They threw the skin on the ground. “Wolves. The pack gets closer and closer.”
Rey glanced around the square. Every face that she saw was grim. Winter grim. Cold grim. A different sort of grim than she’d grown up with, but no less powerful.
“How close?” Leia Organa asked, leaning heavily on a cane. She was a short woman, and age had weakened her bones, but it had done nothing to her spirit—no more than winter had.
“This one we found by the river.”
“Before or after Maz’s?”
Leia looked at Poe. “We can try to drive them back before the first snows,” Poe told her.
“Can it be done before the moon?”
“We’ll do our best or die trying,” he said, resting his hand on his sword.
“I’d prefer no deaths,” Leia said. “We’ve lost enough. See it done.”
Rey had arrived in Raddus with Finn four months before, in high summer when the grasses were green and flowers bloomed and fruit fell from the trees, overripe and juicy. Rey had never seen so much green in her whole life, and she was determined that so long as she lived, she would never go back to a place where green this deep and this gentle could not flourish.
“There is nothing waiting for you there,” the little old witch Maz Kanata had told her when she had come to Raddus to read palms. “No one is coming back for you. But there is someone who still can.”
“Who?” Rey had asked at once.
“It doesn’t say,” Maz had shrugged, tapping Rey’s palm with a gnarled dark finger. Rey hadn’t been entirely sure she believed the little old woman. Maz Kanata wore bottlecap glasses and they magnified her already large dark eyes to make her look almost like an owl. Rey thought she saw knowledge in those huge eyes, but she couldn’t be sure if it was knowledge of Rey’s future or just the wisdom that came with age.
Maz’s had pressed a something into her palm and closed her hand around it. “When the time comes, you’ll know what to do.”
When Rey opened her palm, she saw a ring—heavy and braided and bronze. More importantly it was too big for her fingers—even her thumbs. So she put it on a chord that she wore around her neck, letting the ring hang close to her heart.
Poe found her and Finn drinking in the hall, his face determined, the shadow of a beard growing on his face. Without waiting to be asked to join, he sat down in the seat next to Finn and reached for the pitcher of beer that they’d been splitting between them. He flagged down a boy to fetch him a mug and a moment later he was drinking deeply.
“Are you sure it’s wise to go?” Finn asked him.
“What choice do we have? If the pack comes close by winter, it will mean death for all of us,” Poe snapped. “She doesn’t like hearing it, but that makes it no less true.” He glanced up at the dais. Leia Organa was sitting there with Amilyn Holdo and Lando Calrissian. All three of them had their heads bent together, speaking quietly.
“Wolves can’t be more dangerous than lions,” Rey said. She had fought desert lions before—great hairless cats with eyes that were too wide and teeth that were too sharp. She’d won, too. Wolves did not frighten her.
“Our wolves are,” Poe said. “These aren’t the wolves of the lake country,” he added. “They’re twice the size of a man—more bear than wolves. And they’re vicious things. Monstrous.”
Rey frowned. “That wolfskin—”
“Was the skin of a normal wolf. They run with the pack too—lesser creatures that are drawn to it for power or safety. If it were normal wolves, I wouldn’t be worried. But a pack this size, getting nearer—that one was likely a scout, seeing how things are south of the river and planning to report back to the others.”
“How many are going?” Finn asked.
“As many as will come with me,” Poe replied, swirling his beer around in his mug and sipping it. “Though I doubt that it would be as many as if it were Luke Skywalker going or—” He looked around. “Or if Ben hadn’t left.”
Finn and Rey both grimaced.
Ever since they had arrived in Raddus, they’d only heard Ben Solo’s name in whispers—something that had frustrated both to no end. From what they had learned, Lady Organa’s only son had abandoned his duty, given up his claim to his mother’s seat, decrying her nobility, and had left the city several years before. Though he hadn’t been a popular lordling—Rey had never been sure if this was an instance of the whisperers looking back with distaste, rather than having lived with their distaste before he’d left—Rey did not doubt that Leia Organa’s son would have roused much more of a hunting party than Poe could if he were here and wished to ride out in his mother’s name.
“Do I have your bow?” Poe was looking at Finn intently, his eyes glinting in the firelight.
“Always,” Finn said. He was the best shot of anyone in Raddus, and his longbow of smooth polished mahogany was his most treasured possession.
“And my spear,” Rey added, and Poe nodded to her.
He raised his mug and said, “Leia Organa, and all who dwell under her protection.”
“Lady Organa,” Finn and Rey echoed and all three drank.
They set out at dawn the next day—a group of fifteen. Most of them were men and women that Rey had spoken to before—guards who served under Poe, even some who she had sparred with in the courtyard. It felt strange to be riding out with so many, but then again, Rey was used to doing this sort of thing on her own.
