Wolfcry Page 8

"I would appreciate that," I said, and felt some of the tension in my neck begin to dissolve. A messenger from the Frektane could travel more quickly than I would be able to even in perfect health, which meant that my people would hear from me sooner. It had already been too long. "Do you know anything about Kalisa's condition? She was injured shortly before I was taken from Wyvern's Court."

"Injured?" Velyo asked. "I hadn't heard. Do you know how serious it is?" I shook my head. "Serious enough that she wanted to meet with my parents, but I don't know more than that."

"Perhaps I will accompany you when you travel south, to check in on Vahamil." His thoughtful tone gave me a chill before his expression cleared. "In the meantime, join me for some dinner. You look half-starved."

The main encampment of the Frektane tribe was a very somber place, especially compared to the Vahamil's near my home. In addition to despising little children running about, making noise and getting underfoot, the alpha also disapproved of

"frivolous" activities such as dancing and singing, which had always kept Kalisa's tribe active and alight with laughter.

"Someone will bring my father his supper. He prefers to eat in solitude," Velyo explained to me as we entered a central hut where the air was filled with the scents of roasting meats.

A young woman tended the hearth, but she stood the instant she saw Velyo, brushing ash from her hands. Two others sat at a long table in the back of the room, and they also stood hastily.

"This is Lameta's first winter in Frektane," Velyo told me, nodding to the hearth mistress. He greeted her in their native language, and she gave a half curtsy, never looking away from him. There was respect in her eyes, but I could tell she was also wary. I tried to keep an open mind, though from what I had seen and heard so far, I would not have wanted to be one of Frektane's and Velyo's subjects. They ruled with a fist that was a little too iron for my comfort.

We were served roast venison, with a warm, sweet sauce, and hot spiced wine.

"I'll warn you, meals in the winter can be somewhat repetitive," Velyo said apologetically. "I suspect Lameta dipped into the fruit stores tonight after she heard we had company."

As we turned to sit at the table, the two who had been sitting there went to serve themselves. Others came in from outside, as if they had been waiting for a dinner bell, and finally Lameta herself took a plate.

They had been waiting for Velyo, I realized. The pack didn't eat until its alpha had taken his share. I knew that law from my studies, though it was one of many that Kalisa enforced only in formal situations. Usually she preferred to give the first share to whichever hunter or tradesman had contributed the most to the meal.

"I have never been to your Wyvern's Court," Velyo said. "Tell me of it?" I did my best to describe my homeland, from dancers to singers, merchants to scholars. Velyo listened quietly, nodding occasionally or quirking a brow when I said something he found curious.

"Do you have a mate waiting for you at home?" he asked finally. His tone was innocent enough, but there was something about the way he looked at me that made my skin crawl, as if a hundred spiders had suddenly scampered across it.

"I have not yet chosen my king," I answered.

"I had forgotten that your people are born to royalty, or marry into it. It is a precious luxury."

"I assume that the alpha position in the Frektane must be hereditary, since the pack's name obviously refers to your line."

He sounded as if he was reciting as he explained, "It is not a matter of birthright, but breeding and education. If one of my wolves proves himself better qualified to lead the Frektane after my father no longer can, I will have to step down, but like my father, and his before him, throughout my childhood I was given the lessons I would need to take over as alpha once it is time. For nine generations we have led this pack, each Frektane alpha choosing a strong mate who will add worthy qualities to the bloodline. My mother could bring down a wild boar in her human form while armed with no more than a dagger. She could track antelope through pouring rain, and shoot an owl from the sky in the dead of a moonless night. My father has done a great many unwise things in his life, but choosing his mate was not one of them. I only hope I can choose a mate who will prove as fine a queen as my mother was.

"She truly earned the right to run by my father's side. It is good that she did not live to see him in his current state." He hesitated, then added, "Though at least she would have had the courage to put him down."

