A growl. That’s the first sound that summons the rest of them. Some she even recognizes, assuming that the blonde one that hovers closest to Rinor is his father. The others leer carefully. It must be that Rinor’s become their alpha, their leader. She clenches the reins of her horse. So Rinor had been a werewolf all along, and Ayiq was trying to find a cure for both of them.
Great ears, pressed tight to the sides of their heads. Great eyes, watching her every move. Great teeth. All the better to eat her with.
Humaira waits with trembling fingers. The pack before her only walks forward more, steps planting themselves in the snow. Brown, black, grey, young and old. They encircle her, careful not to traipse out of line. It seems that the ultimate decision would be left up to Rinor.
She tries to calculate his intention. Would he let her go? The others begin barking, urging him on. Humaira can almost hear another voice taunting him: If you let her go now, you’ll never have her again.
It’s too late to draw back an arrow. In her hurry to leave, she realizes that she neglected to coat the tips in the wolfsbane and leaves them at her back. And besides, weren’t they her fellow brothers and sisters? Not to mention that as soon as she would reach for one arrow, even slowly, they would pounce. Even if she was quick enough, could she live with the guilt?
Think, Humaira. Ayiq wasn’t a fighter. Rinor himself had said he had been working on a cure. That was it!
Her fingers uncap the vial, swift as the breeze that rushes past all of them, and she takes a great swig of it.
Rinor charges. She swerves her horse in a perpendicular direction, and the others pant behind her. Her heart pounds against her chest, and she does her best to remain calm. What had Ayiq said? Moments. If anything, her heart should be slowing down, and yet—!
She cackles, too delighted with this small inkling of good news, clinging onto it as the wind whips past her. The wolves bark in indignation at her gall. They can’t keep up with the horse. She has traversed this route many times. Humaira chances more chaotic riding; zip-zagging in order to throw some of them off, curving turns and sending them diving into the trees. She’s winning. She’s winning!
Then Rinor leaps in front of her towards the narrowest part of the crossing. There is an eerie-looking grin in front of his face and she is forced to heel her horse back. Another wolf lunges from her side. She reflexively wraps her arms around her head, and she falls unceremoniously to the ground.
Immediately, she tries to scramble to her feet. Something feels bruised, but not broken. Her hands press her up and she tries to lift herself in an attempt to remount, or even run, when a sharp set of teeth bite her ankle.
She yelps in pain as the teeth sink in. No.
Her other foot kicks at his face and he relents, shocked. That’s how he had gotten her in the first place, she realizes quickly—he preyed on her heart to stop for him, disregarding his transformation. Growling once more, he arches his shoulder blades back. He would go for her neck this time. Rinor is gone, and the white wolf has taken over. Blood is already pouring out from her foot. Too much of it.
The shahadah, the shahadah, she thinks urgently. She closes her eyes. She remembers the walk from fajr that morning, how the adhan had begun.
Ash-shadu an la ilaha il-Allah…
There’s another yowl of pain. But this time, it’s not from her. The silence fills in the place of the rest of the sentence. Hurriedly, she completes it. Wa ash-hadu anna Muhammadan rasul-Allah.
After a few seconds, Humaira realizes that she’s gasping for air like a fish out of water. She gulps. Opens her eyes.
There is a new wolf, now, his white tail facing her as the rest of his body looks toward the alpha. She does not need to see its eyes to know that they’re the color of wolfsbane.
Rather, it’s the ground that commands her attention. It’s stained with red.
“Humaira?” An elderly woman’s voice. Her grandmother… had she survived the trip there? As though to confirm it, sunlight pours in on her skin, warming her to the bone.
Oh, skin? No fur, not yet. Or maybe there was. She clears her throat and pulls her eyelids open. “Gjyshja.” Her voice was intact, too. So her neck hadn’t been ripped to shreds, either. Unless this was a dream. Or the afterlife.
Umm Xhemile chokes back a sob and embraces her granddaughter. Humaira hears a cane clatter to the ground until it finally stills. “Alhamdulillah, alhamdulillah, alhamdulillah,” her grandmother keeps repeating. As Humaira realizes that she is truly alive, she begins to join her in the dhikr.
