Gerta’s ramshackle dwelling carried a persistent smell of dried herbs, vinegar, and gruel, but there was something new under it all that made Tala’s nose wrinkle. While similar to eggs pickled in brine, she couldn’t identify what exactly made it unique. It wasn’t the only change to the hovel. Rags plugged various gaps where drafts crept in, the stagnant air uncomfortably chill, yet the hearth was bare of any live coals. Gerta was never quiet about how she despised the cold and the constant throb it inflicted upon her joints.
“What is it you need?” Gerta asked, claiming the only chair available.
Rather than sitting on the table Gerta used for surgery, Tala elected to stand. “Advice.”
The common lands once assured even the most destitute could find shelter and sustenance. Sheep grazed in the meadows, trees were carefully felled to build and warm simple homes, game and edible plants assuaged hunger, and the waters ran clear and frigid from the glaciers. Such history only made it that much more wrenching for Tala to watch as stone was hauled from the village in overburdened carts. Gaunt-faced builders toiled under the direction of the lord’s overseers, amalgamating the fences that were to slash the commons into neat parcels. They hadn’t forgotten those living off the commons. The lord’s gracious offer was a choice between finding refuge in the city workhouses or tending a barren strip of newly enclosed land, for a price. Either way, nothing they could ever create would ever belong to them again.
It wasn’t just the independence the commons offered that left the nobility gnashing their teeth. Once, there was power in the shared lands, a lingering reminder that wealth and titles weren’t required to sustain life. People kept to the old beliefs. Mushroom circles were never disturbed, the last sips were left inside cups, and people didn’t tempt any eavesdropping spirits with careless words. Cathedrals weren’t required for worship, and tithing was paid through the promise never to take too much and give back what one could.
The lord’s claim didn’t come with such stewardship. With the swaths of trees hacked down and runoff from the budding factories leaching into the waters, what few animals who didn’t fill feast tables fled. The boughs were silent aside from the wind weaving between them. No ferns attempted to shush the bodies so intent on disturbing them. Even the water hardly dared ripple, insects hovering above the surface growing bold now that there were no fish to gulp them up.
It only served to make it all the stranger to encounter the sounds of life, even if it was faint. Tala hadn’t even seen a rabbit since she began her spring foraging, but the labored breaths and muffled whines persisted. Her first instinct was to find the source and give what aid she could, but she held herself back. She’d been out here for too long already. Huntsmen, or worse, one of the witch hunters would soon be along on their rounds, eager to catch a poacher. Or an herbalist just trying to find some nettles, leeks, fiddleheads, cattails, anything she could safely eat. Turning back meant at least surviving to the next day, shutting herself up in her hut for a few hours of peaceful oblivion until the sun rose and she repeated the deadly game.
She didn’t feel valorous as the wrenching sounds grew clearer and clearer with each step she took. Foolish, more than likely. Frightened, undoubtedly. A creature was at its most dangerous when it was wounded, trapped, but once that initial panic was broken, treatment could begin. If there was a chance, it was her duty to seize it. Beyond obligation, Tala was assailed with enough questions about what she could have done differently without adding yet another to their numbers.
A wolf lay in the middle of an overgrown game trail, impossibly large and with a coat so dark as to rebuke the touch of the dappled light attempting to stroke it. The beast had struggled its way into exhaustion, hardly able to lift its head to snarl at her approach. Once green grass below its massive form was slick with blood. A leg-hold trap mercilessly held one forepaw between its rusted jaws, the thick chain staked into the ground further entangling its prey.
For a long moment, Tala could only stare, too taken aback to even quiver. Whatever she’d expected, it hadn’t been this. Nothing here was right. Huntsmen didn’t use such primitive traps, especially not for pony-sized wolves. Aside from the stench of blood and fear, there was a heaviness in the air Tala never before experienced, a crackle disrupting the ozone that she could barely make out at the edge of her vision.
The wolf was the one to break their shared gaze, what little fight it was able to muster towards her depleted. While its chest continued to rise and fall, if just barely, its eyes closed and its growl cut off in a wheeze. It was impossible to tell if too much damage had already been done, but if the huntsmen found the wolf in their trap, the end would be definite. This wolf was something far different from its smaller cousins, unfathomable and ancient. The huntsmen would never see it that way, not when there was such a fine trophy to return with, another piece of the common’s spirit crushed underfoot.
