Shay Sheridan - Reality
Travelers crossing here needed to know with certainty where they were bound, for no signpost marked the routes to help them on their way. The four roads diverged at perfect right angles, each heading to a different point of the compass.
A rumbling from the south awakened the bird.
A small cart came up to the crossroads and turned right without pausing. The buzzard paid little heed to the horse, the driver, or the young woman in the back, but his eye was caught by a glint of something shiny that suddenly fell, dropping onto the East Road as the cart turned. The wagon continued on its way, and the buzzard swooped down upon the path to peck at the bright spot. But shiny though it was, the object was hard, and when he picked it up it did not taste of food. The bird circled and dropped the tasteless thing, expressing his distaste with the avian equivalent of "Bleahhh!" The coin fell on the Northern Road and rolled away from the crossroads. The buzzard swooped away to perch again upon the tree limb.
Gigi hadn't noticed the fate of her coin, for she was more concerned that the huntsman continue to gaze ahead of him and not turn back in time to catch her marking their passage. So far she'd been quite lucky. In fact, at the moment he seemed to be dozing a little, now that he'd turned them eastward.
She bit her lip. East. If he'd been taking her home, they would have taken the West Road, for that way lay her father's lands, in the high hills bordering the Western Sea. But they'd gone in the opposite direction, and she wondered why. She imagined, with alarm, he was bringing her directly to Wendell's palace. What awaited her? A hasty wedding? Imprisonment in a tower until she acquiesced? Beatings? Servitude? Or worse: eternal boredom as the wife of an eternally boring ass.
The thought of the petulant, immature, soon-to-be-King Wendell made her think again about Wolf. It wasn't that Wolf had hinted he knew Wendell; that connection was so ludicrous she barely credited his story. But when she considered the two of them equally, she realized more and more that while Wendell still meant nothing to her, Wolf, for all she professed to dislike him, had crept slyly into her heart.
Sure, she was still angry with him, especially when she considered that his gift of gold to her could be construed as payment for, ah, "services rendered" the night before. She pursed her lips at the thought. No. He couldn't really have meant it that way, could he? Surely he'd meant it as a peace offering, as a payment for a real debt. That was the problem with Wolf. He seemed really to want to do right; he just didn't know how to do it without ruffling her feathers.
But maybe that was her problem. Maybe she had put up defenses so high and so thick that she couldn't see what Wolf was really trying to do. She had to confess he had his good points, and truly there were more of those than bad ones. Certainly he wasn't the hired thug she'd taken him for when she'd first met him at the gypsy camp. For one, there was that habit he had of saving her life at the risk of his own. As a personality trait that was pretty impressive.
Secondly, life with Wolf was not dull. In fact it was quite exciting, if also dangerous and exhausting. It felt to Gigi as if her life hadn't really begun, even living among the gypsies, until she met him. She'd lusted for adventure? Well, he'd certainly delivered it to her.
She'd lusted for more than adventure, too, which brought her to the third point: he was awfully good-looking, wasn't he? Well, in a raffish, disordered kind of way. Oh, Wendell was handsome, true --the blond, blue-eyed kind of good looks that most women swooned for, but Gigi couldn't ignore the way her heart jumped just a little when Wolf looked at her that way.
But mostly, for all his peculiar gestures and tendency to babble and occasional rudeness and general weirdness, Wolf had done something no one had ever done for her before: he actually seemed to care that she existed. She was touched by how he'd given her his full attention during that long ride from Little Lamb Village to Kissing Town, even though he'd been through a terrible ordeal. He'd been interested in what she'd had to say. In who she was. In what she wanted out of life.
It was the first time she could remember someone acknowledging she had any value as a person, not just as the daughter of a nobleman. Nobleman --hah! Her father had amassed a fortune designing sewage disposal systems for wealthy landowners. Soon wealthy himself, he'd purchased the title and the estate of the Viscount of the Western Mountains. So much for her noble bloodlines! But no matter who she was, merchant's daughter or noble lady, she'd always had ideas, things to say, and she'd felt sometimes, growing up, that she would burst from the frustration of trying to keep her personality in check, not to speak out or offer her opinion on anything more important than what color dress to buy.
