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Apr 08

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Wolf on the Fold

Summary:

Three years after the events of Wolf at the Door and the short story “Marking Territory”, Johanna Brion and Agatha Westreich are still seeking out the last remaining disciples of Simon Lehner. Their search brings them to the town of Ayrs, where a council has come up with a potential way to bring peace to both human and canidae once and for all.

The sun beat down on her shoulders and Johanna Brion, already stripped down to a sleeveless undershirt, raised her chain to stare into the sky as if offering the star a challenge. Sweat glistened on her face, her exposed skin turned bright pink from the barrage of light. She swept the lank hair out of her face with the back of her free hand. Gunther’s reins were wrapped around the wrist of her other hand as she led him through the meadow. The tall grass was still wet with morning dew, but it only served to remind her that the day was only just beginning. When the sun was overhead she would look back fondly on this early-morning reprieve.

Agatha walked ahead of them, shoulders back and head high. She was dressed in a lightweight shawl that barely reached the bottom of her rear end. If she’d had her own way she would have been completely nude, but they had encountered other travelers on the road and she didn’t wish to explain herself or scurry to cover up every time they heard a rustle in the trees.

Johanna found herself distracted by her compatriot’s muscular thighs, glistening with sweat between the frayed hem of her shawl and the knee-length cuffs of her leather boots. Agatha seemed to sense her scrutiny and turned, blonde curls framing the curve of her cheek so that her eye was the only visible part of her profile. She turned back to face forward without a word, but Johanna could tell she was smiling.

They had been traveling together for twenty-nine months. Sometimes as a pair and occasionally as a trio. They had both taken other lovers and sometimes shared with each other. But when the time came to move on, there was only one person Johanna wanted at her side. They were near Belgium now, and reports of Simon’s disciples were fewer and farther between. Time had been cruel to Simon’s teachings. Wulves had woken to the fact that violence and slaughter were not a means to an end. Violence begat violence, and trying to overtake by force would only lead to a genocide of their kind. Change was in the air. Johanna had no doubt that Napoleon would soon be defeated and the opportunity for a new canidae country would be past.

Agatha stopped suddenly and smelled the air, her head tilted back slightly as she looked first to the left and then to the right. Johanna rested her palm on the hilt of Dorothea, the sword named for her mother, and braced for a fight. She stayed silent as she had long since learned to trust Agatha’s heightened senses. To ask for reasons and expect an answer would only distract her. So Johanna remained poised and waited for a signal to either fight or continue onward.

“This way.” She turned north-northwest and began walking. Johanna followed her, clicking her tongue to prompt Gunther onward. Their path became more tangential and Johanna looked back the way they had been going with increasing suspicion. The day was too hot to take an unknown and alternate path. She blotted the sweat from her forehead.

“Danger ahead?”

“No.”

Johanna seethed quietly. “Then why have we changed direction? According to the map, the most straightforward–”

“Tah,” Agatha barked.

“Do not scold me. I do not wish to traipse around this blasted furnace of a forest any longer than necessary.”

They passed through the trees too quickly, passing up the meager shade their canopy offered for a wide cliff. It was shaped like a fat dagger, narrowing to a stony point that seemed aimed at a neighboring quarry. Johanna walked to the precipice and looked down, her anger fading as she finally smelled what Agatha had scented on the air.

Water.

The surface was five Ruthe below, a mirror-smooth expanse of glass that stretched out for an acre to either side. The far shore was stone, but to the north and south were muddy expanses of beach. Johanna stooped to pick up a sizeable stone and let it drop from her fingers. It slapped the water and immediately vanished, and she felt confident the water was deep enough to dive.

Agatha unwound the leather reins from Johanna’s wrist and held them in her left hand. “I will take him to the beach where he will wait for us. But I thought you would rather take the more expedient route.” She touched the back of her index finger to Johanna’s upper lip, blotting the sweat, and then placed the finger in her mouth. “I have smelled your suffering since we woke, Johanna. I have been trying to find water all morning. I did not tell you because I had no idea when or if I would be successful.”

Johanna’s heart soared with love, appreciation, regret for her harsh words. She looked down at the water and stepped forward. Agatha met her halfway and kissed her. When Johanna pulled back, she immediately began removing what little clothing she still had on. Agatha took each sweaty item and draped it over her forearm, waiting until Johanna was naked before stepping back.

“You will join me.”

“Once Gunther is secure on the beach, ja.” She smiled. “Go. I will see you soon.”

Johanna kissed Agatha again, then turned and trotted to the edge. She leapt, tucked her knees to her chest, and whooped as she cut through the air. She braced herself for the impact, but even so she was shocked as she hit the water and sank into its cold depths. She exhaled the air in her lungs in a flurry of bubbles, her body shocked by the sudden relief from the heat. She sank like a stone for a few seconds before the balls of her feet touched the smooth stone surface of the quarry’s floor and she pushed herself up.

Her head broke the surface and the sun beat down on her, hurriedly evaporating the droplets. She pushed her hair out of her face and treaded water. Her arms swept out arcs to either side of her, feet kicking to keep her shoulders above water. The water was warmer than she would have liked, but compared to the air it was bliss. She swam in a wide circle, dipped underneath, and swam toward the beach.

It was nearly twenty minutes before Agatha and Gunther appeared on the muddy shore. She guided him to the water and he ducked his head to drink greedily. She tied him loosely to a branch so he could go up onto shore or stand in the water if he chose. She lifted off her shawl and Johanna admired her flat abs, her small breasts, the strong lines of her hip. She was a goddess, all harsh lines and soft curves, tanned from her frequent nudity and slim from nights spent running through the forest.

When the clothes were secured in their saddlebags, Johanna slapped the water.

“Come here.”

Agatha walked into the water, hissing through her teeth as it splashed over her thighs. She dove forward and surfaced near Johanna, who closed the distance between them with a kick of her legs. She cupped her hands under the water and brought them up, spreading them apart to pour water over Agatha’s face. Agatha leaned back and held out her tongue, letting the water spill into her mouth and held it on her tongue as she pulled Johanna to her.

Their legs tangled under the water like strips of seaweed. Agatha pushed the water from her mouth to Johanna’s and pushed her hands through Johanna’s hair. She gathered the long black strands into a thick tail, gripped it tightly, and pulled Johanna’s head back to expose her throat. Johanna hissed and then pressed harder against Agatha’s hip as her throat was assaulted by strokes of a strong tongue and gentle nips of sharp teeth.

They stroked each other under the water, hands gliding over tight skin and the rough scar tissue from their battles. Soon Johanna could bear the teasing no longer and gripped Agatha’s thighs, pulling her close and swimming her back toward the shore. Agatha stretched back, her lower body still underwater as the waves lapped up and periodically flooded the islands of her breast before pooling near her collarbone. Her hair, usually blonde and a riot of curls, was darkened by the water and flattened against her skull. Johanna slid her hands over the hard nipples and bowed her head, licking the valley between them as water rushed and receded over the warm skin.

