Excerpt from WOLF’S SOUL by Jane Lindskold.
Published by Obsidian Tiger Press in August, 2020. Copyright © 2020 by Jane Lindskold. All rights reserved. No part of this text may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission of the Publisher. Exceptions are made for downloading this file to a computer for personal use.
NOTE: In the novel, a Prologue comes before Chapter One.
She checked her friend’s reaction carefully. Derian had delayed making the trip to Hawk Haven the previous summer, saying, with some justification, that he was needed while the Nexus Islands established themselves as an independent nation. But she knew that Derian also dreaded showing his family what querinalo had done to him. His fight to maintain his talent against the curse had left him with features that blended those of a horse with those a human. That the horse in question was a fine chestnut did not seem to comfort Derian, although he had eventually become resigned to the change. Firekeeper—who would not have minded looking more like a wolf than a human—sometimes had to fight to remember just how much anguish Derian had initially felt about his transformation.
Not long ago, Firekeeper had also thought that Derian was being cowardly in not wanting to visit his family. After all, what was there to fear? Derian had gained honors far beyond what a mere horse carter could have expected for his son. If Derian had lost an arm in battle, Colby and Vernita Carter would not have loved him less. How was a transformed physical appearance any different?
But now Firekeeper knew how very thoughtless she had been. The people of Hawk Haven had been taught from infancy to dread magic, just as the wolves who had raised her and Blind Seer had been. As long as Blind Seer’s magical gifts had been unknown, Firekeeper could ignore what their birth pack’s reaction would be, but now… Now Blind Seer’s power was far more than latent. He had transformed himself to have wings, and flown. He was openly studying magic under the tutelage of a human spellcaster. Now that there could be no overlooking what he was, what would their parents think? Would their welcome be any more certain than what Derian dreaded from the family he so faithfully continued to write?
Firekeeper hugged Derian tightly in mute apology.
“Soon.” Derian hugged Firekeeper back, then released her to give Blind Seer a light punch in the shoulder by way of greeting. “What sort of trouble have you gotten yourself into that you were hoping I’d be gone?”
If Derian had expected laughter or denial at what had been clearly intended as a joke, he knew Firekeeper too well to miss the suppressed tension in how she tossed her tousled curls from her dark eyes.
“The others come through soon,” Firekeeper said, stepping well away from the monolith that held the gate. “Then we tell all at once. I am sure you will be glad for Arasan being better with words than me before this is told.” The wolf-woman glanced mournfully over at the tidy sailing vessel that would carry them from the outer island which held the Rhinadei gate to the main island of the Nexus Island chain. “Especially since I do not have any fresh seasickness medicine.”
Derian dipped a hand into his vest pocket. “Frostweed sent some, just in case. Why don’t you down it, so it has time to take effect? One thing. Should I expect any strangers—like that Varelle you brought last time?”
Firekeeper shook her head. “Not yet. Strangers are staying behind to finish explaining how things are to their people while we came ahead.”
Narrowing his eyes—the brown orbs much more like that of a horse than a human—Derian gave a low whistle. “That doesn’t sound good.”
“Is not good,” Firekeeper admitted, adding water to the powder in the little flask, shaking it, tossing the foul brew back in one gulp. She grimaced. “But maybe it could be worse, far worse.”
Derian waited patiently while first Laria, with the falcon Farborn on her shoulder, followed by Arasan, came through the gate. None of them would seem much changed from when he had seen them last, roughly a moonspan and a half before.
Arasan had shed the extra weight he had gained during his convalescence, and his hair was a trace longer. Otherwise he appeared much as he had before: thick, dark-brown hair, showing attractive (to Firekeeper’s wolfish way of thinking) accents of grey, lines accenting thoughtful brown eyes. His lightly greying close-cropped beard and mustache couldn’t hide how both pain and laughter had taken their part in shaping his features. Arasan was the oldest member of their company in more ways than one. His body had experienced fifty-some years, but of his two souls, one was that of the centuries-old Meddler—a personage who, depending to whom you spoke, just might be a god, but who everyone agreed was trouble.
The merlin Farborn now flew without his remarkable crystalline talons setting him off-balance, but what couldn’t be seen in the tidy little dark-brown and golden-tan falcon was how much of his self-confidence he had regained. If anything, these days Farborn tended toward a certain officious certainty that the safely of his companions depended upon him, first and foremost.
Perhaps the greatest alteration would be seen in Laria who, at fourteen, was the youngest human member of their company. That she wore a sword—carrying it as if she was accustomed to its weight—was the smallest change. Her light-brown eyes had lost their perpetually worried expression. She actually smiled at Derian when he greeted her, rather than looking down at her feet and worrying the ribbon braided into her golden-brown hair. Her skin was the lightest of their group, a golden-brown like ripe wheat.
Firekeeper knew that neither she nor Blind Seer would have changed at all. Her short, curly brown hair was a little neater, mostly because Arasan insisted on trimming it, rather than letting her go after it with her hunting knife whenever it started getting in her eyes. But her eyes were still a brown so dark as to be almost black, and if her tanned skin carried a few more scrapes and scars, no one would notice.
Wolves did not alter much after reaching full adulthood, so Blind Seer was, as always, the handsomest grey wolf ever, his markings classic, the brilliant blue of his eyes perpetually thrilling by contrast. As was true of most yarimaimalom predators, Blind Seer was larger than Cousin-kind, standing tall enough that Firekeeper could rest her arm on his back without leaning down.
After greeting everyone, Derian said, “Chaker Torn and his daughter, Symeen, sailed me over when we detected the gate activating. Shall we board the Silver Lady? You can tell me about your adventures while we sail back. Did Blind Seer find his teacher?”
“His teacher, yes,” Firekeeper said, reluctantly climbing aboard, “and so much more.”
On the Silver Lady, Firekeeper and Blind Seer settled where they could face into the salt-scented air. With her face and body angled forward, Firekeeper knew she looked like a peculiar figurehead, but she listened carefully as Arasan—assisted by Laria—briefed Derian on the events since they had left to find Blind Seer a teacher, and had found so much more.
“So the short version is that you have reason to believe that this Kabot and his associates are somewhere in the Old World, probably Azure Towers?” Derian rocked his head back to ease a cramp in his neck muscles. “Can you narrow down when they would have arrived there?”
