It should have been impossible, allowing her to hold out this hope. Impossible to stay with her. Once, it would have been.
But it’s appallingly easy.
He has comfort here, there’s food every day, and warmth both day and night. The few visitors who ever come to the cottage stare at him for a second where he sits by the hearth; but then each one of them passes a hand over their eyes as if in surprise, and afterwards, treats him just as they would any humble farm dog.
Days, when he isn’t sleeping he keeps guard over her, as that faithful dog would do. Nights, he sits and keeps her company, and talks with her. He has had no-one to talk to for so very long.
They don’t talk of much in those evenings. The cooling of the autumn air, the waning of the moon.
She never calls him wolf or speaks of him as a beast, not even in the daytime. Only ever addresses him by name.
She treats the old arrow wound in his leg. Each day she rubs the scarred muscle with a balm made of fat steeped with herbs, taking care to keep his fur clean and to get none on the sores. Each night, she bathes it and puts honey on the raw places. She sings over it, a little husky voice, made small by caution but tune-true and to his ears sweet beyond reckoning.
The oozing skin dries and scabs over at last, and the ulcerated wound knits up.
She sews him more clothes, a shirt, a pair of woollen breeches, a simple vest with thongs to tie across the front. By the time the new moon comes around, he’s used to rising from her hearth in the evenings and dressing himself as a man again. Now he must be a wolf all night once more. For a day and night he cannot touch another human hand, and it enrages him, and hurts, as it has not done for a long time.
He would scream if he could. He goes out into the clearing and howls at the stars.
Next nightfall the distant scimitar of the new moon rises, and the change comes again. Jyn takes his hand and helps him to rise. He puts on the clothing she made for him.
It’s harder every day to think of her as the witch Jyn.
There’s food for him daily, and she reminds him daily that he’s safe with her. That he doesn’t need to be her guard. He tries to sleep through more of the day, so as to be awake, come night-time and moonrise and the unfathomable blessing of a human voice in his throat, a human hand with which to clasp hers.
Every few days she tries out another spell on him. The first one failed, the first night; as he’d been sure it would. They all fail; but Jyn goes on reading and studying, looking for more things to try. Word spells, incantations, songs, herb charms, a candle-charm that has to burn all night with the two of them watching over it in silence. A whole night wasted when they could have talked. Although so often they talk of nothing consequential. Just to have someone to talk to.
Sometimes, she even warns him gently before trying a new spell; “I don’t have too much hope of this one, but it’s worth a go.” Sometimes she doesn’t, and her face is intent and certain as she guides him to lie down, as she lays her hands on him, sings her magic.
Still none of it works. But there are times he can feel the magic spliced onto his bones pulling and tearing at him, as if her strength has caught it off-guard and it must sink its fangs in and hang on tight. He whimpers and shivers and holds still, hearing Jyn’s voice rise, feeling her touch and something more, an energy rippling around them both. Her hands are shaking, but she doesn’t break contact till the incantation is finished.
“I’m getting a better feel for how it’s made and bound-off,” she tells him, one night. She’s chanted herself to exhaustion, he needs to fetch her drinking water before she can even speak. Himself so weary he can barely crawl to the well-head. He helps her hold the beaker. Her fingers are painfully stiff from hours sitting motionless, gripping a taper in each fist. The muscles of her arms quiver and jerk, he can see spasms pulsing under the skin where her sleeves were pushed back.
When she’s drunk enough, gratefully he drains the rest of the water. He kneels panting at her feet.
“One of these days I’m going to make some headway.” She fixes him with a fierce stare. “I kept getting a grasp on it tonight but it twisted away. I won’t let it beat me.”
Cassian wonders often why she’s so determined to save him. He means nothing to her; but something, somewhere in her life, has so much meaning, that she will strive with all her power to do this thing.
The migrating birds gather like ghosts whispering in the treetops. One day he sees them flying, and the air smells of feathers and excitement and a long journey ahead. The trees are almost bare when they are gone.
The next night, there’s no spell to try, just a meal and a quiet few hours sitting together, watching the flames in the hearth. Jyn had been into the village, buying stores for the winter and delivering a charm to a barn-raising.
“I saw ships today,” she says quietly, without looking round from the fire. Its red light paints her profile and sets a tiny bonfire in her eye. “Across the marshes, where the great river channel runs. They were going upriver.”
“What sort of - can you describe them?”
“Oh yes. They were the enemy’s ships. Grey hulls, grey sails. Carrying troops in white and black armour. Off to war.” Her voice is flat with bitterness. “There’s always somewhere they feel they haven’t crushed enough.”
