A/N: It's been a while. Please, please review.
They traveled for not just two fortnights, but two months; time proved that though winter had come early, it was to end sooner than other years, for towards the end of their voyage the snow began to melt. In that time he witnessed how Larirha seemed to become accustomed to the poor food the traveling houses held and how she took the traveling much more easily than she had at first. He even thought, for very brief moments at a time, that she might be more like his brother's bride than he had initially thought.
Then he would remember that princess's eyes and that smile, and he would shake his head, feeling like a fool. No one – and that included Larirha – could even slightly compare to his love of the long-ago.
* * *
The snow had only just disappeared by the time the wolf told her that they were very close, only a traveling house or two away from his abode. Larirha tried to act like the grasses were not familiar to her, pretend that all of this was new. She was not very good at it, but the wolf did not seem to notice. It made her think that he was so absorbed in his own thoughts that he had no room in his mind to spare any attention on her. This arrangement worked perfectly for Larirha, who preferred that he act as indifferently toward her as possible.
The sun was mild, as if it had just been roused from an afternoon nap and had every intention of going back to sleep at its first chance. Larirha should have been full of peace knowing that they were far from her stepfather's home, but she felt anxious. She told herself that two months of hard travel – at least, for her it had been hard; the wolf had looked so at ease the whole duration of their journey, even bored, that she wondered what hard traveling was to him – was more than enough to take her far away from the keep in the Auroran border. Yet she could not stop kneading her lip with her teeth in worry.
She followed him to a gentle hill, and the sense of foreboding reared in her, screeching and bucking, demanding that she turn back. She did not understand why, but she bit her lip and snarled her fingers into her dress. When they reached the top of the hill, her heart sank.
"This is my home," the wolf said softly.
Larirha was both fascinated and horrified. This was one of homesteads she and her people had stolen from, had taken the crops from. It was the very house she had stolen from. Back then, they had all thought that it was inhabited by humans, for there was grain, and none would have expected wolves to eat bread. After all, the lupes of the Auroras never stole anything but sheep or goats.
She spent a minute or two just looking at the small cottage after the wolf entered the house. It was made of wooden logs and the windows were grimy, with the glass being so poorly blown that she could barely see through it. The roof was not too steep, and its wood was covered with thatch. The chimney was made of rough stones and bricks, from some cement she could not identify, although she guessed it was clay. The house looked small and didn't seem very accommodating. But she could stand that – she scolded herself for even vaguely expecting his home to be grand. She had not expected for this homestead to have belonged to a wolf at all, and to complain would be utterly sinful. Moreover, she had stolen from them – she had no right to say bad things about it. She would endure with gladness, for it was the very least she owed the wolf. She had taken from him, and she was at his mercy; she would not make his position any more difficult to stand than it already was.
She took a step forward to walk inside when the wolf strode out from the door with a stiff gait. The smile she had been about to give him faltered at how stiff he appeared, how his eyes were sharp and his movements far from fluid.
"Princess, there is nothing to eat, so we will have to scavenge something. I will go to the closest neighbors we have and ask for a ration. I request that you go in the fields and see if you can manage to find anything edible – or, if you find that too difficult, amuse yourself. Do not go into the house. Do not wander too far. Do what you will until I come to retrieve you. Do you understand?"
She nodded, confused by his request. Why should she not go into his home? Was she not welcome? Had he not invited her?
She did not question him. That would be rude, especially when he seemed so distracted, so… shaken. She had no idea what to look for in the tall, yellowed grasses that they would be able to eat. Yet she did not dare ask, for his stance and gait were so aggressive and disturbed. She simply watched him stalk off into the distance, disappear into the grass. She shrugged and headed towards the posts that marked the road. It did not take too long to reach her destination.
There was little to do in a field. There were no flowers to gather, for the winter had only just passed – she still had to cling to the wolfskin to keep warm. There were no animals, and if there were they would be hiding in the grass. She idly picked at the worn wood of the road-pole. She thought of what she used to do back in her stepfather's hold to keep herself occupied: she would mend clothes, feed the animals, or talk to some of the servants who had come from the east like she had. There were no needles outside, and the wolf had forbade her to enter the house; she doubted wolves kept domestic animals, for with the natural way of things those poor animals would probably die from fear if a wolf ever went near it. There were no humans, let alone servants – there wasn't anyone she could talk to but the wolf and he was gone. She sighed and sat on the roadside, her thick cloak tucked underneath her so she would not have to sit on the hard, cold ground.
The sky was cloudy but open. She could not tell where the sun was, and everything looked rather bleak. There were still traces of snow here and there where the sun had not been able to reach. She sighed again and wished the wolf would come back. Though she was still afraid of him, she disliked being alone even more than her fear of the wolf. She could always tell herself that she was not scared, but no matter how much she could tell herself she was not alone, she would still be alone.
When the wolf returned, twilight had already taken over the world. She had fallen asleep out of sheer boredom, still sitting by the path-marker. A rough shake to the shoulder was what woke her.
"Princess, wake up," he growled. "If you sleep out here you will get sick from the cold. I have food, if you are hungry, and some wine, albeit rather poor."
"I'm hungry," she mumbled, staggering drowsily to her feet. She held onto the wolf for support, and blinked blearily. She wanted to go back to sleep. Her feet and legs ached; her neck was sore from the position she had fallen asleep in. Her limbs tingled, telling her that she had crushed them in her slumber. She winced as the prickling sensation filled her legs and arms; it helped her wake up, but not with the walking. She limped for several minutes, and for that time their progress in reaching the wolf's house went very slowly.
"Sorry," she muttered to him, blushing, when she stepped on one of his feet.