When Wolf had let her speak, she'd repaid him by being abrasive. Some reward she'd given him! But there had been something liberating even in their arguments --he engaged her, didn't ignore her. Wolf's attention was like a gift she'd been waiting to open all her life. Despite the arguments and frustrations of being with him twenty-four hours a day, Wolf's acknowledgment of her, his willingness to connect, was, indeed, something to be cherished.
Her eyes began to fill as she realized how much she missed him.
Oh, well. She sniffled once and made herself stop. It hardly mattered what she thought or felt. She'd never see him again, anyway. She groped around in the sack for another coin. The pile was dwindling; she'd better space them further apart. Good thing she'd tossed one onto the East Road at that crossroads. She'd better hold off for another mile before dropping the next one.
The cart rattled down the road and disappeared.
The dust settled. Time passed. The sun rose higher in the sky. Back at the crossroads the bird dozed again.
The buzzard jolted upright. Something loud and annoying was approaching from the west.
"Ooohh, a tinker, tinker, tinker, I,
A 'andsome fellow, two foot high--"
The buzzard cocked an eye at the source of the sound.
"If you don't know me, that's a shame,
'Cause Acorn, Esquire, is me name!
A swaybacked draft horse plodded into view, pulling a wagon crammed with the oddest assortment of things: ornate knick-knacks, rusty pots, baskets with broken handles, a scythe, two brooms, picture frames, a chamber pot --that clanked and chimed in time to the jostling of the cart. The buzzard narrowed its gaze; the driver looked nearly small enough to be dinner.
"Whoa, Lightning!" The crooked little man yawned and stretched and pulled on the reigns. The ancient horse immediately began to graze on the stubbly grass around the crossroads. "Let's see, let's see... Kissing Town be south of here --'ello! Wot's this?" He squinted with his one good eye, which was large and perfect and quite a lovely shade of blue-green, as opposed to the other, which was closed by a hideous scar that split his face diagonally in two. With difficulty he clambered down from the high seat and walked a few paces down the southern road. Something bright lay in a dusty rut, and he bent down to look at it. "Well, I'll be stuffed and roasted for supper! A gold wendell!" He walked a few more paces down the road, trying to spy if the rightful owner was lurking anywhere nearby. Nope. The road to Kissing Town was deserted. But a few paces beyond he saw another shiny spot, and, hustling down the path, discovered another coin. Acorn smiled, revealing a set of broken teeth repaired with metal. Truly, this was a sign that prosperity was ahead, for if the road to Kissing Town wasn't exactly paved with gold, at least it appeared to be dotted with it!!
The little man ran back to the wagon, grabbed the bit and turned Lightning to the south. It was worth walking if it meant scooping up gold! Whoever the unlucky fellow might be who was littering the road with coins, Acorn the Dwarf meant to be the one to clean up after him.
The scent was gone.
Wolf turned in a circle, sniffing the breeze for any trace of Gigi or the huntsman, but it was no use. Nothing. But the terrain was flat, the road the only way to pass through the high scrub, so he kept on the way he was going. There really was nothing else to do.
Over the last few miles, he'd come to a conclusion: thinking about the future was useless. It hardly seemed worthwhile to dwell on his indiscretion (Betrayal! Call it what it IS, Wolf!) with Gigi. There was no undoing that. He'd just have to live with the consequences.
Wolf frowned. He didn't particularly care for consequences.
Likewise, the question of whether or not he would ever find his own mate again was so huge, so unanswerable, that it was pointless to even consider it with his conscious mind, because when he did let himself think about it, the panic began to well up, and right now he couldn't afford to let that happen. Right now he had more immediate things to think about. Like saving Gigi. He really was worried about her. But more than that, maybe, just maybe if he did that, saved her from an appalling fate, maybe Snow White would let him continue his quest for Virginia.
