BURNING A TRAIL THROUGH THE SKY, the comet was brighter than any single star, almost brighter than the moon. Certainly, it appeared more purposeful.
There was no doubt about the purposefulness of the young woman who sat watching the comet from atop one of the smooth stone outcroppings that erupted here and there through the forest floor like whales frozen in the act of breaching. Her arms were wrapped around her bent knees so that she made a single form, almost like a rock herself, but unlike the rocks her gaze was fixed on the light in the sky.
To Firekeeper, who knew the stars through all their shifting annual panorama as a city-born woman would know the streets around her own house, the comet was a source of unending fascination and not a little uneasiness. She didn’t like either feeling one bit.
Night after night, she found herself drawn to some dark, quiet place where she could watch the comet, as if by watching it she could keep the heavens from doing something else unpredictable. Although the spring nights were yet chilly and damp here in the Norwood Grant at the northwestern edge of the Kingdom of Hawk Haven, Firekeeper didn’t find them uncomfortable. She’d lived unprotected through much harsher weather.
Blind Seer, her closest friend, often sat with Firekeeper on these vigils, though the wolf didn’t really understand the woman’s fascination.
“A light in the sky,” Blind Seer grumbled on this night as on so many others. “That’s all it is. Come and run with me. We could terrify the deer.”
Firekeeper uncoiled herself sufficiently to swat the wolf lightly across the bridge of his long nose.
“Let them raise their fawns in peace,” she said, “so there will be food for the year to come. Surely you haven’t fallen so low that you must hunt sucklings and their mothers.”
“I was more thinking of the young bucks, spring mad in the pride of their new antlers. They need humbling.”
Her eyes never leaving the fat white comet with its glowing tail, Firekeeper answered, “And you a Royal Wolf, greatest of the great, are setting yourself the task of improving Cousin-kind? Our parents would be ashamed.”
Their argument was interrupted by the sound of feet steadily advancing along the forest trail. Neither wolf nor woman moved, for the tread was as familiar to them as the tall red-haired youth who appeared around a bend in the trail a moment later.
“I thought I’d find you out here,” Derian Carter said, greeting them with a casual wave of the hand that was not occupied balancing a tin-screened candle lantern. “Watching the comet again? I promise you, it won’t go anywhere.”
“Elation tell you where I am,” Firekeeper replied, knowing this must be so. She had many places from which she watched the comet. Animal wariness kept her from frequenting any one place too often. Elation, however, could have easily found her.
The peregrine falcon had taken a liking to Derian. Although Elation could not talk to Derian as she could to Firekeeper, she had found ways of making him understand simple things. Derian, in turn, simplified matters greatly by accepting, as most of Firekeeper’s human acquaintances still did not, that the bird was as intelligent as most humans.
“Elation might have,” Derian admitted before changing the subject. “There’s news from across the White Water River. A single courier made the crossing late this afternoon. He came to Duchess Kestrel, figuring she’d pay well to know the last several months’ gossip from New Kelvin.”
Firekeeper was interested in spite of her initial pique at having her vigil interrupted.
“From New Kelvin?”
The neighboring country was separated from Hawk Haven by a river broad and rocky enough to be difficult to cross even in the best weather. Once snowmelt had swelled the river, the two nations had been effectively cut off for better than a moonspan. Only lately had the river begun to ebb, though many days would pass before normal commerce resumed.
“And from how both the duchess and the earl remained closeted with the courier through dinner, the courier had news worth the tokens the duchess has ordered drawn from the Norwood Grant treasury.”
“And what did the courier say?” Firekeeper prompted, almost, but not quite, forgetting the comet.
“I don’t know,” Derian replied, “but we have been requested to meet with Duchess Kestrel and her son as soon as possible. Can you leave your comet unwatched?”
Firekeeper gave him a slight smile, though she knew Derian could not see it in the darkness.
* * *
A GROUP OF SEVEN was to meet in Duchess Kestrel’s study—eight, if you counted Blind Seer, which Firekeeper most certainly did. As she waited for the rest to assemble and stop their idle chatter, the wolf-woman studied her surroundings, automatically noting exits and defensible corners.
