Watcher of Stars
"What are you doing?" the boy asked, moving closer to the dark figure that sat atop the low hill. There was no answer, not even a hint of motion. He stopped and squinted his eyes, trying to see in the near-darkness. "Uhm, hello?"
"Hello." The voice was low, almost a growl, and it startled the boy. The figure was small, and he had thought it to be a child just like him. Yet it did sound friendly, so the boy slowly inched closer. "Do you wish to join me? I'm watching the stars."
"Cool. I love the stars." The boy slumped down next to the figure, but he could still not get a good look. "What's your name? I don't think I know you."
"You probably don't. I don't spend a lot of time around people. My name is Varg."
"Kinda funny name. I'm Hio." He held out his hand, but Varg did not take it. "So, uhm, do you watch the stars a lot."
"Yes, Hio, I do. Sorry I didn't shake your hand, I just don't want to scare you."
"That's okay. But you won't scare me, I'm brave. I'm not scared of anything."
"But if you could see me, you would fear me."
"Why's that?" Hio was beginning to feel uneasy. The calm, quiet voice still did not sound hostile, but the contradicting words were unnerving. "A-are you dangerous?"
"No. But you might think I look dangerous." There was a moment's silence, then came words that made Hio's skin crawl. "I am not human."
"Oh." At a loss for words, the boy edged away a few inches, but curiosity kept him from running back home. "What are you, then?"
"I'm a watcher. I watch the stars."
"But... but I mean, if you're not human...?"
"I am a nightrunner, Hio. What your people call a wolf."
"A... a wolf?" Hio felt puzzled. A talking wolf? Was this some kind of joke? In a way he felt relieved; he had been thinking about aliens or ghosts or demons or evil spirits, but a wolf wasn't very scary. Especially not a small one like Varg. He giggled nervously. "Cool!"
"You really think so?" The dark figure turned towards Hio, who could now see the outline of an elongated muzzle, where white fangs gleamed in the starlight as the creature spoke. "I thought humans still feared us hunters."
"Well, some people do, but not mine. My dad taught me that wolves are friendly, as long as you don't hurt them."
"That's true. Your father sounds like a wise man."
"He is. He knows all kinds of stories, like, from hundreds and hundreds of years ago."
"Is your father's blood from the first humans? The ones who came after the great ice went away?"
"Uh-huh. Though the stories say we've always lived here."
"Our stories say you came wandering once the ice was gone. That you settled and, in time, you became friends with the lands."
"Wow. I never knew wolves had stories."
"So how come we never knew?"
"How many talking wolves have you met, Hio?"
"Not many, I guess." He fell silent for a little while, then giggled. "One."
"But you have probably still heard our stories."
"Not even when we tell them at night? When the nightbright listens to the songs of our blood?"
"Oh." Hio nodded to himself, understanding. "When you howl."
"Yes." They fell silent, but soon Varg began to fidget. He let out a growl, then spun around and started biting his own back. "Ah!"
"Wh-what's wrong?" Hio cried, getting to his feet. "Are you okay?"
"Something bit me," the wolf whined. "Please, won't you scratch my back for me?"
"Sure." Hio waited until Varg had stopped trying to bite himself, then ran his fingers through the coarse fur. "Here?"
"A little lower. Lower. Aah, there!" He started panting loudly and his leg twitched in time with Hio's scratching. The boy laughed. "Ooh. Ah! Yeah, that's great!"
"You really like that, huh?" Suddenly, the wolf lay down and rolled over, all four paws in the air as he wriggled on the ground. Hio got the hint, and started rubbing his belly. "You like this, too?"
"Oh, yea." Varg purred, his tail wagging. Up close, Hio could see that his new friend had dark brown fur, and he caught glimpses of large, yellow eyes whenever the wolf looked up at him. After a little while, The wolf sat back up, nuzzling Hio's face gratefully. "Thanks. That was great."
"Anytime." Hio giggled as he received a lick on the cheek. "You're just like a puppy."
"Well, I'm not fully grown yet, just like you." Hio could hear a kind of panting noise, which he assumed was the wolf's laughter. It ended with a sudden gasp of breath. "Oh no! I forgot to watch the stars!"
"What?" Varg immediately lifted his muzzle towards the sky, now sitting just as rigid as when Hio had first seen him. The boy smiled to himself. "They're not going anywhere, you know."
"I sure hope so." There was real worry in that deep voice, and Hio felt puzzled. "No, they're all there."
"You can count them all!"
"What?" The wolf let hear his panting laughter again. "Of course not! But I know if one is missing. I can tell."
"I don't know. I just... know them all."
"Oh." Hio sat in silence for a few minutes, looking at the young wolf, who kept staring up into the sky, his yellow eyes moving back and forth. "Do you know their names, too?"
"Stars don't have names!" More panting laughter. "Silly Hio."
