There was something in the forest.
As far back as the first settlers of Newglade, it had been common knowledge that strange beasts roamed the dense trees, picking off livestock that wandered astray, stealing from traps set by the hunters, and terrorising the villagers with howls and screams that cut through the night. Nobody left the village after dark, or dared set foot off the path for fear of getting lost. Those who did so were almost never found again, or if they were, it was seldom in their original entirety.
The villagers, cradled in the shadow of the mountain, didn’t know how many there were of these monsters. Some thought there must be many, others believed there to be but a few, so skilled in hunting that they did not need the aid of greater numbers. Daylight seemed to be the only defence against the creatures, for they were never seen, nor heard, while the sun’s gaze watched over them. They were beasts of moonlight, of the shadows, singing praise to their silver-eyed mother in the fearful midnight hours.
For the young of the village, the beasts inspired a haunting fascination. They’d heard tales of the danger that lurked beyond the trees at their mother’s knee, and many had been mesmerised by the notion of these supernatural beings. In a life so mundane as that of a woodland village, such thrilling ideas as ghouls and monsters just beyond their doorstep was undeniably enticing. It had been almost two decades since any villager had been taken or maimed by the beasts, and since the real danger didn’t exist in their own memories, the young viewed the creatures as something more akin to fairy-tales – bogeymen fabricated by their parents to ensure they didn’t wander too far in the dark, the howling of ordinary wolves used as evidence of their existence.
One such youth was Peter Parker.
He was seventeen years old; almost a man. His parents had died of sickness when he was a babe-in-arms, leaving him to be raised by his paternal uncle and his wife. His childhood had been as happy as any child could hope for, and he had grown into a bright, good-natured young man with something of a future ahead of him. It was his uncle’s plan that, come his seventeenth birthday, he should make the journey to the larger settlements, where he might find an apprenticeship more suited to his intelligence than just a woodcutter or shepherd.
Peter dreamed of what lay beyond the trees. He had grown up with his aunt’s stories of towns a hundred-houses strong, mountains whose peaks brushed the floor of Heaven, and a life of more than just fear and manual labour. He was clever and intuitive, with a thirst for knowledge that could only be sated by the devouring of every piece of written word he could lay his hands on. His aunt, having been born in one of the larger towns to the North, had taught him his letters early on. There were few others of equal literacy in the village – the best being Father Steven, the handsome young priest. He would allow Peter to sit in his small library for hours, when he was not required to help his uncle with the chores of agriculture, poring over books and manuscripts, histories and encyclopaedias. He sometimes thought it was the only thing that kept him sane in such a tedious existence. He awaited the eve of his eighteenth birthday with breathless anticipation, and it was all but ten days away now. Through letters to her family, Aunt May had assured him a position as an assistant to a notable academic, Anthony Stark of Northtown. He was an ironmonger by his late father’s trade, but through extensive study had explored other such paths as medicine, alchemy and a new form of research that focused on the mechanics of steam and clockwork. He was considered the most intelligent man for miles, and Peter would lie awake at night, his heart singing, imagining the journey he would make towards such greatness.
It was then that his uncle took sick.
Benjamin Parker lay in his bed, his breath coming in a sombre rattle, his wife and nephew at his side. Aunt May had long since recognised the signs of the illness that had taken Peter’s parents all those years ago, and had brokenheartedly resigned herself to a future as a widow. The sickness infected the lungs, withering the air passages until the victim could no longer breathe. Peter was less inclined to give up so quickly.
“There has to be something we can do,” he said desperately, stalking in front of the fire like a caged animal. “We can’t just sit here and wait for it to happen.”
“I wish you would sit,” May said with a sad smile. “You’ll wear a trench in the floor.”
Peter collapsed into an old wooden chair, carved by his uncle more than twenty years ago as a wedding gift for his aunt.
“He has lived a good life,” May sighed. “More years than many others.”
That wasn’t good enough for Peter. He wiped away furious tears from his cheeks and pushed his fingers through his thick brown hair. There had to be something to be done – in a world so wide and varied, he refused to believe there was nothing but acceptance of death. He rose to his feet and began gathering items from around his straw mattress – his knapsack, thick travelling cloak, and the bone-handle knife his uncle had gifted him at the last summer solstice festival.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m going to ride to Ingleborough,” Peter said, stepping into his heavy outdoor boots and lacing them tightly. “It’s not that far to ride. They have a doctor there – a real one, not just an herbalist.”
“Peter, no,” May said, in the voice that he knew meant there was no room for negotiation. “It’s almost nightfall.”
“And he could be dead by sunrise if we don’t do anything,” he protested. “I can’t just sit by and watch it happen, not when there’s something I could have done.”
Aunt May shook her head emphatically. “Your uncle would never want you to put yourself in such danger for him.”
“Well, I’m not asking him,” Peter said.
“Peter, the wolves—”
“I don’t care about the damned wolves!” Peter shouted. “They’re just animals.”
“For such a clever boy, you can be stupid,” May said. “Have we taught you nothing of the dangers of those beasts?”
