Telling Tales 174
Third Time’s the Charm
“Me?” said the soldier. It was more of a squeak than a word and he hoped nobody noticed.
“Come here. Now.” Up close, the fur around the Master’s face seemed to drag his cheeks down and make the dark fur look even darker. The dark fur made his front teeth, top and bottom, look even whiter. And longer.
The soldier discovered that the Stonechats had somehow managed to be a full pace behind him, as though he had stepped out of a line to volunteer for some unpleasant duty or another. On unsteady legs, he walked the twelve paces between himself and the beast, counting them off in his head as though each step were his last. He had hoped to be able to say something clever, or even anything, but the words, “Yes, sir” merely died in his throat. Instead, his mouth opened, his jaws worked, and all that emerged was a faint croak.
The Master of the Taiga was not growling – not at the moment – but his breath continued to come out in bursts and pants. “Rear paw. Left side,” he commanded.
The soldier’s mouth worked some more and his nod was more of a spasm, but he made his way to the rear of the creature, feeling the Master’s neck turn and his dark eyes following the man’s every footstep.
“Paw. Not tail.” In his numb fear, Bulat had walked too far. He stopped, nearly fell over as he turned around, and faced the paw that the Master held in the air. One paw pad extended all the way across the span of the foot, larger on one side and tapering to a rounded end on the other. At the front, five toe pads each ended in a long claw. The whole thing was nearly as big as Bulat’s head. “Something stuck. Get it out.” The paw raised even further.
At first the soldier couldn’t see what the wolverine was speaking about. After a moment, however, he realized that he wasn’t seeing double. Seeing double would not have come as a surprise to him at this point, as he felt quite light-headed and was pleased to be standing upright both because it meant that he still had some control over his body and because it meant that he wasn’t dead. What he was seeing was, in fact, one paw with two claws. Or rather, one claw and one very large something-else stuck in to the same place where the claw emerged. Faced with something that was not teeth and that was, more to the point, a problem to solve, the soldier rallied himself. It took no time at all to discern which was the claw and which was the offending matter. A large thorn had wedged itself in next to the Master’s claw. There was no blood, but the pad was swollen and inflamed. He was about to put his hands on the offending material when he thought better of it. “This may hurt?” he said, looking back up into the face of the Master. It was much closer than he had though possible.
“Get it out.”
Bulat nodded, placed both hands around the thorn, one above the other, and gave a mighty pull.
Nothing happened. He pulled again. The thorn was stuck in as tightly as if it were in fact another claw. The Master growled and the earth shivered.
“Third time’s the charm,” Bulat told himself.