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through the burning night

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Rey scratched the ears of the warm bundle of orange fur purring in her lap and nodded as she listened to Rose talk about the new remedies she and Finn had been working with. He busied himself in the hearth, preparing the yule log for the evening. Rose watched her mate fondly as he fussed, and the content smell of the two of them filled their home, alpha and omega in a peaceful balance, twined with the medicinal herbs they used. Poe’s beta scent lingered as well, natural given how much time he spent there. Rey wondered when they would give up the pretense and share the house between the three of them.

Finn straightened and brushed off his hands, gaze fixing on Rose as she spoke. “It’s been of great help to the elders,” she said, gesturing excitedly. “Especially as the cold sets in, the Chieftain has struggled with old pains, and she says adding the poultice has helped to relieve those.”

Rey nodded. “I’m sure that will keep you both busy, making enough of that to go ‘round.”

Finn shrugged. “Perhaps. The boiling of it is the most time consuming, though we can find others to help with that.”

Rose began to respond, but a knock at the door interrupted her. Before any of them answered, Poe let himself in, grinning. He swept over to Finn, kissing the corner of his mouth, then leaned down to do the same to Rose. She scrunched her face at his exaggerated gesture, but smiled nonetheless.

“Blessed yule!” he greeted Rey brightly.

“Blessed yule,” she returned. If he’d ever felt the need to restrain himself, he’d never bothered around her.

BeeBee jumped off her lap to greet Poe as well, still purring as she rubbed herself along his legs. He bent and ran his hands over her sides, murmuring to her as if he’d missed her longer than the few hours he’d been out. “There’s my girl,” he crooned, scritching under her chin as she tilted her head up to him.

Finn regarded the round orange creature critically. “She’s going to get too big to catch mice if you keep spoiling her,” he said, not for the first time. The statement held no real annoyance, just an exasperated fondness.

Poe gasped in mock affront. “Don’t listen to him, BeeBee,” he told the cat. “You’re the best mouser in the clan.”

Rey snorted at that, and Poe turned his wounded gaze on her. “Thankfully, the harvest doesn’t depend on her efforts alone,” she teased.

Poe grumbled and gave the cat one last good scratch before she wandered off to curl up on the bed. “They’re getting the bonfires ready,” he said as he stood.

Rose looked at Rey. “You’ll stay, won’t you? You can spend the night here; we have the room.”

Before she could answer, another knock came from the door Poe hadn’t fully closed behind him. Through the crack, Rey saw the familiar face of one of the young men of the clan, a new father whose face was thin and drawn. Finn crossed to the door and opened it wide enough to talk with the man. Rey couldn’t hear their words, only the hushed and urgent tone of the man’s voice and watched the way he wrung his hands. Finn ended the conversation with a quick nod and closed the door behind the man as he rushed off.

“It’s the baby again,” he sighed, turning back to the room. They all nodded, saying nothing. Snap and Kaydel’s boy had been a quiet infant, but took a turn for the worse as winter set in, plagued by one trouble after another: first a cough, then a chill. From the way Finn talked about him, it sounded like the boy had been crying nonstop for months.

Rey’d heard the muttering of the clan elders, that the faeries had come and taken the child in the night, leaving a changeling in its place. Even worse were the suggestions of what the parents should do to get their own child back again. Rey wondered if her own parents had had the same thoughts. Maybe they’d thought her a changeling and decided to abandon her to get back their real daughter. Save themselves the trouble of raising an alpha. Or maybe she really was a changeling, and the reason she kept her distance from the rest of the clan was because she belonged more to faerie than to this world.

She shook the thought away. Faerie tales were what people used to excuse the terrible things that happened every season. Finn darted around the room, gathering remedies into his bag. Rose and Poe watched, concern edging into their scents. Rose’s brow furrowed as she took a few bundles of herbs to her mate.

“Do you want me to come?” she asked.

Finn shook his head. “I shouldn’t be long. There’s only so much I can do, but hopefully we can get him some rest.”

“Okay,” Rose agreed. “We’ll have the fire ready.”

Finn nodded and kissed her, then left, following Snap back to his home. Rey stood, brushing cat fur off of herself.

“I should be going as well,” she said.

Poe frowned. “Before the fires are lit?”

“Yes,” she replied. “I have my own hearth to tend to. I don’t want to return after dark.”

Rose pursed her mouth, and Rey knew how much she disliked sending her off on her own. Rose, Finn, and Poe all believed in the clan, it’s ability to protect and support everyone. Rey still couldn’t let go of her small home on the outskirts, no matter how many times Rose mentioned the extra space they had. She clung to the only thing her parents had left her before they’d disappeared. Besides, this home didn’t need another alpha around, complicating things. She had her own home, one that smelled like her, and she needed to get back to it.

Rose walked over to her and squeezed her hand. “If you’re sure.” She slipped her a small bundle of bread and cheese. Rey started to protest, but a sharp look from Rose stopped her. She'd tried and failed to win this argument before, and she shouldn't be ungrateful on a festival day.

“Thank you,” she said instead, and tucked the packet into a pocket of her cloak.

Rose smiled. “Blessings for the new year, Rey.”

Rey nodded and returned the sentiment, then repeated the gesture with Poe. She took her cloak from the back of the chair and wrapped it around herself, then waved at her friends before leaving.

The wind blew hard as soon as she stepped outside, and she immediately missed the warmth of the hearth, where they could sit and listen to the weather howl on the other side of the walls. She pulled her cloak tighter and started down the path away from the cluster of small brown houses that made up the heart of the clan. People darted between them, wrapped up and carrying wood and food. The large bonfire at the center was nearly ready, and others had started to gather around. She turned and went in the other direction, out past the well-trod paths, with the sun setting behind her. Its last rays turned the ground orange and shadowed, and she hurried her steps. She should have left earlier. She knew better than to end up walking home in the dark. She knew the way, but she didn’t need to tempt fate.

