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By NYCStephen All Rights Reserved ©

Horror / Fantasy

Short Story

Which way had grandfather said to go? It took me a moment to recall. South. Then west. I ran like I had never run before, almost dropping my sheet-satchel from my panting jaws. After several hours, I was in territory that I did not recognize and decided I should not use the skin any more than absolutely necessary lest the magic take any more dire turns. I descended along the edge of a remote trail and removed the skin, thankful that I was able to at least still do that. My inimlikkus, my humanity, had not yet been completely overcome by the savagery of the werewolf. I dressed in the clothing I had brought and wrapped the skin in the sheet, slinging it over my shoulder.

I walked, mostly away from main roads at first. As the transformation did not come over me, after a few days I dared to join the throngs on the principal routes. I was frugal, spending as few of the coins as I could. I slept in the woods or in barns and ate little, often trading a day’s labor for a meal. It was summer. Days were clear and evenings warm. Work was to be had in the fields I passed and, luckily, few asked questions.

I knew as I travelled that thieves and other dishonest men lurked along the roads and in the woods I travelled through. Thieves would easily kill for a few coins or even for a few good clothes. Most men would not dare to travel alone through such territory. I passed groups of travelers who invited me to join them, but more fearful of their safety at the jaws of the werewolf than mine at the hands of thieves, I always declined. I knew, that if set upon in the woods, I would be more than able to defend myself. I suspected that my fear could trigger the transformation if there was not time to use the pelt itself.

As I travelled, I found myself in regions that spoke languages I did not understand, although my Estonian peasant knowledge of German seemed enough to make myself understood in most places. The little Russian I knew also helped me to be understood. I spoke little with my fellow-travelers and farm-workers but I did learn that I had passed into a collection of provinces of the Russian Empire, territories known as ”Livonia” or “Latvija” by the peasants and farmers who had long lived under Swedish or German as well as Russian rule. Many spoke of the “Jaunlatvieši,” the “Young Latvians,” who urged the people to reject the German and Russian of the nobility in favor of the traditional language and customs of the Latvian peasants.

I also saw large numbers of men working with great beams of steel and ties of wood, building what they called dzelzceļšthrough the countryside. They claimed that creatures known as dzelzs zirgi or “iron horses” would travel along the tracks they were building and that these iron horses would be powered by steam and coal, able to travel at incredible speeds and carry both men and goods far distances. Men urged me to stay and work with them as they laid these tracks across the Latvian countryside but I did not dare stay too long in any one place, both because I was afraid of what I might do if the wolf-transformation overcame me and because I needed to keep moving south and west in my search for anyne who might know the old practices and free me from the wolf-magic that had driven me to kill my beloved Grete and our children. So I kept walking south and west, stopping to work when I needed a meal or a few coins and always asking if there were any of the wise folk or cunning women, whom I learned they called “burtnicks” or viltīgs sievietes,” in the district.

I had been walking south and west for almost a month when Svētā Jēkaba ​​diena came, the day when the reaping of the crops begins and the farmers needed all the extra help they could hire to get the harvest in by late September. So I found myself in the fields of one of the local landowners, swinging a scythe with teams of men, all singing harvest songs as we trudged up and down the furrows. When our hands chafed or blistered from the wooden handle of the scythe, we would trade places with one of the men who followed along and gathered up the wheat or straw into bundles to be loaded onto the heavy wagons and taken to the barns.

It was in one of the barns that we extra workers were allowed to sleep and leave our satchels of belongings during the day. I hid my bundle of clothing and the pelt there as best I could, hoping that no one would find it and accidently open the pelt and be trapped in the nightmare that my own life had become. The reaping, a time for most of the men to sing and enjoy their working together in the fields, were days of sorrow for me. I recalled the days of early spring at home and the planting of the seeds on the farms of our village in Estonia. My neighbors and I had ploughed and planted in such hopes of a rich harvest and then I had used the wolf pelt to save my plow-horses from the wolves coming down and out from the forests. I became a killer who slaughtered my own family. While the other men sang, I wanted to weep.

It was at supper one dusk during the reaping that I sat with a handful of the men working to bring in the harvest. On this night, the men I sat with were many locals but there were a few of the extra workers as well, like me. They were joking with one another over their bowls of stew and mugs of beer as I sat slightly apart from the rest. One of the younger men made a joke, insulting another man, who took his fistful of bread and threw into the jokester’s face. Laughter erupted around the circle of men as everyone began to make jokes at his neighbor’s expense. More fistfuls of bread flew through the air and two men leaped at each other, grappling one another in a good-natured wrestling match. The laughter turned to cheers, goading both wrestlers on.

That’s when I felt the first few drops of rain. I looked up into the sky.

The last gleams of sunset were streaking the western horizon though heavy clouds were moving in across the sky from the east. A few more drops of rain splashed down into my bowl of stew.

I smiled. I would not have been able to catch raindrops with my stew if I had been trying to. I wiped the back of my hand across my forehead, pushing my hair out of my eyes and pushed myself up from the ground I was sitting on to go refill my bowl of stew.

The wrestlers and their cheering comrades had not noticed the handful of droplets that had fallen. Their bowls of half-eaten stew lay forgotten on the ground behind them and the chunks of bread were scattered about inside the ring of cheering men, much of the bread being ground into crumbs by the wrestlers. An evening breeze stirred and the harvest still waiting to be reaped, half a field away, rustled quietly.

I reached the cook’s encampment in the midst of the many circles of men eating their suppers at this end of the field. Many were leaving their stew and trotting over to join the onlookers at the wrestling match. Even those who stayed seated cheered on the wrestlers, although it was impossible to see through the growing crowd of onlookers what exactly was happening. Another few drops of rain splattered the ground near my feet.

The man overseeing the cauldron of stew reached out and took my bowl to refill it, grunting and jerking his head to one side to indicate that I should help myself to another chunk of bread as well. I did and took my refilled bowl from him, turning back towards the wrestlers.

Lightning tore open the sky. Thunder roared, silencing the cheering crowd surrounding the wrestlers. Sheets of rain plummeted from the sky, churning the ground into mud in only a few moments. The man began to scatter and shout to one another, struggling to gather up the bowls and mugs and cooking equipment or to get the scythes out of the unexpected storm. Some of the men simply ran for the barns, more concerned to get themselves out of the downpour than to properly care for the equipment needed for the harvest.

Lightning tore another hole in the sky and the barns trembled in the thunder. I looked across the field. It was too dark now to see much but in the momentary brilliance of the lightning I could see the wheat and other crops waiting to be harvested being quickly beaten down by the force of the rain.

A driving wind rose up then as well, turning the rain into sharp needles that were driven into our faces as well as into the crops waiting in the fields around us. Men’s voice shouting were commingled with the wild neighing of the horses tethered nearby as they had been waiting to be taken back to their stables and tended. One, evidently terrified by the lightning, reared up and shrieked at the sky and then broke loose from the others, running out across the field in an attempt to escape the storm but whose hooves, trampling the crops, would only add to the destruction of the harvest.

Trying to protect my eyes with one hand, I peered up into the sky. I took a deep breath and held it a moment, savoring the fragrances in the air. A brief summer shower might have been expected anytime during the harvest and might have even been enjoyable to work through but a storm like this, so sudden and so powerful, would not quickly pass and would leave terrible destruction in its wake. The unharvested crops would be destroyed and the coming winter would be a time of terrible hunger, as a result. The survival of these men and their families during the coming winter depended on the success of this harvest. And the scents I detected in the air… I smelled the presence of thunder-dragons and wind-hags, storm-goblins and their misshapen daughters. A host of them, not just a few wrapping themselves in a mantle of storm clouds. It was an angry host trampling across the sky and intent on destroying the harvest below.

I knew what I ought to do. I knew what I could do. But it would mean risking the safety of the men around me. I had been lucky since I had put the pelt away and been walking across the Latvian countryside. But using the pelt again now might mean killing the men who had been harvesting beside me as well as driving away the storm above us. How could I take that chance? Would their deaths be any less terrible, if they were killed by starvation or by a werewolf’s jaws?

I glanced around. Chaos was everywhere. Men were running, shouting, grabbing what they could, trying to see through the darkness and the rain. Horses whinnied and shrieked. Barns groaned.

There was no one noticing me. I ran across the fields to the barn where I had been sleeping these last few nights. The wind had knocked over a kerosene lamp outside near the open doors of the barn and a small fire was attempting to chew its way through the wooden doors, despite the onslaught of rain. Wind swirled through the interior, strewing straw and hay in elaborate patterns across the floor. I tumbled into the barn and into the hayloft, making my way to my bundle in one corner under the eaves. I wrenched it out of its hiding place, my few belongings spewing out around me. I clutched the great wolf pelt to me, felt the fur caress my face. I owed it to the farmers who had taken me in during my walk across the countryside, who had been generous enough to share their summer bounty with me. I could not let them starve this winter because I had been afraid of losing control of the magic again. Even if I did lose control of the magic and killed the men outside, at least their families would not starve this winter.

I wrapped the pelt around my shoulders and made my way to the large hatch above the doors.

***  ***  ***

When Alexei woke, he was slumped against a tree trunk in a forest. It was dark but the sky was clear above him, at least in the few small patches of sky that he could see through the heavy canopy of leaves and foliage. He could see stars in the night sky but little of that light penetrated to him on the forest floor. The bark was rough against his wet, naked back and it took him a few minutes to realize who and where he was. He was naked, sitting in the mud at the base of a large tree, with the wolf pelt twisted around his legs. He struggled to sit up. All his muscles ached. He saw bruises along his arms. A coppery scent filled his nostrils and he reached up to wipe his lower face but stopped in horror as he saw his hands, covered with gore. He tentatively reached his tongue out to his lips and tasted blood there. He reached up with the crook of his right arm to dry it across his chin and it came away with streaks of blood and clumps of hair.

“No…,” he shuddered. “What have I done?”

“What have you done?” a deep voice rumbled. “You have eaten what was not yours to eat.”

His eyes darted around the dark forest. He could see clumps of ferns growing in the shadows and other plants or bushes scattered beneath the trees. He saw twisted shards of muscle and bone scattered among the plants. He saw some longer chunks of bone, tatters of meat still clinging to them in dark puddles. The scent of blood hung in the air, twisting in the night breezes. Alexei felt sick, guessing at what he had done.

“You have taken what was not yours to take.” The voice hung in the air, the rebuke ripping through Alexei’s soul.

Alexei drew his knees up to his chin and wrapped his arms around his legs, beginning to rock himself and wail. “I… I only wanted to drive away the storm,” he managed to say between sobs. “How… how many did I kill?” In some corner of his mind he wondered who it was that he was speaking with and how this man had escaped Alexei in his rampaging wolf-form. “But the storm...” he wanted to know. “Are the crops safe?”

