Shay Sheridan - Reality
"Finally!" Gigi sighed, emerging from the trees to gaze at the lights of the tiny village in the valley. "Civilization at last!"
Wolf recognized the location and was not comforted.
Little Lamb Village. Scene of so many memories, not the least of which being his near-execution at the hands of fire-hungry villagers. Avoid, avoid, go around, go now, run in the other direction, Wolf! the voice of reason shouted in his head.
The voice didn't have a chance, not with his stomach shouting so much louder. And he knew he'd better answer its call — the last few miles he'd actually started drooling every time Gigi's scent wafted his way.
The girl in question was halfway down the sloping path, intent on making the village before the threatening skies above unleashed a torrent of rain. Wolf shivered and trotted off after her; despite her rudeness, despite the drooling, he felt he had to keep her in sight, no matter how horribly she behaved towards him. Truth to tell, being near her was almost like being near Virginia: her scent, her looks, even the pitch of her voice... as long as he didn't actually listen to what she was saying, Wolf could almost believe he'd been reunited with his mate.
They'd walked straight through since the unfortunate shoe incident of the afternoon. Amazing how much faster one could travel when not encumbered with Rapunzel-length hair, a dog on rollers and a maniacal killer on one's trail! Wolf had suffered one deep pang of nostalgia, though, as they traversed the deep forest in darkness. He'd remembered that oh-so-illuminating night spent in Snow White's cottage, when he'd begun to understand what made Virginia so cold, so unhappy. It came to him now that the cottage was where he'd really started to fall in love with her, not just lust after her (although waking up on a bed of her sweet-smelling hair still ranked as one of the erotic highlights of his life). Unfortunately that night in front of the fireplace was not to be repeated. There'd been no reason to stop, every reason to press on.
As if to underline Wolf's unease about the town, thunder rumbled overhead and a flash of lightning briefly illuminated the rolling countryside. There would be rain soon, and lots of it.
He sped up to walk with Gigi into the town. At least this late at night no sheep were about to tempt him, nor any shepherdesses, either. He took a mental inventory of himself and realized he didn't feel the way he had the last time he passed this way. His blood wasn't racing, and his nervousness perfectly understandable under the circumstances. Tonight he was probably as safe as a wolf could be in this terrible town, which wasn't very safe at all.
If he was out of sorts, it was because the purpose of this journey was still beyond his understanding. He'd found Virginia, all right, but she wasn't his mate. He'd saved the gypsies, most of them, anyway, but all he'd gotten for his pains was a curt thank you and a swift goodbye. He'd saved the boy –
Well, that at least was something. Evidently because of his actions something terrible HAD been undone. But if so, where was Snow White? When was he going to come to the end of this quest?
The heavens opened up, drowning his thoughts, just as they reached the Baa Bar.
The inside of the tavern was as warm and noisy as he remembered. Not that he remembered it very clearly at all --mostly he recalled it as a blur having something to do with his various appetites. Most full moons were like that for Wolf, some better, some worse, and that had been one of the worst, including as it did a full-fledged blackout, a vision of the evil queen and a violent confrontation with a henhouse full of chickens.
Wolf shuddered. Would he never be able to act like a human being when the full moon called him? He still feared what would happen once he returned to the Tenth Kingdom. Would Virginia be safe, as she insisted she would? Or would his cycle grow worse and worse until it destroyed them both?
Still, there was that one clear recollection, one of the few things he remembered about that awful night. It had happened right here, in the tavern, when Virginia had saved him from getting roughed up by bulliesby identifying him as her husband. The memory still warmed him, as did the thought that he would be her husband, soon, for real this time.
But only if he were reunited with her again.
Gigi had commandeered a table — probably badgered someone until they vacated it in terror of her, Wolf thought darkly. He sat down across from her, warily regarding the people around him.
"Evenin' folks. Eatin' late, aren't ya?"
The round-faced proprietor appeared at their table, setting down two steaming mugs of cider, though neither of them had ordered anything yet. Barbara Peep's good-natured face would have been more welcome in Wolf's eyes had he not seen it twisted into murderous rage when she and the other Peeps had attempted to burn him at the stake. Her cheery good humor seemed real enough now, but he had to fight to keep from snapping at her.
