The howls echoed in that dark night painting pictures of blood stained maws and sharp rows of teeth in the minds of the people in the ráth. All but one mind, anyway. It was a wolf moon, her father had said. It was wolf weather, the priest had intoned. Still, Aine ni Cathair was drawn to the hills and the cliffs and the open air. She donned a cloak and pinned it fast, pulling the hood up to hide her wild, red hair and her freckle-strewn face as she passed through the doors and into the night.
A steady rain fell and mist clung to the ground like man to a mystery, parting only slightly as Aine passed through. She carried no torch against the darkness and kept her steps light. The path to the cliff was a well-trod one and one she knew as she knew her own heart. That was why she was surprised to find something there she had never seen before: two torches, one to either side of the track.
Aine paused for only a moment before striding between them with determination and purpose. This was her place, her family’s land, and whoever was out here in the night would regret it if they were trespassing.
A lone figure stood beyond, a silhouette carved against the sky. They faced the sea and as Aine came closer, she could make out silver curls of hair.
“Gran? Is that you?”
The woman turned, a smile on her face as she looked at her granddaughter. Again, Aine hesitated. Her grandmother stood in the soaking rain beyond the torches with a knife in her hand, reflecting the light, and a fur over her shoulders.
“T’is, my dear. Come closer so I can see you.”
Aine took another step forward, hearing the howls echoing off the hillsides.
“Gran, why’re you out in the rain?”
The old woman chuckled softly.
“Why, the same reason as you, my dear.”
Another few steps brought Aine even closer before she paused.
“Gran, where’d you get that wolf skin?”
The woman reached to pat the fur of the skin thrown over her shoulders and smiled fondly, as though at a distant memory.
“Why, I’ve had it since I was your age, my dear.”
Aine stood only a single step away from her grandmother now and she could feel the fear warring with confusion in her gut.
“Gran, why’ve you got that dreadful big knife?”
The old woman flipped the blade in her hand and held out the hilt her to granddaughter.
“Why, so you can claim your own skin, my dear.”
The howls echoed in that dark night and the moon climbed further into the sky. The people in the ráth could hear the trembling call of a new wolf joining the hunt. Outside, a red wolf ran at the side of an old silver one, never as free before as she was now.
Mrs. Tipton smiled sadly at her newest boarder when she opened the door of the lodging house.
“Oh, my dear, I never thought you’d be joining us.”
The old woman at the door slumped her shoulders and pulled her shawl tighter around her shoulders.
“No one lasts for ever. Not anymore.”
Mrs. Tipton nodded slowly, sadly, and stepped aside.
“I’ve set aside a room for you on the top floor. It’s only been Annis up there for years and I think she could use the company.”
Together, they climbed the rickety old stairs through the lodging house. They could hear the sounds of the other boarders in their rooms. Annis was singing, her windows wide and her voice like the wind on the moors. Jenny’s door was thrown open and the smell of a stew simmering wafted into the corridors. One woman stood in her doorway in a gown that had fit once, had been considered elegant once. Now, it was tattered and her looks had long since faded. She smiled distantly at the pair as they passed by.
“I’ve heard, Mrs. Tipton, that there’s to be a play staged in my honor this evening. At the Globe, no less. Another of William’s bits of brilliance, I’m certain.”
Mrs. Tipton returned her smile and patted the woman’s hand reassuringly.
“That’s right, Titania, dear. I’m sure it will be just delightful.”
They left the Faerie Queen humming to herself and dancing through a glade that existed now only in her mind. Soon, they reached the top floor and the vacancy.
“This would be your room. Let me know if you need anything and if you’ve any questions about the rules, I’m sure Annis would be happy to help.”
The old woman looked at the tidy bed with its clean sheets.
“Once, I slept on an oven, you know.”
“I know, dearie.”
Mrs. Tipton watched as the woman went to the window.
“I never thought it would come to this. I thought if I could last through that wretched Stalin, I could last through anything. Even when they were afraid of the atom, they remembered to be afraid of me.”
Black Annis stood in the doorway, a sorrowful expression on her monstrous visage.
“Humans don’t need us monsters anymore, Baba Yaga. They’ve made worse than we could ever be out of themselves.”
That was the only word that went through my mind as I watched her step out of the thrift store dressing room. God fucking dammit. This is the part where, normally, our fashionista cheerleader heroine would be thinking check plus for your hard work, your frumpy best friend is going to get the useless jock of her dreams and ride off into the sunset as prom queen. Well, except for one pretty major detail. I did not want her to go riding off anywhere with Darren McAndrews, scum lord extraordinaire. I wanted us to be the ones riding off into the sunset together. Yep. One makeover later and the cheer captain is pining desperately over her formerly fashion-challenged best friend since kindergarten.
