"the wolves are crying the old folks folly
and the lives ones left behind can't make up their minds
they can't wake up."
She's five, when she finds the wolf cub in the woods, bleeding and crying, black fur wet and sticky with his blood, leaving red smears on her fingers when she picks him up. He trembles against her, and he's almost too heavy for her small arms to carry, but she does so, determined, cradling him close to her chest, careful.
Her mother's lip curls when she sees the creature. “Leave it to die, Clarke. Or better yet, put it out of its misery. That's one less beast in these woods.”
Clarke juts out her jaw and shakes her head, holding the cub a little closer. She's not going to leave him; she's going to save him.
Abby sighs, resigned, because even at only five years old, she knows that look on her daughter's face means there's no changing her mind. It's unsurprising that a child of Abby Griffin was born with an iron will.
“If I tell you how to save him, you can't keep him,” her mother bargains.
Clarke doesn't like this, is already imagining him as her faithful companion in the years to come, a fierce protector, a confidant, a companion. But she has to save him.
“I can keep him until he's better,” she counters.
“Just until he's better.” Her mother's face leaves no room for argument. Clarke nods once, and the deal is struck.
It takes two and half weeks to nurse the wolf cub back to health. He'd had a long gash across his shoulders, which had bled a lot, and he kept busting open the stitches her mother taught her to do because he couldn't seem to stay still, but the wound hadn't been too deep.
“Probably a hawk went after him,” her mother muses, but Clarke doesn't think so. It looks too clean for that, like something a human would do.
He wants to follow Clarke everywhere, which proves to be a problem when his stitches won't stay in, so she gets her mother to help her fasten a sling that she can wear that keeps him close, warm against her chest. She's excited to show her father when he gets home.
Clarke's father, Jake Griffin, is a traveling merchant, gone for weeks at a time, but he always returns to their home, a small house on the edge of the village with blue flower boxes and yellow flowers in the spring, full of stories and trinkets from far off lands. He feeds the dreamer in Clarke. And if he gets home soon enough, he might convince her mother to let her keep the wolf.
At night, the cub sleeps curled into the crook of her arm, soft and warm, a reminder that she is, for however briefly, not alone. He snuffles into the tangles of her hair early in the mornings, eyes bright and curious and much too awake for the hour.
The day Abby deems the pup healthy enough to go, Clarke tries to fight it. “But he's just a baby! He can't take care of himself!”
“Clarke,” there's a warning in Abby's voice. Her mother is not someone to push too hard. “I said you could keep him until he was better. He's better now.” And she's right. The wolf cub is in the yard, pouncing on bugs and tripping over his own feet, clumsy, but full of energy.
“No.” Her mother's tone brokers no room for argument. “He's a wolf, Clarke, not a dog. And when he gets big, he'll get feral. The village won't want him around, he'll kill the sheep. He could kill a person. He's harmless now, but he won't always be.”
Clarke slams the door of the house when she storms out into the yard to cry. The wolf cub climbs into her lap and she clings to him, angry and fierce and heartbroken as a five year old girl can be.
They leave him in the woods, near a stream, in an area that her mother deems far enough away from the village to be safe. Safe for them, not him, Clarke can't help but think. She's already crying, has been the whole journey out into the woods, the cub clutched close in her arms, her fingers curled into his soft fur.
He tries to follow the horse when they leave, stumbling over his feet in his haste to keep up with them. But the horse is faster, and it's not long before he's outpaced, and then just a speck in the distance, and then not there at all.
“Wolves are supposed to have a pack,” Clarke says, furious behind her tears.
Abby says nothing at all.
The year Clarke turns twenty, two things happen that change her life forever. The first is the death of her father. The news had come to them over a month after his actual death, somewhere far from home. He'd fallen ill on one of his trips, some sort of cough that had rattled in his chest and eventually stolen his life.
Abby's mouth had pressed into a hard, nearly vicious line when this news had been delivered by another merchant, but she'd kept her composure. Clarke knows, by the sleepless dark circles that appear under her eyes in the weeks that follow, that her mother believes if he'd been home, she could have saved him. And who's to say she couldn't? After all, Abby Griffin is famous even several villages over for her skill with medicine. In the end, it doesn't matter. Her husband and Clarke's father is still gone.
“You'll have to visit your grandmother,” Abby had said, two days after the news had arrived. Clarke knows which grandmother she means. Abby's own parents live in the village- her father was once the mayor, but they don't speak to Abby or Clarke. It had taken Clarke years to understand that her mother had turned down the engagement her parents had arranged for her and elected to elope with Clarke's father instead. As such, she and by extension Clarke, were formally disowned from the family. She believes this is the only reason that, at nearly twenty, her mother hasn't even breathed a word about an engagement to Clarke. As traditional as Abby Griffin is, this is one place she will not push Clarke.
But Jake's mother, Clarke's very eccentric grandmother, lives alone in a cabin deep in the woods. The villagers whisper that she's a witch, but her grandmother only laughs and pats Clarke's cheek when she repeats this.
“I'm not a witch, my love, I am simply sensitive.”
“To what?” Clarke had asked, wide eyed and innocent, a little girl concerned about what everyone thought of her grandmother.
“To the rhythm of the world,” had been her grandmother's answer.
And now it falls to Clarke to tell her about Jake's death. Abby won't go. She and Grandma Griffin had never particularly gotten along, Abby too practical and Clarke's grandmother too prone to antagonizing her with “nonsense.”
It's a long walk through the woods, one that's made Clarke nervous ever since she was a child and had wandered off the path and gotten lost in the dark. Her father had found her, hours later, cold and shivering under a massive old oak.
Today, the walk is worse, weighted down with the news she has to deliver. But when she arrives, her grandmother takes one look at her face, pales, and then takes a steadying breath and says, “I'll make tea.”
She never asks how Jake had died, but Clarke thinks she knows. Grandma Griffin is like that, always has been. Abby might call it nonsense, but Clarke doesn't think so. There are mysteries in this world that Grandma Griffin seems clued into.
They sit quietly in front of the roaring fire in the wood stove, even though the snow has already melted for the year, and the flowers are starting to bloom. Grandma Griffin likes the heat. She says she was made for warmer climates, but she's never gone anywhere else.
