Danielle Davis is a talented writer who’s works have appeared in Alien Dimensions, The Astounding Outpost, and multiple anthologies.
A Curse of Red
The change happened, painful as ever. He’d tracked the wolf a half-mile back to the tanglewood grove they’d passed earlier. He found it, crouched next to a half-rotted log, mid-change. It shuddered and gave a pained grunt as the wolf pelt became spontaneously soaked with sweat. Then she was there, lying naked on the leaves, covered in sopping fur like a wet blanket. Like always, he stepped forward to help brush away the clumps of hair that were no longer attached, wiping them off her now-human skin as if they were dead leaves. He worked quickly, knowing that she’d catch a chill if he didn’t get her covered soon.
A short time later, when she came to herself, she found his scarlet wool cloak wrapped around her and her hair still wet. She sat up and quietly took in the fire and the blanketed shape of the man on the other side of it. He knew to keep quiet during this time—the change left a trace of the wolf she’d been. Like a sleeping person woken suddenly from a dream, it always took a few seconds to remember that the dream wasn’t reality. The lingering sense of wariness–especially with a human so nearby–the fear of the flames, the anxious sense of being too far from the pack…it all took some getting used to once she was in human form again. This was how she’d explained it to him.
So he waited across the other side of the fire, not making eye contact, chewing quietly on the rabbit leg he’d baked over the fire.
“Thanks,” she growled. Her voice was husky, like it wanted to form a wolf’s growl but words emerged instead.
He nodded, eyes still downcast, and examined his meal. “There’s a brace on the stone next to you, Risa.” It helped to remind her of her name.
She looked down and stared at the rabbits for a moment. He knew the lingering wolf sense was wary of too-easy food. Then she picked them up and began eating in small bites. She didn’t know that she’d already hunted earlier that morning, but he did. He didn’t figure she’d go through both of the rabbits, which was good because his two had not been enough. But he’d wait until she put them aside–he was good at waiting on her.
“We’re close to a town, aren’t we,” she asked through her mouthful. It was less a question than a statement, so he knew Wolf must’ve picked up something. He finally met her gaze across the fire, taking a moment to appreciate the way the fire flickered in her eyes. Not the yellow ones of the wolf, but her dark ones marbled with three shades of blue.
“Probably another half-day’s trek.”
She frowned. “And how close do you think we are?”
He knew she meant the witch. “Very. The herb fourfoil grows here. It’s supposed to be very powerful. Rumor says it’s a critical ingredient in a lot of dark spell work.”
“Rumor.” She sounded skeptical. “Since when do you know about sorcery and spells?” She half-smiled. “Is that what handsome tailor’s sons do in their extra time?”
He bristled. “I don’t have to be a witch to know about magic. I’ve picked up a lot of information since we’ve been looking for her.”
Her smile dropped, and she gave him a hard look. “Where did you find this information, Pierce?”
“Here and there.” He met her eyes with a hard look of his own. “I’ve learned a lot of things you probably wouldn’t like from places you probably wouldn’t have gone.”
From the sour twist of her lips, he knew she wasn’t happy.
“But there’s no guarantee she’ll be here,” she said petulantly and dug into her dinnerwith more violence than before.
“Nothing’s guaranteed. But it’s the closest we’ve been yet.”
After a while, she glanced up to see that he was still watching her. “I missed you,” she said. It was so soft he almost didn’t catch it over the crackle of the fire.
She stood and moved toward him. When she sat next to him, just close enough not to touch, he opened his blanket and drew her into it. Her first reaction was to freeze. But his arms wrapped around her like a safe place. It was so much like the way he used to hold her before the curse that her arms snaked around him on their own, holding him close enough that she could feel his ribs pressing into the insides of her forearms.
He felt her sniffing his hair, and he wasn’t sure if it was an unconscious wolf-action or just her, until she breathed, “I never want to forget how you smell. Never again.” He closed his eyes and let himself pretend that it was just them, that there had never been a curse or that the last three years of waiting hadn’t seemed endless. She wasn’t always like this after she changed. Sometimes the nights with her weren’t much different than being around the wolf. But tonight was closer to her old self than she’d been in a while. He whispered her name, relishing in the way she responded by tightening her hold.
Finally, she untangled herself and smoothed his hair back from his face. It was an old habit and it made his heart hurt. He smiled so she wouldn’t know how much.
“We’re close to other people,” she warned. “You should be careful.”
“This far out?”
“I remember scenting a handful.” Her voice faltered as she tried to sort through the memories she usually tried to forget. “I’m not sure how long ago, though.” Her tone was apologetic. He rubbed her back and glanced around their camp, as if he half-expected to see strange men step into the light from where they’d been waiting in the shadows.
“We’ll manage. We always do. If it weren’t for the fact that we’re running low on supplies, I’d try to skirt it all-together.”
“What do you need? Maybe when we get close enough, I can sneak in and steal some things.”