Tala shook her head violently, spurring herself to think, move. The fear inside her hit such a crest that it no longer registered to her mind. It wasn’t that she wasn’t aware of the danger increasing with each moment she remained on the trail, additional step towards the wolf. She could hear the witch hunter general’s accusations of trying to free the hellhound they’d ensnared, her familiar, and that was only if the wolf didn’t rip her apart first. None of it mattered, though, only what move she would make next, and then the one after that. Everything else could be pushed back until later, whatever later might entail.
Kneeling beside the wolf, Tala could see its leg was in poorer shape than she thought. The trap shredded through muscle and was locked tight around the bone. Even if the wolf hadn’t lost too much blood, infection was likely inevitable. Tala could hear her mother’s voice in the back of her mind, her bittersweet promise that sometimes the kindest thing one could do for another creature was give it a peaceful death. The blade she used for foraging was small, but sharp. A cut to a pulsepoint could turn what would likely be hours or even days more of agony into a brief few minutes.
The wolf’s eyes were open again, and while their focus sometimes wavered, they always returned to her. Whether through conscious effort or the biological urge to fight until the very end, the wolf wanted to live. And she would do her best to assure that it happened. So instead of taking the blade to the wolf, she reached into the holly thicket so determined to swallow up the trail, tearing at the branches until she found one that would serve.
Using the bough as a lever, she threw her weight into prying apart the trap until she could offer it one of her shoes to gnaw upon. Made of strong wood, the shoe held, keeping the trap open enough for her to free the wolf’s paw. Its exposed flesh burned under her hands, and she was left bloody up to her wrists. Whether that was a good sign or not she couldn’t dwell upon. The dead didn’t bleed, but the body could only give so much before there was no return. She tore a sleeve from her blouse and tied it around the laceration.
While free, it meant little if the wolf couldn’t rise under its own power. Tala would never be able to move something that size by herself. She waited at its side, but the wolf never stirred. Even a sharp rap across the nose wasn’t enough to force it to its feet. She’d reached the extent of her abilities. As much as she understood that, the foolish, stubborn part of her adamantly refused to. In a situation not unlike this one, she’d left. Even if it was just as right to do so then as it was now, and it would haunt her until she went to her grave.
A twig snapped. Tala lifted her face from the wolf’s matted fur to find a huntsman stalking towards her. Though her heart felt ready to burst from her chest, she didn’t move. Huntsmen were bastards, but most would look the other way with the right bribe. She’d given the lead huntsman elixirs for his lost virility in return for him conveniently forgetting to arrest her for trespassing. If there was any luck that wouldn’t slip through her cupped hands, she’d be brought to him. It would be one more favor she didn’t want to owe him, but there were worse things than getting on her back or knees for a man who could barely keep an erection.
This huntsman didn’t move like one who knew how to navigate a forest. More than once, he nearly lost his footing over tree roots and patches of loam. Still, there was no haste to his stride. They both knew how futile it would be for her to flee. One signal, and the hounds would be set loose on her. It wasn’t until the huntsman reached a gap in the canopy that his figure was fully illuminated. Huntsmen wore the lord’s gaudy crest, a sunburst rising over a verdant field. The figure stalking towards her was bedecked in a long coat and wide-brimmed hat, all in the same dirty black.
It wasn’t a huntsman who found her, but a witch hunter.
A force like an oncoming storm threw her backwards. Somehow, the wolf had gotten to its feet, shaking off the chains wrapped around it with a sound like a lightning strike. Its injured paw couldn’t hold weight, leaving the wolf to limp as it put itself between Tala and the witch hunter, who looked between the two of them. Which target he decided upon, she couldn’t tell, but he drew the dagger hanging at his hip and lunged. The wolf collided with him, body slamming against body, fangs competing against steel.
Though her lungs refused to inflate after being knocked to the ground, Tala forced herself onto her hands and knees, adamantly suppressing her body’s fervent desire to retch and collapse. If the wolf could get up, so could she. The holly shrubs tore through her clothes as she unsteadily rose, exacting their revenge upon her and claiming her remaining shoe. She stumbled forward, finding the tree nearest to her and in her required direction before lurching into its solid embrace. Eventually, she reclaimed enough of her wind to clear her head and put everything she had, and much of what she didn’t, into running. A howl tore through the air, made faint by the distance between them.
