Winterwood

Joran closed the tavern door behind him, leaving the harsh winds outside, shook the snow off his cloak, and scanned the room.

Standard for a village around here: wooden floor, wooden walls, wooden tables and chairs. Being surrounded by forest, wood was cheap and in infinite supply, marked contrast to his own homeland.

The inhabitants of the room were also standard, farmers and craftspeople who lived here in the village; he saw no one else readily visible as a traveller. He found a vacant table, and seated himself.

A young woman in her late teens, her long-sleeved and full-skirted dun dress of heavy northerner wool only partially protected by a soiled apron, came promptly. “What can I get you, my lord?”

“Something to eat, whatever there is. And something hot to drink.”

“Tea or cider or mulled wine?”

He’d discovered that northerners, lacking grapes, made wine from a variety of fruits that would have been considered peculiar for that purpose, but it often had a pleasant taste. “Wine, please.”

She told him how much; he handed her a couple of copper coins. That would give her a little for herself even. It never failed to startle him, the price differences in these villages—in a city, it would have cost him twice that just for the food.

Within a reasonably short time, she brought him what he’d requested, and gave him a flirtatious smile and wink at the same time. He paid no attention, simply thanked her and turned his attention to his meal.

The food turned out to be a thick stew with a more-than-average amount of meat in it, he thought rabbit, and a small loaf of reasonably fresh bread. The best food he’d had in two days; the last place had only a watery soup that was mostly cabbage and potatoes. The wine… well, it wasn’t the best he’d had in the north, it had a slightly sour taste, and the spices were simple and didn’t match well with the other flavours, but given that, it was tolerable. At least it was hot.

The young woman returned to take his empty bowl.

“Do you have rooms to rent here?”

“We don’t get many travellers, my lord, but there are rooms my ma lets. You’ll have to ask her.” She indicated the older woman behind the bar with a quick gesture.

“Thank you.” He disregarded her renewed flirtations, and made his way to the bar.

The tavernkeeper shook her head regretfully. “Sorry, my lord, we’ve only the two, travellers usually take the other road west, and they’re promised already.”

Someone Joran had taken for a local, sitting alone at a nearby table, looked up from his cup. “I’ve no objection to sharing,” he said mildly.

Joran didn’t miss the way the northerner’s gaze flicked appraisingly down the length of his body. He couldn’t help returning it. Another of these tall blondes, which was why he’d assumed him to be a villager here; a closer look did show worn travelling leathers over a nicely muscled body. Around his own mid-twenties, even, as near as he could judge.

“Thank you.” He was honestly grateful for the bed—and if he was any judge, that was interest he was seeing. As he understood northern hospitality rules in a climate where death by freezing was a real danger, he could almost certainly have had a place on the floor, most likely in the kitchen after they closed, but this sounded infinitely better.

“Join me?” the northerner asked.

“I’m paying.”

“Sounds fair.”

The tavernkeeper, as requested, gave them two cups of wine.

The northerner gave Joran a wolfish grin as he seated himself across from him. “Of course, there may be places where you’d get more sleep… Truthfully, you’re welcome to share, no matter what, but should you be so inclined…” He ran one finger lightly along the back of Joran’s hand, up to just past his wrist, and down again.

“I think maybe you could persuade me,” Joran said mischievously.

They talked a little, while they finished the wine. Joran learned that Aillen did indeed roam around the north, taking jobs as tracker, guide, whatever came along. He told Aillen in turn that he was from the south, something obvious anyway given that he was dark and slender and despite the best tutors he spoke the northern language with an accent, and that he was travelling west on an errand for a relative who lived in a city to the east.

Aillen knew where the room in question was, in a back hall that also led to the washroom—these northerners weren’t barbarians, they had indoor plumbing just like the south!—and the stairs both down to the cellar and up to the apartments of the owner and her family.

Door bolted, gear dropped in separate heaps, and Joran felt Aillen slide both arms around his waist from behind, kiss his neck.

His luck, he mused as he twisted around for a proper kiss, just might be turning…

~ ~ ~

Sunlight was trickling past the rough curtains on the window when Joran woke.

Aillen was nestled against him, an arm over him. As soon as Joran stirred, his bedmate opened his eyes.

“Good morning,” Joran murmured.

Aillen made some kind of incoherent answer, shifted away a little, and yawned. “There isn’t much of you, where came all that energy from?” He didn’t sound particularly distressed.

“There’s enough,” Joran said wickedly, and rolled over to steal a kiss. Definitely a pleasant night. An idea dawned on him suddenly. “Aillen… want a job?”

“Hm?” Almost-closed eyes opened again. “Had you any sense, you’d’ve found a guide two days ago at Neriath. Southerners die in the Wolfwood. Now you decide to heed wisdom?”

“Yes.”

“As a rule, I avoid combining work with pleasure… yet every rule at times needs breaking.”

