Wolfcry Page 7

He sat in the corner, wrestling with some bit of leather that refused to do what he wanted. Intent on that project, he had not yet noticed that I was awake.

"What if I wasn't safe? For all I knew, this was the mercenaries' destination. If Kalisa's rivals were responsible for my abduction, it would have made sense for them to place me in the power of their own allies  -  who were probably wolves. I didn't know what I would do if these people were unfriendly. I thought about the weather outside. And the wolf who had saved my life. "Hello?" I said tentatively. The man in the corner looked up and smiled. His striking amber eyes  -  which I had only ever seen on wolves  -  gave away his breed. Remembering how the wolf outside had not talked to me during our journey, I wondered if these people spoke a language I knew.

He paused a moment before answering. "Hello. Are you feeling better?" He had a heavy accent, but I could understand him easily enough.

I tottered to my feet a little unsteadily, but once I was up, the ground stayed solid.

"Much better. Do I have you to thank?"

He gave a little shrug. "You have Fate to thank, for taking you to the edge of our camp. You were half-frozen, and poisoned. It is not all gone. Our doctor is not sure what it was. Eat well, stay warm, rest for a few days." He shrugged again. "You will be better."

"What about the wolf?" I asked. He looked amused, so I clarified. "Another wolf. I was farther away. One of your people saved my life; she brought me here."

"Ah," he answered. There was a long pause, and I did not think he would say more, but then he sighed. "That was Betia, perhaps. She is... feral?" he said hesitantly, as if unsure that he had translated right.

I nodded, unnerved. When a shapeshifter went feral, it meant that she had spent too much time in animal form. Eventually the human characteristics eroded, along with the memory of her original form. Usually a feral shapeshifter was volatile, without an animal's sense of balance or a human's sense of morals, prone to attack those who had been closest to her.

"Has no one tried to bring her back?" I asked. "She did not seem too far gone to me." He shook his head. "Betia was my sister. I have tried all I could think of, but she lets no wolf speak to her, or touch her. She had a falling out with the alpha's son, Velyo," he confided, "and she ran away. I do not know what the fight was about, only that her animal mind associates our kind with pain now. So she will not let us near." Again he shook his head, admitting, "It should be my job to hunt her down like an animal for the safety of the pack. But I can't, and so far our alpha has not forced me to." The door opened, letting in a gust of cold air and an older woman who was speaking swiftly in a language I did not recognize.

The woman was plump in a comfortable sort of way and carried a bundle that smelled wonderfully like food. The man I had been talking to winced and nodded as she seemed to berate him.

Finally he turned to me. "My mother says that she is glad to see you awake, that I should not have let you get up, that she has brought breakfast, that I should have offered you something to eat and that she is sure my manners are terrible and I have not introduced myself or told you where you are." He smiled and then continued obediently.

"I am Pratl; I am head huntsman. This is my mother, Ginna; she is doctor, advisor and anything else she believes is her role. Right now, you are in the huntsman's hut of the Frektane tribe. I believe it means blue eyes in your language." I knew the name. Wyvern's Court had never traded directly with the Frektane, but the Vahamil occasionally brought their wares to our market. I wondered where the pack's name came from; I had never seen a wolf with blue eyes.

Another round of commentary from Ginna, and Pratl sighed. "Now I am talking too much. May I ask your name?"

I had to conclude that these people were friendly; they had given me help, and I had certainly needed it. So I answered honestly. "Oliza Shardae Cobriana. Arami, and heir to the Tuuli Thea."

Apparently Pratl's mother had understood at least some of that, because her eyes widened and she stared at me. Then she shrugged  -  and continued talking. Pratl laughed. "My mother says we are flattered to have you in our camp, even if you did..." He paused, working on the wording. "Did get dragged in from the blizzard looking like a winter rat. What brings you to our camp in such a condition?"

"Honestly, I am very lost," I answered.

Pratl frowned. "You weren't with that group of lions we intercepted?"

