By Ember

Certainly not my best attempt.... But you'll live.

First short I've published in a while, though I do have a few more floating about that I might put up sooner or late. This isn't even much of a 'short,' anyway, at nearly twenty pages. *shrug* No matters, I had to edit this account at some point, to prove I didn't die or anything. Yaoi warning, as most of my stories seem to claim.... ^_^ Enjoy.

Strangers in the village of Fawnswood were rare and far-between, and strangers like the one that showed up on the beginning of the new week, with his cloak- was it not nearly midsummer, and much too hot for such clothing?- hanging to the dirt roads, where it had to hamper his swift gait, his boots- did he not sell his horse, children and wife for such things, the leather softened to cling perfectly to his foot and dyed a rich, almost black red- kicking up a cloud of dust to obscure his dark clothing, was himself by far the most rare and far-between of all strangers Fawnswood had ever hardly ever seen. Strangers, helped or hampered by the clothing and jewelry, stuck out like broken fingers in the tiny town, where Old Byran knew everyone; man, woman, child, horse and stray cat.

Yes, all strangers stuck out, but this man was so outrageously different that hardly anyone could focus on anything else. Fawnswood took pride in it's extraordinarily everyday activities, which included and was limited to farming, hunting and trading. It took more pride, if it was possible, in it's styles, which were all magnificently plain and anonymous; so much so that any other style in the village looked completely outlandish. This fact served to make the villagers look outlandish whenever one might stray to Fawnswood's more liberal sister, Desolte, but luckily for the villagers, this hardly ever happened. Traders rarely actually entered the cities, preferring to transact right outside of its boundaries, and farmers never left at all.

"Proper strangers," said Old Byran as he and a collection of friends met at the One-Eyed Dragon, the rusty old bar, and found that with a bit of ale and a bit of foreplay, their discussion came to the stranger, "Introduce themselves before sitting in an inn and dwelling."

"If there's such a thing as a proper stranger!" roared Lion, whose old name was long forgotten in his christening by the teasing children. Indeed, Lion's thick, curled mane and beard of red-orange hair, his light, yellow-green eyes, and his loud, hoarse voice all made him appear a human lion, as well as his hasty nature and his tendency to overlook key items. Lion had come to Fawnswood a stranger, but the cluster of friends was ready to forgive him his slight.

"I don't like him." Blind Kiyoke was a quiet man- more a boy, truly- with white cataracts obscuring both eyes. Though he was mild-mannered and very soft-spoken, the table fell silent at his words, to better hear the breathy voice. The youngest of the gathered, Kiyoke's intuition was what made him popular with the whole town, for what he lacked in sight, his mind made up for in surplus. "He smells of silver."

The joke was old, and the table, with the exception of Kiyoke and Old Byran, burst into rowdy laughter. "You smell silver everywhere, old dog!" cried Lion, his voice shaking the inn- the title Old Dog was long what Lion called Kiyoke, despite that the forty-year man was far the older over his friend, who, though his exact age was unclear, wasn't even looking at the coming summer as his twentieth. "Come now! You'd smell it in your own refuse, if you weren't so certain of yourself!"

Gentle Lina, wife of the silversmith, was the first to stop laughing. She, ever unfaithful, lay a teasing hand on Kiyoke's shoulder, moving it slightly down his back before lifting it again. "Good Kiyoke, you need find peace. The stranger does nothing more than stop here to rest."

"He's still out of place!" roared Lion again.

Alec, a stout, slightly-balding man who had recently seen his fiftieth winter through, looked up at last from his thick brew and raised his glass in salute. "Though no more than you had been, my friend!" he said, getting Lion back at last for his first comment.

"Bah!" The larger man, frowning, flung his mug to the ground, where it shattered. Old Byran moved as a shard of clay came flying for his head. "I was not so sore a thumb as that man. He's the tree among the wheat!"

"As you, my friend," Alec continued, "are the lion in the housecats."

"Amen!" Byran laughed.

"Amen indeed!" Lion bellowed. "And it'll not be two more mews from me before I snap your pathetic head off, kitten."

Lina laughed again. "Be careful, Alec, who you call a housecat."

"The stranger," Byran said, to remind his friends of their earlier discussion. As much as he loved the group, they could easily be distracted. "You know, he slept here for three nights, and now, none know where he is!"

"I could guess at it," snarled Lion, looking like the beast he had been named for more than ever. The group of friends turned in surprise to look at him, including Bell, the ancient greyhound who lived in the One- Eyed Dragon. "You all know why he's here, yeah?"

There was an uneasy silence, broken by Lina's shrill, nervous laugh. Bell's silver ears were pinned back. "He's probably seeing Delaila now, Lion, my friend. There's no worries; he's passing through, had to visit the town whore." Delaila, the twenty-year girl whose love-interest was constantly changing and whose fascination with the male body of any age or kin had earned her the title of 'town whore,' particularly with the older women and even with those of Lina's characteristics, was as pretty as she was shallow and showed the two or three strangers she had met in her short life her favorite forest spots.

"Of course!" Alec said, albeit weakly. "No worries, Lion."

"I don't worry," growled the shaggy man.

"He smells of silver," Kiyoke insisted, looking away. Old Byran wondered if he was the only one that had heard, but the uncomfortable silence testified otherwise. The hand Lina lay on his shoulder this time was purely comfort, not the teasing caresses she often showed to the two younger members of the group. Lion uncomfortably patted his hand, Alec smiled encouragingly, and Old Byran looked away, staring at the amber reflection of his wizened face in his mug. He was older than he remembered; the last time, he would have sworn his wrinkles were less prominent. His eyes had been darker, his shoulders had been broader.

The blind eyes of Kiyoke were trained on him; he could feel the boy's other senses as well. Byran wondered, vaguely, if he smelled or sounded or felt old to the younger man who couldn't see the wrinkles or lighter irises or thinning shoulders or graying hair.

"My friend." Byran could barely hear the words, so softly had Kiyoke spoken. "If you will accompany me, I should love to see this stranger once more, perhaps meet him, and learn of his intentions regarding Fawnswood. I do not wish to do this alone-"

"You have my support, Kiyoke!" Lion roared, slamming his huge fist down onto the wooden table and causing all of the mugs of ale around it to jump.

Lina's words, though spoken softly, contested for power with Lion's booming voice. "I believe, old beast, that he spoke to Byran, not to you."

The man colored slightly, then nodded. "Of course," he boomed, though with less enthusiasm; Kiyoke lay a hand on his shoulder and smiled shyly. "I would love it that you all would join me," he said, sounding sincere though Byran, hopefully alone, could hear the lie in his voice. "However, I wish not at all to alarm this stranger, who is certainly alarmed enough to be coming in with such little notice into such town where he must know by now little welcome him." The group, which just a moment ago had been prailing on their inhospitable natures, fell silent and exchanged sympathetic nods.

The blind young man lay a hand on Byran's elbow as he rose- despite hitting his knee on the chair leg, he got to his feet with grace that made the oldest member of Fawnswood wince with envy. Byran needed all the support Kiyoke could give him, staggering to his feet and snatching up the snake-headed cane that he needed to stay upright. How long ago had it been since those legs, now gnarled and weak, like an ancient oak branch, could let him run or climb or stand strong against enemies? Now they buckled at the thoughts that ran through the old man's head.

