I’m rather fond of this chapter.  More behind the cut

CHAPTER ONE

LAWGIVER

Pandeena Moonbow rode into the quiet village of Running Horse at the southern edge of the mountain fastnesses of Clan Silverpaw. She had not been here in centuries, yet it had changed little. Cubs played along the streets: in human form wearing scruffy traditional robes; rolling, barking, and darting about in wolf form; two who had mastered the hybrid form wrestled near a horse trough. Myn walked the tree-shaded main street, most of them wearing the traditional wraparound robes with loose ties, made of embroidered cloth for the bitches and rope for the dogs. The human clothing styles, prevalent in some of the larger towns, had not yet reached Running Horse. She saw few males in trousers and shirt, and no bitches; which made Pandeena all the more conspicuous in her freeranger-style dark green leathers, trousers and jerkin with a pale brown shirt. She carried a Sharani longsword at her shoulder and a pair of lycan fighting knives at her hips. A two-chambered bow case rode beneath the flap on her heavy lycan saddle.

One of the easiest ways to spot a lycan village was to see how green it was. Unlike the humans in other countries, they had not given up their connection to the natural world. They built up instead of out for the most part, to allow for gardens and trees around their businesses and homes. The balconies of the buildings overflowed with flower boxes and roof top gardens abounded, all tended with loving care.

Two things made Running Horse famous: their strong, tough horses that regularly won the log pull at clan festivals, and their lawgiver, Padruig Caimbeul, who was celebrated for his wisdom, even-handed decisions, and utter fearlessness. Pandeena pondered what kind of reception she would get from Caimbeul, considering that they had parted in anger a century ago. The average lycan lifespan was six score years, barring accident, disease, or violence. Caimbeul, however, was nearly five hundred years old. His paternal grandmother had been a fireborn, and he had inherited the lifespan, if nothing else.

Pandeena reached the village common, glanced across the expanse of open green and spied the Lawgiver House sitting on the northeast corner of Roundtop Street, facing the common. She turned her horse onto the green and cut across it, avoiding six sheep grazing there under the watchful eyes of two cubs.

The Lawgiver House was a human-style building – Pandeena noted that she was seeing more of those every time she ventured out into the lands of her people – a blunt brick structure with a columned portico across the front and tie-up rails in the yard. Two lycans sitting on the portico in wooden chairs stopped in their conversation to stare at her as she dismounted and tied her horse to the nearest rail.

She was accustomed to being stared at. Part of the reason was the way she dressed. The second reason was her looks: Pandeena was beautiful, as befitted a granddaughter of the Moon God, Tala, Mistress of Wolves and the Hunt.

A young wolf, his silver hair like a touch of moonlight on a bright night, rose to his feet as she mounted the steps. “Can I help you?”

“I’m looking for the lawgiver.”

“That’s me. I’m Samuel Tarvish, lawgiver to Running Horse.”

Pandeena extended her hand to him, palm up, fingers curved into a half-claw.

Samuel raised an eyebrow at that, grasped her hand and sniffed her fingers. “Lycan?”

Pandeena nodded. “I’m looking for Caimbeul.”

“Pity that.” The other lycan, a gray-beard on his chin, chuckled. “Pretty bitch like you ought to stay away from that old crosspatch.”

She frowned. “We are talking about Padruig Caimbeul?”

“Oh, aye. He’s retired now. All he does these days is drink and snarl.”

“A snarling drunk?” Pandeena frowned. Padruig had always liked his liquor, but this did not agree with her memories of him. “Padruig?”

“You’ll believe it when you see him.”

Samuel shook his head when the graybeard started to say more. “Padruig has changed a lot. It’s best that you see for yourself.”

“Where can I find him?”

Samuel led her inside, where he drew a map on a scrap of paper to show her the way to Caimbeul’s cottage.

* * *

Pandeena found a cottage exactly where Samuel had said, but, looking at it, she was certain it could not possibly be Caimbeul’s. She wrinkled her nose in distaste. The place was little more than a rundown shack built out of cast off slatboards. One of the posts on the porch had rotted away, causing the roof to droop. The sight of it gave her stomach an odd flutter, remembering how Caimbeul had once disparaged wolves who lived like this. The boards creaked as she mounted the steps and crossed the porch. She knocked on the door.

