I intended to have this finished nearly two weeks ago. I also intended this to be a short-short story, maybe 2k words or less. And then it grew, and grew, and grew, and finally just tipped its toe past 6k words and here we are.
If you’ve read any of my earlier short stories (Dust and Silver, Sleet and Shadow, Pale for Weariness) set in this world of werewolves and corsets and proper speech, then this is a prequel to those (though there’s no particular order in which any of them needs to be read). And if you’ve been curious as to how Mr. Callum Muir took on the curse of a werewolf, well then this is the tale for you…
Music in its Roar
He wasn’t entirely certain of the day. Morning, perhaps. But, no. The light was all wrong. Despite the mist that clung to everything, mingling with the fog that hovered several feet above the ground, there was a quality to it; a glow that spoke of a sun completing its journey towards the horizon, of stars springing back to light in an unseen sky.
He could’ve moved if he’d wanted, away from the questionable puddle by his right hand. The stench would still be there, but at least he would find a safe remove from its source. Instead, he flexed the fingers of that same hand, one at a time, wincing as he reached the third finger, the one he suspected was broken. The pain was fresh and raw, still throbbing as he took to turning his wrist once, and then again. Another thing broken. He recognized that feeling, along with the ache in his ribs, the grinding of fractured bone every time he drew in another breath of the foul, cloying air.
There were windows, though less resembling their namesake than existing as mere apertures in a crumbling wall. Even the door was gone, ripped free of its hinges some time before, enough years passed since its removal that ivy grew thick around the frame, as if it would reclaim the building along with himself, should he lie there much longer. And if he could roll onto his side, or at least turn his head, he knew that she would be there, too.
That her voice could trip from her lips with such coolness, while his every breath was like dragging his lungs over broken glass. He shut his eyes and waited for her to speak again. Because she would. Of course she would. If there was anything she adored, it was the sound of her own voice, and there he sat, bruised and shattered, her captive audience.
A minute passed, or several minutes. He opened his eyes again, wondering if he’d dozed, when a scraping noise caught his attention.
“You should listen to me,” she said, above the rhythmic strike and scrape. “Your head will hurt for some time, I’m sure. I can’t help that. If you hadn’t fought so much, perhaps you’d have come through this mostly unscathed.”
The rain had stopped. He remembered the deluge from the previous night, heavy enough to turn the ground into a bog while streams leapt past their bounds and ate up the loosened soil. It was part of the smell, he realized; his own clothes, drenched the night before, now mouldering on his frame. There would be moss and mildew soon, he suspected, where the blood hadn’t adhered the garments to his skin.
The scraping ceased, followed by the clink of breakable things and a brief rush of liquid poured. “This will be hot,” she announced, her only warning before she crouched over him, one hand gripping the lower half of his face as she turned his head up towards her. “Swallow it quick. Don’t let it sit on your tongue long enough to taste it.”
She tipped the cup to his lips, her fingers digging into the flesh of his cheeks in order to force his mouth open. The smell of it reached his nostrils too soon, and then it flowed into his mouth, coating his teeth, his tongue, pouring down his throat before he could stop it. He wrenched his head away, the liquid spilling down his neck, burning his skin as he spat out what was left of it onto the floor beside him.
“Fool.” She struck the side of his face, her nails clawing his skin. The same fingers snagged a hank of his hair and twisted his head around until he had no choice but to acknowledge her. “This will help you.” Her voice carried a cajoling note, a softness, despite the fresh pain that throbbed through his cheek and where she still pulled at his scalp. “All I want is to help you. Understand that, and things will be so much easier for you.”
She released his hair, her fingers stroking the line of his jaw, the side of his throat where the skin was still wet from the wasted liquid. “Now, drink.”
Another touch of the cup to his lips, and he swallowed enough to satisfy her. Her hand remained at the base of his throat, her fingers resting against his collarbone. He shut his eyes and turned his head away, too tired, too hurt to fight.
