The two wolves stared at each other for a long second, ears and tails erect. Then the grey she-wolf saw the huge bulk of Sambucus rise behind the red wolf that Reed had become.
“Move!” Autumn shouted as the monster swung down to cleave him in two.
He jerked to the side, and the axe slammed haft-deep through empty tunic cloth into the ground. Clambering backwards, Reed managed to pull his head and forelimbs out of the pinned garment. Sambucus yanked the axe free as the red wolf tried to run and instead fell splay-legged to the ground like a clumsy pup.
Autumn looked to the sword at her paws as the woodsman hefted his axe above a struggling Reed.
The Old Man of the Elder Trees licked his gums and reached for the trapped children as a wolf’s shrill howl pierced the night. “Meh supper’s late, but it ain’t too late!”
Snow growled and Rose backed against the barrier of the ward. Squirming in the red-haired girl’s arms, her mother’s bay faded as she looked the wizard square in his black eyes.
“You won’t hurt Rose!”
“They can’t save yeh, Pup! So shut-up an’ Ah’ll kill yeh painless instead ah hard!”
“No!” The whelp shouted as she kicked out of Rose’s grip.
Leaping with a snarl at the amused face of the Old Man, he stopped mid-laugh as Snow’s form shifted in a mid-air instant.
“Impossible! Yeh’s too young!” he screeched as raking claws swiped his face.
Behind the children, the hunter’s sword swept above Reed, impacting with the snap of wood and bone upon Sambucuss’ elbow. The blade severed his arm at the joint, and with one hand still gripping the axe it crashed just beyond the red wolf’s snout.
“Stand and fight like a man, Reed! I hardly know what to do in this shape!”
Reed saw a wolf’s tail pass over him before his savior shoved herself beside a half-toppled Sambucus. With savage fury she raised the hunting sword and hacked deep ruts into the woodsman’s bark-covered back. Unclothed save for grey fur, she was equal parts wolf and woman when her lupine head looked back at Reed.
“Get up! We’ve only a minute before his curse puts us back to all fours!” she snarled in a voice that was undeniably Autumn’s.
Snow had landed on top of the Old Man a white-furred and child-like wolfgirl otherwise much like her mother. Slightly larger than Rose, she clamped onto the moss-green fiend as he hissed and cursed the slashing cuts her furious claws wrought on his face and shoulders.
Rose backed away from the pair struggling back and forth, then caught sight of the fight beyond the candlelight. Hands pressed against the invisible barrier, she watched the grey wolf-woman decapitate a one-armed woodsman with her father’s sword. Then a red-furred wolf-man started to rise behind her, locking his hands on the axe haft the headless monster leaned on.
Snow snarled and the snap of her fangs narrowly missed the Old Man’s nose. Rose turned back at the yelp she gave just in time to see him grip Snow’s throat with broken nails. He held her up one-handed, choking and kicking above the ground while his bloodied face grimaced.
“No lie, there’s ah warrioress in yeh white hide! But tooth an’ claw can’t kill meh!”
Behind the children, Reed gripped the woodsman’s axe and tore it from Sambucuss’ skeletal hand. Headless, one-armed and weaponless, the monster still fought on by backhanding Autumn across the face. Staggering to the side, she turned and barely blocked another woodsman’s axe when two more foes stomped forward.
Her weapon locked in a struggle with her opponent, Reed stood and swung the axe in his hands. It landed with inelegant brutality, smashing Sambucuss’ chest in with the sound of snapping bone and timber. He yanked the axe back dripping purple-black gore as Sambucus slumped over.
Snarling at the woodsman Autumn grappled with, Reed charged to her defense and splintered the monster’s arms with a second swing of his axe. Regaining her footing, Autumn’s ears perked when the big wolfkin cleaved through a wooden sternum loosing a wild howl.
Rose watched the snow-colored wolf-girl caught in the grip of the Old Man. Grappling his arm in vain, the green wizard’s smile began to return as she slowly started to shrink and retract from her humanoid shape.
The shapeshifter gagged as he squeezed her throat tighter. “ ‘Bout time yeh went back to all fours, ain’t it?”
A slipper clad foot hit his wizened green shin, Rose kicking him over and over.
“Stop it! Let her go!”
