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red and the wolf

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'The woods are lovely, dark, and deep' - Robert Frost (Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening)

....

There are wolves in the woods, Stephen knows, with sharp teeth and golden eyes. With a mournful song to call down the moon. But still he slips among the trees, lets his feet stray from the well worn path. The wind carries the bite of winter as it tears autumn leaves from the trees; the shadows of trees hide patches of frost from the sun's warmth.

He pulls the scarf around his neck closer, pulls the hood up over flaxen hair and the reddened tips of his ears. The coarse wool is crimson, dyed with madder; it itches the skin of his neck and catches on the stubble of his beard.

Stephen keeps his hand on the wooden butt of the rifle slung over his shoulder, ready to war against red faced devils, fair folk, and hungry wolves. The woods are alive with birdsong, and the rustle and chatter of small creatures among the deadfall of leaves and upward-reaching branches

He wears brown leather  gloves with the fingers cut free. The walnut brown color matches his muddy boots. The tips of his fingers are cold, and he blows a cloud of warm breath over them. Soon it will be too cold to forage in the woods.  Apples, nuts and clusters of black grapes will be hidden beneath snow and ice. But even on the shortest days of winter - hollow cheeked days when only rotten turnips and tree bark fill his belly, there will be animals to hunt.

The wild grapes have long been stripped of their twisting vines, but the two fat rabbits that cross his path will make a fine meal or two.

Deeper into the woods he ventures, boots crunching on frost covered leaves. He follows a stream as it cuts through the forest. The water is ice cold and sweet to taste; it splashes onto his boots and trousers.  

In amongst a grove of oak trees he finds a twisted fruit tree. Apples cling to the tree branches and are spilled across the earth. 

Perfect red jewels.

Stephen shifts the brace of rabbits down from his shoulder to hang from a gnarled tree limb. He plucks the apples from the tree filling his pack full to bursting, gorging himself on the fruit as he works. White teeth break the ripe red skin and sinking into the flesh; the taste is crisp and honey-sweet on his tongue.  

….

I am lost, he thinks, jaw flexing as he follows the sound of babbling water through a thicket of blackthorn. The branches are thick with blue-black sloes ripened by night frost. The stream cuts through the forest, curling around outcroppings of rock edged in rounded stones and soft mosses. Green, gold and red. Kneeling beside the stream, Stephen fills a battered flask with water, swishing the water, emptying it, and filling it again. He brings the flask to his lips, tilting his head back to drink.

He does not see the wolf approach the water. Nor does he see the flash of silver in her dark fur, or blue eyes narrowed in the water’s reflection. His head jerks up when he hears her whine deep in her throat, and sees her ears pressed flat against her head. Traces of blood paint her muzzle. The flask falls from Stephen’s fingers and he gropes for his rifle slung over his shoulder. Wolf.

The wolf shakes her head, sits back on her haunches. Expectantly. She’s beautiful, he thinks as he raises the rifle.

Fur bleeds away. Turns in.

The most dangerous wolves walk on two legs.

He should run. He should fire a bullet into the creature across the water. He does neither. The girl crouches where the wolf had stood, pale skin and dark hair cascading down her shoulders and back in loose curls. Blue eyes, brighter than his own gaze back at him with the wild of the woods in them.

“You are far from the path, son of Adam,” the girl says, voice low. Stephen breaks free of the ice filling his veins and raises the rifle in his hands. “Put away your toy. You bring only your own death if you try to take mine.”

Wilding.

Daughter of the woods.

Wolf.

The wolf girl’s head tilts to the side, “Have the shining folk stolen your tongue away?”

“No,” Stephen says. “I don’t talk to wolves.”

The girl purses her lips and rolls her shoulders back in what might be a shrug but only brings his attention back to the swell of her breasts tipped in rose hued peaks. Heat fills his face and he jerks his eyes back up to her face. A smile curves across her lips. Sharp white teeth. Teeth to tear and bite and kill.

“There is a lie buried in your words,” she says quirking an eyebrow up. She examines the nails of her hand as if bored by the conversation and Stephen bristles.

“D’you have a name, wolf girl?” Stephen says clutching the butt of his rifle closer to his shoulder. The wood bites into the muscle there, the brief spark of pain sharpening his senses.