“Caimbeul?”

“Go away.” The voice from inside the shack carried an edge of irritation marred further by slurring. “I don’t talk to anyone.”

Pandeena frowned. The voice was his, but the reply did not seem like the Caimbeul she remembered. “I need you.”

“Go away!”

She turned the knob and stepped inside. The interior shocked her worse than the exterior had. Caimbeul had been clean and tidy, everything had a place, and he wanted everything kept in its place. A king’s ransom in empty beer and whiskey bottles lay scattered over the dirt floor of the one room shack. The acrid scent of rotted food drew Pandeena’s attention to the square table shoved in a corner, stacked high with filthy plates and pans whose odorous contents would not bear close inspection. A dozen empty mead kegs with their sides busted in stood silent witness to a recent fit of drunken rage.

“What do you want, Pandeena?”

Caimbeul’s surly voice drew her gaze to a corner. The huge, grizzled wolf, nearly completely gray, lay on the floor with a bottle in his hand and whiskey dribbling down his unshaven chin. He had developed a paunch. The tremendous biceps and muscular chest she had so admired had turned to flab. Caimbeul had finally gotten old; and he had not aged gracefully. Only the craggy features, now lined and weathered, remained to suggest he had ever been handsome.

“I need a lawgiver.” Pandeena kicked bottles out of her path and stepped further into the messy cottage.

“I’m retired.”

“Are you, old lecher? I say you’re sulking.” Pandeena scanned the room again, trying not to stare at him. He had changed so much that she wondered if this had turned into a fool’s errand.

“Go away, Pandeena. I’ve had enough aggravation.” Caimbeul pushed into a sitting position and leaned his back against the wall. He took another swig from his bottle of whiskey and glared at her.

A faint frown drew lines across Pandeena’s forehead. “Seems to me the only aggravation you’ve got comes out of a bottle.”

“Oh for gods’ sake, Pandeena. Let me be.”

“I need a lawgiver and the best.”

Caimbeul threw the bottle at her, sending a spray of whiskey across the room. “Get out.”

Pandeena caught the bottle, looked at it, and saw there was some left. She wiped it off and drank it. “You’re the best, Caimbeul.”

“I’m old. I don’t do it anymore.” Caimbeul snatched up two empty bottles and threw them in a determined effort to hit her.

Pandeena side-stepped the missiles and the sound of shattering glass told her they had struck the wall behind her. “The Butchering Serpent is in Wolffgard.”

“The hell you say.” He stopped short with another two empties in his grasp. “Look at you … a fresh faced girl of eighteen for the rest of your life.” Caimbeul smashed the bottle he was holding against the wall. “Where were you when I needed you?”

“You knew what I was when you married me.”

“And you knew what I was when you divorced me.”

“A lecherous old sot with no concern for my feelings.”

Caimbeul flinched. “I loved you.”

“Is that why I was always hauling your arse out of whorehouses when you went to Waejontor?” Her lips compressed into a tight line of annoyance.

Caimbeul averted his eyes from her cool, blue gaze, and changed the subject. “What’s this about the Serpent?”

Pandeena folded her arms and stared at him for a moment before answering. “Are you really interested? Or just trying to avoid an argument?”

“Cut the crap. What’s this about the Serpent?”

“Do you even know who he is? For all I know you’ve been too drunk to notice anything for the past twenty years. Or longer.”

“I heard about it. Okay? Sixteen years ago, the Assassins’ Guild tipped off a battle-clan that someone was kidnapping city wolves and murdering them wholesale. It was a lurid tale. Vivisections. Toxin testing. Mass graves.”

“Would Fireborn Law like to take a shot at bringing him down?”

Caimbeul winced. “Don’t call me that. Fireborn Law died in Skeleton Creek … when they killed my son.”

Our son.”

“You wouldn’t know he was yours … way you were never home.”

“I loved him.”

“You barely knew him.” Caimbeul snorted. “I raised him alone.”

“Not totally.” Pandeena glanced away. “Look, I’ll stop bringing up the past, if you will.”

“So, back to the Serpent.”

