It’s winter, whatever that means in a place where the temperature never varies by more than a double handful of degrees, and I’m out beyond the yard collecting firewood when my neck prickles – the sense of being stared at. I snap the branch I'm holding, forcing myself to focus only on what I’m doing, willing my breaths even and my heart calm. Only when I am certain I give off no sign of having noticed do I risk a glance up. Nothing but trees.
The light crackle of a footstep sounds to my right, and despite myself, I stiffen. It’s barely audible above the mundane, everyday sounds of the forest, but I am listening for it – have been listening for it since I was seven, and he ran away. I’d know the footfall of my wolf anywhere.
I twist the last couple of branches into my rope-knotted bundle and heft it onto my back, all the while willing him closer, closer. My brother shouts out from the house, and the spell is broken, and though sound neither confirms nor denies it, I know my wolf is gone.
With sighs heavier than my burden of wood, I trudge back towards the house.
Inside, my remaining three brothers are making a ruckus around the kitchen table. I stamp my feet in the doorway, more for show than any good that it will do, and drop my bundle at their feet. “At least put these away while you mutter,” I say, scowling at them. I am a person of few words, and their idle conversations still irritate me, even after so many years.
Jasper turns to me, eyes wide. “Haven’t you heard?” he says.
I shrug out of my light coat and frown at him. ‘Don’t know, don’t care,’ I mean, and he knows it well. To my annoyance, it doesn’t stop him from continuing.
“Big news,” he says, and I sigh. Big news always means even more idle chitchat than usual, and if it’s big enough, even the parents will join in, and my only hope for quiet and sanity will be outdoors. Of course, that’s my preference anyway, so that's hardly the end of the world.
I shrug again and make to leave the room, but Shull stops me and peers at me seriously. “You’ll want to hear this,” he says.
I shrug again, but stay.
It’s Fil who tells me the news in the end, something noteworthy in and of itself: he is nearly as reluctant to participate in conversation as I am, although it seems to give him pleasure to listen to it.
“Winter,” he says with characteristic brevity. “Real winter.”
I open my mouth to make a dismissive noise, but the repetition hits me, and his meaning sinks in: real winter, honest-to-goodness, genuine winter, the likes of which I’ve not yet lived to see. A shiver runs down my spine. “Honest?” I ask, drawn against my will into exchange because winter, real winter, is something I’ve been dreaming of since I was young enough to dream.
“Honest.” His eyes are alight, and then they all spill over themselves in an effort to tell me where, and when, and who told them, and how it is they know, and through all the noise I tune out and ignore them because none of that matters, none of that is important; the only thing that matters is that my wolf is back, and a real winter is coming.
I leave the room while they are all mid-sentence, smiling to myself.
Winter. At last.