Guardian

I was past the prime of my life yet those that followed me continued to treat me with respect. They protected me as I had once protected them. I was their leader, their father, their guide.

Despite the weary ache I felt in my old bones and the pain of my age, I continued to be the leader they needed to guide them through the harsh winter fast approaching.

I moved them further up north, toward the icy tundra and away from the cities Man had built up throughout the years. The change served the younger ones well while the few my age took to it with stubborn endurance. I dealt with the colder climate as well as I ever had: with headstrong determination that had shaped me as the effective leader of the pack for many years.

But deep down, I could sense that this year would be different.

Change was on the horizon and I knew without clear indication that this would be the last that I would face. I accepted the truth without strife.

Soon, very soon . . . it would be time to move on.

An indeterminable amount of days later found us struggling through a snowstorm. The sharp, cold wind bit into our fur and we kept the youngest and oldest in the pack in the center for warmth. I didn't join my pack in their huddles for warmth and comfort, too focused on the pull I felt on my soul.

It wasn't instinct. It wasn't even a thought or conscious thought on my part. I couldn't describe what I felt but . . . I had to obey it.

I made sure my pack was safe and asleep, my eyes taking in their forms for what I knew would be the last time, and then . . .

And then I slipped away to find the one I knew I had to protect.

I found him shivering next to a dying fire, his lips turning deathly blue and his skin, at least what I could see of it through his layer of furs, was as white as the snow around him. He held a gun to my head when he finally noticed my presence and shouted something in that odd language of his people. It was an angry growl of some sort, but I could smell the fear wafting from him. I could see it in his wide open eyes.

For a long while we regarded each other. A wolf and a man. He never let the gun waver from his hands but I could see clearly that he didn't feel entirely inclined to shoot me, for whatever reason.

This was fine because I didn't feel like killing him either.

The stare down lasted a while longer before I slowly withdrew, feeling the man's eyes on me as I fled. He did nothing but set his gun down and stared after my fading form in confusion.

It was the next day, midmorning, when another blizzard hit. Though I felt the urge to go back and check on my pack, I stayed near the man. I never approached him as closely as before, but I knew he caught glimpses of me. The storm only lowered his sight a bit.

Once, and only once, he shot at me.

The bullet grazed my left shoulder and I yelped, feeling the warmth of blood coat my dull grey and white fur. He never caught sight of me after that incident, yet still I kept close to him.

Perhaps I was going senile in my old age, but I didn't want to abandon the man.

I couldn't leave him.

The polar bear came in the night. I didn't question what it was doing so far south from its natural home. My only concern was to protect the man. He had tried to shoot the bear but the beast had knocked him down with a quick swipe of its massive paw. The man's blood filled my nose and drove me mad.

I only remember bits and pieces of the ensuing fight between the bear and me.

Before it could crush the man or snap his neck with its jaws, I launched myself between them. I bared my fangs and snarled at the bear with absolute rage. Behind me, I distantly registered the man's shock at my presence, his surprise at me defending him, but then my focus went fully on the bear.

I leapt at it and bit harshly into its neck, but its thick fur protected it from death. With an enraged roar, the bear fell to all fours and bucked me off. I landed with a slight stumble in the snow and quickly leapt sideways as the bear's paws stomped the ground where I'd just been. It swiftly turned and tried to crush my head with its jaws, forcing me to dodge again.

Our fight lasted for what seemed like hours, each of us delivering the other countless injuries. I sustained wounds worse than the bear, but it still suffered my rage.

I should have given up yet I didn't. Not when I had to protect the man. He may have been my natural enemy, but he was mine to protect. I didn't know why he was so important to me, but I was a wolf and wolves do not ask questions such as "Why?"

We only do.

In the end I knew this fight would end in my death. Yet after living a good long life I did not care. I only wanted to save the man.

And upon hearing the howls of my pack and seeing them rush at the bear to protect me, I knew the man would continue to live. He knew, too, and slowly reached out to stroke my fur as tears fell from his eyes. He whispered something in that funny language his kind use so often, but I understood him perfectly.

"Thank you."

His gratitude and the bittersweet mourning cries of my pack was the last thing I heard before I closed my eyes and gave in to a long and peaceful sleep.

You're welcome . . .