He was standing almost directly over her before she felt his presence. She turned and cried out, a wordless bark, and startled away from him. But her legs betrayed her, and she fell backward, helpless and vulnerable. He followed her quickly, and though it was not her custom to submit without a fight, she cringed before him.
He did not growl, though, or claw or bite. Of course, she remembered, that is not the way of things here. But still, she had seen enough in her prowling around the village that though men did not growl and claw, there were other ways to hurt. She had quickly learned the words for and uses of knives and fists. It was part of why she resisted going there; she did not want to be known to these creatures she did not yet understand. Still, it was not with violence that he approached her. He bent to his knee, his hand reaching out, and she flinched away from him.
"Are you well?" he asked. Ivana had been surprised, at first, to discover how the language of humans came so simply to her. It must have been the magic of the ice gate.
She merely shuddered, and the places where her fur used to be prickled.
He looked at her more closely and seemed to recognize something in her expression, for he did not immediately try to touch her again. "I'm sorry," he soothed, "I didn't mean to startle you."
She'd seen him before. When she was young and had first started watching the humans through the ice, they'd all looked the same, all furless skin and many-colored coverings. Beautiful, breathtaking, but all vaguely the same beautiful. As she came back to the ice each year to watch them, though, she began to recognize the differences. They grew and changed and had personalities, just as her pack did. One with a mane that grew longer and blacker every year. Another who had skipped and laughed one year--but the next year, she came only to drink, and she never smiled. Two who always came together, holding hands and growing old.
She came to know them in a way, those who came to the water, though she did not know their names or all the reasons that they came. To them, the water seemed a place of play. As she'd watched them, she had thought, perhaps naively, that they must be very immune to cold to splash and laugh in the waters. To her pack, water was always potential death. You did not play in it.
Especially not in this lake, the gate lake.
Of course now she knew that their lake was not the frozen expanse that hers was. Water came in all temperatures, and this water--like all things in this sweltering place--was warm. True, it was cooler than the air, but it could not refresh her; it simply added to the constant heated damp. Even the rain here, of which there was far too much, was not cold. It came down from heavy clouds in sheets, forming tiny rivers through the mud beneath her feet. These humans would splash right through it, going on with their days, taking time to play even as the rain poured down on them. And as they'd played, she'd watched, for many years until the day she had finally built her courage and jumped.