Walker studied the signs of passage in the hard earth, careful not to add to the confusing mess of impressions with his own. Another man, a lesser tracker, would've been fooled by the hoof prints and traces of animal spoor. But Walker was the best at what he did, and so he recognized a coverup when he saw one. So his quarry was smart enough to lay false trails. He nodded to himself when he saw the telltale indention of a hare. Probably had still been alive when it had been pressed into the ground, judging by the claw marks next to it.
He looked up at the full moon and considered his options. The dwarf had mentioned the possibility of the nighttime raider as being more than it seemed, even the possibility of faerie intervention. The dwarven ranchers had laid out traps and poisoned bait and even setup an ambush, all with no luck. The dwarf chieftain Barak, fondling a weathered lumberjack's axe almost obscenely, had told Walker to track down the offender and put a permanent end to the raids by whatever means necessary. Though he did not know of what Walker could do specifically, he knew of him by reputation. An unconventional troubleshooter was how Walker thought of himself. He solved problems, traveling from town to homestead, selling his services as such. His avatar hung from leather straps on his back, the ensorcelled steel too big to be carried in a scabbard or at the hip. His twin shot crossbows made their homes in quick draw holsters on his thighs. He had fought bandits and raiders and such, of course, of all races and bents. He had wrestled exotic beasts that once only existed in fairy tales. He had even had some encounter with the more vicious of the sidhe, and once had even participated in a battle against a demon, a mindless monster that had destroyed three farms. He was good at what he did, he had been doing it for a long time.
And that was why he hesitated now. Something about this did not feel right. A demon or a mindless beast would have killed dwarves as well as livestock, and the many attempts to catch the raider would have resulted in at least a sighting, an idea of the identity of the intruder if not his outright capture. This smelled of fey, of magic and deception. Which was still fine, his avatar was proof against their defenses, but it still raised other possibilities.
His dark eyes kept scanning the deliberately muddled trail as he reached into his vest pocket and withdrew a small glass vial. He looked down into it to make sure the yellow flower floating suspended in midair inside was still whole. There were three petals left. Ah well, nothing lasts forever.
He uncapped the vial and carefully tapped the flower out onto his palm. With deceptively delicate fingers he plucked a single petal off and threw it on the ground. There was a gentle sigh from the petal as it sank seamlessly into the ground. Then a faint yellow glow began to illuminate the area. Swiftly a glowing line wound away from it through the fog into the forest. He nodded with satisfaction and replaced the flower and then vial. He double checked that the crossbows were armed and tipped appropriately, then followed.
The glowing line wound through the underbrush (carefully put back into place), around and through trees (a careless wound bleeding sap pointed to the raider having claws), and once across a stream with a very fast current (the raider was either very strong or could fly; either was in the realm of possibility).The magic of the flower was never fooled, however, and Walker could sense that he was closing in on his quarry. Then the trees opened up to reveal a fog drenched glade before him. A single rock formation towered over him from a short distance away, and he leaped upon it to survey his surroundings. Yes, there was a shape approaching him, just as he suspected. This was an ideal spot to make a stand if the raider knew...but the shadow kept getting bigger! As he watched, half amazed, it keep getting larger and larger. And now two eyes pierced through the mist, swirling clouds of blue, and he knew he was not dealing with anything mortal. The shape started to coalesce into a lupine form, and he started up at wolf eyes that towered over him at least two stories. At least now he knew what he faced. A silver wolf. He had heard of these magical beasts. Majestic creatures, it was said. Able to change their forms and disappear into the clouds. This particular one struck him as female, he could not explain why. It didn't seem hostile, but he still could not tell detail in the dense fog.
The blue eyes gazed down at him, then started to turn away. The creature was running! Walker reached back and loosened the straps on his avatar, but then paused. That feeling he had forgotten something. Something very important about his foe. As he watched the fading shadow and extended his awareness into his proximity, he remembered it. Oh yes. Wolves hunt in packs.
