Back | Next
Contents


Werehunter

Andre Norton, who (as by now you must be aware) I have admired for ages, was doing a "Friends of the Witch World" anthology, and asked me if I would mind doing a story for her.

Would I mind? I flashed back to when I was thirteen or fourteen years old, and I read Witch World and fell completely and totally into this wonderful new cosmos. I had already been a fan of Andre's since I was nine or ten and my father (who was a science fiction reader) loaned me Beast Master because it had a horse in it and I was horse-mad. But this was something different, science fiction that didn't involve thud and blunder and iron-thewed barbarians. I was in love.

Oh—back in "the old days" it was all called "science fiction." There was no category for "fantasy," and as for "hard s/f," "sword and sorcery," "urban fantasy," "high fantasy," "cyberpunk," "horror," "space-opera"—none of those categories existed. You'd find Clark Ashton Smith right next to E. E. "Doc" Smith, and Andre Norton and Fritz Leiber wrote gothic horror, high fantasy, and science fiction all without anyone wondering what to call it. Readers of imaginative literature read everything, and neither readers nor writers were compelled by marketing considerations to read or write in only a single category.

At any rate, many years later, my idol Andre Norton asked me for a story set in one of my favorite science-fiction worlds. Somehow I managed to tell Andre that I would be very happy to write a story. This is it. In fact, this is the longer version; she asked me to cut some, not because she didn't like it the way it was, but because she was only allowed stories of 5,000 words or less; here it is as I originally wrote it.
 


It had been raining all day, a cold, dismal rain that penetrated through clothing and chilled the heart to numbness. Glenda trudged through it, sneakers soaked; beneath her cheap plastic raincoat her jeans were soggy to the knees. It was several hours past sunset now, and still raining, and the city streets were deserted by all but the most hardy, the most desperate, and the faded few with nothing to lose.


Glenda was numbered among those last. This morning she'd spent her last change getting a bus to the welfare office, only to be told that she hadn't been a resident long enough to qualify for aid. That wasn't true—but she couldn't have known that. The supercilious clerk had taken in her age and inexperience at a glance, and assumed "student." If he had begun processing her, he'd have been late for lunch. He guessed she wouldn't know enough to contradict him, and he'd been right. And years of her aunt's browbeating ("Isn't one 'no' good enough for you?") had drummed into her the lesson that there were no second chances. He'd gone off to his lunch date; she'd trudged back home in the rain. This afternoon she'd eaten the last packet of cheese and crackers and had made "soup" from the stolen packages of fast-food ketchup—there was nothing left in her larder that even resembled food. Hunger had been with her for so long now that the ache in her stomach had become as much a part of her as her hands or feet. There were three days left in the month; three days of shelter, then she'd be kicked out of her shoddy efficiency and into the street.


When her Social Security orphan's benefits had run out when she'd turned eighteen, her aunt had "suggested" she find a job and support herself—elsewhere. The suggestion had come in the form of finding her belongings in boxes on the front porch with a letter to that effect on top of them.


So she'd tried, moving across town to this place, near the university; a marginal neighborhood surrounded by bad blocks on three sides. But there were no jobs if you had no experience—but how did you get experience without a job? The only experience she'd ever had was at shoveling snow, raking leaves, mowing and gardening; the only ways she could earn money for college, since her aunt had never let her apply for a job that would have been beyond walking distance of her house. Besides that, there were at least forty university students competing with her for every job that opened up anywhere around here. Her meager savings (meant, at one time, to pay for college tuition) were soon gone.


She rubbed the ring on her left hand, a gesture she was completely unaware of. That ring was all she had of the mother her aunt would never discuss—the woman her brother had married over her own strong disapproval. It was silver, and heavy; made in the shape of a crouching cat with tiny glints of topaz for eyes. Much as she treasured it, she would gladly have sold it—but she couldn't get it off her finger, she'd worn it for so long.


She splashed through the puddles, peering listlessly out from under the hood of her raincoat. Her lank, mouse-brown hair straggled into her eyes as she squinted against the glare of headlights on rain-glazed pavement. Despair had driven her into the street; despair kept her here. It was easier to keep the tears and hysterics at bay out here, where the cold numbed mind as well as body, and the rain washed all her thoughts until they were thin and lifeless. She could see no way out of this trap—except maybe by killing herself.


But her body had other ideas. It wanted to survive, even if Glenda wasn't sure she did.


A chill of fear trickled down her backbone like a drop of icy rain, driving all thoughts of suicide from her, as behind her she recognized the sounds of footsteps.


She didn't have to turn around to know she was being followed, and by more than one. On a night like tonight, there was no one on the street but the fools and the hunters. She knew which she was.


It wasn't much of an alley—a crack between buildings, scarcely wide enough for her to pass. They might not know it was there—even if they did, they couldn't know what lay at the end of it. She did. She dodged inside, feeling her way along the narrow defile, until one of the two buildings gave way to a seven-foot privacy fence.


She came to the apparent dead-end, building on the right, a high board fence on the left, building in front. She listened, stretching her ears for sounds behind her, taut with fear. Nothing; they had either passed this place by, or hadn't yet reached it.


