Distant, yet carrying, the wolf’s howl broke the late-afternoon stillness. In the depths of the forest, a young woman, as T strong and supple as the sound, rose noiselessly to her feet. With bloodstained fingers, she pushed her short, dark brown hair away from her ears to better hear the call.
It was a sentry howl, relayed from a great distance to the east. The young woman understood its message more easily than she would have understood any form of human speech.
“Strangers! Strangers! Strangers! Strange!”
The last lilt of inflection clarified the previous howls. Whatever was coming from the east was not merely a trespasser—perhaps a young wolf dispersing from his birth pack—but an unknown quantity. But from the relay signal that preceded the call, the strangers were far away.
The young woman felt a momentary flicker of curiosity. Hunger, however, was more pressing. The cold times were not long past and her memories of dark, freezing days, when even the stupid fish were unreachable beneath the ice, were sharp.
She squatted again and continued skinning a still warm rabbit, musing, not for the first time, how much more convenient it would be if she could eat it as her kinfolk did: fur, bone, flesh, and guts all in one luxurious mouthful.
* * *
Derian Carter, the youngest member of Earl Kestrel’s expedition, felt his shoulder jerked nearly out of its socket when the wolf howl pierced the late-afternoon peace. The haunting sound startled the sensitive chestnut mare he was unbridling nearly out of her highly bred stockings.
“Easy, easy, Roanne,” he murmured mechanically, all too aware that his own heart was racing. That wolf sounded close!
As Derian eased the mare’s headstall over ears that couldn’t seem to decide whether to prick in alarm or flatten in annoyance, he said in a voice he was pleased to discover remained calm, almost nonchalant:
“That sounds like a big wolf out there, Race.”
Race Forester, the guide for Earl Kestrel’s expedition, looked down his long nose at the younger man and chuckled. He was a lean fellow with a strong, steady tread that spoke of long distances traveled afoot and blond hair bleached so white by constant exposure to the sun that he would look much the same at sixty as he did at thirty.
“That it does, Derian.” Race stroked his short but full beard as he glanced around their sheltered forest camp, systematically noting the areas that would need to be secured now that big predators were about. “Wolves always sound bigger when you’re on their turf, rather than safe behind a city wall.”
Derian swallowed a retort. In the weeks since Earl Kestrel’s expedition had departed the capital of Hawk Haven, Race had rarely missed an opportunity to remind the members (other than the earl himself) that Race himself was the woodsman, while they were mere city folk. Only the fact that Race’s contempt was so generally administered had kept Derian from calling him out and showing him that a city-bred man could know a thing or two.
Only that, Derian admitted honestly (though only to himself), and the fact that Race would probably turn Derian into a smear on the turf. Though Derian Carter was tall enough to need to duck his head going through low doorways, muscular enough to handle the most spirited horse or work from dawn to dusk loading and unloading wagons at his father’s warehouses, there was something about Race Forester’s sinewy form, about the way he carried his slighter build, that made Derian doubt who would be the winner in a hand-to-hand fight.
And, with another surge of honesty, Derian admitted that the woodsman had earned the right to express his contempt. Race was good at what he did—many said the best in both Hawk Haven and their rival kingdom of Bright Bay. What was Derian Carter in comparison? Well trained, but untried.
Derian would never have admitted that before they set out—knowing himself good with a horse or an account book or even with his fists—but a few things had been hammered into his red head since they left the capital, things that hadn’t been all that much fun to learn, and Derian didn’t plan on forgetting them now.
So Derian swallowed his retort and continued removing the tack from the six riding horses. To his right, burly Ox, his road-grown beard incongruously black against pink, round cheeks, was heaving the packs from the four mules. When another long, eerie wolf’s howl caused the nearest mule to kick back at the imagined danger, Ox blocked the kick rather than dodging.
That block neatly summed up why Ox was a member of the expedition. Even-tempered, like most big men who have never been forced to fight, Ox had made his recent living in the Hawk Haven military. During the current lull in hostilities, however, he had left the military to serve as Earl Kestrel’s bodyguard.
Ox’s birth name, Derian had learned to his surprise, was Malvin Hogge.
“But no one’s called me that since long before my hair started receding,” he’d told Derian, rubbing ruefully where his curly hairline was making an undignified and premature retreat. “But I prefer the name that my buddies in Kestrel Company gave me long ago and, strangely enough, no one ever calls me ‘Malvin’ twice.”