Her attack did nothing more than draw the Old Man’s sour gaze. Gripping the top of Rose’s red hair with his left hand, he lifted her off the ground. “I reckon it’s ‘bout time for yeh, too!”
Rose struggled, kicking and screaming as he laughed. She punched and grabbed at his unwavering arm before her slippers fell to the bare earth below her feet. Clenching his forearm she tried to pull herself free, but lost her grip as thumbs and fingers pulled inward to form reddish paws.
She shrank in conjunction with Snow in his opposite hand, feeling the fabric of her smock dress loosening and growing more ill-fitting by the second. Paws withdrew into oversized sleeves, and long hair shortened into a furry scruff still tight within the Old Man’s grasp. Moments later, Rose’s lupine body slipped through the collar of her dress, the clothes falling empty beneath the red wolf pup she had become.
Reed turned at the sound of his daughter’s screams, his axe halfway through a woodsman’s chest. Fur bristling at the sight of the Old Man with a whelp in either hand, he didn’t see the second woodsman step forward to swing until it was too late.
Autumn lunged past Reed’s side, running her sword through the monster’s heart and saving him.
The Old Man looked up to the night sky still holding the pups with splayed arms. Licking the blood on his lips he found the full moon and gasped with wide, black eyes discovering the Elven Star had come into alignment above it.
“Neh time! Neh time fer formalities!” he shouted turning on his heels to face the altar-stump. “Ah’ll just have teh bash yeh heads in on the altar an’ hope fer the best!”
His back now turned to the wolfkin outside his ward, the wizard began reciting a slow chant of arcane and trilling syllables. Autumn winced at the black speech, knowing what would follow, then yanked out the sword she had plunged deep into the woodsman while looking to Reed.
“What are we going to— Ah!”
She yelped and cursed pulling the sword out of the woodsman when it slipped from her hand. Fingers and palm reverting to a paw, Autumn watched the weapon sail clumsily over the tallow candles. They heard it land paces away after passing through the ward they couldn’t breach.
Their lupine heads turned to one another so quickly that they nearly banged their snouts together. Exchanging looks of realization between themselves and the axe in Reed’s hands, the pair scrambled for the edge of the ward. Like a barreling grove, the remaining five woodsmen clamored forward in pursuit only moments behind them.
Autumn’s knees buckled under her no sooner than she began her dash alongside Reed. Hindquarters flowing like water, she let go of her humanoid form altogether and retreated back to her familiar wolf-shape. Hitting the ground on all fours and barely missing a loping step forward, she whined looking up at Reed with amber eyes.
Each step was a losing battle for him, the curse upon the Easrune wolfkin pushing Reed further and further from a manlike shape. With a hunched lurch he reached the circle of candlelight and bashed his shoulder against invisible force. Far more wolf than man, he lifted the axe high above his head with thumbs and fingers in swift withdrawal.
The Old Man of the Elder Trees reached the stump at the heart of the desecrated grove with a final stride and the last word of arcana passing his lips. Looking at the spot where he had beheaded the Old Woman so long ago, he raised the white and red pups to send them crashing down.
Rose and Snow felt the impact of Sambucuss’ thrown axe hitting the back of his skull.
The girls remained griped at the ends of his splayed arms, and for a long moment the Old Man stood ridged and motionless as the steel axe-head began to hiss in gore. Then Snow felt the hand at her throat slacken, and the white whelp struggled out a cough and gasp of breath. He trembled, the vice of his fingers giving way on the scruff of Rose’s pelt before she dropped to the ground.
Snow kicked free of the Old Man’s hand as he fell forward rigidly, landing in the dirt on all fours before the wizard smacked face-first onto the flat top of the stump. The white whelp panted for breath, backing away from the naked green corpse twitching in cadaveric spasm.
Snow cautiously peeked around the Old Man’s motionless, bare soles. “Rose?”
A red wolf pup lay on her back, legs swaying slowly above her in amazement. “I’m here. But… different.”
Rose stilled her paws and looked past them to the moon. To the ever changing face that Lueinana showed the world. A shooting star silently crossed her lunar glow, followed by a dozen others falling to earth in streaks before they vanished.
Then Snow’s upside-down face and perplexed expression filled her vision.
“Rose? You’re all cute and furry!”
Snow tackled her friend overjoyed before she started a proper round of furious licking. The girls laughed and rolled as Autumn pressed her forepaws against the barrier and looked over the candlelight.