Even as she walked faster, the sun seemed determined to beat her home. The golden rays shrunk away from the ground, slipping beneath the horizon, stealing the last of the day’s warmth along with them. Her brisk pace kept her legs warm, and she rubbed her arms with her hands, trying her best to keep her body’s heat contained. The sounds of the village had faded, and she resisted the urge to look back, afraid she might be weak enough to turn back, even though she’d come a good way already. She was determined that she wouldn’t fall back on her friend’s hospitality. She took care of herself.

The sun disappeared completely, and quick darkness of winter overtook the land. She followed the edge of the forest, keeping a distance away from the deeper darkness lurking between the trunks, eyes peeled for the shadow of her small house with its back to the trees. The wind blew harder, worming its way around the edges of her tunic, biting at the skin underneath. Even with her arms crossed and hands tucked around her chest, her fingers ached with the cold. The ground beneath her boots sucked at her, damp with melted snow, seeping into the toughened material. She had to remember to keep every part moving, even when it hurt.

To prevent her thoughts from lingering on the sharp pins pricking at her hands and feet, she thought of her home, the thick log waiting by the fire and the last of the previous year’s log stored under her bed, waiting for the Yule flames to be lit again. It would take a little while for the fire to build to the blaze she’d need by the time she arrived, but she could pull her bed closer, until she was nearly in the flames, and cover herself in her blanket. Rose always warned her when she got too close to the hearth, that she’d catch fire herself, but that almost sounded like a relief right now. She could burn in the comfort of her own house, sides creaking again the storm outside, protected from the wind.

Another gust blew against her, hard enough that she stumbled. She cursed, the words stolen away from her in a wisp of warm air before she could hear them. She pressed her lips together, and they stung, burned by the wind. The outside of her legs felt half-frozen; she could barely feel her clothes against them. Habit kept her feet moving forward, one after another, to the home she knew had to be waiting, even if she could barely see. Clouds covered the sky, and though the stars peeked through in places, in others, the vastness above looked like endless black void.

She could make out the shapes of the trees to the side of her, but the landscape ahead faded into darkness. The wind made her eyes ache as it sought out all her most vulnerable points. It felt like a battle between her and the elements now. Living as she did, she was always in combat against them. She vowed to herself that she wouldn’t let herself succumb, would make it to her home to greet the dawn.

Her lungs ached with the cold air, and she let out a shuddering breath. She looked down at her feet, barely able to see where they pressed into the grass with each step. When she looked up again, she blinked, then rubbed her eyes, convinced she was seeing visions.

The sight remained. A pinprick of light in the distance, wavering slightly. She stumbled to a stop, unsure what she was seeing. No one else lived out this far, and travellers never came this way.

A sudden terrible thought occurred to her. She had to be nearing her house. What if she’d left a candle burning or hadn’t completely put out the fire the night before? Was her home burning?

Before she could think, her legs were pumping, taking her swiftly across the ground. Mud kicked up and stained her clothes and her lungs burned, spreading pain across her sides, but she couldn’t stop.

She ran as fast as she could, fighting against the cold and the sucking wetness beneath her feet. As she drew closer, the light grew no larger. She slowed, mind racing. Even as far away as she was, the light would have had to grow larger if it was her house burning. Instead it remained the same size, a flickering orange glow in the distance. Her legs carried her across the ground towards it, but it never appeared any nearer.

While she watched, the light moved, darting across the fields. She gasped, cold air burning her throat. Her feet turned towards it, adjusting her course almost without thought. The light travelled slowly, as if held by some unseen figure. A traveller? The clan had few of those, and even fewer who were welcome. Her curiosity kept her moving, dropping in and out of a run.

A pain lanced her side, shocking her into a stop. She pressed her hand over her rib, trying to ease the ache. Her breath came in sharp pants and the pain stabbed her with each one. She forced herself to breathe slowly and deeply. The light kept moving, away from her. Her heart clenched in panic.

“Hello?” she yelled. The light paused for a moment, and she thought the bearer might find her. Instead, it then continued on.

“Wait!” she cred. Her voice came out hoarse and weak and the wind whipped the sound away.

Clutching her side, she hobbled back into a run. Every part of her body hurt, but her eyes fixed on the bobbing orange glow. She forced herself to keep going. She needed to know who else was out here.

A piercing howl split the air, far too close to her. She stumbled and then fell, landing on her hands and knees on the ground. She lay there, panting, head swimming. Dragging herself back up suddenly felt like a tremendous effort, but she was also reminded all at once the dangers of being out away from the clan on her own.

The howl dragged out, long and sad and strange. It didn’t sound like a wolf, too sharp, and it had something almost human to its tone. It reminded her of stories of the night shepherd, warning travellers to get back to their homes.

She turned over onto her back and sat up, wincing at the way the dampness soaked into more of her clothes. Her gaze darted back and forth, searching for the light she’d been chasing, but no sign of it remained. Darkness surrounded her. Her heart beat faster.

Slowly, she stood, brushing herself off with shaking hands. Dirt and mud clung to her, but she could hardly care. As she looked around, her heart climbed up her chest into her throat. She stood in the middle of a marshy field, dark water sitting around her boots. She couldn’t see the forest anywhere. Her eyes strained in the darkness, looking for any hint of a familiar shadow, but nothing resolved itself. Her head filled with tales of pixies and redcaps and other little fae that delighted in tempting travellers away from their paths, especially those alone late at night. She’d privately scoffed at the stories, sure that only an idiot would be stupid enough to follow a strange light into the dark. Now she knew.

Her breath came in short gasps, and she pressed a hand to her stomach, forcing herself to calm. She couldn’t have gone too far. It was dark and she was tired. She just had to go back in the direction she’d come from and she’d find her path.

Stepping carefully, she turned around. Her damp clothes clung to her, gritty with dirt in places, and she slumped at the thought of having to clean them. At least the wind had died down. If it was still blowing like it had been before, she’d have no protection.