Peter lifted down his hunting bow from its hook on the wall, where it sat beside the weathered twin that belonged to his uncle. “I’d face a thousand dangers before I give up on him.”
His voice shook with a fierce determination May had not heard from him before but recognised at once. She’d heard it many times before in her husband’s voice, when he knew what needed to be done, and no amount of persuasion would convince him otherwise. She stood and walked towards the hand-carved wooden trunk that sat in one corner of the cabin, withdrawing a gleaming, curved weapon – Ben’s hunting sickle. Peter took it and admired the shimmering silver blade, his fingers tracing the arcane symbols etched into the thick oak handle.
“If you see a beast, I want you to run,” May’s voice shook, but her gaze was steady. “Ride as fast as you can, and don’t look back. But if you have to fight, use this. Arrows may slow them, but it will not kill them – this will.”
Peter tucked the sickle into his belt and fastened his cloak around his neck. May straightened the clasp, as she always did, as though he were simply going visiting rather than into the jaws of mortal peril. Peter kneeled at his uncle’s bedside and took his hand, holding it to his forehead.
“I’ll be back, I promise,” he whispered. “Hold on just a little longer, Uncle.”
He embraced his aunt, breathing in the familiar scent of woodsmoke and herbs that clung to her hair and clothes, and allowed her to lay a hand over his heart and kiss his brow, in the old way of wishing good fortune. Peter secured his quiver and bow across his back and took one last look around the cabin. He was ready.
The sky had darkened from lavender to inky blue, the first stars beginning to gathering round their mother, shining like a silver coin hung between the clouds. May helped Peter to quickly saddle and bridle his horse – a quick-footed colt named Blackthorn – fastening his pack to its flank and loosening the tethering rope. The horse shifted a little anxiously, as though it knew the ride would be a dangerous one, but stood fast as Peter gave May one last hug.
“Gods be with you, son,” May stroked his cheek and stood back to let him mount. He gathered the reins and, with one last look through the cottage door at his uncle’s supine form, nudged his horse into motion. Surprised eyes followed him as he cantered towards the forest, faces stricken by alarm that anyone would be so foolish as to embark on a journey after sunset. He did not stop. As they approached the shadowed border of the trees, a ghostly howl sounded from somewhere beyond; one last reminder of the safety he was leaving behind.
“Come on,” he muttered, to both himself and to his horse, and then they were among the trees.
Each frenzied hoofbeat Blackthorn made upon the path rang in Peter’s ears like a warning bell. He knew it would make it easier for them to be heard, but he had not the time nor patience to move slowly. Autumn had left its mark on the trees, scattering the path with the lifeless husks of leaves, sending up treacherous crackles as Blackthorn’s hooves disturbed them. The moonlight shining through the branches’ skeletal fingers illuminated the path just enough for Peter to navigate their way, her position in the sky guiding him down the right paths. After four miles gallop, he allowed Blackthorn to slow to a gentle trot; Inglebrough was nine miles from Newglade, and he didn’t want him to tire too quickly. The surrounding forest whispered with the scuttling of animals through the undergrowth, the occasional scream of a vixen crying balefully from beyond the trees. Everywhere he looked he saw eyes staring back at him, like pinpricks of fire in the moon’s glow. He had to keep his nerve; if he showed how frightened he was, Blackthorn would sense it and become jittery. Without fear, there cannot be courage.
Then it happened.
With a snarling growl, an enormous shape burst from the bracken and launched itself at Blackthorn’s side. The horse shrieked and bolted before Peter could even catch a glimpse at the creature, and it was all he could do to keep his hands on the reins. He didn’t try to slow him down, but pressed his body as low as he could against the horse’s neck. He couldn’t see a thing, could even tell if they were still on the path; all he could do was keep his seat and avoid being clouted by low-hanging branches. He could hear something following behind – an immense, four-legged shape racing after them with harsh, growling breaths. Without warning, another creature lunged from in front, wrestling Blackthorn to the ground and knocking Peter from the saddle. He rolled across the uneven ground, his clothes and skin ripping on brambles before he came to a sudden stop against a gnarled tree root. He could hear the horse’s screams of anguish as it was ripped apart by the beasts but there was nothing he could do. Lights popped behind his eyes and his head felt like it was being cloven in two. The pitiful wails of death faded until the only sound was the tearing and crunching of flesh and bones.
Peter knew it would be his turn next.
He closed his eyes and sent a silent prayer to the Gods to accept his soul upon its release from its mortal – God, so mortal – vessel. He prayed that his uncle would somehow recover from his illness, or else die without pain, and for his aunt to be safe and taken care of. He prayed for a hundred things, but not for his life – he knew that would soon be over, and no God could save him.