“Yes.” The voice paused. “You drove away the storm, vilkatis. The crops are safe and no one will starve this winter. You fought bravely in the air and slew many of the thunder-dragons. It will be many seasons before such an assembly of thunder-dragons and storm-goblins think to attack this region again. Many would thank you, if they knew that you were the one who had done that.”

That was some consolation. “You saw that? You know what I am?”

“Yes, I know that you are vilkatis, one of the old order of the man-wolves who drive the storms away that would devastate the farms and destroy the harvests, that would kill men by starvation in the winter,” the man he could not see explained. “It has been many long years since one of your kind has fought in the skies here. I saw your battle with the storm and I saw you come down from the torn clouds as the storm-goblins who still lived ran from your terrible jaws. I saw you, wounded and exhausted, tumble from the skies and then stumble here into the forest and I saw what you did then. I know what you ate here among the trees.”

Alexei waited for the man to continue speaking but he heard nothing. The man had not answered Alexei’s other question. “But how many did I kill here in the forest?” He wondered who had even been in the forest. Had some of the farmhands run into the trees to escape the storm?

“On the earth? How many? You can see the carcasses around you, can you not?” sneered the voice and Alexei realized the man must be standing behind him. He craned his neck around to look behind him but could see no one in the dark between the trees. He heard steps trudging through the mud towards him but their rhythm was off, somehow. “But you did not have my permission to eat any of them.”

“Your… your permission?” Alexei paused his rocking in the mud and twisted himself to peer around the other side of the tree. “Who… who are you to give permission?” Alexei demanded. “How would your permission have made such slaughter right, in any case? No one can give such permission!”

The out-of-rhythm steps kept coming, slowly and steadily through the mud, branches snapping under the man’s feet. Alexei thought he could hear the rustle of a cloak around the man’s shoulders. And maybe… maybe a sniffle and a small whimper, as if the man were trying to stop himself from crying? Or was trying to keep his crying silent so as not to give away his location in the darkness because he was afraid that Alexei and turn and attack him as well now, even though Alexei had regained his human form?

Alexei struggled up onto his knees, clutching the tree behind him for support. He had the snapping branches, the darkness and the grief confusing him so that the sounds seemed to come from all around him. Was the man limping? Was that why the steps seemed off-kilter? He heard the whimpering, also in the air all around him, but he could also hear the man’s gruff breathing and realized that someone else was whimpering in the forest. Maybe someone he had attacked but not slain? Someone he had wounded while he had worn the great wolf pelt? Was the man limping because Alexei had attacked him as well?

He stood, gathering the pelt around his hips for modesty’s sake and to have the pelt ready to drape over his shoulders and change back into the werewolf if he needed to protect himself. Whoever this limping man was, Alexei did not trust anyone who thought he could give a werewolf permission to slaughter and eat people hiding in the forest. The strange man could be as much a danger to Alexei as Alexei had been to whoever had been hiding from the storm in the forest.

“You fear me, vilkatis?” Alexei spun around. How had the man gotten behind him?

But that’s where the man was now, standing directly behind Alexei. The man did have a heavy woolen cloak draped over his shoulders but as it was pulled back behind his arm on the left side, Alexei could see that under the cloak the man was dressed in the simple garments of a peasant woodsman or hunter though he did have a pair of worn leather boots on his feet. Alexei could also see that the man was leaning on a rough-hewn wooden crutch that was wedged under the man’s left arm and that his left foot was twisted slightly behind his right foot. A large leather wallet-bag hung over the man’s other shoulder, its bulging sides half-hidden beneath the cloak. A wide-brimmed hat sat at a jaunty angle on his head, hiding half his face in shadow. One eye glittered out of that shadow at Alexei but the one eye that Alexei could see clearly was covered with the milky sheen of a cataract. The man was clean-shaven and though his face was worn and creased he did not strike Alexei as nearly old enough to have lost the sight of one eye to such a cataract. Greasy iron-colored locks of hair hung down over his shoulders and now, this close, Alexei could also detect a trace of the scent of wolf about the man. Who was this stranger?

“You fear me, vilkatis,” the man repeated but this time it was a simple statement of fact rather than a question. “You fear me and it is right that you should fear me. Here, in this region, I am called the Master or Herdsman of Wolves and it is my decision to allot to each wolf what he or she shall eat each season. I am the one who chooses which animals or humans are to be eaten by which wolf and it has been many long years, as I said, since a vilkatis has walked here under my dominion and waited to be allotted his wolf-food from my wallet here.” He reached behind himself with his right hand to pat the leather shoulder bag tucked there. He gestured towards Alexei’s feet with the tip of his crutch. “But no wolf in this region, vilkatis or not, can eat anything unless it has been allotted him by the Master of Wolves.”

Alexei began to protest and the man struck his thigh with the crutch, the crack of the wood against his thigh sounding like thunder in the quiet night. “Do you understand, vilkatis? No wolf – no matter where he comes from, if he finds himself in this region – can eat anything that I have not given him permission to eat. No man. No cattle. No swine. No deer or boar or elk or rabbit. Nothing. Unless I have given permission and allotted it from my food-wallet. Now, look around you.” The Master of Wolves swept the tip of the crutch around him, pointing at the remains of bone and flesh and then reached up with it to touch the tip of it to Alexei’s blood-streaked chin. “You have eaten here without my permission. You owe me restitution, vilkatis. Do you understand? Restitution!” The crutch struck Alexei in his stomach, just below his ribs.

“Restitution? You’re mad!” gasped Alexei, doubling over in pain. “I was fighting the storm clouds and then I must have fallen on those men….”

“Men? You think you ate men here?” the Master of Wolves laughed, again sweeping his crutch about him to gesture at the bloody remains on the forest floor. “Those are not the remains of men! You slaughtered and devoured one of the forest deer and a rabbit or two. When was the last time you fought the storm clouds? You looked exhausted and famished to me, when I saw you tumble from the skies. I can understand why the wolf-form needed to eat so badly when you descended back to the earth. But that still does not give you leave to eat here in this region without the permission of the Master of Wolves!” Again the crutch cracked against Alexei, bruising his shin.

“No men?” Alexei, still doubled over, peered up into the Master of Wolves’ face. “Only a deer and some rabbits?” Did he dare to trust the Master of Wolves? He hadn’t killed any people this time? He lost his breath again, not because the crutch struck him in the gullet but this time in relief; he had not slaughtered any of the innocent farmhands, so all the blood and gore he found himself stained with was not human but that of the deer and rabbits he had seized as the hungry werewolf when he had come down from the skies. He nearly burst out crying.

“No, you did not eat any men who might have strayed into the forest hoping to save themselves from the worst of the storm,” the Master of Wolves sneered.

Alexei was finally able to pull himself upright and face the Master of Wolves. “I have no coins to pay you restitution,” he told the Master proudly. “I am simply passing through this region. You have no real power or authority over me. I will be on my way again tomorrow and not bother you – or the people of this region – any further.”

“I have no need of your petty little coins for restitution!” snarled the Master of Wolves. He swung his crutch again and struck Alexei again in the shin and Alexei snarled, his lip pulling back to reveal teeth that were half-transformed into the sharp fangs of a wolf.

“Think I have no power or authority over you, do you?” the Master went on, raising the crutch as if it were a cudgel. “Every wolf of whatever sort – earthly wolf or vilkatis – that passes through this territory is under my dominion, fool. If you did not know that, so much the worse for you. You are mine until restitution is made – and if you truly think I have no authority over you because you are only here for today, you are in for a rude awakening, muļķis!” The crutch came sweeping down and struck Alexei’s ear, blinding him with pain and driving him down onto his hands and knees and as he fell he felt the familiar stretching and pulling of his muscles, the snapping and popping of sinews and cartilage, saw the heavy fur spring up through his skin as the pelt melted into his body and he became the great wolf. Confused and bewildered by the sudden and unexpected transformation, Alexei’s snarl died in his throat.

“You will remain in your wolf-form for as long as it pleases me to hold you in it,” the Master of Wolves taunted him, resting the tip of the crutch back on the earth and leaning on it with his full weight. “Until I am pleased by the service that you owe me in restitution for eating here without my permission. Until then, you are mine to command, vilkatis. And do not think to disobey me or you will yearn for the gentle admonitions of my crutch!” He shook the crutch in Alexei’s face.

Alexei did not understand what had happened. Would he perhaps lose control of himself in the wolf-shape as he had before and slay the Master of Wolves? He began to snarl again at the Master, and took a step closer. He did not need to lose control of himself if he wished to slay the Master. He pulled himself back onto his haunches, preparing to leap forward and tear out the Master’s throat.

But in the moment of tensing his haunches and preparing to leap forward, his throat began to constrict and cut of his breath. He felt as if great hands were clutched around his throat, throttling him and cutting off the supply of air to his lungs which began to burn for lack of air. He tried to throw himself at the Master but only collapsed onto the ground before him, writhing and twisting as the constriction of his throat grew tighter and tighter and his lungs burned more and more painfully within his breast.

“Do you understand me now?” The Master leaned over Alexei who continued to choke and cough and struggle to breathe as he thrashed on the ground at the Master’s feet.

“You will serve me until restitution is made,” the Master repeated. “Do you agree?”

Alexei half-heard what the Master was saying as thunder roared in his ears and his sight began to fade but he managed to whimper slightly and rapidly nodded his head to indicate his agreement. The choking sensation ceased at once. Alexei gasped, his chest heaving. Eventually the gasping and heaving subsided and he was able to struggle up onto his feet.

“I come down into this forest twice each year,” the Master told him, as if nothing had just happened. “On St. George’s Eve and again at Michaelmas Eve, when the cows are first led out to pasture each season and again when they are brought back from pasture at the end of the season. On those nights I apportion to each of my wolf-children, my forest-sons and -daughters – your forest-brothers, vilkatis – what they will slaughter and eat during the summer and then again what they will each slaughter and eat during the winter. You shall eat nothing while you serve me, vilkatis, because all the food for this summer has been allotted.  I can give you nothing to eat because there is nothing to give. Perhaps, if you live so long and are still serving me come Michaelmas Eve, I will include you in the allotment of food for the winter. But until then you will have only stream water to slake your thirst and the grasses or berries you can scavenge to fill your stomach.”

Alexei hung his head. Would he live until winter as he served the Master of Wolves? Would he ever be free of either the Master or the wolf-magic that drove him to be a killer? He whimpered in despair and the Master chuckled.

“Of course, there is one thing to eat that was not allotted to any of my wolf-children when they came to me on St. George’s Eve,” he mocked Alexei. “Since you are the last to come to me for this season, I can give you leave to eat that one last thing I have to allot.” He lifted his crutch and pointed to the branches above Alexei’s head.

“If you wish, you can eat the woman there hiding in the branches of the tree.”

