“I know you’re out there,” Jyn Erso says to the open door, and the wolf beyond it.
The creature’s been hovering round her cottage all day, and so far has made no attempt either to hide itself, or to attack. It’s no normal beast of the wild woods, this, though she’s not yet sure what it is. But talking to it is certainly worth a try.
Her home stands on the edge of the forest, in a dell sheltered from the north-east wind by the embrace of the trees, and hidden from the eyes of soldiers, and worse, by the hunched spine of moorland and the broken land and marshes in the south. Any company she needs, she goes to; no human soul comes here, not without her permission, and very precise directions. Yet the place tends to attract strange creatures like this; the place, or she herself. There’s probably a shine of magic on her like a full galaxy’s light, could she but see it. But though the stardust of her power makes her fingertips tingle and the hairs on the back of her neck stand up, it’s invisible to human vision.
She looks out of the low door again.
“If you’re hungry, I can find you some scraps. Or, maybe not scraps, but I’m sure I have something you can eat. What d’you say?”
It paces carefully in the lee of the pines, a grey shadow amidst the deeper dark. The sun has set and night’s coming on fast, pretty soon the gleam of her lamp won’t be enough to show her if the creature is still there; but she’ll feel its presence, its absence. It has a strange energy, like tangled torn wool and bloody wire. And something is telling her, a whisper in the air behind her ears, that she needs to bring this haunt or ghost or were-thing, whatever it is, into some kind of peace, at least for this one night.
Its movements are uneven, somehow it still manages to walk silent though it favours one hind leg. She’s never seen such control in a wild animal. Halting and tense, turning back along the darkness, returning and turning again.
“I ask you to trust me,” Jyn says “as I am trusting you. Heh?” She holds up the lamp, and its light catches on the two eyes glinting in the shadow. “I have cheese,” she tells it. “Come now, you know you want to…”
It’s a very still night, the autumn air a creeping chill under her skirts and down her neck. More than half her little vegetable garden is already dug over and turned-in for the winter, and the cleared ground is scattered with fallen leaves. Twenty feet away, the watching eyes; brilliant overhead, the white road of stars. The moon is rising, she can sense its tide at her back; soon it will crest over the roof-ridge of the house and flood the clearing with silver, but for now the glade is dark except for her lantern.
Whether the creature comes or leaves, she cannot force its choice. Jyn bows her head and turns to go indoors; and stops, as in the corner of her sight she sees it again, that cautious movement, halting, limping, but moving; coming out from the woods. A slip of shadow detaches from the dark. When she looks up, there it is.
It; no, he, a dog wolf, now she can see him more clearly. Must once have been a handsome animal, with its thick pelt of grey, shading from sea-wash pale on the belly to a dark ruff and mask, and black ears. But thin, so thin, and definitely limping.
The wolf pauses, midway across the clearing, goes utterly still as he sees himself seen. Regards her with eyes that are very dark, and sad, and very wise.
“Well, woods-brother, come in if you wish or stay out if you wish. I’ll leave the door for you.”
She gives him a friendly nod and goes back indoors. The herb-bundle she’s making for Yarrow’s house-framing is almost done, and it’s time to look out something to eat, whether or not she has company at the eating. It’s a shame this spell-creature couldn’t have been something like a bird or a mouse, that she could feed on breadcrumbs and greens. She has no meat to offer him save a dry end of salt pork, surely not fit to eat without soaking and cooking it first, and there was only one egg from the hens today; but there’s bread, albeit three days old and pretty dry, and she has a cheese, wrapped in damp muslin and set in the cold north window to keep it fresh. And there’s cold beans from yesterday, stewed in oil and onions, but she cannot imagine a meat-eater will try that.
She wipes her athame quickly on her sleeve and uses it to hack a piece of bread from the desiccated loaf. Takes down the pottery dish from the windowsill and unwraps the round of white cheese; cuts two slices and puts one, with the bread and a couple of spoonfuls of beans, on her old plate. She takes the other in her hand and goes back to the door with it.
The wolf is right at the threshold now, standing in the pool of light from the interior, looking guardedly at her.
