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The Silver Wolfby Alice Borchardt
The sun was going down. The fiery circle shone past the acanthus-crowned columns of a ruined temple. They cut the incandescent ball into slices of red radiance. Almost night, the girl thought. She shivered in the chill autumn air gusting through the unglazed casement window.
It was barred--heavily barred. One set of bars ran horizontally, the other vertically. They were bolted into the stone walls of the tiny room.
She knew she should close the window. She should reach out through the bars, pull the heavy shutters shut, and seal them with the iron bolt. But she pushed the idea out of her mind with a sort of blind obstinacy. The sight of freedom, even an unattainable freedom, was too sweet to give up.
Not yet, she told herself, only a little longer. Not yet.
The air that raised goosflesh on her arms was sweet to her nostrils. Oh no, more than sweet. Each vagrant increase in flow, each slight change in direction, each passing movement sent images to the deepest part of her mind.
She could sense the fragrance of thyme. The delicate scent was mixed with the heavy smell of wet marble and granite. These scents and others stood out against the tapestry of odors given off by the flowers and greenery that cloaked the ruined palaces and temples of the ancient emporium.
The vast restless spirit of this place, the greatest of all empires, seemed at last brought to rest at the soft hand of the great green mother herself.
Regeane hadn't known what to expect of the once-proud mistress of the world when she'd come to Rome. She didn't expect what she found.
The inhabitants, descendants of a race of conquerors, lived like rats squabbling and polluting the ruins of an abandoned palace. Oblivious to the evidence of grandeur all around them, they fought viciously among themselves for what resources remained. Indeed, little was left of the once-vast river of gold that flowed into the eternal city. The gold that trickled in these days gilded the altars of the churches and the palms of papal officials.
Regeane's mother, desperate to save her daughter's soul, pawned what few jewels she had left. The money paid the bribes necessary to obtain a papal audience and finance the equally expensive papal blessing.
Regeane had gone into the awesome presence, her body drenched in a sweat of terror. If her ailing mother said the wrong words to the church's leading prelate, she might find herself being burned or stoned as a witch. But, as she approached the supreme pontiff, she realized just how foolish her fears had been.
The man before her was a ruin. Ready to be taken by age and sorrow. She doubted if he understood much of anything said to him. Weeping, her mother implored the intercession of God's chief minister on earth with the Almighty. As the ever-dutiful Regeane knelt, she kissed the silken slipper and felt the withered hands pressed against her hair.
In addition to the thick smell of incense and Greek perfume that pervaded the room, she detected the musty, dry smell of aging flesh and human decay.
God, it was powerful. He is ready to die, she thought. He will go to speak on Mother's behalf to God in person very soon. However, she knew this blessing, as all other blessings her mother, Gisela, had traveled so far and squandered so much of her wealth to gain, would do no good.
This was the end. Regeane knew it. She was frightened. If the pope himself could not lift this strange curse from her and let her live as a woman, to which earthly power could she turn? More to the point, to which power could her mother turn?
Gisela was fading as quickly as the only-too-human man on Saint Peter's throne. Though a comparatively young woman, Gisela was worn down by the fruitless journeys she had taken with Regeane and by a secret sorrow that seemed to fill her mind and heart with a bottomless wellspring of grief.
Regeane lied. Her mother believed. And for the first time in many years, Regeane felt the tiny woman who had traveled so far and borne so many burdens was at peace. Regeane's lie carried Gisela through till the end.
Three days after the papal audience she had gone to awaken her mother and found Gisela would never wake again--not in this world.
Regeane was alone, staring through the bars.
She watched with greedy eyes as the sun became a half circle that faded into a glow silhouetting the tall cypresses of the Appian Way. The deep blue autumn twilight emerged. Then, and only then, did she turn from the window and wrap herself in an old woolen mantle and return to her pallet bed. With the exception of the low bed and a small, covered, brown terra-cotta pot in the corner, the room was bare.
Regeane sat on the bed, her shoulders against the stone wall, her legs dangling, head thrown back, eyes closed. She waited silently for moonrise. The silver disc would be lifting itself above the seven hills now. Soon, very soon, its journey across the sky would bring it to her window where it would throw a pool of silver light on the floor. Ignoring the cross-hatched black lines of bars, she could drink at that pool, allowed once more to breathe in the air of freedom.
