The moon glistened on the silver lake issuing its silent call to gather and to hunt. The whole forest rustled with the wind's beckoning presence and the speed of the pack as they ran to the White Paw Stone. A chilling howl echoed through the forest's corners causing animals young and old to shiver. Tonight was a wolf moon.
The two travelers who had not dared stop to camp for the night also shivered.
"We should light a torch," the taller one whispered in the sudden silence of the forest. "Wolves fear fire above all things."
"And that is why on a wolf moon they will attack it first. They will tolerate no threat to their territory, especially on the night where they are strongest. We must avoid detection if possible."
"That is not possible," the taller one exclaimed. "They will notice our scent as soon as the hunt is out."
"Not if they hear us first," the soft voice answered.
The solitary howl reverberated through the forest once again.
Footsteps softer than imagination swept through the underbrush around them. One of the wolves stopped and sniffed.
Here are two humans, he said. We could attack them now and keep the meat within the pack.
No! Have you learned nothing, pup? Tonight is the night of glory—tonight the forest is ours. Tonight, we are the Pack. The call is to gather. Then the hunt. The pack leader sped on, expecting to be obeyed.
But the younger wolf hesitated then slipped out of the brushwood path. He was strong. His feet left no tracks. His teeth were deadly sharp and pointed, and when he bit, he did not let go. The humans were weak and unwary. He could easily kill them. Then honor in the pack would be his, as he dragged the still bleeding meat to the gathering, before the 'Pack' had even set out to hunt.
Suddenly the smaller human stopped, turned around, and looked at him. Eyes met eyes.
You do not want to do this, the human said. Death is for the wolf that hunts alone.
He snarled and stepped backwards in surprise.
"What was that?" the other two-stepper spoke.
"It was nothing," the wolf-spoken replied. "I thought I saw something… But it was nothing."
Go! Join with your pack. If you do not Gather, they will never receive you again. The human's eyes suddenly flashed out with a feral glow.
The wolf had only been frightened one time in his life that he dared admit, and that was when he came on a grizzly bear robbed of her cubs while alone in the forest. The scars that he bore simply trying to get away from that encounter had been wounds deep enough to cause death. That feeling did not compare to the fear he felt now. He tucked his tail under his legs and ran with all his speed to the White Paw Stone.
The soft-spoken human nodded with a grim smile on her face, then she turned to her companion. "We must press on. If we go quickly enough, we may reach the edge of the forest before the wolf gathering is completed. It is possible that they will not pursue us beyond the edge of the forest."
"Should we run?" the man said.
"And leave the stench of fear and sweat as a trail behind us, weakening us for a fight? No, I will not run. You may do as you like."
"Aw, ease up 'Lore. This wasn't my idea."
"Save your strength for walking. Do you think you can meet my pace?"
For an answer, the man sped up.
The eerie howl echoed through the woods once more.
'Lore stopped. "It's no use, Tomas. The next one will be the whole Pack, and they will be on the hunt as soon as the moon reaches the eve of its peak. They will come for us first. We'd best look for a good place to defend ourselves."
"We could climb up high on the trees," Tomas said. "They can't climb. We could wait out the night up there."
"That's a good idea…but can we afford to wait?"
"We sure can't afford to be eaten."
'Lore reached up a long-fingered hand and pushed back the hood of her cloak, revealing hair as black as the sky. Her skin had a dusky glow to it that no sun had caused, her almost overlarge eyes narrowed into dark brown slits as she concentrated.
"Maybe I can talk them out of it," she finally said with reluctance.
"What do you mean?" Tomas said.
She turned to look up at him. "I can not explain it to you. I…I can not explain it to you. You're just going to have to trust me."
Tomas barked out a laugh. "The one thing lacking in our perfect relationship. We haven't trusted each other since we got thrown together at Za'hadoras Castle, 'Lore! Why should I trust you when our lives are at stake?"
'Lore took a deep shaky breath before answering in a controlled tone, "Because more than our lives are at stake."
"Because more than our lives are at stake," Tomas mimicked. "Sorry, sweetheart, you're gonna hafta give me more than that."
The two stood, their gazes locked like drawn sabers.
A chorus of howls cut through the night.
'Lore's eyes widened, and her whole body tensed.
Tomas' look became quizzical.