"Not a fit night out — p'raps this'll warm you both up. Can I get you some food, then?"
"Yes! I'm utterly famished!" Gigi graced the woman with a winning smile, but the moment the Peep woman left the smile turned into a frown. "I don't suppose you have any money."
Wolf frowned back. "And why would you suppose THAT?"
"Well..." Clearly she was about to say something derogatory, but for once held her tongue. "So you CAN pay for this?"
Well, now that she mentioned it....Wolf felt around in his pockets. Too bad he'd stashed the crossbow outside under a woodpile; just one of the ruby eyes on the carved silver head would have bought quite a lot of pork chops. "Well, at the moment I --"
His fruitless search made Gigi roll her eyes exactly the same way Virginia rolled hers when she was exasperated with him. "Never mind," she said in a surly tone, "I'll pay." She half-turned away from him and stuck her hand down her cleavage.
Oh I wish I were that hand! Wolf thought, trying to imagine the sensation, fighting with his tongue to keep it from lolling. Stop it! Get a grip! He whined slightly and squeezed his eyes shut for a moment until stars replaced the image in his brain of her snowy breasts. He opened them in time to see Gigi pluck a small velvet purse out of her bodice. When she untied it Wolf caught the glint of gold.
The Baa Bar's owner brought them plate after plate of meat, meat, MEAT, and bowls of steaming vegetables. Wolf rarely paid any attention to things that grew in the ground, but even he had to admit the turnips and carrots looked enticing. Gotta hand it to these Peeps--pretty clever scheme, damming up that magic well!
He sheared the meat off another lamb chop, crunched the bone loudly and sucked out the marrow. "Mmmm-MMM! Hits the spot, all righty!" he cooed happily, sharing his joy.
Gigi curled her lip at him. "You're disgusting."
"Sorry if I offend you," he said, licking his fingers.
"Ugh. Where did you learn your manners?"
He leaned over the piled of cleaned bones and gave her his most predatory stare, complete with flashing yellow eyes. "I learned my manners back home," he growled in a menacing tone, "Back home with the pack."
It had the desired effect. Gigi sat up with a gasp, pulling as far away from him as she could go, as a result nearly falling off her chair. Good! Serves her right! What an unbelievably insulting person! I'd like to throttle her. Well, actually, I'd like to bite her! No, REALLY, what he WANTED to do, despite her caustic words and superior attitude, was to lean over and kiss her. The conflicting impulses fought in his head and to make them go away he picked up another chop.
A shadow fell over the table.
"You're new, aren't you?"
Wolf swallowed. Hard.
The blonde shepherdess leaned on the table so that her tight bodice was leveled at his eyes. "Haven't seen you here before. Are ya here for the festival?"
Wolf opened his mouth but it was so dry his voice came out in a very unmanly, unwolfy squeak. "Well, I, um --" He cleared his throat and tried again. "Not really, no."
"Too bad. There's going to be a competition for Most Beautiful Sheep and Shepherdess tomorrow, and I'm going to win!" She stood up and tossed her curls, then looked at Gigi for the first time. "You're not going to enter, are you?"
Gigi's eyes glittered. Uh-oh... Shut up, Gigi! Just keep quiet! "I might," she said nonchalantly. "Or I might not. Haven't decided." Aagghh!
Sally twisted her lip. "I wouldn't, if I were you." She turned back to Wolf, all seductive smiles. "My name's Sally Peep. What's yours?"
Oh, cripes! He wasn't under the influence of the moon, he'd halfway expected to encounter her, and he STILL couldn't form a complete sentence around her. It was if he were fifteen again, meeting Dorcas. Well, she DOES resemble Dorcas, quite a bit, in fact, why didn't I notice that last time? Well, there was a full moon last time, and I don't know WHAT I was noticing, and why am I thinking about Dorcas anyway? Am I regressing?— isn't that another of Dr, Horovitz' words? Regressing? Re-gress-ing? Obsessing? Can you say obsessing, Wolf? Stop stop STOP! Pull yourself together! A name a name a name a name — "My name?"
