Wolfcry Page 10

He smiled anyway. "Someone thought you worthy of wearing the Ahnleh.

So you are welcome. As for your hunters..." The smiled changed to a hungry one. "You are among the Obsidian tribe. We have more than steel to keep you safe, if need be."

"Are you the leader here?" I asked tentatively. Perhaps I was not so safe. The Obsidian guild was a group of outlaws. The nearly colorless hair and eyes of some, if not their ivory scales, should have told me. White vipers, Maeve's descendants, they had lived as outsiders since their ancestors had been driven away for practicing dark magic that endangered the serpiente. They had defied Cobriana rule for millennia, occasionally joined by other serpents who had either chosen to leave serpiente society or been exiled for crimes.

"Perhaps," he answered, with a teasing smile. "Perhaps not. You are looking at me as if I have sprouted wings  -  though for you, that might not be strange." He tickled the back of my neck, ruffling the feathers there and making me jump. His expression turned serious. "I know who you are, Oliza Shardae Cobriana, princess of Wyvern's Court. I recognized you as soon as I saw you. But you still wear the charm. That grants you safety, a meal and a bed, no matter whose blood you carry or who travels with you." My whole body sagged with fatigue and relief. "Thank you. Your generosity will not be ignored."

He laughed. "Oh, ignore it, please. We've no desire to join your court. Certainly no desire to come to the attention of your parents. You may stay as long as you like and leave whenever you like, but once you are gone, I hope you will forget us entirely. Now, please, join us for supper, fm'itil and tair'feng, dancer and wolf." Our wounds were tended, as were those we had delivered; no one seemed to hold a grudge about the injuries, though Betia delivered more than one amused look my way. She sat beside me while we ate. Although they were friendly, no one introduced herself or himself by name; I noticed that the names they used for each other shifted from one moment to the next.

"So tell us, dancer; you said you're not even apprenticed, but you would not be wearing a Snakecharm if you did not know something?" one said as the night wore on.

"I cannot officially be apprenticed to the nest because of my position in Wyvern's Court," I answered. People nodded; it seemed everyone here knew who I was.

"However, I have learned as much as my nest's leader will teach me."

"What steps do you know?"

I sighed, considering. "Blade dances are my favorites," I answered, "but I love everything. I know about fifteen of the sakkri, and most of the she'da. Of course I have learned the

Namir-da, though I have never performed it, and I know the four harja types and six of the thirteen formal melos variations, though I have never danced them outside of my teacher's class, either."

"How old are you?" someone asked bluntly.

"Twenty." I knew what the next question would be. "It's my own choice not to perform the rrasatoth dances." The rrasatoth dances included the melos and the harja, as well as certain pieces such as the

Namir-da.

That reminded me of Urban's teasing offer to dance with me at Salem's reception. I wished my last memories of him could have been that light.

The man I had first spoken to, a white viper I suspected was the leader despite his refusal to admit it, said firmly, "Then we'll respect that choice. Though if tomorrow you are feeling well enough, perhaps we might see something you enjoy." Dinner ended when I was just reaching the sleepy haze that follows an excellent meal. Betia and I were offered a bed in one of the few shelters. It was a beautiful night for sleeping outside, but our host pointed out that it would be best if Betia and I were not seen by anyone who passed by  -  namely the mercenaries who had been following us. I spoke to Betia as we drifted into sleep  -  about dances, about the beautiful melos and about how I wished I could dance those steps without all the hassle that came with them. I told her of the

Ahnleh and how it had come to me, and then of the history of the Obsidian guild, from the genesis of the serpiente to the modern-day position of Maeve's km. Betia leaned against me, snuggling closer, and I took it as encouragement to continue.

"The white vipers have never acknowledged a Cobriana as their king," I finished.