"My oldest and dearest friend." Kiyoke's words were sighs, and Byran could trace the fear and longing that the words held. "My old mentor. I am still frightened of this, this stranger who walks our roads and eats our food and...." He smiled, obviously trying to will some humor into his words. "Flirts with our whores. I need to run, to clear my head. Would you...?"

"I am not fond of how many times you used the word 'old' in that statement," Byran replied, but both attempts at humor, being the depths of each speaker's concerns, fell flat once they left the shelter of the tongue. "Will I speak to this stranger for you? Find out his intentions?"

"I like him not at all. He has no place in Fawnswood." The lie was out and plain and dangerous; a naked sword lain between them. Kiyoke knew what the others only guessed- that he had no place in Fawnswood, either.

"Of course, my friend. I should.... I should enjoy to help you, where this is concerned."
The boy smiled and looked down, as if to hide the grateful tears that slithered down his face. "Byran. Thank you."

True to his word, Kiyoke ran. Byran watched him until his form was engulfed by the sliver-mooned night, then walked, his bones protesting, his hand shaking so that the tail end of his cane rattled against the overgrown roots and sticks and rocks that littered the ground. He walked without concern for the roads, for he knew every rock and stick and blade of grass of this town, all things that hardly change with the passing of time. He never stumbled as he walked, entering the chilly shade of the forest, feeling the night wind die with the shelter of the trees.

Not too far away, a wolf howled. Byran turned towards the sound, such a familiar sound, feeling chills at its mournful tone. He kept walking. Even the forests were familiar territory, his territory, the land he knew of and knew personally, as home. He never tripped, never faltered; the roots and rocks and holes were all part of this forest, his own, and he knew where and how to step.

The wolf howled again. Again, and again. Each time Byran turned, seeing nothing in the frail, leaf-shaped holes that showed the sick, pale moonlight. Each time, he shook just a little, with the sad song and the beauty of it all. This was his home. It was beautiful.

Just as the latest crescendo faded from hearing, Byran stopped short at the sound and smell of breath. The voice that followed was meant, doubtlessly, to shock him; the old man had the luck to be able to smoothly step out afterward from the brush and greet the stranger who sat on the ground, a sword in his lap. "Hear that?" the stranger asked the moving shadows. "That's not a regular wolf."

"Sounds regular." Byran let no expression come to his weathered face. His boots cracked sticks as he walked around the bushes, face-to-face with the young man by his stunted fire. The classical oddity was what stopped him cold, not the low attempt to startle him of which the man was guilty. Leather armor- he wasn't whoremongering, then; that armor would take forever to take off and put back on- naked sword, a face carved from cold granite. He was younger than Byran had thought; the expressionless exterior only made him more certain of it. It was out of place on such young features.

"It's not. That's why I'm here."

"That's why you're here? To investigate irregular wolves?"

The stranger laughed; Byran had known he would. The wolf howled again, its final note seeming to rise in- not panic. There was nothing to be scared of.

"You aren't planning on telling me why you're here." It wasn't a question; the old man was certain of what this stranger would impart.

"Nor are you." It was a fair hit; Byran's lips were sealed on Kiyoke's fears and his own burning curiosity; on the suspicions of the group in the inn and the general mood of the town. The stranger seemed to know; he nodded, his eyes closing for a moment, before he returned his attention to the sword in his lap, meticulously caring for it. "Very well. We're a mysterious pair, then."

The granite exterior cracked, just for a moment; the last thing Byran had been expecting from this man was a sense of humor. Then the stone was back over his face; he finished with the sword and drew its sheath over it. Arrows, it seemed, were next; he pulled off some of the mangled feathers and began using a pine-sap glue to paste new, better-groomed feathers onto the shafts.

"Do you expect opposition?" Byran chuckled to himself, as if he thought the idea absurd. "I should be surprised if more than a collection of boys knew how to use a sword, much less fight with one, against someone who has some idea on how to accomplish something with it."

"You know what they're for." The words were simply spoken, with confidence. The stranger tilted his head back, listening for something. Byran heard it, too; a slight rustle, a cracked stick. His senses- at least, most of them- hadn't dimmed yet with his age; if anything, they had become sharper. Or at least, that was what he told himself; with what sense would you sense the deterioration of your own senses?

"You're hunting wolves?" He tried to force a laugh, but the cold glare on the man's face froze the sound. He persevered valiantly after faltering over his high-pitched titter. "Why come all this way? Are there not wolves where you live?"

"Not wolves." Now the stranger looked impatient; he shouldered a long wooden bow and rose to his feet, collecting his repaired arrows. "Never wolves. I don't waste my time."

Byran willed the nearing creature away, knowing he could never force it to turn. "Well.... then what do you hunt?"

The man, instead of answering, pulled the string on his bow taut, fit an arrow into it, and let fly. There was a heart wrenching scream of pure animal pain, and the creature of the brush slammed and bucked its way into the clearing, narrow muzzle opened wide in pain, saliva pouring from its throat.

It was not a wolf.

At first glance, it might appear to be, but a huge wolf, with hulking shoulders and an almost feline build. It's shaggy coat was pure black, it's muzzle a hair too thin, it's teeth more shark than wolf. But its eyes were white. Almost glowing, like tiny moons, they shone on it's coat and made the black fur appear to glow silver around its face. The arrow shaft stuck from its side, and it whimpered and drooled and bled violet blood, in pain obvious enough to sting Byran's heart. The stranger, however, proved his strange nature by laughing. He laughed and laughed- strangely, of course- at the beast's pain, at its obvious hurt that this man had wounded it and now was mocking it, laughing at it.

"Werewolves," he said, when he finally got control of himself. "I hunt werewolves!" He nocked another arrow in his bow, pointing the tip between the creature's eyes. The huge creature whimpered, an almost undetectable sound, backing away from the arrow- which, Byran realized with a sinking heart, was tipped with a silver head.

"Come on," whispered the hunter. "Come on. Fight me."

"Run!" Byran screamed in response, hearing his beaten voice crack and distort. It didn't matter, however, how sore his throat was in the morning. Those white eyes landed in his, and enveloped him. While the stranger hesitated, looked back, looked around, the werewolf disappeared again into the night.

"Dammit!" The stranger threw his bow down and drew his sword, but it was plain the wolf was gone. Byran, seeing the huge creature's glowing eyes again and again in his mind, settled onto the ground with a sigh, shaking a little from the encounter. It was impossible for him to tell whether he had yelled for the human to run- or for the monster.

After a moment of venting, the younger man came to settle beside the older, his sword safely returned to his sheath. "You don't have to yell, daft old man," he snarled, but there was little true anger in his voice. "I know what I am doing. And now, so do you."

The play on language took Byran a moment to understand. "They say those who hunt monsters die young," he said at last.

"So they do," the younger man replied, leaving Byran wondering what he was agreeing to- that the statement was true or truly said. "My name, by the way, is Tereth."


"I had guessed. You're the Elder of Fawnswood, so I had supposed it was you." He nodded, looking satisfied. "So. I'm no longer a stranger, then?"

Byran laughed at the sheer absurdity of the assumption. "You're a stranger until everyone knows you, where you are, where you're like to be, and when."

"Why in the name of.... why is it worth it?" Tereth seemed horrified by the notion, and drew back.

"Because you know everyone, where they are, where they're like to be, and when." He smiled. "Most strangers do not like Fawnswood. Which is just as well. Fawnswood does not like most strangers."

"The wolf is gone." The younger man returned to his granite composure, and rose to his feet, offering Byran a cold hand to help him up. Odd, how Kiyoke's hand could seem so helpful, while Byran found this almost an insult.

