Old Gray by Jason Zwiker

There was a time when men ran as wolves through the forest by day each winter. Not until the sun sank low in the sky would they wander back to town, slough off their wolf-skins, then hang them by the door with a “Honey, I’m home. What’s to sup? I’m hungry as a, well, you know.”

They were small and dark, the three that appeared when a young man was ready to give what was asked of him and gain his teeth and claws. When they spoke, it was in one voice, all.

“Who are you?” he dared to ask.

Took. Take. Taken. And then, with far less patience: what do you ask of us?

“Brotherhood with those who carry the meat and ale of others away in plain sight, yet hear nothing of it but a fare ye well. A name that magistrates and merchants nod to with a but of course, for he’s one of us, no matter the terms. A castle high, and gold.”

All of this came with the wolf-skin, in time. That was the deal.

As his wealth grew, he watched wolves he’d once envied grow old and die. He, in turn, became the envy of young pups who, each Christmastide, wandered door-to-door drunken, slapping musical instruments they’d never learned to play, terrorizing children and demanding coin from parents for it.

“Apples and nuts for the saintly, birch branch to the backside if ye ain’t be,” they sang, hiccupping and staggering, but they always moved aside and nodded in deference as he passed.

Years, once long, languorous stretches of time, began to slide away faster and faster. They flashed past like the flicker of a zoetrope by the time he’d earned the name Old Gray.

But in his dreams, he remained the young man for whom there still was a chance to choose.

When his joints were too sore to run the woods, his teeth too soft to ravage meat, he would have given all of it—the gold, the land—to swap the waking world for the dream. He began to sense blotches of darkness just out of sight, hear giggles of anticipation.

The pups grew bold. “Ish the mos’ wunnerful ‘tide, ish the mos’ wunnferful time,” they sang between gulps of ale, scrawling their names in yellow in the snow outside his window.

Take it, he thought, thinking of his gold, his land. Surely, he reasoned, with all that he’d accumulated, he could make a better deal now.

That night, as he slept, it was taken. Not the gold, not the land, only that which the boy he’d been had once agreed to give.

Took, said one, drawing a line of oil down his forehead.

Take, said the next, crossing it low.

Taken, said the last, and he was gone.

“Old Gray is gone!” howled the young, wolf-skins supple and new. They danced in the sunlight and sang of his gold. They were young and the future stretched farther than they could see.

Jason A. Zwiker’s writing appeared in the Winter’s Tales issue of New Flash Fiction, as well as in All Hallows: The Journal of the Ghost Story Society, Apparition Lit, Eureka Literary Magazine, Flash Fiction Online, and Weirdbook. He was listed as an Honorable Mention in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror (19th ed.).

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