He bit his lip, considering. It wasn’t as if they hadn’t done it before–her going in after the change, raiding a house or small store on the edge of town, and getting back with just what they needed. Once, he’d had a problem with the morality of it. But it had only taken a few nights of freezing without proper bedding supplies before he’d given in. But this town was smaller than the last few they’d passed, and smaller towns usually meant more watchful eyes.
“I don’t want to risk it. I’ll go in and buy some supplies. We have plenty of money still.”
“No. That won’t work. I don’t like us getting separated.”
“It’ll only be for an hour or so. Just long enough for me to get what I need.”
“Then let me steal it!”
He shook his head. It was hard to articulate why he was reluctant for her to do it, since he wasn’t entirely sure himself why it was a bad idea. He just had a feeling, like things crawling along his skin, that it was more dangerous this time. “We won’t be apart long, I promise.”
“But what if you can’t find me again?” Her voice was bleak. He knew she was worried about being alone the next time she changed and not for her own safety. So far, they’d managed to be together every night when it happened, for the three years they’d been on their journey to break the curse. But changing to a wolf wasn’t the problem. Changing to human was. If he wasn’t there, the next morning’s change back to wolf-form would be permanent–the witch had made sure of that.
“We’ll be fine.” He tried to sound confident. Her eyes didn’t lose their cagey look, though. “Really. I’ll be in and out.”
She rose and strode quickly to the other side of the fire, pacing back and forth with the shadows of the flames whipping across her body like fog. He knew she was fighting the urge to bolt into the shadows beyond the fire. Inwardly he sighed and wondered if she’d ever be able to fully come back once they’d broken the curse.
After a while of pacing, he unpacked their bedrolls and spread them out quietly on opposite sides of the fire. When she finally quieted and went to bed, she slept with her back to him, not because she was angry with him, but because he knew it soothed her to face the darkness where her inner wolf felt safest.
He watched her ribs rise and fall with her breaths, as the flames cast tickling shadows over the length of her. The shadows moved like dark hands he wished were his. But that merely reminded him of the last time they’d been together, back when she welcomed the touch of his skin on hers. The wolf beneath didn’t allow it now even when she was human—too much direct contact, too much nearness.
He didn’t know how much of the woman remained when she changed. But he figured a little bit, if only because he’d watched the wolf come to accept his presence, tolerating him enough for them to travel together, without her running off entirely. He sensed that without the trace of Risa’s love for him, the wolf would have disappeared within those first few months. And Risa would have disappeared with it.
In the morning, he woke to her grunts of pain. Keeping very still, he opened his eyes and watched as the wolf broke through the skin of the woman crouched over her bedroll. The muzzle and paws appeared first, clawing and biting their way out of the meat sack the wolf was caught in. As the wolf emerged, the skin stretched until it tore, falling in bloody hunks and strips to the ground. Once free, the wolf shook itself, sending a red mist into the dawn air. It cast a wary glance at him and then bent to sniff the flesh on the ground.
He closed his eyes and tried to think of other things while the sounds of chewing and licking crawled through his ears. No matter how many times he saw it, he couldn’t get past the horror of watching Risa eat herself.
After a few minutes he rose, ignoring how the wolf growled and darted away. By the time the sun’s rays pierced the branches above him, the campsite was packed and he was ready to go.
“We’ll find her, Risa,” he called softly. The wolf whined and paced, never taking its yellow eyes off him. Its body language radiated its desire to leave the clearing, but something kept it nearby. It watched as he gathered the small pack. “I think we’re close now.” He slung the bag onto one shoulder and when he glanced up, the wolf was gone, like a ghost that had never really been there at all.
The town was larger than he’d thought but not by much. He always measured a town’s wealth by the size of its church and this one had massive pillars at the top of its steps and a tall spire upon which a simple white-washed cross perched. It was the most ornate building he could see, which was good—large churches usually meant there would be a decent apothecary in town. Just as one fed a certain type of people, so the other usually fed the rest of them.
There were more people about than he expected for a town this size. After asking someone about it, he learned it was Market Day. Vendors hollered from their wagons on each side. Painted pots, skins, fruits and vegetables, fabrics, weapons…it was a very busy scene that normally would have made his skin crawl. But it was the perfect type of environment to get lost in.
He bought an apple from a farmer, then wandered off the main area of the street to lean against a storefront. His eyes skimmed over the tide of people moving this way and that and sought out the store fronts. None of them were the three jars that signified the apothecary tradecraft. But as he crunched into the apple, a shock of purple caught his eye in the window of a fabric shop. Though he knew he needed to purchase the apothecary items and get out, his gaze lingered.
What could it hurt? he thought. It looked too much like his father’s old shop.
Inside, masses of women filled the aisles between the rows of open crates that held bolts of fabric. Slipping between two fat women admiring a floral-patterned cloth, he headed toward the window where he’d seen the purple fabric.