"Will you search for it?" Please say no, he prayed to himself. Please say no.

"There's no point. No human's gait can match with a werewolf's." Tereth seemed horridly disappointed- he strapped on his bow and hooked his sword sheath to his belt, wiping his hands on his breeches. Byran blinked when he realized the fingers were stained with red-violet blood. How did he get his hands bloody? The monster had been fifty feet away when it had been hit, and Tereth had never really gotten close to it. Only then did Byran look down at his own clothing- and realize he had splashes of the blood up and down his body. He felt like vomiting. The beast must have splashed them while bucking and writhing, bleeding from its wound.

"It's a bloody job," the man said, when he realized Byran had noticed the bloodstains. "Not one for the vain ladies or soft-hearted children."

"I am far from a child," the older man replied, rubbing the cracked presence of red-violet off on his breeches. It spread across the rough surface, but didn't wipe from his hands. _______________________________________________________________________

The werewolf ran, streaming the thick liquid from the wound in it's side to the glossy leaves, feeling it trap and hold it's black hairs. It scanned the horizon, looking for a place of refuge in the case that the hunter was still searching for it. Animal fury and rage and instinct warred with human reason, and for once, the odd combination of the two allowed the former to control it. Blindly, it charged, rubbing the red-violet blood off onto the trees it ran into, panting for breath, but never wasting the beauty of the forest. Even as it ran for its life, for its future, it marveled in the muted night colors of the trees. _______________________________________________________________________

Kiyoke was late in returning. Byran was not surprised, but he was worried; the table in the One-Eyed Dragon seemed empty, even missing only one of it's regulars. Quietly, Byran related what he had seen to the older members of the group, marveling in their reactions. Lion's huge fist slammed into the wooden table, making the thin legs buckle; Lina frowned, looking worried; Alec played with his thinning brown hair and seemed to turn inward, not speaking for another while.

"Another hunter, then." Lion broke the silence, his voice frighteningly neutral. "We haven't seen one of those.... since...."

He obviously tried to think back, but couldn't recover the last time. Lina, her eyes far away, nodded at last. "Kiyoke was barely six winters," she reflected, lips pursed when she wasn't speaking. "He was a big man, not nearly so secretive as this one."

"Ah, yes." Byran remembered the man; a fleshy fellow, nearsighted, with an untamed head of sand-colored hair. Strange; he looked nothing like the raven-haired man who paraded in this time, all grace and quicksilver. Almost a wolf himself. "Yorrin, I believe his name was."

"Yorrin, Lorryn, something of the type." Lina nodded, slowly.

"Ah, yes. I remember the man!" Lion nodded voraciously. "Yorrin! Of course."

"Asshole of a cat," Lina muttered, too soft for the ranting Lion to hear. "He came to this town three years after Yorrin, and he bloody damn knows it."

"Perhaps not," Byran muttered back, smiling to himself. "He might think he forgot about it."

Lina nodded, and smiled, her cheeks dimpling. Her face, however, fell when her eyes landed in the rimmed eyes of Alec, who had remained silent through the entire exchange. Somehow, those eyes brought back the reason behind the discussion. Even Lion fell silent.

"You're certain you haven't seen him?" the balding man entreated Byran at last, breaking the uncomfortable silence his own face had brought about. "Not at all, last night or this morning?"


The door of the Inn opened with fanfare, the Inn falling silent at the inpouring of light. Bell's nearly hairless tail wagged once, then fell still, the pathetic gray dog laying her head on her paws. Tereth seemed completely unaware that the entire table- the entire One-Eyed Dragon- was staring at him, watching every movement. He ordered a clay mug of ale and sat at the bar, taking the occasional sip from it but not seeming to pay much attention to anything in the building. Byran had seen the look before- not in the greedy Yorrin, but in others who took pride in what they did. He had nearly killed the werewolf; now he was in the forests again, chasing it, hunting it with silver-tipped arrows. The mood around the table was palpable; anger, resentment, and mourning.

"I haven't seen him at all," Byran whispered, at last.

"Byran." The word was casual, but the old man's skin prickled. Tereth leaned back on his stool, looking over to the Elder. His eyes looked.... dark. Dead. There were poofy violet bags under them; the hunter had probably not slept the night before. "I'm looking for a guide. Someone to help me in the forests here, someone to help me find the wolf. You people know this village and the surroundings extraordinarily well; know anyone who won't mind the job?"

Lina drew back in a cringe, apparently unable to believe that this man was asking them for help. Lion nearly snarled. Alec remained silent, thoughtful; he met Byran's eyes and shook his head.

"No, Tereth. It's a dangerous job, you know." Byran shrugged empathically. "I wouldn't wish it on anyone in this village."

"Ah, but can you hold those who want to go back?" The words were cheerfully spoken, and the four friends bit back gasps and turned to see the youngest of their group, a loose shirt belted around his waist over looser breeches, with his hand on Bell's back. He walked a little off- balance as he reached the table, but grinned at the horror he had to feel, if he couldn't see, coming from his friends.

Lion, as usual, was the first to speak. "You cannot go, Kiyoke," he said, shaking his shaggy head. "It's.... it's...."

"Very dangerous." Lina practically purred as she moved, between Tereth and Kiyoke, moving her outdated body in ways that made it, even in these later years of her life, seem attractive. "I'm more used to it, I'll help."

Tereth chuckled under his breath. "Do I even get to choose, then?"

"What's there to choose?" Lina flashed a smile that would light up the face on an eighty-year prune. "I know my ways around these woods like the back of my hand. I could show you the best spots-"

"Low hit, woman." Tereth's face flashed with sudden, frightening anger. Byran moved back unconsciously. "Do you still want to come, boy?"

"Of course." Byran studied the younger man's face, but couldn't figure out why Kiyoke was blushing. Perhaps he was merely angry, for Tereth calling him 'boy.' They were about the same age, after all; both were too young to go out there, alone, one as much in danger of the other as anything else.

"Then you will be my guide." His glare at Lina, who was as much of a protective mother of Kiyoke as his own would have been, if not more, stopped her short. Even Lion couldn't muster words to damper the man. I'll meet you here at dusk, if it pleases you."

"Of course," Kiyoke repeated, and bowed. Tereth, seeming amused, bowed back, then left. The One-Eyed Dragon seemed to release a sigh of relief, except at one table while four older villagers glared at the youngest of the group, who was still blushing and watching the door. Glaring at it, Byran decided, though he didn't look angry. Kiyoke was masterful at disguising his emotions.

"What in the name of- what were you doing, volunteering like that?" Lion's voice was almost shrill with near-hysterical worry for his friend. Lina's eyes were wide, both with Lion's surprising reaction and the refusal Tereth had coldly dished out.

"You idiot," she hissed at last. "I was trying to keep his eyes off of you, you know."

"I know, Lina." His tone was gentle, good-humored; his grin was one of a tickled fool. "But you know, your charms don't work on everyone. I've avoided them nearly all of my life."

Lina's eyes got wide with sudden understanding, but she seemed the only one who was affected by the calm speech. Lion laughed, his mood swinging sharply, into his ale, and Alec coughed audibly. Byran allowed a controlled smile, which changed back into a frown as he studied the younger man's face. Not a trace of fear, but all the recklessness of a young man- foolhardy, devoid of wisdom.

