It hit Matthew before he realized what had happened.
One moment he was walking a forest trail, the next moment he was tumbling down into the cold water of the stream he'd been following. Plunging in with an icy splash, his brain struggled to process what had led him to this point. He'd snuck out of his father's home with only the pack on his back, gotten himself wildly lost in the forest, found this stream and decided to track its course, and then something had jumped out at him and he tumbled down into the water.
Somewhere at the end of his stream of thought, Matthew fleetingly realized two things. First, that his life was tragically short and dull for only this much to have flashed before his eyes, and second, he really ought to have learned how to swim before setting out on this journey.
He thrashed to the surface, wildly swinging arms and kicking feet in hopes of finding purchase in the water. His feet didn't touch the bottom, but somehow his head got up for a gasp of air that contained far more water than he bargained for. Poorly coordinated as the effort was, he went under again. But this time, as he thrashed harder for a better breath of air, his hands connected with something solid. A large rotwood log. He clung to it desperately.
When most of the water was out of his lungs and the oxygen had traveled far enough to clear away most of the spots swimming before his eyes, Matthew focused enough to understand that the log had been sent to him purposely. The self-same being that had appeared directly in his path and caused the tumble was now sitting on the bank, watching him sputter and hack his way back into breathing.
“Shit,” the boy on the bank swore.
Clinging tightly to his buoy, Matthew kicked his way to shallower looking water, careful not to roll the log and dunk himself under again. The mountain stream was deep and slow-moving, but also very cold even now in late summer. With his feet now safely under him, Matthew wiped his soggy hair off his brow and looked up at the boy who had put him in this situation and helped him back out again. There was nothing to prepare him for what he saw.
The boy was a year or two older than himself, certainly. Matthew pegged him at about seventeen. Long and lean limbs wrapped in simple clothes. A spun shirt and woolen half-trousers suspendered on with well-tanned leather. His boots, too, were well made and sturdy looking and didn't quite match to the simpler quality of his clothing. Hard to caste. The boy's skin was a shade paler than Matthew could recall ever seeing on a person before, and his hair was as silvery white as the elders' in the small village he had just left. But the boy's most dominating features were the ones Matthew was trying to choke back his surprise and swallow his fear and judgment on. Eyes in a most fearsome shade of red, cruel looking claws that curved from the end of each of his fingers, and most impressive of all, a pair of tall pointed and furred ears, and a tail that seemed to billow out behind him like a storm cloud.
Matthew could feel himself staring now, and the boy stared back at him defiantly till the hair on the back of his neck prickled from something other than the cold of the water.
“T-thank you,” he forced through his clenched and chattering teeth. He was determined to make a decent first impression, or at least less of a fool of himself than he already had. Unfortunately, he feared the damage was already more than done.
The boy on the bank scoffed, proving Matthew's fear. Through his shame, he noted with interest that the tall canine ears flicked with the expression of disdain.
“You're the kid who can work miracles?” The boy crouched on his haunches, studying Matthew hard from waist to hair, all that was visible above the water. “You can't even fucking swim.”
“I f-figure,” Matthew answered, standing a little straighter and feeling the heels of his shoes sink into the silt and muck in the stream bed, wishing the cold wasn't making his teeth chatter so that he sounded a nervous fool, “Swim-ming is m-more of a learned su-skill. Mira-c-cles c-come by a dif-rent m-means. Not s-so mu-ch the same thu-thing.”
The wolf boy raised one eyebrow into a delicate arch. “Alright, fine. Swimming and miracles. Different shit. I don't care either way, so long as you give me a fucking miracle for saving your sorry ass from drowning in shallow water.” His tone was bored, used to demanding and getting what he wanted. Matthew could bet he was dealing with a boy who bullied people into getting his way, but he wasn't very easily intimidated or swayed. It actually sounded like he had a lot of leverage. He just had to find out what that leverage was.
“W-what do you wa-nt?” Don't give away too much information off the bat. Matthew wondered where the wolf boy had heard of his abilities in the first place. They weren't common knowledge for a number of reasons.
“I've got a curse on me and I want it off. Do whatever you need to do and I won't kill and eat you.”
Matthew shook his head no. The boy narrowed his eyes dangerously.
“Th-the price is high-er than you're thinking. Don't w-want to help if you do-n't ask nicely. G-going to die eith-er w-way.” Matthew held his head up high, willing his teeth to stop clattering together and ruining the effect. The water was cold, but he would have to be patient. Besides, he preferred to have a little distance between himself and the other boy as it seemed he didn't much like what he was saying. And suddenly, a stroke of inspiration hit.
“But may-be we could m-make a deal.”
The wolf boy considered the words suspiciously.
“What kind of deal?”
“You help m-me find someone I'm loo-looking for, and I'll t-take off your curse.” It was a long shot, but Matthew was fairly certain he'd make it. “If you found me, you'll fi-nd him for certain.”
There was a long silence.
And then the boy extended his hand, a gesture of resigned agreement.
“Not like I have a damn choice. Gilbert.”
Matthew waited a beat, deciphering that the last word had been the other boy's name. With a little smile, he sloshed forward through the water, clasping the offered hand before it yanked him up the bank and onto the grass with a surprising sinewy strength.