The wolves of the Long Lake Pack, gorged on a careless mountain sheep, slept as they digested their meal. Only Brokefang, their chieftain, was awake to see the moon rise. He sat on a stone outcrop, thinking—an odd pastime for a wolf. In the last full moon of summer, on the advice of Old White, the wolf god, he had sent his best travelers, Fleetfoot and Russet, in search of a two-legger who once belonged to his pack. Their orders were to bring her to him, to speak to the local humans on his behalf. The sight of that night’s full autumn moon reminded him that winter was coming. What if his messengers couldn’t find Daine? What if something had happened to them?
He did not like “what if” thoughts. Until he’d met Daine two winters before, he had worried about nothing but eating, mating, ruling his pack, and scratching fleas. Now he had complex thoughts all the time, whether he wanted them or not.
Soft chatter overhead made him look up. Two bats had met a stranger. Clinging to a branch over his head, the three traded gossip in the manner of their kind. The newcomer brought word of a two-legger on the other side of the mountains, one who was human outside and Beast-People inside. She carried news from bats in the southwest, and if a Long Lake bat was hurt, she could heal him with her magic. She traveled in odd company: two horses, a pony, an extremely tall human male, a big lizard, and two wolves.
The local bats exclaimed over the news. Their colony should hear this, they decided. Would the visitor come and tell them in their cave-home? Along with their guest, the bats took to the air.
Brokefang stretched. One new thought had been that he could learn much if he listened to the talk of nonwolves. Now he could see it was a good thought, so perhaps the others were good, too. He was interested to hear that Daine also had learned new things since leaving the pack. Before, she could not talk directly with bats. Her healing was done with stinging liquids, needles, thread, and splints, not magic.
He stopped in midstretch as he remembered something. When Fleetfoot and Russet had gone, the pack was laired near the valley’s southern entrance, where a river flowed from the lake. While they eventually could find the new den in the valley’s western mountains, it might take them days to locate the pack.
He would take his wolves south and guide his visitors home.
Two days later, the girl called Daine watched rain fall outside the cave where she and her friends had taken refuge. For someone Brokefang regarded as Pack, she looked quite human. She was five foot five, slim for her fourteen and a half years, with blue-gray eyes the color of the clouds overhead. Her curly brown hair was tightly pinned up, her clothes as practical as her hairstyle: a blue cotton shirt, tan breeches, and soft-soled boots. Around her neck a heavy silver claw hung on a leather thong.
She played with the claw, thinking. She had been born in mountains like these, in a town called Snowsdale over the border in Galla. The first twelve years of her life were spent there, before she lost her family. When she left Galla to serve the king and queen of Tortall, she had hoped that she might never see the mountains again. And here she was, in a place that could be Snowsdale’s twin.
Soon she would be with the wolves that had hunted in her old home. They had left soon after she did: Fleetfoot and Russet, her guides, had told of fleeing human hunters to find their new home by the Long Lake. What would it be like to see them again? To be with them again?
“What are you thinking of?” a light male voice asked from deeper inside the cave. “You look grim.”
Daine turned around. Seated cross-legged by the fire, a traveling desk on his knees, was her teacher, the wizard Numair Salmalín. He wore his springy mass of black hair tied into a horsetail, away from his dark face and out of his brown eyes. His ink brush was dwarfed by the hand that held it, an exceptionally large hand that was graceful in spite of its size.
“I’m just wondering if Onua is managing the Rider horses all right without me. I know the king told her he needed us to come here, but I still feel as if I should be helping her.”
The man raised his eyebrows. “You know very well Onua managed the Rider horses for years before you came to work there. What’s really bothering you?”
She made a face. She never could distract him when he wanted to know something. “I’m scared.”
He put down his brush and gave her his full attention. “What of?”
She looked at her hands. They were chapped from cold, and this was only the third week of September. “Remember what I told you? That I went crazy and hunted with wolves after bandits killed Ma and Grandda and our animals?”