***  ***  ***

Woman? In the branches of the tree? Alexei sprang back and pulled himself up onto his hind legs, his front paws digging into the tree’s bark to support himself. He peered and squinted his eyes, struggling to make out anything in the heavy shadows that draped the upper reaches of the forest. He held his breath and then he could hear it again in the quiet, someone sniffling and trying not to cry or to cry quietly so as to avoid discovery. He sniffed the air and caught the scent of a woman somewhere up above him. The scent of a frightened woman. But not just a woman. There was another fragrance mingled with the woman’s. What was it? He recognized it somewhat, it was similar to something he knew well… It was the fragrance of something related to the thunder-dragons and storm-goblins that he fought in the skies. It was the fetid, sickly sweet smell of corrupt magic. The woman in the branches must be a witch.

“Come down now, Spīdala,” called the Master of Wolves to the woman. “It is no use trying to hide there any longer.” There was quiet for a moment, the sniffling and aborted weeping growing louder, and then there was the scrape and scuffle of a person climbing down through the branches and foliage until Alexei could see her and then she dropped from one of the lower branches onto the ground beside the tree.

When she dropped from the tree, Spīdala (if what the Master of Wolves had called her was indeed her name) fell into a crouch for a moment and then, like Alexei, pulled herself upright and leaned against the tree’s truck to support herself. She was about as tall as Alexei was as a wolf leaning upright against the tree and he looked into her pale lavender eyes. Her thin face was framed by long, tangled dark tresses tumbling down nearly to her to elbows. Although Alexei could see enough pain for an old woman in those lavender eyes, he guessed that she was, in fact, not much more than a girl. Her simple, mud-spattered maroon  dress reached to her feet and the rough-spun brown apron, stained with an assortment of unimaginable colors and scents, reached down nearly as far as well. Her feet were bare and dirty.

 She managed to speak, saying something in Latvian that Alexei did not understand, wiping her face with her palms and pushing her hair back behind her ears, away from her eyes. Her eyes darted from the Master to Alexei and back again.

The Master laughed. “Say it again,” he instructed her, and Alexei realized that he and the Master had been speaking in Estonian before but now the Master was speaking German. “Our friend here, the vilkatis does not speak Latvian like a good farmer should. Say it again in German. That he might understand, a little.” The Master laughed again.

“How do you know my name?” she repeated, in bad German, but this time Alexei understood.

“Your name is but one of the many things, I know,” the Master answered her. “I saw you climb into the tree as I saw our friend the vilkatis here eating from my stores of provisions without my leave. You were here in the forest for a reason, Spīdala? Running from someplace? Running from someone? But then you saw the werewolf come down from the sky, did you not? You climbed into the tree… because, why? He frightened you, perhaps?”

Spīdala stood there defiantly for a moment, refusing to answer. She glanced again at Alexei, who whined in an attempt to apologize for frightening the woman. She seemed to understand what he was trying to say and looked back at the Master of Wolves.

“Yes, I was frightened by the vilkatis,” she admitted. “I saw him come down from the sky and saw him attack first a deer and then the rabbits. I was terrified that he would attack me as well. So I clambered up into the tree, hoping to not be seen. But then he collapsed against the trunk of the very tree that I had clambered up for safety and he fell asleep. I was even more frightened then; how would I climb down from the branches and escape, if you were sleeping directly beneath me?” she turned and asked Alexei. “I was terrified that if I fell asleep that I would fall from the branches and break my bones and that the noise would walk you and that then you would kill and eat me as you had killed and eaten the deer and the rabbits.” She still seemed to be frightened of the great wolf and half-stepped behind the tree as she spoke, as if that would offer her any protection if Alexei did choose to leap at her and attack.

“Even after I saw you change back into a man, I was too frightened to climb down from the tree,” she went on after a pause. “When I first saw you begin to stir and awake, I was hoping that you would simply wake up and then go away and that I would be able to come down then from the tree and go in any other direction but the one you had gone in.” She looked back up into the face of the Master of Wolves. “But then you came through the trees and began to talk to the vilkatis and I knew that I would have to just wait there in the branches until the both of you left together. But I could feel the branches shifting and creaking beneath me and I was frightened that they might break or that I would lose my grip on the other branches around me and that I would fall then and be caught by the two of you together.” She looked down at the ground, shivering though the early August night was warm, and wiped another dirty streak across her cheek. “As I have been.” She looked back up at them.

“Yes, as you have been,” the Master sneered. “Caught by the both of us. But why were you here in the forest at all on a night during the harvest? You are running away from… your husband, perhaps? Why might that be?” The Master leaned forward, shifting his weight on his crutch, as if to see her better in the shadows beneath the tree that she still half hid behind.

Alexei whimpered at her, wishing he could reassure her that she had nothing to fear from him. At least, that he had no will to harm her. But as to what might happen if he lost control of himself again, he couldn’t even promise himself that she would be safe. He took a step towards her and she gasped, shrinking back even further into the shadows, clutching the tree more fervently.

“Well?” the Master insisted. “Are you running from your husband? If not a husband, then from who? Your father?”

“I am running from… from my husband,” Spīdala finally admitted to them both. “My mother was a ragana who taught me everything she knew but we would only ever use the magic to help our neighbors and to heal.” She paused and fought back tears again.

Alexei caught his breath. “Do I dare hope?” he wondered to himself. “Can she be the one who is able to free me from the wolf-magic?”

Spīdala heard the werewolf whine and whimper, pawing at the ground in apparent excitement. The Master lashed out with his crutch, striking the wolf’s back legs; it turned and growled at the Master but slunk to one side and waited there, glancing back at the Master.

Spīdala hesitated but then resumed her story, slightly whimpering herself as she looked back over her memories. “My husband treated me well, so long as my mother was alive. I realize now that he was afraid of her. But when she was dead, he began to demand that I use the magic my mother had taught me to benefit him and harm our neighbors. He insisted that I steal the milk from our neighbors’ cows and that I send out a pūķis to steal our neighbors’ grain and coins and bring them back to him. He would beat me if I tried to refuse him so I would always give in to him and do what is was that he wanted. But then – just a few days ago – one of our neighbors had a baby girl who died nearly as soon as she was born and my husband demanded that I imprison her spirit as a lietuvēns to torment and punish anyone who angered him. I refused to do this and he beat me again, many times, though I insisted that I did not know how to do this kind of wicked magic. But he insisted that I attempt to imprison the girl’s spirit, even if I did not know how to do the magic for certain. I kept refusing and he continued to beat me, nearly killing me – so I called out to Veļu Māte, the mother of the dead, to take him away and save me. And she did. She struck him just as he was raising his fist to strike me – she saved me! But then I knew that our neighbors would accuse me of murder and I would be imprisoned or killed. So I ran. I ran from my home, from my village. I have been running away, hiding in the forests and sleeping during the days, hoping to get far enough away that I can make a life somewhere that no one will find me again.” She wept again, unable to stop herself.

Alexei pawed at the earth in frustration. “We are both the same – forced to kill and then forced to leave our homes! I understand you, Spīdala! I know your torment!” he tried to cry out to her but only the whines and whimpers of a wolf came from his throat. “I need you to free me from the wolf-magic!” he tried to tell her and only more whimpers could be heard.

The Master of Wolves looked from Spīdala to Alexei and back again, then burst out in guffaws. “Both of you!” he laughed. “Such miserable creatures, both of you! You shall both come with me now to serve me – you, vilkatis, until you have paid your debt for the animals you have killed and eaten without my permission, and you, girl, shall be my ward until I shall decide that you are not.” He turned and began to hobble away on his crutch.

“Eat her if you wish, wolf. Or not. It matters not to me.” The Master kept limping away. “You shall get nothing to eat from me except whatever weeds and vegetables you find. You shall have no meat while you are working off your debt to me is, except her flesh.”

Alexei heard him but kept his eyes fixed on the weeping girl. “How can I make her understand?” he demanded of himself in his thoughts.

“But while you decide on whether to eat her or not, you will both come with me!” snapped the Master back at them, over his shoulder. Alexei felt the snap as of a leash and collar about his neck, calling him to sudden attention and he cried out involuntarily as his head was wrenched around toward the Master stalking away through the forest. Alexei quickly turned to follow, trotting a few steps behind the Master.

Spīdala, in a similar way, seemed to be snapped forward as if on a leash held by the Master and dragged herself after the Master as well. She and Alexei fell into a rhythm walking beside each other, and it was not long before she was resting her hand on his furry shoulder and then, not long after that, Alexei felt her working her fingers down deep through the thick wolf fur and wrapping it around her fingers. Alexei liked that she trusted him and dared to touch him; he had not felt anyone’s touch since that terrible Midsummer night when he had slain his family. He glanced up at her beside him and caught her looking down at him. They smiled at each other and simultaneously let go a sigh of relief that they had each found a friend while caught in the miserable company of the Master of Wolves.

The Master of Wolves led Alexei and Spīdala through the woods that night until the shadows began to crawl back into the underbrush and streaks of sunlight began to filter down through the leafy canopy above them. Birds began to chirp and call to one another. Alexei’s haunches ached from walking all night and his paws felt raw on the earth. Spīdala was beginning to stumble alongside him, exhaustion beginning to overwhelm her as well. Only the Master, limping on his crutch ahead of them, seemed unchallenged by the night-long hike he had taken them on through the forest.

The trees began to thin and the Master led them out to the edge of a series of fields, the harvest clearly having begun but none of the workers had arrived that morning to begin the day’s work yet. The morning air smelled fresh and clean after the storm Alexei had driven off. Alexei blinked and dropped his head, rubbing his eyes with one paw as he whimpered.

The Master pointed with his crutch to the barns set at one end of the fields. “You two will find a place to sleep in the hayloft of one of those barns,” he instructed. “I will come to find you later this evening. Do not try to run away,” he warned them, turning back to them and making a fist. Alexei felt his throat begin to tighten and constrict again, as if a gallows-rope had been looped over his head and was being pulled taut by a hangman. Spīdala clasped her throat as well, beginning to cough and sputter as if she felt the same. The Master released his fist and the sensation was gone, Alexei and Spīdala both gasping for air.

“I will find you after dusk,” the Master reminded them and hobbled back into the forest behind them.

Alexei and Spīdala stood at the edge of the fields for a moment longer and then began to make their way along the edge of the trees towards the barns, where they did climb into one of the haylofts and quickly fell asleep in a corner beneath the eaves.

The hayloft was draped with shadows when Alexei awoke. Something had startled him in his otherwise dreamless slumber. He lifted his head and sniffed. Something smelled bad. Wrong. Spīdala stirred in the hay beside him. Then he recognized the stench of the Master of Wolves.

“Come down, vilkatis,” called the Master from the empty cattle stalls below them. “Bring the wench Spīdala with you. You both have work to do tonight.”

Alexei nuzzled Spīdala, still half-asleep in the hay. She stirred again and stretched, then sat up and rubbed her eyes. It seemed to take her a moment or two to remember where she was. And why. Alexei could see the confusion in her face at first and then her shoulders slumped and her head bowed down when she recalled that she was in the hayloft of a stranger’s barn and how she had come to take refuge there. She scratched behind Alexei’s ears and nuzzled her cheek against his.