She walked in a straight line, directly away from where she’d fallen. Each step was a struggle, but she kept her attention on peering into the darkness in front of her, desperate for a glimpse of anything beyond the bog. The night had grown darker, and she didn’t know how late it was. Arms wrapped around herself, she shivered.

In the cold blackness surrounding her, she couldn’t tell how long she walked for. Time could have stood still for all she knew, lost in the pattern of one step after the next. Her throat burned as she swallowed and she wished she’d brought a skin with her. Her head started nodding as she walked, and she shook herself to keep awake. Falling over asleep would be a quick way to drown herself in the shallow water she walked through. If she did, would anyone even find her? After a few days, someone from the clan, Finn or Rose most likely, would go out to check on her and find her house empty. She didn’t know how far away she was. Would her body be left for the animals?

She scowled and shoved the thought away. She would not be dying out here tonight. She forced determination into her next several steps, keeping her legs firm even as they threatened to give out underneath her. She wedged her hands under her arms, pinching the soft skin there through her clothes to keep herself alert.

When a shape resolved out of the night in the distance, she nearly fell over again in her haste to reach it. A tree appeared before her, tall and stripped of its greenery. Skeletal branches scraped the sky overhead, bent in scraggly forms. She looked around as she approached, hoping to see more, perhaps of the sign of the forest. Instead, a path ran nearby the tree, well-packed dirt leading off into the night. Another fainter path met it from the side, grass worn down in the width of a single person. She stopped and stared. She didn’t remember anything like this. How far had she travelled? Had she continued in the wrong direction? Heart sinking, she leaned against the tree and slumped to the ground.

She was lost. Nothing about the area was familiar, and she couldn’t even say for sure which direction she’d started from. Clouds still covered the moon and stars overhead, keeping her from navigating by their light. She drew her legs up and wrapped her arms around them. Her head fell to her chest; keeping it up felt like too much effort. In a last-ditch effort to keep her energy up, she took out the food Rose had given her and broke off a few bites’ worth. The wrappings had kept it mostly dry, and she chewed slowly, savoring the sustenance. The food helped to clear her head but left her even more thirsty, and she swallowed dryly. She tucked the rest of the food away, making sure not to leave any crumbs, determined to save it for when she returned home.

Even with a clearer head, no solutions presented themselves. She sat in the middle of nowhere with no sure way home, and the night only grew darker. Her eyelids kept falling closed, and it took more effort than she had to keep them open. Tucking her chin into her chest, she gave in. With her cloak wrapped around her, she was as warm as she was going to be. She'd rest here for now and wake with the sun in the morning. She'd slept in worse places. Her eyelids slipped shut again, and she fell asleep in seconds.

-

Before her eyes opened, the first thing she felt was warmth surrounding her. She sighed and snuggled into the sensation, pulling the heavy blanket covering her tighter around her. She lay curled like that, happily drifting between sleep and wakefulness, before the situation fully set in.

She shoved the blanket off of her and sat bolt upright in the bed. The bed. She was in a bed. Rubbing the lingering sleep from her eyes, she looked around the room quickly.

The bed she lay in was, without any doubt, the most impressive she’d ever seen. Large enough that she could barely reach the sides, made of sturdy wood that set it up above the floor, and the mattress and blankets were both so thick and luxurious that she could barely imagine the quality and quantity of animal that must have been used to make them. A wooden chair sat in the corner and a pair of chests against the wall opposite the bed, all finely made. Smooth wooden walls surrounded her in a room nearly as large as her entire house. Her hand dug into the blanket as she tried desperately to remember how she’d gotten here.

Her first thought was that she had died. Her last memory was falling asleep on a cold night by a lonely and unfamiliar road. She wouldn’t be the first fool to think herself stronger than the forces of nature and be proven wrong. She didn’t know exactly what to expect from the afterlife, but if she had to imagine a world of rest and plenty, this came close. As she fully awoke, the scents of the room around her gradually registered. A strong alpha clearly lived here; his scent was the strongest thing in the room. Something sharp, almost burning, yet still comforting in a way she wasn’t used to other alphas smelling. His scent was embedded in the bed around her, and her heart pounded as she realized she must be in his bed. Why couldn’t she remember?

The smell of cooking meat followed closely after the presence of the other alpha. Rey’s mouth watered. Someone else must be in the house and had a pan over a fire. Drawn almost without thought, Rey pushed the blankets the rest of the way off of her and swung her feet down to the floor. She hissed at the chill, then noticed for the first time the state of her clothes. Her cloak was missing, as was her outer tunic. She was left in a lighter tunic, still covering her, but not enough to protect against the chill of the bedroom away from the blankets. Did one keep their clothes in the afterlife? Looking around the room again, she found her tunic laying over a tall chest set at the end of the bed, along with a clean set of clothes, dyed a yellow she knew she could never create on her own.

She walked over to dress, but her hand hovered between the two. Mud and dirt from the night before stil crusted her tunic. However, she wasn’t in the habit of taking gifts, especially without knowing who they came from. If she was dead, would it matter. She shivered and quickly reached out and grabbed the clean tunic, bringing it to her nose to scent it. It smelled like fresh air and clean cloth, only a faint undercurrent of the other alpha. Decision made, she shed her clothes and put on the new ones, moving fast enough that she was bare to the cool air for only a moment.

Fully dressed, she ran her hands through her hair, doing her best to pull it back. Her ties had come loose, but she was able to form her buns into shape. Taking a deep breath, she walked out of the bedroom and into the main room of the house.

