After the wars, the wolves would inevitably descend to feast upon what remained. Thorunn had heard that saying many times and even she had to grudgingly admit there may have been a point to it.
Tightening her grip on the reins of her palfrey, she slowed her mount to a steadier pace before she brought him to a halt, swinging a leg from her saddle to land upon the dirt road. There was no little danger to a woman traveling alone through the deep forests, from brigands, bandits or other creatures of ill repute, but Thorunn remained unafraid, even if it were rare these days that she traveled without a full escort.
She heard her palfrey give a protesting noise, stepping back from the forest. With a light smile on her dark face, Thorunn ran a gentle hand upon the horse's face, coaxing it as she felt the mane as well. The palfrey yielded against her touch, a bond established over years of training and soothing. Thorunn looked into her mount's dark eyes. "Good, Gerhardt, I'm with you," she said before realizing those were the first words she had spoken in days.
The signposts were erected upon the forest road, an arrow pointing with a rough scrawl announcing the village of Gastovo was still a distance away. Thorunn had been riding for days through what seemed to be endless forest, so thick that the curling crowns, anointed with emerald points, could even block away the sun at times.
Thorunn scarcely looked like one who should be traveling on her own through Croatia's wilderness, so far out of where she had left her allies in the free royal city of Zagreb. The authorities, thankfully, had proven amenable to the Clans, allowing the Wolves to operate with impunity.
Thorunn pulled the brim of her hat down low, slender body wrapped in a traveling cloak. Her black hair was bound back behind her, braids falling against her shoulder, turquoise eyes weary as she reached to remove an apple from her pack. "Tired of oats? I would be, too," she said as she held it to Gerhardt. The fruit was gone in short order, Thorunn discarding the remnants with a careless toss over her shoulder.
She flexed her neck, leaning her head to one side and was rewarded with a firm crack before she retrieved her waterskin, washing away the dust of the road that had caught in her throat. She pulled out several strips of salted beef, setting her teeth into them with a slight curl of her lip. She would have preferred something fresher, something red and dripping. What had Liu Xin always said about her appetite? She almost laughed at memory of her husband' gentle humor.
Thinking of Liu Xin killed any hint of mirth that had threatened to come forth. Sensing either her hunger or melancholy, Gerhardt gave a whinnying whine, causing Thorunn to rub the palfrey's side. "Relax," she said. "I'd have to be pretty hungry to eat you, friend," she said. "Not even close there."
She walked to a tree and rested her back against it, removing her had before whispering a prayer to Tyr for strength and bravery. The peace of the forest made her forget, even for the briefest moment, why she was here, made her forget the last torturous, years, decades, centuries of life. She forgot the wars, forgot her responsibilities, closing her eyes to hear just the chirp of birds and felt the ray of sunlight upon her.
Peace, she thought with a delicate smile. It had been such a short time, less than a century, since the Dragon had ravaged Europe. The orders that had protected humanity for centuries had crumbled, holding themselves together by little more than strings. Supernatural authorities were all but nonexistent, with Fey having withdrawn to their own worlds. Vampire fiefdoms had sprung up, dotting all across the continent, those who sought to continue their dread master's blackened dreams of domination. Many of the Dragon's former lieutenants had died, but the wounds delivered by Dracul were scars gouged into the very marrow of Europe. Europe was a land for monsters now.
Monsters like her brother, Thorunn thought as her eyes narrowed. It had been decades since she had even seen a glimpse of the Beast or his handiwork. Her brother had been crafty enough to use the war of the Dragon to slip quietly into the shadows of the forests, biding his time to rebuild his forces again. She, Thorunn, ruler of the werewolf clans, knew it was only a matter of time until he emerged to challenge her again.
The cost had been great, but the Dragon had fallen, humanity's survival and supremacy assured. She had led the clans to ally with the hunters, the army of humankind led by the warrior known as Hardestadt, whose name was now as storied as any of the saints. And so now she was here, the Clans reduced in number and struggling to assist in keeping order. There was so much to investigate, more than any groups could have managed; that was the only reason her brethren would have allowed her to risk herself alone.
