This story, like the two that follow it, is from a planned 'suite' of four stories, all set in different parts of the same fictional continent - Shymeria - and representing each of the four seasons. Wolfwind is the winter story, set in the harsh northern country of Iryleer, a tale of redemption after loneliness and long estrangement. The original spark for the story was a desire to write a werewolf story where the werewolf was the 'hero'. This led to the human population being peripheral at best and the story becoming a tale of small-scale 'werewolf politics' if you like. I have always been fascinated, too, with the 'outsider' the individual who, for whatever reason, doesn't fit in, and Averyl, an outcast in two societies, fits that description exactly. This story placed in the quarter-finals of the 'Writers of the Future' competition some years ago.
"For I have had a Dream of Wolves and wakened in the Night,
To see pale-glowing eyes illumining the Dark.
And I have heard the Howling, and have Mourned
For some wild Beauty, lost yet never truly mine.
But with the Mundane's clamour muted by the Dark,
And Starlight spinning drifting skeins of Memory,
I see again a sinuous flash of tawny Dream,
Half-glimpsed within the Moonlit Dusk of might-have-been..."
The mid-winter darkness had crept into the town early, and lanterns had been lit in the market square before noon. Now, as true night fell, their tinted parchment panes cast subtle shifting colours diffused by falling snow over the crowds below, highlighting a face in smoky orange there, casting a dim turquoise shadow there, gleaming off bright brass, sparking emerald and ruby twinkles from jars and bottles and giving the market place the hazy, unreal quality of a dream. Heavy smells drifted among the stalls – woodsmoke and roasting meat, pungent herbs and the rich, dark smells of furs and tanned leather – overlaying but not quite hiding the sweet-sour reek of massed humanity. The festival of the Holly-god was almost over, the crowds beginning to drift away from the market to celebrate the Solstice privately in their own homes. The northern sky was filled with auroras like vast, heavy curtains of greenish-blue light stirring in a spectral breeze, vapour clouds formed by the breath of the Ice-wyrm stirring sleepily in its boreal lair and omens of disaster and wrack.
Averyl made her way through the bustle and hum of the crowds and paused in the red glow of a hot chestnut seller's brazier to warm her hands, glancing around with something almost like pleasure at the packed market square.
The square was still filled with a heaving mass of people, all wrapped in thick felt and fur, sweating-warm despite the cold that reddened faces and pinched ears and noses. The town was still full of strangers, folk from other places a day's cart-ride or more away, though many less than usual – strangers were not welcome now in Tesk as once they had been – and Averyl knew she was attracting the usual attention; her sensitive hearing could not help but pick up the low whispers and muttered exclamations of the people that brushed past her, and the vague, subliminal emotions of suspicion, fear or outright hostility impinged on her empathetic senses as a constant irritation. She ignored it for the most part; for most of her life she had been stared askance at, pointed out. Her difference, though slight in this form, was enough that others recognised the alien, if with no more than just a feeling. What it was they felt they could not say; some small uneasiness perhaps, a brush of presence somehow feral, wild, as if the human-seeming were a glamour hiding something…other. Averyl was practised in attracting as little attention as she could – even now her bulky, fur-lined tunic and trousers and her hooded cloak were worn as much to conceal as to protect her from the chill – but even so the jostling people all around her marked her out as different, although they could not put a name to what they saw in her, or thought they saw. She sighed as loneliness, an old if not a welcome friend, rose in her.
Averyl shook herself, half-angry, half-amused, and pressed on through the crowds, willing the bustling life of the market to dispel her gloom. Even the intrusive emotions of the jabbering crowds were welcome, proving as they did that, although still lonely, she was not alone. She still walked warily, though, unable to dispel as easily the feeling of cold fright that had stayed with her, unreasonably, since she had woken, sweating and afraid, from some unremembered dream that morning.
Late traders still cried their wares in raucous voices, the traditional rhyming cries bouncing off the wooden buildings surrounding the square and disturbing flocks of the drab little birds that roosted in the eaves. Children scuffled in the drifted snow, occasionally rolling and tumbling into one or other of the adults and getting themselves roundly cursed for it.
Winter had come early and hard that year, blown on the back of a howling storm-wind. Across the forested valley to the east the wind boomed and roared among the mountains of the Frostwall as if the granite peaks themselves were restless with the cold and crying out to one another in bellowing rocky voices. The grey crags loomed above the woods like a wall of iron circling the town's small world of warmth and life in its chill circumference.
Within the town the wind shrieked and blustered with a kind of mad glee around the eaves, singing with crystalline mockery through the icicles that hung like daggers from the low roofs and making the drifted snow hiss and whisper between the houses in eerie susurrations.
'The Wolfwind' people called it, and outside the town, in the vast dim woods that ringed its wooden walls, wolves had been glimpsed prowling like ghosts. Sometimes their cries would echo with a chill clarity in the frosty air, making the people start and shiver with an atavistic dread, the thick stockades and all the trappings of civilisation fading and failing, insubstantial before the bleak desolation of that sound. In the summer children played within the fringes of the forest and greenwood marriages were celebrated in the leafy glades by lovers hoping for the Goddess' blessing on their trysts. But at this time of the year the woods crept closer, changing, putting on their dark, devouring aspect. To their dark, shadowed depths came hauntings, demons, spirit-things that stalked outside the town walls, malign and with a burning hunger for its warmth and life. Death lived within the woods in winter.