“Poor werewolf,” she murmured.

“Poor Spīdala,” Alexei tried to answer, but the only sound that came from his throat was a rapid series of short, sharp yips. He hoped she understood what he meant to say.

Spīdala stood and walked over to the ladder leading down from the hayloft. She turned and gathered her skirt and apron in one hand, beginning to descend the rungs to the barn floor below. Alexei followed her to the edge of the loft and watched her descent. The last sunlight of the dusk was sliding into the barn from the open hatch above the great doors. He could saw the dark figure that he knew was the Master of Wolves standing just outside the barn doors.

Spīdala looked up at him from the bottom rung of the ladder. He had attempted to clamber up the ladder into the loft that morning but had been unable to do so in his wolf shape. So he had resorted to jumping into the air and then flying into the loft. Looking down the ladder to Spīdala now, Alexei knew that he would be even less able to climb down the rungs than he had been able to climb up them. So he leaped into the air and gracefully sailed down to the hay-strewn floor below.

“Well done, werewolf,” chuckled the Master of Wolves at him. “That is precisely how I mean to travel tonight. But first, I have brought you and the wench your supper.” He held out a basket whose contents were hidden beneath a linen napkin. Alexei and Spīdala hurried over to him, realizing how hungry they were after their long walk last night and their daylong sleep in the hayloft. Spīdala took the basket from the Master’s hand and eagerly pulled back the napkin, revealing a dark rye loaf and a wedge of cheese as well as a flask of beer. She hurried over to a milking stool left in one of the empty stalls and sat down with the basket on her lap. She tore a piece of bread from the loaf and set it down on the floor in front of her, offering it to Alexei. He snapped it up and swallowed it, hardly tasting it. She tried to offer him a second piece, but he pushed it back towards her with his nose. He could see that there was hardly enough bread and cheese in the basket for one person, let alone two – especially if one was a great wolf! Spīdala took back the second piece of bread and chewed on it, gradually consuming the loaf between sips from the flask of beer and bites from the wedge of cheese. She tried to give chunks of cheese to Alexei as well but, hungry though he was, he only took one of those as well.

The Master, watching them from the barn door, laughed at Alexei.

“How gallant, vilkatis,” he mocked the werewolf. “Denying yourself so that the maiden can eat. You will not be able to remain so gallant for long, I fear. You may, indeed, be forced to accept my offer to eat the wench herself. But that is no matter to me, either way. Do as you will.”

Spīdala and Alexei, having finished their repast, continued to sit in the growing darkness until the Master insisted that they come join him in the barnyard. Spīdala reluctantly stood and left the empty basket beside the milking stool as she and Alexei joined the Master outdoors. He was standing there, his back to the barn, looking out across the quiet fields and the surrounding forests. Alexei could hear the farmhands somewhere nearby, singing in the dark after they had eaten their supper as well.

He whined, wishing he could join them but knew that it was impossible so long as the Master of Wolves held him in this captivity.

The Master pointed to the earth at his feet. “Kneel down here, vilkatis,” he barked. Alexei padded across the barnyard and knelt down as the Master had ordered.

“Now, you climb aboard his back, Spīdala,” the Master ordered next. Spīdala stared at his back a moment and then walked forward and quietly took her place astride Alexei’s broad shoulders followed by the Master himself he climbed aboard Alexei’s back as well, wedging his crutch alongside him between his saddlebag still hanging over his shoulder and his hip.

“Now, vilkatis,” the Master instructed, “you will carry Spīdala and I across the forest to the next farm, several miles in that direction.” Out of the corner of one eye, Alexei saw him gesture at the woods across the fields before them. “When you see the manor of the farmer, I think that you will recognize that he is one of the wealthier farmers in this district. He will not notice what we will need to relieve him of tonight. And if he does notice it, I do not care. Do you understand me, vilkatis?”

Alexei nodded. He braced himself and then stood, afraid of how heavy the Master and Spīdala together would weigh. At first, Alexei felt only Spīdala astride his shoulders, in front of the Master, as if she were the only one he carried. But then he felt the crushing weight of the Master behind her and stumbled, his rear haunches nearly collapsing under the weight of the Master.

Spīdala reached out and grasped Alexei’s ears to steady herself as he stood with the two riders on his back. The Master wrapped his free arm around Spīdala’s waist and pulled her back against his chest. “Does my weight confound you, vilkatis? Imagine if this were the beginning of the season and my food-satchel was full for distribution among your forest-brothers. You should be glad that the satchel is nearly empty now. You will have a much easier time of it!” The Master laughed again and Alexei struggled to take a step forward. “You may go now, vilkatis. Carry us to the farmer’s manor beyond the forest there.”

Alexei took a deep breath, preparing to follow the Master’s instructions. He had never carried riders threw the air before. “There is no way that I could carry the Master anywhere, if I were simply bound to the earth,” he realized. Flying would have to be the only way he could obey the Master’s directions and so he gathered his strength and launched himself into the air.

Once airborne, the weight of the Master became somewhat more tolerable and Alexei began to trot up into the sky and head across the treetops. He felt Spīdala grip his ears so tightly that he nearly cried out but he knew that she must be both terrified and exhilarated to see the earth from above, as he had been the first time he had taken to the air as the village werewolf back home. He could feel her shift and move, her legs gripping his barrel-chest as tightly as her skirt allowed, and imagined that she must be leaning out to look this way and then that as she struggled to keep her balance and not fall from his shoulders. He trotted as quickly as he dared through the air so as not to frighten or dislodge her.

“Faster, vilkatis!” demanded the Master, kicking Alexei’s ribs several times with his heels. “Did you think I meant this only to be a tour of the skies for the wench?” He heard the Master spit out into the night and Spīdala gasp as the Master roughly pulled her back against his chest even more tightly.

Alexei seethed with anger at the Master on Spīdala’s behalf. He imagined himself sharply turning, flying sideways, maybe even upside-down, in order to throw the Master from his back. But that would dislodge Spīdala as well and thought the Master could no doubt survive such a fall, Alexei was sure that it would kill Spīdala. So he bit his lower lip and trotted a little more quickly, enough so that the Master might be satisfied but not so fast as to frighten or topple Spīdala from his back.

The forest spilled out beneath them in a sheet of dark treetops. What would have been a walk of several hours through the trees was instead a flight of an hour or two above the trees and when Alexei could see the edge of the forest ahead of him, he knew that the farmer’s manor that the Master wanted must be nearby.

Alexei could see the fields begin to stretch out below them, the barns and cottages of the laborers black smudges in the night. Then he saw one of the grandest houses he had ever seen and knew that must be the manor the Master had described. The kick in the ribs confirmed his supposition. “There!” ordered the Master. “Descend there!” Alexei dropped down through the air and circled the grand house. He came around again and was trotting along even lower, his feet nearly touching the earth.

The shock of his paws actually coming down onto the ground, trotting as slowly as he was, still nearly threw Spīdala from his back. She yanked on his ears and he did cry out, a great wolf-howl echoing in the night. The Master kicked him in the ribs again and threw Spīdala off Alexei’s shoulders, tufts of fur coming away from his ears in her fists as she cried out and fell flat onto the ground.

“Did I give you leave to reveal our presence?” he hissed at his two captives. “Do that again and you shall know the full weight of my anger!” He kicked Alexei in the ribs once more and slid off the werewolf’s haunches, adjusting his crutch beneath his armpit. Alexei whirled around to face the Master, snarling and growling. Spīdala was a few feet away, pushing herself up. Alexei felt her anger seething out towards the Master even as her fear of him made her struggle to not cry out.

The Master seemed unconcerned with Alexei and Spīdala as he hobbled over to the from off the manor and peered up at its dark windows. A wisp of smoke curled up from the chimney, the coals of the kitchen fire banked for the night and awaiting the morning cooking. The Master turned back to Alexei and Spīdala, who was now on her feet.

“Forget your anger,” the Master snarled at them both. “I have an errand now for you, Spīdala. Did you think it was only the vilkatis that I had instructions for tonight?”

“An errand?” Alexei could hear the anger and fear still struggling with each other in Spīdala’s voice, even as the growl still hovered in his own throat. “What errand is that?”

“I have need of the farmer’s trinkets,” the Master explained, turning back toward the house. “The rings and baubles that he has given his wife over these past many years of their marriage. She has more than she could ever wear and it is only right that they share their gaudy jewels with me now.”

“Why is that?” Spīdala wanted to know, still gasping with anger at having been thrown from Alexei’s back. “Why should anyone share anything with you?! What do you need the rings and jewels for?!”

The Master glanced back over his shoulder at her. “The jewels have certain properties. They can be used against me, to keep me and my wolf-children from the animals as well as the farmhands on this estate. I need to take the jewels before the farmer can learn how to properly use the jewels to bar me and my wolves from his property.” He turned back to the house. “But do not think that you will be able to use them against me, either. I want you to fetch the trinkets from their hiding places and place them directly into my satchel, here.” He patted the saddlebag under his cloak. “You will never directly touch the jewels or ever see them again. They will be of no use to you… or to the farmer, even if he does ever appreciate their true worth.”

“And how did you think that I would be able to do this for you?” Spīdala hissed at him. “Did you think I would break a window or smash the door down and then… what? Steal into the farmer’s bedroom undetected and bring back out his wife’s jewelry box to you?”

The Master shook his head sadly. “Spīdala, my child, do not play the simpleton with me. I expect you to charm the jewels to come to me of their own accord and to crawl into my satchel of their own accord.” He limped ahead on his crutch and then sat down on the steps leading up to the wide porch that encircled the farmer’s grand home. The Master slipped the leather saddlebag of his shoulder and set it on the step beside him, the flap turned back and the back sitting open.

“Charm the jewels?” Alexei heard the shock in Spīdala’s words, the anger and fear dismissed. “How shall I do that?”

“When your husband wanted something, you found a way to accomplish it, did you not?” The Master pulled a pipe and tobacco from somewhere in the folds of his cloak and began to prepare to smoke. “I trust I shall not need to beat you, as he did, for you to discover a way to accomplish this.” He struck a flint and lit the pipe, the burning wad of tobacco in the bowl of the pipe becoming a red coal winking in the night. The Master leaned back against a post supporting the roof over the porch and the white smoke hovered and curled around his head.

Alexei slunk over until he stood beside Spīdala, wanting to somehow give her the strength and knowledge she needed to do what the Master had asked. She reached over and wrapped her fist in the fur between his great shoulders, as she held the other hand to her face and covered her mouth as she struggled to think how she might do as the Master had instructed.

“I think I know a way,” Spīdala muttered at last.

“I am glad to hear it,” the Master answered, still smoking his pipe on the porch steps. “Please proceed.”

Spīdala knelt down in front of Alexei and looked into his eyes. “Please do not think ill of me, vilkatis,” she whispered. “You know that I do this only because there is no way we can escape the Master – yet. But we will find a way, werewolf. I promise us both that!”

