Disclaimers: See Part 1
No matter how hard I tried, I could not fall asleep. Nighttime sounds drifted in through the walls. My body was tired, but my mind was wide-awake. Lying still wore on my nerves.I could not see the moon through the walls, but I could feel its pull. When I closed my eyes, silvery light danced behind them. But I could not go running now. It was too dangerous. Kila or Paetir might wake in the middle of the night and see me.
I decided to start gathering our things, desperate for something to occupy my mind. Larna's arms and legs were tangled with mine, and it took me several minutes to ease away from her. I climbed out of bed, ignoring the coldness of the floor.
On my way to find a candle, I bent to pick up my light traveling pack. As I looked down at it, I realized that I could see everything clearly. I had forgotten my new eyes. Sometimes, my heightened senses still surprised me. There was no need for the candle after all.
I noticed Ellie's journal laying half in and half out of the pouch. My stomach tugged with guilt. It had been several days since I wrote to my friend. She would be wondering where I was, what I was doing. Maybe she was worried. In my hurry to leave the Farseer pack, I hadforgotten ink and a quill, but surely Kila would let me borrow one.
A few minutes later, I was sitting at the rough kitchen table. The end of a feathered quill tickled my nose. A piece of sweet nut bread stuck out of the corner of my mouth. Ellie's journal was open in front of me.
There were three letters waiting for me to read. The first one was newsy. There were more rumors about the turmoil in Amendyr. Prince Brendan's council was calling for an embargo, even though Amendyr had already shut off trade from their end.
The second letter was probing. What was I doing? How was Larna? Had I kissed her yet? I smiled softly at the questions. Ellie probably wanted to know if we had made love, but was too polite to ask.
The third message was short and frantic: Where are you?
My mouth tightened to a thin line. There was no way to tell Ellie what I had been up to without worrying her. I should have written to her before this. As I turned the journal to an empty page, I realized that there had been no time.
I spent long, silent minutes deciding what to write. My life was much more dangerous than it had been a few months ago. I had fought and killed demons. I had tasted blood. I had seen death. My life had also become unbelievably wonderful. I found the other half of my soul. I knew what it felt like to make love with my Tuathe.
I was not the same meek girl that Ellie had rescued from Luciana's torture. I felt a little more like a woman.
Now, how could I explain all of this? I decided on the truth. I owed my friend that much, even though we were from different worlds now. I was not sure how much of it she would understand. Ellie had never killed anything in her life. I knew that she was brave, though. She proved that when she stopped Luciana's plot to take over the kingdom of Seria.
By the time I sketched out everything that happened, I was exhausted. That was how my lover found me several hours later, fast asleep at the kitchen table. Fortunately, Kila and Paetir were still in bed. Larna did not scold me for leaving the bedroom and staying up late. Instead, she helped me to my feet and washed my face with a wet cloth. I was grateful. My mind was still fuzzy with sleep, but I managed to thank her and give her a kiss. Then, we put on fresh clothes and made sure that all of our things were packed.
When she woke up later that morning, Kila gave both of us warm hugs, with an extra long one for Larna.She made sure to put some of last night's meal in our traveling packs. Paetir looked guiltily at Larna as he shook her hand. She gave him a sad but genuine smile. The boy seemed to appreciate the gesture. He still felt bad for giving Larna the bad news about her village.
Just before we walked out the door, Kai rushed forward and attached himself to myleg until his mother forced him to let go. I patted his head, said thank you to our hosts, and then we started on our way.
I yawned and blinked my eyes, trying to clear my head. The air was cool and wet, and the last of the morning frost clung stubbornly to a few patches of grass. Winter was coming fast. I squinted down at my boots, which were caked with mud, and my grass-stained leggings. I wished that I could change my clothes. There were a few clean things left in our pack, but not many.
With more effort than it should have taken, I pulled my pack onto my shoulder. I was tired, drained. My boots made a crisp, crunching sound as I stood. So far, our journey had not been pleasant. After staying up all night, I was exhausted. Larna seemed quiet and introspective, not responding when I tried to talk to her at first.
“I wish we were back at camp. We could have a warm fire, and clean clothes, and food...”
It was the wrong thing to say. Larna immediately grew defensive. “You didna have to leave with me.” I saw the shadows in her eyes, and knew she was upset. I tried to distract her, not wanting to fight.
“Of course I did. Don't be silly.”
The corners of Larna's mouth tightened. “I am not silly.”
“You are. What did you think I would do, stay with Hosta?”
That hit a nerve. “What does Hosta have to do with any of this?” she snapped, her lips peeling back from her teeth in a wolf's snarl. I could see the anger swelling inside her, swirling like a giant cloud.
“Larna?” She clenched her fists, nails digging into her white palms. Her jaw was stiff, and her breathing was too loud. But there was helplessness, too. Fear, insecurity. She needed me. Somewhere deep inside, she was terrified of being alone. Her pack had abandoned her, and she wanted to be sure that I would not do the same thing. I wanted to help her.
“Larna?” I said, stroking her cheek. The touch made her shiver. I realized what she needed, what I could do to change her anger andenergy in to passion. “Show me who I belong to.” She hesitated until I whispered, “please.”
My lover shoved me roughly against the nearest tree. The bark scratched the skin of my back through my shirt, stinging my shoulders. Her hot mouth found mine, and she bit my lower lip, tugging firmly. I gasped, almost crying out, but Larna's heavy hand on my stomach kept me quiet. The hand slid up along my belly, mauling my breast through fabric, squeezing possessively.
I was a little frightened, but my trust in her was absolute. I would let her have me how she pleased. I knew that Larna was bothered by what had happened inthe past few days. I could feel it in her bunched muscles and her thudding heartbeat. She needed this. Even with such a brave, strong heart, she was still vulnerable and insecure. She needed to reclaim me.
“You are mine. No one else's,” she snarled, punctuating each word by rubbing her thigh against me. My eyes closed and my head rolled back. I had no breath to speak. I already felt wetness between my legs, and it surprised me. Larna nipped my soft white throat. “Say it. Mine.”
“Yours,” I panted, breathing harder as her hand stole between my legs, unbuttoning my pants, but not bothering to pull them off. She was inside of me in moments, hardly preparing the tender muscles. It stung and ached a little, but the tight, burning fullness was wonderful. Larna could read my body. She knew I wanted more. There was another pulse of wetness. The tips of my nails pressed into the skin of her shoulders, gripping, desperately clinging, but I did not seem to be hurting her.
Larna took a ragged breath beside my ear. Her neck and forehead glistened, and a rippling wave of desire pounded through me. I collapsed between the tree and Larna's chest, a mass of warm, trembling muscles. Her searching fingers probed deeper, flicking the swollen bundle that brought me to tears. My other-heart knew how to touch me just so.
“I love you. I belong to you,” I said in whisper kisses, sensing that she needed to hear more. I made a line with my lips along my handsome lover's face. Larna's throat rumbled, and she bit lightly at my shoulder.
It was quick, and a little brutal. But there was a strong bond of trust and understanding as Larna and I shook with release in each other's arms, floating in the dream-place outside the rest of the world. I felt loved and safe and protected, not used. Pressed skin to skin, Larna and I were a perfect fit. The point of her chin tucked just above my head. Our hearts beat together.
Drained, both of us sank to the grass beneath our tree. Larna curled her fingers inside of me, and my muscles twitched sharply with the memory of my pleasure. Larna kissed my cheeks, my chin, and the center of my forehead. I sighed happily, tucking my head against her chest. She was breathing gently now, totally relaxed and at peace. I was proud of giving her that feeling.
“Cate,” she mumbled softly, shifting in my arms.
“Yes, love,” I promised her, “you have me.”
Later, we tried to understand what had happened between us. Larna glanced down at me shyly, combing her gentle fingers through my hair and cupping my cheeks with loving hands. “What I did...” she faltered for a moment, but gathered her courage. “It was all right? I was not hurting you?”
“Not what you did. What we did,” I said. I was the one who encouraged Larna to make love to me. Despite its roughness, the focus had still been on the connection between us. It was not just sex for desire's sake.
“I am feeling like I took my anger out on you. I know about your past... I should have been more careful...”
I shook my head. Her warm palms still cradled my face and chin. She bent down to press a soft butterfly kiss to my nose. I giggled, catching her bottom lip with my teeth and tugging lightly. I tried to keep the mood playful instead of serious. The last thing I wanted was for Larna to feel guilty.
“It was not like being with Luciana at all. We made love. You would never hurt me,” I said, pressing another kiss to the corner of her mouth. Her lips trembled. “It is all right,” I said, letting the words come in a soft breath. “We are still getting to know each other, but I do know that sometimes you need to... mark your territory?”
Larna rolled her eyes, but I could tell that she was secretly amused. “Maybe,” she admitted, a little nervous. I noticed how perfectly her lean body fit against mine.
“I need that, too, Larna. When you make love to me... even that way... it makes me feel safe and connected to you. If I asked to be alone, you would not touch me.”
My lover looked a little more cheerful. “I hope you are not one of those girls who likes saying ‘no' when she means ‘yes',” she said, only pretending to tease. There was a note of seriousness in her voice.
“No,” I said. “I mean, yes...” Both of us giggled again. It was strange how fast our moods changed. Moments ago, we were sharing a wild, primal connection. Now, we sounded like silly, infatuated newlyweds – which we resembled, I reminded myself. “Larna, I feel protected in your arms. I know that if I told you to stop, you would stop.”
Larna gave me a smug smile. “Usually, you are pleading with me to give you more.”
I did not deny it. “I guess what I want to say is – if you want to... dominate... me sometimes, I don't mind. I need you to have me that way for my own reasons.”
For a moment, my Tuathe seemed overwhelmed. Then, she smiled. “I want that, too. But... we will keep talking about it, yes? And not always, just sometimes?”
“Yes we will keep talking about it,” I promised, “and just sometimes.” It was only the first of many discussions, but we had set the foundation.
During the last hour of the early morning, Larna and I watched the sun rise above the mountain peaks. It was absolutely breathtaking. Streams of scarlet and orange light streaked out from behind the giant, purple-blue shadows. I had no idea how we were possibly going to climb to the top. “I have never been near the Rengast before. It is beautiful,” I said, gazing with wide-eyed wonder.
“It is,”Larna agreed. She gave me a slight smile. “I think so every time I see it.”
“You have been here before?”
“A few times. It is the way my father and I used to take to the mountains.” I could actually see the brightness in Larna's face dim as she remembered her father. Her cheerful expression turned dull. Instinctively, I reached out and touched Larna's hand. She paused, and then tightened her fingers around mine. We kept walking, our hands still clasped together.
“How long until we reach the top?” I asked.
“Three days. We would go faster if we changed.”
“But we would not be able to carry clothes or food. I don't think the rebels would appreciate us barging in to their camp naked.”
Larna bumped her hip against mine playfully. “They might. Two young, attractive females wandering naked in to camp...”
“They would enjoy it, until you tore their eyes out for looking.”
I turned to the side, studying my lover's profile. The lines of her face were strong, but gentle. She was so young, I realized, startled by the thought. Larna was probably the same age as me, certainly no older than twenty. It did explain her shy, fumbling moments in our relationship. I found them endearing. Somehow, our connection felt so ancient that I forgot how young both of us were.
“I didna think about nakedness much when I joined the Farseer pack,” Larna said slowly, breaking my concentration. “But after... when you came to stay with us, I hated the way they were looking at you.”
“There were a few.” Larna frowned at the memory. “You are very beautiful. I am sure some of it was curiosity.”
“They wanted to know if your wild red curls were the same all the way down.”
My mouth made a surprised ‘o', and my cheeks felt very warm. Many Amendyri had red hair and freckles just like mine. I never considered them unique or attractive traits. Larna had a way of highlighting my mundane features that made me feel special. “Larna!” I slipped my hand out of hers and nudged her shoulder. She held her hands up to offer a truce.
“I was teasing! I wondered, but I dinna think anyone else was having those thoughts. You always turn around in front of the others anyway.”
“And you always stand in front of me.” Now it was Larna's turn to blush. “It's all right, Tuathe. It is sweet of you to defend my virtue... even though you already compromised it.”
Larna looked startled for a moment, but her face relaxed into a warm smile. “You called me Tuathe,” she said dreamily, reaching for my hand again.
“I never called you that before? Maybe only in my head.”
“Me too,” Larna said happily. “Maybe now... we can say it out loud.”
I gave Larna's hand a gentle squeeze. “That would be perfect.”
As wewove our way through the trees, picking over the rocks and dirt, we came to a cluster of dry, tangled branches. I pressed my hand against the scraped, wrinkled bark of a tree to rest. Larnawas just ahead, pushing past the branches and making her way steadily through the thick undergrowth.
“How much longer are we going to have to do this?” Iasked, scrambling after her to regain the ground I had lost.
“Not too much longer,” Larna said in a cheerful voice. She did not seem to be bothered by the uneven ground and the branches and leaves closing in all around us. “Soon, we will find the path.”
“There's a path?” I asked, trying not to sound upset. For the past day, I had thought we were lost, with only the tops of the mountains to keep us going in the right direction. “Why are we wandering around in the thickest part of the forest, then?”
“I knew we would be finding it eventually.”
“You should have told me,” I grumbled, crunching behind Larna. The ground was too full of rolls and bumps and stones to walk on properly.I was sick of it.
For another three minutes, we traipsed onward, pushing our way through the dry winter undergrowth, clearing space to pass through. I brushed away some loose strands of hair that were clinging to my forehead, and saw Larna let out a cry of excitement. “Ah! Here!”
I hurried forward. In front of us was a narrow, flat path stretching off into the trees. I stepped onto it, kicking at the dirt with the toe of my boot. I was still irritated with Larna, but being on flat ground soothed my nerves.