She turned to Reed beside her and nodded. “They’re fine!”
The red wolf stood oddly, one eye making sure his paws didn’t slip-out from under him. “How are we getting them out of there?”
Autumn didn’t have time to answer as the first candle fizzled-out underneath her. Falling forward with a surprised yelp, she knocked tallow cylinders to the ground. Wicks flickered and fell dark in a curtain cascade as Reed stumbled up next to the she-wolf on the boundary stump.
“Mama!” a girl’s voice shouted as the final candle died.
Autumn loped past Reed, and he witnessed the reunion of mother and daughter in the moonlight. She nuzzled and licked at the bitter sigils that still marked her as Reed looked away from the tender sight. He then cast an embarrassed look at himself.
“Is that you, Papa?”
He looked around at the sound of his daughter’s voice, then pointed his snout downward. A pup looked back up at him from the base of the stump where he stood wobbly-kneed.
“Y-yes. I’m a wolf for some reason.”
Rose wagged her sienna red tail. “That’s alright Papa. I’m a wolf now too!”
“Wolf-kin,” Autumn corrected curling up beside Snow. “We’re not common wolves… Although common wolves are a fine lot as well.”
Reed probed downward with a cautious forelimb before carefully guiding twice as many legs as he was comfortable with to the ground beside his daughter. “I could never get used to this.”
Rose leaned back on her haunches, pawing and nuzzling her father’s side for lack of arms to embrace him. “Thank you Papa! You’re the greatest papa, and you felled the Old Man just like the old woman said you would!”
The red wolf’s green eyes looked down at the whelp. “Old woman?”
“In a dream, Papa. She said you would fell him as he had felled the trees. That the grove would heal after.”
Autumn lifted her ears giving Reed a pointed gaze before looking around the grove. “The Old Woman of the Elder Trees… Perhaps she, lingers.”
Reed lowered his head and pressed a furred cheek against his daughter. “Rose often has dreams that provide insight, or shadows of things to come. Her mother was the same.”
Autumn nodded before Reed spoke again. “The Old Woman didn’t happen to mention when we’d be back to normal, did she Rose?”
“No, Papa. She didn’t show me any of this.”
Reed sighed, then looked at Autumn. “Well, I’m sure we’ll turn back to our normal selves any time now… Now that the Old Man is gone and all. Right Autumn? ”
The she-wolf shook her head. “Devil if I know.”
Reed’s red-furred ears flattened. “But… that’s the way curses like this work, right?”
“If that’s true, why aren’t you man-kin now? His woodsmen and ward are no-more.”
He turned his lupine head looking to the five woodsmen rooted mid-stride and motionless outside the grove. “Then… I don’t understand. Are we trapped like this?”
“I don’t know, Reed… But I don’t think it’s a curse. Instead, I think the Old Man twisted something intended to be a gift…”
The red wolf’s shoulders sagged.
“Grandmamma favored the tale of Lis, who became kin forevermore through the use of an elixir the caretakers of the Grove prepared for her. She wed a thegn, proudly… and I am descended of her line.”
He looked to his daughter, who still wagged her tail. “But we didn’t choose this! What kind of life will this be for her?”
“I’m sorry. I can’t imagine how I would feel trapped in a woman’s bare skin, or to see my daughter share the same fate with me.”
Rose pawed at Reed’s side drawing his attention. “Don’t worry Papa! We can all change into people some of the time, like how you all changed before?”
They turned hopeful eyes to Autumn before she shook her head again. “I’m afraid that the shapes your father and I had before are as close to human as wolfkin get, little one.”
The reddish pup lowered her tail. “Well, I’ll learn to be a good wolf then! I’ll like it… so long as Papa’s with me. I promise!”
Snow rose and excitedly looked to her mother. “Does this mean Rose and her Papa are going to stay with us? Are we a pack?!”
Her exuberance instantly transferred to Rose, who looked up sharp-eared and wide-eyed to her father. “Can we? Please!?”
Autumn stood and chuckled before padding over to a glum Reed sulking on his haunches. “They’re welcome, if they want too.”
Reed sighed, looking up to the stars before turning snout to snout with Autumn. “Huntaine help me… I’m going to say yes.”
Nodding, Autumn lifted a forepaw and offered it to Reed. “Allies and friends?”