He nodded. “They helped you to avenge the deaths.”
“What if it happens again? When I see them, what if I forget I’m human and start thinking I’m a wolf again? I’m s’posed to have control of my wild magic now, but what if it isn’t enough?” She rubbed her arms, shivering.
“May I remind you that the spell that keeps your human self apart from your magic self is one I created?” he teased, white teeth flashing in a grin. “How can you imply a working performed by your obedient servant”—he bowed, an odd contortion in a sitting man—“might be anything but perfect?” More seriously he added, “Daine, the spell covers all your contacts. You won’t lose control.”
“What if it wasn’t the magic? What if I simply went mad?”
Strong teeth gripped her elbow hard. Daine looked around into the bright eyes of her pony, Cloud. If I have to bite you to stop you feeling sorry for yourself, I will, the mare informed her. You are being silly.
Numair, used to these silent exchanges, asked, “What does she say?”
“She says I’m feeling sorry for myself. I don’t think she understands.”
I understand that you fidget over stupid things. Cloud released Daine’s elbow. The stork-man will tell you.
“Don’t fret,” said the mage. “Remember, you allowed me into your mind when you first came to Tortall. If there was a seed of genuine madness there, I would have found it.” Daine smiled. “There’s folk who would say you’re the last man to know who’s crazy and who’s not. I know a cook who won’t let you in his kitchen, a palace quartermaster who says he’ll lock you up if you raid his supplies again—”
“Enough!” Numair held up his hands in surrender.
“Just so you know.” Feeling better, she asked, “What are you writing?”
He picked up his ink brush once more. “A report to King Jonathan.”
“Another one?” she asked, startled. “But we sent one off a week ago.”
“He said regular reports, magelet. That means weekly. It’s a small price to pay for being allowed to come to the rescue of your wolf friends. I just wish I had better news to send.”
“I don’t think we’ll find those missing people.” In March a group of the Queen’s Riders—seven young men and women—had disappeared in this general area. In July twenty soldiers from the Tortallan army had also vanished. “They could’ve been anywhere inside a hundred or two hundred miles of us.”
“All we can do is look,” Numair said as he wrote. “As wanderers we have seen far more than soldiers will. Even so, it’s a shame the whole northeastern border is opaque to magical vision. I hadn’t realized that a search by foot would be so chancy.” “Why can’t you wizards see this place with your magic?” Daine wanted to know. “When I asked the king, he said something about the City of the Gods, and an aura, but then we got interrupted and he never did explain”
“It has to do with the City of the Gods being the oldest center for the teaching of magic. Over the centuries magic seeped into the very rock of the city itself, and then spread. The result is a magical aura that blanks out the city and the lands around it for something like a five-hundred-mile radius.”
Daine whistled appreciation of the distance involved. “So the only way to look at all this mountain rock is by eye. That’s going to be a job and a half.”
“Precisely. Tell me, how far do you think we are from our destination?”
Fleetfoot and Russet had measured distance in the miles a wolf travels in a day. Daine had to divide that in half to figure how far humans might go on horseback. “Half a day’s ride to the south entrance to the valley, where the Dunlath River flows out of the Long Lake. From—” She stopped as something whispered in her mind. Animals were coming, looking for her. She ran to the mouth of the cave as their horses bolted past.
Here they came up the trail, wolves, three in the lead and four behind. Two of the leaders were her guides to the Long Lake: the small, reddish white male known as Russet and the brown-and-gray female called Fleetfoot. Between them trotted a huge, black-and-gray timber wolf, plumed tail boldly erect.
“Brokefang!” Daine yelled. “Numair, it’s the pack!” She ran to them and vanished in a crowd of yelping, tail-wagging animals. Delighted to see her, they proceeded to wash her with their long tongues.
Standing at the cave entrance, waiting for the reunion to end, the man saw that the rain was coming down harder. “Why don’t we move the celebration inside?” he called. “You’re getting drenched.”