She sank lower, her tongue swirling in Agatha’s navel before she sank. She held her breath as she nuzzled the soft hair between Agatha’s legs, easing her thighs apart and parting her lips to flatten her tongue against the sensitive lips of her lover’s labia. The waves crashed over her head, the rhythm of the tide pressing her harder into Agatha’s sex. She broke the surface twice from a need for oxygen, gasping as she replaced her lips and tongue with fingers. The water lubricated her hand, allowing three fingers inside and then four.

Johanna pushed higher on the stone ledge and kissed Agatha, her hand folded to a point, her thumb pressed against the hood of Agatha’s clitoris as her fingers thrust into her. Agatha pulled Johanna’s hair, one leg hooked on Johanna’s hip as she came. She arched her back and let her head slip under the water, her legs wrapped tightly around Johanna as the water washed over and down her body.

Johanna gave her time to recover from the climax before she cupped the back of Agatha’s head and lifted it up from the water. She blinked the droplets from her eyes, smiled, and kissed Johanna with ferocity, growling as she twisted and pinned Johanna underneath her. She braced her knees against the stone, pulled Johanna hard against her thigh, and shoved forward. Johanna gripped Agatha’s shoulders and held tight, digging her fingers into the muscles as she let Agatha ride her. She snapped her teeth and locked eyes with her lover, trembling violently as she came with a cry of surrender.

Agatha lowered Johanna to the stone and lifted away from her, rolling to one side and stretching out beside her. Their arms touched, and Johanna lifted Agatha’s hand from the water to link their fingers together. The water continued to lap against their bodies, gently stroking sensitive skin, making them shudder.

“Thank you.”

“For what?”

“You noticed my discomfort and sought a solution.”

She pushed herself up on her elbows and looked down at Agatha. They had fought and bled for each other, and had saved each other’s lives more times than Johanna could count. She bowed her head and kissed each peaked nipple. She lifted her head to kiss Agatha’s chin. She turned Agatha’s head and kissed her ear.

“I love you.”

Agatha sharply drew in a breath and she tensed. She put her hands on Johanna’s stomach and stroked. When they first became lovers, Johanna warned she may never be able to make such a declaration. Those had been the last words she’d said to her mother, and saying them to someone else at the wrong time would cheapen their sanctity. But now, after traveling with Agatha for so long and fighting for each other every waking moment… and for Agatha to do something as simple as finding her water on a hot day…

“And I love you, Johanna.” She cupped Johanna’s face and brushed the pad of her thumb over Johanna’s bottom lip. Johanna took it into her mouth and sucked gently. “Perhaps this is not a day for traveling. I saw a glen near the curve of the trail. We could set up a camp and enjoy the shade. You could nap while I keep watch and we could travel by starlight.”

Johanna raised an eyebrow. “Do you believe me incapable of traveling in adverse conditions?”

“Hardly.” Agatha sat up as well, their faces now inches apart. “I merely think that if we are doomed to drip sweat today, perhaps we shall make it worth the effort.”

Johanna purred low in her throat and lowered her head to kiss Agatha. There was a string of towns near the border they needed to check, rumors of animal attacks that they needed to investigate. But the attacks were sporadic, and it could wait another day or two. There was no sense in exhausting themselves before they even arrived. A night of rest and relaxation would go a very long way.

#

Agatha took watch while Johanna slept. They built a lean-to in the vee of the narrow glen. They used blankets from their packs, stretching it between trees but leaving all sides open to create a cross breeze. She knew she would either hear or catch the scent of anyone approaching before they were close enough to see, so she focused on her lover. Johanna’s hair was dry now, and it fell across her face like a thin veil. Agatha reached out and brushed it aside, gently lifting the strands one at a time so Johanna’s rest wouldn’t be disturbed.

Love. She had decided a long time ago she would never hear those words from Johanna’s lips, and she was fine with it. Love was shown in action and by sacrifice. It was rooted in trust and support. By those standards Johanna had declared her love time and again. Agatha decided hearing it wasn’t important. But now that she’d spoken it…

She was in love with a human. A part of her was still sickened to think of it in those terms. Growing up, she and the other whelps often played games of Hunt. One of them would remain two-legged while the others would chase him or her through the woods. Calling someone a human was a slur, and could earn you a sound thrashing behind the shed. She touched the shell of Johanna’s ear and dragged the tip of her finger down to Johanna’s jaw.

To a wulf, Johanna was disabled. Weaker. She couldn’t change, her senses were laughably muted. But the woman could hunt. She fought with the strength of a dozen canidae, and she had shed blood for wulves as if they were her own family. Johanna was a new breed of human. A better breed.

Agatha hadn’t bothered to dress after their swim, but Johanna was once again in her sleeveless shirt and dark blue uniform trousers. Her feet were bare and smudged with dirt. Agatha took her canteen and poured a bit of it into a bowl as she reclined until her hands were even with her lover’s feet. She cast about for a rag or a clean cloth but came up empty. Finally she dipped her hair in the water and used it to clean the caked mud from Johanna’s soles.

When she was finished, Agatha closed her eyes and let the wolf overtake her. Bones cracked and popped into place, and hair spread across her body as she curled up in front of Johanna and tried to rest while keeping her senses attuned to changes in the environment. Just before she drifted off Johanna’s hand came to rest on her flank and sleepily stroked her fur.

Agatha decided coming to terms with loving a human was unnecessary. She only had to accept that she loved Johanna. And that was a very easy thing to admit.

#

Agatha was astride Gunther, clad in her leathers and shawl, daggers hanging unseen from either hip. Her blouse was split down the middle with the two halves joined by a tightly-drawn piece of string, leaving a strip of skin exposed against the day’s heat. Despite traveling at night, the heat still seeped out of the ground and left them both sweaty and easily irritable. They had only been on the road for an hour when they finally spotted Arys in the distance, and it was only twenty more minutes before they reached the gate.

A sentry was posted, and Johanna hailed him and lifted her hands in greeting as he aimed his lantern in her direction. Johanna was back in her well-worn uniform, breasts bound and her hair tucked under her cap, and squared her shoulders before she spoke. She lowered the register of her voice to sound male, a trick at which she had grown extremely practiced over the past few years.

“Hail, fellow. I am Leutenant Johan Brion. We hear you have been experiencing troubles with the local wildlife.”

“Hold where you stand, soldier.” The man approached cautiously, the glow of his light slowly illuminating Johanna’s face. He saw Gunther and lifted the lamp higher until he spotted Agatha. She narrowed her eyes but otherwise didn’t respond to his examination. He gestured and the metal fasteners of the lantern clinked against each other in the otherwise silent evening. “Who is your friend?”

“A huntress,” Johanna said. “The best I’ve ever seen. If a beast is threatening your people, she will find it.”

The sentry was silent for a moment and then backed away slowly. “Remain where you are. I’ll alert someone that you have come to help us.”

Johanna glanced to her left and saw Agatha was eyeing the battlements. Johanna wrapped her fingers around the hilt of her sword again. “Mph?”

“Mm.”

Johanna scanned the darkness around them. It seemed silent, but her hearing had never been quite as sharp as Agatha’s. The wolf in her could see better in the dark, could smell sweat from yards away, could sense a person’s presence by some ineffable change in the air. She scanned the top of the wall for a long moment and, when she spoke, her voice was casual.

“Beautiful evening.”