“Shall we go then?” Larna's excited smile softened my heart. She had no idea that I was mad at her. Or, had been. I could never stay angry with her for long. I nodded, and we followed the path.
The forest path led us in a straight line for two days. It was not until the fourth day that anything interesting happened at all. The land began sloping upward, and the trees were thinning out. Soon, we werein the mountains. It happened more gradually than I expected. The forest seemed to stretch up along the sides of the Rengast, at least on the lower slopes, blending the two landscapes together.
We had already been walking for a good part of the morning when we reached a fork in the road. One path led to the left, winding off into the trees until it was buried under scattered piles of leaves. The other path led to the right, stretching up and up, and it was well traveled.
“Which path should we take?” I asked, looking to Larna for a decision. She did not answer. Instead, she lifted her nose and sniffed the air, her wide brown eyes reflecting the light and taking in every small movement around us.
“There are men behind those trees up ahead,” she whispered.
I looked hard, but could not see anything. “How do you know?” I whispered back.
“Smell.” I sniffed the air, sifting through the usual scents of wood, leaves, and cold air. Beneath them was something else. There were men in the forest! Not just one, a group of them. They had animals with them, and I did not recognize the scent. They smelled a little like horses or livestock.
“Bicorns,” Larna explained, answering my unspoken question. Bicorns were the horses of the mountains. With two horns on their heads, one in front of the other, and cloven hooves, they were as surefooted as rams. They were excellent at carrying humans, and their supplies, up and down the mountains.
“Do the men see us?”
“I dinna think so.”
“What should we do?” I asked.
Larna smiled, showing teeth. “I think we should play a game.”
“If we get killed, it's your fault,” I said flatly.
Moving quickly and quietly, my tall lover left the path and melted into the trees. I copied her, but not without one last backward glance over my shoulder at the path. “Strip,” Larna ordered when we were far enough away. “It seems that two young, attractive females will be wandering in to a rebel camp sooner than we thought.”
Both of us pulled at our clothes, loosening ties and pulling at buttons. Soon, we were naked and changing in to our other bodies. It was easy now, I reflected, scratching at my chin with a hind paw. I felt comfortable with the fur and muscle.
Larna moved her head to say, Come, and I padded softly behind her, rolling the joints in my feet the way she had taught me. Silently, we stalked back up the road, staying behind the trees this time. The scent of men was stronger now. I wondered why I did not notice it earlier.
Larna's tail stiffened, and her nose pointed towards a large pine with several small, craggy rocks around it. There, her eyes said. Without looking at each other, we split in two different directions to approach the circle of men hiding behind the tree.
There were ten of them altogether, eight swordsman and two archers. All wore simple leather armor and carried supplies. The land dipped down briefly behind the pine tree, leaving a wall of dirt and leaves just high enough for a man to rest his back against – which was what most of the group had decided to do. There were ten Bicorns as well, but they were not as oblivious as their humans. They scented us immediately, and began tossing their heads, aware that predators were near.
Larna's dark form was crouched on the other side of the group, only thirty feet away from me. Her muscles were not tensed, and her tail hung low. She did not consider these men a threat. When she broke from the shelter of the trees, I copied her.
Immediately, the ten men scrambled to attention, grabbing for their weapons. The archers nocked arrows to their bows. The Bicorns reared, panicking. Fortunately, their reins were tied, and none of them broke free. For a moment, I thought Larna had made a mistake and they were going to shoot us on sight. One of the men stepped out of the line and raised his hand. “Stand down. These are not wolves.” The archers lowered their bows, reluctantly. The Bicorns were still distressed, and one of the archers hurried to calm them.
“What do you want?” the man asked, addressing us. He had streaks of silver in his hair and a scar on his cheek. His legs were like thick tree trunks.
Without embarrassment, Larna changed. She did not seem bothered by her nakedness. Truthfully, the men were in such awe that they hardly noticed. It was clear from their shocked faces that none of them had seen a Wyrchange before. “You are Jett Bahari's men,” she said, gesturing at them. It was a statement, not a question.
“Why do you want to know?” said the man, shifting his barrel of a chest as he touched the hilt of the dagger resting on his hip.
“They are spies!” a voice shouted. Another man came forward, clunking in a pair of large metal boots that were far too big for him and totally impractical for walking around in the forest. Larna almost laughed at him, but managed to bite her lip in time.
“We are not spies, we are here to join you,” she said.
“How do we know you are telling the truth?” the foolish man said accusingly.
“Who else would come here?”
“Spies,” he said again. One or two of his companions nodded, but the rest of them stayed quiet. They seemed almost resentful of the man with the boots. He certainly did not act like a proper soldier.
“We are not spies,” Larnarepeated calmly.
“Wyr are dangerous! You should have shot them on sight!” cried the man in the boots, flailing his hands at the silver-haired giant.
“They are not puppets of the witch. They would have attacked instead of showing themselves. She changed to speak to us,” he gestured at Larna.
The man with the metal boots glared at him. “Get back in line,” he spluttered, his purple cheeks shaking with rage. “I am supposed to lead this division.”
“It isna a division, Teb, it be a scouting party, and you are only leader because you were drawing the short straw.”
Teb, the man with the metal boots, still seemed uneasy, throwing suspicious glances at us before turning to address his ragtag troops. “We will question them further,” he said.
“Jett Bahari will question them,” said the large man. “He will know what to ask. We will take them to him.”
“They could be friends of the witch, or the Queen,” Teb insisted, his flushed face turning an even deeper shade of purple. “You want to lead them right to our camp!”
A man wearing a green cap laughed. “And how many spies have we seen in all these months, Teb?”
“None,” another man called out from the line before Teb could speak. “Let's just take them to camp so we can eat.”
“Fine, we will take them,” Teb agreed sourly, grunting and clanking in a circle until he was facing up the road. “Alright, everyone, get moving.” Reluctant to follow Teb's impolite orders, but eager to get to the camp so that they could eat, the men started up the path.
“We canna come with you,” Larna called. The procession stopped.
“You will follow us!” said Teb, looking angry.
“Naked?” Larna raised one eyebrow, a trick that I envied. “Without our supplies?”
Teb swallowed nervously, noticing that Larna was naked for the first time. I was too shy to change out of my wolf form. He did not seem sure what to make of us. Apparently, his pompous display of leadership was all for show.
“Where did you leave your things?” asked the giant man.
“A few hundred yards that way.” Larna pointed into the trees. The man headed off in the direction that she pointed. The rest of the group followed. Teb was last, muttering about spies and suspicious behavior and traps the whole way, his metal boots clanking raucously.
After we put on our clothes and traveling packs, which seemed to make the men more comfortable, we followed the rebels higher into the mountains. The forest thinned out, and soon we were climbing past craggy rocks. I felt my thighs and back burn with the effort of trudging uphill, but it was not entirely unpleasant. I wished for a moment that we had Bicorns to ride, but we did not have trouble keeping up. Our gift – or curse – made us stronger.
Larna did not seem bothered by the physical strain. There was one advantage to walking behind my lover – I did get a good, long look at her backside.I noticed the way her back curved at its small when she navigated a particularly steep bit of slope. Even on the Bicorns, the men hurried to push in front of us whenever we took the lead.
“They shouldna turn this in to a competition,” she said, sounding amused as she watched the rebels pass us once again. Only the large man kept his Bicorn at a steady pace. “They are foolish and prideful. They will tire their mounts.”
“I don't know,” I said, giving Larna a sidelong look. “Some females I know can be very prideful and foolish, sometimes, too.” My Tuathe just rolled her eyes and pretended not to hear me.
We walked through the hottest part of the day – which was still very cold, now that we were in the mountains – but stoppedearly, before the sun had finished setting. “We must post a guard on them tonight,” said Teb, “to make sure they do not try to run away.”
“If they run away, how will they find our camp?” asked one of the men, countering the frustrated little leader. “They have to come with us if they want to see Jett Bahari.”
“Posting guards on them willna do any good,” the giant pointed out. “They are Wyr, they can overpower us.”
Teb complained and tried to bully the others in to seeing things his way, but eventually, he gave up and sat down while the rest of the men began building a fire and laying out rough sleeping blankets. “How much food do you have left?” Larna asked, knowing the small packs that we all carried could not hold much.
“Enough to last until we reach the top of the mountain, if we are being careful,” said the old, silver-haired giant.
“My mate and I will bring meat,” said Larna, phrasing it as a polite offer.
“Your mate?” Teb, who had been eavesdropping, looked surprised, and a little too interested in our conversation. His attention made my stomach tie itself in knots. Larna sensed my displeasure, even from several yards away. She glared at Teb, warning him to stop talking. One threatening look convinced the bumbling rebel to stay silent.
“It would be good to have fresh meat,” said the large man, pointedly ignoring Teb. He held out his hand to Larna, then to me. His large fingers swallowed mine. “I was never telling you my name. I am Jerico.”
“My name is Larna. This is Cate.”
We talked for a few more moments before Larna and I went off into the forest to find meat. Now that we were higher in the mountains, there was less game to be found. There were no large herds of deer, only a few scruffy goats and some wild rabbits. We did manage to bring down a tough old ram, although he almost knocked my skull with his horns.
When we brought the ram back to the rebels, the fire was blazing bright and the sky was dark. We cooked it over the fire and salted it, even though Larna and I wished that our portions had stayed raw. We did not want to remind the men of our differences, it would only make them uncomfortable around us.
We sat next to Jerico and his friends while Teb sulked on the other side of the fire, his back partially turned to us. “I do not like that little man,” Larna said, gesturing at him with her head, “but he is right to be suspicious. The Queen is gathering allies. That is why we want to see Jett Bahari. Our pack was attacked by the witch's dogs and Shadowkin. Kerak were with them. Mogra and the Queen are building an army.”
“We have heard rumors,” Jerico admitted. “This is very bad news.”
“Then why do you trust us?” Larna asked.
“You seem honest,” he said. “If we were turning away everyone who wanted to join the rebels, we wouldna have an army. You will be questioned by the truth-seekers when we reach camp. Until then, you share our fire as friends.”
Tired after our long day of trekking uphill, we put out the fire after we finished eating, leaving only a few glowing embers. We did not fear wild animals. Most of them lived in the Forest, not the mountains themselves.
Apart from the others, Larna and I curled up and slept together, her arms wrapped tight around my waist. “I wish you were naked,” she whispered in my ear, her warm breath tickling the pink shell.
I blushed bright red. “Shhh... be quiet. I don't want anyone to hear us.”
Larna laughed at the embarrassed look on my face and smiled, but after a few seconds, the smile faded into a look of indecision. “I want to kiss you,” she said by way of explanation.
“Are you asking to kiss me or telling me you want to?”
Larna thought about it for a moment, a worry line creasing her forehead. “Both. I dinna want to embarrass you, just in case anyone is watching us.” I looked over my shoulder, but everyone else seemed to be talking or trying to fall asleep. A few glanced in our direction, but it was dark, and with their human eyes, they probably could not see us clearly.
“Larna,my body and heart already belong to you. Do you really think I would say no if you wanted to kiss me?”
“Girls are strange,” Larna protested weakly. “What if I was embarrassing you by accident? Then you would be upset.”
“You're a girl, too,” I pointed out.
“That is why I know how strange they are.”
I shook my curls away from my face and leaned forward until my nose was touching Larna's. Her eyes widened, but she did not move away. “So,” I whispered, “have you decided to kiss me? It is dark, they won't see.”
Larna thought about it. Then, she pressed her lips against mine. Both of us inched apart, looked at each other, and started giggling again.
“This will not be working if we laugh,” said Larna.
“You did that just to see how I would react,” I accused her.
Larna shrugged. “I was curious.”
I leaned in close and put her hand on Larna's cheek. “Try again?” I breathed, kissing the corner of her mouth. Larna did not use words to answer, and this time, neither of us laughed.
Finally, the trail leveled out and we reached a large stone plateau. Our sensitive noses caught the scent of cook fires and warm bodies, even though we were still a fair distance away from camp. “They will not be welcoming at first,” Larna warned me, adjusting the weight of her pack on her strong shoulder.
“We might be working for the Queen. I have not been to my village for years, and we have no one to speak for us.”
“We came here to help, and they are going to treat us like prisoners? That seems like an impractical way to build an army.”
“But the safest way.”
I frowned, fiddling with the piece of twine around my neck that held the Deadeye. It was warm against my collarbone. Perhaps there were other magic-workers in the rebel camp.
“Dinna worry, Tuathe. They will only question us, not torture us.” I was still wary as the sounds of talking and movement drifted towards me. I tensed the tiny muscles behind my ears, but they would not rotate in my human form.
Finally, we reached the edge of the camp. Tents and several fires were scattered about haphazardly. A few semi-permanent buildings had been erected from wooden planks. Although the place seemed barren, it was clearly efficient. Nothing unnecessary was kept in camp. Everyone existed on the bare essentials.
I felt Larna tug at the sleeve of my shirt. “Are you disappointed?” she asked, and I could tell that she was worried about my answer. “I am the reason you...” Larna still felt guilty for our banishment from the Farseer pack. I held her hand, sending reassurance.
“Not disappointed at all,” I said. It was the truth. I had lived in much worse conditions at Baxstresse while working as a servant. I was sure that surviving in the camp required a lot of effort, butI had never been afraid of hard work.
The weather was cold, but several people were outside anyway. All of them turned to watch us as Teb and Jerico's party led us towards the second-largest of the plank buildings. “Wait here,” Teb ordered us, leaving us beside Jerico.
“Someone go with him,” the mountain of a man ordered. “Canna let him be the only one to give a report. He'll be getting it all wrong.”
Another of the young rebels nodded respectfully at the large man. He followed Teb inside of the building. “You must be talking to the truth-seekers,” Jerico explained as we waited. “If you are not here to betray us, you may ask Jett Bahari to join the camp.”