“Someone murdered the lawgiver … well, tried to. Nikko Softpaws is with my mother. We don’t know if he’s going to live or not. He’s in bad shape. His people think he’s dead and it’s best left that way.”

“He tell you the Serpent attacked him?”

“No. Trauma wiped his memory. The only thing he knows is his name.”

“Then how do you know it’s the Serpent?”

Pandeena almost smiled. She could hear the quickening of interest in Caimbeul’s voice. “It’s a long story. Can I sit down?”

“The floor don’t mind.”

She cleared a space on the floor and settled cross-legged. “Nikko was shot with a special blend of Devil’s Silver that only the Serpent is known to use. I decided to look into it. When I got to Hell’s Widow, Amos Raggat told me that Wolffgard’s priest had died.”

Caimbeul’s eyes got that old familiar steel in them, and Pandeena knew that this was not a fool’s errand after all. “Priest and lawgiver both?” He scratched at the stubble on his chin. “Sa’necari always send someone in to kill the priest and the lawgiver as a prelude to invasion.”

“You taught me that.”

“You learned something. Go on.”

“Claw Redhand sent his best courier to fetch a priest from Shaurone. Cullen Blackwood.”

“How is Cullen? I haven’t seen him in years.”

“Dead. Sa’necari butchered him. I suspect it happened in Hell’s Widow.”

“Damn.” Caimbeul’s hands clenched into fists, his mouth tightened, and his gaze roved the roof beams. “I used to win … a lot betting on him. He could ride like Death over a battlefield. Cullen was a prick … and a slut … but he had a good heart.”

Pandeena flicked a strand of golden hair out of her face. “I know. I didn’t like him at first. He got on my nerves. I’m the one found his body. Kynyr Maguire asked me to scry for it … so we could bring his remains home. They’d dumped him into a shallow grave outside Hell’s Widow. That’s why I think he died there. Cullen was given a proper burial and lies behind my shrine in Wolffgard.”

“You think the Serpent did it?”

“I’m certain he did. According to Kynyr, one of the sluts from the Crimson Lady witnessed the murder. A mon in a serpent mask killed Cullen.”

“Anyone can wear a mask, Pandeena.”

“Put it together, Lawgiver. Mask, signature poisons, signature arrows. It’s him.”

Caimbeul sucked in a deep breath, a calculating look came in his eyes, his manner focused and steadied. “I don’t own a horse. Only clothes I got is what I’m wearing. I’m not presentable.”

Pandeena eyed him for a second, trying to decide whether his statement was the beginnings of an excuse or a true suggestion of need. “Clothes and a horse … I can provide them. Does this mean you’ll come?”

“Count me in.”

* * *

Pandeena had spent the past days giving Caimbeul more details, and he had mulled them over. The facts of the situation bothered him greatly. The previous lawgiver had been unusually young; Nikko Softpaws had received his place at the age of sixteen and held it for only three years when he disappeared. That was how Pandeena was terming it, even though she had Nikko at her mother’s home. Although his body had not been retrieved, the people of Wolffgard presumed their lawgiver was dead, because bits of his flesh had been found between the teeth of several dead imps.

Imps ate their prey alive. Yet, traces of Devil’s Silver, a deadly poison to lycans, had been found in the flesh, which should have told everyone that imps were not the killers. Imps did not use Devil’s Silver. Myn did. If the people of Wolffgard wanted to think imps, then it seemed best to let them. Caimbeul would feign ignorance and use his private knowledge to good effect.

He had scrutinized all of the information that Pandeena had given him, both secret and public, and found her reasoning sound. Someone was killing in Wolffgard, and the Butchering Serpent might well be responsible.

New clothes and a bath did wonders for Caimbeul and Pandeena soon had him looking acceptable. She missed his long hair, but the mats and snarls had been so bad when she set to work on it, that Pandeena had been forced to cut it short and close to his head.

Caimbeul stood in front of the mirror in his room at the Sleeping Dog Inn and wagged his head at the image reflected there. “I can’t say if I like it or not, Pandeena.”

Her nose wrinkled at him. “I imagine it took a lot of scrubbing to get the dirt off.”

“Well, yes and no.” Caimbeul grinned and left her to make what she would of the implications. “So I’m to be Lawgiver of Wolffgard.”

