Wolfcry Page 9

Luckily, our pursuers were delayed by the drop-off. Maybe they weren't being paid enough to risk broken necks  -  but who could have hired them to go this far? They knew who I was. What payment could possibly make it worthwhile for them to risk both the serpiente and avian armies' coming after them?

I didn't know how long Betia and I had run, using stream banks to obscure our footsteps and distort our scent, sleeping for only a few minutes at a time before my pounding heart woke me again.

Two sunrises, three sunrises. The world began to waver under me and finally I forced myself to slow our pace. I did not know how near the lions were, but I knew I couldn't go on that way.

With someone after us, I knew better than to go due south as I had planned. Betia and I varied our direction; I mostly followed as she led us to streams with fish, rabbit burrows, brooks with fresh water and sheltered spots where sleep was easy to find. Evenings, I lay awake in whatever hollow we had chosen for a bed that night, shivering from chills caused by more than the winter air. I kept food in my stomach through sheer force of will, fighting the twists in my gut because I knew I needed the energy the food provided. I needed my strength. I needed to make it home.

Chapter 11

I didn't know how long we had been traveling  -  a fortnight, maybe  -  when the day turned black without warning. I fell to my knees and heard Betia's frantic bark. Despite my best efforts, when I tried to push myself up, I couldn't find the strength. I was dizzy and sick from poisons and too many days of running.

Betia whimpered and nuzzled my shoulder, but my abused body had had enough. My stomach cramped as a bout of heavy coughing made me curl into a little ball on the cold ground. I coughed until I gagged, and even afterward I couldn't keep my body from shaking.

The wolf was running in desperate circles around me, barking every now and then to encourage me.

She disappeared, and I was overwhelmed by another coughing fit. I had to stand up; we had to keep moving.

I had pushed myself to my knees by the time Betia returned, her coat dripping wet and her brown eyes apologetic. She must have run back to the river, to try to bring me something to eat.

I lifted a hand and put it on her shoulder. She licked fever sweat from my cheek, and I closed my eyes.

I was on the ground again, and I was sick, and I was cold, and I was lost, and I was frightened. Betia was frightened, too, and I wanted to say something to comfort her, but I could think of nothing.

What was happening in my home while I was lying there? What had happened with the dancers? With the Vahamil? For all I knew, I might return to a war. Suddenly hands were on my shoulders and someone was lifting me into a sitting position. For an instant I thought the mercenaries had found me, but I couldn't summon terror. I felt only protected. Gentle fingers brushed my cheek, and then someone was holding a cup of cool, sweet water to my lips. I realized then how tight and raw my throat was from coughing. I tried to stand again, but strong arms held me still. When I shivered, they held me more tightly.

Night fell, and those arms kept me warm in the darkness. When I woke, I was offered more water. As if by magic, a fire had appeared. When I woke again, sometime after sunrise, it was to the scent of cooking meat. I ate a little, though my appetite was still poor, and drank more water; then I slept once again.

It was another day before the fever broke, and I opened my eyes and finally looked with clear vision upon the woman who had cared for me.

Her thick hair was light brown, with darker, ruddy shades. Her skin was tanned, and her arms and face had streaks of dirt. Her eyes were a familiar, warm brown, with dark, heavy lashes.

"Good morning, Betia," I said.

She looked at me and yawned and stretched, just as she had the first morning. She did not speak aloud, and I didn't know if she even remembered how. Speech was one thing that most shapeshifters who went feral never recovered. Still, that she had been able to recall her human body was a good sign. Her concern for me and her need for a form more suited to caring for me must have driven her back from her wolf. She put a hand to my brow to check my fever.

"You keep taking care of me," I remarked as she turned to tend the last flickers of the fire with easy skill.

Betia glanced back at me and tilted her head the way a natural wolf would have when puzzled. I wondered what thoughts were passing behind those earthen eyes. She smiled and then returned to the rabbit she had set to cook over the low-burning embers. Had she caught it before she'd returned to human form, or was she still an excellent huntress even without a wolf's speed, strength or ferocity?