“That is how you weed out spies?”
Jerico nodded. “We do not let our group grow too quickly, and everyone is tested.”
“If you are so afraid of spies,” Larna asked, “why are you trusting us?”
“You are Wyr,” said Jerico. “Creatures like you hate the magic-stealer.” I knew that he was talking about the Queen. There was still so much I did not know about her. I would have to ask Larna some questions later. “They only fight for her if they are puppets of the witch, and you are not.”
Cold fear twisted in my belly. “I almost was,” I whispered. For perhaps the first time, I understood the fate that I had escaped. I had not been given much time to think about my kidnapping. Larna and the Farseer pack kept me too busy. Now, I allowed myself to feel grateful that Mogra had not put me under her control.
“Then you were lucky,” said Jerico.
“How are you knowing so much about us?” Larna asked. She did not sound suspicious, only curious, and perhaps a little surprised. “Humans hate the Wyr. My village turned me out.”
Jerico thought about his answer. “I am a woodsman. I lived in the Forest long before the rebellion. It has no secrets from me.”
I wanted to ask if Jerico had met other free-willed Wyr like us, but Teb and the young soldier came out of the meetinghouse, and a voice called to us from inside. “Go in,” said Jerico. His large hand on my back urged me forward, but his touch was very gentle.
Larna's fingers were still linked with mine. When we stepped through the door, she did not let go. It was dark inside, even though candles flickered on the simple table. The room was not decorative, only practical. There were some chairs, two tables, papers, quills, and a barrel of drinking water.
A large, dark-skinned man was sitting at one of the tables. He was enormous, like Jerico, and without looking at them side-by-side, I could not tell which was taller. His chin was cut in a firm square, and his eyes were dark, too. There was an old woman beside him, but she wore a black cloak and it was hard to make out her face, even with my new eyes. Behind the leader and the woman were two guards. They seemed unnecessary, since the large man could probably defeat anyone that tried to attack him without any difficulty.
“Some of my men,” he said slowly, examining us, “seem to think that you are both spies.” His voice was very deep, and he had a strange accent that I could not place. There was a pause. “I do not think so. But if you bring a weapon inside of this room and do not give it up, except during a battle, the penalty is death.”
Immediately, Larna took the knife from her belt and dropped it onto the ground. My knife, which I did not use very often, was tucked in my pack where I could not reach it. I decided to set the pack down anyway.
“Do you agree to be searched, or will you leave?”
“We agree,” said Larna, looking at me to make sure.
Jett Bahari waved at the two men. “Search them,” he ordered.
The men were quick and professional, without any wandering hands. We were not asked to remove our clothes, but we did have to take off our boots and turn them upside-down. It did not take very long. I had braced myself for something much more intrusive and time-consuming.
“You may step forward,” Jett Bahari said when he determined that we had no weapons. “My men have also told me that you are Wyr. If you change in here without warning, my guards will attack you. Do you understand?” Jett Bahari did not seem to think that we would try and kill him, but he wanted us to understand the rules. Since my other-skin was a weapon to him, I was not offended.
“We understand,” I said. Larna did not look happy, but she did not object, either. “Stop pouting,” I whispered. “You told me that they were strict until the truth-seekers approve of us.” Larna gave me a look, but did not say anything.
“I will be testing you,” said the old woman, speaking for the first time. She pulled back her hood. She was even more ancient than I thought. Her face was a network of deep, craggy lines, especially around her eyes. Her skin was a tough, leathery brown. In a small way, she reminded me of Kalwyn. Instinctively, I touched the Deadeye, which rested at the v of my throat.
I felt the humming magical aura that came from the old woman, and was comforted by the familiar sensation of magical energy. The woman looked surprised. I wondered if she could feel it when I sensed her, like an invisible touch. I was sure that she could sense the magic around me.
“This one is a shaman,” the woman told Jett Bahari. “That is Kalwyn's totem.” Immediately, both of their faces softened.
“You know Kalwyn?” Jett Bahari asked, sounding much friendlier, although he had not been cold before, only professional.
“I was her student,” I said.
“An evil creature of magic took her shape. Larna and I killed it, but we could not save her.” Jett Bahari looked very upset, but the old woman did not seem surprised, although a sad, thoughtful look crossed her face.
“It is a great loss,” said the old woman. “Did Kalwyn give you that, or did you take it from her when she died?”
“She gave it to me, along with two other things. They are in my bag.”
“What were the other things?”
“The dragon hourglass, and a sketch from her library.” Since I was not prompted, I did not tell them what the sketch depicted. Some deep-rooted instinct warned me not to talk about Umbra and the stolen dragon magic.
The old woman nodded. “I would like to see the hourglass, but Kalwyn gave it to you, and I will not take it. Maybe another day, you will allow me to examine it.” I nodded, not making any promises. I felt very protective of Kalwyn's gifts. “We will not test you, young shaman,” the woman continued. “I will trust any student of Kalwyn's with my life.”
I was touched by her faith in me, a complete stranger. “Thank you,” I said, surprised that I did not need to prove myself. I remembered my lover, and reached down to touch her hand with mine. She squeezed my fingers lightly. “What about my mate?” If Jett Bahari was surprised by my declaration, he did not show it. His face remained blank.
“We will test her, but it will be quick. I do not think that she will betray us.”
Part of me wanted to insist that if they trusted me enough to skip my tests, they should trust my Tuathe, too. I stayed silent, not wanting to cause any more trouble for her. Larna was not a traitor, and had nothing to lose.
Larna took it in stride, as though she had expected that response. “I am ready,” she said, her chin held at a steady angle, neither proud nor afraid.
Light flared, and I saw that the old woman had lit a red candle. The flame jumped and danced in the dim tent, even though there was no wind. In the flickering light, she held up something that had been sitting in her lap. It was an unlit stick of incense. She touched its tip to the candle flame, causing the end of the stick to smoke. Soon, the scent of burning thyme filled the tent.
Kalwyn had not taught me much about herbs. The few that I knew how to use were for healing. Herbs were a much greater part of an Oracle's work. As the smell grew stronger, I could sense magic mixed with the smoke. Perhaps the woman had prepared them in a special way beforehand.
The old woman's voice rose above the incense. “What is your name?” she asked. I did not know what I had expected – maybe a mysterious couplet or spell – but this procedure seemed too simple.
“Larna,” said my lover.
“What is your last name?”
“My family rejected me. I am not using my last name anymore.”
The oracle did not object to that answer. “Where were you born?” she asked instead.
She moved on to the more serious questions. “Why have you come here?”
“Cate and I were banished from our pack. We want to help the rebellion.”
“Why do you want to help the rebellion?”
The flame of the candle danced in both of Larna's shining, dark eyes. “The Queen burned my village. Mogra changed me into a Wyr. Monsters have invaded my home, the Forest.” She paused. “I want to stop the pointless deaths.”
The oracle nodded, approving of her answers. “Have you ever been in contact with the Queen, or other enemies of the rebellion?”
“Are you loyal to the Queen, or other enemies of the rebellion?”
“Do you plan to communicate with the Queen, or other enemies of the rebellion?”
“If you join the rebellion, do you swear to be loyal to Jett Bahari and help him restore order and peace to the Kingdom of Amendyr?”
There was no hesitation. “Yes.”
The old woman put out the candle and incense, the dark sleeves of her cloak pooling on the surface of the table. “Step forward, Larna,” she requested. Larna obeyed, curious about what would happen next. “Closer.” She stepped closer. “Hold out your hand.” Carefully, the old woman took clippings from Larna's nails with a small pair of silver scissors. Then, she snipped a piece of Larna's hair.
“What is that for?” Larna asked, not un-politely.
“I can use them to trace you if you ever do betray us and run away, or if you are captured. I can also use them for spells. Dinna worry, young pup, I will ask you before I use them.” She smiled, and I was reminded of Kalwyn, who had also called Larna ‘young pup'. “Congratulations, you have passed your test. Welcome to the Rebellion.”
Larna looked surprised. “That is all?”
The oracle smiled. “You want more tests? I can give them to you. I do not think you are a spy. My special incense sticks should have made you tell the truth.”
My mate shook her head. “No. I just expected... I am not sure what I was expecting.”
“Now that you are finished your tests, I will tell you my name. I am Auriye.”
Larna brushed her palm on her leggings and held out a hand for Auriye to shake. She took it. I stepped forward, taking my rightful place beside my lover. Auriye took my hand, too. Her grip was surprisingly strong.
Then, Jett Bahari offered his hand. “Let me be the second to welcome you,” he said. “You are the first Wyr to join us, but we hope that others will follow. Maybe even some Liarre.”
Although they were created by magic like the Wyr centuries ago, Liarre bred and survived on their own. They lived in a small territory to the northwest of Amendyr. Half human and half beast, they came in many strange combinations. The Feliarre had the lower bodies of giant cats. The Dracarre had human torsos on top of scaly lizard legs. Most frightening of all, the Arachniarre's lower halves were shaped like the round, bulbous bodies of spiders. In the pictures I had seen, they even had all eight legs.
“There are Liarre here?” I asked excitedly. I had always wanted to see a Liarre for myself. Many people on the eastern side of the kingdom went their entire lives without meeting one.
“Not yet,” said Jett Bahari. “We have sent delegates to them, hoping for an alliance.” He examined us thoughtfully. “Perhaps they will be more receptive to another magical species that is tied to animals.”
“Oh no, more traveling,” Larna muttered.
Jett Bahari grinned. “There are no plans yet,” he assured us. “It was just an idea.” With a practiced hand, he extinguished the incense stick and the candle flame with the tips of his fingers. “My men will show both of you to a tent for the night. Usually, our fighters train together for the first part of the day, unless they have other duties. In your case, I doubt that weapons training would be of much use to you.”
“Thank you for offering us a place to sleep,” lowering her shoulders and placing her feet close together to take up less space. Her body language with Jett Bahari surprised me. Normally, Larna was a confident Wyr. She held her head and tail high, and was not afraid to show her dominant position. The only time I remembered seeing her take a submissive stance was while talking to Farseer. For the moment, she had accepted Jett Bahari as her commanding officer, if not her Alpha.
“Thank you,” I echoed.
“Elaran, come here,” said Jett Bahari. A familiar person stepped forward. It was the young soldier that had come to fetch us earlier while we were waiting with Jerico. “You will show our guests to an empty tent for the night.” The leader's words were carefully chosen. We were ‘guests'. Not yet accepted in to the rebel's pack, but not prisoners or enemies, either.
Elaran, who was little more than a boy, looked only too pleased to accompany us. He almost seemed ready to thank Jett Bahari for the honor. His light eyes glanced shyly towards me, and then he quickly looked away. I almost blushed. I could smell his interest, and wondered if that was the reason he wanted to show us to our tent.
We said good night to Jett Bahari and Auriye, and followed Elaran, who had a long-limbed step for such a young man. He might have been even younger than Larna and me. I remembered my question from a few days ago. How old was Larna? I was curious.
“How old are you, Tuathe?” I asked, purposely saying the word so that Elaran, who kept shooting me quick looks out of the corner of his eye, would know that I was not available. Either he was lost in thought and did not hear, or he ignored the endearment.
“Why are you wanting to know that?” Larna asked. She was in a good mood. Passing Auriye's tests had given her new confidence.
“I can't ask a simple question?” I said, pretending to be offended. Larna just gave me a look. “I was wondering how much older you were than me. It can't be by much.”
“I dinna know how much older I am than you.”
“You don't know how old you are?”
Larna grinned, showing even white teeth. In wolf form, her tail would have wagged. “No, I dinna know how old you are, little bird.”
That surprised me. “I never told you?” It seemed that there was a lot my mate and I did not know about each other. I made a mental note to start asking more questions. “Nineteen,” I said, knowing that Larna would not answer my question until I answered hers. She could be very patient when she wanted to be.
“I am one year older than you,” she said.
“Here you are.” Elaran interrupted. His face still looked cheerful, so I guessed that he had not been paying attention to our conversation. He seemed a little distracted, and I could smell no disappointment around him. He still had not made the connection between Larna and me. I decided to wait and see if he got over his small spark of attraction before speaking with him.
Larna, who had finally noticed Elaran's interest in me, stepped close to my side and nodded. Her good mood vanished instantly. I patted her bottom through the fabric of her leggings behind our backs, where Elaran could not see. “Good night,” he said, oblivious.
A look of annoyance flashed across Larna's face. I tried to comfort her wordlessly. “Good night,” I said, “and thank you.”
“Maybe I could show you around tomorrow?” He asked nervously, rubbing at the back of his neck with his hand.
“Maybe,” I said, not wanting to commit to anything.
He seemed regretful, and there was a long pause. When he realized that there was no reason to stay, the boy reluctantly left us in front of the tent, taking one last look over his shoulder.
“Why did you say maybe?” Larna said flatly, still looking straight ahead at Elaran's form as he retreated into the darkness.
“I didn't want to hurt his feelings. I thought he could show us around so we don't get lost,” I cooed, stroking Larna's cheek with a pale hand, “I know who I belong to. If you want me to tell him no tomorrow, I will.”
For a moment, something dangerous rose in Larna's eyes, but it faded under my touch. “It is all right. Just make sure I come with you.”
“Do you not trust me?” I asked, not insulted or hurt, only curious about her answer. I already knew that Larna trusted me.
“I do trust you. I am not trusting him. Now, come inside,” she said, kissing my hair. Together, we took our traveling packs into the tent and got ready to sleep.
The next morning at breakfast, my new admirer found us again. When she saw Elaran sit down beside me, Larna shoved a chunk of raw meat in her mouth and chewed loudly. Either she was trying to make Elaran uncomfortable, or she was eating to keep from saying something rude.