This was a room Firekeeper had visited only once before. Unlike the nearby chamber claimed by her son for a similar purpose, the duchess’s study was light and uncluttered, its furniture crafted from pale woods rubbed to a high polish and scented with beeswax. The stone-flagged floors were covered in jewel-toned New Kelvinese carpets that seemed to glow in the lamplight. The broad, south-facing windows were curtained in heavy brocade woven in shades of soft golden brown and beige.
In her younger days, Saedee Norwood, Duchess Kestrel, had been a warrior who had won her spurs in a particularly nasty border skirmish with Bright Bay. There was a statue in the garden commemorating those deeds. It depicted a slim-hipped young woman brandishing a sword, an arrogant tilt to her proud head.
But those battles had been long ago. The only trace remaining of that woman was the selfsame sword hanging on the wall behind the desk where the duchess daily dealt with the business of running the large land grant that she had inherited from her father. Bearing children—two of whom had survived to adulthood—had spread Saedee Norwood’s once slim form. Bearing the responsibilities of her position had graven lines in her face.
Yet, Firekeeper thought as she watched the duchess greet those she had summoned, perhaps not all traces of that young warrior had vanished. The arrogant lift of the duchess’s head was much the same, though tempered with a restraint that might have been alien to her younger self.
There was a similar arrogance in the bearing of the duchess’s son and heir, Norvin. Earl Kestrel was a small man—indeed, his mother was taller—and maybe some of his apparent arrogance came from refusing to be seen as weak in a world where strength and size were usually equated.
Firekeeper knew the earl fairly well. It had been he who had led the expedition she had accompanied out of the western wilderness. Initially, she had thought Norvin Norwood taken up with nothing but his own advancement. Later, she had come to realize that—interested as Norvin was in promoting his own good and that of his family—he was also a commander whose troops respected him, a master whose vassals found him fair, and a parent who, though dictatorial at times, strove not to smother his children.
In the eyes of the human world, Firekeeper was one of those children—adopted by the earl soon after his return from the west. Firekeeper did not think of the earl as her father—that place in her heart belonged to the wolves who had raised her—nor did she particularly think of the earl’s four children as her siblings. One of these, however, Norvin Norwood’s eldest son and heir, had earned the wolf-woman’s mingled affection and exasperation.
Edlin Norwood entered the room even as Firekeeper thought of him, his breezy friendliness a decided contrast to his father’s and grandmother’s studied restraint. Nor did he particularly resemble them, lacking their prominent hawk-like nose. Edlin did share his father’s dark hair—though the earl’s mixed silver with the jetty black—and the earl’s pale grey eyes. Still, no one watching Edlin as he bobbed a quick bow to his grandmother and then collapsed bonelessly into a comfortable chair would have taken him for his father’s son.
But Firekeeper respected Edlin. He had been with her and Derian in New Kelvin early in the winter just past and had proven that there was more to him than met casual inspection. However, if Edlin’s deeds in New Kelvin had earned Firekeeper’s respect, they did nothing to reduce her frustration with him. Soon after Firekeeper had arrived at the Norwood Grant the previous autumn, Edlin had taken a very unbrotherly fancy to her. He’d even—so Firekeeper had heard rumored—told his father he wished to marry her.
The earl had refused without even consulting Firekeeper—though his decision proved much to Firekeeper’s relief—but his father’s refusal hadn’t ended the matter for Edlin. Often he would watch Firekeeper, sometimes covertly, more often forgetting himself and gaping with slightly open-mouthed admiration.
Why Edlin fancied her Firekeeper hadn’t the least idea. In a society where women were admired for social grace and elegance—even those who, like Saedee Norwood or Crown Princess Sapphire, had won honor on the battlefield—Firekeeper possessed neither. She donned long gowns, jewels, and other such finery only under duress. Rather than displaying herself to her best advantage on some couch or embroidered chair, she preferred sitting as she was now, on the floor, her arm flung around Blind Seer, her short hair tousled from wind and weather.
Fortunately for Firekeeper, Saedee Norwood had forbidden anyone—even her son—to force Firekeeper to change her ways too drastically. As long as Firekeeper would gown when necessary, used proper utensils when dining at table, and remembered not to bolt her food, the duchess claimed herself content. Firekeeper, in turn, sought to please the duchess, preferring to offer evidence of her willingness to learn human ways on her own, rather than having those ways forced upon her.
