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A Forgiveness of Wolves
"Open up in the name of the King!" Gerent's voice is edged with desperation as he hammers the door with his fist. This storm is not an opponent he can fight, nor one that Alize can sing into submission, and it is gradually freezing the marrow in their bones. They've trudged across a frozen lake to reach this single light in the darkness. All the way Alize sang a soft lullaby to the ice, keeping it sleeping and senseless, so it didn't open its jagged maw to swallow them up. But even with her Kings-Witch training there were moments when Alize's chattering teeth mis-cut her words and they came out wounded, and then the ice said 'crack, crack, crack' all about them, like deadly applause.
Standing, waiting on this doorstep, Alize feels they are trapped in one of those fake-snow baubles which is being viciously shaken by an amused child. She wonders again if this storm, and this winter, came on so soon and strong naturally, or was it sent? One of the many downsides of being a mistress of magic is that you start to see magic everywhere. Every misfortune, every curious event, could be the work of some unknown enemy singing against you. Especially now, when the old laws forbidding direct conflict between witches are slowly coming undone.
A chorus of howls echoes from the claustrophobically low sky, reminding her there's other things trapped in this scene with them. Gerent unshoulders his rifle and squints into the blizzard.
"You worry about the wrong things," says Alize. "They're a threat I can easily deal with. But this storm is getting-"
The door opens, spraying warmth and firelight and the smell of peasant cooking that awakens the wolf in Alize's guts. The open door obscures her view of everything but an old pistol that's pointed into Gerent's face: an entirely reasonable precaution that he takes no offence at. "Forgive the intrusion," he says, "we are travelling on the King's business and are caught out by this storm."
Two seconds pass before the owner of the pistol says, "Of course. Come in." A woman's voice, flat and cold as that frozen lake. Alize can well guess how she's weighed the risk of strange man at her door against that of turning him away to be murdered by this icy night.
Gerent is through the door instantly, spouting thanks and the King's blessings from his court-trained poet's tongue. Alize steps forward, expecting her presence to defrost the other woman's fears. Instead she meets a green, glacial glare that rocks her onto her back foot. This woman *knows*, knows even though Alize is out of uniform and wears no regalia of office. The warmth stops flowing from the room, and the snow seems to float between them as though time itself were frozen.
Eventually Alize says, "Forgive the intrusion, Madam. Gerent, come on, we're-"
"Don't be ridiculous. You'll die out there," says the householder. "I was just a little overawed, is all. I'm not used to such august guests." She performs a mock bow, causing her grey-streaked black hair to tumble across her face. "Come in, m'lady Kings-Witch."
Alize crosses the threshold, and says "Thank you," humble-as-you-like, determined to match the woman's hostility with graciousness. However she coughs into her gloved hand. A very precisely performed cough. Though he shows no reaction, Gerent will know: _Number Four cough: Something is wrong here, stay alert._
"Name's Marla," says their hostess, "I can offer you some stew. Bit of a come-down from courtly banquets, but I suspect you're cold and hungry enough to bear it."
Alize's starving eyes have already sought out the huge, aromatic pot bubbling on the hearth. She's also spotted the small shelf of ten books. She'd normally fly to coo over the bookshelf, for that is one place where people cheerfully put their soul on display, and where a careful observer can learn much. But their host is clearly resentful of Alize's privileged station, and of all the privileges a Kings-Witch enjoys, it is in the consumption of books that she is most gluttonous. Where this woman's mind has been kept thin on a shelf of ten flavors, Alize has gorged until she's fat and heavy and powerful with words and song. So Alize takes a place at the rudely-made table, wishing Gerent didn't pull the chair out for her like she was some princess, and confesses what their hostess already knows: "This is Gerent Hargersen, my armiger and assistant, and I am Alize Aldsdottir, servant to his majesty in 'special circumstances', as you have already observed. We would be grateful of anything you can spare, but we would not want to deprive your other guests."
Marla, stirring the pot with a ladle, looks at her sidewize and raises an eyebrow.
"That is not a pot for one person," explains Alize.
"Observant. That'll be the training, hmm?" says Marla. She brings them each a steaming bowl, and then some black bread that's shot through with nuts and seeds like gemstones in dark velvet. "Yes, I am expecting visitors, and they have no reason to love witches. You may find them alarming company, but you have my word that no harm will come to you under my roof."
Gerent attacks his stew with a vigor he would never exhibit at a courtly table. Alize waits long enough to see that he doesn't immediately keel over from poison, and then gratefully sets into hers.
"What brings a Kings-Witch to these parts?" asks Marla. "And on foot too?"
