"Stop where you are!" said one lawman, even though Justin hadn't yet made his move. "You're under arrest for the trafficking of stolen goods!"
Justin looked around. The fascinated crowd was growing thicker by the minute. One by one, all his avenues of escape were being cut off, as the constables were nearly within arm's reach. Justin made his choice. Dropping the leashes, he aimed a swift kick at Rascal's fluffy behind and shouted, "RUN!"
Rascal took off like a shot, with Red following close behind--not because she'd been commanded to, mind, but because the white wolf happened to be headed straight for the most available path of egress.
Everyone was so wrapped up in seeing the slippery criminal get arrested that no one paid attention to the two muzzled animals racing together. Rascal ducked around wagons and between legs in the crowded streets. Red followed, lengthening her stride till she was neck-and-neck with him. Her shoulder screamed for mercy, but Red focused on her goal. She needed the mutt, just until she could be human again.
Red kept pace with Rascal until he veered off-course, headed for the front gate of the city instead of down toward the apothecary. The moment he did, she surged alongside him and lunged for the leash, catching her paw in the loop on the end and stopping short.
Rascal flipped head-over-hindquarters at the sudden jerk on his neck. He tugged and pulled against her, but Red stood firm and held fast, stepping on the leash with her uninjured paw for good measure. When Rascal finally stopped tugging and looked at her with a flurry of pitiful whines, Red gave a low growl and snarled at him.
Let go! Master said run! he whimpered.
I am in charge. I am your master! Do as I say, she snapped. She maintained her grip on the leash as she bent down, getting her paw up behind her head and scraping forward until she could wriggle the muzzle's straps over her ears. Justin had been putting them on for show, anyway, as a reassurance for the humans, so it wasn't actually very tight. Now that her mouth was free, Red could grip the leash in her mouth, putting Rascal entirely at her mercy.
Rascal understood, and he stopped fighting. He allowed Red to lead him back down the road they should have gone down, sniffing all the way until her nose caught the scent of thread and cloth--the smell of Deborah Garrity's rag-bag, where she often let Red curl up and sleep as a tiny pup. Red blinked away the nostalgic memory and focused on making her way to where the scent came strongest. Truegood Millinery, the shingle proclaimed. Red paused in the alleyway behind the shop to scent the air again, this time looking for the yeasty aroma of bread and flour. They were within sight of the building when Rascal's tail began to wag in a most unseeming manner for a wolf. Red rolled her eyes as she realized it had taken him this long to finally smell where they were going.
Rascal whimpered at her again, this time pulling her toward the bakery faster than Red's injured leg could keep up.
Hungry, his pleas proclaimed. Food want now!
Red lifted her lip and snarled, tugging on the leash to get him away from the pile of waste beside the back door. I'm still in charge, she asserted. Keep moving!
She paused beside the bakery, scanning every inch of her surroundings to find the apothecary. Across the street and sandwiched between a tavern and a general store was a small shop front with a narrow door and a single window. There wasn't even room for a shingle or a sign like the others had. Rather, the apothecary identified herself by a simple etching of a mortar and pestle over the door.
Red gave Rascal's leash a tug, and the two wolves trotted across the road and into the apothecary's shop.
Inside the tiny shop, small shelves filled with little bottles and boxes of every shape filled the walls. In one sniff, Red detected the apothecary herself. She stood behind a wide counter, weighing out herbs into a small jar. Red felt Rascal twitch, and felt the small tug that told her that he was in the mood to run straight out of there at the next available opportunity. She couldn't drop the leash, for fear he might escape--but then how would she get the woman's attention?
Rascal's twitching and scratching on the floorboards made enough racket to prompt the woman to turn. Her eyes widened at the sight of two fierce animals in her shop.
"What do we have here?" She cried, grabbing for the nearest item--a wicker broom. "Shoo!" she cried, gripping the broomstick and keeping a safe distance. "Get out of here!"
Rascal again turned toward the door and tugged, but Red held fast. As she had done with the man who gave them directions, she maintained the woman's gaze. Those haunting blue eyes were mesmerizing. She could see generations of knowledge in the lines of the old woman's face--it wasn't round and smooth and hearty like Deborah Garrity's face. The apothecary's face was lined, discolored, and gaunt. Her skin and the silvery hairs peeking out from under her woven headscarf belied her age, while her eyes bespoke an ageless vitality, the sort of youthfulness that only strengthens with age rather than fading.