Such attempts to please were not alien to Firekeeper’s nature. Wolves always submit before those who have power over them. To them this is an expression of respect, not a humiliation. Saedee Norwood did not ask for belly-pissing cringing, only the human equivalent of a jaw-licking tail wag.
Moreover, like her son, Saedee Norwood had proven herself worthy of Firekeeper’s respect. The wolf-woman had observed how the duchess enforced the right of individual decision not only for Firekeeper, but for other members of her household as well. At a time when a hundred years of fairly stable government was bequeathing social ritual and restraint as its gift to the younger generation, Saedee was old enough to remember when this had not been so—and wise enough to sacrifice the benefits she could have garnered from a calcifying social order for the greater benefits gained from a vital and active family.
Thus Saedee had made her son, Norvin, her partner in running the Norwood Grant at a time when several of her contemporaries were struggling to maintain a firm hold over their growing households. Equally, she used her authority over her son to keep him from rebuking Edlin too severely for the young man’s own idiosyncratic style.
But then, as Firekeeper had learned from Wendee Jay, the Kestrel retainer who served as the wolf-woman’s personal attendant, Saedee Norwood herself was an unconventional woman. No one knew who had been the father of her children—Norvin, Eirene, and several others who had not survived beyond infancy. Saedee had not only kept this information to herself—she had also refused to marry, even when offered advantageous alliances for her house.
Firekeeper stretched, wondering just a little about the pedigree of this human family with whom she found herself allied.
Edlin’s arrival brought the gathering’s number to six. Derian had arrived with Firekeeper and Blind Seer, and both duchess and earl had already been present. Now a slight rap on the door announced the last arrival.
Grateful Peace was a slender and elegant man, almost effete to Firekeeper’s way of seeing things. His hairline had receded so far back that he was nearly bald. What hair he retained was bone white. His facial features were startling—adorned as they were with the bluish green lines of several tattoos. Spectacles perched on the bridge of his thin nose and gave him a round-eyed appearance at odds with his air of quiet watchfulness.
He had come from New Kelvin the previous year, self-exiled for choosing to act against the policies of the government he had served for the previous decade and a half.
A solid hit from a crossbow bolt had forced the amputation of Grateful Peace’s right arm. While he recuperated, he had wintered at the Surcliffe family vineyards east of Duchess Kestrel’s holding. However, when the snowmelt had begun, Duchess Kestrel had invited Peace to join herself and her family at their residence—deliberately waiting to offer her invitation until the White Water River was so swollen that there would be no easy commerce between the Norwood Grant and New Kelvin for at least a moonspan. Grateful Peace was an outcast from his homeland, and no one doubted that there was a price on his life.
Nor, Firekeeper thought, would Peace be easy to hide. Even though he has stopped painting his face, nothing can hide the tattoos. Though he styles his hair more as men wear it here, still his very bearing and manner of standing is different. He walks awkwardly in trousers, as if his legs still need to feel the touch of robes to know when to break his stride.
Duchess Kestrel did not keep them waiting long after Grateful Peace had taken his seat.
“I assume that all of you have already heard about the courier who arrived today. ‘Courier’ may be too polite a term,” she added with wry smile. “However, it will do.
“One item of his news was rather shocking,” the duchess continued. “Before I reveal it, I must ask that you not speak of it to anyone other than those gathered here. I have chosen to reveal it to you because I would like your advice regarding what course of action I should take.”
Nods around the semicircle facing the duchess’s desk confirmed the willingness of the gathered to keep her confidence. When Firekeeper realized that this was no general gossip session—as she had first imagined when Derian had spoken to her out on the grounds—she wondered why Duchess Kestrel had wanted her here.
Duchess Kestrel did not offer to answer this unspoken question, only accepted their unspoken promises of silence with a nod of her own.
“Very well,” she said with a slight, involuntary sigh. “Melina, once of House Gyrfalcon, has married. Her new spouse is the Healed One, the hereditary monarch of New Kelvin.”
Saedee Norwood declaimed these words as if she expected them to cause a sensation, nor was she disappointed. After a moment of shocked silence, there was a tumult of questions and expressions of dismay. Firekeeper believed that she herself had kept silent, but after a moment she realized that the rumbling growl she heard was coming from her own throat.