“Mmm,” she crooned, as her fingers slid further down, over the planes of his chest, nails skirting the wounds along his rib cage, the tender skin he imagined bore a mottled collection of swelling and bruises. “Sleep now.” The words came out on a whisper, a lift in her voice turning them into a song as she said them twice more. And again her hand completed its circuit, from his head to his neck to his chest to his abdomen, the touch at once soothing and infuriating, as his thoughts grew muddy and he succumbed to the urge to know nothing more.
It was night when he opened his eyes again. Hours later, a day later, he could not tell. He had no wish to move, to test and see if all the wounds still pained him, if the blood would flow fresh should he twist too far and tear open a poorly-healed gash. And so he sat, cursing every breath, wanting to stretch his limbs but afraid to remind himself of how well he still clung to life.
He shut his eyes, allowing himself to slip away, and when he awoke, he noticed a change in the air. She was there again, and it was not until that moment that he realized she had not been present when he’d woken before.
A fire crackled somewhere he couldn’t see, though the light from it shone on the remains of the dilapidated wall before him. And there was a bustle of activity behind him, footsteps on the dirt floor, the snap of twigs being broken, fabric shaken out and beaten. The sounds were all so mundane, so domestic, and yet he lay there, half of his blood soaked into the floor beneath him, his body bearing the marks of a creature that was not supposed to exist.
He watched the shadows on the wall, the efficiency of her movements shown in smudges of black and grey against gold. There was something mesmerizing in the performance, something that calmed him. And then she wrung out the cloth with which she’d wiped down a table, the shadow sharpening, shrinking as she walked over to his side.
“Ah, I wondered when I would see your eyes again.” She settled on her knees, pushing the edge of her skirt out of the way. Her fingers found his face first, prodding the skin above his eyes and along his cheekbones, touching places he hadn’t realized bore wounds until she nudged them. She hummed as she worked, placing her hand on his brow, her fingers in the hollow of his throat where his pulse pounded out an erratic rhythm. “Are you hungry? Surely, you must want something to drink.”
He shook his head, an action he immediately regretted. There was a headache harbouring there, tied in with a nauseous feeling that made the thought of food repellent. And drink… He trusted nothing she would give him. He’d drag himself out of the building, his wounds leaving streaks of blood in the grass in his search for a fresh pool or stream, before he’d imbibe another one of her concoctions.
“This is difficult for you, I know.” Her hand on his face, gripping his jaw as she had done before, but with the tip of one finger stroking the edge of his bottom lip. “You’re thinking whether or not you can trust me, whether you should. But you need me, now more than ever. You’ll realize it, Callum. Soon enough.”
A rustle of her skirt, the retreat of her steps to the other side of the room, and he was alone again. He told himself that he would not sleep, not as long as she was there with him, but all too soon the exhaustion took over, as heavy as a weight smothering him, pressing him down into the hard-packed earth beneath him.
Images roiled through his mind, of dark things and faceless shadows. Teeth and pain and a cry from someplace far away, a place he could not seem to reach, no matter how fast he ran, the leaves and the mud clinging to every part of him, tangling in his fur…
He awoke with a start, gasping, his head lifting from the floor while his hands scrabbled for purchase in the air before him. It was daylight again, or only just. His gaze traced the outline of the doorway, the slanting window, the gems of pre-dawn light setting aglow the various chinks and crevices in the wall. He caught himself on his elbows before he could drop back to the floor. His arms trembled at the exertion, but he held himself upright, pushing further, his fingernails scraping at the floor as shifted his weight onto his hands and raised his head.
She lay beside him, stretched out on the floor, a cloak the color of moss wrapped around her. Her skirts had worked their way up to her calves while she’d slept, wool stockings showing streaks of dirt above boots that appeared too large for her feet. Her face was turned away from him, her pale hair caught up in a braid that had begun to work itself free from the ends.
