In the darkness of alleys and doorways, the wolf waited and watched. He vanished from the vision of the villagers passing by, common fools too wrapped up in their brief lives to notice a true threat. His boots made no sound as they struck the cobblestoned street, and his light footprints were barely discernible in the dusty side paths. He was no more than a flash of movement in the corner of the villagers' eyes, a flicker that caused an uneasy wrinkle to form between their eyes before being quickly forgotten.
Leaning against the tavern, the wolf's sharp eyes followed the slim shape of a young woman hurrying down the road. A blood red cloak enveloped her, secured at the neck, with only a few pale brown curls escaping from the scarlet hood. It hung low on her forehead, brushing the smooth brows above her wide brown eyes. A wheat-colored basket dangled loosely from her hand. Her cheeks bloomed with color from the brisk fall air, and she waved happily at a raven-haired woman sweeping her doorstep.
She moved with purpose and awareness, her head turning side to side often to be certain she would be unbothered in the busy village. The confidence of her energetic stride suggested this was the path she walked every day.
A woman alone, used to caring for herself, the wolf realized, sniffing the air. No one to protect her. Prey. Make her run.
No, the cool and orderly human side of his brain advised him. She is of the blood.
The wolf watched as the woman beamed at her dark-haired friend and crossed the narrow street to join her on the doorstep. The women exchanged warm greetings, and disappeared into the shop.
He could follow her. Her scent was strong and distinct in his nostrils: lavender and mandrake root and rosemary and summerberries. A trace of pine needles and wood smoke underscoring the sweeter odors that emanated from her hands. She smelled wild and fresh under her demure red cloak, and it was all he could do not to break down the door and sink his teeth into the soft flesh of her throat. Tear her apart and bathe in the redness.
No, his quicksilver mind admonished him. Not yet.
Molly Hooper brightened as she spotted her friend on the front step of her shop. She waved and dashed across the street to join the other woman, hoping the new pots would be ready. She was already off to a late start, having overslept after staying up late preparing the remedies. Her right hand still ached from clutching the pestle and grinding away at leaves for hours. And if she didn't arrive before dark, Grandmother would worry and badger her even more than usual in her loving way.
"Molly! I thought you were visiting the Colony today?" Soo Lin smiled, set aside her broom, and squeezed her friend's arm. She looked lovely as always in her cranberry-colored day dress, though the bodice was dotted with clay dust. The potter stepped through the doorway and gestured to follow. She brushed her palms on her forest-green apron, and ducked behind her counter.
Molly pushed back the red hood and placed her basket on the countertop where the wares were displayed. The morning had been a busy one for Soo Lin, Molly saw. Several bright new bowls her friend had finished glazing only the day before had already been purchased, and she noted a clean collecting bucket set down by the door.
"I am, yes. I've bought some roasted chicken and berries and apples for Grandmother to bring along with the remedies. I was hoping the new medicine pots would be ready?" She glanced at the bucket again. "Do you need a hand gathering more clay before I go? Those pails get so heavy."
Soo Lin shook her head, and ducked behind her counter to rummage through a shelf. "I'll manage it later. I'm no delicate miss." She laughed softly, her dark eyes shining, and drew out two small lidded pots from the lower shelf. "For your herbs. I've added a triple-glaze, a new kind of enamel a man from the West sold me. They should keep ingredients fresh longer."
"Oh, these are wonderful!" Molly cradled one pot, lifting the tiny lid to admire the delicate work the potter had accomplished. A crimson eight-pointed star inside a black circle decorated each brown container and its matching lid. Molly traced the lines of the unfamiliar symbol. "And you didn't have to paint them too- they're beautiful. Let me give you more coin, this is too-"
"No, no, I did it for my own selfish pleasure." A mischievous grin appeared on Soo Lin's face. The playfulness was unusual in the potter, whose solitary ways and quietness had unfairly earned her a reputation for standoffishness among the villagers. "With the plague spreading, no one has money for extra touches. I know it's wrong to think of beauty when times are growing dark, but I miss the challenge, the ritual of painting…and the colors, of course. There's something rather sad about the plain pots- purpose without joy." She shrugged, and Molly saw wistfulness in her before Soo Lin turned away.