Jyn bends and holds out her hand, offering the slice of cheese. “Here you are, here, see? I won’t harm you. Here, you can take it, don’t be afraid.”
The wolf takes a single careful step forward, leans out, stretching his neck; he sniffs her and quickly licks her hand, snaffling up the crumbling cheese in one bite, then steps back with a whine of anxiety and a speaking look such as she’s never seen before, as if the creature would plead with her for something. Mercy? Help? More food? The moon must just be coming up, as suddenly there are both golden lamplight and silver moonlight falling on the beast’s fur, blending like another magic in his brilliant dark eyes.
He’s shuddering with cold or fear, ripples running through his coat in the moonlight.
“Come inside, shh, come – let me get a look at that back leg of yours, eh? I won’t harm you, come –“ and she reaches out, to lay her hand on the shivering head, on the dark silky fur –
- which is not fur at all; nor is the wolf a wolf. Naked and shaking at her door, a young man on his knees, with outstretched hands and eyes that despair and hope as they stare up at her.
“Well,” Jyn says, and for a time cannot think of anything else to say. “Well. So. There you are, then.”
So there he is. Whatever, whoever, he is.
She straightens up and moves forward, out into the moonlight, holding up both hands so he can see she has no weapon. The man rears back and struggles to his feet. For a moment he stays hunched over, panting as if in pain, before he forces himself to stand straight. His eyes are wild with alarm; he whimpers, tries to cover himself with one hand. He’s swaying; and he’s so thin she can see every rib, and the hollow of his belly, the crests of his hips. Long ragged dark hair, a sparse dark beard and dark hair on his body; and bare skin, shivering, marked with scars. Bare feet in the dew-damp grass.
“Easy there, shh,” she says. “All’s well, don’t be afraid. I’ll not hurt you. Would you like to come inside? There’s a fire, you could get warm…”
She touches him and feels him shudder at the heat of her hand; but he doesn’t pull away, only stares.
Slowly, half holding him up, she coaxes him to move, and he shuffles forward, stumbles over the threshold. When at last he’s in the kitchen, standing unsteady in the light of lamp and hearth-fire, he looks around and gives a little moan. Puts his free hand over his eyes. Fingers shaking.
Jyn guides him to her seat and pushes him down gently. How brutal a thing magic can be, to break a man and leave him like this. True, she’s set some hard spells in motion in her time, but only ever for protection or to banish wrongdoers, and there’s nothing in the feel of this creature that speaks of evil in him, only evil done to him. Shame, yes, that too, she can feel it pouring off him in cold waves of energy, and with it guilt, and a self-hatred like the tearing of claws; but inside all his unhappiness there is a good heart. There’s loneliness there and a wistful kindness, deep-buried; a pale, brave hope that clings on, and hides itself.
“I won’t hurt you,” she says again when at length the stranger uncovers his face.
He’s blinking in the light and shivering convulsively. He doesn’t respond to her, only slowly raises his right hand and turns it about, looking at the torn and bruised skin of his knuckles, and the dirty nails. He lays it on the table-top and presses his fingertips down, rubbing back and forth at the grain of the wood as if testing whether he can feel anything.
“Well,” Jyn says again, her own hands weak with sorrow for him “You’re in shock, I - I’ve seen it before. Shall I find you something to cover yourself, and some food, maybe?” Still no reply; and it seems childishly cruel to ask Do you understand this language? For all she knows, he’s been wolf-bound since childhood. Language itself may seem as alien as flying or breathing the moonlight. She pushes her plate an inch towards him. Surely that at least will need no words. “Here, please, take it. Eat.”
His eyes go to the food; hunger comes off him like a flame and he snatches at it, and then freezes, reining himself in, clenching his outstretched hand into a fist. Amid the tangle of his beard, thin tired lips work, and bite the air; and with a gasp he chokes out words. “Thank you.”
“Please, eat, you’re welcome,” Jyn says. “The bread isn’t fresh. Sorry about that.” She slides her beaker of well water his way too and sees how his hand clutches at it. Jyn turns away, ashamed of the uselessness of her pity. “You’re safe here,” she tells him.