“Good morning,” I said, since I had to be the polite one.
“Good morning,” said Elaran. “Did you sleep well?”
“Mostly.” I gave Larna a sidelong glance that could have been interpreted several ways. “Larna was wondering if her family might be here.”
My mate almost choked on her breakfast, and Elaran reached over to start pounding on her back. She had not been expecting me to ask that question. “No, no! I'm fine!” she sputtered, still coughing as a piece of meat flew out of her mouth. “You shouldnabe pounding on someone's back if they are choking,” she explained, trying not to sound condescending. I appreciated it. “It can lodge the food deeper.”
Elaran blushed, embarrassed at being corrected, but I knew that he would remember the advice. “Anyway,” I continued, trying to gloss over the awkward moment, “about Larna's family...?” I purposely ignored the dirty look that Larna shot me. I knew that she wanted to know if her mother and brother had made it out of Katar before it burned, but she was too proud and stubborn to ask.
“I might be able to help,” Elaran offered, eager to do anything for me. “Lots of people come here looking to meet their families.”
Larna relaxed and let me slip out of her embrace, but kept a protective arm around my waist. She gave Elaran a suspicious look. “Really?” she asked. “I am missing a mother and a brother.” She left out the part where she had not spoken to them in years.
“Where do you come from?”
“Katar,” Larna said. A shadow came over Elaran's face, and Larna winced. “Yes, I know it has been burned. I was just wondering if they were alive. If they survived, they would have been trying to make their way here.”
“Everyone that joins the rebellion has to register with Jett Bahari,” Elaran told us. “If they came to camp, then we should be able to find their names in the records. Besides, you two need to register yourselves.”
“It seems dangerous to register all the new arrivals. If the Queen got that list, she would know exactly who to execute for treason.”
“If she snuck in to camp, we would all be dead anyway. There would be no reason to worry about treason.” Elaran gave us a cheeky grin and started off through the camp, looking over his shoulder to make sure that we were following him. “Come on, we have to go to Jett Markku's tent and ask him to check the registry.”
“Jett Markku?” I asked, not recognizing the name.
Larna explained. “Jett Bahari's son.”
We hurried after Elaran, trying not to lose him in the busy, bustling center of the camp. Men and women were clustered around fires, eating, talking, and laughing together. There were one or two small children, but not many. I stared at a tiny, smudge-faced boy with scruffy hair, and Larna caught me looking.
“Sometimes, the children are having nowhere else to go,” she said in answer to mysilent question. “I suppose the healers would watch over them during the battles.”
“And where will you be?” I asked, giving Larna a worried look. I already knew what she would say.
Larna gave mea half smile and patted the knife at her hip, even though she did not need it. “Where do you think? I am a fighter. I can also hunt, cook, build a fire, mend clothes, find water underground, stitch and clean a wound, and sing.
I gave her a curious look. “Sing?” Another new fact that about my lover.
Larna shrugged her shoulders, a little embarrassed. “Yes, sing. Any Amendyri worth their meat can sing. Hurry, we are losing Elaran.”
We finally caught up with him as he entered a large brown tent. There were voices inside, but even my keen ears could not make out what they were saying.
“I thought the records would be in a building,” I said, glancing nervously at the tent. I hoped that Elaran was not up to anything. He seemed honest and trustworthy, but I could not be sure.
“No, Jett Markku is the keeper of the records. It is a very important job, and he is proud of it,” Elaran explained, sticking his head out of the tent flaps just in time to hear my question. “Markku is eating his supper.”
“Well, are we going to go in?” Larna asked impatiently. I grabbed her hand, and she squeezed it lightly.
“Oh, of course,” Elaran said, turning around and holding the tent flap aside for them.
The inside of the tent was larger than I expected it to be, with a high, tapered ceiling, some basic furniture, two sleeping cots, with a small square table in the middle of it all. Sitting at the table was a young man with dark skin and even darker eyes. He smiled at them and stood up, holding out his hand. Larna took it first, and shook. I followed her example.
“Arim Dei. My name is Jett Markku, just in case this buffoon forgot to tell you,” the man said, giving Elaran a friendly nudge. Elaran grinned and nudged him back. “Stop,” he laughed, “I'm supposed to be in charge here!”
“Which is good for me,” Elaran said in a loud whisper, giving me a wink. “Markku and I grew up together, and when his father is busy, I get to do whatever I want.”
“Not true,” Jett Markku objected, poking Elaran playfully in the chest. I smiled. Both of them were still young boys. I wondered if they had ever seen someone die. “Right now, you are going to follow orders and get the registry.”
“And not even a please for my trouble,” Elaran muttered, wandering over to one side of the tent and digging through a pile of papers. Finally, he came up with a blank sheet and handed it to Jett Markku, who smoothed it out on his thigh and set it on the table. He reached into his tunic and fumbled about for a moment, finally producing a pen. “Now, if you two ladies would please give me your full names.”
“CathelinRaybrook,” I said, saying it slowly and clearly so that he could copy it down.
Jett Markku looked up at her for a moment, but wrote it down. “No last name?”
“I am not using my last name,”Larna said stubbornly.
Jett Markku continued to stare at her for a moment, but quickly dismissed his thoughts and asked, “and where are you from?”
“I was born in the Forest, but lived in Seria for several years.”
Jett Markku dutifully wrote it down. “Any particular skills or specialties?” Then, he remembered what we were and blushed. “Oh, sorry.” Everyone in the camp probably knew that Larna and I were Wyr by now. In a group like this, nothing stayed a secret for long. News spread fast.
Jett Markku wrote everything on the piece of paper and stuffed the pen back into the folds of his tunic when he was finished. “Good. Is there anything else you need?”
“I would like to check the registry,” Larna said, and I caught a note of uncertainty in her voice. “I am hoping that…”
Jett Markku shook his head slowly, standing up and pressing his hands into the small wooden table. “No one has arrived from Katar since the village burned,” he said softly. “No one but you.”
The moment that I opened my eyes, I knew that Larna was gone. My senses told me that it was still nighttime. There were no loud voices, and the dirt and stone outside smelled wet. Stretching, I ran my fingers through my red mane. I would have to trim it soon, or it would grow wild.
Larna had not seemed too upset before we fell asleep. Even though she had not seen her mother and brother for two years, I knew that a secret part of her hoped that they would be here. She could not completely let go of the idea that, if they saw her again, they might forgive her and accept her back into the family. I felt a wave of sympathy for my lover. First her family had abandoned her, and now the Farseer pack. No wonder she was so possessive of me. She did not want me to leave her, too.
Deciding to show my lover that she was not alone, I pulled on some clothes and left the tent. Slowly, I walked the perimeter of the campsite, picking my way over rocks and patches of gravel. I saw a small group of night guards chatting over their dinners, but they hardly noticed me as I slipped away from them.
The stars were high in the sky and cool wind started to blow when I finally found Larna. She was sitting on a flat rock, looking down the mountainside even though it was too dark to see the forest or the plains below them. The sight of her, curled up into a ball with her shoulders hunched up and her arms wrapped around her knees, made my chest tighten. I came up behind Larna and put my hand on my dark-haired lover's back. She could feel her body shaking.
“Do they believe in life after death in Seria?” Larna asked in a small voice. Seeing my protector so weak, so utterly helpless, threw me for a moment, and it took several seconds to answer.
“Yes,” I said. “The Serians believe in an afterlife, just like we do. They call The Maker “God”, and he takes your soul to paradise after you die.”
“God?” said Larna, not turning around.
“You seem like you are having trouble believing in The Maker right now,” I said softly. Larna nodded, but did not answer, not trusting her voice.
We sat in silence for a long time. I climbed up on the rock next to Larna and hugged her. She hugged me back. We stayed absolutely still, afraid that if we moved, the moment would break.
“Do you believe in the afterlife?” Larna asked finally, her voice muffled by my hair.
“Yes. Sometimes I wonder, but I always go back to believing. If I didn't, I would probably go crazy.”
“I dinna know if I believe, but I want to.”
There was no proper way to answer a statement like that.
Larna stopped crying, but she still held me tight in her arms. “I am sorry I was leaving you,” she said, her voice hoarse.
“It's alright. You needed to be alone.”
“How did you know to come for me now?”
“A lover always knows,” I told her, kissing her forehead. “It always hurts worse at night.”
“I never really expected them to be here,” she said. “But I couldna stop hoping...” Larna sniffed and brushed her tears away with her thumb. “We should go back to our tent.”
“We can stay here, if you want.”
I could feel Larna's smile through the dark. “No, we can go back to our tent. It is cold out here.” I knew that she was not cold, but did not argue with her. Our Wyr blood kept us warm on cold nights.
I held her hand, letting her fingers wrap around mine. “Come with me, Tuathe. Let's go back to bed.”
The next evening, I felt restless. I was lying down in our tent, mostly because I had nothing else to do. I wanted to run, to change and explore the mountains, but I was afraid of frightening the soldiers. Jett Bahari had not forbidden me from changing, but if someone mistook me for a real wolf, or even a dangerous Wyr, I might be injured. I knew that my other form was frightening to humans.
I was relieved when the tent flap opened and my lover slipped inside, staring down at me from her standing position. I smiled up at her, and her brown eyes brightened. “Arim Dei,” I said, even though it was nighttime.
“You are restless,” said Larna, sensing my feelings immediately. She could probably smell them as well as read them on my face.
“A little,” I admitted.
“You should change, little bird. You will have to when the moon comes again, anyway.” That thought had not occurred to me yet. I wondered how the camp would react to my half-shape. Not well, I imagined. It would probably be best if Larna and I went as far away as possible when half-shape came.
“I don't want to upset anyone,” I said. The excuse sounded weak when spoken aloud.
Larna shook her head at me indulgingly. “Ah, Cate... you are always thinking of other people.” She did not mean it as a criticism, and she was smiling. “Do you want me to help you release some of your energy?” The words rolled from her tongue in a way that made it clear what she had in mind.
My eyebrows rose on my forehead. “Here?” I squeaked, a little nervous. Making love outside was one thing, but here, even though we were inside a tent, we were in the middle of a campsite, and someone might hear...
“You are embarrassed?” Larna teased me, kneeling down and stroking my arm with her fingertips. I shivered.
“No...” I lied.
Larna knew that I was nervous, and she spent long minutes just kissing me. Her soft mouth was the only part of her body touching mine. When her hand finally lifted to stroke my neck, I felt blazing heat along my skin. My eyes fluttered shut.
My hand curled around Larna's hip, pulling her closer, wanting to feel her body tight against mine. I forgot my shyness as my lover pulled my shirt over my head, freeing my breasts and ruining my hair. I was past caring. She kissed her way across my chest right away, hardly giving me time to think or breathe.
Stripping Larna was difficult. She did not want to leave my breasts, and held tighter whenever I tried to pull away to loosen her clothes. Finally, her leggings were tossed in a corner of the tent, and her shirt was lifted up under her arms, but I could not get it over her head. I gave up and lost myself in the sensations.
Slowly, torturously, her lips moved down my stomach, stopping to pay attention to each freckle as she tugged at my remaining clothes. I looked down at Larna with large, frightened eyes, breathing shallowly. I could guess where she would go next. My lover felt my quick heartbeat and kissed my hipbone, stroking my side. “Be you all right, little bird? I canna force you.”
I closed my eyes, swallowing. “Be gentle,” I pleaded. The words caught in my throat, which was tight with tears.
With her cheek resting against my belly, Larna threaded her fingers through soft red curls, trying to calm me. My stomach was still in knots. Her hand made me less nervous. It was her mouth that scared me. This was a totally alien act. Luciana had not even kissed my lips, let alone... But this was Larna, I reminded myself. I let her ease my thighs open.
At first, she only stroked with her hand, waiting for the soft pink line to blossom open and swell. It took longer than usual for my wetness to coat her fingers, but she was patient. I held stiff as she slid inside of me, the tense muscles catching her fingers and clutching tight. She could not move her hand.
“Shh, sweetling. Let me in, Catie,” she coaxed, pressing light kisses between the points of my hipbones. Her voice calmed me, and I relaxed. Her two long fingers probed deeper, finding their snug home. “My good girl.” I felt the words breathed just over me, and I whimpered.
Larna growled in her throat, and pressed her nose and mouth against me, breathing slowly. She was waiting a breath away. A few beats, and I angled my hips up, covering the last small space. The first scrape of her tongue over me was like a shower of sparks – my body seized, and then everything loosened. I could not decide whether it hurt or felt indescribably wonderful.
And then I realized why I was afraid. It was too soft, too slow. I was adrift, undecided. I needed Larna to be the strong one for me. I needed her to taste me whether I felt ready or not. “No, love... please...” Larna looked up, looking almost as frightened as I felt, worried that she had hurt me.
“Stop?” she asked, concerned.
“No, it's just... I said – gentle, but... I want...” I could not make my thoughts clear.
But Larna understood. Her fingers, still inside of me, curled sharply, and she gave a hard nip to my thigh. She started a harsh, rocking rhythm with one hand as the other jerked my legs further apart, forcing me open. Her lips stroked the small, hard pearl above as a flood of wetness poured onto her hand and wrist and into her mouth. This reassured both of us. “Mine,” she murmured in between the heavy strokes of her tongue and hand. “You are... mine...”
It hurt wonderfully, and I was delirious with pleasure. With Larna possessing me, claiming me roughly, I could allow myself to feel. Treated like something small, something precious, made me feel... safe. Cherished. The decision seemed like it was not mine anymore, and so I was not afraid of it. The slow burn between my legs grew. I tossed my head, my hair plastered to my face and neck.
I opened my eyes for the first time, looking down at Larna's dark head between my legs. Clear brown eyes met mine as her fingers pulled out of me, and her tongue pressed inside. My inner walls fluttered wildly, and there was another gush of wetness. Watching her taste me made me feel so much more... It was right.
