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Straying From the Path

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Rosaleen lets her fingers slip deep into the wolf's coat, past the coarse protective hairs to the soft layer of fur beneath, close to the skin. She feels the gentle rise and fall of his ribs as he breathes, and an irregular shiver that runs along his body--from pain, or perhaps fear? As if in response to her unspoken questions, he lets out a soft whine, pitched high, and bumps his damp nose against her chin. Rosaleen takes a deep breath and swallows, once, before tilting her head up in response to the wolf's gentle but insistent nudging. She closes her eyes and waits for the teeth to tear out her exposed throat.

The teeth never come. Instead, a warm tongue traces the line of her jaw, leaving her skin slick with saliva. In spite of herself, Rosaleen laughs, an incredulous chuckle. She opens her eyes and looks down at the wolf. "Did you like my story so much?" He only pants shallowly, jaws cracked in a wolfish grin. To Rosaleen, it seems he is laughing at her.

"Or maybe this is all a ruse," she continues in a petulant voice, mentally scolding herself for letting her guard down so easily. "Perhaps you mean to lull me to make the game more interesting. Your kind lives for the hunt, they say." She fists one hand into the wolf's coat, letting the other wander, taking in the varying lengths and textures of his fur. "And this is still very much a hunt to you, isn't it? No matter that neither of us is running." He had the good grace, Rosaleen thought, to look a bit sheepish at that. "You can't trust a wolf." She scowls, turning away. Despite her words, she feels betrayed.

The wolf exhales an indignant whuff of breath and shifts his body beneath her hands. It happens so quickly that by the time she begins to react, he has already stopped moving. Her fingertips brush what he must have wanted her to feel: a patch of fur that sticks up in wet clumps, still warm to the touch. Rosaleen feels a curious pang of guilt. "You would have killed me otherwise," she says, but even as the words leave her lips, she questions the truth of them. She remembers pulling the trigger: the surprising recoil of the rifle as it fired--jerking her arms and leaving her hands feeling numb--and the impossibly loud roar of the shot that left her ears ringing.

And she will never forget what happened afterward: the blood, and the way he writhed, screaming, and split from his man-skin to reveal the wolf within.

The moments before, however, seem dim and hazy, as if the scene were viewed through a warped and smoky glass. She remembers that he lunged at her--she thinks she remembers that--but had it been for the kill...or for a kiss? Had she ever delivered that kiss, the promised prize of their bet? She can't even remember that.

"I suppose you can't trust a man, either," she allows. She means "man" in the sense of "mankind," but the wolf watches her expectantly. "...Or a woman," she finally adds with a sigh. He seems satisfied with that, ducking his head, jaws parted again in what Rosaleen can only see as a laugh. Forgetting, she moves the hand near his wound, brushing through the oozing blood, which is cooling and beginning to congeal, but is not yet sticky. She gasps and pulls her hand away as if she's been stung. Her fingertips are stained scarlet--a surprisingly vivid shade, even in the dim firelight. The same color her cloak had been.

Without thinking, Rosaleen brings her fingers to her mouth, the same way she would if she pricked her finger while doing the mending. The taste of his blood floods her senses--wild and bitter, with a metallic tang so strong she almost gags. She jerks the hand from her mouth and brings it to clutch her throat as she swallows, feeling the wet red marks her fingers leave against the pale skin. "Awful," she says, screwing up her face in disgust. This time she hears his silent laughter first, even before she sees his wolfish expression of amusement. "You might have warned me."

The wolf briefly humps his body up under her other hand in what can only be called a shrug. Rosaleen sighs, doing her best to wipe the rest of the blood from her fingers on the bare hearthside floor. "I suppose I should dress your wound..." she begins, uncertainty welling up inside of her.

Don't bother, the wolf replies. It's halfway to healed already.

Somehow it doesn't surprise Rosaleen that he should speak, even as a wolf. If, as a man, he'd been hairy on the inside, why not the reverse? She supposes he might have been talking this whole while, and it's just that she finally started listening the right way to hear him. She's not sure why, but she feels more at ease with him when he's like this than she did when he was a man. It really makes no sense; after all, a man has neither the speed nor the natural weapons of a wolf. Maybe that's why: wolves may be designed to kill--for the sake of their own survival, if nothing else--but men, born without those natural gifts, must be cunning and inventive to make up for their lack.