Wolf looked over his shoulder. Kissing Town had disappeared. He was in the middle of nowhere, by his reckoning. He sniffed again. Still nothing. He walked on, his shoulders slumping, despair wrapping itself around him despite his efforts to keep from considering how futile everything had become.
But because his eyes were downcast he found the first coin.
It glimmered among the weeds lining the path, and Wolf bent over to pick it up. He sniffed the coin. Yes! Very, very faintly he could detect the slightest hint of Gigi's scent. Why Gigi had dropped it he couldn't imagine, but it revived his flagging hope.
He picked up his pace. Twenty yards further on he found the next coin, fifty yards beyond that, the third. She was leaving a trail! What a clever girl that Gigi was!
"I'm coming, Gigi, Wolf is coming to your rescue!" He would rescue her. He would rescue Wendell, if need be, and then he would rescue Virginia. If he could find her. He waved the uncertainty away. So what if moments ago he'd been hovering over the pit of despair. Now he felt positively giddy.
But then things were pretty nearly always either black or white with Wolf.
Several miles later, Wolf's pockets were jingling with coins. He rounded a curve. And saw a surprising vision.
A tinker, tinker, tinker, I--"
"Whoa, Lightning!" The dwarf pulled sharply on the bit and stared with suspicion up at the tall man loping towards him. Tall people made him nervous, what with their big feet and tendency not to look where they were stepping.
"Acorn!" Wolf called again. "What a surprise to see you!"
The dwarf wrinkled his brow. "Do I... know you?" His manner suggested that he didn't know him, didn't want to, and once gone, hoped never to meet him again.
"Of course you know me!"
"Acorn, it's me--" Wolf began, then remembered that this time around he really hadn't talked to Acorn before, though they had been in prison together. He bent down to the dwarf's eye level so Acorn could see his face clearly. "You know me; I'm Wolf, the wolf from E block. The one who ate all the --oh, never mind. You know, Snow White Memorial Prison. Wow! I'm surprised you got this far. Where'd you go after you escaped?"
"Huh?" The dwarf cocked his head and looked at Wolf with a total lack of comprehension. "What're you talkin' about? I've never been in prison."
"Oh, come on, Acorn. It's me, remember? You don't have to pretend."
"I tell you," the little man said, growing red in the face, "I 'AVE NEVER BEEN TO PRISON! I earn an honest living, and I'll thank you not to insult me further!" He jerked on the reins. Wolf had to jump back so as not to be run over by a wheel.
"Wait!" He reached over and grabbed the reins from Acorn, and the ancient horse stopped once again. "Don't be insulted! it's just that I thought you'd remember."
"Well I don't. I've never seen you before, you clumsy giant! I don't know you!"
"Yes you do! You just escaped, like I did!"
Wolf studied Acorn with growing confusion. The dwarf seemed adamant, and the direction he was traveling was, in fact, the opposite he should've been going if he were moving away from the prison. "Then where," Wolf asked, bending down again, "where did you just come from?"
Acorn made a surly face and folded his arms. "Not that it's any of your business, but I've been stayin' wif my mother by the sea. For two months, it is now, ever since my wife Drucibella kicked me out of the--" He spat. "And that's definitely none of your business!"
Wolf straightened up and pondered this information. "Soooo... you haven't been in jail."
"Wot did I just tell you?"
"And you don't know Tony Lewis?"
"Tony. . .Anthony Lewis." There was a pause while Wolf tried to make sense out of the situation. He couldn't, but he'd have to sort it out later. "Never mind," he sighed. "Listen, tell me something, though. Have you seen a young woman traveling with an older man? He might be wearing a big floppy hat, and he's got a fancy crossbow, and she's succulently lovely, a creamy dreamy missy with dark hair and..." He stopped. He was talking about Gigi as if she were Virginia. But Acorn was shaking his head anyway. "Are you certain?"
The dwarf narrowed his one good eye and stuck his chin out. "Now you're callin' me a liar? Listen, Bigfoot, you'd better not make me angry!"
Wolf rolled his eyes. Huff-PUFF! Dealing with Acorn was maddening! He resisted the impulse to snap at the little man. This was futile. "Forget it," he said, and started to walk away.
