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The Whelp

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Through the thin open window she can see the thin moon high above. The wind is cool and quick, and blows clouds across the moon's slivered face at times, blotting out the light, letting it shine again once they pass.

She turns her head away, and curls over her aching breasts, swollen and overfull. He did not insist upon staying here tonight; she does not think he will be by, now that the moon is risen.

In front of the door, footsteps, the tread of guards in the village. Stop. Turn. Pace away.

He has not lain with her since the childbirth, of course. She does not mind, for her body still aches from it – something inside her, torn, and not yet mended, though she does not bleed. She does not think she shall bear again. It does not matter. Eadwacer did not marry her for heirs; he has those, by his dead first lady. All fostered out to other houses.

If this town were not across a river too wide even for Wulf to swim, she would have expected him to come for the babe. Perhaps he would have come upon Eadwacer's riders on their way to the forest, heard it howling. Asked for its life, in charity, and then slain them when they refused – or perhaps he would been able to take the child in peace, gathered it into his arms and brought it with him into the woods.

But by now the warriors Eadwacer tasked with the child's death have returned; she has seen them in other parts of this little fortified town, and could not bear to ask if they had done it. If they had spilled her blood and Wulf's across stones, with their heavy axes. Or if they had left her son there for some wild hungry thing to eat, soft unprotected baby-flesh sweet on the muzzle.

The joining of their blood and bone felt proper, the way the child that rested in her arms, against her breast. The midwife swaddled him, and called him lovely – fine small fists and properly fat as babies should be – and then Eadwacer insisted upon seeing this so-called early-born son of his, the early-born son with Wulf's dark-upon-dark hair and not Eadwacer's fairness.

She is blonde, herself.

Eadwacer asked her if the child was his – finally, the question! – and she told him yes, but he no longer trusted her word. He did not beat her, for Wulf would have heard, and come unheeding of the danger. Across the great river and against all Eadwacer's men, and he would have slain them all in his fury, for his dam had meant his name as warning that he would be mad and strong as wolves.

He is strong, and he held her with that strength where Eadwacer only touched her; and Eadwacer was kind, but not her beloved. If there had been no forest, no hunting party for her to meet Wulf, then she could have loved Eadwacer, to whom she had been promised.

Instead there is the child, which tied them to each other in flesh where before there was only the bond of her heart to his. And the child was sent out. Now she has neither the child nor Wulf, only the pain of her body which reminds her of her babe’s missing warm-lifeness.

Against the darkness of the moon she hears the soft neighing of horses in the stable, and the voices of men, and she imagines far away the baying of hounds. She has always loved dogs; warm-furred, their noses cold-wet. Perhaps it was a kind of wyrd that she should have desired Wulf.

The footsteps come again, not the heavy pacing of a guard, and a faint knocking at her door. She rises from her seat, though it pains her belly, and touches the handle of the door, the latch that bars it from others' entry.

"Who is it?" she calls, soft as the knocking, and her heart beating quick with pain and with hope.

"It is I," says the man on the other side, in a growl like the wildest of the hunting hounds, and she remembers vividly the lay of his body beside her as she ran her hands through his hair, thick as pelt.

She unlatches the door, and lets him in, shutting the door quick behind him. His coat is mussed and cut, as if with a fight, and he wears a hat to shield the hair that would betray him. He has a new scar against his cheek that distorts the eye seeing him; to the untrained he might seem not himself. She does not know when or how he came to have it, in the time that has passed since she came here, seven months now.

She closes the door and latches it once more. "How did you come here?"

"I swam the river," he says, "and came with others here, but I am alone."

"And how do you think to go away again?" she asks.

He smiles, and his teeth are sharp and bright. "I will go as I am," he says, "but it is cold, so you must wear a coat."

So in the depth of the clouded night she puts on a coat and follows Wulf through the town. They encounter no guards, for Wulf can hear them coming, and hide in shadows. The barred gate is ajar, she knows not how and dares not ask. Soon they are far from the town, deep into the woods.

The woods are deep and dark, and she does not tell him of the child, to ask if he by some unknown luck or guidance rescued it. He would have said something, had he known of it – but she was gone from her family’s home, and he driven away, before she knew of the child in her body.

He is warm beside her as they lie down to sleep in the lee of a fallen tree, wrapped in each other's coats and cold. She is not hungry yet, and does not fear Eadwacer's dogs; they are poor hunters, as she knows from hearing him shout at the men who train them. She and Wulf will be safe if they do not go back to her house, and if they are quick enough about leaving Eadwacer’s lands.

She sleeps in his warmth, though with cold feet, and dreams of pups drinking milk from their dam.