Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Storyteller: The Wolves

One of the central conceits of The Storyteller is the storytelling duel. The theory is this: two storytellers sit down and tell stories at each other, each of them trying to tell a story that out-does the other's, and the power of the stories is such that neither combatant can deny it when one does. In addition to all the stories that Quinn tells to the various things and people he meets, there are two storytelling duels, one smaller duel between Quinn and the evil storyteller who used to be a god, and the larger, climactic duel between Quinn and the evil queen herself.

In each duel, each storyteller tells stories according to his nature. As you could probably guess from the last story I posted, Quinn's tales are triumphant - though sometimes tragic - and praise the power of love. The evil storyteller's stories are mad little tales, disturbing and surreal. The evil queen's stories are all stories of lies and deception and of defeat snatched unfairly from the jaws of victory.

This is one of the queen's stories.

* * *

The Wolves

Once there was a boy who lived in a town at the edge of a vast forest. In this forest there were terrible wolves. Fell creatures, as large as a man, wise beyond their animal shapes, and possessed of many magical powers. Like most people who live at the brink of disaster, the folk of the town came eventually to forget the wolves that dwelled nearby. They went about their business, day by day, and at night they slept peacefully, willfully ignorant of their voracious and dangerous neighbors.

But this boy could not forget. He lived in fear of the wolves. Everywhere he went he was ever looking over his shoulders, convinced that the wolves were coming for him. He slept fitfully at night, his ears always peaked for the sound of the wolves howling at the moon.

One day this boy was walking in the town with a good friend of his, another boy of the town. He said something and turned to his friend to see what his reply would be, and all of a sudden it was as though a shadow had fallen between them. His friend’s eyes glinted strangely in the sun and there was a lean, hungry look to him.

"My friend is not my friend," the boy said to himself in horror, "he is a wolf who has devoured my friend, and believes himself to be my friend, but one day he will remember that he is a wolf, and then he will come for me."

The boy took his leave and hurried home.

At home, the boy found his mother, dressing a rabbit. In one hand she had a cleaving knife, and both her hands were covered in rabbit’s blood. As she asked her son about his day, he looked up and saw that there was an unusual hardness to her features, and the blood and rabbit flesh hanging from her hands seemed dark and sinister. His mother, the boy realized, had been devoured by a wolf as well.

The boy left his mother and hid in his room, locking the door behind him. When she came to ask him for dinner, he replied that he was not feeling well, that he wanted to be alone, whatever he thought it would take to get her to go away.

In his room, alone, the boy wondered how this could have happened. He had been ever careful of the wolves, even when no one else was. He had always watched over his shoulders, always locked and barred the doors at night. Nothing unusual had ever escaped his sight, and he had been confident even if those he loved refused to protect themselves, he would be able to protect them, for their own sakes. But now two of the people who mattered the most – his mother and his best friend – were taken by wolves, and he alone had noticed.

What were the wolves planning, the boy wondered. Was this some random mischief, or was there something deeper? Would they devour everyone, until no one in the town was human, and all of them were merely wolves, waiting for the day that they would remember what they were, and leave the town for weeds and dust? All of them, except the boy. Would he wander in that wilderness, forever alone?

He could not sleep, not with the wolf downstairs pretending to be his mother. He escaped out his window and ran out into the town at night. Even if the wolves were loose, the boy knew secret ways. He would be safe.

At last he came to his destination, the home of his true love. She was a girl of the town, as fair as the moon and as kind as the gentle western wind. Her house was much bigger than his, for her father was the town’s mayor and her mother was a pampered rich man’s wife, whereas the boy’s father was moldering in the churchyard and his mother worked hard to keep her little family together. The boy tapped at his love’s window until she pulled it up and crept down into the darkness.

"What’s wrong?" she asked, for she was as keen-eyed as she was beautiful, and even in the darkness she could tell that the boy she loved was unhappy.

"Not here," the boy said, looking around fearfully, “follow me.” He led her away from her father’s house, to the fields where they could sit side by side on a hill, without watchers.

"I think the wolves have come," the boy said at last.

"The wolves?"

"The wolves of the forest, the dangerous ones. The ones we all pretend don’t exist.” His voice became low and wary. “They’ve eaten my friend, and eaten my mother, and now they think they are who they say they are, but one day, one day soon, they’ll remember, and then they’ll kill us all."