She shouldn’t have gone home. At any moment, the witch hunters would come for her. Where else would she go, though? Eventually, someone would find her, whether it be huntsmen, sheriffs, or anyone else who wouldn’t pass up on the bounty offered for her to be brought before the witch hunter general, alive enough for his preferred tools to procure the words he wished from her. It was as sensible as hiding under the bed after breaking a childhood rule in some belief that maybe, just maybe, her mother wouldn’t think to search such an obvious place.
Yet the sun peaked and then set, the moon following suit, and no one came for her. She couldn’t stay holed up inside the hut forever, and eventually dared to crack open the door and stick her head outside. Aside from her own footprints tearing through the vegetable patch during her flight from the witch hunter, nothing was disturbed. The crushing grip around her ribcage eased slightly, shoulders falling to a more comfortable level as she stepped outside. Those woods did strange things to people, making them see all manners of creatures in their revelry. She could likely now count themselves among them, even if her visions were far from some deviously delightful sabbath.
Tala had only a few moments to dare to enjoy the dawn and fresh air when a dark shape at the threshold made her pause. She crouched down, brow furrowing as she attempted to identify what she was looking at. Whatever it was had been wrapped in shreds of stained cloth, the original color impossible to guess at through the discoloration. Having dried stiff, each layer crackled as she drew it away, rusty flakes dusting her hands and the ground as she unveiled a heart.
Gerta had her pipe turned so she could use the stem as a pointer, aiming it squarely at Tala to indicate a necessary interruption to her recounting.
“That trap was made of iron you said?” Tala nodded, Gerta letting her pipe bob in the air in time with her thoughts. “Was it just the heart, or did you find anything else?”
In the span of a week, three more items were indeed left for Tala to find. The final gift was a fine leather satchel, butter smooth and still carrying the faint odor of tannins. An intricate raven design was tooled onto the flap, the lines so delicate and precise Tala didn’t even want to imagine how much an artisan would charge for such a piece. The strap was cut to just the correct length so the satchel would sit comfortably against her hip, the inside sewn with a variety of sturdy pockets. Inside were the first two things she found: a silver hand-mirror and a stalk of sword lilies.
“Where’s the heart now?”
“I burned it,” Tala replied, memories of the smell the charred heart gave off inspiring hunger and shame in equal measure.
“Probably for the best.”
Tala passed the satchel and its contents over to Gerta, who picked up each item, squinting and letting her lower lip jut out. Nodding at the conclusion she reached, she handed Tala back her things.
“I wouldn’t fret about this, not when there are so many other things to watch out for.”
“But the gifts-”
“Are just that. A mirror so you might admire your beauty, gladiolus to show strength of character. He went more practical with the satchel, but the raven was likely meant to compliment you on your wits.”
“Do you know who’s been doing all this?”
“Not by name, but you’re more familiar with him than I am.”
When Tala only cocked her head, brow furrowing, and Gerta cackled.
“You’re being courted. Think about it. Not many would have risked the witch hunters’ ire to save a wolf, but you did. You’re owed a debt of gratitude, and if there’s one thing his kind doesn’t like, it’s being obliged.”
“But he killed the witch hunter before he could report me. We should be even.”
“Ah, but you spurned his first offering. And since you weren’t content to call it an equal exchange and part ways, it seems he’s gotten creative. You’re more fortunate than you realize. Most people who reject those sorts of gifts don’t live to tell the tale. He may be acting the gentleman about it, but you’ve caught his interest all the same.”
One particular part of Gerta’s explanation stuck in Tala’s throat like a fishbone. “What did you mean by ‘his kind?’”
“Fair Folk. Call them what you want, the same beings answer to all those names. Elves, fae, fairies. You said it yourself, that wasn’t an ordinary wolf, and you were right.”
“I don’t want this.”
“Then you’re a fool.”
“Can I at least talk to him about all of this?”
Gerta shrugged. “If he wants to talk to you in turn. Set a place for the both of you at your table tonight. He’ll take it as an invitation.”
For a period, all Tala could do was will herself to remain standing. Her thoughts were an incoherent jumble of disbelief, apprehension, and more than a little intrigue, though she tamped the last sensation down as best as she could. However long she spent attempting to untangle the threads inside her mind was enough for Gerta to grow impatient.
“If you want to thank me, you can grind up what I have in that mortar over there, save me the strain on my hands.”
Returning to the present, Tala was quick to do as she was asked in apology for her rudeness. She found the mortar on a shelf, though the pestle had rolled behind some vials and it took her a moment to find. It was only when she set to grinding that she recognized the dried berries.