A body stepped out from one of the aisles, blocking his way.
“Oh, pardon me,” he mumbled. He stepped to one side, but the person moved with him. He glanced up, past the wool vest, the bushy tuft of hair that peeked over the neckline, then up the tanned neck to the dark eyes that grinned down at him. The man’s smile was all teeth and menace, and his eyes gleamed like a rodent’s out of the weathered leather of his face.
“I’d pardon every part of you.”
Pierce scowled. He’d learned many things on the road, and one of them was that every village had a handful of men like this. The only way to deal with them was to show no fear and to maintain control of his space. He glanced over the man, ignoring the way his smile widened.
Then, keeping eye contact, he stomped as hard as she could on the instep of the man’s foot. His boots were as soft as Pierce estimated—a man for hire, perhaps, but not a traveler—and the heavy wood of his heel ground into them hard enough to tear the fabric.
The man yelped, lifting his foot away, and Pierce glided past him.
With his stomach clenching with anxiety, he tried to appear casual as he slid his fingers across the plush purple fabric he’d seen in the window. His hands were rough enough to catch on the softness of it. He remembered, as a child, being able to run his hands down a length of pure silk without snagging it.
“Best watch out, boy.” The man’s oily voice was in his ear and Pierce hadn’t even heard him approach. “There’s been some wolves sighted in the area. Not safe for a small thing like you to be about without someone to protect you.”
He shrugged. “With this many people around, I doubt I’m going to be much of a target. Besides, I’ve seen wolves before. I can handle myself.”
“No doubt of that,” he drawled in an admiring tone. Pierce imagined he felt eyes moving over him as slowly as the man spoke. “I only mention it because you don’t seem dressed for town. If you’re planning on travelling anytime soon, best be on your watch. There’s one in particular, a big fellow. Dark red with a black tip to his tail. Likely a man-eater from the size of it.”
He forced himself to move casually away, fingering the bolts of fabric as he passed. So not a man for hire, but something in the woods…a hunter? Now the soft boots made sense—minimal footwear to make it easier to track quietly. The thought made him sick.
To hide his discomfort, he forced himself to linger on a length of gold-dyed cotton. There was a time when he’d have been delighted to find this fabric. He tried to picture the gown he could make from it, to take his mind off the hunter’s voice. The color would have brought out his mother’s eyes. Back before he’d left. But that was another time, he reminded himself. And now we’re so close.
“You let me know if you see him around. I’m taking a special interest in that one.”
Pierce returned his attention to the cloth, but wasn’t able to concentrate on it. The man was leaning in too close. Pierce thought he heard a sniff at his hair. It reminded him of how Risa had done the same the night before, and he hated how this man sullied the memory of it.
“I’m Nikko. If you ever have need of me, you can find me at the inn here.”
Pierce nodded and gave a noncommittal noise, but Nikko didn’t leave. “And you are?”
“Arnur.” Pierce conjured the name on the spot. It was a good enough name, he supposed. He’d learned long ago that sometimes ears had a way of hearing things he couldn’t take back and he couldn’t risk her name getting to the witch.
“Lovely name suits a lovely boy.” Pierce glanced up in time to see Nikko’s grin widen as he looked down the length of him. He didn’t care for the man’s expression–less like he was appreciating the view and more like Pierce was a steak on his dinner plate.
“Good luck with your killing.” Pierce meant it meanly, but Nikko nodded, like it was a compliment. He put the fabric back and moved past the other man toward the store’s entrance.
“Thanks. And Arnur?” He waited until Pierce glanced at him again. “Whatever you might need from me, I’d be glad to give it.” His eyes were dark with dirty promises. Pierce turned away and left, feeling eyes on his backside like hands as he walked away.
“That’s what you get for dawdling,” he muttered to himself as he tried to blend in once more with the crowd. He asked directions from a kind-eyed old woman selling potions and charms and quickly found the apothecary shop tucked on the end of an adjacent street.
A wave of aromas assaulted his nose as he stepped inside, the effect of too many herbs burned at the same time in a very small space. And with a roof almost low enough for him to touch, the shop was tiny. Mismatched sets of shelves sat crammed next to each other, some overlapping like crooked teeth, and all overflowing their shelves with items. He saw tadpoles in murky water swimming in a glass tube next to several more tubes that each contained eyes from different animals. Other shelves held squat jars whose herbs spilled over the sides to form piles on the shelf and the floor below them.
A ram’s horn on the shelf nearest him held a smoldering pile of uncontained herbs and he leaned forward to sniff at the gray smoke that trailed up from it. He immediately recognized lavender and carewort, which calmed the mind, and anise, to bring feelings of euphoria. But he thought he also detected the woody smell of vetiver and underneath it, something sharper, more acrid…
“Unicorn root,” called a voice to the left. “For hex breaking.”