It's only when Clarke is leaving that her grandmother stops her with an old, wrinkled hand on her elbow.
“I have something for you.”
Clarke waits while her grandmother disappears into her bedroom and returns carrying a long, vibrantly red cloak.
“So you can't get too lost,” her grandmother says. It's been years since Clarke was lost in the woods, but she takes the cloak anyway. It's been a shock, Jake's death, perhaps that's all this is, a result of that trauma.
“It won't be long now,” Grandma Griffin murmurs, though her eyes are very far away. “They're coming.”
“Who is?” Clarke's used to her grandmother making cryptic declarations, but something about this one makes her uneasy.
“The wolves,” her grandmother answers solemnly, eyes gazing out the kitchen window and into the woods.
“Grandma, there have always been wolves here.”
“No. Not like this.”
It does nothing to calm Clarke's nerves on her walk back through the woods, red cloak draped around her shoulders, and her grandmother's words echoing in her ears. It's still daylight out, there shouldn't be anything to fear. Still, she feels the weight of eyes upon her, an itchy feeling between her shoulder blades, as if she's being stalked like prey.
She gets all the way to the edge of the wood before she spots it, a dark shape flitting out of the corner of her eyes, and she turns, startled, to catch sight of a wolf between the trees. It's a big, black beast of a wolf, surely larger than a normal wolf should be, still a good distance from her, but looking right at her. Clarke doesn't think, she runs.
Every heart pounding step she expects to feel hot breath and sharp teeth sinking into her flesh, but it never comes. When she's run all the way back to her home and slammed the door closed, it's a long time before she can stop trembling.
The second thing to change her life that year is the arrival of Bellamy Blake to the village. He comes with a group of rugged hunters, tracking a pack of rabid wolves. Her grandmother had been right- not that it surprises Clarke; Grandma Griffin usually is. Clarke can't help but wonder if the wolf she'd seen that day in the woods is part of this pack, if she's only alive out of sheer dumb luck.
Bellamy is only one of the group, but he's by far the most interesting. He's the youngest, the prettiest, and the most mysterious. While the rest of the group seem happy to drink all night in the tavern and talk, boisterous and open, Bellamy usually sits apart, sipping his drink quietly and often with his nose buried in a book. He doesn't seem to notice the village girls making eyes at him and laughing loudly to try to draw his attention as they sidle by. Clarke can't even really blame them; Bellamy's not like the people of this village, they all look washed out next to him.Where he's all warm hues of brown streaked with black and gold, they're just pale shadows. Clarke's never met anyone so beautiful, not even the butcher's daughter, who'd once kissed Clarke behind her father's store when she was supposed to be running errands.
But if Bellamy does notice all the attention he's stolen, he never acknowledges it. Which makes it even more odd that Clarke keeps catching him watching her. He's not obvious about it, but Clarke's an observant girl, and she often finds his eyes when she's in town. He never looks away when she catches him, but rather studies her with an intense, but inscrutable expression. Clarke can't decide if she likes it or not. She can't see why he'd be looking at her, when he doesn't so much as glance at Roma or Bree fawning over him. And besides, it doesn't just feel like the way other men have looked at her; he isn't leering, he seems... fascinated. But Clarke doesn't think there's much about her to find that interesting.
They've never spoken. Bellamy doesn't approach the villagers. He eats his meals in the tavern, usually with a book, and he speaks in low tones to his companions, and he's sometimes seen walking through town during the day, patronizing the local stores. But he never seems to say more than he needs to, and he doesn't seem to be looking for friends.
“That's just Blake,” Clarke overhears one of the other hunters telling a disappointed Roma. “He's all work, no play. And he always says there's no point in getting attached to people or places that you'll have to leave behind.”
“I don't need him to get attached,” Roma had pouted, but Clarke hasn't seen her vying for Bellamy's attention since. She still feels his eyes on her, like a pressure between her shoulder blades, somehow like that day in the woods, whenever she goes into town.
The third night after the hunters arrive, Clarke wakes to the howling of wolves.
She meets Bellamy on accident, literally bumping into him as she's leaving the baker's with bread tucked under her arm. He steadies her with a hand to the elbow, a worn book clutched in his other hand. Up close she can see a smattering of freckles across his skin and how rich and warm his brown eyes are. She is decidedly not blushing.
“Sorry,” Clarke apologizes, proud that her voice is steady. He looks at her just as intently as he always has, without the barest hint of embarrassment for studying her.
“You're Clarke Griffin,” he says. His voice is lower than she expected, a rumble in his chest that she thinks she could feel if she reached out and laid her palm against his skin. She tries not to think too much about that. She's not going to throw herself at him, even if he is beautiful and mysterious and alluring. He hasn't done anything to deserve her attention.
“I am,” she replies primly, straightening the red cloak her grandmother had given her about her shoulders, mostly for something to do with her hands. She's taken to wearing it, as if it had been this cloak and not sheer luck that had saved her from the wolf that day in the woods.
“Bellamy Blake,” he introduces himself, holding out a hand to shake. She hesitates only a moment before she takes it, so warm and rough against her own skin.
“Everyone already knows that.”
Bellamy huffs out a small laugh, like she's startled it out of him. “I take it you don't get a lot of strangers around here.”
None nearly as pretty as you, Clarke thinks. “Just the merchants in the Fall. A lone traveler or two.” She is very aware that he has not let go of her hand.
“And now the wolves,” Bellamy says lowly. It strikes Clarke as an odd thing to say, to think of them as strangers or visitors, rather than animals.
“And the hunters chasing them.”
“Us too.” Oddly, he doesn't sound very enthusiastic about that. He drops her hand then, taking a step back. It's the end of the conversation, even if he hasn't said it.
“Well, I should be getting home,” Clarke says, trying to remain polite. She's halfway down the steps of the baker's when his hand catches her elbow.
“Clarke,” there's a sort of hushed urgency in his voice. “Don't leave your window open tonight. Curtains aren't very good protection against wolves.”
She nods tightly, shaken, and he releases her arm. It's not until she's halfway home that it dawns on her that he knows she has curtains in her bedroom windows.