There had been rumors of wolves in Gastovo, of disappearances. Thorunn had listened close for any telltale sign of her brother's involvement, but reports had proven inconclusive if any children were missing. Debate had raged, but Thorunn had eventually decided to investigate herself.
She could almost picture Razia clicking her tongue at her disapprovingly, her lover's soft dark hand to her face as they lay wrapped in warm blankets, whispering endearments in her mother tongue, from her homeland of Persia. Three centuries, Thorunn thought, and she could still envision her face, just as she held Makeda and Liu Xin's own. Razia had always been keen to tell her when she worked too hard, how she had tried to take on everything herself, upon her own shoulders. "You'll only buckle if you try to hold all the weight alone, my love."
She was rarely entitled to solitude, Thorunn thought. Not she, Queen of the Clans, who had led armies of wolves across Europe. Not she, who was known as undefeated in battle, who had brought down the tyrant Siegfried and led the Wolves out from the forests into a new era, who had fostered the relationships with hunters and human authorities, fought to eradicate worse monsters all for a dream of a tomorrow that seemed so flittingly elusive.
Gerhardt whinnied impatiently and Thorunn had to laugh. Even her horse couldn't allow her time to herself, could he? She walked back to the palfrey and took hold of the saddle, mounting back up. "I would have thought you'd like the chance for a rest," she pat his side. "But very well, we shall find you a place when we reach Gastovo."
She tapped her feet to the horse's side, Gerhardt setting off at a trotting pace, Thorunn watching the forest. Razia would have told her to rest a while longer. Liu Xin would certainly have counseled the same in his gentle, conciliatory tone. Life was about more than duty and service, he had told her many times. Her late husband had always known a way to bring a smile to her face. Before him, so had her wife.
But Razia was gone, had been gone for centuries. Liu Xin, for all his gentleness, all his skill as a healer, had not been able to save himself. Thorunn felt her heart suddenly catch in her throat, eyes stung as she also heard the words of her oldest friend, the one who had shared her dream so long ago.
"What do we do if we can't reach it, Thorunn?" He had asked her once as they sat beside a cold stream, dipping their feet in clear water. A childish indulgence they had allowed themselves, just to sit on a rocky bank on a hot day, moving their bare feet below.
"Then we keep trying," She had said with conviction. "We always keep trying."
Aisling Vallee had always maintained any night with ale was a good one. Multiple empty glasses about her attested to the fact that she was now experiencing an excellent one.
Things had been busy for her the last few years; she had hunted a vampiric killer in Aragon, tracked a rampaging cabal of redcaps throughout France and a many more besides, all over Europe. Her existence had remained a nomadic and often lonely one. But ale helped a great deal.
She set down another coin to pay after another glass was brought for her. The woman behind the bar gave a pleasant smile, Aisling still dressed in her traveling cloak. Her few belongings were in her room, her purse still heavy despite her indulgences in food and drink. As a Seer, it was not strictly necessary for her to do either; Eliza had once taught her that a Seer's true being was their mind, the flesh little more than an avatar of the soul. They did not need sleep, nor sustenance, just things being luxuries more than survival while true pleasures lay in the mental.
Aisling, however, would never have traded the physical for anything. Without Eliza, ale was her friend, her love and her mistress. Ale was courage, salvation, progenitor and harbinger of wonderful and terrible decisions all at once. This inn delighted her by having wonderful ale, the taste lingering on her tongue, burning down her throat as she thumped the empty glass on the counter. "Ahhh," she said with a wide grin to show off the dimples to her cheeks, long red hair falling past her shoulders. "Damned good!"
"You'll not find better at any tavern in all the land," the barmaid said. "Me family brews it ourselves."
"Well, my thanks ta your entire family, and long may they continue!" Aisling said. "What've ya got to eat here, eh?"