“How much?”

“Do all southerners talk business in bed? Northerners do not. Beds have better uses.”

It was some time yet before they got up and dressed and went in search of breakfast.

Which, as it turned out, was oatmeal. Boring, but filling.

“Well?” Joran asked, once they’d finished. “How much?”

Aillen sighed. “How far?”

“Kalat.”

“Why under the stars would you risk your life to journey to Kalat?” Another sigh. “Tell me you have a horse.”

“Yes.”

“Northern?”

“Yes.”

“Another sennight, should the weather stay fair. Straight through the Wolfwood on this road, in high winter… that’s going to be dangerous even with me. Can we not return to Neriath and take the other road?”

“It’s twice as long. I have to get there as soon as I can.”

“Had I any sense, I’d let you take your suicidal foolishness and go alone. A hundred gold, or I go nowhere.”

He was completely serious. Joran began to wonder if he had been crazy to accept messenger duty for his uncle. If someone who lived in these woods was that concerned about their chances…

No. He’d given his word that he’d get the letter there quickly, and this was the only way. “All right. When?”

“You can’t be mad enough to have that kind of coin with you.”

Joran glanced down at his hands, slid an intricate gold and ruby ring off one finger, held it out in his palm. “It’s worth over a hundred. The stone’s real, not glass. Either keep it, or hold it until I can give you the coin.”

Slowly, Aillen nodded, closed his hand over Joran’s. “Done.”

They gathered up gear, departed for the corral. No stable, really, simply a small area with a rail fence around it, and a shed with half of one side open, in which lived the ‘keeper’s pony.

Aillen looked over Joran’s mare critically.

“Someone gave you a decent animal, at the least,” he commented.

“My uncle. The one I’m doing this for.”

“What’s her name?”

“Clover.” Joran caught her halter, slipped her bit in her mouth. “Not always as sweet-tempered as her name.”

“There are worse faults.” He whistled, and his horse came out of the shed to him.

Joran’s first reaction was that he’d rarely seen an uglier horse. Northern horses, from what he’d seen, tended to be sturdily built and shaggy, usually some shade of dull brown or grey; his own was a dark liver chestnut. Aillen’s was no particular colour, not exactly grey or really anything he could call brown, and looked somehow raw, unfinished.

“Dhala,” Aillen said. “It means Hawk. She may be no beauty, but there’s no horse I’d rather have.”

In short order, they were mounted and moving. Aillen said they needed more food and grain than they had, and extra blankets woven of heavy wool; when he directed their steps towards a shop and gave the shop’s owner a list, Joran decided not to question Aillen’s experience, simply paid for it.

“How likely is it the weather will hold?” Joran wondered, as they left the village.

Aillen shrugged. “No way to tell. In this season, storms come up fast. We may have clear weather to Kalat. We may be snowed in somewhere between. It may simply slow us a few days.”

“How fast?” He had sudden visions of a storm swooping in from nowhere upon two travellers and two horses.

“Fast enough to be dangerous, that we’d have little time to find shelter. That troubles me less than other hazards. The wolves will be hungry, and may threaten us, and wolves are not the worst who live here. Injuries to us, or to the mares… accidents happen easily. That is why I prefer the other road. It may be longer, but there are far more villages and farms where one can seek help.”

“Then what were you doing here?”

“Escorting someone home.”

Only a short way from the village, all tracks in the snow disappeared. Aillen had Joran fall back, let Dhala break the trail for a while; they switched irregularly to limit the strain on either horse. Conversation was too difficult, so they rode mostly in silence.

A short time after nightfall, they reached another village. It was smaller than the other, no more than a dozen houses clustered tightly together. Aillen led the way to a particular house, dismounted, and waved at him to stay with the mares. Joran waited by Clover’s head, stroking her neck, while Aillen spoke to the house’s owner.

“We can sleep in the barn,” the northerner reported, when he returned. “And we can feed the mares without using our own supplies.”

Joran winced, expecting a cold night, but led Clover after Aillen and Dhala to the barn. Once the horses were tied to rings in the long stone manger as far from the farmer’s animals as possible and had been fed, they could see to themselves.

They settled in the loft, on a pile of straw, for a cold supper of hard bread and dried meat and dried fruit. After, Aillen showed him something Joran hadn’t thought of: how to make a hollow in the straw, line it with a couple of blankets, nestle into it with other blankets over them, and sweep straw over that. It made a cozily warm, if slightly dusty, nest.

“We should find another barn tomorrow night,” Aillen said through a yawn. “Past that no one lives, until near Kalat. Then nights will be somewhat colder.”

Joran shifted position, ran a hand down Aillen’s body. “Hm. Then we should keep warm now, I think…”

~ ~ ~

Joran glanced back, at the little cluster of three farms they’d just left. The last traces of civilization between here and Kalat.

