dogBlake, wolfAvon, lynxServalanRating:
5,000 Summary: Blake wonders what it would be like to roam solitary over the wide mountains. He shivers at the thought of being alone. He has never left his sheep, of course. What would they do without him?Notes:
animal!AU written in possibly one of my less rational moments but I think it came out rather well, considering.Good Shepherd on AO3 here
Somewhere a wolf howls in the moonlight.
Blake pricks his ears in his sleep, wakes. Around him a couple of sheep shift uneasily.
Go back to sleep he tells them firmly. The wolf howls again, nine, maybe ten miles away. No threat to his flock right now, but wolf is new. All summer he has had little to do but keep the scavenging foxes away from the weakest lambs and ware the occasional visits of the subtle lynx. Now his coat is thickening as the nights grow colder and there is a wolf, or a wolf pack, nearby.
This year’s mostly grown lambs are restless, questioning. The older ones are indifferent. There were wolves howling last year and Blake kept them from harm. Sheep cannot imagine change. Dogs can.
He closes his eyes, dozes, lighter this time, with his muzzle resting on the grass between his paws. Until the wolves are gone he will sleep when he can but he will not sleep deeply again.
The man comes, but not every day. When he does he brings meat for Blake. When he does not come Blake hunts mice and rabbits or goes hungry. He quite often catches the mice, but they are not very satisfying. He seldom catches the rabbits. It is better when the man comes.
There used to be a man all the time and another dog, when there were more sheep. Blake would eat every day and the man and dog would help him watch his flock. But men took the other dog and most of the sheep away and now there is just Blake and his remaining charges through the long days on the mountain and long nights on the flat pasture down by the empty hut.
The sheep move up onto the mountainside for the day. Blake sniffs around the edges of the flock but there is no scent of wolf, only rabbits and mice and the lingering smell of cat from last week’s visitation. He wrinkles his nose up at that, remembering the sharp clear voice of the lynx. She teases him and lures him but he will not leave his sheep to chase her and she always goes away hungry. She is not really dangerous this time of year, with his lambs grown to lumbering things almost as heavy as their dams, but he does not like her and he does not like her scent in his territory. He cocks a leg over it and the offending odour vanishes.
Blake’s sheep graze contentedly or chew the cud. Blake lies in the weakening September sun and dozes a little more, ears always pricked for any sheep commotion. Maybe the man will come today with food. That would be a good day.
The man does come. He is waiting as the flock come down off the hillside. Blake runs to him. Good boy, the man says and he wags his heavy tail. There will be food now, and the man is pleased with him. His flock is safe. All is right with the world.
No. The man has brought the mule; it is tethered some way down the path. Blake eyes it, not looking directly, as if it might vanish if he pretends it isn’t there. He hates the mule; when the man brings it close he growls and barks at it. When the mule comes, the man wants one of his sheep.
The man throws a rope around the neck of one of Blake’s lambs. Blake crouches low to the ground, growls and growls because he can’t help it, but he knows that he must not attack the man even though his sheep are frightened. The man ties the lamb, forelegs and hindlegs, brings up the mule and hauls the animal over the saddle. The sheep will not come back; Blake knows that. Sheep never come back.
There is meat now. Blake eats it, tearing ravenously at the cold flesh, still watching his purloined and protesting lamb. When the man starts back along the path leading the mule Blake whines but the man shouts at him and he is quiet again. He cannot go with the lamb because he must stay with his sheep. All he can do is trust the man, so he does.
Blake is restless and unhappy for the rest of the night. The wolf howls again, slightly closer; the same one. No wolves howl back. It is on its own, then. A young male, probably, too old to stay with its parents, too young to find a mate of its own. Blake wants to chase it, but it is too far away. He must stay with his flock.