"Mutton stew, made with special spices. Me ma makes it herself, leeks and carrots, with trout from the river."
"I'll take a sup of both," Aisling said. Weeks on the road and she had forgotten to eat, barely catching sight of anyone, human or otherwise. Since setting out from Hungary in pursuit of rumors, she'd largely kept from civilization, fending of the occasional brigand or monster. Coming to a town with a good inn had been a welcome reprieve.
"What brings you out here, traveling alone, if you don't mind me asking?" The woman asked as she set Aisling's food down.
"Findin' some family," Aisling answered automatically. "Don't suppose you've seen a lass, about ye high, blond hair and eyes like cornflowers, bursts into giggles, lovely as the sun, from Italy?" She picked up the steaming bowl of stew and tipped it back, tasting hot broth and drawing in a mouthful of soft meat. The flavors mingled together on her tongue, exploding in bright lights across her mind. Her senses were engaging in celebration while she set down the bowl.
"No, can't say we've seen anyone from that far here," the woman said. Aisling had not expected better, but the tiny stab of disappointment remained as it always did. It had been over a hundred and fifty years now, but Eliza's face refused to leave her mind, pure and vivid as the day she had been forced to leave her mentor and love. Every place she stopped at, be it a mortal or supernatural establishment, Aisling always asked even as hope slipped away even further with each passing year.
Eliza had always said that to be a Seer was to be blessed, a gift that should never be esteemed too cheaply. But it also meant that her memory of Eliza was as vivid as it had been centuries ago. The taste of Eliza's warm lips as familiar as the sting of the ale against her tongue. The feel of Eliza's fingers against her thighs was as near to her as the wood of the seat she occupied, her mentor's breathless professions of eternal love in her ear close as the soft din of the bar.
Have you forgotten me, Eliza? Aisling wondered it again, not for the first time. She had looked for her, when years had passed, scouring all of Ireland first. She had then traveled to England, then to France, and then the Iberian peninsula, to Italy and more. Never once had she caught glimpse of Eliza since their forced parting. Never once had she met anyone who knew of her. Aisling had been a naïve lass from Ireland when they had met, Eliza already centuries old. To have known and parted from her would only have been a brief set of instances in a life defined by endlessness.
But it remained a sting in Aisling's chest, a bittersweet thorn whenever she pictured her love. Twenty years of love and devotion, sharing their hearts, their minds, their souls, their bodies with one another to be wrenched away by the hateful beast in black that had killed so many in spite for their joy, that had threatened to kill so many more if Aisling did not flee from her.
Eliza. A chuisle mo chroí, she thought again, the stew suddenly tasting of dust in her mouth. She tried to focus, recapturing her enjoyment until she had finished, setting the bowl down. "Thank ya," she said to the barmaid. The woman offered her a smile.
"You ain't from around here, are you?" She asked. She was an attractive woman, plump with long dark curls that framed a wide and pretty face.
"That clear?" Aisling asked, putting a grin upon her face. Her wide-brimmed hat was off.
"You're traveling alone, too," the woman said. "Ain't normal we see a lady do that."
"Ya always be botherin' your guests like this?" Aisling asked, raising an eyebrow, though a smile remain fixed on her face to match her friendly tone. The woman behind the bar giggled.
"I don't mean nothin' by it, honest I don't!" She said. "It's just you're interestin' is all!"
"Just a lass travelin' on her own, ain't nothin' too exciting' about that," Aisling said.
"I ain't lookin' to be pryin' into your business," the woman smiled with a shy cast to her features. "Me name's Bianca."
"Well, Bianca," Aisling said. "Despite bein' a lass wanderin' around on her own from far away, my coin still good here?"
"Can't see no reason it wouldn't be," Bianca said. She was indeed lovely, Aisling thought. With big, dark eyes, soft hair and full lips. "Would you be likin' more, Madam?"