“Yes.” Johanna knew it wasn’t just idle conversation, but she couldn’t discern the deeper meaning. “It is a welcome relief following the heat earlier.”

“We made good time. It’s still early.”

Johanna nodded slowly as the gears of her mind turned. “Indeed.” The night wasn’t merely relatively cool; it was a balm after the assault of the sun. Summer was being a stubborn bitch this year. Traveling from dusk until the dawn was a wise idea. She imagined many people had made the same decision and were taking to running nocturnal errands rather than attempting to do so in her harsh light of day.

The thought clicked with her. It was early, on a blissfully cool evening after several days of sweltering temperatures. The night air was a relief, and yet the city beyond the walls was absolutely silent. She looked up and eyed Agatha’s silhouette in the darkness and stepped away from Gunther so she would have freedom of movement.

The gate creaked and the sentry returned. The man with him was taller and wider than the sentry; almost certainly a town elder.

“I was told we have guests. One can never be too careful. Identify yourselves, please.”

“I am Johan Brion. This is my associate, Agatha.”

The older man took the sentry’s lantern and raised it to shine on Agatha’s face. “Ah, yes. Agatha of the Westreich pack, if I’m not mistaken. And you, dear. You were christened Johanna, were you not?”

No longer holding onto the ruse, Johanna drew her sword. “You know much about us, sire. Pray, tell us your name so that we may be on equal footing.”

“I am Adam Aubrey Crichton, and we have been searching for you a very long time. Agatha, dear. Kindly inform your friend to lower her sword or our meeting shall be much less civil than I had hoped.”

Agatha spoke Johanna’s name quietly. When Johanna looked, Agatha was scanning the tree line to their right. She didn’t have to ask; even she could hear the advance of soldiers through the dry grass. Their boots crushed leaves to mulch as they approached, a dozen of them if not more. Johanna leveled her blade with the man’s head.

“How do you know of us, Adam Aubrey Crichton of Arys?”

“Your quest has become infamous. The cult of Simon is a thing of the past. Oh, certainly he has a few remaining acolytes. But you have built up a cult of your own. The hunter and her wulf, fighting side by side. Killing all who stand against them, man or beast. Agatha, my dear. Kindly tell your companion what you can deduce from the people currently surrounding you both. Take your time, dear. I know it’s difficult with a crowd coming out of the woods like this.”

Agatha inhaled deeply, never taking her eyes off Adam Aubrey as she scented the air. In the dim flickering light, Johanna saw her expression change subtly from confrontational to confused. She looked at Johanna and then twisted to peer in the shadows behind her.

“They are canidae, Johanna. But these…” She nodded at Adam Aubrey and the sentry. “They are human.”

“I believe there are seven of us to every three canidae in our ranks.”

Someone spoke from the shadows. “We feel that gives the humans a fighting chance if we ever decide to rise up against them.”

To Johanna’s surprise, the humans laughed. “Quiet, Elijah.” He stepped forward, bringing the light closer so that it fell across his features. His upper lip was obscured by a mustache, his large eyes set wide and seeming to hold no malice. “Our group owes its formation to you. To the work you have done to bridge the gap between our two peoples. Word of your campaign to destroy every discipline of Simon Lehner you could find inspired us to strive toward peace. We sought out the canidae near our towns and spoke of a civilized partnership between our species. We would respect their sovereignty–”

“And we would not kill them in their sleep,” Elijah said again. He was close enough now that Johanna knew she could see him if she turned her head, but she kept her gaze locked on Adam Aubrey. He gave Elijah a scolding look and then focused on Johanna again.

“We apologize for resorting to subterfuge. Drawing you here any other way risked alerting Simon Lehner’s scattered followers to our existence. That would be disastrous, given how close we have come to attaining our goal.”

Johanna kept her sword point steady, ready to thrust it through Adam Aubrey’s throat with a single forward motion. “And what goal would that be, sir?”

“A lasting peace between human and canidae. The peace you and the Westreich pack fought for at Vallendar. We believe we can preserve it for generations. End the fighting once and for all. But we require your assistance. Come into our town and we will discuss this in a more civilized manner. We have food and drink and, more importantly, we have light. You’ve come so far already. Your goal of destroying everything Simon befouled with his lies is nearly complete already. You can end it now once and for all by listening to what we have to say.”

“And if we refuse?”

Elijah stepped into the light. He was swarthy, dark and vulpine even in human form. Dark hair hung in his eyes, and his sideburns were wild enough to cover most of his cheek as well as his jaw line. “If you refuse, and we’ll escort you back to the main road and you can go to the next town over.”

“If you agree to speak with us,” Adam Aubrey said, “you will be given food. Regardless of your decision you will be given a place to sleep and fresh provisions for your journey to wherever you’re going next. But please. We beg you to consider our proposal with an open mind.”

“How many of you are there?”

“Very near five hundred in his village. Another few hundred are back at our village. If you agree, you will be taken there for your part in the peace treaty.” He smiled. “I assure you, no blood shall be spilled and no sacrifice will be asked of you.”

Johanna glanced at Agatha, who shrugged nearly imperceptibly. The decision was hers, then. She looked over her shoulder and saw shapes looming in the darkness. She didn’t necessarily trust Adam August Crichton, but perhaps she would feel differently once she heard his proposal. And agreeing now would allow the possibility of a better moment to try escaping. She lowered her sword and slid it back into the scabbard.

“We’ll hear you out. But we shall leave tomorrow evening at twilight regardless of our decision.”

“You have my word, Leutenant. And I shall prove my sincerity to you before you enter this gate. Elijah?”

The wolf stepped forward and took a strip of rawhide from his pocket. Adam Aubrey put his wrists together and allowed Elijah to bind them together. He pulled it tight enough that Adam Aubrey grunted and glared at him, but Elijah only smirked and stepped back. He looped another strip of leather around the looped rawhide and held the end of it out to Johanna.

“What is this?” Johanna asked.

Adam Aubrey said, “For the duration of your stay, or until such time as you decide to free me, I am your prisoner.”

Johanna looked at Agatha and then took the leather lead from Elijah. Adam Aubrey turned and nodded his head to the sentry, who opened the gate.

“Welcome to Arys.”

#

The sentry ran ahead of the group, pausing at each corner to light their way. He stepped onto the base of the street lamp, stretched his hand above his head, and hung precariously over the cobblestones as he used a torch to light the wick within. He moved quickly, jaunting from one to the next like a fairy in a story, and soon the path ahead of them was illuminated enough for them to see the town around them. Agatha had dismounted and was leading Gunther while Johanna had the reins of their willing captive.

“How long has it been abandoned?”

Adam Aubrey said, “Not long. This city did have a problem with canidae attacks, but they killed the perpetrator. The families of the animal’s victims couldn’t bear to remain, so they left. The others followed soon after and the town was left behind. Fortunate for our purposes, I suppose.”

In the center of town was a stone building with a thatched roof, the lights aglow from within. Johanna could see people moving within, shadows cast upon the sheets covering the windows, and tensed.

“You said there were five hundred of you here?”

“Yes. But most are asleep. We weren’t certain when to expect you so we took shifts. The day watchers will be very happy to know you have arrived at last.”

