“Peter! What are you doing boy?”
The shout, although muffled by the thick canvas of the wagon cover was still loud enough that Peter jumped in surprise and lost his place counting the boxes of goat cheese.
“I’m checking the stock Grandpa, just as you told me!” He bellowed in reply, tapping the end of his lead stick against his teeth and rolling his eyes in frustration. The stock check had already taken the better part of his lunch time in tedious and unnecessary work, leaving Peter irritable and squinted eyed with concentration.
“Don’t take that tone with me,” his Grandpa’s head appeared at the wagon entrance, a dark scowl creasing the already wrinkled face into a veritable map of crevasses. As a child Peter had imagined that there was enough skin on his Grandpa’s face to make a whole other person and managed to give himself nightmares for weeks.
“You may think you know everything with your birthday just passed, but I’ll tell you now; there’s a wide world out there that I’ve seen and you at a meagre eighteen haven’t- so pay attention when I’m speaking! There’s more than a fair share of trouble out on the borders this time of year and I’ll be the one to face your poor mother should, Gods forbid, the worst happen.”
It was the ninth time Peter had heard this lecture since they’d left the last farm five days earlier and closer to the hundredth since he’d first started working for his Grandpa at sixteen.
The old man snorted hard in response, his thick mustache quivering under a nose turned red and bulbous from windburn and cider. The pungent alcohol his Aunt pressed from tart winter apples was his Grandpa’s only vice and he took a barrel on every journey.
“You will be after you’ve sat watch tonight,” Peter opened his mouth to protest but was shushed instantly. “No arguments, Yan’s telling all and sundry that some of his birds have gone missing and Kitty thinks she’s seen someone creeping through camp the last few nights.”
“I bet that’s not all she saw, that gin Kitty brews is evil,” he couldn’t help replying with a shudder. He’d filched a bottle of the vile concoction in a fit of pique the previous year and swore never to touch it again after puking his guts up for days afterwards. For a while he’d sincerely wished for death while his grandfather had laughed and said it was time he became a man.
“Nothing wrong with a drink or two, lad. Besides, she doesn’t touch the stuff ‘till we’re clear past Alfertow. Wouldn’t risk it round here.”
His grandfather looked distant for a moment before his eyes snapped back to Peter, the almost white blue irises eerie and sharp in the half light of the wagon’s interior. Peter wondered if his own pale eyes looked as cold and strange as Grandpa’s often did and hoped not. That eye colour was the only physical feature they shared, for which Peter was eternally grateful. He was more than happy with his average height and the lean build he’d inherited from his father.
“Anyway, never you mind what Kitty gets up to,” the old man continued slowly. “I want you keeping guard tonight so finish up the stock check and get as much sleep as you can in here. Duckie won’t hardly notice a little more weight to pull.”
With a decisive nod his Grandpa dropped the wagon cover, leaving Peter to stare after him bemused and annoyed with a protest dying on his lips. He could count on one hand the number of times a night watch had been set in the past two years. It left him wondering if there wasn’t more going on than the weak excuse of Yan’s missing birds and Kitty’s phantoms.
Everything had been fine not even an hour earlier as the wagons had pulled up for some well earned lunch and Peter had gone to do the daily tally and checks – a pointless activity whilst on the road but Grandpa insisted. So what had he missed while turning over cheeses and counting boxes? Something important to be sure, which begged the question of why he hadn’t been told.
Getting it out of Grandpa would be a chore if not nigh on impossible. The old man was as tight fisted with secrets as he was with money. Of course, his grandfather wasn’t the only person in the caravan who made it their business to keep an ear to the ground. Merchants liked gossip better than any washer woman, he had learnt long ago how quickly rumours spread in a merchant caravan where they were traded more freely than gold.
Peter thought for a long moment, lead stick once again tapping at his teeth as he mulled over the some of the other folk he knew.
Kitty was out, the batty woman was half drunk at the best of times no matter what his Grandpa said. Yan would know but he made a point of ignoring anyone under thirty. Age, he said, bought sense and his time was too good to waste on the senseless.
