by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in ROAR Volume 4, June 2012
Snow bent the boughs of the karillow trees, and ice silvered the soft buds at their tips. Spring had come too early this year, and all the eager young plants would pay a price for their enthusiasm. Flowers killed by frost.
St. Kalwain didn’t mind the snow. His black fur was thick and warm. He found it insufferably so whenever he kept the company of humans. Their houses were always warmed by raging hearth fires. Their walls held in the heat. And they insulated themselves with layers of cloaks and clothes. They expected him to layer himself with clothes too. He remembered a time when he chose to wear clothes out of modesty. Now, he preferred to sleep in the wild. In the snow. Alone and far from humans.
Deep in the forest, St. Kalwain didn’t hear hoof beats often. When he did, they were far off and the sound began to recede long before the smell of the steed reached his nose. There were no roads near his dell, so there was no reason for travelers to come by. Unless they were lost. Or looking for him. The only paths were those made by his own misshapen feet, too like a wolf’s to comfortably wear shoes. Yet, the skin of his footpads was still too human and too tender to entirely go without. St. Kalwain made do with scraps of cloth, tied tight around the bare-skinned parts of his otherwise furry feet.
Today, though, the sound of the hoof beats kept growing closer, and St. Kalwain scented oats, mint, and the salt of sweat in the air. He perked his ears to listen closely for any more telling sounds, but he was not in the mood to help lost travelers today. He’d done enough good deeds to last a lifetime. He stretched and yawned, then settled back even more comfortably in his hollowed out dent at the base of a tree.
The hoof beats grew closer for a while, then slowed and meandered aimlessly through the woods. “Kalwain?” a sweet voice sang. “Saint Kalwain?” It was the voice of a young woman, and the sound made St. Kalwain flatten his ears and draw back his lips in a snarl that he knew from memory was more wolf than man. The accursed mirror that could show him his snarl hung in a locket about his neck. It was only the size of a farthing, but he dreaded the sight of himself in it. Nonetheless, if a sweet-voiced young woman had come to call on him in his reclusion, it could only mean one thing. And he would not give up his retirement easily.
St. Kalwain opened the locket and steeled himself against the glaring reflection of his hideously yellow eyes. He stared himself down and whispered the couplet that would summon the faerie queen’s attention. The words felt like a collar around his neck, but within seconds his hateful reflection frosted over. The image of his captor queen appeared in its place: alabaster skin, raven hair, sharply arched eyebrows, and eyes that sparkled like the edge of a knife. She was beauty. She was death. She was the hand at the end of the chain that held him here in the wilderness away from the life he’d once lived.
“My queen,” he said to the image in the glass. “There is a woman seeking me in my forest. Did you send her?”
The faerie queen frowned, an expression as frightening as ice cracking beneath your feet yet as delicate as a single petal floating on the wind. “Of course I sent her,” the faerie queen said. “You are my champion, and she needs a champion.”
“I have done good deeds in the name of Faerie for half my life,” St. Kalwain said, bitterly. “I am known in every village across this land. My own people have made me a saint — in spite of your curse. Yet, never are my deeds enough for you. You will not release me from my curse. So, I will champion for you no more.”
The faerie queen laughed, and icicles broke, shattering on the trees all around. “You think I can’t make you?” she said. “I can bring you back to Faerie. If you won’t work off your curse.”
St. Kalwain didn’t flinch. He’d been to Faerie, and he’d rather die than live in that terrifying land again. But he knew where he stood. “You can bring me back to Faerie anyway,” he said. “I won’t dance for you anymore.”
There was laughter in the faerie queen’s eyes, but it died away as St. Kalwain looked at her. “Very well,” she said. “This will be your last service to me. Assist the lady who seeks you in your forest now, and afterward I will set you free.”
St. Kalwain’s heart leapt at the sound of those words, but they were hard to believe.
“I warn you, though,” the faerie queen added as her image began to fade in the locket, “Fail me here, and you will sit by my side, a royal hunting hound in the land of Faerie forever.”
St. Kalwain remembered the faerie queen’s throne room. It was lit with a sickly green glow, and sounds echoed like water droplets in a musty cellar. The walls were living flesh, embedded with chattering teeth and watchful eyes. Dried bracken and branches of thorns were set in vases as if they were exquisite flowers. At the center of the room, raised on a dais, was the faerie queen’s throne, built from human bones. St. Kalwain shuddered, picturing himself forced to curl at the foot of that throne like a loyal dog.
“And, so,” he said to the emptied mirror as he closed it back in the locket, “I will dance for you again. As always.” He sighed, a long drawn-out breath between his muzzle’s sharp teeth.
The sweet-voiced maiden continued to call St. Kalwain’s name in the distance. He could hear that she’d dismounted her horse and walked by its side. She would be expecting a clothed man with the face of a wolf, not the naked beast-man he had become. St. Kalwain reached into the branches of his tree and found the bundle of clothes and other human affectations he’d stored away. He pulled out a broad cloak and slung it around his shoulders. It draped nearly to the ground. It would do. The rest he swung over his shoulder to bring. He’d need the brush and combs, and the full outfit of shirt and trousers if he was going to follow this girl back to civilization.