She strokes his fur as she muses on this, the crackling of logs in the dying fire the only sound besides their breathing. The quiet seems to stretch out endlessly, though it's probably no more than a few minutes. Still, the emptiness buzzes in Rosaleen's ears, filling her head until she feels she has to speak or go mad. "What's your name?" It's an inane question, yet Rosaleen finds she is genuinely curious.

Wolves don't have names, he replies simply.

"But you aren't always a wolf." She pauses, brow furrowing in thought. "What were you first, a wolf or a man?

He takes so long to answer that Rosaleen begins to think he won't answer at all. Finally he stirs beneath her fingers. I don't remember anymore. Maybe I was never really one or the other, but always caught between. He pauses, but there is a sense he means to say more, so she waits for him to continue. The wolf closes his eyes and lowers himself, resting his head on her knee. I know a story, he says. It may not be true of me, or of anyone, but I know it just the same.

The Lovers

Once there was a young woman who loved a wolf. She loved him and he loved her in return, but she didn't know he was a wolf, for he kept that part of himself hidden beneath the skin of a man. He knew that if she saw him for what he truly was, she would be lost to him. So he hid his true nature, adopting human customs as best he could, though deep down his heart longed for the freedom that can only be found when running through the forest, heedless of any path.

One winter's day this longing overwhelmed him, and he invited his sweetheart to walk with him in the woods. They held hands and when he stepped from the path, she followed without question. He was so thrilled to be out in the forest once more that he failed to notice the snow beginning to fall thickly around them; perhaps he simply didn't think much of it, since a wolf's pelt will keep him warm even in the bitterest of winters.

The woman, however, had been born with the bare and tender skin of a human, and soon the storm became too much for her. Realizing his folly, the wolf stopped and built her a crude shelter, but she would not warm. He tried building a fire, but he lacked a matches and a tinderbox, and had no way to catch the wood alight.

The woman grew colder and more still, and her breath became weak. Finally, in desperation, the wolf did the only thing he could think to do--he stripped off his frail human skin and lay down beside her, hoping to warm her with his fur. He knew she would hate him now that she saw what he was, but the thought of losing her to death was more horrible still. Yet even this was not enough. 'It is not fair,' cried the wolf, 'that my beloved should die before my eyes while I remain untouched by the cold!'

And, hearing his own words, he suddenly knew how she could be saved. He pulled off his wolf-skin and draped her in it, leaving himself in the shape of a man once again. Of course that made no difference, for no matter what he looked like, he remained a wolf inside and could return to that form at his desire.

With her meager remaining strength, the woman clutched at the wolf-skin, wrapping herself in it. By and by she grew stronger with the warmth it provided, but she did not loose her grip on the coat. Instead she pulled it around herself tighter, and tighter still--so tightly that it became as her own skin and she, too, became a wolf.

They stayed there for a time in that forest, before moving on in matching forms, together and free.

-

The ending of his tale seems too abrupt to Rosaleen--not so much as a "and they lived happily ever after" to finish it off, though maybe that doesn't quite fit. She mulls it over in silence, and the wolf only lies still while she absently strokes his fur.

In the lingering warmth of the dying fire, Rosaleen begins to drowse. She's not sure how much time has passed when the wolf moves. He pricks his ears forward, raising his head from her knee, and the sudden movement drives all trace of sleep from her. Hunters are coming, he growls. I must go.

He stands, and Rosaleen tightens her grip on his fur. "Wait."

And become a trophy mounted on your father's wall? Oh no, sweetling. I'm afraid we must part. The wolf laughs silently again. Unless you plan to come with me?

Rosaleen sets her jaw stubbornly. "You made me burn my cloak. I'd catch my death in this night air."

Then this is farewell.

The wolf makes to leave, but she clings to him all the tighter. "No." He turns to her and bares his teeth in a warning. It takes all her will to not let go. She forces herself to speak, quickly, before he can turn on her. "You've ruined my cloak. If you were a true gentleman, you'd--"

I'm a wolf, he reminds her, interrupting.

"There must be some common courtesies, even among wolves."

You are trying my patience.

"I'll come with you. Only..." Still tangled in his fur, her fingers tug--not sharply, but with just enough force that he is sure to feel it. "Loan me your coat to keep me warm"

At her words, he throws his head up and laughs, and this time it is not silent.

From the forest, a chorus of howls answer.