“We could still go back,” Aillen said. “I could take you to Kalat on the other road.”

“That would take far too long.”

Aillen shrugged. He didn’t look like he’d really expected any other reply. “With luck, we’ll reach Kalat in five days, perhaps six.”

Without luck, we may never get there.

The monotony of the winter woods was depressing; he finally began to sing to himself.

Aillen, now ahead of him, glanced back curiously. “I’ve never heard that one.”

Joran obligingly switched to full volume. He was no Bard, but in his mother’s house he’d learned how to carry a tune properly, at least, among other uses for his voice.

“Your turn,” he told Aillen teasingly.

Aillen had a pleasant voice, though Joran sometimes caught hints of odd resonances in it; the northern song he chose was no more familiar to Joran than his own southern one had been to Aillen. He’d always found it interesting how southerner songs and poetry were focused on rhymed sounds at the ends of lines, while northerner ones were oriented towards alliteration on stressed syllables, and the subjects tended to differ: southerners preferred imagery of romance or aesthetics or philosophical reflection, while northerners liked stories and action that at least claimed to be historical when not outright mythical.

For the remainder of the day, they traded songs. One they found they both knew; Joran sang it normally, was delighted with the wild-sounding harmonies Aillen wove into it.

“You have an incredible voice.” He had to half-turn in the saddle to really speak to Aillen, since Clover was currently breaking trail.

Aillen gave him that grin that showed his teeth. “I like to sing. Especially with company.”

Night approached.

Aillen called a halt at a clearing to the side of the road—not that anyone else was likely to come along it.

Joran’s first real lessons in a winter camp.

The mares had to be tethered, far enough from each other not to tangle the lines; each was given a measured amount of grain. Then there was shelter to be seen to. Aillen showed him how to find a snowdrift and dig into it with a pair of collapsible shovels, making a burrow large enough for them and their gear comfortably. Joran wondered about how warm it would be, but held his tongue.

Wood to be gathered, for a small fire outside the den. Snow melted in a pot, and the meat of a rabbit Aillen’s sling had brought down as they rode added to it, and a kind of root Aillen dug up somehow from beneath the snow. Some of those same roots were given to the mares.

Joran’s respect for his companion climbed steadily, as well as his awareness that he could never have survived alone out here.

The snow-den was startlingly warm; Aillen just grinned at his surprise. Overall, it was a warmer night than Joran had expected.

~ ~ ~

Aillen paused mid-story, head cocked to listen.

“What’s wrong?” Joran asked.

“Wolves.”

That wasn’t an answer he’d wanted to hear. It was approaching twilight, near time to set up camp for their third night outside. Not a good time to encounter a pack of hungry wolves.

“Ideas?”

“Pray they choose other game.”

It could happen; the prior evening, they’d heard wolf howls, and Aillen had told him that it was a pack of moderate size, worryingly close. That had passed without incident, though.

Would they be so lucky this time?

“I think,” Aillen said tautly, “we’ve a problem.”

Clover, too, was unhappy, sensing something, though Dhala remained as imperturbable as ever. Joran perceived nothing out of place, but Clover’s senses were better than his, and Aillen presumably knew what to listen for.

Ghost-like, the wolves materialized from the forest shadows onto the road. Six of them, great beautiful shaggy beasts.

Beautiful, but at present a deadly threat.

He reached behind him, wishing he hadn’t left his sword wrapped in with the rest of his gear. It would be a poor weapon against wolves, but better than a belt-knife.

“Hold,” Aillen told him quietly. He swung off Dhala. “Down, Clover is frightened. Calm her.”

“She’s not the only one. What are you doing?”

“Hush, be still. I’ve a way to get us out of this safely. Trust me.”

“Completely.” He dismounted, and moved to Clover’s head.

One of the wolves feinted in; Aillen dropped to a crouch—and growled at it? The wolf hesitated, retreated.

Aillen began to shed his clothes, quickly. Entirely naked, he crouched again.

His shape fluxed in a way that made Joran’s eyes feel strained, then steadied. That was not Aillen’s increasingly familiar body there on the snow: a blonde wolf, visibly larger than any of the wolves around them, stood there instead. Ears back, head low and tail between his legs, teeth bared in a snarl.

One of the others approached him, considerably more aggressive, tail up and ears forward, also snarling. They circled each other slowly, or rather the other wolf circled Aillen and Aillen turned to keep facing it.

A different wolf, a larger one, attacked Aillen from behind; he whirled to meet it, and they went rolling away in a growling tangle of teeth and fur. Sudden stillness, the grey wolf on its back, the blonde one over it and holding its throat in his teeth. Slowly, he released it and backed off a couple of steps. The grey wolf scrambled to its feet and retreated.

The one that had been circling Aillen began to back away, and the others followed. A short distance from Aillen, they turned and loped away.