She stopped, looking to Gerta. “This is belladonna.”
“That is it.” Gerta replied, nonplussed.
“You told my mother never to use it in anything.”
“And I stand by that, those drops the young ladies put in their eyes are pointless, even if the right solution is harmless. It’s ingesting belladonna that will kill.”
“So who are you intending to poison?”
“Myself,” Gerta said, waving away Tala’s growing horror. “I have no intention of letting the witch hunters drag me into the square. They can come pounding at my door, but I intend to spoil their fun.”
“Gerta, there has to be another way.”
“What, going to the city? Finding some other land to squat on before that gets fenced off? No, even if I could still travel, I wouldn’t want to. We’ll be lucky if a fraction of our numbers can survive this, but those who don’t can die knowing all the power in the world won’t keep what they take from crumbling inside their fists.”
Suddenly, Tala knew exactly what she’d been smelling earlier.
“Does that explain those?” Tala jerked her head towards the grain sacks piled at the doorway, dark granules scattered from a few split seams.
Gerta didn’t smile, but her eyes alighted with a dark glee. “A parting gift. Let’s hope they all gather around close to hear if I start screaming when they put the torch to the place.”
“You’ll probably burn down the surrounding trees.”
“A little fire might do some good, or at least drive down the rent.”
Tala was about to say more when Gerta cut her off with a shake of the head. “Go and meet your suitor, name one of your pups after me if it will make you feel better. No goodbyes, just be on your way.”
So Tala did, the odor of the black powder burned into her mind.
For better or worse, the village would always be dependent upon the commons. The lord could laude the benefits of the apothecary he brought from the city all he liked. The same herbs went into the prescribed concoctions as any herbalist would give, the price and fact the apothecary never gathered his own ingredients being the only differences. There was a tentative peace between her and the so-called learned man with all his talk of humors and vapors. She supplied the ingredients that only grew in the woods, and he paid her in a scant amount of coin and his silence.
Tala doubted she would ever grow used to currency. It had its uses when someone didn’t possess what the other wanted to barter for, but only to supplement what people couldn’t share or produce on their own. Coin was no longer optional, not when there was no longer enough land to live off of, the price of seed and studding too high, and the hours required to earn enough to cover the bare essentials left no time to cultivate.
People didn’t mill about the village as they once did. There were no clusters of folk catching up on gossip or children running and shrieking after one another. Everyone had their destination firmly in mind and no time to waste. Wandering around invited too many questions, especially for the struggling. Beggars, whether they be childless widows, orphaned youth, or men with bodies too broken to labor were not to be tolerated.
Tala kept her head down, drew her water from the well, then turned straight back the way she came. When a hand reached out to catch her shoulder, she nearly screamed.
Her attempt at laughter came out closer to a choke. “You scared me half to death.”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to,” Sal, one of the shepherds who took his flock to graze in the commons, grimaced. “Just wanted to say hello and see how you were doing. What’s got you so jumpy?”
“Somebody has been leaving… gifts… at my door.”
“Can’t say I remember anyone heading over your way, but my word on the matter doesn’t mean much. The only thing I’m watching out for is wolves going after my sheep. The lord and all his toadies could have marched by in full regalia, and as long as none of them were wearing wolf pelts, I doubt I’d have remembered.”
“Thank you anyway, Sal.”
“Might be somebody paying off an old debt to your mother. You know how she was. I had to practically force her to at least take some mutton and cheese with her after she nursed Hismena through that fever.”
A fresh wave of grief washed over Tala, leaving her submerged up to the chest and struggling to keep from being washed out with the tide. By the time her mother made it back from Sal’s home after days of constant care for his infant daughter, she knew she didn’t have long. She refused even the comfort of dying in her bed, having Tala lay a blanket down for her in their root cellar. A few days later, Tala was forced to fulfill the grim promise she made to her mother, dragging the blanket with her body wrapped inside of it into the woods and leaving her unburied.
Her mother had to have known just how risky it would be to aid Hismena the moment she saw her sickly little form, too ill even to squall. But Sal did what many fathers wouldn’t in calling her mother. Hismena wasn’t just a dowry to scrape together or another mouth to feed, but a life he and his wife created together. If he could view Hismena as worth saving when so many others in his position wouldn’t, her mother couldn’t deny her assistance.