No wonder. If there was a human Firekeeper hated and despised, it was Lady Melina Shield. She had trouble thinking of the woman by another name, although Lady Melina had been disowned and exiled and so lost both title and right to her House name. Melina had tricked and used Firekeeper—a thing for which the wolf-woman blamed herself as much as she blamed Melina, though this realization made her feel no less bitter.
Earl Kestrel had raised a hand to still the babble and, with a glance at his mother, took it upon himself to answer some of the questions.
“First,” he said, his tones clipped, “we are certain that this information is correct. The courier came originally from Dragon’s Breath, the capital city of New Kelvin, where the information is, apparently, not common knowledge. However, he has a sister working within one of the Earth Spires and she gave him the news.”
Grateful Peace interjected a comment of his own before the earl could continue.
“Keeping such a marriage secret would be less difficult than you of Hawk Haven might imagine,” he said, his Pellish excellent but flavored with a melodious accent, rather as if he expected the words to have more syllables than they did. “The Healed One is a semi-sacred person. He appears in public rarely and his affairs are not for common gossip.”
“Thank you,” Duchess Kestrel said. “You have anticipated one of my own questions. I had wondered how such information could be kept from the people. Certainly servants, at least, would gossip.”
“The secret could not be kept perpetually,” Peace replied, “but for a few months, perhaps while the Healed One assured himself of support from the Dragon Speaker and some key thaumaturges, for that time it could be kept quiet—a thing rumored, but not confirmed. Many of the servants in Thendulla Lypella”—he used the New Kelvinese name for the Earth Spires, the towering buildings that held the New Kelvinese government—“are slaves and never leave the property. However, as this courier of yours has shown, even slaves have contacts outside of the walls.”
After making certain that Grateful Peace had finished, Earl Kestrel continued his discourse.
“Not only are we certain that the news is genuine,” he said, “we are fairly certain that we are the first Great House to receive the information. The White Water River remains quite swollen. The courier who came to us risked his life in his hope of reward for being the first.”
“As you all must realize,” the duchess added, smoothly taking up her son’s account, “this information could have serious ramifications for our government.”
“Our government?” asked Derian. “You mean for the king?”
Duchess Kestrel nodded. “A woman born of Hawk Haven’s nobility has married a foreign monarch. Moreover, Melina is from House Gyrfalcon, first among the Great Houses. Even more significantly, Melina is the mother of one of King Tedric’s heirs.”
Firekeeper felt herself growling again. Crown Princess Sapphire was indeed Lady Melina’s birth daughter, though she had been cruelly used by her mother. Now it seemed that, despite the adoption that should have taken Sapphire far out of her mother’s reach, Melina was exercising power over her once more.
Derian frowned, but Firekeeper thought that his concern was less for Sapphire than for King Tedric. Since the autumn before, when King Tedric had honored him by making him one of his counselors, Derian had developed a deep personal loyalty to the monarch of Hawk Haven.
“We will tell the king this news, won’t we?” Derian asked.
“Certainly,” Duchess Kestrel answered. “Only yesterday I had a packet of letters from Eagle’s Nest. Not one mentioned Melina’s marriage, nor have the post-riders brought in any news. Therefore, we must act on the assumption that the news has not yet reached the king.”
“I say,” Edlin said, straightening slightly. “Why would New Kelvin’s king need to keep his wedding secret?”
All eyes turned to Grateful Peace.
“A wedding to a foreigner,” the former thaumaturge replied, “would most certainly need to be kept secret, at least until the government decided how to present the matter to the public. As you may recall from your visit to our land, we of New Kelvin entertain a somewhat inflated view of our worth in comparison to that of other people.”
“Right-o!” Edlin said, grinning. “Sorry. Overlooked that, don’t you know.”
Earl Kestrel shook his head, disapproving as always of his son’s casual attitude. He himself, as Firekeeper knew, would never admit forgetting something—at least as long as he could pretend otherwise.
“May I continue with the business at hand, Edlin?”
“I say!” Edlin said. “Of course you can, Father! I’d be the last to stop you.”
Blind Seer was the only one to snigger aloud and only Firekeeper knew the wolf was laughing.
