Chapter One - Decisions
Wolf rode his horse through the dark forest, chasing his prey. It would be light soon, but the darkness reminded him of his first night in the woods a short year before. Then, it had been an ominous feeling, with danger lurking behind every tree and around every turn of the trail. That feeling raced back bringing his breath up short. Those days should have been banished, he thought, not happy that he still had the same feeling after all his training. He calmed himself by thinking of the friends he had made, including Shadow.
Wolf maintained an easy canter to preserve his horse's endurance. Shadow, the large gray wolf who led him, could have outpaced the horse, leaving him lost. He saved the wolf from a vicious trap the year before, and had been paid back for that good deed many times. The wolf could follow the tracks of the horse and it's rider in a way that the boy could not; the wolf's sense of smell followed the path that the Scarecrow had taken.
They arrived at a swift stream and Wolf pulled his horse to a stop so it could drink and refresh itself. He could see the bottom of the clear stream even in the twilight. As the boy knelt down to drink he plunged his face in the freezing water. "What was I thinking," he said aloud, as he lifted his numb face out of the water. Even still he thought it was refreshing and it would keep him alert. The first time he had encountered a mountain stream he had been thrown in and it felt like freezing death. A lot had changed in a year, "Now I am doing it on purpose," he smiled to himself.
The Scarecrow rode her horse at a gallop throughout the night. She couldn't see her path in the forest, so she kept her head down and trusted Nellie her horse to run a straight and safe course.
When the sun arose in the morning, her horse, slowed down, exhausted. It should have come as no surprise that when they came to a stream the horse balked and refused to go on. The Scarecrow almost fell off when the horse stopped. She tried to urge the horse on but the lathered mare ignored her commands. She dismounted and tried to pull the horse by its reins but again the horse refused to move.
The girl realized she had pushed the animal too hard. She collapsed to the ground and started crying; she cried for the horse and she cried for herself. She had run away and taken the horse and now she had more trouble than ever. She knew there were gang members out there who would kill her. They had tried once and had almost succeeded except for the intervention of the mysterious man who called himself the Raven. Now she had become a runaway and a horse thief. Most of all she had betrayed the trust of the only friend she had ever known, the gentle boy named Wolf.
Wolf: who had saved the life of a real wolf, because it was the right thing to do.
Wolf: the adopted son of the fierce sword maiden known as the Wolverine.
Wolf: who listened to her and had never given away her secrets.
It shocked her that she told Wolf her biggest secret; that she had murdered a man. She had seen the reaction on his face and it surprised her that he had told no one.
Now she just wanted to escape from everything and in a way, she had. Lost in the middle of the forest, in the mountains, with a horse that could no longer run, she had nowhere to go. The Scarecrow felt lost, alone and very afraid; the ultimate escape would come soon.
"Grace, why are you crying?"
The Scarecrow jumped up shocked out of her skin. She spun around to confront Maud. "Where did you come from?"
Maud looked at Grace with a warm smile, "I've been here the whole time. Why are you crying?"
"You are lost but not the way you think." Maud reached out with her hand and rubbed Nellie's nose. The horse calmed down and started to breathe easy. Turning her attention back to Grace she said, "Why don't you come with me? I will show you your way." She took Grace's hand and they strolled through the trees leaving the horse to drink from the stream.
At midmorning Wolf and Shadow found the spent horse.
Wolf dismounted from Pinto Bean so he could check out Nellie and search for Grace's tracks. The exhausted horse could do nothing more than walk about. The horse had been ridden too hard and had not been cooled down; any more work would cause the horse's muscles to cramp. Wolf unsaddled and hobbled Nellie; he couldn't do much for the mare. The horse should recover by the time he found Grace.
Wolf searched for the tracks left by Grace and what he found surprised him; there was somebody else, somebody big, the footprints were larger and deeper. Soon he determined the person walked besides Grace and not behind. A good sign, unless Grace had been captured and was being held against her will. But with the pace of the tracks being even and no sign of a struggle, Wolf relaxed.
Shadow urged Wolf to follow the trail Grace had left, so he remounted Pinto Bean and walked him in the direction indicated.
A short while later the Raven and his company, following the trail that Wolf had left, found Nellie. The knight, not surprised at the horse's condition, grimaced. Grace didn't know how to conserve her horse.