The potter brushed her hands again on her apron, and spun back around to face Molly. "Forgive me. Rambling about pots, such nonsense." Her expression turned sheepish. "Michael Stamford was in this morning. Purchased the large blue bowl, and said it was a gift."
Molly groaned as she tucked the clay containers into her basket. "Perhaps it was for his mother. Or a cousin. Or his goat," she added hopefully.
The women broke into exasperated laughter, and Molly sighed. "He is such a good man. An apothecary would be an ideal match. He would be a good father. He's kind, he has a beautiful home here in the village, and I can't bear the thought of accepting his proposal. He speaks, and I have to recite calla balm ingredients in my head to stay awake. I know everyone thinks I'm mad to not leap at the chance to be married again, but I need more than safety."
This time, Molly silently added.
"I don't think you're mad." Soo Lin picked up a clean rag and dipped it in a bowl of water. She rubbed the countertop clean, and wrung the cloth over another bowl as she considered Molly's confession. "If you accept Michael's proposal, you may grow to care for him, but you may also grow to loathe him. You love your home and your garden near the forest; why abandon your happiness for a man whom you merely regard as kind and nothing more? And who smells sometimes of goat?"
Molly giggled and breathed in relief. "Yes, that is exactly right. He has to accept a final no. It's all so simple when you say it. I am grateful you came here. The last few years would have been very dull without you." She hesitated for a heartbeat before continuing on. "I know times have been difficult since your brother…left, but you will always have my friendship."
Impulsively she reached for Soo Lin's hand and squeezed it.
The black-haired woman held her hand, and her almond-shaped eyes were fierce. "And you will always have mine, Molly Hooper."
She stepped back quickly, and her eyes darted to the oaken cabinet in the corner.
"I have something else for you, actually. A gift. You've been traveling to the Colony so often, and with those two woodsmen disappearing last week, I thought you might need this. As a precaution."
Molly set out for the Colony in the later afternoon, having scanned the skies and felt confident the rain would hold out. The autumn had been mild, with nothing more than the occasional shower. As Molly strode down the shaded path between the trees, she felt the oppressive airs of the village fall away, and the crisp freshness of the forest filled her. The leaves had already turned, and the poplars and maple trees became brilliant clusters of burgundy and orange and lemon-yellow. Molly stooped to pick up an unusually pink leaf, and tucked it into her basket, atop Soo Lin's gift folded in a clean rag.
A squirrel wrestled with an oversized nut under a bush, and she startled the creature with her laugh. He eyed her suspiciously and disappeared into the wilderness, his bushy tail stiff in offense.
She adjusted her hood, looped her forearm through the basket handle again, and continued on her way. Grandmother would be waiting, unable to focus properly until Molly arrived as planned. No matter that she was always late, and that there was much work to be done for the unfortunate residents of the Colony. When the last surviving child of her daughter was traveling alone, Grandmother would fret until Molly was safe in her cottage.
The afternoon grew cooler as she moved through the corridor of trees. The path was old and oft-used, the dirt beaten down and the fallen leaves kicked to the wayside. The woods were oddly quiet.
Getting hunkered down for winter, I suppose, she thought, though it seems a bit early for that.
Molly hummed as she walked, though her arm began to tire after nearly an hour. She sang louder, a ditty she'd heard someone singing outside the tavern, about a milkmaid.
Our girl, she cares for the cows,
Gathering up the milk,
Her skill is unmatched, aye,
There's none so fair of her ilk.
Our girl, she makes delicious cream,
And churns the best sort of butters,
Her skill is unmatched, aye,
Her clever hands with our udders.
Molly skipped along the path, looking around out of habit as she remembered how each verse increased in riskiness. She stopped to pluck a leaf of wild basil. As she straightened, she noticed the sky where it peeped through the canopy was fading toward twilight.
