Copyright 2005 Phaedrus
She walks to town with Her empty basket. She usually does, when the weather is good. The earth is a bit damp and the air smells of rain, but the rain has not come yet and may not come for several hours more, and that must be good enough for Her.
The market is not as busy as usual. The spring harvest has passed, and some of the farmers are too busy planting the second season's crops to socialize in the square. The farmers' pushcarts are half-full of radishes and carrots and peppers, and one small load of scrawny-looking potatoes. At one edge of the square, a smoky fire burns near a sturdier cart piled with wrapped slabs of beef -- someone must have slaughtered a cow. My stomach growls a little, and I am thankful when a gust of wind carries most of the scent away.
She moves through the market, totally at ease, chatting with nearly everyone She passes, gently haggling, buying here and there. Most of the crowd is locals, of no real concern. But there are always a few strangers, and strangers must always be watched. I've long since settled on nine good watching-spots at the edge of the market square -- the corner of a house here, behind a stack of firewood there -- places where I can get a reasonable view while staying out of sight. I slip from one watching-spot to the next, doing my best to keep an eye on anyone unfamiliar who seems to be approaching Her. It would be so much easier if I could just stay closer to Her. But I know She would only send me away, or maybe even hurt me; and I cannot blame Her, not in the least.
The locals pay no attention to me -- or at least make a show of paying no attention, though their scent and the brief pauses in their breathing suggest otherwise.
The strangers do not notice me at all. I take great pride in that.
Today, a fat stranger in grey robes concerns me most; he could be hiding almost anything, and he carries a strong scent of metal. Much like me, he stays at the edge of the crowd, watching for something. I wait just long enough to make sure his attention is focused elsewhere, then quietly edge to a closer watching-spot, a shallow depression behind an unused watering trough. Someone has left a raw chicken neck tucked behind a post there; it smells untainted, so I quickly gulp it down, without taking my eyes off the man in grey. The locals almost always leave things for me. I'm not concerned about their reasons; it may be fear, or pity, or something complicated. But I suppose I'm thankful for it. Large game is rare around here, and hunting is terribly slow and unpredictable.
The stranger in grey makes eye contact with Her, and lunges through the crowd in Her direction, and I leave cover and start towards them, ready to charge at the first glint of a blade, and excitement mixes with a quick twinge of desperation -- am I too far and too late?
But he smiles and waves to Her, and shows Her some gaudy necklaces, and She looks at one with no trace of fear. And I relax, a little, and draw back behind the watering trough. Just another merchant, it seems, looking for a customer rich enough to afford his wares. And She studies them long enough to be polite, and then sends him away.
I'm quite sure She saw me behind him. But She pretends not to see.
A few minutes later, She says Her goodbyes and starts home with Her basket of fresh vegetables. I stay quietly behind Her until She reaches the edge of town. Then I circle around in front of Her, staying in the grass to one side of the trail, just outside of Her sight and hearing -- or at least the limits She chooses to pretend to have.
Her shack is in a meadow, perhaps a thousand paces outside of town, perhaps more. I cannot come too close to it; She has wards there to keep out the beasts of the forest, and I know that all too well. So I stay in the shadows, and watch Her carefully as She enters and shuts the door.
I wait a few minutes to make sure all is well. Then I curl up and try to fall asleep. Night will come soon, and it's a full moon, and that is when She is most vulnerable. I must be ready.
Sometimes, when I go to sleep, I think about what my life used to be. It seems fanciful enough now that it takes my mind off the present, and distant enough that I can imagine the details without worrying about whether they're true, and all of that makes sleep come more easily.
I remember being human. I've forgotten most of the details, except that it was complicated. I do remember knowing some magic, and I remember caring very deeply about it. I can't begin to understand why, because all I remember about how magic worked, other than being complicated, is that it was a very rare thing, and terribly, terribly tedious.
Well, then She came along, and liked this place, and decided to stay. And I remember being frightened, and very angry. She was stronger, and She was in my territory. I can certainly understand that. But what I don't understand is why I didn't run.
I fought Her. I can't understand that at all.
I remember how terribly angry and hurt She looked. I don't remember anything after that... except the pain. And then She chased me away.
And I know that I can never make it up to Her. Ever.
But I have to try.
It must be almost midnight. The rain has come at last, and it's making up for lost time. I'm soaked to the skin, and the cold feels like it's working its way through to the bone. But I must be on watch. The clouds don't block the moon, and the earth itself seems to faintly glow with moonlight. But there are still many shadows, and I hide myself. I know She will come soon.
And She does.
She is dressed all in white, in a long, flowing gown. She's unbundled Her hair, and it hangs almost to Her knees, glistening in the light. The rain does not touch Her. How could it dare?
She closes Her eyes, and She begins to dance.
She is so very beautiful.
I want so much to be near Her. But it can never be.
She dances, slowly at first, but ever so gradually gaining in speed and intensity. I try so very hard to take my eyes off Her, to keep watch, but I keep finding my focus drawn back to Her. The wind swirls around Her, stronger and stronger, making a whistling sound that slowly builds into a howl; and the edges of Her gown start to leave trails of light, nebulous patterns that are swept away by the wind and replaced by still stranger ones. The ground, the shadows, everything seems to pulse in tune with the wind, in step with the music that only She can hear...
