Shay Sheridan - Reality
She felt very much awake.
Her mind was focusing on the moment when she'd shoved him away, when they were nearly at the point of no return and she'd suddenly realized they needed to use protection before they made love. Remembering that action, coming on the heels of the strange flashback to her fantasy of making love to Wolf, kept her from drifting into satisfied sleep.
For the first time in weeks she allowed herself to think about her dream, and found it as clear, as real in her mind as ever. And she remembered...her passionate interlude with Wolf, spontaneous, idyllic, a joyous discovery of each other. She'd thought "at last!" as they rolled across the leafy earth entwined in each other's arms.
It seemed to her she'd acted delighted, thrilled, really, when Wolf told her a few days later, slyly, that she was pregnant, carrying a little wolf cub inside her. But though a happy-ever-after ending had been foretold, though Wolf was clearly beside himself with joy, hadn't the surprising news startled, even shocked her? Hadn't she really suppressed her concerns, her fears, her–
--anger at herself, anger at him, that everything was happening so fast? She hadn't even determined what their relationship was -- hell, she hadn't even determined if they had a real relationship! And she'd found herself expecting his child.
She began to examine her fantasy more closely, trying to analyze it with the zeal of a latter-day Freud. Had she so desperately craved an unreal fairy-tale life that she'd hidden the realities of motherhood behind gauzy fantasies? God, her relationship with her own mother had been so disturbing, and now nonexistent; how could she have blithely accepted the idea of having a child herself? Sex was great. Love, even better. But the truth was, she wasn't ready for children. She didn't even know if she wanted them.
Perhaps, she wondered, shifting a little beside Mike, perhaps, her dream had been a premonition. Advice couched as narrative. An elaborate bedtime story with a moral that you should use your brain before other body parts become involved. If that was so, if she'd been meant to remember the lesson, then she supposed she was grateful.
She rolled over and looked at Mike. He was fun. He was kind. He was handsome and rich. And he was certainly sexy. Oh my, yes. He'd touched her in ways that made her scream, and sigh, and laugh, and want him to do it all over again. He even had a family tragedy in his past, which, she thought, rolling her eyes at her own foolishness, made him a little mysterious. He was a dream come true, in a way. And maybe she was falling in love with him. Maybe she was destined to be with him, if you believed in destiny. Which she thought she probably did. Whatever their destiny, the lesson was a good one. Everything in its own time.
Mike sighed and stretched. She leaned over and kissed him awake.
Later, in the car going home, she caught him casting furtive glances at her. "What?"
He laughed, chagrined at being caught. "Nothing. Just feeling good. Great, actually. Amazing, really. Terrific, fantastic, delirious--"
"You tend to babble, you know."
"Only with people I really, really like."
"Oh good. You like me, you really, really like me!" She leaned over and kissed him lightly. "The feeling is mutual." Her hand went up to stroke his neck.
"Whoa -- I'm driving. You have no idea what that does to me." He put a hand on her arm. "Thanks for letting me drag you all over my past today. I know it was rough ground."
"Not that rough. And some of it was incredible." They smiled at each other. "So...who was the 'other one' you took out to see your mom? The other girl she was talking about?"
"Uh-oh. Nailed! I should have known you'd remember that."
"Um, that was Regina she was talking about. You met her, remember?"
Oh, yeah, I remember! "Yes. From the office. I didn't realize she and your mom knew each other. Considering the problems between your grandfather and your parents, I wouldn't have thought..."
"Well...Regina and I...we dated for a while, had a little...you know. Okay, my feelings of comfort are rapidly evaporating here."
"Really? I'm feeling fine." Virginia couldn't resist making him sweat a little. "So you were seeing each other?"
"Briefly. Really. Trust me. I mean, she's great, she's a terrific person, very talented, beautiful--"
"Yep, I'm feeling more secure by the minute, Mike, please go on. Was it serious?"
"Virginia! No. Reggie and I...Did I mention we're related?"
"What? You were dating your cousin? Oh, please don't tell me she's your sister--"
"Virginia!" He stared at her wildly, and his reaction convulsed her with laughter. "No, stop it, come on. We're related by marriage. Her great-grandmother, she was the Rauthursdottir, was married to Warren Thurson, and when he died, she remarried my great-grandfather."
"Right. They didn't have any children together. So, the only incestuous thing is that they all worked together. Got it?"
Virginia suppressed a giggle. "Maybe you could draw me a chart? So...now that we've established it was not illegal for you two to date, what happened?"