With long, broad licks from top to bottom, she covered every secret place. I was completely open and vulnerable against her warm lips and mouth and tongue. She would stop every few moments to bite or suck certain spots that made my hips buck and twist. I breathed heavily, gasping and whimpering, frightened, loving tears streaming down my cheeks. Why had I waited so long for this? The same part of this gift that made it frightening also made it more – intimate, soul-baring – than only a hand.
She held me on the edge for what seemed like ages, but was probably only seconds. Larna wanted me to find paradise almost as much as I did. Perhaps more, if that was possible. “Come for me,” she ordered, and I released with a powerful shudder around her hand as she pressed one last kiss against my sensitive bundle.
When the stars stopped flashing behind my eyes and my tears started to dry in salty streaks on my face, I floated back to earth. Larna's head was still tucked between my legs, gently cleaning me. I felt warm and embarrassed. There had never been so much wetness before. But when Larna looked up and smiled at me with a gleaming face and warm brown eyes, I knew that what we shared had been wonderful.
“I want more,” Larna murmured, scattering kisses across my belly and working her way up to my breasts. “I love your taste, Catie.”
“Not now,” I pleaded. Any more of that would begin to hurt. “But later... definitely. Larna, thank you...”
“You were trusting me. I should be after thanking you.”
As I rested with Larna's comfortable weight on top of me, I remembered what Ellie wrote to tell me a few weeks ago. Something about knowing you are in love when every moment is happier than the last. Since becoming Larna's, I understood that feeling perfectly.
Our peaceful moment was disturbed by a noise outside our tent. Larna lifted her head. If she had been in wolf form, her ears would have perked up. “Who is there?” she called out, clutching the blanket to cover our nakedness.
“Elaran,” came a voice from outside. “Jett Bahari wants to see you.”
Dressed in fresh clothes and combing fingers through my mussed hair, I stumbled after Larna and Elaran. I saw clearly in the darkness, but Larna's touch had made my legs unsteady. “What do you think he wants?” I asked, hurrying to catch up with her.
“Something serious,” she said, her face and the tone of her voice revealing nothing, “or he wouldna be calling us in the middle of the night.” She looked curiously at the back of the messenger's head, hoping that he would explain the summons, but he said nothing.
The rest of the short walk continued in silence. We waited outside as the messenger went in to the wooden building to announce our arrival. He was only gone for a few moments. “Come inside,” he said.
The temporary headquarters was dimly lit. Candles flickered on the table in front of Jett Bahari. Only he, the messenger, and two guards were there this time. Auriye was probably asleep.
“What do you need from us in the middle of the night?” she asked. She tried to sound polite – deference to her Wyr instincts and her respect for Jett Bahari – but to me, she seemed irritated. I could guess the reason. I had not helped her find release earlier before we were interrupted. She hid her emotions well, but not from me.
“More of your kind have come to camp,” Jett Bahari said, getting straight to the point. “They say that they were your pack. My men are with them now.”
Larna turned to me, obviously surprised and a little suspicious. “Why are they here?” she said to me in a half-whisper.I shrugged. I had no idea why the Farseer pack had come to the rebel camp. When we left them, they wanted nothing to do with us. Something did not feel right.
Jett Bahari cleared his throat, recapturing Larna's attention. “I wanted to ask your advice before deciding what to do about them.”
Larna's muscles rippled and tensed, and I put a calming hand on her shoulder. “Maybe they want to apologize,” I offered, trying to relax my lover. I had my own emotional difficulties with the Farseer pack, but right now, my priority was Larna.
“Give me your opinion.” Jett Bahari looked at both of us pointedly. “Do you think that this pack is a threat?” His thoughts might have been spoken aloud. A pack of Wyr in the rebellion could be very useful, very dangerous, or both.
“They know where the camp is now, you canna just let them leave,” said Larna. “I will speak to them for you.” She did not seem to be looking forward to it, but she resigned herself to the task.
Jett Bahari stood, bracing himself with his hands on the surface of the table. “I do not want to kill them, but if they act violently, I will have no choice.”
Larna nodded, accepting the decision. “Where are they?”
They were waiting for us just outside of camp, surrounded by guards. At least half the camp must have been dragged out of bed to keep an eye on the new arrivals. The two groups – rebels and Wyr – eyed each other mistrustfully, whispering among themselves. Everyone turned to watch when they noticed us approaching. My stomach fluttered nervously. I realized that Larna and I were acting as ambassadors, and it was a heavy responsibility.
Hosta stepped forward from the crowd of familiar faces. He was still thin, but tougher and wirier than I remembered. I realized that he had a new scar across one cheek. In fact, as I examined the group, I realized that several members of the pack were missing, and a few of those remaining sported injuries. That surprised me. Wyr usually healed quickly, so they must have been recent.
Larna stepped forwards, and I watched as she and Hosta stared each other down in a silent battle for dominance. In the end, neither of them won. “Why are you here?” Larna asked, breaking the silence first.
“We were attacked twice,” said Hosta. “Somehow, the witch keeps finding our camps.”
“I thought that her puppets had trouble tracking us...” I said.
Hosta turned to me. “That was before. Someone is feeding her information, or she has found a new magical way to find us. We must kill her.”
Larna's eyes narrowed. “And you have come to ask me for help?”
“We have come to ask the rebellion for help,” Hosta protested. “They are wanting her dead, too.”
“I speak for the rebellion, since I am obviously not mad,” Larna said coldly, drawing out each word. “Jett Bahari has asked me to decide if you can be trusted.” I could tell that my lover wanted to milk this for all it was worth. Hosta squirmed uncomfortably under her harsh gaze. She bared her teeth in a smug grin, enjoying the role reversal.
“Larna,” I whispered. She turned to look at me, and I shook my head. “I expect more of you.” I wanted to let her continue, but I knew she would feel guilty about it later. Power games were not a part of Larna's personality.
“Even though you exiled me,” Larna reminded Hosta, “I am thinking that the pack can be trusted. I will tell Jett Bahari. But all of you must be tested by the truth-seekers. If what you say is right, there could be a spy for the witch among us.”
“You are still not welcome in the pack,” Hosta said coldly.
Larna bristled, her teeth and fists clenching. The muscles along her back tightened, but there was no fur to stand up straight. “I am not mad, and I am not a traitor!” she barked, stepping forward in to Hosta's space, trying to displace him. He did not budge.
“You were banished,” he said, as if that explained everything. Behind him, the rest of the pack eyed Hosta. Many of them had angry and disappointed looks on their faces. They wanted us to come back. I was not surprised when none of them stepped forward to complain. He was their Alpha. Despite his poor choices, Hosta was a strong, dominant leader, and their instinct was to follow him.
“I will still tell Jett Bahari that you should join the rebellion,” said Larna. “You are good fighters, and even though you were betraying me, I dinna think you will betray the rebellion. Do not prove me wrong.” She stormed off, determined not to let Hosta have the last word. Not wanting to be left in an awkward position, I followed her. My loyalty was to my mate.
The next few days passed awkwardly. Humans in the rebel camp stared at us wherever we went. The Farseer pack's arrival made us a popular topic of conversation. Most of the glances were not hostile, only curious. Perhaps having a common enemy convinced most of therebels to consider us friends instead of a threat. A few, however, still looked at us with hatred and fear. They made me shiver, butLarna and I pretended not to notice.
Hosta's rejection was harder to ignore. The Farseer pack set up their tents and supplies on the west side of the main camp. They were close enough to be a part of the camp, but isolated enough to say that they were a separate group. Larna and I were clearly not welcome in their new territory. I did not try to enter it, but Larna, being stubborn, tested the rules. Afterward, she told me that Hosta sent her away.
“I hate him,” I said, angry that we could not see our friends. Being with Larna was enough for me, but I still missed being part of a pack. “Hosta should change his mind. He was the one who came here and asked us for help.”
Larna shrugged. “He is Alpha. Maybe he sees me as a threat.”
“He should.” I frowned, placing my hands on my waist, elbows angled out. “You would be a better Alpha than he is.”
Wanting to calm me down, my lover kissed the very tip of my nose. I went cross-eyed, trying to see the spot that she had pressed her lips against, because I was sure that it was turning red. I could only see a few blurry freckles, and so I gave up. When my eyes re-focused, I saw Larna laughing at me. She was smiling.
“Sorry, I canna help it. You were making a silly face!”
That made me smile, too. Larna accomplished her goal.
“About Hosta,” she said, sounding serious, “dinna worry over him. The Farseer pack is needing a strong leader right now, but if he continues to make bad decisions, someone will challenge him.”
“You should challenge him,” I said, hoping that she would takethe suggestion. I had thought it privately many times. I did not want Larna to be injured in a fight with Hosta, but I knew that it went against my lover's nature to sit back and allow herself, or anyone else, to be mistreated.
“I have too many other things to worry about right now,” she said evasively, not meeting my eyes. I was disappointed, but did not push her further. I needed time to figure out why she did not want to challenge Hosta.
“Cate! Here!” someone said in a loud whisper. Startled, I whirled around to see who was calling my name. Yerta peeked out from behind a tent, motioning me closer. I edged in his direction. He glanced nervously over his shoulder, making sure that no one was watching. Now that he was closer, I caught his scent. The smell of cooking meat had distracted me. He smelled uneasy, worried.
“What are you doing here?” Yerta's smell, along with his secretive body language, was making me nervous, too.
“I came to see you,” he said, still whispering.
“Hosta just banished us,” I reminded him. Even though I understood his motive, I was a little hurt that Yerta had gone along with the rest of the pack and shunned us. “He never officially ordered you not to talk to us.”
That did nothing to calm Yerta. “He wouldna like it... my brother...”
“If you are so worried about Hosta's reaction, why are you here?” I asked, narrowing my eyes suspiciously.
Yerta gripped my wrist lightly, pulling me with him behind the tent and crouching down. Even though I was sure that no one had seen us, I crouched beside him, tucking my loose hair behind my ears so that it would not hang in my face. “Because he is back... he was missing for three days.”
I was surprised, but not sure what the information had to do with me. Alphas rarely left their packs. Without a leader, Wyr had no direction. Their instincts would urge them to find a new one. “He left?” I asked skeptically. Since Larna and I had almost no contact with the Farseer pack, I had not noticed Hosta's comings and goings from camp.
“He told us before he went... He was leaving Aria in charge.”
Aria was a clever choice. She was too old to challenge Hosta when he returned, but wise enough to lead the pack while he was gone.
“Do you know where Hosta went?”
The muscles in Yerta's cheeks twitched, as though he wanted to lower his ears and pull a submissive face. “You canna guess?” He let his voice trail off, not wanting to speak his thoughts aloud.
“You think... the witch?” Even though the thought had been tickling the back of my mind, I still found it hard to believe. How could a member of our pack, even Hosta, be a traitor.
“How else is the Witch always finding our camps? Someone is telling her.”
I frowned. “It could be some kind of new magic. She might be tracking us.”
Yerta shook his head doubtfully. The idea sounded weak, even to me. It was more of an excuse. Someone in our old pack was a traitor. I put a steadying hand on Yerta's shoulder. He looked very pale, and his pulse was fast. If his tail had been there, it would have tucked itself between his legs. “I'm sorry,” I said, pushing aside my own feelings. “I mean, your own brother...”
“Doesna matter.” He brushed the comment aside. “You must be telling Larna to challenge him. If Hosta belongs to the Witch, we are needing a new alpha.”
“I talked to her about it. She didn't want-”
“You were banished,” said Yerta, still pushing. “She must be upset and angry about that. Larna has every right to challenge my brother.”
“I wanted her to,” I admitted. Now, I was not so sure.
Even though I disliked Hosta, I was not sure that he was the traitor. He was an Alpha now. He had the position he wanted, and Larna was gone. What did he need Mogra for? Surely he would not want to destroy the pack that he was leading, not after the years he had spent waiting to be a leader.
“What if there is another reason that he left? Did you ask him?”Yerta just gave me a look. I sighed. Pestering your Alpha about his movements, especially if he was your older brother, was considered rude.
“I should be going...” said Yerta.
I waved him away as he straightened himself. I was glad to pull myself out of my crouch. My thighs were starting to ache. “Go. Leave before someone notices that you are missing.”
“Talk to Larna,” he called back to me, keeping his voice soft. With one last look, he slipped away, leaving me alone with my thoughts and suspicions and questions.
Putting my thoughts aside for later, I decided to search for Larna. Like me, she was restless here. She was probably prowling around the territory, trying to burn off excess energy. I could not smell her nearby, only the familiar scents of camp and humans. One particular human was close by. I lifted my head in time to see Elaran approaching me, a smile on his young face.
“Arimdei,” I said politely as he came to a stop in front of me.
“Arimdei,” he said, a little breathlessly. “Where is your friend?” He looked over his shoulder, as if expecting her to be nearby. I understood. Larna and I were almost always together.
“I was just wondering that. She is somewhere around.”
Elaran looked hopeful, and I felt a surge of pity for him. “Would you be wanting to eat lunch with me before weapons training?”
“I don't have weapons training,” I reminded him, smiling to show him the place where my fangs would have been. “But I will eat lunch with you.” His smile grew bigger. “On one condition.” It faltered. “We have lunch together as friends.”
He did not seem to understand. “Yes, we are friends... what do you mean?”
“I mean... not as anything else.”
“What? Oh...” To his credit, the boy tried not to look too disappointed. It was the first time I had been forced to reject a suitor. I felt pity for Elaran, satisfaction at my own ability to handle the situation, and maybe a little bit of pride that someone was interested in me. “Um, I...”
I could tell that poor Elaran had no idea what to say, so I tried to gloss over the conversation. “I am hungry,” I said. “Let me guess... we are having stew. Again.”