Right on cue he felt their presence. Three more great wolf shapes, two on one side and one on the other, and a quick glance to his back showed the fourth approaching. These had red swirling eyes of sunburst horizons. They were definitely hostile, snarling their challenge, their intent clear. He had foiled their attempt to get him away from the rock, a strong defensible position, and they had lost the element of surprise. So now they must rely entirely on their size and otherworldly nature to combat him. And their teeth. Their big, big teeth.
Walker took a moment to bring the warrior stanza to mind. Then he spoke to the silver and grey furred wolves.
"I apologize that I must engage you in combat, for you are truly noble foes, but I have been given a commission, and it must be seen through to its end. I give you honor as a worthy adversary."
As the wolves processed this Walker raised both crossbows and fired gleaming steel into wolf flesh.
The wolf with the blue eyes watched the battle from a distance. Her eyes tracked the movements of the participants, but they tended to stay on the stranger. He was not only holding his own against four magical beasts almost twice his size, but very possibly could've won against the pack if he had gotten the drop on them instead of the other way around. As it was, this battle was not going well for the pack. If this continued, he might or might not fall but he would almost certainly take some of the pack down with him. Already one of the wolves was limping from a tendon slash and another had lost use of an eye thanks to whatever magical metal he was using that seemed to easily carve into them. She was very impressed. The stranger was a skilled warrior as well as tracker. His shoulder length coal black hair and short goatee framed his narrow face well and he moved with great power and hidden strength, and yet with grace and speed that was uncommon in one so large. His movements were fluid and deliberate, alternating with almost prescience between defending against unseen attacks and striking with anatomical accuracy. She admired this warrior. And she admired the look of him.
The wolf got to her feet and howled. Even as the echoes of the sound faded she was bounding down into the mist to join the battle.
At the sound of the female the other wolves instantly stopped the attack and drew back. Walker, suspecting another trick, nevertheless took the opportunity to get some of his breath back and resecure his position. He was bleeding from a dozen wounds and his muscles screamed from exhaustion. Ensorcelled it may be, the avatar was heavy and was not made for extended combat like this. He watched the wolves, but they seemed to have lost interest in him, looking off in to the fog across the glade. He glanced in that direction and was not surprised to see the shape of what he was sure was the female approaching. The figure grew as it neared, and then seemed to shrink down. As the shape grew clearer, it continued to shrink down to his size, and adopted a pleasing womanly shape.
Walker was no stranger to the female form, far from it, but the woman who stepped into the moonlight was unlike any he had ever seen. Her pale luminous skin was flawless, as he could easily verify since she wore not a stitch of clothing. Her silky glittering silver hair tumbled down freely at her back and down her legs. She was slender, but every step communicated restrained strength. She had an athletic build, with a small but pert bust and long, graceful legs. She was tall, but still did not come up to his eyes. But her eyes! They were large and electric, the same swirling clouds of blue. They leapt out at him and reached into his soul and awakened sleeping emotion that he had believed scoured away. Now he saw the delicious half smile she flashed at him, as if in amusement of his study. Now he watched the twitch of a thick eyebrow, as if in approval of his study. Now he gazed into those blue clouds and saw the soft intelligence in them, now he saw the way she walked with confidence and grace and purpose, now he saw the regality she emanated.
She strode up to him and smiled fully, lighting up her face. She reached out a hand to him.
"Come, warrior. You are worthy of audience with me. I ask your pardon for underestimating your prowess. Come with me."
Walker sheathed his avatar and grasped her hand. It was as smooth and soft as it looked, but gripped his back with an intensity that spoke volumes. Up close, he could see now that she was actually covered in a silver down, so fine as to be almost invisible. It did nothing to dissuade him.
"You have impressed us, warrior. Great hunter, tracker without equal, a fighter of great skill and honor. There are few mortals who could stand up to even one of us, much less our small pack of five. Yes," she breathed, and he noted with intense interest her increased breathing. "Very impressed. You are what I have been searching for…" Her words were cut off by his lips.