He doesn’t answer. He must be eating. She pictures him tearing into the food with desperate fangs. Poor creature, how much of the man can come back from such a fate?
She goes over to her bedding box and takes out the largest of the woollen squares to offer him; and turning, sees that in truth he has taken only a small piece off the bread. He’s eating very carefully, pulling away small shreds to place in his mouth, chewing slowly, almost reluctantly. A desperate hunger rolls off him, cold as winter fog, but he will not give in to it. She’s never seen such self-control.
“Please, there’s no need,” she says helplessly “I have enough. Eat. I promise you, you’re safe here.”
The young man shakes his head. He moistens his lips and says small and hoarse “There is no refuge for me.”
“Whoever told you that was a liar.” It angers her in some deep inward way she cannot bring into the light, to hear him say such a thing. “There is no curse without a counter-spell.”
She watches him chew slowly on another scrap of bread and swallow it down dry. “Maybe. But I think not. The one who did this, he knew the strength of his own magic.”
“I know a little of magic myself,” Jyn retorts. It was meant to sound soothing, but his despair galls her so; and already he’s shaking his head again.
“You cannot find a way out of this. Don’t bother to try.” The dark eyes go back to the plate of food and he selects a crumble of cheese to eat. His fingers shake, squeezing it.
Well, no point in pushing him when he’s clearly under such strain. Jyn gives him a couple of minutes before she moves again, holding up the blanket. “Will you let me put this round you? It’s a cold night.”
He freezes, staring up at her, eyes hardening in defensive alarm. For a moment he seems half wolf again and she thinks he will refuse her help, even run from the house. Jyn steadies her own limbs into stillness, to echo his. He was a wild beast not half an hour ago, she doesn’t want to panic him back into that.
“It’s just a bit of wool. I’ve no men’s clothing in the house. Don’t think my dresses would fit, do you, heh?”
The stranger’s expression softens suddenly, into a weary puzzlement. “Why are you doing this?”
“Because I want to help?” It doesn’t sound much, now she hears the words. Just the kind of thing someone might say, who wants to lure a spell-bound being into a trap. Jyn takes a breath and goes on quickly “I know what it is to be an outcast. I may be a witch but I haven’t forgotten simple charity. Do unto others?” She holds up the blanket again, moving forward slowly, not invading his space but offering the comfort of warmth. His eyes, and the magic streaming off him, both shiver with need again before he nods. When the fabric touches his shoulders he puts up both hands, to catch hold of it and pull it close. Sits for a moment curling in on himself, with faint sounds that are almost growls coming rough in his throat.
Jyn backs away and settles on the log-bench by the fireplace, where he can keep her in sight.
She can feel the curse coming off him, it flows in ripples and thunder. It’s strong and it reeks of cold hatred, and it’s been on him a long time, runs right into him, muscle and bone and desperate heart. The pulse of hope is weakening in him, hedged about with angry fears.
But there is no spell in the universe that cannot be broken. And his poor soul may be battered, but it has not been defeated.
He feels - familiar. Perhaps all such wounded creatures are like her in some way.
“My name is Jyn,” she says. “You can stay here, if you wish.”
The man is still poking out one hand from the blanket mechanically at intervals, to pick another scrap of bread and feed himself. The lamplight flickers on his face, in his eyes. At times he’s still shaking, little spasms running through him as his body accepts the reality of warmth.
Finally he says simply “Thank you.”
“Welcome.” She’s beginning to find the weave of the magic shrouding him, the bright threads of the Force twisted back on their own nature, bound to darkness instead of light.
She ventures a question. “Will you be wolf again, come morning?”
His eyes meet hers and he says intently “I am not a wolf! But I – I will have the body of one again, when the moon sets.”
So that’s the way of it. Jyn nods. It’s good to know. The body of a wolf, but not the nature of one. “Well and good. You can sleep by the fire.”
“Thank you,” he murmurs, a soft breathing-out of words. Such exhaustion in his voice, in his face, every precisely measured movement; and weary and shaking and somehow still strong he says “My name is Cassian.”