"Reggie is great. She and I weren't, though, not together. We went out for a couple of months, about a year ago. And then for a while after Cathy left--"
Cathy?? "Who's Cathy?" She tried not to poke him while he was driving.
He flashed her a look that said "Ouch!" clearly, but went on. 'Okay. Cathy was the woman I started seeing after Reggie. The one who went to Central America, remember?"
"Oh, right. The one who's saving the whales."
He made a face. "Not exactly. She's off in the rainforest doing medical work with Indians. She's a doctor."
"Oh." Virginia deflated, feeling suddenly like an underachiever. "Where is she doing this work?"
Mike shook his head, and the familiar furrow appeared between his eyebrows. "Don't know, exactly. It was a little abrupt, actually, her going. We were getting pretty serious, I think, though we had some problems, and then one day she was gone. I never got to talk to her directly, just got an email, saying this terrific opportunity had come up and she was off to Honduras, or Costa Rica or somewhere. She just ended it, said she knew we wanted very different things out of life. I guess that part was true. I tried going over to see her, but she'd already left." He looked over at her. 'You're very good at this, you know."
"At finding out things about me and not telling me much about yourself."
"I wasn't really trying to do that."
"Maybe. But fair's fair. Tell me about this Wolf guy."
"Wolf?" Despite herself, she felt her heart lurch at his name.
"Yeah, Wolf. The one you were so upset about at the subway station. The incredibly handsome guy I look like. You know, " he prompted, "your fiance?"
"I know." There was a very long pause while she gathered her thoughts. "Wolf...well, Wolf was..." Wolf was a fantasy. "Wolf was unique." She sounded strained, even to herself.
"How so?" There was a funny note in Mike's voice too, that she tried to read, but couldn't.
"Well, he was very uh, intense. Kind of neurotic, really, with a lot of issues." Funny, how saying that made her feel disloyal! "But very sensitive, funny, resourceful, sexy..."
"Oh. And what kind of work did he do?" Mike sounded jealous. That's what it was!
"Work. Well--" She could hardly say her fantasy was an ex-con; what would that say about her? "Um, he did a lot of different things, a tour guide, I guess you could say, and he was into food -- things...and, and he had a job working for a member of the royal family, once." That sounded okay, she supposed.
"Uh-huh." Mike was looking at her strangely. "Was he foreign? I mean with a name like that, the royalty--"
"Yes, yes he was. Very foreign." That sounded lame. "Lots of different customs."
"Is that why you stopped seeing each other?"
"No, I... Yes, that was it, I guess." The conversation was so strange it was making Virginia extremely uncomfortable.
Mike seemed to pick that up, finally. "You'd rather not talk about him."
"If you don't mind."
Mike stared at the road ahead. There was silence between them for a few moments. Then he asked, "So...is it really over between you?"
She studied his profile, thinking before she answered. "Yes." She leaned against him. "It's over between us."
He put his arm around her and squeezed her shoulder.
The night crawled on towards dawn.
Mother Triuna sat in her caravan, wound in a ratty shawl that had been hers since it warmed her in the cradle. She hadn't slept; she never slept, anymore. Tonight something had drawn her to her well-worn deck of cards, something to do with that stranger. But there was more to it, something urgent. She couldn't explain it, nor did she want to. She would let the cards speak.
She shuffled the deck slowly in her gnarled hands, clearing her mind, concentrating only on the cards as they flipped and regrouped over and over, front and back, open and closed.
She placed a necklace on the table, a gypsy talisman figured with the signs of her clan. Then she cut the cards and began to place them on top of the talisman.
She paused, drawing in her breath.
Five of Coins - Suffering.
Ten of Swords - Defeat.
The Black Tower - Downfall.
Could nothing cross this?
Her hand shook as she dealt the mitigating cards.
She paused again before laying the final card. The Wheel of Fortune–
Her eyes widened as the card fell into place. As it must be.
She reached for a knife.
Wolf fell into a sleep made restless by the events of the day. Towards dawn he woke to a silent camp, and began to work again on loosening the ropes. He was surprised to find that someone, Bedros, perhaps, had left a tankard and a plate of stew close enough for him to reach. That was kind, he thought, sniffing it, though the congealed grease had the effect of quashing his appetite. He returned to his struggles with the restraints.
There was a soft step behind him and he stopped pulling on the ropes and feigned sleep. Suddenly he felt someone tugging -- no, cutting -- the ropes, and he turned his head, expecting to see the boy, but instead looked into the bottomless darkness of Mother Triuna's eyes. "What--?"