Besides, he’d accused Peter of eyeing up his daughter when they’d first set out. It was an accusation that couldn’t be further from the truth but Peter wasn’t going to admit it was the burly labourer stacking a cart next to her who’d left his mouth dry and leggings tight. It wasn’t even a thought he entirely comfortable with himself.
There were two fur trappers, whose names Peter never quite managed to catch, but he quickly discounted the pair. This was the first year they’d joined the caravan and Peter found them intimidating at the best of times. Both were large, grim men who made little effort to mingle with the others; a motley group of traders and merchants. They had joined the gathering at Knoll Keep, as many did before making the long journey to Walthamstow along the Kingsway every spring for the Great Market.
Maybe one of cloth merchants, there was a large fellow called Redshaw – but Peter rarely spoke to him unless in passing. Who did he know that always seemed to have a finger on every secret?
Maggs, he thought suddenly and grinned.
Maggs, the herbalist, followed the caravan every year on the trade route to ply her wears and always listened carefully for news of trouble. She’d had a soft spot for Peter too, ever since he’d help fix the axel on her little cart. If there was something afoot then Maggs was the most likely to know and to share.
Peter decided to seek her out sooner rather than later and made quick work of the rest of the stock check, scribbling down box counts and noting the condition of the more delicate and valuable cheeses with long practiced ease. Chore completed, he slipped carefully from the back of the wagon and grabbed Duckie’s water bucket as he fed her a carrot. Fetching the cart horse a refill from the little brook by the road would make a convenient excuse if his Grandpa noticed Peter’s absence.
He slipped through the camp largely unnoticed and finally found Maggs sat not far from a cloth merchant’s wagon. She was sorting carefully through a box filled with little glass bottles, a hunk of half eaten bread balanced on a nearby note book.
“Afternoon, Maggs,” Peter called.
The woman glanced from her task with a warm smile and brushed wisps of white hair from her eyes.
“Peter my pet, what’s ailin’ you?” Maggs replied in a rich, thickly accented voice that belied her frail appearance.
“Nothing much, just seems like folk are a bit anxious today. Grandpa is talking about setting watch. Have you heard anything?” He asked, aiming for a casual tone but failing miserably.
Her amber eyes sharpened and twinkled slightly.
“Ohh, I hear all kinds o’ things. Poor old lass like me keeps an ear to the ground. For safety o’ course, I can’t be doing with gossip now can I? Deary me, no I can’t.” She grinned and patted the floor next to her.
With a snort at the theatrics Peter sat and she leant close, voice low.
“That bein’ said, there’s a whisper or two that some nasty beastie has been sniffing at the farms round bout these parts. Olds fools and nonsense says some- winter’s been hard and hunger makes folks funny in the head sometimes. But-” Maggs lent closer still, her fingers uncurling to display a little stoppered bottle with the word Wolfsbane scratched into the glass. "I’s travelled these borders longer than most."
Peter felt a chill run down his spin, raising hairs as it went.
“Maggs you don’t think-” He began with a frown but a warm wrinkled finger pressed to his lips cut him short.
“That Grandpa o’ yours, he’s a sharp man who knows what’s what for all he likes the taste of his apples a mite much. And him and me’s in agreement on this pet, there’s a fellwolf following the caravan. Has been for a day or so.” She sighed and picked up the bread from her notebook before taking a thoughtful bite.
Peter could only stare in shock. Fellwolves were the stuff of nightmare, a creature that could clothe itself in the guise of man to prey upon the unsuspecting. He’d always thought the stories a myth to frighten and titillate. He’d suspect Maggs was having him on, but the herbalist seemed deadly serious, if strangely unperturbed.
“I-I, what? What do we do? A Fellwolf, Maggs!” He spluttered.
The old woman rolled her eyes and sniffed.