Daine stood. “Come on,” she told the pack, speaking aloud for Numair’s benefit. “And no eating my friends. The man is Numair. He’s my pack now” Two wolves—Numair was touched to see they were Fleetfoot and Russet, his companions on their journey here—left the others to sit by him, grinning and sprinkling him with drops from their waving tails.
Once out of the rain, the newcomers greeted Cloud, sniffing the gray mare politely. Brokefang gave the mare a few licks, which she delicately returned. The pony, the sole survivor of the bandit raid on Daine’s farm, had stayed with Daine in the weeks the girl had run with the pack. In that time, wolves and pony had come to a truce of sorts.
Next Daine introduced her pack to Spots, the easygoing piebald gelding who was Numair’s mount, and Mangle, a gentle bay cob who carried their packs. The horses quivered, whites showing all the way around their eyes, as the wolves sniffed them. They trusted Daine to keep the wolves from hurting them, but their belief in her couldn’t banish natural fear entirely. Once the greetings were over, they retreated to the rear of the large cave and stayed there.
“Kitten,” Daine called, looking for her charge. “Come meet the wolves.”
Knowing she often scared mortal animals, the dragon had kept to the shadows. Now she walked into the light. She was pale blue, almost two feet long from nose to hip, with another twelve inches’ worth of tail, a slender muzzle, and silver claws. The wings that one day would carry her in flight were, at this stage, tiny and useless. Her blue, reptilian eyes followed everything with sharp attention. She was far more intelligent than a mortal animal, but her way of knowing and doing things was a puzzle Daine tried to unravel on a daily basis.
“This is Skysong,” Daine told the pack. “That’s the name her ma gave her, anyway. Mostly we call her Kitten.”
The dragon eyed their guests. The newcomers stared, ears flicking back and forth in uncertainty, tails half-tucked between their legs. Slowly she rose up onto her hindquarters, a favorite position, and chirped.
Brokefang was the first to walk forward, stiff-legged, to sniff her. Only when his tail gave the smallest possible wag did the others come near.
Once the animals were done, Daine said, “Numair, the gray-and-black male is Brokefang.” When the wolf came to smell Numair’s hands, the mage saw that his right canine tooth had the point broken off. “He’s the first male of the pack, the boss male.” Numair crouched to allow Brokefang to sniff his face and hair as well. The wolf gave a brief wag of the tail to show he liked Numair’s scent.
“The brown-and-gray male with the black ring around his nose is Short Snout,” Daine said. “The tawny female is Battle. She fought a mountain lion when she was watching pups in Snowsdale—that’s how she got her name.” Short Snout lipped Numair’s hand in greeting. Battle sniffed the mage and sneezed. “The brown-and-red male is Sharp Nose. The gray-and-tawny female is Frolic.” The girl sat on the floor, and most of the wolves curled up around her. “Frostfur, the boss female, and Longwind stayed in the valley with the pups.”
Greetings done, Numair sat by the fire and added new wood. “Has Brokefang said why he needs you?” he asked. “His call for help was somewhat vague.”
Daine nodded. “Brokefang, what’s going on? All you told Fleetfoot and Russet was that humans are ruining the valley.” As the wolf replied, she translated, “He says this spring men started cutting trees and digging holes without planting anything. He says they brought monsters and more humans there, and they are killing off the game. Between that and the tree cutting and hole digging, they’re driving the deer and elk from the valley. If it isn’t stopped, the pack will starve when the Big Cold comes.”
“The Big Cold?” asked Numair.
“It’s what the People—animals—call winter.”
The man frowned. “I’m not as expert as you in wolf behavior, but—didn’t you tell me that if wolves find an area is too lively for them, they flee it? Isn’t that why they left Snowsdale, because humans there were hunting them?”
