There's a bitter frost coming. It scents the wind on the morning of Castiel's trial, and makes the villagers waspish and vicious. Frost would freeze the ground to iron, and they had bodies to bury. Those of Goodwife Holt and her child, which were still wrapped in sheets and stored in an outhouse to keep them unspoilt until burial.
By the time the trial was over, and Castiel was forced from the church, mouth bleeding from one of the selectmen's blows, hands bound and feet shackled with thick rope ties, the feel of frost had intensified, and fat, feathery flakes of snow were falling silently, grey against the white sky.
Castiel fell to the iron hard dirt and felt the breath burst out of him. His ribs ached beneath his torn shirt, his shorn head feeling the cold most cruelly. Men grabbed him under the arms, dragging him up and along, forcing him towards the edge of town, where the rough wood houses gave way to the dark and forbidding forests of the new world.
Through his one unbruised eye, Castiel saw the hanging tree as it grew out of the white, whirling air. Snowflakes brushed his cheeks and frozen hands, kissing the bare skin of his scalp, melting into the razor cuts. At his side a man touted a thick coil of rope. Castiel felt as if the noose was already on him, choking the life, the sight and breath and will out of him. Someone, Goodwife Johnson perhaps, threw a stone at his thin back. Men spat on him as he passed them by.
The hanging would be brief, thanks to the cold, no one wanted to stand and idle in the freezing maelstrom to watch the witch breathe his last. Castiel was forced to a stop by the tree, watching the noose being tied. He glances furtively at the group of villagers. He knows these people, made the crossing from England with them, carried all they had from Salem up to the new settlement. He had helped to build them sturdy walls, had hunted with them for deer and to kill off the savage wolves that prowled the forest. Now they would hang him for a witch, because of one woman's death, in childbirth, a most dangerous time even with the best of help and provisions, which they were sorely lacking here. Michael had spread vicious lies about him, how he had come to him in a dream and bid him sign the devils book. Castiel knew that his one time friend now hoped to make off with his property – his hand scribed bible and gold ring – both gifts from his mother.
He had come to new England to be free of persecution, to find God in this beautiful, savage place, so different to the priggish, opulent churches he had grown up with. Now he would die here on foreign soil. His body would go unburied, ravaged by wolves.
They force him up onto a propped log, fitting the noose around his neck. Castiel feels the rough fibres bite into his skin, and his heart kicks, his vision swimming with hysteria and tears. They are going to murder him, here, for a crime he hasn't committed.
Just as Zachariah moves to kick the log from beneath his bound feet, a musket shot rings out, and Castiel very nearly falls anyway. A cry goes up 'Attack!' and the villagers run, the women for the safety of their homes and cellars, the men for guns and shot.
Castiel is left, barely breathing as he fights the tight noose, trying to balance himself as he looks through the curtain of snow, searching out the natives who had most likely prompted the men to arms. He can see nothing, and he feels only cold, and the heavy dread of death.
His hands as unresponsive as wax images, he rubs his wrists together, gradually easing off the rope that binds him. He must escape, find refuge. He lifts his freed hands to the noose and slides out of it, dropping to untie his feet. His mind is racing, attempting to formulate a plan. He can steal provisions, warm clothing, he can make good an escape back to Salem, and from there he can stowaway to England.
Barely a second passes once his planning is done, before a voice calls for attention, a man points at him through the whirligig snow, and others, as yet unseen, take up the cry. He is found out, and will surely be caught if he stays a moment longer.
So it is that Castiel Milton, weaponless, dressed in only breeches and shirt, finds himself pelting into the thick border of trees – throwing himself upon the teeth of a new England winter.
For ten hours, Castiel wanders the wilderness of black barked trees and whirling snow. His hands grown numb at first, and then hurt like the blazes when he tries to move them. His thin shirt is useless against the falling snow and the ice cold. He walks on feet he can't even feel in boots that he can't even see through the growing carpet of snow. His face hurts, and his nose runs, the product of which freezes to his lip, as do the wind stung tears on his cheeks. His body is an instrument of agony, and he can barely stay upright as he struggles blindly through the woods.
His skin jumps and prickles with cold, and when his lumpen foot catches in a root, sending him to the ground in a sprawl, he hasn't the strength to get up. He's so tired, so very very tired, and the world is narrowing with darkness, until only snow, glowing white, is visible.
Castiel lets his eyes fall closed, feeling a phantom warmth crawl over his skin. Death, here, will not dishonour him. At least he was not hanged, for all to see.
Snow patters soundlessly onto the side of his face that is turned towards the sky. It feathers his eyelashes and almost blinds him, he blinks slowly, and the flakes move, letting him look out across the bluish crust of the snow.
No moon, no stars illuminate the forest, but he sees the wolf clearly enough.
The animal is large, it's fur a pale gold to rival the snow. Castiel can't even breathe, he hasn't the energy to scream, let alone run. The wolf would surely catch him, even if he could stand.