Arasan shrugged. “Somewhat. The message Kabot left Wythcombe said they’d been released three moonspans before.”
“But before when?”
“I’m getting to that. They were still caught within their gate spell a few years ago when Wythcombe made his last pilgrimage. Our current theory is that they were freed sometime after Virim made the most recent modifications to querinalo.”
“Because their spell malfunctioned after the Old World mages report that their people were beginning to survive querinalo, but that it was still strong enough to kill. Wythcombe checked on Kabot’s cabal more or less regularly at first. Remember, he knew nothing about querinalo, so all he was checking was whether they were still suspended.”
“Hold up. So Rhinadei didn’t experience querinalo?”
“It did, but what they experienced was much milder. It abated about the time—best as I can estimate—that Virim and his associates altered querinalo to permit the reemergence of talents in the New World. Since the Rhinadeians don’t practice blood magic at all—their term for it is ‘the anathema art’—they wouldn’t have experienced the extreme penalties suffered by those who employed blood magic. So, basically, the residents of Rhinadei have been without much in the way of restrictions on their magic for over a century.”
Laria cut in. “The Rhinadeians seem to have a lot more people with magical gifts than we do—which makes sense, since their society was founded by magic users. Because of this, there are whole parts of their educational system built around learning what sort of magic children have, then teaching them. So even though Kabot was somewhere around forty when he rebelled, he was already an expert.”
Derian frowned. “So we’re facing rogue blood mages who trained in magic as I did horseback riding—and I could ride before I could walk. Marvelous. Going back to when this cabal might have arrived in the Old World, why do you think the timing is related to querinalo?”
When Firekeeper spoke, she was very aware of her gut jouncing as Silver Lady smacked over the waves. “For a long time, Wythcombe thought that Kabot had done his gate wrong. When he learn from us how when we—you and me and Blind Seer—come from the New World to the Old, and how querinalo makes us all so ill, then Wythcombe wonders: What if Kabot did not do the spell wrong? What if querinalo made them sick so they could not finish the spell?”
“Oh, I get it,” Derian interjected. “Then, last year, Virim set out to make amends. So far he hasn’t figured out how to cancel the curse that’s at the heart of querinalo, but he’s been working hard to make the victims’ reactions less severe. You think that Kabot and all were somehow able to finish their spell then?”
Laria replied, “Wythcombe does. I think he’s right. I couldn’t get a clear reading on that place where Kabot’s cabal had made their base, but they were able to get out of the snare they’d been caught in, come back, set up a nasty welcome for just about anyone who might come after them, and then leave. Wythcombe and Ranz are going to try to narrow down when Kabot reopened his gate.”
Arasan nodded. “Even without that, we can estimate anywhere between the three months mentioned in the message and about six months, because that’s when Virim worked his first major abatement of the curse. Derian, you look… thoughtful? I’d expected anger or even disbelief, but what’s bothering you?”
Derian shook his head so hard that his forelock tumbled into his eyes. “I have a feeling that there’s a reason that Azure Towers is going to be difficult to deal with on this matter, but I can’t remember why. We’re going to need to brief the Nexus Islands council in any case, so rather than my speculating, let’s wait and consult them.”
He looked to where Symeen was adjusting a sail in preparation for bringing Silver Lady into the dock, then back to where Chaker stood at the wheel. “If you don’t mind, I’d prefer you two keep what you’ve heard to yourselves for now. I trust the Nexans, but today is a transit day for some of our clients. I’d just as soon that this news not get out before we’ve had a chance to decide what to do about it.”
Symeen nodded, trying hard not to look impressed at being taken into Derian’s confidence. Chaker grinned.
“No problem, Counselor. We’re used to keeping mum.”
Firekeeper wasn’t surprised by their support. Since last summer when the Nexus Islands had established their right to rule themselves, the Nexans had not lost their unity of purpose. They knew all too well how close they’d come to losing control of the gates, to returning to life as slaves of the powerful Once Dead. Maybe in time they’d forget that lesson but, for now, as the graves of those who had died in the defense were only now being covered with the faint green of new grass, the memory was fresh and raw.
Once ashore, Firekeeper’s erstwhile pack began to go their separate ways. Since it was likely that their small group would be departing before long, Laria wanted to spend time with her mother and two siblings. Blind Seer would be off to consult the jaguar, Truth, a frustrating proposition at the best of times, and one certain to be more so if—as they suspected—the currents of future events were in flux. This would leave Firekeeper and Arasan to brief the administrative council of the Nexus Islands. Farborn was remaining on the island in case anyone came through from Rhinadei. True, the gate was kept under observation by yarimaimalom gulls, but Farborn would know their friends—or at least allies—from outright intruders.
“Hard as it is for us to face,” Blind Seer said as he shook the sea spray from his fur, “the gates have changed what it means to have a territory.”
Firekeeper knelt so she could press her face into his fur and feel his breath warm on her skin. “Remember how Grateful Peace spoke of the gates? That in all his years as a spymaster, he had never realized that New Kelvin possessed a border in the basement of Thendulla Lypella. So it is for us all now. We have borders that cannot be easily seen—and dread the borders we have not yet discovered.”
“That is so,” the blue-eyed wolf agreed, stretching his torso in preparation for a run. “Truth needs to know what we have learned, if for no other reason than so she will understand why there is good reason if her visions have become more turbulent of late.”
“Run to Truth, then, my sweet hunter. I will listen while Derian and the counselors repeat themselves. Perhaps in listening I will learn what has Fox Hair so troubled.”
The council proved to be small. Zebel, the doctor, had expressed due thanks for being included in the ruling body, but excused himself from attending meetings unless the matter under discussion somehow pertained to the island’s medical needs. Wort, the island’s quartermaster, was logging in a new shipment of supplies. This left Skea, Ynamynet, Urgana, and Derian.
As Firekeeper had expected, much of what was said first was a repetition of what they had reported to Derian. One of Blind Seer’s favorite proverbs ran, “Hunt when hungry, sleep when not, for hunger always returns.” Until her stomach had settled from seasickness, Firekeeper had no appetite, so she drowsed while the discussion went on around her.