“Saint Kalwain?” she called. “I know you’re here. The faerie queen sent me. Please come out!”
St. Kalwain approached her, setting his paw-like feet carefully in the snow. She would not hear him. He stayed behind the trees where she could not see him either. But he could see her. Her cloak and her horse were green like springtime. Her hood was edged in white fur, and her hands were buried in a white fur muff. But her cheeks were pink with the cold anyway, and her breaths hovered in the air, telling clouds of fog.
“Please come out,” she repeated. “My village needs you.”
“What is it this time?” St. Kalwain bellowed, still hidden behind the trees. “The tyranny of a bad man? A dragon?” He stepped quickly through the thick of the forest, watching her turn about, trying to spot him. “Or maybe a gryphon that steals away babies to eat in the night?”
“A dragon,” she said, giving up her quest to see St. Kalwain and speaking instead to the faceless forest. “You’ve slain dragons before.”
“Five of them. Yes,” St. Kalwain said. “I chopped off their heads.”
“Then you’ll come with me?” she asked, lowering her hood. Her hair was light brown and simple, her features plain but pleasing. “I know of your curse,” she said. “You don’t have to be afraid to show yourself to me.”
St. Kalwain laughed, a booming bark that he expected would frighten her as it echoed through the forest. Yet, the girl stood as steadily as ever. “Me afraid?” he said, mockingly.
It should be the girl, alone in the forest with a wolf-faced monster, who was afraid. Nonetheless, St. Kalwain’s foot faltered as he stepped from his shield of trees and into the young woman’s sight.
“What could scare a demon like me?” He asked the question rhetorically, voice dripping with sarcasm, but she had been right. He was afraid. St. Kalwain expected the beautiful young woman would flinch at the sight of him, like so many women before, but the lady Uta did not flinch.
“You’re not a demon,” she said. “You’ve slain five dragons, saved countless lives, and you’re going to rescue my village.”
St. Kalwain stood more than a foot taller than her, but she stared up at him, holding his gaze better than he could hold hers. “I’m the lady Uta,” she said. “And you are a saint.”
Abashed, the unhappy saint said, “I’ll get my sword.” It was hidden high in the branches of another tree. He never fought with a shield or armor. They only slowed down his lupine reflexes. “Will your horse let me ride? We can travel faster if we ride together.”
Not all horses would let a wolf-demon take to their backs, but the lady Uta assured St. Kalwain that her steed would. Even more surprising to St. Kalwain, the lady Uta did not lie and claim shyness on the part of her horse to cover shyness of her own. He’d faced fair maidens before who claimed their horses were afraid of him, when he could smell no fear on them. It was the maids themselves who wished to avoid sitting close to him in the saddle, his toothy snout behind their heads, his dangerously clawed paw-hands settled at their waists. Yes, fair maids would cost their villages hours and days of time under the tyranny of a dragon to avoid the beastly touch of their savior.
The ride to Uta’s village was three days through the forest and another five across open countryside. The lady Uta had cheese and dried fruits in her saddle bags, but St. Kalwain had no taste for such a meal since the faerie queen’s curse had changed his form. Whenever they set camp for the night, he left the small fire to hunt up live game. Uta cooked the rabbits and pheasants he brought her. Though, if he hadn’t been sharing with her, St. Kalwain would have happily eaten them raw. That was his way in the forest. Sitting at a fire and eating cooked meat had grown foreign to him. Not that he denied its appeal.
The firelight cast dreamy shadows, and its orange glow glinted off of Uta’s hair like copper. The wood smoke smell was a comforting reminder of his youth. It took him back to the days of his childhood when he would sit on the hearth, idly poking the family cooking fire with sticks and straws until his mother noticed. She’d chide him and tell him to stop. No one chided him now. The lady Uta merely watched with dark eyes, singing her lullabies to Jescha, the green steed that carried them all day. Jescha whickered. And the night wore on into the dark.
On the final morning of their journey, St. Kalwain and Uta awoke to a cold fog curling over the snowy ground. It swirled around Jescha’s tail as she swished the verdigris hair.
“We’re half a day’s ride from my village,” Uta said. “Is there anything I can tell you… anything I can do… to help you prepare?”
St. Kalwain mounted Jescha behind the lady Uta and thought about all the questions he could ask her. All the questions she expected him to ask. He could ask about the dragon — how many knights have fought it? how did it kill them? what does it look like? what color are its scales? But, in the end, fighting dragons was fighting dragons, and St. Kalwain had never found that preparing for it helped him very much. In the moment of decision, it would be steel against scales, and there would be no tricks. For if there was a trick that made it easy to slay this dragon, then the village would not have called on him, eight days’ travel away and hidden deep in the forest, findable only by those that the faerie queen fancied to help.
So, instead, St. Kalwain asked as Jescha cantered with them across the snowy hills, “Why is your horse green?”