This room was just as large as the last, with a table and chairs and cabinets. Other doors led to additional rooms, and she wondered exactly how large the house was. But her attention was drawn immediately the the hearth and the creature standing before it. She’d thought the ceilings were high, but it was clear that whatever creature lived here needed the space. She was among the tallest women of her clan, but this creature reached feet above her, the shape that must be its head brushing the ceiling. Its shape had something human in the core of it, but was obscured by masses of writhing limbs. Like vines, they wrapped around the creature’s body, curling and coiling, continually in motion, some thinner, some thicker. It was hard to see, but they appeared to be part of the creature, controlled by him. One limb reached down to the pan set over the fire in the hearth, another for a pot set on the mantle above, and another back towards the table. The twisting limbs were dizzying, made all the worse by the fact that the creature seemed to be made of light itself. It was like a star from the heavens had come down and settled in this house, weaving itself into some bizzare approximation of human form. Rey’s eyes hurt to look at it, and the longer she looked, the worse the pain got. Despite herself, she stared, trying to make sense of what she saw, until the pain grew blinding, and she blinked to get some relief.

When she opened her eyes again, the creature was gone. Instead, a man stood by the fire, tall, but not monstrously so. He wore dark clothes of the same fine quality she’d found in the bedroom, and dark hair fell around his pale face. He used a cloth to adjust the pan over the fire and then looked over his shoulder back at her. His earth-brown eyes pinned her in place, and she stared back, taking in the strange contrast of his features. Large lips and nose, long face with beauty spots scattered across, down his neck. He looked odd, but not unfortunately so. His gaze on her was cautious and evaluating. The way he held himself, she got the impression he was waiting for her to make the first move.

She stepped further into the room. The alpha scent here struck her just as strongly as in the bedroom, but clearer. Obviously the man in front of the fire was the source. She walked slowly towards him, gaze slipping from him to the food over the fire.

“What are you making?” she asked. Her voice came out hoarse, scratching her throat, and she winced.

“Breakfast,” he answered in a clear, deep voice, with a hint of an accent she didn’t recognize. “Here.” He set the rag he used to hold the pan on the mantle and turned to a table set by the hearth where a pitcher and a stack of cups sat. He took a cup, poured a clear liquid from the pitcher, and walked over to her. He held out the cup. “Drink.”

She looked at him warily, but her throat ached, so she reached up and took the cup from him. His large hand wrapped almost all the way around it, and their skin brushed in the exchange. She gasped, nearly dropping the cup, shocked at the warm softness her fingers had brushed and the spark that formed at the contact. He quickly took a step back, dark eyes going wide.

She watched him, and he looked back at her, until a light pink touched his cheeks, and he went back to tend his fire. Her gaze followed him, but he simply prodded the cooking meat. She looked down at the cup in her hand, frowning as she tilted it back and forth. The liquid inside seemed completely clear and had no scent to it. She took a cautious sip and gasped again. Water, crisp and cool, ran down her throat, with a clean sharpness she’d never experienced before. She sipped again, drinking slowly until the cup was drained. She licked her lips, feeling refreshed.

At the fire, the man took several eggs from a basket and cracked them into the pan, adding their sizzling to the crackle of cooking meat. Rey stood in place, her mouth watering as she watched. It took only a few minutes for the eggs to cook, and then he removed the pan from the fire, using another cloth to set it down on the wide table. He went to a cupboard and pulled out a couple wrapped bundles along with a pair of plates. He set those on the table as well, pulling off the wrappings to reveal a large, gleaming loaf of bread and a solid block of cheese. He pulled a chair out and sat, then looked across the room towards her. He frowned.

“Sit,” he said, gesturing to the seat across from him.

Rey started, then joined him. He tipped over half the meat and eggs onto a plate and handed it to her before adding the rest to his own. He took up the knife and cut slices of ham and cheese, giving them to her and then taking his own. He watched her expectantly, his own food cooling in front of him. Eyes flicking between him and the food, she bit into the bread. The loaf was soft and fresh, made with grain so finely ground she couldn’t see it. Rich taste flooded her mouth and she moaned. The man’s cheeks went pink again, but now that she’d eaten, he busied himself with his own food. He took even bites, eating with an odd kind of grace. Rey stood on no such pretense.

Once she’d tasted the food, it reminded her immediately how hungry she was. She stuffed half the bread in her mouth at once, barely tasting it, before doing the same with the cheese. She took the meat more slowly, chewing the tender cut. Even though it was the middle of winter, the meat still tasted fresh, not the dried and preserved fare they shared in the village. Her stomach complained before she made it through her plate, but she pushed through, using the last of the bread to clear the crumbs. She sat back in her chair, thoroughly stuffed. She didn’t think she’d ever eaten so much before in her life, and with a pang she remembered that this might not be her life after all. She sat up, groaning slightly. The man watched her across the table with a strange expression she didn’t know how to decipher. She felt suddenly self conscious of her dirty hands and face. She wiped her mouth on the back of her hand and started to wipe her hands on her tunic, then remembered the clean and expensive garments she worse. She set her hands by her sides, gripping the chair.

“Where am I?” she asked the man.

He looked at her evenly. “You’re my guest.”

She frowned. “That’s not an answer,” she pointed out.

He shrugged. “You’re in my home.”

“How did I get here?” she asked, leaning forward, bracing her arms on the table.

“I found you half frozen on the road. I brought you back before you froze all the way through.”

She looked around her again at the house. It seemed real enough. “So I’m still…” She trailed off.

He cocked his head. “Still?”

She hesitated, then said, “Alive.”

His lips curled up at the edges, but he didn’t laugh at her. “As alive as I am,” he said. “Perhaps even more so.”

Her brows furrowed. That wasn’t the clear and decisive answer she’d hoped for from a simple helpful passerby. “What does that mean?” she demanded.

“It’s too early in the morning to debate philosophy,” he sighed, then stood. He took the bread and cheese and replaced them in the cupboard. She stood and followed him.

“You brought me from where I was resting?” she pressed. “Can you take me back?”

He closed the cupboard but didn’t turn back towards her. “The weather is bad,” he said evasively.

“Later then.”

