Siebold by Lee Savino

1





Meadhan



I was halfway to the market when I sensed I was being followed.

No twigs snapped. No birds sang. No insects droned. But the silence spoke louder than any sound.

Somewhere, in the secret shadows of the forest, lurked a predator.

Prickles danced up and down my limbs. I turned slowly in place, one arm tight around my herb-filled basket, the other cupping the back of my neck where my skin tingled.

Something was watching me. I stared into the sun-dappled shadows, willing them to reveal their secrets.

I did not know what I was looking for. Most forest predators respected me. Or the power they sensed in me. But not this one. I peered into the underbrush. What animal would be so hungry and desperate to venture this close to the village?

I should have kept on my way, hurrying to the safety of the crowded market, but something stayed my steps. An awareness, a pressure on the edge of my consciousness.

It wasn’t just an animal stalking me. I sensed something Other. A darkness buzzing like an angry swarm of bees.

Evil.

Magic.

“Who’s there?” I called, unable to help myself. I didn’t expect an answer.

Deep in the brush, the branches parted. The whining sound and pressure on my ears and skin increased. My hand flew out, sketching a ward before I knew what I was doing. It was a basic sign of protection, one my mother taught me before I could walk. As soon as I signed it, I snatched my hand back, and gripped my basket so hard my knuckles whitened.

I never practiced my craft this close to the village. But whatever lurked in the brush made me want to call my power.

My vision shimmered, my Sight taking hold. There in the shadows under the pine, stood a big blond warrior. His arms and chest were bare but thatched with white weals of old scars. His face bore a thick blond beard. But his eyes were haggard. He was a warrior who’d seen many battles and survived the slaughter and now he was old and tired. Older than he looked, for he seemed the same age as me, yet there was a century of pain in his golden eyes.

“Who are you? What do you want?” I whispered, though I knew the vision was not real. I stepped back anyway, sucking in a breath when the man disappeared, his form winking out of existence as if he was a ghost.

The bushes before me rustled, and a wolf emerged. He was big and blond--his fur the same shade as the hair of the warrior in my vision. But that color is natural among wolves. There was nothing to mark this wolf as anything unnatural.

Then it turned its head and caught me in its golden gaze. Its eyes blazed with eldritch light. Just as the warrior’s had.

This was no ordinary wolf.

“What happened to you?” I whispered.

The wolf lurched forward with half whine, half growl and pushed out of its hiding place. Its body was long and lean, but too thin. Ribs showed through its matted fur. Its mouth hung open, flashing yellowed fangs thicker than my fingers.

An ordinary woman would run and hope she reached the village before she was attacked and brought down by those teeth and claws. Good sense would say this was a wild creature, a wolf mad enough with hunger to venture close to the village where a hunter’s arrow would put it out of misery. For a crazed wolf, death would be a mercy.

But this was not just a wolf. My Sight had never guided me wrong.

I crouched on the path, averting my gaze and inclining my head so it was lower than the wolf’s. A submissive posture.

The wolf padded forward. Its head twitched sharply, as if shaking flies from around its ears. As it came close the buzzing of evil magic filled my ears. The stench of rot hung over its body.

“Bad magic,” I breathed. My mother told me of a special breed of warriors, cursed by a witch to take the form of wolves. The spell was meant to give them power. But, like all spells, it came with a price. “You wretched beast.” I reached for my herbs and the wolf let out a growl. I froze at the low rumbling sound.

“Stop that,” I snapped. I may have taken a submissive posture, but I would not tolerate rudeness. Not even from a wolf.

The wolf blinked at me, and stopped its growl. With swift fingers, I twisted together rosemary, cedar, juniper, and sage. Herbs for memory, clarity, and purification.

“This won’t break the spell, but it will help.” I tossed the bundle at the wolf’s feet. Its only reaction was to lower its head and sniff, then sneeze. I stifled a smile. This wolf was dangerous, even if it was acting tame. It snuffed, its nose twitching once, twice. The jerky movement of its head calmed. It raised its head again and I Saw the evil hovering over it, manifesting as a dark swarm of flies.