For Phil Jones
The snow was crisp and firm underfoot as I strode steadily through the looming darkness, pierced only by the yellow eyes of a dozen wolves pacing me easily in the trees to the right.
I light-footed my way as quickly as I could in my winter moccasins through the treacherous terrain alongside the creek, following the water as we all made our way silently toward the stronghold of our enemy. I knew my friends would have no issues keeping stride with me. Their patience knew no bounds. We had all waited enough.
I saw a candle’s light flickering ahead, and signaled with an owl’s hoot that we were now extremely close, and to use caution. I slowed further, and came in toward the road, keeping to the shadows. I thanked my lucky stars that the darkened fortress was upwind of me tonight.
The thirteen of us continued to creep quietly, a small whimper escaped the muzzle of the youngest, who was still nursing the wounds of yesterday’s defeat. He didn’t heal as quickly as the others.
My eyes lit upon the window with the candle, and I crept toward it. The fortress was protected against the wolves, and they stopped approaching from a safe distance. This was now entirely up to me. There was little the pack could do if I was hurt within those walls.
First things first. Could I approach? Was the fortress protected from humans? I’d found, in my long career, that magical creatures tended to discount humans as capable enough to worry about. I shuffled my feet carefully in the snow, trying not to make a sound as I tested the perimeter of the spells protecting the keep.
Bingo. Leave it to blood suckers to not bother to keep me out. I ran as quickly as I could to the wall, scaled it, and scrabbled in the window faster than a squirrel, if I do say so myself.
They had said she was in this room, but there were no people here. Just a crown, a pillow, and a broom. Well, who knows. I grabbed all three items and leapt out the window, falling thirty feet or so, but also catapulting myself beyond the perimeter while still in the air. I landed with all three items, hoping none broke as I rolled off the force of the landing.
I rose, showed the wolves the items, and the leader huffed excitedly. He started running, but not back toward camp. Well, if I wanted to get paid, I needed to go with them, or I might not ever find the same pack again. I assumed that the job was not quite finished, so I followed. Once they got a safe distance from the fortress, they started running without fear of being overheard, and I really had to push myself to keep up. My shoes were water-tight and freshly oiled, so my feet were still not wet, but this was truly a difficult run. Night turned into early morning, and early morning turned into day. At dawn, we heard the deep booming thrum of the guard being called into action at the fortress. Let them hunt. They would never find us now. We had traveled much too far too fast.
I almost lost sight of the wolves as we rounded a bend along the creek, and then almost ran by. They all stood, encircling a cabin built along the creek, in a seated position. The house seemed very old, but that was impossible. It was right where seasonal flooding would wash it away. Somehow this creek must not swell in the spring, although, by the ravine walls around us, it was obvious it had in the past.
Looking at the cabin made my eyes ache, oddly, and I could feel the tell tale signs of magic, the kind aimed at me.
I signaled the young wolf, who had finished healing, and he approached. I shook my head at him, and placed the items on the ground. I held my palm out, the obvious sign of needing payment. The young wolf huffed, and all the wolves stirred, padding from foot to foot. They whined at me, and snuffled in the direction of the cabin.
“Ho there!” I yelled toward the cabin. “Friends approach.”
A young woman with luminous skin and blond hair peered out the window. “Friend? I see wolves and a thief.”
“Aye, you do, but this thief is your servant today, and these wolves are your friends, I assure you.”
“You assure me? Hmph. Anything happens, it’s your neck. Deal?” I nodded.
A bubble of shimmer popped from around the cabin, and she came stepping out the door.
In perfect bare feet, she stood on the rounded polished stones of the creek beside her home, arms akimbo, fantastically beautiful eyes flashing at me, “What gives?”
Then her eyes spotted the items in my arms, and she crooned to herself. Both hands came rushing out. She knocked the broom off to the side and started peering through the jewels on the crown. “Ho ho, real. Real!” she crowed. She picked up the pillow and squinted at it.
“What’s this?” she looked at me suspiciously.
“I think it’s the job,” I answered simply, shrugging, “Or the other items.”
She squinted again at the broom. She was beautiful even when making faces. She grimaced, and my heart pounded. Foolish human heart, had I. I shut the thoughts down, before her obvious witchcraft made me her slave.
She looked right at me as I thought that, almost as though she heard me. Looking into my eyes, she waved her hand at the pillow and it turned into a young wolf pup, squirming in her hands. “Oh! Ew!” She threw it toward the pack, and its mother leapt out, grabbing it up gently in her jaws. She grabbed up the crown, and turned on her heel, heading back into her cabin. The bubble flashed back into place around the cabin, and my head cleared the rest of the way. Ugh, magic was such a pain. Almost got me falling in love with her. Not this particular Jack-o-the night.
All the wolves transformed into their human selves, long black hair dancing in the breeze, nostrils flaring, yellow eyes still cautious.
“Thank you. You’ve done us a kindness. Your payment will be lying upon the bed we found you in when you return.”
I sighed. Damn. Another payment in trust. What the heck. You couldn’t trust the magical folk.
“And if it’s not there?” I asked, lightly. You did not want to piss off the wolf pack.
“It will be.”
“But if it’s not?” I repeated. The pack leader looked at me, and answered with a straight face.
“If your money was not placed on your bed, you may come kill me. Hurry home, though. I believe that whore of yours may be losing patience with wanting to know what’s in the bag you left on your bed…” He huffed in what was probably a chuckle.
“Thanks!” I turned in a circle and pinched a touch of the magical salts that “that whore” had retrieved for me on our last outing, and was suddenly back home, in my comfortably musty-smelling room above the pub. I flopped onto my bed, and heard the jingle of a fat sack of coin as my head hit the pillow. A real down pillow, no less.
I checked the sack. The wolves had been true to their word. “Janine! Get in here! You’re not going to believe it, but I found us another witch!”
“Oh! You’re home.” Janine rounded the newel post at the entry and swung herself into my arms.
“Did you hear me?” I said, catching her up and holding her to me, laughing.
“Yes, she purred, as she nuzzled into my neck, bright eyes peering up from my collar. “Ooh, goodie, you brought me a new heist!”