The lady Uta laughed, and it was an altogether different animal than the last laugh St. Kalwain had heard. Unlike the faerie queen’s ethereal, demonic laughter, Uta’s laugh was hearty and human. St. Kalwain could feel her body rock with it; he wished he could see her face.
“All right,” she said, loudly enough for him to hear her through the muffling of her fur-lined hood. Though, without his canine ears, he might not have been able. “I’ll tell you that story,” she said. “If you like.”
As they cantered on, the lady Uta told St. Kalwain about the forest beside her father’s cottage. As a small girl, she would wander freely through that forest, unchecked by her loving but distant father. Most often, her rambles took her to a small glade filled with wildflowers where she would knit herself flower chains to wear. One day, she found a plant with five-pointed leaves, dark green on the underside and a soft silver on top, growing out of the broken snag of a fallen tree. She worked one of those star shaped leaves into the chain of flowers she was wearing as a crown on her head. Then, as she was on her way home, the young lady Uta happened upon another person in the forest.
This person was taller than her father, but the individual’s long hair, delicate cheekbones, and style of dress convinced the young Uta that it was a woman. To this day, though, she could not be sure. “I am sure, however,” the lady Uta explained to Kalwain, “that it was a faerie from the faerie queen’s court, and this courtier had been sent to our realm to find Starlight’s Wort. The courtier recognized the leaf in my crown as what she was looking for, and she promised me a reward if I showed her where I’d found it.
“So, I took her to the broken stump, and she told me that Starlight’s Wort only grows in the decaying remains of trees that once housed wood nymphs. I was enchanted. Wouldn’t any little girl be?”
St. Kalwain grumbled, “I haven’t known many little girls, but it sounds grisly to me. Dead wood nymphs.”
The lady Uta laughed. “Yes, I suppose that’s one way to look at it, but all I was thinking was that a wood nymph once lived in my forest. Anyway, the faerie asked me what I’d like for my reward, and I said I’d like to see her faerie wings.”
Now St. Kalwain laughed. He’d known faeries too well for too long to remember a time when he pictured them as good forest sprites with dazzling butterfly wings.
“As you clearly know,” the lady Uta said, “the faerie courtier told me that real faeries don’t have wings. I was dreadfully disappointed, but I came up with a different request.”
“You asked for a horse,” St. Kalwain said. “That’s a good request.”
“Yes,” the lady Uta agreed. “I asked for a horse of my own. I wanted a companion. So, the faerie courtier took a strange looking pea pod out of the satchel of herbs at her waist. She opened the pod and gave me a single pea. She told me to feed it to my father’s old mare, which of course I did, and that old, old mare soon grew pregnant. Although, there were no stud horses around. Her foal was Jescha.” The lady Uta patted her green steed affectionately on the neck.
“So, Jescha has been touched by the faerie queen like me,” St. Kalwain said.
“Yes, she’s been blessed,” the lady Uta said.
“Ah, then, not like me.”
“What do you mean?” the lady Uta said. “The faerie queen has made you a saint.”
“No,” St. Kalwain said, the fur on his shoulders bristling under his cloak. “My own deeds have made me a saint. The faerie queen made me a beast.”
“You think you’re cursed?” the lady Uta asked. “You think you would have done all those great deeds and saved all those lives without the faerie queen’s touch on you?”
Maybe not, St. Kalwain thought. But no one had asked him if he wanted to be a saint.
The lady, the saint, and the miracle steed rode on in silence. By the time they crested the final hill and could see Uta’s village in the distance, the fog had melted away and the snow glittered with sunlight. It was a cold March.
Villagers spotted the travelers long before they reached the first cottage. St. Kalwain and Uta watched as the village streets filled with people. Everyone was excited to meet the saint who’d come to save them.
“There will be a feast tonight,” the lady Uta said. “In your honor. Then, tomorrow, you can face the dragon.”
St. Kalwain smiled bitterly as the lady Uta brought their steed to a halt. He was familiar with the feasts that villages held in his honor, the night before he was meant to do battle. They were farewell feasts. A hero’s goodbye. In case he did not succeed. No village wanted to be responsible for the death of a saint without even giving him a proper sending-off to Heaven’s gate. Of course, there would be no gate to Heaven awaiting St. Kalwain if he failed here. Only walls of flesh and a throne of bone.
“Very well,” St. Kalwain said to Uta, helping her down from Jescha’s back. Then, he turned to the gathering crowd, raised his voice and said, “I hear you have a dragon here.”
The crowd, as an entity, murmured. A few young children shrieked, as if the very word ‘dragon’ had summoned the visage of the dreadful beast before them. Then, an older gentleman, still able-bodied but gray around the edges, stepped forward from the crowd. He carried a pennant — a narrow, tapering flag that had been inscribed with a wolf’s paw and the letter ‘K.’
St. Kalwain shuddered at the sight of that hated symbol. He wanted to hide his hands — those offending paw-like monstrosities — that had inspired the symbol. But the man holding the pennant reached forward, found St. Kalwain’s right hand, and drew it forth into a hearty handshake.