Aillen limped back to his clothes. That uncomfortable fluxing again, and it was familiar human Aillen, multiple bloody marks on his light skin.

Joran forgot what he’d just seen, forgot the mares; Aillen was hurt. He stumbled through the snow to him, helping him into his boots and cloak at least.

“Nothing life-threatening,” Aillen panted. “I’ll be well in a moment. Can you start setting up camp?”

“Yes.”

Snow-den first, rather than the mares, as rapidly as he could, so he could usher a shivering Aillen inside. He saw quickly to the horses, and returned to the den.

“Well done,” Aillen said. “I told you I’d make a northerner of you, did I not?”

“You’re hurt. Let me look.”

Aillen compliantly allowed cloak and blankets to slide off—he was barefoot already, had his feet pulled under the blankets with him. Joran examined each thoroughly. There was only one of any real concern, a deep bite on his forearm; otherwise, there were a couple of shallow scores and a torn ear, nothing else. He dug through his gear, found the skin of wine, a handful of rags, and a jar of ointment, soaked one of the rags in the wine, and used it to clean the worst bite. Aillen whined softly and winced; Joran sympathised, that had to hurt.

“Sorry. It has to be cleaned.”

“Aye, I know.”

That one he smeared ointment on and wrapped with another rag; the lesser wounds he cleaned and covered in ointment but didn’t bandage. Aillen reached up, explored his savaged ear with his fingertips, and sighed.

“I barely had the last mended by a Healer…”

Joran, satisfied that Aillen was all right, sat back, wiping ointment off his hand. Only with crisis and consequences dealt with did what he’d just seen register. “I’ve been been sleeping with an animal. And you lied to me.”

“I did not lie, I have never claimed to be human. Nor is it likely I am the first you’ve ever met who is not human.” He cocked his head to one side, smiled. “Most think the name Wolfwood comes from the true wolves. It does not.”

Joran shook his head. “This is crazy. Werewolves are impossible.”

“Perhaps. It would be like us, to be impossible yet insist on being real regardless.” He reached for his clothes, began to wriggle into them. “I’ll take care of the rest. Have you fed the ladies?”

“No.” He sat still, watched Aillen dress, then leave the den.

They ate in silence, and come nightfall Joran curled up alone. Aillen didn’t contest it, simply wished him good dreams and settled himself without touching him.

It was a colder and less comfortable night than any so far—and not only physically.

~ ~ ~

Joran glanced up at the sky, frowned to himself. It had been more heavily overcast than usual all day, but the clouds were growing rapidly heavier, and the wind was picking up.

“Aillen?”

“I know!” Aillen called back. “It will storm, soon.” He hesitated a moment, then stopped Dhala; Joran had to rein in Clover to keep from hitting them. The northerner slid down, started stripping off his clothes. “With any luck, I can find us some kind of shelter.” He tossed his shed clothes over Dhala’s back, and changed. Four-footed, he melted into the forest.

And with any luck, he won’t find a nice cozy little wolf-den and leave the mares and I to freeze. It was a terrifying thought: he knew Aillen’s secret, and from stray remarks in the last day and a half he’d learned that humans around the Wolfwood had no trouble believing in werewolves but regarded them at best with suspicion.

No. He’d trusted Aillen this far, and he really had little other choice than to keep trusting him.

The sky darkened with alarming speed, and the wind bit through even his heavy cloak and the layers beneath. The mares were plainly distressed by this; he kept them moving, hoping the exercise would keep them relatively warm.

Aillen returned, got his attention with a sharp bark. The wolf turned away, looked back expectantly. Praying devoutly that Aillen had indeed found shelter of some sort, Joran dismounted, led both mares into the forest.

It seemed like forever before they reached what Aillen had found: little more than a steep hillside, yet it faced away from the wind, and would at least protect them from that.

Aillen changed, shivering until he could scramble into his clothes. “We’ll be all right here, I think.”

They dug into a snowdrift, making the entrance also face away from the wind. The mares were tethered close, sheltered by the hillside, able to reach the thickest trees. Aillen commanded that they be fed immediately, and more heavily than usual. The part Joran was uncertain about was covering the mares with their cloaks, held in place with rope; Aillen explained briefly that blankets would only get wet and be of little help, but the fur cloaks with their felted wool outer shells would protect better, and there were blankets enough for them. That logic Joran had to concede to. Certainly they had to do what they could for Dhala and Clover, for any number of reasons.

“They’re bred for this,” Aillen reassured him. “They’ll be well.”

There was nothing else they could do, then, but retreat into the snow-den and prepare to wait.

“Sleep,” Aillen advised, arranging himself with half the remaining blankets to do exactly that.

There was really not much else to do, in cramped quarters and with very little light. Joran tried; he at least managed to drowse irregularly. The sounds of the storm, even muffled by the snow, made him quail; the wind howled like something alive. His imagination began to run wild, providing him with endless visions of what could happen.

