Wolfcry Page 11

No one would believe us anyway."

I pulled Betia into a hug. She knew exactly what this meant to me. She didn't have to speak it aloud:

Dance.

When was the last time I had let myself feel joy without reserve? I couldn't recall. This would be one of those times.

I stepped onto the dais. I knew the variation I would perform: hanlah'melos. And I knew who I would be performing for. I looked into the wolf's eyes and heard the music begin.

I felt as if I moved in a sphere of fire and electricity, and anything I touched would meet that charge.

Why had I refused this feeling before? In that moment, I

believed with all my soul that any trouble it might bring was more than worth it. I could survive with nothing else if I could just dance and have someone to dance for. At the end, I stepped off the dais and knew that every eye in the camp  -  far more than those of the four people who had been watching at the start  -  was on me. I saw only one person.

I hooked the scarf across Betia's shoulders and grasped her hands as if I could channel into her this incredible feeling of possibility. Maybe I did.

We both jumped when a viper, one of the two professional-level dancers who traveled with the Obsidian guild, stepped toward us.

"For someone who has never performed publicly, you were amazing. Actually, that was amazing even if you had been dancing for years. Something to be said for crossbreeding," she said, joking. "I would love to share the dais with you someday."

"Thank you," I said, snapping out of my trance. Betia's hand was still twined with my left one, and I gave her an apologetic smile. She shrugged off the interruption, giving me a friendly shove toward the other dancer.

The serpent laughed. "I think that was an order to do so now. Do you know the san'asi?" Literally, the name meant raising the gods; it was one of the most exotic of the sakkri, and Urban, Salem and I had performed it together on more than one occasion.

"I know it," I answered.

The viper offered her hand, inviting me to join her and her companion, a man who had amused Betia and me the past several nights with stories and songs. The san'asi was one of the more complicated versions of the dance. I knew it well, but my ability to perform would be entirely dependent on how well I could sense and predict my partners' movements and work seamlessly with them. I didn't want to make a fool out of myself.

I took the white viper's hand, then glanced at Betia, who was seated in front of the dais, watching me and waiting. She flashed a challenging smile, the glint in her eyes daring. The three of us must have been quite a sight, all balanced effortlessly on the balls of our feet, forearms crossed before us, facing each other in a triangle so that our fingertips just touched: white viper, Burmese python, and me.

If only Wyvern's Court could achieve this.

One little symbol, the Ahnleh my mother had given to me, had allowed me to join this mixed group. If only I could forge such a powerful talisman for my home.

Chapter 14

One of the Obsidian guild played the flute, the simple instrument that had always been the main accompaniment to the serpents' dances.

Breath attuned, heartbeats in sync, we moved into the ancient dance. There was nothing else beyond the dais.

As the three of us moved, the air seemed to ripple. It was as if we were alone, two spirits in three bodies. The pressure grew, and abruptly I realized that something was wrong  -

Two? It should have been three, or one. I knew where the white viper was when I danced, but the python was a foreign entity.

I wasn't the only one who stumbled. Nothing touched us, but I found myself fighting off tremors. I pushed myself up and saw the white viper kneeling by the third dancer's side. The guild's leader spoke behind me. "Kiesha's line hasn't demonstrated any talent with the old coven's magic since Maeve was driven away," he said, his voice holding something that sounded like awe. "I didn't imagine you would be the first, Wyvern."

"I don't have magic," I answered. My throat was dry. What had happened? I felt much the way I had when Hai's power had overwhelmed me before I spoke to Marus and Prentice.

Betia put a hand on my arm, questioning.

"I'm all right," I said softly. "It was..." Already the sensations were fading. I felt as if, for a moment, I had touched something incredible, but then it was gone. The white viper came to my side, her face glowing with admiration. "That  -  " She laughed. "I've read descriptions, of course, that say a true sakkri is too powerful even to be recalled by the mind without practice. But I never imagined  -  " She stopped when she saw the confused expression on my face.

"Sakkri.

These days they're just a type of dance, but once they were powerful spells. No serpent has been able to spin one since Maeve's time. And even if we could, I understand that the mind can't see them or make sense of them without training. They fade away like dreams."

That was certainly one way to describe this lingering feeling; it was as if I had woken abruptly, just as my mind had reached for sleep and the land of dreams. Was this what Hai had tried to explain to me?

The mind barely comprehends its own yesterday, but sakkri force on it other times, other places, other people, visions it tries to shake away because to hold them all would only court madness.

"You seem much less confused by this than I am," I said, trying to make sense of what had happened.

"A white viper is no stranger to magic. We never lost ours the way Kiesha's kin did. But Maeve's position in the Dasi was as one who preserved balance, not as one who worked the higher magics," the white viper explained patiently. "Even in the early days, we never possessed the sheer power that could be woven by Kiesha or Cjarsa." Never in all my days in Wyvern's Court would a serpent have casually said the name of the first cobra and the name of the falcon Empress in the same breath. Hearing them together now, in this context, made me feel a little lost. On the other hand, the connection did make me remember something Nicias had said.

"A falcon once explained to me that their magic is disturbed by what is left of the magic the Cobriana once had. The remnants act like a spark. Maybe it does the same with yours."

One of the other vipers nodded thoughtfully. "That's probably all it was, then. After all, it isn't often that a cobra dances with a white viper. It seems to have taken a toll on you, though. Maybe you should lie down for a few minutes."

"Yes. Yes, I think I will."

Betia and I returned to the tent that had been set aside for our use. "I'm... all right," I assured Betia, who was watching me with a worried expression. "I don't think wyverns are cut out for magic." I briefly described the unpleasant incident with Hai that had occurred while we were trying to deal with Urban.

