They say that you can hear the wolves howl in the mountains, even when the sun bears witness from the sky.
Isabeau hums as she arranges her work space, noting which herbs she needs to replenish and trying to figure out the most convenient place to store her supply of clean rags. ("Endless, endless rags," Mouse had complained, tearing old sheets and worn clothes into strips. "How else is she going to splint your bones and cleanse your wounds when you get chased across the fields and take a tumble," Navarre had teased. Isabeau had just smiled and dropped more rags on Mouse's head.)
It was kind of them, building her a separate cottage deeper into the woods so that she could have space to hold all of her supplies and heal others in peace, without tripping over the trinkets Mouse left when he came back from his travels or worrying about damaging the precious texts Navarre brought her. She might, at times, be skeptical about their grasp of architecture and the details of construction, but she had faith that the walls would hold and she would grow into it. Even if, at the moment, more of her baskets and shelves were empty than were filled.
She was contemplating the last oddments when she heard Mouse tumble into the cottage. "Dear Lord," he was saying, out of breath but, as ever, talking, "please just let me get this poor dumb creature to Isabeau, and I swear I'll never drink ale to drunkenness again. For surely this is penance enough, sweating out these vile vapors, there's no need to insult me with labor exacerbating my poor pounding head."
Without looking up she begins to clear off her worktable, carefully re-hanging the herbs she hasn't yet crushed or chopped or preserved and putting aside her tools, readying it for whatever Mouse had brought in this time. He often brought home injured animals, broken-legged fawns or bleeding rabbits, hoping that she can heal them, and she'll set or debride or mend if she can. Some days, though, she can only ease their way into death. Mouse never pleads or bargains once they're in her care — he knows, just as she, that sometimes things die — but he always struggles on their behalf.
"What do you bring me this time, little Mouse?" she asks, looking up once she's cleared her table. "Fowl or —" She freezes as he drops a wolf down on the table.
"No, no, it's not Navarre!" he says hastily.
She inhales sharply. "Of course not. The coloring is wrong, and Navarre was bigger."
"Exactly, my lady," he says softly, placing a fleeting touch to her shoulder.
She starts to run her hands over the wolf, feeling the creature's general shape and health. It — she — seems to be well fed and well muscled. Her her fur is surprisingly clean and without half the forest ground into it as Navarre's used to be. However, something has torn up her leg, and Isabeau needs to see under the blood and fur before she can figure out what to do next. Also, she needs to drug the creature before her strange passivity wears off and she starts biting.
Mouse sets a pitcher of water down beside her. She takes it and rinses the injured leg and lower belly as the wolf whines. The wounds are extensive, but not deep.
"She'll need to stay still for a day or two," Isabeau tells Mouse. "She'll heal quickly, but not if she's moving around. If I drug her, can you attend to her?"
"My lady," he replies with mock-hurt, "I would never abandon a damsel who needs my aid! May the Lord strike me with lightning if I am ever so unchivalrous!"
"You have a peculiar definition of damsel," she says, gathering her supplies and blessing, not for the first time, her old mentor Valerie, who had insisted that she organize everything as soon as she claimed a space as a workroom. ("Girl," Valerie had said, "I"m not one to be pushy—" a lie, she was the most overbearing person Isabeau had known, up to and including her sainted mother "—but do you really want to lose the rosemary just as a mostly-dead person is becoming totally-dead on your kitchen table?")
"Very well then," Isabeau says. She falls silent as she has Mouse hold the soporific sponge in front of the wolf's muzzle, hoping that it will work on a beast as it does on a man. She shaves the wolf's leg, rinsing off the excess fur and, since the wolf appears to be well asleep, sends Mouse out for more water while she picks grime and debris out of the wolf's bloody flesh. He returns as she's binding the leg, and she resumes her earlier thought. "I release her into your care, Sirrah Mouse. May your hands be gentle and your touch be healing."
He bows and runs his hand over the wolf's side. "But of course, Lady Hawk, I could never disappoint a creature in my care." He laughs as she thumps him and begins to clean around the slumbering beast.
Mouse fidgets as he sits with the wolf. If he rearranges things one more time Isabeau is going to make him go with her to gather plants under the next new moon. He doesn't need any more stubbed toes from roots cruelly jumping out at him or stiff shoulders from trees dodging into his path and then sending him into perfectly innocent ponds which make his other set of clothes reeking of fetid water. He could replace them, but Navarre has some ridiculous scruples about stealing, so it's going to have to wait until his finances are a bit more solid. Isabeau and Navarre could replace them — between Isabeau's family and Navarre's soldiering they're well off — but he can take care of himself.