"You worry too much, Byran," Kiyoke reassured, his grin far too bright. Byran remembered the sensible-seeming young man of the night before, having hysterics about the stranger who smelled of silver, and his skin pricked as he remembered the fight of the night before. "They say the safest place a man can be is under his enemy's nose, do they not?"

"They speak not of the blind, the crippled, the young and the stupid!" snarled Lion, seeming intent on returning to the conversation. Alec nodded, but didn't speak.

"Consider where you stand before you speak of its safety," Byran pleaded. "Despite every intention, I'm sure, Lion is right. You're hurt, you're young, you don't know what you're asking for by going out alone with an enemy, hunting for something that only you know-"

"I'll be fine." At the mention of his injury, Kiyoke lay a hand on his side, where beneath the baggy shirt there was doubtlessly a bandage wrapped around his skin. Without ordering a drink, he turned and made his way for the door. "I know what I'm doing."

"No, you don't." Lina spoke up once more, rising and abandoning her own ale to flee after the boy. As she left, Lion took a long drink from her mug, then watched her; Alec and Byran exchanged worried glances, then broke off into discussion.

When they were out of earshot from the rest, Lina grabbed Kiyoke's arm and turned him to face her. Even with his lanky, growing body, she was still taller than him; his eyes met her collarbone when they were this close. He took a step back.

"Kiyoke, I don't know what you're doing," Lina hissed, trying not to pant for the exertion of running after the boy. "I don't know what you want us to think you're doing. But I, if you haven't noticed, am a woman, and we have intuitions about these things."

"What things?" Kiyoke tried to draw back further, but Lina's nails dug into his arm. The opaque white cataracts met the woman's blue-crystal eyes, one not seeing the emotion locked inside the other, and one searching for emotion in an outlet that would never be used as such.

"You stupid, stupid boy." Lina's voice bore a tone of sadness, shielded by certainty; Kiyoke felt her hand in his hair for a moment. "You're infatuated with the man; trust me, I can tell."

Kiyoke blushed and opened his mouth to protest, but Lina put her long fingers over his lips and laughed softly. "Woman's intuition, boy. No man has ever disproved it." Kiyoke reddened further. "But, Kiyoke- you have to be careful. He'll kill you if he can. Don't.... don't do anything stupid."

Kiyoke seemed to struggle for something to say, before deciding at last on good humor. "You speak this to me, Lina? You, who just finished attempting to seduce the same man?"

Lina seemed taken aback by his approach, but she grinned when she realized it for what it was. "I'd say, Kiyoke, that you'll be the death of me, but you're like to kill yourself, first." She shook her head, then embraced the boy. "Do be careful."

"Come now!" Kiyoke grinned up at her. "I'm a boy that's nearly a man, in lovely spring weather with a lovely accomplice. In my position, who has ever been less than careful?"

Whether or not the 'lovely accomplice' he spoke of was Lina or Tereth, the words were still irksome enough that the woman pulled one of her scarves from around her neck and chucked it at the fleeing boy. _______________________________________________________________________

At dusk, Kiyoke made his way to the One-Eyed dragon. The Inn was busier as it got dark; usually, he left before sunset to avoid the heavy drinkers, a habit that impressed his older friends with its wisdom. Tonight, however, he walked without fear into their midst, and they greeted him and parted as if he had been there all along.

His great-uncle, the man he had lived with since his parents died when he was very young, hadn't looked up when he said he was leaving. The man had very strict ideals of what made a boy a boy, and while this made Kiyoke fall sharply in his favor, it at least discouraged too much questioning of late-night activities. Kaor, Byran's junior by a decade, was not perfect parent material.

The bright lights and smell of spilled ale did little for Kiyoke's racing stomach- neither did the man next to him telling him that he saw Tereth at last, pushing his way past the sweating bodies of stunned or unconscious drunkards. A quick description of his gait from the mostly- sober man built an image in Kiyoke's mind's eye: the brown hair, longer than in fashion and tied expertly back into a tail that trailed down his back, seemed to have a mind of its own, deftly avoiding flying ale and human excrements with the light movements of Tereth's head.

"Are you ready?" he asked the boy, and Kiyoke had to force himself to nod. Perhaps Byran had been right. Perhaps Lina had been wrong. All words spoken to him on the topics of hunters and strangers whirled around in his head, making a right mess of his mind.

"Are you okay?" As they left the ale, Tereth turned to his guide, one eyebrow slightly raised. "You look terrified. Look, I won't let the werewolf hurt you, okay?"

"I know. I'm not scared of the werewolf." It was complete truth and Tereth didn't push it. Quickly, the walked into the woods, Kiyoke following the man he was supposed to guide.

"Where is the werewolf?" the hunter asked, after they had completely immersed themselves in trees.

"Werewolf?" Kiyoke feinted, looking innocent. Their earlier conversation killed the attempts to feign ignorance, but the boy tried anyway.

"Don't play stupid." Tereth rolled his eyes back, growing obviously impatient. He didn't seem to realize his annoyance wasn't visible to the other boy. "The village Elder saw it; by now, the whole of Fawnswood knows what happened. And don't try and tell me that Byran doesn't gossip; they all say it and always the man tells a few friends, who tell their mistresses and lovers and husbands and other friends, and the words spread. Words are like diseases."

Kiyoke grinned to himself, then shook his head. "Very well, what makes you think I know where the werewolf is? I am not a hunter, to know where each one resides."

"I feared as much." Tereth sighed, shaking his head. "Where do you believe a wounded beast would go, then?"

Kiyoke pretended to think, though in truth he had been anticipating this very query. "What makes you think that the werewolf would go where a wounded beast would go? One who is just as much human as animal, yes? Fawnswood would not be the proper haven for someone so out-of-place, but surely her sisters- Desolte or Foxglove- would help a wounded man."

"The chance that the werewolf in pain could recover control from the panicked animal is not likely. Have you ever tried to ride a spooked horse?" Kiyoke shook his head; he had never tried riding any horse. "Well, a wolf would be harder to control. Harder to overcome."

"But... Byran said the wolf didn't try to fight. Wouldn't it, hurt as it was?"

"Not always. Not if it was truly frightened." Tereth had began walking again; at the sound of his footsteps, Kiyoke hurried in his wake. "Wolves don't always have the mind set that if something touches you, it must die. Werewolves are usually a different story, but when the wolf gets control... they become unpredictable. You never know if they'll fight or flee."

"What if the human part doesn't want to fight at all?" Kiyoke held his breath, hoping... he didn't know what he was hoping for. It wasn't what he got.

"The human part hardly is human, kid." The condescending term wasn't fair; Kiyoke was probably Tereth's age; if younger, it was only by a few summers at most. "It's a monster; it doesn't want to stay and talk, it wants to kill you."

"Why?" Resentment at the closed attitude made the word slightly sharper than Kiyoke had intended; Tereth turned around in faint surprise.

"Because that's the way they are, Kiyoke."

The boy blinked. "Oh. You know my name."

"Of course. Your friends kept calling you by it. They weren't thrilled that you were coming on this little expedition, were they?"

"No. They're overprotective." It was the most he could say and still tell the truth. "They think this is too dangerous for me to come."

Tereth examined him; he could feel the man's eyes on his skin, hear the observations moving and twisting and muttering in the hunter's mind, though he could never read them. Not like this, at least.

"Maybe it is," he suggested. "You're terrified of something, even if you say it's not the wolf. And if you're not terrified of the wolf, then this IS too dangerous for you. You're mad, if you're not scared of it."