Started, he turned to see the shop owner watching from behind an imposing counter made of ironwood and carved with intricate, swirling designs on the front. A border of words written in hexmark ran along the perimeter of the designs, along with a fat band of iron.
His impression of the owner was one of angles. Her thin face was one long line of jutting cheekbones with a sharp-tipped nose and ending in a pointed chin. Her eyes were slitted and fox-like.
He walked over, carefully unfolded a square of paper from his pocket, and set it on the counter in front of her. She didn’t touch it, but instead bent at the waist to look, as if the list were something dangerous. The air in the shop felt strange—it made his skin prickle as if he were being watched though he didn’t see anyone else in there. He tried to resist the urge to shift his weight from one foot to another.
“What do you think you’re doing with this kind of stuff?” The apothecary’s voice was careful and wondering.
He glanced up at her. She stared at him with an odd intensity, as if examining a very interesting bug. A half-smile played about her lips, fading in and out like ripples across water. He nodded curtly to the bundle of dried hornberry vines. “I’ll take a packet of those, too.”
Without looking away from him, she reached behind, snagged one dried bundle, and dropped it on the counter. As her eyes crawled across his face, her tongue, forked like a lizard’s, slid thoughtfully across her lower lip. The motion revealed her mouth to be full of slender, pointed teeth like bone needles. At his startled gasp, she grinned, giving a better look.
But her eyes were shrewd when she said, “I don’t usually sell to children, you know.” She paused thoughtfully, then held up one finger in amendment. “Unless they’re adults trapped in a child’s body. But that doesn’t seem to be your problem.”
He glared at her. “I’m not a child,” he growled.
“You might as well be. This is strong stuff you’re dabbling in. Over your head and not your type.” She said “type” in a way that made her lips pop on the end.
“I know what I’m dealing with.”
She smirked in a half-hearted way. Her eyes continued to crawl over his face in a way that was too intimate, as if she was reading important information off his very skin. “I seriously doubt that,” she drawled and leaned forward on her elbows. “I make lots of deals in this shop. Have for a very, very long time. I deal in all manner of things: money, charms, inspiration, murder. I’ve served dabblers and druids and witches and wendigos. And know what they all have in common?” She formed a triangle between the thumb and forefingers of each hand and peered at him through it. “They’re transparent.”
He risked a quick glance outside, noting the fading light as afternoon fell into dusk. “I’m glad business is good. But I really need to—”
“I have them pegged as soon as they step across my threshold.” She placed the tip of one long, stained fingernail on the tip of her nose and sniffed deeply. Her voice dropped to a whisper. “I can smell it, you see. What they need. Even if they don’t exactly know yet. I know why they come in and what they’re looking for.”
Pierce stumbled suddenly as if he’d taken a step. Though he hadn’t remembered moving, he found himself leaning towards her against the counter, closer than he had been moments before. With a frown, he straightened and looked at his feet to ease the sudden feeling of dizziness. When he glanced suspiciously back at her, she was still propped on her elbows on the counter. But she was smirking and eyeing him with that shrewd, intense look that said they shared a secret.
“Know what you smell like? A man who’s run out of better ideas. You stink. And if I can smell it, you can be sure she will, too.”
He stared at her with wide, caught eyes. “I don’t know who you—”
“Trust me about this, boy. She plays a longer game than you or even me. If anyone’s going to change that, it won’t be the likes of you.”
As Pierce exhaled, he felt himself straighten with the feeling that he had somehow been released. His mind felt clear and the warm burn of anger made his cheeks feel hot. Somehow his ingredients list had made its way back into his hand, and he slapped in on the counter again. The ironwood of the counter gave a muted metallic ring under the force of it. “Fill the order, apothecary.”
The woman leaned back with an appraising look. After a moment, the fading smile played along her lips again and she turned away. Pierce watched as she shuffled around the small confines of the store stuffing items into a small bag. He kept his hand planted on the list. The sturdiness of the wood beneath the paper made him feel stronger, more grounded. He closed his eyes and focused on the memory of the last time Risa had spoken his name. There is power in names, he reminded himself.
When he opened them again, the woman was back in front of him, smirking as she rested her chin in her hand. “Will that be all?”
He felt like slapping the smug look from her face. Instead, he made sure his voice was calm when he asked, “How much?”
She giggled like a little girl, a high-pitched titter that made his skin crawl. “Oh probably more than you can afford, from the looks of you. But I’ll tell you what: I’ll barter for them.”
The room was too dim for him to feel comfortable, which meant that the daylight was fading quickly. His stomach gave a nervous flip. “What could I have that you want?”
He tossed his small coin pouch on the counter. “This is what I have. Gain what entertainment you like from it.”
But she tossed it back with a frown. “So cautious. It’s a simple barter, not even a trick. In exchange for these ingredients, I want to tell your fortune.”
“What?” He gave a quick glance out the window again, but his instincts warned him that time wasn’t the only predator to worry about.