“Aillen?”

“Hm?”

“What if the snow covers the door? We’ll run out of air, won’t we?”

“Even were we sealed in, there is air enough to last to the end of the storm. We’d be warmer, in all truth. Peace. Storms are frightening, aye, and dangerous, but we’ll outlast it. Best to try to sleep through it.”

“I’m not used to storms like this. It’s not that easy.”

Aillen sighed. “Come you here.”

Joran wasn’t quite ready to admit to himself that he’d been hoping for exactly that. Instead, he obeyed. Aillen cuddled him close, an arm over him.

“We’ll be well. Sleep.”

It still wasn’t very deep, but at least he did sleep.

~ ~ ~

Joran woke to utter silence and utter darkness.

Panic reared its head—they were buried in a snowdrift, they were going to die here…

“We’re safe,” Aillen said drowsily. “The storm is not yet over, I can hear it still.”

“I can’t.”

“I know—I barely can. It lessens, though. It will end soon.”

“I hope so.”

“It will.”

In the absence of light or sound, there was only Aillen that was real; shivering, he nestled closer, not caring any more what the northerner was, only that he was there.

To judge time was impossible, but eventually Aillen stirred and sat up halfway.

“The storm’s over?” Joran said hopefully.

“I can no longer hear it. I think aye, it is.” He moved away, and Joran heard him digging through their packs. “Wait a little, though, to be certain. Here. Eat. Enjoy being in shelter while we have it. It will be colder outside.”

Mechanically, Joran took the food Aillen pressed into his hand, tore off a bite. How Aillen could stay so calm was beyond him; he was fighting constantly with fear, and losing an inch at a time.

Finally, Aillen began digging at the ceiling with his gloved hands. Joran moved out of the way.

With no warning, a sizeable chunk of snow fell, and bright sunlight streamed in. Blindingly bright, after the darkness, but Joran welcomed it. The fresh air that came in with it had a distinct bite that made it very clear how their own body heat had warmed their little den, it was wonderful nonetheless.

“You see?” Aillen said. “I told you we’d outlast the storm.” More digging, enlarging the hole, until they could toss their gear out and climb out after.

The sun shone in full glory, reflecting off the new white snow around them.

Dhala raised her head and greeted them with a whinny. Both mares, at least at a glance, looked like they’d come through the storm intact.

“We’ll go snow-blind,” Aillen said. “Wait.” He rummaged through his pack again, this time produced a handful of what looked like gauzy material. He showed Joran how to tie a length of it like a blindfold. Joran discovered that he could see through it well enough, but it eased the glare off the snow considerably.

After an inspection, Aillen confirmed the condition of the horses. He gave each a handful of grain, then they got the mares saddled.

“Lead them,” Aillen said.

Joran could see his point. All this deep soft snow… the horses were going to have enough trouble in it, without added weight to slow them further.

They took turns trail-breaking, as before, but with more frequent rest-stops; their progress was much slower than it had been, through the deeper snow.

“I hoped we’d reach a farm tonight,” Aillen sighed around dusk. “It would seem we camp again.”

By this time, Joran was familiar enough with the routine that he hardly needed to think about it.

He wavered, when they settled down to sleep—wanting the company, yet still battling with feelings about Aillen being a werewolf. The latter won. He slept alone.

~ ~ ~

“I’m going to scout,” Aillen said, a bit breathless from breaking trail. “Can you take the mares alone?”

“Yes. Scout for what?”

“We should be close to a village. It’s off the main road, barely a lane links it to this road—they’ve their own road to Kalat.”

“Doesn’t sound very sensible, when this road’s right here.”

“The other road is older and takes a longer but easier route. This was built to be as straight a path as possible between Neriath and Kalat.”

He didn’t change to wolf, though; he simply fastened Dhala’s reins to Clover’s saddle, and went on ahead.

Joran let the mares—and himself—rest a little longer, then got moving again. Aillen’s trail was clearly visible in snow otherwise unmarked save by a few small animal tracks.

Twice Aillen had ventured into breaks in the trees, and both times returned. Joran mused that he must be moving fairly fast, to have managed that and still be out of sight despite some curvature and height variation of the road. Of course, Joran had the horses, and continued to stop for rests.

The third time, the trail disappeared and didn’t come back.

“Looks like he found it, ladies. Maybe we can sleep indoors tonight.”

This barely deserved the name of ‘lane’, simply a space between the trees, not wide enough for a wagon, scarcely enough for one to ride along.

Dhala perked her ears forward, head up.

“Hear something, girl? Other horses, maybe?”

Not much farther, and he could hear it too. It wasn’t horses, though; it was human voices, angry ones.

Was Aillen involved? Joran prayed not.

