Crowe stepped close. Gone was the cavalier attitude and the impish grin that had so nettled the Inspector since the case began.
“I suggest you lower your voice, my friend,” Crowe said, and the chilly silk of his voice raised the hair on Fox’s flesh. “There are ears to hear even your heartbeat in this waste, as you call it, and it’s like a dinner bell to them. I’d not risk good horses. We go afoot.” The deputy shouldered his rifle and squinted up at the vague sun. The disc was no more than a lighter spot on the massing, ashen bales of cloud. Its light was no greater than that of a storm-blurred moon.
“More snow’s coming. We have a deal of thrashing about ahead of us, Inspector, but first we’ll secure our flank.” Crowe nodded to the low wooded brow of a hill that Fox found indistinguishable from the rest of the wilderness about him. “Grandmother Tanis dwells just the other side of that. We’ll pay her a visit, the old she-wolf.”
“You speak in riddles,” Fox grumbled. For the first time, he examined the rifle he’d been given, testing the balance of it. “We’ll be lucky if we aren’t eaten by wolves before this folly is over.”
Crowe laughed softly, and Fox was surprised at how heartening the sound of it was to him. “Indeed, Inspector. But, there are wolves, and then there are wolves. Come on. We’ll catch ourselves one that will make you a rug like no other.”
Above the old woman’s cottage, masked by the thick pelts of the hemlocks, the men watched as a lean, grey shape skulked beneath the frosted windows. It glided along the tumbled wall of firewood and paused to lap at the ice atop the rain barrel. It trotted to the cottage door and, standing upon its hind legs, scrabbled at the latch with a long-toed paw. Fox gave a muffled cry of alarm and brought his rifle up, but the wolf pushed its way into the little house with a snarl, and the door banged behind it. Crowe swore and vaulted to his feet, dragging Fox up with him.
“Be quick,” he said, and then he was away, loping down the hill in ground-eating strides, the snow slowing him not a bit.
Fox struggled after him, the breath whooping in his lungs. Crowe hit the door with his shoulder, knocking it crooked on its hinges, and skidded into the dimness of the lantern-lit room. A shriek floated out on the frozen air, and Fox thought there was fury in it, but very little fear. He floundered through the last of the snow onto the slick cobbles of Tanis’s dooryard, and caught himself against the wrecked doorjamb. His breath steamed out in front of him in a glittering plume.
“What are ye thinking, ye great devil, frighting an old woman like this?” Tanis shouted. She cowered on her stool before Crowe, and shot him daggered looks from beneath her shaggy brows. She wore a voluminous flannel nightshift and a ruffled cap that threw her face into shadow.
Crowe seized the lantern and flung it into the fireplace. The oil and dry tinder exploded in a gust of flame that illuminated the tiny room. Tanis cringed and wailed, pulling her shawl close around her.
“It’s a bit late in the day to be in your nightgown.” Crowe snatched the cap from her head, and the firelight gleamed on the long, hungry smile of a wolf. “My, what sharp teeth you have, granny.”
Tanis leaped from her stool, and Fox saw the points of her ears jutting from the tangled mane of grey hair. Her eyes blazed yellow. “All the better to eat you with, hound,” she said, her words sliding away into a growl.
She struck at Crowe with a hand both clawed and partially furred, and the buttons of his coat ricocheted about the room. Fox, frozen in horror and disbelief, felt the sting of one against his cheek. It loosened something in him, and he shouldered his way into the room, kicking aside the rough furniture, blocking the creature’s escape.
Crowe touched his chest and brought his fingers away red. “Bitch,” he snarled, and drew a blade from his belt. The firelight ran along it in a liquid iridescence like mercury. “Come and eat death.”
Tanis sprang. Crowe caught her and turned with her, graceful as a dancing master, and the two of them crashed to the floor. Fox rushed to help, but the battle was over in that one nimble pivot. Crowe had driven the knife deep in an upward thrust behind her ribs. He knelt over Tanis and cleaned his blade on her flannel gown. His hair hung in his eyes. He did not look at Fox.
“She was old. Slow.” He sat back on his heels and stared at the corpse, the wolf in the woman’s skin. “She could have lived many years yet, if the red mage hadn’t come here. It would have used her against us, and old as she was, she was fierce.”
“You sound as though you regret killing the beast,” Fox said.
Crowe was silent for a moment, then he stood. “No. I don’t regret it. Neither do I celebrate it.” He shook the hair from his eyes and looked around. “Hand me that cleaver,” he said pointing to the utensil standing upright in the oak chopping block.
Fox wrenched it from the wood and held it out. Crowe crouched by Tanis and dragged her hand from beneath her body. He stretched out the clawed fingers on the bricks of the hearth, and, before Fox could ask what he meant to do, struck off one of them with the cleaver. He lifted the kettle from its hook and shook it. Satisfied with the slosh from its iron guts, he hung it over the fire.
“What are you doing?” Fox asked.
Crowe held up the severed finger. “This will make a whistle that will call the red mage close. I’ll boil off the flesh and carve it a bit. Very pretty, yes? Make yourself comfortable. We’ll be freezing our balls off soon enough.”
Fox looked at dead Tanis, at her savage face and long teeth. He looked at Crowe, squatting contentedly by the fire with the impossible finger, waiting for the kettle to boil as though he were going to make tea. He thought about the deputy carving the finger bone and putting it to his lips, no doubt all quite pragmatically, and whistling up a creature from a dark fairytale.
“Gideon Crowe, what are you? Some sort of magician?” he said.
Crowe thought about it for a bit, then shrugged. The kettle steamed, and he lifted the lid with the fireside tongs and dropped in the finger. A wet, feral stink wafted from the kettle’s spout. “No, Inspector, I’m no magician. But I’ve learned a trick or two.”
to be continued…