When news of her mother’s death reached the village, the church declared justice wrought, the innocence of the babe saving her while the punishment for witchcraft was death, though divine hands or theirs enacting their god’s will. By then, the lord, church, and witch hunters were indistinguishable from one another. Even though there wasn’t a soul within the village that hadn’t gone to her mother for one reason or another, none of them spoke in her defense. As much as Tala wanted to rage and curse them all in her anguish, she couldn’t blame them. Most were hardly better off than those in the commons or relied heavily upon them like Sal did. Any misstep and they would lose their livelihoods, thrown to the streets for the vagrancy laws and workhouses to devour.
So Tala took her buckets back to the hut, caught up on the washing up, and allowed herself to cry.
The extra bowl, cup, and spoon were coated in dust when Tala retrieved them from the shelf. She knew they were just tools for eating and drinking, but her mother’s empty chair and side of the bed had been enough to deal with each day and night. After rinsing them in the basin and drying them, she set both sides of the table. It would all be simple fair, but she’d tried to make it as palatable as possible, even taking a few coins from her stash to buy fresh bread, cheese, and a small skin of wine. Combined with the dandelion leaves she’d been lucky to stumble upon and tossed with a little oil and vinegar, it was a fine spread that would have made her mouth water any other time.
She’d poured the wine and was about to take her seat when there was a scratching at the door like a cat or dog demanding entry. It didn’t surprise her to open the door to see the great black wolf sat back on his haunches, tail thumping despite the heavy paw holding it to the ground. His coat was free of the debri that would stick to an outdoor animal, a welcome change from the dirt and blood of last time.
Unsure what else to say, Tala reverted to basic manners. “Come in. I have supper set out for us.”
His stride was silent against the dirt floor as he entered. As Tala closed the door, there was a sound like wind through the leaves and she just caught what seemed to be a shadow stretching up towards the ceiling. Taking her seat at the table, she was met with a man with hair the same bottomless black of the wolf’s pelt.
Tala always imagined Fair Folk as delicately built creatures who could hardly be bothered to cover themselves with leaves. They hid their malice behind bright grins and sugared words, more than happy to let you hang yourself with your own intentions. The charm they exuded lured children into their arms and faithful lovers from their beds. If any of that was true, this one was never told about such expectations.
Tala and her mother built their hut, two squat women who didn’t see the need to waste time and material on tall ceilings. There was enough room to hang pots and herbs overhead while comfortably walking around underneath, and little else. The hearth, worktable, and shelves took up nearly all of the floorspace, a bed and chest poorly sectioned off against one wall by a tattered screen. While snug, it was comfortable enough for two people who didn’t take up too much room. No longer on four paws, the man was forced to move slowly, constantly ducking and pulling in his elbows so he didn’t knock into anything. It might have been comical in any other circumstance to watch someone so massive try not to disturb what appeared to be toy furniture next to him. Somehow, though, he ended up in the other chair, legs turned awkwardly to allow his knees to fit underneath the table.
He was dressed like a wealthy traveler in spotless leather boots and dark garments that flowed over his massive frame. The weave of his cloak was like nothing Tala had seen before, and she folded her hands together to resist touching it. He couldn’t entirely hide his too-sharp teeth when he spoke, nor could the shifting waves of his midnight hair conceal the points of his ears. When Tala looked into his hazel eyes, she recognized the wolf who glared at her with all the hate, fear, and hurt it was drowning in.
“May I have your name?” His voice was like distant thunder, rumbling and soft.
A latent part of her screamed to watch his words and her own carefully, that any misstep could cost her dearly. By that point, though, Tala had nothing left to part with. There were far worse things than being bewitched to dance herself to death or transformed into a songbird to entertain the Fair Folk.
“Tala. My name is Tala,” She looked up at him, expecting him to scent the air for the power she’d just relinquished to him, but was only met with stone. “And yours?”
“I am Rahoul.”
Rahoul, the sound a resonating growl inside the chest. A long moment passed in silence, her pulse hammering up into her throat and through her clenched teeth. She forced herself to relax her jaw before she cracked a tooth. Even with the huge man, no, male, before her, trying to claim her as his mate, it wasn’t Rahoul she was afraid of. He could simply take what he wanted, but instead he kept a respectful distance from her, spoke gently. Perhaps being so insistent with his presents was juvenile, but ultimately harmless in this case.