She was used to doing everything on her own.
That’s how things had been in Jakku—Rey, by herself, always, until she had found Finn in the sands and her life had changed forever. If she needed protection, she was the one to give it to herself; if there were monsters to do battle with, she rode out alone.
Rey had hunted desert lions, and sandsnakes that were four times her size and had venom so powerful it could kill a horse in three minutes. Rey had fought raiders and frightened off chimeras. Hunting wolves didn’t frighten her.
“Are you scared?” Finn asked her quietly when Raddus melted into the trees behind a bend in the road.
Monsters didn’t frighten Rey. “No,” she said. “We’ll kill them and have done with it.”
“Are you afraid?” she asked him, realizing he might have been asking in hopes of commiseration.
“Yes, but only because I’m not stupid.”
“Hey!” she laughed and elbowed him. He grinned at her.
“This isn’t a laughing matter,” Poe called from the head of the party. “These creatures are not to be underestimated. Packs like this have flattened more powerful cities than Raddus before.” Rey rolled her eyes, but before she could respond, Poe said, “And one of these monsters killed Han Solo.”
Finn polished his bow by the cookfire that night. They’d made good progress, but the woods to the north stretched on for miles and miles, and the roads stopped being roads so much as space cleared through the underbrush before too long. It slowed their pace tremendously.
“How far north is the pack?” Rey asked as they ate.
“North,” shrugged Paige. Of those they were traveling with, Rey knew Paige best apart from Poe because Finn was in love with her sister Rose and they were going to wed at winter’s end. “We won’t go all the way, though. Just enough to kill the ones we find. She would have sent a bigger party if she wanted outright war.”
“Why would she want outright war with wolves?” Rey asked, frowning. “They’re wolves, not men.”
“Wolves aren’t like other creatures,” was all Paige said. “And these wolves are more sinister than that. They…they want what men want, or so it’s been said.” She looked about, then lowered her voice, “When she was young, wolves nearly took over the whole of the north. Would have ruled over men as if they were overlords. But she helped stop them—her and her brother and her husband.” She leaned back.
“Why did you lower your voice?” Rey asked her. She knew that Lady Organa had more than merited her title, knew that her brother was a great hero as well, though Rey had seen no signs of him since arriving in Raddus.
“Because—” but Paige stopped talking because Oddy and Kaydel came and sat with them and the conversation lay unfinished.
It took longer than they wanted to to find a trace of the wolves, and it was Rey who found it first—a footprint in the mud, buried by some leaves.
“Well done,” Poe said, clapping her on the shoulder. “Onward,” he said to everyone else.
“Not as hard as finding a footprint in sand on a windy day,” she said to Finn.
Finn gave her a warm look. “Yeah, but you seemed to know it was there. Accept the praise, will you?”
“I’ll try,” she said softly.
They pressed on. Days passed without any more sign of the wolves than a footprint or a bit of fur that got caught in the underbrush. Rey tried not to notice that she seemed to be better at finding the traces of wolf than her friends. She did truly believe that they had just never had to trace sand lions through the dunes before, and this was just easier. That didn’t stop them from calling her wolfspeaker though.
“It’s a joke,” Finn said. “A sign they respect you.”
“For something I’m not even doing,” Rey muttered, running her fingers over the bronze ring that Maz Kanata had given her. It was comforting to feel it heavy between her fingers like that. “It’s like they think I’m a witch. I’m not.”
Finn shrugged. “Let them have it. It doesn’t do you any harm.”
He was right, of course. It didn’t do any harm, for all it made her uncomfortable. It felt like praise she didn’t deserve for a thing she’d barely done.
Poe didn’t like it either. “There isn’t speaking to these creatures,” he snapped when he heard Snap calling her wolfspeaker. “If there were, Lord Solo would still be alive. He tried to speak with the beast, and it killed him. So I’ll have none of that.” And they stopped.
Rey was relieved, for the most part, though the question remained for her: why would Han Solo have tried to speak with a beast?
On, and on, and on, and on they went. Days bled into one another. But they didn’t see any wolves—not the ones that were the size of the dead one that had been thrown on the ground at Leia Organa’s feet, nor the larger ones that Rey was increasingly convinced weren’t real. The way that Poe and the others talked about them, they sounded like the figments of a child’s scary story. In Jakku, telling tall tales like this had been a way to pass the time, and none of the creatures in those tales had ever been anywhere near as close to the monsters that she’d heard about. The wolves would be the same. No wolf could be larger than a bear.
The moon waxed overhead, brightening their nights a little more each night.
“She wanted us to turn back before the full moon,” Paige told Poe in the darkness. “We should turn back.”
An owl hooted.
