In a land far away, where the sun always shone in summer and the snow was crisp and cold in winter, a man and his wife were making their way through the forest in a light carriage drawn by two coal black horses. Moonlight gleamed through the bare branches of the trees; and in the distance, the faint howl of a wolf floated on the still night air. Then twigs cracked as a large, bearded man stepped through the beeches and approached the conveyance.
The horses pulled to an abrupt halt and the driver addressed the stranger. “Can we help you, Sir?”
Without making a verbal response, the bearded man pulled out a wicked-looking knife and held it to the driver’s throat.
“Give me your valuables,” he rasped, his voice dark as night and thick as fog.
The driver laughed, despite the knife at his throat. “We have no gold – if that’s what you’re after.” His proud voice told the brigand that he was not a servant. Strange.
The bearded man snarled, and his blade gleamed in the moonlight. “Then I will take your carriage and horses,” he declared. “At least they will fetch some coin when I sell them.”
At this, the woman’s eyes flashed. “You cannot take our carriage,” she protested. “This forest is miles from anywhere and it is beginning to snow. We shall freeze to death if we are left to continue our journey on foot.”
“Then perhaps I should put you out of your misery quickly,” their assailant growled, drawing his blade across the driver’s throat.
A scarlet necklace shimmered around the man’s neck before he toppled from his seat. Meanwhile, his wife remained frozen in horror. What had she done? Were it not for her words, her husband…
She had no time to complete the thought before the blade found her heart. A red flower bloomed across her pale gown and she crumpled into death.
Dragging the bodies from the carriage, the bearded man coolly regarded his handiwork. He would have preferred a casket of gold and jewels to a pair of horses and a carriage that had seen better days, but at least he would leave with something. Perhaps there was a trinket or to inside the vehicle? He wondered now why there had been no coachman and why the wife had remained by her husband’s side instead of travelling inside like a lady.
A thin cry suddenly rent the air and the bearded man paused. Ripping open the carriage door, he was met with the sight of a basket containing a swaddled babe. One more life to dispose of, then. He paused again. Or he could remove the basket from the carriage and leave the child to the mercy of the wild animals.
Within seconds, the basket lay on the ground, snow covering it as gently as any mother, and the carriage rumbled away into the distance.
The ground was white and cold. She Who Runs With The Wind stopped and sniffed the air, scenting something that was Not-Wolf. It was not one of the small, furry creatures that lived in the trees, nor one of those who burrowed beneath the earth like their cousins – the Ones With Red Coats or the Ones With Striped Faces. Whatever it was, it was hungry: its smell was accompanied by a thin, mewling sound like a cub squeaking for milk.
She Who Runs With The Wind followed the scent and the sound of the cry and found a small creature wrapped in strange fur. Nosing the stiff layers aside, she saw that the cub had no fur of its own: its limbs were pink and naked.
A memory stirred inside her. They had not seen a Two Legs for many moons, and this creature was far smaller than any Two Legs she remembered; but cubs were always small. Her first litter had been smaller still and yet they were all now full grown.
The Not-Wolf cub mewled again, and the sound reminded her of her own full dugs and the babies waiting in the lair. There was room for one more.
Taking the stiff folds of not-fur in her teeth, she carried the youngling back to her nest and the soft, furry bodies that awaited her return.
Seasons changed and the Not-Wolf cub thrived on her wolf-mother’s milk and grew strong and healthy. When she had seen five summers, her older brothers taught her to hunt. She had only two legs, but she kept pace with the rest of the pack, her eyes bright and laughing as she joined the chase for prey. Summer faded into autumn, and then the cold weather arrived; the cycle continued, year after year, until Eyes Like Stars was fully grown. Her body was still pink and hairless apart from the long, shaggy fur that grew on her head and rippled over her back like a waterfall.
She Who Runs With The Wind was old now and her fur had turned silver. She loved Eyes Like Stars as if she were her own cub, but she knew her daughter would need a mate and that it should be another Two Legs like herself. But how to achieve this? Eyes Like Stars knew only wolf speech and wolf ways. Would her own kind accept her when she was so different?
Sunlight dappled the forest floor, glinting through the leaves of the tall beech trees. Stepping carefully, a proud stallion came into view, and on its back sat Prince Ferdinand, the ruler of the realm. His face was handsome despite the cruel mouth; and his hair was as black as his heart.
The sound of running water led him to a clearing containing a secluded pool and waterfall. The water sparkled in the sunlight, but he hardly noticed it: his gaze was utterly transfixed by the beautiful creature he saw bathing under the cascading water. Long, lean limbs as white as milk were offset by rounded curves, and a mane of fiery red hair rippled down the woman’s back. She was magnificent. His loins flamed with lust at the sight of her. He had to have her.
