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Winter´s Breath

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Since Castiel´s fifth birthday he had decided that winter was his most favorite season ever.


Admittedly the frost had turned the soil of their little field into hard, solid granite and the few animals still strong enough to withstand the cold were probably shivering in the barn even though their neighbors had lent very helping hands in repairing it. However the boy couldn´t help but watch the white, filigree flakes gracefully gliding towards his and his mother´s bedroom window with unbridled happiness.


Their complexity had always fascinated him. How could something so delicate not made by human hands look exactly like the next one but still be so unique? Castiel wondered if it was part of God´s plan making him ponder whether there was some connection between the individuality of snowflakes and humans. Then again he always found something extraordinary to think about. His mother said that made his charm, the townspeople said it made him strange.


Castiel sighed heavily and pressed his overly warm hand against the cool glass in front of him. Thanks to his mother´s good care a big fire was slowly eating its way through the beech wood in the hearth on the other side of the room. He knew he should have been asleep for at least two hours now given that it was the last day of the year and his mother still considered a thirteen year old boy a tiny child needing his rest so he would not become grumpy when the eve grew late. Castiel of course had protested loudly, as was his good right he thought, but all the begging and bargaining had turned out to be futile. After all he knew his mother only wanted his best and Castiel had to admit grudgingly she was almost always right.


So he had bowed to her will, leaning his head upwards for a soft kiss pressed to his forehead, and accepted his fate. And in the end he got carried away by the soft snowfall. How surprising…


He pushed himself away from the mesmerizing sight, not without a little inner turmoil beforehand, and bedded his black-haired head on the warm linen sheets.
Closing his eyes he wondered how the festivities of this year might look like. Would there be a huge feast like the last one where their neighbor Mister Miller had given three ox and five chicken to be fed to the town? Or would Mister White, the town´s smith, create a new explosive powder to lighten up the sky again? He could still remember the…fireworks he believed the older children had called it. Bright red and yellow colors looking as beautiful and complex as his beloved snowflakes flashed before his inner eye and before he knew it Castiel was gliding smoothly into a deep slumber.

 

The sharp smell of smoke filling his nostrils brought him back to reality in a quite uncomfortable way. Sleepily Castiel made a note to check the windows for any draught as soon as he was able to. He stretched his limbs like a lazy cat and wondered if the festival had already begun. If so then why hadn´t his mother woken him up already? Perhaps she was overly busy with organizing things that had been dumped on her the last minute because she was too good a soul to simply say no.


Just as he was contemplating staying in bed for a few moments longer to escape possible tasks still needing to be done he heard the screams.


First Castiel thought them to be the joyous shouts and dirty laughs of the older girls and boys who always played their very odd game of hide-and-seek at New Year´s Eve but the longer he listened the more he decided there was something shady about it. And when he strained his ears a little bit more he could hear the sounds of breaking wood and of…fearful animals desperately trying to run for their lives?


Confused he opened his still sleepy eyes and had to blink a few times to realize that no he wasn´t getting blind and that it was indeed thick, black smoke just mere inches away from his face filling the small room to the ceiling. Castiel was awake immediately and scrambled hastily out of bed hoping a spark from the hearth hadn´t begun setting the carpet on fire, as it had once five years ago and nearly burned down half the house, but as he kneeled in front of the ashes of a once respectable fire without even a hint of singed wood the relief he felt was only shortly lived. Instead he felt dread´s cold and clammy hands take a strong hold of his insides when his gaze finally travelled out of the now half-sooty window.


The village was aflame!


Hastily he rubbed the glass clean with the sleeve of his rumpled linen shirt to make sure it was just a simple bonfire somebody had lit up out of pure merriment. However as he watched their neighbor´s house slowly collapse under the hungry attention of sharp, yellow teeth it suddenly felt as if all spirit was sucked out of his body and despite the hot temperature of the room he began to shiver in ice-cold sweat.


“Castiel! Castiel, darling, please answer me!” someone shouted through the thick haze of the boy´s mind and he immediately recognized his mother´s voice, smiling slightly despite the grave situation.


