Deep in the forest primeval - where the hemlocks grew tall enough to cast deep blue shadows on the winter snow; where the mighty pines stood watch over the meandering paths like druidic elders, and the hollow wind echoed between the trunks of the trees and in the stone ravine with a mournful and prophetic cry - was the cottage where the Widow Lucas lived.
To the people of the nearby village it seemed strange and dangerous for the old woman to live there, with no man to protect her, in the heart of wolf country. True, the house had been built by her husband, but that was many years ago, when it was rarer for the wolves to venture so near to human settlements. But the time for sentiment was over. The woodsman Lucas was long dead, and her son-in-law had been killed during the summer, and so it was just she, her daughter, and the babe, living unguarded in the wilderness. And now, livestock was beginning to be killed. There were claims that people had seen a wolf from their bedroom windows, stalking the empty streets of the town by night.
It didn't seem right for anyone to stay so far from protection.
Yet it was not the dangers of solitude that marked the cottage. It was a quality more unearthly. Some intangible thing, as real and unreal as the howl of the wolf on a moonlit night, that seemed to reach out from within it - almost like a firelight without warmth or glow. Perhaps it was just the love that the widowed women had for their home and family, perhaps it was the ancient spirit of the forest sitting silently at her hearth, or perhaps it was something more sinister.
A chill ran up the spine of the village messenger, as he knocked on the creaky wooden door.
From inside came the cry of an infant, and the shuffling of feet and skirts on the floor. The Widow Lucas was soon before him, looking about as annoyed as anyone could get to be.
"What do you think you're doing?" She demanded, "Knocking on a woman's door like that? We'd only just got the little one to sleep! And lord knows how hard that was to do! Her teeth are coming in!"
The messenger just stood there, dumbstruck by the old woman's vinegary greeting.
"Well?" She demanded, "Did you need something? Or do you just go around disturbing babes' naps?"
"The, um," He stammered, "There's a… a meeting. In the town hall. They sent me to let you know, in case you and your daughter wanted to go…"
"Meeting? What for?" The Widow Lucas asked skeptically. From somewhere else inside the house behind her, the crying was beginning to calm down.
"It's about that wolf people have been seeing. They say it's getting dangerous."
"Wolves are part and parcel with these parts, and anyone surprised to see one is a damn fool," She scoffed, "I don't keep anything but chickens, and if the wolf wants one bad enough to break into my coup I say share and share alike. You just tell those brave-hearted men at their meeting to build better fences."
"But I think they wanted to offer you a place to stay, closer to town…" The messenger protested.
"This nonsense again! We're perfectly safe right here! There's not a thing in the world that can do more harm to me than I can do it with a crossbow bolt. Now get off my doorstep, I'm not letting any more cold air in here just on your behalf."
And she slammed the door in the messenger's face.
With a discontented grunt, the old woman made her way over to the hearth and built up the fire a tiny bit more. Her granddaughter had been so irritable of late, as was only natural, and the last thing she wanted to do was give the little one something else to cry about.
"Who was it, Mother?" Vivian asked softly, stepping out of the back bedroom and rocking her baby in her arms. She was a stunning woman, with waves of chestnut hair and bright, almost colourless eyes. They were her father's eyes, and every time the Widow looked at them, she felt such a strong mixture of love, regret and guilt, that she had to turn away.
They were now her grandchild's eyes as well.
"They're holding a town meeting," She told her daughter in steely tones, "Seems the wolf has been getting a little close for their liking."
Vivian lowered her eyes to floor.
"I do try."
"Well, try harder, girl," The Widow scolded, "I swear, after what happened to your husband - you should want to make more of any effort!"
"Mother, please don't…"
"You need to be more careful! You never heard tales about the grey wolf stalking too close to town!" This last part had been repeated what seemed to be more than a hundred times over the years. And indeed it was true, for there had always been very little talk of the grey wolf.
There was no talk of it at all, now. For the grey wolf had stopped hunting a few years before. At wolfstime, the Widow Lucas' senses sharpened until they rivalled the edge of an executioner's axe; but the wolf itself never appeared.
"I don't have your strength," Vivian tried to explain, "I know that I become the wolf, but I never remember myself when I am the wolf. And when it's done, I have so few memories of ever having changed."