He could sense something moving in the darkness behind him but did not turn around. His limbs were paralysed, and all he could do was lie there and wait for the huge fangs to sink into his flesh. A low growl rippled through the gloom, and the sounds of feasting stopped. Peter dared not draw even the smallest of breaths as a huge shadow stepped over him, two sets of clawed paws caging him where he lay. The wolf’s muzzle was inches from his face, hot, blood-scented air breathing over him like gelatinous fog. He could feel the silver sickle pressing into his hip, his hand only inches away from its handle, but he knew any sudden movement would only result in a swifter death. As though it had read his thoughts, the wolf shifted its giant paws so they covered Peter’s hands, digging into his palms so hard they would surely break. Their eyes met – the beast’s two orange coals burning in the moonlight – and he was struck by a sense of being drawn into them, unable to look away even as every fibre of his being screamed at him to run. There was a deep, ancient power smouldering behind the wolf’s gaze, an intelligence that was almost more than human.
The two wolves that had devoured his poor horse were approaching from the right. He could smell the overpowering scent of blood all around him, in the very air itself. His pants were soaked with urine, the fabric rapidly cooling against his skin. He might have felt shame at such an infantile reaction, were it not for the fear overlapping every other emotion that tried to surface.
The wolf leaned its massive head down towards Peter’s throat and he closed his eyes, preparing himself for the pain that was to come. Except it didn’t. It took him a moment to realise that the wolf was sniffing him – his hair, his clothes, the acrid stain on his pants – the other two watched, curiously. The wolf paused at a spot on his sleeve where the material had been torn away, leaving a deep scratch in his forearm. It smoothed its rough tongue over the dripping blood and Peter shivered. Was this the beast’s way of sampling its meal before devouring it?
One of the other beasts gave a questioning whine. The wolf atop Peter growled in reply, leading the other wolf to turn and trot away into the trees, the second briskly following, pausing only to drag the ruined horse carcass with it. Peter guessed the wolf standing over him was the leader of the pack – the alpha – and the other two and left so it may enjoy consuming him in peace.
The alpha wolf sniffed Peter’s neck again and he cringed away. He daren’t think how many humans this beast had eaten in its life – humans who may well have come from his own village. He cursed himself for having been so disparaging of the stories his uncle and aunt used to tell him about the forest, about the dangers that lurked within. Why was the creature toying with him for so long? He was pinned, defenceless, why not just finish it now? He’d watched cats allow a mouse to flee, almost escape, before clawing it back into its jaws, but he’d not heard of wolves playing with their food before eating it – they were not cruel, merely survivors. Two hot tears rolled down his face and he gave a long, ragged breath.
“Please,” he begged, some deep instinct telling him the alpha could understand. This was no ordinary beast. “Please.”
The wolf rumbled deep in its throat; not a growl – no, it sounded almost like . . . laughter? Like a chuckle, dark and sinister. It parted its jaws and ran its tongue along the curve of Peter’s shoulder, up his neck, in a way Peter could only describe as loving, or at least lover-like. He had to remind himself that this was an animal – an extraordinarily intelligent one, but an animal nonetheless.
Peter gave an involuntary cry of horror, his whole body jerking away from the voice that had spoken by his ear. It was deep, guttural, laced with a bestial snarl that told him it could only have come from one being, and that was the monster looming above him. The alpha’s lips pulled back from its fangs in a cruel imitation of a smile and Peter thought he was going to pass out at the length of its canines.
“Please what, little pup?”
It was the most surreal thing Peter could have envisioned; not just the fact that this animal was speaking to him, but the way its mouth moved to form the words. It was completely unnatural, his mind twisting to comprehend it.
“What . . .?” his own voice came out as little more than a breath with the merest hint of sound, unable to finish the question.
“It’s been so long since a human was foolish enough to stray into our midst,” the Alpha said. “You are lucky I was here – my pack may not have been so merciful as to let you live even this long. So, tell me,” the wolf narrowed its golden eyes, “what leads you here?”
Peter’s body was trembling like a newborn foal. He opened his mouth, but words still failed to come, his throat emitting nothing more than a dry squeak.
The wolf sighed, Peter gagging at the blood-rotten scent of its breath. “I’ve preyed on braver rabbits,” it said. “Perhaps a different face might ease your tongue.”
Peter felt the huge paws eclipsing his hands begin to move, the rough skin of the wolf’s pads scraping against his palms. He watched, transfixed, as the fur around the creature’s face began to bristle and change; the hairs shrinking back into the muzzle, the snout growing shorter and flattening out. The pointed ears shifted, reducing in size and shape, and its entire frame shrank until it was recognisably human, albeit still larger than any man Peter had ever seen. The moonlight was not enough to distinguish clear features on the man-beast’s face, but those fiery eyes retained their brilliance, staring him down. He realised their fingers were now intertwined, his slim body caught between the man’s muscular legs.
“Shall we try again?”
The man’s voice was low and gravelly, with the same rumbling, bestial depth. His breath smelled cleaner than before, though the scent of blood was still strong. Amongst his fear and wonder, Peter managed to find his voice.
“Who are you?”
Although he couldn’t quite see, he was sure the man smiled.
“No longer pleading for your life? Perhaps you have an idea that I am less dangerous in this form?”
Peter shook his head.