The bedroom door burst open and Castiel found himself in a crushing embrace before he could even utter one word. Jittery hands ran through his hair and over his body, to make sure he was still in one piece Castiel mused, and his mother began mumbling numerous endearments he couldn´t quite grasp into his black strands.


“We need to go, sweetheart. No time to pack. Just out of here. Now!” she said surprisingly steady given her overly agitated behavior and after one last kiss to his forehead and a smile she had to know wasn´t even remotely convincing his mother grabbed his right wrist like a vice and dragged him out of their home into the afire night.

 

The winter wind lapped at Castiel´s overly warm cheeks with icy tongues and his still slightly sleepy feet fought bravely against the knee-high snow, its wet coldness slowly crawling up his legs. So after a few hardly won feet away from their beloved home the boy was ashamed to admit he was out of breath and the shivers wrecking his body weren´t helping at all but his mother wouldn´t tolerate his body´s demands for a break and continued dragging him almost brutally through the thick snow-laden bushes.


“Mother, where are we going? What´s happening? Why is the village on fire? Is somebody raiding us?” The questions flowed out of his mouth even though Castiel´s teeth had begun clattering very loudly. His mother though ignored them all just pulling him tighter to her while leading him, and this he just noticed now when the shouts and growls were growing quieter slowly, away from the town and into the dark forest nearby.


The elders had told them many stories a night about the woods and its secrets.


“It has its very own temper, laddies and lasses. So beware what flower or mushroom you pick or what deer or boar you hunt. If you don´t thank them properly by offering them a mighty fine poem or a share of your hunt they may lead you into your demise and you will be cursed to wander their depths until some of their darker creatures gets a whiff of you…”


The children around the great fire they always created on a warm summer night had shivered in joyful anxiety knowing the best part of the old men´s tale was yet to come.


“For there are beasts hiding in the shadows you cannot even imagine in your fiercest nightmares. Eyes to find every prey they desire, a nose to scent even the smallest drop of fearful sweat, strong legs to outrun even the swiftest of the swift, claws so sharp they tear through the strongest mail and a mouth full of fangs to devour the sweet, innocent flesh of the unaware child who dared to find its way into the beast´s territory.”


A silent murmur went through the young audience, not sure whether to believe what their ears just witnessed or to dismiss it as a simple story to teach them to respect nature and not exploit it. At least they knew of the dangers from experience. Some of them had a father or brother never returning from one of the men´s hunts, forever bound to the uncertainty of what had happened to them. Because every time the party returned with one man less, faces shielded and eyes hardened to the world´s beauties, they kept strangely quiet about what happened to their companion. They just offered silent condolences to the new widow and began skinning and preparing their hunt to be shared between the people.


Perhaps it was nothing more than a mere accident. After all the woods bordered on a steep coast and it was imaginable that in the rush of a hunt an unsteady foot would lose its ground and lead its owner to a deathly fall. And given the rarity of the missing hunters it was a commonly accepted reason. The uneasiness however never quite faded but without evidence of some fantastical supernatural creature slaughtering the men it would remain just that: an uneasy feeling.


Of this Castiel had to think while fighting his way through the powdery white mess. It had grown dark around them – thick, broad treetops, though leafless and only slightly covered with snow, hiding moon and stars. His mother´s breathing was labored and her pull not as strong as mere minutes ago and judging from the strong color of her cheeks she was finally feeling the cold as strongly as him despite their exercise. He, for example, had lost every feeling in his feet and arms by now and was wondering whether he would ever regain it.


Castiel was so lost in his thoughts about what was worse, losing a limb by animal or frost, that he didn´t see his mother stopping in her tracks suddenly. Luckily, or not, he couldn´t feel the pain in his nose when he bumped against her lightly clothed shoulder. When he stepped next to her still form to follow her gaze into the darkness in front of them Castiel felt the blood in his veins freeze too.


