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Sweetheart Come
    by Alethea Kontis

Sasha was fourteen when the villagers threw her to the wolves.

She was mute: a quirk that eventually unnerved enough people to justify her banishment to the Wild Wood. She surprised them all by emerging from the Wood many months later without a scratch and heavy with child. This time it was the villagers who were struck speechless, but--enchanted or cursed--no one challenged Sasha's right to be there. Upon her daughter's birth, Sasha caught the midwife with her haunting gray eyes and said, "Mara," clear as a bell. The rest of her secrets she kept. By the next full moon, Sasha was gone.

Mara was raised by the midwife, embraced by the villagers, and ended up earning her keep as a huntress. Her tracking skills were unmatched and she had a sixth sense about her prey--virtues which kept the food stores well-stocked through the cold winters. When Fate found the man to tame her wild nature, Mara had one daughter, Rose. Rose "had a nose," and grew to become one of the most sought-after cooks in five counties. The man who sought out her heart instead of her pies was a humble woodcutter, and together they had a daughter named Aurelia, with a voice that could sing the sun down from the sky. When she was of age, Aurelia took up with a band of wandering minstrels, and so was the first since her great-grandmother to leave the village. She and her beloved fiddle player were also the first to bear a son, Bane.

Bane had a shy smile, a quick wit, and a heart of gold. From his grandfather, Bane learned how to cleave a piece of wood in two with one stroke. From his grandmother (and from experience), he learned to tell the difference between good mushrooms and bad. From his father he learned to play a variety of instruments well enough to coax out a melody for every occasion, but he preferred the fiddle. From his mother, Bane learned how to sing the sun down from the sky. Every evening they would trek to the edge of the village, to the top of the hill that looked down over the Wild Wood, and they would farewell the day. The selections varied with their moods and the seasons, but the last song was always the same lullaby Aurelia had sung to her son every night since his birth.

Have wonderful dreams, love

And dream while you wonder

Of things that are sure as

The sound of the thunder

Love leaves too sudden

And death comes too soon

And wolves they all bay at

The full of the moon

When the sound of his fiddle surpassed that of his voice, Bane played instead while his mother sang. And when his grandmother's apprentice herb-girl returned his shy smile, he asked her to marry him. And when Harvest became pregnant with their child, the nightmares began. For the first three months, one came at every full moon. Bane dreamt of running through the autumn trees at twilight to the top of the hill, hair brushed with dew by the welcome chill of the wind. There, along with his brethren, he turned up his face and howled to the sky. Harvest teased him about his twitching and the soft whimpering noises he made in his sleep.

In the second three months, the dreams increased with both frequency and intensity. Bane imagined himself grooming, hunting, mating, and feeding kits. He awoke angry, amorous, and exhausted in turns--sometimes all three at once. In the daylight hours he found himself resisting the urge to rub his face in the cool spring grass or growl at the rabbit vermin that ran amok in the garden.

In the seventh month of Harvest's pregnancy, Bane's dream-self fought brutally with a wolf from another pack. He awoke on all fours, looming over Harvest and staring at the crescent-shaped marks on her pale white throat. She had slapped him out of his vision; his cheeks stung from the deep scratches her prenatal nails had raked across him. In the midnight silence, a drop of blood fell from his face to her breast.

"Sweetheart," Harvest said calmly, "this has to stop. You have to go to the wolves and ask them for help."

On any other day those words might not have made a lick of sense to him, but right there, bathed in bright moonlight, with the salty taste of his wife's sweat and fear fresh upon his tongue, Bane knew what he had to do. When dawn broke, he packed up his fiddle and a blanket and set out for the hill at the edge of the Wild Wood. Harvest stayed behind at the garden gate, but not before handing him a small bag of food. She had noticed the look in his eye, the look of every man who has left home with no idea of when he might return, or if he should.

"Sweetheart, come back to me," she said as she embraced him. "Come back to me before our baby is born."

Bane kissed his wife hard, with all the love in his golden heart, and promised that he would.

Bane went to the top of the hill that overlooked the Wild Wood and stayed there for three days. He fiddled from twilight into the wee hours of the morning. He played until his throat went hoarse and his fingers bled. He collapsed on the cold, hard ground as the sun rose, breathed in the lingering scent of his wife on the blanket, and slept the day away. He woke in the late afternoon, broke his bread and had a small meal, and waited. He lifted his fiddle and bow in time to farewell the sun, and continued to serenade the waning moon until he could continue no longer. The wolves did not come.