“Smart boy. Answer me, how many years have you?”
The man chuckled. “A pup, indeed. How endearing.”
He bent down and inhaled deeply at the nape of Peter’s neck. Peter closed his eyes and tried not to whimper. The man smelled of the forest – earth, rain, and dead leaves – with a strong, musky scent that Peter could only liken to that of the weathered pelt that lay across his home’s hearth.
“Do your people not still speak of us?” the man said. “I cannot fathom any other reason why such a fine young thing would throw his life away.”
“They do. I mean, we do,” Peter’s mouth was dry as bone. “I had to.”
“Oh?” the man’s head cocked curiously to the side. Even in this body, his movements were wolfish. “What could possibly be so important as to risk your life?”
“My uncle . . . he’s sick. I was riding for a doctor.”
“How loyal.” Peter wished he would stop smelling him. “Perhaps you’re braver than I took you for.”
“Are you going to eat me?”
“Possibly,” the man ran the tip of his tongue along Peter’s jawline. He shuddered. “You smell sweeter than anything I’ve tasted in at least a twelve-moon. My pack would call me a fool if I was tempted let you go . . .”
Peter’s heart skipped a beat, though he suspected the monster was toying with him, prolonging his inevitable fate.
“Please,” he tried again. “I’m begging you.”
“As have many others.”
“I’ll do anything,” Peter swore. He knew it was rash, more than foolish, but all he could focus on was finding any way out of this situation. “Please.”
“You humans,” the wolf-man sighed. “Do you plead with the sky when the rain doesn’t fall and expect it to comply?”
“Sometimes,” Peter said.
The man snorted with derisive mirth, then fell still as a shadow. “Would you give me your body?”
“What . . . what do you mean?” He wondered if the man was a skin-shifter – able to transfer his soul into that of any living body.
“I will allow you to spare your uncle’s life. In return, you will give yourself to me. I will be your one and only master, and you will submit to me without question.”
Peter’s blood cooled like a winter stream. Did the monster mean he simply wanted to eat Peter, have him as a servant, or did he mean ‘submit’ in the broader sense? He was, for all intents and purposes, a man, and Peter knew men desired more of the flesh than just warmth.
“If you do not, I will simply kill you now. It will be quick, I will allow that much.”
Peter winced at the emotionless way the man spoke of ending his life. It was clearly no real choice, only the imitation of one.
Without fear, there cannot be courage.
“Yes,” he said, then, feeling he should clarify. “I’ll be yours.”
“Swear on your blood.”
Peter was so surprised by the request that he almost didn’t notice the creature had released his hands. A desperate part of him contemplated trying to run, or at least reach for his sickle, but he knew it would be pure folly to attempt either. He slowly moved to a sitting position and his sore fingers fumbled for his knife. He made a small incision in the tip of his left-hand thumb and painted a line down the centre of his forehead. He then pulled up the hem of his shirt – the man humming appreciatively at his exposed skin – and drew another line across where his heart was drumming fiercely. He concentrated on the words his uncle had taught him when he was a boy: “I, Peter Parker, son of Richard, adopted son of Ben, swear on the blood within me, and the blood of my forefathers.”
“Will you submit to me – Wade – and all I ask of you, for as long as I command, or until death breaks this bond?”
Wade? Such an ordinary name for such a monstrous being.
Peter’s mind felt curiously numb; his life of freedom was over, that much was clear, its length indeterminable. He wondered how long it would take for his new master to tire of him. He had no doubts that, once the usefulness of his body had expired, he would be eaten. He inhaled deeply and closed his eyes, uttering the two words that would seal his fate forever. It was darkly ironic how similar the blood-vows were to those of marriage.
“I will; may my blood run black and my soul be cast in fire if I fail.”
The archaic words felt rough on his tongue. All children were taught them at an early age, but few were ever required to say them, save those who entered the King’s army.
The man – Wade – laid his hand over the blood-mark on Peter’s chest, and he felt a sharp pain, as if he’d been branded with hot metal. He couldn’t remember Father Steven or Uncle Ben mentioning anything like this as blood-vow tradition. The hand was pulled away, the skin where it had touched stinging and throbbing.
“Give me your waterskin.”
Stowing away his knife, Peter searched in his pack for the leather bag. When he held it out, he was startled to see Wade using one of his own claw-like fingernails to gouge a deep cut in the flesh of his forearm, the blood running jet black in the silvery light. He held his wounded skin over the pouch and allowed one, two, three drops to mix with the water inside.
“Have your uncle drink from this,” he said. “It will cure whatever ails him.”
“Really?” Peter clutched the pouch to his chest.
“No, I’m jesting,” Wade said sardonically. “Yes, really.”
Peter stowed the skin back in his pack and sat still, unsure of what to do. He felt Wade shift position and watched in fearful fascination as his form began to morph and change into that of the enormous wolf. The beast lowered itself on its haunches and Peter knew what was expected of him. Gripping onto the wolf’s shaggy pelt, he hoisted one leg over its back and settled just behind its shoulders. He glanced at the spot where Blackthorn had met his grizzly end. All that remained now was a slick dark stain on the moonlit ground, and he felt a deep stab of remorse for the poor animal.