He knows this wolf. Of this he is certain. In hunting the creatures with the other men of the settlement, Castiel had seen a wolf such as this standing off in the distance. He had raised his musket, but stopped when the animal scented him and turned. The wolf had stared at him, into him, for a long moment, and then it had fled.
Castiel had no love of wolves. Some thought them beautiful, in some way soulful and possessed of a magic quality. To Castiel they were killers, pure and simple. Thin scavenging things, more purgatorial than blessed.
The wolf trots closer, its neat paws punching holes into the snow. It wets its muzzle with a red, steaming tongue, twitches its pointed ears.
Castiel can see the green of its eyes, and he knows that it can only mean death, to see the colour in a wolf's eyes.
He blinks and dark pitches in on him, drowning him like water touched with soot. The next thing he knows, there's a blunt thing prodding at his cheek and lips, and as some feeling returns to the skin, he can feel the rough muzzle of the wolf. His heart beats hard, and he's certain that he has woken in time to meet his end, when the wolf licks his face, and whines like any fireside dog.
It nips his cheek, then falls to scrabbling at the snow, uncovering him. Castiel can't think. Cannot will himself to sense, but when the wolf starts to bite at his frozen shirt, urging him up, he understands what is wanted of him. Even so he cannot comply. His body is too weak, too numb, to move.
The wolf urges for a moment longer, then sits back on its haunches and tips its head back, making a blunt, hooting call.
Castiel lies, half covered in snow still, and the wolf seems to listen for a moment, before creeping closer. It makes a soft 'wuff' sound in its throat, lying down beside him and nuzzling until it's pressed to him firmly. It's fur coat might be rough on the outside, but when Castiel presses his frozen fingers into it, he finds soft white fur underneath. The wolf whines and licks his face, snuffling his throat and the shorn stubble of his hair.
And for a while Castiel forgets to be afraid.
Sam runs through the forest, fleet on four brown feet. Dean's call was distinctive in the odd way that much about his brother was 'distinctive'. Neither man nor wolf, Dean's voice carried like a mangled cry – a sound produced by a man so long in agony that he had forsaken his humanity.
Apt, but no less disturbing to the ear for the understanding of it. It had long led the settlers to pronounce the woods haunted, and other animals shied for Dean as a matter of course.
When he finally finds his brother, deep in the snow locked woods, it is something of a shock to find him coddling a man who seems barely alive.
Dean hated all men, all people, and he was not one to play nursemaid to any but Sam, and then only when strictly necessary.
Sam pauses a few feet away and yips.
Dean looks at him, his head nudged up under the man's chin. Sam can see his ragged hair, the rope bruises on the man's wrists. He whines at the back of his throat, this is dangerous and stupid, and he will not do what Dean called him here to do.
But when Dean gets up and patters over to him, growling and raising all the hairs on his body, Sam is reminded of his place as the youngest. Dean is very much the one in command, and he wants to take a human back to their den.
Sam lowers his nose to the ground submissively, and he's rewarded with a neat bite on the ear. He glares at Dean and his brother just waves his tail before dashing back to his find.
Sam inspects the man himself, under Dean's watchful eyes. He wishes he could speak to Dean, but he knows that shifting back to human form in this weather would be suicidal. And even then, Dean hadn't changed for over five years. It seemed unlikely that he would wear the face of a man again for the first time tonight. So Sam is restricted to making a questioning noise at the back of his throat.
Dean makes a series of yips more suited to a puppy than the hardened, cynical man that Sam knows he is. His brother sniffs the unconscious man demonstratively, whimpering elatedly.
Sam sniffs cautiously.
He can't smell a damn thing, not besides blood and sweat and fear, and the smells of the forest. But Dean is nudging under the man's chin, slightly under his shirt, pursuing an odour that has him enraptured. And as much as Dean liked to scent humans in a state of fear, this was something more than that, it was almost...
Sam feels a deep disturbance in his mind. He had not realised that Dean was so far gone into his wolf state, so far removed from humanity. Dean had never liked strangers and Sam had put his aversion and hatred of the settlers down to simple hostility. Now he wonders if Dean even remembers that he was once a man at all. This behaviour, the way Dean scents and rubs against the unconscious figure half covered in snow, is too close to the mating behaviour of other wolves they've seen.
Dean has found a potential mate, and that mate is both male, and a species that Dean doesn't recognise as his own anymore.
A sharp nip on his hind leg snaps him out of his black thoughts, Dean circles him, and indicates with his muzzle that Sam should drag Castiel's shirt on the one side, while Dean takes the other.
Sam knows that without them, this man will die. If he refuses to help, Dean will probably try to force him to. So Sam takes his place and helps Dean to save a man from certain death. All the while he watches his brother, tail waving ecstatically as he drags the man through the snow, wondering what on earth could come of this, and how badly it was going to end for them.