"Were you the ones who attacked them?"

He bristled. "Of course. They did not ask permission to hunt on our land, they were loud enough to scare away all the game for miles and their reputation is as foul as their mange-spotted coats. If you are with them  -  "

I held up a hand, shaking my head. "No, not like that. I was brought here by them. Against my will. I escaped when something attacked them  -  your pack, I assume." His vehement response comforted me. If this pack had been involved in hiring the mercenaries, Pratl at least had not known the plan.

He nodded, content now. "I believe that. I did not know who you were when we first found you, but I did not think any bird would be with them," he said, gesturing toward the feathers on the nape of my neck that must have made him assume I was avian even before I woke.

"How far am I from Wyvern's Court?" I asked, dreading the answer. How many days had I been traveling, semiconscious, while people from home had been searching for me?

Pratl conferred briefly with his mother before turning back to me and shaking his head.

"The Frektane visit Wyvern's Court rarely, though some of our people winter with the Vahamil. It is probably not a long flight." He considered. "Maybe three weeks, traveling by land."

"Three weeks?"

I gasped. I had feared that I had been drugged for that long, but I had hoped otherwise. The lions had asked to trade in our market after they had delivered Kalisa's message. Had they been hired by someone while they had been in Wyvern's Court? I still did not know who had attacked Urban. "What if the same culprit was responsible? And how could I take three weeks to get home?

"Lions travel quickly  -  faster than you would if you walked. But by air the time will be much less." He was right. I could probably travel that distance in a day, two at most... if I had my wings. I didn't have my wings.

Ginna interrupted with some sharp words to her son and started opening the bag she had brought.

"Breakfast," Pratl said simply. "She is concerned that if you get weak, the poison will make you sick again."

"Tell her thank you, please."

Pratl conveyed this, and then Ginna left us as Pratl and I sat down to eat.

"And thank you, for acting as translator," I added. "How is it that you know our language so well?"

As I ate with an appetite I had not expected, Pratl explained, "Among my pack, there is someone who studies each culture we might deal with, so that we can speak with them. Mostly we deal with Wyvern's Court through the Vahamil, but it is best to be able to speak for ourselves if we need to. My sister had that post, until recently. She taught me most of what I know. Our alpha's son saw your feathers, so he had you put here. He and his father are the only others in this area who speak your language besides me. Frektane will expect me to be able to tell him who you are, why you are here and how long you wish to remain with us."

From dealing with the wolf tribe near Wyvern's Court, I

knew that the leader of a pack was formally addressed by the pack name. The formality was often dropped among Kalisa's people, but apparently Frektane's alpha did not allow such familiarity.

"Frektane does not like strangers, but his son argued that it would be unwise to leave an unknown guest out in the snow. Now that we know who you are, I think Frektane will listen to his son."

Pratl's mother returned then with a bundle of clothing and a pair of fur-lined boots. She said something brief to him, and he nodded.

"Your clothes are not designed for this area, or for travel," Pratl told me. "These were Betia's. They should fit you, and you may keep them when you leave."

"How long has she been lost?" I asked.

Pratl winced. "Four months."

"So there's still hope for her."

"No," he sighed, and stood without elaborating. "Frektane is expecting you. Dress, and I will be back to take you to him."

I was happy to have the warm, dry clothing. The base of the outfit was a pair of wool pants and a loose, comfortable shirt of the same material. A heavy jacket, lined with some kind of fur, laced over the blouse. I pulled the boots up over the pants to just beneath my knees; they too were fur lined, amazingly warm and comfortable. Once I was ready, Pratl escorted me to the largest hut at the center of the camp, to meet with the leader of the Frektane. I could only hope that Pratl was right and I would be allowed to stay; I did not know what I would do otherwise.

Chapter 9

Frektane was still physically young, his body lean, but his face was marked by a series of scars across his left cheek and brow. I had never seen a wolf with such striking blue eyes; they had to be the reason for the tribe's name. If I had not been raised among serpents and falcons, whose eyes were often jeweled tones seen nowhere else in nature, I would have called such eyes impossible.