He almost spoke, then. Her name, hovering in his mouth above his tongue. He sealed his lips together and shut his eyes, breathing slowly as dizziness and the urge to be sick buffeted his head and throat at once. When he opened his eyes once more, the room seemed to have grown remarkably brighter. Or perhaps it was merely the darkness behind his eyelids fooling him. A shift of his weight and he tried to sweep a hand across his brow. The effort threw him off balance and he toppled onto his side, a groan and a curse escaping him as he landed on something broken, something inside himself.
Beside him, there was no movement. She didn’t stir, and so he stayed with his face on the floor, his bruised cheek almost soothed by the cool dirt under his skin. And because she slept on, he cried, the tears and curses sliding out of him, anger at himself, at her, at anyone and everyone else because he knew they could not hear him.
Sunlight caught the edge of the window frame as his eyes dried, his skin tightening where the tears had streaked down his face. His head still hurt, and his tongue sat thick and painful in his mouth. There would be water nearby, a well or a spring, or even a pitcher left unattended by her, perhaps only a few feet away.
Onto his hands and knees. That was all he had to manage. He drew himself up, his weight on his palms as he rose onto all fours, his fingers splayed on the floor before they dragged into fists. He moved like a child, weak and timorous, away from her, away from her arm that seemed to reach towards him as he struggled farther into the room.
She had cleaned since she’d first brought him here. The floor swept, the fireplace putting out a mingled smell of kindling and peat. Curtains hung from one of the windows, a low table and chairs belying the state of the rest of the house with their freshly scrubbed and beeswaxed state. An air of domesticity lingered over everything. This little hovel, reclaimed from nature’s assault and decorated with window dressings and an assortment of clean plates and crockery on a shelf.
There was more, he knew. He took in as much as he could, his gaze snatching at glimpses of tied bundles of herbs and flowers, hanging from the beams that crossed the ceiling. Mortar and pestle, of course. Several sets of them, all varying sizes and quality. The remains of her tinctures and potions decorated the tabletop. Her mark was already etched in every corner he looked. A little home she’d made for herself, sweeping ashes out of the fireplace, chasing cobwebs out of the rafters while he’d bled from the wounds she’d given him.
He did not know how long it took him to cross the room. A space no larger than what could fit three men of his stature lying end to end, and he crawled until his muscles collapsed, his knees drawn beneath him as he sucked in each painful breath. The worst of the hurt would lose its edge and he would begin again. A few more inches, dragging himself forward, before his arms would judder and his vision would blur at the edges, before the floor again came up to cradle him.
The pitcher stood on the corner of the table, a clean rag draped over its open top. He pushed himself towards it, not thinking about how he would attempt to pick it up and take a drink, if his arms would even allow such a basic action. If it came to it, he would knock it over, lap up the spilled water off the floor like an animal.
With one hand he gripped the side of the table, his teeth gritted as he pulled himself upright. He leaned one shoulder against the rough-cut edge of the wood for support, his head pounding, a gash on his thigh bleeding again, soaking the shredded remains of his trousers where they’d already stuck to his torn flesh. He reached for the pitcher, fingers outstretched, his entire arm trembling in protest. A scrape of his fingernails against the cool metal, and the pitcher was snatched away from him.
“No.” Not the slightest hint of scolding in her tone, only the word, clearly spoken, without threat or admonition.
He dropped down to his hands, and when that proved too much, onto his elbows, then tipping onto one shoulder, the one that didn’t ache and could support his weight. The pitcher thunked as she replaced it on the tabletop again, her hands creating a susurrus as they smoothed down the front of her skirt, pushing her cloak back so she could kneel in front of him.
“All you need do is ask me for a drink, and I will give you one.”
He bit down on the corner of his bottom lip, on the inside of his cheek, his teeth tearing at the flesh in order to hold back the whine that bubbled up in the back of his throat.
Again, the pull was there. To speak, to reply, to tell her everything she wanted in exchange for a few drops of water on his tongue. But he ground his forehead into the floor and said nothing, while his thirst burned like a fire inside of him.