Quickly, before they could find the entrance, she ran her hand along the boards of the fence, counting them from the dead-end. Four, five—when she touched the sixth one, she gave it a shove sideways, getting a handful of splinters for her pains. But the board moved, pivoting on the one nail that held it, and she squeezed through the gap into the yard beyond, pulling the board back in place behind her.


Just in time; echoing off the stone and brick of the alley were harsh young male voices. She leaned against the fence and shook from head to toe, clenching her teeth to keep them from chattering, as they searched the alley, found nothing, and finally (after hours, it seemed) went away.


"Well, you've got yourself in a fine mess," she said dully. "Now what? You don't dare leave, not yet—they might have left someone in the street, watching. Idiot! Home may not be much, but it's dry, and there's a bed. Fool, fool, fool! So now you get to spend the rest of the night in the back yard of a spookhouse. You'd just better hope the spook isn't home."


She peered through the dark at the shapeless bulk of the tri-story townhouse, relic of a previous century, hoping not to see any signs of life. The place had an uncanny reputation; even the gangs left it alone. People had vanished here—some of them important people, with good reasons to want to disappear, some who had been uninvited visitors. But the police had been over the house and grounds more than once, and never found anything. No bodies were buried in the back yard—the ground was as hard as cement under the inch-deep layer of soft sand that covered it. There was nothing at all in the yard but the sand and the rocks; the crazy woman that lived here told the police it was a "Zen garden." But when Glenda had first peeked through the boards at the back yard, it didn't look like any Zen garden she had ever read about. The sand wasn't groomed into wave-patterns, and the rocks looked more like something out of a mini-Stonehenge than islands or mountain-peaks.


There were four of those rocks—one like a garden bench, that stood before three that formed a primitive arch. Glenda felt her way towards them in the dark, trusting to the memory of how the place had looked by daylight to find them. She barked her shin painfully on the "bench" rock, and her legs gave out, so that she sprawled ungracefully over it. Tears of pain mingled with the rain, and she swore under her breath.


She sat huddled on the top of it in the dark, trying to remember what time it was the last time she'd seen a clock. Dawn couldn't be too far off. When dawn came, and there were more people in the street, she could probably get safely back to her apartment.


For all the good it would do her.


Her stomach cramped with hunger, and despair clamped down on her again. She shouldn't have run—she was only delaying the inevitable. In two days she'd be out on the street, and this time with nowhere to hide, easy prey for them, or those like them.


"So wouldn't you like to escape altogether?"


The soft voice out of the darkness nearly caused Glenda's heart to stop. She jumped, and clenched the side of the bench-rock as the voice laughed. Oddly enough, the laughter seemed to make her fright wash out of her. There was nothing malicious about it—it was kind-sounding, gentle. Not crazy.


"Oh, I like to make people think I'm crazy; they leave me alone that way." The speaker was a dim shape against the lighter background of the fence.


"Who—"


"I am the keeper of this house—and this place; not the first, certainly not the last. So there is nothing in this city—in this world—to hold you here anymore?"


"How—did you know that?" Glenda tried to see the speaker in the dim light reflected off the clouds, to see if it really was the woman that lived in the house, but there were no details to be seen, just a human-shaped outline. Her eyes blurred. Reaction to her narrow escape, the cold, hunger; all three were conspiring to make her light-headed.


"The only ones who come to me are those who have no will to live here, yet who still have the will to live. Tell me, if another world opened before you, would you walk into it, not knowing what it held?"


This whole conversation was so surreal, Glenda began to think she was hallucinating the whole thing. Well, if it was a hallucination, why not go along with it?


"Sure, why not? It couldn't be any worse than here. It might be better."


"Then turn, and look behind you—and choose."


Glenda hesitated, then swung her legs over the bench-stone. The sky was lighter in that direction—dawn was breaking. Before her loomed the stone arch—


Now she knew she was hallucinating—for framed within the arch was no shadowy glimpse of board fence and rain-soaked sand, but a patch of reddening sky, and another dawn—


A dawn that broke over rolling hills covered with waving grass, grass stirred by a breeze that carried the scent of flowers, not the exhaust-tainted air of the city.


Glenda stood, unaware that she had done so. She reached forward with one hand, yearningly. The place seemed to call to something buried deep in her heart—and she wanted to answer.


"Here—or there? Choose now, child."


With an inarticulate cry, she stumbled toward the stones—


And found herself standing alone on a grassy hill.


After several hours of walking in wet, soggy tennis shoes, growing more spacey by the minute from hunger, she was beginning to think she'd made a mistake. Somewhere back behind her she'd lost her raincoat; she couldn't remember when she'd taken it off. There was no sign of people anywhere—there were animals; even sheep, once, but nothing like "civilization." It was frustrating, maddening; there was food all around her, on four feet, on wings—surely even some of the plants were edible—but it was totally inaccessible to a city-bred girl who'd never gotten food from anywhere but a grocery or restaurant. She might just as well be on the moon.