Two large yellow eyes were watching them carefully from the shadows and between the harsh, fast beats of his heart Castiel could definitely hear the animals growling pants. That crushed his hope for it just being a frightened, peaceful woodland creature.


“Castiel, sweetheart…” his mother´s wavering voice whispered into his ear and she squeezed his right shoulder softly. “I want you to listen to me honey, alright?”


Castiel nodded shakily, his eyes never leaving the beast slowly creeping out of the shadows towards them. The animal looked like a wolf but much bigger and…apparently entirely wrong proportioned. As it got closer Castiel noticed strong muscled arms where the wolf´s forelegs should have been. They looked human though covered with thick gray fur and red splotches of, Castiel suspected with dread, blood and ended in long, sharp, hand-shaped claws. Bile began to rise in his throat when the – monster was the first word to come to his mind – man-wolf´s mouth twisted into a malicious grin full of crooked, yellowed fangs.


“Do not stare at him, Castiel!” his mother hissed when she caught him staring wide-eyed at the creature and pushed his head downwards quickly. Her hand now twisting in his strands shook severely and did nothing to quell the dark fear manifesting in his chest.


Castiel had never thought of his mother as an easily frightened housewife only educated in sweeping floors and cooking meals. After his father had been murdered on a travel to a nearby village she alone was the one to earn money and raise Castiel for unfortunately he had been their only child. She taught him how to build and repair a house, how to tell an edible mushroom from a poisonous one and how to darn his clothes never asking for help from any man of their town, though she had never declined if offered.
But to see her now, eyes wide and filled with unhidden fear, her body shivering violently not only from the cold and her nervous breaths indicating her quick, fluttering heartbeat, told him this monster – whatever it was in the end – could and certainly would be their death. The realization made a hearty sob escape his throat.


“It´s alright, darling…everything is going to be alright. Just listen to me. Just listen…” even though Castiel desperately wanted to believe that her rambling words just made him more anxious.


And the beast was drawing closer and closer. Its growls almost sounded impatient now as if it was tired of watching this charade and finally wanted to get to the good and bloody part.


“Stay calm, let him come…” he saw his mother´s legs step in front of him, afraid he would look into the wolf´s eyes again when he raised his own. Her hand stroked his hair once, twice before it left him entirely and took his mother´s warmth with it.


“When he charges I want you to run. As fast as you can, yes?” she whispered lovingly, her voice strong and without a trace of fear.


Castiel wanted to say no, to shake his head and tell her what she intended to do was the stupidest idea he had ever heard. She could not possibly think of sacrificing her own life just to save him. He had already suffered enough by losing his father, he knew he would never be able to cope with losing his mother, too.


Instead of keeping her from fulfilling the insane quest she had set her mind on Castiel leaned his forehead onto her shoulder and let hot, painful tears soak into her dress.


“I know, honey…but I need you to be strong. Can you be strong for me, Castiel?” he nodded shakily and tried to force his tears back. There would be the right time to cry but it wasn´t now.


The soft snow crunched under the creature´s massive body. It could only be just a few feet remaining between them.


“Good. When I tell you to run, you do. Go west, far west, until you reach the center of the forest. Never stop. Never look back. Not even…just don´t. Call for Bobby. Help will come.” Castiel nodded again, his mind not dwelling on the strangeness of his mother´s request. He saw it as her last will and would perform it with perfection.


The footsteps stopped and a pregnant silence enveloped them.


“I love you, mother…” his voice sounded muffled from tears and fabric but Castiel was sure his mother understood nevertheless. She had to…


“Run Castiel…RUN!”


A deafening howl pierced his ears and before Castiel even knew what had happened he felt branches and twigs tearing at his linen clothes and reddened cheeks. He ran and ran not knowing where he was going only that it should be west…was west…had to be west…


When Castiel heard his mother´s terrified scream his feet immediately slowed down and his heart demanded that he turn around and help her. What kind of ungrateful bastard was he to leave her alone with that monster even if she had ordered him to? She was his mother for goodness sake! How would he ever be able to look at his reflection again? He was as much a monster as the one killing his mother right now! He had abandoned her and therefore caused her death!