“Hold on,” the wolf growled, and set off at a brisk trot, the sudden movement almost unseating Peter. He tightened his fingers in the thick fur. It was not unlike riding a horse, except the beast’s back was so broad he had to tuck his knees upwards to avoid splitting the seam of his damp pants. The wolf was unperturbed by the smell – it certainly didn’t seem to make his scent less appealing. No other wolves followed them as they picked an untrodden path through the forest, the beast’s paws making scarcely a rustle amongst the dead leaves. The surrounding shadows felt full of eyes, the night air full of whispers.
As they neared the flickering lights of Newglade, Peter thought of the future he had been promised – the work he had dreamed of doing with Mr. Stark, all the things he might have achieved – and his eyes burned. All the hope he’d had for a prosperous life – an exciting life in which he might have made something of himself, in which he could have looked after his uncle and aunt – had been snatched away in less than a night; less than a single hour. He thought back to every dream he’d had of Northtown – the lights, the crowds, the carriages and fine architecture – and felt each shatter into a thousand fragments, replaced shard by shard with claws and teeth, isolation and enslavement.
He wiped his eyes on the sleeve of his shirt and felt something knock against the outside of his leg at the movement. Looking down, he noted the gleaming curve of the silver sickle, and the urge to slash the wolf’s cursed throat flashed across his mind. He could have sworn the marks of the blood-oath on his brow and heart prickled at the thought, reminding him that to kill his master would result in the destruction of his immortal soul. Father Steven would say the Gods were kind, but Peter knew they could be equally as vengeful to those who displeased them, and hericide was a carnal sin.
The wolf stopped a short distance from the forest border and Peter took his cue to dismount. The drop was further than he’d anticipated and he stumbled against a root, twisting his ankle. Nursing a slight limp, he approached the thinning treeline and glanced back in time to watch the monster shift back into human form. In the glow of the nearby communal firepit, he could see a more detailed image of his new master. As a wolf, his fur was the deep russet tone of winter soil, a mesh of thick black scars around his left eye, the damage webbed across his muzzle and foreleg. As a man, he had a face that might have been handsome, save for the burning lupine eyes and mutilated flesh. His dark hair was cut short on one side – roughly, as though with a knife – the other almost bald from the scarring. He was also completely naked.
Wade grinned at the way Peter averted his gaze; he had expected the flash of fangs, but save for somewhat larger canines, they were human as his own. He rose to his full height, considerably taller than Peter’s, and leaned against a tree as casually as though on a summer stroll.
“I’ll be here,” he said, as if in comfort. “I will come for you if you’re not returned in one hour."
An hour? Was that all he had to say goodbye to his family? To his entire life? Less than that amount of time ago all he’d feared was losing his uncle – how could he have known that fear would shape the entire course of his future?
As he walked away, he could feel the monster’s gaze branding into his back, as though he was already caught on a chain, binding them together. The urge to look back was like fingers clawing at his hair, wrenching his neck around, but he fought it with every fibre of his being. Was this the strength of the blood-vow? It was a powerful oath to swear oneself to – a tradition so old it strayed into witchcraft – but up until now, Peter had assumed it to be merely words. He had not expected a physical presence to surround the promise. He envisioned himself and the monster caught inside an invisible orb for the rest of his mortal life, circling each other like planets in orbit, dancing the steps of duty and hatred forever.
He scarcely looked about as he hobbled through the village, past the firepit where Brother James, Father Steven’s devoted verger, tended the flames. He quickly stood and moved to speak – word had clearly spread of Peter’s departure – but he ignored him; he had to get the water to his uncle.
He was met by a cry of surprise from his aunt as he crashed through the door and fell to his knees beside his uncle’s bedside, her sorrowful eyes widening in awe and joy at his presence.
“Peter!” she moved to throw her arms around him, but he held her back.
“I can make him better,” he said, fingers fumbling at the waterskin stopper. “I can heal him, May.”
“Peter, your clothes, your—” her eyes fell on the dark stain on the crotch of his pants. “Sweetheart, what—?”
“Later,” Peter mumbled, supporting the back of his uncle’s head with one hand and lifting the flask to his chapped lips. As gently as he could, he tipped a small dose of the pinkish liquid onto his tongue, then sat back. For a long, heart-faltering moment, it seemed like nothing would happen; then, sweeter than any birdsong, his uncle’s breath evened out, the deathly rattle faded into the deep sighs of normal sleep. The pallor of his cheeks bloomed with a rosy blush, practically glowing with life.
“Peter . . .” Aunt May’s eyes were brimming with tears. He closed his eyes, trying to commit the sound of her voice speaking his name to his memory, like a diamond he could carry away with him.
“May,” he croaked, sealing the waterskin and pressing it into her hands. “Make sure everyone who’s sick gets some.”
She stared at him. “Dear, what’s wrong? What happened?”
