Nim was dying. She lay crushed against her Gammie in the darkness, suffocating, and marveled at her stupidity in leaving the trail. Hadn’t they all warned her? Was this the cost of her audacity?
A sharp lance of pain tore her cheek and she saw brilliant daylight. She looked up, her head sliding out of the gore, and saw him standing over her, peering down anxiously.
“I’m here,” her grandmother gasped weakly from beneath her.
“Gammie,” she coughed, spitting out blood and bile. She shifted, flopping out onto the slick floorboards, and her grandmother’s head and shoulder eased up out of the split wolf, bent with age and horror.
“Save the rugs,” she murmured dazedly, and the huntsman kicked the rug back out of the spreading pool of scarlet. She looked down at the carcass and then up at him. “Fitz?”
“Are you alright?”
She sobbed, and then she couldn’t stop.
He gently lifted her out, cradling her head against his shoulder. “It’s alright, Arla. Everything’s alright.” He glanced down at Nim, a solemn girl with large eyes especially blue in all that red. “You alright, lass?”
“Nicked your face, did I?”
She nodded again, undisturbed.
“I reckon your grandma can stitch it up once she’s steady.” He gave her grandmother’s shoulder a comforting pat and added, “Can’t you, Arla? There’s a good girl.”
Nim had never heard anyone call her grandmother a girl. Nor had she ever seen her cry. What a strange day. But neither of those things was the strangest. She looked up again at the huntsman. “It spoke to me.” Nim rarely asked questions, but both adults could hear the question in her statement. They stared at her and she added, “I never heard of a wolf speakin’ afore, not t’a common girl like me. But it spoke.”
After a long while, the huntsman said quietly, “I know, lass. I hear ‘em, too.” He looked down at the little woman in his arms and she shook her head, looking away. He cleared his throat and looked back at the child. “Never trust a word they say, girl. Never a word. And don’t go tellin’ others of it. They won’t understand.”
She nodded, but he hadn’t answered her question. She frowned, frustrated. “They say the King Father took a wife o’ the wolves. They say the king’s blood still-”
“Nim,” her grandmother interrupted sharply.
Nim’s gaze dropped to her feet, the gesture submissive but all else defiant. She didn’t know why they still pretended it was a secret. The royal huntsmen were all of the king’s blood, even if the talisman was the only acknowledgment they ever received. But Nim and her father had been given even less concession than that. It wasn’t fair.
They whispered back and forth, breathy little voices that Nim just barely couldn’t hear. She looked up at them again, watching for a long moment, and then said, “It broke the pact.”
“An’ you left the trail,” her grandmother scolded. “Dinna you?”
She stared, not answering.
“Never leave the trail! I’ve told you a thousand times, Nim. Queen’s blood, child, d’you have t’challenge everything?”
Nim looked down again and they resumed their whispering. She couldn’t hear them, but she could guess what they spoke of. They wondered if she was safe now that the wolf was gone, or if she was lost already. After all, once you left the trail, it was so often only a matter of time. The touch of the woodlands was a hard grasp to shake and there was no way to tell if she had merely brushed the magic or if she was cursed. She could be a danger to all who knew her now. Her grandmother had learned that well enough when the wolf came knocking on her door. Nim eyed the Silver Crest on the huntsman’s chest, sullied with blood and tarnish, but still a thing of power. A talisman to protect the King’s huntsmen in those dark woods, a blessing from the ancient wolf queen to protect her children from their canine kin. Nim swallowed.
How would she know? How would she know if she was cursed, and how could she protect herself?
“Sir Fitzroy… you hear the wolves’ words. I wonder if you see their mark as well.”
There was a glint of pity in his eye. “Nobody can see that, child, not the King himself.”
“Your half-brother, you mean,” she corrected petulantly.
Her grandmother surged to her feet and snarled, “Go home, Nim. And for pity’s sake, stay on the trail. It’s bad enough, cursin’ yourself, but d’you have to bring it on the rest of us, too?”
Nim blinked, shocked. Gammie was scared of her. Not just of the curse, but of her. Nim didn’t move for a long time, fighting the tightness in her throat, and then came forward on stiff legs. “I’m sorry, Gammie,” she whispered, giving her grandmother a peck on her bloodied cheek. “I promise I’ll do the right thing next time.” She glanced up at the Huntsman her grandmother clung to.
Nim tore the Crest off his chest. Pivoting on her heel, she sprinted for the door before they could react, throwing it wide. She leapt off the front step, her wet cloak flapping behind her, her grandmother screaming her name. She ran past the woodpile, tugging a hatchet out of a log on her way through the yard. Vaulting over the low stone wall, she ran across the trail and out into the trees.
“Stop her!” her grandmother cried and Nim couldn’t quite make out the huntsman’s apologetic reply. She smiled. He wouldn’t dare go into the woods without the talisman’s protection, not even for his bastard’s first child. She had counted on it. She spared a glance over her shoulder, catching a peek of their worried faces at the stone wall. Then the woods closed around her, grimly welcoming.
Nim slowed to a jog, and then a brisk walk. Her heart hammered in her chest and her breath came in labored gasps. She was a village girl, after all. She’d never hiked a day in her life, never had need to run more than a stone’s throw. And before this day, she had never once strayed from the path. The woods were to be feared and loathed, and the village bounds were narrow, the trails of safety spread thin like spider’s silk between those ominous trees. Her world was a tiny one, and her imagination big. It was hard not to question the old stories when she never broke their warnings. And so she had broken them, just to see. It had seemed such a tiny thing. Just a few flowers for her grandmother. Just a little pause in her journey. She had never let the trail out of sight. She had been careful. Or so she had thought.