“There is meat in it today,” Elaran said, sounding a little more cheerful. “Your pack has been helpful so far.”
I sighed. “They aren't my pack anymore.” I missed the Farseer pack, despite what they had done to Larna. I did not blame the whole pack. It was mostly Hosta's fault.
“But you wish they were?” Elaran asked. When I did not answer right away, he looked embarrassed, worrying that he had pushed too far.
“Yes, I do. I miss them. Larna was banished for eating human flesh, but she did it for a good reason. The new alpha was worried that she would challenge his position, so he used it as an excuse to get rid of her.”
Elaran's curious expression was replaced by a look of total disgust. “Ugh... I dinna think I am wanting lunch anymore...”
Later that night, as I was reading my journal, Larna entered our tent. It was more cramped than the cabin we had shared in the Forest, but still comfortable. To my surprise, I preferred it here to my large, cold room at Baxstresse, even though I missed my friends.
“Ellie is horrified at what I am doing with myself,” I told Larna. Her shape and smell were familiar, so I did not look up right away. I continued staring at my friend's most recent letter instead. “She demands to know where I am so that she can come take me home.”
Larna did not answer. There was an alluring, heavy musk around the edges of her scent that distracted me. I looked up. Her brown eyes were focused on me. The tip of a pink tongue outlined a soft pair of lips. She looked hungry.
My own eyes grew wider. “Oh!” I let out a soft, startled gasp as she knelt beside me and pulled me into her arms, nuzzling my hair. Her nails scraped against the fabric of my shirt, wanting to feel skin. My journal dropped onto the floor beside me, forgotten.
“Hello,” I purred, running my fingers through Larna's dark hair. The pads of my fingers brushed her warm cheeks. She shivered in my arms, a low growl vibrating beside my ear. She nipped the lobe, causing me to fall backwards onto our sleeping pallet.
“What do you want?” I whispered, finally finding her lips for a long, deep kiss. She growled again, louder this time.Another fiery kiss. “Tell me.”
She showed me, tearing herself out of her shirt and pressing my mouth against a bare shoulder. I bit down hard, and she hissed between her teeth, fingers gripping my back. My warm tongue soothed the bite mark, but her breathing stayed fast and hard.
“What do you want?” I asked again, massaging her scalp with my fingers as my mouth moved over her soft skin. Her muscles seized as I caught a nipple between my lips. She arched, wanting more contact. My hands left her hair and wandered across the broad, smooth muscles of her back. I finally reached around her front to undo the ties on her pants. She kicked them off, crying out in frustration as I switched to her other breast.
I pressed a thigh between her legs, surprised by her wetness. My lover was more than ready for me. She had probably been thinking about me during the day, waiting to catch me alone later. She needed me.
This time, I decided, Larna was not going to ravage me until I could barely walk. She had been giving me too much attention lately. It was her turn. But I knew that when she was this aroused, she would not just lie back and let me take care of her. She wanted more control than that. So I thought of a compromise.
I allowed my lover to pull off my shirt and leggings, but when she tried to reach between my legs, I caught her hand. She looked at me like a scolded puppy, with sad brown eyes and a pouting lower lip. I caught the lip between my teeth and pulled her tight against me. “I want you over me,” I said in between kisses.
“Over you?” Larna repeated, still distracted.
“Mmhmm...” I squeezed the cheeks of her bottom and pulled up to show her what I meant.
“But-” My brave lover looked nervous for a change. For some reason, that made me want her even more. Larna's strange mixture of dominance and shyness made her more real, and more exciting, to me. I loved her – all of her. I wanted her terribly.
Hesitantly, Larna moved until she was kneeling over me, using her hands to brace herself. “You will tell me if you want to stop?”
“Trust me, I don't want to stop...” Because I knew that Larna was too unsure of herself to do it, I pulled her hips down until she settled against my mouth. At the first slow swipe of my tongue, her hips jerked, muscles trembling. She tightened, a sob catching in her throat.
“Relax...” I examined my lover carefully, taking in all of the soft parts, colors, and textures. Everything was covered in a clear, shining coat of wetness. A proud, swollen nub stood out from the rest, pleading for attention. Taking it between my lips, I could feel Larna's heartbeat against my mouth. I groaned, my head spinning.
With a shuddering sigh, she tilted her hips down and pressed herself over me. Her fingers threaded through my curls, pulling me tight against her. Warm, trembling walls clutched at my tongue as I slid inside of her, fluttering wildly. I let her guide me to the spots that made her gasp and shudder and rock harder into my touch.Her warmth spilled over my cheeks and into my hair, but I was past caring.
Desperate, she moved her own hand between her legs, straining for release. If her thighs had not been clamped tight against my cheeks, I would have shaken my head. That was my job. The flat of my tongue pushed her fingers away, started to flick gently over her tip – that was all it took. Her body seized, locking up tight, and my mouth was flooded with the wonderful, salty taste of my lover.
When her hips finally stopped jerking against my mouth, I finished cleaning her and looked up. Her chest was still rising and falling in a rapid pant, and the muscles of her stomach shivered above me. She fell forward, releasing my head from between her legs. Regretfully, I let her pull away. My tongue circled my lips, searching for more of her taste.
My Tuathe gathered me in her arms, pulling me close and snuggling against my side. Her breathing slowed, and her warm skin, covered in a light coat of sweat, began to cool. “You smell like me,” Larna whispered, leaning closer. We both smiled, pleased that she had marked me with her scent.
“I wish I could see the stars,” I said much later, staring at the fabric of our tent's ceiling.
Larna squinted, trying to imagine what the sky would look like without the tent to obstruct the view. She rolled her head to the side and looked at me. “What sign were you born under?”
I giggled. “We just made love, and you're asking me my sign? You're a little late.”
Larna protested. “It is a flirtatious question...”
“For new acquaintances, not almost-married lovers.”
My lover frowned, looking confused, but not unhappy. “Almost-married?” she asked. “Does that mean we are not married?”
“We haven't had a ceremony,” I explained. “You are my mate.”
“You want a hand-fast?” The thought brought a blush to Larna's cheeks. I dropped a kiss on the closest one. “I could be giving you that.” Satisfied that she could provide what I wanted, Larna dismissed the idea from her mind. She was a practical creature. Like the imaginative romantic I was, I continued thinking about where the wedding would be, and what kind of dress I would wear.
Her voice broke my train of thought. “You never told me what sign you were born under.”
“Why do you want to know?”
“Because I already know your favorite color,” she said, remembering one of our conversations from the past. “I am wanting to learn something else about you.”
“Mm,” I said noncommittally. Tired, I nuzzled the base of Larna's neck, pulling myself closer to her warm side.
“The Stag's Throne? The Lion? The Bear?”
I yawned. “No.”
“The Great Sword?”
“The Three Witches.”
My eyes were closed, but I could sense Larna's smile in the darkness. “That is appropriate.”
“What sign were you born under?” I asked, still drowsy.
“Do Serians ask that question?”
“I am not Serian,” I reminded her, “but yes. They call some of the constellations by different names. The Three Witches are The Three Sisters. The Stag's Throne is a crown of some kind. Now answer my question.”
This time, I opened my eyes in time to see Larna grin, showing her white teeth. “Which one do you think? The Wolf.”
We woke to the blaring of a horn in the night. Larna stiffened beside me, jerking awake. I could feel my lover's quick heartbeat against my back. My own heart was racing. I untangled myself from her embrace, struggling to find my clothes. “Dinna bother,” Larna ordered. The sounds of metal weapons being drawn outside and several shoutsdrowned her out for a moment. “Just change.”
The change to half-shape was slower than usual, and painful. My furred flesh knitted itself around me, burning in my bones and muscles. I did not even take comfort in the familiar humming of magic. I was too worried about what we would find outside.
Together, Larna and I charged out of the tent, teeth bared and claws gripping the hard earth. There were Shadowkin all around. Their smell clogged my nose and throat, and I whimpered at the unpleasant scent. There were Kerak, too, but I could not smell them over the Shadowkin.
With another blast of the horn, Larna bolted away from me. The rebels were frantically trying to organize themselves. Some were wearing full armor. Others were in their nightclothes. All of them were scrambling for weapons to confront the enemy.
Alone, I whipped my head around, trying to spot Larna. She had disappeared into the darkness. My instincts screamed for me to find her, to make sure that she was all right. I was not a fighter. I found no joy in battle. But I was a protector, and the one I wanted to protect most was my mate.
The smell of blood and rotting flesh hung so thick in the air that I could barely breathe. My eyes stung, but I could see well enough to get out of the way when a heavy Shadowkin corpse fell beside me, making the earth shake. The thing's muscles quivered, then fell slack. Blackness oozed from its sliced belly.
Using its hooked hands, a lanky brown Kerak heaved itself over the mountain of the Shadowkin's body. Its beetle black eyes fixed on me, and it whined in its long throat. I showed my teeth, hackles raised, muscles chorded and tight. When it swung its rope-like arm, I was ready. I ducked under most of the blow and ripped its torso open from shoulder to hip. Its hooks pierced my middle back, on either side of my spine, and tore. I felt skin split, mine and the monster's, as its blood pumped into my mouth. It died, still latched on to me.
With the Kerak's wet blood matting my fur and my fangs stained red, I looked for Larna. I could not see her. Jett Bahari was fighting alongside his men. His twin swords were curved blurs as they sliced his foes to pieces. Several members of the Farseer were trying to take down another Shadowkin. Jerico was easy to see. He was swinging a giant axe and scattering monsters left and right.
Picking my way over corpses, I was startled when a warm body fell against me. I lifted my head, and the body collapsed. I looked down into the pain-clouded eyes of Elaran. He was shaking badly, but smiled when he saw me. At first, I could not tell where his injury was. Then, I saw a red slit blossoming across his pale throat.
Soon, the spilling blood covered his chin and shoulders. My head swam. There was so much blood... his voice did not come when he tried to speak. A wet, bubbling cough spattered his face with more specks of thick blood.
I gave him comfort in his last moments, resting my head on his chest until his heart stopped and his eyes filmed over. Most of the heavy fighting had moved to our left. We were undisturbed for a few seconds. My heart ached. Elaran had been so young. Yesterday, deathseemed so far away. Now, it was all around us, a cold black cloak of eternal silence.
But I could not stay with Elaran's corpse. Near us, bodies were still falling. Suddenly, I felt a sharp pain in my head. I pawed behind my ear, but there was no blood. The pain came again, almost toppling me. I jerked my neck to clear my swimming head. Somehow, I knew with chilling certainty that Larna needed me. She was injured, and I had shared the pain.
The battlefield was less congested as I pushed my way through. A human next to me fell, but I ignored him, searching for my lover. I tried to follow her scent, but the stink of Shadowkin and blood and death blanketed everything.
And then, between two Shadowkin, I saw Larna. I was shocked to see Mogra riding astride one of the beasts. A southern wind blew through her black cloak, making it billow behind her like the ragged wings of a raven.
Larna was bleeding from a head wound, and she barely had the strength to dodge the huge black paws of the witch's mount. Fire. I needed fire. I glanced around frantically, searching for a miracle.
A smoldering torch, lying next to a decapitated body. It was almost burnt out. The last few sparks were dying.
I grabbed the torch, almost dropping it with large, fumbling hands that were almost paws. I tried to coax the fire back to life. At first, it flickered out. I thought it was hopeless. Then, a spark. Soon, the torch was blazing with red-blue flames again.
As I ran to Larna, I saw one of the Shadowkin scoop her up in its massive jaws. My blood froze. It shook its great shaggy head, throttling her. I remembered Farseer's death. That would not happen to Larna.
I threw the burning torch. Someone shouted, and I realized that the noise was coming from me. Maybe magic guided my hand. The fire caught along the ridge of the monster's spine, throwing Mogra to the ground. She shrieked, rolling on the ground to put out the flames. They engulfed her, crawling over her cloak and sending thick black smoke up into the sky. As she ran, I saw Jerico hunting her down with his giant axe, ready to slice her open if she survived the fire.
The Shadowkin dropped Larna. Delirious with pain, it charged into the other demon dog. Shaking, weak from fear and blood loss, Larna crawled over to me.Weeping, I stroked her fur, trying to see where she was hurt. I could not tell – she was covered in blood. A lot of it was probably from her kills. Normally, Larna was too heavy for me to carry. Not this time. Desperation gave me the strength to drag her wolf-body away from the fighting. For a brief moment, I wondered if I should make sure that Mogra was dead. There was no time to look back and check. Surely Jerico's axe had found its mark.
Hundreds lay dead on the ground, blood outlining the shapes of their bodies. The wind blew across the mountaintops, a swirling breath from the north. These poor souls had been blotted out like a dying fire. They would never see the sky and grass again.
Still aching from the claws that had raked my chest, I stared at the eyes and faces of the dead. I did not know why Larna was not among them. Fate, luck. Scattered between the human and Wyr bodies were the twisted black corpses of the Shadowkin, and the white piles of ash that had been the Kerak. Our enemies had fallen. At least the lives lost had not been wasted.
Some of the rebels had only been children, I noticed sadly. There was one young boy to the left, no more than fourteen, who was not even bearded yet. Then again, had I been a child at fourteen? That was old I had been when Luciana raped me. No, I had not been a child, but I had not been a woman either. It was too soon.
I wept bitterly for the boy, for all of the dead, for Larna, and even for myself. The tears poured out of me, sliding over my slick cheeks and chin until I had no more to give. Others were nearby. Some had come to grieve, like me; others were claiming bodies to decorate from cremation. Others rushed to aid the wounded waiting in the tents. That was where Larna was. Where I should be.
The red sun was just peeking over the black points of the mountains. Larna was waiting for me in the fifth small tent. They told me that she was not badly hurt, but I did not believe them. Seeing her fall beneath the claws and teeth of the Shadowkin was the worst moment I could remember. I had never felt so small and helpless.