Uneasiness rippled in Molly's belly.
It's far too early, isn't it? It hasn't been so long, I don't think. She scanned the narrow path ahead and estimated she was three-quarters of the way to Grandmother's house on the edge of the Colony. It should be light at least another hour.
As she stood considering the strange sky, Molly heard the distinct crack of a branch breaking, followed by the unmistakable crunch of something landing heavily on dead leaves.
Gooseflesh rose on her arms, and her pulse sped up. The faces of the woodsmen who had gone missing flashed through her mind. Prickles of awareness stung the back of her neck. She spun around- and saw nothing but a bush moving with the gentle wind.
"Just a branch from a tree, it's nothing, it's just…a branch," she trailed off. She steeled herself and turned back to the path, forcing her feet to march forward.
Pushing ahead with resolve, Molly ignored the goosebumps on her skin and the fear curdling in her stomach. As she moved on, the distant sound of a stream cutting through the forest reassured her. She was getting close- the stream actually cut through the Colony, providing a small source of clean water for those too weak to climb to the well on the hill. She smiled and felt her tension slip away as she realized how near she was to Grandmother's house.
She had thoroughly convinced herself she imagined the whole thing when she happened to glance to the left, and see a pair of bright yellow eyes peering at her.
She blinked hard, and stumbled. Her fists squeezed around the handle of her basket, and Molly felt as though her heart came to a stop.
Her brown eyes met the yellow ones in the bushes, and she felt her stomach heave. She took a step backward, and the instinctive retreat drew the creature forward out of the growing darkness.
A grey wolf slunk out of the bushes, his eyes capturing hers. It looked like the animals she had seen in drawings, only this one was nearly twice the size of the largest wolf she'd ever seen in pictures. He was a deep smoky grey from ears to tail, with thick muscles tensing under his fur. As he crept closer, Molly frozen in shock, she realized the tips of his ears were almost at the height of her chest. His eyes blazed at her, and his tongue lapped at his muzzle. His mouth stretched in an awful grin.
Hungry, she thought, in a daze. Her stunned mind drifted toward the basket clutched in her hands, the basket smelling of fruit and herbed chicken. Had the scent drawn the massive animal to her? Her fingers began to move down to open the flap.
Don't. Stay very still, she heard Grandmother's cheery voice in her mind. An old memory resurfaced and she froze anew. Molly remembered being very small and being lectured by the hearth after a wolf had attacked a child during a hard winter. Don't move, don't run from a wolf. It's what they want, what they need to hunt.
Her gaze was locked with the wolf's, and she sensed impatience in his shifting paws. His mouth curled, his teeth bared and Molly sucked her bottom lip into her mouth to keep from screaming. Her body burned from resisting the urge to run, ignoring the rush of energy that coursed through her body and told her, Flee, this thing is your death.
She gasped, and Molly broke.
She turned and ran.
The wolf threw back his head and howled, a joyful proud wail that drew a sob from Molly as she crashed through the bushes, away from the naked path where there was nowhere to hide. She fled and her muscles stretched and drove her faster than she'd ever run in her life. Her red cloak snagged on a branch and she yanked it away in a panic, leaving a strip of scarlet fabric from the hem behind. After a moment of bloodcurdling howling, she heard the terrifying crash of the wolf into the leaf-strewn bed of the forest, following behind her.
Her legs carried her toward the stream. In the tiny piece of her mind that was still logical, she knew she could become lost very quickly as the sky darkened. She heard the roar of the overflowing brook, and a desperate hope took hold of her.
Molly scampered up the rocky side of the small hill toward the brook. She recalled the tall pine trees on the other side of the stream.
Dogs can't climb very well, can they? Are wolves different? Breathing heavily, Molly slid down the other side of the hill toward the water. She waded through the knee-high water, tripping on stones. An idea dropped into her racing mind.