Maybe a score or so of houses were scattered haphazardly, normal wooden farmhouses, and their various outbuildings.

In a clear area between, a number of people were gathered.

Cautiously, Joran tied the mares to a fence. His sword was still buried in his pack, but he wasn’t defenceless, not against humans. He made his way towards the crowd, unnoticed for the moment.

Aillen wasn’t only involved, he was the centre of it. His cloak lay on the snow; bare hands were bound behind him, and he was on his knees, and gagged, and he’d been stripped of the shield over his eyes. Someone threw a snowball at him; Aillen twisted to avoid it, was hit by another from the opposite side.

What under the sun…

“Werewolf,” someone spat. “Kill it!”

What should he do? Stay out of it, take the horses and head for Kalat fast? Or step in?

Let Aillen die, or do what he could to help him?

He checked that his knife was in reach at his side, paused to gather himself, and strode into the angry crowd.

“What are you doing? Let him go!” He pitched his voice to sound as affronted as he could.

“Stay out of this, foreigner! He’s a werewolf, and they deserve to die!” The speaker was a man of around forty, blonde hair neatky trimmed and his leather and fur clothing clearly of high quality.

“He’s no werewolf. I’ve been travelling with him all the way from Neriath.”

“You’re a southerner,” a woman in vividly-dyed, well-fitting wool and a fur cape said scornfully. “He could fool you, you’ve no idea how to tell the signs. You’ve never had one steal your livestock, or your child, or savage your husband who went out alone after dark.”

Joran fought to slow his pounding heart and stay calm, to project exasperation instead of terror. “All right, what signs?”

“Some of them have fur on their hands,” a girl just beginning to show signs of womanhood offered. “Or claws for fingernails. But he doesn’t.”

“And?”

“Keep out of this, southerner,” the man snarled at him. “He’s a wolf, he dies! I’ve seen him before, wandering the Wolfwood. I’ve seen him shapechange!”

“Are you absolutely sure it was him? It couldn’t possibly have been someone else?”

“No one cares what you think. Go on your way, leave northern matters to northerners.”

“Hold,” a different woman, a grey-haired one in work-worn moss-green wool, countered. “We have to be sure before we can kill. Let the southerner speak.”

Joran blessed her silently. “Is there any proof at all that he’s a werewolf? Other than seeing someone shapechange that might have been him?”

“It was him!” the man said angrily.

Aillen raised his head, met Joran’s gaze, brown eyes tear-bright but trusting. Inwardly, Joran cringed—Aillen’s life lay in his hands. He was tempted to retreat, and not dig himself any deeper into lying. Aillen was, after all, at least technically what they accused him of being. Still, he couldn’t just let him die for that. The assumptions about actual theft and violence seemed unlikely, to say the least.

“You saw someone,” Joran insisted. “How close were you? It can’t have been very close, or a wolf would have known you were there. So it can’t have been close enough for you to be absolutely certain it was him. Dear gods, with an argument like that, you could accuse anyone of being a werewolf! Do you have any real proof?”

“He’s right,” the grey-haired woman said. “We cannot take that as proof.”

“Someone find a mirror,” a younger man, fit and mostly wearing leather worn pliable, suggested. “A werewolf’s reflection is a wolf sometimes.”

Sometimes. It was probably safe to rule out anything qualified by that word as a superstition rather than truth. If only he’d asked Aillen more about werewolves, instead of keeping his distance from the subject and the werewolf!

The woman who had accused him of not being able to recognize a werewolf left, returned with a polished bronze mirror, and held it up.

Aillen’s reflection was clearly human.

“What else?” Joran asked.

“Full moons,” a woman in her early twenties, ribbons braided into her hair and adorning her russet wool gown, said. “When the silver moon is full, they go hunting.”

Joran visualized the sky the prior night. “When’s it full? Tomorrow night?”

“Aye,” the grey-haired woman said. “Lock him up and keep him until then. That’s certain proof.”

The aggressive man jerked Aillen roughly to his feet. “Where’ll we put him?”

“I’ve a shed that locks,” the woman with the mirror said. “It’ll hold him.”

Unresisting, Aillen was hauled away.

“You can sleep in my barn, should you be minded to wait,” the grey-haired woman told Joran. “There’s room for your horses, but you’ll pay for feed.”

“Thank you. I can pay.”

He settled the mares, settled himself. The delay was frustrating when they were so close, but he certainly wasn’t about to leave Aillen here.

Near dusk, it occured to him to wonder if they had any intentions of feeding Aillen, or if they were going to just lock the door and leave him to go hungry. He gathered together enough food for a meal, pulled his cloak around him again, and went in search of Aillen.

He paused to give the grey-haired woman at the house the silver coins she demanded, rather a high price under any other circumstances but he didn’t bother to haggle; she told him where the shed in question was.