The words slipped out of my mouth and Lily’s shoulders slumped.
“Does…does it not fit?” She sighed a little and looked so sad. My mind was racing in five thousand different directions. “I really thought we had it that time.”
“No, no. Lils. It fits. Perfect. Great. Amazing. You look amazing.”
The words were tripping over themselves in a jumble to get out of my mouth and I felt like there were spotlights trained on my face. I knew from the heat rising to my cheeks that I must be blushing. Oh yes, this was rapidly entering worst-day-ever territory.
That was when the floor dropped out from underneath me. Okay, not really. Lily walked over and touched my arm, a concerned look on her face. I tried to be relaxed, calm, not buzzing with some stupid pile of hormones I only half remembered from biology. She must have said something else because she was looking at me like she was waiting for an answer.
“Y-you shouldn’t go to prom with Darren.”
For a moment, we both stood there and I wondered if this was what going crazy felt like. Like I didn’t have control over what was coming out of my mouth.
“He’s an asshole and a lech and a creep and…and…”
No, I was wrong before. This was what it was like to lose control. I grabbed my best friend and I kissed her right there in the back of the thrift store with tears in my eyes and my hands shaking. She looked startled but then her expression softened.
“You never said. Not a word. Not the slightest hint.”
I flailed. I honestly flailed.
“I didn’t know!”
Then she took my hand and her little smile nearly killed me.
“I’d love to go to prom with you, Kat. Assuming you’re asking.”
Alright, I’ll admit it. I have no idea what I’m doing here. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I believe in the cause. I made my sign myself after a late night craft store run. The cashier was so funny, asking if we had a project for school.
“No, ma’am, we’re actively participating in our democracy.”
That had been my best friend’s flippant response. I’d seen this kind of thing on TV and I was scared. They kept saying it would be fine though. Somehow, I don’t think they really understood.
Now, I was trying not to cry as I heard shouting and loud bangs that sounded a lot like explosives to my ears. That was when he appeared out of the smoke. A tall man with dark hair cut military short. He was wearing wraparound shades that obscured his eyes, a bandanna over the lower half of his face, and a tight t-shirt with a Spartan logo on it. He grabbed my arm and hauled me up.
“Come on, kid. How’re you doing?”
I tried to speak and started coughing. He cursed in a language I didn’t understand and handed me a bottle and a bandanna.
“Swish and spit. Wet the bandanna and hold it over your mouth. Got me, kid?”
I nodded once, uncertain. We both heard the sound that caught his attention then. It was like a loud pop and then something hissing. I didn’t think, I just moved. Doing as he’d told me, I kept the bandanna over my mouth as I stayed low hoping this stuff worked like smoke. He grabbed my arm and pointed, making signs I’d never seen. I could follow it though. Grab the woman near us and follow him.
He led us up a side street where there were a few people working on a sort of street triage. He nodded to them, clearly knowing each and every one of them. My eyes were burning and tears streamed down my face. The woman we’d helped out was worse off though. Another woman grabbed a bottle of something and was talking quietly to her, saying she was here to help. Not to worry a bit.
When my eyes were clear, I started helping. He coached me, teaching me things I never thought I would learn. I learned more about how medicine really works than I ever had before. And not gentle, kind, sterile medicine. This was rough and we could only do our best. Sometimes, I wondered what he was doing here. He was a soldier. He had to be. But he just laughed and said he fought in these trenches now, in this new kind of war for liberty. If he was a general, I think I would follow him to the ends of the earth.
“Come on, kid. You and me, we’ve got more people to help.”
The first thing Lysandra did was belt on a sword stolen from her brother. If she succeeded, he need never know. If she failed, it would never matter. The second was to tie a cloth over her eyes. It was hard to be certain when she would meet the monster, so it was best she be protected. With any luck, the patron of Athens would be with her. Or maybe the Goddess of Love, given the nature of her quest. Taking a breath, she began to feel her way through the rocks that led to the cave. She was certain she would find what she was looking for there.
It was slow going, that sightless progress from beach to cave. Lysandra stopped twice, certain she heard movement but never once daring to adjust her blindfold just in case it was the monster. Her questing hands found stone before her and she nearly jumped out of her own skin when it moved, falling backward.
“Lady of Wisdom, please let that not have been her I just knocked over…”
A voice sounded from behind her, disturbingly close.
“The Lady of Wisdom has no place on my island. And neither do you.”
Lysandra didn’t turn. It would have done her no good. She let her hands fall to her sides and tried to keep from shaking.
“Neither does Pelagia.”