I had no desire to address the possible euthanasia of a man who by my standards was perfectly healthy. No wonder Kalisa had called her allies to her side when she had been injured, if this was how neighboring packs  -  not to mention her own  -  would view her weakness.

I steered the conversation back to a topic I understood all too well; I was the heir of not just one but two monarchies, and I understood the care that had to be taken in choosing a mate. "Have you made your decision?" I asked

"No." He stood up abruptly, without bothering with the dishes. Someone would clean up after him, I was sure. "There are women in the Frektane who are good hunters, women who are good leaders, women who are intelligent and women who are brave. It is rare that one finds all those traits in a single place. I thought I had once, but... I was incorrect."

Betia?

I wondered. Pratl had said that she had had a falling out with Velyo. But the look in Velyo's eyes warned me not to inquire further.

Chapter 10

I was exhausted from my travels, even more tired by how carefully I had tried to watch my words with Velyo, and worried I had accentuated Kalisa's troubles by revealing her possible vulnerability. I was relieved when Velyo offered to escort me back to my room, because I would be able to rest.

The doorway was covered by heavy furs, and Velyo brushed them aside, allowing me to slip through the narrow opening. Someone had built the fire up before we arrived, so the room was warm despite the winter chill outside.

Velyo followed me inside and then, as if just deciding, said, "I think I'll join you."

"Excuse me?"

Had he been serpiente, accustomed to sleeping innocently among friends, I might have assumed that his offer was platonic, but as far as I was aware, the wolves did not share that particular custom.

He walked toward me, his stride graceful and soundless. "I said, I think I'll join you. It's a cold night."

I took a step back, but the room was small, and I only succeeded in hitting the backs of my knees on a trunk that sat at the foot of the bed. "I'm sorry if I somehow gave the wrong impression, but  -  "

He caught my hand and kissed the back of it. "You are half serpiente, are you not?" Insulted, I fought the urge to deliver an equally offensive and thus hardly politic reply. Instead I used his own logic against him. "I am also half avian." He shrugged. "You are also a guest in my camp. I thought you would be grateful."

"I am grateful," I answered, trying unsuccessfully to take my hand back. "However, I also  -  "

He stepped forward despite my protests, trapping me against the trunk. "You also?"

"Let go of me."

"Relax," he whispered.

"I am not interested," I said bluntly, feeling my heart trapped in my throat. "Now kindly release me."

I caught his wrist when he reached for me with his other hand, which made him chuckle a little. "Princess  -  " He yanked his hand back as he tugged on my wrist, so I ended up stumbling and falling against his chest. "I'm not sure you appreciate your position. There are many women who would be jealous of  -  "

"I'm not one of them," I growled. The last of my respect for him had disappeared, and with it my trust that he wouldn't force this. "I said, let go." When he didn't, I twisted, driving an elbow into his stomach as I attempted to hop over the trunk and back into the center of the room. His grip loosened for a moment, but he didn't quite release me; instead, he twisted my arm behind my back so that I fell, barely avoiding hitting my head against the corner of the trunk when my knees struck the ground.

Before I recovered, he pulled me to my feet and then shoved me toward the mound of blankets piled on the bed.

Furious and frightened at the same time, I managed to lash out once more, striking him in the chest with the heel of my boot. He doubled over, spitting out a string of curses in his own language that I never wanted to have translated.

I hurried back into the cold night before he could follow. I would just have to hope I was well enough to get by. I couldn't risk staying at the mercy of Velyo Frektane. One or the other of us wasn't likely to survive it.

"Oliza?"

I hesitated when I heard Pratl's voice. "I have to leave," I said quickly. "Thank you for your hospitality, and please thank Ginna."

He glanced toward the cabin I had just fled, and winced. Then he drew a knife, and for a moment I thought he meant to stop me. Instead, he offered it to me, handle first. "Just to help you hunt on your way. Don't use it on him." He looked again toward the doorway as I took the weapon. "Go. I'll try to delay him if he comes after you."