Unlike Derian, Ox felt no inordinate awe toward Race Forester, aware that in his own way he was as valuable as the guide. How many men could shift a battering ram by themselves or do the work of three packers?
“Think that wolf wants us for dinner?” Ox asked Race in his deep-voiced, ponderous way.
“Hardly,” the guide retorted scornfully. “We’re too big a group and wolves, savage as they are, are not stupid.”
“Well,” Ox replied, laughing at-his own joke, “you’d better tell the mules that. I don’t think they understand.”
Sir Jared Surcliffe, a lesser member of Earl Kestrel’s own family, but prouder of his recently acquired nickname “Doc” than of any trace of noble blood, crossed to claim the general provisions bundle. Like the earl he had black hair and clear, grey eyes, but his height and build lacked the earl’s seeming delicacy. There was strength in his long-fingered hands—as Derian had learned when Jared stitched a cut in his forearm a couple of weeks back. Derian recalled that Doc had won honors in battle, so he must have other strengths as well.
“Valet has the fire started,” Jared said, an upper-class accent giving his simple statement unwonted authority. “I’ll start dinner. Race, shouldn’t you see if there might be a fish or two in yonder brook? Earl Kestrel would enjoy fresh trout with his dinner.”
Had anyone but Jared or the earl himself even hinted at giving the guide orders, he might have found himself standing a late-night watch on an anthill. Race Forester, though, for all his pride in his skills, knew when he could—and could not—push his social betters.
“Right,” he grunted, and departed, whistling for Queenie, his bird dog. The red-spotted hound reluctantly abandoned the station near the fire from which she’d been watching Earl Kestrel’s man unpack the delicacies kept for the earl’s own consumption.
When the wolf howled again, Derian wondered how much of Queenie’s reluctance was due to leaving the food and how much to the proximity of the big predator.
“They say that the wolves in the mountains are bigger than anything found in settled lands,” Derian said, talking to distract himself and feeling freer to speculate now that Race was gone,
“They do,” Doc agreed, “but I’ve always wondered, just who has seen these giant wolves? Few people have gone beyond the foothills of the Iron Mountains—those mostly miners and trappers. As far as I know, the only ones to have crossed the range are Prince Harden and those who went with him.”
Derian finished currying Roanne and moved to the earl’s Coal before answering.
“Maybe in the early days,” he hazarded, “when the colonies were new. Maybe people saw the wolves then.”
“Possibly,” Jared said agreeably, shaping a journey cake on its board. “And possibly it’s all grandmother’s fire stories. Race is right. Wolves and other night creatures do sound bigger when you’re camping.”
Conversation lagged as the members of the expedition hurried to complete their chores before the last of the late-spring light faded. Part of the reason Earl Kestrel had planned his journey for this time of year was that the days would be growing longer, but after hours spent riding on muddy trails, the evenings seemed brief enough.
Cool, too, Derian thought, blowing on his fingers as he measured grain for the mules and horses. Winter may be gone, but she’s not letting us forget her just yet.
Ox, who had finished putting up the tents and was now effortlessly chopping wood, paused, his axe in the air.
“If you’re cold, Derian, you can help me chop this wood. You know what they say, ‘Wood warms you twice: once in the cutting, once in the burning.’”
Derian grinned at him. “No thanks. I’ve enough else to finish. Do you think we’ll get snow tonight? The air almost has the scent of it.”
Ox shrugged, measuring his answer out between the blows of his axe. “The mountains do get snow, even this late in the season, but I hope we’re not in for any. A blackberry winter’s all we need.”
Derian frowned thoughtfully. “At home I’d say snow would be a good thing for business. It’s easier to move goods by sled and people by sleigh, but out here, on horseback…I could do without the snow.”
“We won’t have snow,” announced Race, re-entering the camp from the forest fringe. Three long, shining river trout dangled from one hand. “The smoke’s rising straight off the fires. Clear but cold tonight. Derian, you might want to break out your spare blankets.”
Derian nodded. He’d slept cold one night out of a stubborn desire to show himself as tough as the woodsman and had been stiff and nearly useless the next morning. Earl Kestrel himself had chided him for foolish pride.
“Our mission is too important to be trifled with,” Kestrel had continued in his mincing way. “Mind that you listen to Race Forester’s advice from here on.”