"That's how it is for all of us in the beginning," Her mother reminded her, "Nobody says it's easy, Vivian. But if I could learn to control it enough, and your father could learn to control it more than me, then you can certainly learn to do it better than either of us."
Vivian nodded obediently.
But in her heart was a dark secret, that she could barely bring herself to confess even in thought: She did not want to control the wolf. She wanted to run wild, to stalk and hunt, to find others of her kind more embracing of their gifts than her mother. She wanted to live the stories her father had told her when she was a girl.
It was so true that it frightened her.
And even after the death of her husband, she had not found a change of spirit.
He had been a good man, if a little uninteresting, who laughed easily and loved the small pleasures of life. He had also loved Vivian. He had praised her great beauty, adored her for her quiet nature, was thrilled by her sudden bursts of adventurousness, and was never shy of complimenting her. He had held a good but humble job as a carpenter, and soon had enough coin to his name for a marriage.
It had been so easy for Vivian to believe she had loved him. So easy to believe that the comfort she found in his presence would be enough. On top of that, her mother acted as if she did not mind the young man in the slightest, which had seemed so impossible that it was almost awe-inspiring.
Vivian had accepted his proposal.
The Widow Lucas had agreed to approve of the match under certain conditions. The first was that the young couple lived in her home, which seemed reasonable enough to most. She was getting on in years, and would need strong hands to help her keep the land. The second condition was slightly less typical of a widowed mother-in-law.
There would be some nights, she had warned Vivian's betrothed, when her daughter would be absent from his bed. On these nights, no matter what sounds roused him from slumber, or what mysteries filled his head, he was to lock the doors and windows of his room and sleep with a silver dagger always within reach of his hand. Strange as it was, he agreed - and the pair was married in the autumn.
Their first winter together had been harsh and unforgiving, the snow fell until it reached as high as Vivian's waist, and gathering enough food and wood was difficult for all who lived in the village that year. The transformations had not been easy because of it, and her husband became suspicious of her sooner than he might have otherwise. Vivian's feeling of being caged by her marriage was also given an early start, as she found herself pacing the small cottage and beginning to despise every bit of conversation he made.
It should have been easier when she was with child; the transformations stopped during all that time. And though her husband's suspicions began to fade, Vivian's restlessness only grew. She would dream every night of running through the forest, the soft earth beneath her unshod feet, the countless stars blazing above her.
What she had told her mother about having few recollections of her time as the wolf was true. But she had omitted how dear to her these recollections had become; at times they had felt like her only friends.
Once Liza was born, and the transformations began again, Vivian hunted with a recklessness and fervour she had never shown before.
Her husband, meanwhile, had become protective of their child. He had begun taking the responsibilities of a paterfamilias very much to heart, and his willingness to unquestioningly follow his promise to the Widow Lucas was failing. What exactly was the silver dagger for? Where did Vivian go on these nights? Was Liza safe? It wasn't enough for him to be told that all was well. It wasn't enough for him to follow his instructions and trust that he was doing right by his family.
One evening, just as the sky was darkening and the moon was rising, he watched his wife hurry into the thick of the forest.
He followed her in.
He never followed her back out.
Suddenly, the warmth and weight of the baby in her arms pulled Vivian back from her thoughts. She looked at Liza's sleeping face, and the dark wisps of curls on her tiny head. She loved her daughter with all of her heart, more than she thought it possible to love. Would the girl also be cursed? Would she spend her life struggling between two natures, as her mother before her?
"Do you think," Vivian softly asked her own mother, "That Liza will be like me when she grows up?"
The Widow Lucas took a thoughtful breath, as though she were about to say something comforting or insightful. Instead, she just went about the question with her usual gruffness.
"Cross your fingers that she isn't. The last thing we need around this house is another melancholic who's too pretty for her own good," The old woman shook her head and took the baby in her arms, "With any luck, she'll have some backbone to her. Like me."
It was spring when next someone knocked on the Widow's door. Liza had grown by then, and was getting into all manner of trouble as she put together the finer points of walking. She had also taken to uttering a nearly constant stream of baby babble, and her hair was getting long enough to count as a nuisance. When the knock sounded, she made a sort of sing-song noise that seemed a bit like she was trying to tell the person they could come inside.