The howling of the wolves is nearly constant that night. Clarke lies awake and listens to them, haunting and much too close. Her mother is away, having been called to assist with a childbirth a town over, and she likely won't be back for at least two days. Clarke's never liked being alone in the house, but tonight it feels particularly chilling.
She thinks she's imagining the first sounds outside her window, the rustle of leaves and the creaking of the walls. Despite being disturbed by Bellamy's words, she'd taken his advice and latched her window tight, curtains pulled closed. She shouldn't look, it's nothing. But the longer Clarke lies there in the darkness, the more she imagines, so she sits up and opens the curtains.
There is a wolf outside her window. Clarke stifles a startled yelp, her heart thundering in her chest. The wolf blinks calmly at her from behind the glass. It's large, black, with deep dark eyes, and... Clarke could almost swear it's the same one she saw in the woods on the way home from her grandmother's. It stands on its hind legs, massive paws pressed against the glass, tail swinging, and the gesture is so familiar, Clarke is suddenly five again, her little wolf cub standing at the door the exact same way, wanting out. But... it can't be. That was fifteen years ago. Fifteen years, and she's not seen a glimpse of him since.
And yet... Clarke can't shake the feeling, deep in her gut, that this is that wolf, her wolf, from all those years ago. She presses a hand to the glass, thinking. Don't be stupid, don't be stupid, but almost against her own will her other hand is reaching out for the latch. The window tumbles inward, open, and the wolf comes with it.
For one terrible moment, she thinks she's made the biggest mistake of her life. There's a wolf in her bedroom, hulking and huge, and with its eyes locked on her like prey. But then it lies down, eyes upturned toward her, tail swishing lightly against the wood floors, the way she's seen dogs do with skittish animals. Clarke reaches one hand out, slow, but the wolf doesn't move, not even when she passes the hand over its head to reach around and slide her fingers into the fur across its shoulder blades. Right there, she can feel it, one long scar across his shoulders.
Clarke's breath leaves her in a relieved rush, because it's him and she knows, suddenly, that her foolish decision won't be the death of her. Somehow, some way, he remembers her.
“You came back,” Clarke murmurs, stunned, disbelieving, and the wolf sits up then, and in an oddly human gesture, pushes forward to press his forehead to her shoulder. Instinctively, Clarke wraps her arms around him, so much larger than the last time she'd held him, but still warm and soft and comforting in a way that she hadn't even realized she missed so much.
Outside her window, the howling gets sharp, near, and the wolf jerks backwards, out of her arms, his lips curling, a low growl in his throat. He takes two steps toward the window, as if he might go out there, and Clarke reacts without thinking, reaching out to put a hand on him. It stops him in his tracks, looking back over his shoulder at her. It's silly, to talk to him like he can understand her, but everything about this night feels surreal.
“Stay,” she says, quiet. “Please.”
And he does, though he does not follow her back into her bed after she's closed the window like he had as a cub, but instead curls up on the floor, under the window, one ear perked, tilted toward the sound of howling.
In the morning, when she wakes up, the wolf is gone, and Clarke's not entirely sure that it wasn't all a dream.
They find the first body at the edge of the wood the morning after her wolf had returned. It's so badly torn into, it's impossible to identify on sight, though it quickly becomes clear it's Sterling, the blacksmith's son. There's a crowd in the town square all morning, gossiping while they pretend to shop.
“He fancied himself a hunter,” one of the men in Bellamy's group grunts over a cup of tea. “He shouldn't have been out in the woods at night.”
“It's not his fault,” Bellamy says grimly. Clarke's been watching him out of the corner of her eye, wondering if he'd somehow known someone would die the night before. “But people should stay out of the wood entirely.”
“The wolves haven't attacked anyone during the day, though,” Clarke can't help but interject. She doesn't like the way they're talking. The woods have always made her nervous, but she's due to visit her grandmother to bring her monthly supplies from town. She can hardly skip out because she's scared of the woods.
Bellamy's gaze lands on her, piercing as ever. “These are not normal wolves.”
Clarke lifts her chin. “Well, we can't all afford to live in fear. I'm not going to abandon my grandmother to starvation just because of some wolves.” It feels like a brave and foolish thing to say. She'd seen a wolf the last time she'd gone, but now... She's almost certain it wasn't one of this pack they're all hunting, but rather her wolf, and the lack of attack hadn't been luck, but because he'd had no intention of attacking her at all.
“Don't say I didn't warn you,” Bellamy responds, with a shrug of his shoulders, but Clarke hasn't forgotten the intensity in his eyes when he'd gripped her arm the day before and told her to keep her window closed. His nonchalance now seems feigned.
Still, she can't help but think he was right, as she takes the familiar path to her grandmother's house, clutching a heavy wicker basket full of supplies. She's done this once a month for years, and it has always made her nervous, but today even more so. There are wolves in the woods and they've had a taste of human blood.
Her grandmother ushers her into her house with a concerned press of her lips. “You shouldn't have come,” she says, taking the basket from Clarke's hands and looking her over like she's afraid she'll manifest an injury on the spot.
“Grandma, you need your supplies.”
“Hmph,” Grandma Griffin replies. “You could have sent one of the shop boys. The woods aren't safe these days.”
“Then maybe you should come to town,” Clarke suggests, suddenly eager to have her grandmother there, where they'll both be safer. It doesn't matter if her mother will be less than thrilled, Abby will see the logic in it.
“Oh, no, it's not someone like me they're after.”
“What do you mean?”
Her grandmother raises a single eyebrow, an odd similarity she has to Clarke's mother when they are otherwise nothing alike. “Have they not figured it out yet? They're not just wolves, Clarke. They're men who turn into wolves. They want the young, to turn or to slake their need for blood. They're not interested in an old bat like me.”
Clarke knows what her grandmother is talking about- she'd told her stories of such creatures when she was young, men and women who turned to wolves in the night and hunted humans for sport, but they'd always been fairytales, far away and too eccentric to think even her grandmother believed.
“Don't give me that look, young lady,” Grandma Griffin huffs. “I know exactly what I'm saying and I'm not wrong. You'll see. When they're killed, they won't be wolves any longer, they'll be men.”