And Derian had nodded and apologized, but in his heart he wondered. Just how important was this mission? King Tedric had seemed content enough these dozen years not knowing his son’s fate. And Prince Barden had shown no desire to contact the king.
Earl Kestrel had been the one to decide that knowing what had happened to the disinherited prince was important—Kestrel said for the realm, but Derian suspected that the information was important mostly for how it would affect the earl’s private ambitions.
* * *
The young woman was bathing when a thin, tail-chewed female informed her that the One Male wanted her at the den. The messenger, a yearling who had barely made it through her first winter, cringed and groveled as she delivered her message.
“When shall I say you will come before him, Firekeeper?” the she-wolf concluded, using the name most of the wolves called the woman—a name indicating a measure of respect, for even the Royal Wolves feared fire.
Firekeeper tossed a fat chub to the Whiner. She certainly wasn’t going to have time to eat it, not if she must run all the way to the den. Ah, well! She could catch more fish later.
“Tell him,” she said, considering, “I will be there as fast as two feet can carry me.”
“Slow enough,” sneered the Whiner, emboldened as she remembered how all but the fattest pups could outrun the two-legged wolf.
Firekeeper snatched a stone from the bank and, swifter than even the Whiner’s paranoia, threw it at the wolf’s snout.
“That might have been your skull,” the woman reminded her. “Go, bone-chewer. My feet may be slow, but my belly is full with the meat of my own hunting!”
A lip-curling snarl before the Whiner vanished into the brush showed that the insult had gone home. Faintly, Firekeeper could hear the retreat of her running paws.
Her own departure would be less swift. Bending at the waist, she shook the water from her close-cropped hair, then smoothed the locks down, pressing out more water as she did so.
Even before her hair had stopped dripping down her back, Firekeeper had retrieved her most valuable possession from where she had set it on a flat rock near the water. It was a fang made of some hard, bright stone. With it, she could kill almost as neatly as a young wolf, skin her prey, sharpen the ends of sticks, and perform many other useful tasks. The One Male of her youngest memories had given it to her when he knew he was going into his last winter.
“These are used by those such as yourself, Little Two-legs,” he had said fondly, “since they lack teeth or claws useful for hunting. I remember how they are used and can tutor you some, but you will need to discover much for yourself.”
She had accepted the Fang and the leather Mouth in which it slept. At first she had hung them from a thong about her neck, but later, when she had learned more about their uses, she had contrived a way to hang them from a belt around her waist. Only when she was bathing, for the Fang hated water, did she take it off.
Now she held the tool in her teeth while she reached for the cured hide she had hung in a tree lest those like the Whiner chew it to shreds. Most hides she couldn’t care less about but this one, taken from an elk killed for the purpose, was special.
Out of the center she had cut a hole for her head, wide enough not to chafe her neck. The rest of the skin hung front and back, protecting her most vulnerable parts. A belt made from strips of hide kept the garment in place and she had trimmed away the parts that interfered with free movement of her arms.
Some of the young wolves had laughed when she had contrived her first hide, but she had disregarded their taunts. The wolves had fur to protect themselves from brambles and sticks. She must borrow from the more fortunate or be constantly bleeding from some scrape. An extra skin was welcome, too, against the chill.
In the winter, she tied rabbit skins along her legs and arms with the fur next to her flesh. The skins were awkward, often slipping or falling off, but were still far better than frostbite.
Later in the year, when the days grew hotter and the hide stifling, Firekeeper would wear only a shorter bit of leather around her waist, relinquishing some protection for comfort.
Lastly, Firekeeper hung around her neck a small bag containing the special stones with which she could strike fire. She valued these less than the Fang, but without their power she could not have survived this winter or others before it.
Faintly, Firekeeper remembered when she did not live this way, when she wore something softer and more yielding than hides, when winters were warmer. Almost, she thought, those memories were a dream, but it was a dream that seemed strangely close as she ran to where the One Male awaited her.
* * *
The one male was a big silver-grey wolf with a dark streak running along his spine to the tip of his tail and a broad white ruff. He was the third of that title Firekeeper could remember and had held the post for only two years. His predecessor would have dominated the pack longer except for a chance stumble in front of an elk during a hunt in midwinter along an icy lakeshore.