"Another ale, aye," Aisling said. "And company, perhaps. I'm rather enjoyin' yours. Ya know, I didn't get the name of this town."
"It's Skalitz, Madam," Bianca said. "Will ya be stayin' long?"
"Not altogether long," Aisling said. "Likely be movin' out after daybreak on the morrow. I finished some business nearby." That business had been a particularly terrifying Upyr that had been preying upon a number of children in another village. She had chased it, hunting it for weeks before finishing it off within the forests. Finding that Skallitz was closest and with more than enough money from recent ventures, she had decided to take a night off the road.
Most of her wealth was concentrated in a number of banks, with many manufactured identifies that make retrieval simple enough. A woman traveling alone with money tended to arouse suspicion from those with ill intent, but Aisling had a way of making sure any who made such an attempt was quite unlikely to repeat it. It was enough to buy comfort when she desired it, at least, and to also purchase silence.
"Also, no 'Madam,' eh?" Aisling smiling. "I've got a name, don't I?"
It was hours later that Aisling slipped from her bed, leaving Bianca to sleep. The sweet lass was wrapped in the blanket, a smile on her face. Aisling gazed at her, knowing that once she stepped out of the room, she was unlikely to ever see her again. She bent down and pressed her lips against Bianca's soft cheek in sign of parting. Bianca only smiled, wrapping herself in the blankets and settling back to sleep. She wouldn't be missed, she had told Aisling as the Seer had been undressing her. Her father and mother would be busy and she had been discrete with other girls before.
Aisling's head felt clearer now. The hours had been enjoyable and Bianca had been so warm when Aisling had cradled against her. This had ever been the way of it, though, Aisling thought as she began to put her clothes on. It had taken years after she had parted from Eliza before she had tried to drown that emptiness. Men and women, Aisling loved both alike. How many had there been now? Dozens. Hundreds. Men and women whose faces had faded in her memory, never knowing any more than hours, perhaps long enough to hear the names and sometimes not even then.
But it had been weeks and she had needed this. The last had been a handsome apprentice blacksmith in Dvigrad who had scarce believed he wasn't dreaming when Aisling had rendered a local bully into stupor with a single punch before inviting him to her room. His name she had already forgotten, if she'd known it at all. She had simply enjoyed herself before leaving the bed again. No questions, no explanations, just as she had now in Skalitz.
It was better this way, she told herself. Better to leave quickly than risk feeling anything beyond the physical. That was all she needed, all she wanted, until the day she could be back in Eliza's arms again. She still gave a smile when she left, holding her few possessions and bags as she traveled down the stairs, slipping into the night. Skalitz was asleep, she thought as she made her way to the stables. Her own horse had been given a chance to rest and eat, one eye opening as he sensed her approach.
"Aye," she said tenderly, switching to German. "It's me, Otto. Come now," she ran a hand against the horse's side, expertly placing the saddle upon her companion's back before placing her sack across and mounting up. She guided Otto from the stables, riding for the night, the sun yet to crown over the horizon.
If Aisling Vallee knew her geography, she could chart a course back west. She had left a trail of dead monsters on her path to Croatia, but there had been rumors some of the worst had escaped on their way to France or England. Perhaps she might even set foot in Ireland again, she thought. Despite the long years of separation, Aisling's love for the isle burned as bright as ever She had tried to remove herself from human politics as much as possible, but Ireland had been her exception to the self-declared vow.
Good metheglin, sweet with honey, watercress salad, cheese and wheat scones, steaming bowls of stew, either game or fish. Aisling could still remember when she had been a little girl, her mother preparing a hot bowl on a cold morning. That was how she wanted to remember her mother, Aisling thought. A generous, kind woman, who had lived well with her father. The way her life had been lived, not the way it had ended.
She was not far into the woods when she gave a start, the unwanted memories flooding back to her as she recalled the thing in black that had destroyed her life and torn her from Eliza. Any joy she could tell was soon to be robbed from her, she thought. Memories of her life growing up only carried with them reminders of how that life had ended up she'd had Eliza. And those twenty, beautiful and wondrous years only carried the memory of the deepening loneliness without her.