Kiyoke did not reply; as he caught up with the other boy, he tried hard to match his paces. They walked in silence for a moment, and that was how Kiyoke liked it. The woods were quiet, but he could hear the cheerful, soft sounds that animals made; bird songs and squirrels in the trees, snakes and insects on the earth. He walked beside Tereth, fighting the heat from his face, and tried to call up his appearance into his mind's eye. At times like these, it was difficult to remember seeing.

They walked for a long time. Without the movement of the sun, the point of heat on his face, Kiyoke found it difficult to realize the hour, but the moon, of which there had been no sign of when they had began, had already reached its pale light climax and begun to fade into the opposite horizon when Tereth stopped and looked around.

"You might be right," he told Kiyoke, startling the other boy. "It might have gone to Desolte, or Foxglove. Can you take me to one of them?"

"We're going in the right direction to get to Foxglove," Kiyoke said with a sigh of relief. A werewolf in human form was vulnerable, far more so than a werewolf in wolf form. "But it'll take half a day's walk to get from here to there, and...."

"We'll rest here," sighed the other man, lowering himself onto the ground and leaning against the trunk of a tree. It was much too warm for fires; how Tereth could bear wearing a cloak, black of all colors, Kiyoke didn't see. It was, however, comfortable enough just wearing the loose clothes he'd been wearing; it wasn't over hot, but the perfect temperature of summer nights.

"So tell me, Kiyoke," Tereth said after a moment of contentment. The brown-haired boy had some kind of food; Kiyoke smelled the sweet odor of fresh-broken bread, and reached out for his share. "Tell me about Fawnswood. Byran says that everyone knows everyone, and everything about them."

"That's not quite true." Kiyoke didn't elaborate until he had torn off a bite of bread with his teeth, chewed and swallowed it. "We don't know everyone's secrets. We share most of our secrets, but not all." He struggled visibly for a way to explain it. "It's like.... like...."

"You have the same skeletons in your closet." Tereth was struggling too, trying to articulate his first impressions. "Not like family, but... close."

"Close-knit. Everyone does know everyone else. Everyone knows that the preacher drinks exactly three mugs of ale in one week, and doesn't mind this sin because after all, he's burdened with our's. People who never work with or near sheep can tell Uncle Kaor's ewe from Lind's, because of the direction it wanders from. People who don't know the difference between silver and iron can pick Lina's husband's bands from any other band made in any other town. I haven't been able to see for years, and I can walk down the street with wax in my ears and wave to each person, calling them by name and addressing them appropriately, and not once miss a mark."

Tereth shuddered. "I should hate to become that predictable," he muttered, more to himself than to Kiyoke. "No wonder you all hate strangers. You have no secrets."

"I can keep my own secrets, if I want," Kiyoke said, blushing a deeper and deeper scarlet. He could feel Tereth's confused gaze, and half- rose to his feet. In two steps he was next to the hunter, looking desperately down into his eyes. Lina had spoken about being able to see someone's soul through their eyes. He wished he could do that now, but he didn't even know what color they were. "I'm very bad at it, though," he whispered, wondering if it was too quiet for any but his ears to hear. He fell to his knees beside Tereth and, going by the sound and feel of his breath, kissed him full on the lips.

The moment was brief; Kiyoke felt as if his body was on fire. He must have gone mad; he was sitting with someone who would just as soon kill him as let him leave, unaware if he would kill him just for this slight, this show; this one thing he would never have done for anyone else, ever. And he was praying to the gods in heaven, or even the demons in hell if they would listen, praying for a reaction that could kill him if it happened.

He shook, shook like mad as he pulled away, fearing that his face had turned colors like an autumn leaf to a red so deep it made him into a demon. But the silence that followed wasn't heavy, wasn't dark, wasn't disgusted. And after it was the feel of breath near his face, near his neck, and a bit of a laugh as Tereth came back to himself.

"Well. What a surprise," he laughed, and one hand met the cloth of Kiyoke's shirt, moving along his chest. "You're rather clever, to guess at... that aspect of my life so very quickly." His hands moved down to the black-haired boy's waist, sliding under his shirt.

"What a surprise, to learn I was right. I don't-" He gasped as Tereth's hands met with the bandages around his wound. iMad. Mad, mad, mad, mad beast, Kiyoke. What are you doing?/i

"You're hurt." Tereth drew his hand back, then, blinking, removed the shirt that had kept the bandages from view. Once more Kiyoke felt his touch along the bandages, but this time it was light enough that it didn't hurt- it hardly felt. More like the wind than mortal hands. Very carefully, Tereth ran his fingers over where the wound was, then slid them across to Kiyoke's back. Tongues of flame followed his hands, moving across and into Kiyoke's skin- not burning, but stopping just shy of being painfully hot. Once more, the two kissed, and this time, neither pulled away. _______________________________________________________________________

Kaor had been named for the son of the God of Hunting, a rugged deity who shape-changed into a boar to get closer to a human woman he had fallen in love with. And while little of the romantic god dwelt in Kiyoke's mad great-uncle, when he got just mad enough, his face seemed to change into that of a boar, wrinkled and mad, piggish eyes glowering out from heavy brows, mouth opened wide in anger. He gaped like a carp when he got to full fury, which Old Byran had borne witness to many times before.

This was one of those times, the Elder decided, looking up to the bottom of Kaor's tonsils. The village curmudgeon glowered with pure fury while trying despairingly to articulate his massive anger. His heavy chin wobbled up and down like a floating seed in a current, but he produced no sounds suitable to an angry old man.

Lina, standing beside Kaor with a sympathizing look to her face, looked as if she had chosen the role of 'good knight' in this exercise, which pinned 'bad knight' onto him. "Kiyoke should have told you where he went," she purred. "Going off like that.... into the woods.... with a man you don't even know...." The slut knew exactly how Kaor felt about that aspect of the journey, and she was intending to rub it in as much as possible. Kaor winced with each word, but still looked to Lina for support. iHow does she do that? If I mentioned that... he would have skewered me with a different pole for each word I let out. /i

"You never know, though," Lina said, smoothly. "The stranger may reject him; just because he didn't want myself as a guide doesn't mean he wanted Kiyoke as a lover." Kaor once more winced at the callous words.

"That's true, we don't know." The weathered man grimaced, and his boar's face wrinkled in disgust. "That's the problem with strangers! If my nephew had gone off with, for instance, Oiro, I could sleep at night; I know Oiro and he'd never try.... that with.... him. But if it had been, oh... Tyhan...."

"Yes, of course-"

"That's not the point, Kaor." The frivolous talk had earned them nothing; Lina and Kaor discussing the preferences of the village's inhabitants wasn't keeping the sun from rising or bringing Kiyoke back, and if he wasn't there by sunrise, Lion would go mad. "The point is, what we DO know of Tereth. He's a hunter..."

"He's a what?!" Kaor's face lost it's fury to be replaced by fear, then fury again. "He's a hunter? And you let Kiyoke follow him out alone like that, without someone to watch over him? And he hasn't come back and its been hours and why were they going out there, Byran?" The man's hasty and frantic worry surprised Byran. He knew that Kaor was a proud man and that he took his job as 'the closest thing the pathetic child has to a parent anymore' seriously, but his concern was desperate enough to only have one source- true worry, true love for the boy. Lina placed a hand on Kaor's shoulder and muttered comforting statements while Byran tried to piece together the answers to all of Kiyoke's great-uncle's queries.

"He's a hunter. He almost killed Kiyoke, but when he asked for a guide to find a werewolf that escaped from him, the hard-headed boy was the first to volunteer."