She quickly made a decision. "Listen quickly, Tomas. Haven't you ever wondered why we were thrown together at Za'hadoras? Why we were both framed for crimes that we didn't commit and then shown just the right clues to get us to undertake this quest? You, a famous thief and fire-thrower's bastard whose warrior training was cut off because of your heritage and me—we were set up to accomplish this. And so we must, if we are ever to be free again."
"That's very pretty reasoning, 'Lore," Tomas said as he hoisted up his pack and began to climb the nearest tree. "But that doesn't explain why you're here. I admit that you've been useful a couple of times on this trek, but before this I had never heard of you. And I've heard a lot of things."
"You've never heard of 'Lore, maybe," she said softly. "But the ones that talk of me have always called me Alorene."
Tomas lost his hold on the tree and fell the short distance down to the ground. For the first time since their acquaintance, he looked up to her. "Alorene?"
"So you have heard of me," she said.
Tomas had barely blinked in shock before he was crouched in a defensive position, dagger and longsword clanked together as he slowly circled to get his back to the tree. "The woman-animal who orchestrated the fall of Baruna? The witch who by her charms made King Artivas fall? The thief who stole the Jewel of Kadiska? The—"
"Originator of the black plague? The savior of the Atori race? The cure giver and price taker? The woman who seems more cat than human? The list goes on and on, Tomas. But our danger is very real, and it is not from me."
A howl punctuated her statement.
"Is it true, what they say?" Tomas asked.
Her teeth flashed white against the night in a smile that was gone as soon as it appeared. "Some of some of it is true."
Her tone sobered. "I told you that I could not explain."
She lifted up her head and sniffed elaborately. Then she turned and fixed him with her gaze. "They are very near. Will you stand with me?"
Tomas stared at her. Then he sheathed his weapons. "I don't think I have much of a choice."
Alorene smiled, "There's always a choice, Tomas."
"Terror of the Five Settled Cities or not, you're still just as annoying," Tomas grumbled.
Alorene sighed, and flipped her hair in a feminine gesture, "Men. You ask them for one shred of commitment and they always withdraw."
The brush around them began shaking.
"If you would stand with me, do exactly what I say," 'Lore said. "Put your back to the tree and make no movement unless I tell you to. And be prepared to light a fire."
"I hope you know what you're doing," Tomas said as he moved to take out his instruments. "If I light too strong a fire this close to the tree, it might catch on fire."
"That's the idea," 'Lore said softly.
The scent on the wind shifted. "They are here," she said. "They're wondering how we know of their presence."
I call for a pact, she said. There is honor between us. I call for a pact.
A dappled-silver coated wolf bearing the scars of many battles stepped forward.
Who are you, human, that you know our language and would intrude on our territory during our moon? she growled.
I am one who does not wish to take your meat, only to pass through your forest as quickly as possible. 'Lore stepped forward and assumed a ready stance, placing herself in the open, completely vulnerable to attack.
You are meat, another wolf stepped forward, this one as bulky as the other one was sleek. We should not waste words with this one, he spoke to the other wolf. Kill them now. The hunt is fresh. We will come back for them later.
Growls of ascent rumbled throughout the forest and the Pack's eyes all glowed, showing innumerable lights.
Tomas moved his hand towards his sword.
Alorene turned towards him suddenly—showing her back to the wolves—and snarled fiercely, "I swear if you even put your hand on your weapon before I am done, I will kill you before the wolves get a chance to."
Her eyes flashed with a feral light and Tomas froze.
This one and I will not die easily, she told the Pack. You will eventually win, for tonight all of you are gathered and the Pack is invincible.
The Pack is invincible, the wolves repeated.
And the forest is yours, Alorene said.
The forest is ours, the wolves growled, lowering themselves into attack positions, ready to spring—except for the dappled-silver leader, who stood in the center and watched Alorene, not taking her eyes off her.
But though we will die, Alorene said, so will many of you. The Pack will be diminished, weakened. This one and I will kill far more of you then will have died in the past ten seasons. Which of you will die, I wonder? She looked directly at the challenging wolf.
I wonder, said the she-wolf, that the other human is not your mate. You are clearly the leader. Yet you speak of him with deference. Why is that?
I dare speak of him no other way, 'Lore replied. He has trained to be a fire-thrower.
Even the she-wolf backed up a step, an involuntary growl sounding in her throat.
Should we fight, he will set the forest ablaze—killing you and your prey, 'Lore said.
No more talking! The challenging wolf said. We will kill you now!