Which was the moment Gigi decided to put in her oar. "His name is Wolf. And if you don't mind, Miss Peep, we're eating."
Aagghh! Gigi! NO!!!!
But it was too late. At the word "wolf" a deadly silence fell on the Baa Bar.
"No, no, it's not 'Wolf,' don't be silly, Gigi dear, that's just her little pet name for me, it's, um --" oh well — "Wolf-SON. Warren Wolfson."
He grinned at Sally, at Barbara Peep, at the people around him, hoping they wouldn't notice how forced a grin it was, and he was standing up and pushing away from the table, saying "Come on, Gigi, time to go, we've got that, um, appointment, and thank you, Mistress Peep for that excellent meal, Gigi --"
"Don't pull me, Wolf, I'm not finished!"
Aaauuuggghhhh! Wolf again! "Honey --" and now he was gritting his teeth and clamping his hand down on her arm, and she was finally coming with him, though not easily, staring at him as though he'd lost his mind, and they were making their way to the door as everyone glared at them, including Sally, whose face had changed from seductive to cold, and they were outside in the rain, wet but alive.
They both started shouting at once.
"Don't you EVER call me Honey again! I don't even like you!"
"What's wrong with you? Don't you know they'll burn me alive if they find out I'm a wolf?"
"Maybe if you kept your eyes off that slutty girl's chest for a moment you wouldn't look like one!"
"Are you TRYING to get me killed?"
"And your table manners gave it away anyhow!"
"I'm not the one with bad manners!"
"Don't you ever put your hands on me again!"
"And what was that about entering the contest?"
"What were you thinking?"
"What was I thinking? Listen, lady, they'd throw you on the fire along with me!"
"Not if I'm nowhere near you, so keep away from me!" She glared at him, rain dripping off the end of her nose.
"That's fine with me!" Water plastered his hair and seeped down his collar.
"Goodbye and good riddance!"
"You'll be sorry!"
And with that they stormed away in opposite directions.
Wolf retraced his soggy steps to the woodpile where he'd secreted the crossbow. He was relieved to find it untouched. Not the sort of thing to leave around, unless, of course, the Peeps used it to kill each other off. That would make the world a better place, no doubt about it.
He slung it over his shoulder and looked around, trying to decide what to do. Finding a dry place to spend the rest of the night was probably the first order of business. He turned up a street at random. Well, this is another fine mess. Find Virginia, lose Virginia. Find Gigi--lose Gigi. Not that she's much of a loss, that infuriating, self-important, trouble-making –
"Leave me alone!"
Oh, no. That voice! That annoying, supercilious voice! Could she not spend a minute on her own without getting into trouble?
"Don't touch me!"
Wolf closed his eyes and sighed, then turned and sped towards the sound.
"Quit shouting. No one's gonna hear you, anyway. Now, you're not gonna give us any trouble, are you?"
Two enormous Peep boys flanked Gigi in a narrow alley with a pile of smelly trash at one end. They'd come up on her so suddenly, their steps muffled by the rain, that she hadn't noticed them until an enormous hand grabbed her shoulder. As they spun her around, she saw Sally standing at the entrance to the alley, a look of triumph on her face.
"Let go of me."
The larger of the two smiled at her. The smile was not reassuring. "We just want to talk with you, nice like, don't we, Bert?"
"That's right, Ewan!"
"Now then --you're not going to enter that contest tomorrow, are you, girlie?"
"None of your business what I do — and don't call me 'girlie!'" Her tone was haughty, but a little note of nervousness underlay the annoyance. The two men were AWFULLY big.
"Now, now, GIRLIE, I think you're being a bit rude to my cousin Ewan," the other lout said. "Our Sally is going to win that contest, and us Peeps, well, we stick together. We don't want any outsiders coming in here and stealing something that belongs to us."
Gigi laughed derisively. "So I guess I make Sally nervous, eh? 'Course, compared to her, even a troll could win the prize!"
A strangled noise came from the end of the alley. "I don't want her at the contest, cousins," Sally called in a nasty voice. "Troll, eh? — we'll see!" She turned and flounced down the street, disappearing into the shadows.