Yes, said Brokefang. They wanted to hurt us, because we helped Daine hunt the humans who killed her dam. They killed Rattail, Longeye, Treelicker, and the pups.
Daine nodded sadly: Fleetfoot and Russet had told her of the pack’s losses. The older wolves had been her friends. The pups she hadn’t met, but every pack valued its young ones. To lose them all was a disaster.
Brokefang went on. We left Snowsdale. It was a hard journey in the hot months, seeking a home. We found places, but there was little game, or other packs lived there, or there were too many humans. Then just before the last Big Cold we found the Long Lake. This valley is so big we could go for days without seeing humans. There is plenty of game, no rival pack to claim it, and caves in the mountains for dens in the snows.
Scratching a flea, Brokefang continued. The Long Lake was good—now humans make it bad. They drove us from the valley where I was born, and my sire, and his sire before him. Before, it was our way to run from two-leggers. Yet I do not run if another pack challenges mine—I fight, and the Pack fights with me. Are humans better than another pack? I do not believe they are.
Will you help us? Will you tell the humans to stop their tree cutting and noisemaking? If they do not stop, the Long Lake Pack will stop it for them, but I prefer that they agree to stop. I know very well that if the Pack has to interfere, there will be bloodshed.
Daine looked at the other wolves of the pack. They nodded, like humans, in agreement. They would support Brokefang in the most unwolflike plan she had ever heard in her life. Where had they gotten such ideas?
Will you help us? asked Brokefang again.
Daine took a deep breath. “You’re my Pack, aren’t you? I’ll do my best. I can’t promise they’ll listen to me, but I’ll try.”
Good, Brokefang replied. He padded to the cave’s mouth and gave the air a sniff. The breeze smelled of grazing deer just over the hill. Looking at Daine, he said, Now we must hunt. We will come back when we have fed.
They left as Daine was translating his words. She followed them to the cave mouth, to watch as they vanished into the rain. It was getting dark. Behind her was a clatter as Numair unpacked the cooking things. Thinking about the pack and about her time with them, she was caught up in a surge of memory.
The bandit guard was upwind of a wolf once called Daine. The night air carried his reek to her: unwashed man, old blood, sour wine. Her nose flared at the stench. She covered it with her free hand. The other clutched a dagger, the last human item she remembered how to use.
He did something with his hands as he stood with his back toward her. She slunk closer, ignoring the snow under her bare feet and the freezing air on her bare arms. Forest sounds covered the little noise she made, though he would not have heard if she’d shouted. He was drunk. They all were, too drunk to remember the first two shifts of guards had not returned.
She tensed to jump. Something made him turn. Now she saw what he’d been doing: there was a wheel of cheese in one hand, a dagger in the other, and a wedge of cheese in his mouth. She also saw his necklace, the amber beads her mother had worn every day of her life. She leaped, and felt a white-hot line of pain along her ribs. He’d stabbed her with his knife.
Brokefang found her. She had dragged herself under a bush and was trying to lick the cut in her side. The wolf performed this office for her.
It is dawn, he said. What must be done now?
We finish them, she told him, fists clenched tight. We finish them all.
“I think I know why Brokefang changed so much.” she said. “I mean, animals learn things from me, and probably that’s how most of the pack got so smart, but Brokefang’s even smarter. I got hurt, when we were after those bandits, and he licked the cut clean.”
“It’s a valid assumption,” agreed Numair. “There are cases of magically gifted humans who were able to impart their abilities to nonhuman companions. For example, there is Boazan the Sun Dancer, whose eagle Thati could speak ten languages after she drank his tears. And—”
“Numair,” she said warningly. Experience had taught her that if she let him begin to list examples, he would not return to the real world for hours.
He grinned, for all the world like one of her stableboy or Rider friends instead of the greatest wizard in Tortall. He had begun to cook supper: a pot of cut-up roots already simmered on the fire. Daine sat next to him and began to slice chunks from a ham they had brought in their packs. Kitten waddled over to help, or at least to eat the rind that Daine cut from the meat.