The next night she tries another long spell. Weaves a great twined mass of plaited grasses and herbs, of scarlet leaves and small late flowers. Throws it over him while he’s still wolf, lying breathing hard on the beaten earth floor. She chants over him for hours with a furious energy; her voice doubles and redoubles on itself till the sound is like a wall of light, shining around him. Finally she stops; silence falls and the echoes die away, into the dark, and then Jyn sobs. Her hands go slack, resting on him. He can tell without asking that the magic still has its bite in him. He’ll be wolf once again at moonset.
Jyn has slumped forward. Her forehead is almost resting on his ribcage. For a moment he imagines laying his hand on her hair, cradling her against his body.
He speaks quietly.
“Jyn, why are you doing this?”
She pulls herself back and straightens, slowly, stiffly. Her face is working; she’s breathing hard and her hands quiver.
The covering of grass and dead flowers falls to the floor as Cassian sits up. All her work and it’s just dry grasses. “Why are you wearing yourself out like this for a stranger?” He wants to be simply rational, a man pointing out folly, but the words come out sharp, with fear, and the anger that comes from fear.
Jyn ignores the question. “You’re not a stranger. Not anymore.”
She looks at him in the firelight. They both know it’s an obfuscation, that she doesn’t want to answer him and she doesn’t mean to.
The lines round her mouth are sad.
Cassian picks himself up off the floor. He’s aching from keeping still, but otherwise unhurt. He pulls on his drawers and breeches. Goes to kick the torn web of grass into the fire. Jyn stops him with an outstretched hand.
“Don’t – it’s – it caught some of the shape of – I can maybe learn something new from the bits. For the next time.”
There shouldn’t be a next time. You’re hurting yourself with this. I should go.
He can’t bear to say it. To leave this implacable, taciturn woman who listened and understood when he said hope. To leave this place where he is safe, and healed, and can give something in return. Once a captain of the Queen’s guard, now the loyal dog who protects a single home.
He leaves the remnants, and she gathers them up; he watches her the next day, studying them, crumbling each dry strand carefully. Smells her frustration, her desolation when at last she does consign the last pieces to the flames.
“I would have been your enemy once,” he tells her one evening. The next new moon is only a few days off, the waning one a shard lying low in the sky. “I would have come with soldiers, thrown you into prison. The law has not dealt generously with magic.”
“That’s past. There’s only one enemy now,” Jyn says. “They are mine quite as much as yours.”
She casts her eyes down and purses her lips. Says nothing more. He misses her words when she turns pensive like this. Wonders if she will ever trusts him with her story. If he will ever trust himself to ask.
He picks up on tiny things. It’s like learning to see a landscape from only the reflections in a broken mirror. A shard of light here, a name or a strange bit of history there. Jyn can both read and write, and in at least two languages more than him. She uses the word friend very rarely, and only for one person, that Yarrow for whose barn-raising the herb-spell was made; newly married and building a first homestead, Yarrow and her spouse are the village sausage makers. But when they visit the cottage, he notices that the spell she’s scattered over him works for them also, friends though they are. They blink and see a dog, not the wolf he is. Still they are kind to Jyn, bring her tea-herbs and a carved dish as a thank-you for her work. He would protect them too if he could.
Jyn makes another charm for them; for “fertility, good health and no leaks.”
“Not in the roof or the floor, not in the shutters or the porch, nor in the shoes and boots and coats. And I added hellebore, for a warning against idle tongues, so it should protect against gossip as well. But they can still eat leeks.”
It’s rare to see her smile, that sweet confiding savageness. He’s never heard her laugh.
He’s no longer limping. There’s a scar now, uneven and red, puckered down his human calf, his wolf leg; and a bald place in his fur, around the place. The muscle feels corded and tight to the touch, yet beneath the marks, where the flesh had festered and brought him constant pain, now all is sound. He can run better than ever. When he thanks her she nods slowly and says “I’m getting to be a fair healer. My mother’s – my mother was better.” Quiet eyes, as green as the conifers along the edge of the clearing. “The Force was in her. From her fingertips to the soles of her feet. I can touch it. She was filled with it.”
He doesn’t ask more. He wants to, but – her mother? This is too close and private, it isn’t something for him to demand but for her to share, if she chooses; and she looks thoughtfully at him, and does not.
Jyn is quiet by nature and so is he; he can’t condemn her for preferring to take care of her trust. She speaks quickly and awkward when she has to, accuses herself of babbling if she must utter more than three sentences at a go. Even then, she doesn’t speak thoughtlessly. He learns only what she is prepared to tell him.
He suspects that if it had been daytime when she spoke of her mother, he would have smelled the grief on her like a fog.
Cassian knows grief, and shame, and hurt. In atonement for the times he has tricked prisoners to make them speak, he accepts her silence now.