I felt ashamed of the fear and despair that had driven me away from the tent as the healers worked on my lover. My feet had walked me to the battlefield, an open grave, and the rest of me had followed. Except my heart. That was with Larna.
As I watched the first sliver of the sun rising from behind the mountain, spreading a hot red glow, Aria came to fetch me. I could smell her without having to turn my head. She reached out to touch my shoulder, thought better, and settled back.
“Well?” I asked. All that pain and fear in one soft word. I felt choked, heavy. “How is she, then?”
“She is waiting for you. She is not bad off. She will be getting better.”
I felt more tears ready to bleed out, but I choked them back. “Larna,” I whispered to myself, though Aria could hear, “what will I do?”
Aria said, “Larna was giving you strength. Now you must use it.”
I went with her to the tent where Larna was. I pushed through the loose tent flap and into the dark. The smell of blood and fear and pain covered me. Larna was near the back, because she was one of the last to fall. My warrior had fought bravely.
When I saw her, the tears that I tried to hold back spilled out. I cupped her cheeks. Her drained white skin had patches of yellow and gray over it. Her face was burning, but when I reached for one of her hands, it was a lump of ice. Her face did not register pain, though, and I could see no blood, only a pile of used bandages waiting to be thrown out. Perhaps she had been worried about me.
“Cate,” she mumbled. She gave me a needful kiss. Her lips were rough and dry as paper, but I did not care. It was overwhelming to feel her, solid and warm and alive.
Larna and I clung together, tighter and tighter until neither of us could breathe. “I almost lost you, lover,” I whispered, mouthing more than speaking. We were so close that Larna could feel the words against her mouth.
“You'll never be losing me.”
I could tell that she meant that promise, but how could she keep it? Larna could not fight death when it came. “There will be more fighting.” I tried to pull my face away from hers. Looking into her eyes was too painful. But she hooked my waist and held on tight. She would not let me leave.
“It is who I am.” Larna looked sad, frightened, as though she had disappointed me and was afraid that I would be angry with her.
My heart melted. “I love you for it.”
Larna blushed, and I forced a sad smile. “I canna... not fight, Cate. It would be tormenting me.”
I held her close and kissed her hair, her ear, the base of her curved shoulder. “Shh... shh... I know, Larna.” And this would be my weight to carry. Because I loved her, I would let her go. Keeping her back would destroy a part of her that I admired and adored. I could never do that to my lover.
“I forgive you, warrior mine. I will always be there. After every battle, I promise.”
Larna smiled, the heaviness lifting from her chest as it settled on mine. I accepted it, but with fresh strength this time. She would do everything she could to come back to me. For now, that would have to be enough.
“You know what this means?” she asked. She no longer seemed helpless, but tightly controlled. Still, she seemed so weak, lying there on the bed... I reminded myself that Wyr healed quickly. Already, Larna probably felt the burning hum of magic as it mended her torn flesh.
I knew what Larna was talking about. “There is a traitor here.” I hated to admit it, but it was probably a Wyr. The Farseer pack had only arrived days ago. “Yerta told me something yesterday,” I said, remembering, “Hosta left for three days.”
Larna's eyes lifted. “Left? He didna say where?”
I pressed my lips together, setting my face. “I can guess.”
“What are we going to do?”
“For now, nothing.” I gave Larna a stern look. “You are injured,” I reminded her.
“But...” Larna cast an annoyed glance at her bandages. “Fine. Jett Bahari will be moving camp because of the attack. The Queen must know by now... At the new camp –”
“When you are healed,” I interrupted.
Larna agreed. “When I am healed, I will challenge Hosta. If he was betraying us to the Witch, I will takehis blood as payment.”
“What if it is someone else?” I asked.
She shrugged, wincing as she pulled a torn muscle in her arm. I helped her adjust herself on the cot, making sure she was comfortable again. “Hosta did it,” she said, sounding sure. Larna was determined. “I know it.” The words gave her an idea, and she looked at me.
“Is your magic telling you anything? Do you Know who the traitor is?”
“I thought you were sure it was Hosta.”
“I am,” Larna said, hurrying to defend herself. “But if you are having any feelings about this...”
“I will tell you,” I promised. “I want to punish the traitor, too.” There was a pause as I gathered myself, angry at the needless waste of lives. “I saw Elaran die.”
Larna was shocked. I squeezed her hand to keep her from moving and hurting herself. Even though she had been a little jealous of Elaran's attention, she looked very upset at the news. “You... saw him die?”
“His throat was slit open,” I said softly, remembering. “I saw the blood spill out.”
“Oh, Catie...” I could tell that Larna wanted to take me in her arms and comfort me. She was probably frustrated that she could not. Instead, I shifted my weight so that I was leaning on part of the bed, close enough for her to touch. She ran her fingers through my hair. I leaned in to her hand. “I am sorry.”
“He was young.” My voice trembled, but did not break.
“He was brave. He fought for his kingdom.” In that moment, the words felt hollow and empty. Was a kingdom really worth a lost life? But a kingdom was more than a place on a map. A kingdom was its people. A life lost protecting other lives was not wasted. Larna was right.
Over the next few days, we traveled, injured and all. Now that the Queen knew where our camp was, we could not stay. The quick scouts left first, packing light. On the second day, the seasoned warriors followed. On the third day, the bulk of the camp left. That was the group that Larna and I traveled with.
Some carried the injured – in wagons, stretchers, on tents strung between lines of people. The healers watched them with hawk-eyes. They were worried and fretful. I was grateful that Wyr healed faster than humans. Larna's injuries were almost gone, and so were mine.
“It must have been a hard decision,” I commented. Larna and I were near the front of the party, walking side by side. “Some of them will probably die.”
“We all would have died if we were staying,” said Larna.
“What about the ones still waiting to go?” We had left the most serious cases back for another few days with a handful of guards, but that was all Jett Bahari could spare.
“What else could he do? We must be moving away, fast. The Rebellion has to survive.” But I could see the tightness in Larna's forehead, the weariness in her brown eyes. She did not like it, either.
For most of the morning, we walked in silence. The tone of the march was somber. All of us were remembering the battle, and those who had fallen. The path through the mountains was rough and narrow. Sometimes, we had to move forward in single file. One of the larger carts had to be left behind, and its contents were carried.
Larna watched over me silently, always ready to help. She held out an arm when I made a difficult step, and caught me when I stumbled. She treated me like a lady. Her chivalry was endearing. I doubt that she consciously decided to act that way. It was such a large part of her personality.
“It is not over yet, is it?” I asked, observing the harsh set of Larna's jaw, the stiffness in her shoulders.
“No. There is one more battle left to fight. The traitor,” she reminded me.
I had pushed those thoughts to the back of my mind, not wanting to drag them up. But now, I knew that they needed to be dealt with.
“You still want to challenge Hosta?”
Larna's voice was firm. The decision was made. “Yes.”
For the first time, I thought about what that would mean for me. I would have to watch my lover fight. Hosta was not a foolish young pup or an old, toothless elder. He was young, strong, and clever. I believed that Larna could win, but he would not make it easy.
“Are you afraid for me?” Larna asked, noticing my silence.
“I am your mate,” I said, as if that explained everything. Larna gave me a look. “You will be fine,” I said, reassuring her. Secretly, I thought that I was the one who needed reassuring, not my lover. “You are well enough to fight?”
Larna rolled her eyes. “Yes, Maman,” she grumbled, bending down so I could see the back of her skull. I could not tell where it had been sliced. Even though I had been a Wyr for what felt like a long time now, our rapid healing rate still seemed strange to me.
An ugly image of Hosta's teeth closing around my lover's throat flashed before my eyes. I bit my lip, shaking my head to clear away the grisly picture. It was not a vision from the future, only something from my imagination. I tried to forget it.
I put a hand on Larna's arm, pleased to feel the warmth of her body through the fabric of her shirt. “Nothing. Just thinking.”
It was the truth: I was thinking. I decided that if Hosta even came close to hurting Larna, I would charge in to the fight and save her whether it broke the rules or not. Nothing was going to happen to my Tuathe while I could stop it.
We reached the new campsite in the middle of the day, but there was so much to do that Larna and I could not get away until almost nightfall. Our entrance into the pack's section of camp was not very daring or grand. We came into the clearing as if we had every right to be there, walking past a tall pine and towards the tents. I stayed a few steps behind Larna. My eyes flicked to either side, watching for any threat to my lover. The instinct to guard her was strong. Usually, Larna was my protector. This time, I was hers.
We felt their eyes before we saw them. Three at first, then six, and seven, watching us carefully. They slid into their wolf bodies; gray, stretching shadows between the trees. Larna's shoulders lifted, and her brow lowered over her bright eyes.
Then, Hosta came. He did not flutter around us like a silent night moth, keeping his distance as the others did. His stance said that he was Alpha, and he was not afraid. He and Larna stood facing each other, bristling. Their eyes were locked.
“Why are you here?” said Hosta. His teeth were clenched, and so were his fists. “I told you to be staying away from us.”
“There is a traitor in the pack.” A long pause. “I think you know who it is.”
Hosta's eyes narrowed. “Do you have proof?” Not ‘how should I know?' or ‘who do you think it is?' I did not trust him or his words.
“Why did you banish me with an old, stupid law?” Larna countered.“I would never hurt an innocent human, and I am not mad. You did it because you were jealous.”
“I did it to save you!” the words cracked sharply. All of us took a surprised breath, even Hosta. I pulled closer to Larna's side.
“You make no sense,” Larna said, finally. “You banished me unfairly. You scared my mate. You sent us into the Forest, injured, after we fought for this pack. I challenge you, Hosta. I call for you to step down, or fight me.”
“You are making a mistake,” Hosta tried to warn her. Larna brushed him off.
“Fight me, or step down.”
Hosta did not give her an answer. Instead, he kicked off his pants, sliding into his wolf body. For a moment, I wondered why he did not take half-shape to fight. Some deep-rooted instinct inside of me answered my question. This was an old tradition, older than the Wyr. It hailed back to full-blooded wolves. Hosta's shirt tore, and he shook off the fabric scraps. Around us, everyone who had not changed began stripping. I followed them. This time, I did not take pleasure in seeing Larna's naked body. I could only imagine that beautiful skin torn and bloody.
Larna's left flank twitched once. I knew I was dismissed. I backed away, but not without an unhappy growl. It went against my instincts to let my lover fight alone. I would kill Hosta myself if anything happened to Larna.
The other wolves came out from behind trees and around tents.We formed a tight circle, sides and legs pressed together, sharing heat. The night wind chilled our bones. I could not look at Hosta. I only saw Larna. Her ears were pressed flat against her head. Her claws tested the earth under her feet. She and Hosta began a twisting circle, trying to find the slightest hint of imbalance or hesitation. Two pulsing bodies curved toward each other, showing teeth, but not growling.
In the ring, we held still as stone, waiting. Our ears were lifted, our chests were heavy with our breath. I recognized some in the circle. Aria, Goran, and Yerta, but they were strangers to me now. They were more like statues than friends.
Larna's sharp, challenging bark cut through the trees and the still air. All of us raised our fur. Muscles rolled beneath skin. Teeth ached, ready to snap or grab or tear. Blood beat through the circle, joining us as we prepared for the ancient ritual. My eyes searched for Larna's. I wanted to reassure her, and be reassured. But she did not glance at me.
Hosta exploded forward, claws stretched, lips peeled back. Larna caught the blow with her shoulder. Blood smeared over her fur as she snapped at his muzzle. Both of them had connected, but Hosta had first blood. His muscles bunched and curled, and he rushed again. Larna met his charge again, trying to grip his throat. They moved back again.
They danced together, leaping forward and back. Rushing and dodging. Their teeth clipped as they darted in and out, trying to catch a soft throat or belly, scratch out an eye. Larna's paw slipped over a loose patch of earth, and her footing shook. Hosta saw, and lunged.
Larna's neck was exposed for one heartbeat. I was sure that Hosta's jaws would close around it and tear out her throat. But her head ducked down, and she snapped Hosta's leg bone in two. He screamed, as a wolf can scream, tucking his leg to his chest. White splinters of bone stuck out of his skin like tiny spears. His eyes were glazed with fear and pain. Finish it! I shouted in my head. Rip him open before it heals. Do it for me.
But she did not. I could tell she wanted it. A wolf in a fighting circle hardly ever lets their opponent live. But Larna backed away. Instead, she lifted her head and howled. The howl was echoed around the circle. We cried to the mountains and sky, to every person or animal nearby.
Suddenly, there was a very human cry of pain. The wild call stopped. Hosta had changed back, and he was huddling in a tight ball, holding his arm. Trying to claw at his vulnerable, naked skin was Yerta. Deep red gauges ran along his back. Blood was everywhere. Hosta's body twitched in pain.
Quickly, several wolves ran forward and forced Yerta back. He was wild with rage, but not strong enough to break through their barrel chests. Larna changed back. Even as a naked woman, she looked powerful and strong. A leader. She knelt beside Hosta. He was sprawled on his stomach, but lifted his head to look at her. His eyes were losing the light of life.
“I did it – to... to save... you...”
“What?” Larna asked softly, disbelieving.
Hosta's voice was weak, but everyone in the circle could hear him. We listened closely. “Brother... you betrayed me. Betrayed us... all... He – he told the witch where our camp was.”
“Why?” All of us were thinking the question. I looked at Yerta, but he was still a wolf, and could not answer. The guarding circle drew tighter around him. Tears of pain and betrayal stung my eyes. How wrong I had been...
“And you protected him,” Larna accused, still wanting to blame Hosta.
“He is my brother. I knew he would hurt you next... the strongest left...So I banished you – to save you. I thought, maybe... I could change his mind. Stupid...”