The next day, Bane walked down the hill and into the Wild Wood. He walked through spider webs and sunlit meadows. Every morning he slept, every evening he walked, and every night he lifted his fiddle and bow and sang into the twilight. He slept fitfully on beds of hay and early summer wildflowers that made his golden heart ache for his wife and unborn child. Impatient and frustrated he wandered and played, played and wandered, deeper and deeper into the Wild Wood. Still, the wolves did not come.

After the new moon, after the darkest night in the thickest part of the deep Wood, the dreams returned. Some days he would wake without clothing, his skin covered in angry red scratches. Some days he awoke with blood caked on his lips that was not his own and a full belly. Sometimes he awoke so far from where he fell asleep that he spent the rest of the day following the scent of his blanket back to his fiddle. The smell of his wife was fading; Bane feared that one day he would awake and not be able to find his way back to it. To her.

Still every night he played, the calluses on his fingers growing thick as his limbs grew thin. He played songs of long ago and songs of yesterday. He played songs of adventure and songs of loss. He played teaching songs and drinking songs, songs of life and songs of death, songs for family and enemies. When he had played them all he made up new songs, songs for Harvest and their unborn child, and as he sang he wept tears onto the wood of his fiddle. But he always sang the sun down and up with a variation of that same old tune his mother had taught him.

I dream as I wander

And wandering dream

Through a wild and dark Wood where

I'm not what I seem

I'm lost and I'm lonely

And so with this tune

I call to the wolves

By the light of the moon

At last, on the first night of the full moon, Bane's song was answered by howling. He thought it was his imagination at first--he had imagined many things in his dream-wracked wanderings: the sound of Harvest calling his name, the smell of her skin, the warmth of her breath on the back of his neck. Invigorated, Bane ran up the nearest hill, climbed atop the largest rock there, and started the song again. Beneath his rough beard his smile grew with every howl and his golden heart ached to be so very near the end of his torment, to be so close again to the peaceful life he had before it was rudely interrupted by dreams of a life he didn't want.

The wolves poured down through the trees, their sleek bodies undulating in a neat, dangerous wave. They bounded up the hill with predatory speed and encircled the rock on which he stood. Each wolf moved with preternatural grace in a dance as old as the hills themselves, ears perked up, mottled hair bristling, sharp teeth flashing, and for the first time it occurred to Bane to be afraid. He simply poured that fear into his song and used it to fuel his playing as the wolves settled in around him.

In the glow of the moonlight he could hear their breath, taste their scent, smell their fur, feel their hearts beating as one. In the glow of the moonlight his golden heart warred against itself--the half that yearned for freedom and his place in this pack, and the half that yearned for home and the rest of his soul. The circle of wolves parted and, in the glow of the moonlight, the alpha pair stepped forward and became human.

The male grew tall and lean. A thin coating of dark gray hair still covered his body, little enough for Bane to tell that every muscle was tensed and ready to strike if any of his suspicions were confirmed. The female was similarly wiry yet petite. The fuzz that coated her breasts and belly was mottled gray and russet; the rest of the hair that had covered her lupine form now cascaded down her back. There was something not quite right about her face, as if the human mouth she now wore couldn't accommodate all of her tearing, bone crunching teeth. But she pinned him with a yellow stare, and when she spoke, her words were clear.

"Come," she said, "come run with us, cousin."

His blood roared through his veins, pumped wildly through a heart as golden as her eyes in a mad rush of acquiescence. But her invitation had sounded too much like another plea his mind replayed every night when he collapsed in exhaustion and every morning when the sun nudged him awake: Sweetheart, come back to me. Come back to me before the baby is born.

"I cannot," he said, and there was far more regret in his voice than he intended. "Please," he implored. "Make the dreams stop."

She stretched out a hand to caress his bare foot, where it dangled down from the rock on which he sat. Her mate growled low in his throat. Her long, narrow palm was warm and rough, the nails that tipped her fingers dark and thick. It would be nothing for her to thrust those nails into his chest, tear out his traitorous golden heart, and replace it with moss and tree sap. "These dreams you dismiss so easily," she said, "they are my dreams."

"I am sorry," he said, and again the words dripped with regret.

"It is not a decision to make lightly," she said. "If I take the dreams from you, any part of you that was ever wolf will be gone forever." No more seeing in the dark. No more singing to the moon. No more smelling his way home. But he could not return to his wife and family-to-be as he was, so dangerous to their well-being and so much less than a man.