She put a warning finger to his lips, and he fell silent while she finished cutting through his bonds. The strands parted and he shifted, happy to get off his tail; it was almost numb from sitting in one position for so many hours. The old woman stood up, silent as a cat, and Wolf did the same, never taking his eyes from her. He was acutely aware of the six-inch blade in her hand. Was this some sort of nasty game the gypsies were about to play with him, a hunt of some kind with him as the prey? Or did the old woman want him gone before the others woke, perhaps to forestall violence? Either way, he thought stubbornly, he wasn't leaving without Virginia, whatever Virginia she might be. Whether she wanted to go or not.
With a quick movement the old gypsy reached down and grabbed his wrist so tightly her ancient bones bit into his skin. With the knife she gestured towards the woods beyond the encampment, woods the early light could barely penetrate. She looked into his eyes and he thought she was willing him to understand. He wished with all his heart that he did. And then she said:
"What's done must be undone."
A shiver ran up his spine. He opened his mouth to speak to her, but she shook her head vehemently, and pointed again to the trees, more urgently this time. He didn't pause to think, but started towards the woods, hoping Snow White's words would guide him. Some of the gypsies were beginning to stir with the dawn, and he stepped carefully around them.
The darkness of the woods had just enveloped him as the first arrow struck its mark. Lino, the enormous bearded gypsy gasped and stared at the silver arrow protruding from his chest. He looked up, amazed, and fell face forward into the dirt.
Chaos erupted in the camp. A woman -- Sloya? -- screamed Lino's name, and suddenly people were running, shouting, trying to find the arrow's point of origin. Wolf heard someone call "There!" and saw a man point into the woods. As if to mock the words, another arrow flew from a different direction entirely, catching the gypsy through the heart.
Wolf stared at the mayhem before him. The huntsman! Those were his arrows, that his skill, to shoot an arrow and know it would hit its target. But he was stunned; the huntsman hadn't come this way before, the last time, had he? Had the hunter attacked the gypsies in this way? Wolf knew nothing of it. But–
What's done must be undone.
Wolf held still and took in a deep breath. There on the wind, faint but present, was the smell of rotting animals, of blood. Of death. He turned, following his nose, putting his back to the terrified scene in the gypsy camp. There! A movement in the woods to his left.
He stopped, freezing in his tracks. The crossbow would find his heart as surely as it did the gypsies' unless he could catch the huntsman unawares.
Soundlessly Wolf slipped the magic shoes over his own, waiting until his hand disappeared in front of his face. He moved forward now, watching the shadow among deeper shadows as it moved relentlessly towards the gypsies. He stalked the huntsman, coming up behind him nearer and nearer until the hunter stood directly in front of him, his rough coat camouflaging his shape from the gypsies' view.
The huntsman lifted his crossbow again, adjusting the arrow methodically, slowly, patiently. Before him the gypsies ran to and fro, three of them dead now, the others not knowing where to run, how to escape. He raised the bow to his eye, and from his position directly behind him, Wolf could follow his line of sight, see the next target. Amid the chaos, one figure stood still, eyes wide, frozen in terror.
Not the boy! Not the cub! "No!" Wolf shouted, and the huntsman's startled flinch sent the deadly arrow into the heart of a horse six inches from Bedros' curly head. The boy stared at it for a moment, then ducked away behind the caravan.
The huntsman spun about, looking for the source of the shout, already reloading another arrow with a swift smoothness. Wolf stopped dead, willing his breath to stop, not daring to crunch a single pine needle. The huntsman was no more than six feet from him now, and Wolf could swear the man's watery blue eyes looked into his own, but then the man turned, the crossbow lowered. Wolf leapt.
The huntsman heard the sound, but Wolf was upon him before he could react. The crossbow was slow to rise and the arrow spent itself in the earth, spearing a cricket as it did so. Wolf crashed into him, knocking them both to the ground. The bow was dragged from the huntsman's hands as they rolled, hitting rocks, both finally slamming into a tree. Wolf let out a pained "oof!" as the air was knocked out of him, but he clung to the huntsman's cloak, unwilling to let him go. The huntsman stared, eyes wide, his hands seemingly grabbing nothing. But the nothingness had form, and mass, and the shape of a man, and he grabbed the invisible assailant around the neck until it began to choke and had to relax its grip on him. He rolled away, looking for his bow, and saw it lying among the underbrush.
Wolf saw the man's eyes shift, and he sprang first, grabbing the weapon, smashing the huntsman in the side of the head with it. The man crumpled to the ground without a sound. Wolf tossed the bow away, rubbing his throat, coughing.