The wolf-woman was drawn from her doze by the voice of Ynamynet, the leading spellcaster of the Nexus Islands. Unlike many of the remaining Nexus Islands spellcasters, Ynamynet continued to wear the elaborate embroidered robes and close-fitting cloth caps that had distinguished those who practiced the magical arts. The reasons were, Firekeeper suspected, dual. Ynamynet was the Nexus Islands’ highest-ranking spellcaster. In her role as one of the two heads of the very informal government, she often needed to confer with other users of magic. These would have been shocked to see her otherwise attired. Ynamynet’s other reason was that, because of querinalo, she was always cold. Where others might find the heavy garment stifling, she welcomed the warmth.
“I wish I knew if Kabot’s cabal actually suffered querinalo or if it simply blocked their ability to use magic,” Ynamynet was saying, her pale blue-grey eyes narrowing in suspicion. “If they did suffer it, what did it do to them?”
Arasan replied, “I wish I knew. None who experience querinalo comes through undamaged—as you know all too well.”
“And for far too many,” Ynamynet added, “the damage is more than physical: a sense of entitlement is the least of it. Often there is paranoia, megalomania, or worse.”
“Very true,” Firekeeper put in, resisting the urge to yawn. “Maybe when Wythcombe comes, you could warn him his friend may be changed. You are a spellcaster who has lived through querinalo. Words from you should bear much weight.”
“I’ll do that,” Ynamynet replied. “Most definitely.”
Derian turned to Urgana. The elderly woman had come to the Nexus Islands decades before, in company with her magically gifted sister, who had been exiled from their homeland for the crime of surviving querinalo with her talent intact. After her sister’s death, Urgana had served as a clerk to the Spell Wielders. Now she served the Nexus Islands as their chief archivist and librarian—a task which made use of her scholarly inclinations and took advantage of the experience of her long life as well.
“Urgana, ever since Arasan told us that it’s likely that this Kabot’s spell took him to Azure Towers, I’ve been feeling uneasy—but I can’t remember why. On the surface, there doesn’t seem to be a reason for it. We haven’t had a great deal of contact with Azure Towers, but I can’t recall anything unduly bad. In fact, if I remember correctly, Queen Anitra has an excellent reputation.”
“She does and deservedly,” Urgana said. “Let me give you a brief summary of Azure Tower’s politics. I suspect that will explain why you’re feeling uneasy.” She shifted to a lecturing tone. “Azure Towers is very careful about foreign visitors, even those who can be assumed to be friendly. It shares borders with two nations—three, if one counts Tishiolo but, as Tishiolo is on the other side of a nearly impassible mountain range, that does not concern us—or them. One of Azure Towers’ borders is with the Mires. However, since the conclusion of the recent war, King Bryessidan has bent himself over backwards to prove that he truly desires nothing more than peaceful trade.”
Firekeeper tried to imagine the brash young monarch bending over backwards and found she could. When she had first seen him, Bryessidan had been clad in terrifying armor of silver and brass. Since then, she had seen him in other contexts, including with his wife and small children. The warrior king had been unbending to his undoing. The father king was a much more pleasant and flexible person.
Urgana continued, “On the other border is Hearthome. Queen Iline of Hearthome has always sparred with Azure Towers. Some say that she has a personal rivalry with Queen Anitra. Others say she uses the conflict as a means of keeping her extended family too busy to give her trouble. Queen Iline has repeatedly stated that she believes that Queen Anitra’s tiny nation should not be custodian of the ruins of the ancient university city, that the ruins should be the property of Hearthome instead.”
Derian tapped one hoof-like fingernail on the tabletop. “That’s what’s been bothering me—something about the university. Ruins you say?”
“Ruins,” Urgana agreed. “As Arasan mentioned, Azure Towers was the site of what was considered the largest and most prestigious university specializing in the magical arts. U-Chival also had a large magical academy, but since their magical teachings were inextricably intertwined with their religious beliefs, it was never as important.”
“But after the coming of querinalo, the university was destroyed, wasn’t it?” Derian protested. “Ruins, you said.”
“Destroyed, yes,” Urgana said, “but indiscriminately, by those with no knowledge of what they damaged. There has long been speculation that the ignorant may have left behind items of great value—especially of value to those who practice the magical arts.”
Ynamynet, the one spellcaster in their company, nodded. “I certainly heard such stories when I was growing up in Pelland. By the time I was born, people with magical talents were beginning to survive querinalo with their ability to use magic intact: Once Dead, as people still say.”
Firekeeper saw how Ynamynet unconsciously straightened with pride at the term, for she herself was Once Dead, and a spellcaster as well. Not long before, that would have set her at the top of the hierarchy of the Nexus Islands.
Of course, she still is on top, but for very different reasons. Ynamynet’s love for her husband, Skea, and their little girl caused her to side with us.
Derian flicked his horse ears flat against his skull, perhaps remembering how ruthless Once Dead Ynamynet had been, but he perked them again. When he spoke his voice held no aggression. “That’s something I’ve wondered about for a while, Ynamynet. If I have the dates straight, people in the Old World started surviving querinalo some three or four generations ago. Didn’t anyone start a new university?”
“Not a university,” Ynamynet replied with a brisk shake of her head, “nothing much larger than small-scale, very secretive instruction within families or communities. If you think that that New World has bad memories of when the sorcerer monarchs of old ruled, they’re nothing to what the Old World history holds. The colonies were well-established when Virim and his associates decided to protect the New World’s indigenous peoples from the invaders from the Old by creating querinalo. Here in the Old World—as well as in more distant lands, such as Tey-yo, where Skea’s family comes from—the sorcerers had ruled for centuries, and most felt little compassion for the peoples they dominated. When querinalo sickened those who possessed magical gifts, the attacks from the non-magical were swift and vicious—and justified as retribution.
“When those with magical talents began to survive, the fact that many were made—forgive me—apparently monstrous, by what the fevers did to them, did not reassure those without talents. Even those who, like myself, were apparently not marked were viewed as monsters. That we were born a few generations distant from the worst of the abuses kept us from being automatically slaughtered when we were discovered, but certainly not enough time had passed for the establishment of public teaching facilities.”
Urgana rapped her pen on the table. “King Essidan took advantage of the negative view of those who use magic to create a refuge for the Once Dead in the Mires. You know the consequences of that well enough.”