"Come run with us, cousin," she asked again. "Be sure that the choice you make is the right one."

He set his fiddle on the rock, hopped down into the swarm of giant, hungry wolves, and slipped his hand into that strange and deadly palm.

Harvest didn't tell her parents about her husband's mad journey for fear they would come and take her away. Her home was the one thing that kept her tethered to sanity. Bane's family was very supportive: During the days, Rose helped her in the garden and her husband built a crib for the nursery. In the evenings, Aurelia and the fiddler played and sang for their supper, lullabying their daughter-in-law and soon-to-be grandchild into bed. For all the well-meaning company, it was the dead of night Harvest lived for most. She would stare out the window, wish on the stars, and blow kisses to the bone-colored moon. She would listen for the creaks and whispers that echoed in the empty corners of the dark world. They had the timbre of Bane's voice and they promised her they would return home before their baby was born. They promised.

The night there was no moon Harvest felt the loneliest she'd ever been in her life. But were it not for the absence of her celestial companion, she never would have noticed the yellow eyes watching her from the far side of the garden. At the same moment there was a kick in her belly--she gasped, and in a flash the wolf was gone.

Harvest looked for the wolf every night, and every night it was there. It never approached the house, simply watched the house from the same spot at the opposite edge of the garden. Harvest felt an irrational kinship with the wolf. She imagined that they were both lonely, both burdened by responsibility, both waiting for something they weren't exactly sure of, and both wanting something they knew they only had a slim chance of obtaining. But the hope was there.

Harvest began leaving food out for the wolf, sometimes not finishing her evening meal on purpose so that there would be scraps left. She walked them as far as she dared, to the near edge of the garden. She never saw the wolf's eyes in the daylight and she never saw it eat, but come dawn the bowl was always empty.

The first night of the full moon, Harvest walked the bowl of scraps out to the garden and saw an old man standing where her wolf had been. Short, dark gray hair covered his skin evenly, barring shocks of pure white on his forehead and temples. He was darkness, but for his sharp teeth and those piercing yellow eyes. Harvest dropped the bowl and squeaked out a tiny shriek, immediately wishing she was a braver woman.

"I liked you better as a wolf," she said.

The wolf-man laughed hoarsely at her statement, baring his mouthful of deadly teeth in the process. Harvest froze, ordering herself to remain calm and show no fear. This was one of the last times her baby would be able to feel her every emotion, and she refused to let cowardice be one of them. See, baby, your mother is strong. One day, you will grow up and be this strong.

"You must come with me," said the wolf-man.

"I do not have the dreams," said Harvest. "That is my husband."

"It is for your husband's sake that you must come," said the wolf-man. "I fear for the loss of your husband to the wolves."

Harvest found his phrasing odd--it sounded more like the wolves would steal him away rather than kill him. "He will come back to me," Harvest said defiantly.

"The wolves can be rather persuasive," he said.

"He will come back to me," Harvest repeated. "He promised."

"Yes," said the wolf-man. "But what if he is not capable of keeping that promise? What if he needs your help?"

"Then I would come with you," said Harvest without hesitation. She pulled her kerchief from the pocket of her apron, tied her hair back, and walked across the garden to the wolf-man's side. With a nod and a blur that sparked through the hair on her arms, he quietly transformed back into a wolf and bound into the darkness, leading Harvest step by trotting step to the heart of the Wild Wood.

She followed him to the top of the hill that overlooked the Wood, recalling the many evenings she had sat with Bane and Aurelia or softly sang along while they serenaded the sunset. Harvest had a small voice, like a chickadee, but her notes still rang true. Aurelia had the voice of a whippoorwill, throaty and loud, with seemingly endless stamina. Bane's voice was a dove's, low and haunting. When he sang of love it made her yearn, and when he sang of loss it made her cry. Harvest placed a hand on the cool, smooth bark of the tree where she had sat to watch him, an invisible silhouette against the moon, and she felt both those things. The wolf huffed to get her attention and she followed him down the hill, into the Wood.

The pair of them made good time, for all that she was so heavily pregnant and he was so terribly impatient. The wolf would growl every time she had to stop to rest, but she knew him for the old man he was and could tell it was all bluster. He growled as well when she paused to look for herbs: greens to keep her strong and flowers to keep her nourished and roots to keep the baby from kicking his way out of the womb before she was ready. Before her beloved sweetheart fulfilled his promise.