He spun and brushed past her, and she caught sight of a frown on his heavy features. “You were nearly dead on your own. There is snow coming down. Why do you want to return?”

“I must get home,” she insisted.

He paused in the middle of collecting their plates. “Has someone kept the Yule log burning for you?” he asked, an odd tension in his voice.

She paused. “My friends will miss me,” she said eventually. “And I can’t leave my home. I must return.”

Something in his shoulders relaxed at that, and he took the plates and set then next to a basin of water. “You will return. After the snow has passed.”

She nodded, the knot in her chest easing a little. “How is the storm?” she asked.

He waved a hand towards the door. “See for yourself.”

She walked over and opened the door, and a gust of wind nearly blew her over. A flurry of snowflakes flew into the house, dancing around her before melting in the heat of the fire. Holding tight to the door and peering through the heavy white rush. The scene around the house was just as unfamiliar as the road she’d found herself on the night before. She could just make out a line of trees in the distance. Everything else was empty whiteness. With a forceful shove, she closed the door again, leaning her shoulder against it.

“I see what you mean,” she admitted.

He smiled, and the motion softened his face, taking her breath away. “After the snow,” he repeated, and she nodded dumbly.

He finished clearing the table, leaving the pan by the fire. She looked around the room again, registering how well-made everything in this stranger’s home was. He had to be a clan leader or someone of importance to have so many good things, but she knew there were no other clans as close as she could walk in a night.

“Where are we?” she asked again.

He glanced down at the table. “Why does it matter?” he returned petulantly.

“I would like to know how long the journey will be to return.” she said stubbornly.

“It did not take you longer than a day to travel here. It will take you no longer to get back.”

She pursed her lips, but accepted the answer. “How long do you think the storm will last?”

He looked towards the heavens. “To my great regret, I am not able to predict the whims of nature with certain accuracy. You’ve seen its state.”

She scowled. “I was only wondering.”

“I know,” he said, grimacing. “It will take as long as it takes. I’m sorry.”

She sighed. “If we’ll be spending that time together, it’ll be better not to fight.” She walked over to him and held her hand out to him in an offering. “Peace?”

He looked down at it and back up at her with wide eyes. Tentatively, he took her hand in his, large fingers wrapping warmly around hers. She shivered as the warmth spread up her arm. “Peace,” he repeated, deep voice rumbling.

Their hands fell apart, but they didn’t move away. She looked up at him, then frowned as a thought occurred to her. “I don’t even know your name.”

He hesitated. “Ben,” he said.

“Rey,” she returned.

He nodded. “Well met.” A hint of a smile curved his lips.

“Very well met,” she said, realizing that if he hadn’t come to her, in whatever form that had happened, she would be out in the raging storm on her own. She shivered again thinking about it. “Thank you. For bringing me here.”

His head tilted down and his hair on one side swung forward to cover his pink cheeks. “I could not have left you,” he told her. “It was nothing.”

“It wasn’t,” she insisted. “You shared your bed, your food. Winter is hard, you could have used those yourself.”

He shook his head. “I have more than enough for my own needs. Whatever can go towards satisfying yours, you are welcome to take.”

She stared at him incredulously. “No one has enough for winter. Are you a chieftain? A king?”

“No!” he said, startling them both with his intensity. “No,” he repeated, a note of apology in his softer tone. “I serve my own lord. He gives me what I need.”

She frowned up at him. “What lord is that?”

His lips twisted, obviously not wanting to give her the answer. “You would not have heard of him,” he hedged.

Her brows raised. “A lord that hides his identity?”

His expression grew more conflicted. “In a way.”

She smiled. “You’re right, that doesn’t sound like any leader I’ve heard tell of. The more you tell me, the more I think I must be either dreaming or dead, because this cannot be real,” she said, laughing.

He scowled, his dark brows clouding his face. “This is real,” he insisted. “Why you need more than that, I do not understand.”

“Very well,” she said, tone teasing. “What do you do for this master?”

His answer came again after a pause. “I fight for him. When needed.”

“A warrior?” she asked curiously. Her eyes trailed over him, remembering for a moment the creature she’d seen in his place when she’d first entered the room. His build certainly fit that of a fighter, big and broad. She could imagine thick muscles under his tunic. She wouldn’t want to fight him on his own, let alone with a weapon.

He nodded. “As I’m called to be.”

She met his eyes again. “And when you’re not?”

That pink flush reappeared at the tops of his cheeks. “I write. Histories, recording what has happened.”

She gaped. “You write?” He nodded. “May I see?”

Ben walked across the room to a short cabinet set in the opposite wall and took from it a stack of parchment. Her mouth fell open even wider at the sight of it. His lord certainly did well for him to supply all of that. Holding the treasure gently, with all the care it deserved, he brought it to the table, setting a clean cloth down before laying the parchments on top. She stood next to him, taking in the carefully inked letters on the delicate skins. He’d added illustrations in bold colors she’d never seen before, created in painstaking detail.

“Beautiful,” she breathed, hands ghosting just over the surface.

“Thank you,” he said softly. She looked up and caught a glimpse of the pink flushing darker on his cheeks. She wished she could push his hair aside to see if the color extended to his ears. He glanced to the side at her, gaze curious. “Can you read?”

She shook her head. “There was never the time or the reason.” She huffed, half-laughing. “It would almost be fitting to have the opportunity only after I’d died.”

His brow creased. “If you think yourself dead, how are you so calm?”

She shrugged, smiling. “If I’m dead, what good will worrying about it do? I cannot change that now.”

“Fair,” he acquiesced. They fell silent for a moment, and Rey stared down at the beautifully crafted words, as if staring would form them into shapes she’d understand.

“I could teach you,” Ben said, interrupting her thoughts.

Her head shot up, eyes wide. “Really?”