She had tried to trace her father's roots in Normandy once, perhaps in the belief there may be family she could locate. She'd had no success, finally accepting the truth she was alone in the world. So she traveled, putting her prodigious, arduously earned skills in combat to the best use. She had fought against the Dragon's forces, protected countless lives for nothing save the thanks of others.
All she had to show for it, she reminded herself, was the solitude and painful memories. "Well," she said, trying to force cheer into her voice as if it might seep to the rest of her, "least I've got you, Otto!" She pat the horse's neck and he gave a nickering whinny of approval. Aisling tapped her heels against his sides. "Promise I'll make sure we've got a nice stable for ya to rest when we're back. Good oats, an apple or two," she said. Otto, at least, was a constant. He never judged her, never misbehaved, never left her. Whenever she went hunting, Otto would be waiting for her just where she left him.
She rode for a long time, what seemed hours, and then almost half a day with time to rest for Otto. When they started up again, she leaned forward in her saddle and sent her mind away. Seers, Eliza had taught her, were descendants of an ancient race of beings who had lived in the psychic plane known as the Remeditary; an ancient domain between the physical and the minds. Seers and few others like them could access it, projecting mental avatars to examine the terrain. More than once this trick had allowed Aisling to prepare for grim tidings and she rarely set out on a new road without precaution.
The mental realm was a difficult thing to describe. There were colors beyond mortal comprehension, sensations all but indescribable, that Aisling could never have imagined when she was a naïve young woman in Ireland. She expected to find nothing and was not disappointed; the forest teemed with life, of course. Songbirds perched in the trees, all manner of small animals ducked away in the underbrush. There was a pack of wolves some miles away, peacefully resting a distance from the deer. Everything seemed normal-
Something came to her mind, ripples against the water, delicate tugs. She could sense pain, terror, finding a mind consumed with both. Aisling returned to consciousness, taking Otto's reins as she directed him. Otto did not question her, changing his course upon Aisling's guidance, setting his hooves to the dirt as Aisling bid him to speed. Her eyes narrowed as she considered what she had felt, counting the seconds as Otto cleared the distance. A mile, then two, taking too long even with Otto's speed.
Aisling found the man against the tree, the bark behind him dark, the soil lapping up the stains of lifegiving fluid that had poured from him. He wore robes, Aisling saw, the robes of a priest. He was a well-built man, arms more suited to a woodcutter than a man of the church. His head was clean shaven, his eyes bleary and unfocused. He was breathing shallowly, rasping out through bubbles of blood. Aisling dismounted Otto's back and reached his side.
The man croaked out a plea in Croatian, just one word. Water, he asked. He repeated it, surer and more fervent than any prayer Aisling had ever heard from a priest's lips. She retrieved her waterskin and opened it, holding it to the man's lips. He sipped, coughing as Aisling knelt beside him. "Who are ya?" She asked.
"Han…Hanush," he managed. If he had any questions over a lone woman attending him, evidently he decided this was the time to keep it to himself. Aisling took a look behind him, studying his back. Her eyes widened as she saw just a glimpse. The tree was the only thing holding his body together, she thought. There would be no saving this man.
"Father Hanush," Aisling said, her voice as gentle as she could make it. Aisling had seen death before, brutal and violent. She had witnessed many innocents die at the grip of the thing in black centuries ago, had seen the ravages of the Dragon's armies and many monsters' handiwork besides. "My name is Aisling."