They walked in fits and starts until dusk of the next day, or when the trees grew so thick it was hard to tell when day ended and night began. Harvest found a mossy patch on the north side of a large tree that seemed the least rocky and bug-infested. She sat with her back to the tree and crossed her arms over her belly. She wished she had thought to bring a blanket, or a slice of bread, or a chunk of cheese, or her sanity. She wished she had something of Bane's with her, something that might draw him like a lodestone. Something that might speak to him if he could no longer understand her words. The baby flipped over inside her, settling down for the night and reminding her that she did have something of Bane's. The most important thing of all.

She shivered again and the wolf approached her, slinking out of the shadows with his head and tail down to show that he was not a threat. Not knowing the proper way of things, Harvest risked stroking the wolf's muzzle with a gentle hand. The shock of white stared up at her like a third eye seeking deep into her soul. His charcoal fur was thick and rough and smelled of pine and grass and dirt and musk and blood and strength and ferocity. You have some of that strength in you, baby. One day you will grow up to be this strong. She sighed. And one day, I hope your beloved is not chasing you into the Wild Wood.

The wolf knelt down and laid that giant, dark head full of teeth in her lap. Harvest stroked his fur absentmindedly and let his warmth seep down through her legs and up through her belly into her neck and shoulders and arms. Still worried, yet safe from harm, Harvest let herself sleep.

It took Harvest and the wolf less than five days to reach Bane's rock, as they were tracking prey and not lost or wandering or falling asleep and waking up somewhere else every other evening. And all the strength and all the stamina Harvest had been absorbing from the moon and the wolf and the Wood suddenly left her. She stretched her arms up until she felt her shoulders pop, pulled her husband's fiddle down from the rock, and collapsed. The tears she shed over the mahogany fell in the same places as the tears he had shed over her, before he had transformed into a beast that did not keep promises because he no longer knew what promises were.

Grief and fear and sadness overtook Harvest, seizing her body in violent spasms, and the babe--rightfully so--decided he wanted no part of it. Harvest screamed into the empty daylight. The wolf snapped at the air in frustration. The ground beneath her, already damp with her tears, now muddied with the babe's rushing preamble. "Come back to me," she whispered to no one. "Sweetheart, come back to me."

The old wolf was gone even before she finished speaking, leaving Harvest alone with only the wind and the air and what courage she was able to summon between bouts of racking pain. Her baby was tearing her body apart, her husband had shattered her heart, and she had clearly lost her mind. She wondered how much of her soul had to be torn away before even the gods didn't recognize her anymore. She wondered about the color of the sky, and exactly how much grass she could pull up with one handful. She thought about her own mother, and Bane's. She thought about the tune they played to sing down the sun, the tune that called the wolves. The fiddle reminded her of the melody, but she couldn't remember the words through the pain, so she made up her own.

I'm missing my sweetheart

My sweet heart does miss

The sound of his voice and

The feel of his kiss

The wind it blows colder

The day's light grows dim

But damned if I'm having

This babe without him!

Harvest laughed loud, giddy, hysterical, frantic, and on the next wave that lifted her back off the ground, she saw the wolf pack surrounding her. There was too much love and too much hate and too much of every other emotion warring inside Harvest for her to pick one. As there was only a half moon peeking through the twilight clouds, the female who spoke to her changed only her face so that her words might be understood. She sat neatly, with her long tail wrapped around her paws like a canine sphinx with a mouthful of knives.

For a moment, the pain was so sharp Harvest could not feel her legs. She broke a sweat maintaining a level voice. "Let him go."

"Our cousin runs with us by choice," said the face.

Harvest bit the inside of her lip until she tasted blood. She refused to lose her courage in the face of her adversary. As the pain tore through her in deeper, more frequent bursts, she repeated the only words left to her.

"Come back to me," she asked the sky, for she knew not which wolf in the pack was her husband and that pain dwarfed the babe's like a tear in a rainstorm. The charcoal wolf--her wolf--nudged one beast forward and she saw that its eyes were blue-green, not yet the bile amber-yellow of the rest of the pack.

"Come back to me," she said to him. Her husband recognized her with those still-human eyes--eyes that had traveled just as hard a road as she--but she could tell he did not understand her words.

"Come back to me," she whispered once more. It didn't matter that he had left her. It didn't matter that he now wore a skin of fur and walked on four legs. It didn't matter that she had been forced to walk leagues to track him down. He was here and the babe wasn't born yet; there was still time to keep his promise.

