Ch.7 - Take Me Home

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The wolf-boy’s ears pricked forward, and he sniffed in her direction. Then his ears flopped over, giving him a puppyish look. His tail began to wag and his tongue lolled out, like a dog recognizing a friend.

He wasn’t a dog. He was a wolf—part wolf the way she was part bat. He was much less human than she was though, and the combination of animal and human seemed awkward, like someone had fit together pieces from a boy and a wolf without any thought to proportions. His arms dangled at his sides, far longer than a normal person’s arms. Probably what allowed him to shift between two legs and four so easily. And he was so tall she might have mistaken him for an adult, if he wasn’t so gangly. 

It was the magic of the well. Someone had wished for him, too.

Lacey had a million questions. “What’s your name?” she asked. It seemed like the best place to start.

He whined and cocked his head. 

“Can’t you speak?” 

He shook his head. 

“Oh.” Lacey was exhausted, and her adrenaline rush was fading. The carpet of pine needles on the forest floor was starting to look comfortable. “I just need to sit a minute.”

What was meant to be an easy sit, turned into more of stumble and collapse. The wolf-boy rushed forward with a claw extended. It was hard not to panic, but she managed to resist the urge to scream. He was only offering a hand to help her. And part human or not, he was still a wolf—she had no idea how he would react if she startled him or made any sudden movements.

It took a moment to fit her hand into his, and avoid the razor sharp claws at the ends of his fingers. The well had done its best to make him fearsome and hideous. No wonder he lived out here, away from people.

He lifted her to her feet and then let her hand slip away, without so much as scratching her. He was gentle but anxious, and Lacey wondered how many accidents had happened before he became adept at not causing injury.

“Thank you,” she said.

He nodded, but remained mute. 

She brushed at the twigs and pine needles sticking to her knees, and drew a sharp breath at the pain in her hands. She has really done some damage to them in her mad dash. 

“Can you take me home?” Maybe he would be more helpful than the white rabbit. 

The wolf-boy cocked his head. She repeated her question and his tail wagged slightly, like he wasn’t sure of something.

“Please. I am tired. My hands…I just want to go home.”

An approximation of a smile turned up the edges of his wolfish mouth. He turned and left their little patch of moonlight, loping on all fours. He was just as certain of the direction he was going as the rabbit had been. Lacey wondered if she could learn to navigate through the Wood by her senses and instinct like that. It would be a useful skill for hunting and exploring.

As the shadows swallowed him up again, the things that made the wolf-boy seem friendly and human disappeared. Once again he was a beast in the dark. Only now he wasn’t chasing her, he was leading her home. 

Lacey followed him, going as fast as she could in the pitch black. He was making more noise than he had while hunting her, probably for her benefit, and she was grateful for it. She might have lost him very quickly without it.

Part of her wondered if he was still leading her into a trap, but what choice did she have? She tried to hold onto an image of his puppy face in the moonlight, to convince her self everything was going to be OK. A couple of times she remembered his claws reaching for her instead, and faltered. There was something in the Woods that made people disappear—that made survivors like Brant scream in an endless nightmare. 

It was a cold night, but she started to sweat.

Lacey told herself with every ounce of logic she could muster that the wolf-boy was too young to be the thing that had haunted the Wish Wood for so many generations. But who had wished for him? Mama had wished for a daughter and the well had given her Lacey. By Wolf-boy’s bedraggled appearance nobody was taking care of him, at least not with all the annoying tidiness of a parent. 

And if he wasn’t the thing that haunted the Wood, what was? 

Lacey stopped, leaning against a tree. The muscles in her legs quivered in a surreal fashion and she wasn’t sure how they were keeping her upright. Like a faithful hound he came back to her, touching her shoulder. She felt his question, even though he didn’t speak.

“I’m just tired. I need a moment to rest.” 

It was long past time to be home, and she didn’t feel any closer to getting there. Her lower lip trembled. She just wanted to be tucked into bed, listening to Mama snore, and telling Ella to stop fidgeting beside her. Even if Mama was angry, Lacey didn’t care. She just wanted to go home.

The wolf-boy whined and she heard his tail whap-whap against a tree in encouragement. She took a shuddering breath and tried to get her feelings back under control. She couldn’t cry, but she still had all these sobby emotions. She was so useless. So broken. 

The wolf-boy whined again and nudged her. She looked up at him; she couldn’t see anything in the dark but the shape of a monster. Is that what people saw, when they saw her?

“I can’t,” she said. Now that she had stopped, the thought of moving again was overwhelming. “I’m so tired.”

He moved close, until she could feel the warmth of his body. She leaned into him, realizing just how bitterly cold she was, and began to shiver uncontrollably.  

He lifted her into his arms. She did not protest. 

“Home,” was all she said. 

She let the world go hazy, reduced to nothing more than his chest and his heartbeat. His gait was awkward on two feet instead of four, or she would have probably fallen asleep.

Gradually, the dark pine boughs overhead thinned, and she saw his worried puppy face again in the moonlight. Soon the pines were replaced by cottonwoods, and her ears picked up the sounds of civilization. Then hands were lifting her, voices were asking questions, and faces were hovering over her. Faces that were not quite right.

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