That same hostile man in fur and leather was sitting outside the door personally, a stout cudgel across his lap. Joran wondered what personal grudge he had, that he wasn’t delegating such a menial task, considering his obvious wealth.

“Can I take him in something to eat?” Joran asked.

“Stay away from werewolves after dark.”

Joran rolled his eyes. “I’ve been alone with him all the way from Neriath. He’s one of the least frightening things I’ve encountered in the north. Please?”

Grudgingly, the man unbolted the door, let him in.

They hadn’t even untied him.

Joran hissed under his breath, and knelt beside him. The gag was simply a length of rope with a knot in it, the knot forced behind his teeth, tied securely at the back of his neck; it felt like it took a year to get it loose.

“Bless you,” Aillen said huskily.

“Be still.” The ropes around his wrists were brutally tight; Aillen’s hands were cold, though the shed was reasonably warm. Finally he drew his knife, cut his wrists apart, then one at a time slid the blade carefully between rope and skin. Aillen whined under his breath as each wrist was freed and blood began to flow freely again.

“Here. I brought you food. I was just beginning to think northerners might be civilized after all. I changed my mind.”

That got him a smile, at least. “Not all.” He rubbed one shoulder, wincing. Joran had him turn again, began to massage his shoulders for him. Immediately Aillen relaxed into it.

“Hoy,” the man outside called curtly. “Did he eat you?”

“I’m coming,” Joran answered wearily, and got up.

“You need to get to Kalat fast,” Aillen pointed out.

“I wouldn’t be here at all if it weren’t for you. I’m staying here.”

“They’ll be disappointed, I think.”

“I hope so.” He decided to take that as meaning werewolves weren’t compelled to change when the silver moon was full. “I’ll do what I can.”

“I know. Thank you. Be careful.”

The man gave Joran a suspicious look when he came out. “Begone.”

Joran retreated to his barn and his bed.

~ ~ ~

The next day seemed to drag on forever. Joran busied himself by spending hours on Dhala and Clover, grooming them and checking their feet and anything else he could think of, and unpacking all his gear and repacking it meticulously after making sure everything was clean and intact. There was still time before moonrise. He managed to get in to visit Aillen again, and bring him more food—from the looks of things, he’d at least been allowed out briefly, hadn’t had to foul the shed, which was a mercy. Aillen was afraid; when Joran pressed him he said he had doubts about whether these wolf-mad villagers would really declare him innocent when he failed to change.

“We’ll get out of here,” Joran said firmly. “Somehow.”

Sunset; moonrise.

Everyone in the village gathered—Joran noticed, with a sudden chill, that every one of them had several fist-sized rocks. They were expecting a werewolf to stone. If that didn’t kill him, they’d surely think of other ways. How could people be so bloodthirsty?

Someone dragged Aillen, who still wasn’t protesting this inhuman treatment, out to the middle of the hostile circle.

Aillen knelt where he’d fallen when pushed, breathing hard, head bowed, motionless in the bright moonlight.

“Strip him!” someone howled.

Three people all moved in at once.

“Stop,” Joran growled. He shoved one away, and the other two backed up a couple of steps.

“He cannot change dressed!” someone else insisted.

Joran rolled his eyes, helped Aillen to his feet, and spread his cloak on the snow, fur side up. It was getting increasingly difficult to leash his impulse to deal with this another way, the way he’d been raised to do. “Would you please show them so we can get out of here?”

Aillen crouched to unlace his boots, stepped onto the spread cloak, and began to shed his clothes. Naked and shivering, he stood before them. Quite clearly human, and with no indication that was about to change.

“Are you satisfied now?” Joran demanded. “Can he get dressed before he freezes to death?”

“He’s supposed to change!” someone said angrily. “How can he stay human in the moonlight?”

“Maybe he answers a different moon?” someone else said.

“Aye,” the aggressive man said, “That’s surely it. Kill him anyway! Look at him! He’s too calm, he knew nothing would happen. Where’d he get that rip in his ear, hey?”

This had gone too far.

“Aillen,” Joran said quietly. “Get dressed. We’re leaving.”

“You are! The werewolf isn’t!”

Aillen hesitated only a heartbeat before he decided to obey. Joran gathered up his cloak, shook off the snow before he threw it around Aillen’s shoulders, and slid an arm around him.

“He’s a werewolf! He dies!” The man reached for Aillen; Joran knocked his hand away, shoved him back hard enough to knock the larger man down.

“Lay another hand on him, and I’ll have the Duke of Kalat and his guardsmen here to find out why you murder travellers.” Joran heard the tone change without conscious thought—old training coming into play. That was the voice of a class that assumed obedience and, often as a result of that, generally got it.

Sudden uncertainty. “He’d not send guardsmen here on the word of a traveller!” the man blurted finally.