The larger Peep, Ewan, tightened his grip on Gigi's arm. "It's just not nice to mess with us Peeps, Girlie. 'Specially not when there's a prize to be won. Our Sally does like her prizes."
"Yeah," added Bert. "I reckon we'd better fix it so's no one could find you pretty, eh?"
Gigi blanched. Ewan grinned at her expression. His eyes narrowed and he looked her up and down. "I reckon, cousin, that we could have a little fun, too, while we're at it."
"Yeah — good idea!"
The two closed in on her, but the larger stiff-armed the other one. "Bert, why don't you go tell Sally we'll be awhile. By the time you come back it'll be your turn."
"All right — but I won't be long." The second Peep disappeared around the corner.
"Just let me go. I'll be on my way. I won't even be here tomorrow, I promise!" Gigi's eyes showed the extent of her panic, which only seemed to entertain the lout further.
"Oh, you'll go, all right, eventually. Right now, you come over here!" Ewan whipped her around until she was pressed against the whitewashed side of a building. Gigi tried to struggle, tried to knee him, but he evaded her attempts. "Not nice," he sneered. One enormous hand reached over and started pawing her.
Wolf blind-sided him with considerable force. The two men fell onto the muddy road, but Wolf immediately rolled to his feet. "You heard her. She doesn't want anything to do with Sally or that stupid festival, so just leave her alone, all right?"
Ewan responded by swinging around and knocking Wolf's legs out from under him, and he crashed to earth with a bone-jarring thud. The two rolled in the mud, punching each other, until Wolf wrestled his way to the top. The rain made his hands slick and Ewan slithered out of his grasp, clouting him in the side of the head with a huge fist. Stars filled Wolf's vision and he shook his head, both to clear his brain and to get his wet hair out of his eyes.
"I thought you'd have the sense to get out of Little Lamb Village!" Ewan jeered.
"Yeah, so did I," muttered Wolf under his breath. He rubbed his temple, trying to make the ringing sound in his head go away.
"I guess I'll have to teach you a proper lesson, wolf!" Ewan's pasty face split into an unpleasant grimace.
Wolf struggled to his knees. Ewan also was getting up, slower because of his massive build, but fast enough to grab hold of Wolf before he could get to his feet. Ewan's muscular arms squeezed Wolf's ribs until they threatened to crack. But a sharp elbow jab sent Ewan backwards, holding his side and cursing.
"No lessons," Wolf panted, holding his own ribs. "We're just passing through town, that's all, and we're going now, aren't we, Gigi?" He turned towards the wall.
Gigi was gone.
He turned around to look for her and a second club-like fist punched him in the stomach, knocking the wind out of him. He collapsed down to the ground again, wheezing, trying unsuccessfully to get air into his lungs.
"Having a bit of a problem, cousin?" Bert helped Ewan up and stood cracking his knuckles. "Decided I wanted to go first. What happened to the girlie, then?"
Yeah, thought Wolf bitterly, what happened to her?
Ewan stood, rubbing his side and wiping a trickle of blood from his mouth. "HE got in the way, that's what happened." He emphasized his point by kicking Wolf hard enough to knock him over.
Wolf took in a shuddering breath and looked up at the Peep boys. They stared back at him, thin-lipped with anger and ready to pummel him into jelly. This was not going to be pretty.
And this time there'd be no Virginia to rescue him.
Gigi stepped out into the street from the barn. It finally had stopped raining, but a thick damp mist remained, obscuring the streets, making them seem spooky and dangerous.
She frowned and drummed her fingers on the barn door. She should go look for Wolf. That would be the right thing to do. After all, he'd stepped in to keep her from being — well, probably raped. Certainly beaten up. Maybe even murdered. He hadn't had to. He'd just shown up, appearing out of the rain to attack that big oaf with the huge hands. She shivered at the memory of those big hands running over her body.
No. She should remain here, safe in this barn. Who knew what dangers waited out in the streets? Perhaps that would be the sensible thing to do, and she was most assuredly a sensible girl. Besides, she was still angry with Wolf. He really shouldn't behave the way he did towards her, speaking to her like that, taking it for granted that she'd do what he said, bossing her around –
Oh, stop it, Gigi! He saved your life — admit it! And you just left him out there to deal with those horrible Peeps!