“Tonight,” she said, her mouth near enough to his ear to stir the hairs on his head. “You will see. I know you want to fight. It’s in your nature. I would expect nothing less from you. But such stubbornness…” Her fingers combed through his hair. “When you’re ready to do things properly, I won’t hesitate to give you everything you ask for.”
She left him there, her steps padding softly away from him. His face on the floor, one knee tucked up beneath him, the other leg still bleeding, throbbing in time with every beat of his heart, he shut his eyes and let himself fall back into the darkness waiting for him.
A chill traced its finger across the back of his neck.
He opened his eyes. Darkness, again. No fire this time, not even the lingering glow of ashes to mark where one had been. He turned his head and brought one hand up to wipe his brow. His fingers came away wet. He feared blood, at first, then rubbed the substance between the pads of his finger and thumb, the moisture drying too quickly. Sweat, he realized, soaking his face and neck, his scalp damp and itching as if he’d dunked his head underwater.
A warmth raged through him. Despite the cold that had woken him, the fog that teased the edges of the house, sneaking through the open windows and doorway like smoke pulsing along the boundaries of a fire, his skin burned. He put a hand against the side of his head and took it away again, but still his pulse pounded through his skull, the blood rushing through his ears with a dull roar.
He spoke her name, though he knew she was not there. But it was her absence that gave him the freedom to say it, and so he voiced it as a curse, sending it into the ether as a mark on her back for what she’d done to him, what he feared she had yet to do to him.
He raised his head and chest off the floor, the ache that turned his next breath into a hiss altered from before. His joints and muscles, his every limb hurt as if he had been confined in too small a space for far too long, everything writhing within himself with the urge to stretch and tear. The sensation pierced through him with such force that he wrenched his head to the side and vomited on the floor beside him.
Another swipe of his hand, another layer of perspiration cleared from his face, and his thoughts tugged at the question that had teased him since he’d opened his eyes a few moments before.
Why did he no longer hurt? His thigh, his ribs, the various cuts and gashes on his face… He touched the wound beside his eye, the one she’d prodded and set afire the day before—or the day before that, for all he knew. He’d gone and lost all concept of things like minutes and hours since his arrival here. But there was nothing remarkable in his own examination, at least nothing more unusual than his finger smoothing over a patch of uninjured skin.
It wasn’t natural, this rapid progression towards wellness. A second wave of illness, less pronounced than the first, coursed through him. His body’s rebellion against something that should not be happening, he realized. The sweat pouring off him, the incessant pounding of his heart, thumping as if it might burst through his recently-healed rib cage. He was not as he should be.
He struggled to his feet. He looked down at them, those feet, one still shod in a streaked, muddy boot while the other wore only the remnants of a woolen sock. His trousers hung in loose shreds from a waist that had not seen food or water for several days, at least. Further along, and his torso was laid bare before his gaze, slick with sweat where it wasn’t crusted with dirt and his own blood.
A glance towards the windows, and then the door, and he thought of his freedom. He possessed the strength to leave this place, and yet he hesitated. He had no knowledge of where he was. And there would be bogs to cross, the earth sucking at his ill-clad feet while he searched for the first recognizable copse of trees and greenery that would shape his path towards home.
His gaze made another circuit of the room, his hip catching the corner of the table as he turned around himself. She wasn’t there. He assured himself of it again and again, but the fear of her presence wrapped itself around his throat, sitting on the back of his tongue like something ready to choke him.
And still he was too warm. His entire body thrummed as if he were running or fighting, and all while he’d done nothing but uncurl himself from the floor and stand up to his full height.
“Where are you?” The question slipped out, once aloud and followed by another dozen repetitions inside his thoughts. He shook his head, already knowing the answer, or at least some portion of it. She waited for him, somewhere, just as she had before. But this time, she would not seek to draw his blood. And yet he feared this new encounter with her more than if she’d been standing before him, a knife in her hand, its blade pricking his flesh.
