It was cold and dark and I’d been running for a long time. When I saw the lights of a roadhouse, I turned and went in. Warmth of the house wrapped around me, and I stood still on the soft floor, the large rough boards worn down from a thousand feet. When the innkeeper saw me, a dark look flashed across his face, and I knew he thought I’d come to beg. Before saying anything, I casually put my hand in the pocket of my thin, torn dress and pulled out several bright coins. The look vanished at once, and he got behind the counter and asked what he could do for me.
“I would like a room for the night and supper,” I said, watching him, trying to guess if he was a talking man.
“Very good,” he said. “Would you like it in your room or downstairs?”
“In my room,” I said, “how much?” He named a price, and I gave him several coins, then slowly drew out a much heavier one and laid it on the counter, keeping my finger on it, watching his face. “I would prefer if no one knew I was here,” I said, keeping my voice soft, as if I were asking for extra gravy or real soap instead of homemade.
“Of course,” he said, all smooth politeness. “I shall see to it.”
“Thank you.” I took my hand off the coin and turned away. He led me up a flight of dim stairs to a room on the left of a longish hall. It was a plain room with a four poster bed, a small chest, a fireplace, a chair, and a small table.
“Thank you,” I said again, and dismissed him by a certain turn of my head. He bowed slightly and left, leaving the candle behind.
I first went to the window and looked out to see what the yard looked like, and if the wall could be easily climbed. The window overlooked a small, dark, snowy yard. The wall was of rough cut stone, and the window was only one story up. There were strong wooden shudders on the outside though, so I opened the window, pulled them closed, shut the window and drew the curtains.
I wished I had something else to put on. It was cold in the room, the innkeeper hadn’t had notice so the fire wasn’t lit, and I was starting to realize how cold I was in my thin dress. I hadn’t noticed in a long time. When you’re running for your life, you don’t notice small details like freezing.
I sat in the chair in front of the table and waited for supper. I was very hungry.
In a few minutes there was a soft knock at the door. I opened it, and the innkeeper brought in a tray with hot things on it. A cup with steam rising off the top, a bowl and a covered dish, also steaming. He put it down on the table and proceeded to light the fire. I was dreadfully hungry, but I waited for him to leave. He probably thought I was royalty in disguise or a wanted highwayman, and didn’t care which, having no curiosity after a glimpse of gold. He wouldn’t have been far off. As he finished with the fire, he straightened up and looked at me and then away, as if trying to decide whether to speak. At last he went to the door and reached for something in the hall. I stood up. When he turned around, he was holding a bundle of material. It was dark, black or blue or gray, I couldn’t tell.
“A man left this here some time ago,” he said. “If you would like it…” He held it up and I saw that it was a coat, worn and shabby but still thick, and many sizes too large for me. He meant to give it as a gift, but someone in my position couldn’t afford to accept gifts.
“Thank you,” I said. “I would like it.” I reached in my pocket. He pulled back a little, wanting to refuse, but I handed him the money without looking at him and took the coat. He bowed again and left me.
I wrapped the coat around me. It was made of a thick, scratchy, tweedy material on the outside, a mixture of blue and black and gray. But the inside was lined in soft gray woolen stuff, and felt lovely. Even though it was much too big, it felt right when I put it on.
I drank what was in the cup without first tasting it and waiting because I would only be troublesome to the innkeeper dead. The food was nice, hot and strong without too much flavor to distract me. I think it was some sort of stew with meat and plums, and there was a piece of hot cornbread with a little wet puddle of butter. I sat in front of the fire for a while, tired, wanting to sleep but the heat was so beautiful and being alone and feeling safe so wonderful, I didn’t want to go to bed. I never feel safe lying down.
At last I got up and bolted the door. I blew out the candle the innkeeper had given me and climbed under the covers in the firelight. As soon as I was in the bed I felt exposed. The room grew large around me, and I wished I hadn’t lost my knife three days ago. I had taken the coat off and laid it over the chair by the bed. I sat up and put it on, pulling it tight around me. I forced myself to relax, closed my eyes, and slept.
I woke suddenly. The fire had burned down to a few orange coals. I sat up, holding my breath. There was no clock in the room, and even if there had been, I wouldn’t have been able to read it, but I could feel by the stillness that it was the middle of the night, probably two or three o’clock. I listened for whatever had woke me, but there was nothing. I lay down again, and was about to close my eyes when I heard a sound. A gentle scraping, like leather sliding against stone.
Like someone climbing a stone wall in leather boots.
I got out of bed and looked around. There should have been a poker for the fire, but when I looked for one, I couldn’t find it. The innkeeper must have taken it with him. Why? Was he afraid of me? I laughed a little at the thought, considering what was probably climbing his wall right then. So I had no weapon. The shutters had no locks. They could be opened from the outside and the window smashed in. I listened. There was silence and then I heard it again, closer now. I thought of running out the door, down through the inn and out, but if someone was climbing the wall, they would certainly be waiting for me at the door. Running away would be worse than staying. I was trapped. I sat down on the bed. Would they wonder what had happened to me in the coach houses and courts across the kingdom of Allmeny?