She was beginning to feel guilty. It was a new emotion for her, and she didn't like it, not one bit. It upset her to consider what other people were feeling; life was so much easier when you just looked out for yourself.
She also didn't like the idea creeping up on her that she was a coward.
"Grrrrr!" She clenched her fists and railed at the universe for a moment. Don't think, Gigi, just do it!
She ran out into the street, cursing herself for the stupidity of her actions.
It took her some time to find him.
The fog made it difficult to locate the narrow alley, and once she recognized where she was she proceeded with extreme caution, not wanting to run headlong into her assailants again. She felt her way around a dark corner and found herself in the alley. It was very quiet. She walked halfway in --no one was there and she sighed with relief. That wolf had probably high-tailed it out of town without a second thought about her. She started to go and stopped. Something was... She turned back, slowly, looking down the dark alley. That pile of trash at the end looked larger than it had before.
They'd tossed Wolf on the trash heap when they were done with him. His feet had ended up on a load of rotten apples, his head lay in a puddle. The puddle had a pinkish cast to it, and Gigi's horrified eyes took in the blood running from Wolf's nose and mouth into the water.
Oh my God --they've killed him! It's all my fault! A tremendous wave of guilt washed over her, and she reeled back, sagging against the wall with the enormity of the situation. I've never done anything quite this terrible before! She put her face in her hands. I killed him! I killed him!
Wait. Had he just made a sound? "You--Wolf--can you hear me?" She knelt down in the puddle and listened. Was he dead? No. He was breathing, rather loudly in fact, and the eye that wasn't swollen shut was open a slit, though it didn't seem to be looking at anything in particular. "Wolf?" He groaned. "It's Gigi." He groaned even louder at that. "Can you get up?"
"I own zing zo." She could barely hear him and couldn't figure out what he was saying, so she put her hands under his back and pushed him up into a sitting position. His groaning grew louder, and he said quite crossly, "Eev ee aone!"
She frowned at him and pushed him harder. 'I'm not going to leave you alone. You have to get up or you're going to die. Do you want that?"
"Too bad." She managed to get her arms around his chest, which made him cry out and then swear at her, and using the wall for support, pushed upright until she got him to stand. She leaned him against the wall. She already felt out of breath --he was just too big and too tall for her to manage alone, unless –
"Listen to me, you mangy animal! How dare you make me feel guilty! None of this is MY fault — you brought it on yourself, you know!" She made her voice as imperious as possible.
Wolf's one good eye began to focus, and fixed on her angrily. The corner of his bloodied mouth curled open to reveal his teeth, and a low growl came from his throat.
Good, thought Gigi. This is promising.
In the end she got him so mad he made it to the barn mostly under his own power.
Wolf staggered in on shaky legs, then collapsed on the straw and lay there while Gigi shut the barn door. She looked down at him. He was a crumpled mess. She felt awkward, out of her depth. She'd never been responsible for anyone before, and she wanted to help, wanted to offer comfort, but was rather at a loss about the practical aspects of the job. Should she run and get help? Maybe the nice woman who'd shown her to the barn -- Fidelity, she thought her name was. She'd seemed a cheerful, helpful sort, probably capable of tending injured people. Or animals.
On the other hand, what if the woman was one of those odious Peeps? What if she turned them over to the awful pair who'd attacked her? Then where would she be?
Correction: where would they be. She looked at Wolf bleeding at her feet, and felt ashamed of herself. The Peep boys had taken out their anger on him, and here she was still thinking only of herself.
She was scared.
The amount of blood on his face and clothes was shocking. Well, Gigi, you're going to have to just get on with helping him or he just MIGHT die. Stop acting like a spoiled brat. The least you can do is look after him, when he got this way saving you.
To stop from thinking about how scared she was she looked around the barn. Fidelity had given her some bedding and she covered Wolf with the rough wool blanket, then remembered something she'd read once in a romantic adventure story and started ripping strips off her petticoat in case she needed bandages.