Her apprehension was of the witch hunters learning he was here. For all of Rahoul’s strength both in this and his wolf form, the witch hunters were armed with iron arrowheads and blades. If they could take him alive, they would, likely her as well. Nobody the witch hunter general interrogated returned to tell of it, but fire didn’t always strip the corpses of their stories. Crushed fingers, splintered skulls, bodies contorted in anguish.
Forcing such thoughts to a distant corner of her mind, she held out an upturned hand. “May I see how your wound is healing?”
He’d kept his weight off that leg, now arm. The healer in her was itching to examine it, see the job through to the end.
After hesitating, Rahoul acquiesced, pushing back his sleeve and letting her take his wrist. Even after changing skins, Tala could readily make out where the trap sawed into him. The area was gnarled, flesh and muscle sheared away on either side of the forearm. As ugly as it looked, she didn’t find any pus or smell infection. There wasn’t even any scabbing, the area already covered with fresh scar tissue.
“All things considered, it’s amazing you’ve healed so quickly,” Tala noted.
“It wouldn’t have even left a mark if it hadn’t been iron. I couldn’t break free or even shift back.”
“Does it hurt still?”
Though his tone remained the same, he winced at the reminder of his pain. “Yes.”
While her mother likely never imagined her recipes being used to treat Fair Folk, Rahoul was a patient all the same. It was also a relief to be able to turn away from him and busy her hands and mind for a few minutes. All that mattered was finding a way to heal those who came to her. Judgment, payment, just what she was going to do now that one of the Fair Folk sat at her table, all that could wait.
While Tala’s stores had run low over the winter, she had enough components on hand to make a quick poultice. Dried rosemary, mint, lavender, and willow bark all went into the mortar, ground as fine as she could get it with the heavy pestle. Next went in some powdered clay and just enough water to get the mixture to bind. When she was happy with the consistency, she brought the mortar back over to where Rahoul was seated.
When Tala settled into the chair next to his, he offered his arm without being prompted. He didn’t so much as twitch as she spread the paste thick over the wound before wiping her hand on her stained apron. It wasn’t until she bound the area that she realized he was watching her face as she worked. She could feel the heat rising to her cheeks, knowing the vacant expression she took on when she was focused on anything, mouth agape and eyes squinted. After fumbling twice to properly tie off the linen, Rahoul placed a finger over the first part of the knot, allowing her to finally double the ends and pull them through the center. After testing to see if the bandages were too tight with a couple fingers, she sat back. It was work her mother would have been proud of, aside from Tala using her apron as a handcloth.
“This would work better if I had fresh ingredients, but it should help dull the pain for a while.”
Rahoul twisted his arm one way and then the other before letting it join the other in resting atop the table. “Thank you.”
“I did what anyone else would.”
“No, you didn’t. I owe you my life, Tala.” A shiver coursed up her spine at the sound of her name on his lips. “Let me give you the life you deserve in turn.”
“If you’d like.”
“We don’t even know one another.”
“We can. Is there something keeping you here? Someone?”
“No. I mean yes. I don’t know.” She let her face fall into her hands, fingers finding harsh purchase in her hair. “Everything is getting worse. I know there’s nothing I can do, but leaving feels like giving up. None of it is fair, and the worst part is that people are letting it happen.”
“The world is rarely a fair place. It will be dangerous for you to stay.”
“Then at least let me assure nobody comes close enough to touch you.”
“All it would do is draw their attention. They’d set more iron traps and do whatever they could to get the rest of us out of the commons.” Then, Tala asked the one question she hadn’t been able to venture a guess to, her festered frustration souring her words. “Why were you even out in the woods that day?”
If Rahoul was offended, he didn’t let it eat away at his patience with her, something that only made Tala feel that much worse.
“You aren’t the only one finding yourself unable to leave home. The commons once belonged to any of your kind who needed it. It was the same for mine. Our lives are long, but you’ve seen what iron can do to us. Some left to find places yet to be disturbed by humans. The rest of us took on second skins so we could still visit what was once ours in peace.”
Tala wasn’t sure if she wanted to laugh or cry, perhaps both at once. “You ripped a man’s heart out, yet here I am feeling like one of the monsters.”
“Not you. Never you. Monsters are few and far between, but the terror they inflict is enough to control multitudes. Most either try to ally themselves with their tormentors or stay out of the way.”
“I know I need to leave, I really do, but knowing and believing are two different things.”
“I came back. One day, so can you. Few things are lost forever.”