“Even so, Grandma, wouldn't you just come to town for a few days? Just until the wolves are hunted or gone?” Clarke tries to sidestep her grandmother's insistence.
“No, I won't. And you won't visit me either. Stay out of the woods, Clarke. Now, you should go before the sun starts to set. And keep your windows closed.” Clarke would argue further if she thought it would do any good, but she knows it won't. Clarke comes from a long line of stubborn women. She leaves her grandmother with a kiss on her cheek, and her heart in her throat.
Already, the sun is slanting through the trees at an angle that whispers of a setting sun. Clarke sets off at a brisk pace, clinging to the empty basket like it can protect her. She only makes it halfway home when the wolf appears, and not hers, sleek and gray with pale eyes that glitter menacingly from the lengthening shadows.
Clarke freezes, heart in her throat. She shouldn't have gone into the woods. Bellamy was right. Her grandmother was right. The gray wolf growls, low, teeth flashing, and Clarke takes one unsteady step backwards before it springs. It never reaches her. Instead, the gray wolf is met met mid-air by another, twice its size, black, and growling.
It's over so fast, teeth and claws and blood on the ground and then the gray wolf is streaking off into the woods and the black one, hers, is at her side, blood on his muzzle, but seemingly unharmed. He nudges her side, toward safety, toward home, and Clarke goes, her hands shaking, the only reason she's not dead padding quietly at her side.
When she opens the door to her house, he follows her in without any hesitation, silent as a shadow. He follows her back to her room, where she wipes the blood away from his muzzle, and watches her calmly as she crawls into her bed and huddles under the covers and finally lets the events of the afternoon overwhelm her, tears on her cheeks, panic clawing at her chest. She should get up, make dinner, take a bath, anything, but she can't. Instead, she's just shaking all over.
With only the quiet clack of nails on the floor and then the swish of displaced air, the wolf lands onto the bed next to her, his weight enough to make the mattress dip and the bed slats groan. He stands, a moment, and then carefully, so careful Clarke would think he understands her distress entirely, he lowers himself and curls into the crook of her arm, just as he had all those years ago. He doesn't fit as well, but Clarke buries her face in his fur and she breathes. He stays, as her muscles eventually relax and her heartbeat slows. He stays even when the world goes fuzzy around her and she clings to consciousness the way she clings to his warmth and his strength and protection. He stays until she's fast asleep. But when she wakes up in the morning, he's yet again gone.
Over the next two weeks, there are three more bodies. One is Monroe, a girl a couple years younger than Clarke. One is Dax, which sends a shiver of fear through the town; Dax had been a big, strong young man, not one to go down easily, and always armed. The last is Roma. This is the one that shocks Clarke; pretty, flirty Roma, who would never have been out in the woods at night.
“They killed her in her bed,” Clarke hears the whispers. “She was sleeping with her windows open.”
Rumors begin to circulate, that the wolves aren't normal wolves, but cursed men, preying on the young and beautiful. Clarke doesn't know where they come from, since she certainly doesn't start them, and her grandmother is the only place she's ever heard stories of these kind before.
Abby returns to the village from her trip exhausted and quiet, the mother had nearly died in childbirth. She's only home long enough to scoff at the rumors before she's called away again. Clarke used to be comfortable with this- her mother is skilled, and it's not uncommon for her to travel with her work, but being alone in the house no longer feels like a privilege.
The only comfort that she has is the continued presence of her wolf. Her mother had not allowed her to name him as a child, saying it would only make her more attached, so she can't think of him now as anything but hers. He shows up at her window each night, and she lets him in, where he spends most of the night with his body angled between hers and the window, ears alert. But even this has her wondering... Is her grandmother right? Is he something more than a wolf? She has noticed things, now that the initial shock has worn off. He should be old, she believes, if wolves have similar lifespans to dogs, but he moves smoothly and comfortably, like an animal in its prime. And sometimes, when she speaks to him just to fill the silence, she swears she sees recognition in his eyes.
But if he is something other than just a wolf, he never hints at it, and Clarke's too afraid that he might stop showing up if she approaches the possibility. And anyway, there must be more of her mother in her than she'd always thought, because she can't really bring herself to believe it. Not truly. The wolves are just wolves, dangerous and bloodthirsty, and she's been incredibly lucky.
“We have to set a trap, flush them out of the woods and into the open. We don't have the men or the firepower to deal with them like this.” Bellamy's voice is low, but Clarke hears it anyway, intentionally having placed herself close at the bar, a cup of untouched wine in one hand. Bellamy hasn't been watching her tonight. He looks grim, brows drawn close together and jaw tight.
“Take out as many as we can at once?” one of the other hunters asks.
“That's the plan.”
And Clarke understands, she does, because people are dying- brave Sterling and strong Dax and pretty Roma and kind Monroe, but not all the wolves are bad. Her wolf hasn't killed anybody- she knows because he's spent each of those nights curled up at the foot of her bed, always on guard. And maybe, maybe, there's just a tiny bit of doubt in her heart, because she doesn't know where he goes in the early morning hours after she's drifted off. But he's not like those others, she can't bring herself to believe it.
“What about the wolves that haven't killed anybody?” Clarke interjects, knowing she shouldn't, knowing it isn't her place and most of these men will look at her and see a pretty little girl who should have a husband around to control her mouth by now.
“What of it? They're wolves,” the huntsman shrugs. She knows she'll get nowhere with him, so she ignores his answer and turns her eyes on Bellamy.
He's looking back at her. “We don't have any other choice,” is what he says.
“You always have a choice,” Clarke responds, because she's suddenly furious, terrified that her own secret will get caught up in this mess and furious because he's right, because this is exactly what she would do if she were him.
“Listen, it's not simple,” Bellamy murmurs, and he's somehow caught hold of her elbow again, his fingers burning bright and warm against her skin, pulling her away from the bar and the other patrons and into the shadows. “And you don't want to talk too loudly about protecting them.”
Clarke has to tilt her chin up to look him in the eyes, but she doesn't mind because it expresses the defiance she's feeling anyway. “Why not?”