Just as she thought that, she topped another rise to find herself looking at a strange, weatherbeaten man standing beside a rough pounded-dirt road.


She blinked in dumb amazement. He looked like something out of a movie, a peasant from a King Arthur epic. He was stocky, blond-haired; he wore a shabby brown tunic and patched, shapeless trousers tucked into equally patched boots. He was also holding a strung bow, with an arrow nocked to it, and frowning—a most unfriendly expression.


He gabbled something at her. She blinked again. She knew a little Spanish (you had to, in her neighborhood); she'd taken German and French in high school. This didn't sound like any of those.


He repeated himself, a distinct edge to his voice. To emphasize his words, he jerked the point of the arrow off back the way she had come. It was pretty obvious he was telling her to be on her way.


"No, wait—please—" she stepped toward him, her hands outstretched pleadingly. The only reaction she got was that he raised the arrow to point at her chest, and drew it back.


"Look—I haven't got any weapons! I'm lost, I'm hungry—"


He drew the arrow a bit farther.


Suddenly it was all too much. She'd spent all her life being pushed and pushed—first her aunt, then at school, then out on the streets. This was the last time anybody was going to back her into a corner—this time she was going to fight!


A white-hot rage like nothing she'd ever experienced before in her life took over.


"Damn you!" she was so angry she could hardly think. "You stupid clod! I need help!" she screamed at him, as red flashes interfered with her vision, her ears began to buzz, and her hands crooked into involuntary claws, "Damn you and everybody that looks like you!"


He backed up a pace, his blue eyes wide with surprise at her rage.


She was so filled with fury that grew past controlling—she couldn't see, couldn't think; it was like being possessed. Suddenly she gasped as pain lanced from the top of her head to her toes, pain like a bolt of lightning—


—her vision blacked out; she fell to her hands and knees on the grass, her legs unable to hold her, convulsing with surges of pain in her arms and legs. Her feet, her hands felt like she'd shoved them in a fire—her face felt as if someone were stretching it out of shape. And the ring finger of her left hand—it burned with more agony than both hands and feet put together! She shook her head, trying to clear it, but it spun around in dizzying circles. Her ears rang, hard to hear over the ringing, but there was a sound of cloth tearing—


Her sight cleared and returned, but distorted. She looked up at the man, who had dropped his bow, and was backing away from her, slowly, his face white with terror. She started to say something to him—


—and it came out a snarl.


With that, the man screeched, turned his back on her, and ran.


And she caught sight of her hand. It wasn't a hand anymore. It was a paw. Judging by the spotted pelt of the leg, a leopard's paw. Scattered around her were the ragged scraps of cloth that had once been her clothing.


Glenda lay in the sun on top of a rock, warm and drowsy with full-bellied content. Idly she washed one paw with her tongue, cleaning the last taint of blood from it. Before she'd had a chance to panic or go crazy back there when she'd realized what had happened to her, a rabbit-like creature had broken cover practically beneath her nose. Semi-starvation and confusion had kept her dazed long enough for leopard-instincts to take over. She'd caught and killed the thing and had half eaten it before the reality of what she'd done and become broke through her shock. Raw rabbit-thing tasted fine to leopard-Glenda; when she realized that, she finished it, nose to tail. Now for the first time in weeks she was warm and content. And for the first time in years she was something to be afraid of. She gazed about her from her vantage-point on the warm boulder, taking in the grassy hills and breathing in the warm, hay-scented air with a growing contentment.


Becoming a leopard might not be a bad transformation.


Ears keener than a human's picked up the sound of dogs in the distance; she became aware that the man she'd frightened might have gone back home for help. They just might be hunting her.


Time to go.


She leapt down from her rock, setting off at a right angle to the direction the sound of the baying was coming from. Her sense of smell, so heightened now that it might have been a new sense altogether, had picked up the coolth of running water off this way, dimmed by the green odor of the grass. And running water was a good way to break a trail; she knew that from reading.


Reveling in the power of the muscles beneath her sleek coat, she ran lightly over the slopes, moving through the grass that had been such a waist-high tangle to girl-Glenda with no impediment whatsoever. In almost no time at all, it seemed, she was pacing the side of the stream that she had scented.


It was quite wide, twenty feet or so, and seemed fairly deep in the middle. Sunlight danced on the surface, giving her a hint that the current might be stiffish beneath the surface. She waded into it, up to her stomach, hissing a little at the cold and the feel of the water on her fur. She trotted upstream a bit until she found a place where the course had narrowed a little. It was still over her head, but she found she could swim it with nothing other than discomfort. The stream wound between the grassy hills, the banks never getting very high, but there rarely being any more cover along them than a few scattered bushes. Something told her that she would be no match for the endurance of the hunting pack if she tried to escape across the grasslands. She stayed in the watercourse until she came to a wider valley than anything she had yet encountered. There were trees here; she waded onward until she found one leaning well over the streambed. Gathering herself and eying the broad branch that arced at least six feet above the watercourse, she leaped for it, landing awkwardly, and having to scrabble with her claws fully extended to keep her balance.