"Some of my ancestors have tried to force them, and some have tried to make peace with them, but the guild stays as it has always been  -  a group of drifters. The white vipers are the heart of the guild, though sometimes other serpents join them." I did not explain that these were usually former soldiers who had been branded traitors for refusing to fight during war times. Criminals who were no longer accepted by their own families and friends also went into the woods sometimes. Supposedly, justice among the guild was harsh enough that these criminals were forced to reform or else were kicked out of their last possible haven.

Betia yawned beside me, and soon we both fell asleep. I felt safe and warm for the first time since I had found Urban unconscious on the cold cobbles of the northern hills.

Chapter 13

The Obsidian guild implored me to stay for a few days to recover my strength before traveling, and as eager as I was to get back to Wyvern's Court, I knew they were right. Betia bounced back to perfect health like a puppy, and soon she was laughing and occasionally humming a melody I did not know. Though she remained in human form, she still had a tendency to pounce like a young wolf at play, sending us tumbling across the soft ground until we were covered in dirt and leaves but laughing too hard to stand up. Despite the horror that had led to this situation, and despite my fears of what I would find when I reached home, I was thankful to have this time. I had never had a friend who was completely unaffected by my status in Wyvern's Court. It was nice to be a person instead of a title.

As a result of the good food, the chance to sleep well and the healthy exercise, gradually I started to feel like myself again. The nightmares that had plagued me did not completely disappear, but I was able to shake them off during the day. My serpent form returned to me, which left me both relieved and heartsick.

I could not imagine returning to Wyvern's Court without my wings. I could not imagine facing pity from the avians, or horror from those who would now consider me even more a serpent. I could not imagine facing the ignorance of my serpiente friends, who would never comprehend what I had lost.

But it was time. I had no place in this world if it wasn't in Wyvern's Court. On the last day we planned to spend with the guild, Betia left early in the morning to hunt with some of Obsidian's people, and I remained behind, speaking with their leader. When the white viper pointed out that the winter solstice was only a couple of weeks away, I was reminded of how fast time was flying.

We would be leaving the next day. I would be home in time for the Namir-da holiday, which celebrated the birth of the serpiente people. Thinking of it made me wonder about the group I was currently with. "Tell me of your people," I said finally. "I know the stories as they have been told by my ancestors, but I would like to hear how you tell them."

He hesitated, his eyes searching the skies, and then agreed. "Long ago, there were thirteen high priests and priestesses, known as the Dasi, who were led by Maeve; there were also two groups, the Nesera'rsh and the Ealla'rsh, who were lesser priests and priestesses. Maeve and the Dasi spoke to the gods. They brought the rain, and peace and prosperity for their people. The Rsh spoke to the villagers. They made sure everyone was heard and no one was forgotten. They were the healers and judges, and they taught the common people the worship of

Ahnleh.

They answered to no one and nothing but Fate herself.

"They believed," he explained, "that every soul was connected to every other, and therefore that none was better than any other. They believed that each person was a part of the whole and led and followed as Fate decreed  -  and that the position of each person shifted through his life. They kept their true names between themselves and the gods, because in the wider world, we are all anonymous. When we call another person by name, it is just another name for ourselves.

"Of course you know the story told in the

Namir-da, of how Maeve seduced Leben in order to protect her people, and he gave to her the second form of a white viper, and to the rest of her people serpent and falcon forms." He paused and finally said, "That is the entire story that the Cobriana tell. What they do not mention is that Maeve had a lover before Leben. They do not tell that part of the tale because that lover was one of the Dasi  -  Kiesha, the high priestess of Anhamirak."

My eyes widened. Kiesha had been the first cobra.

"Kiesha was devastated by what she thought was Maeve's betrayal. Even after Leben was gone, she refused to forgive Maeve. Instead, she took a mate and bore to him a son she named Diente. You know the rest of that story, because Diente was the first king of your line. As for our line..."

"Our myths say that Maeve started practicing black magic," I said when the silence grew long.