Alexei nodded and yipped once. He sat down on his rear haunches, keeping his head up. Spīdala stood and faced the house, gently grasping Alexei’s ear with one hand. The other she held out towards the Master as she began to sing.

The words were quiet and Alexei could not understand even the ones he could make out. A few he thought he recognized from having heard other farmhands speaking to each other, so he guessed that she must be singing in Latvian. But what the words were, he had no idea.

The smell of the Master’s pipe grew stronger. The tobacco smoke seemed caught in the melody, slinking and slipping and twisting in the air like a snake. But Alexei caught another scent in the air as well, a scent growing stronger as the song went on. It was the sickly smell of magic being twisted and perverted to do something that it had never been meant to be used for. That smell, twisting in the air with the scent of the tobacco smoke, nauseated Alexei. He swallowed, trying not to vomit up what little he had eaten with Spīdala earlier that night but he kept his eyes on it, mesmerized by the smoke-serpent’s movement.

The tobacco smoke undulated in the air above them as it grew thicker and longer, more smoke coming from the Master’s pipe than Alexei had thought one pipe of tobacco could ever produce. The smoke-serpent curled about above them and Alexei’s head tilted up and back so that he could watch it coalesce until Spīdala’s hand, still clutching his ear, touched the fur between his shoulders. Spīdala bent her own head back to see the smoke-serpent as well and reached up toward it with her free hand.

Sparks of brilliant scarlet began to pop within the smoke-serpent all along its length and with each tiny burst of color the serpent’s undulations paused and the color began to seep into the silver-white cords of smoke. Gradually the scarlet suffused the entire smoke-serpent and it hung suspended in the air above them, its serpentine form complete at last. Its head clasped its tail in its mouth and Alexei could clearly see the scarlet scales that sheathed its now still form.

Spīdala kept singing her quiet song another moment and then her words stopped, her voice still as well.

The serpent opened its mouth and the tail slipped from between its now visible fangs. Raging flames shot from its throat and plumes of smoke twisted up from its nostrils.  Spīdala pointed to the ground at her feet and the great length of its body unfurled behind it as it slithered down through the air until it hovered before Spīdala.

The dragon’s forked tongue flicked in and out between its fangs as it tasted Spīdala’s breath. Its eyes glittered like deep red jewels and its nostrils quivered as occasional wisps of smoke still curled up into the night. Alexei thought the beast was peering into Spīdala’s eyes as if waiting for instructions of some kind. Would it attack Spīdala? He was not sure if he should fear the dragon that she had called forth from the Master’s pipe smoke but he felt his muscles tensing as he involuntarily prepared himself to leap up into the air to fight the dragon. The beast struck him as a wild thing, not a tame one, and he was ready to protect Spīdala if need be.

Pūķis.” Spīdala addressed it and it seemed to recognize its name. Its great serpent-like head nodded to acknowledge Spīdala.

Spīdala began to sing again, a new melody that rang harsh and domineering in Alexei’s ears as she pointed to the roof of the house. The dragon hung there, continuing to peer into Spīdala’s face and tasting her breath with quick laps of its tongue. Then it inclined its great head and seemed again to nod in acknowledgement of its creator before crawling back up into the air, its body curling around them in the air above their heads.

Fire burst from its mouth again and Spīdala continued to sing. Alexei saw that the Master was still calmly smoking his pipe only now the wisps of tobacco smoke simply hung in the air around his shoulders as he kept puffing away at the pipe’s stem clenched between his teeth.

Fire flickered along the edges the dragon’s tongue and then the pūķis was gone, flowing into the house under the eaves as if it were smoke again crawling through the cracks between the rough boards that made the walls and rafters.

Spīdala continued to sing, her one hand still stretched out toward the house as the other continued to clutch Alexei’s ear. He wondered if she might send the dragon against the Master when it returned. Would the dragon be able to free them from the Master of Wolves?

Spīdala kept singing quietly for what seemed most of the night. Alexei wanted to lay down on the ground beside her but she continued to hold his ear and he was afraid that if he moved and disturbed her that it would disturb the spell and he was reluctant to discover what the Master might do to the girl as a consequence. So he continued to stand there in the night beside his friend, watching the dark and silent house.

Finally Alexei thought he saw a flicker in a window as if someone were walking through the house holding a candle to guide them through the dark rooms. The window, near the eaves, went dark again but the fire flickered momentarily in the next window. And then the next. And then the dragon began to clamber up out of the chimney of the house, having apparently grown stubby legs that it pulled itself up and out of the chimney with.

Flames flitted up from the dragon’s open jaws, the smoke curling up from its nostrils, as it hoisted itself up out of the chimney and crawled along the top of the roof. Its great body kept coming and coming and coming up out of the chimney as well and the beast wound its way around and around on the rooftop, its red eyes glinting in the night like coals on the hearth.

Alexei pulled up one if his great paws to wipe across his eyes. Was it the light or were the dragon’s scales now a deep, rich blue, the hue of early dawn or last dusk? He wiped his eyes again and was sure of it. The dragon, which had been scarlet when it entered the house, was now blue.

The other difference, Alexei now realized, was that the dragon was much fatter now than when it had slid into the house under the eaves. Its body was bulky and awkward, no longer the elegant length of scarlet-hued serpentine-rope that it had been before. It was blue and fat, though he would not have known that it was any different from its previous state if he had not seen it before it creeped under the eaves of the house. The dragon crawled along the roof, the claws of its new stubby legs clicking and scratching the tiles which made up the house’s roof.

Finally the last of its blue tail popped up out of the chimney, causing a ripple to shimmy along the length of the dragon’s body and it crawled into the air. Leaving the rooftop behind it, the dragon made its way through the air toward Spīdala. Alexei was sure that the creature was grinning, its forked tongue darting from side to side as occasional wisps of flame darted up and escaped from between its lips. 

Spīdala stopped singing. The night was silent. No crickets chirped. No birds stirred or sang to greet the coming morning. Everything seemed to hold its breath, waiting to see what the dragon would do next.

The dragon stopped just before Spīdala, its face hovering directly in front of hers. Its tongue continued to flick from side to side as if waiting for the invitation to lick Spīdala’s face directly. Alexei looked up into Spīdala’s face and saw the disgust written across it. He saw her look across the yard to the Master of Wolves and he saw the Master nod in acknowledgment as he pulled his leather satchel forward and drew back the flap that kept it shut.

Spīdala began to sing again and gestured toward the Master. The dragon turned and looked over its shoulder at the Master, its tongue continually flicking in and out, in and out of its jaws. It turned back to Spīdala, nodded but Alexei was sure the smile was gone, and then twisted around and began clumsily making its through the air over to the Master as it trailed curls of fire and smoke behind it.

Reaching the Master, the dragon hoisted itself up into the air at an angle so that its mouth was over the Master’s open satchel and its body arched up into the air behind it.

Alexei saw the dragon’s stomach or stomachs, he wasn’t sure which was correct, shake and quiver. He heard rumblings as might be heard from a man who had severely overeaten at a feast. Then the dragon began to regurgitate.

The beast heaved and retched, smoke belching from its nostrils. It cried and groaned. Alexei wanted to look away but was fascinated. Was the dragon about to vomit fire and destroy the Master? Why was the Master sitting there so patiently, with his open satchel waiting? Did the Master want the dragon’s vomit for some reason? Where were the coins and jewels and valuables the Master had told Spīdala that he wanted?

Then Alexei saw them. The dragon began to regurgitate handfuls of jewels and coins and pewter candlesticks into the Master’s waiting satchel. The satchel sat there, growing fat and heavy, but never full. Wave after wave of sickness shook the dragon and handful after handful of valuables tumbled from its throat into the Master’s satchel.

Alexei also realized that the blue scales near the dragon’s hindmost legs had begun to turn scarlet again, the deep majestic blue fading into the brilliant red that the dragon had displayed at first. As the heaving continued to rack the dragon’s body the scales continued to change color, the scarlet creeping back along the length of the dragon’s tail and forward towards its mouth. The wider girth of the dragon’s body that Alexei had seen was gradually subsiding as well. By the time the dragon was done vomiting the household valuables it had consumed in the farmer’s house, its body was again a brilliant scarlet length of rope. Its stubby legs had gradually subsided back into itself as well.

Spīdala kept singing but the melody changed key and the words took on a melancholy air. The dragon made an obeisance to the Master and slid gracefully back to Spīdala to whom it also made a reverence. Then it slid up into the air and began to dissolve into clouds of tobacco smoke again which hung in the air, the heavy smell again making Alexei’s wolf-stomach turn over and want to dry-heave just as he had seen the dragon dry-heave into the Master’s satchel.

The Master closed his satchel and swung the heavy bag back over his shoulder. He knocked his pipe against the porch railings and the cold ashes fell out onto the ground before he slipped it back under his cloak. Taking hold of his crutch again, the Master limped over toward Spīdala and Alexei.

Spīdala stopped singing. The tobacco smoke had dispersed, leaving only the smells of sour magic and too much tobacco lingering in the air behind it. A bird twittered somewhere nearby and in a moment a flock of birds were noisily greeting the fresh streaks of rosy light that were beginning to climb up from the eastern horizon.

“Take us back, vilkatis,” instructed the Master. He swatted at Alexei’s side with his crutch and Alexei crouched down so that the Master and Spīdala could climb up onto his back again. He climbed up into the air, feeling the new weight of all that the dragon had deposited in the Master’s satchel. Alexei had a hard time making his way back over the trees, carrying the stolen goods as well as the weight of the Master and the young woman. The Master kicked his ribs only once or twice, apparently content to go back more slowly than they had arrived. But the night was quickly fading and was completely gone by the time they arrived back at the barn where they had begun their excursion the night before.

The farmhands were making their way into the fields as Spīdala and the Master climbed off Alexei’s back.

“Go!” barked the Master, pointing into the barn and up toward the hayloft with his crutch. Then he turned and hobbled away, seeming to struggle only slightly under the weight of the goods in his satchel as he made his way into the shadows of the forest.

Spīdala spat at the Master’s footprints. Then she and Alexei made their way up into the hayloft to sleep away the morning. 

***  ***  ***

The Master of Wolves came again for Spīdala and Alexei two evenings later. They had been sleeping during the day in the hayloft and coming out at dusk each evening to find what berries they could in the forest to eat and to drink from the farmyard well after all the farmhands were asleep. Once, Alexei had seen Spīdala pluck a stem or two of a frothy-budded herb of some kind and hide it in a pocket beneath her apron but she never said what it was or why she had kept it. Each evening, as they walked, she told Alexei about her childhood, the songs and spells her mother had taught her, and the tales of the Latvian country folk which her grandmother had told her each evening. Every story made him more hopeful that she might be the one able to free him from the wolf-magic that had driven him from his home, but he could not think of how to express all he wanted so long as he was trapped in his wolf-shape by the Master of Wolves.