“They’re not dead yet,” Poe replied firmly. “And we haven’t seen any sign of them more than tracks. We need something to show for all this. We have to—”
But whatever it was that they had to do died on Poe’s lips as, somewhere in the wood ahead, a wolf howled.
“Well it looks like we found them,” Finn said, knocking an arrow to his bow and half-drawing the string, his eyes on the trees.
“No,” Rey replied, and it was as though she were hearing her own voice from very far away. “No, they found us.”
She had the right of it. Wolves—a good fifty of them—made their way out of the trees. But not a one of them was the size of a bear the way that Poe had told her back in Leia’s hall. They looked like they could be easily stuck—large and angry dogs. Rey had fought worse and lived. But in the light of the moon, their teeth glinted.
“Careful,” Poe commanded.
But he was the first to charge into the fray, swinging his sword at a wolf that leapt at him.
Rey didn’t have time to take in what others were doing around her. She lunged forward with her spear, catching a wolf on the sharp steel end of it. It let out a high-pitched bark of pain and she turned the spear’s head and tugged it loose. The creature died. It seemed so much smaller in death.
But before she even could process the odd sadness she felt for it, another was snarling at her, leaping, the full heavy hot weight of it colliding with her chest and knocking her back into the dirt. Rey caught its throat in her hand and pushed away its snarling head. She tried to roll it off her, to try and get it on its back so she could choke it properly, but the wolf was made of muscle and—strong as Rey was—it was a match for her.
It was not a match for Finn, though, and the arrow that he shot into the back of its head before turning to fire at another wolf. Rey shoved the wolf’s corpse off her and grabbed her spear and sent it into the belly of another wolf, and another, and another.
The wolves seemed endless. When Rey killed one, it was as though three more popped up in its stead. She’d fought lions in the sands, and great angry poisonous snakes. She did not fear beasts, and did not fear fighting but this was something else. The wolves seemed coordinated, as though someone had carefully ordered each and every one of their movements and Rey began to understand what it was that had made Poe seem so adamant that these wolves weren’t like other creatures. Lionesses hunted together, but wolves fought as one. And if a larger beast commands them.
She understood now. Understood and filled herself with rage because it was always easier to fight when rage sent blood pumping hot through your body.
It didn’t take much. She heard shouts and cries and grunts. “Paige!” she heard Poe bellow, and Rey screamed in horror at the blood that was spurting out of the other woman’s neck
There could be no openings. They had to die. It was either the wolves or them, for Rey was certain they would give the party no mercy at all. Beasts, she fumed, feeling stronger in her fury. Monsters.
That was when she saw it—saw it and her blood went cold and every living creature in the clearing froze.
The wolves backed away slowly, some of them crouching down low as though bowing to a king.
And she could not blame them—for this creature was a king among wolves.
He was larger than a bear, just as Poe had promised, and made of muscle and fur that was black as night. Blacker, really—the full moon was bright tonight. His face was long, his eyes glinted gold in the light of the moon and when he growled, fear filled the clearing. Those who had ridden forth from Raddus hunched down over their weapons, eying the creature warily, waiting to see what would happen next. Rey couldn’t even blame them for their nervousness, for her own heart was pounding so very loudly in her chest as she stared at the great black wolf. He looked at their party, taking into account the fallen, the wounded, and his eyes landed on Finn.
Finn did not hesitate. He raised his bow and fired it.
His arrow missed, but he did not wait to see if it had made its mark to knock another one and aim and fire.
“Finn!” Rey heard herself shriek in horror as the great wolf got closer and closer, growling with rage opening his jaws and snapping shut with a horrible crunch around Finn’s bow.
Finn howled in pain. His hand had gotten caught in the wolf’s maw and he was being dragged as the wolf turned its head from side to side.
She saw Finn’s blood dripping from his snout and it was as though the spell broke. Rey was running, her spear in hand and she slashed it, hard, against the wolf’s face. It let out a bark of pain and rounded on her and she slashed at him again, pushing him back, back, back into his back.
He snarled and rounded at her, trying to snap his teeth around her staff, but she moved too quickly for him and every time his jaw closed it was around empty air.
“Kill him, Rey!” she heard Poe shout, and she lunged forward and for a moment, she thought she had gotten too close to him, her face right in front of his. She saw something more than rage there.
A long tongue swiped out of his mouth, licking the blood from his teeth and Rey let out an angry yell because that—that was Finn’s blood, and she slashed at him wildly with her spear.
It cut him clear across the eye and now it was his own blood on his face as he recoiled away from her in surprise. She bore down on him and in that moment it was she who had become the predator, fury burning in her gut as she glared at him.
Something in his eyes changed.
She had never known an animal to have such expressive eyes, but had also never known an animal quite like this. And a moment later, he turned tail and fled.
“Oh no you don’t!” she yelled and took off after him.