“Because they're not just wolves, Clarke. Haven't you heard what everyone has been saying? They're monsters, people who choose to kill. It's not animal instinct, it's a sick hunt.”
“Those are just fairytales.”
“They're not,” Bellamy says low, and it's only then that she realizes he's very close, closer than is by any means appropriate, but he shows no signs of backing off. “I assure you, they're not. And when everyone else in this village realizes it too, it might not just be wolves they're hunting for, it'll be people. Don't give them any reason to come after you.”
Clarke scoffs, though her throat feels tight and there are goosebumps breaking on her skin, from his words, from his proximity, from thrill and dread and excitement and hoping. “You think I'm a wolf?”
Bellamy's head dips slightly closer. He's so close, too close, not close enough. “No,” and she doesn't know when her hand came up to rest on his chest, but she was right, she can feel the vibration of his voice through his skin. “I know you're not, Clarke.”
“Do you?” She smiles, sly, and his eyes track the tilt of her lips. She thinks he's going to kiss her.
Outside, someone starts screaming. Bellamy takes a smooth, easy step back from her and is striding for the door before Clarke can even process the change of their proximity. Her heart pounding, she goes after him. The other hunters have hauled themselves up from the bar and are all a few paces in front of her, spilling out of the door to the tavern and into the evening air, the sun just beginning to set.
The commotion is coming from the square at the center of town, in which there is a hulking brown wolf, cornered, jaws smeared with blood. It's turning in a slow circle, eyes glinting in the failing light. Clarke looks for a body, but she can't see one. The blood didn't come from nowhere, though. A hand at her back makes her jump, but it's only Bellamy, who leans in close and murmurs for her to stay back, even as he pushes forward, a gun that must have been tucked in his waist band in one hand.
The rest of the hunters are all sliding forward, tightening the circle that's formed around the wolf and from somewhere across the square, Clarke can still hear the screaming, but no... It sounds more like wailing, like grief. Her feet feel frozen to the ground as she watches the group of hunters advance on the animal, which turns and swings its head this way and that, snapping at nothing.
“It's gone mad,” one of the hunters says loud enough for Clarke to hear.
“It's dead,” is what Bellamy says, and even though he's still quite a few paces away, he raises the gun in his hand and fires. Clarke can't help it, she looks away.
She only looks back when a sort of collective horrified murmur goes through the crowd, and when she does, she knows instantly why. Because where there had been a massive wolf, there was now the naked body of a man. Clarke takes an involuntary, curious step forward because... well, that shouldn't be possible. But no one looks surprised, just grim.
Bellamy's already turned his back on the body and is striding back through the crowd, shoulders squared, face blank. Somewhere, in the distance, Clarke can still hear someone crying, though it's softer now. Clarke takes one last look at the man in the square, and follows Bellamy out of the crowd.
“You knew he would be a man,” she says, as she half jogs to catch up with him.
“Yes,” Bellamy doesn't look happy, but he doesn't look nearly as shaken as Clarke would expect of someone who just shot a wolf-man to death.
“You've done that before.”
Bellamy meets her eyes then, hard and unapologetic. “Yes, I have. And I'll do it again.”
Clarke casts a glance back at the crowd over her shoulder. They've put some distance between themselves and it now. She thinks about the blood around the wolf's mouth and the wailing.
“Do you know who he attacked?”
“I heard someone say the name Charlotte.” Clarke's stomach drops. Charlotte is just a little girl, barely ten years old, a timid little thing. She is suddenly fiercely glad for the bullet Bellamy had put in that man's head.
“Let me walk you home,” Bellamy says, finally, sounding so incredibly tired. And it's the softness with which he says it that gets to Clarke. She still disagrees with him, still knows of at least one wolf that doesn't deserve what they're planning, but she sees his side more now than ever. They can't keep letting the wolves torment the town, not even if they're part human, particularly if they're part human, and able to understand their actions.
Clarke nods, and Bellamy falls in at her side as they take the familiar path back to her home. She is hyper aware that it is only the two of them.
“Why do they kill humans?” Clarke asks, finally.
Bellamy frowns. “They're... not good people. I don't know, Clarke. I've been hunting them for years, but I don't know why they do what they do. You generally don't get close enough long enough to ask.”
“Doesn't that bother you? Not knowing?” They reach her door, painted blue like the flower boxes, and Bellamy stops a respectful distance from the front step.
“Not as much as being too late to stop it,” is all he says back.
Clarke sits up until the early hours of the morning waiting for her wolf. She knows she has to confront him, suspects that like the wolf in the square he is far more than just a wolf. And while that thought makes her uncomfortable- who exactly is this person who has been coming in her window every night? She still believes he means her no harm. He must have been young, only a child himself when Clarke found him in the woods all those years ago. He's probably as confused by this whole situation as she is. But she needs to see him. She needs to warn him. She waits until the sky starts to turn a dusky pink and she can no longer keep her eyes open, but he never comes.
Charlotte dies at dawn, having clung to life through most of the night. The village burns the body of the wolf-man, hard faces around a vicious funeral pyre. Clarke attends, dark circles under her eyes from a sleepless night. She doesn't see Bellamy or any of the other hunters. She needs to know what's going on. She needs to know how she can make sure her wolf, or whatever he is, doesn't get caught up in it all.
She lingers in town, buying a warm sticky cinnamon roll from the bakery, smiling sadly at Sterling's father when she passes him in the street. He seems to have aged a decade in just a few short days. Clarke's mother is due home today or tomorrow, but she sends a letter from the next town, informing her of a fever that's passing through and that it may delay her travel. She reminds Clarke to lock the windows at night, the only sign that she's heard and is worried about all the events in their own village. In truth, as much as Clarke doesn't like being in the house alone, she's glad her mother is away from all this mess. Even if she'd seen it with her own two eyes, she's not sure Abby would be able to believe in men who turned to wolves and hunted humans for sport.
She isn't able to find Bellamy, and she overhears Dante Wallace saying something about the hunters having gone into the woods hours ago and not come back, so she instead returns home and tries to take her mind off things by catching up on the household chores she'd been neglecting. Abby will throw a fit if she comes home to a dirty home, anyway. She knows where Bellamy will be that evening, all the hunters take their evening meal in the tavern.