The sentry knocked on the door of the meeting hall and it was opened by a tall red-haired woman in a frock dress. The angles of her jaw and chin were sharp, her eyebrows thick and harsh, but something about the woman’s demeanor made up for the roughness. It didn’t smooth the knife-edge of her gaze, but Johanna could tell the woman was kind at heart. She listened to the sentry’s whispers and looked past him at the group.

Adam Aubrey lifted both hands to hail her as he said to Johanna, “The lovely woman at the door is Sabine Szanto. My wife.”

The woman walked forward. She looked at the straps holding her husband’s wrists and then examined Johanna and Agatha.

“Them?”

“Yes.”

Sabine made a noise of derision and smoothed her hands over the front of her dress. “There is stew and cornbread. Not much of either, but we shall share what we have.”

“We have provisions as well,” Johanna said. “We would be happy to share with you as well.”

A quick nod, a glance at her husband’s bound wrists, and then Sabine had turned her back on them. She walked briskly back to the meeting room, her dress swishing around her legs as she stepped around the sentry to go back inside. Adam Aubrey chuckled under his breath, hanging his head as he started walking again.

“I apologize for that. She didn’t much like the idea of offering myself up as your hostage for the duration of your stay.”

Johanna said, “It got us through the doors. Whether that’s a good thing or bad remains to be seen. Go.” She ushered him through the doorway and into the meeting hall.

Tables ran along all sides of the room, with a half-dozen more set up in the center of the room. The common space was separated from the kitchen by a waist-high counter that was currently crowded by cooking materials. Sabine went into the kitchen and began giving orders to the girls there in a low voice.

“Have a seat here. The rest of our council will be with us shortly once Mauro has alerted them to your arrival.” He sighed as he lowered himself into a wooden folding chair. Johanna sat facing the kitchen, while Agatha remained standing so that she could watch the door. Together they had line of sight on all four corners of the room and both entrances, although Johanna was wary of the windows to their left.

The other leaders quickly began to arrive, ruddy and wrinkled from a disturbed sleep. Several of them hadn’t bothered to change from their nightclothes. As each one came into the room, Johanna glanced at Agatha, who subtly tipped her head at Johanna if the new arrival was human and quickly flashed her teeth if it was a canidae. When the last one had taken her seat, they numbered seven.

Adam Aubrey stood, his hands hanging in front of him. “Now that we are all here, shall we begin? Members of the council, I present to you Johanna Brion and Agatha of the Westreich pack. Johanna and Agatha, welcome to this gathering of Kanji Hito Council.”

Agatha tilted her head to one side. “Japanese?”

“Very good. The man who taught me how to fight chose the name. Wolf and Man, together. This group is very much like a canidae; we are both, but neither is prevalent or superior to the other. Our council is divided between three canidae and four humans. I am the head councilman and, since I am human, my vote may be superseded by a canidae ombudsman.”

“Very civilized of you.” Johanna looked at Agatha, who had been silent since entering the city. She was watching everyone in the room with keen interest. Her arms were crossed under her breasts but Johanna knew she could have a blade in either hand before most people had registered the danger. She looked back at Adam Aubrey. “What purpose would we serve in your little Kanji Hito utopia?”

The reply came from an Amazonian blonde to Adam Aubrey’s left, a canidae. “Our goal with this group is unity between our races. Each of us ventures into the world at large in order to spread acceptance. Canidae preach tolerance of humans to other canidae, while humans have convinced hunters to lay down their weapons for the first time in centuries. A treaty is close. Among us, we have convinced two dozen packs and nearly as many groups of hunters to accept a peaceful accord.”

“That is a dream,” Agatha muttered, looking down at her boots as she finally broke her silence. “The hunters will always hunt us, and they will always kill us for sport. And there will always be wulves who hunger for dominance over humans.”

A human named Silas LaSalle said, “Yes. But for the first time in a millennium, there is a chance to have a majority crying for peace. We harbor no illusions that peace will be quickly won or easily kept.”

“What part would you have us play in this treaty?” Johanna asked.

Adam Aubrey cleared his throat. “We require a symbol, something to draw the two sides together. You and Agatha began this movement, and you spilled first blood to make it happen. You fought together at Vallendar and stopped clashing armies in their tracks. We know that you are lovers, that you overcame your own mistrust and prejudices to see each other as you truly were. Not as wolf or sapien. As people.”

Johanna tensed, and Agatha shifted her weight uncomfortably.

“You are the figureheads of this movement. If you were to become one through matrimony, it would bond our people together. We are prepared to perform a handfasting ceremony in order to marry a canidae warrior to a human hunter. It would be enough to convince those still hesitant to join our ranks once and for all. You would be a symbol of our peace. The handfast is an ancient rite, and joining you by those means rather than marriage we would be showing that the union is meant to last for ages. It’s more than a marriage between two women. It’s a confederation of people. Johanna, you would represent the humans who had suffered at the hands of wulves, the child orphaned by an attack. Agatha, you would stand for every canidae who was cut down as a precautionary measure, every pup who was forced to see their parents’ hide hung on a wall like a trophy. And you would join hands and speak the vows. You would finally finish the job you began in the bloody field of Vallendar.”

Sabine had come out of the kitchen with several bowls on a tray. Two serving girls placed the bowls on the table and talk ceased while the meal was set out. A bowl was placed in front of the empty seat meant for Agatha, but she remained standing.

When Sabine retreated, Adam Aubrey leaned forward again. “You will be given time to consider this, of course. You will be given rooms here in town, and you can give us your answer whenever you are ready.”

“Will we be allowed to leave and return only if we decide to go through with this?” Agatha asked.

Adam Aubrey hesitated and glanced at his fellow council. “You will not be allowed to keep me as prisoner,” he said with a slight smile, “but we will not force you to remain here against your will. If you choose to remain, we will be your subjects. Anything you wish to know about us or our mission, we will readily give. We have sought you since the blood was still wet on Vallendar’s grass.”

“We’ll consider your offer. For now, Johanna and I wish to speak privately. May we take our repast elsewhere?”

Adam Aubrey nodded and stood, gesturing at Sabine with his bound hands.

“You can stay here, Mr. Crichton.” Johanna reached down and released the knot holding his hands together. “Don’t make me regret this choice.”

“Hopefully it won’t be the only good decision you make this evening, Leutenant. Thank you. Sabine, will you kindly show our guests to their rooms?”

Sabine nodded to him and motioned Johanna and Agatha to the door. They picked up their bowls of stew and followed her out of the light and into the darkness. She gestured and quietly told them to follow her. Johanna looked back at Gunther, who was tied to a post in front of the meeting house, and Sabine assured her he would be taken to the stable and taken care of.

“I hope you will give the council’s request the consideration it deserves. It’s not the most traditional manner in which to become betrothed, but this is a most unusual treaty. This war has been waged since the Dark Ages. They stole our land, we killed their cattle. They slaughtered our children, we desecrated their sacred burial sites.” She shrugged. “Neither side is on the right. We meet firmly in the middle in this muddle of gray. Neither side should be made to surrender, so the only way for this war to end is with love. A declaration of unity between the two sides. An acknowledgement of wrongdoing with mutual forgiveness.”

