Disclaimer: Characters and situations are all from my imagination.
Warnings: Sex and love between women
Feedback: Constructive criticism and feedback, both welcomed at firstname.lastname@example.org
Story Note: This story is part of the Underdogs universe (Ariadne Willow and Dale Frye) but it's set two hundred years ago. Just an attempt to flesh out some of the history of their world.
Author's Note: I'm always excited when I get the invitation to play with so many great authors over the holidays. Thanks everyone, so much! This year was a little tougher than most, as I kept coming up with ideas but they never really seemed good enough. Finally, thought, I came up with this one at the eleventh hour. ~g~
Wolf at the Door
by Geonn Cannon
Copyright © 2011 Geonn Cannon
The cup clattered against the tin tray, rattling like the chains the servant boy could hear on the other side of the heavy door. He was about to turn and run back to the tavern when a strong hand grabbed the shoulder of his tunic and kept him from fleeing. He looked up into the smooth face of the soldier that had arrived in town a few days earlier. His cheeks were stained with mud, bruised and battered from the war. He wore a tattered mélange of uniforms; jackets and tunics piled thick on his small frame. His dark hair hung loose around his face. He would have looked innocent and harmless if not for his eyes. His eyes were terrifying.
The boy couldn't struggle without spilling the food he'd been tasked to deliver, so he remained as still as a statue. The soldier stared at the door for another long moment and then looked down at the tray. "Food for der wolf?" the soldier asked. The boy nodded. The soldier took the heel of bread off the plate and took a bite, chewing slowly as he stared at the door. He finished the bread before he picked up the cheese.
He ate one-handed, the other hand still holding tight to the boy's shirt. The boy's terror was split, equal parts for the creature his town was holding captive and for the mysterious man who should have been hundreds of miles away fighting Napoleon's army. Finally, he finished the meal and wiped his sleeve across his lips. He hauled the boy forward, making him drop the tray. Water spilled across the stones of the street.
"What... no!" The boy began to fight but the soldier easily carried him to the prison.
He took the keys from the boy's belt and unlocked the door. The heavy door swung inward, carried by its own weight, and revealed the narrow stone cell. The creature stood in the center of the space, the thickest chains they could forge wrapped around its throat, chest, waist and legs. Its arms were shackled at the wrists. The beast bared its teeth, snarling and snapping as the soldier entered the room.
"You need to see this, boy." He tossed the boy away, standing in front of the door to prevent his escape. The boy huddled in the corner, tears streaking down his face as he stared at the monster. The beast stared back at him, then faced the soldier again. The soldier drew his sword. "I won't be around every time one of these decides to make a meal of your people. So watch carefully."
The soldier took one step forward, pulled back to avoid the swing of the beast's claws, and sliced down. One of the creature's hands fell to the floor, leaving a bloody stump in its place. The beast threw its head back and howled in pain. The soldier changed his grip on his sword seamlessly and brought the sharp edge down with all his might. The awful howl of the monster died abruptly as its throat was severed. The head fell at the boy's feet and the body slumped to the ground a moment later.
The boy couldn't move. He was vaguely aware of the soldier examining the spray of blood on his tunic before he looked at the body again. The boy was also watching, and he saw as the hair receded and the shape of the corpse changed before his eyes. The chains sagged, now loose around the shape of a normal human man.
The boy looked at the severed head at his feet. A human face stared up at him. After the initial shock wore off, the boy recognized the face as the apothecary who had assured everyone they had nothing to fear from the beast haunting the woods around their homes.
The soldier peeled off the top layer of his clothing, using a blood-free spot to wipe his face. "Tell the mayor that my job is done. I expect payment immediately."
His paralysis lifted and the boy ran from the cell as fast as his feet could carry him.
Johanna Brion washed her tunic in the first stream she reached, scrubbing the canidae's blood from the material and draping it over a rock to dry. She was far enough from the village that she risked removing the rest of her clothing as well, stripping down to the skin before she waded waist-deep into the stream. The only thing she kept on was a leather strap around her right bicep which held her dagger.
She crouched and used her hands to guide the water up to her shoulders, scrubbing her face with her palms. She untied her hair and ducked under the surface to get it wet. It hung from the back of her head in a thick braid, weighing her down and forcing her to hold her chin up.
She turned in the water at the sound of movement in the woods. She covered herself with one arm, while she unsheathed her dagger with the other. She left the water and stood dripping on the shore. She examined the trees and surrounding forest for movement that couldn't be explained as wind. The canidae knew stealth was a lost cause, and it slunk out from the underbrush with its head low to the ground. Its ears were flattened against its skull, teeth bared as it braced both forepaws on the muddy ground.
