The Bravest Pair
Everyone thought I was crazy when I took a Tyrolese calf as my Pairing, but as soon as his mother delivered him, I knew I wanted him to follow me for life. I was twelve, and he was the most adorable calf I’d ever seen.
“Addison,” my father said, “nobody Pairs with cows. Don’t you want a shepherd or a falcon? Something…tougher?”
I just shook my head at him, and carried a steaming bucket of milk out to my Pair. He was all doe eyes and oblong ears and the sweet smell of hay. With his grey coat still damp from delivery, and his black nose searching out the smell of milk, he seemed more like a large dog than a cow.
He lowed once, a long and plaintive sound that made me bury my fingers in his wooly baby coat while he sucked on the fingers of my other hand, leaving them slimy and red. He slurped the milk from the metal bucket, and fell asleep on my lap.
The Magi Paired us the next day. I had to demand it, so out of the ordinary was the match. My peers chose more typical guardians: dogs, cats, birds of prey. Dogs for their loyalty, cats for their cunning, and eagles for the swiftness of wings. And there I stood with my big-eyed knobby-kneed calf. The other kids laughed, but I was proud. I named him Asher, and the Magi made him my Pair, my guardian.
In the weeks to come, he followed me everywhere on wobbly legs. He would drop into the tall grass when a walk went too far, and I would hoist his long body over my shoulders and carry him home. My father would shake his head at me.
“A cow is no protector,” he said.
“He’s a bull.”
“Not yet, he isn’t. Wolf season will be here in six months, and how will a cow protect you from their magic?”
Goosebumps crawled across my skin at the thought of the slavering wolves he spoke of. They carried magic that could pin you to the ground as they fell on you. They hypnotized, hunted, and ravaged lone hikers. Their cleverness was renowned. It was the job of our Pairs to keep their spells from seeping into our souls, for they were immune to the magic. That was the way of the Pairing. They hid us from the wolves.
“He will protect me better than the Carrow boy’s beagle, surely.”
My mother just shook her head at me, and wrung her hands.
Asher lived up to his name, his coat morphing from grey to steel to coal black with silver, looking for all the world like a cooled ember. He grew into his legs and ears, and filled out with the summer grass and grain I provided.
Three years later, I stood outside the village schoolhouse, laughing, as a two thousand pound Tyrolese bull stampeded in my direction. My classmates scattered as he barreled toward us, skidding to a stop just in front of me to nudge me with his giant head. I scratched behind his ears and patted his massive shoulder. He smelled like dust and sweet feed.
“What a brute,” Brian Carrow said, words heavy with sarcasm. “The wolves will get you, for sure.”
The seasons were changing. They were due to come around soon. I hadn’t seen one of them for years, but the fear was always there. I’d been lucky. The number of classmates I had left was a testament to that. And the ones gone were Paired with fighting dogs.
I ignored the taunting, and walked home with Asher at my side.
We skirted the gullies as twilight fell, and a breeze carried the scent of musk. I walked faster.
We were still two miles from home when Asher stopped dead and put his nose in the air, nostrils flaring wide. I could see the white of his eyes as a howl pealed through the growing darkness.
I froze, hair rising on my arms.
“Asher,” was all I could say. I knotted a hand in his coat. The soft sounds of padded feet on hard ground surrounded us. We would never make it to the house.
They came upon us, all snarls and snapping teeth, I pulled myself onto my Pair’s wide back and clung to him. They had blood on their muzzles, and one carried the limp body of Brian Carrow’s beagle. My blood ran cold.
The wolves ringed Asher, a larger opponent than they were used to. He kicked out, clearing a path, and ran through them faster than his muscle should have allowed. The wolves gave his flying hooves a wide berth. He pushed through the trees, branches scraping at us.
Asher snorted, pawing the ground once, and I slid off his back as a wolf caught my eye. I couldn’t move. Asher snorted as the red brown creature tried to get past him, turning on a dime and kicking it squarely in the chest.
He turned his body toward me and pushed me down into a hollow in the side of a gully. His eyes were obsidian pools in the indigo night. He turned his back to me, blocking my view of wolves and woods. I screamed for help as the wolves rushed him again and again.
The fight was deafening. Howls, yelps, whines. The haunting sound of Asher’s cloven hooves striking flesh, of their teeth snapping on his bones. The never-ending noise of a bull cheating the death of his Pair. Screams shredded my throat and I covered my eyes with hands that smelled of dust and sweet feed.
Gunshots tore through the night leaving behind deafening silence. I closed my eyes for an instant and I opened them as my father’s voice crooned “Addy” over and over. He pulled me from the hollow and into his arms. I buried my face in his coat. “You’re okay.” I didn’t know if it was a question or a statement.
“Asher,” I said. I didn’t know if was a question or a statement.
He held me away from him, hands gripping my shoulders as I tried to look around. “Addy.” he said, “I’m sorry.”
His eyes led me to a hulking form on the ground. My knees hit the ground at Asher’s head. A lantern flared from somewhere, casting a yellow glow over us. His black coat was blacker in places, and matted. My fingers came away from him sticky and rust colored. His breath gusted fast and shallow from lungs that made too much noise.
“Asher,” I whispered, stroking his fuzzy face, “you are the bravest Pair.”
His eyes glinted glassy in the golden light, and my tears fell on him, mixing with his drying blood.
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