How brave you must feel for touching me, St. Kalwain thought. The man hid his discomfort well. At least, from anyone only looking at him with their eyes. His scent, however, gave him away. St. Kalwain hated his nose for always telling him how fake the pleasantries and compliments were from the people in the villages he helped. Perhaps, he could have settled down and made some sort of life for himself somewhere, instead of skulking in the woods like a wild animal, if it weren’t for his nose. But the faerie queen hadn’t just given him the face and gnarled paws of a wolf. She’d given him a wolf’s keen senses as well.
After shaking St. Kalwain’s hand, the man introduced himself as the mayor of the town. He gave a speech, thanking St. Kalwain for honoring their village with his presence; praising St. Kalwain for all the great deeds he’d done in the past; and prognosticating St. Kalwain’s certain success on the morrow. It would have all been quite inspiring if the stench of nervous uncertainty, flavored with a hint of revulsion, hadn’t been wafting off the man’s body.
The crowd applauded. Then, people parted to let the mayor and his charges pass. The people began disappearing back into their houses, returning to their normal business. Some of them scurried off to set up the evening feast. The lady Uta went with them. In the meantime, the mayor led St. Kalwain on a tour of the small town. It wasn’t an impressive metropolis, but, then, St. Kalwain had found that most dragons were mean-spirited, lazy creatures. And small, helpless towns were easier to victimize.
St. Kalwain saw little damage to the town. A few buildings had suffered scorch marks, but there were no charred ruins. Likely, the town had chosen to pay the dragon off with sacrifices of livestock and treasure. Most dragons settled for such sacrifices, though St. Kalwain had once faced a six-legged silvery drake who actually insisted his offerings be human and virginal. That had been an ambitious dragon, and almost strong enough to back his ambition. The battle between him and Kalwain had lasted nearly a fortnight, and afterward the church convened and christened the tired, battered, beleaguered wolf-boy a saint.
St. Kalwain had been happy for a while then. He tried settling down in the town he’d saved. He’d built himself a homestead cottage and courted a maiden who had bathed his furry brow during his recovery. He brought her flowers, picked fresh from the forest. And fresh slain venison. But his keen ears let St. Kalwain hear her one day inside her house when he came to call. Her words reached him before he reached the door to knock, and they struck him like blows to the face. Hideous. Disfigured. Beast.
He abandoned his cottage and took to roaming. For a while, he sought out villages in distress, trying to earn release from the faerie queen’s curse as soon as possible. Over the years, though, he took to staying longer and longer in the depths of the forest. Eventually, he gave up on ever coming back.
Then the lady Uta had come for him.
The feast that night was held in the great hall that served as both church and town hall. It had high ceilings and tall windows of stained glass. St. Kalwain imagined the stained glass would be brilliant in morning light, but, come morning, he would have more on his mind than colorful depictions of holy figures and sacred scenes. Tonight, they glittered darkly in the lamplight. The long tables were laid with fresh baked breads, pots of jam and preserves, boiled eggs, and meat that had been cooked in savory spices to cover the smell of age. St. Kalwain could remember enjoying spiced lamb as a young man. Now, it smelled rotten to him, and he shuddered to see people eat it. He kept to the eggs himself, wistfully wishing that he could duck away in the night to hunt down a rabbit or bird.
That possibility seemed unlikely. There was a desperate, frantic quality to the feasting and celebrating of the villagers. As if their forced cheerfulness now could affect his success tomorrow. So, they danced and sang, cheered and jeered at each other with jokes, laughing too hard. Women even asked St. Kalwain to dance, but only the drunk ones. The smell of alcohol on their breath sickened him, and the whispers he heard after their mad whirls in his arms stung. “It’s like dancing with a dog!” “He looked like he was leering at me the whole dance.” — “Oh, that’s just his wolf snout; horrible, isn’t it?”
St. Kalwain would show them. He’d kill their dragon, and the faerie queen would return him to his proper form. Then they’d see who he really was. Unfortunately, St. Kalwain feared he’d already seen who they really were, and he couldn’t imagine forgiving their cruel jibes. The only woman in the hall who’d been kind to him in his cursed form was Uta. Perhaps, the only woman in the world.
The lady Uta had come to the feast, transformed. She wore a simple white dress that draped to the floor, with sleeves that widened and hung from her arms like the wings that faeries don’t have. Her hair was down, and in the warm lamplight, it glowed with auburn highlights. She didn’t dance or laugh raucously. She separated from the others, and settled herself demurely on the floor with the hounds that guarded the hall’s entrance. The hounds were a pair of bassets, trained to bay at the first sign of trouble. The lady Uta fed them table scraps and stroked their long ears.
Gathering his courage, St. Kalwain broke away from the frenetic whirl of drunken dancing. He approached the lady who had been his companion through many days’ travel in the snow. He felt his claws click on the stone floor as he walked toward her, and his ears flicked nervously. He wished they didn’t show his emotions so brazenly. He wished they weren’t wolf’s ears at all.
“My lady,” he said, kneeling down beside Uta and the bassets. He reached a hand to join her in stroking them, but it looked too wrong. His paw on the basset’s back. One dog stroking another. He pulled the offending appendage back and wrapped his arms tight around himself, burying his paw-hands in the folds of his cloak.