Castiel had killed his own mother…


Blinded by those accusations and fresh tears gathering in his eyes he didn´t see the large root partially hidden by the snow on the way.


Castiel wasn´t fast enough to react and so he landed face-first into the cold, white sea beneath him. The exact minute his left cheek hit the earth a fierce pain told him he had cut it pretty badly. Blood dripped on his shirt when he got up again on shaky legs. His feet and hands were badly scraped too but there was no time to worry about either of the wounds now. He needed to get going if he ever wanted to reach safety. Castiel started running again. Over frozen streams, past a couple of deer raising their head in sudden alarm and trees too similar to determine that he was heading in the right direction or not.


With every labored breath he took Castiel noticed how exhaustion slowly overtook the adrenaline ebbing away in his veins. He wouldn´t be able to keep up his pace or even the movement of his muscles for much longer. And strangely enough this thought scared him more than imagining the beast coming after him for dessert. Hopefully he would reach the middle of the woods before that. He owed that to his mother and after what he had seen of the village to all of the other people not fortunate enough to live through the night.


Castiel drew all of his inner strength and pushed by a broad group of trees just to see…a clearing…finally! But was it really the center? What if not and he had been running into the wrong direction all along? A tree-less area could just be an area where no trees and other plants were willing to grow. Castiel shook his head defiantly.


No, this was it! He wouldn´t let his mother´s death be in vain!


“Bobby…” he shouted or better tried to. His voice was nothing but a harsh whisper due to fear and running stealing his breath. But Castiel wouldn´t give up. If he had to he would scream this man´s name until his voice was completely gone.


“Bobby.” He called again louder this time, the last remains of his hope for safety giving him strength.


“Bobby, please! I need help!”


Castiel repeated the procedure of shouting, turning his head to look around the clearing and shouting even louder for several minutes, maybe hours even, but nothing happened and after some more half-hearted attempts he just stopped altogether. Sighing he sat down at the foot of the biggest tree the area had to offer.


He was going to die. There was no longer any doubt in Castiel´s mind about that. At least the thought of dying while trying was much more comforting than being caught by the beast and torn to shreds. It meant he´d tried to honor his mother´s wish and that thought gave him a certain kind of peace.


A twig snapped to his right but Castiel felt suddenly too dizzy to turn his head. It seemed he was wrong again and the monster had finally found him. He closed his eyes in defeat and contemplated asking it for a few more minutes until exhaustion and the cold had taken his consciousness but dismissed it as a stupid idea his clouded mind had conjured to give him one final, bitter laugh.


Something warm and incredibly soft pressed gently against his shoulder and if Castiel wasn´t delirious yet then he could hear quiet whines, too. He let his body lean onto the furry creature next to him smiling slightly about his luck to find at least one friendly animal in these woods. To his surprise rather than leaving him, now that he was confirmed to be no threat, it snuggled closer to him almost as if it wanted to shield him from the cold with its huge body. But that was just wishful thinking. Perhaps the animal, a wolf by the whimpering snuffles and if that wasn´t ironic, just mistook him for one of its cubs and was therefore not interested in feasting on his flesh.


Whatever the reason Castiel somehow knew the creature would not harm him. Maybe it even had heard him…calling…no, that couldn´t be. There was no way this wolf was the Bobby his mother had talked about. But then again after everything he had seen and experienced tonight…


“Bobby?” he asked cautiously.


The wolf above him froze and after a few moments of lying on his chest like a dead animal it withdrew and left him again to the cold´s strong bite. Castiel groaned disgruntled and tried to lift one arm to pull the animal and its warmth back to him but wasn´t successful. His body was heavy like lead, not reacting to even the simple command of opening his eyes.


“Please…” he begged not certain whether the wolf was able to actually understand him or whether it was still sitting at his side at all.


“Bobby…please…help…”


A hot mouth embracing his body, lifting him gently from the ground and a low growl were the last things Castiel was aware of before darkness finally overtook his exhausted mind.