"You hush for a moment," Her grandmother chided her, standing from the chair where she had been sewing a summer dress for the baby, "If you can."
She was expecting the town messenger again, or one of the young boys who tried to earn extra coin selling flower seeds. It was quite a surprise to find a stranger.
He wasn't a tall man, but he had a boxy build and very strong shoulders. He looked to be around ten years younger than the Widow Lucas, but his eyes were older. Dark and mournful, they had the wisdom of loss in them, and the bitterness of killing. Over the left was a scar that ran in two claw strokes down the side of his face. The iris beneath it was paler than the other, but not quite clouded with blindness. His mouth was soft and thin, as though it wanted to smile but couldn't.
He was dressed in more expensive clothes than the average man in the village, but they were still working clothes. There was little about them that spoke to finery or fashion, except for the leather gauntlets he wore, which seemed more appropriate to falconing than getting anything of importance done
"The Widow Lucas?" He asked, with very fine manners.
She nodded, and waited for him to state his business. All the money and etiquette lessons in the world couldn't make an unannounced visitor welcome on that woman's doorstep.
"My name is Tius, and I apologize for calling on you without a formal introduction," He nodded graciously, "But it is a matter of some importance that brings me here. Do you mind if I speak with you inside?"
"What about?" She asked in return, crossing her arms and regarding him with great contempt.
"The wolf, Madame," He said, "The wolf."
Reluctantly, she held the door open wider and let him into the house. As he stepped inside, he removed one of his gloves but not the other. When he noticed the baby playing on the floor, he smiled very warmly.
"Her mother is in town, buying a few supplies." The Widow Lucas shrugged, scooping Liza up in her arms and sitting with her at the kitchen table. She nodded at the chair across from her, and Tius took his seat there.
"She's a very pretty little girl." He said, in a way that was meant to flatter the grandmother more than the child.
Unsurprisingly, the comment failed to impress.
"Being pretty is no way to put beans on the table," She replied, "This girl is going to learn how to earn her keep."
"Don't you want to teach her to be a lady?" Tius asked with some amusement, "Perhaps then you could marry her off to a lord, or even a prince, and the matter of her keep would be settled quite easily. Marriage is the vocation of natural beauties, or so I've been told."
"The women of our line haven't had much success in marriages."
"Ah, yes. Your daughter's husband," He shook his head, "I had been told, and then I had forgotten. I'm very sorry for your loss. Am I to understand you lost your husband under similar circumstances?"
Liza was tugging at the loose glove in his bare hand, and he let go of it so that she could look at it.
"What do you mean?" The Widow Lucas looked puzzled.
"That your own husband was killed by the wolf, just as your daughter's was?" Tius said, "And one of the older men in the village tells me that you lost your father to the beast as well, is that true?"
Liza had grown bored with having just the one glove to play with, and so she reached across the table and tried to pull the one he wore off his hand. He pulled his arm back so quickly, he startled the baby, who gurgled with displeased confusion and put her arms around her grandmother's neck. It looked for a moment like she was going to start bawling.
"I'm sorry," Tius said with a remorseful shake of his head, "I didn't mean to frighten the child."
"Something wrong with that hand of yours?"
"Nothing, except that it is not there anymore," He knocked on his gloved hand with his bare one, and an unexpectedly dull noise sounded, "Wood. You see, I have lost something to a wolf as well."
The Widow Lucas regarded him with fresh eyes. A man with manners like his, alone in a village of this size with no formal announcement? No large carriage? No servants and no baggage? Perhaps the clothes were an attempt to go unnoticed, but it was more likely that he was a practical man in practical attire. No need to wear Sunday's best when hunting a wolf.
It had always been a small relief to the Widow Lucas that the village was too poor to bring in specialized hunters. Now they had found one willing to work for vengeance instead of coin.
"What exactly did you want to talk about?" She asked, very calmly.
"They tell me you have resigned yourself to coexisting with the creature, that you fear further loss from confrontation…"
"They don't know when to keep their mouths shut."
"Nonetheless, I understand your position," Tius went on, "But I am a stranger to you, Madame. What does it matter to you if I face the wolf? A small sadness, perhaps, but it will be fleeting. Tell me what you know of the creature, where it hunts, what its habits are, where you think the lair might be, if there are others…"
"I haven't seen others."