When she does find him, he looks like he's slept about as much as she has, hair disheveled, a bruise across one cheek bone.
“What happened?” Clarke asks, nearly reaching out to touch it without thinking, but drawing her hand back at the last moment. His gaze tracks her fingers.
“Just a minor mishap- Murphy isn't as good with his aim as he thinks he is.”
One of the hunters down the bar makes a rude gesture at Bellamy in response. Clarke tries to pretend to be engaged, but in truth her mind is focused on one thing, figure out the plan.
“So you're still going through with the trap idea?”
“It's the best we've got.” Bellamy narrows his eyes at her. “But it's not really something we're spreading around town. You never know who could be listening. After all, they're not wolves all the time.”
Clarke tries to give him a flirtatious grin, but she's not sure she manages it. She likes Bellamy. She'd wanted him to kiss her the night before, but she has other priorities. “You already said you know I'm not one.”
Bellamy takes a long sip of whatever he's drinking. “That I did,” he mutters.
“Would you mind walking me home again tonight?” Clarke asks. She thinks he might not be so close lipped if they're alone. Never mind that the thought of being alone with him knots her stomach up with excitement and anxiety. She is very aware that her mother is not home.
Bellamy inclines his head, leaves his drink at the bar, and tucks the book he'd been reading into a jacket pocket. He settles his hand warm and heavy on her back while they walk. Clarke leans into it a little, and not just because it feels good.
They stop at her door again, and Clarke looks up at him, opens her mouth to pose her next question, but he cuts her off before she can get there.
“Don't think that I don't know what you're doing, Clarke Griffin.”
She raises her eyebrows at him. “Oh? And what am I doing?”
Bellamy's eyes look impossibly soft, too soft to be making accusations. “Trying to protect someone.”
“And who would that be?”
Bellamy smiles. He's very close again, close like he'd been the night before, and Clarke's heart beats out an irregular rhythm in her chest. “I'm not sure you know.”
And then he does kiss her, slow, but building, kindling the fire between them carefully, pushing it hotter, more intense as he goes. Clarke finds herself, back against her front door, her fingers in Bellamy's hair. He kisses the same way he reads, with all his focus, like all the answers of the world are just before him. It makes Clarke dizzy.
Somehow, she gets her hand on the doorknob behind her, and then they're tumbling back, into her house, bumping into walls, lips and hands and the occasional sting of teeth. She forgets that she had an agenda in all this. The only thing that matters is that Bellamy doesn't stop kissing her like that. He pushes her cloak off her shoulders, presses open mouthed kisses against her jaw and Clarke tugs at the hem of his shirt. Her fingers push up under the fabric, sweep up his back, and hit scar tissue. One long slash across his shoulder blades. Clarke stills in his arms. Bellamy breathes against her cheek, doesn't move.
“It's you,” Clarke whispers, finally. “It's you.” She takes a step back from him, so she can look him in the eye, and he stands there, lips swollen, hair all over the place, and watches her with wary eyes.
“It is you,” she repeats, suddenly doubting herself, but Bellamy inclines his head slightly, an admission. And oh, everything is slotting into place- the way he'd watched her even before they'd ever spoken, how he'd known about the curtains in her window, the way he'd warned her against her trip into the woods, and just now the little smile about his lips when he'd said she doesn't know who she's protecting. It's him. It's all him.
“But,” and Clarke's head is a mess of pieces, still missing things. “You hunt them.”
“I hunt the bad ones.”
“I think...” Clarke turns in a useless circle, trying to find something to anchor herself with. “I think I need to sit down.” She does so, on a rickety chair her mother keeps by the fireplace, taking deep breaths and trying to rearrange her world.
Bellamy stands awkwardly for a moment, before coming to kneel in front of her, face upturned. “I was going to tell you.”
“When exactly?” Clarke asks, though that's not really her biggest concern.
“After the others were gone. But then you were so worried, and you don't have to worry about me. I know what's coming, and I know how to take care of myself.”
“I...” Clarke thinks she might be having an out of body experience, because she's here, but she feels a million miles away. “I think I might need you to start at the beginning.”
Bellamy glances behind him nervously. “Can we...” She follows his gaze to her bedroom door. Her mother isn't home, and won't be tonight, but she thinks it's probably best if he assumes she is. And anyway, Clarke would be more comfortable in her own space too.
She scoops the cloak off the floor as she leads him into her bedroom, blushing at the thought of how it ended up there. If she hadn't found the scar on his shoulders, how much further would it have gone?
He only begins to talk once Clarke is sitting, cross legged on her bed, and he's taken a seat on the floor, back against the wall, where he can see the window. It reminds her so much of what he's like as a wolf that for a moment she sees both of them there.
“I...” He takes a deep breath. “I've never really told this story before, I'm not sure where to start.”
Clarke bites her lip. “Well, you turn into a wolf. Maybe there?”
Bellamy runs a hand through his hair. “It's genetic. I've always been able to do it. It's not... I mean, I don't know how or why or if that makes me not really human... But it runs in families, and I've heard of rare cases where alphas have bitten humans and they've transferred that ability to them as well, but I've never seen it happen.
“My father was an alpha, but he was killed by hunters when I was four, and my mother... She was never very strong. She found a new alpha, a new husband or... mate. And he was a monster. He likes the taste of human flesh, he's bloodthirsty and power hungry and... mad. After my mother gave birth to my sister, and I started to get a little older, he didn't like having me around. I think he was afraid of what I might grow into, so he tried to kill me.”
Bellamy looks away from her. His brow is furrowed. “I was seven. That's when you found me. I'd never been around real humans before,” he continues, quiet. “But I'd been told my whole life that if they knew what we could do, what I could do, they'd kill me for it. So I was too afraid then, to let you know there was any more to me than I appeared. I'd not had a real home in a long time, maybe ever. My mother was weak and my stepfather was cruel. And here was this place with this girl who took care of me, even though I'd done nothing to deserve it and it was so different from anything I'd ever known. I was afraid I'd ruin it. I had... nowhere else to go.”