—This is very nice,—a rough voice said in their minds.—Cozy, especially on a rainy afternoon.—
They twisted to look at the cave entrance. It shone with a silvery light that appeared to come from the animal standing there. The badger waddled in, the light fading around his body. He stopped at a polite distance from their fire and shook himself, water flying everywhere from his long, heavy coat.
Daine fingered the silver claw he had once given her. She liked badgers, and her mysterious adviser was a very handsome one. Big for his kind, he was over a yard in length, with a tail a foot long. He weighed at least fifty pounds, and it appeared he could stow a tremendous amount of water in his fur.
When he finished shaking, he trundled over to the fire, standing between Daine and Numair. Seated as Daine was, she and the badger were nearly eye to eye. She was so close that she couldn’t escape his thick, musky odor.
“Daine, is this—?” Numair sounded nervous.
The badger looked at him, eyes coldly intelligent.—I told her father I would keep an eye on her. So you are her teacher. She tells me a great deal about you, when I visit her.—
“May I ask you something?” the mage inquired.
—I am an immortal, the first male creature of my kind. The male badger god, if you like. That is what you wished to ask, is it not?—
“Yes, and I thank you,” Numair said hesitantly. “I—thought I had shielded my mind from any kind of magical reading or probe—”
—Perhaps that works with mortal wizards,—the badger replied.—Perhaps it works with lesser immortals, such as Stormwings. I am neither.—
Numair blushed deeply, and Daine hid a grin behind one hand. She doubted that anyone had spoken that way to Numair in a long time. She was used to it. The badger had first appeared in a dream to give her advice sixteen months ago, on her journey to Tortall, and she had dreamed of him often since.
“Another question, then,” the mage said doggedly. “Since I have the opportunity to ask. You can resolve a number of academic debates, actually.”
—Ask.—There was studied patience in the badgers voice.
“The inhabitants of the Divine Realms are called by men ‘immortals,’ but the term itself isn’t entirely accurate. I know that unless they are killed in some accident or by deliberate intent, creatures such as Stormwings, spidrens, and so on will live forever. They don’t age, either. But how are they ‘lesser immortals’ compared to you, or to the other gods?”
—They are “lesser” because they can be slain,—was the reply.—I can no more be killed than can Mithros, or the Goddess, or the other gods worshiped by two-leggers. “Immortals” is the most fitting term to use. It is not particularly correct, but it is the best you two-leggers can manage.—
Having made Numair speechless, the badger went on.—Now, on to your teaching. It is well enough, but you have not shown her where to take her next step. I am surprised. For a mortal, your grasp of wild magic normally is good.—
Numair looked down his long nose at the guest who called his learning into question. “If you feel I have omitted something, by all means, enlighten us.”
The badger sneezed. It seemed to be his way of laughing.—Daine, if you try, you can learn to enter the mind of a mortal animal. You can use their eyes as you would your own, or their ears, or their noses.—
Daine frowned, trying to understand. “How? When you said I could hear and call animals, it was part of something I knew how to do. This isn’t.”
—Make your mind like that of the animal you join,—he told her.—Think like that animal does, until you become one. You may be quite surprised by what results in the end.—
It sounded odd, but she knew better than to say as much. She had questioned him once, and he had flattened her with one swipe of his paw. “I’ll try.”
—Do better than try. Where is the young dragon?—
Kitten had been watching from the other side of the fire. Now she came to sit with the badger, holding a clump of his fur in one small paw. She had a great deal to say in her vocabulary of chirps, whistles, clicks, and trills. He listened as if it meant something, and when she was done, waddled over to talk with Cloud and the horses. At last he returned to the fire, where Daine and Numair had waited politely for him to end his private conversations.