He's actually thinking of taking her up on teaching him to do some of the mending. He knows he has the dexterity for it, and it's not like they have to tell anyone who fixed some of Navarre's never-ending pile of torn clothing.
He's halfway through another round of pacing the entire cottage and straightening all of the baskets until they're the same distance from the edge of the shelf when the wolf wakes up enough to whine. "Hey, lady," he soothes, fumbling for the rag with the sleeping juice. "It's okay. You're getting all better. Isabeau's put you all back together again, and in another day or so and you can go back to your pack." He approaches her, but when she snaps at him, he freezes. "No reason for that, I've given you no cause for anger. Hey, wolf lady, hey," he continues, inching forward. However, he stops short when she starts to glow, the shape of a woman superimposed on the wolf. "Lady Wolf, lady. Oh, Lord, why must you try me so, I don't like adventures. It's okay, Lady Wolf, I'll just back up now and let you come back to yourself and this is me reaching for my cloak which I'm going to give to you and there is not a threatening movement here."
As he grabs the cloak, a gift from Navarre that he couldn't protest when faced with the practicalities of the weather, the wolf finishes transforming, and a woman with dark, curly hair lies on the table. Her nostrils flare and her ribs expand as she inhales deeply, and then her eyes snap open and she snarls at him. He holds the cloak out with one hand, and she grabs it and arranges it over herself.
"Who are you?" she growls.
"I'm Mouse, also called Phillipe Gaston, but Mouse is my name, and please don't eat me for I am stringy and wouldn't taste good," he says. She doesn't speak further, and he continues after a moment. "I don't know who you are, but I promise we're not going to hurt you. I know you probably don't remember anything—"
"—okay, you do remember, but I found you and brought you to Isabeau, who cleaned your wounds and bound them up. Navarre is also around here, well usually, and he is right now although I don't know where, and we completely understand that you've been cursed and it's not your fault and please don't eat me!"
He would retreat under her glare, but traveling with wolf-Navarre taught him that retreat just ended in sadness and regret. Instead he stands very still and waits for her to decide what she's going to do. Dear Lord, he thinks, I am very distressed and hurt by this turn of events.
"I'm Soleil," she bites out. "I'm not cursed." She sits up and swings her legs over the edge of the worktable, but when she tries to stand her knees buckle. Mouse steps towards her, but he aborts the movement when she glares at him. She's leaning against the table, breath shuddering but not quite retching, when Isabeau returns. The wolf-lady — Soleil — straightens alarmingly fast and then promptly sits back down. He stays put this time.
"I expect," Isabeau says, not moving from the doorway, "that you're having a reaction to the compound I used to sedate you." Oh, praise the Lord, Isabeau knows what to do. He's just going to sidle behind her, and let her her deal with the scary lady. Other scary lady. Although he was never worried that Isabeau was going to remove bits of his person. Okay, it is perhaps true that he is lying — he did, he must admit, worry about his eyes a time or two when he was holding an unhooded hawk terrifyingly close to his face — but he's never worried about Isabeau when she was human. Unlike this other lady, who was perfectly reasonable as a wolf but terrifying as a lady.
Soleil tilted her head.
"I'm Isabeau," she continues. "You were injured, possibly from some marauding wildlife or inhospitable plant life, and Mouse brought you back here. Your injuries weren't serious, but I judged it better to keep you sedated until that gash on your leg could close up. You understand, I trust, that a wolf isn't an animal to have around one's household."
Soleil looks at Isabeau for a long moment. "Isabeau of Anjou?" Soleil asks. Isabeau nods. "My name is Soleil, although you probably know that, given how long you were standing just outside of that door. I come to treat with you."
As the two women hold each other's gazes, Mouse lets music tumble through his head. Perhaps he'll be able to add another tale to the stories by which he earns his bread.
Navarre feels his headache recede as he grooms Goliath and puts away the tack. Mouse isn't out traipsing through the countryside cadging pennies from incredulous audiences, so, unless there's a patient, Isabeau won't have spent all day exhausting herself in her cottage by reading books and compounding remedies. It's possible that dinner tonight will be hot, the most recent batch of ale has been satisfactory, and there is no pressing need for him to leave his bed and his wife before the sun is well-up tomorrow. He feeds Goliath an apple and then turns the horse loose in the stall, relaxed and anticipating a good night.
However, he isn't greeted by the smell of a warm pottage or a mug of ale. Instead, there's a dark woman wearing Isabeau's old clothes seated at the table, Mouse perched on a trunk and kicking his heels across the room, and Isabeau lighting more candles than their habit. His jaw clenches and his good mood dissipates. Isabeau is watchful but not frantic, but Mouse is too still for the woman to a harbinger of good news.