There was silence for a long moment. Nothing but Hosta's raspy breathing.
“Cate. I dinnawant to frighten you. Larna... I was angry – jealous... I hated you. For-give me...”Larna put a soft hand on Hosta's shoulder, in a place where the skin was not torn. A shudder passed through him, and Hosta's eyes closed forever.
“You.” Larna turned to Yerta, who was shaking with energy and fear. He was much smaller than Hosta, not built as sturdily, but still dangerous. “Change back. Now.” Yerta did not obey. “Change now, or I will have your throat ripped out.”
Slowly, he shucked his wolf hide, but stayed crouched on all fours. “Why did you betray your pack? Your family?” At first, he did not answer. “Speak!” Larna barked.
There was cold hatred in the gray eyes I thought I knew. Everything was so backwards. “My whole life, I was an outcast...” He was no longer looking at us, but remembering a long ago time. “Then, the witch gave me the Gift. I was stronger. Faster. I knew things would be different – better. But you...” His focus returned, and he looked at every Wyr standing in the circle. “You made me Pekah. I was right back where I started. I would not become the last again. I will not! Not this time!”
Wildly, crazily, he charged. The circle blocked him, but he tried to claw his way out. “Kill him!” Larna ordered.
Someone tore out his throat. When he fell limp, all of us looked to Larna.
“I am Larna. I am Alpha of the Farseer pack. Will anyone challenge me?”
There was silence. Only the nightbirds made a sound. No one in the circle breathed.
Again. “I am Larna. I am Alpha of the Farseer pack. Will anyone challenge me?”
A third time. “I am Larna. I am Alpha of the Farseer pack. Will anyone challenge me?”
Silence, and then a great roar went up from the circle.
At last, Larna walked to my place at the edge of the battlefield. She stood before me, the others beside me backed away. I changed into my human body with a few groans of pain, ignoring the burn of magic and standing up to greet her.
Because we were human, with proper human mouths, Larna took my lips in a hard kiss. She was officially claiming me as hers, announcing our engagement. I was truly her mate now, but she had won my heart long ago.
One by one, and then in small clumps, the rest of the pack changed. Knowing that I was still shy about my nakedness, Larna stood in front of me. Modesty was useless among the Wyr, but it was hard to drop old habits. Larna held her arm backwards to touch my waist, still blocking the view. “Be digging a grave for our brother, Hosta, so we can return him to the earth. Drag that trash,” she pointed at Yerta, “out of camp and leave it for the deathbirds to pick at.”
“You are a Beta now, you know,” Larna said, turning in my arms as we rested on her cot. We had gone to bed together. Larna was exhausted, almost asleep by the sound of her voice, but I was wide-awake and excited. My heart was still pumping fast, even though the fighting was over.
I looked at her curiously through the dark. It still surprised me that I could see her face in the blackness with my wolf-sight. “A Beta?” I repeated. A horrible thought rushed to the front of my mind. Did the Alpha Female need to have a male for her mate?
“Oh, little bird, no,” Larna cooed, rocking me in her arms. She could read my mind. I loved it when she treated me like this. Like something small and precious. “You are my only. When there are two Alphas, one is male and one is female, but they could be brother and sister... they are not always mates.”
“But you are the only Alpha right now...”
“Maybe someday, I will be choosing another one.”
“Why didn't Hosta let you be Alpha, too, if there can be one male and one female?”
Larna snorted. “Because he didna like me... I thought you knew that.”
I shook in her arms, relieved. Her chest was so warm, and her skin was so soft. Larna was the most wonderful thing in the world. I would not have been able to share her. “I belong to you,” I sighed. The place between Larna's neck and shoulder was warm against my face. My lover made the perfect pillow.
“Were you afraid when I was fighting?” Larna asked. She already knew the answer, of course. Maybe she wanted to hear me say it.
“You are a better fighter than Hosta,” I said. “I expected you to win. But I never would have imagined... about Yerta...”
“I know he was your friend,” said Larna, sounding sad. “I am sorry.”
“Don't worry about me...”
“Were you scared?” I asked.
There was a pause as Larna chose her words. “When I was fighting Hosta, yes. I was afraid that you would be left alone if something... happened... Who would protect you if I was killed?” I ran a hand over Larna's back, feeling smooth skin and muscle. She pushed into the touch like a cat.
“You will always be my protector. You were lucky tonight, Larna. The Saints must have been watching over you.”
Larna kissed my nose, her eyes still closed. “Mm. How long were you saying you lived in Seria?”
“Long enough to hear them talk about the Saints,” I said. “They have a Saint for everything. Most of what they say about God – the Maker – is the same as in Amendyr. Except they have a lot of silly rules.”
Larna cracked one eye open. “Silly rules?”
“In Seria, they say we are not supposed to do this...” I kissed the corner of Larna's mouth. Her lips twitched against mine, and she smiled.
“What about this?” Larna whispered. Her body rolled over mine, her familiar weight covering me. My fingers threaded through her hair. We kissed again.
“That too.” There were many soft touches and sighs, sharp breaths and a tear or two, as I showed Larna exactly what people were not supposed to do in the eastern kingdom. Apparently, Larna was not that exhausted after all.
The funeral began just after sundown on the next day. In the very center of camp, a great bonfire had been stacked high above our heads. Smoke rose into the darkening sky, swirling up towards the stars. It carried our grief, our prayers, and our hopes with them. At first, the large tower of flame let out cracking, popping noises, but they grew quieter, or we grew used to them.
The Amendyri people had burned their dead for thousands of years. It was tradition. Maybe that was one reason the Kerak seemed so monstrous to us. Using the ashes of the dead for dark magic was a terrible crime. Since there was no time for a funeral at the battlefield, most of the bodies had been burned quickly, and their ashes scattered or buried. Some of the families in camp kept them.
“I want us to die at the same time,” said Larna, who was standing with her arm around me, staring up at the giant column of flame. “We should be burned together.”
“I hope so, too.” But I knew that one of us might die first. Some of the fighters that were killed left families behind.
“I am not afraid of death...” I tilted my chin, looking at Larna curiously. The firelight brought out the hollows of her cheeks, painting her skin in hues of brown and gold. Her hair mixed with the dark sky. “I know that I will always be with you, even after death.”
From my soft-spoken lover, those words shook me to the core. I clung tighter against her, and she steadied me with her arm. “I love you,” I whispered in her ear. “That is the most romantic thing you have ever said to me...”
Larna frowned. “What about the first time I said that I loved you?”
“That was the other most romantic thing you ever said.”
“What about when I told you that you were my moon and stars and sky, and I would be honored if –”
“That, too,” I interrupted, feeling much lighter. “Fine, you say a lot of romantic things.” The corners of my lips were turned up, and my eyes were a little brighter. Only Larna could make me smile at a funeral.
We stopped talking as Jett Bahari stepped out from the circle of people around the pyre. His skin was almost as dark as the sky above him. The whites of his eyes stood out eerily until he stepped closer to the firelight, the dancing yellow tongues of flame bringing color back to his face.
“Alaramirini. To honor the fallen.”
“To the fallen,” we said. It was like a toast, but no one raised a glass to drink.
“Alaramenias. To honor their memory.”
“To their memory.”
“Alaramabios. To life.”
In small groups, the rebels approached the fire. Because there was no time for a proper funeral at the battle site, they scattered pinches of ash that they had saved onto the fire. Family and friends tried to put their loved ones to rest.
Larna had a small clay jar with the ashes of our pack-members that had died. Unless they had close family members, like a mate, to do the honor, it was their Alpha's job to scatter their ashes. It still surprised me every time I remembered that Larna was the leader of our pack. She threw her ashes on the fire with the rest.
All around us, people started singing. It was such an old song that no one remembered when it was written, or who first sang the words.
To those who have fallen asleep, you will not be forgotten.
Body and flesh arepassing, but the spirit is eternal.
Alone, I stared out over the mountaintops and the Forest. From this high, I could even see a line of green beyond, where the plains began. At that moment, the world felt very big, and I felt very small.
Death was on my mind. The battle was five days ago now, but still vivid in my memory. Sometimes, I woke up shaking in Larna's arms. She told me I did not scream or cry out, but I heard screams in my sleep. I had seen so many die... and for some reason, Larna and I were still alive. I was bitterly grateful for that.
My mate was handling it better than me. She did not have nightmares. Once in a while, usually at night, I would notice a sad look on her face in the firelight. When I saw that look, I held her hand and stroked her hair. It was my job to drive those feelings away and make her heart warm again.
I sensed someone behind me. My nose told me who it was. A human's scent was as unique and easy to recognize as a face for me. This scent carried herbs and ash and the wind. “Auriye?” I called out, turning to look over my shoulder. I was right. The old woman approached me slowly, but there was no limp. Perhaps her joints were just stiff from the cold.
“Arimdei, young shaman,” she said, standing beside me to gaze down the side of the mountain. The Forest stretched out below us, an ocean of branches and treetops. The color was strange mixture of mottled brown and green, since some of the trees had lost their leaves, but the pines had kept their needles.
“Jett Bahari was telling me that you and your mate killed the traitor,” she added when I remained silent.
My cheeks colored. Larna and I felt responsible for bringing the Farseer pack to the rebel camp. In a way, the deaths were our fault. Auriye echoed my thoughts. “It was not your fault.” I did not sense the use of magic, but I could not be sure. Maybe she was just perceptive.
“I wish that no one had died,” I said. But wishing could not change the past. If only things had been different... There would have been no attack on the camp. Kalwyn and Farseer might still be alive, too.
I tore my eyes away from the great Forest and looked at Auriye. “Kalwyn never finished teaching me.” I reached up to touch the Deadeye that still hung around my neck. A thought came to me. “Will you teach me about magic?”
“I am not a shaman,” said Auriye.
I persisted. “That wasn't a no...”
“Maybe I can be showing you a few things, but I canna be your teacher forever. We use different kinds of magic. You will need to study with another shaman.”
My view of Auriye and the Forest faded as my thoughts turned inward, remembering. “In Kalwyn's house, I saw the moving energy of a person that was gone... do you think that I will ever speak to her again?”
Auriye shrugged. “We are not knowing what happens to the soul after death. Many believe that the Maker takes them to a place of rest.”
“Do you ever answer yes or no?”
“Maybe,” said Auriye, just to be irritating. I smiled. That reminded me of Kalwyn. “Yes,” she finally said. “I think that you will speak to Kalwyn again someday... but not on this earth. Perhaps you will be seeing magical energy in her shape, though.”
For a while, we were content to sit in silence together. For the moment, at least, I had a new teacher. But she would never replace Kalwyn. I had learned so much from her. She helped me to accept my Ariada blood without shame. I wrapped my fingers around the Deadeye. It was warm in my hand...
The sun was just rising above the mountains, so I knew that this was a different place, a different time. Larna approached me from behind, taking her seat beside me in front of the little house that we shared. Wanting to feel her warmth, I rested my head on her shoulder, closing my eyes as she pressed a kiss to my temple. Her arm found itself in a familiar position, wrapped around my belly, which had grown too large to hide beneath my clothes.
“I wish I could be feeling them,” she said, letting her hand roam across my swollen stomach. I shivered.
I shifted my head against my shoulder, looking up at Larna's pointed chin. There was a relaxed smile on her face, although the sense of possessiveness and strength that were her core remained. The proud angle of her head and the set of her shoulders clearly said that I was her mate, and these were our pups. “You will,” I said, resting my hand on top of hers. Our fingers linked. “I only started feeling them a few days ago.”
Larna remained silent and thoughtful for a few moments, and I was content to rest against her side. To me, the most perfect place in the world was in her arms. “We should start thinking of names. I wonder how many we will be needing,” she said, almost shyly. The streak of timidity in my proud Larna made my lips turn up in a small smile. Even though she would never admit it, she was a little frightened at the prospect of having children.
“We need three,” I said. I could not explain how I Knew, but I was carrying three children. “It is a good sized litter.” It felt strange calling my pregnancy that at first – a litter – but there was clearly more than one child growing inside of me. Wyr rarely had just one pup at a time, although litters of more than four were very unusual.
“You said that they looked like me?” Larna asked, even though I had already answered that question at least a hundred times.
I indulged her. “Yes, Tuathe. All three of them will look just like you. They will be handsome and strong pups.”
Larna looked proud and a little disappointed at the same time. “I wanted them to look like you,” she said, kissing my hair. “You are so beautiful...”
“I am sure they will look a little like me,” I said, trying to appease her. “Ellie keeps asking me when I will come visit. I know that she and Belle want to be there for the birth of their Godchildren.”
At the mention of a visit, she frowned. A worry wrinkle creased her smooth forehead. “We canna go back to Seria right now. The rebellion needs us here, and traveling is dangerous. And you are carrying our pups now...”
“I told them that. Ellie says they will come here, but I can't believe they're serious. I have no idea how they would get across the border and up into the mountains...”
Larna snorted. “Little bird, your friends are delusional. Are all Serians like that?”
I smiled, shaking my head against Larna's chest. “No, only Ellie and Belle. The rest of them are usually normal.”
“Maybe living in Seria left you a little crazy,” Larna teased.
I lifted my head up, nipping affectionately at a tempting ear. “Maybe. Maybe I should show you how crazy I am...”
I blinked. Auriye was looking at me curiously, but she did not seem worried. “Cate, what did you see?”
I smiled. “Nothing,” I said, leaning back and staring up at the sky. “Nothing about future battles or our enemies.”
The old woman smiled, too. “Not all visions are great, important messages for the kingdom,” she said.
“Not this one.” But it was a great, important message to me. I wondered if I should tell Larna about the vision. No, I decided. I wanted to keep this to myself for a while longer. If I was right, we would have many years to enjoy our children together.
Return to the Academy