The current One Male had been accepted by the One Female, who had led the pack alone through the remainder of that winter until the mating season early the following spring. Competition for her had been fierce and one contender had been killed. A second chose exile rather than live beneath his pack mate’s rule.
Yet the diminished pack had fared well, perhaps because of, rather than despite, the losses. Fewer wolves meant fewer ways to split the food. New pups had since grown to fill the gaps and the Ones reigned over a fine pack eight adults strong—with a single strange, two-legged, not-quite-wolf to round out the group.
Although she remembered when both had been fat, blue-eyed, round-bellied puppies, Firekeeper thought of both the One Male and the One Female as older than herself. However, though the human had more years than the wolves, the reality was that they were adults while she, when judged by her abilities rather than her years, was a pup. Indeed, she might always be a pup—a thing she regarded with some dissatisfaction during rare, idle moments.
When she loped into the flat, bone-strewn area outside of the den, the One Male was waiting for her. None of the rest of the pack was visible.
The One Female was within the cave nearby, occupied with her newborn pups. The day for them to be introduced to the rest of their family was close and Firekeeper warmed in pleasant anticipation. Already she knew that there were six pups, all apparently healthy, but everything else about them was kept a guarded secret until the great event of Emergence.
Seeing Firekeeper—though doubtless he had heard her arrive—the One Male rose to his feet. She ran to within a few paces, then dropped onto all fours. When he permitted her to approach, she stroked her fingers along his jaw, mimicking a puppy’s begging.
Tail wagging gently, the One Male drew his lips back from his teeth as if regurgitating—though he did not actually do so. All spare food these days went to the One Female and the pups. Firekeeper, who had been made hungry by her swim followed by a swift run, was rather sorry. Many times during the past winter meat had been carried to her from a kill too distant for her to reach before the scavengers would have stripped it.
“You summoned me, Father?” she asked, sitting back on her haunches now that the greeting ritual had been completed.
The One Male wagged his tail, then sat beside her, tacitly inviting her to throw an arm around him and scratch between his ears.
“Yes, Little Two-legs, I did. Did you hear the message howl some while ago?”
“Stranger! Stranger! Stranger! Strange!” she repeated softly by way of answer. “From the east, I thought.”
“Yes, all the way from the gap in the mountains, not far from where you came to us.”
Firekeeper nodded. She knew the place. There was good hunting in those meadows come late summer when the young deer grew foolish and their mothers careless. There was also a burned place, overgrown now, but hiding black ash and hard-burnt wood beneath the vines and grasses. Every year when the pack hunted in that region the Ones told her how she had come from the burned place and reminded her of her heritage.
“I remember the place,” Firekeeper answered, mostly because she knew the One would want to hear confirmation, not because she thought he needed it.
“The Strangers Strange are two-legs, like yourself,” the One continued. “A falcon has been following them by day and she relays through our scouts that the two-legs go to the Burnt Place, seeking those who were there before I was born.”
“Oh!” Firekeeper gasped softly. Then a question drew a line between her dark, dark eyes. “How does the falcon know where they are going?”
“When this falcon was young she was taken from the air while on migration,” the One explained. “I don’t know how it was done, but the Mothers of her people say it was so and I believe them.”
“Like knows like best,” Firekeeper said, repeating a wolf proverb.
“Remember that,” the One Male said, then returned to his explanation. “This falcon lived for a time with the two-legs and hunted for them. During that time, she learned something of their speech—far more than the few words they used to address her. From their speech and from the direction they are heading, she believes that these two-legs are not hunters come for a short time to take furs.”
“The wrong time for that game, certainly,” Firekeeper said. “Your coats are shedding now and make me sneeze.”
“That is why those fingers of yours feel so good,” the One Male admitted. “Pull out the mats as you find them.”
“Only if you remember,” she teased with mock hauteur, “not to bite off my hand!”
“I promise,” he said with sudden solemnity. “As all of us have promised not to harm our strange little sister.”
Made uneasy by this change of mood, Firekeeper occupied herself tugging out a mat, worrying the undercoat loose with dexterous ease.
“Why did you summon me to tell me of the two-legs?” she asked at last. “I know less of them than the falcons do. They are strangers to me. The wolves are my people,”
“Always,” the One Male promised her, “but since before I was born each One has told those who may follow that there is a trust held by our pack for you. When your people return, we have sworn to bring you back to them. It is an ancient trust, given, so our tales say, to your own mother.”