"It's because he was infatuated." Lina interrupted, no longer teasing Kaor but in complete seriousness. "I told him to be careful. As if he would listen."

"So my nephew is out there guiding a hunter to a werewolf?" Kaor was obviously in disbelief. "And they've been out there for hours- since dusk- and he could be dead by now?"

"Lion and Alec are going to ride out to find them at dawn," Byran reassured him, trying his best to keep the man calm. "Relax. He'll be fine." _______________________________________________________________________

Tereth could not have slept for more than an hour, not to wake up as exhausted as he was when he opened his eyes, the moonlight filtered through the trees peeking down at him. He had fallen asleep at midnight. It was still hours till dawn.

i"You are beautiful," he had told Kiyoke, one hand tangled in the long, raven hair the other boy had let spill over the two of them. "Beautiful."

"So are you," Kiyoke had replied, barely breathing, obviously drowsy.

"And how do you know?" Tereth had kissed the boy's forehead, hearing Kiyoke chuckle into his chest.

"I can smell it on you, of course." They had both laughed and kissed and whispered more nonsense to each other until the sweet scent of them had faded from the night air. And that was when Kiyoke had looked up at him, and he realized that the other boy was painfully, terribly sad. Tereth had tried to get him to tell what was the matter, but he didn't. He never cried, never showed emotion through those white eyes, but the whole mood of him was tearing in half. Tereth had held him, whispered to him, told him everything was all right. Somewhere in there, he told him he loved him. And realized it was true.

"I love you," he whispered, again and again.

"You don't," replied the other, moving in wracking, dry sobs against Tereth. "You can't. You never will."

"I do. I love you."/i

And now he woke up on pine-scented needles and, as he dressed again in hastily-removed clothing, he noticed he was alone. "Kiyoke?" he breathed, straining his ears, hoping to hear the other boy, crying and shaking and waiting for him. Nothing.

i"Why did you come here, Tereth?"

He had laughed and held the other boy closer to him. Kiyoke had buried into his chest, pushing his sorrow-hot face into the other boy's skin. "To kill the wolfling," he replied, running his hand through that magnificent black hair. "Why are you shaking, Kiyoke? I won't let it hurt you."

"Why do you have to kill the werewolf?" The words were panic-torn, wrenched from his heart. Tereth could feel it. "It never hurt you. It never hurt anyone."



"Because it's a monster. It was born a monster, it will die a monster. It would kill me and every one else if it could."

"Why hasn't it?"

"Probably been biding its time. Waiting for the right moment. I'm protecting you, Kiyoke, you and Fawnswood. And Desolte, and Foxglove. And everywhere." Surely the boy could see that?

"By killing someone. Is there ever a time when saving someone doesn't involve killing someone? Why are there no such ballads?"/i

Poor boy. Where was he? Tereth, fully dressed, rose to his feet; Kiyoke's breeches were gone but his shirt still lay in a heap on the ground. The hunter moved into the forest, following a faint trail through the undergrowth.

And he found himself face-to-face with the wolf.

Enormous, black, with glowing white eyes, the very creature he hunted stood fifty feet away, its calm face watching him, judging him. Kiyoke had been right, the werewolf had gotten tending to its wound; a bandage slightly broke where it's human chest had expanded to before the proportionally smaller but literally larger wolf's chest, but there was no blood. No apparent pain. Just the calm, contemplative stare.

i"I love you."

"You don't."/i

Tereth stared at the seeming intelligence, and for a moment, Kiyoke's words of saving lives without ending them made sense. Then the beast moved, its muscles rippled, and fear tore through Tereth's breast; he snatched an arrow from his quiver and, stringing his bow with one hand, aimed it at the monster's heart.

The wolf made no sound, simply ghosted away. The silver-tipped arrow embedded itself in a tree, and Tereth abandoned it, giving chase to the wolf, running as fast as he ever had despite his exhaustion. The forest became a green blur between predator and prey. Why did the monster, so obviously not given to animal instincts, run so hard from him? Why didn't it turn and attack?

Twice Tereth saw the great werewolf hesitate, terrified, looking from one direction to the next to find the right way to run. Twice he fired at it, but twice he missed, wasting the silver-headed arrows. It was running towards the canyons, where sometimes the villagers of Fawnswood and Foxglove lost stupid sheep. It was where Tereth intended to lose a stupid werewolf, who ran to the very place it could be trapped. And so, the panting beast was backed against a sandstone wall by a near-collapsing hunter, whose shaking hands wouldn't, he assured himself and the monster, effect the accuracy of the arrow. There was nothing but forest to the left and right, but the creature couldn't run faster to safety than the human could shoot it. The wolf nestled itself into the stone. Tereth watched it, wondering, worried. Why wouldn't it attack? Even as a cornered animal, surely it would attack, now; so close to death with nothing to lose. The light from the rising sun illuminated it to the east, where it basked in the light; the sun or the moon held no sway over the werewolf's form, however. It could still attack in full wolf shape, but it didn't; simply watched silently as the silver head was pointed for its eye.

Then it took a step forward and did change shape, it's massive body folding down to the human shape it had worn at birth.

It was Kiyoke who faced him, eyes wide in shock and fear and hurt, bleeding from the reopened wound on his shoulder and panting furiously. "Tereth. I'm... so.... so sorry...."

"Werewolf." It was all but a curse, as everything Kiyoke had said had been all but a lie. False rantings about love and life. Worth nothing anymore.

Kiyoke made a choking sound and fell to his knees, heaving his heavy dry sobs. "I'm sorry, Tereth. But...." His sobs slowed, then faded out. His next words were only hurt, none of the begging that had tainted his earlier whispers. "But I was right. You don't love me. You can't."

"You're a monster!" Tereth almost lost his arrow, but gripped the string and the feathers with all he was. "A monster-"

"I'm a monster?" Kiyoke looked up, and Tereth's heart stopped. Crystal tears poured from sightless eyes. They had said werewolves didn't cry. The white eyes couldn't make tears. "I never wanted to hurt you. I wanted.... to be with you, Tereth." The pleading tone returned to his voice, and he held his hands out. His arms were striped with the red-tinted dirt from the sandstone. "When I am a wolf, I can see. I can run, I have power, but most of all, I can see. I saw you before, and you were beautiful; I wanted to see you again before I... never could. Because I wouldn't risk what you called love to be a werewolf, and I wanted to be human, only human, and with you."

"Don't lie to me!" Anger, fear, an unexplained humiliation and a revolted sympathy surged in his chest, while regret tinged his stomach sour. Tereth's knuckles turned white as he clenched the bow, glaring, seething, eyes locked on Kiyoke's.

Tears continued to fall, now silently, from the other boy's white eyes. White eyes that could not shed tears, white eyes that could not, and could never have, showed emotion. "Don't lie to me," the hunter repeated, again and again, but didn't fire. He couldn't, not while the dust beneath his quarry darkened with the presence of very un-monsterlike sorrow.

He didn't recall relaxing the bow, but it must have happened. Werewolves had lied to him before, but they had never cried for him before. They had ranted, railed, spoken of love and life and things they couldn't understand. But he believed Kiyoke. He knew, knew with absolute certainty, that the other boy would not lie to him. That no matter what Tereth wanted to believe, monsters of no kind could shed tears of true sorrow, or give up everything for love that they couldn't feel.

Kiyoke spoke again at last, his voice slightly choked. "You told me you loved me. You lied, but I wanted to believe you. So I decided to give it all up, Tereth. Everything for the moment."