She sprawled over it for a moment, panting, hearing the dogs nearing—belling in triumph as they caught her trail, then yelping in confusion when they lost it at the stream.


Time to move again. She climbed the tree up into the higher branches, finding a wide perch at least fifty or sixty feet off the ground. It was high enough that it was unlikely that anyone would spot her dappled hide among the dappled leaf-shadows, wide enough that she could recline, balanced, at her ease, yet it afforded to leopard-eyes a good view of the ground and the stream.


As she'd expected, the humans with the dogs had figured out her scent-breaking ploy, and had split the pack, taking half along each side of the stream to try and pick up where she'd exited. She spotted the man who had stopped her easily, and filed his scent away in her memory for the future. The others with him were dressed much the same as he, and carried nothing more sophisticated than bows. They looked angry, confused; their voices held notes of fear. They looked into and under the trees with noticeable apprehension, evidently fearing what might dwell under their shade. Finally they gave up, and pulled the hounds off the fruitless quest, leaving her smiling catwise, invisible above them in her tree, purring.


Several weeks later Glenda had found a place to lair up; a cave amid a tumble of boulders in the heart of the forest at the streamside. She had also discovered why the hunters hadn't wanted to pursue her into the forest itself. There was a—thing—an evil presence, malicious, but invisible, that lurked in a circle of standing stones that glowed at night with a sickly yellow color. Fortunately it seemed unable to go beyond the bounds of the stones themselves. Glenda had been chasing a half-grown deer-beast that had run straight into the middle of the circle, forgetting the danger before it because of the danger pursuing it. She had nearly been caught there herself, and only the thing's preoccupation with the first prey had saved her. She had hidden in her lair, nearly paralyzed with fear, for a day and a night until hunger and thirst had driven her out again.


Other than that peril, easily avoided, the forest seemed safe enough. She'd found the village the man had come from by following the dirt road; she'd spent long hours when she wasn't hunting lurking within range of sight and hearing of the place. Aided by some new sense she wasn't sure that she understood—the one that had alerted her to the danger of the stone circle as she'd blundered in—she was beginning to make some sense of their language. She understood at least two-thirds of what was being said now, and could usually guess the rest.


These people seemed to be stuck at some kind of feudal level—had been overrun by some higher-tech invaders the generation before, and were only now recovering from that. The hereditary rulers had mostly been killed in that war, and the population decimated; the memories of that time were still strong. The man who'd stopped her had been on guard-duty and had mistrusted her appearance out of what they called "the Waste" and her strange clothing. When she'd transformed in front of his eyes, he must have decided she was some kind of witch.


Glenda had soon hunted the more easily-caught game out; now when hunger drove her, she supplemented her diet with raids on the villager's livestock. She was getting better at hunting, but she still was far from being an expert, and letting leopard-instincts take over involved surrendering herself to those instincts. She was beginning to have the uneasy feeling that every time she did that she lost a little more of her humanity. Life as leopard-Glenda was much easier than as girl-Glenda, but it might be getting to be time to think about trying to regain her former shape—before she was lost to the leopard entirely.


She'd never been one for horror or fantasy stories, so her only guide was vague recollections of fairy-tales and late-night werewolf movies. She didn't think the latter would be much help here—after all, she'd transformed into a leopard, not a wolf, and by the light of day, not the full moon.


But—maybe the light of the full moon would help.


She waited until full dark before setting off for her goal, a still pond in the far edge of the forest, well away from the stone circle, in a clearing that never seemed to become overgrown. It held a stone, too; a single pillar of some kind of blueish rock. That pillar had never "glowed" at night before, at least not while Glenda had been there, but the pond and the clearing seemed to form a little pocket of peace. Whatever evil might lurk in the rest of the forest, she was somehow sure it would find no place there.


The moon was well up by the time she reached it. White flowers had opened to the light of it, and a faint, crisp scent came from them. Glenda paced to the pool-side, and looked down into the dark, still water. She could see her leopard form reflected clearly, and over her right shoulder, the full moon.


Well, anger had gotten her into this shape, maybe anger would get her out. She closed her eyes for a moment, then began summoning all the force of that emotion she could—willing herself back into the form she'd always worn. She stared at her reflection in the water, forcing it, angrily, to be her. Whatever power was playing games with her was not going to find her clay to be molded at will!


As nothing happened, her frustration mounted; soon she was at the boiling point. Damn everything! She—would—not—be—played—with—


The same incoherent fury that had seized her when she first changed washed over her a second time—and the same agonizing pain sent blackness in front of her eyes and flung her to lie twitching helplessly beside the pool. Her left forepaw felt like it was afire—


In moments it was over, and she found herself sprawling beside the pond, shivering with cold and reaction, and totally naked. Naked, that is, except for the silver cat-ring, whose topaz eyes glowed hotly at her for a long moment before the light left them.


The second time she transformed to leopard was much easier; the pain was less, the amount of time less. She decided against being human—after finding herself without a stitch on, in a perilously vulnerable and helpless form, leopard-Glenda seemed a much more viable alternative.