“Names have power.”

“For witches,” he says and makes the sign warding against witchcraft.

“Perhaps,” the girl says moving to her feet with liquid grace. Her pale feet carry her back and forth along the waters edge. “But I am no witch.”

A mournful howl echoes through the forest. A shiver crawls down his spine; the hairs on his arms and the back of his neck stand on end. Wolves.  

The wolf girl tilts her head back, red lips parting to sing.

Shards of ice pierce his heart.

“There are worse things in the woods than wolves,” the girl says reaching up to wrap her hand around the  silver chain  round her neck. A locket hangs from the chain with a red cabochon stone. Red as the wool of his hood. As the apples weighing down his pack. “You must go.”

“I am not afraid of the fair folk,” he says jerking his chin up. He has his rifle and his knife.

“Then you are more a fool than I thought,” the girl laughs sharply. “The monsters do not care for the taste of wolf.”

“I am not afraid,” Stephen says. Doubt sits heavy on her shoulders, sinks low to fill his belly. A flock of birds startle from the trees. The girl growls low in her throat, her back to him as she scans the forest. “What is it?”

“Come,” she says leaping across the stream. Stephen stumbles back away from her. The girl ignores him, bends down and swipes up his brace of rabbits.

“That’s mine,” he snarls. The girl flashes him a bright smile, flicks the tip of her tongue out and holds up the brace. The sound of a tree cracking and falling in the distance makes them both jump and he turns the rifle towards the trees.

“We must go,” the girl says curling her fingers over his hand on the rifle. Her hand is warm through the leather of his glove, fingers soft where they tangle with his.

……

“What was back there?” he asks, breath billowing out in a white cloud as he follows the girl through the trees. There is no path here, only the faintest of animal tracks in the dying light.

“Darcy,” the wolf girl says. 

“What?”

“You asked my name, and now I have given it.”

“Darcy,” Steve says letting the syllables curl over his tongue. Dark

“Aye.”

“Stephen Rogeres.” he says. His head is brimming with questions, but the girl shakes her head as if she can read the fog of his thoughts.

“You do not wish to know, Stephen Rogeres,” Darcy says. She turns on her heel and slips into the lengthening shadows ahead of him. Fog swirls around his ankles, looping around trees and clinging to hollows in the land. The cold seeps into his clothing, clings to his flesh and burrows down to the bone.

When he catches up to her again it is not the girl but the wolf he meets. The silver chain still hangs around the wolf’s neck, shining in the faltering light of moon and scattered stars. There are creatures in the deepest shadows behind them. A sibilant hiss or an angry howl in the distance. Fear wraps around him, makes his limbs heavy and his footsteps falter on the loamy earth.

The woods will swallow him up until, he thinks, until nothing is left but bleached bone and rust.

It’s too dark for him to see, and Stephen stumbles on the twisted roots of trees. Soft fur brushes against his hand, a cold nose touches his fingertips and nudges him along faster than can go. Branches claw at his face and clothes. Beads of blood well up on his face and fingers. And still the wolf drives him on.

Darcy growls deep in her throat, ears pricked forward, the hair along her spine bristling under his palm.

“What is it,” he hisses planting his feet wide apart and raising his rifle. Human eyes were not meant for the forest at night. She moves in between  Stephen and the shadows - the nightmares that haunt the forest when good little hunters should be tucked warm and safe in their homes. Homes built of stone and wood, wards carved into the  foundations and milk pails left beside hearth and door.

Nightmare creatures spill from the shadows and fog. Grey skin hanging on long limbs dressed in moth eaten rags.  Bulbous eyes, lipless mouths, and black tongues. The stench of decay fills his lungs and stings his eyes. There is no time for prayers.

Too many teeth, and not enough bullets.

The first bullet hits its mark, between the bulging black eyes of the closes nightmare vision. Darcy crouches low, and springs at the next monster tearing its throat out with sharp teeth. Her paws touch the earth and she launches at  another grey skinned creature.

Silver chains and strands of jewels hang heavy from the creature’s slender neck, a tattered dress hanging from its shoulders. It swipes at the wolf and she cries out falling to the ground.