He was propped up on one elbow, caressing her back and simply basking, when he noticed the mounds of fur. He took a second to look all around him. Yes, the other wolves were laying down, slumbering it looked like, in a protective circle around them.
There was a deep throated chuckle. "Do they worry you, my mate?"
He considered this. "They are unconcerned, obviously, about the company you keep and what you choose to do, but I was considering whether there was reason to expect a jealous attack?"
She shook her head. "We are pack, and more importantly for your meaning, we are of the same mother. As well I lead this pack, and they follow. I have lead us for many years, always searching for the rest. We may be the last silver wolves in existence. I certainly have not seen any others since my days as a pup, when our father ruled the pack."
His hand paused. She felt the hesitation in his stillness. She sat up and looked into his eyes, amusement dancing in her eyes.
"Does that bother you, my fierce warrior, thinking of my other form?"
In answer he pulled her into his lap.
Some time later, as he gazed up at the stars peeking through the wisps and slowed his breathing down, a thought occurred to him.
"What's your name?"
That low chuckle. "We do not use names like mortals do. We have different ways to share identity with each other. What do you name yourself?"
"I go by Walker now, but once my parents named me Walker-in-the-Mists. It was in honor of ancestors long gone and almost forgotten. They told me stories of honorable knights of the wilderness, hunters who spent weeks tracking a single quarry, warriors of virtue who respected and honored their enemies even as they sought and achieved their defeat."
He felt her smile and nod against his shouulder. "It is much the same with wolves. And where are your sires now?"
"Gone. Dead. Along with the rest of my village. There is none else anymore."
She shook her head. "You are pack and yet walk alone. You carry the teachings of your fathers in your heart and have none to teach them to. It is also the burden we bear." He had no response to that. Her breathing slowed, and a comfortable silence stretched between them. When he thought she had fallen asleep, she murmured, "Walker. It is fitting."
"What my brothers know me as is She Who Leads. It is my identity in the pack, the closest meaning to what your mortal tongue could come to understand."
"She Who Leads," he repeated. "That's quite a mouthful to say every time."
"Then name me as you will, my mortal hunter that used to be and still is the Walker-in-the-Mists."
He frowned at that. He was a straightforward man, not given to flights of fancy or imaginations. He struggled with coming up with something clever, something that defined the desire and beauty and emotion and nobility that was her. Finally he blurted out, "how about Silvermane?"
She laughed, a pleasurable sensation. "You would name me by my hair, my wilderness poet? Is that what you are taken with?"
Stoneyfaced, he stiffened and started to draw away. "Then you don't like it? I could always just call you She, if that's more to your likin…"
His vision was suddenly filled with her smiling face. Her eyes drank his in, skin shifted against skin, and then there were no more words.
He awoke abruptly, aware of a stillness that had not been there before. Instinctively he reached for his avatar. His equipment and clothing was piled next to him, no sign of interference. There was a change in his surroundings. She was no longer next to him. He sat up and looked around. All the wolves were gone. The night had progressed to early morning, and the dawn sun did combat with the mist to find a place in the woods. Confused, he got to his feet, unconcern by his own nakedness.
Silvermane walked into view out of the receding fog, as ethereally beautiful as before. Her mien of sadness was different this time.
"Silvermane, what is going on? Where is the pack?"
"I must go, my mortal love. The pack must be moving on, and I must lead us. We cannot stay in the world when the sunlight rules, and when we leave a place we can never go back to it. So you will never find me here again."
"Wait," he reached for her, but she easily drew back out of his reach. In later years when he saw this scene he saw tears in those loving eyes.
"I'm sorry, Walker. But you are pack now. And one day, the pack will call you."
And then she was gone.