Red heard the woman give a long, slow breath. "Wait a moment," she said.
The young lycanthrope remained sitting, with the leash in her mouth, as the apothecary came out from behind the counter.
The old woman appraised both animals, squinting deeply as if to peer into their souls.
"There is something different about one of you," she said. "And the one who understands what I'm saying will acknowledge that I'm right."
Red perked up, angling her ears forward and nodding her head. Beside her, Rascal had suddenly taken a keen interest in the woman crouched before them, and he began nodding his head as well.
The apothecary still looked from one wolf to the other, as if she sought some kind of sign in the response of the shapeshifter that wouldn't be present in the natural wolf.
"So you both understand my words. Are both of you shapeshifters?" asked the old woman.
Red immediately wagged her head back and forth, answering in the negative. Rascal copied her movements exactly, as if this was all a game and not the difference between survival and certain doom. Red bared her fangs and growled at him, but he only whimpered and tilted his head playfully.
"Are you here of your own volition?" the apothecary asked again, still dividing her attention between the wolves, when Red desperately wished for attention to be on her. This time, she waited to see what Rascal would do if she didn't respond first--the miscreant dared to bob his head up and down in imitation of a nod! This was too much for Red. She dropped the leash and stepped on it, holding it firmly in place while she snarled and lunged for the troublemaking pup.
"Hold!" The apothecary commanded, and though she did not touch either of them, Red felt her authority deep inside her veins. This woman really was a thaumaturge, practitioner of blood magic! Red felt her muscles ache and throb with every beat of her heart, and the pain in her shoulder increased until it felt like it would burst at any moment. Through the pulsing haze, Red saw Rascal whimpering and fawning in response to some stimulus, and she reasoned that he must have felt a similar sensation, though on a much different level, being neither a shapeshifter nor fatally wounded.
The thaumaturge gripped the leashes of both wolves. "This is very confusing," she remarked. "But I have one more test for the two of you."
She picked up the leashes and led the two wolves out to a small yard behind her shop. The ground was dirt here, a soft clay easy to dig in. She anchored two stakes into the ground and tied a leash around each. Red and Rascal both watched her expectantly. Finally, the thaumaturge stood back.
"Write your name," she instructed.
Red felt a rush of pleasure--finally, something she could do that a natural wolf could not! Her wolf muscles were different than her human muscles, but the same brain directed both bodies, and Red knew she could make her wolf-paws do the movements necessary. Carefully, she extended her claws and scraped out the rough shapes of the letters "R-e-d" in the soft earth. Beside her, Rascal happily dug a shape that looked more like a warped hole of some sort.
The apothecary smiled at last, and leaned forward to untie the rope from around Red's neck. The lycanthrope shook her head, grateful to be free of the offending thing. She walked beside the apothecary back into the shop, leaving Rascal to scrape and dig in the dirt to his dimwitted heart's content.
Inside, the apothecary turned back to Red.
"So, Red," she mused, "that's an unusual name--but since you happen to be a wolf just now, I gather you are a very unusual person. My name is Greta. It's been a long time since I've seen a lycanthrope, particularly one that is trapped in their animal form." She began searching the shelves behind the counter. Finally, she pulled out a small jar with a pale-grey powder inside. She sprinkled this into a pestle, with some red flakes that smelled like crimson hoods, and a few other powders.
"There are a few reasons a shifter might be blocked from shifting," Greta mused as she added the dry ingredients to a small pot of liquid over a tiny fire. "Sometimes physical wounds, mental trauma, or even the wrong emotional state could keep a person in one form or another." She stirred the potion, and Red watched as it gave off a pale lavender steam. Greta finally nodded and lifted the pot off the flame. "You don't look wounded, and your mental faculties seem intact, so whatever it is, this should override everything and force a transformation."
Red remained calm as Greta brought the pot directly underneath her nose.
"Breathe deep," the thaumaturge instructed. "Focus on taking the scent all the way into your brain."
Red closed her eyes and obeyed. For several moments, the only thing she acknowledged was the smell of crimson hoods and the woods of Queston, tinged with the scent of sheep's wool and wolf-pelt. She did as she was told and took it all the way in. As she breathed, she felt an awakening in her mind, a definite ripping sensation, like every time she'd shifted in the past year, all rolled into a single massive upheaval. She inhaled the smell, and hardly noticed when her legs collapsed and sent her crashing to the floor.