He nodded eagerly.
"How big is the creature? How close have you been to it?" He asked, with a strange glint in his eyes.
"I can't," The Widow Lucas stood from the table, the baby playing with the edge of her blouse's collar, "I can't tell you what you want to know. I saw a wolf of this kind tear through each and every one of my brothers, I watched it rip my own father's throat out. I forgive them no more than you can, stranger, but I will not be party to any more deaths at their jaws. If you really wish the wolf dead, leave it be. Time will kill the creature. Time kills them all."
"It is unfortunate that you won't aid me," Tius said, following her to the door, "But know this: If I die facing the creature, it is only because I have chosen to face it. Because I must face it. There will be no guilt on your head for this decision, Madame. I am a man obsessed, and very little will come between me and my quest."
"You can't win." She told him.
"We shall see," He replied, "Thank you for your hospitality."
She softly closed the door behind him, and watched him make his way down the path. A lump of anxiety rose from the centre of her heart until it was in her throat, choking her. What was to be done? Tonight was the first night of wolfstime, but she could not keep Vivian near the house. What if she lost control of herself completely and did harm to Liza?
Making up her mind, the Widow Lucas put the baby in the cradle for a nap, and looked for an old and worn travelling case that had not been used in years. Glancing out the window at how low the sun hung in the sky, she estimated that there would be seven hours before the moonlight was strong enough to begin the transformation.
Where on earth was Vivian? What could be keeping her?
When finally she heard the creak of the door, and the soft step of her daughter's boot heel on the wooden floor, the Widow Lucas had almost finished packing the case.
"Is she asleep?" Vivian whispered, tiptoeing to her daughter's cradle and paying no mind to what her mother was up to.
She pulled the blankets a little higher for Liza, and watched her slumber with a smile of pure serenity on her face. These moments were small and far between, but they were what gave her strength to continue. To walk the line between two worlds. To be the best person she could manage to be, so that she could be the best mother her daughter could hope to have.
"I'm sorry I took so long getting home, I ran into Mrs…" She stopped, as she turned to look at her mother, and saw for the first time the travelling case in her hand, "What's that? Spring cleaning?"
Her mother did not answer her.
She looked around the room, and noticed that only some drawers were open and only certain items were missing.
"Mother, have you only packed my belongings? I don't understand…"
"Come into the front room, girl." The Widow Lucas replied, with a glance at the slumbering child.
"What's going on?" Vivian asked, once the bedroom door was closed and they could raise their voices a little.
"A man came by the house today," The Widow explained, "A wolf hunter. He's not from around these parts. He's dangerous. If you leave right now, you can still make it a good trek from town…"
Vivian couldn't help but laugh. It seemed so unreal, so impossibly silly of her mother to worry in such a way.
Flashes of memory came to her, of men with torches and spears, men with crossbows and men with axes. Clever men who had dug hidden pits in winter, bold men who had left snapping iron traps.
All of them were dead.
Vivian was still very much alive.
Still, it troubled her to see the steely old woman so anxious. Her mother had never been fearful about hunters before. She had always taught her daughter to avoid them, if possible, and never approved of their deaths; but this was the first mention of running away.
"You're serious?" Vivian asked with curiosity more than concern.
"I mean it when I say that he's not like the hunters you've met before. Now do as your told," The Widow handed her daughter the travelling case, "Go as far as you can, and send word when you reach a new town."
"A new town? That would take weeks on foot! And I have no map to guide me!"
"Your senses will guide you, foolish girl. I'll write and let you know when it's safe to return."
The realization of what her mother was asking her to do hit her sharply. She was being told to abandon her home and her child out of fear, for a length of time that could span months or even years.
Every day, Liza was growing. Every day, she was changing and accomplishing some new and wonderful milestone. How many moments would be missed? Cowering in some unknown town?
Vivian had craved freedom, but not at the expense of being part of her child's life.
"I won't abandon my baby."
"Use your head, Vivian!" The Widow implored, "If you leave her now, you leave alive! But if this hunter does what he…"
"He won't!" She snapped with a sudden and vicious sharpness.
The old woman stepped back, her expression a mixture of sorrow and disappointment. Vivian had spoken with a voice from beyond the grave, a voice that the Widow Lucas had never been able to reason with or fight. It was the voice of the Wolf himself - the man who had taken all things from her, and whose blood ran in their daughter's veins.