“Does it bother you? The idea of being senior to all the lawgivers in Red Wolf?”

His eyes went distant, and he crossed the room to a small table where his pipe and tobacco pouch lay beside a small box of lucifers. He settled into a chair, filled his pipe and lit it. “A century ago … I would have leaped at the chance. Gwythyr would have been proud of me … he was anyway … but you know what I mean.” Caimbeul caught the look in Pandeena’s eyes and made a fending off gesture. “I don’t want to talk about our son. I’ll try to stop mentioning him. But you must understand, Pandeena … not a day goes by that I don’t think about him.”

Her eyes softened. “How does this affect your willingness to go to Wolffgard?”

Caimbeul looked away, his head lowered; then he sucked in a deep breath and straightened. “I’m not as sure of myself as I used to be.”

“I know that.”

“Have you picked our route?”

“The direct route is across the Hellblade Corridor. However, that’s heavily patrolled and I don’t wish to reveal myself. It would be in the best interests of our people if no one knew that the Second Mother was at large in the world again.”

Caimbeul considered that a wise decision. Before the Lycan Rebellion of 997, Red Wolf had touched on Silverpaw in the north. When the Waejontori crushed the rebellion, they seized that strip of land and fortified it in an effort to isolate the two strongest of the Nine Great Clans: Red Wolf and Silverpaw. That area currently lay in the hands of the Waejontori Queen Tomyrilen the Bastard, who had raised a revolt against the Sharani.

“So you won’t simply Jump us there?” He tried to keep his gaze on her face, but his eyes kept drifting across her exquisite body in spite of his best efforts; and he wondered by what cursed chance he had managed to fall in love with the Second Mother of the lycan race. All lycans, to one degree or another, traced their ancestry to Pandeena, a yuwenghau – a minor divine.

“Same reason.”

Caimbeul nodded and puffed on his pipe for several minutes, thinking. “That leaves only making a detour through Waejontor proper. We’ll still be dodging Queen Tomyrilen’s forces until we reach Sharani held territory.”

“We’re taking the same route back that I took getting here. I know what I’m doing.”

“There are things I will need to buy along the way.”

“I guessed as much.” Pandeena unfastened a pouch from her belt and tossed it to him.

Caimbeul caught it in mid-air with a speed and ease that belied his obvious age, noted the weight, and opened it. Coins filled the pouch, mostly silver, but with a substantial amount of gold. “All of this is mine?”

“I said I would take care of you.”

A small smile lit his grizzled face. “You always were as good as your word.”

“Don’t spend it all on whiskey. A drink or two at the inns we stop at is one thing … but if I catch you lost in a bottle … I’m going to beat the unholy hell out of you.”

“You have my word. I will stay sober.”

* * *

The final purchase at Running Horse had been two pack animals and a gentle gelding for Caimbeul. He had thrown a fit, wanting a spirited animal like he had ridden in his youth. Pandeena overruled him; she had no idea how badly his skills might have deteriorated after spending years in the bottle. The single thing she had no doubts about was the condition of his mind: he was as sharp as ever.

They rode out of Running Horse three days after Pandeena appeared at Caimbeul’s shack, winding their way down through the western foothills of the Eiralyskali Mountains, heading into Waejontor proper. The Waejontori – and hence the Sharani also – considered the lands of the Nine Great Clans to be part of Waejontor. The lycans considered themselves independent and neutral. The Sharani had respected the lycans’ right to rule themselves; while the sa’necari aristocracy of Waejontor never had even to the slightest degree, and with the rise of Queen Tomyrilen, were beginning to pressure the clans. The situation did not bode well for the lycans.

They entered Waejontor in the evening of their second day of travel, stopping for the night at a lycan-owned inn on the outer edge of the town of Skinner’s Hollow. Pandeena got them rooms with a connecting door and had dinner sent up to Caimbeul’s room. They sat together eating in silence, worn out by the tensions of the day. Pandeena had been bending her Wilderkin talents to avoid the guard patrols. The birds and the beasts alerted her whenever one was near and they got off the road.

Caimbeul pushed his plate away and settled back in the chair with his pipe. “You still haven’t told me if you have a suspect.”

“I do and I don’t. It’s hard to explain.”