But the ability to switch back and forth proved to be very handy. The villagers had taken note of her raids on their stock; they began mounting a series of systematic hunts for her, even penetrating into the forest so long as it was by daylight. She learned or remembered from reading countless tricks to throw the hunters off, and being able to change from human to leopard and back again made more than one of those possible. There were places girl-Glenda could climb and hide that leopard-Glenda couldn't, and the switch in scents when she changed confused and frightened the dog-pack. She began feeling an amused sort of contempt for the villagers, often leading individual hunters on wild-goose chases for the fun of it when she became bored.


But on the whole, it was better to be leopard; leopard-Glenda was comfortable and content sleeping on rocks or on the dried leaves of her lair—girl-Glenda shivered and ached and wished for her roach-infested efficiency. Leopard-Glenda was perfectly happy on a diet of raw fish, flesh and fowl—girl-Glenda wanted to throw up when she thought about it. Leopard-Glenda was content with nothing to do but tease the villagers and sleep in the sun when she wasn't hunting—girl-Glenda fretted, and longed for a book, and wondered if what she was doing was right . . .


So matters stood until Midsummer.


Glenda woke, shivering, with a mouth gone dry with panic. The dream—


It wasn't just a nightmare. This dream had been so real she'd expected to wake with an arrow in her ribs. She was still panting with fright even now.


There had been a man—he hadn't looked much like any of the villagers; they were mostly blond or brown-haired, and of the kind of hefty build her aunt used to call "peasant-stock" in a tone of contempt. No, he had resembled her in a way—as if she were a kind of washed-out copy of the template from which his kind had been cut. Where her hair was a dark mousy-brown, his was just as dark, but the color was more intense. They had the same general build: thin, tall, with prominent cheekbones. His eyes—


Her aunt had called her "cat-eyed," for she didn't have eyes of a normal brown, but more of a vague yellow, as washed-out as her hair. But his had been truly and intensely gold, with a greenish back-reflection like the eyes of a wild animal at night.


And those eyes had been filled with hunter-awareness; the eyes of a predator. And she had been his quarry!


The dream came back to her with extraordinary vividness; it had begun as she'd reached the edge of the forest, with him hot on her trail. She had a vague recollection of having begun the chase in human form, and having switched to leopard as she reached the trees. He had no dogs, no aid but his own senses—yet nothing she'd done had confused him for more than a second. She'd even laid a false trail into the stone circle, something she'd never done to another hunter, but she was beginning to panic—he'd avoided the trap neatly. The hunt had begun near mid-morning; by false dawn he'd brought her to bay and trapped her—


And that was when she'd awakened.


She spent the early hours of the morning pacing beside the pond; feeling almost impelled to go into the village, yet afraid to do so. Finally the need to see grew too great; she crept to the edge of the village past the guards, and slipped into the maze of whole and half-ruined buildings that was the village-proper.


There was a larger than usual market-crowd today; the usual market stalls had been augmented by strangers with more luxurious goods, foodstuffs, and even a couple of ragged entertainers. Evidently this was some sort of fair. With so many strangers about, Glenda was able to remain unseen. Her courage came back as she skirted the edge of the marketplace, keeping to shadows and sheltering within half-tumbled walls, and the terror of the night seemed to become just one more shadow.


Finally she found an ideal perch—hiding in the shadow just under the eaves of a half-ruined building that had evidently once belonged to the local lordling, and in whose courtyard the market was usually held. From here she could see the entire court and yet remain unseen by humans and unscented by any of the livestock.


She had begun to think her fears were entirely groundless—when she caught sight of a stranger coming out of the door of what passed for an inn here, speaking earnestly with the village headman. Her blood chilled, for the man was tall, dark-haired, and lean, and dressed entirely in dark leathers just like the man in her dream.


He was too far away for her to see his face clearly, and she froze in place, following him intently without moving a muscle. The headman left him with a satisfied air, and the man gazed about him, as if looking for something—


He finally turned in her direction, and Glenda nearly died of fright—for the face was that of the man in her dream, and he was staring directly at her hiding place as though he knew exactly where and what she was!


She broke every rule she'd ever made for herself—broke cover, in full sight of the entire village. In the panicked, screaming mob, the hunter could only curse—for the milling, terror-struck villagers were only interested in fleeing in the opposite direction from where Glenda stood, tail lashing and snarling with fear.


She took advantage of the confusion to leap the wall of the courtyard and sprint for the safety of the forest. Halfway there she changed into human for a short run—there was no one to see her, and it might throw him off the track. Then at forest edge, once on the springy moss that would hold no tracks, she changed back to leopard. She paused in the shade for a moment, to get a quick drink from the stream, and to rest, for the full-out run from the village had tired her badly—only to look up, to see him standing directly across the stream from her. He was shading his eyes with one hand against the sun that beat down on him, and it seemed to her that he was smiling in triumph.


She choked on the water, and fled.