“Let me read your palm.” The words slid out of her mouth like a hiss.
“How is that a fair exchange? You’re providing both the items I want and the service of the reading. What do you get in return?”
She lifted an eyebrow. “Like I said, entertainment.”
He eyed her warily, but she merely waited with one sardonic eyebrow cocked. The weight of time pressed against his insides, urging him to move. “What do I have to do?”
With a pointy grin, she flapped her hand in a come on gesture. “Let me see your hand, that’s all.”
Holding her gaze, he raised his left hand.
“Not that one!” she barked. She glared as if he’d insulted her. “I have no use for left hands.”
His jaw clenched, but he lowered it and stretched his right hand slowly across the counter. She watched his palm almost greedily. Her tongue darted across the corner of her mouth once, twice. Then her hands snaked forward and grasped his, jerking him forward with shocking strength. His stomach slammed into the counter, driving the wind from him in a strangled whoosh. With one hand locked around his wrist, her other cradled his hand, using her thumb to pin his fingers open. She turned so that his arm was curled around her side as she peered at his palm.
“Your heart breaks easily. And frequently.” She glanced at her with an appraising look. “I would guess more frequently than most.” He tried to use his other hand to get enough leverage against the counter to pull away, but his hand felt locked in hers. “You are also energetic, which is good for your situation, but external forces will change your life many times.”
She mused over it a few moments longer, but silently. She seemed oblivious to his attempts to pull his hand back. Finally she turned but kept his hand captive in hers. “Does this satisfy you?”
Desperate for her to let him go, he nodded. But her face contorted into a mass of wrinkles as she scowled at him.
“Well it shouldn’t!” she yelled into his face. Her breath reeked of moist earth and blood. She let go of his wrist to point toward the window, but kept his fingers held tight. Though he pulled, his hand still felt as firmly anchored as before. “Any fool on the street out there could tell you that. But what they can’t tell you is this.”
With her free hand, she stabbed the fingernail of her forefinger into the middle of his palm. He felt a slight prick but was transfixed by the feeling of the nail against his skin—not warm like her hands were, but icy cold, like a metal needle kept in snow. In seconds the cold burned against his palm, and he looked up in desperation.
Her face leaned close to him and her eyes pinned him with their intensity. “You will find your witch, but she will not have the answers you seek.” As Pierce’s shoulders sank in despair, she cocked her head. “But that does not mean you will not win. You, little one, have the power to change the curse.”
Her face suddenly broke into a wide grin, and he reeled away from the closeness of those pointed teeth. She let him go so suddenly that he tumbled backwards, landing painfully on his ass. As he stared at her in disbelief, she gave another child-like giggle that made him shiver.
“Is it true?” he whispered.
She nodded and giggled again. “And you know what the funniest part about it is? You’ve had the power in you the whole time.”
He opened his mouth to respond—
–and was standing near the doorway to leave the shop. The doorframe spun in his gaze as he fought a wave of dizziness. He looked around, wondering. “How did I…” He looked at the apothecary who looked at him with a bland face. “What happened?”
“Whatever do you mean?”
“Wasn’t I just…?” He patted the pouch at his hips, like someone trying to remember what they put there. When his hand patted a lump inside it, he paused. He reached in and pulled out a small burlap-covered sachet the size of a cherry. “What is this?”
The apothecary grinned, a wide movement that didn’t show her teeth. “Something that will help. Do you remember how to use it?”
Patu belet serru. The words floated into his mind like a memory. The memory voice saying them sounded like the apothecary’s, but he didn’t remember her saying anything like that.
Confused, he simply nodded.
“Excellent!” With a teeth-baring smile, she snatched the bag containing his spell ingredients and tossed it to him. “Now get out of my store. Children really must be attended by an adult.”
“That’s it? That’s all you wanted, to read my palm?”
Her face became serious again but her infuriating smile remained, fading in and out again. “I’d say I got the better deal, sweetness. Now get out.” She gave a pointed glance at the window. “Light’s fading fast and something tells me you’ve got more important appointments, yes?”
At that, he did move, rushing out the door and weaving quickly through the masses of people. Then he remembered that he was supposed to be unobtrusive and slowed to a brisk walk that was just shy of a jog. But the sun seemed to tick lower with every heartbeat that pounded in his neck, and he only barely remembered to hide his trail as he wound through the buildings, to the edge of town, and into the woods beyond.
Once past the leading edge of trees, he broke into a run. He raced back over the brush, ignoring the stitch that caught at his side, aware that he was whispering Risa’s name over and over but unable to stop.
He made it back to camp as the sun was winking low in the trees, blazing like an angry orange eye. A quick glance around told him Wolf wasn’t back yet. Or at least, if it was, it wasn’t revealing itself. He allowed a deep sigh of gratitude as his heart began to slow its frantic slamming in his chest. Back in time, it thumped gratefully. Back in time.