"Be sorry that you caused me a great deal of alarm when I couldn't see you," he growled. "For a while I thought you had vanished somewhere, gotten lost. Be thankful that your cloak draws wolves, for otherwise I might never have found you."
"Ironic," she yawned. She did not see the wolf's half-amused nod.
"I have bread waiting on the table. It's very stale, but it is better than nothing." He suddenly sounded a little sheepish, and it made him sound nearly human. "I suppose I should have told you what to look for beforeI sent you on an errand to find food. Everything is still asleep this time of year, so nothing was lost. Did you try, though?"
"No," she stretched and let go of the wolf. "I did not want to come back with some venomous plant that would have you think that I wished to poison you. I also didn't want to taste something to see if it could be eaten lest I get poisoned."
"Smart girl, but lazy," the wolf remarked. She did not know what to say, so she looked up at the sky instead. The clouds had scattered some, so that she could see patches of sky between each cloud. It did not feel so empty and broad anymore; the juxtaposition of the clouds against visible sky made her feel more at home, at ease. They walked in silence for a while, the wolf absorbed in his thoughts and Larirha a little way behind the wolf, looking nowhere in particular.
The cabin was cozy. She told herself that it was cozy instead of saying it was too small. Whatever she thought of the place, his home could not change. A house did not get any bigger just because she wished it were so – at least, not where she was now. Perhaps if she were an important princess, and lived somewhere far east, close to or at the capital, she could order a new wing to be built. But here, in the lands hesper, such things were impossible – and she was a charity case. It was from the wolf's… kindness… that she was alive and far away from her uncle.
The table that he had spoken of indeed boasted a slab of bread on its surface. The table looked like it had been pushed into the corner, but there were no signs that such had been done so recently. The floor was made of rough planks of wood, and in some places where there were cracks, a weed or two had grown and withered. There were four chairs that accompanied the table. She wrinkled her nose at a foul smell that reminded her of the stench of rotting meat, but did not say anything. There were two doors, both of them closed and on the left wall. A squat fireplace was placed right across the entrance of the house and was encircled by a wall of stones a hand-span or so high. There was a box where firewood must have once lain, but there was nothing in it now.
"Wolf, where did all this wood come from if the Forest is so far away?" she asked, pretending not to know where it must have come from.
"There's a copse not too far from here," the wolf replied, taking a seat at the table; she followed suit, choosing to sit across from him. "It's not too far from the road we just took, either. Our homestead is closest to it, so every week or so we would take axes and fell a few trees. That forest used to be much bigger and wilder, but after years and years of living here, with the winters seeming to be longer, colder, and quicker to come, it has become smaller. I know there is another coppice not too long a walk from the one my family always took from, so there is no danger of running out soon – but it takes more than one wolf to fell and chop trees into suitable pieces and bring them back in one day." His laugh was rough and short. "Would you believe me if I told you that this cottage was once home to seven wolves?"
"Really?" she giggled at the image of seven such wolves crammed into this living space, tails and paws peeping out from the windows and door. "How? I couldn't imagine living in so small a home with six others. It seems small enough even for two."
"They were mad, all of them," he chuckled. "Two of them left and went back west, where the weather was milder, for it is bitter here, and took their wives with them. Two of the remaining three had a child, and that child was my grandfather."
He broke off a piece of the bread and offered it to Larirha. She took it greedily into her hands and took a hearty bite; it was dry and crusty, but after having eaten nothing but potatoes, it was like consuming ambrosia. She had not realized how much she missed simple bread until that moment.
"It is very poor fare, but we're fortunate that our neighbors had bread to spare after the death of two of their children."
Larirha suddenly felt sick, and the taste of the food soured in her mouth. She swallowed reluctantly and put the rest of the bread down.
"It was but a pair," he emphasized, as if the number made a difference.
"We're fortunate that two children died?" she choked.
"It was only two," he repeated.
"Two children, Wolf," Larirha pleaded to him for understanding.
"Princess, we who live to the east in the hesper are hardened to death. It was nothing short of a miracle that I ever lived to see my fifth winter." He sounded annoyed, as if she did not understand his point.
"We took advantage of their tragedy," she whispered. "What if that had been your son, your daughter?"
"I never would have let them die." His voice roughened into a snarl.
"Some things one cannot help," Larirha muttered. "Some are meant to die."
"Like you, if you do not eat," he snapped.
She obeyed, taking the remaining bread and chewing it mechanically. She tried desperately not to think of those two wolf-lings that must have been so like the pups back at her stepfather's keep, of the simple and childish delight they must have taken in eating when hungry. Tears filled her eyes but she blinked them away. Her throat hurt; it was difficult to swallow, and her nose became stuffy. She sniffled and dabbed her eyes with her sleeve. The wolf looked bewildered and displeased.
He was coldly taciturn when he showed her the room she was to live in as long as she stayed with him. She settled quietly on the hard bed, trying not to think of how she had benefited from the death of two small wolf pups, and was left to wonder how hardened these wolves truly were to death.
* * *
The wolf did not understand why Larirha had been so upset when he told her how he had acquired the bread. Food was food – it did not matter how it was gained so long as they had it. It had not been as if he had killed those two children, and that bread would have gone to waste otherwise. The princess should have blamed the whelps' parents, if anyone. Not him.
He thought of the she-wolf he had murdered. If Larirha had been upset for that, he would have understood – after all, for all his denial of guilt, there was still a grain of it embedded in him, an uncomfortable prickling that sometimes needled the back of his chest, a sensation not untouched by regret.
A/N: Even the tiniest speck of criticism or praise is welcome. Please review.