Clarke tries to swallow past the guilt rising in her throat, the memory of leaving him in the woods that day, sharp in her mind. He'd run after her, until he couldn't anymore.
“After I got better, I knew I couldn't go back to my stepfather's pack, and I didn't want to anyway.” Bellamy glosses over her abandonment of him like it's nothing, but Clarke suspects it's not. She suspects it had cut deep, and she doesn't know how to fix that.
“He'd filled it with others who were just a sick and twisted as he was. I wanted no part in that. So I wandered, alone, and I figured out how to survive. When you're a wolf, you can live off the woods, you just have to be careful not to forget you're human too. When I was old enough, I stopped spending so much time as a wolf, started working odd jobs and moving here and there. And then I started hearing the stories, of a rabid pack of wolves, moving from place to place, killing as they went.
“I knew who it was. I knew it wouldn't just stop. So I started traveling with the hunters. They hunt the wolves because it gives them a rush. But I hunt that pack because I know it, and I know what they're capable of, and I know I might be the only one who knows enough about them to stop it.”
Clarke feels his words starting to sink into her skin. “That man, the one in the square. That wasn't your stepfather?”
“No.” Bellamy's voice is bitter. “I wish it were that simple. That was Vinson. He was cruel, and sick, and had a taste particularly for the flesh of young girls,” Bellamy grimaces, “but he wasn't my stepfather.”
“And the wolf that tried to attack me in the woods?”
Bellamy's frown deepens. “That... I've not really met her, not since she can remember, but... That's my sister.”
Clarke swallows, tries to think of something to say that would make that better, but she doesn't think there is anything.
“What if... what if this trap you're planning gets her too?”
Bellamy won't meet her eyes. “I... I don't even know her, Clarke. I haven't seen her since she was two years old. And she's with them- she's the one who killed Sterling. I don't think I can... I don't think I can protect her from what's coming, and even if I could... I don't know that I should.” He's gone distant, a haunted look about his face. Clarke wonders how he knows that, who killed Sterling. She wonders if he knows who killed each of the others.
“And your mother?”
Bellamy takes a deep breath, steadies himself. “She died a long time ago.”
Clarke's about to say something else, anything to fill the silence that is heavy with Bellamy's history and the things he's planning to do in the future, but he speaks before she can.
“It's... they might be my family, in a sick sort of way, but being with them, I never really had a home. Not since my dad died. And you know...” she thinks his cheeks are a little red, though it's hard to tell in the low light. “I was always alone, moving place to place, after all that. My stepfather would never have taken me back, even if I wanted to come. I came here because the wolves did, because I feel like I have to do something if I can, but I didn't realize this was your village until... I saw the house, with those yellow flowers in the window boxes and the blue door, and everything was just like it had been and then you, out in the yard, and I... I wasn't going to say anything, I was going to just stay away, but I... I just wanted to come home.”
There's a crack in Clarke's heart, one that's been there since the day she'd abandoned a sad little wolf cub in the woods, one that's never really mended, and it shatters open now. In all his life, he'd only spent two and half weeks with her and her mother, and it's still, after everything, the only place he's ever considered home.
Clarke doesn't think about moving, unfolding herself from her position on her bed and crossing the space to where he is, kneeling next to him.
“So stay, when it's all over, just stay here.”
Bellamy meets her eyes, somewhere between hopeful and sad. “We hardly know each other.”
Clarke touches his cheek, his jaw, warm and the slightest bit rough with stubble against her hand. He's right, but he's also not. She doesn't know him the way she wants to one day, but she thinks she's seen his heart. She thinks he's seen hers too.
“We'll learn,” she murmurs, before she leans in to kiss him, because she wants him to understand- she wanted him back then, in a completely different childlike way, as a friend and companion and protector, but she'd wanted him all the same. And she wants him now, as something she's only beginning to explore. He doesn't have to be alone in everything. He never should have.
He kisses her back, heady and desperate, like he can bridge all those years he's spent alone just by wanting it enough. They end up tangled in her sheets, hands slipping under clothes, searching for skin, until Bellamy leans back to look at her, eyes lidded and heavy.
She knows what he's worried about, the propriety of it all. She's an unmarried young woman, meant to be “pure” and untouched until her marriage bed, but well, that ship had sailed when she was seventeen, back when she'd thought the baker's son with his soft, pretty eyes and easy smile had been worth risking her reputation for. He hadn't been- but she doesn't regret it.
She whispers as much in Bellamy's ear, reassurances that he in no way could ruin her, no man has that power. And the way he sighs her name, the utter peace on his face when they finally come together- well, that's worth anything, everything.
She wakes up just as the dawn is breaking, slanting warm light through her window. Bellamy is leaning back against her headboard, reading the book he must have gone and fished out of his jacket pocket.
“Do you not sleep?” Clarke murmurs, eyes still heavy.
“Naturally nocturnal,” he grins, pressing a soft kiss to the side of her head. She's not sure if he's joking or not. How much of him is wolf and how much man?
“I have to go soon,” he says quietly. “There's a lot to prepare.”
Clarke considers this. She understands, she does, but she thinks it wholly unfair that he believes that all this is somehow his responsibility.
“Be careful,” is all she manages.
He smiles, the first true, breathtaking smile she's ever seen from him. “Go back to sleep,” is all he says.
The town is unusually quiet all day, like everyone in it is holding their breaths. They know it's tonight, whatever it is, and that tonight will make the difference between the end of the bloodshed and the continued torment of the town. By the time dusk approaches, you could cut the tension with a knife. Clarke hasn't seen Bellamy since that morning, and she's a nervous wreck. She knows he knows what's happening, that this is all a part of his plan and it's unlikely he'll get caught up in it, but that doesn't stop her from worrying. This is personal for him in a way that it isn't for any of the hunters. To them, this is a job; to Bellamy it's a responsibility.
Abby arrives home around midday, aware of the shift in attitude, but mostly skeptical of the stories everyone is eager to share with her. Clarke knew her mother would be like this- unable to accept what the rest of them have seen. She seems to grasp the gravity of the situation, however, if not the reality, because she hugs Clarke close and tells her she's sorry she's been gone so long. Clarke is reminded, momentarily of her father, who had been gone so often. She thinks Abby doesn't want to do that to her, even though Clarke's now a woman grown.