Johanna looked at Agatha and remembered the sight of her parents dying in agony after being bitten. She wondered what horrors Agatha saw when looking at her. They had arrived at a small brick building. Sabine stopped and faced the women.

“It’s not a decision to be made lightly. Don’t force a response simply because we have put so much effort into finding you. That was our choice and, if you say no, we will find another avenue. Good eve, ladies.”

They thanked her for the escort and watched her go before they went inside. Johanna found a table next to the door and placed her stew upon it, her fingers brushing the smooth curve of a glass lantern. She found matchsticks and lit the room. It was a small space with two beds separated by a nightstand, a small dinner table with four chairs, and a bookshelf to the right of the door. She put the lantern down where it would spread the most light.

Agatha put her hand on Johanna’s shoulder. She squeezed, and Johanna reached up to cover her fingers with her own palm.

“I’m willing,” Agatha said.

Johanna was surprised by the blunt response to an unasked question, and by the fact Agatha was agreeing so readily.

“Are you?” She walked to the table and pulled out a chair. “I’m not certain I am. Not because of you. Or perhaps just because of you.” She furrowed her brow and looked toward the window, elbow on the table and her thumb between her lips so she could chew on the nail as she tried to order her thoughts. “Agatha of the Westreich pack,” she murmured.

“Johanna Brion of Liessau.”

“You are a canidae. You are loyal to your pack and those you have known your entire life. I wonder how many of your pack I killed before I knew you.”

Agatha took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Many, I suppose. We were relative neighbors. If not you, then your grandfather.”

Johanna stood and faced her. Tears shone in her eyes and her voice trembled when she spoke. “Then how can you bear to look at me with anything but disgust?”

Agatha stepped forward. “Because I have seen your heart. I have felt your trust. I have enjoyed the benefit of your faith.” She took Johanna’s hand and placed it over her heart. “Because you are a hunter who walked into a wolf’s den in order to save my life. You faced Hell because you knew it was my only hope of survival. I don’t care what you did to wulves in the past. I know what you have done to me. And for me. And with me. If I must bind my soul to yours in order to save other canidae from future hunters, then it is a small price. Johanna, Johanna, my love.” She kissed her between the eyebrows. “What is a life? I try to imagine a time when I’m not walking by your side, and it’s unfathomable. Shall I make a declaration to never leave you? It doesn’t matter if I do or not, because I won’t. So yes. For peace, I will say it aloud that you and I are one. I would say it even if I was being given nothing in return but your love.”

“I do love you.”

“You say it once, and now I cannot make you cease.” Agatha chuckled quietly. “It has not diminished…? I know you held it sacred because it was the last thing you said to your mother. You didn’t want to tarnish it by saying the words before you were ready.”

Johanna nodded. “Yes. But I was tarnishing the memory by not saying them to you. What you mean to me, the glow I feel when I am in your presence… if I didn’t say it to you, of all people, then the words must be meaningless. I said them in order to preserve what they meant when I said them to my mother.” She furrowed her brow. “Does that make sense?”

“I think so. And I love you, Johanna.” She tucked the dark hair behind Johanna’s ears and stroked her neck. “Shall we tell them of our decision?”

“Not yet.” She brought her hands up to the rawhide string holding the two halves of Agatha’s shirt together. She tugged and the material sagged, baring the blonde’s cleavage. Agatha lifted an eyebrow as Johanna’s hands slipped underneath and cupped her breasts, guiding her back toward the bed. Agatha sat and tilted her head back, and Johanna bent down to kiss her. Agatha’s fingers expertly worked the buttons of Johanna’s uniform jacket and pushed it off her shoulders, leaving her in the sleeveless top.

Johanna straightened and took off her cap, tossing it onto the bed as her hair collapsed around her face. Her trousers were next, dropped and kicked aside so that the tails of her shirt hung low over her sex. She sank to her knees and pushed Agatha’s blouse off to bare her breasts. She kissed them both, sucking the nipples to full erection as she undid the ties of Agatha’s belt. Hooking her fingers under the waistband, Johanna tugged down as Agatha flattened her feet on the floor and pushed herself up. The pants were easily peeled down past her knees, where Johanna left them as she lowered her head to Agatha’s lap.

Agatha grabbed handfuls of Johanna’s dark hair and draped it across her hips and thighs. Johanna reached underneath her, spreading her fingers over the gentle curves of Agatha’s ass to pull her close. She breathed deeply and wished she had a canidae‘s sense of smell. She would have to make do with her mediocre human senses, and she brushed her cheeks and lips through the thick hair that covered Agatha’s folds.

This was more than sex, more than just taking pleasure after a long ride. She curled the tip of her tongue and pressed it to Agatha’s clit, teasing it out and then sucking it softly. She released Agatha’s buttocks and stroked her way up over the smooth line of her hip, to the lower curve of her ribs. She pushed Agatha back and looked up, eyes wide open as she watched Agatha take her pleasure. Her eyes were half-lidded and her mouth was half-open, revealing the tip of her tongue between her teeth.

She thrust her tongue into Agatha without warning, smiling when Agatha responded by arching her back and rising off the bed with a cry. Johanna used her lips to spread Agatha wider, curling her tongue. She moved her head, smearing Agatha’s wetness across her cheeks and chin before she slid serpentine up her partner’s body. Agatha dragged her fingernails over Johanna’s flanks hard enough to leave red marks and pushed up enough to lick Johanna’s cheeks and chin before kissing her.

The kiss ended with a gasp and a growl, the sounds of submission after a fight. Agatha stroked Johanna’s cheeks, her hands in Johanna’s hair. Johanna pulled Agatha’s leg up to hook on her hip. She stroked her lover’s outer thigh and bent down so that their lips were nearly touching when she spoke.

“I cannot become your mate, Agatha, because we have been bonded for years.” She licked Agatha’s top lip. “But I will make the vow.”

Agatha rolled, pinned Johanna to the mattress, and rose above her. She was backlit by the flickering lantern, flames dancing over the sweat on her arms and casting shadows to define her muscles and the unmistakably feminine curves of her torso. Johanna licked her lips and tasted Agatha’s climax on them as Agatha placed her palm against Johanna’s sex and pressed her hip against the knuckles. Johanna pressed her palms against the headboard and closed her eyes, crying out as Agatha began to rock against her.

Agatha ran her hand over the smooth binding cloth that wrapped Johanna’s chest, popping the catches with her fingernails until the grip was released. Johanna’s chest seemed to swell and Agatha bent down to lick and suckle the liberated breasts until the nipples were hard enough to take between her teeth. They had both drawn blood during lovemaking before, but Agatha knew that this night should be gentler. She raised her eyes as she continued to move her hips, rubbing her fingers against Johanna’s mound until she was rewarded with a keening moan of release. Johanna’s jaw was still trembling when Agatha kissed it, then she then slipped her tongue between Johanna’s lips. Johanna lazily sucked on the tip, her fingers stroking Agatha’s jaw as the blonde settled on top of her.

“So tomorrow we will tell Adam Aubrey our decision, and we shall put this madness behind us.”

Johanna nodded. Agatha kissed her again and sagged against her. Johanna took her weight, kissing the curls at Agatha’s temple as she looked at the ceiling above the bed. She and Agatha had joined together in order to stop Simon Lehner’s teachings from spreading too far. Their goal had been unity between their races. And now that it was within reach, now that they could see victory on the horizon, where would that leave them? Could their partnership survive without the mutual goal binding them together?

