Wolfsbane and Mistletoe

Chapter Four

Lucy, at Christmastime

Simon R. Green

Simon R. Green has just hit middle age, and is feeling very bitter about it. He has published over thirty novels, all of them different. His series include the Forest Kingdom books, the Deathstalker books, the Nightside books, and his new series, the Secret Histories, featuring Shaman Bond, the very secret agent. He has lived most of his life in a small country town, Bradford-on-Avon. This was the last Celtic town to fall to the invading Saxons in A.D. 504. He has also worked as a shop assistant, bicycle-repair mechanic, journalist, actor, eccentric dancer, and mail-order bride. He has never worked for MI5. Don't believe anyone who tells you otherwise. He is, however, secretly Superman.

You never forget your first; and mine was Lucy.

It was Christmas Eve in the Nightside, and I was drinking wormwood brandy in Strangefellows, the oldest bar in the world. The place was crowded, the air was thick with good cheer, the ceiling trailed long streamers of the cheapest paper decorations money could buy; and as midnight approached, the revellers grew so festive they could barely stand up. Even so, everyone was careful to give me plenty of room as I sat on my stool at the bar, nursing my drink. I'm Leo Morn, and that's a name you can scare people with. Of course, my Lucy was never scared of me, even though everyone told her I was a bad boy, and would come to a bad end. Lucy sat on the stool beside me at the bar, smiling and listening while I talked. She didn't have a drink. She never does.

The music system was playing "Jingle Bells" by the Sex Pistols, a sure sign the bar's owner was feeling nostalgic. Farther down the long (and only occasionally polished) wooden bar, sat Tommy Oblivion, the existential private eye. He was currently doing his best to convince a pressing creditor that his bill might or might not be valid in this particular reality. Not that far away, Ms. Fate, the Nightside's very own leather-costumed transvestite superheroine, was dancing on a tabletop with demon girl reporter, Bettie pine. Bettie's cute little curved horns peeped out from between the bangs of her long dark hair.

The Prince of Darkness was sulking into his drink over the cancellation of his TV reality show; the Mistress of the Dark was trying to tempt Saint Nicholas with a sprig of plastic mistletoe; and a reindeer with a very red nose was lying slumped and extremely drunk in a corner, muttering something about unionization. Brightly glowing wee-winged fairies swept round and round the huge Christmas tree, darting in and out of the heavy branches at fantastic speed in some endless game of tag. Every now and again one of the fairies would detonate like a flashbulb, from sheer overpowering joie de vivre, before re-forming and rejoining the chase.

Just another Christmas Eve, in the oldest bar in the world. Where dreams can come true, if you're not careful. Especially at the one time of the year when gods and monsters, good men and bad, can come together in the grand old tradition of eating and drinking yourself stupid, and making a fool of yourself over past loves.

Alex the bartender noticed my glass was empty, and filled it up again without having to be asked. Since he knows me really well, he usually has the good sense to insist I pay in advance for every drink; but even nasty mean-spirited Alex Morrisey knows better than to disturb me on Christmas Eve. I saluted Lucy with my new drink, and she smiled prettily back. My lovely Lucy. Short and sweet, pleasantly curved, tight blonde curls over a heart-shaped face, bright flashing eyes and a smile to break your heart. Wearing the same long white dress she'd been wearing just before she left me forever. Lucy was . . . sharp as a tack, sweet as forbidden fruit, and honest as the day is long. What she ever saw in me, I'll never know. She was sixteen, going on seventeen. Of course, I'm a lot older than her now.

I only ever see her here, on Christmas Eve. I don't have to come here, tell myself every year that I won't; but I always do. Because no matter how much it hurts, I have to see her. Silly boy, she always says. I forgave you long ago. And I always nod, and say, I don't forgive me. And I never will.

Were we in love, really? We were very young. And everything seems so sharp and intense, when you're a teenager. Emotions surge through you like tidal waves, and a sudden smile from a girl can explode in your heart like a firecracker. Immersed in the moment, transfixed in each other's eyes like rabbits caught in the glare of approaching headlights . . . Yes; she was my first love, and I have never forgotten the time we had together.

All the things we were going to do, all the people we could have been . . . thrown away, in a moment of madness.