Stephen aims at the creature’s heart, burying a bullet within the cage of it’s chest. Black blood oozes between long fingered hands. The creature hisses, falling back among its brethren. The creatures fall upon their own wounded and dying, pulling them apart with skeletal hands and needle-like teeth. Stephen swallows down the acid burning in his throat.

The wolf pulls him from the nightmare vision. She nips at his leg through his trousers and barks once, leading him away.

Stephen loses track of the moon as he stumbles through the dark until they are far away from the monsters and the distant chorus of wolf song. His lungs burn; his arms and legs ache as Darcy shepherds him through the woods at a limping gait. They cross a wide stream on stepping stones slick with moss.

In the depths of a deep pool, Stephen can see flashes of white; moonfaced and fish-scaled. Tendrils of dark hair swirl in the still water over shimmering flesh, beckoning him with open arms to swim in the inky depths. The undine smiles, with closed lips, dark eyes blinking back at him. His head buzzes and he sways on his feet. The rifle slips from his hands and sinks beneath the surface. Darcy barks, and he rears back from the pool, pinwheeling his arms.

He crosses the last few stones to land on bank of the stream. An ice covered puddle cracks under his feet and he falls to his knees in the mud. Darcy whines beside him, nuzzles his cheek and licks his jaw. “Hey. I’m no pup,” he grumbles. He pushes her away, fingers sliding into fur sticky with blood. She jerks away with a snarl that covers the whimper of pain. “Sorry.”

Wearily he climbs to his feet and  follows her through trees and clinging brambles, across an open field thick with frost into the shelter of a stone building, half crumbled to ruin. He takes one last look at the line of dark trees illuminated by the sickle moon and pushes closed the heavy oak door. Pulling the pack from his shoulder Stephen sets it on the long wooden table along the wall, He strips the gloves from his hands and unwinds the crimson wool from round his neck. He collapses on the bed of blankets beside the crackling fire and sleeping wolf.

The heat of the fire melts the ice from his bones, eases the fear twisting in his belly.  Sleep wraps round him with heavy arms pulling him down. For a little while, he thinks. And then he thinks no more.

There is danger in sleeping with wolves.

What dreams come to him are painted in blood.  Sharp white teeth and silken fur. Pale flesh and lupine smiles. He runs in the dreams, on two legs and on four. The forest is dark - deep shadows, scarlet berries, and wolves. Wolves howling down the moon. He stands naked in a ring of trees, there is snow all around but not within the circle. He is not cold, his skin burns hot, heart beating fast, cock hard between his legs. He is not alone. The wolf girl slips from the shadow of the woods, pale skin bathed in moon light, face hidden beneath the veil of her hair.

He pulls her to the ground and sinks dull teeth into pale skin.  Blood fills his mouth and trickles down his throat.

Sharp pain bites into the skin between neck and shoulder, dragging him from the mire of his dreams.  Stephen gasps, rolling over to pin the girl beneath him. There is danger here, more than in the coal black woods. Danger in the way legs tangle together, and flesh presses to flesh. A shudder runs through him. Fire in his blood, copper on his tongue.

“What have you done, wolf girl?”

“I have a name,” she says with a sly curve of her lips.  

Three scars mar the perfect skin of her shoulder, jagged pink lines of healing flesh he traces with calloused fingers. “Darcy,” he says  following the chain of the pendant between her breasts to where it coils around her neck. His fingers skate against a mark on her skin; purple and crimson and fading fast before his eyes. “What are you?”

“Don’t you know,” Darcy says, low and hot.  Pushing against his chest she flips him flat on his back. Straddling his lap she cocks her head to the side, licks the red of her lips. Her eyes dark and huge, the blue eaten away by black. The drag of her nails over his chest sends shivers racing down his spine, curling low in his belly.

Claws to tear his flesh to ribbons.

Sharp teeth to rip his still beating heart from the cage of his ribs.

The stone catches the fire light as it sits in the valley between her breasts. Stephen wraps his fingers round it. The warm metal bites into his hand and all it takes is small tug to bring Darcy’s mouth to his. A clashing of teeth and the sweet taste of copper on his tongue.  

A wolf that wears her fur on the inside, he thinks, more dangerous than any wide eyed hunter lost in the woods.