“But, then again,” he thought, “she overheard my conversation with the Master of Wolves. She saw me transform from wolf to man and back again. If she knew how to set me free, she would.” He was sure of that. He would do anything he could if he thought it would free her from the Master and he knew that she would do the same for him. They were both trapped by the wiles of the Master. At least for now.

But as they prepared to set out into the forest two evenings after Alexei had carried the Master and Spīdala to the other farm, the Master hobbled out of the forest towards them.

“Spīdala! Vilkatis! I’m so glad that I found you here,” the Master chortled as they stood there in the doorway of the barn. “I have another errand for you both this evening! Are you ready?”

“Do we have a choice?” Spīdala snapped at their captor. “Would it make a difference to you if I was to tell you no, we are not ready for another errand?”

The Master chuckled and shook his head. “No, I am afraid it would not truly make any difference to me,” he agreed. “The errand must be done, whether you are ready to do as I instruct or not.” He reached into his satchel and pulled out a smaller bag which he gave to Spīdala. “However, I do have this for you before we set out.”

Spīdala took the bag and peered into it, suspicious of what the Master might be handing to her. She reached into the homespun sack and pulled out a small loaf and a chunk of cheese as well as a piece of sausage.

“You must keep up your strength, Spīdala,” the Master instructed her. “Sit and eat – but save the each first bite of the bread, cheese, and sausage for the pūķis that you must call again when we reach our destination later.”

“And what of the vilkatis? Is there no food for him?” Spīdala wanted to know.

“Our friend here, my child the werewolf, knows what he has my permission to eat,” the Master reminded her with a sly wink of his one good eye. “He can eat whensoever he wishes. The choice is entirely up to him. In the meantime, he shall have nothing from my satchel.” He leaned back against the wall of the barn. “Sit. Eat yourself what I have brought you. Or not. It is no concern of mine. You are not hungry, perhaps? Then we can begin our errand all the sooner.”

Spīdala stood there a moment in a silent rage at the Master. “No,” she said at last, turning and settling down on a milk stool near one of the empty stalls. “I am hungry. I will eat before we set out on this… this errand of yours.” She bit off a piece of the sausage.

“Save the first bite!” the Master barked at her and she spat the mouthful of sausage into the cloth bag she still held. Alexei trotted over to her side and lay down on the ground beside her, grateful that she had thought to speak up for him and ask for a bite of food on his behalf. He was not surprised that the Master had denied her request but he was grateful that she had made it, all the same. “How can I ask her if she can free me from the wolf-magic?” he asked himself again, watching her eat and glad that the Master had brought food for his friend, if not for him.

Spīdala chewed in silence, consuming the rest of the sausage and then the bread and the cheese, careful always to spit the first bite of each back into the bag she had spread out on her lap like a small tablecloth beneath the food she had arranged as if for a festive dinner. She seemed in no great hurry to finish her supper and be on their way to do the Master’s errand but she was finished at last and stood, brushing the crumbs from her lap. Alexei stood as well and faced the Master.

“We are ready,” Spīdala announced.

“At last. I am glad to hear it,” the Master snarled, pushing himself up and away from the barn wall, resting his weight again on the crutch under his arm. He pointed to the ground before him. “Come here, vilkatis, so that you can carry Spīdala and I to our destination.”

Alexei slunk over to the Master, not wanting to carry the Master anywhere but afraid of how the Master might punish them both if he refused. Spīdala followed him, clutching the cloth bag with the three bites of bread, sausage, and cheese within it.

“After you, my child,” the Master said to Spīdala, making a grand display of his good manners, bowing before her and Alexei. Alexei lowered himself so that Spīdala could climb aboard his shoulders as she had before and then the Master climbed atop Alexei behind her. Spīdala held his ears, as before, and the Master wrapped an arm around her waist, pulling her back against his chest as he settled his crutch across her lap and then held it with there with his hands on each of her hips.

“You may climb above the forest now, vilkatis,” the Master instructed Alexei, and the great werewolf rose up and trotted into the air above the trees. Following the Master’s instructions, conveyed by short verbal directives and sharp kicks to his ribs, Alexei carried the Master and Spīdala into the night sky and across the forest towards the south.

After what seemed an eternity, the Master pointed with one hand to a set of barns on an estate below. “There!” he directed Alexei. “That is our destination!” Alexei climbed down from the sky and knelt, allowing Spīdala and the Master to slide off him and stand on the ground again before the barns.

“Now call the pūķis again, child,” the Master instructed Spīdala. “And feed it the first bites of your supper or else he might be angry.” The Master hobbled over to a fence along the edge of the barnyard and sat himself down on it, pulling his pipe and tobacco from the folds of his cloak and, striking his flint and setting the tobacco alight, began to puff away as he had before.

Spīdala reached out to Alexei, who sat down on his haunches beside her. She wrapped one hand in the thick fur between his shoulders as she kept the bag with the bits of food in her other. She glared in the dark at the Master, the milky white of his blind eye the almost only visible part of him in the glow of his pipe. Alexei could hear him quietly puff away on the pipe, its stem clenched between his teeth, as the clouds of tobacco smoke and its scent began to drift across the barnyard.

“We do not have all night,” the Master said quietly, pulling the pipe from his teeth for a moment. “Call the pūķis, child. Or do you wish to see me angry?” Alexei could hear the quiet crunch of the Master’s teeth settling around the stem of the pipe again.

Spīdala stood there for another moment, sullen and silent in the dark. Then Alexei heard the song begin, ever so quietly, just as she had sung it before. Again, the smoke gathered together and the brilliant scarlet dragon emerged from its depths, crawling through the air to Spīdala. The flames and trails of smoke from its jaws and nostrils illuminated the barnyard in flashes. Alexei could see the hunger in the dragon’s eyes as its tongue darted out, this way and that, as it came to stop just before Spīdala.

“Feed it,” the Master quietly instructed. “Then send it into this first barn to consume the grain here.”

“Consume the grain?” Spīdala was aghast. “Stealing money from a rich farmer is one thing but taking the grain from this barn will mean starvation for the farmer and the farmhands when winter comes!”

“Nevertheless, the grain must be taken elsewhere,” the Master told her. “Instruct the pūķis to consume the grain in this barn and then to follow us to the barn where it must be deposited.” He put the pipe back between his teeth.

The dragon continued to hover before Spīdala, sniffing at the bag she held.

“No,” whispered Spīdala. “I will not be the cause of this farmer and his farmhands and their families starving this winter.”

The Master continued to puff away on his pipe. “Feed the pūķis, child. It becomes impatient.” The dragon curled and writhed in the air, its great jaws never far from the small sack in Spīdala’s hand.

“I know that the dragon must be feed the first bites of each meal or it will slay the one who calls it,” Spīdala retorted, clutching Alexei’s fur so tightly that he whined in spite of himself. “But I would rather the dragon slay me and set me free from you than be responsible for the starvation that will follow the theft of the grain.”

Alexei was shocked. He looked up into Spīdala’s face and saw her determination in the light of the sparks drifting from the dragon’s jaws. The dragon huffed and chortled as its darting tongue touched first the sack and then Spīdala’s fingers clutching it.

“How can I let you kill yourself in such a manner?” he yipped and whined at her. “How can you free me if you deliberately set the dragon on yourself?” But even as he barked at her he wondered if he could really stop her from freeing herself in whatever way she could from the Master’s despicable grip.

“No! Do as he wishes!” Alexei barked at his friend, looking from her face to the Master and back. “Do not let the dragon harm her!” he barked at the Master, knowing that the Master would never lift a finger to stop the dragon if it began to consume Spīdala. The creature curled in a circle around Spīdala and Alexei, dragging its tongue around the woman’s waist, turning its head to spit a mouthful of fire when it was done tasting her clothing.

“Feed it. Instruct it,” the Master answered her at last. “Do you think its consuming you will set you free? You are my captive until I set you free, no matter whether you breathe or not. Do you really think that my authority can be limited by such a paltry thing as death?”

The dragon curled around them again, its head weaving up and down and its tongue darting out to taste Spīdala’s hand, her chin, her cheek, her shoulder. Alexei could see her trembling and hear her sniffling with fright.

The dragon twined itself around them, touching its tongue to her throat and then sliding it up to her chin and across her face.

Spīdala cried out and collapsed against Alexei, dropping the sack of food to the ground. “Forgive me, vilkatis!” she sobbed into his fur. “I… I cannot refuse him. I am too weak. The pūķis frightens me too much!” She sobbed and sobbed, trembling against him and he stood firm, supporting his friend even as the dragon continued to gather its coils around them more and more tightly.

Alexei whined at her, “Feed it! Feed the pūķis!”

“Feed it, child,” agreed the Master, calmly puffing away on his pipe. “You will do as I instruct, in any case. You may as well do it while you still breathe.”

Alexei felt the tremors wrack Spīdala once last time and then she wiped her eyes on his fur and stood, clutching the sack again in one hand. Still shaking but standing there in the coils of the scarlet dragon, she reached into the sack and pulled out a bite of bread. She held it out and the dragon sniffed at it. Then its tongue darted out and the bread was gone.

Spīdala reached into the sack again and pulled out the bite of sausage. She held it out and the dragon’s tongue darted again, in and out, as if suspicious that she might be feeding it something poisonous or dangerous. Then the tongue seized the bit of sausage and pulled it into the dragon’s jaws. Alexei thought he saw the creature smile.

Spīdala reached into the bag one last time and held out the bite of cheese. The dragon swirled and danced around them, its darting tongue tasting the air for Spīdala’s fear. Its tongue touched her hair and she cringed. It circled back around to face her and the tongue flicked the cheese into the dragon’s mouth before it slid away from her and curled around itself in the air before the barn.

“Now instruct it,” the Master repeated his earlier directive, continuing to puff away on his pipe.

Spīdala began to sing again, her voice trembling, the words coming in broken syllables but the dragon seemed to understand. It slunk through the open door of the nearest barn and, in the light of the small bursts of fire from between its jaws, Alexei saw it begin to consume the grain stored within.

Spīdala kept singing and kept singing, her voice rasping and harsh from her tears and crying, and the Master kept smoking until finally the dragon emerged from the barn and Alexei saw the creature was now fat and blue again, satiated with the grain it had devoured as it had the household goods in the farmer’s house.

The Master knocked the ashes from his pipe and hobbled over to Alexei and Spīdala. Without waiting to be told, Alexei crouched down and Spīdala, also without waiting to be told, climbed atop his shoulders. The Master followed and then Alexei rose into the air. The dragon followed the werewolf and Alexei had to turn away, disgusted by the desire for Spīdala he saw still lurking in the firey creature’s eyes.  

“That way.” The Master pointed with his crutch and kicked Alexei in the ribs. The werewolf set out, the dragon alongside him.