I reminded Lucy of how we first met; standing on a railway station late at night, waiting for a train that seemed like it would never come. I looked at her, she looked at me, we both smiled; and next thing I knew we were chatting away as though we'd known each other all our lives. After that, we were never apart. Laughing and teasing, arguing and making up, walking hand in hand and arm in arm because we couldn't bear not to be touching each other. Running through the thick woods under Darkacre; drinking and singing in a late-night lockup, even though we were still underage, because the owner was an old romantic who believed in young love; and later, slow dancing together on the cobbled street of a back alley, to the sound of sentimental music drifting out of a half-open window up above.

You never forget your first love, your first great passion.

I was jolted out of my mood, as Harry Fabulous lurched out of the crowd to greet me with his best salesman's smile. He should have known better, but Harry would try and sell a silencer to the man who was about to shoot him. Always affable and professionally charming, Harry was a con man, a fixer, a specialist in the kind of deal that leaves you counting your fingers afterwards. Always ready to sell you something that was bad for you, or someone else. A hard man to dislike, but worth the effort. He went to sit on the stool next to me, and then froze as I fixed him with my stare. I smiled at him, showing my teeth, and he went pale. He eased back from the stool, holding his empty hands out before him to show how sorry and harmless he was. I let him go. My time with Lucy was too precious to interrupt with the likes of Harry Fabulous.

I remembered running through the woods, chasing Lucy in and out of the tall dark trees as she ran giggling before me, teasing and taunting me, always just out of reach, but careful never to get so far ahead I might think she didn't want to be caught. It was late at night, but the woods were lit up with the shimmering blue-white glare of a full moon. The whole world seemed to come alive around me as I ran, rich with scents and sounds I'd never noticed before. I felt strong and fast and indomitable, like I could run and run forever.

Lucy ran ahead of me, in her long white dress, like a ghost fleeting through the trees.

The moonlight filled my mind, and boiled through my body. My senses were so sharp now they were almost painful. I'd never felt so alive, so happy. The change swept over me like a red rolling tide. Bones creaked and cracked as they lengthened, and I didn't care. Fur burst out of me, covered me, made me whole. My mouth stretched out into a long muzzle, so I could howl my thanks to the full moon that gave me birth. I hardly even noticed as I fell forward and continued to run on four feet. I was a wolf, under the glorious moon, doing what I was born to do. The ancient imperative of the hunt was upon me. I forgot about Leo Morn, forgot about Lucy. I ran howling through the trees, maddened by the moon and the exhilaration of my very first change. The real me had finally burst out of its human cocoon, its human trap; released to run and hunt as I was meant to.

I ran and ran, driven on by the marvellous strength and speed of my new four legs, lord of all I surveyed; as though the whole world and everything in it was nothing more to me than prey.

I shot back and forth, questing between the trees, crested a ridge, and threw myself down onto the prey cringing below. I slammed it to the ground, and tore out its throat with one easy snap of my jaws. The blood was hot and wet and wonderful in my mouth. The prey kicked and struggled as I tore it apart, but not for long. I feasted on the hot and steaming meat, savouring the way it tore easily between my fine new teeth. I ate till I was full, and then raised a leg and urinated over what was left, so no other beast would dare to touch my kill. I licked my blood-flecked muzzle clean, and felt as if I'd come home at last.

When I came to myself again, Lucy was gone.

And now, all these years later, it was Christmas Eve in Strangefellows; and the crowd was singing a carol, or something like it. The night was almost over. I didn't tell Lucy what I'd been thinking about, but I think she knew. She only ever looks sad when I do. But it's all I can think about, on this night of all nights; the night that separated us, forever. Christmas Eve, when the world seems full of promise; the night I told Lucy I loved her, and that I'd love her forever, forever and a day. I told her there was nothing else in the world I wanted as much as her, and I meant it, then. It was the wolf within that made me a liar. That's why I come here every Christmas Eve, to the oldest bar in the world . . . where sometimes stories can still end in lovers' meeting.

I don't have to show up, but I do, because I promised her I'd love her forever and a day.

The clock struck midnight, the revellers cheered the coming of Christmas Day, and Lucy softly and silently faded away. Gone again, for another year.

When the change first takes you, it's only too easy to mistake one passion for another.

You never forget your first victim.

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