To keep himself busy, he checked the traps he’d set nearby. Of the three, two had delivered something: a squirrel and a rabbit. They’d make a slight meal, but he knew Risa would be glad for it, given the lack of game in the area.
He started a small fire and set the meat to roasting over it. Then he waited with his eyes cast to the west where the setting sun threw purple and orange flames across the sky.
Shortly after the sun had died below the horizon, he glanced up and noticed a figure standing next to a tree. His lips formed a smile before he realized the shape was wrong: too big, too confident. No slinking, wary body language. And he had no idea how long he’d been there.
“I figured I’d save you the trouble of coming to visit.” Nikko grinned and eased into the cleared area around the fire pit. “Too busy in town anyway. I like the privacy out here.”
“You need to leave. Now.” Risa, don’t come back yet, he pleaded internally. Whether she was a wolf or weakened woman, both would be prey to this one. But from the look on Nikko’s face, Pierce was, too.
Pierce dove towards his pack, and Nikko moved to intercept, more agile than a man his size should be. Nikko pushed his shoulder to throw him off-balance then let the momentum carry him on top, pinning Pierce on his back. He easily dodged Pierce’s wild punches and swept both his wrists into a one-handed grip.
He forced one knee between his legs as he fiddled with the lacings of his pants. Pierce thrashed, which only made Nikko grin more. Nikko grunted with the effort of staying atop, half laughing. “Good to see you’ve got some energy left. Would hate for you to have wasted it walking around out here.”
Pierce’s fingers fished at the edge of his boot until they found the knife handle. As Nikko pulled him closer, Pierce pulled the knife free and flipped the blade forward. With a jerk, Nikko crushed him against his chest and with him, the knife hilt deep into his stomach.
He growled against Pierce’s neck, and the sound was inhuman. It sounded like a beast welling up from inside him. Then he screamed, loud enough to make Pierce’s ear ring, and suddenly he was gone.
For a moment, Pierce lay dazed and panting in the dirt while the sound of screams and scuffling went on. Then he rolled on his side to look.
He saw Nikko’s feet thrashing as he pounded his fist into a writhing red pelt that covered him like a blanket. Then he realized it was a wolf–his wolf–and he struggled to his feet. He took a shaking step toward the pair. The sound of snarling and ripping, like wet cloth being torn slowly, seemed to fill his entire head.
Nikko’s arm slowed until it merely waved in the air and then finally floated to the ground. The wolf continued to tear at his throat for a few seconds after Nikko stopped moving. He saw the hilt of the knife still buried in his stomach, though the silver handle was covered with blood so dark it looked black.
He took a scraping step forward and the wolf turned, pinning him with its cold yellow gaze. Its muzzle was bloodied up to its eyes, and bits of flesh still clung to the fur around its whiskers. It snarled and he wondered if it was going to spring.
It gave a small lunge and snapped at the air, and he realized she’d been staring it directly in the eyes. He lowered his gaze and slowly turned his body so that his profile faced the wolf. I am not a threat to you. He thought it very hard, hoping it was evident from his body language. I am not your enemy, Risa. From the corner of his eye, he saw the wolf relax enough that its lips covered its teeth again. It watched him for a moment longer, as if making sure he was going to stay, and then bolted back into the brush.
For a while, he stayed frozen in place. His mind whirled like leaves in a storm, with ideas and emotions tumbling over each other so busily that he couldn’t concentrate on any one of them. He looked at the lifeless, bloody bag that had been Nikko. His throat had been torn away completely–the white of his spine glimmered at her in the fading light. Wolf hadn’t been after food, or it would have attacked Pierce for being so near its kill. She was trying to protect me.
But that didn’t seem impossible. He knew Risa couldn’t control her wolf self, she’d told him so. But she did admit that sometimes she remembered what Wolf did, the smells it had tracked, the game it brought down. Was it so hard to imagine that Wolf might be able to remember certain memories of Risa-the-woman? Of him?
The thought was staggering. His legs began shaking, making it difficult to stand. He sat in front of the fire, sipping from a waterskin and thinking. The sounds of hunting birds in the night, their cries as they dove for their prey, the prey’s final scream as it was caught–all of it made him jump.
Once, later in the night, twigs popped nearby, as if a large animal were crashing through dense brush. He leapt to his feet, knife held warningly out in front, eyes wide and heart thudding painfully in his throat. But nothing came into the lit circle of his campfire.
He was much calmer by the time she finally returned, standing just far enough into the firelight for him to recognize her—a haggard face bleeding into being from the blackness.
“Someone was here.” Her voice held a careful lack of inflection.
He nodded, keeping his eyes on the fire. “A hunter from town.”
Risa waited a long while, watching him, until it was obvious he wasn’t going to elaborate. “Are you okay?”
