Here's my take on this week's Author Aerobics: Pacing Challenge. I completely blew the rules this time. This went over my usual time limit, is a bit lengthy to be called as flash fiction, and I'm not sure how well I did with the pacing. Ahh well, you really want to read now it don't you? hehe At least I managed to stick to the theme. Enjoy ;)
by T. S. Bazelli
"I need to go." Rosalyn smoothed stray auburn curls back into place, but one look at Tom’s freckled smile, was enough to make her cheeks flush again. She closed her eyes, desperate to still the beating of her heart with a breath inhaled, but Tom caressed her face with the back of his hand, wickedly forcing her attention.
His grin was toothy, and the wideness of his mouth made him look so very young. "So soon, Red?"
"Grandma's waiting, and you promised to talk to my father today. I don't want to be late." She took a step away from more dangerous territory, and pinned a posy of lavender to her lapel. Tom wrinkled his nose and sneezed.
"That I will, but what if he refuses to give his blessing? I'm nothing, I'm no one."
"He won't." Rosalyn plucked her basket off a moss covered log, and buttoned her coat up tight. Already, away from the comfortable warmth of him, the autumn chill was already creeping into her bones.
“That confident, eh Red? I should at least bring your father a gift. Maybe a couple of fat rabbits?" He searched Rosalyn’s face.
“You don’t have to.”
“I do. It wouldn’t feel right to come along empty handed. I wish I could give him more. I wish I could give you more.” He shook his head, and with a single graceful movement, Tom slung a gray fur pelt over his shoulders. "I'll be waiting near the cabin at sundown." With his free hand, he pressed a black crested ring into Rosalyn’s palm. His fingers lingered, rough and warm.
"I can't take this." Rosalyn pressed her hands back towards him. “You need it.”
"I can’t think of anywhere safer to keep it. You already have my heart, why not the ring too?" He murmured, before the skin swallowed him whole. The gray wolf blinked its yellow eyes once at her, before it disappeared into a thicket of waxy leafed salal.
She sat for a few moments, alone in the forest, breathing in the scent of decaying leaves, and the dappled light of the sun. If there were worse things in the forest than wolves, she'd never seen them, and wolves she had no reason to fear.
Rosalyn crushed a few buds of dried lavender between her fingers, and rubbed her neck and arms, hoping to mask the scent of canine.
When she was satisfied, she picked her way carefully back to the path that led to her grandmother's cottage. She was humming when she arrived, and planted a kiss on her grandmother's wrinkled cheek.
"Oh child, you mustn’t come here alone. I thought I caught sight of a wolf while I was at my breakfast yesterday."
"Are you sure, Nana? Wolves don't usually come this close to the village. Maybe it was just a dog."
Her grandmother ushered her into the cottage. The yeasty smell of freshly baked bread wafted out. "Maybe it was just be an old woman's eyes playing tricks. Come before you catch cold."
Rosalyn unpacked wheel of cheese, a pot of fresh cream, and a jar of jam from her basket. A few crumbs of cake speckled the checked napkin, betraying a nibble she’d shared with Tom. She shook the cloth lightly, fearing that her grandmother's eyes were far sharper than she claimed.
Her grandmother fetched a browned loaf of bread from the pantry. There was nothing spare about her, still wiry and lean despite her age. She refused to come live in the village, to abandon the home she had raised her children in.
"Your father tells me you've been spending a lot of time with that young hunter Tomas."
Still sharp. Rosalyn felt the sting of her words. The accusation. She chose to remain silent as she set out two worn yellow plates.
"There's something strange about the man. Where did he come from? He has no family. He keeps to himself. I'd be careful around his sort, if I were you."
"He's one of the sweetest most decent people I know." Rosalyn sat down at the table, replying in the calmest voice she could muster.
"You're such a pretty one Rosalyn. Why not choose Louis, or Claude? They’re both such lovely boys."
The thought nearly made Roslayn snort in laughter, but she bit her tongue. Her father knew how she felt about Tom. He would give his permission, surely? She suddenly found herself feeling anxious as she stared out the window. The clouds were massing above the forest. The sky promised rain.
Silently, the two women nibbled at the buttered bread, and sipped tea. The only sound came from the wind in the trees, and later, the soft patter of rain on the wooden roof.
Rosalyn's stomach churned when she heard the knock at the door.
Her grandmother shoved her chair back. The noise of of the door creaking open grated on Rosalyn's ears. A rain dampened man entered the cottage. He tipped his hat and set his rifle down beside the door.
"Rosalyn, your father sent me to fetch you home." It was Louis, humorless, dark eyed.
"Charlie was headed up to Newford, when a wolf came out of nowhere and spooked his horse. It was lucky he didn’t break his back in the fall. He’s sure bruised up though.”
“What happened to the wolf?”
“Chuck managed to fire off a few shots. It ran off. Your father and some of the others have gone out after it. The farmers are afraid it might go after the livestock, being so close to the village and all."
