket of herbs and plants to Beetle, and with everything settled True Edge mounted his wolf Charm. "Let's go," he ordered, pointing his spear toward the buzzards, and set off at a trot, Foxtail behind him, Notch settling into a lazy lope to keep up with the wolves.
The hunting party were dots in the distance by the time they reached what had gotten the buzzards' attention. The smell hit them first. "Ugh!" Foxtail sniffed, holding her nose. As they rode closer, they could see the limp, emaciated form of a big wolf, stretched out full length in the grass. It looked as dead as it smelled; one of the buzzards had already landed and was preparing to feast on it.
To the surprise of the three elves, the apparently dead wolf thumped its tail and weakly raised its head — the left side of its face was badly mauled, and it was missing its eye.
Bending over, Notch picked up a rock and chucked it at the eager buzzard, knocking it in the head. As the big bird retreated with a squawk, he knelt beside the wolf and reached out a hand toward it. The wolf whimpered and licked his fingers. "I know this wolf! It's Wasp and Starfire's pup from last spring. The smart one!"
Foxtail dismounted to join Notch as she too recognized it. "The pack ran him off during the winter. He kept stealing Halfmoon's food. Poor thing."
With a sad sigh, True Edge swung his wolf around to leave. "Put him out of his misery, and let's go."
Reluctant to perform that mercy, Foxtail stepped back. That left Notch to carry out the deed. He stood and raised his spear, eyes on the injured wolf. The mauled wolf looked back up plaintively and whimpered.
Notch's heart nearly broke at that. This wolf was so full of try. He seemed determined to fight for life, even though he was starving, mangled, one-eyed and half-dead. There was no way Notch could snuff that out, no matter how merciful it might have been. He and the wolf just looked at each other for long moments as he thought, the wolf thumping his tail again weakly.
True Edge turned back to frown at Notch over his shoulder. "It's already dead, just too stubborn to admit it," he growled impatiently. "Put it down and let's get back to the others."
Instead, Notch turned to Foxtail. "Give me your spear," he said, reaching after hers. With a dubious look, she handed it over. Kneeling down next to the wounded wolf, he removed his waterskin from his belt and held it so the animal could drink. The wolf lapped eagerly at the water.
"You aren't doing that beauty a kindness to keep it suffering," True Edge said with disgust.
"He wants to live."
"Lad, don't be a fool. Look — losing your Numbnut was a shock to us all, but you are not going to replace that good old wolf with this dying bag of rot and bones—"
Notch ignored his elder, and instead took off the wolf pelt he was wearing. He began strapping it to the spears as a makeshift travois. "Foxtail, I need your belt and sling. Loan them to me?"
The other two watched as Notch finished the travois and began to drag the wolf onto it, the creature whining in pain. "Come on, old Numbnut will carry you," Notch grunted. "You're a big fellow, aren't you?"
"There's no talking you out of this, is there?" True Edge sighed in resignation.
They started off to rejoin the hunting party, Notch shouldering the travois by himself. "I still think you're wasting your time," True Edge grumbled.
"There's nothing wrong with him that I can't mend. He's not as bad as he looks." And with the wolf's will to live, Notch knew he'd have him patched up in no time. He also knew the wolf would have to fight his way back into the pack. With the amount of fight the wolf had in him, and as smart as he was, Notch didn't see that as much of a problem either. He wouldn't be surprised if his new friend eventually made it all the way up to the top of the pack, or close to it.
"What about that eye?" Foxtail asked.
"I'll make an eyepatch for him," Notch replied. "He'll be a real beauty then."