He nodded again. “I stabbed him. But then you…took care of him.” He met her eyes as he said it, so he could watch her reaction. She flinched, her eyes reflecting the wild firelight like wisps, but then nodded.
“Do you remember?” he asked. She shook her head.
“I was afraid of this, though.” He knew she meant her fear that she’d attack him, not that she was sorry she’d attacked someone else. “We need to move quickly. Tonight.”
He realized he was tired. Not just tired from the fight but from the running. Three years was too long. If not now, then when? The moon was still an hour or so away from being fully risen, so he guessed they might have enough time.
“You wear my cloak.” He gestured to where it draped across a log near her. “Let’s go.”
They traveled in silence and made their way inside the town limits, to the small public garden that was supposed to house the fourfoil crop. The potion seller that had given Pierce directions to the apothecary had also told him about the garden, warning him that many dangerous people visited it this time of year.
Pierce could feel the distance between him and Risa, though they ended up crouched shoulder-to-shoulder behind the fat leaves of a puffer plant. They hadn’t spoken since leaving the camp, and Pierce felt like the gulf between them was widening with every second they waited. He longed to say something, anything to break the tension, but couldn’t think of anything that didn’t sound awkward.
Three people wandered into the main area of the garden to chant softly to themselves before plucking the silver fourfoil leaves from the stems. The tiny leaves sparkled in the luminous moonlight like snow. Pierce glanced up at the moon—a harvest moon—and prayed that the witch would come tonight. There’s no better night, he thought with desperation as they set up the entrapment spell. There couldn’t be.
Then finally, as the moon waned past its peak in the sky, an old woman strolled in. Her back had a large hump over one shoulder, but she walked with the easy stride of a much younger person. She glanced around the garden, then spent several moments admiring the fourfoil gleaming in the moonlight.
“It’s about time you showed up,” the witch finally said. “I’ve been waiting for days for you to get the nerve to come.” Pierce’s jaw clenched, but he remained silent. “What is it you wish to ask of me?”
With his stomach knotting itself into a ball, Pierce stepped forward, with Risa following as silently as a ghost. “Don’t you already know?” he said. He was proud of how mocking his voice sounded when he felt so nervous.
The witch smiled, a patronizing twist of the lips, and waved her hand invitingly. “Of course I do. But I’m sure it’s important to you to get to say it.”
“Release the curse.” The words seemed to ring out through the garden.
With a surprised look, the witch said, “I can’t.”
“Of course you can,” Risa said. Her voice was hoarse from misuse. “You’re the one who set it in the first place!”
Now the witch looked at her with an indignant expression. “At his request!” She indicated Pierce.
When Risa turned to look at him, Pierce’s shocked face looked back and forth between them. “I didn’t ask for this! I never would have wanted—“
“For something to make her stay?” The witch spoke softly, but Pierce’s mouth shut with a sharp clack of teeth. The witch peered at them with a sly smile. “I may be old but perhaps my memory of that night is clearer than yours. Do you remember who you were then?” She gestured to both of them.
Her hunched posture didn’t seem to change, but she became more predatory as she stepped closer toward them. Her eyes crawled over Pierce, devouring him. “You were young, newly married. Just past the cusp of love’s first bloom. And she had bloomed, hadn’t she? An earlier bloom than you’d expected, but one you both wanted very badly. But then she lost it. And were afraid you’d lose her in the process. It was very hard on the both of you. Do you remember that?”
It was just on the edge of Pierce’s memory, but yes, hadn’t there been a time when that had been true? Hadn’t he been so lost in his grief that he had drawn away from her?
“But I didn’t wish for this to happen.” Pierce’s voice was sad and broken. “Nothing like this.”
“That’s the danger of wishing on stars, though.” The witch eyed Pierce with a sad expression that seemed to be genuine regret. “You don’t get to determine how the wish works. Now remove this ridiculous entrapment spell so I can go.”
“So how do we get rid of it?” Risa asked.
“Only you two can remove it. Your wolf must eat the heart of one who loves you.” The witch cast a pointed glance at Pierce, then looked back to Risa and raised her eyebrows.
Risa scowled. “You’re going to make me kill him to live? How is that supposed to keep us together?”
“Not you! Didn’t you have an ailing father?” the witch asked. “One very near his time?”
“He’s dead!” Pierce yelled. “He died years ago. Why didn’t you tell us then, if you really meant us well?”
The witch looked confused. “Years? How long have I been gone?”
Taken aback, Pierce scrutinized her. “Have you gone mad? It’s been three years!”
The witch frowned and looked absently around her, as if she’d misplaced something and forgotten where. “Time doesn’t mean what it used to,” she murmured. “I meant to tell you, but I was…called away.” She looked at them with sudden sharpness, as if just noticing they were there. “But, no matter. I’m here now.” She said it as if it were an offering.
“Why didn’t you tell us then?” Risa growled through gritted teeth.