By supper time, most of the town has gathered in the tavern, quiet, and solemn, ready to wait out the night together. Abby had come reluctantly, mostly because Clarke had refused to leave her at home. She thinks whatever Bellamy is planning, he'll have kept it far away from her and her mother's home, but she knows he'll have try to kept it from the town.
The howling starts just after sundown, haunting and cold. Clarke feels shivers racing down her spine. Even her mother looks a bit disturbed by the sound. The whole tavern seems to draw in a little closer to itself, looking for comfort.
And then the shouting begins. It's close- too close. Something has gone wrong, though Clarke has no idea what. Someone, a man either brave or foolish, throws the door to the tavern open and takes off into the night. Outside, Clarke can see the sweeping flicker of torches, and the yelling is getting louder. And then, through a slice of open space, Clarke sees the wolf.
It's pure white, not as large as the one Bellamy had killed in the town square, but somehow more intimidating, its gait long, easy, and bright red blood streaked all over its body. The men follow after, but their bullets, if they hit, don't seem to have an effect. There is something about this one, Clarke just knows- this wolf is Bellamy's stepfather.
And then, with a swing of its head, Clarke swears the wolf looks right at her. But it's not her, it's the tavern, the tavern full of people and she sees the mad glint in its eyes, knows what it intends to do. It knows it won't come out of this alive- it's going to take as many of them as it can with it.
The wolf has almost made it to the front door, close enough that Clarke can see a score of scars across its face, when the second wolf barrels into its path. This one is black, and Clarke's heart stops. No, no, she knows this wasn't how this was supposed to go. If his stepfather doesn't kill him, the rest of the hunters will.
It's fast, the sudden violence, the flash of teeth and blood splattering on the ground. The two wolves lock together, a terrible embraces of claws and teeth and growls that she swears are so loud the whole building shakes. Inside the tavern, the town cowers, with nowhere else to go.
And Clarke, she can think of only one thing- that she has to do something. There's an old hunting rifle, one that she knows the owner of the tavern keeps loaded in case he has to chase out thugs, hanging over the bar. Clarke's father had taught her to shoot, years ago, with a quiet steady instruction. She's never had much use for it, but she thinks she remembers.
Every second she wastes is a second he could die, so Clarke doesn't think any further than that. She grabs the gun, shakes off the hand her mother grasps her arm with to try to stop her, and runs to the open door.
There's already so much blood, all over the ground outside, and neither of the wolves notice her, Bellamy doesn't see her, as she stands there, trembling, the gun lifted. If she misses, she could kill him. If she does nothing, he could die. So she can't miss.
Clarke takes three deep breaths, and then she shoots. Her aim is true, the bullet striking the white wolf in the side, sending him jerking back, eyes hunting for the threat. Her aim is true, but the bullet is not enough. She sees his eyes, then, yellow, vicious, locked on her. Clarke's bullet didn't kill him, but it buys the time Bellamy needs, and as Clarke stares down the wolf that would kill them all, Bellamy takes the opening she's given him, and rips his throat out.
Bellamy doesn't stay to see the man this wolf turns into, streaking off into the darkness before anyone can follow him. Clarke doesn't stay either, though she gets a glimpse as she tosses the gun and runs. The man is younger than she would have expected, his body grizzled but strong, his hair brown, shot through with gray. Even in death, there's a smirk about his lips.
But that's all she glimpses, and not what she cares about, as she goes after Bellamy into the night, running even when her lungs ache for air. She finds him slumped against the wall outside her window, bleeding, but alive. And she's so relieved, she kisses him right there, not caring that his stepfather's blood is still smeared all around his mouth. She doesn't care, because he's there, and alive, and it's over. And that's what she tells him, clinging to him outside her window, that it's all over.
Bellamy's trap had mostly worked, the rest of the wolves had been killed. Except his sister, who had never come. When Clarke asks if he'd somehow warned her, Bellamy never answers. Clarke worries that one day they will have to face this, the creature his sister has become and the fact that he can't seem to not love her anyway. But not today. Maybe not ever.
A week after the wolves are killed, the hunters go; Bellamy stays. He settles into his own cabin, just barely out of the woods, and he takes up the blacksmith's offer to teach him a trade. The man had lost his son and apprentice, and Bellamy, while handy at nearly everything, had never had a chance to establish a stable career. He comes back to his cabin with black hands and smelling like soot. Clarke waits for him after work at least twice a week, giving flimsy excuses to her mother that she sees right through, sitting on his bed, sometimes in her red cloak (sometimes only in her red cloak), and she revels in the marks he leaves on her, soot with his hands, bruises with his teeth.
She brings him books, when she can, anything she can find, traded her nice jewelry with traveling merchants for them, bargained them out of other members of the town. He always treats them as if they're precious, holds them gentle the same way he holds her.
Bellamy teaches her not to be afraid of the wood. They go on long walks there, sometimes when he's human, sometimes when he's not, and she learns the beauty of dark places, safe with him at her side. She learns to love the trees, and the haunted look they get in winter when the sun is just going down. And now when she walks the path to her grandmother's cabin, she takes her time, at peace with the place that once terrified her.
He asks her to marry him the next spring, nervous, like she might say no. And it comes as no surprise to anyone when they wed, an odd couple, they murmur, but somehow right, like puzzle pieces fitting together.
The morning after their wedding, her mother brings her a basket of freshly baked pastries, a wedding gift from the baker. Clarke opens the door, wrapped in her red cloak, a little pleased at the slight scandalized expression on her mother's face after everything. Behind her, Bellamy calls something about making tea. He has his back to them, no shirt, and Clarke watches as her mother's eyes find the scar across Bellamy's shoulders, the sharp, white line that would mean nothing to anyone else. Understanding dawns in her eyes.
“Wolves are supposed to have a pack,” Clarke says, quiet, so Bellamy won't hear, though she's never quite sure if his sharp hearing transfers to his human form. She watches her mother consider this information, calculating the way she is with everything, and then Clarke watches her lock it away, her eyes settling into the same practical, focused woman she's always known. And Abby says nothing at all.