The door to the outer room slammed shut. Damnation. The girl on the bed scoured her mind for oaths. No...curses. As a young girl, she was never allowed to speak them, but she could think the words. And she often did. Oh, how she did when those two were present. There were worse things than loneliness. Overall, Regeane felt she preferred silence and emptiness to the presence of either her Uncle Gundabald or Hugo, his son.
"I pissed blood again this morning," Hugo whined. "Are all the whores in this city diseased?"
Gundabald laughed uproariously. "All the ones you find seem to be. It's as I told you. Pay a litte extra. Get yourself something young and clean. At least young--so all the itching and burning a few days later are worth it. That last you bought was so old, she had to ply her trade by starlight. What you save on whores goes out in medicines for crotch rot."
"True enough," Hugo said irritably. "You always seem to do better."
Gundabald sighed. "I'm sick of instrucing you. Next time, retain a bit of sobriety and get a look at her in a good light."
"Christ, it's cold in here," Hugo said angrily. A moment later Regeane heard him shouting down the stairs for the landlord to bring a braizer to warm the room.
"It's no use, my boy," Gundabald told him. "She's left the window open again."
"How can you stand it?" Hugo grumbled. "She makes my skin crawl."
Gundabald laughed again. "There's nothing to worry about. Those planks are an inch thick. She can't get out."
"Has she ever..." Hugo asked fearfully.
"Oh, once or twice, I believe, when she was much younger. Then I took matters in hand. Gisela was too soft. That sister of mine was a fine woman--she always did as she was told--but she was weak, my boy, weak. Consider the way she wept over that first husband of hers when the marriage was so abruptly...terminated."
"She divorced him?" Hugo asked.
"Ah, yes," Gundabald sounded uneasy. "To be sure, we told her to divorce him. She had no choice in the matter. Even then, everyone could see Charles' mother was becoming a power at court. There were many well-endowed suitors for Gisela's hand. The second marriage was much better--it made us all wealthy."
"Now all that's gone," Hugo said bitterly. "Between you and Gisela, if our coffers have a miserable copper in them we're lucky. You always wanted to rub shoulders with the great magnates of the Frankish realm. In order to do that, your shoulders had to be covered with velvet and brocade. And, oh yes, the magnates wanted to feast. Worse than a horde of vultures, they swarmed over your household devouring everything in sight. And like vultures after the carcass was picked clean, they departed in a cloud of stink and were never seen again.
"Whatever they missed, Gisela laid hands on, squandering it on relics, shrines, blessings, and pilgrimages, trying to lift the curse from that wretched brat of hers. You told me to get myself something younger. I've a good mind to pay that cousin of mine a visit...by day of course and--" Hugo screamed. "Father, you're hurting me."
Gundabald's reply was a snarl of fury. "You so much as touch that girl and I'll save us both a lot of trouble and expense. I'll slice off your prick and balls. You'll be the smoothest eunuch between here and Constantinople. I swear it. She's the one and only asset we have left and she--must --marry. Hear me!"
Hugo howled again. "Yes, yes, yes. You're breaking my arm. Oh, God. Stop!"
Hugo's howling ceased. When he did speak, he sniveled sarcastically. "Who would marry that...girl?"
Gundabald laughed. "I can name a dozen right now, who would kill to marry her. The most royal blood of Franca flows through her veins. Both her father and mother were cousins of the great king himself."
"And those same ones who'd kill to marry her will run a sword through both you and the girl the moment they find out what she is."
"I don't understand how you are the fruit of my loins," Gundabald snarled. "But then your mother was a brainless little twit. Perhaps you take after her."
Despite the sadistic nastiness of Gundabald's voice, Hugo didn't rise to the bait. Most of the people around Gundabald quickly learned to fear him. Hugo was no exception.