“On the word of the nephew of an old and valued friend he will. On the word of the son of a southern Lady he will. I suggest you stand aside unless you intend to murder me too. I’m late as it is, and His Grace is expecting me, and if I don’t arrive very soon he’s going to come looking for me.” Well, it was mostly true.

“You said nothing of that before,” the woman with the mirror said, but only half-heartedly.

“I had no reason to. This isn’t my land, I don’t like interfering with northern ways. You’ve had your trials, and they failed. You took this a step beyond all reason. Aillen, let’s go.”

Aillen stayed obediently beside him, to the barn; they readied the mares swiftly, and left the village unhindered.

Neither said much as they rode. Well away from the village they stopped and camped. A winter camp in a snow den dug by moonlight was preferable to another night in that village. Conversation while pitching camp was minimal and functional.

“You’re highborn,” Aillen said finally, while they ate. He sounded hurt. “You lied.”

“No I didn’t, I never…” He stopped, saw Aillen grin in response, had to smile. “Your point. Two, actually, I just found out why you don’t tell.”

“Aye. Sometimes we’re only mocked or driven away. Sometimes they kill. All too often they kill humans, because they know nothing about us. They say we eat humans and steal livestock, and kill for the pleasure of killing, and we change humans to our kind… That we’re somehow unnatural. That was your first reaction, was it not?”

“Yes.”

“We’re not. We’re what we’re born. That’s all.”

“I believe you. I should have before.”

Aillen shrugged. “I was not surprised.”

“I still shouldn’t have reacted like I did. Forgive me?”

“Aye.”

“Maybe if we could teach people…”

“I doubt any would listen.”

“If a few did, and stopped to think, and if they talked to others…”

“Joran. You’ve more luck than you know, that when you spoke for me they did not condemn you, too. You caught them unready with a threat new to them. Any who defend us are nearly always assumed to be werewolves themselves. Keep your mind on reaching Kalat and returning home. There’s nothing you can do.”

Joran fell silent, but he remained troubled. There had to be a way to stop this madness.

~ ~ ~

Grey stone walls loomed ahead.

“There’s Kalat,” Aillen called ahead to him. Stating the obvious; what else could it be?

There were gates in the walls, but no one guarded them; they simply rode in.

“It is the Duke we seek, aye?” Aillen asked.

“Yes,” Joran laughed.

“I know where.”

The Duke’s home was, of course, huge, and made of stone, not wood. A groom appeared to take the mares away.

“I should go,” Aillen said uneasily. “I do not belong here.”

“You aren’t going to leave me now, are you? You’re safer here than in a village or two that come to mind. Come on.”

They were admitted by a well-dressed young man who listened attentively to Joran and departed to inform the Duke.

“His Grace will see you, my lords,” he announced when he returned.

His Grace was in his library. Joran handed him the waterproofed envelope he’d come all this way to deliver, exchanged a few courteous pleasantries, was invited to stay the night. One look at Aillen, so tense beside him, and he declined.

“I’ve been waiting for this, it is a most important and highly sensitive matter. Will you not allow me to express my gratitude?”

“Your Grace, that isn’t necessary.”

“At least allow me to pay for your expenses journeying here. How much was it?”

“Around a hundred and fifty, all told, but Your Grace…”

“I’ll hear no more protests.” He summoned the young man who had brought them here, sent him for the coin, and a moment later handed a heavy leather purse to Joran. “You’ve my deepest thanks, and please pass that on to your uncle.”

“I will, Your Grace, my word on it.”

Further pleasantries, and they were free to leave. They retrieved the mares, and departed.

“Know a good inn?” Joran asked.

“Aye, and bless you for not choosing to stay there.”

Aillen led the way to an inn—the sign over the door was of a black rooster. A little bargaining, and they could stable the mares and come inside.

Joran was delighted that their room had its own bathroom, like in a southern city. They got each other cleaned up, enjoying it thoroughly. A hot, slightly early supper, and they retired to their room.

Joran settled himself on the bed, counting coins into piles of ten. “There’s two hundred here exactly.” He divided it in two and pushed one pile towards Aillen. “That’s what I promised you.”

Aillen made no move to touch it. “And should I take that and leave you, how will you return to Neriath?”

“On the other road.”

Aillen chuckled. “Wise. And I think perhaps you’ve learned enough to make it safely. Do you intend to try?”

“You agreed to get me to Kalat,” Joran pointed out. “We’re here. And I don’t have endless amounts of money.”

“Perhaps I’d come with you without your money. You could try asking.”

Joran reined in his sudden hope. “Will you come back to Neriath with me?”

“Aye.” Aillen sat on the edge of the bed, leaned over to kiss him. “To Neriath, at least, and beyond… who knows?”

“And maybe we can do something about this genocide.”

“Mad southerner.”

Coins clattered to the floor, swept aside and forgotten.

(c) 11/1998, last revised 03/2016

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