"We're on official business," says Alize, hoping Marla will accept that answer and not force her to invent any lies. "We started with horses, but they both died very suddenly a few nights ago."
"And you, a Kings-Witch, couldn't-"
"No. There were... complications," Alize changes to a safer subject: "This stew is very good."
It's Gerent who speaks next, around a mouthful of stew-soaked bread, "Your guests might do better to forgo the warm welcome of your hearth this night, Madam. Their journey here would be perilous, for there are wol-"
A snuffling and scratching and whining of dogs stops his talk and has both Gerent and Alize looking at the door. Marla continues filling bowls of stew, laying them out in a very exact spacing on the floor. Then she goes to the door and opens it.
Marla's guests pad in, steaming and snuffling and silver and huge. They give Gerent and Alize no more than a glance, and each go to their particular bowl and start lapping up the stew. There are twelve of them, so there must have been twelve voices howling after Gerent and Alize through the night.
Alize makes a choking sound and Gerent's gaze snaps to her. She holds one hand over her mouth, while the other grips the table as though she were on some storm-tossed ship, her skin a deathly grey. Gerent recognizes the reaction: mantic shock, the occupational hazard of those who are attuned to forces insensible by the untrained soul.
Having consumed the stew the wolves pad over to the fire, arranging themselves in a heap as though they were a puzzle that can only be assembled one particular way. Marla folds herself down amidst them and starts scratching them each in turn behind the ears.
"What is this?" asks Alize, having regained her composure.
"You know very well what this is, witch," Marla says. "This is my village: what's left of them."
"Are you saying these were once people?" asks Gerent. He looks to Alize, "I didn't think such things were-"
"Generally they're not," says Alize. "Changing the weather or taking a life, that is simply a matter of guiding reality onto a new path, but this is not bending reality, this is brute-force reshaping of it. Such a procedure could only be performed by someone with great skill, and the method would only found in the old, black books. The books that are supposed to have been burned long ago."
"Would this be beyond you, then?" asks Marla. "I thought a Kings-Witch was the best of the best. Is it not so?"
Alize's pride stifles her answer. Instead she asks, "Why? Why would anyone do this?"
"Oh, the old story," Marla sings the next words, and sings them well, some lines from a song that's been popular, in various forms, for as long as any can remember: "She once loved a lad, and loved him so well that she hated all others that spoke of him ill. And now he's rewarded her well for her pains, for he's gone to be wed to another." One of the wolves puts its head in her lap and whines to have its ears scratched. "Hell hath no fury," says Marla, "Goes double for witches, doesn't it?"
"No," says Alize. "No, we're not all like that. This person was clearly a rogue-"
"Can you undo it?" asks Marla.
For a long time there is only the innocent panting of wolves. Eventually Gerent says, "The law, unfeeling as it is, says-"
"I wasn't talking to you," says Marla.
Alize reaches across and rests a hand on Gerent's arm. "No," she says, "I can't."
"Can't, or won't?"
"Oh come now, you've seen the blasted battlegrounds in the north. You've been up there for solstice festival, or at least heard stories of how the stones glow at night and how strange things haunt the dead forests and ruined towns. You know the law. A witch cannot go against another witch, cannot undo her works or match song with her except on feuding ground within the containment of the old stone circles. I am bound by law and my vows."
"Vows and laws are just words."
"It was just words, sung by a witch, that did this," says Alize, waving to the wolves. "The societies we live in are built of words in contracts signed on paper. Some even think that reality itself is a kind of text-"
"Spare me your courtly theories and fancies, Kings-Witch. I just want my friends back."
Alize bows her head. "I know, and I'm sorry, but I cannot help you."
"Who would know if you did?"
"She would, she who did this, and when I return to the capitol, I must report to the Sisters of Truth. If I broke my vows they'd smell it on me the moment I stepped in the room. You know the penalties for breaking the witch's vow."
"Are they worse than life as a wolf?"
Alize shrugs. "Only the wolves can answer that."
The wolf in Marla's lap choses that moment to lift its head and lap her cheek with its huge tongue. "Is there nothing that can be done?" she asks.
"There is one thing. A witch's life is entangled with her works, that's why undoing one is such a strike against her that cannot go unanswered. It goes both ways. Find her and kill her, and many of her works will come undone."
Marla's laugh is bitter as the blizzard outside. "Me, go against a witch?"
"If you have a name, a description, I can report this to the capitol. A rogue witch is matter taken very seriously."
"It's been years," says Marla. "Why, I probably wouldn't know her if she walked in this room. Well, I'm sure you're both tired, there's a bedroom back there. Most nights I sleep by the hearth anyway." She holds out her arms to encompass her entourage of lounging wolves. "I prefer the company."
