Canis and the wolves found the bandits just as they were settling in for their third night out on the Empty Plains. They were preparing to attack the camp during the night, except Ggrrawrr discovered them before they could set their plans in motion. With a warning from Nnarr, Cepheid was able to alert Columbus and Wayne, and the three of them stood together, sheltering the others between them and the picket line, their campfire in front of them. Very wide Rranggrr also remained behind; she watched for the sneaky approach that might come from another direction.
As the sounds of the clash reached their ears, the men started to go help. "Stay here," said Cepheid. She too had her sword drawn and her bow was close at hand. It was then that she realized that the walking sticks the men always kept close must be more than simple walking sticks. Both Columbus and Wayne seemed intent on using them.
"We can't just leave him out there alone," said Wayne.
"He is not alone, and just now, everyone he meets is an enemy," said Cepheid. "In this dark, it is best to keep it that way. It can be the same for us here if we stay together."
Wayne grumbled. The screams of panicked horses and those of the panicked and dying men were not easy to listen to, out there in the black of the night, beyond the light of the fire.
A short time later Cepheid gave a soft gasp, and by the light of their campfire, Wayne could see her chin tremble. "You are the one who said we should wait here," he said, thinking she was going to start crying because of what they were hearing - because of who was out there all alone. "Be strong," he added.
She didn't say anything; she only spared him a brief glance. How could he know that Nnarr had just been wounded in her shoulder and was now handicapped? How could he know that Narr still chose to fight, even though she couldn't put any weight on her injured leg?
Moments later, she was relieved to hear, 'I return. I cannot help here.' The white wolf hobbled slowly into the firelight and lay down between them and the fight. She would still fight if their attackers ventured this close.
By the light of the fire, Neola, the healer, could easily see the blood on the white wolf's shoulder and stepped forward.
"Not yet," said Cephied. "We will tend our wounded when the fight is over."
Neola hesitated, but when Cepheid glared at her, then Columbus waved her back, she returned to the others who were clustered near the picket line. The children were clutching each other in fear.
Twenty eternal minutes later, both Nnarr and Cepheid relaxed, then a moment after that, Canis called out, "We're coming in." He managed about three more steps into the firelight before he stopped and swayed.
Wayne caught him in time to prevent him from falling all the way to the frozen ground.
"I think . . . I need . . . a thicker hide," he said as he closed his eyes and allowed Wayne to lay him out flat.
Cepheid was there with their bedroll so he would not be lying on the frozen ground.
He had no less than four deep slices along his left ribcage and two on his left shoulder that went to the bone, but in his defense, his blade was bloody to the hilt as was the clawed glove on that hand. Even the claws and teeth that decorated his braid were bloodied, though they didn't discover that until the next morning.
Nnarr received a deep cut to her left shoulder and Ggrrawrr got a not-so-deep cut along his right ribcage. All of the rest of them were plenty covered with blood, but none of it was their own.
The next morning, Columbus and Wayne explored the killing field. It was uncomfortably close, only a few hundred yards from camp. All the horses had scattered, their tracks fanning out in as many directions as there were horses, deserting in their panic about thirty dead men looking like so many broken and bloody dolls. No less than eight of them had died by the sword and some of those looked like they might have met with a cat, though the claw and teeth marks didn't look like they fit the same animal. The rest had obviously met a wolf in the dark, and though their mouths gaped in surprise, they would never be able to tell of what had transpired in the darkness. Most of them had their throats ripped away. Some had their sword arm or shoulder savaged and torn.
"I'm sure glad they're on our side," said Wayne. "Do you suppose these are the same men that attacked us last time?"
"It's likely," replied Columbus. "Let's get back to camp. There's nothing we can do here."
When they reached the camp, they found Canis up and around, though he was not moving too quickly. Cepheid was helping him into a clean shirt.
"You made this area much safer for a few years," said Wayne. "I've seen worse, but not when I know that it was only one man and a handful of wolves that did the damage."