He staggered towards the door, his steps uneven as he gauged how much strength was left to him. That same urge to stretch, to scream, to tear out of his skin assailed him, unbearable now while he placed one stockinged foot on the damp ground and sucked in a damp, fog-laden breath.
There was nothing for him to fix his sight on, not at first. A vague discernment between the land and the heavens, despite the heaviness of the mist where he stood. A glance upwards, and the stars pricked holes in the dark expanse of sky above his head.
He knew where he was. Not a precise point on a map, but a few miles to the west, perhaps five or six at the most, and there would be a farm. Robert Morrison’s place, if he remembered right. And then a stream, and further along that he’d find the old weir, and then…
He stood there, shuddering as that same sensation of wrongness crested within him. He needed something on which to focus. His gaze scanned the prospect before him, the mist and the faint phosphorescence of the ground as it rotted down beneath his feet. And higher still, towards where he believed the horizon to be, the glow there of something less ephemeral, the shine of the moon as its topmost edge peeked above the distant hills.
Its light illuminated the fog spread out across the ground, igniting it with a cold fire. He stepped forward, the cloud licking at his heels, curling around his feet. And all while the stars wheeled overhead, and the moon rose higher in the sky.
It was not a pain like any he had experienced before. The first waves of it, indeed, he couldn’t even think of as a true hurt. But the discomfort was such a perverse thing, and when he doubled over, his hands clutching at his abdomen, he trembled with the realization that it would be a relief if he were to simply retch on the path and nothing more.
Beneath him, his feet began to move. Slowly at first, the steps uneven as he listed towards the right. And then he picked up speed, walking, then running, tripping over knotted tufts of grass and bracken as if he could leave behind his fate if only he moved with enough speed.
He ran with his head bowed, one arm still held against him, the other reaching out, ready to sweep away the fog, part of his fevered brain laboring under the belief that he could prevent the moonlight from touching him. And all while his heart beat faster, his shoulders rounding forward, his very skin searing until he feared it might split open down the length of his back.
His next stumble caught him off guard. There had been nothing in his path to trip him, only his own exhaustion destroying the natural rhythm of his steps and sending him sprawling forward, one knee striking hard while his hands sank into mud. He heaved again, coughing up bile that burned its way up the back of his throat. A brush of his hand across his mouth and he made to clamber up and onto his feet again, but instead he slipped, the soft ground seeming loath to release him so easily.
“Christ!” The word slid out with all the intent of a curse, and yet it ended as a plea, a supplication that the one who had formed him, who had died to save him, would not abandon him now as this curse… this destruction… tore through his body. He could only pray that the Good Lord would not allow His temple to be so misused.
He dug his fingers into the earth, the soil pushing deep beneath his nails and settling in the creases of his skin. Cool as it was, it did nothing to soothe the heat that radiated from him, the fever at such a height he feared his next exhalation would lay waste to the grass and plants around him, leaving a ring of charred earth in its wake.
His arms shook as he pushed himself up and onto his knees again. He stayed low, the tips of his fingers still grazing the dirt, as if that simple touch could lend him some equilibrium. He blinked at the stars above him and before him, until discernment took over and he realized that the lights nearer to the horizon weren’t celestial bodies, but rather the gleam and flicker of lamps, of torches, all of them man-made and burning through the mist like fireflies.
And then he heard her approach. From behind him, her step a muffled thing on the wet ground. He did nothing to acknowledge her presence. He continued to watch the lights, mesmerized by their slow approach, though he judged it would be some minutes before they wended their way around to where he sat, his knees still sinking into the mire beneath him.
“They’ll find you, soon enough.”
He closed his eyes. When he opened them again, his vision gained a greater clarity. The glow from the torches seemed to possess the power to chase away the fog before their bearers. But the torches wouldn’t be the only thing they carried out here. There would be all manner of rudimentary tools and weaponry, and all of those rusted blades and dust-laden pistols carried by a mingling of rage and fear that would not be sated until blood was drawn.