"Oliza Shardae Cobriana," Frektane greeted me stiffly. "Forgive my father for not standing," another man said, making me jump as I noticed him for the first time. Also whipcord lean and obviously strong, and with the same vivid blue eyes as Frektane, this had to be his son, Velyo. "He injured his leg earlier this winter, and it still pains him." The words were polite, but something about his tone made me feel as if an insult had been spoken.

Frektane responded by instantly rising to his feet. "My son makes much of a minor ailment," he responded, glaring at the younger wolf before he turned to me. Sensing an argument I did not know the heart of, I did my best not to get into the middle of it. "If I have come at an awkward moment, I apologize."

"My father and I were simply discussing... matters of little importance," Velyo answered. His father said something to him in their native tongue, and he smiled. "Kind, Father, of you to offer. But since I was the one who insisted we let Oliza stay, I will assume full responsibility for her."

"How long are you here?" Frektane asked me, ignoring Velyo.

"I was brought into this area against my will," I explained. "I fear traveling too soon may make me sick again. If it is not a hardship, I ask your permission to remain for a few days, until I am stronger."

Frektane made a disgusted sound, but before he could speak, Velyo assured me, "A few days will prove no hardship for us."

Again Frektane grumbled to his son in their language. This time, Velyo replied, "You are alpha, leader of this land and its people. Say the word, and I will see to it that everyone too weak to provide for the pack is removed."

He had hit a nerve, for suddenly Frektane crossed the room, favoring his right leg just slightly. ""Watch yourself, Velyo."

"You're weak, Father," Velyo snarled. "This winter has been good to the pack, because I

have led the hunts down the river. Hunts your injury kept you from. Before you talk of denying Oliza a few days to rest, consider how many of our resources you devour. You've been slower every run this season. The cold is in your bones. You're old, wolf." I jumped back as Frektane threw Velyo into the wall. "Not old enough that a pup like you can challenge me."

Velyo snarled at his father as he pushed himself back to his feet; then he glanced at me.

"I'll escort Oliza while she is here."

"See that you do."

"I apologize for that little scene," he said, as if I had witnessed some minor spat, instead of part of an ongoing power struggle between father and son. "You may think our ways harsh, but in this kind of world, it is necessary to rule firmly. Laxity is what causes a pack to starve in the winter. My father's strength has been failing since he was injured last fall. I won't let him bring our entire pack down by refusing to admit it."

"I suppose I'm lucky to live in a more moderate climate," I answered, trying to remain polite despite my desire to argue. The wolves had different values than I did. As Velyo had said, this pack lived in a difficult land, where strength was necessary for survival.

"Wyvern's Court has never had problems with starvation, for which I am grateful." Velyo nodded. I couldn't tell if it was in agreement or approval or neither. I wondered how Kalisa was doing. If she had needed my parents' support, what had happened when they had suddenly been pulled back to Wyvern's Court to deal with events there after I had disappeared?

Velyo seemed to be waiting for me to speak again, so I searched for a safe, neutral question. "How many people are in Frektane? It seems so quiet."

"Few more than a dozen winter here," he answered. "The weaker ones separate and travel south, nearer to your court. They trade among the human cities or stay with other, more southern packs. You have probably seen them with the

Vahamil, though I imagine your position leaves you little time to idle with common wolves. In spring or summer they will return here to the main encampment."

"What about the children?"

"They travel if they are old enough," he answered. "Otherwise, they stay here and people such as Ginna take care of them. Mostly they stay out of the way. Father does not like for them to get underfoot." Wyvern's Court had such a different opinion about children that I could not immediately think of an appropriate answer. Luckily Velyo chose that moment to offer, "If you would like to get word to your people, our relations with the Vahamil are good enough that they would not object to our sending a messenger through their lands to Wyvern's Court. You can wait here until your guards arrive to see you safely home."

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