"Into Habits of Companionship"
Victor walked into the kitchen
expecting to find Igor making soup,
which he was, and not at all expecting
to see him feeding several live mice,
which he also was.
"What in the world are you doing?"
Victor asked him.
"I'm gut-loading the mice for Fridrik,"
Igor said absently as he picked up
a crumpled green leaf that had turned
yellow along one edge. The nearest
mouse snatched it greedily.
"What?" Victor asked again.
"Hm? Oh, I learned this from a fellow who
hired me to take care of his snakes and lizards,"
Igor said. "Starve the prey, then feed them
something you want the predator to swallow.
It's easier for carnivores to handle plants that
have already been partly digested, that's
why they eat the whole animal."
"So you're letting them have the kale now
that the weather has gotten cold enough
to kill off most of the leaves," Victor said.
"That and some dried herbs," Igor said.
He put one cage of mice into a cabinet
and latched the door, leaving the other out.
"I'll take these up to Fridrik shortly."
"What are you making for us?"
Victor wondered, his gaze roving
over the winter vegetables spread
across another countertop.
"Supa de cartofi cu carnati," said Igor
as he washed his hands in the sink.
"I got the recipe from Reznik -- it's mostly
potatoes and carrots, a beef sausage,
a pork sausage, and a lot of paprika."
His square hands made quick work
chopping the carrots, deftly flicking
the tops aside to save for the mice.
Next he measured out the spices,
tinting the soup a rich red-orange.
Victor took the sausages
and sliced them into thick rounds.
Then they all went into the pot where
potato chunks already simmered.
Igor put the lid on the pot,
picked up the cage of mice,
and headed toward Fridrik's room.
"Does he know you're doing something
special to the mice?" Victor asked.
"He does now," Igor said. "At first I didn't
mention it, because Fridrik was so miserable
and unfocused right after the accident. I told
Janika, and she thought it was worth a try.
When Fridrik noticed the difference in flavor,
I explained why. He was put out for a little while,
but he came around because they taste better."
"Gourmet mice," Victor said, chuckling.
Then he sobered. "The way Fridrik acts ...
I think someone has been poisoning werewolves."
"I think so too," Igor agreed. "Fridrik and
Janika are touchy about what they eat.
I thought that it might help if I started
teaching them about the different herbs
so they can recognize things. Mircea
knows a lot but I don't think all the others
have picked it up from her yet."
"I just hope he's in a decent mood today,"
Victor said as they approached the room.
The injury itself, the necessity of care, and
the restriction of movement all wore on Fridrik,
making his mood erratic at best.
"He'll be happy to see the mice,
if not us," Igor pointed out.
Victor rapped his knuckles on the door
and then pushed it open.
On the bed, Fridrik and Janika
made a black and white puddle of fur,
their quiet companionship a comfort
against the stress of his injury.
At the sound of people coming into the room,
the black wolf lifted his head, his pointed ears
pricking toward the new visitors.
"I brought you a midafternoon snack,"
said Igor, giving the cage a quick hard shake
to stun the mice. Fridrik's tail thumped the bed.
Then Igor popped the cage open
so that Fridrik could get his muzzle inside.
One, two, three bites and the mice disappeared.
Fridrik licked his chops, giving a satisfied sigh.
Igor set the cage on the nightstand
and settled into the empty chair.
"Mind if I take a look at your leg?" Victor asked
as he sat on the side of the bed. Fridrik
curled his ears back and down, lifting his chin
in a gesture that Victor was beginning
to recognize as submissive.
It took only a minute to confirm that the breaks
were still knitting as they should, and the long scabs
had started to whiten at the edges where they
would soon start to come loose. Werewolves
healed amazingly fast with good care.
"You're doing well," Victor told him.
"These stitches are ready to come out."
He fetched a pair of scissors, clipped the threads,
and carefully plucked them free. Then he cleaned
the punctures and rebandaged Fridrik's leg.
"By the way, those mice came from Crina,"
said Igor. "She figured out that they're for you,
but doesn't know why yet. We've asked her
to be discreet. Please be gentle with her --
she also hasn't learned how careful she
needs to be with her discoveries."
Fridrik reached out with his nose,
delicately touching the edge of Igor's hand.
Igor obliged by digging his fingers into the thick ruff
and scratching, while Fridrik wagged his tail again.
More hesitantly, Victor let his hand drift up
Fridrik's flank, marveling at the coarse fur.
The next moment, Fridrik rolled from wolf
to human form, bare skin sliding
under Victor's touch.
Victor flicked a corner of the blanket
over the other man's lap.
"Turnip greens," said Fridrik, "and valerian."
"Kale, not turnip, but they're related,"
said Igor. "You're right about the valerian.
It's good for easing pain and anxiety."
"Kale?" said Fridrik. "I don't know that one."
"It's a vegetable with dark green leaves
that grows into the winter months," Igor said.
"Csilla says it helps replenish lost blood.
Our plants are dying back in the cold weather,
so I'm letting the mice have the last bits."
Fridrik turned his face toward the window,
where pellets of ice rattled against the glass.
The weather was turning unpleasant again.
"I hate being stuck inside," he said.
"I miss the winter wind in my fur."
