The horse let out a cry that shook Lizzie down to her bones. It was a cry of such anguish that she couldn’t bear it and all thoughts of surviving this encounter with the wolf vanished. She threw out her arm as if to block the wild whinnying from reaching her.
“I’ll do it— I’ll do it!” She was gasping for air and her heart thrummed in her throat, constricting it and making her wheeze.
No, no, no! Cried the women in the tower.
The wolf stared at her hungrily, and for a second, though its eyes were yellow, they looked exactly like Bluebeard’s. She gasped again. The wolf bared its teeth. She whimpered, steadied herself, pulled at the buttons on the doublet and wrenched it open. The wolf reared back, catapulted itself into the air, dove toward her in a slow arc: tiny snowflakes on her face, blood whooshing in her veins, cold air mixing with the heat of her lungs. And then the thundering of hooves, a violent whinny— and the horse dove between them.
He slid, plowing a path through the snow. His eyes rolled wildly in his head and she caught his gaze. “No!”
He whinnied once more, then the wolf landed in a puff of snow and a sudden, snapping splatter of red all around. It ripped and tore at the sinuous black throat, and Lizzie closed her eyes and shook with silent tears. They mixed with the warm drops of blood that flew like rubies through the cold air.
Her clothes grew wet from the snow. She sat and grieved, grieved at the loss of her friend, the good horse. Then she felt a breath on her face. She flinched and opened her eyes.
The wolf, red-muzzled, was staring at her. It’s snout was only inches away. It was only an animal, only a beast who was hungry, but anger flooded her.
The wolf leaned forward, its mouth snapped open in a quick flash of yellow-white teeth. She gave a cry and threw up her arm.
She waited. She was still alive. She touched her cheek: it was wet. She sniffed her fingers: animal.
“I am Gray Legs the wolf. And I am free to help you, if you wish it.”
Lizzie gaped at the wolf. “But— you ate my horse! And you said you only tell your friends who you are!”
“But you are my friend. You fed me when I was hungry. As for the horse, he knew it was coming. Though he ran from it first, he gave himself willingly. It was his punishment and his liberation.”
Lizzie put a hand to her forehead. She had the beginning of a headache, and she was still very hungry. She shook her head slowly. “I don’t understand.”
“Of course you don’t, how could you? If even Baba Yaga can’t predict the future then how could one human girl know everything?” It appraised her. “Even if she has seen many strange things.”
“You know Baba Yaga?”
“All creatures who are truly wild do. Humans rarely meet her before death, but you… Well, don’t let me put words in your mouth. Where do you want me to go?”
The wolf sat back and licked its chops. It was considerably fatter now, and its coat was thick. It blinked its golden eyes at her. “Put the saddle on my back. We are friends and you need help. What are you waiting for?”
Lizzie stared a moment, roused herself with an incredulous shake of her head, and set about unbuckling the saddle. She felt so many things all at once: excitement for the journey, curiosity about the wolf and the Yaga, deep exhaustion, a jitteriness for her sisters in the tower, and a low sadness over the death of the horse of power. She stroked his black back and lifted the saddle free. The wolf was waiting, but she didn’t put the saddle on just yet.
“What do you mean this was his liberation and his punishment?”
The wolf cocked its head at her. “Is the reason for punishment so mysterious? Had he committed no sins?”
“Well, yes, if you mean carrying us all to the castle. But it wasn’t his choice. He was obeying his master— that’s what horses are trained to do.”
“And you? Are you obeying your master?”
“What?” She stepped back. “I— but it’s different.”
Lizzie searched for the words, for the reason itself. “But I’m human. It’s just different for us than for animals.”
“Yes it is. You are inferior in nearly every way: you walk around as if asleep, you never see magic. And yet you rebelled against a cruel master when the stronger and wiser animal did not.”
“What?? But people are masters of animals.”
This made the wolf throw back its head and laugh and laugh. It actually dropped to its side and rolled back and forth in the snow. Lizzie shifted the saddle and pursed her lips. At last the wolf grew calm again.
“Are you finished?” she asked.
The wolf leveled its gaze. “Whether you believe it or not, human girl, your kind is barely awake in the world and easily pushed this way and that by anyone with a bit of strength, magical or otherwise. You are— what’s the word? Domesticated. You trust in the rules of goodness more than you trust in yourself. That is the difference between us. Shall we go?”
But Lizzie stayed stubbornly where she stood. Something was niggling her thoughts, a buzz not unlike snowflakes alighting on bare skin. “So my horse was punished. But he gave himself up freely. Does that make any difference? Is that the liberation?”
The wolf just stared at her and did not answer. Lizzie felt that was as close to a ‘yes’ as she would get.
“And you— you will help me? But you’re wild. You could kill me, too. Why?”
The wolf dropped its gaze and stared off into the trees.
“Are you free, Gray Legs? Or are you bound to rules, too?”
The wolf looked at her. Its lips twitched but it did not growl. It can’t say.
She looked at the saddle in her hands. Then she heaved it aside into the snow. The wolf’s ears pricked up.
“I have been caught in a trap of goodness, of rules. You’re right about that. But you underestimate me. I won’t tame you. I won’t put a saddle on your back or a bit in your wild mouth. I’ll take your help if you give it as your own gift— but you have no debt to pay to me.”
Snow swirled slowly around the girl and the wolf. The woods were quiet. The air no longer had a cold bit. The trees, the girl, the sky— they were all waiting, listening.
The wolf dropped its head. “You are braver than I thought. You know the difference between goodness and generosity. Thank you.” It turned, bit at its flank and tugged loose a tuft of speckled gray fur which it laid on the snow before her.
“I will help you when you most need me. When that moment comes, call my name and I will hear you no matter where you are, and I will come.” It made as if to go, then turned and leaped lightly up putting its paws on Lizzie’s shoulders. It licked her cheek and its whiskers brushed her ear. “Follow my trail out of the forest. And take one last piece of advice: don’t be noble and hungry: eat the horse.”
READER RESPONSE: Leave a comment and tell me what you like, what images stand out, or your curious questions. (No suggestions/grammar critiques, please). Thanks for supporting my work-in-progress! -Rose Arrowsmith DeCoux