Were by Frances Silversmith [fantasy]

Were by Frances Silversmith

He wakes up shivering, lying naked on an animal hide spread on the snow-covered ground. His groping hands find another uncured pelt. He wraps himself in it, despite the thing’s stink. Huddled up, careful not to expose his bare feet to the snow, he tries to think.

Where am I? What is happening to me?

The dark forest around him answers neither question. The full moon above doesn’t yield any insights either. He trembles, cold inside and out. He needs to flee, to find a hole to hide in, but he cannot bear to touch his unprotected feet to the frozen ground.

Wolves sing in the distance. He tries to answer, but the sound his throat produces is a pitiful whine instead of the howl he intends.

A sound behind him, light steps on the snow. He spins around and faces a huge maw, teeth exposed. One of the wolves has found him. His heart jumps into his throat, his chest feels too tight to breathe. He tries to scramble backward, but his feet tangle in the hide. Besides, there is no way he can get away from the beast, close as she is.

She makes no move to attack, though. Instead, she waves her tail once, sits down and regards him, ears up. She looks friendly enough.

“Hello,” he tries to say. It comes out as a garbled ‘woof,’ but she seems to understand. He lets out a sigh, draws in a lungful of freezing air. Somehow, all this seems familiar. He has done this before. So has the wolf.

She gets to her feet, slowly moves closer to him. He feels his muscles tense, but does not try to get away. She sits down, her side against his. She is soft and warm and smells of home. He snuggles up against her, suddenly tired. They sit until he cannot keep his eyes open any longer. Shivering, he falls asleep.

***

Nightmarish memories haunt his dreams. Hunting alone, on the trail of a juicy rabbit. A group of strange, human-tainted wolves attacking him. Lying in a burrow, close to death, a wolf bringing him food. Some Other stirring inside him, making him do incomprehensible things, preparing for the full moon. What good is gnawing the meat off a deer’s hide, leaving the skin intact?

***

Muscle cramps wake him. His skin is too tight, his bones bend. He whimpers in agony. Merciful blackness claims him.

***

He wakes up to a pale sun on the horizon, his mate snuggled up against him. Not cold anymore. He gets to his feet, shakes himself. His eyes turn towards the sky, to the full moon which hasn’t yet set. Vague unease makes his ruff rise. He shakes himself again, more vigorously. The moon is no concern of his.

Time to go home. He yips at his mate and turns to run towards their burrow. She overtakes him, snaps her teeth playfully. He speeds up, racing her home. Strong muscles play under his tough fur.

He gives another happy yip.

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