Then you will be first, 'Lore said. She closed her eyes for a second and her body began to change. Her long fingers extended into claws, her eyes widened and began to emit a green light, and her entire body became more compact and sleek, and the forest seemed to shrink about her as the sheer weight of her presence intensified. Slowly, she drew out a blindingly white blade from a back sheath and held herself at the ready. I have offered a pact. You will be the first to return to the earth.
Wait! the she-wolf spoke. Did I die so that you are now the leader of the Pack, Darkwind? Do you wish to challenge me?
At the direct challenge, the other wolf shrunk backwards.
The hunt is young, the she-wolf said. There is no challenge here, no true meat. They have admitted the Pack's victory over them, there is no need to fight. We will honor the wolf-spoken and allow her and the fire-thrower safe passage through the forest on this night, proving our victory without spilling our own blood as if it were on a coated shepherd's knife. The Pack is invincible, and the night is young.
Alorene sheathed her sword and returned to normal. She bowed her head to the pack leader in respect.
The she-wolf raised her head in recognition, as a queen receiving tribute. Then she lifted up her head and howled. The other wolves joined in until the sound was almost deafening. Then as one, the pack followed the she-wolf to the hunt.
'Lore listened attentively for a few moments, then she composed herself and turned to face Tomas.
"You can put the fire away now," she said. "And we can get going—we ought to be able to make out of the forest by sunrise."
"What happened?" Tomas asked, although clearly reluctant to express his curiosity. "It looked like they were going to attack us for sure."
"I convinced them that it would not be beneficial," 'Lore said as she shouldered her pack, and knew from Tomas' expression that she was doing a good job of masking her exhaustion. That didn't surprise her very much. Tomas was dense to those things, the light was dim, and she nearly always did a good job.
"But I thought you said that the wolves would attack anything that challenged them during a wolf moon, whether or not it was beneficial," Tomas said as they continued on the path.
"I convinced them that we weren't a challenge."
"With a drawn sword, looking for all the world like you were ready to kill half of them without any assistance, you convinced them that we weren't a challenge or a threat?"
"Argh!" Tomas said. They walked on for a little while in silence.
"You know," Tomas said. "I trusted you. Doesn't that mean that you should trust me too? Maybe give me an explanation about, oh I don't know, anything?"
"No," Alorene said. "And we'd make better time if we converted all of our energy to walking. I'll rest easier once we're out of the forest. You seem to attract trouble like syrup attracts maggots."
"I seem to attract trouble—like maggots? Are you saying I have maggots?" Tomas said. "The Bane of Brewer's Falls says that I attract trouble?" Tomas continued to sputter for the better part of a half an hour.
Alorene smiled and ignored him.
They reached the end of the forest just after sunrise.
"I know of a safe place to camp under a mile from here," Alorene said. "We can cook, sleep, and bathe there. Let's go."
"Who put you in charge?" Tomas said. "We're out of the forest now. The plains are my element."
"Just humor me," Alorene said.
"Why should I?"
"Ho, ho!" Tomas shouted. "The great Alorene is tired! Well, in that case, we certainly must make an exception. We wouldn't want you to be unable to keep up with me after all."
A hawk's cry pierced the early morning. Alorene looked up and a smile split her face. She held up her hand in a fist. The hawk spiraled its way down to her wrist, and she staggered under its sudden weight. It walked up to rest on her shoulder.
"Welcome back, Adrian," she said to the bird.
"Great, now that thing's back," Tomas said. "It stinks up the camp and eats our meat. And where was it in the forest when it could have done some good, warning us about the wolves or something."
The hawk yelled.
"Sheesh, you'd almost think that it understood me," Tomas said.
"What makes you think it doesn't?" Alorene asked.
"Yes, O all knowing bringer-of-death," Tomas said, and he stalked away from her.
That's not even one of my titles, Alorene said to the bird. I save him from the wolves, keep him from killing himself, and take him on an adventure, and this is what I get? Constant mockery.
Well, the hawk replied, you were the one that wanted to save the world.
AN: I hope you guys enjoyed that. It's just a little one-shot written for a friend. A note about the shephards knife reference: in order to kill wolves worrying a flock, a shephard's trick is to slaughter a chicken and then coat a knife in blood and stick it in the ground. Wolves are attracted to it, and will come to lick the blood off the knife. Soon, they become so intoxicated with the blood that they don't even realize it's their own blood that they're licking and they bleed to death.