They had only travelled a few farms away when the Master pointed to a particular set of barns below them and Alexei descended as the first streaks of rose began to color the morning sky. Spīdala, still astride the great werewolf, began to sing again, her voice still ragged. The dragon crawled to the doors of the barn and, in the same way as before, began to vomit out all the grain it had consumed. In the growing light, Alexei could see the grain seemed unchanged from its being consumed by the dragon. Regurgitating the grain, retching and heaving, the dragon began the slow transformation from blue back to scarlet and to become its previous, thinner self.

Finally, the retching done and the change in hue complete, the dragon dissipated into clouds of tobacco smoke again and Alexei climbed wearily into the sky to take himself and Spīdala back to the barn where they had been sleeping.

***  ***  ***

Alexei tried to sleep but his stomach growled and shuddered. He couldn’t remember ever being so hungry before. It had been more than a month since he and Spīdala had fallen into the clutches of the Master of Wolves, and he had eaten only a few mouthfuls of grass or berries since then. His wolf-fur had lost its sheen and he had grown thin and haggard, his ribs beginning to show through his skin and fur. He struggled every day against the temptation to slay something and eat it without the permission of the Master of Wolves but resisted, knowing that there would be a punishment worse than hunger when the Master discovered Alexei’s having eaten. Every day that he slept he hoped against hope that the evening would somehow bring deliverance from the Master’s clutches to both Spīdala and himself but every evening he was disappointed of his hope. He dreamed dark, chaotic dreams and was beginning to fear that he would awake and discover that he had slain Spīdala as he had slain Grete and their children.

He and Spīdala had been left alone at daybreak by the Master, following another night of calling the scrlet pūķis to steal grain from one farmer and give it to another. The Master had instructed them to spend the day sleeping as much as they could. “There will be great doings tonight!” he had promised them. “I will need you both to be well rested!” Alexei dared not think of what horrible plans the Master might have in mind.

But now, shortly after dawn, he and Spīdala were hiding in a dark corner in a hayloft at the top of a barn they had found open. This was the fourth or fifth barn the Master had taken them to, hiding them on a different farm every few days after a night or two of magical thefts. The cattle stalls here were all empty, as they were in each of the barns they had been taken to, as the cattle would have been out in the pastures for the summer but the hayloft was full of sweet-smelling hay. Alexei had led Spīdala up into the corner, each of them confident that the full hayloft meant that no farmhand would be bringing in more hay from the fields, and so they would be able to hide and sleep undisturbed.

Spīdala had lay down in the hay, close up against one of the bales, and Alexei had lain down beside her, resting his head in her lap. She was stroking the fur between his eyes and they were both on the edge of falling asleep when Alexei’s stomach began to rumble and growl. His gullet shook and he closed his eyes tightly, trying to shut the pain of his hunger out of his mind.

“Poor vilkatis,” murmured Spīdala. “How long has it been since you have eaten? I think, not since the night we met?” She stroked his head and he shuddered again as his stomach rumbled again with hunger.

“What can I do, poor vilkatis?” asked Spīdala. “How can I help you?” They both knew that though the Master brought her food every other day, which she had to share with the dragon, she would be unable to feed Alexei anything without the permission of the Master of Wolves and that the straw that surrounded them was no use to the werewolf. “If only I could give you something besides a few grasses or weeds to eat. If only there were some small animal here that I could give you.”

Alexei whimpered in misery. He had no intention of ever accepting the Master’s offer to eat Spīdala but he was afraid that the hunger growing in his belly might drive him mad and that he would awake some afternoon with Spīdala’s blood splattered about and her bones scattered around him as well. He cringed, shuddering at the thought and unsure of how to prevent it from coming true.

Spīdala suddenly sat upright, clapping her hands. “I do know! I do know something I can do for me, vilkatis! Why did I not think of this before?! It is not the same as meat, but I can get you food from an animal and I think it will escape the Master’s notice!”

Alexei pulled his head up, opening his eyes to stare at her. “What would escape the Master’s notice?” he whined.

“I can steal milk from one of the farmer’s cows,” Spīdala explained excitedly. “As I did for my husband. But this time it will not be theft simply to make the farmer poorer and my husband richer. It will be theft for a good reason: to stop you from starving!”

Alexei remembered the wonderful, fresh warm milk he had drunk with his family back in Estonia, before… before he had killed them all. Would any milk ever taste so delicious again? He leaned forward and up, licking Spīdala’s cheek to show his appreciation for her idea.

“You would like that, vilkatis?” she laughed quietly. “Well then, let’s see if we can make it happen.” She sat up straighter, closed her eyes, and rested her clasped hands atop Alexei’s head, which he lowered back into her lap.

Spīdala began to sing something, very quietly. Little more than a whisper but with a melody. The few words Alexei thought he could make out were in Latvian. The song seemed to go on and repeat itself, the melody twisting in the air. He began to fall asleep but each time he did so, the rumbling in his stomach would wake him.

Startled awake by the acute pangs in his stomach once again, this time Alexei heard something rustling in the straw nearby. Spīdala’s song seemed to have changed chords now and the melody hung in the air, beckoning and inviting. The straw rustled again and a large toad came hopping toward them. Alexei pulled his head up, fully awake now, to stare at the large wart-encrusted creature as it would hop, then pause, then hop twice and pause again. It finally hopped into Spīdala’s lap and peered up into her face.

Spīdala stopped singing as she also looked into the toad’s eyes. Gently she cupped her hands around it and lifted it to her cheek. She was whispering to it now and it seemed to nod, as if in understanding. It stretched itself up towards her and kissed her on the cheek. Spīdala held her breath a moment and then gently kissed the toad on its cheek as well before setting it gently back into the straw beside them. It hopped off towards the ladder which would lead down from the hayloft and disappeared between the bales of hay and straw.

Alexei cocked his head to one side, looking into Spīdala’s face. “What did you just do?” he wanted to ask.

Spīdala seemed to know his thoughts. “I called the toad with the song my mother taught me,” she explained, “and then explained that I need it to go find the nearest cow and steal as much of her milk from her udder as it can carry and bring it back to me here.”

Alexei continued to look at her quizzically.

“The kiss?” She blushed. “The kiss was the price of its theft of the milk. Everything has its cost, does it not, vilkatis? Wouldn’t the Master of Wolves agree?”

Alexei slowly wagged his great wolf head in agreement. Everything did have its cost, whether in terms of magic or otherwise. He had been learning the cost of everything since that day he had used the wolf-magic to save his plow-horses from the wolves and lost control of the werewolf transformation as a result. Everything did have its price.

“Now all we need do is wait.” Spīdala leaned back against a bale of hay and closed her eyes. In a moment, Alexei lay his head down in her lap again. Spīdala was soon asleep, he could tell from her gentle breathing, but his hunger refused to let him doze for more than a few moments at a time.

The shadows shifted in the hayloft. Alexei guessed it was sometime in the early afternoon now. Spīdala was slumped over, still asleep. He tried to not move, not wanting to jostle her or disturb her sleep. What nightmare did the Master of Wolves have planned for the coming night? Alexei tried not to think of that but he wanted Spīdala to be as well-rested as possible when it came time to face the Master’s demands. Alexei kept hoping that Spīdala would find some way to free herself, at least, if not the both of them. But she could not do that if she were too tired to think.

As he lay there, trying not to move or wake Spīdala, he heard the straw rustle again near the top of the ladder they had climbed into the hayloft and saw the toad emerge from beneath the straw scattered about the loft’s floorboards. How did the toad climb and descend that ladder, Alexei wondered. “That must be some part of the magic,” he decided, watching the creature slowly move across the loft towards them. But now the toad seemed even larger than it had this morning when Spīdala had first called it with her mother’s song. It was at least twice as large now, its skin stretched tight across its bulging sides and haunches.

The toad waddled and hopped, a strange combination of movements, slowly shifting its weight as it moved until it finally reached Spīdala’s feet. It sat there a moment and then croaked loudly, announcing its arrival. Spīdala stirred but did not wake. The toad croaked again.

Alexei raised his head and nudged her side with his muzzle. She stirred and then, noticing the toad, startled fully awake. She reached out as far as she could toward it, offering her palms to it as she had that morning and the toad heaved itself into her hands. She lifted it to her lips again, whispering to it. It seemed again to understand and nodded. Spīdala turned to Alexei.

“Now, vilkatis, the toad has brought us the milk it has stolen from the farmer’s cows,” she explained. “If I was at home, as I was when my husband wanted the milk from the neighbor’s cows stolen, the toad would spit it all the milk out into a bucket for me and it would be as fresh and delicious as if I had just taken it from the cow myself. But now, we have no bucket. So it must spit out all the milk it has brought us for you to drink into your mouth.”

Alexei jerked his head back, ready to gag at the thought of the toad spitting into his mouth.

“Just as you have seen the pūķis vomit out the grain and goods it has stolen,” Spīdala told him. “Just like that.”

Alexei nearly vomited himself, in revulsion at the thought of the toad spitting its cargo of milk into his mouth.

Spīdala could see his disgust. She shook her head and leaned towards him, whispering into his ear as she had to the toad. “I am sorry, vilkatis, but there is no other way, is there? Close your eyes and try not to think of it. Imagine that it is a milkmaid, squeezing the milk from the cow directly into your mouth. Is that not a better picture in your mind?”

Alexei considered that a moment and then slowly nodded his agreement. Spīdala smiled at him and nodded as well. She brought the toad up and held it in front of Alexei’s face. He closed his eyes and opened his mouth.

He felt the milk squirt into his mouth and dribble over his tongue. It was the freshest, most delicious milk he had ever tasted! He lapped it up as it spurted into his mouth, ran across his teeth, spilling out over his lips. He swallowed and swallowed, great buckets worth of milk spewing into his mouth as if he was kneeling alongside a milkmaid during the evening milking, just as Spīdala had promised. He kept drinking the spurting milk until his stomach could hold no more and the squirting gradually subsided, one last spurt splashing into his closed eye.

He heard Spīdala heave a sigh of relief as she set the toad back down into the straw. Alexei opened one eye and saw the toad, now leaner and thinner than it had even been in the morning, hop quickly away and disappear into the straw of the hayloft. He closed his eye and dropped his head gently back into Spīdala’s lap.

“Is that better now, vilkatis?” she asked, rubbing him behind his ears. “Is your hunger satisfied now, at least for a bit?”

Alexei smiled, his lips curling back across the great fangs in his mouth, and nodded happily. He felt full and content, the happiest he had been since leaving his home in Estonia so many weeks ago. His stomach rumbled again, this time with contentment rather than hunger.

Alexei and Spīdala fell asleep there in the hayloft, happy and content for what remained of the afternoon.

***  ***  ***

That night the Master came to fetch them much later than usual. Long past dusk, he stood in the doorway of the barn and whistled in the dark. Spīdala and Alexei, having come down from the hayloft as the sun was setting, emerged from one of the empty stalls where they had been waiting for the Master’s arrival.

The Master pulled a loaf and a piece of cheese from his satchel and threw them into the loose straw scattered across the floor of the barn. “Eat, child,” he told Spīdala. “Then we shall be on our way.” Spīdala stooped and caught up the bread and cheese before the Master could change his mind and rescind his offer to allow her to eat.