Averyl watched the people sidelong, amused, as they huddled deeper into their furs and their embroidered coats of felt and wool. Exposed cheeks burning in the needle wind, they hurried homewards, muffled against more than just the biting cold, the biscuit-crisp snow creaking under their quick footsteps.
Home was safety; there was security in the soft rushlight gleaming from behind brightly painted and carved shutters, and inside, the sweet resinous fires of elm-logs gave more than simply warmth, as if every flame was a link with a primeval past, a dim reflection of the first few fires that flickered in the dark and kept the wild beasts away. Most people remained inside the houses, shutting out the feral chill and the numbing wind and, in pretending that the warmth of their homes was all that there was in the world, came to believe that outside was unreality, a bad dream, unimportant because ineffectual. But the pretence was revealed in the twitch of a shoulder, the imperceptible tightening of muscles every time a prowling gust of wind clawed at the door, the catch and break in the overloud conversation as a safely-distant howling was blown closer by the Wolfwind. Unease was a constant guest in all the town's houses, a pale and grinning spectre with glowing yellow eyes, whose clothes reeked of woods and wildness.
Averyl's clinging sense of unease was not that of the others'. She had no fear of the woods or of the wild things that lived there, and the howling, if it moved her at all, only saddened her. Her disquiet came from the town itself. Its quietness was forced, unnatural, sullen. Unease was an inevitable part of winter, as familiar as the coming of the snows. But among the people of Tesk unease was slowly turning into something more dangerous. Even among the less easily-moved the inertia of winter was changing to a pinched resentment and a fierce, bright hate. Two months before the Veil-night bonfires had burned low and pale, presaging, many said, a time of death and hardship. Salted meat, from cattle slaughtered on Veil-night, went bad, and deaths occurred among the breeding stock that still remained. Since that time an unformed fear had spread throughout the town. Veil-night, Winter's Eve, was always an eerie time, the harvest time for both the late fruits of the earth and the souls of the dead, a time of ghosts and twilight, when the veil between the worlds was torn wide open, allowing free travel between the world of humankind and that of things not human. At that time, on the cusp of death and rebirth, the barrier between life and unlife was at its weakest; the sun had relinquished the world to winter's icy grasp and darkness held dominion. This was necessary, known. The Veil-night festival was part a recognition of the gathering night, and part a reaffirmation of continued life beyond the dying of the year. Once Veil-night was past, the town settled back into its usual quiet existence, tempered by a stoic recognition of the season's peril.
But this year the unease continued past the scattering of the Veil-night bonfires' ashes. This winter was different, and not just for its severity. Undirected rage and superstitious fear were sweeping through the town. There was good reason for the anger and suspicion. The shadowed forests, grim and grey, loomed closer in beyond the walls, their lightless depths a constant background fear. One of the stockmen had stumbled into the square two days ago, shouting that cattle had been slaughtered in their winter pens where no wild animal could reach them, and a stockade-guard had sworn before the town elders that she had seen on the outskirts of the forests 'a wolf that walked on two feet, upright, like a man'. The Phooka, it was said, still walked abroad, and rumours spread of ghosts and shapelings in the town. The atmosphere brought forth old grudges and new animosities. Neighbours argued, sometimes fought; an unexplained or sudden illness found its cause to be a curse or some ill-wishing; rumour spread its poison everywhere. People looked askance at one another, wondering. And those who were already outsiders found themselves the focus of a new and ugly interest. Averyl took great care to walk even more carefully in these days, attracting as little attention as possible. People talked of hunting parties, traps and burning. And not just for the wolves.
Averyl was hungry. She stopped a tea-seller and bought a mug of piping birch-bark tea sweetened with honey for a couple of discs. The tea-seller, bent almost double under the weight of the great brass urn on his back, seemed scarcely to notice her, but when she crossed to a pie-stall the woman running it scowled and made a sign to avert evil, and there were several sidelong glances and furtive mutterings among the customers. Averyl saw the sign of the demon horns being made and someone to the side of her spat drily through their fingers. Despite a sudden pang of fear, she pointed to a pigeon pie and asked the price.
She slid the punched iron discs off her money-string. The woman would not take the coins from her hand so Averyl placed them on the stained surface of the counter. The pie-seller sniffed and made a great show of her distaste as she picked them up. As Averyl turned away she heard the woman mutter:
Averyl sighed again. She knew the woman. A year ago she had treated the same woman's toothache with snake-wort boiled in vinegar. The woman's unfeigned gratitude at the ending of her pain had warmed even Averyl's reserve; for a time she had dared to hope she might have found a friend. Stupid, shallow hope! She shook her head, disgusted at her own naivety. How quickly she had changed from a healer to a 'weirdling witch'. And the pie woman was not alone in her changing attitude. Wherever she went now eyes followed her, furtive, and the dark impulses of fear and suspicion, always present but usually swimming, hidden, in the depths of peoples' minds, were breaking the surface now, barely concealed. Danger all around here, now.