—I must go back to my home sett,—he announced.—Things in the Divine Realms have been hectic since the protective wall was breached and the lesser immortals were released into your world.—
“Do you know who did it?” asked Numair quickly. “We’ve been searching for the culprit for two years now.”
—Why in the name of the Lady of Beasts would I know something like that?—was the growled reply.—I have more than enough to do in mortal realms simply with keeping an eye on her.—
“Don’t be angry,” Daine pleaded. “He thought you might know, since you know so much already.”
—You are a good kit.—The badger rubbed his head against her knee. Touched by this sign of affection, Daine hugged him, burying her fingers in his shaggy coat. To Numair he added,—And I am not angry with you, mortal. I cannot be angry with one who has guarded my young friend so well. Let me go, Daine. I have to return to my sett.—
She obeyed. He walked toward the cave’s mouth, silver light enclosing him in a globe. At its brightest, the light flared, then vanished. He was gone.
“Well,” said Numair. She thought he might add something, but instead he busied himself with stirring the vegetables.
Suddenly she remembered a question she had wanted to ask. “I think he puts a magic on me,” she complained.
“Every time I see him, I mean to ask who my da is, and every time I forget! And he’s the only one who can tell me, too, drat him.”
Kitten gave a trill, her slit-pupiled eyes concerned.
“I’m all right, Kit,” the girl said, and sighed. “It’s not fair, though.”
Numair chuckled. “Somehow I doubt the badger is interested in what’s fair.”
She had to smile, even if her smile was one-sided. She knew he was right.
“Speaking of what is fair, what do you think of the advice he gave you, about becoming a magical symbiote?”
Most of the time she was glad that he spoke to her as he would to a fellow scholar, instead of talking down to her. Just now, though, her head was reeling from Brokefang’s news and the badger’s arrival. “A magical sym—sym—whatsits?”
“Symbiote,” he replied. “They are creatures that live off other creatures, but not destructively, as parasites do. An example might be the bird who rides on a bison, picking insects from the beast’s coat.”
“Oh. I don’t know what I think of it. I never tried it.”
“Now would be a good time,” he said helpfully. “The vegetables will take a while to cook. Why not try it with Cloud?”
Daine looked around until she saw the mare, still at the rear of the cave with Mangle and Spots. “Cloud, can I?”
“Cloud, may I,” the man corrected.
You can or you may. I don’t know if it will help, said the mare.
The girl went to sit near the pony, while Mangle and Spots ventured outside to graze again. Numair began to get out the ingredients for campfire bread as Kitten watched with interest.
“Don’t let him stir the dough too long,” Daine ordered the dragon. “It cooks up hard when he forgets.” Kitten chirped as Numair glared across the cave at his young pupil.
The girl closed her eyes. Breathing slowly, she reached deep inside to find the pool of copper light that was her wild magic. Calling a thread of fire from that pool, she reached for Cloud, and tried to bind their minds with it.
Cloud whinnied, breaking the girl’s concentration.That hurt, the mare snapped. If it’s going to hurt, I won’t do it! Try it with less magic.
Shutting her eyes, Daine obeyed. This time she used a drop of copper fire, thinking to glue her mind to Cloud’s. The mare broke contact the minute Daine’s fire touched hers. Daine tried it a second, and a third time, without success.
It’s the same kind of magic, she told Cloud, frustrated. It’s not any different from what’s in you.
It hurts, retorted the pony. If that badger knew this would hurt and told you to try it anyway, I will tell him a few things the next time he visits.
I don’t do it a-purpose, argued Daine. How can I do it without paining you?
Without the fire, Cloud suggested. You don’t need it to talk to us, or to listen. Why should you need it now?
Daine bit a thumbnail. Cloud was right. She only used the fire of her magic when she was tired, or when she had to do something hard. She was tired now, and the smell of cooking ham had filled her nostrils. “Let’s try again tomorrow,” she said aloud. “My head aches.”
“Come eat,” called Numair. “You’ve been at it nearly an hour.”