...and at the very edge of my sight, one shadow remains still.
And then, just for a moment, it moves in the wrong direction.
A shudder comes over me, tearing me away from the dance. I begin to circle around the meadow, staying low, knowing that I must not get too close to the wards. Or to Her.
From the depths of that one wrong shadow, I see a faint reddish glow... and lit by it, the face of a man dressed in black.
I know next to nothing about magic now. But I still know what a Fire spell looks like. And I know that I am probably already too late -- that in a few seconds that glow will build into a raging ball of flame, and that this man will throw it at Her, and that I am too far to the side to get in the way, and that She will never see it or hear it coming...
I leap from the shadows, charging headlong towards him, paws kicking up a spray of rainwater behind me. I know that my fur shines in the moonlight, and that if he sees me all is lost. But I know also that the man is focused on Her, and the fire gleams in his eyes, and that for just a few seconds it will blind him. And that is the one hope I have; if he holds his fire until he can see his target clearly again, then maybe, just maybe...
There is no point in calling out to Her; I know She can hear nothing over the wind. But just as I am about to reach him, and just as he finishes the last syllable of his spell, I growl like I have never done before. And his head jerks in my direction, and I leap...
And the world turns to flame.
I am blind and almost deaf. I feel the thump of the two of us tumbling to the ground. Every muscle in my body cries out as I lash around, feel for something soft, and bite down. I taste blood and I can dimly hear a scream. I lock my jaws with all my remaining strength, stifling a whine. Through the pain, I can dimly feel the soft thuds of three blows to the back of my head. Then a pause, then the muffled bite of a dagger sinking into my back once. Twice.
Then, for a moment, the world convulses, and my ruined vision goes white, and my ears ring with the loudest thunderclap I have ever heard.
I can't feel the man's flesh in my jaws anymore. I can't feel anything anymore.
I wait to die.
Then a new feeling rolls over every inch of my skin... something warm and indescribably wonderful.
Somehow, I open my eyes.
She is standing over me, almost on top of me, a goddess in white stepping out of the moon. I can see Her clearly. I can see Her face, so terribly hurt and angry, but not at me. I cannot move a muscle, but I know in my heart that She is looking at him.
She points at him, and says something complicated. And he screams, an awful scream that seems to go on forever. I can hear cloth tearing, and some snapping sounds that might be bone or something worse. And the scream starts to warble and shift in pitch, until it becomes a howl.
And finally, when the sounds stop, She chases him away.
And then She looks down at me, and She smiles, and as She bends down towards me, I know that everything will finally be all right.
And at last the world fades away.
She walks to town with Her empty basket. It rained yesterday, but the skies are clear this morning, and the air is crisp and dry.
I walk just ahead of Her, watching intently.
The market is busy. The corn harvest is in full swing; carts are overflowing with it, and the farmers' haggling is far more energetic and freewheeling than usual. No beef is for sale, but the smell of pork and chicken wafts over the square.
She works the crowd, radiant as always, and unless I see something that needs checking out, I stay by Her side. The locals' children always seem excited to see me, though their parents have taught them to keep a respectful distance. The adults no longer pretend to look elsewhere. In fact, they often compliment Her on my appearance and demeanor as they chat. Naturally, I pretend not to notice, but I secretly take great pride in that.
When they think She is not watching, some of them still eye me with very complicated looks indeed. But that is no bother to me.
When the strangers come, they often do the most delightful double-takes upon first seeing me. Inevitably, a local will then discreetly pull the stranger aside for a few minutes' chat. No doubt they have some dreadful, complicated story to explain away the nosy wolf with the silver runes in its fur. Again, no bother to me, especially since the strangers seem to respect Her all the more for it.
One of the merchants -- he comes too often to be a 'stranger', but he's certainly not a local -- stops briefly at the butcher's cart, then comes over to try his luck at selling to Her. He does his best to smile warmly, then bends down and offers me a sliver of roast pork. It smells wonderful, but I step back, cock my head just slightly to one side, and stare calmly up at him. It takes him a moment to realize that he has forgotten the protocol for these matters. He blushes, mutters an apology, and extends the morsel to Her instead. She nods, delicately takes the morsel in Her gloved hand, and holds it toward me. I lower my head and tail to Her in proper deference and thanks, and She drops it at my feet. I snap it up and pretend to look preoccupied elsewhere, while he stumbles through his pitch and excuses himself.
Before long, She has finished Her errands and made Her exit, and we head for home. The trip is almost entirely uneventful. But as we near the shack, I catch a familiar scent, and see a black-furred ear barely visible in the tall grass. I head towards him at a deliberate pace, and growl evenly but menacingly.
Immediately, I hear a most satisfying whine, and the grass rustles as he quickly vanishes into the distance. I return to Her, tail held high.
He has earned nothing more from me, and certainly not from Her.
I still almost never come into Her shack; I can't keep a proper watch in there, and it makes me feel uncomfortably like I'm imposing and ignoring my duty. And frankly, it smells quite strange. But I can come as close as I choose now, and pick the best spots without fear. And the runes don't just keep the wards at bay; they keep me warm on cold nights, and the rain and snow just run right off. It's a very satisfying arrangement.
And best off all, almost every time She sees me, She is smiling.