Calmly, she took the travelling case back into the other room and laid it on her daughter's bed.
A few moments later, without speaking, Vivian began to unpack it.
The first night had been hell.
The Widow Lucas had sat in her rocking chair, from dusk until dawn, waiting. Wondering what was happening beyond the things she could see and hear. In those dark depths of the forest, beneath the fullness of that accursed moon.
A few times, she had almost drifted off to sleep, but was woken suddenly by a sharp cry in the distance. She had risen from her chair at once, and gone to the door. When she opened it, she was greeted by the echoes of silence.
It had been impossible to tell if the sounds had been dreams or not.
Finally, as the first rays of pink sunlight beamed through the tops of the windows, the door to the cottage opened. Vivian walked inside, her cheeks flushed and her eyes glassy, still in the strange hypnosis that always followed a transformation. She would not speak until she had slept; and if spoken to, she would not respond.
Watching her daughter glide through the room, alive and unharmed, the Widow Lucas took a steadying breath. She wiped her suddenly damp eyes, forbidding herself to cry, and went to her own bed to try an get an hour or two of rest before the baby needed her breakfast.
The relief she felt was so overwhelming, that the old woman had fallen fast asleep at once.
It was later that day, while Vivian and Liza were playing with wooden building blocks on the floor, and the Widow Lucas was organizing the cupboards, that she noticed they had run low on oats. It wasn't a particularly pressing issue, but it gave her something to help take her mind off of things, and she was so weary from her vigil, she hoped that the fresh air of the journey would do her some good.
And, for awhile, it did serve as a mundane but welcome distraction. The weather was pleasant enough, and a few of the women in town said hello. She got her oats, packed in a burlap sack, and was making her way back down the street, when a well-mannered voice said to her:
"Allow me to help you carry that, Madame."
She had not been expecting him to be alive.
She took in his appearance - his fine clothes, the scar on his face, the leather gauntlets - as though she were looking at him for the first time. There wasn't a single fresh wound on him. He seemed hale, hearty and well-rested. Cheerful, even.
"You're looking at me like I am a ghost." Tius smiled.
"You should be one. I thought you were hunting the wolf last night…" She shook her head. He lifted the heavy bag away from her with his good hand, and slung it over his shoulder.
"Oh yes," He nodded, "I was. But, you see, hunting has quite a few stages to it. Or it ought to, if you intend to succeed. And since you would not tell me anything of the wolf's habits, I was forced to deduce them myself."
"You were spying on it?"
"I suppose, in a manner of speaking, that I was. We hunters generally prefer the term tracking. Just in case you are ever holding conversations with a more sensitive man of my profession."
He began to walk, having little desire to stand in the middle of the street holding someone's oats. She went alongside him, hoping to get some information out of him without giving her anxiety away.
"Did you see it?" She asked.
"Then you know the size of it. You know that it'll crush your bones in its jaws as soon as it lays eyes on you," She laughed bitterly, "You were lucky to make it through the night, but that's hardly the kind of luck that sticks. If you hunt it, it'll hunt you right back. And I know which one of you I'd put money on."
"It was not luck, Madame. It was wisdom," He replied, "As for the size of the creature, it was as I had expected. Perhaps even smaller."
"Yes. I have seen wolves of this kind before. I have killed them."
"And were you able to follow it back to wherever it makes its lair?"
"Regrettably, I was not."
She stopped at the edge of the road that led into the woods and towards her cottage.
"You better get some rest," She told him, taking back her bag, "Plenty of things are going to get you killed tonight, falling asleep on the job shouldn't be one of them."
"Good day to you, Madame. I will leave tomorrow, once the wolf is killed. If I do not call on you to bid farewell, know that it has been most interesting to make your acquaintance."
The Widow Lucas made her way home, mourning something. She wasn't sure if it was the death of Tius, or the death of Vivian, or the loss of the small feeling of control she had gained since the death of her husband. Things were spiralling hopelessly out of her stubborn grasp, and there was nothing she could do.
Nothing but watch them slip away.
She spent the rest of the afternoon strangely silent. Perhaps it was because she knew that talking was feeble, or perhaps because she couldn't think of anything that could be said.