"Be you…from…Gastovo?" He asked. His eyes were focused, red spittle leaking down to his narrow, shaven chin. The name was unfamiliar, Aisling thought. The man looked at her, a plea stamped across his features. "My people…all of them…tell me…tell me they're not…" Aisling could not bring herself to reply, unable to give him the truth or even speak a comforting lie. He saw it on her face, closing his eyes. "Nay. You are not…The Cardinal…" he coughed, quivering. "The wolves…my people…took them…"
Wolves, she thought. She had heard of packs of ravenous beasts who adhered to no code and slaughter indiscriminately, who had attacked village after village in what had become known as a war between them and their brethren. Vargulf, she had heard them named. Renegades and criminals. An isolated village in the forests could be easy prey to such creatures with no eyes upon it, no blades to defend them.
"The Cardinal…the church," the priest managed. He grasped her arm. "Gastovo…salvation…save…" he croaked. He pointed with a shaking finger, behind Aisling, to the east. "Wolf…" He managed. Aisling reached to his mind with her own. She applied gentle ministrations, easing away his pain, touching memories as she did. She heard snarls, felt flesh part and blood flow. She saw shapes leave the priest for dead, to pool his life away upon tree and dirt. They had not been hunting for food, Aisling realized. They had intended to silence the man, leaving him to painfully expire after.
Aisling ruined their plans with the only means remaining to her; she took away his pain, giving him the sensation of drifting away on a warm, quiet stream. She held his mind with her own as he expired, the only kindness she could give. Aisling murmured a soft prayer in Gaelic and another in Latin for Father Hanush. She would have buried him if there was time, but she remembered his desperate words for Gastovo, glancing over her shoulder. She left the body of the priest where it had fallen, walking with renewed purpose.
Gastovo, she thought. She had no idea how far away it was now. She had no idea how many she might find when she was there. She glanced towards faithful Otto, seeing the long object wrapped in cloth, secured to his back before she left Father Hanush, her eyes narrowing as she faced on ahead.
Gastovo, she repeated it in her head, picturing a village before her. She could have headed west, she thought. The last decades had been a never-ending source of exhaustion. Wherever she went, wherever she traveled, there seemed to be another monster, another would-be tyrant, another head of the hydra that doubled whenever she believed she had severed its predecessor. She wanted a hot bath, good food, a soft bed, a flagon of ale and a warm body beside her again, in a place where she didn't feel the heat on her heels. She wanted to rest.
She had been wandering so long, Aisling thought. Never in one place for more than several days, taking upon her shoulders the burdens of others. What had it availed her, in all that time? A bitterness sprouted in the field of her thoughts, her lip twisting as her hands tightened on Otto's reins. Nobody was looking to judge her now, nobody was behind her. The choice was entirely hers. There was nothing leading her down this road. She could leave now, leave whatever may happen to indifferent fate. Within days she could be in a new inn, trying new ale and foods. The choice was hers, she thought. She could have this forgotten in a week and nobody would know.
There was no serious contemplation. As soon as it rose within her mind, she tapped her heels into Otto's sides and directed the reins, riding for the east.
Thorunn dreamed sometimes of the past. It was always with her, standing behind her, its spectral hand poised to press to her should and send the reminders down her body. She could barely remember the face of her father Corvus, the Roman from Numidia, but she recalled his rough hands well. She could recall the day he had first pressed his gladius into her palm, his hand to her hair. She could remember the feel of his arms, the hard muscle beneath the dark skin. She could remember his rough hands gentle against her hair, one of the few humans permitted to live in peace among the isolationist Clans of the wilds.
She remembered her mother, chieftainess of the Clans. Gunhild she recalled perfectly in her mind every day. Stern, pitiless, her turquoise eyes devoid of humor and warmth, clad in the tanned furs and skins of her own prey, her hair the same shade of red as Siegfried's own. She had been as hard and pitiless as the lands she had rule; Gunhild, in whose veins flowed the blood of Valkyries and Fenrir himself. In her wake had been her sons. Faithful Albrecht, his long and braided black hair marking his resemblance to his own infamous father.