The bow and the arrow fell into the dust. The silver cost Tereth quite a bit of money, but he cared not in the least; he fell to his knees before Kiyoke and lifted his chin in his hand. The werewolf caught his breath, looking up; white, sightless eyes met Tereth's own. They were the eyes of a wolf, the eyes of a monster. They were beautiful.

For a moment, both of the boys held their breath, watching the other. Then Tereth threw his arms around the smaller boy, and held him silently while tears poured down his cheeks and from their other boy's eyes and into his shirt. "I won't ask that of you, Kiyoke. Never."

"Just promise me." The words were whispered, harshly but pleadingly. "Promise me you won't leave me. Don't ever leave me alone, don't hate me."

And then they were laughing and crying all at once, until at last Tereth couldn't keep his eyes open any more, and fell asleep half holding Kiyoke, and half in his arms. _______________________________________________________________________

The merchants had few very good horses, but the three they had supplied to Lion, Alec, and a fully frantic Lina were some of the best they had to offer. Three strong, bay geldings, they took to the forest at a full gallop, despite their riders' mediocre talents. And Lina, who had never seen a horse up close, even the ancient ponies that children played on, swiftly pulled in front of the other two, her gelding feeding from and catching to her own anxiety, pulling ahead of the rest.

They stabbed into the forest's heart with breathtaking speed, the trees and earth and sky a nauseating blend of bleeding colors, churning around them- over their heads, under their feet. Lina clung more to her gelding's neck than the thin straps of leather she was told to hold to or the saddlehorn that was so awkward to grasp. She could feel the beast's heartbeat, feel the thunder of it's hooves. As beautiful as the rhythm of life around her.

The bay's hooves stepped on a single splash of warm color- a orange- red, the color of Kiyoke's shirt. Making a mad snatch of the gelding's reins, she slowed his swift run, but only for an instant, to assure herself that there was no dead body there. Then she yelled to Lion and Alec that they were going the right way, and let the horse run again, this time only wrapping one hand around its throat and keeping one on its reins to guide it.

The beast didn't want to follow the trail, that doubtlessly reeked of werewolf. She didn't blame it, but on this occasion, didn't let it win, either. She forced it to the bent branches, through the weaving labyrinth, across the increasingly sandy landscapes until she began to recognize the ledges where Kaor had last summer lost three pregnant ewes. In the mazes of jutting and cutting-off sandstone, it would be easy for an experienced hunter to kill off an inexperienced werewolf- and just as easy for a woman and a horse to lose her way and the two men that followed her. But she gave little thought to that; if Kiyoke was down there, possibly still running from Tereth, as he doubtlessly had come here doing, she could not be a coward and linger out of the fray. He was her friend, and could need her help.

And so she ran on, pushing the gelding until the sweat from beneath its fur made its neck difficult to hold on to and it's flanks heaved and she could no longer hear clearly the hoofbeats of the other two horses. Still, she pushed forward the horse, letting it slow, but keeping it moving. Until at last she found them, and thought her heart would stop. There they lay, both spread out, unmoving.

She had to bring the gelding a little closer, but very slowly, for not only was it terrified of the werewolf but she was horrified at the thought of seeing her friend and another human lying dead on the ground. She brought herself closer, and saw, at last, that she had been wrong. They were not spread out- Kiyoke, in full wolf-form, and Tereth, in full armor, were curled around each other, the hunter's hands clutching at the werewolf's fur. And they were moving, breathing in rhythm to each other, Kiyoke's head placed protectively over Tereth's shoulder.

Lina smiled.

She heard Lion and Alec approaching, and smiled at them to keep them from worrying. Just in time, as well, for Lion had tensed himself up to dessicate the sleeping body of Tereth. The two men drew closer, at first confused, then, as Lina pointed out the signs so obvious to a woman's eyes, comprehending.

"Kaor will lose his beard if we don't get them home," Alec pointed out.

"Call that a beard?" muttered Lion. "But he's right. We should wake them up."

Lina nodded, then, without either of the suddenly-uncomfortable men following her, she knelt beside the entangled mess of werewolf and hunter. Her hand lay across Kiyoke's muzzle; he pulled his head back and blinked empty white eyes at her- then appeared to smile as he looked down at Tereth. As if doubting her comprehension, he let out a very soft whine, but she lay a hand on his furry head to quiet him.

"I shouldn't have doubted you," she said, with a little laugh. "Now, we have to go back. Tereth? Tereth, wake up, Lord."

The man's eyelids flickered, revealing the ice-blue eyes for a moment. Then they opened, and, still half-asleep, sought out the werewolf who pinned him down with a paw. For a moment, Tereth's muscles spasmed; his hands clenched tighter on Kiyoke's fur in surprise. Then he seemed to become aware again, and relaxed; he laughed softly into the werewolf's fur and drew himself apart, making the first distinct ending to himself and the first distinct beginning to Kiyoke Lina had seen since arriving.

No longer tangled in with his lover, Kiyoke's form receded; she watched in apt fascination as he lost his rich dark fur- except, of course, that which resided on his head, which grew as the rest shrank in as if to make up for it- lost the strong, powerful form of the wolf, and regained his human body. Tereth's smile slightly grew as he saw once more his human lover emerge from the wolf, but remained where he stood while Kiyoke engaged Lina in an earnest discussion of Kaor's comic and touching behavior.

"Ride the horses back and tell them," the werewolf suggested to his three rescuers. "Tell them I'm coming, I'll be there in a moment. The poor beasts are exhausted, they can't carry double, and I know these woods, you all would be lost without them leading the way. I'll be there in two hour's breadth."

"It took all night for you two to get this far," Lion protested. "How- "

"We'll get home," Kiyoke replied, cutting off his elder. Lion's mouth snapped shut and twisted into a frown, while Lina chuckled at the boy's daring. The orange-haired man looked at her, his face changing again, going from puzzled, to unreadable, and then he laughed. Lina and Lion laughed endlessly at some foreign joke on Kiyoke that neither he, Tereth, or Alec understood.

Which was a shame, it seemed to be very funny.

As the three riders let their horses walk towards home, Kiyoke and Tereth walked back to their camp, where their few supplies- including Kiyoke's by now trampled and dew-soaked shirt- still rested, waiting for them. Their talk was mostly light, as insubstantial as the air, speaking of the sweet nothing that two grown very close in a very short time can speak of. They spoke of past adventures, of running as a wolf and following in the tracks of vampires with nothing but wooden playthings and a silver cross to protect one's life and soul. They spoke of childhood days gone by so swiftly, so little time ago- Tereth spoke of his mother, a gentle, sweet woman left by his father, while Kiyoke spoke of his great-uncle, the hard, tough, but generally lenient Kaor, of his stories and standards and occasional drinking. Neither cared so much as they pretended, either of what the other said or by their own words. The sound to ring in the silence was enough, their company was enough.

At last, they spoke of Fawnswood. They spoke of returning, of never leaving. They spoke of leaving together, never looking back. They spoke, briefly, of parting ways where the road met the village, but not for long. After a few minutes, they got to where they had slept the night before, far too soon for Tereth's liking, and paused while Kiyoke ravaged the old campsite for things they may need. The shirt was next to destroyed, but the werewolf picked it up anyway; nothing else of any import was there. The two left it, the ashes of their fire scattered almost ceremoniously away from the ring of stones.