They sat together for a while, listening to the noise in the hall. St. Kalwain’s keen ears let him make out much of the drunken conversation, but he wasn’t sure how much the lady Uta could distinguish. Most of it was village gossip. Of little interest to anyone and none to a traveler, new to the town. Then, St. Kalwain heard a man speaking with the mayor say, “Do you think he’ll win? This dog-man? Do you really think he’ll kill the dragon?”
The mayor’s answer was slurred with drink, but the sentiment was clear enough: “If not, then thish shaint should ‘ave enough meat on ‘im to keep that ol’ lizard fat an’ happy for a week or more. Better’n no shaint, if you ask me. Better’n feeding the lizard more sheep.”
The lady Uta met St. Kalwain’s eyes, but then she turned away. Her cheeks grew faintly pink, and she breathed the words, “I’m sorry.”
“There’s no need to be sorry,” St. Kalwain said boldly, surprising the lady by having heard her whispered words. “I will slay that dragon.” His words were brave, but, in that moment, St. Kalwain was not. He’d slain many dragons, but it never got easier. Each dragon was a new battle to the death, and the death could easily be his.
Then, the lady Uta turned her face back and smiled at him. Suddenly St. Kalwain felt much more sure of his words. “Yes, I’ll slay the dragon, and then the faerie queen has promised to free me from this curse. I’ll be a normal man again.”
The lady Uta’s smile faded, and her face turned away.
“Perhaps not a handsome man,” St. Kalwain faltered, wishing he knew what to say to please the woman before him. He had no guile. Only honesty. “But a man, and one that has done many great things.”
“Will you be done doing great things, then?” the lady Uta asked. Her voice was low. “There are many villages in need of saving. Many other dragons.”
“Haven’t I done enough?” St. Kalwain asked, his voice beginning in honest inquiry but turning bitter by the end. “Will it never be enough?”
The lady Uta turned to face him again. She didn’t smile, but her eyes searched his. Then, she touched his face — his muzzle — with her delicate, human hand. She traced her fingers along the bridge of his snout, over his brow, and then stroked his ear, much as she’d stroked the bassets. “Poor, tired saint,” she said. “I suppose you’ll want to settle here. Pick one of my fellow maidens, and make a life.” The lady Uta turned to watch the drunken dancers, swaying dreamily. There were fewer now. Many of them had collapsed into chairs, slumped over the long table. St. Kalwain wanted none of them.
“What of you?” he asked. “Once your village is safe, will you go back to roaming the forests, searching out nomadic saints?” St. Kalwain meant his suggestion to be ridiculous. He expected that the lady Uta would want a quiet cottage with a good man caring for her. He would have liked to be that good man.
However, the lady Uta’s eyes shone at the question, and her answer surprised him utterly. “Not exactly,” she said. “I mean, how many nomadic saints are there? But, yes, I will return to travelling. Maybe I will be a nomadic saint myself some day.”
“Truly?” St. Kalwain asked. “You’ll return to wandering the forests alone with Jescha?”
“As I said,” she answered, “There are many villages still in need of saving.”
The lady Uta’s attitude was strange and foreign to St. Kalwain. She would willingly choose the life he’d had thrust on him? He couldn’t understand it, but he was intrigued. “Don’t you want your own life? A family? Children?”
The lady Uta looked at St. Kalwain steadily. Her eyes held a seriousness beyond her years. “I do not care to risk my life in childbirth. If I’m to risk my life, I’ll do it for a whole village of lives. Not merely one who may awake motherless with a useless, distraught father, too busy mourning to care properly for a child.” The lady Uta’s voice turned hollow, and she said, “My own mother made that mistake. I will not follow her. I will never marry.”
For a moment, St. Kalwain saw years of loneliness stretching out behind those clear blue eyes: an only child of a distant man, with only her faerie-touched horse to befriend her. Then, the lady Uta turned away, and St. Kalwain felt that same loneliness turn into a gulf between them.
It was only a few inches from his hand to the bend of her knee, articulated under the white folds of her dress as they sat on the floor. He wanted to put his hand out and touch her comfortingly. But, he knew he couldn’t. His hand was a deformed claw, a wolf’s paw not meant to rake a lady’s knee. And, yet, if it were a gentleman’s hand, as he hoped it soon would be, he knew she would not welcome it.
The music ended and the villagers began to leave. “Good luck on the morrow,” the lady Uta wished him. Then, she too stood, graced him with a sad smile, and took her leave.
The mayor of the village found St. Kalwain still sitting with the hounds, his head in a daze. The activity and noise of the feast would have been enough to dizzy him after months in the forest alone. The headiness of the lady Uta’s blue-eyed gaze and the unattainable smoothness of her fair skin left St. Kalwain in a complete swoon.
“Come along, good knight,” the mayor said, seeming to have sobered up. “The dragon comes early when it comes. And, after hearing our merriment tonight, oh, ho, ho. Tomorrow, it will come.” So, the mayor showed St. Kalwain to a cot in the back of the church. “You can stay here. Get your rest while you can. Is there anything you’ll be needing from us on the morrow?”