And Siegfried, eldest son of Gunhild and Gunmar the Black. Thorunn had never seen him, but it had been said he was the very mirror of Siegfried except for his son's wild red hair. Siegfried walked with cocksure arrogance, enjoying his popularity with swaggering confidence among the clans. More than one wolf had whispered that he was the true heir of Gunmar, who had nearly led the Clans from the forests to sweep even against the Romans in their time of weakness. Even at a young age, Thorunn had heard the whispers; Siegfried intended on giving them their rightful place. They were many, the Clans. They could grow, expand their numbers and dominate the humans. There were others like them in other lands, it could be easy to unite them. Siegfried had the will for it. Siegfried would be the leader his father could have been, the leader Gunmar had tried to be.
"Are they stronger than the Romans, father?" Thorunn had asked, sat upon her father's knee. Corvus had stroked her dark hair.
"I don't know," He admitted. "My people are disciplined. When we fight, it is to the end. And your people have weaknesses that could be exploited. I was born in a land far to the south before I joined the Legions, Thorunn. I- "
"What nonsense do you fill my sister's head with?" Siegfried's snarl was guttural as he approached. Corvus had lifted his head, a dignified cast to his eyes.
"I am educating her. As your mother tasked me with." Even among the humans permitted to live within the territory of the Clans, Corvus was unique. A soldier of prodigious skill, which had been what spared him when his trespassing soldiers had fallen afoul of Gunhild's wolves, his was a mind for strategy. His love for the chieftainess had been obvious since Thorunn's earliest years, his loyalty to the strange people who had taken him in. He had few friends, his understanding of the Clans never truly fulfilled, but he had loved them, as he had loved their leader. He was a soldier, making of them his new home even as he may never see Rome nor Numidia again. He had tried to describe them to Thorunn with a soldier's blunt lack of creativity, failing even as he tried while Thorunn laughed.
Siegfried stared hard at Corvus, who returned the stare. "Siegfried," Gunhild had said. Her mother, her heroine, Thorunn had stared at her, seeing her mother. Her features were plain, scarred by long ago battles. "What is this?"
"Your human implies we might lose to humans, to his Romans," Siegfried scoffed. "If you would only give me lead to rally the Clans, I- "
"Those are your father's words," Gunhild had said. "And I shall not hear them in my presence." She spoke with quiet dignity, but even Siegfried quailed. Gunmar the Black had died at the hands of one of his own former friends, a many known as Sigwald. Rather than take the Clans for himself, Sigwald had spent his time there and vanished into the forests. Whatever had passed between he and Gunhild, only she knew for sure. The memories were hers alone and none dared inquire even about the one who had slain her mate.
"Thorunn," Gunhild had pulled her to her feet. "We are going hunting today. You and I."
It had been a dream come true, to race along the forests with her mother. For hours they had walked into the deep forests, locating the biggest, most savage boar they could before Gunhild had bade her to strike. They had fought together, mother and daughter, bringing down their prey, feasting upon its organs as one. It had been the closest Thorunn had ever felt to her mother in her short life.
They had spoken of much, Thorunn learning from her, asking questions she had never dared to before. Her mother had answered freely, without rebuke. They had sat beneath the trees, caked in gore from their kill, Gunhild bidding Thorunn to leave the rests for the scavengers. "For life we take from the forests returns to the forests. Everything, from the birds to the ants below our feet, where it shall nourish the woods around us. That is the way of our lives, daughter."
It had been the first time Thorunn had known she had loved her mother, the first time she had felt Gunhild's love for her. It had also been the first time Thorunn had seen in her eyes the burden that Gunhild bore, keeping the Clans united. When she had been older, Thorunn had once dared to ask about Gunmar, about what he had dreamed. Gunhild had answered in a voice heavy with sorrow that she had loved him once, but his vision could only bring death and ruin, not just to them but to the humans as well.
The ways of the forest had been hers. They were the Clans, destined to remain there, away from the world, giving and taking to and from the forest forever. It had been Gunhild's way, as long as she had lived.