"That was embarrassing," says Gerent.
"Indeed, and you only felt it at one place remove," says Alize. "I was the focus of that storm." She slides under the sheets and heavy blankets, and insinuates an arm, like a snake seeking warmth, up over the granite topography of his chest. A forbidden thing this, for the witch's vow contains a pointless promise of chastity. They make you promise, make sure you can recite all the lurid punishments for any infraction of their law, and then they partner your with this boy made from poetry and muscles, to be your protector, as though you needed one, and your strong right arm. And you, a plain girl from a poor village who's spent her whole life in the company of books. It's the first vow you break, and now you're sat before the Sisters of Truth trying not to piss yourself while they stare with their terrible, dead, white eyes and sniff your scent, and smile, and say nothing. But you know they know. And they know you know they know. And you know that from this day forth you're walking with an invisible knife at your throat, because what the sisters know can be proved, and for some annoying reason a witch's healing magic doesn't work on herself. And this is the price for your fine clothes and fine lodgings, and the banquets and the audiences with royalty, and for people looking at you with fear and respect when you enter a room. And you will decide that it is entirely a price worth paying. And that is how the game is played.
"Do you ever wonder that we encounter so many witch-haters?" asks Gerent.
"No. If a friend angers you, then you are angry at that friend, because you know their name and nature and think of them as a person. But if a stranger from a foreign village angers you, you don't know them, you can't be angry at them by name, you must be angry at them by village. And if it's some fugitive witch that you took in and who betrays your kindness, then won't you be angry at every witch that ever lived or ever will? But then, that's not anger any more."
"If you can help those people, then why not do it, and rules be damned?" asks Gerent. "It would be the right thing."
"Perhaps. And what would I say when I returned to the cap-"
"Then don't. We're on a fool's errand and we both know it. It doesn't take a Kings-Witch to know which way the wind blows. We will not be able to make a difference at our destination, even if we can get there, and we know someone is singing against us. The time for diplomacy is past, and summer will bring a storm worse than this blizzard. We could run now when the snow would cover our tracks and be leagues away when that storm breaks."
"There have been other wars," says Alize.
"This one will be for keeps," says Gerent. "A witch can smell a witch, can smell their deeds and power. I've seen you wrinkle your face, squeeze shut your eyes and go pale in the presence of the King's new girls. The law is everywhere being overruled by emergency powers. We all know both sides have opened up the black libraries. We don't need to be here when the hammer comes down."
Alize is silent for a long time. Eventually she says, "Indeed. And what were the first sixteen years of your life like, my love? Were you a farmboy? Oh, you have a farmboy's muscles, but where did you learn the arts of sword and gun, and where did you get your poet's tongue? And all the other secret things you know. You were trained, like me, and I'm sure they drilled you on the dangers of a rogue witch. I'm sure you know your duty at my first wayward word is to strangle me in my sleep, or step behind me on the road and put a bullet in my back when I least expect it. You are my keeper. Not so?"
And now there is silence from Gerent's side of the darkness, until he asks, "Have you always known?"
"No. I've long suspected, but I didn't know till you just confirmed it."
"It's all true," says Gerent. "But the system is coming down about our ears. And I say we should run into the night like Marla's wolves, and be free, and together, and happy."
"And that is exactly what you'd say if you were testing my loyalty to the crown and my vows."
"But I'm not-"
"We will not speak of this again. Ever," says Alize. She leans over into the darkness, and takes the edge off it with a kiss. "We will forget this conversation. It will not change anything between us," she lies.
"You'll regret that answer when the war rolls by and we're both dead," says Gerent.
"Then I'll regret it when we're dead as that is the best time for regrets. Now, get some sleep. I suspect we will have an early wake-up call in the morning."
Alize is already dressed when she shakes Gerent awake. "Get up, get dressed, they're coming." In the cold light of day he is back to being her manservant. "Make no sudden moves and don't be alarmed. Remember, they're not really wolves."
Soon there comes the staccato sound of wolf-claws on floorboards, and three of the pack arrive at the doorway of their room. They whine and run in circles, colliding with each other and the walls. One bold one bounces up to Alize, and carefully grips her sleeve in its jaws. It starts backing up, pulling her gently but insistently.
"You can leave the gun," Alize tells Gerent, seeing him dressed and armed. "We won't need it." To the wolf she says, "Yes, yes, we're coming."
The wolves lead them to the lake. There is a great rent in the ice and the rest of the pack, soaked and shivering, are dragging something from the black waters.
"Gerent, go and give them a hand with that, please," says Alize.