“I do indeed,” Derian agreed. “So, Queen Anitra is custodian of what many believe is not just a ruin, but also a sort of repository of magical what? Books? Surely those would have burned. Artifacts like the glowstones?”
“Or that peculiar sword that Laria brought back from Rhinadei,” Urgana agreed, “and possibly more powerful artifacts. Queen Anitra has declared the ruins of the old university absolutely off limits. For this reason, Queen Iline’s claim that Azure Towers is an unfit custodian has always been viewed by other nations, both on the continent of Pelland and those within trading distance, such as Tavetch and u-Chival, as unfounded paranoia and envy, nothing more.”
“But Queen Anitra is not likely to give us permission to send in a group to investigate if Kabot did go there.” Derian snorted a very equine sigh. “No wonder I was apprehensive. Either we take the risk of a crazed mage having free run of the ruins of a magical university or we send in what could be taken as an invading force, not just by Azure Towers, but by all the other Old World nations.”
“Laria, is that really, truly a magical sword?” asked Laria’s youngest sibling—her five-year-old brother Kitatos—for what seemed like the hundredth time over the past several days.
“Yes, it is.”
“What’s its name?” Kitatos asked.
“It doesn’t have one, yet,” Laria answered.
“I’d call it Biter of Badness,” Kitatos said, not for the first time.
Laria wished she’d just said her sword was an old one she’d found while in Rhinadei, but it was too late for that. She hadn’t liked to leave the sword sitting around, but carrying it with her had, inevitably, led to questions, questions she had answered honestly.
“Can I use it?” her younger sister Nenean asked. “You said that this sword helps people who don’t know how to use swords do it safely. Right? So you shouldn’t be greedy.”
Laria decided the time for white lies had come. “The sword can only have one owner. I’m the owner now, so it wouldn’t work for you.”
“You could tell it you’re giving it to me,” Nenean said with the covetous craft of her eleven years. “Then I’d give it back. Don’t be selfish.”
Ikitata, obviously regretting teaching her children to share, interjected maternal authority. “Enough, Nenean. Laria also told us that she’s been practicing how to use a sword, not depending on this one’s magic alone. She clearly understands that a weapon is a responsibility, not a toy. I thought you did, too, but maybe you don’t. Perhaps I should withdraw you from archery classes.”
That shut Nenean up right away. The Nexus Islands required all adults in its small population to train in the military arts. Even the elders had to learn the basics. Those who were too infirm to fight were trained in medical arts—learning enough to be able to tend patients or watch at the bedside of someone who had been critically wounded. Being given more than basic self-defense training was one of the first hallmarks of adulthood, and Nenean was very proud of her short bow and quiver of blunted practice arrows.
Ikitata went on. “Laria, do you remember the stories I told you when you were little? Maybe you can find a name for your sword in one of those.”
“Volsyl!” A character hardly remembered, never forgotten, sprang immediately into Laria’s mind.
“Not a bad choice,” Ikitata said. “You always did love the stories about her.”
Laria nodded. There had been stories about strong heroes, magical heroes, cunning heroes. Among these Volsyl stood out because she was none of these. All she had going for her was determination.
“Volsyl,” Laria repeated, touching the sword’s hilt. “I’ll call it Volsyl.”
“I still like Biter of Badness, better,” Kitatos muttered.
Laria tousled Nenean’s hair. “Want to go shoot targets? Bet I can beat you. I’ve been helping hunt.”
The sisters were out at the archery butts when Farborn streaked down from the sky and landed on Laria’s shoulder. The merlin bobbed his head down to indicate the message tube tied to his right leg.
“Thanks,” Laria said as she carefully unfastened it. Experimentation had shown that, no matter how delicate the glimmering crystal appeared to be, Farborn’s legs were actually armored. Nonetheless, they looked as if a breath might break the shell.
“What’s it say?” Nenean asked, jumping up and down impatiently.
Laria read aloud. “Silver Lady has set sail to retrieve Ranz and Wythcombe from the Rhinadei gate island. Firekeeper and Blind Seer have gone missing again. Arasan and I are stuck in a meeting. Will you meet them? Derian.”
Nenean went wide-eyed, all her previous sass vanishing. Although the Nexus Islanders were accustomed to transients, the idea of new arrivals from a civilization that had been forgotten long before the coming of querinalo remained exotic.
The sisters unstrung their bows, slid them into their cases, then hurried off toward the high ground where they could glimpse Silver Lady, her sails belled out, heading toward the small island.
“We have time to drop our archery gear at the apartment,” Laria said, omitting that she wanted to comb her hair and put on less sweaty clothes. Ranz had certainly seen her looking a complete mess, but that didn’t mean she didn’t want to take advantage of an opportunity to look her best. She even considered changing into a dress, rather than her more usual trousers and tunic, but Nenean would be certain to notice and, after she got a look at Ranz, to tease. As far as Laria could tell, Ranz hadn’t noticed that she “liked” him, but having him find out because of her little sister’s sly comments would be the worst.
“Laria! Silver Lady is nearly to the docks! I can see the pennants clearly.”
Gulping, Laria took a final quick look in the mirror—another of those little luxuries the non-ruling Islanders hadn’t possessed a few months before—then hurried down the stairs, Nenean pounding after. They arrived while Silver Lady was loosing her sails preparatory to sliding into its berth. Junco Torn, Chaker’s son and one of the few Nexans about Laria’s own age, gave the sisters a casual wave as he used his one remaining arm to grab the line Symeen tossed out to him. Nenean rushed forward to assist but, despite her getting underfoot, Silver Lady glided smoothly to the dock. What seemed like moments—or ages—later, Ranz stepped onto the dock, then turned to lend Wythcombe a hand.
They were an ill-matched pair. Laria knew that her tendency to compare Wythcombe to a potato had a great deal to do with the fact that, when she’d first met him, he had been digging tubers in his garden. He was somewhat shorter than average, balding, with weathered brown skin, deceptively mild brown eyes, and a generally nobbly build. Wythcombe had never said just how old he was, but Laria thought he couldn’t be less than seventy and maybe as much as ninety. His attire was more suited to a farmer than a spellcaster, all but for the polished, rune-inscribed staff, topped with some rough mineral, that he held in his right hand. Laria knew that Wythcombe’s many-pocketed vest was designed to hold the powders and dried herbs he used to hasten the activation of various spells but, combined with brown homespun trousers and well-used boots, it added to his overall lumpy appearance.