They were afraid of her now. Her grandmother, the huntsman. They were afraid of what she could bring down on them, on her family, on her whole village. And she had never seen either of them afraid of anything. What would her skittish mother think of her adventure? Or her paranoid father? Would they even let her come home? Of course not. Not as things stood.
So it had to be done. Whatever curse they thought she was under now, she had to break it. That was all there was to it.
A sound to her right startled her and she whirled, cloak flaring wide and hatchet at the ready. She stared into the inky shadows, alert to every bird call, every gust of wind, every beat of her heart. She was gripping the badge so tightly she could feel the engravings.
Greetings, little one.
Her eyes narrowed as the wolf stepped languidly out of the darkness, its gray muzzle slick with another creature’s blood.
Your beautiful cloak is all soiled. Whatever happened to you, daughter?
She nervously shifted her grip on the hatchet.
I know you understand me, child. Rodrick told me before he went after you. Not that I blame him. What a lovely little morsel you are!
“Somethin’s been done t’me,” she said. “Somethin’ happened when I stepped off the trail.”
Its laughter echoed in her mind. Done to you? You’ve done it to yourself, you stupid chicken. I don’t believe for a moment you were never warned. You broke the pact first, daughter, well before Rodrick ever did. It stretched, a wide yawn revealing pointed yellow teeth. Whatever happened to our dear brother, by the way? She didn’t reply and he stepped closer. Why, his scent is all over you. What did you do, little girl? It sat back on its haunches, staring at her with that knowing dog’s smile. After a long while, it glanced away, its mouth closing with a snap. I see. Funny how these things turn out. It looked back up at her. And the really funny thing is that you probably would have been fine had you never come back. It stood again and took a few lazy steps closer.
She fell back a step and held up the Crest. “Stay back!”
The wolf cringed just slightly, its course deflecting casually to the side. Why did you come back, daughter?
“Rodrick,” she said through gritted teeth. “He musta had a pack, others who mighta thought to avenge him. Others who mighta kept the curse goin’.”
It nodded. He did indeed, just as you had a village. Sad how we all end up alone in the end.
She shuffled her feet, keeping the wolf in front of her, holding the Crest between them.
Laughing, it edged closer, staring sidelong at her and her talisman. Tell me, little huntress: from whence came your badge? Is the King now hiring little girls not yet bled?
She snorted. “Oh, I bled plenty today. And I’m not so young as that.”
Be that as it may, you are not of the Silver Crest. Of that, I am sure. So how fell that into your pretty little hands?
“So I stole it. That don’t make it any less-”
It scoffed, silencing her. You bluff poorly. You know nothing of the magic in your hands.
Her grip tightened. Mouth clamped shut, she danced the slow circle with the wolf. Step, shuffle, shuffle, pause. Step, shuffle, shuffle, pause.
Sitting back again, it sighed irritably, This is tiresome, child. Why are you here if not to die?
“I want to see Rodrick’s pack. I want to know what’s been done t’me.”
The wolf laughed again, charmed by her audacity. You didn’t like the stink of the curse, so you decided to roll in it some more. I like you, little one! He stood again. And as for Rodrick’s avengers… why should I reveal my pack to you? You’ve already slaughtered one of our number. Why should I expose the rest of my people to you?
She straightened, surprised. “You’re the leader. You’re Rodrick’s alpha.”
That I am. It started circling her again, if for no other reason than to watch her squirm. It grinned, pink tongue hanging wetly over its teeth. I am the alpha of this small pack. Perhaps one day I shall challenge the Wolf King himself and rule the whole forest. But not today. Today, I shall have to content myself with one lovely little girl who wandered into my realm with nothing more than an old wood-chopper and a rusted bit of someone else’s magic. It hunched down, belly low to the ground and bared its teeth, a low growl rumbling in the back of its throat. I shall enjoy it nonetheless.
Nim fell back another step, the edges of the talisman cutting into her hand, opening her veins onto it. “It’s not someone else’s magic,” she hissed, almost to herself. “Its and my blood’s are the same.”
The wolf pounced and the crest flared to life, the tarnish and gore burned off in an instant. The wolf howled in rage and terror in the sudden light and struck against her side blindly, scrambling in a heap against her. She swung the hatchet. It sank into thick flesh and the wolf thrashed, yelping as it hurried upright. She struck again, heat and wet pouring over her. It stumbled aside, blind and wounded, and she rolled quickly onto her feet. Snarling, she slashed open its side and thrust the talisman against the wound. Screaming, the wolf pushed her away, kicking at that white-hot pain in its belly, but it knew it was too late to resist. It couldn’t even feel the pain anymore as it fell over onto its side, panting. It was too late.
How is this so? it whispered, shocked.
She sneered. “You ask too many questions.”
A smile spread slowly across its face, blood pooling around its open mouth. They shall keep coming for you, daughter, it wheezed. Your curse won’t die with me. It laughed raggedly, grinning up at her. As long as a Wolf King exists, he shall fight against mankind.
She knelt beside the wolf and brought the hatchet down through its throat. It kicked once, a token effort, and was still. She glanced back into the trees, but she knew she needn’t worry about this pack anymore. Not with their alpha dead at her hands.
Nim could only think of one way to keep all the wolves at bay.
She sat back on her heels, looking down at the badge, now bright and polished as the day it was forged. She couldn’t go home. Not until it was over. The wolf was right about that. If the Wolf King was the problem, she’d fight her way straight to him. And if they planned to keep hunting her, she would hunt them right back, through every field and forest. She stared at the Silver Crest a moment longer and then stood, hooking the hatchet on her belt.
Nim turned and started deeper into the forest. She would cower in the village and on the trails no more. It was time to hunt.