"Thank you," I whispered.

"You should not travel long alone," Pratl warned. "You are not well."

"I don't think I have a choice."

He nodded reluctantly. "Go. Be well."

I ran, for the moment concerned more with removing myself from Frektane land than with choosing a destination.

Only after I was back in the woods did shapeshifting occur to me, and then I remembered that I did not have my wings.

Three weeks to Wyvern's Court, Pratl had said; it would be more than three weeks if I had to travel alone without supplies through unfamiliar land. I knew that Wyvern's Court had to be south from here, but I had never made such a trek by myself. I tried desperately to take my wyvern form but again felt only a queasy rolling in my stomach. Desperate to reassure myself, I reached for my cobra form  -  and found nothing.

Nothing.

The poison lingers. Dear sky, I hope it won't linger forever.

I knew that a similar poison was used by the dancers' guild when a punishment required someone to be held in one form for some time, but that wore off in a few days at most. I hoped this would be the same. I had lost my avian form; I could not lose my cobra, too. Had the lions stolen the poison while in Wyvern's Court? I wondered. Or had their employer given it to them? They might even have had it already. South, Oliza, my scattered wits reminded me.

You don't have the information you need to find answers, and you won't have any more information until you get home. Your people need you. You've no choice but to walk, so walk.

My fury at Velyo and at my situation in general kept me warm, and I made good time as I jogged and walked south through the night.

It was nearly sunrise when I grudgingly accepted that I needed to sleep. I wished I could make a fire, but my hands were shaking and I could barely keep my eyes open; the idea of searching for dry wood and struggling to make a spark was overwhelming. Fortunately, this night was not as bitter as the one before, and I was able to find shelter in a warm nook where a pine had been knocked down across a boulder. I curled up inside, my stomach rumbling. I would need to figure out how to find food and make a fire later. But for now, sleep.

I woke near noon to find a furry gray-brown ball at the entrance to my little den. It lifted its muzzle and licked me when I blinked at it in confusion.

"Morning, Betia," I greeted with a smile of relief. "Thank you for finding me and guarding my rest."

The wolf yawned, stretched, shook herself and let out a little bark. Then she plodded to a large deer that she had obviously taken down earlier and saved for me.

"Thank you," I said.

And thank you, too, Pratl, for the knife,

I thought as I clumsily butchered the deer. The tree I had slept under provided dry wood, so I managed to cook as much of the meat as we could consume right then. Betia watched me with an intelligence and patience that said she knew what I was doing. I spoke to her as I worked, and while she didn't respond, I had a feeling she understood much of what I said, too.

"I can understand why you ran away," I confided when we began to walk again. The afternoon was bitter, but at least it wasn't snowing. "I couldn't stand Velyo, either." Betia growled beside me, and I laughed a little.

"I think that's a good way to put it."

She growled again, and as I turned, I realized she was looking into the trees. I did not have a wolf's sense of smell or hearing, but I could hear... something. Something unfriendly, by the sound of Betia's growling. Someone shouted deeper in the woods, and I recognized the voice of one of the lions.

I looked at Betia, my heart racing, and then we ran, slipping through the trees, stumbling over downed logs and brush. In their lion forms, my hunters were much faster than I was; I wished again that I could shift.

We were going to be overtaken, and I didn't stand a chance with just my knife against the claws of a pride of lions. Even if Betia helped me, she was only one, and I knew there were at least a half dozen of them.

"Oliza!" Tavisan's voice floated through the trees. "Stop running!" He had broken a bone in my wing, clipped my feathers, drugged and poisoned me; I wasn't anxious to talk about it.

Suddenly Betia and I were tumbling down a bank I had not noticed. Betia let out a yelp, and then I was back on flat ground, the air knocked out of my lungs. The wolf nosed my rib cage, encouraging me to get back up; bracing myself on her shoulders, I dragged myself up again.

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