His reading of the signs left him less worried. He had confidence that Wolf would do the right thing, but he remained disturbed that the page would leave camp without talking to him.
Red, Wolf's sister, was angry at Grace for getting Wolf to run away with her, or so she thought. She had become convinced that the Scarecrow had played with his mind and that it was her job to protect him. Something about the Scarecrow rubbed her wrong. She acted different and didn't fit in with any of the other students; so Red wanted a piece of the page.
The Lady Knight Wolverine saw Red's dark mood and knew the cause of it. She couldn't do anything about it until the two girls met again. Then she would have to act fast to stop any hostilities.
Lady Jane knew Grace as well as anybody else at the school and guessed the dark nature of the girl's secret. She knew the terrible nature of it and she also knew it could come out in a way that could hurt her. She would do everything in her power to protect the girl.
Wolf followed Grace; he wanted to help her to come back to the school knowing it to be the only place she would be safe. He and Shadow followed her trail for a quarter hour until he came to a small clearing where he found Maud sitting on a log. She looked up at him as he came into view, and Shadow trotted over and sat down beside her.
Wolf dismounted and set his horse free. He walked up to the woman and saw several scars on her face, scars that had been on Grace's face until a few days ago. He could think of no reasonable explanation for how the disfiguring scars had been transferred from the girls face to the woman's face, but there they were.
He asked the mountain woman, "Just who are you? Where is Grace?"
"Don't you know me? No. It's not important. Grace is on a quest to find her way, to find out what she wants to be."
"What is that?" Wolf asked.
"She will be what she wants to be. She will find out soon."
"What about me?" Wolf asked.
"Do you know what you want to be?"
"Yes... no... I haven't decided," Wolf answered, not so sure of himself.
"You are still young. You shouldn't decide yet. Trust your heart; you will make the right decision. Wolf, there is something I must ask of you."
Wolf stared at the woman a minute. "What is it?"
"There is a trapper nearby. He kills animals. He almost killed Shadow once."
Wolf's eyes went wide, and then he turned red with anger, "He trapped Shadow last year? What do you want me to do?"
Maud said, "You must stop him."
"You want me? Why?
Maud's face and voice went hard, "Because of the murders he has committed against the peoples of the forest."
"Who? What people?"
"The wolves, the rabbits, the raccoons."
Wolf went slack jawed, "I've killed rabbit."
Maud took a deep breath, "You did not waste them. You did not kill for their skin and discard their bodies. You did not kill what you could not eat, you respected their souls." Maud paused to put her hands on Wolf's shoulders, "You must stop him."
Wolf seethed, "Where is he?"
Maude pointed down a dear path, "Hurry, he has been alerted and is seeking to flee." Wolf hastened to follow the narrow path, and Maud shouted behind him, "Be wary."
Wolf and Shadow ran down the path, a regular deer run with lots of tracks. Shadow led the way. They went over and around two small hills before bursting into a clearing. The trapper dressed in camouflage, knelt, packing his bedroll into a knapsack. Next to him a pile of animal pelts lay on the ground. Wolf stopped short, while Shadow growled as he advanced toward the man.
The man had his back to them and without even looking reached for his rifle, which leaned against the pile of fur.
Wolf not even aware of when he had strung his bow now aimed a flint tipped arrow at the man. "Stop or I'll shoot." As soon as he had said it, Wolf realized his nervous teenage voice just didn't have the force for his brave words. He found out the truth of it as soon as the man turned to point his rifle at him.
"Why? You're just a boy!" exclaimed the man. He laughed and barked out, "Drop the bow, or I'll kill you."
Wolf didn't back off. He just stood there holding the bow at full draw. His arms started to shake, and the palms of his hands were getting sweaty. A drop of sweat rolled down his brow into his eye, making him blink.
"Call off your wolf," ordered the trapper. "Or I'll shoot it."
Still Wolf didn't move or speak.
"Well it seems we have a decision to make. You put your bow down or I decide whether to shoot you or the wolf. I'd rather shoot the wolf. He's worth something. I can get a pretty penny for his hide."
Wolf needed no more prompting, he moved to make himself less of a target and let loose at the same time. He didn't count on stepping on a trap. The jaws slammed hard against his ankle and he fell to the ground, the arrow flew off useless, and he screamed.