Firekeeper was silenced by astonishment. Then she blurted out indignantly:
“I was never told of this!”
“You,” the One Male said gently, “have never been considered old enough to know. Only those who may one day lead the pack are told of this trust, so that they may vow to keep it in their turn.”
The human admitted the justice of this, but hot tears of frustration and anticipated grief burned in her eyes.
“What if I want nothing of this trust, given to a mother I cannot remember?”
“You will always be a wolf, Firekeeper,” the One Male said. “Meet the two-legs. Learn of them. If you do not care for their ways, come back to the pack. A wise wolf,” he continued, quoting another proverb, “scouts the prey, knows when to hunt, when to stay away.”
“If I did less,” Firekeeper admitted, wiping the tears away with the back of one hand, “I would be less than a wolf. Let me begin by scouting the two-legs. When I have learned who leads, who follows, then I will make myself known to them.”
“Wise,” the One Male said. “The thoughts of a wolf and the courage as well.”
“Tell me where to find them,” Firekeeper said, rising. “Call my coming to our kin along the trail that they may guide and protect me.”
The One Male’s words were interrupted by a husky voice from the den’s opening. An elegant head, pure silver, un-marred with white or black, showed against the shadows.
“Go after tonight, Little Two-legs,” said the One Female. “Tonight I will bring out your new brothers and sisters so that you may know them and they you. Then, fully of the pack, you may be heartened for your task.”
Overcome with joy, Firekeeper leapt straight into the air.
“Father, Mother, may I cry the pack together?”
“Do, Little Two-legs,” said the One Female. “Loud and long, so that even the scouts come home. Call our family together.”
* * *
“We pass through the gap tomorrow,” announced Race Forester as they gathered round the fire after dinner that night, “Then, we will need to slow our progress. Earl Kestrel…” he dipped his head in respectful acknowledgment, “has collected reports from the trappers and peddlers who had contact with Prince Barden. They all agree that he did not intend to go much further than the first good site beyond the mountains. He wanted to be well away from settled lands, but I suspect not so far that trade could not be established later.”
Derian, full, warm, and pleasantly weary, asked, “But no one has heard from him since he crossed the Iron Mountains?”
“No one who is admitting it,” said Earl Kestrel.
From where Derian sat, the earl was just a solid, hooknosed shadow. He was not a big man. Indeed, he was quite small, but as with the kestrel of his house name, small did not mean weak or tame. The furious lash of his tongue when he was roused was to be as feared as another man’s fist—more so, to Derian’s way of thinking. You could outrun a bully, but never escape the wrath of a man of consequence.
He wondered, then, if that had not been precisely what Prince Barden of the House of the Eagle had been trying to do when he left Hawk Haven for the unsettled lands beyond the barrier of the Iron Mountains.
Prince Barden had been a third child and, by all accounts, roundly unhappy about being so. Although King Tedric had his heir and his spare, he resisted having his youngest son attempt any independent venture. Enough for the king that Barden learn to sit a horse, fight well enough for his class, and perhaps dabble in some court tasks.
Perhaps when Crown Prince Chalmer had married and fathered a child or even when Princess Lovella was similarly settled, then Barden might finally have been superfluous enough to be permitted his freedom. Or maybe not even men. King Tedric was said to be a very domineering father.
Ironically, because Prince Barden had been the least noticed and least dominated by his father, he was the most like the king in temperament. Prince Barden decided he would not see his life frittered away while waiting for his siblings to marry (a task, to be fair to them, made more difficult in that King Tedric wanted a hand in that choosing as well), to breed heirs, for his father to die. Thus, Prince Barden began quietly laying plans for a venture of which his father was certain to disapprove.
Sometimes Derian wondered at the younger prince’s ambitions. Himself an eldest son, Derian was all too aware of the pressure of his parents’ hopes and expectations. How much easier life would be if they would just leave him alone! Oh, they were loving and kind—nothing like King Tedric—but sometimes Derian thought he would rebel if he heard one more “Derian, have you practiced your…handwriting, riding, fencing…” The list was endless.
Even when he wasn’t being set to his books, there were quizzes. “Quick, son, tell me whose crest that is!” Or “Don’t hold your knife in that hand, Derian Carter. A gentleman holds it like so.” Lately even his dancing, which had made him the delight of the womenfolk since he was old enough to leave the children’s circles, had come into question. “Don’t skip so! More stately, more graceful!”