Dismounting quickly, he made his way towards the pool, calling to her as he did so. “I mean you no harm. I am Prince Ferdinand, your ruler.”
She looked up at the sound of his voice, but she gave no word of reply. Stranger still, she did not seem embarrassed by his presence or her own nakedness.
Light! She was beautiful. Lust flamed again. “What’s your name?” he asked. He did not normally bother with such niceties.
The eyes she turned on him were large and luminous. They gleamed like emeralds when the light caught them.
Still she made no response. Anger flared in him now. How dare she refuse to answer!
Withdrawing his sword from his scabbard, he waded into the water, thrusting his blade at her to show her he meant business.
Eyes Like Stars watched the stranger warily. He smelled wrong. His scent was sharp spikes of anger, but there was something else too: something she could not name. He was holding something sharp and pointed, like a claw or a tooth but much longer. Was he attacking her? Surely he could not think her prey!
He was making strange, unintelligible noises with his mouth – so different from the way she and her wolf-family communicated. She was used to hearing another’s mind, to seeing the pictures he thought of when he had something to share; but this creature was loud and clumsy, yelping the way the young ones sometimes did at the moon and making even less sense.
He had reached her now. Her skin and hair dripped water, but he did not care. He would taste her here in the pool, and then he would carry her back to his castle. She would warm his bed very nicely for a while.
Closing the gap between them, he extended his fingers towards her face, then recoiled in shock. She had bitten him! Droplets of red oozed from his wound. So, she liked to play rough, did she? Well, he did too.
Eyes Like Stars staggered as something slammed into her face. Fiery pain danced in her head; her vision blurred. Once more, the creature struck her; and then again and again until she tasted blood. Desperately, she sent out a plea to her brothers. Danger! Come quickly. But he was already dragging her from the water, the long, sharp claw at her ribs promising more pain.
Ferdinand hurried the girl out of the pool. He had not meant to bloody her as much as that. Nevertheless, there had been something satisfying about slamming his fist into her over and over again. He did not want her in this condition, though. No, better to wait until they were back at the castle and she had been cleaned up a little. Perhaps he should ask a Wise Woman to heal her bruises. He wanted her beauty to be perfect when he took her.
Forcing her onto her knees, he held his sword to her neck with one hand while the other fumbled at his pouch for the thin leather cord he kept there. One never knew when such things would come in handy… Deftly tying her wrists behind her back, he jerked her to her feet again. He could not see any clothes beside the pool, but she still did not seem to care that she was naked. Removing his cloak, he wrapped it around her – not because he wanted to protect her modesty but because he could not bear the thought of any other man looking at her. She was his.
Indicating his horse, he asked her if she knew how to ride. She did not answer, so he heaved her over the saddle and then climbed up behind her. Kicking the animal into a trot, he began to take his prize home.
Serella stared in shock at the woman in front of her – not at the cuts and bruises: she was used to seeing the prince’s handiwork by now; but at the red hair and green eyes that marked the royal house of Elnor and the line that had been eradicated when Ferdinand usurped the throne all those years ago.
For fifteen years, she had held her tongue, not wanting to find herself at the mercy of the headsman’s axe like so many of the others who had denounced Ferdinand, but this girl had to be the long-lost heir.
“What is your name, Child?” she asked.
The red-haired girl gazed at her silently.
Tentatively, Serella reached out tendrils of power and gently touched the girl’s mind. The gift was often useful when dealing with the girls brought to her by Ferdinand. Others might be able to heal the physical wounds, but she was the only one who could delve deeper. What she saw made her pause. Human words did not exist in this child’s mind: instead, images of the forest merged with wolves and other creatures, all of this overlaid with a sense of contentment. The scene changed to a sunlit pool and she was watching through the girl’s eyes as Ferdinand strode towards her, sharing first the confusion and then the pain of what followed.
Shaking, Serella drew back. The rightful heir to the throne could not speak: she was more animal than human. Yet the land needed her. Ferdinand inspired no love in the people and many longed for the tyrant’s reign to end. Was it possible to teach her? But it would take years for the girl to learn the language she had never known. Still, perhaps there was a way…
Placing her hand on the girl’s head, she began probing gently, reaching out with the power to weave strands of human speech with the thought pictures she had seen earlier.