"What are you talking about?"

"The wolves! The beasts of the forests. The things that make sounds in the dark. Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten. Please don’t tell me you’ve forgotten." He looked up at her face, and her expression was one of anger and fear, and her eyes were sharp and strange. She was not the lovely, understanding girl he had fallen in love with. No, she was a wolf. A wolf had eaten his love, and now walked in her skin and waited to remember what it was, and there was nothing in the world that he could trust.

With a cry, he thrust her away from him and ran. She chased him, but he had a head start, and she wore no shoes. He ran, far across the fields, across and beyond. Hot tears ran down his face, and he tasted the salt of them and howled curses at the moon. So great was his grief that for the first time in his life he did not remember to be afraid of the wolves.

Did not remember, that is, until he reached the forest.

For a long time, the boy wandered alone in the wood. He was lost, of course, but he thought that if he walked in one direction long enough he would find a way out. He never could keep to a straight path, though, because before long he heard the sounds of the wolves walking in the forest besides him, behind him, ahead of him. He ran when he heard the wolves, and then tried to pick a new direction, one that would hopefully take him away from the wolves and out of the forest. In this way did the boy soon find himself at the forest’s heart.

And there he was surrounded by wolves. Lean, dark creatures with glowing eyes and gray pelts, as large as men or larger, and all of them looking at him with unreadable, wolfish expressions. One wolf, larger than the others, lay on a rock and looked down its long nose at the boy with its shining yellow eyes.

"Hello," the wolf said, and the boy was shocked that it could speak, and he could understand its tongue. "We have been waiting for you."

"For me?" the boy stammered. "Why?"

"You remember what you have forgotten."

"That you exist? That you live in the forest, beyond the fields, and wait for the day that you can come and devour us all? That you can eat a man and take his shape and his mind, and learn of us by pretending to be us? That you are wicked and cruel and bloodthirsty?" The boy suddenly felt defiant, and he stood as tall and as proud as he knew how before the parliament of wolves. "Yes, I remember, and I will fight you to the moment of my death, even if that moment is now."

The boy had expected to be eaten then and there, he had not known what he had hoped, perhaps that the wolves might be impressed by his courage and let him go, or at least grant him a few more moments of life. Never in his wildest imaginings had he thought that the wolf might laugh at him; but laugh it did, a full-throated laugh, throwing its head back. The other wolves laughed with her – for its voice was that of a woman, old and wise and hard – and soon they were all howling at the moon. The sound made the boy want to scream, and he fell to his knees with both his hands held fast to his ears.

"No, boy," the wolf said when she was done laughing. "Not those things. Not that you remember those things."

"What then?"

"You remember what you are."

"And what am I?"

The boy percieved that the wolf was smiling. "A long time ago you ate a boy, and since then you have thought you were a boy. You are not a boy. You are a wolf. Now, shed your soft, pale skin and your blind eyes and cotton-ears and dead nose and run in the night with us. The time as arrived for you to come home."

"No… that cannot be!" the boy said, shaking his head. The wolves were mocking him, he knew it, and yet there was no longer any laughter in their faces. They stared it him with serious eyes.

“Yes it can," the lead wolf replied gravely, "and it is."

"I can’t shed anything. I’m a man!"

"Yes, you can. And no, you are not."

"But I have a mother."

"She is not your mother, she is the mother of the boy you killed, and she will hate you forever, even if she does not know who you are. Such is the way of the world."

"I have friends."

"They are men, and you are a wolf. There can not be friendship, only truce. Ever they will hunt for your skin, and you will hunt for their children. Such is the way of the world."

"And… and there is a girl…"

"It is not meant to be, for she is a daughter of men, and you are a wolf. She will love the sunrise and the candlelight, and you must love the moon and the darkness. Such is the way of the world. It is long time past for this to be over. Remember. Now."

The boy shook his head. "I don’t want to," he said, and he sounded like a child.

"But you must."

And the boy closed his eyes and thought his mother, and his friend, and the girl he had loved, all for the last time, and then put them forever into a corner of his mind that he knew he would never visit again, save in the quiet, lonely moments between sleep and waking. With a sigh, he shed his skin and his eyes and his ears and his nose, and he became a great gray wolf the size of a man, and he ran in the forest with his kin for the rest of his days.

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