“Both,” He replied placing his paw atop hers.
“I’m glad. I’ll teach both of you our ways,” she said looking down to Rose.
Reed shook his lupine head. “I’m going to be an idiot of a wolf, I know it.”
“Nonsense, you’ll make a fine Kin.”
Reed’s green eyes were dubious. “If you say so…”
“I speak no lies. Before you had a wild heart in the chest of a man, now it rests in a more fitting place!”
Reed took a breath to protest, but his daughter spoke first.
“Don’t be sad Papa. You know she’s right.”
Snow wagged a tail beside her mother. “Yup. I thought I smelled it on you too. And Rose.”
Reed looked at the hopeful looks of the girls, then met the earnest gaze of she-wolf’s amber eyes.
Autumn leaned forward with a sly look. “Good. Finally less pity and more honesty.”
She looked to the white and red whelps between them then pointed outside the grove with her nose. “You two go and we’ll be right along. Snow, you watch Rose while she learns her legs, and I’ll do the same for her Papa.”
A bounding Snow accompanied Rose while her cautious tread grew more confident with each step. They crossed out of the grove as Autumn faced the red wolf with a chuckle.
“They’re like sisters! And so fair… I fear we’ll be fending off suitors by tooth and claw as they come of age, Reed.”
He rose up with a wobble on his four legs, standing much taller than grey Autumn. “Given her mother’s beauty, I had steeled myself for that when I was a man… But please tell me that time won’t be soon?”
“No time soon. We age and grow the same as men-kin do.”
“Well, that’s a blessing because—”
Reed was cut short as a canine shiver worked its way from his head to his tail. When it passed he crouched low and surprised.
“I didn’t mean to do that!”
She laughed. “See? You’re already learning and not even trying!”
“But I hardly know what to do in this shape, Autumn…”
“And I barely know what to do on two legs! But I’ll learn if you’ll teach me.”
He shook his head. “Why would you want to know things we can only hold onto for a minute?”
“It’s true that the Old Man held a curse over all the Kin of the Easrune Wood, binding us to our wolf shapes. But it was a curse he needed to renew every new moon.”
Reed’s ears perked. “But now that he’s gone—”
“—We’ll be free to shift mostly as we please, for the first time in generations!”
“I, could like that,” the red wolf said before noticing a slow wag escape his tail.
“You’ve done our Kin a great service, Reed. They won’t deny you and your daughter pack and home; they’ll welcome you… Or face my fangs!”
Reed slowly lifted-up from his crouch. “Thank you, Autumn. I’ve not yet known you a night, and you’re a better friend than most I’ve ever had.”
The she-wolf nodded looking to the ground and scratching it with her forepaw. “You deserve my friendship, and I’m honored to have yours.”
“I don’t know if I’ll be a good teacher, but I’ll try.”
Autumn looked up and met his gaze with eager eyes. “I want to learn of bows! And snares. And climbing trees! And of gentler arts. Like one hand to another. I’ve known fingers but for moments at a time… To have them whenever I need will be like a dream!”
Reed’s lupine head bobbed in agreement before he took an excited step forward, then stumbled short of falling. In response, Autumn trotted close and helped him stand straight with the push of a bracing shoulder.
“I must look ridiculous to you,” he said.
A nuzzling snout slipped under his throat. “Nonesense, Reed… I fancy you this way. You’re very handsome!”
Ear to his chest, she heard his heartbeat racing as fast as hers. Then he folded his neck over her and she wished the moment would never end.
“Now I’m in real trouble, aren’t I Autumn?”
“We both are.”
The girls peered at them sitting on Reed’s discarded oxblood cloak many paces away until Snow, white in the moonlight, nudged Rose’s red fur. Withdrawing her eyes from the quiet scene, she looked to Snow who bristled with excitement.
“Mama likes your papa bunches! Maybe he’ll be my papa too?”
Rose nodded, then closed her eyes smelling the night. There was the odor of elderberries, and in her mind’s eye she saw the Grove restored; beautiful and bathed in summer’s light. Within, a red she-wolf walked beside the translucent Old Woman of her dreams… a white wolf-sister not far behind.
Snow watched Rose open her eyes and wag a tail. “All is well. We’ll make a happily ever after!”
Copyright © 2016 by Jason H. Abbott, All Rights Reserved.