Emerson didn’t blink; she didn’t know whether what she was seeing was the truth or some sick practical joke from the supposed mage, just as the one from the week prior.
Instead of the large white wolf from before, on the boulder now lay a blonde man, panting and coughing—a very naked man. Emerson scanned him. He was tall, taller than her, which was definitely new for her, and his hair was a dark blonde, shaggy and ruffled. His shoulders were broad, and his chest and stomach rippled with muscles. He wasn’t beefy, but he wasn’t too terribly skinny, either. His legs were long and muscular, too. When the man looked at her, she found herself staring at the same green eyes from the wolf.
Emerson’s own blue eyes grew wide. “You...you’re the wolf?!”
The unnamed man stared at her, assessing the situation. He couldn’t tell if the young woman before him was a threat. She certainly didn’t look it, but he didn’t fail to notice the daggers strapped to her body and the hand that clutched a large, oak bow.
“Are you okay?” the woman spoke, drawing him from his thoughts.
Emerson couldn’t believe what she has just witnessed. A wolf, seconds away from killing her, turned into a man before her very eyes. She swallowed, waiting for his reply.
“I think so?” His reply came out a question, unsure how to answer. His voice was hoarse and shaky, he hadn’t used it in years.
Emerson suddenly realized the man’s bare state and coughed. She tore off her velvet cloak and handed it to him. “It’s not much, but it’ll be better than...” she gestured at his body, not bothering to finish her sentence.
The man’s cheeks heated as he mumbled a thank you, pulling himself off the boulder. Emerson tore her eyes away as he tugged the cloak on, not pulling the hood up.
“Can I ask for your name?” she asked him softly.
The man paused for a second, and Emerson thought it was as if he hadn’t heard that question in a long time. “Nicholas.”
She smiled meekly and replied, “Nice to meet you, Nicholas. I’m Emerson.”
Nicholas simply nodded at her, still in shock by his sudden transformation. His body still felt weak and wobbly. He was trying to gather the strength to walk when Emerson prompted him with another question.
“What exactly just happened?”
He turned to look at her, unsure if he should share the details of his life with a mere stranger. But as he stared into the warm brown eyes, he found himself melting at her feet.
“I, uh, I,” he stammered. “The mage turned me back I guess.”
“Back? So you weren’t always a wolf?”
Nicholas shook his head. “No.”
Emerson waited for him to continue, but he left it that. “How did you end up a wolf?”
He shifted on his feet, glancing around at the trees. Should he tell her? He fought with himself back and forth before finally giving in. “I was cursed.”
Emerson pursed her lips. “Cursed? By who?”
Nicholas fidgeted with his hands. “The same mage who just turned me back.”
The woman blinked at him rapidly, opening and closing her mouth, unsure how to pick her next words. She knew she probably looked like a fish ready for their next meal in the stranger’s eyes, but she didn’t much care at this point.
“How the hell did that happen? Did you want to be a wolf?” she demanded.
“Of course not!” he yelled, making her flinch. He clenched his fists at his sides and Emerson slowly took a step back. Nicholas saw the fear on her face and he groaned. “No, I’m sorry. Look, it’s a long story. Not exactly one I want to share while hungry and naked in the woods.”
The woman’s face heated, completely forgetting the situation they were in. He was wearing her cloak. “Of course. Do you have anywhere to go?”
Nicholas looked uncomfortable for a moment, and he muttered out a weak “No.”
Emerson thought for a second. She was completely and utterly crazy. Was she really about to invite a man into her house? She looked up at the sky and begged for her mother’s forgiveness.
“Okay, Nicholas,” she said, snapping his attention to her. “I have a place here, but it’s about a day’s walk. Are you okay with that?”
Nicholas nodded frantically, shouting endless ′thank you‘s and ’how will I ever repay you’s once he heard the ridiculous question. He knew it was risky to walk away with a stranger, but the woman before him didn’t seem harmful, and she looked well off enough to be able to feed him.
Nicholas studied her, taking in her appearance. This was the first human he had seen in years, not under the control of a damned wolf. He never would’ve thought this was what she looked like underneath a cloak. Her skin practically glowed underneath the sun’s rays, and her blue eyes pierced through his own, though not menacingly. Her hair was dark brown and pulled tightly into a braid, though he didn’t know why. She was wearing form-fitting clothes, giving him a chance to look at her figure. Her hips were wide and her thighs were thick, though he could tell just from looking that it wasn’t fat—it was muscle. Her waist wasn’t small, but it did slightly curve inward, leading up to a perfectly sized chest.
Nicholas smiled to himself. Absolutely beautiful.
The pair of humans walked together, picking at the basket originally intended to be Isa’s. Once she offered the food to Nicholas, she sent a silent Sorry, Granny into the universe, though she knew she would never hear it. Guess I won’t make it up there this month.
Too embarrassed to walk with the cloak open, Nicholas had asked her if there was a way to pull it closed. Initially, she was going to give him a firm No, but then remembered the black strap her used for her daggers. She placed the other three daggers at the one at her thigh and gave it to him, allowing him to strap it around his waist.