Vivian would not run now. Not after the quarrel the day before, and not after surviving the night.
She listened as Vivian told a fireside tale to Liza, and thought it strange how slow and quickly time seemed to pass. Her daughter had grown in the blink of an eye, and now had a daughter of her own. And yet, a single day had never seemed so long - and she knew that the night would seem much longer.
"Mother," Vivian said coldly, just as the sun was beginning to set, "I'm going to the woods."
"The hunter is still looking for you," The Widow Lucas replied, steeling herself against the doubt in her heart, "Watch yourself. If you can."
There was an unpleasant silence between the two of them, though Liza kept up her usual racket by banging two of her blocks together.
Finally, Vivian spoke:
"I don't think you've ever had any faith in me."
"You never listen to a word I say." The Widow replied.
She meant that she had more faith in her daughter than she'd ever had in anything else before. When she told Vivian to work harder, when she gave her advice or criticisms, it was to protect her. Sometimes she set the standard high, because Vivian was supposed to do better than her mother. She was supposed to be better than her mother.
Everything she had ever said - kind or cruel, harsh or soft - had been said because she had faith in Vivian. But the way she tried to tell her was wrong, and so Vivian left the cottage without another word; thinking that her mother had simply chastised her again.
The second night was very different from the first.
It was still hell, but the ache of the Widow's sorrow and the tiredness of her bones overwhelmed her. She waited in her chair, but fell in and out of bursts of deep sleep. Some came with vivid shards of dreams, others with hazy memories that drifted into one another.
One was a mixture of dream and memory. A day she had tried all of her life to forget, but never could.
She was eighteen years old, her long and lovely golden hair in a loose braid that she could never seem to keep neat. It was a sweet summer, the grass as soft as down, and she was going barefoot in the meadows. She was in search of foxglove flowers, which were her mother's favourite. They were also poisonous, and she knew that she had to be very careful when picking them.
A breeze brush past her, sweeping up her plain brown skirt and sending a chill down her spine. She felt as though she were being watched, but as she turned and glanced around the meadow, it was obvious that she was alone.
Her scars began to tingle, like her arm was falling asleep. She had been resting the handle of her flower basket in the crook of her elbow, and readjusted it. Thinking it was something as simple as that. How could she have known? And if she had, would she have run? Would she have sacrificed all the good that came after?
In this dream, she thought that she might have. If she had been able to tell the girl what lay ahead, what losses and what sorrows…
But no. There was Liza now.
And so the dream - the memory - played as it always had.
She walked along the path, flowers in her basket for her poor mother who had lost her mind when she lost her sons, humming a sweet tune she knew. It was the last time she could ever bear to hear that song again. A voice began to whistle the tune back to her, a low and handsome voice. It startled her at first, but then captivated her. She had never heard a man who could be so true to every note.
So young and so foolish, she strayed from the path into the thicket of birch trees, following the sound of the music.
When she came upon him, she gasped and dropped her basket. The flowers scattered in the grass.
He was leaning against the white and silver trunk of a slender tree, his face sharp and pointed, his hair chestnut brown, his body lithe and muscular. He wore a loose white shirt and black leather leggings. His boots did not match, but they looked expensive and perhaps the wrong size. He had stolen them.
He had turned his neck gracefully to one side, and was regarding her out of the corner of his eye.
His eyes. Cold and sharp as an arctic wind, and so strange in colour. As though they had once been a very bright blue, but it had faded away. She had always been taught that imps and devils had either golden eyes or red, but perhaps she had been taught incorrectly.
She snapped free of his gaze, and fell to her knees to gather her flowers.
He laughed at her.
"Do you remember me?" He asked. The way he spoke, she would later reflect, was what stopped her from running. After all, he was a stranger; young girls ought never to speak with strangers. But his voice was not mocking or spiteful, as she would have expected it to be had she known at once who he was. It was almost pleading. The voice of a man who could be remembered by no living soul, for all who knew him died.
It was the sorrow of the cursed. She was too young and inexperienced to recognize it.
"I've never met you before," She had replied, with some defiance brewing inside of her, "Now are you going to stand there laughing, or are you going to help me pick these back up?"
With a smirk, he knelt down across from her and back placing the scattered blossoms in her basket.