She made a compress out of one piece, soaked it in the water from the trough by the wall and sat down next to Wolf, carefully dabbing at his face. All the blood made her feel rather queasy, but she kept taking deep breaths to help her focus. She wiped away the blood from where his lip was split, and from the abrasion over his cheekbone below his swollen right eye. Along his hairline she found another cut — it seemed that was the one most of the bleeding came from. Mostly he lay there insensitive to her ministrations, but every now and then came out of it enough to whine or protest her actions. She fought hard to control her temper, and for the most part succeeded.
Once the blood had been washed off, Wolf still looked terrible, his face bruised and swollen. But he no longer looked like he'd been flayed alive. Gigi wound a makeshift bandage around his head to cover the scalp wound that refused to stop bleeding. It gave him a rakish look, much like a wounded pirate. She smiled despite herself. As long as she didn't have to hear him talk, Wolf was really not bad looking at all, even black and blue. Though he CERTAINLY wasn't her type. Definitely not.
She leaned closer. Wolf was finally still. His face seemed to have taken the brunt of the blows, but Gigi wondered if he had any broken bones. Maybe she should check, now that he was unconscious. Gingerly she peeled back the blanket and unbuttoned his shirt. For some reason she felt very embarrassed. It wasn't like she'd never seen a man with his shirt off, heavens, that would be ridiculous. It was just that she'd never, well, touched a man quite this much. No matter what those gypsies thought, she'd never, ever, done anything more than kissed anyone. She'd let them think she was much more experienced so they wouldn't get any ideas about showing her how things were done.
Wolf's chest at the moment was decorated with dark bruises here and there that made her wince at the sight of them. What really startled her, though, were a few fading stripes --he'd been whipped, and rather recently, too. Goose flesh crept up her arms and she shivered. Her father whipped servants, sometimes, when he wanted to "teach them a lesson"; she hated hearing the sounds of their cries from the courtyard. She put the thought out of her mind. If she had her way, she'd never go home again.
Gigi gently started to poke him here and there. Hmmm...what does a broken bone feel like, anyway? Is that a rib? She frowned, concentrating. That's why there are physicians and healers, silly, they have the knowledge. I don't. I don't really know what I'm doing! Wolf didn't wake up, didn't stir at all or make a sound — until she found a particularly tender spot on his stomach. At her touch he moaned loudly and twisted away from her probing fingers.
Gigi was terrified. Oh, no! I've made it worse! She scuttled back through the straw, away from Wolf, who was now curled up, protecting himself from further poking. She slid back against a wooden post and started to cry. I'm not good at this! I need help! I'm only good at hurting, not helping anybody! I can't do anything! People get hurt and killed around me --like the gypsies, like him! I'm a killer, that's what I am! Her anger at herself, at her incompetence, overcame her and she put her head down in her arms and began to sob.
She didn't hear him at first because she was crying so loudly.
Gigi sat up with a huge sniff and blinked her eyes. Had Wolf said something? She wiped her nose on her sleeve and crawled over to him. "What is it? What do you need? What can I --"
"Don't cry, Virginia." He opened his left eye and put his hand on her arm, the only part of her he could reach. The gesture astonished her, so much so that she forgot to complain he was calling her by the wrong name. Amazing. He was trying to make HER feel better.
He said something else she couldn't quite catch, so she leaned closer. "What — what did you say?"
A tiny wolfish grin appeared on his face a fraction of a second before his arm somehow came up around her and pulled her in, trapping her against his chest. "Gotcha!" Gigi started to squirm away. "Mmm. Like that." He squeezed her tighter.
Now this was getting ridiculous. She felt annoyance begin. What did he think he was doing? "Listen --"
"Love you, 'Ginia." His other arm wrapped around her, so now she was firmly in his grasp. Wolf was looking at her but from his glassy expression she realized he wasn't seeing her at all. And his grip wasn't loosening. Apparently he didn't have any broken bones in his arms.
What should she do? What COULD she do? She didn't want to hurt him. Maybe she should just stay this way until he let go. He'd have to, at some point, wouldn't he? She looked at Wolf's face, listened to his regular breathing. He seemed to have fallen asleep. It would be a shame to disturb him.
Besides, she reasoned, ever practical, it's cold in here, and there's only one blanket.