Gundabald continued, "You liked the way we lived well enough when we were in funds. Vultures, eh! That's the pot calling the kettle black. You fucked all night, fed all day, and drank the clock 'round with the best of them. Shut up! Leave things you don't understand to your elders and betters. And send for some food and wine--a lot of wine. I want my supper, and I want to forget what's in the next room."
"It was a mistake to bring her here," Hugo said. His voice was high and nervous. "She's worse than ever."
"Christ Jesus! God!" Gundabald roared. "Even a dumb animal has the sense to do what it's told. Dolt with the brains of a cobblestone! Shut up and at least get the wine. My God! I'm dying of thirst."
Marry, she thought listlessly. How could she marry? She didn't believe even a snake like Gundabald would connive at something so dangerous, or succeed if he tried. Her mother still had a little land left in Franca, a few run-down villas. They generated only enough money to feed and clothe the three of them. But nothing she was heir to would be enough to attract the attention of any of the great magnates of the Frankish realm.
As for her relationship to Charles--a rather distant connection to his mother--a king beginning already to be called the great. The dear lady, Bertrada, had never even for one moment acknowledged Regeane's existence. In fact, one of the things that endeared Bertrada to King Peppin the Short was that she was followed by a whole tribe of relations. They approached the court ready to swing their swords for church and king. However, their odd wagon load of loot managed not to fall into the king's treasury.
Regeane was not distinguished--she had nothing to offer. She was a woman--poor and not beautiful. She didn't think there would be many seeking her hand in marriage. Yet if Gundabald could find some poor mope to swindle, she had no doubt he would auction her off without the slightest compunction and then leave her to her fate. Regeane just didn't think he would find anyone. Besides, Gundabald had, as they said, a hot throat and a cold prick. He wanted to cool the one and heat the other as frequently as possible. To indulge himself he needed what little money came in from her estates. He would certainly sell her, but not cheaply. It remained to be seen if he could get his price. At the moment, she couldn't bring herself to care much one way or the other.
When the papal blessing proved fruitless, the thread of hope that had drawn her across the Alps and sustained her in the difficult journey to Rome...failed.
Gisela's death had been the final blow. She had been her daughter's only protection against a world that would destroy Regeane in an instant if it so much as guessed the girl's secret--and against the worst excesses of Gundabald's greed. She had been Regeane's only confidant and companion. Regeane had no other friends, no other loves. She was now abandoned and utterly alone.
Dry-eyed, Regeane had followed her mother's body to the grave. She was overcome by a despair so black, it seemed to turn that bright day into bitter night.
Now a faint silver shadow appeared against the blackness of the floor.
There is nothing left but moonlight, Regeane thought. Drink it, drown in it. She will never reproach me. I will never see her tears again or suffer because of them. Whatever may become of me, I am alone.
She stood, stripped off her dress and shift, and turned toward the silver haze.
The gust from the window was icy, but pleasure wouldn't exist without the sharp bite of pain. Even the brief flash of orgasm is too intense to be absolutely pleasurable. The cold caress was seduction, the quick cruel touch that precedes pleasure.
Regeane went forward boldly, knowing that in a moment she would be warm. Naked, she stepped into the silver haze.
The wolf stood there.
Regeane was, as wolves go, a large wolf. She had the same weight as the girl, over a hundred pounds. She was much stronger than in her human state--lean, quick, and powerful. Her coat was smooth and thick. The pelt glowed silver as it caught the moonlight on its long guard hairs.
The wolf's heart overflowed with joy and gratitude. Regeane would never have admitted it in her human state, but she loved the wolf and, papal blessing or not, she would never let her go.
From the bottom of her heart, she reveled in the change. Sometimes, while in her human state, she wondered who was wiser, she or the wolf. The wolf knew. Growing more beautiful and stronger year after year, the wolf waited for Regeane to be ready to receive her teaching and understand it.
The silver wolf lifted herself on her hind legs and, placing her forepaws on the window sill, peered out. She saw not just with eyes as these maimed humans did, but with sensitive ears and nose.
The world humans saw was like a fresco--dimensionless as a picture painted on a wall. To be believed in by the wolf, a thing had to have not only image, but smell, texture, and taste.
Ah God...how beautiful. The world was filled with wonder.