By contrast, Ranz—his full name was Ransom, but he hated to be called that—was as handsome as a dream. Like most Rhinadeians, his skin was a warm brown. His eyes were a pale ice grey with a darker rim around the iris. He wore his silky black hair to his shoulders, held from his face by a band tied across his forehead, the ends streaming down behind. Today’s band was a dark blue, similar to one Laria had filched and that now resided like a guilty secret at the bottom of her trouser pocket. In imitation of his master, Ranz wore simple clothing, but on him the multi-pocketed vest didn’t look in the least lumpy. He didn’t carry a staff, but Laria didn’t doubt he longed for that mark of a master spellcaster.
Wythcombe accepted Ranz’s assistance, although something in his slight smile suggested that he was humoring Ranz much as Junco had humored Nenean. Stepping neatly behind them came Rusty the goat, wearing Wythcombe’s packs.
Laria cleared her throat. “Welcome to the Nexus Islands.” Aware that she sounded ridiculously formal, she tried again. “Right? I mean, I’m sure that Chaker Torn already greeted you and all that, but… I’m glad to see you both. This…”
She indicated Nenean, who was now standing next to Junco. “…is my sister, Nenean. And this is Junco Torn. Nenean, Junco, these are Wythcombe, Ranz, and Rusty.”
“Is the goat yarimaimalom?” Junco asked, interested.
“Not wise,” Wythcombe replied, “merely a beast of burden, a prop for my aging years. It really would have been too much to ask Varelle to watch Rusty, so I brought him along. I figured he could be left here if we didn’t choose to take him with us. Goats eat almost anything. Rusty can make do with seaweed if he must.”
As if to prove the point, Rusty trotted along the dock, down to the sandy, gravelly shore, and started chewing enthusiastically on a bristly weed. Nenean hooted with enthusiasm and galloped down the dock after the goat. Laria couldn’t help but grin.
“If you don’t mind having Nenean take change of Rusty, the first place I’m supposed to take you to is Virim’s rooms.”
“That’s the sorcerer who created querinalo?” Wythcombe asked.
“That’s him,” Laria agreed. “I know you told us that you thought you could shield yourself and Ranz from querinalo, but Virim says he can do a better job. That way you won’t need to deplete your mana maintaining a shield.”
Wythcombe nodded. “That might be useful. However, I’ll want to discuss the nature of Virim’s shield with him before he does it.”
Laria laughed. “Virim will be very happy to explain what he’s doing to you. He loves to talk. The hard part will be getting him to stop explaining, and actually work the spell. Also, I’ve been told that when you’re rested from your travels, the council wants to speak with you—with all of us, actually. I don’t know the details, but there’s some disagreement as to the best way for us to go after Kabot.”
“Interesting,” Wythcombe said, his affable expression fading. “Very well. First Virim, then the council.”
“You don’t need to feel too rushed,” Laria said quickly. ““I’m supposed to show you to your quarters as soon as Virim has proofed you. There’s a nice cottage next to Plik that we’ve been using as a guest house that you can have. Private bedrooms and everything.”
She decided not to mention that no one had wanted to move into that particular cottage because the Spell Wielders had used it as a prison. Also, even with the gate removed from its hinges and repurposed elsewhere, not many people wanted to live surrounded by blood briar. Plik claimed not to mind. He even worked with Frostweed in tending the ferocious stuff, which—to be fair—was a valuable medicinal herb when it wasn’t killing anything stupid—or ignorant—enough get too close to it.
“‘Plik?’ That name sounds familiar,” Wythcombe mused, following Laria down the dock.
“The maimalodalu,” Ranz reminded. “The one who was captured by the Spell Wielders and is now a sort of elder statesman of the Nexus Islands.”
“That’s right!” Wythcombe said. “If I have estimated correctly, Plik’s around my age. It will be good to have another oldster around. You young people are exhausting. Where’s my other apprentice, by the by?”
“Hunting,” Laria replied, “with Firekeeper. On the mainland—in the New World. I’m sure someone will have sent a message that you’re here and they’ll be back. If they went far afield, the local yarimaimalom wolf pack will howl to them.”
“Marvelous,” Wythcombe said. “Absolutely marvelous.”
He said that a lot over the next few hours: repeatedly as he and Virim discussed querinalo and how to proof against it; when he met Plik; when he examined the blood briar (it turned out that Rhinadei had a several different varieties of the horrible plant); when Derian came to greet him astride the yarimaimalom horse, Eshinarvash, Isende behind him, her arms around his waist. The gate complex merited a “stupendous,” and the council a “deeply honored.”
Ranz was a lot more quiet, but his grey eyes missed nothing. Laria guessed he was imagining what it would have been like if he’d grown up here, surrounded by people who routinely used blood magic. No doubt the Spell Wielders would have recognized his considerable ability and taken care to train him. Of course, Ranz would have suffered querinalo, and probably wouldn’t have come through nearly as handsome. Then again… Laria found herself imagining Ranz transformed into a sort of Ice King: the sleet grey of his eyes paled into glinting, topaz blue; his usually unruly black hair combed back and frosted at the temples; the planes of his face sharper, as if carved from a glacier. His touch would be as cold as Ynamynet’s, but hadn’t she and Skea managed to…? They did have a kid.
Laria felt herself grow hot and, not for the first time lately, was glad her skin was brown enough to hide a blush.
Wythcombe had opted to take a quick tour, then visit more with Virim. However, he all but ordered Ranz to tour the Nexus Islands. Laria thought that Wythcombe was very aware that Ranz had only lived in one isolated village, which he had left in pursuit of his teacher. Certainly, there were times that—despite the fact that Ranz was more than five years older than she was—Laria felt as if he was the younger. He certainly showed that “youngness” in his first informal encounter with Ynamynet.
When evening came, Laria brought Ranz with her to the dining hall. The Nexus Islands had come a long way since the previous summer, but communal meals had become a habit. In any case, one team cooking for everyone freed up other Nexans for other, more essential jobs.