He tried to stop screaming and feel for the trap, he heard Shadow yelping in pain. He saw out of the corner of his eye the man swinging his rifle like a club. The wolf circled, looking for an opening, but stepped on a snare trap. At the first jerk of the wire on his rear leg, the wolf went into a violent snarling fit, helpless to attack the man.
The man took the opportunity to come and stand over the boy. Pointing his rifle down at him, "Don't move, it makes the pain worse. The good thing about traps is they catch all kinds of prey, including nosey little boys. I ain't afraid of no wolf. They're my business. I'll take care of him soon enough. "
Wolf stopped thrashing and looked up at the man with hate and fright on his face. He gasped out, "Who are you?"
The trapper gave a toothy grin, "Just an honest hard working guy, I'd be doing a lot better with you gone, but I'm no murderer. I'll let you go, but the wolf stays here. Understand?"
"Go to hell!" growled out Wolf, as he struggled to keep from screaming.
"Which is where you'll be going, if you don't leave." The man reached down and jerked Wolf's hunting knife out of its sheath. He held it up, testing its edge with his thumb. "That's a pretty fearsome weapon you have. I think I'll use it to skin the wolf."
Before he could even think, Wolf reached over his shoulder, grabbed an arrow out of his quiver, and plunged it into the man's calf.
The man yelled, dropped the knife, and jerked down to grab the arrow, but Wolf stabbed him again, this time embedding the barbs of the arrow head into the calf. He could not pull the arrow back out. He kicked Wolf hard in the ribs and would have kicked again, but he was attacked by the flashing form of Grace, jumping onto his back. She wrapped her arms around his head blinding him.
The man had dropped his rifle to reach for the girl. She shifted her arms down to lock them in a choke hold around his neck. The man couldn't break her hold, so he reached for her head. She kept shifting her head around trying to avoid his fingers and he backed up until he smashed her back into a tree. Grace didn't let go, so the man smashed her again. Again she wouldn't let go. A third time he smashed her, but still she didn't let go.
The man started to slow down. He gasped for air his face turning gray.
A pair of hands grabbed Grace's shoulder and a woman's voice shouted for her to let go. Grace recognized Lady Jane's voice, she let go and fell off the back of the man and into the woman's arms.
The man's arms were being held by the Raven and the Wolverine. They forced the man, face down, onto the ground. The Raven placed a knee in the trapper's back and pulled his hands together while the Wolverine tied them. She then tied his ankles together.
Squires Bob and Bill set to work on opening the trap on Wolf's leg. The springs on the trap were strong and it took both boys to squeeze them enough to let the jaws drop open.
Wolf felt immediate relief from the excruciating pain. As soon as he tried to move he again felt more sharp stabs of pain. He pushed himself to a sitting position and saw the blood soaked through his trousers. Sucking in a gasp of air he felt a sharp attack of pain in his side where he had been kicked. He felt weak and Bill lowered him back down.
Looking over at Shadow he saw that Red had released him from the snare and he licked at his wounded leg. Shadow arose and walked over to Wolf and started licking his face. Wolf didn't complain.
Grace shivered in the comforting arms of Lady Jane, her back sore from being smashed against the tree, and her face had been scratched by the trapper's rough hands.
With the trapper secured, the Raven went to Grace and asked her how she felt. She lied, telling the knight that she was alright, despite feeling like she had been pounded with sharpened sticks on her back. The knight looked at the back of her shirt and saw small amounts of blood. He placed a hand near one of the spots and Grace stiffened. "I suspect you will have some severe bruising. Report to the nurse when we return to camp. Let Lady Jane attend to the bleeding."
The knight walked over to Wolf and after a quick glance eased off his boot and took his knife to slit Wolf's trousers up to the knee. The page had heavy bruising on his shin with two cuts where the jaws of the trap had cut through the boot and dug into the skin. The man took the first aid kit from his horse's saddle bags, used some antiseptic to clean the wounds, and wrapped the shin with gauze. Satisfied he spoke, "Can you bear the pain?"
Wild eyed from the stinging of the antiseptic, Wolf whispered, "Yes, Sir." He coughed and winced from the pain from his ribs.
The Raven felt Wolf's ribs and found the tender spot. He pulled the boys shirt up and examined the wound. Satisfied the boy had no broken ribs. "Do you think you can stand?"
"Yes, Sir." The knight helped Wolf to his feet, and the boy put weight on the foot. When he tried to walk, stabs of pain shot up his leg. With a shaky voice he said, "I'll be all right, Sir."
