“Meet me underneath the silver boughs,
No one else has to know.
Meet me under the veil of secrets,
Before the day expires.
There, my love, I’ll steal your face,
Before anyone inquires.”
A twig cracks behind me. I spin in place. The haunting melody lingers in the air as I can barely make out movement in the darkness.
I hear the snarl first, a low growl that activates my primal prey-drive to flee. Then, a glint of light breaks the mist. Two, luminous, glowing yellow eyes peer at me.
Step by step, the hulking beast approaches. It’s the largest wolf I’ve ever seen, with paws nearly the size of my booted feet. Its fur is a dark slate color, as if it were born from the mist itself. Its lips are peeled back from its razor sharp teeth.
I match its steps by inching backward.
“Don’t,” I whisper. The word quivers. “Please, don’t.”
Why did I have to sing? I might as well have basically shouted, Here I am, terrible beasts of the Fade! Come and eat me! Now I’m going to die alone in the dark because of a song I don’t even like that much.
My back presses into a wide tree trunk and I glance around, looking for somewhere to climb. Damn. Of course there’re no branches.
I look back to the snarling beast, meeting its eyes as I reach in my satchel and retrieve the other roses. If I can make a branch grow, I might be able to climb high enough. Though, judging by its powerful legs, I’m already in lunging distance.
“I’m not a good meal,” I say. “Why don’t you go back where you came from?”
If it were possible, the wolf only snarls more.
My hand closes around the rose stems. I press my other palm into the tree behind me. What do I want to do? Grow a branch? Will I be able to swing up in time?
I could try and make a cage of roots, like Eldas did to Luke. But the complexity of making something large and strong enough makes me nervous. Meanwhile, the wolf continues to approach.
Choose, Luella, before you’re food.
Branch it is.
The roses wither and crumble under my fingers. But nothing happens. Magic flares in me and fizzles out harmlessly in the air.
The wolf lets out a roar and goes to lunge. I try and scramble up the tree, uselessly. In the process, I slip on the damp moss and fall backward.
The world moves slowly.
This is it. This is how I die. Mother always said I went too deep in the forests. She always told me that if anything did me in, it would be that I wandered too far from home.
You were right, Mother.
My back slams into the earth and my bones rattle. I nearly bite my tongue clean off. My teeth sting and ears ring. I imagine the sensation of the throne clawing under my skin. It’s the wolf claws on me now. Then there will be the teeth, and blood, and—
Hot breath is by my ear. Sniffing.
I pry open my eyes and am met with the wolf’s luminous gaze. It sniffs the side of my face. The boy—as I can now affirm—circles me. He sniffs my hands and buries his nose into my bag.
When he’s done with his inspection, he sits, curls his bushy tail around his paws, and stares expectantly.
“What?” I slowly sit upright. “You’re not going to eat me?” The wolf continues to watch me. “Then what was all that growling for?” I rub the back of my head. It’s still aching. “And what made you stop? Not that I’m complaining.”
He tilts his head at me. His ears twitch. It’s then that I notice a deep gouge in his right ear.
“Wait…are you…no, you couldn’t be…” I shift onto my knees, finally getting a good look at the wolf. He continues to stare expectantly. His tail lifts and then drops heavily. “Are you the same wolf as that day in the woods with Luke?”
It has to be. He has the same bright, knowing eyes as the wolf we saw then…now that he’s not snarling at me.
“Is this the second time you’ve startled me out of my skin?” I laugh airily. A sane person would likely begrudge the animal, but I’m actually slightly amused. “How long have you been watching me? You’re cheeky, aren’t you? Did you know long before I did who I was?”
He tilts his head in the other direction. Maybe it’s a yes.
“Do you know the way out of here?” I’ve lost my mind. I’m talking to a wolf. “You can get to the edge of the deep wood, right? Where it meets the temple grounds? That’s where we met last time; I want to go back there.”
The wolf continues to stare at me for several more seconds. With a sigh, I pull myself onto my feet. Wolf guide? A little too much to hope for.
“Well, anyway, thanks for not eating me, again.” I hold out my hand in a low wave goodbye.
The wolf moves. His legs are just as powerful as I imagined because before I can blink he’s crossed the gap between us and pressed his head into my palm. I stare in wonder as my fingers sink into the rough, dense fur. Even though he looks like he’s born of the Fade’s mist, he’s solid. Then, he backs away slowly, holding my gaze.