She called upon every trick she'd ever learned, laying false trails by the dozen; fording the stream as it threaded through the forest not once but several times; breaking her trail entirely by taking to the treetops on an area where she could cross several hundred feet without once having to set foot to the ground. She even drove a chance-met herd of deer-creatures across her back-trail, muddling the tracks past following. She didn't remember doing any of this in her dream—in her dream she had only run, too fearful to do much that was complicated—or so she remembered. At last, panting with weariness, she doubled back to lair-up in the crotch of a huge tree, looking back down the way she had passed, certain that she would see him give up in frustration.


He walked so softly that even her keen ears couldn't detect his tread; she was only aware that he was there when she saw him. She froze in place—she hadn't really expected he'd get this far! But surely, surely when he came to the place she'd taken to the branches, he would be baffled, for she'd first climbed as girl-Glenda, and there wasn't any place where the claw-marks of the leopard scored the trunks within sight of the ground.


He came to the place where her tracks ended—and closed his eyes, a frown-line between his brows. Late afternoon sun filtered through the branches and touched his face; Glenda thought with growing confidence that he had been totally fooled by her trick. He carried a strung bow, black as his clothing and highly polished, and wore a sword and dagger, which none of the villagers ever did. As her fear ebbed, she had time to think (with a tiny twinge) that he couldn't have been much older than she—and was very, very attractive.


As if that thought had touched something that signaled him, his eyes snapped open—and he looked straight through the branches that concealed her to rivet his own gaze on her eyes.


With a mew of terror she leapt out of the tree and ran in mindless panic as fast as she could set paw to ground.


The sun was reddening everything; she cringed and thought of blood. Then she thought of her dream, and the dweller-in-the-circle. If, instead of a false trail, she laid a true one—waiting for him at the end of it—


If she rushed him suddenly, she could probably startle him into the power of the thing that lived within the shelter of those stones. Once in the throes of its mental grip, she doubted he'd be able to escape.


It seemed a heaven-sent plan; relief made her light-headed as she ran, leaving a clear trail behind her, to the place of the circle. By the time she reached its vicinity it was full dark—and she knew the power of the dweller was at its height in darkness. Yet, the closer she drew to those glowing stones, the slower her paws moved; and a building reluctance to do this thing weighed heavily on her. Soon she could see the stones shining ahead of her; in her mind she pictured the man's capture—his terror—his inevitable end.


Leopard-Glenda urged—kill!


Girl-Glenda wailed in fear of him, but stubbornly refused to put him in the power of that.


The two sides of her struggled, nearly tearing her physically in two as she half-shifted from one to the other, her outward form paralleling the struggle within.


At last, with a pathetic cry, the leopard turned in her tracks and ran from the circle. The will of girl-Glenda had won.


Whenever she paused to rest, she could hear him coming long before she'd even caught her breath. The stamina of a leopard is no match for that of a human; they are built for the short chase, not the long. And the stamina of girl-Glenda was no match for that of he who hunted her; in either form now, she was exhausted. He had driven her through the moon-lit clearings of the forest she knew out beyond the territory she had ranged before. This forest must extend deep into the Waste, and this was the direction he had driven her. Now she stumbled as she ran, no longer capable of clever tricks, just fear-prodded running. Her eyes were glazed with weariness; her mind numb with terror. Her sides heaved as she panted, and her mouth was dry, her thirst a raging fire inside her.


She fled from bush to tangled stand of undergrowth, at all times avoiding the patches of moonlight, but it seemed as if her foe knew this section of the wilderness as well or better than she knew her own territory. She could not rid herself of the feeling that she was being driven to some goal only he knew.


Suddenly, as rock-cliff loomed before her, she realized that her worst fears were correct. He had herded her into a dead-end ravine, and there was no escape for her, at least not in leopard-form.


The rock before her was sheer; to either side it slanted inward. The stone itself was brittle shale; almost impassable—yet she began shifting into her human form to make that attempt. Then a sound from behind her told her that she had misjudged his nearness—and it was too late.


She whirled at bay, half-human, half-leopard, flanks heaving as she sucked in pain-filled gasps of air. He blocked the way out; dark and grim on the path, nocked bow in hand. She thought she saw his eyes shine with fierce joy even in the darkness of the ravine. She had no doubts that he could see her as easily as she saw him. There was nowhere to hide on either side of her.


Again leopard-instinct urged—kill!


Her claws extended, and she growled deep in her throat, half in fear, half in warning. He paced one step closer.


She could—she could fight him. She could dodge the arrow—at this range he could never get off the second. If she closed with him, she could kill him! His blood would run hot between her teeth—


Kill!


No! Never, never had she harmed another human being, not even the man who had denied her succor. No!


Kill!


She fought the leopard within, knowing that if it won, there would never be a girl-Glenda again; only the predator, the beast. And that would be the death of her—a death as real as that which any arrow could bring her.


And he watched from the shadows; terrible, dark, and menacing, his bow half-drawn. And yet—he did not move, not so much as a single muscle. If he had, perhaps the leopard would have won; fear triumphing over will. But he stirred not, and it was the human side of her that conquered.


And she waited, eyes fixed on his, for death.