No doubt his parents had dreams of him rising into the lower ranks of the nobility, perhaps by marriage to some impoverished noble’s plain daughter! Derian groaned inwardly at the thought. He fancied the baker’s pretty second daughter, the one with the round cheeks and the saucy smile.
Maybe, now that he considered it, he was more like Prince Barden than he had thought. Both of them had found their parents’ expectations a bit more than they could take, but the difference was that Prince Barden had defied his father. Quietly and carefully he had gathered a cadre of men and women who, like himself, longed for more than what Hawk Haven and her endless sparring with Bright Bay could offer.
Only after the expedition was planned, supplied (largely from King Tedric’s own pocket—he didn’t believe it good policy to stint too greatly on his children’s allowances), and on its way did the king learn that Prince Barden, his wife, and his little daughter had not stayed at their keep in the foothills of the Iron Mountains, but had gone beyond the gap to the other side.
The steward of West Keep delivered the news himself, bringing with him a letter from the prince. Barden’s plan had been well laid. Almost every lesser guard, groom, gardener, cook, or maidservant at the keep had been of his party. The steward, left with only his core group, had not dared pursue them and leave his trust untended.
By the time King Tedric learned of Prince Barden’s departure, attempting to drag him back would have been futile. Instead, the king disowned his younger son, blotting his name from the books and refusing to let it be spoken by any in court or country. However, Derian knew, as did all the members of Earl Kestrel’s expedition, that even in his fury the king had left himself a loophole.
Lady Blysse, Barden’s daughter, had not been blotted from the records. She, if the need arose, could be named to the succession. Prince Barden could even be named her regent if her grandfather so wished. In those long-ago days, it had not seemed likely that King Tedric would ever so wish.
But things change, and those changes were why Derian Carter found himself one of six select men seated around a fire, preparing to go through a mountain pass where, to their best knowledge, no human had gone for twelve long years.
He shuddered deliciously at the thought of the adventure before them and turned his attention again to the informal conference around the fire. Earl Kestrel was finishing his diatribe against those who might have defied King Tedric’s wrath and made profitable and secret trade with Prince Barden’s group.
“It would be to their best interests,” he said, “to never speak of their doings. Why risk royal censure?”
“Why,” added his cousin Jared, “risk having to share a closed market?”
“Indeed,” the earl agreed approvingly. “Forester, as we move deeper into unknown territory, Barden’s people may not take such care to hide traces of their comings and goings. Keep a sharp eye out for them.”
“Ever, ray lord,” answered Race promptly and humbly. Then, “My lord, when we find them,” (he didn’t say what he had said frequently to Derian and Ox, that he thought Barden and his party all dead or fled to some foreign country), “how shall we approach them?”
“We shall scout them,” Earl Kestrel said, “from hiding if possible. When we have ascertained their numbers and whether Prince Barden is among them I will choose the manner of my approach. If we find an abandoned settlement, then we shall remain long enough to discover whether Prince Barden and his people are dead or if they have merely moved elsewhere.
“Any information,” he continued sanctimoniously, “will be of help and comfort to the king in his bereavement.”
And you ’ll find a way to turn it to your advantage, Derian thought sardonically.
That there was an advantage to be gained Derian did not doubt—neither had his father and mother. This was why they had insisted on Derian’s accompanying Earl Kestrel as one of their conditions for setting a good rate for pack mules, a couple of riding horses, and a coach for the early stages of the journey.
As all Hawk Haven knew, King Tedric’s paranoia regarding heirs had proven well founded. Crown Prince Chalmer had died as a result of a questionable hunting accident. His sister, Lovella, the new crown princess, had died some years later in a battle against pirates. Neither had left legitimate issue. Prince Chalmer had been unmarried. Princess Lovella had been careful not to make that mistake, but she had delayed bearing a child until she felt she wouldn’t be needed as a general.
Now, as King Tedric, still a fierce old eagle of a man, aged, potential heirs buzzed about the throne. The genealogical picture was so complex that Derian was still working out who had the best claim. There was even a member of the royal family of Bright Bay with factions agitating for King Tedric to name him heir.
All Derian was certain of was that Prince Barden, if reinstated to his father’s favor, would have the best claim. Lady Blysse, who would be about fifteen now, would have as good a claim as any and better than many.