"If he returns to you," said the sphinx, "he will forsake every part of his wolf blood." The bitch had the nerve to preen after her statement. Had she been within arm's reach, Harvest was sure she could have snapped her neck.

Harvest lay back on the rough ground. Invisible thorns pushed their way into the ends of every nerve in her body. She took deep breaths and saw pinpricks of light. Beyond them, a few bright stars sprinkled across the heavens like the rocks under her spine, stars she had wished on since she was old enough to know what wishing was for. "Go then," she said to those stars. "For he has now forsaken me."

A wolf approached her, but it was the charcoal gray. The elder brushed her neck with his muzzle, then leapt over her seizing body to follow the tails of the pack that had already left him behind.

Harvest broke her nails in the dirt and concentrated on the wind and the air and the babe tearing its way out of her. Courage, little one, she told it. It's just you and me, now. Wind and air and pain. Breathe. Wind and air and pain. Breathe. Wind and air... and a hand on her forehead. She opened her eyes to see Bane standing over her, scrawny and shaggy and smelly. His blessedly furless skin was riddled with angry scratches and bruises as deep and purple as the skin beneath each of his blue-green eyes, and it was the most beautiful sight Harvest had ever seen.

The remnants of his wolf magic fled from his palm into her body, Harvest could taste and feel and smell and live it as it waned, healing her heart and filling her womb before it died completely. As her burdens lifted, the babe escaped her body in a rush of fluids. Bane wrapped his son in the blanket he had left behind and the three of them lay quietly together under the stars.

In addition to a certain amount of strength, stamina, and the ability to see in the dark, Bane lost his voice. He still spoke a little, but his words growled out from low in the back of his throat. There would be no more singing for him. He could still play, though, and when the rest of his memories came back to him, he accompanied his mother to the top of the hill in the evenings to sing down the sun. Harvest made the journey as well, carrying baby Hunter until he was old enough to walk. She sang as well, and though her voice never carried the force of Aurelia's, it grew from that of a chickadee into a lark.

It was spring before any of the wolves dared show their faces. When one did, it was that of the charcoal gray elder. He came to them at the full moon, and it seemed that his coat was sprinkled with far more white than Harvest had noticed previously. She was glad he had returned, so she could properly thank him for fetching her and protecting her. Bane was less happy about the wolf's presence.

"Why are you here?" he snapped. For all that he was pure human now, he acted more like a wolf than before.

"I have come to ask your forgiveness," said the elder. "Our female trapped you, and in doing so, she put you in danger." He looked down at the babe Harvest cradled in her arms. "She put all three of you in danger."

"I want nothing from you," Bane growled.

"The gift is already given," said the elder. "Whether or not you use it is up to you."

"What is it?" asked Harvest.

"The gift is the song," said the wolf. "We took much from you that made you valuable, and for that we must give something in return. Balance must be maintained." He motioned down to the fiddle that hung at Bane's side. "Play the song you know," said the elder, "the song with which you farewell the day. The song with which you called the wolves. If you play the song as you walk through the Wood, no harm will come to you."

"There is no song," said Bane. "I can no longer sing."

"The magic is in the melody," the wolf said to him. And then to Harvest, "The words are yours alone." He placed a palm on Bane's chest. It startled him out of his scowl, but he did not flinch away. "You may not have yellow eyes, cousin, but you still have a golden heart. Perhaps one day you will find forgiveness there." He let his hand fall. "Not today. But one day." He turned to leave, but Harvest stopped him.

"What of our son?" she asked. "Will he experience the same thing when his first child is born?"

"It will not take him as strongly and it may not come at the same time," said the elder, "but he will have to make a choice one day, as all young men do." Harvest mirrored her husband's scowl and the wolf laughed. "Worry not, little mother. Your son has your strength. He will survive. We all will."

Bane and Harvest watched the wolf walk across the garden and into the trees until the shadows swallowed him. Bane lifted his fiddle to play the song once more and Harvest added the words--her own simple words in her clear, simple voice.

And just as it should, son

Our happy tale ends with

Our family three and

A wolf for a friend

If life makes you lonely

And trouble's your boon

Just sing this wolf song

By the light of the moon

Bane drew out the last note almost longer than the night itself. When Harvest turned to look at him he stared back at her, his golden heart smiling through his blue-green eyes. She cradled their babe in one arm, and the other hand she held out to him. "Sweetheart, come in to dinner."

Bane lowered his fiddle, slipped his hand into her soft, delicate palm, and followed behind them.

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