Isabeau lights the last of the tapers and then takes a seat at the table. "This is Soleil," she says. "She has a request of us—"
"Of you, Isabeau," Soleil interrupts.
"—of me, perhaps, but it is not my hand that would be turned against the luparii hunting wolves in this land."
Soleil nods in acknowledgment. "My family and I," Soleil says, "wish asylum on your land. We wish to live undisturbed, and we would offer you our labor for forty days a year in return, the nature of which Isabeau says would be determined by you as the overseer of your household."
Navarre snorts. "What use have we for your labor? We are no lords to have you toil in our fields or join us in the Holy Lands."
"Our labor," Soleil states, "could mean many things. We would be willing to accompany young Mouse when he travels or gather herbs inaccessible to a man on foot or horse." Her hand, resting on the table, blurs, and a wolf's paw, grotesque and unnatural, rests there instead. Navarre shifts into a fighting stance, and he doesn't relax when Isabeau lays her hand on his arm.
Mouse interrupts the tense moment. "I am offended by your presumption that I would need a companion! I am the very quintessence of a sophisticated journeyman, a traveler earning my bread from hill and dale and yon."
"You have intimate knowledge of more than one dungeon and almost lost a hand after getting bitten by a cat," Isabeau says. "I think that a companion could, at the least, relieve us of the worry that you're going to get sick in a desolate land and never be seen again."
"But then I could become a legend!" Mouse protests, although he subsides when Navarre flicks him a look before returning to staring down Soleil.
"Why," Navarre says, "would we welcome a cursed witch to our table. Magic has ruined our lives once, why court it again?"
Soleil's hand shifts back. "We," she says, "are not cursed, and your life is quite prosperous for having been ruined."
"Cursed," he repeats firmly. "And you are content with your state?"
"We are wolves, and we are man; we shift at will and desire as our god decreed we should."
"Your god," Navarre says softly. "Cursed and damned, then." Soleil growls, although she does not move and the shape of her skin does not waver. "Why should we trust a people who choose to live in such a state?" He doesn't want Soleil's people here, doesn't want to have other people to consider. Since Imperius died, he, Isabeau, and Mouse have been a circle, warm and prosperous and undisturbed after the upheaval of the lost year. He's reluctant to break that peace.
"Perhaps," Isabeau says, her fingers digging into his arm, "some people feel that life is always the better choice." Mouse makes a strangled noise, and Navarre clenches his jaw and shrugs her hand off. He refuses to acknowledge the sting of her words before this weirdling stranger, but they will address this conversation later.
"Indeed," Soleil says.
"It could be interesting," Mouse offers. "Perhaps you can help other cursed people—" Soleil's hands curl on the table, and she could eviscerate Mouse with her gaze "—not cursed! Not cursed! Lady wolves—" Navarre is surprised by Soleil's mouth curving into a smile at this description "—other lady wolves and lord wolves stay with their beloveds!"
"I would enjoy the companionship," Isabeau says, seating herself beside Soleil, "and I think their offer is a fair one. Also, I think that their elders know much that I wish to learn. I would welcome them, but it is upon you that the most effort would fall, for the wolf hunters would eventually come and have to be dissuaded and the villagers would fret and have to be reassured."
They will have many words later, but Navarre knows that the argument is lost with Mouse and Isabeau both willing to extend their hospitality to Soleil and her people. He decides to acquiesce and hopes that this evening, at the least, can be salvaged, even with blunt words hanging over the future.
"I think you underestimate your abilities of dissuasion," Navarre says drily.
"And overestimate your abilities of reassurance," Mouse says, although he falls silent when Navarre crosses the room and drops his sheathed dagger on Mouse's lap.
"The reassurance of steel is an effective one," Navarre replies. Mouse shrugs and hops off the trunk, opening it and pulling out the sharpening stone and oil. Mouse keeps a better edge on Navarre's steel than Navarre ever managed, so he started attending to the blades when he started spending more time under their roof than not.
Soleil's brow furrows at the abrupt change in the room, and she blinks when Isabeau gets up and starts placing food on the table. "Isabeau, what means this?"
Isabeau smiles, a sight that still entrances Navarre. "It means that you and yours are welcome here, as long as you keep good faith."
"So I pledge," Soleil swears.
They say that there are wolves in the mountains, but the old lady who lives in the woods has never been harmed by tooth or claw. She simply smiles when people worry about her safety and slips back amongst the trees.