He smiled. “Of course. Here.” He pulled two chairs over near the fire. “We’ll need the light,” he explained, then took the parchment and sat down in one. She joined him in the other. He turned towards her and placed the parchment on his knee between them.

She couldn’t help but notice the breadth of his thighs. He was well built all over. From this close, his scent nearly overwhelmed her. It blended with the burning wood of the fire, smelling of leather and ink, the breakfast he’d made, and that sharp unidentifiable something that permeated his home. It smelled warm and comforting, and she relaxed into the chair, leaning towards him. His scent carried notes of contentment, easing her further. Ben might be a warrior, but she could tell the pride he took in his histories.

“This is the story of an ancient family,” he started, finger tracing the first letter on the page. “And it begins with a history of the family, their ancestors and descendents. Lots of names, so we’ll skip ahead a bit.” He moved the top pages to the bottom of the stack, squinting at another page before deeming it satisfactory. “This will work.” He tapped one long finger to the bottom of the first word. “Each word is made of letters. And each letter makes a sound. So this one…”

Ben and Rey hunched over the parchments, working through words one letter at a time. Rey learned quickly that Ben cared deeply about his writing, occasionally losing himself in tangents on the work they studied. He helped her patiently though, reining in his teachings sheepishly when he travelled too far out of her understanding. He had to be well educated by another writer, someone who had documented the ages before him, and told her about times she’d never heard of before. The reading went slowly, which frustrated her. She was used to being a quick learner, out of necessity. Ben supported her unfailingly though. His grin and the way his scent spiked with pleasure the first time she sounded out a words told her without a doubt how genuinely pleased teaching her made him. She knew her own happiness was just as apparent to him.

She moved on to the next word, fitting the sounds together piece by piece, rolling them over in her mouth. Her finger met his on the parchment, travelling along the line of the words. They were both so wrapped up in the lesson that it took her several seconds to realize the position of her hand on his thigh underneath. He didn’t seem to notice, watching her eagerly even as she stumbled and fell silent.

“What is it?” he asked, when she didn’t pick up her spot.

She shook her head, casting aside the thoughts that had gathered, about how much closer they were than she’d been to anyone outside of her trio of friends. And a man on his own and her close and committed friends were entirely different beasts. She licked her lips, nostrils flaring as she took in his scent again, then cleared her throat. “Nothing,” she said hoarsely.

His brow furrowed in concern. “Do you need water?” He made to stand up and move away, and her instincts snapped.

“No!” her hand spread and pressed down on his thigh over the parchments. He looked down at her with wide eyes, gaze flicking between her face and her hand.

“Okay,” he agreed, sitting again. The pink flush returned to his cheeks, and her heart leaped at how endearing she’d come to find it already. His hand hovered, and then settled over hers. She thought briefly he would move it, but he kept it there, guiding her finger to the next word. “Let’s continue.”

She flashed him a quick smile, feeling her own cheeks heat, and returned to her reading.

Determined as she was to master reading in a single sitting, her back started to ache from bending over after a few hours. Ben didn’t seem to notice, but finally the strain grew to be too much, and she leaned back in the chair with a sigh.

Ben looked at her with concern. “Should we break?”

She nodded. “Just for a little bit. I’ll take that water now, if you don’t mind.”

“Of course.” He stood and placed the parchment on his seat. Going to the table, he poured cups for both of them and returned to pass hers to her. “You’re a wonderful learner,” he told her, after taking a sip.

She half-choked on her own sip and swallowed before answering. “You’re a good teacher.”

He hummed, flushing. “It’s good to have someone to teach.”

She glanced back at him. “Do you not have many people out here?”

He set his cup back on the table, not looking at her. “No.” His large hands opened and closed at his sides, and then he rolled his shoulders. “Would you like to go for a walk? Move around a little. I have some traps to check.”

“I’d enjoy that,” she said, and drained the rest of her water before rising to set her cup with his. “Did you hang my cloak somewhere?”

“Yes, one moment.” He returned to the fire to retrieve his writings and return them to their storage place, He then went to one of the cupboards and withdrew her cloak along with two others and pairs of boots. “You cloak,” he said gesturing. “I also have a spare, if you’d like. This storm is a rough one.”

She hesitated only briefly before taking them both. “Thank you,” she murmured.

He pushed one of the pairs of boots towards her. “These are well,” he offered. “They’ll likely be too large, but we can wrap them. Yours may still be damp.”

She wrapped herself in both cloaks, feeling slightly ridiculous, but she’d never liked the cold. She did want to see more of the land around Ben’s home, however. She bent to put the boots on and took the cord he gave her to wrap them so that they wouldn’t fall off. Both the cloak and boots were thick and well made, enough that she felt almost too warm in the house with the fire.

“Your master does well by you,” she told him. His back stiffened as he put on his own cloak and he nodded jerkily.

“I owe him much,” he said quietly.

Once they were both wrapped, they approached the door, bracing themselves against the storm. “Ready?” Ben asked. She nodded, and he opened the door.

The wind had died from earlier, and the snow no longer drove them back from the doorway. Instead, flakes fell gently from the clouded sky, adding to the layers already settling on the ground. “Oh,” she said, smiling.

Ben looked back on her, a smile on his own face. “Not so bad,” he said. “Warm enough?”

She nodded. “Lead the way.”

He took them across the short distance from his house to the trees. Rey felt grateful for his offer of clothing as they walked. Even without the wind, the air chilled her nose and anywhere else exposed. Her boots sunk into the snow but never touched the ground. She wondered at how much had already fallen. It seemed more than one night’s worth.

The soft slip of snowflakes falling and the crunching of their steps were the only sounds. The world seemed quiet and still, almost unreal around them. Rey had that feeling again that she’d somehow disconnected from reality. Ben had promised he’d take her back home, but walking in the snow with him made that seem impossibly far away. The sensation intensified when they stepped under the cover of the trees, and the snow landed on the branches overhead. The crisp smell of snow and the woods filled her senses, drowning out Ben’s alpha scent for the first time since she’d woken up. She breathed deeply, even the bite of the cold air in her lungs tempered by the warm clothes he’d given her. She caught a hint of his scent from them, mingled with pine, and the warmth filled her from within.