"Face me as God intended, or I shall make your death slow and painful."
The beast coughed, shook its head, and then its flesh began to ripple. Hair receded. Paws turned to fingers as the beast rose onto its forepaws. Muscle and bone reshaped, flattening here and curving there until Johanna faced another woman. Perhaps a bit younger than her, with blonde hair that had been hinted at by the beast's coat. Her skin was pasty and white, shining with sweat and occasionally twitching with an aftershock of the transformation. The woman's eyes carried dark smudged beneath them, and she pulled her lips back over her teeth in a snarl.
The two naked women faced each other from a distance of five feet, only a small sharp dagger between them. Johanna narrowed her eyes. "Repent, beast, and I shall take you to a priest. He will cure you of the demon that has taken possession of your soul."
"The only demon here is you. Slaughtering my people--"
"Your people have killed countless innocents."
"You murdered them while they were chained, helpless, imprisoned. Too cowardly to even face them on even ground."
Johanna aimed the blade of her dagger at the woman's face. "And how many bedrooms have you crawled into during the night? How many skulls have you felt crack between your jaws? Did they wake before you killed them? Perhaps you enjoy the sound of their cries when they realize death is near. I will allow you to repent for what you have done before I spill your blood on this ground."
The beast smiled without humor. "Do you know what I've discovered, soldier? Your religion is the first to flee. You congregate in anticipation of Heavenly rewards, but when the beast is upon you and death is at the door, you scream in terror. You recoil, you weep, you beg and cajole. If you truly believe in your afterlife, why is it so horrifying to anticipate going there?"
"I will have no more of your blasphemy, beast! Kneel."
"You will not have my blood so easily, soldier."
Johanna snarled. "So be it." She lunged with the dagger, and the beast transformed back into her animal form as they attacked each other.
The beast snorted when she woke, tugging on the leather straps that trussed her arms and ankles together. Her hair hung loose in her face, and she watched as Johanna checked the meat burning on the spit over her campfire. Johanna had dressed after their fight, her hair once again pulled back in a masculine style. She wore the collared tunic that hid the smooth column of her throat. She plucked off a piece of the meat and popped it into her mouth before she turned to look at the beast.
"I see you haven't lost your appetite for blood, soldier." The beast rolled her shoulders, testing the limits of her restraints. "Perhaps you simply require killing your prey while they are looking into your eyes. Something to weigh your soul until the next confession?"
"Silence yourself." She rubbed the grease from her hands onto the thighs of her trousers. Her cheek was torn and bloody. "No prisoner should die with an empty stomach. Since I assume your last meal was human flesh, I'll give you an opportunity to meet your Maker with something more appropriate in your stomach."
The beast snorted. "You believe consuming charred animal flesh makes you more righteous in the eyes of your God?"
"We kill to survive."
"As do my people."
Johanna's calm wavered. "You slaughter innocents."
"You raise cattle and chickens for the express purpose of slicing them to bits. You steal the young of chickens before they are even hatched. You stand on shorelines with blades and hooks to capture fish. We are both beastly, soldier."
"My name is Leutnant Johanna Brion. You shall call me Leutnant Brion."
The beast spit on the ground at her feet. "You're no soldier. Your uniform is rank, you are miles from your army. And you deserve no honor. You pretend you are better than us, but we are the same. You devour the meat of animals, and you slaughter other human beings simply because they are not like you. They do not believe in your ideals or your leaders. And you claim to be more holy than my people. I have no choice in what I have become, but you wear that uniform proudly of your own free will."
Johanna took the meat from the campfire and dropped it onto her metal tray. She used her dagger to cut it in two, picking up the smaller half and carrying it to the beast.
"Do they give names to your kind?"
The beast's eyes were brown in human form, filled with hatred as she looked at the offered meal. She swallowed, and Johanna knew her mouth was watering. It turned Johanna's stomach to know what she was truly hungering for, but deer meat was the only thing she would be offered. She held the meat just close enough that the beast could smell it.
"What does it matter if I have a name or not?"
"I will bury you as a Christian, not as a beast."
"But I am neither." She paused. "My parents called me Agatha."
Johanna tossed her the meat and walked back to the campfire. She sat down and cut her own portion into smaller pieces. "Your people are a scourge on this land. They kill and devour children."