The Raven mused out loud, "What is it about today's youth that you must bear pain by yourself?" The Raven said, "You have some explaining to do."
"Yes, Sir." Wolf took in a shallow breath. He faced the Raven and the Wolverine square on. "Sirs, I would have waited, but I had good reason to think Grace was in immediate danger, and she didn't have the experience to ride a horse that hard. I made sure you would follow, but I had to look after her; she's my responsibility because I keep her secrets."
The Raven thought a moment and seemed to accept Wolf's story. He turned to Grace and said, "And now how about you young lady?"
Grace looked around at the squires and said, "Do I have to tell everybody?"
The Raven glanced at the Wolverine and nodded to her. The Wolverine took Wolf by the arm, walked him over to the squires, and herded them all over to the other side of the clearing, leaving just Lady Jane to listen to the two of them. "Lady Jane stays; she's your guardian."
"Sir, I'm afraid. If I stay at school, people will come to kill me. Students would get hurt. "
"Why do they want to kill you?"
Grace looked down, "I murdered one of them."
The Raven sucked in his breath and said, "I suspected something like that."
Grace looked back up in into the eyes of the knight, "How?"
"Since the day I saved you. I put the pieces together; the degree of violence they were doing to you had a reason. I found a picture of you in one of their pockets, marked with the cuts you were to receive. They weren't going to stop at cutting just your face. Mr. Rosencrantz helped me in finding out what they were doing."
"And you let me stay?"
"Yes, it is part of what I do, save lives. You are no less than myself; would you have been safe if you hadn't killed the man?"
Grace looked back down and mumbled, "No, they were going to kill me, I overheard them."
"Why would they do that?"
"Because I saw a drug deal that went bad. I would have been a witness."
"And your refusal to use pain killers?"
"They had tried to hook me on those drugs."
"We will get you help for that. You don't need to suffer."
"What about the creeps who want to kill me?"
"I will do my best to see they don't. I can be most persuasive. Will you stay with us?"
Grace stared at the knight a long time then nodded. "Yes, Sir."
"Good. It's going to be a long night and we have a lot to discuss."
The Raven attended to the trapper, extracting the small barbed flint arrow head from his calf. Wolf assisted in the removal by sponging the oozing blood and handing the Raven the needle and thread. "It is a good thing he hunts only rabbit, a full sized arrow would have cut your calf real bad."
"I'm going to get you, boy," seethed the trapper. "I always trap my prey."
"No," said the Raven. "You're going to face a judge first." The Raven and Wolf ignored the trapper and his threats for the rest of the night.
The squires built a large camp fire, fixed coffee, tea, and cooked some rabbit with vegetables. Red rode out to retrieve Nellie, since the horse now had time to refresh itself. The squires sang and told stories around the camp fire.
Red had to tell about Wolf's initial encounter with Shadow and how he had been afraid of being eaten. She seemed to enjoy telling that story to Grace.
Grace for her part told a story about how she had made a gang member look stupid in front of the whole gang. It got laughs from the squires, but Wolf knew she paid in pain for the prank.
After everybody else went to sleep Grace had a heart-to-heart talk with the Raven and Lady Jane. The Raven started, "Grace we can do a lot for you. We can protect you. We can teach you to protect yourself, but if you run away from us we cannot do very much. You can do whatever you want to do. You will have our support; we will not turn you away. Grace what do you want to do?"
"What do you mean?"
"What do you want to do with your life; do you want to stay in school, do you want to go to another school, are you going to return to the street? We can't stop you from running. Again, the question is what do you want?"
After a long silence Grace spoke, "Sir, if I thought I could, I would become a knight."
The Raven smiled then asked, "Why do you want to be a knight?"
"I had a dream; somebody I care for dies and I couldn't do anything about it. I want to be able to do something."
"You can. You've shown me several things today: you want the save lives, you are not afraid for your life, you are not out for revenge, and there are people you care about. You have what it takes to become a knight. It is a hard life; it is harder than anything you have ever dreamed about. It will be painful. Your back is a small taste of that pain. You have to want it very much."
"I do want it. I want it so much; I'll risk staying, even if it means they find me. I need this; there is no other place for me to go."
"Good. Lady Jane what do you think?"