Daine went to the fire, Cloud following. Digging in her pack, the girl handed the pony a carrot before she sat. Numair handed over a bowl of mildly spiced vegetables and cooked ham. Kitten climbed into the girl’s lap, forcing Daine to arrange her arms around the dragon as she ate. Between mouthfuls she explained what had taken place.
Cloud listened, nibbling the carrot as her ears flicked back and forth. When Daine finished, the mare suggested, Perhaps I am the wrong one to try with.
“Who, then, Cloud?” Daine asked. “I’ve known you longer than anybody.” She yawned. The experiment, even though it hadn’t worked, had worn her out.
But I am a grazer—you are a hunter. Why not try with a hunter? It may be easier to do this first with wolves. You are practically a wolf as it is.
“And if I forget I’m human?”
(“I wish I could hear both sides of this conversation,” Numair confided softly to Kitten. “I feel so left out, sometimes.”)
The man said you won’t, replied Cloud. He should know. Brokefang is part of you already. Ask the stork-man. He will tell you I am right.
Daine relayed this to Numair. “She has a point,” he said. “I hadn’t thought the predator-prey differential would constitute a barrier, but she knows you better than I.” He watched Daine yawn again, hugely, and smiled. “It can wait until tomorrow. Don’t worry about cleanup. I’ll do it.”
“But it’s my turn,” she protested. “You cooked, so I have to clean.”
“Go to bed,” her teacher said quietly. “The moon will not stop its monthly journey simply because I cooked and cleaned on the same meal.”
She climbed into her bedroll and was asleep the moment she pulled the blankets up. When the wolves returned much later, she woke just enough to see them group around her. With Kitten curled up on one side and Brokefang sprawled on the other, Daine finished her night’s rest smiling.
It was damp and chilly the next morning, the cold a taste of the months to come. Breakfast was a quiet meal, since neither Daine nor Numair was a morning person. They cleaned up together and readied the horses for the day’s journey.
The wolves had gone to finish the previous night’s kill. They were returning when Numair handed Daine a small tube of paper tied with plain ribbon. “Can we send this on to the king today?” he asked.
Daine nodded, and reached with her magic. Not far from their campsite was the nest of a golden eagle named Sunclaw. Daine approached her politely and explained what she wanted. She could have made the bird do as she wished, but that was not the act of a friend. The eagle listened with interest, and agreed. When she came, Daine thanked her, and made sure the instructions for delivering Numair’s report were fixed in Sunclaw’s mind. Numair, who had excellent manners, thanked Sunclaw as well, handing the letter to her with a bow.
Brokefang had watched all of this with great interest. You have changed, he commented when Sunclaw had gone. You know so much more now. You will make the two-leggers stop ruining the valley
Daine frowned. I don’t know if I can, she told the wolf. Humans aren’t like the People. Animals are sensible. Humans aren’t.
You will help us, Brokefang repeated, his faith in her shining in his eyes. You said that you would. Now, are you and the man ready? It is time to go.
Daine put Kitten atop the packs on Mangle’s back. Numair mounted Spots, and the girl mounted Cloud. “Lead on,” the mage told Brokefang.
The wolves trotted down the trail away from the cave, followed by the horses and their riders. When the path forked, one end leading to the nearby river and the other into the mountains, Brokefang led them uphill.
“If we follow the river, won’t that take us into the valley?” Daine called. “It won’t be so hard on us.”
Brokefang halted. It is easier, he agreed, as Daine translated for Numair. Humans go that way all the time. So also do soldiers, and men with magic fires. It is best to avoid them. Men kill wolves on sight, remember, Pack-Sister?
“Men with magic fires?” Numair asked, frowning.
Men like you, said Brokefang, with the Light Inside.
“We call them mages,” Daine told him. “Or sorcerers, or wizards, or witches. What we call them depends on what they do.”