"Sure they do!" Hio protested, his pride slightly hurt. He quickly looked around the starry sky until he found one he knew. "That bright one, the blue one, see it?"
"I don't know what 'blue' is, but I know the bright one, yes."
"It's called Sirius. The Dog Star. It's got another name among my people, but dad says only adults may know it."
"Those are human names, not the stars' names."
"But how can you tell them apart?"
"I don't have to. That would be impossible!" The wolf glanced quickly at Hio, his muzzle twisted into what must have been a lupine grin. "You say silly things sometimes."
"But why do you keep watching them? Do you do that every night?"
"Yes. I have to keep watch over them. Otherwise they might get lost."
"Lost? But... but the stars are always there. They can't get lost!"
"That's because I watch them. If I didn't, they might run away."
"You're the one who's silly!" Hio laughed. "So you're saying the only thing that keeps the stars in the sky is you?"
"But what about before you were born?"
"My father watched them. And his father before him. All the way back to the first of the nightrunners, there's been one who watches the stars."
"I've seen how you humans watch your cattle. It's no difference."
"But the stars are so far away. Millions and millions of miles away."
"Of course not!" Varg nodded towards the sky. "They're right up there!"
"That's only their light."
"And what else are they?" He laughed again. "They're little cub lights, dancing across the sky. Not grown-ups like the dayshine or the nightbright. They need a watcher."
"What if one tries to run away?"
"I call to them. Ask them to stay."
"Do they listen?"
"Mostly. Some of them are restless and keep running around." Varg pointed towards the North Star with his muzzle, grinning. "That one's lazy. I've never seen him move."
"He can't," Hio said, "because he's aligned with the Earth's north pole."
"No, he's lazy."
"What about comets?"
"Tailrunners? I always ask they to stay, but they never do. I don't think they're really stars, not like the others. I'm still sad when they leave."
"Do you really sit here all the time?" Hio was beginning to feel tired. He knew his curfew had long since passed, and that a thorough scolding was waiting for him when he got home. But most of all, he felt confused. The wolf seemed to talk nonsense, but he was so sincere that his words sounded true. "Don't you eat? Or sleep? Or play?"
"Sure I do! In the day, when the stars sleep. Then I watch them again while the dayshine sleeps."
"But what if it's cloudy?"
"Then I wait for the clouds to go away, and keep watch so the stars stay above them."
"What do you do, Hio?"
"Me? Uhm... well, I don't really do anything right now. School's out for summer, and I'm too young to get a job. I mostly just play, or fish, or read."
"It's like... uhm..." Hio had to strain his mind. How to explain the simplest of simple? "It's kind of... well, stories that are written down in books. So that anyone can read them any time."
"Wow. That sounds amazing! You mean nobody's telling them?"
"They were told by the person who wrote the book. So you... well, kind of hear them when you read the book."
"Maybe you aren't so silly after all. Wolf stories have to be told. We have no... books."
"Have you ever not watched the stars? I mean, to see if they don't stay there on their own?"
"Well, I have been ill a couple of times. But someone else watched them for me until I was well again."
"Oh, any nightrunner. For just a couple of night, the stars can manage without a real watcher."
"Have you never wanted to try? I mean just to leave them to it?"
"Of course not!" the wolf barked. "If they run away I'll never get them back. How could I get up there to chase them?"
"The watcher has to watch! It's always been like that, since long before you humans came along."
"I'm sorry if I offende you, Varg. I'm sure you're an excellent watcher." Hio felt relieved when the wolf wagged his tail." I didn't mean to make you mad."
"It's okay, Hio. You're only human, you couldn't understand."
"Varg, can we... you know, meet again some night? Or maybe some day, when we could play?"
"I think I'd like that." The wolf turned his gaze from the night sky and grinned at Hio. "My friend."
"Great!" Hio smiled back, then stood up. "I gotta go. Guess I'll be grounded for staying out this late, but will you be here every night?"
"I usually watch from different places, but I can stay here if you want. See you some other night, then?"
"Right!" Hio turned to leave, but waved back at his newfound friend. "I'll come looking for you during the day, too, maybe."
"Sure. If I'm not too tired, I'll play with you."
* * * * * *
The boy dashed towards his home and his scolding, while the wolf stayed where he was, staring up at the stars. What a strange night it had been, and what a strange new friend he had made. Grinning to himself, Varg tried to mimic the boy's giggling, but found that he couldn't. The closest he got was a shrill yip, as if he'd caught his tail and bit too hard. He looked forward to seeing Hio again, especially during the day. It would be fun to have someone to really play with.
Just then, a meteor flashed across the sky. The wolf let out a yelping bark, and the shooting star vanished. A quick look around the sky told him that nobody was missing. He stretched proudly and reminded himself to tell Hio that stars really did try to run away at times. But he always kept them in check. He was a very good watcher.