By: Catherine Olaso
“Ah, the smell of her blood quickens my own,” the old witch murmured with sharp, milky eyes at the edge of the glen. The distant baying of a wolf caused her withered body to tremble with excitement.
Simon McKiernen stared wide-eyed at the hunched figure beside him. The birthmark on his shoulder tingled as it always did when Maev cast her spells.
Indentured to the witch at the age of ten for a slight his mother had caused the old woman, Simon had never seen Maev smile. Tonight he did. And in the seven years he’d served her, he’d never seen anything so terrifying.
“Bring me the heart of Vashla, the she-wolf,” Maev said. Razor teeth, black with decay quartered her mouth as her lustful whisper drifted in the wind, tapering Vashla’s howl to a low wail.
“The immortal heart of the forest is mine.” Maev turned her white eyes on Simon. “Too long Vashla has escaped the Sisters; her cunning as swift as her feet. But no more…”
“Priestess…” Simon bowed his dark head, wincing at the tendrils of power that pierced him. “No-one has seen the she-wolf and lived to tell it. Surely the forest protects Vashla.”
Maev spun and jabbed a spiked fingernail into Simon’s chest. The scratch burned like acid. “None but you. You alone were chosen for this moment.” She drew forth a blood-red talisman and held it to the glittering moon. Crimson rays blinded Simon.
“The Sisters have sacrificed much for such a charm.” Maev’s voice carried a hint of sadness, then her tone hardened. “Make haste! The charm will lose its power when the full moon crests the sky.”
She draped the slender chain around Simon’s neck. “Only an untainted can wield the charm. With this token, Vashla is bound by the laws of the Ancients to show herself to you.” Maev’s rotted mouth twisted into a sneer as she handed Simon a small, silver dagger etched with the sacred symbols of the Sisterhood. “Make haste!” she repeated, glancing at the sky and shooing Simon away. “Do not fail.”
Simon flinched at the sting of Maev’s eyes and the promise of certain death should he return empty handed.
Beyond the fringes of a gleaming meadow, Simon glimpsed unnatural, yellow eye-shine peering from behind a hemlock. He froze, unable to breathe against the pounding of his heart. The she-wolf mesmerized him as her shadowed form took shape and drew nearer.
Vashla outshone the brightness of the moon. Her rich pelt was the purest white Simon had ever seen. He reached for the dagger, but never unsheathed it. How could he murder such an exquisite creature?
The amber eyes settled on the talisman dangling from Simon’s neck. Irritation deepened the golden irises. Simon stood helpless to do anything but admire Vashla’s graceful stride and the regal power of her stance. Truly a goddess in wolf’s form stood before him.
With a single lunge and snap of her teeth, the crimson talisman fell to the dirt. Vashla crushed it with her paw. Fine red dust drifted on the wind.
Simon dropped to his knees. “Will you kill me, Goddess of the Forest?”
Vashla tilted her head, her voice human. “You are without guile, Simon McKiernen. You do not wish this evil.”
“How do you know my name?”
“I know all things. I know you bear the mark of a guardian, sacred and rare, on your left shoulder.”
Simon’s heart beat faster. He never understood the strange sign, but knew enough to hide it. “None but my mother has seen the mark.”
“I have seen all.” Vashla’s eyes glinted with the promise of a secret.
“Then… you know what I seek?” Shame crept into Simon’s voice.
“You seek what the Daughters of Hekate have always coveted, but must never possess. This power I guard cannot be desecrated. In the end, Maev’s greed shall be her fall. Foolish crone.” Vashla glanced at the rising moon.
“This night I surrender the heart of the forest to you, Simon. Do not fear your destiny.” Vashla lay in the pine needles, bearing her chest for Simon’s dagger.
Simon looked horrified. “I would as soon sacrifice myself as you.”
Vashla raised her head, a solemn prophecy in her words. “And so you shall.” In her eyes flashed the past, present and future. Simon found courage in what he saw.
Swiftly, he cut the heart from Vashla, amazed to watch it beat with renewed strength as he cradled it in his palm. His mark pulsed with fire, but he bore the pain. The stunning creature on the forest floor transformed into the goddess he’d imagined. She lay in human form, her long, white hair draping her like a shroud.
Simon knelt and touched the fading mark on her left shoulder. A tender smile turned Vashla’s lips as she closed her amber eyes. “I have waited over two hundred years for you, Simon McKiernen. I am weary, but this night you have brought me peace.” She rose slightly and kissed Simon’s cheek. “Watch on, brave guardian. The forest is now your sacred charge.”
While Vashla spoke, Simon shifted. Fur replaced skin. Ears, teeth and muzzle burgeoned from his face. His new heart beat with a force not his own. A mournful wail vibrated Simon’s throat as Vashla dissolved into the earth.
Maev didn’t see the wolf with black silver tipped fur until he leapt at her. Screaming, she was slammed onto the ground, her bony hands struggling to seize the creature’s neck.
Simon’s gnashing teeth fell silent. The wind shifted and carried Maev’s remains into the darkness.
Standing atop a ridge, the new guardian howled over the witch-song trapped in the echoes of the forest.