“Try.”

“Claw Redhand extended a kindness to the women and children fleeing the war, by creating and supporting a refugee camp they call the Sanctuary.”

“Humans?”

Pandeena nodded. “And five sa’necari women with lycan offspring. Some of the children are sa’necari-born.”

That brought a frown to Caimbeul’s face. “Sa’necari murdered his sons and he’s taking their offspring in? Where’d he get that?”

“His grandson is sa’necari. His daughter had a bastard child by a Dark Brother of the Light, possibly a descendant of Dawnhand.”

“I thought they were all dead. That massacre ten years ago….” Caimbeul took a long draw from his pipe.

“There were two survivors. Isranon and his sister. The sister perished three years later. According to Lokynen Willidar, Isranon is now calling himself Dawnreturning.”

“What’s the cub’s name?”

“Darmyk. He’s a sweet little cub. However, there are several odd things about him. He’s Wilderkin. And he has a wine-stain birthmark on his left shoulder in the form of the Willodarian bear.”

“Godmark?”

“I suspect so. I haven’t been able to contrive an opportunity to examine it.”

“We are living the old curse about interesting times. I’ve never heard of a sa’necari child who was godmarked and Wilderkin.”

“Neither have I. But he is.”

“I’d like to have a look at him.”

“You will. Any way. There’s a mon at Sanctuary who has a lot of influence with the young wolves. He’s human. I touched him, so I should know. However, I swear he tried to Read me.”

“Mage?”

“No sign of it. His name is Malthus Estrobian. My gut instinct says that’s not his real name. He came to the camp with two sa’necari born nieces, orphans. When Lokynen found Nikko, the young wolf said something that sounded like Marl or Mal or something like that, and that there was a sa’necari in Wolffgard who shot him.”

“You have five of them to pick from.”

“You mean the women? No, they’ve been there for several years now and they’re spellcorded.”

“So you think he meant Malthus?”

“Possibly. The mon makes me uneasy.”

“Well, you’ve given me a lot to think about. I’ll probably have more questions later.”

After Pandeena had gone to bed, Caimbeul slipped downstairs and purchased three bottles of whiskey that he stowed in his packs. He would keep his word about staying sober on the road, but once he got settled into Wolffgard, Caimbeul intended to tie one on.

* * *

As they descended out of the mountains where the lycan clan, Silverpaw, dwelled, the tangled forests gave way to larger and larger stretches of farmland, and the towns and villages grew closer together on the flatlands of central Waejontor. Despite the war, people still traveled. They passed peasants on the road; black clad Waejontori women in their headscarves and shapeless dresses following the proper number of paces behind their men. A coach rattled past them at midday with a large armed guard. As the number of people on the road increased, it soon became clear to Pandeena that it would be next to impossible to avoid the Waejontori patrols entirely. They would become mixed in with the others and her animals spies would become more easily confused.

What they did not see caused a sense of tension to grow in both of them: there were no lycans anywhere.

“Where have they all gone?” Pandeena asked, frowning at Caimbeul.

“I don’t know, but we’re conspicuous by their absence. And I think we’re about to find out.”

Pandeena followed his glance and saw a small unit of guardsmyn approaching them: dark myn in blood-red livery.

“Ho, lycans!” The captain shouted at them.

Pandeena reined in and waited. Had she been alone, or had Caimbeul still had all the skills of his youth, she would have acted against them at once; however, it seemed better to take a wait and see approach to this.

The Captain swung off his horse and stalked toward them. “Dismount and show me your papers.”

She blinked. “My what?”

“Travel papers. All lycans in the Queen’s territory are required to have travel papers. You must have permission to travel.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

The commander raised an eyebrow at her. “Clans wolves are you?”

Caimbeul dismounted and sauntered up to the commander. “We dinna know aboot this.” He thickened his accent in a deliberate fashion, hoping to appear as a simple-minded farmer. “Ah’m takin’ mah new bride home. She’s a pretty thing, don’t ya think?”

The commander glanced at Pandeena. “If you like them pale.”

“Sa what we do aboot these papers?”

“You’ll have to come into town with us. We’ll talk, and if my commander likes your answers, you will be given papers and allowed to go on.”

“An if ya dunna like them?”