“‘taint goin’ to eat you, nor nobody else neither if that’s what’s set you a panic. No, the problem is they’re right buggers for nicking things and this one’s already had a packet of dried willow bark off me.” Maggs smirked wickedly. “‘Course, once I’ve sprinkled a little of my special recipe here around it’s goin’ to wish it didn’t have no nose. That’ll teach it a lesson sure enough.”
“But, the stories Maggs! Everyone knows the beasts are killers!” Peter couldn’t believe how casual she seemed. Those mad folk who claimed to have seen a fellwolf said they were huge creatures. Something between a wolf and bear with grass coloured fur and a ravenous hunger for human flesh.
“Nonsense,” she tutted. “I come across more than a few and they aint no different than other folks, some good, some bad and some indifferent. And you can trust on this Peter lad, if there was a bad’un here about there’d be more than a goose or two missing. Trouble is they keeps hidden, people only knows the bad ‘cause thems the ones that slips their pretty skin to show the beastie inside.”
Maggs easy manner hardened and her amber eyes had grown intense.
“I met a bad’un once you know, looked like a right handsome gentleman right up until he didn’t, if you catch my meaning. Took a world o’ trouble to end him, but I ain't never been one to shirk a bit o’ hard work.” For a long moment the herbalist remained tense, her eyes searching Peter’s. Finally she grinned and took another mouthful of bread. “‘Course I was a younger woman then.”
“Anyways, I’d lay a crown upon our fellwolf friend bein’ a young’un. They send ‘em out to learn about blending in and other peculiarities I couldn’t speak of in polite company. A nice looking lad like yourself should watch where you makes your bed though, if you don’t want to help ‘im with some of that carnal learnin’.” She cackled, ruffling his mop of black hair and giving a salacious wink that had Peter’s cheeks flushing. No one of Maggs age should make faces like that, he was sure. It was downright unnatural.
“I-I need to get back,” he mumbled and stood, head spinning with all that had been said.
“Sure enough, pet. And be watchful, fellwolves love cheese and if there’s a word that describes your Grandpa then it’s skinflint. He’ll be livid if the blighter manages to get into your stock. It’ll look like a hen house after a fox has been in, only cheese rinds instead of feathers I ‘spect.”
The old woman waved him away but called after him with a laugh. “They ain't a fan o’ burdock if you can find some. Won’t touch the stuff for all the cheese in the world.”
Maggs’ laugh followed Peter all the way to the stream, her words echoing through his head. Fellwolf.
No wonder Grandpa hadn’t said anything. Who’d believe him? Not Yan or Redshaw that was certain. Peter didn’t really believe it himself but that didn’t stop him eyeing up everyone he passed and running through the list of supposed tells that gave a fellwolf in disguise away. No paw prints instead of boot prints and no missing shadows. A couple of men seemed a little overly hairy but the hair was in all the usual places and Peter didn’t want to inspect anyone too closely lest the creature was watching.
That was the most terrifying thought of all of course. It could be here amongst them and no matter what Maggs said, there was no guarantee it wasn’t a man eater biding its time until it picked the tastiest victim. She’d killed one herself once she’d said, one that had been harmless until it wasn’t. How many people had it killed? How long before Maggs had done the task of a brave man and hunted the beast down?
Nobody was safe, Peter realised with a shudder as he filled Duckie’s bucket and trudged back to the cheese laden wagon. Knowing that such a creature was stalking them even now, how could he ignore it and wait for it to turn on them the way Maggs seemed content to? The way his Grandpa must be waiting? His sense of dread grew with every step and as he placed the fresh water in front of the grateful cart horse Peter came to a terrifying conclusion.
He would have to kill the fellwolf.
Instead of sleeping Peter spent his afternoon in the wagon planning until he’d come up with a vague idea of trapping the beast. After that it hadn’t been hard to procure a length of sturdy rope. Grandpa always kept a coil of it in the back right corner of the wagon, along with a mallet and some wooden pins in case they lost a wheel. It had taken Peter an hour and some careful thinking to come up with an entirely different use and now hidden amongst the long grass and leaves of the camp floor was a fellwolf trap. Admittedly it wasn’t a great deal different than a rabbit snare, but it was at the very least a large rabbit snare and strong too.