Ynamynet came to greet them, her daughter Sunshine tugging at her hand, her husband, Skea, towering behind. As always, Ynamynet was bundled in clothing more suitable for outdoors in winter, even though the dining hall was warm from hot food and many people—not all of whom were human. The yarimaimalom had taken to dining with the humans when appropriate, a way of asserting that they were people, too, not just very interesting animals.
Ranz studied Ynamynet with the most animation that he’d permitted himself to this point. “Excuse me if I’m being rude. I don’t really understand the protocol, but when Arasan was explaining about querinalo and how no one survived it without paying some sort of price, he used your situation as an example of how that price was not always readily apparent. Perhaps Arasan told you that my specialization is magic related to cold? I was wondering if I might…”
Ynamynet drew in her breath sharply. Behind her, Skea stiffened, which—given his height and bulk—would be enough to make most people stop talking. Even little Sunshine stopped smiling. But Ranz had built a city from snow and ice; that single-minded focus was upon him now.
“I was thinking that I might be able to reverse the damage. What happened to you might be something like the adaptation I raise for myself when I’m working with snow and ice, so my body heat doesn’t melt the snow, but somehow stuck.”
To say that Ynamynet’s gaze became frosty was clichéd, but Laria couldn’t help but think that if a gaze could freeze someone in their tracks, Ranz would be an ice statue now.
“My situation isn’t quite that simple,” Ynamynet said. “Querinalo isn’t. Be glad you have been spared.”
Ranz stammered. “I’m sorry… I did say I didn’t understand the protocol. I only…”
Sunshine tugged at her mother’s hand, and whispered, “Mama, you’re scaring him.”
Ynaymynet drew in a deep breath. “Yes. I’m sure I am. Ranz, come and dine with us. No hard feelings, but querinalo takes hold where one is weakest, and I am still very, very weak in some ways.”
Laria glanced between them. Skea gave her a broad wink and tossed his head to where Ikitata waved from where she sat with Nenean and Kitatos.
“Go on, your mama’s waiting. We’ll see you at the meeting tonight.”
So dismissed, Laria went. She glanced back, hoping Ranz would ask her to stay, but he was staring earnestly at Ynamynet and didn’t seem to notice that she’d left.
* * *
“We have chairs for you and Blind Seer,” Wort said when the wolves arrived prior to the meeting. Ruddy-skinned, fair-haired, Wort still possessed his warrior’s build and kept fit, but these days his frontline was likely to be one of the warehouses.
As much as Blind Seer appreciated Wort’s thoughtfulness, he wasn’t about to spend the next few hours sitting upright, unable to get his tail into a comfortable position. He didn’t need to voice his complaint to Firekeeper. She liked sitting on chairs as little as he did.
“Cannot sit that way,” Firekeeper said. “Not for meeting. Blind Seer needs his tail to talk.”
That last was both true and clever. Blind Seer huffed agreement and gently butted Firekeeper with his head in thanks.
Wort looked concerned. “But if you sit on the floor, people won’t be able to see you.”
“People will,” Firekeeper retorted. “Some humans may have difficulty. What say this? When we have visited the Liglimom’s u-Liall , they set their tables and chairs like this.” She sketched a broad curve in the air. “Those of us—like Truth when she was the jaguar of her year—who are not human but are people, we sit closer to the ground. Truth have a special pillow even, though I think she would be happy with a rug or even a blanket.”
Wort rubbed his palms against his ears hard enough that Blind Seer could hear the coarse hair within rasping. Then he shrugged. Like most of the Nexus Islanders, he would not have survived the war without the intervention of various yarimaimalom.
“That would work,” he said.
To show her gratitude, Firekeeper hurried over to shift tables and chairs. The days when she thought such labor beneath a wolf were long gone. Now that the Nexus Islands were the closest thing she and Blind Seer had to a pack, she gave her all, as was right and proper for a wolf.
Blind Seer still lacked hands. He swallowed a sigh at this, but the grip of his jaws could be very delicate if he wished, so he pulled various chairs into position.
“Is Truth coming to the meeting?” Wort asked, obviously considering whether he should send one of his staff to find a rug.
“Blind Seer says he thinks she will,” Firekeeper replied. She stood back, hands on hips, went to move one of the perches that had been supplied for those of the wingéd folk who would be attending, then nodded, satisfied. “Me and Blind Seer, we don’t need a rug. The floor is fine.”
“Blind Seer and I,” Derian corrected, as he entered the room, his arms full of map cases. “You wouldn’t say ‘Me don’t need a rug,’ would you?”
“Maybe,” Firekeeper hung her head, then peeked up through her tousled hair. “If I forget. Did you like the venison we brought back from the mainland?”
“Did you?” Derian said, moving to where an easel had been set and pinning up maps. “I don’t think that was included in tonight’s meal, but I’m sure it will be delicious.”
“A bit tough,” Firekeeper said honestly. “Spring game is, though on the mainland where it never really gets too winter, the game is fattening up nicely.”
She shared news about the wolves they had run with during their visit. Derian was as interested in the news that Onion and Half-Ear’s pack had a healthy litter of pups as he would have been to learn that one of his human friends had a new baby.
The best thing about Derian, Blind Seer thought as he eased himself onto the polished boards of the floor, is that he didn’t need querinalo to make him look like a horse to begin to think of Beasts as people.
Not long after, the rest of the council filed in, minus, as usual, the doctor, Zebel. Derian and Ynamynet took seats at the center table, near the easel with the maps. Skea sat to Ynamynet’s left, with Wythcombe and Ranz to his left. Urgana and Wort sat to Derian’s right, where Arasan joined them a few moments later.
There was a chair for Laria next to Ranz but, to Blind Seer’s surprise—his nose told him of the girl’s interest in Ranz—Laria flung herself on the floor next to himself and Firekeeper. Farborn took one of the perches. Last, when her attendance would be certain to cause a reaction, the jaguar Truth padded in and lounged regally on the folded horse blanket Wort had found for her.
Blind Seer opened his mouth in a grin wide enough to show his molars. Truth would have made an impression even if she’d been a more normal jaguar, but her bout of querinalo—during which she claimed she had fought the Liglimom’s deity of fire, Ahmyn—had turned her formerly golden fur charcoal black, transformed her black spots to reddish orange tongues of flame, and altered her dark-amber eyes to white with slit pupils of blue.