“I didn’t make it to Ingleborough,” he said. It felt such a ridiculous summary of the night’s events that he almost broke into laughter. In halting sentences, he explained the night’s events, May’s expression growing steadily more horrified. She tried to rub away the blood marks from his brow and chest, as though removing evidence of the vow would render its power defunct, but the dried blood stuck fast. He knew she wanted to argue, to insist that for him to leave for such a life was unthinkable, but even she couldn’t argue against the will of the Gods. He couldn’t say how, but he was certain that this was one blood-vow that could never be broken. The sickness would return, reclaim his uncle, and possibly the entire village as penance for such treachery.
“I have to go,” he said, his voice broken. “He’ll come for me . . . and I don’t want anyone getting hurt.”
May grabbed him and held him tightly against her body. He clutched at the back of her dress and allowed the tears to flow freely – he knew he would have to harden up after tonight, this could be the last time he would be allowed to cry in the safety of loving arms. He changed into a pair of clean pants and a new shirt, then remembered his cloak had been ripped from his shoulders somewhere in the forest. May opened the chest in which she and Ben kept their clothes and pulled out a man’s cloak that Peter had never seen before.
“We were going to give it to you on your birthday,” she said, fastening it around his neck and adjusting the buckle. It had always frustrated him how she’d never let him leave the house without checking his cloak was straight – he would have happily let her do it every hour could he stay. “It was your father’s.”
Peter fingered the hem of the cloak – the material was old, coarsely woven, but it was warm and smelled comfortingly of home. He set aside the silver sickle – he doubted his knew master would have allowed him to keep it – but kept his bone-handled knife strapped to his belt. Then he knelt beside his uncle and took his hand; he wished he could wake him, hear his voice one last time, but it was more important that he rest and recover the strength that had been drained from him.
“I’m sorry,” he murmured. “I couldn’t make you proud, uncle.”
He felt May’s hand squeeze his shoulder. “You always made him proud.”
When he opened the door, he was surprised to see Father Steven and Brother James standing there. Peter took the flask of blood-tainted water from where May had discarded it on the bed and held it out to Father Steven.
“This has healed my uncle; anyone else who’s sick should drink from it.”
Father Steven took the flask, his eyes fixed on the blood-marks. “What did you sacrifice for this, Peter?”
Drawing from some deep reserve of strength, he forced his face into a smile. “All is well. I have to leave, but it’s my own decision.”
The lie felt sour in his mouth.
“Would you say goodbye to Ned for me?” Ned Leeds was his best friend since childhood. The idea of having to tell him he was leaving forever for a life of servitude in the forest was a miserable one that he’d rather avoid.
“Of course,” Brother James embraced Peter, his long hair tickling the side of the boy’s face. Peter was going to miss him; miss them both. He’d once thrown himself on Father Steven’s listening ear when he was going through a time of confusion in his heart, and Steven had revealed that he had once suffered the same doubt, sated by the love and touch of Brother James. The Elders viewed the love of one’s own gender as a sin, but Father Steven had always preached that love could never be sinful, provided it brought joy to all involved. Peter had fostered those words in his heart ever since.
Fear began to prickle down his spine as he looked towards the forest. He imagined he could see those burning eyes watching, waiting for him. May wanted to walk with him to the edge of the trees, but Father Steven held her back.
“He is protected by the blood-vow, you are not.”
“I love you, my darling boy,” May sobbed, her dark eyes focused desperately on Peter’s. “Your uncle loves you. Never forget that.”
“I love you too,” Peter tried to look brave for her, but couldn’t prevent his lip from trembling. He knew he was going to have to mature substantially in strength and courage between here and the treeline. Father Steven’s eyes suddenly widened, and May clasped her hands to her mouth, barely containing a scream. Peter turned and saw the gigantic wolf emerging from the shadows. In the dying blaze of the fire, it looked like a hell-hound sent from the depths of the Underworld.
Brother James reached for the blade he kept concealed beneath his robes, but Peter stilled his arm. He took one last look around the village in which he had grown up and would most likely never see again, branding the image of his aunt’s face into his mind so he could summon some comfort in the long nights to come. Gathering his cloak about him, he walked towards the wolf with a steady stride that surprised even himself. The wolf bared its teeth in a wicked smile and lowered its body to the ground. Peter clambered onto its back and buried his fists in the beast’s fur, trying to keep balance as it straightened quickly upright. He heard his aunt calling his name one last time before the wolf turned about and set off for the darkness of the forest. The warm firelight was replaced by the cold, silver glow of the moon, and Peter allowed the tears to flow freely down his face.