“Shall I save the first bites to feed the pūķis?” she asked, settling onto a milking stool. Saving the first bites of her meals had become expected as the pūķis had to be feed now each time she created it from the Master’s pipe smoke.

“No, child,” the Master told her. “Tonight we do not need to feed the pūķis. You may eat it all, even the first bites.”

Spīdala began to shew on the cheese she had been given. Alexei settled down beside her, one eye on the Master. Still full from the milk that Spīdala had managed to conjure for him that afternoon, he did not trust the Master to not know of it somehow and punish either himself or Spīdala because of it. But the Master just settled himself against the wall of the barn, as he usually did, to wait for Spīdala to finish her meal.

Spīdala stood finally, brushing the crumbs of bread and cheese from her lap.

“Come, vilkatis,” the Master crooned

The hair on Alexei’s neck stood erect, the syrupy tone in the Master’s voice raising alarms in his mind. What could the Master be wanting? He never pretended to be kind. The sweetness dripping from the Master’s words had to be a trick or a trap of some kind. Alexei stood and growled quietly, the deep rumble in his throat an odd contrast with his emaciated frame.

“Come, vilkatis,” the Master repeated, gesturing with his crutch toward the barn doors. “Do not be so suspicious of me. Tonight you might just find me in a kindly mood to set either you or the girl free and let you go your own way. Maybe the both of you. Or neither. We shall see how kindly I might be disposed to you after our errand is completed.”

Alexei felt his hackles still rising and the rumble in his throat grew stronger. The Master certainly had some trap in store for them, dangling their freedom in front of Alexei like that. The Master would never allow them to go so easily, so simply. Whatever the errand he had in mind this evening, Alexei was certain it must be especially horrid if the Master felt inclined to lure him into it with such saccharine blandishments.

Still growling, Alexei circled around the Master and then darted out the doors of the barn. Outside, in the night, he heard an owl hoot somewhere and the flutter of its wings. Spīdala came to stand beside him and she mounted his shoulders as she had so often these past weeks and the Master climbed astride his haunches again as well. Without waiting for instructions, Alexei trotted up into the sky and then, directed by the Master’s much more gentle than usual instructions, carried them away to a small farm far to the east across the forests and swamps of the countryside. Dropping down into the farmyard, Alexei could see at once that this secluded farm, surrounded by dense woods, was much more humble than most of the farms and manors or estates that the Master had brought them to over these past weeks. This farm was not simply humble, it was poor.

Spīdala climbed down from Alexei’s back and the Master clambered off as well. They all stood there in the dark a moment, listening to the sounds of the night. Owls hooted. A bat flitted out from the open hatch above the barn doors. Small rodents scurried through the underbrush of the woods.

  “Why have you brought us here?” Spīdala asked at last, breaking the silence. “What is this errand, these ‘great doings’ that you promised?”

“Come with me,” the Master urged, the syrupy-sweet tone again making Alexei’s hackles rise. The Master limped into the barn and Alexei was sure he heard a whimper deep in the recesses of the rough-hewn structure. Spīdala grasped one of his ears as if acknowledging the danger of the Master’s tone and his promise to possibly free them if he was pleased with the results of this errand.

“I do not trust him, vilkatis,” whispered Spīdala into his ear that she held. “There is something afoot here that is more wicked than anything he has asked for yet.” She lifted her head and set her shoulders back to face whatever it was the Master was leading them to. Together they walked into the barn.

In the dark of the barn, it took Alexei a moment to see that the Master was standing near one of the empty cattle stalls. With trepidation, Alexei and Spīdala made their way as quietly as they could across the barn until they stood alongside the Master at the stall’s gate. The Master leaned on the closed gate of the stall and it creaked open in the dark. At the sound of the creaking stall gate, something large scrambled through the loose straw strewn about in the stall and pressed itself up against the back wall of the stall. The Master pulled out his pipe and struck his flint to light it. In the quick light of the sparks from the flint and the flicker of flame as the tobacco caught fire Alexei saw that it was a man.

The man had straw in his hair and caught in his shirt and trousers as well. He was blinking in the small but sudden light of the tiny fire in the bowl of the Master’s pipe, attempting to rub his eyes as if he had just been awakened by the noise. Alexei saw that the man’s hands were tightly bound together with the rough rope typically used on farms. Glancing down, he saw the man was barefoot and his ankles roughly bound together as well.

Spīdala gasped and the man looked up at her, trying to see past the glare of the burning tobacco. The Master puffed quietly away, the white smoke beginning to curl up from the pipe and the fire subsided, the tobacco becoming a glowing coal in the dark.

“Please, mistress!” the man pleaded, looking at Spīdala. “I have done no harm! I was only trying to protect my family! I meant no harm!” Weeping wracked his frame and he collapsed in a huddle into a corner of the stall.

“What—?” the question caught in Spīdala’s throat. Alexei stood beside her and the three of them – Alexei, Spīdala, and the Master of Wolves – completely blocked the gate to the stall, making impossible any hope the man might have had of escape.

The Master continued to puff away before finally pulling the pipe from his teeth. “This farmer has killed one of my wolf-children. Last spring, when I apportioned all the food for my forest-sons and –daughters for this season on St. George’s Day, I gave one wolf permission to eat this farmer. But when the wolf came to eat the farmer, the farmer dared to fight back and slew the wolf instead. Such insubordination cannot be tolerated.” The Master spat out the words as if they were food that had spoiled.

“It cannot be tolerated. Can it, vilkatis?” The Master leaned down to whisper in Alexei’s ear. “I gave one of my wolves permission to eat this man and this man killed the wolf. So now you will eat him, vilkatis.”

Alexei reared up and pulled away in disgust from the Master, his cries of dismay sounding like the yowling of a sick or injured wolf. The man cowered in the corner of the stall, gibbering in fear.

“No!” shouted Spīdala, stumbling back from the Master as well. “You cannot think – “

“Oh, but I do, my child,” the Master stood again and resumed puffing on his pipe. “The werewolf is hungry, so very hungry now. Are you not, vilkatis? So very hungry. And this man has dared to lift his hand against one of my forest-children. So now, I give the vilkatis permission to eat the farmer. Nay, not simply my permission. I order the werewolf to eat this man.”

“Even you would not be so cruel!” Spīdala covered her mouth with her palm, choking on the thought of what the Master wanted of Alexei. Then farmer continued to weep, struggling to press himself even further away from them into the corner of the stall. Alexei stood rooted to the floor, his yowls of dismay gradually becoming growls of anger.

“Cruel?” mocked the Master. “Not cruel. Just. It is justice for the wolf this man slew.” The Master puffed on the pipe and then stepped away from the stall, turning his back to them. “If the vilkatis does as I say, I will allow you both to go free. If he does not, then you can expect to remain with me for another several seasons. At least. Maybe more. But this man will die, in any case. Our friend vilkatis may at least be the one to do it and win the freedom for you both that you have both seen so hungry for these past weeks.”

“I did nothing but try to protect my family!” cried the farmer.

“No freedom is worth that price!” insisted Spīdala, still aghast and her palm still covering her mouth.

Snarling, Alexi leaped through the air at the Master of Wolves.

Spīdala and the cowering farmer saw the great werewolf land on the Master’s shoulders, knocking the Master to the ground as he sank his fangs into the Master’s throat. Blood spurted and splattered. The pipe flew through the air, scattering the burning tobacco like fiery snowflakes atop the hay strewn about the barn floor and causing a dozen small fires to erupt in the dry stalks. The Master roared and turned, sweeping his crutch out and throwing Alexei against the wall of the stall. Bones? Wood? Something crunched as the werewolf struck the wall and slid to the floor, dazed by the impact. Then it was up and attacking the Master again, lunging and snapping his great teeth as the Master cracked his crutch over Alexei’s shoulders again and again and again.

Alexei caught the straps of the Master’s satchel in his teeth and shredded the leather as he tore it from the Master and threw it to one side. The Master roared again in fury in words Alexei did not understand. The farmer was screaming in terror, sure that the snarling, snapping werewolf would turn to devour him next.

Smoke from the burning straw stung Spīdala’s throat as she watched in shock as Alexei and the Master rolled about on the floor, the Master’s cloak flapping in the air. Then, realizing that her chance had come, she caught hold of the Master’s cloak and tugged it aside as she pulled the frothy-budded fennel that she had found one night in the forest with Alexei so many weeks ago – known to the wise-women of Latvia to be as sharp as a sword and as dangerous a weapon as any other when wielded against devils—from her pocket and had been keeping for just such a moment. She drove the crumpled fennel stalk into the side of the Master of Wolves and he howled in agony.

“Run, vilkatis! Go! Escape!” she cried to Alexei. She pulled the fennel back and drove into the Master again, provoking another howl. Alexei, only aware that Spīdala was thrusting something at the Master, knew he could not abandon Spīdala. He lunged again at the Master’s throat and felt his teeth sink into flesh once more. Again blood spurted and splashed around them. The Master swung his arm and knocked Alexei across the barn this time. Alexei hit the far wall and slumped to the floor, dazed and confused.

But suddenly there was a pack of wolves howling and running in through the barn door, coming to the defense of the Master. They came leaping through the flames, barking and roaring as teeth snapped. One caught Spīdala arm in its teeth and pulled her from the Master as others swarmed atop her, howling and barking. Others wrapped their jaws around the Master’s arms to pull him to his feet. One more jumped into the stall and the farmer’s wails were suddenly silenced as the wolf tore the man’s throat out.

Smoke and fire made it difficult for Alexei to see and breathe. He felt as if his head were swimming in the flames and smoke. He began to cough and retch. Was that the Master he saw stumbling out the barn door, assisted by the pack of wolves who were half-pulling and half-pushing him? Sparks and smoke swirled about, flickering shadows obscuring his vision.

He heard a creak and a rumble as a support for the hayloft gave way. The hayloft shuddered, dropping more fuel down into the flames. The barn shuddered again and another support gave away, crashing into the wall beside Alexei and knocking open a large gash in the wood. Air rushed in and the flames danced higher.

Half aware that Spīdala was dead and that there was nothing he could do for her now, Alexei felt the air tumble past him through the opening in the wall. He pulled himself up from the floor and shook his head, gagging on the smoke. Was he about to die? Maybe. But in one last attempt to escape the misery inflicted by the Master of Wolves, he threw himself at the open gash in the burning wall and the beams gave way beneath him. He fell out into the farmyard.

Tumbling head over heels away from the burning barn, he gasped and choked and, as he did so, felt the familiar tremors of the wolf-magic retreating from his body. A moment later he was sitting naked in the farmyard, clutching the great wolf pelt, his chest heaving as he panted and gulped great lungfuls of air and cried for joy at having finally escaped from, having been forgotten by, the Master of Wolves.

And he wept for his friend Spīdala.

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