The next morning the flock have grazed to high up the hillside when the acrid scent of cat wafts to him on the light breeze and he lifts his head. That way, up. He stares at the rocks, the sparse vegetation, the stunted trees. For a while, nothing then he makes out a shape curved like a crouching back. A rock, or the lynx? As he stands, transfixed, she flicks a tufted ear and he's off, pelting through his scattering sheep. This time he will catch her. This time...
She reaches the small tree just in time, scrabbles up the bark with long claws. He stands on his powerful back legs, stretches his heavy paws as high as they will go but she still has two feet to spare. Go away he barks. Go away! Away!
She relaxes, seeing that she's safe for now, looks down at him with wide set yellow eyes. There's one less today, she says. Careless, Blake. You lost a sheep.
I didn't lose it, he insists. The man took it.
If you let him have one, why not let me? Just one. I'll even share it with you.
If I let you, you'd kill my sheep, he says, horrified. I'd never let you kill one. I'd never let anyone kill one.
She seems to think that's funny. You are such a stupid dog, she purrs.
If I'm stupid, why are you the one stuck up the tree? he asks. I'm going to bite you when you come down, Servalan.
She hisses at him. No you won't.
He spends the day under the tree. Every so often he whines and barks at the lynx but Servalan has curled up in the highest branches that will bear her weight and ignores him. Eventually evening comes and the flock start down the hill towards their night pasture.
They are going without you, Servalan points out to him. Maybe the wolf will come tonight. Maybe the wolf will eat one of your stupid, useless, defenceless sheep. Maybe it will eat all of them. Wouldn't that be sad, Blake?
He runs back and forth between the edge of the flock and the tree, but the sheep are moving steadily downwards and he has to choose. There is a wolf out there somewhere and his place is with his flock. Frustrated, he finally turns his back on the tree and the trapped cat. He can hear Servalan laughing as he runs away, his ears flat and tail pressed close against his legs.
The wolf comes that night. He stays downwind, skulking around the fallen stone of the old hut, but Blake catches a glimpse of grey movement in the silver moonlight. He is older than Blake had expected, not a yearling after all, and large for a wolf, a few inches shorter than the mastiff at the shoulder and maybe three quarters Blake's weight. Blake was heavier once but too many missed meals have left the skin tight over his protruding ribs.
Blake waits, tense, his sleepy and unaware sheep around him, for the wolf to come close enough for him to attack. But the wolf can scent him on the wind and he keeps his distance.
Hello, dog, the wolf finally calls across the empty space. Where is your man?
Not here, Blake replies. I’m here. I will kill you. Come closer, wolf and I will set my teeth in your throat.
No man? The wolf sounds thoughtful. So you guard all those sheep by yourself? What’s your name, dog?
Well, Blake. I’m Avon and I’m hungry. Shall we share a meal?
The man didn’t come today, Blake tells him. I have no food at all.
The wolf snorts. Meat is all around you. Why don’t you eat that?
Blake takes a quick hopeful glance around but there is no food, only his sheep. He cannot eat the grass they graze on, though he has tried occasionally. The wolf talks in riddles, like the lynx does. Go far away, he tells Avon. I don’t like you near my flock.
What makes you think it’s your flock? the wolf asks. Sheep belong to men, not dogs.
It is his flock. Of course it is. He has lived on the mountainside with his sheep for as long as he remembers. Where else could he belong?
The wolf is being mean. Blake can be mean back. Where is your mate, wolf? he asks Avon. Where are your cubs?
Avon lays back his ears, snarling. None of your business, he says. I don’t see yours, dog. Did the men chop your balls off?
Blake whines a little at the back of his throat at the thought. Of course they didn’t. Men are good to him.
I think I’ll stay around this area for a while, Avon says. I like your sheep, Blake. Now I’m going hunting for my dinner. He disappears silently into the brush leaving Blake pacing hungry and frustrated around the edge of the night pasture.
A few days pass. The man comes twice. Blake thinks that maybe he comes less often now. Certainly Blake seems to be hungry most of the time. No more lambs are taken away on the mule and the sheep are unconcerned by Blake’s worry.