Of course she was, I decided. The Frektane tribe belonged only to those who could take care of themselves and their pack  -  and Velyo would never have been interested in a weak woman with nothing to offer him.

The thought gave me a chill that had nothing to do with my illness. I realized for the first time that Betia was dressed in simple pants made from soft wool and a loose blouse of the same material, with fluffy sleeves and an airy fit. Her feet were bare, and her hair was down around her face in tangled waves.

Dressed like that, she had probably been alone in her own room, relaxing or perhaps preparing to sleep, before she had taken her wolf form and run from her people. Alone

-  or with someone she had trusted.

By the next day we had started moving again, more slowly this time. Each day took us farther south, though we kept an ear out for signs of pursuit.

If I had worried about Betia's ability to travel in human form, I had been wrong to. Not even bare feet seemed to bother her, though I was glad we were no longer in the snow. She ran ahead occasionally, slipping through the trees like a sprite but always returning before peaceful solitude turned to loneliness.

I saw my reflection in a pool where we stopped for water, and I grimaced. I was beyond lean  -  thin, dangerously so. The drugs should have worn off weeks before, but I hadn't had enough food or rest, and my body simply didn't have the resources to fight the poison. I could still feel it in my blood, and with every step, I knew that I risked bringing the fever back. I simply didn't have any choice.

I was lucky to have Betia with me. She had a knack for finding drinking water, as well as caches of nuts hidden by squirrels. She also could tickle fish from the streams, seeming not to care about water or mud  -  and I had not forgotten that she had somehow caught that rabbit, alone and unarmed.

I still did not know what had possessed her to follow me, or to save me in the first place. I wondered if I was doing her a disservice by taking her with me. She obviously did not want to return to the Frektane, but was Wyvern's Court, in its state of distrust and turmoil, really a place where she could be happy?

More and more I wished I could join her in the forest, as serene and natural as she seemed to be.

"Your brother, Pratl, was the one who told me your name," I said to her in the midst of one of our many one-sided conversations. "He cares for you a great deal, it seems." She tensed beside me, her step faltering, and did not even look my way.

"Your mother also seems to be a kind woman." I described the odd morning when I had met both Pratl and Ginna, not moving on to discuss the rest of the day. I knew that Betia didn't want to hear anything about the leaders of her pack.

"They must love you," I mused aloud, thinking of my own loved ones. My parents  -

not to mention the rest of my family, and most of the court  -  would be frantic with worry over my disappearance.

Everyone would be, except whoever had paid to have me removed...

"I know you were hurt, and you're frightened, but couldn't you still go back  -  " Betia shot me a look that clearly said,

Do not speak of that.

"Betia..."

She dropped her gaze for an instant, then looked at me with a plea in her eyes, reaching out to touch my arm.

"I didn't mean to upset you," I said. "I was just thinking about the people from my home, who I love, and who I miss, and who must be so frightened for me. If you never want to return to the Frektane, that is your choice. If you want to come to Wyvern's Court, you can have a new life there, or if you want to be with other wolves, Kalisa's pack would probably take you m." Unless, of course, Kalisa was no longer in charge of the Vahamil when I returned.

Kalisa, injured. The dancers, demanding answers. Wyvern's Court, torn by violence. And me, wandering around in the endless woods.

I let out a frustrated cry, and Betia leaned against my side and put her arms around me. The mercenaries never should have been able to take me from Wyvern's Court. They never should have been able to take me through forests patrolled by my guards and occupied by the Vahamil.

They never should have wanted to. Who could convince the lions to risk the wrath of a realm such as Wyvern's Court? We were a peaceful nation, but we had warred for many years; the death toll on both sides showed just how skillful my people had been at killing each other. It would take a lot to force Wyvern's Court to turn back to war, but kidnapping the heir to both thrones was a good start.

Or was that the point?

Someone wanted me not just removed but transported a great distance. Someone had gone to great trouble and great expense to meet that goal. Someone... was behind me. I froze, then moved only my arm to reach toward my knife. Why hadn't I heard them approach?