"Never," Agatha snapped. "Never children."
"Mostly children," Johanna continued calmly. She placed a piece of meat on her tongue, discouraged to learn that Agatha's arguments had made the idea of swallowing it distasteful to her. She forced it down her throat and took a drink from her water pouch. "I've seen the remains myself. You victimize the weakest and most fragile of us and--"
The remains of Agatha's dinner hit Johanna in the face. Johanna got to her feet, her dagger drawn as Agatha snarled up at her.
Johanna stepped forward and pressed the blade of her dagger against Agatha's cheek. Agatha didn't flinch. "Perhaps I shall take you to the next village and I will show you their fingers, their small skulls, the bones left behind in the scat of your heathen brothers and sisters. Or perhaps that would only serve to ignite your hunger. Perhaps you would froth at the mouth and--"
Agatha broke her restraints. The dagger cut a line from just beneath her eye to her cheek as she pounced, wrestling Johanna to the ground. Johanna pushed back with her feet, sliding backward over the crushed debris of the forest floor as she tried to escape the beast's punches. She brought her knee up into Agatha's stomach, and Agatha tore the dagger from Johanna's grip.
Defenseless, Johanna twisted onto her front and scrambled for her sword. Agatha howled and slammed into her back, knocking Johanna down. She grabbed a handful of Johanna's dark hair and hauled her painfully back to the campfire. Johanna kicked and fought, cursing as Agatha wrapped an arm around Johanna's throat and aimed her face at the fire.
The heat was unbearable, searing her eyes until she was forced to close them. It felt like needles pricking her flesh, and sweat appeared almost instantly. She felt as if she could still see the tongues of the flames through her closed eyelids, lapping at her nose and forehead. She imagined her eyebrows, singed off, and she bared her teeth in a cry of anger and frustration as she awaited her immolation.
"Never children," Agatha growled. Her voice was strangely emotional. "The weak. The infirm. The elderly. We take those who are close to death. Never... ever... a child."
"I have seen the bodies," Johanna said. "I have buried the remains myself."
Agatha's weight lifted from Johanna, and she was thrown back. The evening air felt like ice on her face, and Johanna resisted the urge to run to the stream and submerge her face in the cold water. Agatha stood in front of her, naked but for the torn straps of leather dangling uselessly from her wrists and ankles.
The two women stared at each other for what felt like ages. Agatha bared her teeth again, the shape of her face momentarily becoming more canine before it settled once more.
"If canidae are victimizing children, then they deserve your blade. My people... the pack from which I come... we would never do anything so sickening. Children are protected."
"Not all of your people feel the same way."
Agatha's nostrils flared. "Then perhaps you and I are not the enemies we believed ourselves to be." She scanned the woods. "How do you discover these attacks?"
"I wander. News reaches me." She wiped her chin. "Two brothers are exploring the countryside gathering folk tales and faerie stories. Wilhelm and Jacob. Occasionally they send me word of a beast haunting a village." She touched her face to ensure the fire hadn't burned her.
Agatha snorted derisively and shook her head. "There are easier ways to hunt canidae."
Johanna stared at her for a long moment. She felt herself teetering on the brink of a precipice. She extended her hand.
Four months later,
Low-hanging branches brushed the top of the carriage, forcing the driver to release the reins with one hand to brush them aside. The town cleric stepped down from the porch of his church as they approached, their wheels riding rough over the ruts and dips of the dirt path. He attempted to smile, tried to appear welcoming, but his heart wouldn't let him. The driver wore the suit of a soldier, a young man by the curve of his jaw and the smoothness of his cheeks. Beside him was a slight woman dressed in a cloak, a hood pulled down over her face. Twin curtains of wavy blonde hair hung down on either side of her head like curtains.
He held up a hand to stop them, moving to stand next to the lead horse. He brushed the beast's mane as he spoke. "My friends, I would like nothing more than to welcome you to our town and offer our hospitality. But our home is not safe now, not even to one trained in battle as you surely are. We have suffered--"
"Many deaths," the soldier said. "Children taken from their beds in the still of night and, if they are found at all, they are found in pieces."
The cleric's eyes widened. "How... could you know?"
The blonde woman was scanning the woods on either side. She didn't seem frightened; she was hunting. "It's the very reason we are here, kind priest."
The soldier smiled, but the cleric didn't understand the humor.
"Don't fear us, priest." The soldier rested her hand on the butt of her sword. The cleric finally noticed that the blonde woman was armed as well. "We are here to help."