Blake spends the days pouncing on field mice in the long tussocks of grass as the sheep graze around him and watching out for the wolf. He hears Avon occasionally, howling plaintively at the moon, but he is always miles away. Servalan must be hunting somewhere else as well. Blake wonders what it would be like to roam solitary over the wide mountains. He shivers at the thought of being alone. He has never left his sheep, of course. What would they do without him?
A small mountain fox strays into his field of vision and he runs at full pelt after it for several hundred yards, barking at the top of his voice, until it twists through the matted undergrowth where his huge body cannot follow. He feels a little guilty afterwards at succumbing to the pleasure of the chase. The fox cannot hurt his grown sheep and he should have stayed closer. He thinks that maybe he would have liked to eat the fox though, if he had caught it. Field mice are only fur and bone and he is very hungry.
The sheep wander all day east, in that way they have of picking a certain direction for a day that Blake can never quite figure out. As they cross the entrance to a gully almost on the furthest edge of their range Blake picks up a sweet, enticing smell. He pauses, but it can’t be far and there is no danger right now, so he trots purposefully into the gully after the wonderful scent.
Crows rise, complaining, as he reaches the carcass. It used to be one of the wild mountain goats. Pawprints lie in blood on the stone around it and the smell of wolf is overpowering. Avon has torn out its throat, eaten its entrails and much of one leg.
Blake looks at the long skull, so like that of his sheep, the curving horns, and he feels for a moment like a very bad dog indeed, but he is so hungry and the remains of the goat smell wonderful, almost like meat. He glances around to check that he is unobserved then tears a haunch away from the connecting skin and muscle and starts to gnaw the bone clean.
You ate my goat.
The crescent moon is up but it gives little light. Blake stares into the night’s gloom, hackles raised. Want to make something of it, he snarls.
Let me think about that. The wolf sounds amused. I’m sure I’m a great deal faster than you but you are a lot bigger than me. So probably not, no. Let’s say that you’re welcome to yesterday’s dinner, dog. I never find any of your leavings around. Don't you hunt at all?
I hunt rabbits, sometimes , Blake tells him. And mice.
Avon comes forward slightly so that Blake can see him. I've been known to live on mice myself, in the hard times, but it's not very satisfying. What about something bigger, like goats?
Why would I kill a goat? Blake is puzzled. They don't harm my sheep.
To eat, obviously.
Blake shakes his heavy muzzle. The man brings meat. I have to guard my sheep. He wonders what chasing and killing a goat would feel like. Bad dog, he thinks. Bad dog. Go away, wolf, he barks. Go away.
Touched a nerve, have we? Avon goes back a little way but he doesn't leave. Since you've eaten my goat and you're not planning to replace it, next time we're both hungry, he suggests, how about we share a sheep?
Blake is utterly outraged. I would never eat my sheep, he barks. Never. Never. Never. His fury echoes around the mountains. When he finally quietens the wolf is long gone.
The next evening the man brings him meat and takes another lamb. Blake follows the mule a little way but he can't go far from the flock. He sniffs and paws at the path down the mountain but eventually he puts the lamb as far as he can out of mind and settles down with his food.
Aren't you a hypocrite, dog?
He looks up at the broken hut roof. There is Servalan, cleaning her whiskers with a delicate paw. Blake automatically gauges the height and her potential escape routes. He cannot catch her and he is not in the mood for chasing her anyway so he goes back to gnawing a meaty bone.
I see you've made a new friend.
He looks up at her, confused. The wolf, she clarifies.
He's not my friend, Blake growls.
No? That row of yours scared away half the night’s hunting. Never, she mimicked his bark. Never. Never. Never. Stupid dog.
Blake growls deep in his throat, remembering. He wanted me to eat sheep.
So? She stretches, first her front legs, then her rear. What’s new about that?
He growls again, at her this time. She laughs and steps lightly across the top of the old window. What are you eating now, dog?
Meat, he tells her.
Yes, but what sort of meat?