Gerent goes over and simply picks the object up and brings it to her as though it were no more than a bale of straw. It's Marla, of course, her lips blue and ice-crystals forming on her lashes. Alize leads the way back to Marla's cabin, the wolves forming a pack around them like grey bodyguards. Once inside, Gerent lays the dead woman down before the hearth. The room is crowded with wolves and whining. Alize kneels beside the body, pulling off her gloves and pressing her hands to the Marla's face and neck as though seeking a pulse.
"What do you think happened?" asks Gerent.
"That should be obvious," says Alize. "Marla has taken the advice I gave her last night. If the guilty witch dies, then the magic will start to come undone."
"Oh," says Gerent.
"You wondered that she hated witches so much. Now you know," says Alize.
The pack sit in a semi-circle about them, a lupine jury. "You know why she's done this," Alize says to them. "If she dies, her magic will start to come undone. So, I tell you that she's far gone, this body's badly damaged. But I'm a Kings-Witch, and I know the songs that can bring her back. However, the art rarely works by song alone. I need life to charge into her, and quickly. I can think of no reason why you would give it, but," she holds a hand up and out to them, "a year from each of you should be enough. Well, who would give a year of their life for this wayward witch?"
The wolves cast panting glances at eay other, eyebrows twitching. Then one of the largest, an old grey male, somewhat shaggy and with a cast in one eye, shambles up and presses his great head against her hand. Alize feels a smile tugging at her lips, for this old one surely has few years left, and thus is giving more than the others. The rest will have to follow his example now, or be shamed. Who knew there was such politics among wolves? But then, these are not really wolves.
With one hand on Marla's cold brow, and one on the wolf's head, Alize starts chanting the incantation, voice rising gradually through two octaves till she hits the trigger-word and a shock of life arcs through her, the pain of its passage forcing a grunt out of her. The human body rarely enjoys being a conduit for anything. Marla twitches once, then lies still. Alize holds her hand out to the next wolf. It takes only four infusions of life before Marla's eyes shock open and she takes a shuddering breath. Alize puts a fifth one in, because she knows how much it hurts to be awakened from eternal sleep and feel life driven into your body like burning oil. Anything worth having is worth suffering for.
The first word out of Marla's mouth is, "No."
"Here, drink this," says Alize, and when Marla gives her a rebellious look, "you can throw yourself in the lake again tomorrow, or tomorrow, or tomorrow, when I am far from here. Today you can do me the courtesy of not dying on my watch."
Marla accepts the steaming brew. "You should have left me," she says.
"I would have: it would have been a fitting punishment and would simplify things greatly, but your grey friends were very insistent that you should be saved. I did wonder how you knew me at your door, but a witch can smell a witch. I couldn't scent you, because my senses were dazzled by the aroma of your excellent cooking. But you were already acclimatized to that, and a Kings-Witch has a strong smell from all the things she knows and has done. That's how you knew me. And I did wonder about your story: How were you not turned into a wolf with the rest? Perhaps you went away and came back and your village was gone, replaced by wolves. But then a reasonable person would conclude the townsfolk had been eaten, so who told you all the gory details? And you can read, why would a town like this bother to teach its daughters that skill when they could be out working in the fields? And you have an excellent singing voice. Now I wonder: Where did you learn your art?"
"Oh, you know that," says Marla. "The villages flaunt the law, for the law is no friend when you son has injured himself playing with farm implements, or your daughter falls in the lake, or your cattle are sick. They keep some old books in hiding, mostly healing spells, and secretly train up a girl who is smart and too plain for marriage and too sickly to work in the fields. There's even a trade between villages in smart girls with good singing voices. That's how I came here, bought and sold like a pig. Oh, they treated me well, told me I was special, and I believed it, until I fell for one of their sons, and that's when I discovered how special I was. His family forbade it, quickly got him married to some other girl."
"But who taught you the spell?"
"I found it in a songbook, of course. I realized one of the books could be read in different ways, so that it contained many more songs than it seemed. The songs I found were dark and different and powerful."
"Not just the wolf-spell, then?"
"No. I'm full of terrible things. I loved them, I learned them all. They made me feel special. Dark and different and powerful. You'd know about that I think, Kings-Witch?"
"Yes," says Alize. "Yes, I know exactly how that feels."
"And when you're angry, or envious, or afraid, do they push themselves to forefront of you mind, do they cry for release, demand to be spoken, to be sung out into the world?"
"Yes. But that's why I have years of Kings-Witch training to ensure that I am mistress of the song, and the songs are never mistress of me."