Ben led her down paths in the woods that she couldn’t see, but that he seemed to know by heart. She didn’t even notice the first trap before he bent and checked it. There was no sign of anything there, but he checked it and reset the bait. The next one wasn’t too much farther, and he performed the same tasks there. The rest of the traps were empty as well, and Rey became increasingly worried. Despite Ben’s assurances that he had enough, surely he expected something. But he remained unconcerned, even when restringing the last trap.

“I’m sorry,” she said as he bent over it.

He frowned up at her, hands moving deftly over the strands. “Why?”

“Don’t you need more food?”

He shrugged and stood. “I have enough. This is for my own stores, but I won’t run out.”

Her brow creased. She didn’t understand how he could be so cavalier about this. “How can you be sure?”

He looked into her eyes and saw the worry there. “I am fully certain,” he said, and reached for her hand, pressing it between his, as if he could settle his assurance into her that way. “You will have plenty to eat here; I promise you. Do not be concerned.”

She still couldn’t believe him entirely, but she took a deep breath and reminded herself of all the other things about his home that didn’t make sense. Surely if he could appear to be a monster one second and a man the next, pluck her from the roadside just before a storm in the middle of the night, and have a collection of writing materials fit for a king, he could keep both of them supplied. Dream or otherworld, she couldn’t say, but it must work for him here. “Alright,” she said, the word sighing out of her.

They returned to Ben’s house and shed their cloaks and boots, hanging them by the fire. Ben took the bread and cheese from the cabinet and cut slices for both of them. They had a quiet lunch, both of them torn between washing the other and the fire. Rey finished first again, covered in crumbs as compared to Ben’s neatness. Ben reached to cut her another slice, but she stopped his hand.

“I’m full,” she said. In truth, she had yet to be hungry after breakfast.

His brow creased. “Are you sure? I have plenty --”

“Yes,” she said.

“You have only to ask for anything you want,” he told her.

“I know,” she assured him. And, despite what she would have thought before today, she believed him. She wasn't convinced that there wasn't some catch, but she would take what she could for now.

Ben cleared the plates and brought out his parchments again. “Ready for another lesson?” he asked, trying to restrain his eagerness.

She stood from the table and grinned. “Always.”

They took their places by the fire again. Ben gave her a page and said, “Start here, I should put supper on.” He set a pot over in the hearth, added logs to the fire, and gathered ingredients: preserved meat and slightly dried vegetables that he chopped. He put them in the pot along with some water, and, once he was satisfied, returned to his seat next to her. She hadn’t gotten far in her reading, half distracted with watching him, but he helped her with the letters she struggled with.

They passed the afternoon together, working through one page followed by another. She still needed his assistance to get through a sentence, but she started to read a few words on her own and with others only needed some prompting. They took another break as the sun set below the horizon. Rey looked outside again, but the snow still fell, building up in front of the door. Ben showed her more of his work, including more of his illustrations and the precious ink used to make them. She listened in wonder as he described the lengths he’d gone to in order to perfect his art.

They tried reading again later as the smells of cooking meat from the stew filled the room. Between the warm food and Ben’s scent beside her, words revealing themselves under her fingers, Rey felt as if she could live her entire life in the moment between them. The sun set and the warm light of the fire flickered across the room.

Finally, the stew was ready. Ben set aside his papers, taking care as he shut them away. He set the table and ladled the thick stew into flat bowls. Rey thought it would be another quiet meal, but after Ben took his first sip, he set his spoon down and looked at her curiously.

“Tell me about yourself, Rey. Who are you? Where do you come from?”

She pressed her lips together and swallowed. “I’m no one, from nowhere.”

He frowned. “I don’t believe that.”

She shrugged. “It’s true.” She took another spoonful of meat and vegetables, chewing slowly. Even his dried fare tasted so much better than hers.

Ben wouldn’t let go. “How do you spend your days?”

“Nothing nearly as interesting as you,” she demurred.

He hummed. “I’d still like to know.”

She sighed and went about explain her day to him, from lighting her fire, taking care of her crops and the few animals she had, if she had any, Despite the simplicity of the tasks, he seemed fascinated, asking questions about the oddest and yet most common aspects. She became so occupied in the conversation that she hardly noticed finishing her food. She looked down in surprise when her spoon scraped the bowl and returned only scraps. Ben stood to refill her bowl, but she motioned him to sit again, and they resumed talking.

Eventually, Ben rose again to remove their bowls. She took advantage of the lull in the conversation to turn it back to him.

“How about you?” she asked. “How did you come to live here? Was it with your lord?”

His lips twisted, and she regretted mentioning the mysterious lord again, even if her curiosity burned to know more. “It’s not much of a story,” he demurred. “And certainly not one for good company. But I think I know one better.”

She tilted her head. “Oh?”

“One moment.” He left through towards his bedroom and returned with the well stuffed cover from his bed. He folded it and set it by the fire, then gestured for her to join him.

She sat cross-legged on the cover across from him. “What kind of story?”

“It’s a love story. Of sorts.”

“Of sorts?” she asked with a smile.

“You’ll see,” he promised. “A long, long time ago, in a land far from here, a great republic had fallen from the height of its glory into a civil war…”

She watched him as he spoke, entranced by his voice. The fire cast shadows over his face, bright and dark in turns, as if reflecting the story he told.

In that space, warmed by the fire and his story, it seemed only natural to lean into the man beside her, letting herself fall into the heat and scent of him. His voice hitched as they touched, but as she settled in, his arm slowly wrapped around her, curling over her waist. As his story drew to an end and his voice faded away, she looked up at him, taking in the curve of his jaw, the sharp jut of his nose, the pensive tilt of his brow. 