It took hours to reach the city, and when they did, a veritable crowd had gathered for them, faces shadowed starkly by the setting sun. Kiyoke, his wolf form towering shoulder-to-shoulder with Tereth, bounded forward into the crowd, where surprised friends of his laughed and patted their friend and looked surprised or half-understanding askance at the wolf hunter who had followed close behind. The compact old Kaor, limping on his good leg, glowered for a minute at Tereth, then turned to Kiyoke to hide a sudden almost-grin. And the ancient Byran simply watched it all, detached, joined after a minute by Alec, then Lion, then at last Lina, backing away laughing from a wriggling wolf.

The future lay, a repetition of the many roads of the past, in Byran's eyes; even the usually thick-skulled Lion could see it, waiting, biding its time. It lurked just out of reach, out of touch.

Tereth would lie awake, pressed against Kiyoke in the werewolf's bed, feeling the sunlight waft through the window and blinking as it rested on him. He would hear the old boar outside of the room, and, not wanting to disturb his lover or risk another confrontation against Kaor without the backup of the supporters he had gathered- namely, Kiyoke and his four friends- he would close his eyes and relax, feigning sleep, and hear muffled laughter as the other boy realized that Tereth was following his exact same ploy. A hunt would end, nearing sunset of the first full moon Tereth would spend in Fawnswood, with a massive amount of game being brought in, mostly dragged by the immense black wolf form of the hunter's lover. He would teach misty-eyed children how to use swords and knives, how to fight and why one might need to know. He would teach women how to make weapons and how to care for them, and let girls learn to fight with the boys; Fawnswood was not a big town, and needed all the protection it could get, should any protection be necessary. And there would come the day, a year from his hunt, where Tereth would walk down the roads and he able to greet the townspeople at their daily, weekly, or monthly tasks, blindfolded, without making a mistake.

And then there would come the day where the two would find themselves looking beyond the gates, and Kaor and Byran and Alec and maybe the younger two would know, beyond a shadow of doubt, that their werewolf was gone forever.

"How long do you think we have him?" It was Lina, the one who had always thought of Kiyoke as a sort of younger brother, mixed with a lovely boy she flirted with and a friend she confided in, who asked the painful question. And it was Lion, the loud, the crass, the indelicate, who answered her in three words that, had he the opportunity, Byran would never have changed. "He's here now."

The older man didn't notice the way that Lina and Lion's hands graced each other; Alec might have, but he chose to look away, to not react. And a werewolf and a human raced to a house one called home and the other would someday, with an older man limping behind them and three friends watching behind them. _______________________________________________________________________

The year Kiyoke and Tereth left was a year of three funerals, a painful year for Fawnswood and the people in it. The first death of all of them was Rose, the owner of the One-Eyed Dragon and mother of Delaila, who for the first time in her life covered her entire body with clothing- a draping black robe which it was said she didn't take off, even as she slept, so great was her mourning for her mother. As well it should be, as Rose had been driven to the edge by her daughter, but still managed to defend her with tooth and claw when the opportunity arrived. There was, of course, not a single villager who with held sympathy gifts from the child, now a young adult fully in bloom, whose father had died well before and who was now left alone with only a young brother to care for. Because of the sudden responsibility on Delaila's shoulders and her sincere sorrow for her mother's passing, none of the gifts were given simply because the girl would know anyone who didn't give one; thereby making it obvious to the whole town.

Tereth had only been at Fawnswood for a single winter, but he knew Rose as everyone else did; not a complex woman, she had still been about as generous and sympathizing as a woman could be, without being taken advantage of. The flowers he dropped on the casket before the earth swallowed it descended with as much sorrow as anyone else's. Rose had died at the end of winter of age and illness, and passed the Inn to her daughter, ending the long days of near-silence the five friends had enjoyed before the One-Eyed Dragon became the property of the curious and prodding Delaila.

The second death was not quite so heartrending as the first; the silversmith, Lina's husband, had been as much of an outsider as it was possible in Fawnswood, and while everyone still knew more about him than Tereth could imagine, few people actually knew him. Lina's sorrow was genuine, as one mourning a friend, but anyone could tell, should there have been anyone who didn't already know, that she hadn't loved the blacksmith, and that for all her boasts when she was younger and he was more beautiful, she had never truly been captivated beyond his face and muscles. She wasn't ashamed of it, though no one spoke of it during the season-long period in which she was required to keep her hair shorn close, wear only black, and keep social intercourse to a minimum. He died in spring, burned badly and keeping to himself for long enough for it to get out of control. Thus for the season Lina had left their band, keeping to herself and her house and nursing her memories.

It was the last death, however, that drew the horizon to Kiyoke's eyes, for it was the last death that broke his heart. It was the end of Old Byran, his age finally catching up to him and finishing what it had started the first time his knee had predicted foul weather. That was what broke the circle of five friends; not the end of the meeting place, or Lina's temporary absence, or Kiyoke's preoccupation. It was the old man, growing more and more quiet every day, demanding more quiet from his friends and the people around him, until at last he spoke choking goodbyes and walked home.

"You aren't leaving forever, old man," Lion had chided while Byran grasped for his hands to say goodbye. "You aren't dead yet," had laughed Kiyoke, granting his friend the embrace he so fretfully sought. The next morning, Byran was tossing in bed, his lips moving to nonsense words, and tear-choked friends embraced him as one as he slowly slid from one world into the next. While burning candles to his memory, Kiyoke, Alec and Lion shared their memories; Lina, still black-clad, remained quiet but listened, while Tereth minded the flame and said nothing. _______________________________________________________________________

Strangers in Fawnswood were rare and far-between, but not half so much as strangers from Fawnswood. The road is desolate for one so used to the closeness of a huge home, a village-sized family, and friends at one's hand; when secrets were shared and put into one closet for all, and citizens were protected by neighbors simply for being a neighbor, despite everything- it was hard to leave. But Kiyoke didn't look back; the village of Fawnswood no longer held anything for him, and he had nothing more to bring to it. Lion, Lina and Alec had known that the day was coming, so to their own pain- Kiyoke could see it- they had been gradually shutting him out, putting him on the outside, letting him grow accustomed to the idea of not seeing them every day. And now he could walk away, turn from his friends and from Kaor and from his home and follow the hunter into the world.

As for Tereth, he had accomplished the single mission of strangers- to change the world they enter, to the better or to the worse. The hunter had brought weaponswork to Fawnswood, and had taught them, mostly the children, beyond any of the knowledge that had pooled, stagment, in their libraries and apothecaries for decades. The change had come, the village had borne it, and the time had passed; strangers moved on or they became neighbors, and Tereth was born to be a stranger, to bring change where ever he went. And Fawnswood, in the tradition of a village worth its tithe, had returned the favor, changing a little bit of the stranger himself.

They would miss quite a bit of the village's future; the day Alec married Delaila, the girl two decades his junior, and took over the One- Eyed Dragon, followed by Bell the greyhound's puppies. They would miss Lion and Lina's marriage day, and the day the woman first began showing the signs of a child in her womb. They would miss Kaor's first year as the town Elder, and the day a band of bandits showed up and allowed the children, then young adults, to show off the benefits of Tereth's teachings. They would miss the birth of Kiyona, Lina and Lion's only child, a daughter with opaque, white eyes.

But there were other futures waiting, down the road. Biding their time, and watching for the perfect moment to occur. A thousand fates, a thousand different endings, none of them an ending at all, but rather another fork in the maze of roads. That is, after all, the way a story should go.