“Let me help you, Callum. You’re not strong enough to fight them on your own. They’ll find you, and they’ll see you dead.” She moved beside him, lowering herself onto the ground with him. One arm snaked around his waist, her fingers seeking out his skin. “You need me now, don’t you see?”
He wrenched away from her, her touch like a brand. “Witch!” he snarled, a spray of spit accompanying the word. He pushed her with what strength he had, sending her toppling off balance. “What curse have you laid on me?”
But it was already there, the answer glinting in the sparks of moonlight that shimmered in her eyes. She’d made him like her. A beast. A monster. A thing to be chased down and killed, an unnatural creature that would need to be eradicated before it could taint the rest of God’s creation.
It fell on him then, the weight of what she’d done. At first, he’d thought only of himself, of his wounds and what manner of escape he might exact. But this was her trick, he realized. There would be no escape from this… this thing he would always carry with him, like the mark of Cain across his shoulders.
“Not a curse,” she said, still sprawled in the dirt. Smears of mud stained her skirt, and her hair hung wild around her head, tangled and strewn with leaves. “But freedom, unlike anything you can imagine. It is a gift, Callum. Don’t you see? We are the same now, you and I. They are the ones who are different.” She nodded towards the line of torches, ever nearer. “They are the ones deserving of our scorn, our fear.”
He shuddered. At her words, at the wrongness that still roiled through him. “You’ve taken everything from me.”
She scrambled to her feet, wiping her hands on her skirt. Half-shadowed in the moonlight, her expression was both serene and terrible. “What did you have to take? A forgettable life. A home that will one day turn to rubble. A wife, a child who will grow and live and die, their bones turning to dust. You’ve lost nothing.” She held out her hand, long, slender fingers extended towards him. “But come with me, and I can give you everything.”
Her fingertips brushed across the back of his hand, her touch dancing lightly over his knuckles. He reared back, unsure of whether to strike out at her or turn and run. A moment’s hesitation and she took the opportunity to hurl him to the ground, her full weight on top of him, pinning him down with one hand at his throat and a knee thrust into his ribs.
“Fight me,” she hissed, her face mere inches above his. “Tear at me. Make me bleed. It will bind you to me, more than you already are. You cannot live without me, Callum. Tooth and claw and blood and breath. I have made us one and the same.”
She shifted her weight, her knees seeking out the ground on either side of his rib cage so that she straddled him, though her hand did not release its hold of his throat. “There’ll be no more ignoring me, glancing away when I approach. Pretending—” Her thumb pushed into the soft flesh beneath his jaw. “Pretending you’ve no love for me. Our lives are now woven together. I created you. You, as you are now. You’ll not succeed in cutting me out of your heart, your head, no matter how much you try.”
A noise slipped out of him then, akin to the whine of a wounded creature. He didn’t doubt the truth of her words. Behind the rage he felt towards her, there was a pull, an urge to speak and tell her any and all of the words she wished to hear. Speeches of obeisance and devotion, a declaration that he would maim and kill for her. The words were there, right there, all of them lined up on the tip of his tongue, drawn towards some power she exerted over him. Lowering his eyes, he worked his jaw from side to side, his teeth grinding as he gathered up what moisture remained in his mouth before he spat in her face.
Her hand released its hold on his throat as he dropped his head back to the ground. She wiped her face with her sleeve, her gaze harbouring a cold fury when she looked down on him again.
“You’ll die without me.” She bent over him, her lips grazing his forehead, touching his cheek, and then pressing a final kiss to his own mouth. “So be it,” she declared as she raised her chin.
Something snapped inside him. Whatever protection she’d given him, through spell or potion or enchantment, disappeared as she stood up, as she shook out her skirts, as she turned and walked away from him. As if her shadow had been a shield of sorts, the full light of the moon found him then, and it burned him.