Peter was unsure how far they travelled that night – it could have been tens, even dozens, of miles, but the wolf moved swiftly, and the trees were so quickly unfamiliar that it soon became impossible to tell, even as the tentative light of morning rose. They were far from the trail now, deep in the wilderness, where few to no men dared explore. This was the land of the old forest gods, where the beasts grew large in the safety of the trees, protected from any hunter’s bow. Demons were also said to roam free here, something Peter had never quite believed, but that was until now, when he was sat astride one. The colours were strange, effervescent, in the dawn’s light – more than just the usual autumnal shades of red and umber, the grey of rock and green of moss. Here, it seemed the seasons lived as one. Silver trees that bore black fruit, hanging like bats in their boughs; evergreen vines caressing branches of blood-crimson bark; saplings already bursting with spring life, their adolescent twigs veiled with snow-white blossom; and in the centre of it all – it could have been the centre of the entire world – a magnificent oak, roots gnarled and twisted with age, its branches home to a myriad of nests and hives. Peter recalled fairy-tales of one tree that was mother to all others, oak and elm, birch and bay, and wondered if those stories had stemmed from this very one. The surrounding glade seemed curiously quiet, the gentle hum of a brook bubbling unobtrusively nearby. The ground was not grass but moss, soft and damp, green as a cat’s eye. For one moment, his fear seemed to drift away like a seed on the wind, so overcome with peace his heart felt.
“You are mine now, and therefore part of the forest,” the wolf spoke, startling him. “Remember this place, for it’s the heart of all life within the trees. If ever you’re in danger, nothing can harm you here, not even I.”
“Would you harm me?” His voice felt small, insignificant, as though he were speaking in a grand cathedral.
The wolf huffed like a short laugh. “That would depend on you. We’re close now.”
They left the beautiful glade behind, and the colours slowly faded back into familiar tones of brown, grey, green and gold. A lively river skipped alongside them, widening into a large pool of clear green water before slipping away as a stream into the undergrowth. The wolf turned left and began to climb up the rocky slope, Peter leaning forward and gripping tightly to its fur so as not to be unseated on the steep incline. He could see a large cave looming ahead, its mouth like a maw of jagged teeth waiting to swallow him. A large lip of stone surrounded the entrance, and Peter stiffened at the sight of two wolves resting nearby. One was small and sleek with dark fur, almost black, and a circle of white around one sleeping eye. The other was bigger, its steel-grey fur more dishevelled.
At the sound – or smell – of their approach, the small black wolf lifted its head and nudged the grey one, both rising to all fours and glaring suspiciously at Peter. Could wolves glare, or indeed look suspicious, or was it simply Peter’s fear-driven imagination? There was something distinctly more . . . human about these creatures than ordinary wolves, especially in their facial expressions.
“Wade,” the grizzled grey wolf growled. Peter saw it only had one eye, a scrape of scarred flesh where the other should have been. “What is this?”
Peter had almost forgotten his new master had a name, let alone such a human-sounding one; it was strange.
“This is a human, Cable,” the alpha replied, with something of a smirk in its voice. “Small, hairless, two-legged things – taste nice with a sprig of rosehip.”
Peter shuddered, not appreciating the joke. The wolf named Cable wrinkled its muzzle and clawed at the ground. “What is it doing here?”
Wade shook his shoulders, almost throwing Peter to the ground. “Damn thing’s stuck like a bur, can’t seem to shift it.”
The small black wolf laughed and Cable snarled. “It isn’t funny, Domino!”
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Domino, whose voice sounded female. She gave what Peter could only describe as a shrug and settled back down on the ground, head on her paws. “Early morning snack, is it, boss?”
Peter was trembling so hard he was almost vibrating. As much as he feared and hated his new master, he found himself clinging to his fur for some semblance of protection.
“I needed a new toy,” Wade said. Domino seemed to accept this answer, but Cable didn’t look convinced.
“Cable,” Wade said, in a tone that could have been anywhere between teasing and threatening. “Who’s the Lupus Magi?”
Cable snorted and bowed his head in submission. Wade accepted this and continued into the cave. It was even larger than it looked from the outside, with a high roof and a tunnel that dug deep into the side of the hill. In the half-dark, Peter could make out piles of animal bones, small creatures in varying states of decomposition, and the smell of wet rock and decay. If this was where he was to spend the remainder of his undeterminable lifespan, surrounding by death and darkness, he wondered if being eaten was maybe preferable.
The tunnel curved round to the left and Peter saw a faint chink of light glimmering up ahead. The further in they moved, the larger it became, until he could see it was another cave mouth leading to the outside. The sun, now risen fully above the line of purple mountains far to the east, dazzled him, and he shielded his eyes with one arm. He was stunned to see a large clearing ringed by lush pine trees, a small spring spilling over the ruts in the mountainside and feeding into a crystal-clear pool. A silver-barked willow grew by the edge of the water, its long veil of leaves shielding the entrance to another cave etched into the mountain. It was beautiful, almost idyllic, like somewhere spirits might live, or maybe even gods.
The wolf sank down onto its haunches and Peter dismounted.
“Come,” Wade started in the direction of the cave and Peter attempted to follow, but his sprained ankle jarred painfully and he stumbled. The wolf turned its head and eyed him curiously. “You’re hurt?”
“Just . . .” Peter gestured to his ankle, the skin flushed and swollen.