He turns, and disappears into the darkness.
“That was…” I start to say, but am cut off by a flash of gold. I can barely make out the wolf’s body from the curling mist. But I can see its glowing eyes. He looks almost expectant. “Do you want me to follow?”
The wolf begins to trudge ahead. I dash over to keep up. I’m likely following it to its favorite tree to pee on. I don’t even know if this animal does pee. Is it an animal at all? Or a beast made of shadow, like the horse Eldas rode to Capton on?
Doesn’t matter. He’s the best chance I have of getting out of this place. We walk through the dark woods for what must be another hour before I let out a groan of frustration.
“Thanks for nothing,” I mutter. “I’m going to go this way now. It seems just as good as any other direction we’ve gone in.”
A bark and a growl stop me mid-step.
Another low growl.
“Fine, I’ll follow a little longer.” I throw my hands in the air, resigned.
We walk until the trees give way to a mossy clearing. A circle of stones rings a larger tablet in the center of a small rise. It almost looks like a tombstone and I shudder.
“This isn’t the temple grounds,” I scold. The wolf huffs and walks over to the large, vertical memorial. He lies down next to it. “Is this your favorite place, though?”
He tilts his head and raises his eyebrows at me, as if to say, Isn’t this where you wanted to go?
“No, it’s not where I wanted to go,” I mutter as I approach the large rock.
There’s writing on it, faded with time. It hides behind a cloak of the same green moss that grows out from its base. There’s something distinctly temple-like about this place. It reminds me of the old shrines that dot the pathways that wander forgotten in the deep woods.
“What does it say?” I whisper, reaching forward to wipe the moss from the etchings.
“Nothing you can read.” Eldas’s voice breaks the still silence, and I don’t even bother suppressing a groan.
“Are you surprised to see me?” he asks with gravel weighing down his voice.
I turn to face him and can’t decide if he’s more like a wraith, or an agent of the Forgotten Gods. The darkness of his hair is teased by the mist of the Fade. The gray pallor of his skin is like cut stone, unnatural and ethereal in this world of living night. If it were possible, he looks even more powerful than he did in the throne room. And several times more severe. I fold my arms to protect myself from his judgment.
“I suppose I shouldn’t be.”
“No, you shouldn’t be.” Eldas scowls. “What were you thinking?”
“I sat on your throne; I brought about spring. You clearly don’t want or need me here anymore and I am little more than a burden to you. I was going home.”
He blinks slowly and shakes his head. “You…you think you were a burden?”
“Given how you’ve treated me, what else was I supposed to think?”
“I have made an effort to be civil to you.”
“You have not,” I snap without thinking. He takes a step back, as if he’s taken aback someone would speak to him in such a manner. Given our experience in the throne room, I’m the one who’s surprised I can still make him shocked.
“Well, I…I’ve given you apartments. I’ve given you the royal purse to furnish them with. I’ve not locked you away or barred you access to anywhere in my castle—a decision you’ve made me very much regret.”
“You treated me like a puppet! You controlled me with my own true name!” I continue without remorse. I’m in too deep by now, might as well keep digging. “I don’t want to be some pawn for you. I’m not going to spend the rest of my life training my magic just so you can scare some other kings of Midscape.”
He takes another step back. I see anger rise on his cheeks, furrowing his brow. Until his whole face softens.
“I’m sorry. I was wrong.”
“I don’t…” I don’t want your apology, is what I want to say. But I gather my composure and rephrase. “I don’t want words, I want action. It’s easy to apologize, Eldas. It’s harder to mean it.”
“I will try harder then.”
“Or you can let me leave.” A wet muzzle presses into my palm, as if the wolf is trying to remind me he’s still here, beside me. I scratch him between the ears, grateful I have someone on my side. Eldas’s eyes drop to the beast and narrow slightly, but he returns his attention to me. “You don’t want this marriage; I don’t want it. I did what you needed and brought about spring. So why are we trying to navigate living and working together?”
“Because we must.”
“Why though?” I take a step toward him and the wolf matches my pace. The idea of advancing on the king with a beast of the Fade emboldens me some. “Stop…stop shutting me out, please. If you’re really sorry for how you’ve acted, here is your time to change it. If you want me to help you then help me sincerely. Teach me like I asked, don’t berate and put me down.”