But not Thorunn's. No, she reflected as she dismounted from Gerhardt. Her own philosophies and dreams had clashed with Siegfried's own. She had brought them from the forests, her people believing in her all the way to now as she fought for them. She had led them against the Dragon, led them the world itself seemed their new forest. They grew and expanded, her kingdom one without walls or capital.
She had traveled so far since the days of the forests. She had walked across Europe, to the lands far to the east, to the streets of Persia and Babylon, across Arabia, all the way to the shores of India. She had traversed her way to China when the Mongols had turned back from Hungary, all the way until she had met Liu Xin in his own travels, where he had taken a place in her heart that none had occupied save for Aisha and Razia.
Now he was gone, as were they, with only the memories. She turned around, entire generations of those she had loved fallen to the grave behind her, her fight seemingly endless, her road leading her now within these woods to Gastovo.
The word had reached them of missing people and missing members of the clans. Gastovo had been the only tiny bit of information left to them. Albrecht had his own work, as did Frederick. The Jaegers were stretched too thin, the Blades pushed to their brink. It would take years to rebuild after Siegfried's last assault.
But she knew he could be here, Thorunn thought. She saw the sign signaling that Gastovo lay ahead. Siegfried could be there, hidden. His scent did not reach her, but he could not hide from her. She would find him, she thought. She could tear his throat away and watch him bleed away his life, twitching as it flowed from him. For her father, for their mother, for countless children and innocent people who had passed to eternity between his thirsting jaws, she would see her justice done.
Then, perhaps, she might even rest.
She saw Gastovo as she passed into its borders. The village was a small one, the houses orderly within the small fence that encompassed the border. There was only one problem she could see: there was nobody present. She sniffed at the air, smelling no blood, though scents of human beings lingered. She sniffed again, her eyes flicking back and forth. There was movement upon a roof, her gaze drawn as Gerhardt began to buck, neighing out in a sudden terror as a shadow landed before them. Thorunn controlled her palfrey to keep from being tossed, leaping down from the horse as the shape rose up. The wolf before her was dark of fur, spittle foaming from the muzzle as it gave vent to a series of burning snarls, the claws jutting from furred palms, the eyes a flaring amber.
Thorunn spoke in the ancient tongue in the clans, growling out a greeting and demand for explanation. The scent was unfamiliar to her and she did not know this one by sight. Was it Vargulf, or simply lost? Or perhaps it was a remote wolf, unfamiliar with the conflict that had encompassed Europe.
It was upon her in an instant, roaring as it snapped and clawed. Thorunn leaped back, evading as she saw its projected strikes. She snarled out a warning to cease, her turquoise eyes hardening to gold as her nails lengthened. It came on again and the scent of blood blossomed in Thorunn's nose, fresh and close. She gave one more warning that went unheeded, the wolf roaring with no regard for sanity, in no language or indication it even understood her words.
So Thorunn waited until it struck again, passing it by as she flicked her claws. Many wolves favored brute force, but Thorunn knew when finesse might do. There was the sound not unlike whistling, air fleeing through an open hole as blood began to spray. The wolf growled, confused as it sought to come for Thorunn again, clapping a hand to its neck. But Thorunn's aim had been perfect, the vital container of blood within the throat severed.
Her opponent was losing strength as its life sprayed away, the tuneless and light whistle the heralding orchestra of its demise. The wolf collapsed, all strength fading as it twitched. Thorunn looked about, following the scent of blood as another shape emerged from behind a house. It fell back, a wolf the equal of the first and from its body she could see a blade torn free, held by pale hands.
The woman there had red hair, loosely falling down her shoulders, her body unmarred her breath steady and slow with no sign of exertion. The wolf hit the ground, still and dead. The woman looked past Thorunn to see her own opponent there. Their eyes met, both silent with recognition.
"Queen Thorunn," the woman said at last. "It's been a while."
"Aye," Thorunn said in response. There was a familiarity that set to ease now. The Seer faced her without fear, a wariness to both women, though with a trust earned long ago.
"I'm glad to see you, Aisling Vallee."