A long moment passed. Tala picked at her salad with her spoon, then took a sip of the wine to avoid having to say something. It was far more sour than she was expecting, the seller she bought it from likely assuming she wanted it for medicinal purposes. Still, she drank on until it was too much. She sat her cup down, trying to avoid letting the foul taste contort her features.
“Tala,” Again, with her name and the ache it left inside of her. “Please, tell me what you’re thinking.”
She gave a humorless huff. “I’m thinking it was much easier to see you as some randy wolf whose paw I pulled a thorn from.”
“Is that a bad thing?”
“No, but it means I have even more to think about than I already did. I’d appreciate it if you left. Not forever, but at least for the night. Please.”
With a solemn nod, he rose and was at the door in a few long strides, shutting it behind him. Tala watched out the open shutters as Rahoul returned to his wolf form, the transformation all but lost to the night with the absolute blackness of his fur. His swift lope through the grass hadn’t even faded away when regret set its heavy hands on her shoulders.
She had one of the Fair Folk promising to take her away from the occupied territory her home now resembled. No threats, no wordplay, no pomegranate seeds. He wanted to give her everything despite expecting nothing further in return, and it was hardly as if the notion of giving to him was an unpleasant one. All of that, and she hadn’t even given him enough time to spread cheese over his bread before she’d made him depart.
After a restless night, Tala clumsily went through her morning routine, managing to knock over the basin of water and empty nearly an entire jar of floral tea into the kettle. Needing to get out of the hut before she ruined something irreparably, she was tucking some of her foraging tools into the raven satchel when there was a knock at the door. Before she could ask who it was, Sal entered. While a bit taken aback by the intrusion, Tala wrote it off as Sal being in a hurry or mood.
“Good morning, Sal. I was just about to go gather more herbs. I’m pretty low on everything, but if you need something, I’d be happy to make it and drop it by your place later.”
“I’ll pass.” He said in a deadpan.
Her hackles rose, misgiving slithering into her stomach. “What can I do for you, then?”
He was between her and the open door. Between his bulk and the lack of space to move in, she didn’t like her odds of making it outside. She might outrun him, but fighting was another matter.
“One of my ewes got loose last night, so I decided to see if she was in the meadow. I ended up passing by here, figured she might have been tempted by your little garden. I told you the other day, the only thing I notice around here is wolves. I didn’t think anything of the man leaving your home, that’s none of my business, but then he goes and turns into a wolf before my eyes.”
Though his tone began almost conversationally, it gathered ire like a stone rolling down a hill. Tala fought to keep her hands steady, face free from guilt. Her satchel was still on her shoulder, inside it her knife.
“I did have a friend over for supper, but the part about him turning into a wolf sounds like the woods playing tricks on you.”
“I would have thought so, too. Any man who looks for wolves is liable to see a few where there aren’t any. But the funny thing is that after we had our chat the other day, I came home to Hismena having a fit. She’s never been right, but I took a hard look at her after that.”
He continued on as if she hadn’t uttered a word. “She goes into shakes, can barely walk or talk.”
“Your daughter was very ill. It might be a lasting effect of the fever-”
“The one your mother treated? She was the only one there when my Elsie died giving life to Hismena. Then my babe, healthy her whole life, falls sick. Your mother comes back, works some black magic, and I’m left with a quivering doorstop. That doesn’t seem unusual to you?”
“If it weren’t for my mother, Hismena would be dead!” Tala shouted, but nothing could penetrate Sal’s fury and grief.
“I don’t even believe whatever your witch of a mother left me is Hismena. Maybe it never was. I want to know where the hell my daughter is. Your mother may be gone, but you’re still here, and you’re going to give me my Hismena.”
“Your daughter is back at your home where you left her. Sal, you aren’t making sense.”
“Maybe I’m not, but I’m sure the witch hunters could set things right.”
Unlike when she tended to Rahoul in the woods, there was no clarity in her dread, her body’s warring commands to act, move, remain still threatening to tear her apart. “They murder anyone they even suspect of magic.”
“Then you should have nothing to worry about if all you do is peddle herbs.”
“Herbs I find on the same land you use for your sheep. Sal, they’re turning us against one another so they can take the commons.”
He began to draw closer, pushing her back against the far wall as his voice dripped with venom. “And maybe they should if it’s full of devils you seem so eager to cavort with. Tell me, what did they give you for my Hismena? Did they see you full and warm through the winter, or did they just bend you over and fuck you until you screamed for more?”