Numair thought for a moment. “Lead on,” he said at last. “I prefer to avoid human notice for as long as possible. And thank you for the warning.”
The humans, Kitten, and the horses followed the wolves up along the side of the mountains that rimmed the valley of the Long Lake. By noon they had come to a section of trail that was bare of trees. The wolves didn’t slow, but trotted into the open. Daine halted, listening. Something nasty was tickling at the back of her mind, a familiar sense that had nothing to do with mortal animals. Getting her crossbow, she put an arrow in the notch and fixed it in place with the clip.
Numair took a step forward, and Cloud grabbed his tunic in her teeth.
“Stormwings,” Daine whispered. Numair drew back from the bare ground. Under the tree cover, they watched the sky.
High overhead glided three creatures with human heads and chests, and great, spreading wings and claws. Daine knew from bitter experience that their birdlike limbs were steel, wrought to look like genuine feathers and claws. In sunlight they could angle those feathers to blind their enemies. They were battlefield creatures, living in human legend as monsters who dishonored the dead. Eyes cold, she aimed at the largest of the three.
Numair put a hand on her arm. “Try to keep an open mind, magelet,” he whispered. “They haven’t attacked us.”
“Yet,” she hissed.
Brokefang looked back to see what was wrong, and saw what they were looking at. These are harriers, he said. They help the soldiers and the mages.
Daine relayed this to Numair as the wolves moved on, to wait for them in the trees on the other side of the clearing.
“Stormwings that work in conjunction with humans,” the man commented softly. “That sounds like Emperor Ozorne’s work.” The emperor of the southern kingdom of Carthak was a mage who seemed to have a special relationship with minor immortals, and with Stormwings in particular. Some, Numair included, thought it was Ozorne’s doing that had freed so many immortals from the Divine Realms in the first place. He had his eye on Tortall’s wealth, and many thought he meant to attack when the country’s defenders were worn out from battling immortals.
“Now can I shoot them?” Daine wanted to know.
“You may not. They still have done nothing to harm us.”
The Stormwings flew off. Vexed with her friend, Daine fumed and waited until she could no longer sense the immortals before leading the way onto the trail once more. They were halfway across the open space when Numair stopped, frowning at a large, blackened crater down the slope from them. “That’s not a natural occurrence,” he remarked, and walked toward it.
“This isn’t the time to explore!” Daine hissed. If he heard, he gave no sign of it. With a sigh the girl told the horses to move on. “The wolves won’t touch you,” she said when Spots wavered. “Now go!”
Follow me, Cloud told the horses; they obeyed. Daine, with Kitten peering wide-eyed over her shoulder, followed Numair.
Blackened earth sprayed from the crater’s center. Other things were charred as well: bones, round metal circles that had been shields before the leather covers burned, trees, axheads, arrowheads, swords. The heat that had done this must have been intense. The clay of the mountainside had glazed in spots, coating the ground with a hard surface that captured what was left of this battle scene.
Numair bent over a blackened lump and pulled it apart. Daine looked at a mass of bone close to her, and saw it was a pony’s skeleton. Metal pieces from the dead mount’s tack had fallen in among the bones. Looking around, she counted other dead mounts. The smaller bone heaps belonged to human beings.
Grimly Numair faced her and held up his find. Blackened, half-burned, in tatters, it was a piece of cloth with a red horse rearing on a gold-brown field. “Now we know what happened to the Ninth Rider Group.”
Daine’s hands trembled with fury. She had a great many ties to the Queen’s Riders, and the sight of that charred flag was enough to break her heart. “And you stopped me from shooting those Stormwings.”
“They don’t kill with blasting fire like this,” Numair replied. “This is battle magic. I have yet to hear of a Stormwing being a war mage.”
“I bet they knew about this, though.”
Numair put a hand on her shoulder. “You’re too young to be so closed-minded,” he told her. “A little tolerance wouldn’t come amiss.” Folding the remains of the flag, he climbed back up to the trail.