"Well, I didn't go to your rich-girl's school, Kings-Witch. On the day of the wedding I couldn't hold the song in. I only meant it to be temporary, something that could be laughed off as a jest, but something that would learn them to respect me in future. But I hadn't memorized the reversal spell, and when I went back to read it, the book was gone. Vanished. Like it had always just been there to trick me."
"Indeed, some of the old books are wolves in sheep's binding. They have their own agendas, and come and go as they please."
"Those who were not transformed fled the village, terrified of me. Only the wolves stayed. I searched and searched and couldn't find that bloody book. And they howled and howled. It was terrible. They were no good as wolves, they didn't have the training. They couldn't hunt or forage. They haunted their old houses trying to live as people. I hid from them, afraid of their judgement. Then the winter came. One night the howling outside my door faded and grew still. I went outside, and they were all just mounds under a blanket of snow. I should have left them, but I couldn't. Somehow I dragged them all in. I don't know how: I was never a strapping lass and a frozen wolf is a heavy burden. But I did, and I shocked life into them. My life. That's why I look so much older than I really am. In the years since they've become more accomplished at the arts of wolvery, but they still come to me for some home cooking, and I cannot turn them from my door."
"And you know all these spells still?" asks Alize.
"I've sworn that no song of power will pass my lips again."
"But you've already broken one vow. They wouldn't have taught you anything without exacting some promise of good behavior, or they'd be fools. I bet it started, 'An first I'll do no harm-'."
Marla turns her face to the wall. "You cannot judge me, Kings-Witch, I can smell the things you've done."
"I'm not judging you, I'm just saying your vow will not hold. You cannot unlearn the things you know, they will be inside you always, calling for you to use them, and one day you will. You're very powerful, I can smell it now, it's subtle, but it's vast. Normally I'd recruit you into the King's service, but-"
"But there is a storm coming. The King has new witches. He's not a bad man, the King, but he has bad advice. In fact he's little more than a boy, too early to the crown after his father's death, and already looking older than his years. They get the new witches young, mostly orphans and street-strays gifted with fair voices, all of them plucked from the most terrible circumstance. Most are survivors who have already lost their fear of death, but they respond very well to a good meal, a clean bed, and a few kind words. They learn fast. They're tutored from the old, black books that are supposed to have been burned, but which every state keeps secret copies of: for security, of course. When they graduate they're given these gorgeous new uniforms, all silver and black and important. You should see them marching with the soldiers on parade day, it's a glorious thing to be one of the King's new wolves. They fear nothing, and they stink to high heaven of the old power and not one of them has taken the witch's vow. They are not merely ready for war, they dream of it: no one wants to be a weapon that rusts unused. And we are doing this because we know the neighboring states are doing it, and they are doing it because they know we are doing it. And when the big day finally comes it will be our witches against their witches, and that will be the end of the world. No, I don't think I'll recruit you to the King's service, Madam."
"It's a lonely life you live here," says Alize. "Do you wonder why your grey friends wanted you saved?"
"They must want me to live to bear my guilt."
"Or perhaps they have forgiven you. Perhaps life as a wolf has its compensations, once you've learned the ropes. Perhaps they do not want to change back. Have you thought of that? In five years Gerent and I will probably be dead in the coming war, for that is our duty. But you are free to choose your own path. I have a solution to all this that you may not have considered."
"And what's that?"
Alize leans close and asks, "Teach me the transforming spell."
The thick snow crunches as though their boots were breaking its bones. Not a cloud in the sky. It seems the clouds have fallen to Earth, and are sleeping off some great drunken orgy, draped white and silent over fields and roads and rooftops.
Gerent steps behind her, as though they were walking on some narrow path and had to go in single file. Alize's back twitches. He's supposed to walk in front, as her herald and protector, and her strong right arm. Except now she knows he has other duties in regard to her. Within her jacket pocket she slips her left hand from it's glove and hums a swift sequence of words deep in her throat. Something deadly suffuses her quivering fingers.
_Could she? Would she?_
She turns to face the moment. All she sees is Gerent, lost in his own thoughts, walking in her footsteps. How could she have thought it? Yet she knows that from now on she'll always be nervous of him at her back. Ah well, maybe the tension will add something to their relationship. Beyond him she spies movement in the snow, and realizes they are being watched.
Gerent almost collides with her, gives her a puzzled look with his ice-blue eyes. "Look," she says, directing his gaze with a jerk of her chin.
Outside the empty house a crowd of grey ghosts are watching them. Alize raises a hand and waves. One by one they duck their long heads in salute and depart, the last one studies them for a long time with emerald eyes, before it too dips its head and turns away. Twelve silver shadows lope away into the white oblivion.
No, not twelve, thirteen.
A magic number, that.