Lone(ly) Wolf

A lone grey wolf howls in a forest. Photo by Jason Renfrow Photography.

Wolf did not howl much any more.

Why would he? What point would there be when there was no one left to answer him? Oh the village dogs wailed to the moon every now and then but it was but a pale imitation of the pack song he longed to hear. He was an anomaly, allowed to remain only because the Wildwood needed him. The last wild wolf had died centuries before and whilst there were still wolves in some of the zoos scattered across the country none were within range.  

Wolf did, of course, howl when the Wildwood required it of him; when he became the “Big Bad Wolf” of the stories, or if the tale that was unfolding between the trees needed something to make the humans involved shiver with fear. That wasn’t a proper howl, though, it contained no information about him, his surroundings or his friends. It was merely an eerie ululation that shared nothing more than that Wolf was exceptionally good at his job. 

Tonight, though, he was howling in earnest. 

Every Villager still outdoors froze as the first piercing note wavered through the dusk, sending a chill through bodies already cold from the snow. As the howl lifted and loudened, dropped away and then began again they shook themselves free of their initial fear and hastened their steps, shooting nervous glances all around until they reached home. Those already in their houses checked windows and doors were shut and dragged curtains closed, blanketing themselves in the trappings of safety. No dogs joined in, too cowed to do more than press themselves against their owners, shoving soft muzzles into shaky hands; a mute demand for mutual comfort. 

Wolf’s howling continued through the hours of darkness, flooding the air with such melancholy that the other inhabitants of the Wildwood found feather and fur wet with tears. Wolf’s song reaching into their hearts, touching those memories that had never quite healed. Most of them had no idea what could have upset Wolf so, and not even the few who thought they did dared venture out into the dark to ask. All any of them could do was sit and bear witness to a grief that sounded older than the Wildwood itself.

It was a long night.

As dawn crept between the trees so did the Witch, wrapped well against the cold and carrying a basket of supplies, making her way to the heart of the Wildwood. She found Wolf slumped at the centre of the grove, looking for all the world like a crumpled pile of ancient furs.

She said nothing, simply sank down next to him and busied herself making a fire with the logs and firebowl she’d brought for the purpose. By the time the flames were roaring and she’d poured the tea Wolf had sat himself up but would not look at her. 

‘Here.’ She placed a large, steaming mug in front of Wolf’s paws. ‘You must be cold, and I expect you’re parched after all that.’

Wolf made a noise half way between a growl and a snort but he picked up the mug and took a cautious sip. And then another. When the mug was empty he put it carefully back down on the ground and finally turned his head so she could see his face properly. 

‘I lost it.’

She didn’t say anything for a moment, just reached out and laid her hand over his paw. Many many moons ago, back when she had only recently become the Witch – having answered the Wildwood’s call and moved into the cottage mere weeks before – Wolf had turned up on her doorstep and begged for her help. You see no wolf is meant to be alone. They are pack animals, living together, hunting together, raising their young together. A lone wolf is a lost wolf and, more often than not, soon to be a dead wolf. And Wolf had been alone for very long time by the time she arrived. 

She had not given him what he asked for. 

Instead she’d encouraged Wolf to talk, to tell of her of the times past when he had not been alone and lost in sorrow. He spent hours talking at her fireside and she listened to every word, using quite a lot of magic as she did, capturing not just his stories but the Wildwood’s own memories of the times he described. Then she’d sent him home with a basket filled with cakes and treats and a promise that she’d visit soon, bringing something more permanent to help ease his pain.

It took her two weeks, an even more significant amount of magic, and a lot of help from Jeremy (the village clockmaker), but finally she had something she thought Wolf could use in the form of an ornate silver pocket watch. When opened the lid contained a miniature of the pack that he’d once called his own and the body contained not a traditional clock but a clock-like mechanism. A mechanism that would give Wolf back a little of what he had lost.

It was not a time machine. No magic in the world can do that. If she had to describe it she’d call it a memory portal, holding as it did everything that Wolf had shared with her, each individual remembrance built on and enhanced by the power of the Wildwood and her own magic to form a cohesive series of events, as real as they could be, that Wolf could access at will. It couldn’t be used continuously, needing winding for an hour’s used, so Wolf couldn’t lose himself in there forever but all he had to do was sit down somewhere safe and turn the hands and he’d be back with those he loved once more. 

She’d thought it might be lost at Wolf’s first howl and known she’d been right from the moment he sat up and she’d seen the broken chain dangling from his waistcoat pocket.

‘When did you last have it?’ she asked, giving his paw a comforting squeeze. 

‘It was still attached when the Wildwood called me three days ago. It was gone when the story ended yesterday afternoon. I’ve searched but …’

Wolf’s voice wobbled and he clamped his mouth shut, blinking hard.

The Witch was just about to explain that she should be able to find anything that contained her magic and they could go and look again, together, when there was a whoosh and a glimmer of light. The silver pocket watch landed neatly in front of Wolf and Magpie landed just as neatly on the other side of the fire. 

‘H-how?’ stammered Wolf, catching it up in his paws and examining every inch of it.

‘I am extraordinarily sharp eyed when it comes to shiny trinkets,’ Magpie said, ruffling his wings and then using his beak to settle his shimmering tail feathers into a pleasing shape. ‘And I knew what it meant to you. You’ll find it’s completely undamaged.’ 

Wolf closed his eyes for a moment, sniffed, then went to speak but Magpie forestalled him. 

‘No. Don’t thank me. I didn’t do it for you. I simply couldn’t take another night of broken sleep.’ 

Before either Wolf or the Witch could say another word Magpie had leapt into the air and, in a flash of feathers, was gone. 

‘Help me clear up,’ said the Witch, waving a hand at the fire to put it out, ‘and then we’ll go into the Village and get that chain mended.’ 

Wolf had shoved the mugs into the basket and was at the edge of the clearing before she’d finished the sentence. 

This is the first in a series of twelve stories I’m grouping under the title Flashes of Feathers, all set in the same Wildwood as the Twelve Tales of Flashmas. For more information about the whys and wherefores of this series please click on the master post link below:

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