There is only one kind of meat. The man brings it, he tells her.
Stupid dog, she says again, and she jumps down behind the hut and vanishes in the scrub.
Blake is not a stupid dog. He just doesn’t need to think very often. His sheep have limited conversation and the demands of chasing off foxes and pouncing on mice don’t require much complex canine thought.
He cracks the meat bone in his large back molars and licks out the marrow as he’s done a hundred times before. As he does so he thinks about the leg that he took from the goat carcass, about the bone just like the meat bone but a little more goaty, about the marrow just like the meat marrow.
He eats rabbits and mice and they are animals. He has eaten Avon’s goat and that was an animal. Maybe everything he eats is animal. Maybe meat is animal. There is only one animal that meat smells like. Not a goat. Not a rabbit. Not a mouse.
Blake sits back on his haunches and howls. He is not as good at howling as Avon is, but he is far more upset. His sheep scatter, unnerved. He watches them run, watches those long leg bones as they scamper, thinks about the meat that the man brings, and the lambs that the man takes, and he howls again and again as if his heart would break from betrayal.
Eventually Avon comes.
The sheep scent him first, and their frantic baaing and milling around brings Blake back to a sense of his responsibilities. He sees the wolf sitting on the hilltop watching him, dark against the starry sky.
Has someone been killing your sheep, dog? Avon sounds curious.
Men, Blake tells him. Men took my sheep away, and I let them. Men brought me meat and I ate it. What have I done? My sheep have only me to protect them, and I betrayed them. He was tempted to add, I am a very bad dog, but those were words men used.
Ah, Avon says. You didn’t know that men eat sheep?
No! Blake lies down, muzzle on the ground. He is still watching the wolf though.
What did you think they were kept for?
Sheep? Sheep aren’t for anything. They are just sheep. But Blake thinks of meat, and struggling lambs.
Avon’s eyes glint. What will you do now, Blake?
Not eat sheep. Never eat sheep. And I won’t let the men take any more of them, not ever.
The wolf’s ears prick up, curious. How will you live without the meat that men bring?
I don’t know, Blake says sombrely. Eat mice, maybe.
You can’t live on mice for long, Avon says firmly. You’re too big.
Then I don’t know. He is utterly miserable. The only thing he is sure of is that he must protect his flock. Go away now, Avon, he says, without heat.
Do I take it that you don’t intend to eat the rest of that particular sheep? Avon asks. He is looking at Blake’s abandoned meal.
No. He can’t. Blake thinks of the goat. The animal that provided these raw bones is long beyond his protection. Take it if you want.
Avon slinks forwards, watching him all the time, seizes a bone and drags it off. A moment later he returns for the second one then he disappears into the darkness. Blake lies on the ground sunk in gloom and eventually he sleeps.
Two days later the sheep are drifting back towards their night pasture when Blake hears the whinny of the mule. The man has left it some way down the path, as he often does to stop Blake upsetting it.
The man opens the bag and tosses two bones to Blake who snarls at him and retreats. What’s the matter, boy? the man says, a tone of puzzlement in his voice. Wolves been bothering you?
He gets out his noose and Blake snarls again, crawling forward. It is so very very hard to growl at the man, but he must protect his sheep. As the man yells at him there is a commotion from the path, a terrified whinny. The man turns and swears. The mule is in full flight across the mountainside, a grey streak at its heels.
The man drops the noose and runs down the path, calling, but the mule does not return. Eventually he walks back the way that he has come, empty handed.
When darkness falls, Avon comes to the edge of the pasture. His fur is blood soaked and he is limping but he opens his jaws wide in a pleased pant.
Dinner is that way, he tells Blake, and comes forward warily to sniff at the fresh bones. You won’t be having these, then? Less trouble to eat than tearing my way through that thick hide. You can do that. He takes them and retreats again.