The bait of choice was a small crate of the potent Durrington Blue, a cheese prized for its distinct flavour and pungent aroma. If fellwolves were the cheese lovers Maggs claimed they were then it should be an irresistible lure. That had been the idea anyway. Unfortunately the moon overhead indicated midnight had come and gone and there was still no sign of the beast.
Peter had been holding a silent and increasingly uncomfortable vigil since biding his Grandpa a terse goodnight a few hours earlier. The carts and wagons of the caravan had formed two loose circles around the central fire pit and the old man had joined the others in bedding down as close to the embers as possible. Peter was left alone on the outskirts and was increasingly aware of how far from help he would be.
Every sound the bitter night wind carried had him tense, heart pounding and grip painfully tight on the length of rope in his hand. But nothing came. Nothing but the creep of the early spring chill through the blankets he’d carefully cocooned around his body as he sat inside the wagon and peered through a slit in the canvas.
With a shiver Peter rolled his shoulders and wiggled his toes to get his blood flowing again. He was fairly certain that if he didn’t move soon he was going to lose feeling in his feet permanently. But as much as his head knew he needed to stand, his tense body said any movement at all and it would know. The fellwolf. It could be watching him now, waiting for that instant of distraction to leap and tear and maim.
It was irrational, that cloying fear. But it still took nearly an hour to persuade his body to shift, inch by inch, from a crouch to crossed legs. The immense relief was ruined within moments though, by the sound of a branch cracking under something heavy.
Peter’s heart leapt to his mouth and he swallowed it back as his hands lifted slightly, ready for action, when a small fox padded across his narrow field of vision. It stopped to sniff at the cheese crate and Peter very nearly gave the plan up at that moment, almost succumbing to frustration and throwing his boot at the cheeky little opportunist. He was about to snag the laces when something else drove the fox away.
Something large and man shaped.
Later he would swear that every hair on his body stood on end in the moment between realising the fellwolf was at hand and springing the trap. Peter’s arm almost seemed to move of its own accord. Hours of tension unleashed so fast that his mind was still struggling to make sense of the figure before him even as the rope closed about his prey’s legs and hoisted its struggling form into the air.
Hurriedly he secured the rope and kicked the tangle of blankets from his body. His Grandpa kept a very sharp, very long knife to cut the wax on cheddar wheels and Peter found his fingers clenched around the bone handle as he jumped to the ground. The moonlight and a scattering of camp torches provided more than enough light for Peter to know he’d caught the right creature, because although upside down and struggling he could see a man he didn’t recognise. Someone, or more likely, something that was not a trader or a merchant with the caravan.
“Fellwolf,” he whispered.
The struggling stopped immediately and the creature’s head whipped round to stare at him. Its eyes reflected the light of the moon for a moment and Peter felt his spine prickle. The face was very human, youngish looking – though older than Peter in appearance – and handsome, square jawed and straight nosed with thin, wide lips. Whilst he knew Maggs story should have prepared him, Peter still felt his breath rush from his lungs at the sight and his stomach clench in surprise.
He jerked in shock. It had spoken. Gods bloody above. They could speak like men too – he’d never heard of that before.
“Please, I-I did not mean any harm.” It stuttered, voice rough and low. Animal.
“I know what you are. Your kind are man eaters,” Peter said in a panting whisper, his legs trembling as he stepped closer. He was careful to keep an arms length away but the realisation that he had no real idea how to kill something that appeared so fundamentally human was rapidly dawning.
“No, no. I do not know what you mean,” it protested, head craning at an awkward angle to better view its captor.
“Yes you do, you wear a false face then hunt us in the dark,” Peter swallowed heavily and tried to bring up the knife but could barely force his arm to twitch. “You’re a fellwolf, I know it and I won’t let you kill anyone here.”
“A fellwolf? There is no such thing!” The creature choked, but the protest was weak and would have been unconvincing even to a sympathetic ear. Peter gave a shaky half laugh in reply and licked at his dry lips.