St. Kalwain looked at the mayor and wondered what it would be like to live out the rest of his life in this town. This pudgy, self-important man would be his alpha here. But, then, maybe if he settled in this town, St. Kalwain would become the mayor himself. He wasn’t sure he wanted the job, but he knew he’d have trouble respecting a man who’d equated his own life to that of a sacrificial sheep the night before battle.
“No, thank you,” he said. “I have everything I need.” He gestured with his paw to the sword he’d dropped on the cot. “I’ll try to do better tomorrow than one of your sheep. I think the sword and claws–“, he raised his hands and showed his long, curved claws, “–will help.”
The mayor staggered backward as if St. Kalwain had threatened him with a blow. His chubby face flushed purple and then red, but he didn’t apologize for his earlier words. He merely stumbled out of the church hall as quickly as his awkward, drunken legs would carry him, muttering inchoately all the while.
Lying on the cot that night, St. Kalwain considered abandoning the village, but he didn’t think the faerie queen would tolerate him returning to his hermitage in the forest. He would have to face the dragon, even if he didn’t feel this village was worth saving. Nor humanity worth rejoining.
He would do it for Uta. But, in his heart, he formed a wish: he hoped the dragon would strike a fatal blow before the end. As he slew the dragon, let the dragon slay him as well. Rob the faerie queen of her last condescension. Save him from a life with accolades from cowards and love from women too shallow to see his worth beneath a little fur and a few claws.
Yet, part of him knew, when the snout was gone and the keen sense of smell with it; the wolf’s ears and their uncanny hearing; then, he could finally belong again. He’d no longer smell cowardice like a brand on a man or hear jibes whispered about him behind closed doors. Over time, he’d forget the cowardice and jibes existed. Surely, he would.
St. Kalwain agonized between dreading and coveting the return of his purely human form all night. A tired, frightened man with the haggard appearance of an unkempt, bipedal wolf, fur scraggly and disarrayed, was greeted by the light of dawn shining through the church hall window. Moments after his eyes opened, St. Kalwain heard the many-tongued shriek of the dragon outside.
He rose, took up his sword, and went to greet his destiny. The stained glass glowed upon him, casting merry, dancing pools of colored light on his cloak and fur, as he strode through the church. He didn’t notice. His eyes were filled with memories of Uta in her long white dress, sitting beside him on the cobbled floor. Perhaps as he died, she would cool his fevered brow. Perhaps, if he was indeed dying, that chaste lady would let him steal a final kiss.
The morning air outside the church was chilled. The wind carried the dragon’s shrieks — a cacophony of voices, rising together into catcalls, challenges, and yet more jeers. St. Kalwain didn’t mind them from the dragon as much as from his supposed peers at his own honorary feast the night before.
“Show yourssself puny knight!”
“I sssee your tracksss riding into town!”
“I heard your death-feassst last night!”
“And I can sssssmell your fear!”
The voices made sense when St. Kalwain saw the dragon’s long shadow, stretched out by the early morning angle of the sun. It fell on the frost-bitten ground in front of the church — a dark sketch of a beast with one massive body and two broadly arching wings, branching at the shoulders into a veritable snakes’ nest of long necks and spade-shaped heads.
The dragon dropped from the sky, landing on its shadow in front of the church. It stood nearly as tall as the church’s steeple, and its wings would have spanned the entire width of the church’s great hall. Iridescent scales covered the dragon’s body, black with a shimmer of blue and green when hit by the light. Red eyes glowed demonically from the many reptilian faces. And forked tongues, ironically silver, flickered in and out of the many sharp-toothed mouths.
St. Kalwain drew his sword. He’d faced dragons before, and he usually went for the neck. A clean slice with his blade or a ragged tearing with his teeth, either way it stopped the putrid, sulfur-smelling breath. That wouldn’t work here, so St. Kalwain aimed for another mark. His blunt claws curled around the hilt of his sword as he held the blade straight out before him, pointing like a deadly arrow at the dragon’s breast. “Do you have a heart beast!?” St. Kalwain shouted up for the snaking heads to hear.
The dragon flapped its wings, and then folded them along its back. The heads moved in unison one moment, swaying one way together, then they’d change directions and move as if completely independent. As if they were all parts of separate beasts. It was mesmerizing to watch. Terrifying with all the teeth.
“Do I have a heart?” one head hissed. Another answered, “I’ll have yoursss in a minute!” Others rasped a cackling laugh; others still echoed the first, repeating its words until they lost all sense. A few heads even seemed to babble incoherently, repeating the word heart like a chant. But all the eyes looked at St. Kalwain, burning with hunger and hatred.
To avoid the mouths, St. Kalwain dropped to the ground, rolling forward over his shoulder with his sword still gripped in his paw. The roll brought him closer to the dragon while keeping him low. He ran three-pawed, charging the dragon, then feinting to the side. He had to get behind those toothy mouths.
