They say the wolf ate the magician.
They find the man lying on the stone floor, chunks of his flesh unfurled around him like oversized rose petals, torn apart by thorny fangs. Broken bottles litter the shelves of his home, caught in liquid pools of strange colors that hiss and spread like angry tears. Tattered black books pattern the floor, spines up and pages squashed, sprawled open like dead crows.
Early this morning, I hear the trumpeting of that faction of the King’s Guard that deals with our realm’s mysteries and murders. I notice the townsfolk striding through the streets towards the forest, summoned by the sound. I follow them, cradling a loaf of bread against my breast to muffle the pounding of my heart. I’ve heard that trumpet only once before; it had been in warning then, a winter’s night when wolves attacked our town and slaughtered the rest of my family, our home at the outskirts an easy target. This time the trumpeting is less urgent, more doleful. They’ve found something.
The townsmen and I accompany the King’s Guard through the dark forest. They say a wolf prowls in these shadows. They say it’s a bristling black nightmare that gorges itself on human flesh. They say it’s unlike any other wolf they’ve encountered in these parts. Its paw prints are thrice the size of any dog’s. Its howl pricks your skin like sleet, sounding so human, wordlessly sad, almost intelligible, never familiar.
“Red,” murmurs a voice beside me. I jump. It’s only Francine, looking up at me with doe-brown eyes in her freckled face. She slips her tiny hand through mine before I can resist. I give her my bread as usual, knowing I won’t eat it. “Are you scared?”
The people walk unafraid, more curious than cautious. We are many. We have the Guards. The wolf has attacked someone this month already and the moon is no longer full. Nobody really fears it right now.
Except for me.
“No,” I say. “You shouldn’t be, either.”
When I was Francine’s age, Madam took me in. She lived in a house that she shared with six younger women. Many of them were foreign, most of them were kind, and all of them were pretty. Sometimes men came to visit, but none stayed longer than a few hours. I wasn’t allowed to speak to them. At night, I slept in a cot in Madam’s room. In the day, I ran errands for her or helped the maid in the kitchen. Once a week, Madam packed a basket of provisions and sent me to a house in the woods where her brother lived.
I was frightened in the beginning. I told Madam that I could hear the wolf’s panting when I walked among the trees, but the wood looked empty whenever I looked over my shoulder. Sometimes I thought I heard a footfall or a crackling twig. No matter how quickly I whirled around, I never saw the wolf. It was a strange game: I lost because I could not see it and won because I did not die. Sometimes, if it had rained and the ground was moist, I would turn to see huge pawprints along the path behind me. Occasionally I would find tufts of black fur on the ground, as soft and inky as silk. Once I brought some home for Madam to see, for her to believe me. She laughed and said that I couldn’t trick her. That it was a lock of my own hair which I had trimmed and brought to show her.
“What if the wolf eats me?” I retorted. “Who will run your errands then?”
She slapped me and sent me to bed without a meal. In the morning she brought me a chocolate scone and untangled my hair with her own ivory brush. “Wolves do not eat children,” she said. “Especially not orphans. You are too small to fill its belly.”
Madam’s brother was more than a hermit. He was a magician. He did not like the town and apparently the town didn’t care for him. I never could understand why Madam didn’t go herself, or why she didn’t send one of the older girls. It struck me, much later, that she feared him.
Perhaps because I saw him so often, and was familiar with him, he did not strike me as fearsome. At first glance, you’d call him a gentleman, soft-spoken and mild-mannered—meek, even. It took years before I realized that this was a front. He was no gentleman. I wasn’t quite sure, sometimes, if he was even a man. Time did not touch his handsome face. Cold did not cripple his supple body.
In the beginning he was kind to me. He likely had no interest in little girls. Why should he? He was a hermit in the middle of the wood, and his sister was obligated to send him supplies so his magic would keep her household safe. When he craved something to eat, I told her his request upon my return, and it was what I brought him a few days later. Sometimes he demanded French Toast or Swiss Chocolate or Indian Tea. I never actually saw toast or chocolate or tea in my basket. But upon the next visit, I’d notice high-heeled shoes near his bed or a woman’s dress draped over a chair. Though I never saw her, I knew. French Toast was a woman, like the rest.
As the years went by, however, he began to pay me more attention. He would stroke my hair when I brought him his basket. He would command me to feed him when he was too busy with his hands, mixing his vials or ruffling through his spell books. But he looked into my eyes when I fed him, with a look so smoldering that my cheeks reddened and my throat dried. I often wondered why, at first. I fed him in the way babies and elders must be fed. It shouldn’t have been enchanting, yet somehow it was.
He began to demand more of my attention. When I came, he wanted to show off his experiments to me, he wanted to work some magic. He wanted me to share his meals, his hearth, his company. One time he tested a new spell on me—a spell of reactivity, he called it. The magic forbade me to move as he unclothed me.
My clothes pooled around my feet, surrounded by the moat of my blood-red cloak. My mind was forced into a quiet room, an onlooker behind shatterproof windows, where it screamed and pounded on the glass until my voice felt hoarse and my body felt numb. His fingers stroked my long black hair and followed the undulations of my flesh. He brushed his mouth against mine and I ached to rip his lip with my teeth. I could not speak. I could not act. There were kisses—and I’d wanted kisses so badly, kisses like those men gave to the girls in Madam’s house—yet they were a monologue I had no say in. He enveloped me in his arms and found pathways that opened at his touch, black holes of despair and heady heat, confusion and horror and terrifying arousal.
He was my first, and in that naïve reverie I supposed he’d be my last. He didn’t dare tell me to ask Madam for more French Toast or Swiss Chocolate. He wasn’t that stupid. But he was stupid to not expect me at hours when he hadn’t summoned me, hours when I came to his home to hear sounds within the walls that broke my heart, hours when he was no longer mine. When he found me outside, sobbing on his step, he bruised my face as badly as he’d bruised my heart.
I’d known there’d been women before me; I should have known there would be women after. But the facts did not quell the sorrow and the rage, the gutting pain of betrayal and agony. I began to hear and sense the wolf around me when I patrolled the woods, a familiar frenemy. I felt the hair rise on the nape of my neck. I licked my lips and savored the taste of raw rabbit.
One day Madam told me I would no longer be needed in the kitchen. She led me to a room, where I looked at a bed that wasn’t meant for me alone. “This is yours,” she said. She took my apron and my basket and gave them to Francine, along with directions to get to her brother’s house. The child looked at her trustingly with her doe-brown eyes.
And I feared myself even as I found myself.
I came to him that night when he was alone. He devoured me in his caresses, happy with a new spell he’d mastered, projecting one passion into another. But I had not come to play. I, too, had come to devour.
He fought me, throwing punches and then spells, knocking his potions and books to the ground when he missed. I’d changed. I was bigger and stronger than he thought me to be. I was faster. I did what I came to do and fled, knowing he would be found eventually. Knowing it would be only a matter of time before the King’s Guard sounded the trumpet. Knowing I had a lifetime to grapple with my freedom and my guilt.
They say the wolf ate the magician.
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