“I am not a threat, I swear. I would never…it is forbidden…” Its protests trailed off for a moment. “I was just curious.”
Peter started at the resigned whisper and frowned. It sounded so honest in that moment that he forgot himself and took that final foolish step forward.
In an instant it was upon him, strong fingers closed around his neck and around his wrist, jerking him forward to his knees. Peter gasped and found himself eye to eye with the man shaped beast, faces only inches apart.
“I could kill you now,” it growled. “If I wanted to, I could snap your spine or tear out your throat.”
Peter knew he had begun to shake but couldn’t even close his eyes as it leaned closer still, its grip so tight he could hardly pant for breath.
“I will not though.”
And as suddenly as he’d been captured, he was released – free and alive. Still shaking and kneeling, certainly, but that terrible pressure around his throat was gone. Instead Peter found himself staring into a pair of dark, serious eyes. Blinking he scrambled backwards and to his feet, mouth opened to speak but unable to force any words out.
“I-I,” he stuttered, glancing at the knife still clenched in his fist then back to the fellwolf in confusion.
The creature remained silent and still but for the gentle sway of the rope. He knew what it wanted though and bit at his lip as he struggled to make sense of the situation. The fellwolf was dangerous, he knew, and clever too. But was it a killer? Maggs hadn’t thought so.
A short but terrible conflict took place between the young man and his conscience before Peter took a halting pace back towards the wagon and griped the rope line. It took only a few decisive cuts before it snapped, sending the fellwolf to the floor with a painful sounding thud. The creature lay there for a long moment, so still that Peter had the terrible thought it had perhaps fallen on its neck and died. Then slowly it let out a low groan and rolled onto its back.
“Thank you,” the beast muttered, voice so low he barely caught the words. It sat up carefully, rubbing long fingers through a tangle of dark, curling hair and kicking the noose from its legs.
Peter nodded and sat down as his legs gave way, letting the knife tumble from his grasp. Frankly if the fellwolf ate him now it would be a relief.
“How did you know what I was?” It asked quietly and came up on its hands and knees smoothly, prowling – there could be no other description for the sleek, predatory movement – towards the place where he sat and shivered.
The creature pushed its all too human face against Peter’s until their noses touched, breath hot and eyes intense.
“The geese,” Peter breathed with trembling lips, feeling what he was sure would be the last moments of his life stretching taunt.
“The geese,” it mouthed back at him, tilting its head to the side and running a considering gaze up and down his body. In the half light and shadows it looked no different than any young man, fresh faced and smooth skinned and far prettier than a monster had the right to be.
A strange kind of calm overtook Peter in that moment, as if his mind had finally decided that, with death highly probable, it would at least be fair to allow a minute free from fear. Instead he felt a hot flash of anger and shoved the beast hard, sending it sprawling backwards.
“You stole from Maggs too and she knows all about your kind. She killed a man eater before and she can do it again!” He whispered fiercely.
It stared at him from its ungraceful heap with wide eyes flashing white in the dark for a long moment and Peter became deaf to everything but the heavy pounding of his blood in his ears. But, even as he prepared for the inevitable pounce, its false face split into a broad and unexpected smile.
“I like you,” it grinned. “What is your name?”
“W-what?” Peter blinked, flustered. The question was not even remotely in the list of terrifying responses he had envisioned scant seconds ago.
It flipped to its hands and knees once more and was prowling close again. This time he had the sense to edge away from its advance, scrambling back until he found himself pressing against one of the large wooden wagon wheels. Trapped.
“I am called Vas,” it said and paused, hands braced on either side of Peter’s head and knees pressed to his shins.
“Peter, my name is Peter,” he couldn’t help but reply and was rewarded with another strange smile.
“That is a strong name. It is a good match. You have strange eyes, they are good too I think.”
Peter opened his mouth but couldn’t think of a single reply. He wondered if fellwolves practiced some kind of strange magic or hypnotism to lure the unwary.
“Peter,” it said, tasting the word. “Peter.”