People were coming. Almost the entire gypsy clan, hearing the fight, had left the open circle and were running towards where the huntsman lay. Feodor was one of the first to reach them and immediately knelt by the unconscious hunter, binding his hands, going through his pockets. There was a startled gasp from another gypsy, and one by one they stared in Wolf's direction as he gradually began to appear. The shoes, exhausted by all the activity, had run out of power. He stepped out of them, feeling slightly dizzy.
"Demon!" A woman pointed at him and backed away slightly. "Evil!"
"No, it's just--" he started to say, but another voice cut in.
"Don't be stupid!" Gigi's voice, imperious and filled with ridicule, sliced through the air, commanding attention. "Look; it's just his shoes. Magic shoes. He probably stole them from the trolls."
Wolf started to protest, but thought better of it. After all, she was quite correct. Besides, she'd nipped the superstitious chatter about demons in the bud. The gypsies turned their attention back to Feodor, who had found something interesting in the huntsman's pouch.
"What's this?" The gypsy leader unfolded a paper and began to read haltingly: "'Huntsman: you shall receive ample reward for discovering the whereabouts of this woman--'" Feodor looked up, his gaze streaking to Gigi. "'The Lady Virginia, daughter to Viscount Anthony of the Western--'" His eyes narrowed, and he stepped towards her, holding out the paper, revealing a quite accurate drawing that captured her likeness thoroughly. "'Lady' Virginia?" The gypsies stared at her, shrewd eyes beginning to calculate her worth.
"Don't you DARE touch me!"
One of the woman scoffed. "She always did act too good for us!" There were mumbles of assent. The circle around her tightened.
And then, suddenly, a howl came from the wagons.
Wolf shuddered. The sound was both human and wolf-like, and it was filled with heart-rending sorrow. The gypsies froze for but a moment, then streamed back into the camp. Wolf followed at a distance, acutely aware of Gigi's presence near him. Bedros was kneeling by his grandmother's still form, holding her head on his lap, his head raised in a wolf like attitude of mourning. Very human tears ran down his face. The huntsman's third arrow had pierced Mother Triuna through the heart. The band clustered around the dead woman and her grandson, aghast, unable to speak, until Sloya turned her head, her eyes seeking out and spearing Gigi. "You! She is dead because of YOU!"
Gigi paled. "I didn't, I didn't--"
A man grabbed Gigi by the arm, but Feodor shoved him aside. "Forget the girl. We must leave the forest, and quickly, too. Hitch up the horses." People ran to follow his orders. Several men and women lifted the old woman's body, bearing it off to a wagon. Gigi turned to follow, but Feodor stepped in front of her. "No. You must leave us. Go away, any path you choose, but you must not come with us. I bear you no ill will..." He looked over his shoulder "--but others feel differently. We already are unwelcome in many places. Leave us, or we all will die." He looked at Wolf with a measured gaze. "I think you saved many lives. For that I thank you, friend. But you, too, must go."
Wolf said nothing.
The gypsy leader turned and followed the others. Wolf watched him go, and then his eye fell on the boy. A man and a woman were comforting him, stroking his hair, holding him as he wept. Wolf swallowed the lump in his throat. The cub would be all right. Someone would care for him. He was alive.
Alive...was the huntsman alive? Cripes! Wolf uttered a stronger curse under his breath and dashed back into the woods.
He was relieved to find the huntsman where he'd fallen, not unconscious any more, but still groggy, and the man's uncertain gaze fell on Wolf briefly before drifting towards the sounds of the camp. As Wolf checked the huntsman's bonds he had an intense flash of memory of himself standing over the older man, axe raised, ready to kill, and of Virginia's voice imploring him not to do so, saying it was wrong to kill a helpless man, no matter how evil he might be. Wolf shook off the memory and picked up the fallen crossbow. An evil weapon for an evil man.
"What are you waiting for? Kill him!"
Gigi stood behind him. She took a step towards him, pointing at the man on the ground. "Kill him. He'll only come after me again." She tossed off the words as if she were barking orders to a servant.
Wolf frowned. "I'm not a killer."
"You're a wolf, aren't you?"
He bit back a reply. How could she be so like Virginia and yet so unlike her? "Let's just go. He's nothing without his crossbow."
He'd walked a good ten paces before he realized she wasn't following him. "Well?"
"Do you honestly think I'm coming with you?"