But as he passed the wagon, he detected a familiar aroma. Gigi! No, not Gigi herself, it wasn't strong enough for that, but something of hers was in the wagon. "Haven't seen them, have you, Acorn? I'll bet!" He started to paw through the assorted junk, but the scent was coming from further front, from under the board where the driver sat. From a small sack. Wolf grabbed for it, and Acorn rushed over and began to tug at his coat tails.
"Hey! That's mine! You jail-breaking criminal, you leave that alone!" He let go of Wolf's coat and attached himself to his leg.
"Just a minute." Wolf ignored Acorn's efforts to pull him away from the wagon and dumped the contents of the sack onto the seat. Gold! He sniffed the glittery pile. No doubt about it; this was Gigi's money. He turned to face the dwarf, plucking him forcibly away from his leg and lifting him up bodily, plunking him down in the wagon on top of a frying pan. "Tell me --WHERE DID YOU GET THE MONEY?"
"It's mine! I found it fair and square!" Acorn struggled to get away, but Wolf held him firmly in place. "Finder's keepers! I found it on the road!"
Clearly the dwarf had been collecting it just as he had, only from the opposite direction. "Then you must have seen her. Don't lie to me, or I'll, I'll...eat you for dinner!"
"I didn't see 'er! I swear!" Acorn put up his hands defensively, though Wolf had no intention of coming near him again. "I found the gold on the road, just after the crossroads." Light dawned in his eye. "They must've turned off before I got there. Taken another road. I didn't see them, I swear it!"
Wolf let go of him. "Where is this crossroads?"
"'Bout five miles back. But I swear I didn't see nuffing!"
Wolf didn't answer, just stared up the road Acorn had traveled with a faraway look in his eyes. He started to gather up the gold into the sack.
"What?" Wolf turned.
"That's mine! Don't you touch that gold! I found it fair and--"
"--and square. I know. All right, all right." What did it matter, anyway? Wolf didn't care a fig about the gold. He just wanted to find Gigi, and the dwarf collecting the coins had made his search all the more difficult. He could feel the pall of failure start to settle on him again and he squared his shoulders and took a deep breath to push it off. Without another word he started down the road again.
"What is it now?" He was growing extremely impatient.
Acorn stood up in the wagon, his hands on his hips. "They didn't go west, that's where I came from. Try north or east."
"And I never, ever have been in prison, and don't you forget it!"
Wolf nodded and went on his way.
The dwarf watched him for a long time. "Silly git," he said, climbing back into the front of the wagon and finding the reins. "Does 'e really think I look like a criminal?" With an incredulous shake of his head he snapped the reins. "'Come on, Lightning! Let's get out of here!"
A tinker, tinker, tinker, I--"
The buzzard had long since deserted the crossroads by the time Wolf arrived. The place was empty and silent. Any scent that might have existed there was also long since gone, and Wolf stared down one road after another trying to decide which direction to go. He wasn't really sure of this area, though he could see the high mountains to the north. North. Dragon Mountain. Dwarves. Mirrors. He turned to the East. East was the Deadly Swamp, but also Wendell's palace. It made sense, he supposed, that they would have gone that way.
But --wait. Something was nibbling at the back of his mind. Presumably Wendell, in whatever form he currently occupied, was still traveling with the queen. And hadn't someone, the caretaker at the ruined castle, said something about the queen and her entourage stopping somewhere on their way to the palace? He'd seen the traveling mirror break back at the prison; might the queen be going to the dwarves' factory to pick up another? In that case, could the huntsman be meeting her there?
But what about Gigi's father? Didn't he live to the west? Yet Acorn hadn't seen them on his travels, and surely he would have if he were coming from that direction. If they had gone west. If Wolf could trust the dwarf.
He gave a frustrated shout to the sky. "What do I do? Which way?" He walked down the eastern road a good fifty paces, checking the grass and the track for any sign that Gigi had passed that way. Still nothing. He retraced his steps and did the same to the west. Nothing. He went north.
