Shay Sheridan - Reality
No one stopped him.
He ran as far and as fast as he could, and when he reached the woods he kept going until he dropped, exhausted, on the path. He dragged himself up and receded into the darkness of the underbrush, going to ground under a deadfall to rest and to think.
Before leaving the prison he'd looked everywhere for Virginia. He'd passed the troll-dusted, unconscious bodies of the guards, Brins and Root among them (he couldn't resist planting his foot squarely and forcefully in Brins' back), and found doors open that should have been locked as he scoured the corridors for signs of her. He covered E block, then worked his way through the prison, avoiding the guards who were still mobile, searching every place he could to seek his mate. When he met a locked door he'd call out her name desperately, only to be met with mocking shouts, obscenities or unanswered echoes. He'd come to the end of the last corridor, and hadn't caught the slightest scent or sound of Virginia.
He went through the motions because he couldn't imagine NOT looking for her, and couldn't think of anything else to do; down deep, though, he knew he wouldn't find her. The whole situation smelled of magic. Evil magic.
Or maybe a curse. They could have been cursed, though frankly he couldn't imagine when or how it had happened. Or WHY. Some of the guests at Wendell's coronation had clearly been less than thrilled to hear Wendell pardon all the wolves, and some of them did have skills in magic, but then again, hadn't he saved all their lives? Why would they curse him? And why would they curse Virginia, who'd done nothing but free them from the evil queen's machinations?
The evil queen who now seemed very much alive.
He couldn't figure it out. He TRIED to be logical, he TRIED not to let his emotions get the best of him, but panic was rising and the time was coming that he'd have to face the reality of his situation. Somehow, some inexplicable way, he'd gone back to the beginning of his journey. Now that his mind was focused on the problem he recalled that the beating in the punishment cell was exactly what had happened to him just before the queen had released him. The first time. After months of staying out of trouble, his hunger had become intolerable and he'd filched a strip of bacon from a guard's lunch. Unfortunately he'd been caught, just as it disappeared into his mouth, and his rapture at the long-denied taste had been swiftly replaced by a brutal whipping. At the time he'd thought it worth the pain, but he also remembered with shame just how eagerly he'd met the queen's appearance with subservient bobbing and weaving, willing to do anything to get away from another beating, from another day in that claustrophobic cell.
And now something had happened to bring her back--or, rather, to bring him back to where it all began.
Or...maybe there was another possibility. He grasped at the thought desperately. This could be a hallucination, some sort of vivid nightmare. Yes! Maybe, MAYBE, there'd been some sort of accident as he and Virginia came out of the mirror. Yes, um, maybe he was unconscious somewhere, Virginia ministering to him, sitting by his bedside, and he was just having a bad dream. That would be nice, he'd wake up and she'd be there, holding his hand, his dreamy, creamy perfect girl
He pinched himself, winced, and let out a long breath. No, he was awake, racked with aches and hungry and alone, but awake.
But what if
A thought began in the back of his mind and grew and grew. He tried to push it away, but it forced its way into his brain and wouldn't leave. What if...
What if THIS is real, and everything else has been a dream?
No, that doesn't make sense. All these weeks, all that traipsing around the nine kingdoms, the details so clear, the smells, the tastes
But what about that other time, the time you were given fifty lashes, when you hallucinated an entire eight-course meal, and you woke up still able to taste the pheasant in wine, the cream of leek soup, the trifle, and you imagined Queen Riding Hood at the table with you, in that strapless red tulle number, and no one could convince you it hadn't happened?
Okay, okay...that WAS awfully vivid. But, but an entire month-long journey? All the dangers? Could I have imagined the queen coming to my cell like this--before it even happened?
She has great powers. No telling what she could do, what she could make you see.
What about Little Lamb Village? I nearly got burnt alive! I can still feel the heat
You've ALWAYS been afraid of that. Of what happened to your parents. You made it up!
"Leave me alone!" he yelled at himself, unaware that he was shouting out loud. "What about the Tenth Kingdom--I saw it! I WAS THERE!"
How do you know? "Because, because, Virginia was there! She's my mate! She loves me! She's the girl of my--"
Wolf's breath caught in his throat. No! Not my succulent, creamy, corky --"No!"
Come on, Wolf. You said it. She's the girl of your dreams She's perfect --TOO perfect. You made her up because you couldn't find anyone like that. Not one who'd love you. Admit it --you've always been obsessed with human women.
"I have not!" But he knew it was true.
He remembered, abruptly, a hopeless infatuation he'd once had--a shepherdess, with milky skin, hair of a strawberry blonde hue that he'd never seen among wolves, a sprinkling of auburn freckles across her nose, slender but luscious, young and fresh and provocative.
He'd been fifteen, all hormones and impulses, routinely cuffed by the wolf girls he bothered, until he took to stalking away on his own, sullen and confused.