She wished for a moment that her voice had sounded more fierce, more determined, less afraid. But there was nothing she could do now. Snakes snapped all around her head and Lysandra knew that Medusa had come right up behind her. For a long moment, they both stood there like that. Then Medusa spoke, her voice low and dangerous.
“Do you know what happens to the people who come here?”
Lysandra licked her lips nervously.
“They turn to stone. When they see your eyes, they turn to stone.”
“Which is why you wore a blindfold, clever Athenian girl. Then you know the girl you’re looking for is stone. So why are you here?”
“Because I think you know how to turn her back.”
Lysandra listened to the shifting behind her as Medusa considered her words.
“Assuming for a moment that I could, why would I? Why would I restore any of them? What do you know about any of this?”
Medusa grabbed Lysandra by the arm and the girl screamed. Clamping her free hand over her mouth, Lysandra felt hot tears beginning to soak her blindfold.
“I don’t. I don’t know anything beyond the stories. They…they said you were a monster. I just came to rescue Pelagia. Because. Because I love her.”
When Medusa spoke, there was distaste in her voice.
“So, of course, you carried a sword to face a monster. Everything becomes clear. Once, I was as human as you, girl. As it happens, I can do what you wish, but it will be for a price.”
Lysandra’s heart leaped into her mouth and her pulse hammered in her ears.
“I’ll do it. Anything you want, I’ll do it.”
“There’s spring on the island. Use the water from that to wash the stone off of her and only her. Then take your Pelagia and go tell them that I am dead. I don’t care what story you tell, but make it convincing. I’m tired of would-be heroes trying to test themselves on me. I just want to be left alone.” Medusa let go of Lysandra’s arm. “I’ll be in my cave, so you can take your blindfold off. If you swear to the deal.”
Lysandra didn’t hesitate.
“I swear it on the River Styx.”
Lysandra had tucked the sword back among her brother’s belongings before she and Pelagia went to the agora with their news.
“I tell you, the gorgon Medusa is dead.”
Lysandra stood on a low wall, hands on her hips.
“And who slew that monster?”
“Was it you, girl?”
Lysandra glanced at Pelagia at her side and then smiled, spinning a tale no one would ever forget.
“Not I. It was a hero, a demigod named Perseus. I can tell you exactly how it happened.”
Silent halls are never a good sign. Halls that go silent just as you appear are far worse. General silence means something has happened, something bad enough to rattle the entire student body. It had happened the year before when the homecoming king got drunk and drove himself and the homecoming queen into the lake. But that had been too-quiet hallways and tears and memorials and grief counselors for the cheer squad and the football team. This was different. This was a directed silent, weaponized exclusion, and a splash of bright red paint to shape a single, damning word on her locker. Her shoulders slumped and she wondered if the janitor would clean it off or if she had to. She opened her locker and pulled out her books, deciding in that moment to fight back the only way she could. Sure, they could turn the social structures of high school into a weapon and turn it against her, but she was armed with the one thing they couldn’t tolerate: her own happiness.
Charlie hung her backpack on the hook on the stall door and leaned against the partition. With any luck, she could wait in here until the boys out there looking for her were gone. They wouldn’t think to look in here. Hopefully, anyway. If she heard the door open, she could always climb up and perch on the toilet. Maybe they’d just think the stall was locked. She double checked that she still had her pistol tucked into the waistband of her jeans. Good and good. Somehow, she didn’t think this was what her Daddy had had in mind when he’d gotten it for her before she left for college two years back. She could hear voices raised out in the store. Maybe they’d get the cops called on them. That’d serve them. She doubted it though. How many states had they chased her through and still managed to evade the notice of actual authorities? She didn’t even know why they were chasing her, of all people. Just that they were. When it got quiet again, she counted slowly down from 30 before grabbing her backpack and heading back out into the store. The cashier was looking at her funny but she grabbed a box of cereal, a jar of peanut butter, a loaf of bread, and a bottle of water. After a brief hesitation, she grabbed a small bottle of vitamins. Then she plunked it down on the counter along with a few small bills.
“Keep the change and thanks for not ratting me out.”
The girl behind the counter nodded.
“I’ll even let you out the back. That lot might be waiting in the parking lot.”
She smiled, shoving things into her backpack.
“You’re a lifesaver.”
It might even be true. She honestly didn’t know what they wanted her for. She’d never known. And she really didn’t plan on finding out. The cashier helped her slip out the back door and she set off into the woods. Based on the map, there was a highway. She could probably hitch her way to the next city and disappear there for a while. It would be risky, but it might just be worth it. She rested her hand on the slight swell of her abdomen. A few more months. Then maybe she might find out what this was all about.