"That was sad," she said, voice barely above the crackling of the flames. 

He looked down at her, a bittersweet curl to his mouth. "All the good stories are," he said, voice sounding as if from far away. 

Her face scrunched. "Only if they're happy in the end," she argued. "Otherwise, why tell the story at all?"

His smile turned a little more bitter, and it tugged on her heart. "Maybe it's a lesson."

"For who?" she asked, frowning playfully. 

He didn't answer, but his arm tightened around her as his gaze bored into the flames. She leaned into the embrace, face tilted up to his. She only had to stretch a little to brush her lips against his jaw. 

He started, looking down at her in shock. "Why--?" he stuttered.

She smiled at him. "Why not?"

He shook his head. "No, you -- You can't. You don't think this is real. You'd never do that if you believed you were truly here."

Against her better instincts, she laughed, startling him further. "Wouldn't I?" she teased. "You're a handsome man --" His cheeks gained a pink tinge, even in the light of the fire. "-- who feeds me, teaches me, gave me run of your house and bed. And you smell --" She nudged her nose against his neck, breathing in deeply. His warm scent burned her nose as she inhaled, and her eyes slipped half-closed. "-- Like home." Her eyes met his. 

"I--" he floundered for words, lips moving without sound. His flush deepened, turning his cheeks red. 

Eyes locked on him, she pushed herself up further, high enough to press a simple kiss to his lips. She drew back again, watching him. "Awake or dreaming, I would want this." She grinned. "Even dead, I think I could manage some interest."

"Rey," he groaned. She ducked in for another quick kiss. His lips followed hers as she withdrew. 

"The only thing to stop us --" Another peck to the corner of his mouth. "-- is if you don't want this."

"Rey," he said again, the word torn out of him. "How could I not?"

They kissed again and again, arms wrapping around each other, lips finding the others as if pulled there. He tasted even better than he smelled, like the heartiness of the stew and something like the crystal sharpness of the water and a bitterness and a spiciness she couldn't name. Her hands ran through his hair, luxuriating in its softness and came to rest on his broad shoulders. Her fingers passed briefly over his mating gland, darting away again before she could think too hard about how hot and swollen it was to her touch. He touched her carefully, as if afraid she'd disappear if he gripped too hard, torn away like the dream that this had to be. His lips were soft and giving under hers, and she couldn't get enough. 

Unfortunately, exhaustion eventually overtook them. Their kisses slowed as the fire and night took their toll. Rey pulled back reluctantly after she found herself falling half asleep with her lips pressed to his.

As she rose, Ben insisted on Rey taking his bed once more, but she insisted just as vehemently that he shouldn’t sleep on the floor. Finally, they agreed to share it. Rey stripped to her shift, flushing as she imagined Ben doing the same in the other room. She slipped under the blankets and called out to him.

His bulk blocked out the light as he entered the room, hesitating before he approached the bed.

“Are you certain?” he asked softly.

“I trust you,” she whispered back. His breath caught and he raised the blankets on his own side.

The mattress shifted as he lay down. Despite the width of the bed, she felt the heat of his back against hers. His scent swam around her, soft and content. She closed her eyes, ready to rest after her strange day. Before she could drift off, Ben called to her again.

“I’ve enjoyed having you here, Rey,” he murmured.

She blinked, his words drawing her back from the brink of sleep. “I’ve enjoyed being here,” she replied.

“I’m glad.” He was quiet for a moment. “I will miss you,” he said at last.

She knew she needed to return to her own home, where she belonged, but the core of her ached at the thought. She would be leaving a warm home and hearth with a fascinating man, even if he was completely impossible, and enough food that she’d never have to go hungry. “I’ll stay until the storm passes,” she sighed, trying to keep the regret from her voice.

“Until then,” he agreed. His own regret came through clearly. “Perhaps we’ll meet in a storm again.”

“Perhaps,” she agreed. “I’d like that.”

They both fell silent. Rey tried to stay awake, wanting to savor their time together, but sleep inevitably overtook her. She drifted off in a warm cloud, untroubled by any of her usual anxieties.

When she woke, she was in her own bed.

Her eyes flickered slowly open, taking in the familiar walls around her simple cot. Cold had set into the room, the hearth cold, her small pile of wood next to it. Reluctantly, she sat up, keeping her thin blanket wrapped around her.

She should have known it was a dream. No matter how vivid everything seemed, it was far too good to be real. No matter what her dream man promised her. And what did it say about her, that she dreamed of an impossible man, and alpha who patiently taught her to read, who fed her and still offered her more?

She shook her head, trying to rid herself of those thoughts. It was clearly a dream, and she had reality to face. She needed a fire before anything else.

She placed her hand next to the bed to push herself up, then froze as something crinkled under her touch. Hardly daring to breathe, she drew her fingers together. Parchment folded between them.

Blinking sudden tears out of her eyes, she picked up the parchment. There wasn’t enough light in her small room to make out the letters, so she tucked the parchement into her shift, above her heart. The entire time she built her fire, it pressed into her, reminding her of everything that had happened. Her hands shook as she lit the kindling, but she finally got a flame started. Too eager to wait for the logs to catch and the fire to build, she crouched nearly in the hearth and drew out the paper.

Letters filed the page, and she momentarily despaired of being able to decipher all of them. But somehow, as soon as she started, the words flowed easily into her mind, as if she’d had practice learning for years rather than a single day. She drank in the words eagerly, finding their meaning barely without effort. Her heart stopped, then began beating twice as fast. She knew, more surely than the rising of the sun, that she would see Ben again.

My hope and my love,
we will go for a while into the wood,
scattering the dew,
where we will see the trout,
we will see the blackbird on its nest;
the deer and the buck calling,
the little bird that is sweetest singing on the branches;
the cuckoo on the top of the fresh green;
and death will never come near us for ever in the sweet wood.