The dragon’s back was broad and smooth with scales. St. Kalwain jumped for it and tried to get a purchase with the claws of his free paw. His claws scraped against the scales with a sickening screech, but he didn’t get a hold. Meanwhile, the long necks turned, bringing those demon eyes and sharp teeth around to face him. St. Kalwain swung at the dragon’s back, and the sharp edge of his sword sliced through the air. It struck hard and came away black with blood, but he couldn’t stay for another swing. The heads were too close; the dragon’s necks were so long, they could easily snake around to reach him. St. Kalwain loped three-pawed to a safer distance, but before he was out of reach, he took a painful bite to his sword arm.
The dragon’s heads laughed and gnashed their teeth. The body turned, and the ropy muscled legs, each much wider than St. Kalwain’s torso, carried the dragon after him. Its steps shook the ground.
St. Kalwain charged, feinted, and slashed at the dragon’s flank again, but this time he kept a greater distance. He was able to dart out of reach before the vicious mouths reached him. He repeated the tactic until he was out of breath and panting. The dragon’s mouths still laughed at him. Although St. Kalwain’s strikes drew blood, the dragon seemed hardly injured. St. Kalwain couldn’t get close enough for a reasonable swing without risking injury himself.
Snow began to fall from the sky. Great fluffy drops of white clouded the air between St. Kalwain and the dragon laughing at him. A few of the dragon’s heads spat bursts of flame that sputtered in the cold air. Other heads hissed. A few still chanted, “heart, heart!”
The point of St. Kalwain’s blade fell to the ground, and he leaned his weight against the sword like a crutch. The dragon watched him. It was taunting him. Playing with him. Snow gathered on St. Kalwain’s muzzle; he licked it off with his long canine tongue. It was wet and soothing. Snow fell on his ears, and he flicked them to throw it off.
St. Kalwain realized that he could not reach the dragon’s heart. It was buried too deep beneath the protective mire of necks and heads. He would have to fight the dragon head on. With a final breath to steel himself, St. Kalwain raised his sword again.
This time he charged the dragon, expecting the mouths to bite him and the bursts of flame to burn him. He charged onward anyway, and he brought the sword down with all the strength in his arms. Those cursed arms deformed by the faerie queen’s touch were inhumanly, blessedly strong.
One slash after another shed the dragon of its heads. They fell to the ground with heavy thumps. St. Kalwain counted the falls to distract himself from the pain. His hands were slick with his own blood; it ran down his arms, matting his fur. He turned from the fight, fleeing the dragon before the blood could compromise his grip on his sword. He loped away, limping pitifully this time. But, this time, he also knew he’d robbed the dragon of at least fourteen heads.
To get a break from the battle — one he felt he’d more than earned — St. Kalwain continued his flight around the corner of the church and down the street. He headed away from the heart of town, aiming for the forest. He meant to draw the dragon away from the village he’d come to protect, but he also meant to escape to a world where he felt safer. One filled with trees and solitude, instead of with buildings hiding cowering people. All of them were merely waiting, watching, wondering about the outcome of his fight. None of them cared whether he survived, so long as the dragon died. Except maybe Uta.
St. Kalwain collapsed on the frost-broken grass under a sheltering tree. He touched the wounds on his sides lightly, gingerly testing them. He was badly bitten; gashes from the dragon’s teeth covered much of his body. But it wasn’t time to lick his wounds yet. St. Kalwain estimated that half or more of the dragon’s heads were still left. Besides, he could hear the dragon’s laughter coming toward him. St. Kalwain could hardly imagine subjecting himself to those horrible mouths again. The pain was so great…
He touched the locket at his breast and knew he was close to completing the faerie queen’s service. His paw pads fingered the smooth metal, and he cracked the locket open. Not wide enough to look into: he didn’t want to see his reflection, and he didn’t want to see the faerie queen. No, he simply whispered into it the poem the faerie queen had given him. He hoped it was for the last time. Then, he made his wish: “Take the pain away. Let the dragon kill me, but take the pain away. That’s all the reward I want from you.”
St. Kalwain didn’t know if the faerie queen was listening, and he didn’t know what she would think of his wish. But he pretended to believe that she would grant it, and that was enough for him to raise his sword again and be ready when the great dragon with flapping wings, landed in front of his tree.
The red demon eyes looked at him, and St. Kalwain saw with horror that there were as many as before. The heads had grown back. In these few minutes of respite, they’d all grown back.
It made no difference, though. St. Kalwain already meant to fight to the death. If the dragon went down with him, all the better. If he was finally bested in battle, so be it. He only hoped the faerie queen would grant his wish and let him die. He did not want to be a hound in her court. He would never see that as a fair price.
St. Kalwain thought of the mistake that had brought him here — one well-aimed arrow, and one terribly unfortunate mark. He hadn’t known the creature was anything more than an unusual fox-like animal (and a very tasty one it turned out) until the faerie queen and her courtiers came to him later that night, long ago. The faerie queen informed him that he’d slain her favorite hound and would have to pay a price.
