Rayni drew as close to the boundary of her pack’s territory as she dared. Though it was night, they would be able to see and smell her presence easily. Orion, as fair as he was, would follow through with his threat to kill her on return, as would the others.
There was one, however, who just might hear her out. She only hoped she was right.
Wesler usually had the night shift, so she just had to wait. Time passed slowly, though the moon in the sky barely moved. What if he told her to get lost? What if he called the rest of the pack, and they executed her?
What if he killed her himself?
Wesler’s familiar scent filled Rayni's nostrils. His shape appeared to her right, the moon casting a large shadow on the ground in front of him. As he drew closer, her pulse quickened. She steeled her nerves, forcing her doubts to the back of her mind. She needed to see this through, even if it meant death.
Wesler’s light gray fur shone in the moonlight. He stopped and sniffed the air, his coat bristling. “Rayni?”
Her legs trembled as she walked forward. “Hi, Wesler.”
“What are you doing here? You know if Orion sees you he’ll kill you.”
She crouched, but held her stare. “I know.”
“I found food, Wesler.”
He guffawed. “And you came all the way back here to tell us, is that it? Did you think Orion would let you back in?”
She broke away from his gaze. “No. I just wanted the chance to fix my mistake. I wanted to feed my pack.”
“We are not your pack anymore, Rayni! Just leave. We’ll be fine without you.”
She yipped, pawing at him. “Please, Wesler, I’m telling the truth! There are sheep. Enough to feed the pack for months!”
“Prove it. Bring me one of the sheep. Tomorrow night.”
“Tomorrow? But it’s a two day’s journey from here!”
“Tomorrow, right after sundown.” He pushed past her and continued his perimeter duty. “If you’re late, don’t bother returning at all. Ever.”
Rayni’s lungs burned as she neared the village. The sun sat high in the sky. She’d made it. Now she just had to grab a sheep in broad daylight, and get back before sundown.
She burst through the trees and paced along the fenceline until she found another young lamb. She snapped at its leg just as the head of the nearest sheep came out of the snow. It bleated, loud and shrill. Rayni pulled the young ewe under the fence and dashed into the forest, the familiar sounds of “Wolf!” echoing behind her. She gripped the lamb’s limp body in her jaws and raced through the forest, praying she would make it in time.
Rayni collapsed outside the border just as the sun started to dip behind the trees. Wesler stood in front of her. Taking a deep breath she willed herself to stand. “I’m here.” She pushed the lamb’s body to him. “I brought your proof.”
Wesler sniffed the body, then perked his ears and looked at her. “It’s fresh. You were telling the truth.” He turned to one of the other wolves on patrol. “You! Bring this lamb to the cubs, then ask Orion to come out here.”
The wolf barked, then picked up the lamb and carried it to the camp.
Rayni and Wesler waited in silence. Her body shook from exhaustion and fear, but she remained standing. She couldn’t afford to show any signs of weakness. Not now.
Finally, Orion appeared. “Rayni. I understand you found food.”
She met his intense gaze and nodded. “Yes, Alpha.”
“Can you lead us there?”
Her paws burned from running all day. She longed to lie down and go to sleep. “Of course, sir.”
“How long of a journey is it?”
Orion turned to Wesler. “Assemble as many of the remaining hunters as you can spare. We leave at dawn.”
“Yes, Alpha.” Wesler gave a quick nod, then he left her alone with the leader of the pack she had betrayed.
Orion took a step towards Rayni. She flinched. He still had the right to kill her regardless of the situation. “Two days. And yet you made it there and back in less than one.”
She perked her ears and cocked her head. “Wesler told you?”
“Of course he did. What did you hope for, Rayni? That we would take you back in?”
So she was still banished. Had she been secretly hoping she could come home? “N-no, sir. I...I just wanted to make sure my pack was fed.” She flattened her ears. Wesler was right. This wasn’t her pack anymore. Tears sprang to her eyes. She had no home here.
“You may rest here tonight, Rayni. You will lead us to these sheep and help us bring the food back. That is all. Understood?”
She lowered her head in acknowledgement. He led her to the quarantine den where she spent the night. Alone.
The sounds of many wolves gathering woke her the next morning. She opened her eyes, blinking in the morning light that filled the den. Wesler poked his head in. “It’s time.”
Rayni last heard those words when was being led to what she thought was her execution. Now she would be leading them to their salvation. Rising to her feet she stretched, her muscles stiff from yesterday’s run. She slipped out through the den opening and joined the others.
“Good.” Orion lifted his head and addressed the assembled wolves. “Our guide is awake. Let’s go.”
Not a word was spoken as Rayni led them through the forest towards the village. Even in the silence, their presence soothed the loneliness of the past week. It felt good to run with the pack again.
The sun was dropping in the west the following day as they reached the village, approaching the field of sheep as one entity. The lone shepherd boy sounded the alarm, but no other humans showed up, giving Rayni and her pack free rein. Once each wolf had eaten, they began transporting sheep back to the others. A week later every hunter knew the location of the village, and every wolf and cub had eaten their fill.
Rayni lingered at the entrance to the pack’s camp. Her job was done--her debt repaid. She watched the wolves she loved and had grown up with go about their daily business, their stomachs full once again. She longed to remain here with them, but this wasn’t her home anymore. It was time to serve the remainder of her sentence, and go on alone. The knowledge that they were fed and happy was all she needed.
Lifting her face to the sky, she howled her mournful farewell. Then she turned away, leaving the pack for good.
You can read about what led me to write this story on my new off-Steem blog.