“This news has the potential,” Norvin Norwood continued, “to have severe ramifications for our entire kingdom. Princess Sapphire is new to her position. Her mother is feared. This strengthening of Melina’s position could greatly weaken the crown princess’s support. Therefore, it is important that the news reach the king and his heirs as quickly as possible. The more time they have to prepare, the more wisely will they react.”
His pale grey gaze came to rest on Firekeeper and for the first time she understood why she had been included in this gathering.
“Firekeeper,” the earl said, “do you think you could get Elation—that peregrine of yours—to carry a packet to the king?”
Firekeeper stiffened. She had dreaded a request like this since the winter before when Elation had deigned to carry a report to King Allister of Bright Bay. For hundreds of years, since before the Plague that had sent the Old World rulers back across the sea and left their colonists to fend for themselves, the Royal Beasts had sought to hide themselves from a humanity that had initially treated with them as friends only to later attack them as enemies.
Her own emerging from across the Iron Mountains with Blind Seer and Elation had been the beginning of the end to that secrecy. True, few knew that the tales that were now widely told were true, not merely a minstrel’s fancy, but among those who suspected the truth were some of the most powerful men and women in Hawk Haven. They would not hesitate to use whatever tools they might if those tools would stay a crisis.
“No,” the wolf-woman replied bluntly. “I will not. Elation will not. The Royal Beasts are not your servants, any more than King Tedric is their servant. Why not send a pigeon?”
Duchess Kestrel answered for Earl Kestrel, who was frozen with displeasure.
“There are three reasons that sending a pigeon would not be wise. First, it’s a bad season for the birds as the weather is very changeable. Second, we have only one bird left who will return to Eagle’s Nest and, by our contract with the king, we must keep one in case we need give warning of invasion. Third, this information is too serious to trust to a potentially insecure courier.”
Saedee Norwood smiled in a fashion that Firekeeper thought was more akin to a baring of teeth.
“Indeed, the courier who brought this information to us is being detained for a few days. We have him quite comfortable, but have taken care that those who wait on him are the least likely to share gossip.”
The duchess turned a kinder smile upon the wolf-woman.
“But Firekeeper, I don’t understand your reluctance. Princess Sapphire is your friend. You stood for her at her wedding. Surely you should help her now.”
Firekeeper growled, but an idea was taking shape in the back of her mind. She let it grow and answered the first point.
“Sapphire is her own friend first, then Shad’s, and the king’s, then her family’s. Maybe then she remember a few others. No matter, that.” Firekeeper bit her lip, for making speeches in human talk was still hard for her. “Everyone know Sapphire’s mother—even King Tedric—when she is made crown princess. Why…Melina matter now that Sapphire belongs to king?”
What followed was a long discourse on politics, alliances, and the rest, begun by the duchess and her son, but with Grateful Peace adding a few words here and there before it was ended.
Most of what they said went over Firekeeper’s head, but she gathered that what Melina had done was so terrible because she had placed herself at the head of another government. At least this would be how many in Hawk Haven and Bright Bay would interpret Melina’s actions, though Grateful Peace was quick to say that Melina would not be nearly as powerful in New Kelvin as a monarch’s spouse would be in Hawk Haven.
“If she was any but Melina,” Firekeeper said to Blind Seer, “I would be comforted by what Peace says, but Melina will rule where others think themselves the One.”
“So you will have Elation carry their message?” The tilt of the wolf’s ears expressed wariness, as if he had scented a puma lurking in the trees.
“Not quite,” Firekeeper replied.
She waited until the humans had finished their lecture, then offered the compromise she had come up with a few minutes before.
“Elation not carry message,” she said, “nor will I ask her, but I will carry.”
She held up a hand to forestall the protests that began almost before she finished speaking.
“I am fast as usual post-horse,” she said, “not the gallop relays, no, but as horse jogging on roads, and I not need stay on roads. No great rivers is between here and Eagle’s Nest. I can go if not as fast as peregrine flies, as straight.”
She stopped, pleased with the image.
Earl Kestrel frowned.
“Blysse, it is time you realized the less than suitable impression such behavior makes. My suggestion keeps your dignity and position in mind—as your own does not.”
Firekeeper smiled at him, knowing well that it was his own dignity, as her adopted father, that Norvin Norwood was worried about. What parent doesn’t wish to control his children?
“Either I go,” she said with polite firmness, “or message no go fast.”