“I-” he began to reply when the fellwolf took hold of his chin and firmly dragged him forwards until they were once again nose to nose. There was an intoxicating musk about the creature and Peter swallowed hard. How very easy it might be to forget that the firm body held an animal inside.
“Vas,” he whispered helplessly, entranced and disgusted with himself for it.
The fellwolf turned his head slowly to the side and pressed closer still, straddling Peter’s lap until they were hip to hip and chest to chest. Despite the danger, or maybe in even because of it, Peter felt his wretched body start to stir and cursed its treacherousness. The beginnings of shameful arousal coiled tightly in his belly as Vas’ mouth pressed over the wildly throbbing artery in his neck and Peter flinched out of instinct. But instead of the vicious tear of teeth he felt the soft and unexpected caress of lips slipping up the column of his throat and jaw.
“Your taste is also good,” Vas breathed against Peter’s ear, sending a spike of unwelcome heat through the young man’s tense body.
“You-you’re not human,” Peter managed to gasp through the lusty fog slowly smothering all thought. “Fellwolf.”
“Sometimes I am not human,” Vas agreed and tilted his head to look Peter in the eye. “But for now I am.”
With a truly predatory grin the fellwolf bent back to its task, licking and nibbling along Peter’s neck and jaw as he gasped and arched at the new intense sensations. He’d had some small experience with canoodling and rutting and other bedroom secrets. But a few fumbling caresses with farmers daughters and one or two breathless kisses shared with a shy boy at a tavern had done little to prepare Peter for the sheer sensory onslaught Vas’ mouth was causing.
It was wrong, he knew, that his prick was stiffening in his leggings. But he could barely gather his scattered brain sufficiently to breathe, never mind protest. And God but it felt good. Peter felt his hands rise of their own accord and sink into the fellwolf’s thick hair, clenching and needing at the surprisingly silky tangle. Slowly, helplessly he urged the hot lips higher until Vas crested his chin and their mouths met in a clash of urgent tongues and teeth. Resistance fled under the press of want and need and a firm, hot body so close that Peter couldn’t tell whose heart he felt beating.
“Is your taste good everywhere Peter?” Vas asked, breaking the kiss with a panting grin and sitting back slightly.
The comment woke Peter’s addled brain and with a rough growl he shoved the fellwolf away once more.
“B-be gone!” He stuttered and rolled to his feet, eyes searching for the dropped knife.
But Vas was too quick for him and in an instant had Peter pressed against the wagon side once more, white teeth glittering in the moonlight.
“If I go will you catch me tomorrow too?” The fellwolf breathed against Peter’s ear, sending a shudder down his spine.
“No,” he gasped in reply. “N-next time I’ll kill you!”
Something hot and wet slipped across his cheek and Peter realised the beast was licking him.
“But you’ll have to catch me first, yes?” It growled softly. “I think this game will be good. Good Peter, good Vas and good fun.”
He was silenced by the fleeting press of the fellwolf’s mouth against his own before Vas was gone, vanishing into the shadows between the trees. For a moment Peter swore he saw the flash of a long tail in Vas’ wake and raised trembling fingers to his lips. Great Gods above and below. He wasn’t even sure what had just happened but the lingering dampness across his mouth raised a chill that sent Peter crawling back to his blankets. He only paused to find the knife and shove the cheese back in its corner.
A wave of exhaustion struck hard as he sat but it was difficult to blink, let alone sleep, in the aftermath of his confrontation with the creature he’d plan to kill. Peter’s thoughts whirled in dizzying patterns, repeating every moment of the brief encounter over and over until he felt sick with thinking and the night faded to the soft grey of dawn. What did the beast, Vas, want with him? Nothing innocent it seemed, but then he’d come to no real harm despite opportunity. A game, the fellwolf had called it, and Peter wondered just what the rules were. He couldn’t help but remember the heat of a lean body pressed against his own. Perhaps the creatures liked to play with their food before they struck? He swallowed hard. Did Peter want a fellwolf to play with him?