Eyes Like Stars found her eyes darting fearfully around her surroundings. The place she was in seemed like a cave, but larger and lighter than any cave she had known before. The floor was hard underfoot and yet something soft as fur but strangely coloured covered it. It was like treading upon moss. There was a stranger in front of her: another Two Legs like herself and the wrong-smelling pack leader she had encountered in the forest. Until now, she had believed herself the only one.
This one was different to the other. Her smell was not dissimilar to Wolf Mother. Eyes Like Stars sniffed and tasted kindness, her mind filling with warmth and love. This one would keep her safe.
A sudden shock as an unknown feeling rippled through her. Pictures in her mind accompanied by strange sounds. Sight and sound merged together and she realised she could understand the noises made by this new Two Legs.
“My name is Serella and I am a Wise Woman: a Healer. What is your name?”
She began to send an image of a night sky and shining stars, but the Wise Woman interrupted her. “Use your words, Child.”
Words? The Wise Woman guided her, almost as if nudging her in the right direction. “Stars,” she said hesitantly. “Stars glowing in the big dark and eyes glowing like stars. My name is Eyes Like Stars.” She looked into the older female’s eyes. “Can you help me return to my brother wolves?”
“Oh, Child.” The Wise One sounded regretful. “You do not remember.”
Again, something touched her mind. Memories that had lain sleeping for a lifetime seeped back. She was cradled in loving arms, gazing up into the eyes of a Two Legs who smelled of milk. She was rocked to sleep and knew only contentment and peace.
The world shifted. The stranger with the wrong smell was in front of her, a sharp claw in his hand like the one from the forest, but not as long. The word came to her now: knife. A smell of anger mixed with fear. A blur behind him as the Two Legs who had held her tried to stop him. Noise. Confusion. Other hands plucking her away hurriedly, running through stone caves – passages – to take her to safety. Human speech flooded her mind in time with the images. Two strangers had carried her to safety, stuffing her into a basket, racing away in a box on wheels – a carriage – pulled by two large creatures with long legs – horses. At first the woman had sat inside the carriage with her; then, as the motion began to rock Eyes Like Stars to sleep, the woman had disappeared.
Later, a sudden halt. She had woken up, wanting food, but no one came in answer to her call. Then, chill air all around her – something soft and white and cold, falling from the sky. And then, Mother Wolf.
The memories faded. She knew her past, and she had words to describe it. Looking at the Wise Woman, she asked, “Who am I?”
When Prince Ferdinand returned to the chamber, he found the girl standing there, her cuts and bruises already healed.
“Leave us,” he told the Wise Woman.
The girl eyed him coldly. “You will not lay a finger on me!” she exclaimed. “You killed my parents – and you wanted to kill me.”
Her parents? What was she talking about? He had executed many peasants over the years, but they had all deserved it.
“You do not know who I am.” Her tone was bitter. “I am the child you tried to kill – the rightful heir to the realm.”
His hand flew to the sword at his side. She had tricked him! She had enticed him to bring her here so that she could take his crown.
Pressing his blade against her throat, he called for his guards. Only when she was bound with ropes did he relax. He did not want her now. He could not trust her hands to be anywhere near him – nor her teeth. Subconsciously, he rubbed the tender spot where her bite had broken the skin.
“She will die the death of all traitors!” he declared. “Take her to the wolf pit!”
The beasts had not been fed for a week. They would tear her limb from limb.
He could not understand why a smile played on her lips.
Huddled amongst the soft bodies of her wolf brothers, Eyes Like Stars stretched and yawned. She had slept well. She was glad that she had not lost her closeness to her forest family despite now having the speech of humans. She was human too; but in her heart, she would always be part-wolf.
Dawn stretched out rosy fingers, painting the sky with a blush of hope. Soon he would be here; and then…
Ferdinand hurried to the pit. The wolves were always sleepy and docile after they had fed. A pity, really, to give them such a nubile creature, but he had not trusted her one inch – not once he learned her true identity. There would be other women, though – and when he tired of them, they too would feed his pets.
Chuckling a little, he let himself in through the iron gate. The grey, shaggy mass did not stir.
Was any part of her left? he wondered. He sometimes kept body parts as souvenirs.
Picking his way towards the sleeping creatures, he froze suddenly. The girl, unharmed, rose from the midst of the wolves. Their yellow eyes followed her as she walked towards him.
“No,” he croaked. “It’s not possible.”
Ignoring him, she turned to the pack and opened her mind. Kill him.
And with that, they ripped him apart.
The land rejoiced for weeks at the death of Ferdinand. They would have made Eyes Like Stars queen straight away, but she refused.
“My place is in the forest,” she said, telling them that Serella would rule in her stead.
And she left the castle, her wolf brothers trotting beside her, and returned to the life she knew.