“Tell that human child that she can sit on the blanket with me,” Truth said. “She need not sit on bare boards.”
Firekeeper passed on the invitation. Laria—acutely aware of the honor—scooted over next to Truth, scratching the jaguar behind her rounded ears when invited to do so. Blind Seer wondered which of Truth’s visions had told her that it was important to build Laria up in front of those who would still be inclined to view her as a child, but he did not doubt that Truth’s actions were calculated to do precisely that.
After Truth had settled and water had been poured for those who wished it, Derian started talking. “Over dinner, those of you who hadn’t done so already had opportunity to meet our guests from Rhinadei: Wythcombe and Ranz. Let’s get down to business then.”
“Business” proved to be a short summary of the events that had brought Wythcombe and Ranz to the Nexus Islands, “so you can correct us if we have any details wrong.”
After Wythcombe stated that the council understood matters better than if he himself had reported them, Ynamynet took over, reporting—with occasional references to the map on the easel—about Azure Towers and how access to the ruins of the university was forbidden. Next the discussion became general as various options were discussed. No one liked the idea of leaving Kabot and his cabal to have free run of the university ruins, so “wait and see” was immediately discarded. Another option that was discarded was informing Queen Anitra of the situation, then leaving her to decide whether or not to investigate.
“If she says ‘I don’t believe you’ or ‘I don’t want to take the risk until there’s reason,’ what would we do?” Skea asked. “I think it’s best that we narrow to how and what to ask the queen. We should make it clear that this is a matter in which Wythcombe, as a representative of Rhinadei’s government, in pursuit of a fugitive, feels a strong need to assure himself Kabot isn’t in the ruins.”
Wythcombe scratched the bald spot on the crown of his head and said, “I think Rhinadei’s government would support me as their representative in this matter, although I will admit, I didn’t come here with anything like an official appointment.”
“As long as you think they’ll back you if asked,” Skea said, “that’s enough.”
Ranz had been studying the map. Now he half-raised one hand. “Is there a way we could get into the ruins without being detected? With Firekeeper and Blind Seer as guides, we could travel by night or under cover. That way we wouldn’t need to involve the queen at all.”
All eyes moved to look at the map. Azure Towers was bordered by the Mires to the west, Hearthome to the north, mountains to the east, and a short stretch of rocky shoreline to the south. There was a thoughtful silence.
“The magical gate we know of in Azure Towers is in the City of Towers,” Urgana began after consulting her notes. “It’s likely there were others, possibly many others, in the university city, but we know nothing of them and none of our investigations into the sealed gates has taken us there. If we don’t wish Queen Anitra to know of your intent, using Azure Towers’ gate would be out of the question.”
“What about those other lands?” Ranz persisted. “From the stories Arasan told us, I had the impression that the Nexus Islands were on pretty good terms with the Mires. Would the king—Bryessidan, I think his name was—would he let us in through his gate? We could make our way across the Mires into Azure Towers, maybe cling to the shore, then find our way into the ruins.”
Blind Seer snorted. The journey did look simple when one was looking at a map. That was the problem with humans—they tended to forget the picture wasn’t the reality. He and Firekeeper had spent a very interesting half-moonspan in the Mires and come away from it with muddy paws and a firm respect for that treacherous terrain. But even if King Bryessidan provided a guide, there was another reason this was a bad option.
“Tell them,” Blind Seer said to Firekeeper, “that we cannot have King Bryessidan accused of partaking in what would—after all—be an invasion. That would be poor repayment for his overtures of friendship.”
Firekeeper translated faithfully. Ranz, who had been looking quite eager, deflated. Doubtless he had been prepared to remind them that his gift for turning water into ice would make passing through the sodden swamplands, if not easy, at least possible.
“A related argument,” Skea added, giving Blind Seer a nod, general to general, “applies to our sending a team in via the southern shore or the eastern mountains. The difference would be that the Nexus Islands could be accused of invading. We’re establishing good relations with the various gate-holding lands, but none of them have forgotten even for a moment that one of the yet unawakened gates might open into their backyards. Trust is our best defense, and we don’t dare weaken it.”
“So,” Arasan said, tapping a martial rhythm on the table, “that means we either must speak with Queen Anitra, or go in via her gate, then hope to sneak into the university ruins. I think we have ample reasons to discard the latter option. So we must speak with the queen, and hope she will give us permission to do what she and her ancestors have steadfastly forbidden since querinalo caused the fall of the sorcerer monarchs of old.”
Somewhere in the course of planning the embassy to Queen Anitra of Azure Towers, Firekeeper realized that Derian was intending to be one of the members. For a brief moment, the thought made her very happy. No matter how much she had come to treasure other humans, Derian was her first human friend. He had stood up for her when she hadn’t even known she needed defending—indeed, when she would have heatedly argued that the last thing she needed was any weak human’s defense. Firekeeper hadn’t understood the risks Derian had taken for her, because she hadn’t understood how humans in his society judged not only on merit, but on birth. In return for these old debts, no matter how appealing the idea of having Derian with her and Blind Seer as they set off on this new journey, Firekeeper realized that it was her role to forbid him to join the embassy.
Shortly after the decision was made to approach Queen Anitra, the meeting was adjourned until after breakfast the next day. Of course, Derian had to stop and talk with any number of people before he could leave, but Firekeeper and Blind Seer waited patiently in the shadows, then trailed Derian to the cottage he shared with Isende. The door was hardly closed behind him before Firekeeper—remembering that this was Isende’s home, too, and she might not approve if Firekeeper and Blind Seer came in unannounced—knocked lightly but firmly.
Derian swung the door open a narrow crack. “Can’t it wait…” He stopped midsentence when he saw the two wolves and swung the door wide to admit them. “Firekeeper, Blind Seer… What is it? It must be important if you couldn’t tell me at the meeting.”
Firekeeper made certain the door was closed behind them, gave Isende a deep bow to wordlessly acknowledge that they had invaded her territory, then turned to Derian.
“Is important. Very. We came to tell you that you cannot go with us to Azure Towers, not even to the court for diplomacy.”