And there, on the path, twenty paces on from the crossroads, was a single coin. Aha! North it was! He walked on, lengthening his stride. He'd catch up to them. He had to.
He thought again about his encounter with Acorn. It was very odd, indeed, that the dwarf hadn't known him. While he'd been in prison those long, miserable months, Wolf had acquired a bit of a reputation, not for his crime as much as for his eating habits and his behavior during the seven full moons that had passed while he was there. His howling was notorious throughout the prison, and since all the prisoners ate together in the same mess, he'd heard a fair amount of whispers about himself while he was there. How could Acorn not have known who he was?
Unless it were true that Acorn never had been imprisoned there.
But how could that be? Wolf struggled to make sense of it.
In fact, a lot of things didn't make sense. Things about the kingdoms that were, well, different than when he'd left. Different than the last time he'd taken this journey. Like how the Queen and her minions had captured the dog without his help. Like the mirror breaking at the prison. Like how the huntsman had been sent by Gigi's father to find her. Or, in fact, the very existence of Gigi and her father. Had they always lived in the kingdoms? If so, how was it that he hadn't encountered her among the gypsies the first time?
Wolf scratched at his temple. What was going on here? He knew he was supposed to change something, fix something --that much was clear from Snow White's rhyme, but so much was already different without his interference. How was he supposed to know what to do if things kept being different?
And, he thought suddenly, why are they different?
That question worried him more than all the others.
The sun had passed its zenith, but it was a hot day, and no trees grew close enough to offer any shade. Wolf took off his coat. By now he'd been walking since early morning, on no food and little enough water, and as the road began to head uphill he started to really feel the effort. The loneliness of his trek was getting to him again, too, as it had in the Disenchanted Forest. How long ago had that been? Days? A week? A fortnight? He couldn't remember.
The road began to incline sharply, the ground underfoot shifting subtly from packed earth to rutted grass to barely a track for Wolf to follow. The doubts he'd had at the crossroads had never left him; now he feared his worst expectations were true, that, despite his finding the coin, Gigi had never passed this way. If she had, she and the huntsman would have had to be on foot by now, for the road had become far too steep for a horse to negotiate, unless it were a mountain pony.
He looked for a place where a cart might have been secreted, but the boulders that had begun to appear on either side of the path were far too small to hide a wagon. No doubt about it. He'd taken the wrong road.
But the fact remained that Virginia had once come this way, traveling to Dragon Mountain, so indeed this was "the road once traveled by" from Snow White's rhyme. Was this the way he was supposed to go, then? But wait: he, himself, had never climbed up into the mountains the first time around, so did the rhyme apply? Oh, it was so confusing, trying to figure out what to do!
He cast his eyes downwards, feeling a little guilty about the lie he'd told Virginia in the Swamp. Well, he hadn't exactly lied, he just hadn't quite told the truth. Part of it was true, or nearly so. He'd told her he could follow her scent through time itself, and while that was a pretty sentiment, and he believed he could do it, it was a bit of an exaggeration, even for a wolf. But she'd assumed he'd followed her through Dragon Mountain, and that was patently untrue, though he'd allowed her to believe it.
The truth was, when she'd broken his heart in Kissing Town, he hadn't had a clue what to do next. "Hah!" he said aloud, "not much has changed!" But that time, the queen had called him and he had gone to her.
And he had gone to her.
Wolf was still ashamed that he'd gone. And that, arriving at the palace, he'd reaffirmed his allegiance to her. What did he care? He might as well serve her, or anyone else who wanted him. Nothing really mattered. It had only been through chance that he'd come upon the queen watching the Deadly Swamp in her glass and realized Virginia was in mortal danger there. And then he'd known what to do. Convincing the queen that he should follow them had been easy. Lying to Virginia had been hard.
But he had lied, hadn't he? He was a liar. And a cheater, a betrayer. He looked at his coat. He was a thief, too. What else? He'd been ready to kill the huntsman. He had killed--
No! That part of his life was past. He was a better person now.