Even so, he felt that he should have been allowed to pay the price while remaining a man. Instead, he’d been cursed with that faerie hound’s visage — a muzzle, paws, and fur — and had been constantly threatened with being forced to take its place at the faerie queen’s feet. Well, no more. He raised his sword and met the hydra dragon.
The steel blade flashed and serpentine mouths danced fore and back, biting St. Kalwain from all sides. The dragon’s front arms came up, and the large, scaly claws grasped St. Kalwain around the middle, lifting him and pulling him into the medusa’s hair of necks and heads. The dragon’s claws dug deep into St. Kalwain’s waist, crushing him tightly, and he began to feel weary from all the blood loss and seemingly endless bites.
Heads continued to fall, but they also continued to grow. St. Kalwain gave up counting them. He swung the sword senselessly, waiting for unconsciousness or a gift from the faerie queen to take away his pain. Then, he noticed the gleam of golden eyes. Not red. Yellow eyes, like his own. The head hosting them disappeared into the fray of other heads, all black with scales and glinting with silver tongues and teeth. Had St. Kalwain imagined it? He wasn’t sure, at first, but then he caught sight of that yellow gleam again. And he knew what he had to do.
St. Kalwain struggled against the massive claws gripping his body. He fought his way in deeper to the nexus of necks. He dropped his sword; it was only hindering him. When he saw the gleam of golden eyes next, he traced the path of that neck back. He waited for that particular cord of black, scaly flesh to come into reach, and then he flung out both arms and grasped with all the desperation of impending death. He would not let that neck go. Not until his teeth and claws had sunk into it, rent it apart, and left the golden-eyed head at the end of it rasping, ineffectively for breath.
The dragon’s blood ran black, and its flesh tasted pungent on St. Kalwain’s tongue. His teeth and claws pierced the scales and ripped satisfyingly into the meat of the dragon’s throat. He would have preferred the final taste on his lips to be a kiss from the lady Uta, but St. Kalwain would have to settle for a final meal of raw dragon meat instead. At least, he wouldn’t fail at his final task.
As St. Kalwain struggled, he felt the vise-like grip of the dragon’s claws on his middle lessen. The bites slowed down; blinding pain decreased to stabbing, then to dull and throbbing as the bites stopped altogether. St. Kalwain kept his teeth lodged in the golden-eye’s throat, but he could see the necks and heads swaying around him. They swooned and began to wilt, as if the dragon was fainting. The entire building-sized body toppled, and St. Kalwain felt a new pressure as half of the necks collapsed on top of him, slamming down like trees falling in the forest.
St. Kalwain closed his eyes and whispered, “Now, my queen. Grant my wish now, or you won’t have the chance.” Then, he laughed or sobbed; it was a strangled expression. He expected to die, alone and in pain. But that’s not what the faerie queen wanted.
“I heard your wish,” said a voice like dry leaves, blowing in the wind.
St. Kalwain opened his eyes, but all he saw was black flesh and the clouded sky above. Yet, he knew the faerie queen was near. “You’ve come,” he said. He’d spent most of his life working in the service of the faerie queen. He thought he hated her. He certainly feared her. But, he couldn’t have been more relieved and grateful to hear her terrifying voice. He didn’t know what she’d do, but he no longer seemed to know how to live in a world without her running it. “Help me,” he said.
“I won’t grant your wish,” she said, taking an edge to her voice that would have made a dragon cringe. “But I will give you what you truly want.”
The pain in St. Kalwain’s body — already a fire, burning throughout every inch of him — burst into roaring flame. He cried out; the scream tore through his body, shredding his vocal cords. The sound ascended and then fell away, like a wolf’s howl ending in a final whimper.
Slowly the pain ebbed. St. Kalwain’s body transformed from a glaring beacon of pain to a physical vessel. He felt he could move again, and he lifted an arm. It bent differently than he expected. His elbow was higher; his wrist lower; and his fingers unresponsive. He was startled by the change and jumped, his legs pushing him out from under the weight of dragon necks. He moved quickly, fluidly, but he found his hands on the ground as if they belonged there. He looked at them, wondering what was wrong. But as he stared down at his paws, he realized he couldn’t remember.
Then he heard the sweetest sound in the world. It was a voice singing, and it was a voice he knew well. St. Kalwain wagged his new tail for the first time, not even realizing the strangeness of having a tail now. For it wasn’t strange. He was no longer a horrible half-beast. St. Kalwain had been reformed as a single whole: a sleek, beautiful wolf with gray-brown fur and majestic ears.
“This is what you were always meant to be,” the faerie queen said, looking at the wolf her magic had made of him. “You are not free, but you are free from me. You will wander the forest in obscurity, at the side of your true love, providing the companionship she needs to be a hero herself. She will call you Saint. Go to her,” she said.
The lady Uta was singing a ballad in honor of the fallen St. Kalwain in the distance, a song written by the town’s bard as he had watched, safe inside his home, while the noble, tortured beast-man had slain the dragon.
The wolf Kalwain looked at the faerie queen and flicked one of his ears. He didn’t like the smell of her, and he growled deep in his throat. Then, he backed away several paces, turned and trotted toward the sound of his new master’s song.