She ran her fingers through her partner’s silky golden hair, straightening the curls before letting them snap back into shape. It seemed they would find out the answer to that question soon whether she wanted to or not.

#

Plans for the ceremony began straightaway the next morning. Once Adam Aubrey had been told the handfasting would commence, he put his men to work. The village had a church with a damaged roof that left it open to the elements. In winter it would be disastrous, but now in the height of summer we would be foolish to ignore the opportunity. The broken thatch allowed in the sun and the broken windows allowed a breeze to alleviate the heat of the day.

Sabine took Johanna’s uniform and, upon being told in no uncertain terms that she would wear it as her marriage suit, promised to do her best to mend it. Johanna had worn the uniform for over half a decade and admitted she was reluctant to see it taken away. Every tear, the rips, the blood that indelibly stained the cloth, and each button that had been haphazardly replaced told the story of where she had been and what she had done, the battles she had survived. Agatha had bled on the uniform as an enemy, and her bleeding head had been cradled against its softness as a comrade. But if their campaign was truly coming to an end, the repairs would be symbolic of that ending. The blood washed away, the tears mended, and the crisp reds and blues restored to the brightness of peacetime.

Agatha reluctantly visited a seamstress for her wedding gown, braced for a horrible standoff in which the chirping women attempted to put her in a dress. A canidae named Carlena was waiting to measure her from shoulder to shoulder and toe to chest, Agatha’s dimensions marked down on a sheet of rough paper. When the marks were finished, Carlena went to work. Agatha watched, since she hadn’t been told to leave, and was stunned by what was created.

The pale yellow leather portions would serve to cover her modesty, draping her breasts and mons like rays of opaque sunlight. A mottled gray-and-white fur stole draped the shoulders and ran loosely over the arms, attached to a collar at one end and wrist cuffs at the other. Agatha touched the fur, stroking it reverently before she met Carlena’s eye.

“Whose?”

“My daughter. She died in an accident.” She smiled sadly. “A human doctor attempted to save her life, but it was no use. He kept her lucid long enough for me to say goodbye, and to allow her to change one more time into her proper form.” She brushed her fingers over the coat. “The human doctor wept with me. It was when I knew I belonged here, that fate had taken my daughter while a human fought to preserve her life. I saved her pelt as a reminder and now I am honored that she will be part of his moment.”

“I am the one who is honored. Thank you, Carlena.”

The seamstress ducked her head in a quick nod, then turned away. “Will you require shoes or shall you take the vows barefooted?”

“Bare, I think.”

“I concur.”

Agatha turned at the familiar sound of Johanna’s voice. She wasn’t expecting the sight that awaited her, framed by sunlight in the doorway.

Johanna’s uniform was pristine, bright blues and blood reds darkened by the shine of new golden buttons. Her gaiters were too intact to be anything but new, solid and unpatched leather that covered her boots and the cuffs of her white trousers. Her hair had been braided at the sides and left long in the back. Agatha broke off her stare only to discover Johanna was subjecting her to the same examination.

Carlena cleared her throat politely, touching Agatha’s wild curls. “We still must fix the hair, of course.”

“No.” Johanna stepped into the room. “She would not be Agatha otherwise. You look amazing, my love.”

Agatha smiled and took Johanna’s hand.

Carlena said, “In that case, I believe we are ready.”

The seamstress escorted them to the church, their procession marked by girls who littered small yellow flower petals on the side of the road. The wind picked up most of them after they fell, swirling them up into the air as if eager to take part in the ceremony. Johanna was sweltering in her jacket, beads of sweat forming on her brow and upper lip, but she could bear the discomfort for the length of the ceremony.

The doors were held open for them and Johanna led Agatha inside. Two people suddenly blocked their path, standing shoulder to shoulder. From their dress, even Johanna could tell one was canidae and the other human.

The human spoke to Agatha. “Do you seek to do harm to this woman?”

“I do not,” Agatha said.

To Johanna, the canidae said, “Will you spill the blood of this canidae‘s pack?”

“It is not her pack. It is mine, and it is ours, and I would no sooner hurt one of them than I would my own family.”

They stepped aside and allowed Johanna and Agatha to advance. Another pair interrupted their progress.

To Agatha: “If harm is done to a human, will you seek to repair it?”

“I have spilled blood to save humans, and I would willingly do so again.”

To Johanna: “Do you join with this canidae of your own will and desire?”

“I swear.”

Again, they were allowed forward. The questions continued, and each time they avowed to protect not only each other, but their people. They asserted that their union was one formed by love. They swore to stand together in times of distress and pain, in sorrow and strife. When they reached the end of the aisle, Adam Aubrey and Sabine were the ones blocking their way. Adam Aubrey stepped forward and applied a garland to Agatha’s hair, while Sabine pinned a tulip to the lapel of Johanna’s uniform.

“These things you have promised to your partner before witnesses and the gods. May you be ever mindful of these vows as you continue through your lives.”

They stepped aside and allowed Johanna to lead Agatha to the altar. A priest in black robes and purple vestments gestured for them to kneel upon a bolster pillow at his feet. In front of the pillow were two grails filled with water, one in front of Johanna and the other in front of Agatha. A third, empty grail had been placed between the two. They knelt, and the priest took a wide strip of silk from around his neck.

“Please join hands.”

Johanna laced the fingers of her right hand with Agatha’s left. The silk draped the cuff of Johanna’s uniform blouse and bulged around Agatha’s leather armband. He cinched it gently, gripped their hands with both of his, then straightened and addressed the congregation. Johanna had been so intent on the questioning that she hadn’t noticed them before, but she looked back and saw the crowd was immense. Human and canidae sat together rather than separated by the aisle. She tightened her grip on Agatha’s hand, facing forward again. She could hear birdsong through the decimated roof overhead, and a breeze blew past to alleviate the heat of her uniform jacket.

“Welcome,” the priest said. “We have joined together on this day to witness not only the joining of Johanna Brion and Agatha of the Westreich pack, but of two species. Sapien and canidae brought together by love, bonded by love, made one by their love for each other. Today we shall witness the joining of our two peoples who have spent centuries at war with each other. This ceremony will not only join Johanna to Agatha, but it will cease generations of bloodshed.

“You have made this vow privately and in front of witnesses. And now here, in front of the Lord, the Gods, and the all-seeing eye of Heaven, if you feel in your hearts any doubt concerning this union, or if anyone present has cause, voice it now and enter into your marriage with honesty and truth.”

Johanna looked at Agatha, who had worry in her eyes. But as Johanna remained silent, Agatha’s expression calmed and she lifted her eyes to the priest once more.

“Swear you now that this union shall proceed?”

“I do so swear,” Johanna said.

“I do so swear.”

The priest leaned down, his head beside Johanna’s, and he whispered for her to repeat the words he said. She faced Agatha. “I, Johanna Brion, ask thee, Agatha of the Westreich pack, to be my mate. Accept my faults as well as my strengths, as I do accept yours. I ask for your strength and support when mine has failed as I promise you mine in return. All that I have and all that I am is yours.” She used her unbound hand to reach into the lapel of her uniform jacket and she withdrew a golden coin that had been split in half. “This coin symbolizes our love and serves to remind us of the vows we have shared on this day.”

