Is it the best of both worlds or a curse to be a Changeling?
To Know One’s Self
Sadie lay in bed, unable and unwilling to fall asleep. She could hear Madam Pierce’s snores through the several walls that separated them – she wasn’t sure if it was just her better-than-normal hearing or the old woman had some kind of nasal problem. Even so, that wasn’t the noise keeping her awake. Outside were chirps, grunts, soft hisses, and everything in-between. Every one of them felt like a call meant just for her.
Impatiently, she threw the blanket off and ran the short distance to the window. Her eyes saw through the blackness, out into the neat yard with its singular tree. Looking past her own reflection, she could see a wolf sitting underneath the tree. He stared up at Sadie and she felt no fear to hold his gaze. She broke it only to race from the second-storey bedroom and out to him. The wolf rubbed its cold nose against Sadie’s palm and she stifled a giggle as he licked her fingers. Abruptly, he ran to the fence where two palings had come loose and been pushed aside; beyond them lay scrubland that seamlessly shifted to a forest. With a whine, he looked back at Sadie before rushing through the gap.
“Wait!” Sadie called. Overhead, Madam Pierce’s bedside lamp snapped on, yellow light spilling onto the lawn.
“Sadie? Are you out there?” Her approach was heralded by the clumping of sleep-filled legs on stairs and the back door slamming open. “What on earth are you doing out here?”
With a speed and strength ill-fitting a woman her age, she gripped Sadie’s wrist and yanked her back inside, locking the door shut before Sadie could protest.
“Don’t think about running away after all the effort we went to finding you!”
Sadie’s mouth gaped open a couple of times as anger radiated off Madam Pierce. Then the veneer of the kindly old woman was back.
“Your parents are so looking forward to seeing you again; your mother cried when I told her you’d come back and your father looked like he’d won the lottery. You don’t want to disappoint them and vanish into thin air again now, do you?”
Sadie shook her head although she didn’t remember her parents at all really.
“Then I can trust you not to wander off?”
“Well that’s more than enough excitement for one night. Let me get you some tea dear, it’ll help you sleep.” A warm mug was soon in Sadie’s hands and she drifted off to sleep with barely enough time to make it back into her bed.
The next morning, Madam Pierce took Sadie into the basement. Sadie hesitated at the top of stairs.
“Dear, what can I do to a girl like you?” Madam Pierce called up to her. Relenting, Sadie joined her in the bare concrete space. While it was as clean as the rest of the house, even well-lit, the strange symbols painted on the walls and floors made her shiver.
“Right,” Madam Pierce clapped her hands together, “first things first, let’s see if you can control it.”
Madam Pierce ignored her, directing her to stand in the middle of a circular pentagram. “Close your eyes and call to it.”
“Call to what?”
“The wolf, dear, heavens.” She blew out an exasperated breath. “How on earth you managed to evade Pete is a mystery to all of us.”
Sadie’s cheeks flushed red although she didn’t quite understand why but she shut her eyes and thought about wolves. Clips from half-forgotten nature documentaries were soon replaced by something more vivid and visceral: she could smell the earth, feel it through four thick footpads, the sound of wind rushing past her ears.
“Well at least you can do that.” Madam Pierce’s voice made her open her eyes. Sadie’s heart jolted, thinking she’d shrunk several feet as the old woman towered over her. She tried to ask what the old woman had done to her but only a bark came out. “Yes, yes, well done. Now can you get back?”
Sadie had lost count of the times she had shifted over the day, never staying in one form long before returning to another. She’d had to check for a tail in the bathroom mirror that evening, fearing it had come with her into her human form. Even so, the exhaustion of the day couldn’t keep the sounds of the world outside from keeping her awake. And the thought of the wolf.
Sadie had said goodnight to Madam Pierce and promised there wouldn’t be a repeat of the night before but it was a lie. She ached to see the wolf again and to this time follow it. With her face almost pressed to the glass, Sadie saw the wolf saunter in through the fence palings. She rushed down to meet it.
He chuffed at her, not waiting for her to reach him before disappearing through the fence once more. Quietly, Sadie followed. Beyond the yard were towering trees and knee-length grass, and Sadie struggled to see little more than the raised tail of the wolf as it wove through the flora. Eventually he led her to a clearing and looked at her expectantly. Understanding Sadie practised what she had all day and shifted.
“It would have been a hell of lot easier if you’d done that earlier on,” said the wolf. His voice was rich and tickled inside her mind. Sadie tried to respond in kind but could only bark. The wolf laughed, “Just think it. We’ll hear.”
“The pack. We’ve been looking for you, Sadie, trying to wait for the right moment to welcome you into our family.”
“You had nine months, or so I’m told.” The bite in her response surprised even her.
“Do you remember those nine months? What you were like?” She shook her head. “You were wild, lost to all of us. Too wolf.”
“There’s a balance. Listen to my chest.” Cautiously, Sadie approached him and leant close. She could hear two separate heartbeats, each as strong as the other. “It’s the human and the wolf. The best of both worlds.” He smiled as much as a wolf can, his tongue lolling out between gleaming fangs. “Your hearts still try to outdo the other. Go back to the old hag, she’ll strengthen the human side, but come back to us each night. We’ll feed the wolf.”
“Can’t I stay with you?” Already she felt so much more at ease in the forest with him, the tension and anxiety she felt with Madam Pierce had fallen away.
“Not yet. Soon. Just don’t do everything the hag says. She doesn’t want what’s best for you. Can you promise me that?”
Sadie nodded without thought and before she could ask him what he meant, he had already leapt through the brush and vanished.