"The contract was to bring them to justice, to destroy these raiders, these filth, and bring me their heads!" the dwarf chieftain Barak screamed, spittle flying from his lips. His three daughters sat behind him and laughed racously at the discomfort in the room as he pounded his fists on the table. Walker stood at the other end of the table, once more fully in his own esteem.
He knew it was fruitless, but tried again. "The contract was to end the raids and get rid of the creatures. I have done that. I am owed my pay."
"You'll get nothing, you miserable excuse for a fool! The contract is nullified by your own incompetence! Wastrel, laggard…"
"Fine." Walker didn't care. This petty tyrant was beneath and behind him, and he had places to go and other contracts to seek. He knew it was not over however. He turned away, already knowing what was coming.
"Wait a second, human." The word dripped with contemptuous disgust. Walker turned back tothe dwarf almost unnaturally calm again, and smiling. Behind him him, his daughters were eyeing him up and down with almost palpable hunger. "Did you think you would just walk out of here without some compensation for the trouble you've caused me? I've had to put up with your stupidity and stink, and my daughters tell me you tried to bed them instead of doing your job." The thought almost make Walker laugh. "You'll be leaving those nice valuable weapons you got on, for starters. We'll see what else you have when you're stripped and whipped," Barak sneered, his eyes fixed on Walker's avatar. Walker had already noted the over abundance in male dwarves dressed in bits of armor and armed with improvised weaponry. The axe the chieftain held was quite possibly the only real weapon in the village. It was more than likely the only reason the tyrant and his brood still controlled these simple folk.
Walker sighed. Greedy dwarves!
As Walker rode his mount away from the village, he sharpened some stakes with his hunting knife. They were the beginnings of the makeshift cage he would make to pen up Balak's daughters at night. He glanced back every now and then to watch them. The three naked short women, crying and pleading, were tied up by their wrists in a line behind him and barefoot. He eyed them, not completely immune to their charms. Before last night, he would have satisfied himself on them and been done with the whole business. But now, when he looked at their tear streaked faces, all he could see were large blue eyes.
So he would take them to the slave camp and sell them. It would give him back at least a fraction of what the fat little man owed him. The scraps of metal on the bodies he had left behind, none of it worth anything to him. The dwarf farmer who had stepped up could make better use of it all, once he got the blood cleaned up. They had seemed to appreciate the removal of Balak's legacy, but he knew better than to stay. The man who took down the leadership once could do it again.
And so Walker continued as he did for the next decade, as he had always done. A hunt here, a battle there. There were always problems to solve, always villagers who needed saving or inconveniences removed. The road never ended, the work never lacked. He enjoyed what he did, and he was good at it. The years of battle and stress should have shown on him, but he was never wounded too critically, and always healed quickly. At times he wondered about it, but he was not a man given to much introspection, and dismissed the matter. There was some change, some differences that he knew resulted from that night. He now refused to hunt anything of a lupine nature, on the off chance that it might be her or even just of the pack. And it made him feel strange in his stomach to imagine imprisoning even a dog, and went out of his way to release those he found unattended. And he never found another woman worthy of his attentions.
He also accumulated rather than spent, and he kept an eye out on the lands he passed through. When he found a suitable town, with decent hardworking residents and on a semi-prosperous path, he asked to be paid in land instead of money. The people gladly gave him some, as the town was still poor in hard wealth, and the presence of such a skilled warrior in the town would give it some protection. He contracted and dealt with the local merchants, respectful of their bottom lines but offering to bring in much of the resources himself. He spent years several years building and overseeing the construction of the tavern, and when it was done, he decided he was as well. He retired his avatar and hung it over the bar. He decided to take advantage of the traffic that was starting to come through and turned the tavern into a saloon. He named it The Silver Maiden, but would not reveal the story behind the name to anybody. He hired locals to man and clean for him, and brought in some girls for the lonely men on the road. One of them was one of Balak's daughters, who had decided she liked the business enough to make a living in it. She did not mind working for her father's killer, but they still kept their distance from each other. He always kept the peace and did his own bouncing, always mindful that the town never had reason to regret his presence there.