Blake spends the night guarding his sheep from Avon but in the morning there is no trace of the wolf. Blake trots off to look for the mule. It is dead, teeth marks around its throat showing how it was suffocated. The blood sprinkled around is wolf blood; the mule put up a fight. Blake feels a little remorse; he has never liked the mule but it has never done him direct harm. Then he starts to rip and tear at the soft belly.
The mule lasts him for four days. The man does not come back. He doesn’t see Avon again but the familiar scent tells him that the wolf has been coming to feed on the carcass during the night, while Blake is guarding his sheep. The lynx has been visiting too. Blake is less sanguine about the cat stealing his dinner but he doesn’t catch her at it so there is nothing he can do.
The sheep graze on the heights, in light rain. Blake is sheltering under a tree, keeping a sharp look out. Days of feeding well has left him feeling energetic and almost happy, despite the uncertain future.
Something moves in the valley below him and he lifts his head, nostrils wide to pick up any scent. He sees the movement again, closer, then the slightest odour. It is Avon. He has never seen the wolf out in full daylight before. Blake growls a little and comes out to meet him, ready to attack if necessary.
The wolf is panting. His limp is gone. He stops and sits a safe distance away from Blake.
Men are coming.
So? Blake says. The last man went away. These men will go away.
They have dogs with them to drive all your sheep down the mountain.
I will not let them, Blake tells him. I will fight any dogs which chase my sheep.
The men have guns. They will shoot you if you do not do what they say.
Blake knows about guns. The man who used to stay with the sheep had a gun, but he only shot rabbits. Can a gun kill a dog? he asks.
Avon lays his ears back and snarls. A gun can kill a wolf.
Oh. What shall I do, Blake says, more to himself than to Avon.
The wolf brushes his thick tail along the ground slowly, one way then another. If it were me, I would kill all the sheep so the men can’t have them. But I am not a dog.
Blake is too preoccupied even to growl at the notion. I must keep the sheep away from the men, he says. His sheep are clustered behind him, staring silently at the wolf. I must try to make them stay up here.
The wolf opens his jaws, panting in a humourless laugh. Your sheep leave a trail up the mountain a hundred yards wide. Men’s dogs are not real hunters like wolves but they will find you and the men will follow.
Then I must take then where the men will not come, Blake says. He has never been out of his flock’s territory in his entire life. He does not know how to make his sheep go where he tells them to. Still, if this is what he must do then he will do it, somehow.
Do you know where you’re going? Avon asks.
No, he admits.
That way, the wolf says. And get moving. The men will be here soon.
Blake tries to move his sheep, but they are still staring at the wolf and will not pay him any attention. After a couple of minutes Avon drops to his haunches, slinks forward and as if hypnotised the entire flock turn and run in the direction that he had indicated, leaving Blake to follow.
They reach the valley as darkness starts to fall on the second day. The sheep are exhausted and hungry; Avon has not given them time to graze. Blake looks down on the wide grassy plain and sees sheep. More sheep that he’d ever imagined.
Come on, Avon snaps, running a little faster at the animals’ heels. He has herded them all this way and Blake thinks he must be as tired as the flock. They swarm down the hillside and reach the fence.
It is six foot tall. A sign says Property of the Federation of Hill Sheep Farmers No Trespassing. Blake runs into it and the shock almost lifts him off his feet. The sheep are milling around, terrified of the wolf, frightened of the electric fence.
How do we get across?
You have to break it down, Avon says.
I’m not heavy enough. Avon is looking through the fence at the flocks of sheep. A tongue flickers over white teeth. I’ve tried.
Blake thinks that maybe this is why Avon brought him here. Still, the field smells overwhelmingly of sheep. If they get inside, the dogs won’t be able to follow them.
He breaks the fence down. It is horrible and painful and scary but his sheep need him so he does it. They trample the broken wires as they cross.
Don’t let your sheep get mixed up with these, Avon says. You’ll never sort them out again. I’ll see you later. He slinks off into the darkness.
Blake guards his sheep all night. The others don’t come near. In the predawn light Avon comes back. There is blood on his jaws. Blake doesn’t mention it.