Wade’s form shimmered, his lupine shape shrinking into that of the man. The stark contrast of the ugly scars on the handsome face was even more prominent in daylight, and Peter couldn’t stop staring. He was so tall, his body tanned and muscled, his arms and torso decorated with indigo tattoos of arcane symbols and tribal patterns. Peter could not remember having ever been so afraid – or so entranced.
Wade bit hard on the inside of his cheek and, in two swift strides, closed the distance between the two of them, gathering Peter into his arms.
“Don’t—” Peter tried to protest – to what, he wasn’t sure – but was forced into silence by the rough lips pressing against his. His entire body bristled with shock and outrage, but he was being held too tightly to pull away. To his horror, he felt something warm and wet coating his tongue, the iron taste of blood invading his throat. He wrenched one fist free and scratched desperately at the side of his captor’s head.
“Let me go, you bastard, you monster, you—!”
His third insult remained unsaid, however, as he felt a strange warm sensation creeping down his body like the slow drip of honey. It pooled around his foot, then was gone. He found himself set brusquely on the ground, the pain no longer stabbing in his ankle.
“I . . .”
Wade cupped his chin in one hand, his fingers and thumb pinching hard enough to hurt. “What was that you called me, boy?”
“N . . . nothing,” Peter shook his head.
“You should be more respectful to your lord and master,” Wade said, a cruel smile flirting across his lips. He extended the forefinger of his other hand, the nail long and sharp as a talon. He trailed it across Peter’s cheek, making the skin where it touched tingle.
“If you don’t learn to curb your tongue,” he said, “you may find yourself in greater trouble, my impertinent little pet.”
Peter’s blood ran hot with hatred. “I am not your pet,” he spat.
The ground rushed upwards to meet him and he found himself flat on his back, an abomination of the Gods’ good Earth poised above him – not quite man, not fully wolf, with a mane of dark fur, flaming amber eyes and long fangs dripping saliva. It was monstrous, terrifying.
“You have sworn yourself to me. You are mine,” the creature hissed. “My pet, my toy, my slave . . .” it leaned down and ran its long tongue up the curve of his neck. “Anything I choose you to be. Do you understand?”
Peter nodded, anything to get this vile beast off him.
“Do you understand me?”
“Yes,” he croaked. “Master.”
“Good,” the beast’s form reduced back into that of a man, though his eyes still held that blazing fire.
Peter eyes welled up before he could stop them, and he caught a shadow of emotion pass over the monster’s face. It might have been remorse, were he not certain the beast possessed nothing one might call a soul. He brushed the tears away and clambered to his feet, following his master to the cave. Wade pulled aside the curtain of leaves and gestured for Peter to enter first. The cavern inside was three times the height of a church spire, the rocky walls shimmering with the reflections cast by a deep underground lake, the emerald water illuminated by a downpour of sunlight from above. The stone roof was littered by hundreds of holes to the upper world, like constellations dancing across the night sky. A rough staircase leading down to the lake was carved into the rock at their feet, deep fissures punctuating every tenth step. From the collections of bones, animal furs and other wilderness paraphernalia gathered inside each one, Peter guessed them to be sleeping quarters. He allowed Wade to guide him to the very bottom of the steps to the largest hole, in which glinted objects of more value – gold coins, jewelled weapons, clothes of more finery than Peter had ever worn in his life. Right at the back was a bundle of furs and skins, pushed and piled into something resembling a bed or nest.
“This is where you sleep,” Wade said.
“With you . . . Master?” he added after a beat.
There was a glint of white teeth as he smiled. “Yes, little one – with me.” He pushed his fingers through Peter’s hair and his shoulders tensed automatically.
“I understand you know nothing of pack life,” Wade said. “Particularly one such as ours. Is there a hierarchy amongst your people?”
“Not really.” There was the rich and the poor – that was as complex as it got in human society.
“If you were wolfkind,” Wade explained, “you would be our newest omega. Know what that means?”
Peter nodded. He knew the terms alpha, beta and omega and how they related to a wolf’s standing in a pack.
“Luckily for you, you have a distinct advantage over any other ordinary wolf. You are blood-bound to me, and so my clan won’t touch you. Others outside of our clan may not be so observing of such boundaries, but I will protect you where I can. However,” his eyes darkened, “if you show me disrespect or disobedience, I am obliged to remind you of where your place is, and to whom you belong.”
“What do you want from me?” the words tumbled from Peter’s lips before he could attempt to stop them. Wade blinked, surprised. “You want me to call you Master but I don’t know what sort of slave you want me to be.”
Wade gazed down at him, his amber eyes soft with something akin to fond amusement. “It has been a long night for you,” he said. “You should get some sleep.”
Peter wanted to insist he wasn’t tired – there was no way he was closing his eyes around this creature – but Wade raised a finger and waved it slowly before his eyes. His eyelids immediately began to droop, his limbs turning to dead weight. The last thing he remembered before his eyes closed was the feeling of strong arms lifting him upwards, a steady heartbeat drumming against his ear, and the smell of mountain rain.