And certainly lost prince or his lost-er daughter would need a counselor. And who better than the kind and wise Earl Kestrel, who had risked life and limb to bring father and daughter forth from exile?
* * *
That night, A few hours before dawn, Firekeeper curled up among the pups so that they would soak in her scent and know her even after an absence. Perhaps it was the hot, round bodies clustered around her own, perhaps the memories awakened by her talk with the One Male, but she dreamed of fire.
Kindled in a shallow pit ringed around with river rock and bordered with cleared dirt. Her fingers ache a little from striking together the special stones from the little bag the Ones have just given her. Deep inside, she feels a shiver of fear as she tentatively nurses the fire to life with gentle breath and offerings of food.
“That’s right,” says the One Female, her tones level though her neck ruff is stiff with tension at remaining so close to the flames. “Feed it little things first: a dry leaf, a bit of grass, a twig. Only when it is stronger can it eat bigger things.”
“Yes, Mother. How do you know so much?”
The One Female smiles, lips pulled back from teeth. “I have watched such small fires being made, Little Two-legs. Only when they are permitted to eat more than their fill do they grow dangerous.”
The pale new flames reach out greedily for a twig, lapping her hand. She drops the twig and sucks on an injured finger.
“It bit me, Mother!”
“Tamara! Don’t put your hand in the fire, sweetling! You’ll get burnt!”
The voice is not the rumble of the wolf, thoughts half-expressed by ears and posture rather than by sounds. These words are all sound, the voice high but strong. The speaker is a two-legs, towering far taller than any wolf.
“I didn’t touch it, Mama. I was only looking.”
Orange and red, glowing warm and comforting where it is contained within the hearth, the flames taste the bottom of the fat, round-bellied black kettle hung over them. The air smells of burning wood and simmering soup.
“Good girl. We welcome fire into our homes but never forget that it can be a dangerous guest…”
Smoke so thick and choking that her eyes run with water. Coughs rack her ribs. A band wraps around her, squeezing what little air there is out of her. Vaguely she realizes that it is a broad, muscular arm. Her father’s arm.
He is crawling along the packed earth floor, keeping his head and hers low. Moving slowly, so slowly, coughing with every breath. The room in the cabin is hot and full of smoke. Something falls behind them with a crash that reverberates even through the dirt floor.
“Donal!” Mama’s voice, shrill now with panic. “Donal!”
“Sar…” More a gasp than a word. Then stronger, “Sarena!”
A shadow seen through burning eyes, crouching, grabbing her.
She is being dragged again, more quickly now.
“My legs, a beam…when I went for the child.”
“I’ll get her out, come back for you!”
“No! Get clear.”
“I’ll come back.”
Outside, clearer air, but still so full of smoke. She is weeping now, tears washing her eyes so that she can see. Mama has brought her outside of the wooden palisade that surrounds Bardenville. Looking back she can see that all the buildings are aflame. Where are the people?
“Wait here, Tamara.” Mama coughs. “I’m going to get Papa.”
She can’t do anything but wait, her legs are so weak. Though the air outside is clearer, she can barely breathe, but she struggles to reassure her mother.
“I’ll wait, Mama.”
Mama turns. Even smudged with soot, coughing and limping, she is graceful. Tamara watches through bleared eyes as Mama goes into the burning thing that was once a cabin.
Where are the people? Where is Barden? Where is Carpenter who made her a doll? Where is Blysse who plays with her? Where is…
Something large comes out of the forest behind her. A wolf. What Mama and Papa call a Royal Wolf, though Tamara doesn’t know why. The wolf licks her in greeting, whines.
Tamara points to the burning cabin. “Mama…”
The wolf barks sharply. A second wolf, then two more, come out of the forest. Clearly they fear the fire, but they run into the burning settlement. One even runs into the cabin, comes out dragging something that is screaming in raw pain.
Tamara’s eyes flood. She hears shriller screaming and realizes it is her own voice out of control, belonging it seems to someone other than herself. She can’t stop screaming and all around there are sparks, flames, smoke, and a terrible smell.
She screams and…
Firekeeper awoke, the scream still in her throat, the pups stirring nervously around her. Beyond them, a large white shape rose. The One Female nudged Firekeeper fully awake, lapping her face with her tongue.
“Awake, Little Two-legs. The dawn is becoming day. Your journey is before you.”
Copyright © 2001 by Jane Lindskold