As I raised my hands to fight,the three male wolves began to bark - but not at me or my assailant. They were focused on some other danger, farther up the tunnel, and took no notice of the trouble I was in. Nor did Magda, who lay peacefully where she was and gazed at me with a curious but unalarmed expression.
Before I could strike, the person holding me said something that sounded like "Gurlabashta!" I tried to shout in response but could manage only a muffled grunt because of the bone jammed between my teeth. "Gurlabashta!" my attacker snapped again, then eased the bone out and pressed a couple of dry fingers to my lips.
Realizing my life wasn't under threat, I relaxed and suspiciously studied the person who'd knocked me to the floor. With a start, I saw that it was one of the pale-skinned, white-eyed Guardians of the Blood. He was a thin, anxious-looking man. Putting a finger to his own lips, he pointed at the wolves - barking louder than ever - then up at the roof of the cave, where he'd dropped from. Pushing me over to the wall, he pointed out fingerholds in the rocks, then scrambled up into the darkness. I lingered doubtfully a moment, then glanced at the agitated wolves and followed him up.
There was a crevice at the top of the wall, which the Guardian guided me into. He slid into a small hole close by. I waited in silence, my heart beating loudly. Then I heard a voice addressing the angry wolves. "Quiet!" someone hissed. "Shut up, you mongrels!"
The wolves quit howling, but they continued growling menacingly. They backed away from the tunnel mouth, and moments later I saw a purple-skinned face poke out of the shadows - a vampaneze!
"Wolves," the vampaneze snarled, spitting on the ground. "Curse their eyes!"
"Leave them be," a second vampaneze said behind him. "They won't interfere with us if we keep out of their way. They're just scavenging for food."
"If they keep yapping, they could bring the vampires down on us," the first vampaneze murmured ominously, and I saw the blade of a sharp knife glint by his side.
"They're only barking because of us," his companion said, dragging him away. "They'll stop once we...?
Their voices faded and I didn't hear them after that.
When I was sure the way was clear, I looked over to where the Guardian of the Blood was hiding, to thank him for his unexpected help - but he wasn't there. He must have slipped away while I wasn't looking. I shook my head with confusion. I'd thought the Guardians were in league with the vampaneze, since one of them had ignored my cries for help when I was fleeing from Kurda and his allies, and left me to them. Why help me now when they'd abandoned me then?
Thinking it over, I climbed down and rejoined the wolves. They were still sniffing the air guardedly but had stopped growling. After a while, we followed Magda out of the cave as she resumed her way and led us farther up the mountain. She slinked ahead even slower than before, though I didn't know if this was because of exhaustion or the threat of the vampaneze.
A few hours later, we reached the lower Halls at the top of the mountain and skirted around them. We passed disturbingly close to the storerooms at one point. I could hear vampires at work behind the walls, getting ready for the large feast that would follow Kurda's investiture. I held my breath and listened for a few minutes, but their words were muffled, and I soon moved on, afraid one of them would discover us.
I kept expecting Magda to stop, but she led us higher and higher, farther up the mountain than I thought possible. I was beginning to think we must be almost at the very top when we came to a tunnel that cut upward sharply. Magda studied the tunnel, then turned and gazed at me - I could tell by the look in her eyes that she'd brought me as far as she could. As I dashed forward, eager to check where the tunnel led, Magda turned and limped away.
"Where are you going?" I called. The she-wolf paused and glanced back, tired resignation in her stare - she couldn't manage the climb. "Wait here and we'll collect you later," I told her. Magda snarled, pawed the ground, and ruffled her fur - and I got the sense that she was going away to die. "No," I said softly. "If you just lie down and rest, I'm sure -?
Magda interrupted with a short shake of her head. Staring into her sad eyes, I began to comprehend that this was what she wanted. She'd known when she started that the journey would prove too much for her. She'd chosen to make it all the same and die usefully, rather than struggle along after the pack for another season or two, dying slowly and miserably. She was prepared for death and welcomed it.
Crouching, I ran my hands over the tired she-wolf's head and gently rubbed the thin hairs on her ears. "Thank you," I said simply. Magda licked me, rubbed her nose against my left cheek, then hobbled away into darkness, to find a private spot where she could lie down and quietly leave this world behind.
I remained where I was awhile, thinking about death and how the wolf had accepted it so calmly, remembering how I'd run when it had been my time to face it. Then, shrugging off such dark thoughts, I entered the tunnel and climbed.
The wolves had a harder time on the final stretch than I did. Even though they were great climbers, the rock was steep, unsuited to sharp claws, and they kept slipping to the bottom. Finally, tired of hanging about, I slid down and let the wolves go ahead of me, using my head and shoulders to brace them when they lost their footing.
Several minutes later, we found ourselves on level ground, in a small, dark cave. The air here was musty, made worse by the strong stench of the hairy wolves. "You three wait here," I told them in a whisper, afraid their smell would carry to any nearby vampires. Shuffling forward, I came to a wall of thin, fragile rock. Dim light shone through several tiny holes and cracks. I pressed my eyes to the holes, but they were too small to see through. Inserting the nail of my right little finger into one of the larger cracks, I worked gently at the stone, which crumbled, widening the hole. Leaning forward, I was able to see through to the other side - and was astonished to find myself at the rear of the Hall of Princes!
Once I'd recovered from the shock - there was only supposed to be one way up to the Hall of Princes! - I began considering my next course of action. This had worked out far more neatly than I'd ever dared to dream, and it was now up to me to make the most of my incredible good fortune. My first instinct was to burst through the wall and scream for the Princes, but the guards of the Hall or one of the traitors might cut me down if I did, killing my message with me.
Retreating from the wall, I returned to the wolves and led them back down the steep tunnel, where there was more space and air. Once comfortable, I lay down, closed my eyes, and began thinking about how to make contact with the Princes - while at the same time avoiding the spears and swords of the vicious traitors and well-meaning guards!