“I was so worried you wouldn’t wake up! I heard the wolves, and stayed inside. I knew I should have gone out sooner, but…”
“It’s all right, gjyshja. Martyrdom isn’t as climactic as I thought it would be.”
Umm Xhemile doesn’t laugh. So, humor didn’t work here… Humaira coughs. “You could’ve gotten hurt though, gjyshja.”
Her grandmother waves away the statement as though she were swatting a fly. “It doesn’t matter, Xhan. We do anything for those we love.”
Humaira looks down. Her foot still hurts. She remembers the horrors of last night and gasps again. “I was bitten—”
“I know, Humaira, I know. I think you had come as fast as you could and collapsed in the garden…”
Garden? she straightens herself from the bed to look out of the window. Her grandmother was true to her word; all around that side of her cottage was wolfsbane, creating a kind of moat from the wolves in the woods. “But you’re too old to be gardening—”
“You lost so much blood…” her grandmother continues. “But I was able to bring you in and wrap it. SubhanAllah, I checked it again this morning, and there was only a scar.”
So Ayiq’s vial had worked after all. Not only was it a cure of whatever lycanthropy was inside, but it was also an inhibitor to it. Her grandmother made no mention of her being turned into a werewolf… but the joyous realization is short-lived.
“Ayiq,” she whispers. “Gjyshja, there were werewolves around me. Two of them. Did they come with me?”
“Werewolves?” she asks. Never in all of her years, it seemed, had she ever heard of the possibility. “Do you mean wolves? No, they wouldn’t have. Not with the wolfsbane outside.”
Her heart sinks. Red. On her ankle, on the ground, in Rinor’s eyes. Whether it was blood from her, or Ayiq, or Rinor, or all three… there was no way to know. Had Ayiq slain his brother, or had Rinor won the battle? Her hands ball the blanket beneath her into fists.
“So he’s gone,” she says, hollowly. “…Ayiq. And Rinor, too. I had no idea that they had been turned into wolves. Ayiq was so kind, and Rinor had been too, and yet…”
Her grandmother sets a comforting hand on her shoulder. “Sometimes, Humaira, the most vicious of animals are men. And sometimes, the most chivalrous of animals are beasts.”
She looks outside to the garden once more. “And what if you meet a gentle wolf, gjyshja?”
“Then you must ensure that he is not to be a lone one.”
“And how would I do that? How would I convince him?”
Umm Xhemile laughed. “No one convinces another being to not be alone. By simply being with them, then you have done enough.”
She nods. Even though she hasn’t spoken much, she feels the energy rush out of her as though she had been fasting today, too. Oh, the fast! Her father!
“Abu Humaira will be worried. Can you move, my child? One of the young men came by from the village earlier, looking for you. Your father must have sent him originally…but I don’t know his name. He refused to tell me. As though it would upset you. I told him to wait in the garden.”
Rinor, she thinks. He must have escaped back to the village, once he couldn’t find her. Her distraught father would have been easy for him to coax into retrieving. Werewolves had the ability to change back, once they were human again. She swallows.
“Can you walk?”
Humaira nods. It’s as though she’s never had the injury up until this point. Her grandmother even offers her her cane, and she, like her elder, waves it away. Praying fajr is of no hardship, and she goes into ruku’ with ease, falls into sajdah easily.
Let Ayiq be all right, she prays. And Rinor, even. The others. Let them all be cured. Let Papa not worry.
Her grandmother delays her a little longer. A meal of what she had originally brought in her bag, and especially wolfberries. After the ordeal from last night, Humaira offers no complaint.
She opens the door and the sun greets her. A gentle breeze whizzes past her as she walks into the garden. She doesn’t have to look for too long; a man with white hair and white skin is already tending to the flowers all around him. Two horses graze behind him, one of them hers.
Humaira lingers behind the young man. What would she say? She takes another step and he jolts to attention, a bouquet of flowers in his hands. Oh, right, the sensitive hearing.