And so for a couple of years he became a staple of the community. He was respectful, hardworking, and friendly. And surprisingly, he was happy. He even made some friends. Notably the sherif, a dwarf named Horace. One day, as they sipped drinks on the patio of his saloon, Walker finally told the tale behind the establishment's name. Horace grunted noncommittedly at the appropriate parts, but listened with genuine interest.
"So you've never seen her again?" He asked at the end incredulously. "And you haven't been with a woman since? That's a little hard to swallow."
Walker shrugged as he downed his drink. "No other has any pull for me. If I cannot have her, I will not have. I will wait for her return, if she returns. If not, then I have done what I can."
Horace shook his head. "You are a stronger man than I, my friend. I can't even go a week without a clandestine visit with one of your girls here." Horace puffed thoughtfully on his cigarette. "I've never seen such a committed love."
That made Walker turn puzzled eyes to the dwarf.
"Love? This is love? I've always wondered. I can see why it would be difficult for most men. But I simply don't see any other way of being. I am hers, and she is mine, and that is how it is."
Horace changed the subject, suddenly uncomfortable.
Three days later the girl walked into the town center.
His friendship with Walker served them both well that day, as he went to investigate why people were suddenly congregating. As he weaved through the crowd to see what had caused the fuss, parting bodies by virtue of his office, he couldn't help but think of long silver hair. Even though the girl, as slight and as luminous as Walker had described, had flowing ebony black hair that cascaded down her back to her knees. She was dressed in a white shift that was ill fitted and barely covered her modesty, as if she had pulled it off a clothesline without true concern for size or modesty. She was very young, barely old enough to even have her monthly visits, but her sky blue eyes stared around her with an intelligence that looked beyond her years. She was barefoot, but did not look as if it discomforted her. Indeed, she seemed very comfortable with herself and her stride spoke volumes of her confidence in her ability to find what she sought. The people gaped at this stranger, and pushed and prodded each other, even bumping against Horace. He was a little surprised that she hadn't been accosted already (he was already trying to take off his coat to cover her up). Looking over the situation closer, however, he saw that she only paid enough attention to the crowd around her to make sure they were not in her way. She walked with a purpose, a light easy step that was deceptively predatory in a way that spoke to primal fears. He saw the fear and awe in several faces, and saw her searching face, and knew what he had to do.
He stepped out of the crowd and stood directly in front of her. She stopped and turned those penetrating eyes on him. Up close, he could see the resemblance in her face, and smiled reassuringly at her, confident he was doing the right thing. He raised a hand slowly and pointed down the street.
"He's at the tavern, that way. Large brown brick building with a patio. I...I think he's been waiting for you."
Her smile was reward enough.
Walker was in front of the bar, washing it down with sudsy water, when the girl walked in. His back was to the door when the bell rings, but in the instant before he turned to meet her eyes, he felt that familiar rising feeling in his heart. He studied her as she crossed the room to him, slow and confident, and his face was a mixture of joy and amazement. There was no surprise. The girl padded deliberately, a joyful smile growing on her face, and he knew from the pain in his checks that the same smile had come on his.
And did her steps falter slightly as she stopped within arm's length of him? Was there a shining in her achingly familiar eyes as she gazed admiration at him?
They looked at each other in silence for long moments, the other marveling denizens of the room forgotten. Then she reached out a hand to him.
"Come, Father. You are called back to the pack. I ask your pardon, but we are in need of you. Come with me."
Walker laid down his rag and grasped her hand. It was as smooth and strong as hers had been. There wasn't a question what his answer would be, but there was something more he needed to know.
"What's your name, child?"
The girl laughed her mother's laugh. "We have different ways of sharing identities, Father, You know that." She looked away, then looked back at him shyly. "But...she sometimes calls me Misty."
And that was right.
Hand in hand, father and daughter walked the mists back to the pack.