Wolf stopped in his tracks, panting, and wiped his face. He was beginning to feel quite dizzy, and the thoughts he was conjuring up about his life were not pleasant ones. He didn't want to think about them. He needed to rest. He needed to eat. But if he stopped too long, he'd lose any chance of finding Gigi...or was it Virginia? For a moment there, he'd forgotten who he was chasing.
He took some deep breaths of the thin air and started walking again. Above him the steep summit of Dragon Mountain taunted him. Was he expected to climb up there? Well, he would, if he had to. He'd climb all the way to the summit if need be.
But in the next minute his climb upwards came to a stop. The road dead-ended at the edge of a cliff.
Wolf looked over the edge. There was no way down as far as he could see. He'd have to continue along the cliff until he could find a way to move upwards again. He frowned at the sky. It was late afternoon. Not much light left. Better keep moving.
Don't think. Don't remember. Just walk on.
By the time he reached the waterfall, darkness was almost complete, and Wolf knew he was lost. He supposed these were the Snow White Falls, named for the heroine who meant so much to everyone in the Fourth Kingdom, but whose legend was spoken throughout all nine, wherever people talked of valor, or heroism, or strength or destiny.
Valor. Heroism. Wolf spat with disgust. Strength --well, he had none left to spare. He sank weakly on a boulder and let the fine mist from the falls spray him. He didn't care. Hungry, tired, without any hope of finding the trail, he couldn't take another step. And even if he did, where was he to go? Despair filled him. He felt utterly defeated.
As for destiny, well, this was his, wasn't it? To achieve nothing. To fail completely at his quest. Never to find his mate. Perhaps to die lonely and alone. Maybe even here.
He let his head fall back against the rock face of the cliff, and he closed his eyes. What was the use of continuing? He'd lost the trail. He'd lost Gigi. He'd lost Virginia. He'd lost everything.
He opened his eyes, startled. Snow White stood by the falls, her clothing strangely untouched by the water. He growled at her. "Go away."
"Wolf, you have a quest to complete, a path to follow--"
"Leave me alone!" He sat up, his eyes glowing. "Can't you find someone else to do your dirty work? Don't you have anyone else in all the Nine Kingdoms that you can torture this way?" He pushed himself to his feet, his anger overtaking his exhaustion. "Why me, exactly? Haven't I done enough already? Cripes, I saved everybody once. That's enough. Let somebody else do it this time around. Couldn't you have left us alone, safe, together? No. You had to mess things up again. Why? What was wrong with how it all turned out? Everyone was happy!"
"Not everyone." He glared at her. "That's why it has to happen again. That's why you have to finish the journey. You must repair the past."
Repair the past? "Right now all I want to do is find Virginia, go to her. I don't care about anyone else! Don't you get it?"
Snow White didn't say anything, just looked at him with an unreadable face.
He leaned against a rock and turned his face away. "I just want to be left alone." There was raw emotion in his voice. "I'm tired. I'm so tired of it all."
Snow White took a long time to answer. "You're almost home, Wolf."
He laughed once, bitterly. "I don't have a home. I never did. Not since--" He swallowed, pushing back the memory of his parents. "And I don't deserve one, now, not after what I've done. You know, it's funny. I almost believed it for a while."
"That I could live happily ever after. That somehow, some way, I deserved it. Because I'd changed. Become a good person. But you know what? It's a load of crap, Your Majesty." He was yelling now. "I can't change. It's a wolf's nature to deceive, to destroy. We're destined to be hanged, burned, shot, stoned. Happy Ever After is for the heroes and the heroines. It's for the Wendells of this world, not the Wolfs."
"What makes you think you're not a hero?"
He made a disgusted sound. "Don't patronize me. The least you can do is be honest. But maybe that's too much to expect from the great heroine who made her stepmother dance in red-hot shoes. I guess cruelty is contagious, isn't it, Your Majesty?" He was reckless now. He didn't care what he said. He wanted to hurt her. Hurt everyone. Hurt himself.
