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It was seven o'clock of a very warm evening in the Seeonee Hills when Father Wolf woke up from his day's rest, scratched himself, yawned and spread out his paws one after the other to get rid of the sleepy feeling in their tips.
Next, he stood and, legs extended, leaned, first backwards and then forwards, in a long, luxurious streeeeeetch.
His mate walked over to him. "Sleep well?" she asked.
"Very well indeed. I'll just get the boys together and we'll go and catch a nice buck for breakfast."
Mother Wolf hesitated, then said quietly, "Would you consider taking Yle with you? I know he's a little young yet, but he... " She hesitated. "I think he could be ready to begin learning hunting skills."
Father Wolf looked at her, then past her to the three half-grown cubs curled up together at the back of the overhang that was their den. Two were still fast asleep; the third had raised his head and was looking around alertly, and their sire could see what his mate meant. Yle seemed mature beyond his few months of life.
At first pleased about it, Father Wolf stiffened as a thought - one that was both welcome and unwelcome - occurred to him. Could that mean... Could it mean that his son was destined to be a spirit guide? It was a responsibility that touched some of the animals of the Hills, though only a few - perhaps one of each species in a generation - and it was an honour to be selected as one of them. Father Wolf knew what a wolf guide was - a teacher, a protector of those his Human loved; his Human would be steadfast, flexible in his thinking, able to see an advantange in any change of his circumstances, whatever that might be... But if Yle's destiny was to be a spirit guide, then he could never be a hunter. Spirit guides were expected to live in harmony with all other animals. Spirits might not have to eat, but while they were alive carnivore species had to eat meat, and if his Human's partner had as spirit guide a prey animal, then in order for the two to work in harmony it would have to know that Yle had not himself harmed others of its kind even though he had eaten meat. And if his Human happened to be a shaman, why, then Yle might even find himself working in partnership with a prey animal, for shamans frequently worked with more than one spirit guide. If his father's guess was right, Yle would always have to depend on others for his meat.
"Not now," Father Wolf said decisively, not betraying the thought that was both fear and hope. "Not when the pack needs to bring home a sizeable kill. I will take him out alone, tomorrow."
Tomorrow, Yle would get his first lesson in what was expected of a spirit guide. Even if Father Wolf was wrong, all young wolves had to learn the Law, and part of that involved knowing about spirit guides.
And if that was Yle's destiny, the young wolf would know... as soon as he heard the word 'spirit'.
Some weeks later, Yle lay on a rock overlooking the human village, knowing that no human could see him - not even the boy who, the Great Spirit had told him, was now his charge. When the boy left here, Yle would accompany him. It meant he was unlikely ever to see his sire or dam, or his litter siblings, ever again - the Great Spirit had gifted him with knowledge of the boy's language, and he had heard the boy - Blair - and his mother talking about their plans - or, rather, her plans, for Blair was still too young to leave his mother's care. Yle himself was only just old enough to run free of his parents'... yes, control. Blair's mother - Naomi - was becoming restless, and although Blair was begging her to stay just a little longer - at least until the upcoming Festival - it was obvious to the watching Yle that it was unlikly that she would.
Yes - he must bid his family farewell this night, and then remain close to Blair, holding himself ready to move.
He was right; two days later, in spite of all Blair's pleas, Naomi moved on.
Life for Yle became surprisingly interesting.
In his few short months of mortal life he had known only a world of heat and open ground, partly farmed by the humans who lived in the village, partly rough ground where the animals his pack hunted roamed. The transition period had been... strange; part of the time living with his family, visible, eating the meat brought to the den by his father, part of the time spent watching the boy Blair, invisible and with no apparent need to eat, able to... well, fly, to move from place to place apparently by just thinking about it, thinking about where he wanted to go. He didn't understand how it worked, just that it did, and sometimes he wondered why the Great Spirit had selected him.
Not that 'why' mattered. He had a job to do.
For the next six years he accompanied Blair and Naomi all over the world. Sometimes they were in hot lands where the temperature was familiar and welcome; sometimes they were in places that were cold and - spirit though he was - he was glad of his thick fur coat. During that time, Yle sometimes visited Blair in his dreams, and was pleased that Blair accepted his presence as natural, and sometimes even asked his advice. On those occasions, Yle discovered that he could change shape, become human, and communicate with his charge.
And then Blair stopped travelling; Naomi went on without him, leaving Blair behind.
There had been several times, several places, where Blair had spent his days in a room with other children, being taught as Father Wolf had taught Yle, learning things he must know. Yle had understood that Blair enjoyed these days in 'school', so it was hardly a surprise for him to discover that Blair, now old enough to leave his mother, wanted to continue learning.
More years passed. During that time, Yle found that sometimes he became bored; there were times when Blair didn't need him around. The link between them was strong, however, and Yle discovered that it was possible for him to leave Blair for short periods, knowing that if Blair did need him he could be back with his charge in the time it took him to blink.
On one of those trips Yle met a big black cat, similar to the panther he had once seen hunting before he became a spirit, and as they looked at each other, he knew that this was the spirit whose human would work with Blair.
He was glad that the spirit he would be working with was another carnivore, of a species whose hunting methods did not compete with those of the wolves; and over the next few years, he and Moola became friends.
And then Blair met his human companion, Moola's charge.
Jim was a sentinel - one who, Moola complained, was reluctant to accept his gift. "He needs a stubborn companion," Moola growled.
Yle gave him the canine equivalent of a grin. "He has one," he said. "You will see. Our lives are going to be interesting, now that they are together."
And they were.