“Mmm! I knew my eyes weren’t playing tricks on me.” Her grandmother shut the door, and ushered Louis into her seat at the table. "Why don't you have some tea with us Louis? There's no sense in rushing back to the village. A young man like you must be hungry." She patted his back, and left the two of them alone at the table.
Louis pushed back a chair, staring at Rosalyn as he sat, his face twisted pathetically. She avoided the eyes that judged, and listened to the rain rush up against the glass of the cottage.
A third yellow plate was placed on the table, and Rosalyn fingered the ring in her pocket. Stupid sentimental fool, she thought, as the rain pattered, and her grandmother inquired about Louis’ family.
"I don't feel very well. Do you mind if lay down for a while Nana, Louis? We can leave when the rain eases up."
Two mirrored glances of concern. Rosalyn excused herself, and made her way to the spare room at the back of the cottage. She crawled under dusty quilted covers, knowing she could not fall asleep. Nana appeared a few minutes later with a mug of peppermint tea. "It will help with your stomach dear. You do look a little pale. "
"Thank you Nana." Rosalyn sipped obediently, and waited until her grandmother shut the door behind her. The moment the latch clicked into place, Rosalyn was at the window. She wedged her body through the opening and she slipped out into the rain. Her quick footsteps were masked by wind.
She would never be fast enough. She realized, as she ran towards the edge of the village. The men had horses and guns, and she was running barefoot. She hiked up her petticoats, and scrambled over the trail towards Tom’s cabin, splashing up mud.
The windows were dark and her heart hammered in her chest, as she slammed her shoulder into the doorway.
Her eyes searched around the room in the dark. Tom didn't need the light, but she did. She stepped back, eye to eye with a smiling fox. She bit her lip. It was just a skin, she used her hands, to feel her way around the cabin, praying not to cut herself on tooth or claw.
The walls were lined with pelts. She tried to identify the texture of the fur beneath her fingers. Rabbit, fox, raccoon, bear. She paused at the last, tugging at the black mass. Claws clicked against stone floor. It’s weight confirmed her guess. It would do. She placed the ring on a handkerchief, and crawled under the bear skin.
Tom had shown her the trick to it, once. When the pelt was wrapped tightly around her, she reached out for the ring. At it’s cool touch, she felt the musky skin mould to her body, and swallow her up, petticoats and all.
She felt herself growing thicker, heavier, warmer, powerful. Teeth barred, she carefully gathered the edges of the handkerchief between her teeth, careful not to touch the ring a second time, and burst out of the door. It nearly came off its hinges.
There was no time to marvel at the feel of the dirt beneath her paws, nor the smells of forest creatures that came strong and unbidden. She did not tire as she ran through the woods, and crashed through bushes, moving faster than human legs could ever take her. Her breath was a giant's exhalation.
A crack of rifle fire startled her. Her ears twitched, and her body froze at once by instinct. She marked the direction it came from, and smelled horse upwind. Rosalyn barrelled through the bushes, and scrambled up onto the main road onto the road, startling the horses on the path.
She smelled blood, and ignored the shouts as she ran past them, vaguely noting her father's shape. Something hot pelted her backside. It was an irritation, a pin prick. She kept running.
She found the wolf several hundred meters away, licking a wound on in his side. Blood was thick in the air. Rosalyn spat the handkerchief to the ground near a bush, and with a touch of wet nose to ring, the bearskin shed away. She plucked the ring from the ground, half-stumbling towards the plaintive sounds of the wolf. In her human form, it hurt. Blood was running down her leg, but she grit her teeth and kept going.
She fell to her knees, beside the wolf and pressed the ring, to his muzzle, the pelt fall away around them as she snuggled into an embrace, exhausted. Tom, buried his nose in the sticky mess of hair at the base of her neck, breathing in the smell of her.
Two rabbits lay dead on the ground, just out of reach. She wanted to laugh. She wanted to cry.
"Rosalyn!" Her father's voice was so distant, foreign. She felt his shadow fall over her, as she lay curled in Tom's warmth.
Tom opened his mouth, but Rosalyn pinched him behind his back. "I was so afraid when the wolf swallowed me whole!”
"He saved me from the wolf papa," Rosalyn, bid tears to well up in her wide blue eyes, as she sat surrounded by the bloodied pelt. The remains of the wolf still looked fearsome in the dimming light.
“I was tracking the wolf, when a stray bullet grazed me. It's a good thing I came in time.” Tom nodded gravely.
"I could have killed you both." Her father, fell to his knees, and patted Tom on the back. Rosalyn watched him wince at the force.
Rosalyn smiled up at Tom, from behind water filled eyes, as he lifted her up in his arms. Their wounds would heal. "You're some woman, Red."
"He's not going to say no now." She whispered, smiling.
Tom slid the black crested ring onto one of her fingers. “I think you better keep this.”