Earl Kestrel didn’t immediately cease trying to convince Firekeeper to do things his way, but eventually the duchess put a hand on his shoulder.
“Norvin, as easily make water run up hill as try to change her mind. You can’t do it. Let us accept this compromise. Firekeeper, when will you go?”
Firekeeper shrugged. “This now, if you wish.”
The duchess gave a gracious nod. “Within an hour or two will do. I wish to write out a report and to request that Grateful Peace dictate one regarding his perception of the New Kelvinese reaction when this news becomes widely known.”
Derian Carter, who had listened attentively, clarifying terms for Firekeeper during the more theoretical political discussions, now cleared his throat.
“I can’t travel as quickly as Firekeeper,” he said, “but I could follow on horseback. I’d been intending to go south soon anyhow, to place an order with my father for mounts for the Norwood stables before he heads to the spring market in Good Crossing. I could carry another copy of the message and speak for you, clarifying points as Firekeeper might not be able.”
Earl Kestrel nodded, some of his sourness vanishing.
“We had intended to ask you to do much the same,” he said approvingly. “As a ring-wearing counselor to the king, you will be able to gain a private audience.”
Derian inclined his head in a bow of respectful acknowledgment.
“He’s not as intimidated by our Norvin as once he was,” Blind Seer chuckled. Like Firekeeper he was fond of Derian, and like any wolf he enjoyed seeing a cub grow into his fur and tail.
Blind Seer’s comment made Firekeeper think of something new. Although it didn’t pertain precisely to the matter at hand, it was related and she thought she might as well raise it now.
“Blind Seer and I go to Eagle’s Nest, then,” she said aloud, “and from there when telling king is done and questions answered, then Blind Seer and I, and maybe Fox Hair if he wish, we go west across the mountains and see my pack.”
She didn’t phrase this as request, but Earl Kestrel chose to reply as if she had.
“That would be fine,” he said. Clearly, if the wolf-woman wouldn’t serve him, she might as well be out of sight. His annoyance at her was apparent in how he quickly changed the subject. “Mother, I was thinking, Derian could carry with him a coop of our carrier pigeons. Therefore, if the king needs to reply he can do so that way as well as by courier.”
“I say,” Edlin interjected, speaking in Firekeeper’s ear so as not to interrupt the duchess’s reply to the earl. “I say, Firekeeper, can I go with you to see the wolves?”
He looked so eager Firekeeper almost hated refusing him.
“No,” she said. “Even Fox Hair will be a problem, but I know he has oath to fill and I would guide his steps. Two humans may be too much.”
She stopped then, realizing she had almost said more than she had intended. Edlin, happily, had fixed on the first part of her statement.
“Oath to fill? What?”
Derian nodded. “I vowed at the end of King Allister’s War to return to the place where Prince Barden’s expedition died and set up a marker for all the dead. Lord Aksel Trueheart has agreed to research the names for me and even to help with preparation of gravestones.”
Earl Kestrel, finished with his private discussion with the duchess, had heard Derian’s explanation.
“You never mentioned this to me,” he said sternly.
“It was a private vow,” Derian replied almost apologetically. “When I lettered temporary markers for the battlefield I kept thinking of those graves we left. As you know, we listed the names of those we knew among the dead—Prince Barden and his wife, a few others—but we didn’t have a full list of the expedition with us.”
Norvin Norwood nodded. Although he had led the expedition to find a prince, he had not been concerned enough about the commoners in the group to carry along their names.
“My sister, Eirene,” the earl said, his voice breaking slightly, “was Barden’s wife. I would like to send some small trinkets for her grave.”
“I would also,” the duchess said so quickly that Firekeeper was certain she was swallowing tears. “Sweet Eirene…”
Firekeeper sensed the duchess’s gaze resting on her and shifted uncomfortably, knowing what the old woman was wondering. Part of the reason Earl Kestrel had convinced his mother to adopt the wolf-woman into the Kestrel line was that there was a good chance that Firekeeper was Barden and Eirene’s daughter, Blysse.
The wolf-woman had no idea whether this was true or not but the idea, as always, made her vaguely uncomfortable. She leapt to her feet, suddenly eager to be away.
“I get my things,” she said, “and come back for these letters.”
No one stopped her as she darted out the door.
Copyright © 2003 by Jane Lindskold