Wolf walked up to her, standing close enough that she was forced to look up sharply to see his face. He took a deep sniff of her and she stepped back, indignant. "I'll tell you what I think. I think you are terrified of being caught and sent back home. I think you are afraid to be here alone but are too proud to admit your fear. I think you are used to privilege, to getting your way and telling people what to do. And --" his voice was rising, "I think that's too bad, Miss, because you're not at home, and if you don't want to end up back home, or dead, or worse, you'd better start listening to someone else, namely ME!" He stepped back, out of knee range, and glowered at her.
Gigi's mouth gaped open, and her face changed from red to purple to white. "You, you--!" Wolf ignored her. He had to find the magic shoes. Then he could go. He found them under a pile of leaves, and could tell by the mild tingling in his hands that they were beginning to recharge themselves. He stuffed them under his coat and started to walk away.
"I bet you're addicted to those." Her voice taunted him.
"Am not." The nerve of that girl!
She laughed unpleasantly. "SURE you're not."
"What do you know about it?" She made him want to growl!
"I've seen it happen." She was following him. He was beginning to wonder if he wanted her to. "Magic is very addictive to people with weak personalities."
Weak--?! "Well you've got a pretty rotten personality, no question about that! Does your father really think Wendell would marry you? Wendell's too smart for that, if you ask me, even if he's not the sharpest sword in the closet."
She hit him on the arm. "How dare you!"
"NO HITTING!" Wolf snarled, showing his teeth, "or I won't be responsible for what happens!"
That shut her up for a few minutes. They moved through the woods, sun beginning to break through the gloom, Wolf leading, Gigi at least a half dozen paces behind, ignoring each other.
"What are you going to do with the crossbow?"
He'd forgotten he was carrying it. "I'm going to get rid of it, some place it can't be found."
"Why not bury it?"
"Nope. Buried things have a way of turning up. Besides, I don't want to poison the forest."
They walked on in silence.
The afternoon moved on towards evening. They found a stream that led to a picturesque waterfall and stopped to drink. Wolf rearranged the contents of his pockets and slung the crossbow over his other shoulder.
"I knew you couldn't throw away those shoes." She stared at him from the mossy bank, a smug expression on her face.
Again with the shoes! "I can throw them away any time I want."
"Then do it now. I dare you!"
Oh, she made him so MAD! "You think I can't?"
"I bet you won't even let anyone touch them."
"Oh, really?" He pulled the shoes out. "Touch them; go ahead. I don't care!" He did care, actually, he cared a little too much, but he wasn't going to let this annoying little-- He was so mad he thrust them out in front of him. "Just don't put them on -- I'm watching you."
She snorted. "I wouldn't dream of putting them on." And then before he had time to react, she grabbed the shoes and hurled them over the waterfall.
"My shoes!!!" He ran to the edge, staring down at the falls as the magic shoes twinkled away into oblivion. "I can't believe you did that, you, you--" He ran out of words and just stood there.
She stood up. "That's better. Now I can trust you to lead me out of here." She walked past him.
"What? What are you talking about!?"
She rolled her eyes. "Did you think I was going to follow a wolf in the woods after dark when he could put on invisibility shoes and sneak up on me and ravish me?"
Wolf stared at her. Was she kidding? "First of all," he growled between clenched teeth, "I am a wolf of my word, and I would never do that."
He ignored her sneer. "Secondly, I wouldn't need magic shoes to be invisible at night. Third--" He used his greater height to stare her down until she shrank back, "What makes you think I'd have to SNEAK UP on you to catch you?"
She paled visibly.
"And FOURTH, there isn't a sane person, human or wolf, in all the nine kingdoms who'd want to ravish someone as horrible and miserable as YOU!" He huffed once more at her and turned. "Come on. It's getting dark."
She said nothing more but fell in step behind him.
They walked on through the last rays of sunset. In a way Wolf had to admit he was glad the shoes were gone. The whole time he'd had them he'd been aware of having them, and that could make a person careless. He'd never admit it to her, though.
He was beginning to feel very hungry again. Very hungry indeed. For her part, the girl said nothing about her own hunger -- at least she didn't complain about the hardships of the journey, so he supposed he'd have to be grateful for that. She really was a succulent little thing, as beautiful as his mate, with the same lovely body and delicious smell... He found himself sniffing in her scent and salivating at the very thought of–
Wait! What's wrong with me? Wolf shook his head to clear it. He didn't think about his own Virginia like that. Though she was a delectable little thing, he was long past the stage of thinking about tasting her. At least in THAT way. He was a changed wolf, er, man. He was enlightened. He didn't eat people.