“I had closed my eyes, refusing to look into its hate-filled gaze, but when I felt its breath recede I opened them again. The bear had shrunk to its haunches, head lowered, eyes now lit with another human trait—fear. Not, of course, of me, but something beyond me. So I turned and saw a wolf.
“Two things struck me at once. First, it was large, larger in fact than the bear that now cringed from it. Secondly, its eyes. They looked into mine and I knew . . . It saw me, all of me, skin, bone, heart and soul. It saw me, and felt no malice at all.
“I heard a scraping sound and turned to see the bear fleeing into the night with all haste, the white shape soon swallowed by darkness. The wolf circled me for a short while, its gaze still fixed on me. For all the strangeness and the terror I still felt the great cold enfolding me, the sweat on my skin now frozen, leeching away what strength I had left. My vision began to dim and I knew death would soon claim me . . . Then the wolf growled.
“It was not a voice that came to my head then, more a certainty, an implacable conviction that I couldn’t die here. From somewhere I found the strength to stand and the wolf trotted away towards the north, stopping after a time to ensure I was following. I shuffled along in its wake for uncounted hours, or possibly days, for all sense of time seemed to fade. If I faltered, or felt the welling surge of despair that would tempt me to sink onto the ice where at least I could rest, the wolf would growl, and I would keep moving.
“We stopped when a green fire began to flicker in the sky. Not knowing what it was, I finally fell to my knees, thinking this a vision of death, or madness. Perhaps I had already died and my tutors had all been wrong; there is something awaiting us beyond the arc of life. All fear had left me by then, along with all but the most faint sensation, numbed as I was. Now there was only acceptance, a sense of a journey complete.
“And the wolf howled.”
Astorek closed his eyes and Vaelin felt Dahrena’s hand slide into his, knowing she too was recalling the wolf’s howl, that night in the forest when the Seordah heeded its call to war. He knew Astorek couldn’t describe how it felt, the sound that seemed to strip away everything but the core of those privileged, or cursed to hear it.
“I would have wept,” the young shaman said, reopening his eyes to regard his audience with a sombre smile. “Had not my tears been frozen in my eyes. The wolf’s howl faded and it looked at me, one last time, then was gone, bounding across the ice. I stared up at the fire in the sky for a time then lay down to sleep. Whale Killer must have found me only minutes later, for I was still alive to greet the next dawn.”
“And you have remained here ever since?” Vaelin asked. “Never tempted to return home?”
“What home would I return to? Everything I had is gone. Besides, when they returned the next summer, I learned full well the vileness of my former people. We knew of the Bear People’s great battle with the Cat People, that they had fled to the west in search of easier prey. The Wolf People were not sorry to see them gone from the ice, for they had fallen to unwise ways. But, though the Bear People had won a victory, their losses meant they couldn’t withstand another Volarian expedition, especially since the Volarians had learned their lessons well and came better equipped and in much greater numbers. When they were done with the Bear People they came for us.
“Many Wings had taught me much, and I was a very keen student. She had hoped to shield me from the struggle but I wanted to repay their kindness. We killed many Volarians together, my wolves and her hawks, striking where they were weakest, fleeing before they could strike back. For months we harried them until their line of march became a red smear across the ice. But there were always more, and, though I searched for him, I never caught Tokrev’s scent again. Two winters ago they stopped coming. We thought we had finally convinced them to leave us be, but it seems they went across the great water to torment your people instead, for which we are sorry.”
Vaelin’s gaze went to Kiral who gave a short nod. She hears no lie . . . as I heard no lie from Barkus.
“They will come again,” Astorek went on, eyes intent on Vaelin. “In greater numbers still. But now we have you, Raven’s Shadow.”
• • •
The hut where Alturk had chosen to seclude himself was a mean thing, little more than a slanting shack in a small clearing away from the main settlement. The door gave way easily under Vaelin’s boot, releasing the fetid odour of an unwashed man mired in overindulgence. Alturk’s substantial form lay on a bed of furs, snoring loudly, surrounded by the walrus-tooth flasks their hosts used to store pine ale, all empty. The slumbering Alturk gave no indication of having noticed the intrusion, something that changed abruptly when Vaelin emptied a bowlful of ice water over his shaggy head.