Tala’s hand flew to her satchel, groping for the knife. He grabbed her wrist with bruising force, and her grip on the handle faltered. The knife fell at their feet, Sal’s other arm flailing out as he fought to seize her around her middle before she could reach for it. In doing so, he wasn’t prepared for how Tala twisted, free arm swinging to bash her elbow into his face with all her might. The momentum crashed into his face, nose bursting with a sickening crunch and gushes of blood from his nostrils. He staggered backwards, hands flying up to protect his ruined face, eyes squeezed shut against the pain. In less than the span of a breath, his foot caught against the table leg and he careened backwards into the dirt floor.
Tala didn’t wait. Falling upon him, she reclaimed her knife and plunged it into the side of his neck. He let out a garbled cry, half-rising to reach for her, but she only wrapped her other hand around the hilt and yanked the blade across his throat. The wound opened with a scarlet smile, spraying from the corners in rhythmic pulses. He slumped fully onto his back, the tension keeping his arms and torso raised vanishing. Pink-tinged spittle frothed at the corners of his lips, and then his eyes went glassy.
Through the roar of her pulse in her ears and heaving breaths, it took her longer than it should have to remember the world outside herself and the body underneath her. She looked up, and saw a dark figure lying in a heap through the open door. Swaying as if she were on a ship in rough waters, she got up and staggered outside. Rahoul was a few paces from the entryway, although from the sweat coating him and his ashen pallor, one would think he’d traveled leagues. The sun glinted off iron shavings sprinkled in a rough circle around her hut, meant to bar Rahoul from attempting any kind of rescue. Drained as he was, he’d nevertheless made it through. After she brushed off some of the shavings clinging to his clothes, some of his strength returned and he was able to stand.
His focus raced across her form, unable to settle on any one spot. “Are you hurt?”
It only then occurred to her what a sight she presented. Her sleeves were sodden with blood, having received the worst of the spurts. A dark shape decorated her skirt where it touched the ground as the pool grew, the dirt floor only able to soak up so much.
“None of it is mine.”
“I am glad, although no matter how I try, I cannot seem to properly repay you.”
“You can. Ask me again, like you did last night.”
Instead of immediately doing so, Rahoul ducked down so he could enter the hut, coming to a crouch beside Sal’s corpse. There was a wet crunch, then the snap of sinews stretched to their limits and before tearing. He returned to her, gore clinging to his hands and sleeves, holding Sal’s heart in his cupped palms. It looked so different from the witch hunter’s heart. The blood smeared along its plump, veined surface was a shocking crimson. Though severed from its host, the organ still seemed to quiver. Whereas the first was cold and congealed, the mist condensing in the air between her and Rahoul spoke to the lingering warmth this one contained. The odor was different from the sweet stench of rot, a musty smell like that which clung to coin.
“Come with me, Tala.” He murmured, his soft voice wildly dissonant with the bloodied beast of a man issuing it.
Tala slipped her fingers underneath Rahoul’s, raising the heart to her lips. Closing her eyes, she bit down into the stringy flesh, feeling blood smear against her chin and under her nose. It carried the same iron taste the air held and little more. She chewed slowly, enunciating her desires inside her mind. When she swallowed, it went down with a flurry of sensation. One moment like swallowing snow, the next a smoldering coal. When it settled in her stomach, it sent a lightness throughout her from every strand of her hair, to her fingertips, and down all the way to her toes. So this was magic, then, the power that had everyone tearing each other apart in their fear of it.
She could see why. Even with all the iron close by, sucking greedily at the magic being infused into her, she felt like she could carry the sky on her shoulders. There was the land, herself, Rahoul, and that was all that mattered. With the world made anew with previously unimaginable sensations, she allowed Rahoul to guide her away from the hut and to the threshold of the woods. Hand in bloodied hand, the boughs came together to canopy their passage as the creepers blessed their steps.
Among the lands that would be seized, divided, and weaponized against its symbionts, two would slip their skins to join countless others. Thus would begin the waiting until the moon found all three of her faces, the green man emerged from the trees, and those of the commons united with their brethren, teeth bared against their former masters.
Oliver Fosten is a genderqueer, Pacific Northwest-born, NYU-educated monster enthusiast. When they aren’t writing, they can be found making candles, playing video games, or with a cat on their lap. For more queered content both fresh and familiar, follow their twitter @oliver_fosten.