He'd stumbled upon her lying in a field, not very attentive to her sheep, daydreaming, eyes to the cloudless blue sky. She'd sensed him standing there and clambered to her feet with none of the innate grace the wolf girls had. Where their eyes were of exotic changing hues and set on a slant, her eyes were round and wide, and quite simply blue. She looked at him staring at her and blushed prettily.
He thought he'd never seen anything quite so beautiful.
"Hello." They'd hit an awkward silence. Though she looked to be his age, she had the slightly better grasp of social behavior that girls seem to possess whatever kingdom they hail from. "Haven't seen you before. My name's Dorcas. I'm a shepherdess."
"I'm a w--" No, humans are afraid of wolves...be careful, give her a name, any name. Well...Wendell, Wallace, Wilfred -- "Wilf." Oh, she was fragrant!
She crinkled her tiny nose. "That's funny. Sounds almost like 'wolf.'"
Cripes! "Does it? Oh. Um." His voice cracked and he cleared his throat. "So, Dorcas, do you live around here?" Good, good. He'd heard the other, older boys talk this way.
"'Round the hill at Blueberry Farm." This was nice. This was going well. "What about you, Wilf? Where ya from?"
Oh, huff-PUFF. That was a tricky one. "Wolv-" No, idiot! "Wood. Er -- woods. Other side of the woods." Ohhh, she was so distracting! Those fat curls and the low cut bodice, and that perfect Cupid's bow mouth
"Want to help me watch my sheep?"
More than anything! Sheep (drool!), shepherdess (pant!), both! (Oh, rapture!) "Um, yes, all right."
They'd spent the afternoon together, and though the details of what they'd said and where they'd gone were long lost, he did remember one thing: she'd been the first human, other than his mother, that he'd wanted to kiss instead of bite.
He'd taken quite a lot of abuse for that from his siblings and their friends. It was indicative of how deep the infatuation went that even though he cared what they thought he kept sneaking away to see her.
He'd spent much of the summer following her around, mooning after her (and what an appropriate expression that was, as his human mother despaired of what she called his perpetual full moon state!). As the days wore on, he came to the conclusion that he'd met the Love of His Life. Their walks in the pasture had become visits to the woods, and silence had turned to laughter, then silence again, and finally, finally he'd kissed her.
Or rather, she'd kissed him. He thought he'd jump out of his skin when she grabbed his shirt and kissed him hard on the mouth. Parts of him that had been twitching for weeks just at the thought of her became very uncomfortable indeed in the time it took for that kiss. This was it! This must be love! This must be the girl who'll be my mate!
He thought he should propose. But first, he needed to be honest with her, tell her his real name, the truth about himself. She should know all about him. After all, he knew everything he needed to know about her -- her exotic non-wolf looks, her alluring, perfect, delicious smell--She'd understand. He knew she'd understand.
But she hadn't. When he'd told her he was a half-wolf, first she'd laughed, then she'd chided him for joking about such a thing, and finally, when he'd been forced to flash his eyes yellow and let his tail loose (and didn't THAT feel better!) she'd gawked at him, horror-struck, then let out a shriek that made him cover his ears. She'd run screaming back around the hill to her farm, and he'd pursued her until he saw the farm workers coming out of the barn, pitchforks in hand, coming after him, coming to kill him. He'd fled back to the safety of the woods, back to his family, back to the jeers and "I told you so's" of the wolves. Wolves don't mix with humans, he'd been told, unless it's to eat them. Anything else is trouble.
His parents had been understandably silent on the issue. But in the end the wolves had been right. Less than a month later his parents were dead, burned at the hands of Dorcas' family and the other good people of the shire.
If he'd had any sense all those years ago, he would have turned his back on his human half and stayed with the wolves forever. But he couldn't. Despite himself, despite the horrible memories of betrayal and distrust, a pattern had been set for him. His heart wanted what it wanted, and what it wanted was a human mate. Unfortunately, that had never seemed to be a reciprocal desire among human women. They might be intrigued briefly by him, but they were also afraid of or disgusted by the animal in him. And had he experienced a change of heart, he would've found the wolf women distrustful of him as well. For them he was all too human, a betrayer of his own kind. After a while he stopped expecting to find the real Love of His Life.
And then he'd found Virginia. He'd known from the first that she really was the one for him, and he'd been struck early on by how she didn't seem to fear him. Even in Little Lamb Village, she'd stuck by him. He was the one who'd run away. She really was extraordinary. She really was perfect.
Perfect. PERFECT. Too perfect? FANTASY perfect???
Wolf shifted a little in his makeshift den. What he was thinking couldn't be true. He couldn't have made her up. Well, he COULD have, of course he could have, he had a vivid imagination, but
NO! Virginia is real! I remember everything about her!
Or maybe, his mind countered, you made up everything about her.
The doubts and his inner argument were making his head hurt, and he felt decidedly queasy. Being a wolf and not entirely human, his remedy for both was eating. He sniffed the air and listened intently for pursuers, and when there were none, he climbed out from under the dead fall and loped away in search of food. Thoughts and doubts could wait. Eating was more comfort than thinking about what was and wasn't real, or how his life had no meaning anymore.