:Gentle, lady.: 


She started as the voice spoke in her head—then shook it wildly, certain that she had been driven mad at last.


:Be easy—do not fear me.: 


Again that voice! She stared at him, wild-eyed—was he some kind of magician, to speak in her very thoughts?


And as if that were not startlement enough, she watched, dumbfounded, as he knelt, slowly—slowly eased the arrow off the string of his bow—and just as slowly laid them to one side. He held out hands now empty, his face fully in the moonlight—and smiled.


And rose—and—


At first she thought it was the moonlight that made him seem to writhe and blur. Then she thought that certainly her senses were deceiving her as her mind had—for his body was blurring, shifting, changing before her eyes, like a figure made of clay softening and blurring and becoming another shape altogether—


Until, where the hunter had stood, was a black leopard, half-again her size.


Glenda stared into the flames of the campfire, sipping at the warm wine, wrapped in a fur cloak, and held by a drowsy contentment. The wine, the cloak and the campfire were all Harwin's.


For that was the name of the hunter—Harwin. He had coaxed her into her following him; then, once his camp had been reached, coaxed her into human form again. He had given her no time to be shamed by her nakedness, for he had shrouded her in the cloak almost before the transformation was complete. Then he had built this warming fire from the banked coals of the old, and fed her the first cooked meal she'd had in months, then pressed the wine on her. And all with slow, reassuring movements, as if he was quite well aware how readily she could be startled into transforming back again, and fleeing into the forest. And all without speaking much besides telling her his name; his silence not unfriendly, not in the least, but as if he were waiting with patient courtesy for her to speak first.


She cleared her throat, and tentatively spoke her first words in this alien tongue, her own voice sounding strange in her ears.


"Who—are you? What are you?"


He cocked his head to one side, his eyes narrowing in concentration, as he listened to her halting words.


"You speak the speech of the Dales as one who knows it only indifferently, lady," he replied, his words measured, slow, and pronounced with care, as if he guessed she needed slow speech to understand clearly. "Yet you do not have the accent of Arvon—and I do not think you are one of the Old Ones. If I tell you who and what I am, will you do me like courtesy?"


"I—my name is Glenda. I couldn't do—this—at home. Wherever home is. I—I'm not sure what I am."


"Then your home is not of this world?"


"There was—" it all seemed so vague, like a dream now, "A city. I—lived there, but not well. I was hunted—I found a place—a woman. I thought she was crazy, but—she said something, and I saw this place—and I had to come—"


"A Gate, I think, and a Gate-Keeper," he nodded, as if to himself. "That explains much. So you found yourself here?"


"In the Waste. Though I didn't know that was what it was. I met a man—I was tired, starving, and he tried to drive me away. I got mad."


"The rest I know," he said. "For Elvath himself told me of how you went were before his eyes. Poor lady—how bewildered you must have been, with no one to tell you what was happening to you! And then?"


Haltingly, with much encouragement, she told him of her life in the forest; her learning to control her changes—and her side of the night's hunt.


"And the woman won over the beast," he finished. "And well for you that it did." His gold eyes were very somber, and he spoke with emphasis heavy in his words. "Had you turned on me, I doubt that you would ever have been able to find your human self again."


She shuddered. "What am I?" she asked at last, her eyes fixed pleadingly on his. "And where am I? And why has all this been happening to me?"


"I cannot answer the last for you, save only that I think you are here because your spirit never fit truly in that strange world from which you came. As for where—you are in the Dale lands of High Halleck, on the edge of the Waste—which tells you nothing, I know. And what you are—like me, you are plainly of some far-off strain of Wereblood. Well, perhaps not quite like me; among my kind the females are not known for being able to shape-change, and I myself am of half-blood only. My mother is Kildas of the Dales; my father Harl of the Wereriders. And I—I am Harwin," he smiled, ruefully, "of no place in particular."


"Why—why did you hunt me?" she asked. "Why did they want you to hunt me?"


"Because they had no notion of my Wereblood," he replied frankly. "They only know of my reputation as a hunter—shall I begin at the beginning? Perhaps it will give you some understanding of this world you have fallen into."


She nodded eagerly.


"Well—you may have learned that in my father's time the Dales were overrun by the Hounds of Alizon?" At her nod, he continued. "They had strange weapons at their disposal, and came very close to destroying all who opposed them. At that time my father and his brother-kin lived in the Waste, in exile for certain actions in the past from the land of Arvon, which lies to the north of the Waste. They—as I, as you—have the power of shape-change, and other powers as well. It came to the defenders of the Dales that one must battle strangeness with strangeness, and power with power; they made a pact with the Wereriders. In exchange for aid, they would send to them at the end of the war in the Year of the Unicorn twelve brides and one. You see, if all went well, the Wererider's exile was to end then—but if all was not well, they would have remained in exile, and they did not wish their kind to die away. The war ended, the brides came—the exile ended. But one of the bridegrooms was—like me—of half-blood. And one of the brides was a maiden of Power. There was much trouble for them; when the trouble was at an end they left Arvon together, and I know nothing more of their tale. Now we come to my part of the tale. My mother Kildas has gifted my father with three children, of which two are a pleasure to his heart and of like mind with him. I am the third."