The explosion of rage was instantaneous, the Lonak surging upright, war club in hand, teeth bared in a snarl. He paused at the sight of Vaelin in the doorway, confusion flickering across his dripping face. “Do you choose death now, Merim Her?” he demanded in a hiss.
“Sorbeh Khin,” Vaelin stated, the Lonak for a formal challenge. “You are no longer fit to lead the Sentar. They are mine now. If you wish to keep them, fight me.” He turned and walked into the clearing where the Sentar waited, looking on with shared expressions of grim understanding. Kiral had explained Vaelin’s reasoning and, to his surprise, none had raised an objection.
“Faithless dogs,” Alturk growled at them as he emerged from the shack, going on to harangue them in Lonak in a short but vehement diatribe that appeared to leave all singularly unmoved.
“You no longer hear the word from the Mountain,” Kiral told him. “You make yourself, varnish. This man gives you a chance to prove otherwise.”
Alturk gave no reply, consenting only to sneer at her before fixing his unsteady gaze on Vaelin, grip tightening on his war club. “Where is your weapon?”
Vaelin spread his hands, showing the absence of a dagger at his belt, his sword also gone from his back. “Why would I require a weapon? You offer no threat.”
Alturk stared at him in fury for a moment longer, then began to laugh, throwing his head back and casting hearty peals of mirth into the trees as he tossed his war club aside. “I should thank you,” he said when his laughter finally subsided. “Not every man gets to make his dreams real.”
He came at Vaelin in a crouching sprint. Their time among the Wolf People had done much to restore his frame and, for all the pine ale in his belly, his speed was impressive, leaving only the barest time for Vaelin to sidestep the charge and deliver a punch to his jaw. Alturk grunted in pain but didn’t falter, replying with a swift round-house blow. Vaelin blocked it with both forearms and drove his elbow into the Lonak’s exposed face, following up with a rapid series of punches to the face and belly, dodging Alturk’s counterblows as he drove him back, every punch landing with unerring precision . . . Until the Lonak caught one in his fist and hammered a blow into Vaelin’s temple.
He reeled from the impact, the world suddenly a blur as he struggled to resume a fighting stance. Alturk didn’t afford him the opportunity, however, sweeping his legs away with a kick and driving another punch into his face. For a moment the world went away and Vaelin could see only a vague shadow, surrounded by glittering stars . . .
“You,” Alturk grated, looming closer, meaty fist drawn back for another blow. “You made my son varnish. I see him every night, I watch him die every night, because of you, Merim Her.”
“I spared a boy,” Vaelin replied, spitting blood, feeling his left eye swelling shut. “You killed a man . . . A man who made his own choices.” He saw it then, a flicker of something in the Lonak’s eyes, a spasm of expression on his craggy face. “You knew,” Vaelin said in realisation. “You knew he had betrayed you long before you killed him.”
Alturk snarled again, drawing his fist back farther. Vaelin hawked and spat blood into the Lonak’s eyes, buying enough time to twist and deliver a kick to the side of his head. He surged upright as Alturk staggered away, charging forward to drive his head into the Lonak’s midriff then jerking it up to connect with his jaw. He followed with more punches to the face, Alturk sagging more with each blow, arms flailing as he tried to ward off the assault. Finally Vaelin sent him to his knees with a right hook to the jaw.
Vaelin paused, chest heaving, his fists leaking blood onto the forest floor. “Nishak told me,” Alturk said in a dull, weary voice, gazing up at him, blood streaming from numerous cuts. “I . . . didn’t listen.” He lowered his head, slumping in resignation, muttering, “I make no request for the knife.”
Kiral appeared at Vaelin’s side with Alturk’s war club in hand. “Strike true, Tahlessa,” she said, offering the weapon to Vaelin. “He deserves a quick end at least . . .”
She trailed off abruptly and straightened, her gaze going to the south. From the pained expression on her face he knew her song must be sounding a powerful note. However, this time he didn’t need to ask the meaning, for he could hear another warning, pealing across ice and forest, undeniable and implacable. The Sentar stirred in discomfort, exchanging fearful glances, for no wolf’s howl was ever so loud.