He would be walking again by now, I realized. I leaned against Betia with a sigh. "I wish there was some magic that would let me know what was going on at home. Being here, dancing, almost makes me forget how scared I am of what might be happening while I'm gone, but then it all comes flooding back." The tent flap opened just enough to allow one of the Obsidian guild vipers to slither inside. The serpent returned to human form to explain swiftly, "Intruders, lions. They look like they might be the mercenaries who have been after you. We can deal with them, as long as they don't know you're here, so stay quiet for a little while, all right?"

We nodded, and she left the same way she had come, discreetly in case anyone was watching the camp.

It wasn't long before we heard loud voices outside. It sounded as if the Obsidian guild was inviting the mercenaries to join them for supper.

"We're looking for a pair of thieves," the lions' leader said. "Two girls  -  a wolf and a bird. One has dark hair, gold eyes, real distinctive."

There were some questioning murmurs as the Obsidian guild consulted its own people.

"No thieves here," someone answered. I had to bite my hand to keep from laughing. The Obsidian guild, while friendly to a traveling dancer, was generally considered a group of outlaws.

"You sure? Mind if we look around?"

I held my breath until I heard an indignant, "Yes, we mind. We offer you hospitality, and you offer mistrust in return. Sit!" It wasn't an invitation. "Maybe if you join us for a spell, we might be more inclined to believe you're friendly. Especially if you have something to trade for the information."

The mercenaries mumbled an apology. I gathered that they agreed to join the guild for a meal.

"I know you aren't looking for thieves," I heard someone say a bit later. "You're mercenaries; you've passed through here before. Who are you working for now?"

"Can't tell that," one of the lions answered gruffly.

"Honestly, you must know," the serpent said, pushing.

"I know; my men do not," the leader said before anyone else could speak. "And it is not information I am at liberty to give out, no matter how... grateful... I am for your...

hospitality." There was an odd hesitation in his response, as if he was having trouble speaking.

"Someone must want these two pretty badly," a serpent observed.

"Yes" was the only reply.

A while later everything was quiet. Betia and I waited until our host stepped into the hut with a smirk and a chuckle. "I hate rude people."

"Where  -  "

"Drugged," he answered simply. "Sleeping off some of their own poisons, from their own bags, which my people have lightened just a little. There's no reference in the leader's bags about who hired him, but we did find this. I believe it's yours." He held out a sheathed dagger that I instantly recognized as one my mother had passed on to me. It had been given to her on the day the last avian-serpiente battle had been fought, and it had never once been drawn. She had handed it to me with the prayer I hope you need it as often as I have.

"It is." I tied the dagger to my belt to keep it safe. "Why would the lions have had it?" He quirked one brow and admitted, "Probably for the same reason that one of my people took it. It's very well made, a work of art in addition to being a weapon, and therefore valuable. If the lions found it while they were looking for you, I imagine they didn't hesitate in taking it. And they're going to be cross when they wake up and find it gone. We can defend ourselves without any problem, but I would rather you and Betia weren't caught in the middle of it. I think it's time the two of you moved on." It had been one of the most amazing days of my life. I had the melos that Betia had given me tied at my waist, and all I needed to do was touch it to break out in a grin. But all good things must end.

I had another life to return to, one with responsibilities and expectations. I reached for Betia's hand as I stepped out of the hut, and tried to remember the optimism and faith that she had brought out in me.

"Thank you, for everything," I said to the members of the Obsidian guild. Our host shook his head. "Our hospitality was nothing more than the Ahnleh should ensure you anywhere. Though if gratitude will keep you from speaking to your parents of us... ?"

I nodded. "If you wish to be unknown, it would be a poor reward for me to go against that wish."

"I'll send a couple of my people with you, to guide you until you meet up with the Vahamil. They should be able to take you the rest of the way to Wyvern's Court."

"Teska."

Thank you.

The leader of the Obsidian guild smiled. " A'le-Ahnleh-itil. If ever I would acknowledge a queen, perhaps it would be you. But that time isn't here yet. Wimaske."

"Wimashe-lalintoth."

Goodbye, friend.

Chapter 15

We reached Vahamil land sooner than I'd expected. Betia scented wolves before I had a chance to warn her, and she went rigid, recoiling. I had just turned to encourage her when a familiar male voice shouted my name. At the sound, Betia whimpered, turned on her heel and ran.

Velyo.

I turned to go after Betia but stopped when I felt pressure on my arm, a hand restraining me from running. I shook off Velyo's grip, but Betia had too much of a head start, and a wolf running in fear would always be faster than the human who followed her. Surrounded by unfamiliar woods, I shouted, "Betia, please! You're safe with me; you know you're always safe with me  -  "

"Oliza?" Velyo said again, drawing my attention back to him. Furious, I spun about. The other wolves that had been around us backed off, including some that I recognized from the Vahamil pack.

Right now I wasn't interested in them  -  only the man I had hoped never to see again.

"What kind of leader are you?"

I demanded, shaking with rage. "She runs from you in terror. What did you do to her  -  or do I have to ask?"

I shoved past him, remembering the last scene between us. He refused to move, and my shoulder caught him in the chest, knocking him back.

Betia would never come to me, not while he was there. "What are you doing here, anyway?" I snapped as he walked after me. "Following me?"

"Believe it or not, I do take my responsibilities rather seriously," he replied. "You might not have wanted our help, but I felt that it was important to tell your people what I knew of your situation. While I was here, I wanted to see to my people who winter with the Vahamil, especially since Kalisa isn't certain she will be continuing in her position. Now, if you're done with your tantrum, there are some things you should know."

"My tantrum?"

I shouted, feeling every inch a coiled serpent preparing to strike. "Your own people are terrified of you, Velyo. Has that occurred to you?"

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