Betia snarled, and bush branches snapped as she pounced. I spun toward the interlopers, raising the knife, evading one attack.

Serpiente  -  at least three of them in my immediate view. The real criminals?

No time to wonder, my mind snapped.

Defend yourself first.

Betia and I moved back to back as if we had rehearsed it. "Three on my side," I said aloud, though I didn't expect a response from her. A quick glance revealed another two on hers. The serpiente in front of me had the palest blond hair I had ever seen, and light blue-green eyes.

Two against five. Not good odds, especially since the serpents wore two knives crossed on their backs, and three of them were also armed with strong wooden staves tipped with blades that gleamed wickedly in the sunlight. One wore a bow in addition to this.

"Drop the knife," the man in front of me said.

I didn't have a choice, really. Fighting now would probably get me killed. If these were the people who had had me abducted in the first place, they wanted me alive, and dropping the knife would be the better option.

Before I could act, Betia snarled and someone behind me cried out. Seizing the moment of surprise, I leapt for a man holding a stave; I knew how to use it. I hit him in the gut, knocking us both to the ground, and reached for the weapon with my free hand. We rolled, and I came up with the stave, which I tried to snap down across my enemy's head. He blocked, rolling enough to deflect most of the blow, then came up with a snarl. Wlute scales coated his skin, and his eyes became pure blue except for slit pupils. Snake eyes, in his fighting form. I wished I could summon my own, with its increased speed, flexibility and reflexes, as well as enough poison to make any enemy hesitate. I rolled away, swinging the stave; I felt it strike one of the other attackers across the ribs.

Someone pounced on me from behind; an arm wrapped around my throat, and I turned the knife in my hand to drive it backward. I felt it hit something, but then my wrist was grabbed and the knife was wrenched from my hand. An elbow to my attacker got me dislodged and tossed into an inelegant heap on the ground, nearly at the feet of a woman.

She gripped the front of my shirt, then froze and let out a piercing whistle. Startled, she half hissed, half shouted, "Peace! Weapons down." There was an oomph as someone behind me was hit, and the woman said to me, "Call off your friend." She stood, dropping her stave. "I didn't realize who you were."

"Betia, stop!" They had us outnumbered and out-armed. There was no reason for them to let us go unless the woman was being honest. Looking around, I saw that we had done a surprising amount of damage, but I had no doubt that we would have lost eventually.

Betia was still in her human form, thank the sky; if she had returned to her wolf to fight, I would have worried that she might not come back again.

The woman who had pinned me offered me a hand, saying,

"Fm'itil-varl'nesera."

Shocked, I took a moment to translate the words. You bless us, dancer. My hand went to the coin at my neck, the

Ahnle h my mother had passed on to me, and I gave the traditional reply.

"I'm 'varl'nesera-hena." Blessed be.

Chapter 12

My heart was still pounding, even though the fight was over. I had been formally greeted as a traveling dancer, based on an archaic law that almost no one remembered these days.

"I apologize," my former opponent said. "Normally we do not tolerate strangers in our lands, but anyone with a Snakecharm is welcome here, and safe  -  as in days before. I am sorry I did not see it sooner."

"And my friend?" I asked. "She is not a dancer."

"If she is your friend, she is ours."

I brushed myself off and went to Betia's side unchallenged. I had not known there was any place left that still honored such old traditions, but as it seemed to be working in my favor, I would not argue.

"Betia, are you all right?" I asked.

A man knelt beside us. "She's bleeding," he said. "Come, let us care for her wounds  -

yours as well, dancer. And our own," he added wryly. I realized he was the one whose skull I had tried to knock in with a stave. "You fight well, especially considering that you look half-starved and exhausted. We will see to your injuries; then you will eat and rest here."

Their generosity forced me to be honest. "I am being hunted. And I am not really a dancer. I have learned some, from Wyvern's Nest, but I am not even officially apprenticed."

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