Instead of crossing the brook, Molly ran through the water upstream. If the wolf couldn't scent her, he couldn't track her, could he? She wasn't certain, but the shocked numbness was wearing off. The fear was sharp and her eyes welled as she hopped through the water as quietly as she could manage. The forest was dim around the stream, and she prayed she was still headed in the right direction. If she could just get far enough ahead, she could hide for a while until the wolf lost interest and wandered off.
The basket still dangled from her hand, squeezing it tight out of long habit. If she lost the medicine, she couldn't make more for another month, and many would be in terrible pain. She gripped the handle and sloshed through the water, the coldness beginning to pain her. Weariness set in as she pushed against the current.
Molly tugged the hood back onto her head, hoping that the blood red would appear black and make her invisible in the twilight. She picked her way across the rocky bottom of the water and tripped on a jagged stone, landing on her hands and knees on the wet grass beside the stream. The basket rolled onto the ground beside her, tipped but unharmed. The new pots inside clanked against one another and she winced, hoping they hadn't broken.
She cursed under her breath, pulled herself to sitting, and tugged her skirt up to her thighs to rub at scraped knees. Something splashed the water to her right, and her gaze flew up to find two unflinching yellow eyes glowing at her.
Her heart pounded inside her chest, and this time she didn't question or fight it: she froze.
Light from the rising moon glinted off the shimmering water. The wolf tilted its head to the side and she realized it wasn't the same creature.
This wolf was just as massive, but his fur was dark brown, mottled with red patches. His belly was pale beige, and the thin fur around his muzzle was white. He watched her intently, his tongue lolling out of his mouth. His muzzle was soaked as though he'd been drinking the streamwater, and after a few seconds of shocked staring, something odd occurred to Molly.
I surprised him. And he looks…annoyed?
Yes, annoyance was the right word for the expression on the wolf's face.
His yellow eyes fell to Molly's exposed knees and the trace of blood on one. The wolf padded forward, his damp paws moving quietly on the soil. He dipped his nose low to her legs and sniffed.
She drew in a breath to scream, but it died in her mouth when the animal simply scented the back of her knee, his wet nose startling but not painful. She'd never thought canines had much expression but his face seemed almost curious as he learned her smell.
She chewed on her lips, resisting the urge to push the wolf away. He lacked the urgency of the other creature, and she had no desire to inspire him to chase.
The wolf abruptly drew back from her body, his eyes wary and distrustful. His ears stiffened and he swung around.
Hearing nothing, Molly bent forward to see what had drawn his notice.
The dark grey wolf stood high on the embankment over them. His thick paws had made no noise, it seemed to her ears, despite the difficulty of climbing the rocky hill.
He snarled and his malevolent eyes were aimed at the other wolf instead of Molly this time. The two large creatures took each other in, and she had the sense that this battle had nothing to do with her.
The wolves stared tensely, hairs standing on end and faces shifting, more teeth showing as seconds passed. Molly had the unkind wish that these two animals would duel each other and let her escape in the meantime. Or at least give her time to retrieve Soo Lin's gift from the basket.
The grey wolf yipped, and the one by her side tilted his head again. He didn't approach the other creature but he didn't retreat. His cool yellow eyes stayed trained on his apparent enemy.
Almost as confused as she was frightened, Molly's gaze bounced between two, waiting for an opportune moment to run.
The wolf on the hill made an odd noise that sounded almost like laughter. He sneered down at them, and turned, vanishing into the forest beyond.
The brown and red wolf glanced back at Molly, and his eyes alit on her knees again. He bent his head toward her, and then seemed to catch himself. The animal stepped back slowly, and then jumped into the brush alongside the stream. She saw his mottled fur gleaming in the dim light as he streaked away from her, his powerful legs carrying him into the darkness.
Molly scrambled to her feet, grabbed the basket and wasted no time running along the side of the stream. The red cloak weighed heavily on her back and throat, and was soaked and filthy, but she wouldn't abandon it when she was close to safety. She climbed over the stony hill, through the trees, and finally across the field overgrown with weeds and ferns. When she saw the lantern lights of the Colony appear ahead of her, Molly nearly wept with gratefulness.