We need to break out again, on that side. Avon looks up at the mountains on the opposite side to the way that they had come.
Can’t we go out the way we came in? Blake doesn’t want to go near that fence again.
No. The men have mended it already. We’re trapped in here. Avon grins at him. Your turn again.
Blake breaks down the fence on the other side. He hurts all over, but he does it.
We should take the rest of the sheep with us, he tells Avon. The men will kill them if they stay here.
We can’t, the wolf says. If the men count their sheep and think they’ve lost many of them they will hunt us down again. We leave quietly, with the ones we’ve got.
Blake does what Avon says, this time. But he will come back for the Federation’s sheep, at some point. He swears that.
They go up into the mountains, and they find grass. The flock graze, too hungry to care about the wolf still close.
The unfamiliar territory makes Blake nervous. Are there wolves here? he asks Avon.
There were wolves here once. No more. Avon sounds dark and Blake does not ask about other wolves any more. He has other questions. Why are you here? he asks Avon. Why have you come with me?
Aside from the fact that you’re accompanied by the largest source of food that I’ve seen for years? Avon sounds lighter now. I’ve really no idea. A little further and there’s a place where your flock can settle. You’ll need to hunt, though. You can’t live on mice.
The hare kinks and kinks again, stretching out its lead each time. Blake runs full tilt after it, barking wildly. He’s tried chasing prey without barking but it really isn’t the same. It doesn’t make any difference anyway; he will never be fast enough to chase down a hare on his own.
Avon leaps out of cover in absolute silence and knocks the hare off its feet. Before it can recover the wolf has it by the neck and a second later the hare is dead. The wolf trots up to the dog and drops it, rests a heavy grey paw on the body and rips off a limb. Blake waits until Avon has relinquished the corpse before he moves in. The hot blood is good.
They are some way from where the flock is grazing now, but Blake has had to learn to leave his sheep for a while if he wants to eat. He and Avon have harassed all the local predators into leaving so the flock are not really in any danger.
Blake thinks about the sheep back in the valley a great deal and talks to Avon about going back for them but he has not yet come up with a plan. His own flock is larger now; spring lambing went fairly well, with no more than the usual couple of still births and one poor ewe dying in labour. The carcasses disappeared overnight. Blake knows where they went but he says nothing. He counts his sheep, still, whenever he comes back to them, but so far he has lost no live ones, even though the winter was hard and the hunting poor at times.
He picks up the remains of the hare and trots back to the flock. They are bothered by something; he can’t get them to tell him what, exactly. He sniffs around the perimeter of the flock and finally traces it; odour of cat. Not just any cat either.
Hello Servalan, he says to the brown spotted shape in the tree. What are you doing here?
She uncurls herself to talk to him. I like the taste of lamb. You took them away so I’ve come to find them.
Blake has got a bit better at thinking since he has had a wolf as companion. There are hundreds of sheep between here and home, he points out. Why come all this way? Besides, I never let you eat any of my lambs. Only the dead ones and Av…and they are gone.
Stupid dog, she says. Dogs don’t live without men.
I do, he points out.
You’ll starve, she predicts. The men will come and take their sheep back again and there will be nothing you can do about it. You’ll get lonely for someone to tell you you’re a good dog and you’ll slink home with your tail between your legs. That wolf will eat one of your sheep and you’ll fight. Dogs can’t live with wolves. They need men to tell them what to do. Stupid dogs.
Blake thinks about all that for a moment. Is that why you came here? To watch me fail?
She purrs, lifts a leg to lick the underside.
Maybe I’ll starve, he tells her. Maybe I’ll fall out with the wolf. Maybe the men will come. But I will never, never go back to them, and someday I’m going to rescue all the sheep so that no-one ever eats them again.
She laughs at him, as he knows she will, but he thinks maybe there is something less sure about her voice. He turns his back on her and trots back into the centre of his flock, where he belongs.