The rain must have come in the evening. The wolf could smell the damp, black earth under the green verdure as well as mud churned up by horses' hooves in a nearby lane.
The woman hadn't noticed it. She'd spent the day wallowing in her grief, mourning her mother. For this she earned a brief flash of contempt from the wolf. But the wolf was too much a creature of the present to dwell on what was past. She was grateful for each moment. And this was a fine one.
Usually in Rome, the scent of man overpowered everything else. The effluvia of stale perspiration, the fetid raw sewage floating in the Tiber, the stench of human excrement which--even by comparison to that of other animals--is utterly vile. All these filled the air and pressed in around her. Overlaying them all were the musty omnipresent evidence of human dwellings--stale wood smoke, damp timber, and stone.
But not so tonight. The sharp wind blew from the open fields beyond the city, redolent of dry grass and the sweetness of wild herbs growing on the hillsides near the sea.
Sometimes the fragrant winds from the Campagna carried the clean barnyard smells of pig and cattle, and faintly, the enticing musk of deer.
The night below was alive with movement. The cats that made their homes among the ruins sang their ancient songs of anger and passion among forgotten monuments. Here and there the slinking shape of a stray dog met her eye; occasionally, even furtive human movement. Thieves and footpads haunted the district, ready to prey on the unwary.
Her ears pricked forward and netted what her eyes could not see--the barely perceptible thump of a barn owl's wings in flight, the high, thin cries of bats swooping, darting, foraging for insects in the chill night air.
The rush and whisper of the hunters and the hunted, silent until the end. The agonized death cry of a bird, taken in sleep on the nest by a marauding cat, rent the air. The chopped-off shriek of a rabbit dying in the talons of an owl followed.
Those sounds and smells, and many others, were woven together by her wolf senses into a rich fabric of unending variety and everlasting delight.
The silver wolf dropped her forepaws to the floor with a soft, nearly inaudible cry of longing. Then her lips drew back from her teeth in a snarl at the sound of voices in the other room.
Hugo and Gundabald ate. The wolf's belly rumbled with hunger at the smell of roast meat. She was hungry and thirsty, longing for clean water and food.
The woman warned her night side to rein in her desires. She would get nothing.
The wolf replied. For a moment they were both gone--the woman from her prison, the wolf from her cage. The wolf stood beside a clear mountain lake. The full moon glowed silver in the water. All around the lake, black trees were silhouetted against mountains glittering white with unending snow.
The memory faded. The wolf and woman stared at the locked door.
The wolf and woman both understood imprisonment. Regeane had spent most of her life behind locked doors. Long ago, she'd learned the punishing futility of assaults on oak and iron. She ignored what she couldn't change and bided her time.
They were speaking of her.
"Did you hear that?" Hugo asked fearfully. Hugo's hearing was better than Gundabald's. He must have heard her soft cry of protest.
"No," Gundabald mumbled through a mouthful of food. "I didn't and you didn't either. You only imagined you did. She seldom makes any noise. That's one thing for which we can be grateful. At least she doesn't spend her nights howling as a real wolf would."
"We shouldn't have brought her here," Hugo moaned.
"Must you start that again?" Gundabald sighed wearily.
"It's true," Hugo replied with drunken insistence. "The founders of this city were suckled at the tits of a mother wolf. Once they called themselves sons of the wolf. Ever since I found out about her I've often thought of that story. A real wolf couldn't raise human children, but a creature like her..."
Gundabald laughed raucously. "A fairly tale made up by some strumpet to explain a clutch of bastard brats. She wasn't the first and won't be the last to spin a yarn to protect herself."
"You won't listen to anything." Hugo said petulantly. "She's gotten worse since we came here. Even while her own mother was dying she..."
The silver wolf's lips drew back. Her teeth gleamed in the moonlight like ivory knives. Even in the wolf's heart, Hugo's words rankled.
The smoldering anger and the brief, sad rebellion were pointless. The locked door stood between her and her tormentors. The barred window remained between the magnificent creature and freedom.
She began to pace as any caged beast will, obeying the wordless command: Stay strong. Stay healthy. Stay alert. Fear not, your time will come.
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