“I accept it,” Agatha said softly.

The priest took the coin. Johanna and Agatha released their hands long enough that he could slip the coin between them. He bent forward next to Agatha’s head, and she repeated the vow. When she presented her half of the coin and Johanna accepted it, he placed it between their hands. He tightened the silk ribbon with another knot and then crouched and picked up the grails. He pressed the lips together over their joined hands.

“The two become one,” he said as he poured water, the two waves twisting around each other to form a single waterfall. It cascaded down and into the third grail. “Indivisible. Indefinable. A true whole. The two, once separate, are now blended. So are your lives.”

He discarded the two empty grails and lifted the third one. He presented it first to Johanna and Agatha, and they both reverently drank the water as it was tipped into their mouths.

“Water to water,” the priest said as they drank. “Soul to soul.”

He put the grail aside and put his hand on their cheeks. “I bless this union for as long as love shall last. You may seal your union with a kiss.”

Johanna turned to Agatha and kissed her. She could feel the coin in her hand, the edges where a sword had sliced through the metal sharp against the meaty part of her palm. She pulled back, a line of moisture from the water they had just sipped joining her lips to Agatha’s for a moment before it snapped. Agatha smiled, and then her face was dotted with flecks of blood.

The sound of the gunshot echoed through the church moments later, and Johanna saw a glimpse of the priest as he fell. Johanna pushed to her feet as did Agatha, as did the whole of the congregation, facing the people who had risen with weapons in their hands. Canidae… no. Wulves. Among their number she recognized Elijah, who had greeted them so coldly at the gate. Johanna bared her teeth and grabbed at the ribbon binding her sword arm to Agatha’s, but the water had shrunken the knot. She couldn’t waste valuable time trying to get it free.

“Agatha, take Dorothea.”

Agatha hesitated only a heartbeat before she drew Johanna’s sword in her unbound right hand. Johanna spun them both around and they charged forward into the fray. Johanna grabbed the first wulf she saw and flung him to the ground, following him down and kneeling on his chest. She bore all her weight down on his leg, her right arm extended painfully as Agatha remained standing and fended off attacks. When the wulf passed out from lack of air, Johanna grabbed his sword and stood to attack.

Explosions filled the air and Johanna smelled the stink of gunpowder. As the crowd dispersed, finding their escape through the broken windows, Johanna saw the flash of blades at the end of the weapons. The wulves were armed with bayonets as well as rifles and swords. She bared her teeth and lashed out at the first armed wulf she saw.

Agatha ventured too far to the right and nearly upended Johanna. “Stay with me, ‘Gath!” she shouted, not bothering to turn around to see if her words were heeded. Elijah moved toward the sound of her voice and with a cry of righteous anger, lifted his sword above his head. Johanna blocked it with her own blade and sent him toppling backward.

“Has there not been enough blood shed between our people?”

“Peace through abomination is not true peace! Your kind will see us weak and docile and slaughter us like the animals you believe us to be!”

Agatha said, “You are proving us to be animals! Beasts with no reason.” A blade sliced through Agatha’s leather dress, one half hanging down to reveal her bare breast. She sliced open the forearm of her attacker, who fell back with a howl. Blood flew through the church, creating pools on the stone floor.

Johanna lunged at Elijah as he brought his weapon around for another blow. She countered, forced a retreat, and brought the sharp edge of her sword down on his forearm with such force that his skin split with an explosion of thick red blood. His fingers went limp and he dropped his own weapon, eyeing the grievous wound she had just administered. Johanna slipped and felt a sharp jab of pain just below her ribs on the left side where she impacted a pew. Someone grabbed her shoulder and she looked back, saw intent to injure in the wulf‘s eyes, and thrust her sword into his gut. Her borrowed sword caught on something under her arm but she ignored it and spun back to see if Agatha needed her help.

Other canidae had joined the fight, and Johanna saw that a half-dozen wulves were lying in a bloody pile that blocked the church’s entrance. Dorothea’s blade was dull with red-black blood and gore, and Johanna stumbled slightly. The only thing that kept her upright was the fact she didn’t want Agatha to fall with her. She tasted copper and spit, adding a frothy spot of blood on the floor near her boots.

“I think part of my uniform has fallen loose.” Her words were slurred as she lifted her left arm and glanced down. Adam Aubrey cursed, so she looked down and saw that a rifle was sticking out of her side. She didn’t see how that could be possible, and then the numbness began to transform into pain and she realized. It wasn’t a rifle. It was a bayonet. She could feel the blade inside of her.

She winced, exhaled another frothy mixture of blood and air, and sagged against Agatha. She was gathered into the arms of those around her, human and canidae who had just fought to protect each other from harm. She looked into Agatha’s eyes as her vision dimmed and she smiled.

It worked.
#

Agatha put down her pen and rubbed the bridge of her nose. She had written the account planning to send it to Johanna’s grandfather, but she couldn’t bring herself to finish it. Would he blame her? He seemed an understanding sort, a man who had welcomed a canidae into his home despite what her kind had done to his family. But how could she confess this latest atrocity in a note delivered by a stranger? She would have to make the journey herself, confess in person, but she couldn’t leave Arys until–

There was a knock on the open door’s frame and she turned to see Warner on her porch. She had been waiting for his arrival for days, so she didn’t make him speak. She simply stood, pulled her cloak off the chair and draped it over her shoulders, and let him lead the way. She was still spending her nights in the house Adam Aubrey and Sabine offered them on their first night in town. She couldn’t say she had slept there; she hadn’t slept since the ceremony that had ended in so much spilled blood.

She followed Warner to the dark building near the town walls. Sabine Szanto was waiting outside and touched Agatha’s arm reassuringly as she passed. Agatha thanked her with a slight nod, focused on what would be waiting for her within.

The infirmary was a small room with windows on both sides of its single bed. Johanna was propped up by pillows, her skin ashen and pale except for the heavy black circles under her eyes. Agatha held her breath until those eyes opened and Johanna’s dry lips attempted a smile. Agatha dropped to her knees next to the bed, took Johanna’s hand, and brought it to her cheek.

“You’re awake. We were all so worried.”

“Sabine told me.” Each word seemed to be a trial. “Thought I was dead.”

“You very nearly were, my love. If you had been anywhere else, you would not have survived your injuries. You lost much blood from the injury, and during the subsequent operation to repair the damage done inside of you.”

“Blood…”

Agatha wrinkled her brow and looked at Johanna’s hand. “Yes. Canidae have long had a process of taking the blood from one person and transferring it to another. Some use this process to give children born without the ability to change the chance to be a true canidae. I gave them my blessing to do this with you, Johanna.”

Johanna’s eyes widened and her breath quickened. “I’m canidae?”

“No.” This was from Warner, the physician who had performed the procedure. “The amount of blood required for that to happen is… we would have had to replace all of your blood in order for you to worry about the Change.”

“But… one bite…”

“We don’t know why that is. You lost a lot of blood, true, but you have been healing. Your natural blood will overwhelm them canidae, and you will remain your true self. The donated blood only served to keep your alive long enough to replenish what was spilled.