The sound outside was at the window now. I heard the shudders creak back. I walked to the window. I threw back the curtains and pushed the window open. A figure leaped onto the windowsill. For a moment he and I regarded each other in the moonlight. He was dressed in black, (aren’t they always dressed in black?), and his boots were worn from the long chase. He smiled at me, a horrible pale smile full of broken teeth. He stepped into the room, blocking the window as he pulled his long pale knife from the leather holder strapped around his leg. I caught my breath. I’d given him that knife in another world, wrapped in silver paper. Now he was going to kill me with it. I didn’t know why, but my hand went to the pocket of the coat that was still wrapped around me. He tensed, expecting me to pull out a weapon. My hand closed around something small and hard and cold. I pulled it out. It was a little silver whistle. He looked confused, and stepped closer, reaching out to grip my arm, raising the knife. Again without thinking, acting on some instinct, I put the whistle to my mouth and blew. No sound came out. He smiled again, and brought down the knife.
There was a flash of silver in my eyes; I thought it was the knife, but suddenly the man was on the floor, not moving, the knife still in his hand, and I was still alive. Above the man’s body stood a wolf. Its coat shone silver blue, glowing in the dark. Its eyes, level with mine, looked straight at me. They were so black I didn’t know how I could see them, and they seemed to feel into every secret part of my heart. The great sleek body was a mass of rippling grace and strength poised to move, every hair alert, ready to spring. It looked at me a moment, and then ran to the window and leaped out. I looked after it, down on the moonlit snow, but it was gone. I stared at the whistle in my hand. It glowed with silver blue light. I put it back in my pocket, took the knife from the man’s hand, and climbed out the window. For the first time that night I was glad I was barefoot. I gripped the rough stones with my hands and feet, the knife handle clenched between my teeth, the coat billowing around me, the cold winter night swirling into my dress. I’d lost my shoes only the day before, so my feet weren’t too torn and callused yet to feel.
I hit the ground, and stood looking around. This is always the hard part. You know you have to run, but which way? It doesn’t really matter, but you have to pick a direction. At last I ran across the field, moving in a diagonal line. If men were posted in front and in back, this was the way they’d be most likely to miss me. I looked for tracks in the fresh snow, but saw none except the ones the man had left. I wondered if he was dead or stunned and if he would presently wake and follow me.
Beyond the field was a stand of trees, black and blue under their heavy loads of snow. I ran into them and sat on a tree root. I caught my breath and clutched the whistle in my pocket. Who had left it in the pocket and why? What had happened to the man whose coat I was wearing? Maybe he hadn’t meant to leave it. I tore strips off the bottom of my dress and tied them around my feet. I was looking down, concentrating on what I was doing, so when I looked up and found myself surrounded, it was my own fault.
There were five of them. Why were they so afraid of me? I wasn’t at all sure the whistle would work a second time, but I hoped dearly that it would. I pulled the knife I’d taken from the fallen man from within my coat, and it gleamed in the moonlight. The circle of men advancing on me paused. They would recognize the knife. I pulled the whistle from my pocket and blew. Again there was no sound, and the men continued to move closer. I saw that while most of them had knives, one man had a gun. He could shoot me right where I stood, without having to touch me.
But then, through the woods echoed a howl, icy and wild and sweet. I smiled, filled with the wonder of the call, but the sound had a very different effect on the men. Their tough dark faces turned wild with fear, and the whites of their eyes showed.
Then he was there. He rushed among them, fur flashing under the moon and over the snow, reflecting it and shining with the night, and I laughed, he was so beautiful. The men scattered before him, running through the woods, but he was too fast for them. The man with the gun got off a shot that echoed in my head, but went wild and lodged in a tree. The wolf knocked them down and roughed them up, but let them all go, and I was glad of that, not wanting a circle of bodies found in the woods after my disappearance. I hoped the man in my room wasn’t dead.
The wolf stood beside me after they were all gone, and looked at me as if to say, “You certainly need a lot of saving.”
“Yes,” I said, “Saved twice in one night. Thank you.” I held up the whistle. “I wonder what happened to the last person who had this.” The wolf looked away, and I guessed it wasn’t a happy story. I expected him to run away again, and I wished he would stay with me. But the wolf didn’t leave. Instead he lay down in the snow at my feet and look up at me, as if waiting for something.
“What?” I said. The wolf rolled his eyes and edged closer, tilting back his head.
“Oh!” I said, “You want me to get on your back?” He snorted, like I was being remarkably stupid. I climbed on carefully, feeling I wasn’t worthy of riding this creature, excitement pounding though me. Once I was safely on, gripping his beautiful silvery fur, he stood and we were off, flying over the night. I looked back and saw that he did leave tracks, faint ones, as we ran over the snow without sinking in. He hadn’t left tracks before.
I bent low over his back, feeling his strength, his warmth pushing up through me, and closed my eyes. The world was a blur as we ran under the moon. Earlier tonight I had been running so hard, knowing I was nearing the end of my life, knowing sooner or later they would catch me. But now here I was, running away so far and so fast, my coat tails stretching out behind me, the silvery blue whistle tucked deep in my pocket. I didn’t know where we were running, and I didn’t care. I was safe.