“Matters could get rather ugly.” The captain sneered at them. “I’m sure the garrison will enjoy opening your wife’s legs.”

Caimbeul frowned. “Ah dunna want thaht. Ah ain’t hawd time ta swell her yet.”

The captain chuckled at the stupidity of Caimbeul’s answer. “If you don’t cooperate, you’ll leave with her swollen … but it won’t be yours.”

“An’ if’n ya like muh answers, Ah get her back untouched?” Caimbeul sounded puzzled, scratched behind his ear, and flashed Pandeena a cat sign that was hidden by his large head and thick neck.

Pandeena extended her Wilderkin talents, touching the Waejontori horses’ nostrils with the scent of lions. They bucked and reared. Several bolted.

“What the hell?” The captain froze, staring at the spectacle incredulous.

In the moment of distraction, Caimbeul drew his knife, grabbed the captain by the shoulder, and plunged the blade into his throat with a ripping twist. The captain’s eyes bulged in shock as he sank to his knees. Caimbeul jerked the blade out, turned, and remounted his horse. “Come on, let’s get out of here.”

A sharp tingling sensation swept through Caimbeul and his horse shuddered under him. He felt Pandeena’s powers gathering for a Jump. They vanished from the road in a shimmer of golden light.

They materialized beneath a stand of beeches, and Caimbeul had no idea where they were. The roads had changed a lot over the century since his gradual retreat into the bottle in Running Horse.

“You should have done that in the first place.”

Pandeena shrugged. “I wanted to see if you could talk us out of it.”

“I tried. I’m rusty at that stuff.”

“I saw.” Pandeena noticed that Caimbeul was shaking. “Are you all right?”

“I haven’t killed anyone since Skeleton Creek.” The answer had come without thinking, and he corrected himself silently. He had fought in the Lycan Rebellion, but with another face and name; cloaking his identify from all save a handful of myn he trusted.

“When Gwythyr died?”

“I put my blades up. This isn’t even a proper knife.” He pulled his blade and showed it to her as they rode.

“It’s just a belt knife….”

“Yah. I’m surprised it worked so well.”

“You must start wearing your blades again. It isn’t safe.”

“I don’t own any.” Caimbeul’s expression darkened as if staring into the mouth of nightmares.

“Then I’ll get you some.”

He gave a mute nod and did not reply. His thoughts drifted to the pair of fighting knives wrapped in silk and buried in his packs – the ones he had not worn since he failed to save his son. “Where are we?”

“Sharani held territory … or at least it was last time I went through here.”

“Yes, but where?”

“Due west of Tamrath Falls.”

Caimbeul scratched his chin, certain that his request would not go over well with her, but deciding to make it anyway. “Can we stop off at Skullbones?”

“Why?” Suspicion crept into her tone. “What do you want there?”

“Stop off at that mage shop … if it’s still there.”

A frown deepened on Pandeena’s face. “The only thing you ever bought there was contraceptives … those bloody seed crystals. We’re almost killed and all you can think about is sex?”

Caimbeul winced, glaring at his hands as he summoned up the courage to respond, and wondered where he had lost it. It had always been easier to argue with her when a haze of alcohol lay between them. Some days he was painfully conscious of who she was and on other days, she was just Pandeena to him. Caimbeul was too self-aware not to realize how and why he wavered between reverent and irreverent with her. She was both one of his gods and simply a bitch he had gotten his bone into. Life was easier when he took the latter view and he clung to it when he finally formed a response. “Why not? I’ve no intention of remaining celibate.”

Pandeena snarled at him wordlessly.

“I’m male. Deal with it.”

“Kynyr isn’t like that.”

Kynyr? “Who the hell is he?”

“Kynyr Maguire. Cahira Sinclair’s grandson.”

“Are you sleeping with him?

“Not that it’s any of your business … not yet.” Pandeena went arch on him, savoring her jabs in undisguised fashion. “However, we will be soon. Have you ever known a wolf that could turn me down?”

Caimbeul averted his eyes and did not speak to her for the rest of the day except to answer brief questions. Meanwhile, she prattled on about the ‘noble’ and ‘handsome’ Kynyr Maguire until Caimbeul wanted to hit him in the face.

Advertisements