The woman peered at her. “Because you needed time for the curse to bond you, of course. It wouldn’t have done any good to curse you and then lift it a week later. You had to suffer.” She looked back and forth between them. “Don’t you know how curses work?”
Her shock at their anger only served to make Pierce’s burn brighter. “We do now,” he said in a low voice. He stalked towards the witch, clenching his fist tighter around the hilt of the knife. “We know plenty now.”
“Don’t you dare threaten me, you fool,” the witch said, drawing herself straighter. “Still an entitled idiot it seems. You appear to have forgotten who you’re dealing with.”
Pierce’s fingers suddenly pressed into his palm as the knife disappeared from his hand. He looked quickly at the ground, thinking it had slipped out of his grasp but it was nowhere to be seen. He looked back at the witch, who raised an eyebrow. “It seems you didn’t learn enough while I was gone.”
Pierce pressed one fist to his thigh while the other fished in his pocket, its motion hidden by the red folds of his cloak. “Oh, I’ve learned plenty, Grandmother,” he seethed as his fingers closed over the rough cloth of the small bag. “More than you would like.”
Then he flung the small bundle at the old woman and yelled the words to the spell.
The sachet flew through the air but exploded into a fog of black and purple smoke before it hit the witch. The bag hung mid-air as the smoke billowed from the opening. As if contained in an invisible ball, the fog hovered, pulsing bigger and smaller as if it were breathing. Then the surface shuddered, sending ripples of purple and black all over. Like a living thing, it consumed the witch, rolling over her and draping her like a sheet, so thick that it drowned out her screams. The fog engulfed her in a matter of heartbeats until there was nothing but a human-sized shape, its surface a gently swirling mass of colored smoke.
There was a moment, after the screams were cut off, where the only sounds were the desperate gasps of Pierce and Risa as they watched. Then the fog shape began to shrink with a woosh of rushing air. It compressed until there was nothing left but the satchet, still bound in its rough cloth. It fell to the ground with a soft thud. There was no trace of the witch.
Pierce looked at Risa, who looked back with a haunted gaze.
“So now what?” she whispered. It seemed appropriate to whisper in the garden. It felt like ears were listening.
“We’ve got to break the curse.”
“No, we don’t.”
Pierce stared at her in shock. “What are you talking about?”
But she shook her head. Pierce moved as if to step towards her and she held him away. “You heard her. My wolf has to eat the heart of the one who loves me. I’m not…I can’t—”
“Not ‘the one who loves you’,” he said. “ ‘One who loves you’. We have to find someone who loves you. It doesn’t have to be me.”
“Then who?” Risa said miserably. Tears gleamed on her cheek as she looked toward the sky. She put her head into her hands and sank to the ground.
Pierce thought, his eyes darting from side to side but not seeing the grass below them or the shine of the fourfoil. There had to be a way around the curse.
He thought about what the witch had said, about how it had all turned out to be because of him and a whimsical wish upon a cold star.
Just past the cusp of love’s first bloom.
Back when he’d been desperate to keep the thing he treasured most. As desperate as he felt now.
And she had bloomed, hadn’t she?
It was all his fault.
An earlier bloom than you’d expected…
“There’s another way,” he whispered. He knelt down and pressed his hands to her stomach, one over the other. She looked at him. “It wouldn’t be very hard,” he said slowly. “We did it once. We could do it again. Only this time… It would be like a rabbit.”
“What are you talking about?” Then her eyes fell to his hands, watched as she breathed in, breathed out. Her eyes widened as she understood. “Tell me this is not a serious suggestion.”
“It has to be the heart of someone who loves you. She didn’t say who.”
“No! We’ll find another way.”
“There are no other options! If I die or you stay cursed, all of our efforts will have been for nothing. Is three years of suffering so easy for you to throw away?”
She shook her head and stared at him with pleading eyes. “What you suggest…” Her voice trembled. “It’s a curse we would put on ourselves, Pierce. It would last forever.”
He grasped the back of her head and pressed his forehead to hers. “We’re damned no matter what choice we make.”
She closed her eyes and trembled under his hand. How much of the wolf remained when he changed?
When she finally spoke, her mouth moved like the words were razors in her mouth. “We could always have another, I guess. This way.” Her voice sounded wooden, hollow. Tears fell softly down her cheeks as she nodded against him.
“How soon will we be able to…after it’s…” His voice cracked.
“No more than a few months, I think.” She sounded like she was trying too hard to be encouraging. “We’ll have to give it time to fall in love with me.”
“Aren’t they born loving their parents?”
She gave him a wobbly smile that didn’t reach her eyes. They looked like dark drowning pools. “We can’t take any chances.”
Outside the harvest moon gleamed. It winked in and out of view as the clouds crept past. Pierce told himself it would all be over by this time next season. Just one last bloom. They would sow what they could and reap the harvest they made. One more sacrifice. He told himself it would be worth it. It would have to be.