"That's enough!" There was steel in her voice, suddenly, enough to make Wolf stand up straight and look at her angry face. "Rudeness is not tolerated, Wolf." She paused and he watched her anger drain away. "Even if there's truth in what you say." She sighed deeply. "Do you think you are the only one who could change?"
He looked in her face and saw what he hadn't seen before. Wisdom, yes, but also perhaps a little pain. It surprised him --he didn't expect it in a ghost. But then again, she was more than a ghost. She was the history, the heart and the soul of the kingdoms, in one impressive package. He dropped his head. "I didn't mean to be rude."
"Yes you did. But that's all right." He looked up to see her smiling at him. "Don't underestimate yourself, Wolf. When I said hero, I meant it."
He didn't speak, just shook his head.
"You don't believe me?"
"How can I? Look what I've done." He was amazed to find his voice so thick.
"Look, then, at what you've done." She gestured and he followed her hand with his eyes. The waterfall behind her seemed to smooth and flatten, become a sheet, and then a surface as calm and reflective as a mirror. As he watched with widening eyes, an image began to form, an image of a young man, perhaps in his early twenties, with tawny sun-streaked curls and piercing green eyes set deeply in a tanned face. The eyes gave away his heritage, but his face was unfamiliar.
"Who is that?"
"He is the leader of the rebellion that will free all the wolves in the Nine Kingdoms."
"All the Nine--?" Wolf frowned. "No. That will never happen."
Snow White smiled again, indulgently. "It will. It will take time, about eleven years. But in time they will be as free, as equal, as anyone else. And very few souls, people or wolves, will have to die in the struggle. He will be a great leader."
"Why are you showing this to me?"
"Look again." Wolf turned to look at the waterfall again, and the image of the man shimmered and seemed to change, grow younger, shedding years before Wolf's eyes, to become again a boy, a shy, quiet boy, full of questions that could only be answered by a stranger kind enough to talk with him. A stranger who would save his life.
Wolf gasped. "Bedros!"
"Yes." Snow White reached over and touched his shoulder. "So now you know what you've done."
Suddenly, surprisingly, Wolf felt tears well up in his eyes, then trickle down his cheeks, and for once he didn't care, didn't try to stop them, didn't mind her seeing them. He sat down on a rock and let it happen. Snow White stroked his hair, tenderly, like a mother, and at the touch he began to cry in earnest, because he was so tired, and because he had given up and because he was so amazingly grateful to find out he'd done something of value, and even if he wasn't a hero, it was something to hold on to.
She waited silently until he collected himself enough to speak again.
"Thank you." He looked up, snuffling a little into his sleeve, and saw that Snow While's face was very kind, and very grave, indeed.
"Wolf, there's not much time to waste. There is one more thing you should know. There is something you must find, and take with you. It is of the utmost importance, for with it you will determine the course of history."
"What is it?"
"A prize kept for many years by a dead queen. It has kept her from yielding utterly to death. You must take it. You must use it and know when to use it... and for whom to use it. There will be a choice, and you must make the right one."
More riddles! Wolf opened his mouth to ask What? What is this mysterious thing, an object, an incantation, a potion? But he knew it was useless. She would tell him only what she chose to reveal. The rest was up to him. He would have to make the choice. He would have to choose well.
He looked up to thank Snow White, for what she'd shown him, for trusting him to succeed. Strangely he couldn't see her anymore, just hear her voice, and now it seemed rather far away. "And now you must wake up."
Wolf opened his eyes. He was lying on the rocks close by the falls, and the first rays of dawn were breaking over the mountain peaks above him. Where he lay there was still a gray mist close to the ground. He sat up. A dream?
It didn't matter. He believed her utterly. Strangely, he felt stronger, able, ready to face the challenge.
"Thank you," he said again, though she was nowhere in sight. But in the grass a faint radiance shone. Tiny flowers, white as snow, glowed with slight iridescence in the dawn light, just enough to light a path, to point the way down the mountainside towards a new destination.
Wolf took a deep breath and stood up. He went to the stream, splashed water on his face and had a long, cooling drink.
He was ready.