"Foxglove," He observed, "You must be careful with it."
"It's poisonous. I know."
"Like so many things, it pays a price for its loveliness."
She looked at him once more, and found that he was strangely familiar. Though she could have sworn she'd never seen his face before.
"Who are you?" She asked him softly.
"I am the son of a priest," He answered with a shrug, "I am that which has been forsaken."
"Priests don't have children."
"Just because a man is not supposed to do something, hardly means that he will not do it."
The conversation kept twisting away from her, as though he were giving her slack to do as she pleased, and then yanking her in the directions that suited him. Trying to regain some semblance of control, she decided to ask a more mundane question:
"Are you a traveller?"
"Yes." He replied, amused.
"And you say you've been to these parts before?"
"And we've met?"
He grinned, and all the sharpness of his face now seemed to match a sharpness in his soul.
"I even left you with a memento."
A loud knocking on the door sounded, but there was never any door among the birch trees, and she became confused.
The knock sounded again, this time rousing her from the dream, reminding her that it had all passed and could not be undone. Merely relived.
Terror clutched her aging heart, as she realized that it was still nightfall.
Gathering all of her strength, for she knew she would need it, she opened the door.
The lantern lights from the cottage spilled out onto the doorstep and illuminated the sight she had most feared.
Tius stood before her, his form ragged with exhaustion, his face streaked with dirt and blood. In his arms he held the crumpled, lifeless form of Vivian.
The Widow Lucas wanted to scream, to let loose a primal cry of anguish - but when she opened her mouth, no sound issued forth. The grief that had come upon her was so strong, it could kill her; and so her heart had shut it out. She would feel it in bursts, a little at a time, until it was all gone. But for now, she had no words and no cries to comfort herself.
The Widow stepped forward, and took her daughter's face in her hands.
The girl was so cold.
"The others…" She managed to say hoarsely, "Do they know?"
"They were cowards," Tius replied, "They fled the hunt long before the deed was done."
He seemed remorseful, though resolute.
"Did you know before…" The Widow refused to let her strength fail her before she could find some peace through her questions, "If I had told you that she…"
"It would not have stopped me. Almost nothing would have," He explained as gently as he could, "I did not wish to kill your daughter, Madame. Only to kill the beast which held her captive. She is free of it all now. Perhaps you can find some comfort in that."
"No, I don't believe I can."
"There is one last thing, Madame. If you can bear it."
"What could you dare to ask of me?"
"The child. I must see her. I must know that she is not as her mother was," He said, "And then I shall help you bury your daughter."
The Widow nodded, and he stepped inside with the body still in his arms. He placed her alongside the floor by the hearth, with her arms folded upon her chest. The dying firelight danced on her pale skin, and made her look as though there was still some life in her.
For her mother, to see it was to feel the twist of a knife.
She led the hunter to the cradle, where Liza slept soundly in the moonlight. Her likeness that of any infant, and her grandmother thanked all that was in heaven the curse had seemed to pass the little one over.
Tius dug a grave behind the house, alongside two others. It took him until daybreak to finish, and as he worked, the Widow Lucas washed the blood from Vivian's body and dressed her in her favourite gown. It was difficult, but she could not stand the thought of letting her go into the ground as she was.
They buried her by morning light.
Liza was only half awake in her grandmother's arms, with no knowledge of what the ceremony meant. Tius offered a scholarly prayer that did nothing to soothe the old woman's mind. Yet, she was grateful that he was there. Simply because she could not have been so strong if she had been alone.
She took the child back into the house as he filled the grave with freshly turned earth.
There would be a new beginning now, she would have to leave the forest and the village behind her. The place was too stained with blood, too full of memories both sweet and sorrowful. She would go as far as her coin would take them, and raise Liza among happy playmates and friendly faces. Perhaps to the town where she herself had grown up.
It would be difficult at first, with empty pockets. And there was little steady work to be had for a woman of her age, but it would be good.
She would have no need for finery, and she would teach Liza to have simple needs as well. After all, the child herself was now the greatest treasure in all the world.
Worth more to her grandmother than silver or gold. Precious as a rare, red ruby.
A/N: Thank you for reading. For those of you interested in a longer story about Granny and her relationship with the Wolf, check out As you're pretty, so be wise by SarahBelle.