“Humaira?” Ayiq asks.
She beams. Just like the sun. “No, no,” she says, mimicking his manner of speaking. “It’s called wolfsbane, isn’t it?”
He laughs. Then he looks down, sheepish. “Are you…are you well?”
“Less hairier than I expected, thanks to you.”
“No, no—” he realizes that he is acting as she mentioned before, and again tries to wipe the smile off of his face. “Thanks to Allah. Well, not that part—” He shakes his head nervously, and rises from the ground. “We can speak later. I am glad that you are all right. Let us get you home.”
“Well, no, not so fast—” she interjects. “How are you feeling?”
He looks down. “Alhamdulillah.” The sorrow on his face is palpable.
“I’m sorry, Ayiq,” she says.
“You have nothing to be sorry for, Humaira. I only wish I could have come sooner.” He sighs, and begins walking resolutely towards his horse, back facing her the whole time. “I had been working on an antidote for a long time. What I gave you wasn’t too high of a quantity that would kill the wolves, but rather, subdue them…therefore, if it was to be consumed, then it had to be diluted. I experimented with a smaller quantity on myself a month prior, and it did work. This time, I made it greater. It held off the transformation.”
She nods along. “I also meant to say that I’m sorry my grandmother put you to work for so long.”
“Oh, I didn’t mind. Your mother helped our family greatly, with our garden.” His eyes grow fond and he looks down as he rides. Humaira pays close attention to that; if he hadn’t come here so often, he wouldn’t have known the path so well. “And…she was all alone, as well. That’s how the werewolves attack in the first place.”
“Your father. He was alone?”
“Yes. I think that he was… looking for a way to expand his business.” Another heavy expression on his face. “Lycanthropy, I think, is not much different than the love of this world. It can consume you and transform you.”
“The wolf that grows is the one you feed,” she murmurs. He nods, continuing to lead the way through the forest. “Is he too far gone?”
“No no, I do not think so. Rinor, too. He held out for some time. But with you…now I feel that he has too much shame to return to the village. I was able to get him to withdraw from the fight…”
She scoffs. “The true victim in that situation was his pride.” He doesn’t mention anything, but she can tell that he agrees. “But this antidote, Ayiq! It worked for me. It can work for you, and everyone else, I think. If I use my arrows.”
“I would not ask you to do that, Humaira. Your father would never agree to it as well.” His voice is firm, but not stern. “You have suffered so much.”
“So did you,” she counters. He is quiet.
They ride together peacefully for some time, and Humaira feels the need not to speak again. Though it’s not like the journey with Rinor either time; where he felt the need to fill in the silence. Now, she feels at peace. Only when the village comes more into view does she interject again.
“Was I not supposed to drink it, Ayiq?”
“I thought you would have used it for your arrows. A poor assumption on my part…” A smile creeps onto his face, and she mirrors him. It was a compliment. “Someone so gentle as to admire dandelions would not have done that…however…when your grandmother told me that you used it, I worried…perhaps that was why you slept so long. I may just have to adjust the dosage.” He coughs—another display of nervousness—and tries to change the topic. “But masha’Allah, you made the right choice.”
She looks back at him, and for a moment, he holds her gaze. “I think so, too.”
He seems to understand her subtext and darts his eyes away. She smiles. “And besides, I was fasting. The wolfsbane made a good iftar.”
“You were fasting?” he asks. Worry flashes across his face. “SubhanAllah. Truly, then it is Allah who saved you, not me.”
“He saved me through you,” she urges. “Where’s your iman, Ayiq, hmm? Don’t you pray? Don’t you believe?”
The both of them laugh. Before she knows it, she’s at her father’s door, and soon, back in his arms. He expresses great thanks to Ayiq, speaking to him as though he were a son already.
“How can I repay you?” he asks. “Is there anything you want?”
“Nothing, Abu Humaira,” Ayiq says with a hand on his chest. But his eyes stray to her as he leaves, and Humaira feels her cheeks turn red.