Both were a lot more comfortable knowing he was covered. The two of them walked in silence, not quite knowing what to talk about. Nicholas munched on a green apple, the only sound either of them could hear was the sound of his chewing.
“So,” he abruptly spoke. “How old are you?”
“23,” Emerson answered. “What about you?”
Nicholas paused, taking another bite out of his apple. “What year is it?”
“Ah,” he remarked. “I suppose I would be 28 now.”
Emerson glanced at the man. He didn’t look old enough to be almost 30 by any means. Though, she didn’t have much room to talk. She hardly looked old enough to be in her twenties. Most assumed she was still a teen.
“How long have you been a wolf?” she asked him.
He stopped walking, growing uneasy at the current conversation topic. “Since I was a kid.”
The way he spoke, Emerson could tell it was time to drop the subject, so she did, nodding. They continued on their journey back to her cabin in complete silence, not uttering a single word until they got there.
They finally reached her house early the next morning, both exhausted with throbbing feet. Emerson opened the door and motioned for the man to come in, where he sat comfortably at her table. It was a rusty, tired out table in dire need of being replaced, but it was the first thing her mother bought when they moved into the cabin, so Emerson never had the heart to get rid of it.
Before she sat down across from Nicholas, she hung her bow and quiver up by the door. She sat her daggers on the kitchen counter, not bothering to put them in the correct place in the drawer, and sat the basket down between the two.
She looked at the stranger with an unwavering gaze. “I think it’s time you tell me that story.”
Nicholas looked up at her, then down at the table. “Okay.”
He knew he had to tell her; she was the reason he was here, in a warm home, eating real food for the first time in years. If he was lucky, he might even get to stay here. He needed to earn her trust the way she earned his.
“I met the mage when I was a boy,” he started. “I was around 11 or 12, I don’t really remember. Back then, it was just me, my dad, and my little sister, who’s a few years younger than me. My mom died giving birth to my sister, so I never knew her. We were poor, and lived in a really shitty place in Selal. My dad worked in a gardening shop and my sister and I went to the public school just by our house. When I was around 7, my dad picked up another job at the post office. He couldn’t afford to take care of all three of us. He’d go to the post office in the morning, then straight to the shop after he was done there. And that’s how it went for a few years.”
Nicholas sighed, dragging his hands down his face. “Then I met the mage. He never told me his name, he just said he could help. My neighborhood was a really tight-knit community, so I figured he was someone’s cousin or uncle or something, I never knew he could be so...” Emerson listened to him talk, not once taking her eyes off his face. “I had only just finished grade school, and wasn’t exactly the smartest kid, so I believed him. I asked him a couple things, like what he would do and how exactly he could help, and he just said, ‘Nicky, I can give your family the life you think they deserve.’
“I never realized I never gave him my name, or that when he said ‘your family’ it didn’t include me. So, I agreed. I didn’t even ask what he wanted from me. I begged, pleaded, and cried for him to save us. And he did—my dad and sister that is. My price was becoming a wolf. For what reason, I still have no idea to this day. But as soon as I agreed, I blacked out. I woke up the next morning in the middle of the woods, as a wolf.
“I tried to find my dad and sister, but I never could. I don’t even know if he saved them!” he barked out a laugh. Nicholas pursed his lips, then continued. “I stayed in one spot for a long time. I was too afraid to leave in fear of being hunted. The hunters in these woods are relentless.” Emerson grimaced, not bothering to mention that she was one of those hunters. “Along the way, I got comfortable in that clearing you saw. As the time passed, the wolf started taking over. I couldn’t control my instincts or emotions. That’s why I attacked you.”
Nicholas stared at the stranger in front of him, anxiously waiting for her reaction. She simply stared at him, trying to formulate her thoughts.
“Do you think the mage saved them?” her voice was soft, she didn’t want to upset him.
His shoulders shook, whether out of anger or sadness, Emerson couldn’t tell. “I...I don’t know. I never got to see. The transformation caused me to black out and it messed with my memory for awhile. If he did, I doubt they would be living where we used to live when I was a kid.”
Emerson nodded. “I can help look for them. I know a lot of people in Selal; my grandmother used to own a bakery when I was a kid, so my mother and I would visit her a lot. What are their names?”
Nicholas didn’t hesitate. “Jordan and Avery Evans. Avery would probably be around your age.”
The woman’s eyes widened. “Evans?”
The man nodded. “Why?”
Emerson stood up from her place at the table and started pacing. “I know who, where they are.”
Nicholas’ eyebrows shot up into his forehead as he stumbled out of his chair. “You do? You know my family?”
Emerson looked at the man, debating on whether she should tell the truth or not. She knew Avery well, and the two didn’t particularly get along. Any time she went into that dreaded town, she made damn sure to avoid her.
“Yes...” she trailed off, then realized something. “But wait, Nicholas...”
“Yeah?” he asked, confusion written all over his face.
“If the price to save your family was to turn you into a wolf then...what would the price be for turning you back?”