“Rey!” she heard people shouting behind her but this was what they had come out for, wasn’t it? To hunt this pack of wolves, to kill as many of them as they could manage? Didn’t they wish to kill the king and watch his kingdom crumble?
She ran as fast as she could, her spear in her hand. A smaller wolf—how small they all seemed now that she had seen the king—tried to catch her, to bite her but she jammed its face with the butt of her spear and it fell back. She heard the sound of steel in her wake and knew that Poe and the others were on her tail. She hoped that someone was taking care of Finn. Rage fueled her at the thought. Her legs flew faster.
How long and far she ran, she did not know. Her heart was pounding in her chest, her breath was cold in her throat and the farther she went, the quieter the woods seemed to grow.
The pack hadn’t followed them. Poe and the rest had fallen too far behind to know where she was. She didn’t even know where she was.
Foreboding filled her.
“Face me, you coward,” she screamed at the wolf and to her complete and utter shock, he did. He rounded on her, rearing back and swiping at her with a huge paw. Rey spun away, but not before a single claw sliced through the sleeve on her upper arm. She snarled at him and he—wolves could not laugh. But the noise he made sounded like it could have been a laugh.
A trap, she wondered suddenly, horribly. She remembered what she’d heard about Han Solo. Was this the beast that had slain him?
But she was not fool enough to think that she had time to consider that and she lunged for him with her spear again. He sidestepped it and she lunged again. This time, she grazed his side—enough that some of his blood spattered the snow. But it seemed a light wound in comparison to the one he had given Finn, because he reared up and he was enough to blot out the stars overhead in the clearing.
While he stood there, reared on his hind legs, Rey lunged forward, aiming for his heart, but this time he swatted her spear away, sending it flying from her hand and far, far into the trees. Then he swiped at her, almost lazily, and Rey stumbled backwards, avoiding those dagger-like claws by inches. Her heart was drumming in her chest. She had to get her spear back. She was dead without her spear.
But she knew better than to think she could outrun him. He was far larger than she, his stride far longer. She danced backwards, away from his swipes, trying to turn her backsteps in the direction of where her spear had gone. If she could just angle it properly, she could continue to dodge towards the spear, couldn’t she?
And it was in considering that as an option that his paw connected with her midriff and sent her flying. With a crack, she hit a tree and slid down to the forest floor again, stars of pain exploding behind her eyes, her lungs not wanting to breathe out of shock. Move, she willed her mind as she heard the wolf moving towards her. The sounds were muffled in her ears. She could hear him less clearly than her own pulsing heart, her shallow breaths echoing loudly in her head.
How she managed it, she would never really know but somehow she was on her feet again, staggering towards her spear. Was the sky lighter now, or was that just her eyes reacting to her having been thrown against the tree? Behind her, she heard the wolf howl, but it did not matter—it did not matter because her hand had closed around the mahogany and she whirled around.
The wolf was not behind her. His howl had not been right at her back, but she hadn’t dared trust her ringing ears and her over-wide eyes. She ran back to the clearing and saw—
The wolf was shrinking. Hair was receding into his body and he howled as though he were in agony. His giant paws were shrinking and they were going to cover his face which—though still long—no longer was a snout so much as chin and jaw and nose. He was moaning, crying out, practically sobbing. He shrunk, and shrunk, and shrunk. After a point, he fell to his knees, still clutching his face. His black hair receded to reveal pale skin and muscle and despite his nakedness, Rey couldn’t help but stare. His abdominal muscles rippled and the muscles of his thighs bulged as though every muscle were tensing over the act of condensing back down into the form of a man. Blood seeped down his side from where she’d cut him.
Rey stared at him, transfixed. The monster was a man after all.
He stopped his moaning, his shouting and he was running his hands over his face as though wiping tears from his eyes, blood smearing his face.
And Rey couldn’t help it—she had just been fighting him, had been intent on killing him, but suddenly everything was different, he was not a beast at all, so she asked, “Are you all right?”
He froze and slowly his hands dropped down to his sides. He did not bother trying to cover the long penis that hung between his legs but Rey couldn’t focus on that now because he had locked eyes with her. His eyes were darker than the wolf’s. The wolf’s eyes had been a bright, golden brown. His were so dark they were nearly black. He stared at her, and stared at her, and there was something familiar to him, but Rey couldn’t place how.
Then he reached out a hand and every muscle in Rey’s body froze around her. He got to his feet and walked towards her, and he was so tall—taller than any man Rey had ever met. He loomed over her in the burgeoning dawn, coming to stand before her until there was no way to avoid looking at his chest—shining with sweat—or the scabbed-over cut across his face that Rey had slashed there for hurting Finn.
He stared into her eyes for a long while. Then his hand twitched.