Derian looked shocked and hurt, Isende only puzzled. She recovered first, and motioned to the hearth where banked coals broke the springtime chill.
“Have a seat on the rug by the fire. I have some oatmeal raisin cookies and tea. I knew Derian would be hungry after the meeting.”
Firekeeper and Blind Seer accepted the offered place by the fire, although the room was warm enough that they would have been more comfortable away from it. However, they knew when welcome was being offered, and the situation was delicate enough that they had no desire to unbalance it. Firekeeper even accepted a cookie, although she didn’t have much of a taste for sweets. These little social rituals gave Derain an opportunity to recover his poise. Anyone who didn’t know him so well—or have Blind Seer’s keen nose for reading human moods—would have been fooled by his casual, teasing reply.
“So, I can’t come with you? Certainly you don’t think you’re up to negotiating with queens, do you? Or do you now trust Arasan so much? Have you forgotten that the Meddler is there as well? Or do you think you have him on a choke chain?”
Firekeeper frowned as she pieced through this barrage of questions. “No. No. Yes. Not at all. No. Not anymore.”
Isende sputtered with laughter, then poured tea for Derian and herself, water for Firekeeper and Blind Seer. “Derian, why don’t you ask Firekeeper why she doesn’t want you to go with them? Then you’ll have a better foundation for arguing with her.”
Blind Seer thumped his tail against the floor and Isende amended. “With them. Blind Seer clearly agrees with Firekeeper.”
Derian’s ears flickered as if he might pin them back in mulish refusal, then he sighed. “Very well. Firekeeper, why do you and Blind Seer think I shouldn’t come with you to Azure Towers?”
Firekeeper hid her relief. She really hadn’t wanted to get into a fight with Derian. “There is—are—two reasons. One is because of who you are. Even if you do not say this too loudly, you are the One of the Nexus Islands. Not a king, no, but definitely One, because everyone looks to you when a decision must be made—especially if that decision is not about magic. If you go with us, then what is just people becomes something more. A meeting of packs, of governments. I do not think you wish this thing. If we decide to do something sneaky, then it is like what Blind Seer said about King Bryessidan helping—an invasion or attack.”
Derian looked uncomfortable. “Do you plan to do something ‘sneaky’?”
“Plan? No. But if we must, we must. This is too big to leave alone or to leave others to deal with. I think—Blind Seer, too—from how Kabot left a message for Wythcombe and only for Wythcombe that part of what Kabot does is because of Wythcombe. Good? Bad? I don’t know. But this is why we cannot leave this to Queen Anitra and her people to decide.”
Blind Seer lifted his head from his paws and stared at Derian. “Tell him, dear heart, that while I could not get much sense out of Truth, she did say that those of us who went into Rhinadei, as well as the two from Rhinadei, must be involved or worse would happen. That she risked the streams of insanity to learn this much makes me feel that she, too, feels this is not a matter we can leave to Queen Anitra.”
Firekeeper translated and Derian sighed again. “So, one reason I shouldn’t go is that this matter then becomes Nexus Island business. I might argue…”
Isende cut in. “But you’d be wrong. So don’t, Derian, just don’t. I suspect that Firekeeper and Blind Seer are anticipating an argument that would have come up in the morning meeting. I’m interested in knowing what their other reason for not letting you go is.”
“She smells of apprehension,” Blind Seer said. “The tang is strong, but I cannot tell why she feels this way.”
In reply, Firekeeper gently squeezed his shoulder with the hand that lay buried in the fur on his back, then went on, “Isende, this next is not signs and omens. It is what we two, Derian’s friends, think. We think Derian needs to go home to his family. It has been too long. So much has changed and those changes are far bigger than the horse ears and handsome mane. He has found you. In the religion which is like a pack to him, Fox Hair needs to show you to his family, to his ancestors. Then you and him and any little ones will be part of the bigger pack. If going to them was impossible, then it would not matter, I think. But it is possible and, no matter how Derian makes excuses, as long as he puts off this visit, the putting off will eat at his gut.”
Isende smiled and rested her hand on Derian’s arm. “I think that, too, but I also understand his being nervous.”
Blind Seer said and Firekeeper translated, “If we worry about the elk kicking, we will never begin the hunt.”
“I understand what you mean,” Derian said, “but what if I’m in doubt about the wisdom of this hunt?”
“You don’t doubt,” Firekeeper stated firmly. “You are only nervous. Blind Seer says to tell you there is another reason for this going. As we have said over and over, you are the One of these islands. To those in the New World, you will be the most important One, for they will not trust Ynamynet because she is a sorcerer. They must learn to know you and accept you. Grateful Peace will smooth the way in New Kelvin. I think that—much as you may doubt this—Rahniseeta will in Liglim. But for Hawk Haven and Bright Bay, you must speak for yourself, and quickly.”
“Blind Seer says all of that?” Derian said, forcing a chuckle. “He has a lot more to say these days than he used to.”
“Blind Seer has changed,” Firekeeper admitted. “Before he viewed himself as one of our pack of two. Now we has a bigger pack.”
“Ouch!” Derian said, but he was laughing as he said it. “Very well. I will make clear that not only shouldn’t I be part of this embassy, neither should Ynamynet or anyone who could be taken as representing the Nexus Islands. Moreover, I will also make clear that Isende and I haven’t changed our plans to go first to Liglim, then from there, by ship, to Bright Bay and Hawk Haven.”
Isende visibly relaxed. Firekeeper didn’t need Blind Seer’s nose to know that she was pleased. And why shouldn’t Isende be? She had no family other than Derian. To remain forever on the fringe would become increasingly painful and might, in time, weaken the budding trust between them.
“This is all good,” Firekeeper said. “We think everyone will feel relieved. If you can go away from the Nexus Islands, then there is nothing to fear, for they know you would never leave if you did not believe everyone will be safe.”
Derian tossed back his forelock. “Now, if only I can make myself believe that.”
Excerpt from WOLF’S SOULby Jane Lindskold.
Published by Obsidian Tiger Press in August, 2020. Copyright © 2020 by Jane Lindskold. All rights reserved. No part of this text may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission of the Publisher. Exceptions are made for downloading this file to a computer for personal use.
Copyright © 2020 by Jane Lindskold. All rights reserved.