"The misfit? The rebel?" she guessed shrewdly.


"If by that you mean the one who seems destined always to anger his kin with all he says and does—aye. We cannot agree, my father and I. One day in his anger, he swore that I was another such as Herrel. Well, that was the first that I had ever heard of one of Wereblood who was like-minded with me—I plagued my mother and father both until they gave me the tale of Herrel Half-blood and his Witch-bride. And from that moment, I had no peace until I set out to find them. For surely, I thought, I would find true kin-feeling with them, the which I lacked with those truly of my blood."


"And did you find them?"


"Not yet," he admitted. "At my mother's request I came here first, to give word to her kin that she was well, and happy, and greatly honored by her lord. Which is the entire truth. My father—loves her dearly; grants her every wish before she has a chance to voice it. I could wish to find a lady with whom—well, that was one of the reasons that I sought Herrel and his lady."


He was silent for so long, staring broodingly into the flames, that Glenda ventured to prompt him.


"So—you came here?"


"Eh? Oh, aye. And understandably enough, earned no small reputation among my mother-kin for hunting, though they little guessed in what form I did my tracking!" He grinned at her, and she found herself grinning back. "So when there were rumors of another Were here at the edge of the Waste—and a Were that thoughtlessly preyed on the beasts of these people as well as its rightful game—understandably enough, I came to hear of it. I thought at first that it must be Herrel, or a son. Imagine my surprise on coming here to learn that the Were was female! My reputation preceded me—the headman begged me to rid the village of their 'monster'—" He spread his hands wide. "The rest, you know."


"What—what will you do with me now?" she asked in a small, fearful voice.


"Do with you?" he seemed surprised. "Nothing—nothing not of your own will, lady. I am not going to harm you—and I am not like my father and brother, to force a one in my hand into anything against her wishes. I—I go forward as I had intended—to find Herrel. You, now that you know what your actions should not be, lest you arouse the anger of ordinary folk against you, may remain here—"


"And?"


"And I shall tell them I have killed the monster. You shall be safe enough—only remember that you must never let the leopard control you, or you are lost. Truly, you should have someone to guide and teach you, though—"


"I—know that, now," she replied, very much aware of how attractive he was, gold eyes fixed on the fire, a lock of dark hair falling over his forehead. But no man had ever found her to be company to be sought-after. There was no reason to think that he might be hinting—


No reason, that is, until he looked full into her eyes, and she saw the wistful loneliness there, and a touch of pleading.


"I would be glad to teach you, lady," he said softly. "Forgive me if I am over-forward, and clumsy in my speech. But—I think you and I could companion well together on this quest of mine—and—I—" he dropped his eyes to the flames again, and blushed hotly "—I think you very fair."


"Me?" she squeaked, more startled than she had been since he transformed before her.


"Can you doubt it?" he replied softly, looking up eagerly. He held out one hand to her. "Can I hope—you will come with me?"


She touched his fingers with the hesitation of one who fears to break something. "You mean you really want me with you?"


"Since I touched your mind—lady, more than you could dream! Not only are you kin-kind, but—mind-kin, I think."


She smiled suddenly, feeling almost light-headed with the revelations of the past few hours—then giggled, as an irrelevant though came to her. "Harwin—what happens to your clothes?"


"My what?" he stared at her for a moment as if she had broken into a foreign tongue—then looked at her, and back at himself—and blushed, then grinned.


"Well? I mean, I left bits of jeans and t-shirt all over the Waste when I changed—"


"What happens to your ring, lady?"


"It—" her forehead furrowed in thought. "I don't know, really. It's gone when I change, it's back when I change back." She regarded the tiny beast thoughtfully, and it seemed as if one of its topaz eyes closed in a slow wink. But—no. That could only have been a trick of the firelight.


"Were-magic, lady. And magic I think I shall let you avail yourself of, seeing as I can hardly let you take a chill if you are to accompany me—" He rummaged briefly in his pack and came up with a shirt and breeches, both far too large for her, but that was soon remedied with a belt and much rolling of sleeves and cuffs. She changed quickly under the shelter of his cloak.


"They'll really change with me?" she looked down at herself doubtfully.


"Why not try them?" He stood, and held out his hand—then blurred in that disconcerting way. The black leopard looked across the fire at her with eyes that glowed with warmth and approval.


:The night still has time to run, Glenda-my-lady. Will you not run with it, and me?: 


The eyes of the cat-ring glowed with equal warmth, and Glenda found herself filled with a feeling of joy and freedom—and of belonging—that she tossed back her head and laughed aloud as she had never in her life done before. She stretched her own arms to the stars, and called on the power within her for the first time with joy instead of anger—


And there was no pain—only peace—as she transformed into a slim, lithe she-leopard, whose eyes met that of the he with a happiness that was heart-filling.


:Oh yes, Harwin-my-lord! Let us run the night to dawn!:


 


Back | Next
Framed