"Give your leg time to heal, and you will
be able to go outside," Victor assured him.
"You may even catch the tail of winter."
"By the time you're ready to go for a run,
the woods should be safe again," Igor said.
"Lóránt is leading search parties to find and
remove any hazardous traps. If anyone needs
to lay traps for a dangerous animal, that requires
special permission so that everyone knows
where they are to avoid them."
"Artúr is truly gone?" Fridrik said.
"You drove a human out of your pack
for the sake of a werewolf?"
"I banished Artúr from the valley because
he hurt a number of people -- not just you,
but also Tivador and Nandru, and before that
Csilla. He treats his animals as poorly as
he can get away with," said Victor.
"And if someone else offends you?"
Fridrik said, a faint whine threading
under the line of his words.
Victor shook his head. "It is not about
offending me, I am not that kind of lord,
and I hope people come to understand that,"
he said firmly. "It is about what is good for
the village, or not. You and Shandor, Imre,
and I all told Artúr that his actions were
unacceptable, but he refused to change.
All of that is what made him a liability in
our community, and why he had to leave."
Fridrik whined a little louder, licking his lips
as he stirred against the mattress.
"I can feel you worrying about your security,"
Igor said. "You don't need to fear banishment.
As long as you're willing to work through problems
when they happen, you're welcome here." He
chuckled softly. "Dorottya and Dénes are still
trying to figure out exactly how to fit Csilla
into their family, and it's a bit awkward,
but they're determined to make it work."
For that matter, Victor was doing the same,
because Csilla made him think about
his relationship with Igor.
Fridrik shifted position restlessly, fidgeting
with his injured foot. He looked up at Victor and
then away. "Pillow?" Fridrik whispered.
Victor brought him a spare pillow,
and Igor carefully lifted Fridrik's foot
to settle it in the soft embrace.
"Better?" Victor asked.
"Yes," Fridrik said with a fractional nod.
His hand crept out to brush against Igor's,
and Igor stroked the back of his forearm.
The werewolves were tactile with each other,
and the cubs blithely welcomed Adam into
their puppy piles, but the adults had been
more reserved with humans until recently.
They were learning, Victor hoped,
to bridge the gap of culture between
humans and werewolves, drifting
into habits of companionship that
might in time bring the two together.
"Shall I read?" he offered,
picking up a book of nature poems
that he had left in the room.
Fridrik tilted his head, considering.
Janika rolled off the bed, and a breath later,
stood human-tall as she pulled a tunic
down over her slim strong body.
"I would like to hear more," she said.
Victor opened the book and leafed through
its pages as Janika curled up beside him,
Fridrik also inching closer to them. Igor stretched
in his chair, his toes just touching Victor's boots.
It was, Victor thought, very much like
getting a wagon out of a snowdrift:
if you tried to push it forward all at once
then it would catch in the drift; but
if you rocked it back and forth gently,
letting it move toward and away from you,
then it would soon break free of the snow.
Smiling, he chose a poem and began to read.
"See! Winter comes, to rule the varied Year ..."
* * *
"It contributes greatly towards a man's moral and intellectual health, to be brought into habits of companionship with individuals unlike himself, who care little for his pursuits, and whose sphere and abilities he must go out of himself to appreciate."
-- Nathaniel Hawthorne
Gut loading is a technique often used in feeding reptiles and amphibians. It works with other predators too.
Supa de cartofi cu carnati is a potato soup with sausages.
Kale is a cruciferous vegetable that is high in iron and other nutrients. It is one of the few vegetables that can be grown well into the winter.
Wolf hunting has long included the use of poisons such as Aconitum or Letharia vulpina. The book Wolf and Coyote Trapping has a chapter on poisons. Fridrik shows signs of PTSD from previous trauma, due to human hostility against werewolves.
Wolves use body language to communicate respective ranks. Folding the ears and showing the throat are signs of submission. Tail wagging shows friendliness. Here you can see illustrations of body postures and facial expressions in wolves. In this photo, the white wolf shows dominant body language while the tan ones are submissive.
Valerian is a soothing herb.
Trust issues can come from trauma such as child abuse/neglect or other boundary violations. People learn to anticipate terrible outcomes, and even if they move to a better environment, it takes time to relearn more positive narratives. Learning to trust can prove difficult, especially after being hurt. You can see the hesitation in Fridrik's behavior. There are ways to earn the trust of a trauma survivor or an abused animal. There are general trustbuilding steps too. Both Victor and Igor do what they can to support this process, although Igor is better at emotional intelligence in general and wolf body language in particular.
Chemotaxis is a response to chemical stimulation, and includes family bonding. Scent rolling in wolves is another example, and it's related to marking other wolves as pack. When the werewolves begin making more physical contact, it shows that they accept people as allies at least, packmates at best.
Wolf packs tend to have a stable territory of 125-310 square kilometers (77-192 square miles). Borders fluctuate mildly over time, and may overlap those of neighboring packs by about 2 kilometers (over a mile). This matches the size of many mountain valleys, and like humans, wolves often make use of natural boundaries to define their territories. That makes the current locale a great fit for them.
Victor is reading from "The Seasons: Winter" by James Thomson.