“Donated?” Johanna asked, and she looked at Agatha.

Agatha shrugged. “I’d have given it all if it meant your life.”

“Thank you, my love.”

“I was worried you would be angry.”

Johanna shook her head weakly and closed her eyes. Agatha kissed her lips, wetting them with her tongue before she pulled back. Warner quietly suggested they let her rest, so Agatha reluctantly let go of her mate’s hand. She gathered her cloak tighter around her body and let the physician guide her to the door. She stopped before she left the room and looked back at Johanna. She smiled, silently wished her good dreams, and stepped out into the sunlight.

#

Johanna remained weak, but soon forced her way out of the bed. She paced the confines of her sick room, sometimes alone and sometimes with Agatha at her side. Her wounds had all healed, but her body was confused and frightened by the seemingly alien blood. But she could feel herself healing, could tell that she was on the mend. The temperatures grew more tolerable, and the sun became a friend once more. Johanna wore clothes borrowed from Sabine, her hair grown long and wild since her wedding.

One overcast day she heard the sound of wood being chopped nearby. She emerged from the infirmary, clutching her long-healed side like a child might cling to a security blanket. She watched as a group of canidae cut firewood nearby, wishing she could help them but knowing she wasn’t quite up to that level of exertion yet. Still, she had been helpless long enough. She shuffled forward and hailed the gray-haired man who seemed to be in charge. He was large, muscle turned to fat, and had a chin-strap beard that was groomed to a point at his chin.

“How can I help?”

He looked dismissively at her. “In your condition, by staying out of our way.” He turned his broad back on her and adjusted his grip on the ax.

“I have stayed out of the way long enough. I am not useless. Give me a task.”

He sighed and rested his hand on his hip before he walked over to her. He bent down and lifted a mess of loose kindling and tossed it at the ground in front of her.

“Bundle that. Small groupings. It’s usually a task reserved for the weakest members of the pack.” He turned away from her again.

Johanna fumed. “But what will you do, if I’m taking your task?”

He froze, and the other canidae around him fell silent. They stared at him for a long moment, and Johanna prepared her apology as one of the orange-haired men nearby snorted a laugh. The others around him took that as their cue, and the man turned to reveal a slight smile on his face. Johanna could tell from the lines on his face that he rarely offered more so she took the slight upturn as a gift. She crouched to gather the kindling and went to work bundling it.

#

On the night of the full moon, when Johanna was healed enough, she took Agatha away from the city proper. They were still within the walls of the village, but they were completely alone in the natural moonlight as Johanna undressed her mate in a quiet field. Agatha did the same for Johanna, kissing the peaked tips of her breasts, and lowered her to the dew-wet grass. As the moon trekked across the winter sky, canidae and sapien consummated their union.

#

They spent three months in Arys, welcome guests of the council that remained. The survivors of the attack on the church were interrogated until the names of all traitors were revealed, and those were run out of the city. The council members then set out to spread word that the hand-fasting had occurred. Human and Wolf had joined as one, and hostilities between the two could come to an end. Johanna knew they weren’t going to have an immediate peace, but she could feel an indefinable sense of relief the first morning she woke in her mate’s arms. She knew the hunters were tired of fighting, and that the canidae would lay down arms if they had nothing to fear from the human aggressors.

When they decided to leave, Adam Aubrey and Sabine held a celebration in their honor. They drank and danced, and gifts were exchanged. Johanna received a black leather vest and trousers, as well as a white dress shirt. When she woke the next morning she folded her restored uniform with the reverence it deserved and stowed it in her bag. Her wars were finally at an end; she no longer needed the reminder of her cause.

She found Agatha in the stable grooming Gunther. It didn’t occur to her that she’d never told Agatha she was planning to quit Ayrs that morning; she just assumed her mate would know. And there she was, dressed for travel in her shawl and leather boots, waiting as if Johanna was the one who hadn’t been told about their plans.

Johanna cleared her throat as she approached. “Afraid I would leave without you?”

“It has happened before,” Agatha said with a smile.

Johanna swallowed hard and looked at her boots. “When I left home, I did not ask you to follow me. And though you saved my life too many times to count, I never asked you to come with me on this journey. I’ve already made amends by confessing my love for you aloud, but now I must make one more thing right.” She put her hand on Agatha’s arm. “Come with me, Agatha. I do not want to go unless you are by my side.”

“And if I choose to stay here in Ayrs?”

“Then I will stay as well. If you will have me.”

Agatha stepped forward and drew Johanna’s arms around her. “You are my wife. My mate. Lead the way, my love.” She kissed Johanna’s chin, nose, and lips before stepping away. “I will finish preparing Gunther. You should go find Adam Aubrey and Sabine to let them know we are leaving.”

Johanna agreed and left the stable to alert their hosts to the imminent departure. The couple assured Johanna that she and Agatha were welcome back to Ayrs any time and escorted them to the town gates to say their farewells. The gates were closed behind them as they headed out, and a light snow began to fall. Agatha put on a coat, lifting the fur-lined hood to protect her face from the falling flakes. The previous night’s snow still covered the road, but the difference in depths showed the path through the woods back to the main road.

Johanna knew that if Agatha got too cold she would change into the wolf, so she didn’t suggest dressing warmer. She mounted Gunther’s saddle and clicked her tongue to start him off. Agatha fell into step to Johanna’s left, her usual position when they traveled together in this manner. As they walked in silence, Johanna noticed the crunch of snow under Agatha’s boots, and the birdsong in the trees and… there!, a crack as snow overwhelmed a branch and snapped it away from the tree. She smelled the leaves under the layers of snow, heard furtive movement of creatures scurrying through the underbrush. She smiled slightly as she listened to the cacophony. She might not be able to change, and perhaps these benefits would fade as her body produced its own blood to overwhelm the canidae transference, but for now she could enjoy the benefits of her saviors.

Agatha interrupted her reverie. “So where are we going, if there are no more of Simon’s disciples to hunt down?”

Johanna reached into the saddlebag and withdrew a book. She tossed it down to Agatha. “Sabine gave me that to read during my recovery.”

Kinder- und Hausmarchen,” she read off the cover. “Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. Who are they?”

“Brothers and researchers. They’ve written down oral histories of beasts, monsters, and villainous beings that have allegedly haunted Europe for ages.”

“Fairy tales,” Agatha said dismissively.

Johanna smiled. “Like wehrwulves?”

Agatha rolled her eyes.

“There are monsters other than canidae in these woods. Let us see if we can put an end to them, shall we?”

Agatha tucked the book back into Johanna’s bag. “As you wish, my mate.” She paused to take off her boots and put them in the back as well, Johanna looked back, smiled, and kept Gunther walking without slowing down. Agatha threw back her hood, tucking her arms into her shawl as she dropped to all fours. Moments later she shook out her fur, the cloak and shawl still wrapped around her, a pale-colored wolf charged past Gunther’s legs. He was far too accustomed to Agatha’s presence to be spooked, but he did pick up his speed so he would not be left behind.

Johanna smiled and urged him even faster, breaking into a gallop to keep Agatha in her sight as they raced through the woods.

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