"Ahnmik, the dark god who is Anhamirak's opposite, grants the numb peace sought by a man or woman whose love has turned elsewhere. He whispers promises of rest and of release from pain, and Maeve succumbed to those lures. So Kiesha's people drove her away."

"And then?"

"The Nesera'rsh took her in. Gradually, she withdrew from Ahnmik's numbness, accepting life once again. She took a mate. Her descendants are the white vipers of today. We follow the ways of the Nesera'rsh, as well as we can."

"Two generations ago, Maeve's kin were pardoned by the Cobriana," I said, broaching the subject tentatively. "The Obsidian guild was invited to join the rest of the serpiente. Only two white vipers came. I know your people have been treated poorly in the past, but surely the time has come when you no longer need to live like outlaws."

"Wyvern's Court is already struggling to bridge one ancient rift. Now is not the time to fight to close another," he pointed out. "Besides, my people would only follow someone who they knew understood and respected their ways. The Cobriana have not earned that trust; the Shardae line of hawks certainly has not."

"I wasn't asking you to kneel to me," I said, hoping I had not given that impression. "I was just offering you a place to call home. As long as you didn't break any of our laws, no one would demand obeisance."

"You have had ancestors who promised pardons and delivered mass executions," he pointed out. "Others have invited us to their land only to decide after a few years that we were not respectful enough. It did not help that one of the two vipers who went to serpiente lands was executed shortly after. I'm inclined to believe your father's word that Adelina was guilty of treason, but my km have learned not to be too trusting."

"Yet you took me in."

"You wear the

Ahnleh."

he said, as if that was all that mattered. Maybe it was. "And I might have wanted to meet the wyvern who would be queen of this impossible realm. I do not trust easily, but that does not mean I have no hope for the future. When I was a young child, your uncle used to walk these woods. Anjay Cobriana would spend nights here sometimes, when he could get away from his guards. He would dance with us, and for a while we could forget that by blood we were enemies. If he had lived, we might have followed him. But that if speaks of the past. Now I speak to the child of Anjay's younger brother, Oliza Shardae Cobriana, who has more pressing issues at the moment than my people." Before more could be said, Betia and the others returned. Obviously impressed, her companions informed me that Betia could gather fish from the river as if her hands were made of netting. The mute wolf smiled proudly, holding up her catch. During dinner we made light conversation that turned deeper when one of the pythons of the guild sighed. "It's a pity you don't perform the rrasatoth dances," she said. I shrugged a little, though I knew it did not hide my regret. "It's a decision I've made. I don't want to be pressured  -  "

"That's what's so unfair," the python interrupted. "If you were forty years old and had been performing rrasatoth since you were sixteen, all you would need to tell a suitor is that you aren't interested. You shouldn't be denied the dances just because you aren't ready to choose a partner."

"I would think a child of Obsidian wouldn't have such a passionate belief in fairness, considering how you have been treated in the past."

She gave a shrug that conveyed the same things that mine had earlier: acknowledgement and regret. "A dancer who cannot dance because her nestmates won't respect her desire not to choose a lover is just as confined as an avian lady who is ostracized because she chooses to have one. That isn't freedom. Perhaps it is no wonder your people have forgotten Anhamirak's magic, if they have so obviously forgotten her lessons." Some sense of tension I got from her made me turn to Betia then. Betia's beautiful brown eyes dropped when I focused on her, but then she smiled. So I didn't understand why she stood up and walked inside.

I wanted to follow her, but my companion caught my wrist. "She'll be back. I think I know what she's after. She was working on it earlier."

Betia returned then and placed a soft bundle that felt like silk in my hands. The material slid across my fingers, and I caught my breath as I opened it.

The melos was simple, a single piece of cream-colored silk with an uncomplicated boarder stitched in golden thread. There were no tassels, no chimes, no fringes or complicated patterns  -  and I knew that it would always be my most cherished possession.

"Dance," the python said. "No one here is going to tell Wyvern's Court that we saw Oliza Shardae Cobriana dancing a melos.

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