He rolled onto his side, clawing to move, to stand, to race away from the light… the light in the sky above, the light of the torches that were now so close his fevered mind believed he heard the snapping of the flames. The fire invaded his limbs, his every joint, until there was a shatter of bone and a tearing of flesh, his skin boiling over everything so that he thought it might rip itself free of his form. Into the mud he went, dirt in his mouth, coating his teeth and tongue as his voice fought its way out of his lungs, a cry that carried the coppery taste of blood.
He forced himself forward, one step and then another. He heard the people behind him, could feel their own steps thrumming through the crust of earth beneath him. He put his nose down to the ground and breathed, inhaling the tang of decay, of every creature that had crossed this path before. He loped ahead, stumbling into a walk on legs that didn’t want to obey. But he finally broke into a run, his belly skirting the taller grasses, his feet padding across the uneven terrain.
The sounds were too loud, too sharp, like the ringing of a bell that would not cease its vibrations. Every smell made him sniff and snort, tossing his head to the side as if he might sneeze. But the fire was gone, that horrible pain, and the speed came more easily now, his muscles stretching over their new limbs, while his eyes saw everything with greater clarity, his vision no longer hindered by the darkness.
Behind him, the men with their torches, with their weapons, closed in. He could not think which way to go, the sky too large to him now to read the stars, the tendrils of mist that hovered above the ground carrying odors that tempted him from one direction to another. A new fear set in, that they would catch him, and when they had him, that they would not hesitate to kill him.
She had brought them here, he knew. He thought of where she might have gone now that she’d set these men on him, if perhaps she believed he might still seek her out and whatever safety she might provide. But he would not go to her, would not send up a cry for her aid should his blood spill and his skin be sliced from his flesh. The tether between them, the desire to return to her was still there, a low hum in the back of his mind. Like the buzzing of an insect, he shook his head and did his best to ignore it, telling himself he would never succumb to it.
A quick dart to the right, skirting the edge of a bog, and then down a slope that pulled him deeper into a swirl of cloud, cutting off the stars above. The desire to turn and cut a path around the ones chasing him, to stalk the stragglers of the group warred with the urge to run and continue running. Panic fueled his pace, the knowledge that he could no longer return to his home, that his family were lost to him. That alone was nearly enough to drive him towards facing the mob that sought his blood, to put an end to it all before he could even face the wretched life now laid out in front of him.
He paused, only long enough to catch sight of the glow of the torches, to hear the voices of men riled up in anger, to hear their rapid breaths and see the clouds of steam spilling out of their mouths and mixing with the fog that hovered several feet above the ground. A pocket of brush stood nearby, thorny and leafless, but he made for it, cowering down as he crawled into it, his belly dragging over the dead grass, every exhalation coming out as a low whine as he tucked his limbs beneath him, as he willed himself to stay quiet and still.
They would find him. He told himself that he did not care, that death at their hands would be a better fate than joining with her, the one who had made him. His head down, his ears turned to catch every sound, he waited. Panting, wanting to die, he waited for them.
It was a howl that cut through the rush of sound in his ears. Long and loud, hitting a note that set the world on its edge. The men stopped, their torches held above their heads. Yet the fire danced on despite their lull, the flames licking at the darkness, dripping sparks that were smothered by the dampness of the air before they touched the ground.
Silence, afterwards. For a moment, even the beatings of a score of hearts seemed to cease. And then a shout went up, followed by another, and the mob began to turn, their hurried steps leading them in another direction, away from the heaviest of the fog and the thicket in which he’d concealed himself.
He didn’t dare move until they were gone, until the lights disappeared and the clatter of wood and weapons was again smothered by the quiet of the night. He crawled out from his hiding place, shaking off the moisture that clung to him, the thorns and burrs embedded in his fur. He glanced towards where the men had gone, towards where the howl had sounded from, the cry that had saved him.
A single step. That was all he took towards her, towards where he knew she still waited for him. Another shake of his head, almost a tremor, and he turned and ran the other way, the curse at his back, the moonlight shining on the cord that would always be stretched taut between them.