"I think she is sincere." The lady faced the girl, "Grace, the life you would be embarking on is not for everybody, I did not choose it."
"But you are so good with weapons, I've seen you. You're perfect with a bow."
"I can defend myself. Being good with weapons is not the same as being a knight. It is a hard life, as a knight you will work on your own, but when it's necessary you must be a leader. I chose a different path."
"I couldn't be a lady."
"You will be. A female knight must be a lady just as a male knight must be a gentleman."
Grace looked down, shook her head, and looked up, "If that is what I have to be, I'll do it."
Lady Jane smiled, "Good, you'll have to talk to the Lion and if he agrees I will begin your training in the fine arts."
The Raven said, "You will have to remain a page for one year before you're eligible to be a squire. It is the same as any other older student must do. Lady Jane will be appointed as your foster mother."
Lady Jane added, "That is something you don't have a choice in. I've already acted as one for you, so you know what to expect."
"I'm not a very good kid."
Lady Jane smiled, "I consider that a challenge. You had better get some sleep; we have a long ride tomorrow."
Grace didn't dream.
The party of riders took their time returning to the camp. Grace had to ride Wolf's horse, Pinto Bean, with Wolf sitting behind her. He couldn't put his feet into the stirrups and had to balance, he couldn't place his arms around Grace. The trapper rode on Grace's horse, his hands tied to the saddle horn.
When the party of riders returned to camp in the late afternoon Wolf reported to the nurse's tent to have his leg treated with antibiotics and a stitch applied to the worst cut. His leg had been bruised, as well as his ego. He now understood what Shadow had gone through the year before.
Grace reported to the Lion. First she had a chance to refresh herself, than reunited with Lady, her wolf-dog, which had been watched by Wart.
Grace, now ready, reported to the main tent, where the Lion conducted camp business. The Lion expected her and moved his finished his work aside. He walked with her over to his tent where they sat down at the table.
"I hear you had quite an adventure."
"Yes, Sir, I was afraid I would bring trouble to the school. I felt I had to get away before anybody got hurt, but it seems I've just caused more trouble."
"You've been very little trouble, besides, we're used to trouble. I hope your back recovers well."
Grace mumbled, "I figure I'm dead."
"You look very much alive to me."
Grace grimaced. "I mean they are going to kill me."
He replied in a low voice, "I know what you mean. There isn't a knight here who doesn't have an enemy or two. The Raven has had death threats from several people who are capable of murder."
Grace said under her breath, "I've committed murder."
"I know." The Lion patted a thick folder on the table, "I have copies of the police reports about the man in question, and the recommendations from the district attorney. They say the man survived his wounds, and had later been murdered by other members of his gang, the same ones who attacked you to cover it up. You did not commit murder. You defended yourself, and you almost paid for it with your life.
What you did back in the woods was very brave. You didn't give up. You saved Wolf. The Raven has told me of your desire to protect others, that you would be a knight if you could. I'm going to give you the opportunity to not just graduate but to become a knight."
Graces eyes went wide open then she furrowed her forehead. "You knew this all along. Why are you doing this for me?"
"Because you know what it means to be a victim. You, more than anybody I know, should understand what it will mean to be a knight, to save someone else. You will of course have to stay in school longer."
Grace still couldn't believe it, "You're asking me to become a knight?"
"What does it take to become a knight?"
The Lion leaned back in his chair, paused a minute then said, "Remember the Ordeal that Willow underwent?"
"It represents the tip of what you must learn. It is both physical and mental. The real test is keeping your wits under the most extreme conditions. If you pass the Ordeal, you will have what it takes to be a knight."
"What if I fail the Ordeal? Willow almost lost her head."
"You will not be allowed to undergo the Ordeal if we don't think you will pass. I'm now going to ask you, do you want to become a knight?"
"Yes, Sir," Grace said.
"Good. I'm assigning you to a knight for training." The Lion went to the flap of his tent and beckoned to the Bear, who waited nearby.
The huge knight came in and offered his hand to Grace. "Welcome to knight training, the best part of the Knight Riding School. You are now my page and you begin your training today."
"Don't I have to sign something?"
"What you are about to embark on, no contract can sanction." The Lion answered.
"What do I do?"
The Bear answered, "In the morning, after your self-defense class, you will report to Lady Jane who will start teaching you the fine arts of being a woman. Also, Grace…"
"Eat your vegetables."