Averyl bit into her pie and lost herself in the safe anonymity of the crowd again. Things were changing fast, and Averyl was afraid among these alien people that she called her own, deceitful. For safety's sake she thought it might be time to move again, despite the dangers of travelling now in winter's snow and ice.
But she was true-dreaming – restless, unformed dreams that filled her nights with images of blood and burning. Her nights were filled with crackling flame and voices, harsh and terrified, the sweep of wings, the smell of dust…
And there were other dreams too, which, in the morning, would not come to mind except as half-felt longings, wild and unfulfilled. Those she feared the most.
Wiping the last of the gravy from her chin she walked away from the market square, the hubbub of the crowd fading as she made her way home through the quiet streets towards the edge of the town.
Sudden shouts and running footsteps brought her round, and torches flickered between the houses. Averyl pressed herself into the shadows as they passed. There was thin, high screaming. Not human. It was a dog, a shaggy, grey-haired mongrel twisting and snapping at the mob that chased it, clubbing it with sticks and sharp-edged tools. It left a spattered trail of blood and dragged one leg, gashed and broken. Its eyes were mad with terror. Averyl knew it, a harmless stray that only yesterday the people hacking at it now had been feeding scraps. A black-robed priest led the crowd, his face a mask of fear and fury. He shrieked insanely as he urged the mob on and his eyes were wide and staring, wild with fear or ecstacy. Hidden in her cloak, Averyl watched in horror. The screaming of the dog rose to a pitch that hurt her ears as, broken-backed, it fell and the crowd swept over it. The priest was shouting now of devils, were-things, changelings - and the crowd was howling back with prayers or imprecations, Avery could not tell. They tied the dog and hung it from an awning pole. Then, with a torch, the priest set it alight. It twisted, screaming as it burned. The watching mob all cheered and several wept with blank-eyed rapture, flames reflected in their eyes. The prickling, roast-pork stench of scorching flesh and fur bit through the air. Shadows danced like demons in the street. The priest led the crowd away, his cries echoing off the buildings into the distance. Averyl watched until the flame-wrapped shape was still and silent, blackened bone. She crept home, sickened, keeping to the shadows, every watch-torch that she passed a pale reflection of the killing fire.
That night she slept a restless sleep, and dreamed...
She walked among the shadows of the town. Beneath her feet the snow was slick with scarlet ice like frozen blood. The dog twisted and screamed, yellow flames licking along its body. The smell of charring flesh and hair stung her nostrils and the crackle of devouring flames filled her ears. It swung to face her then, and smiled. Its teeth were blunt and yellow and its eyes were polished stone. Around it, in the flames, flapped torn black wings, the feathers stained and dusty with dried blood.
"I'm human," Averyl whispered like a prayer. "I'm human."
The burning dog's eyes were drunken, bright and full of panic, and it grinned a crazy grin.
"No. Not human. No," it said, and heat flared all around her...
...turned to burning cold and there was snow and pine-needles beneath her feet, wind in her hair, in her mouth a warm salt taste of blood. The sky was bright with stars and the howling sounded in her ears like bells. The moonlight was a mirror; in its depths a figure ran towards her, silhouetted, drenched in silver light, fringed with an aureole of back-lit hair. Its eyes flashed in the dark like witchfire as it changed. She ran to meet it and the mirror shattered, crystal ice-shards tumbling all around her, softening and blurring into falling snow...
Outside the walls of the night-shrouded town, in the scented darkness of the woods, in a world of warm blood-smells and soft snowfall, of pine and bitter aloes on the wind, the wolfpack drifted between the trees, chasing the onward-tugging moon and singing with the joy of it; and with them in a while ran something that was not a wolf. Not quite.
All was drifted whiteness throughout the town, white on white beneath a pearl-grey, lucent sky the colour of faded dreams. In the chill dawn-light, soon after Averyl had woken tired and aching and inexplicably filled with the small, flat sadness that often follows some great joy, her father came to her, gaunt and grim, sticky with blood and a bone-deep wound in his flank.
Later, bathed and bandaged, Ulfhedre tossed in a fitful sleep. He groaned. Averyl laid a cool hand on his grizzled shoulder and shook him gently. His eyes opened, wide and rolling, the whites nacreous in the firelight. Averyl held him until the last remnants of sleep left him and he calmed. He sighed and smiled at her wearily and, through the fear of his presence and what it might mean for her safety here among an alien people, Averyl felt a sudden sorrow too deep for words at how old he had become.
"Why are you here?" she asked. "Here?"
"Water?" His voice cracked on the word.
Averyl nodded and left him, padding barefoot-silent across the scrubbed wooden floor, the warm glow of the lamp playing over the strong, lean muscles of her back. Ulfhedre watched her. He sighed again, and lay back, closing his to replay the dreams.
He took the hand-carved wooden she offered him and drained it, gasping at the chill of the water.
"Better?" Averyl was concerned.
"What?" she asked. He shook his head. "Dreams. Madness. I grow old."
He nodded again, his hands moving aimlessly in his lap, the long fingers twisting and weaving as if he sought to pull together the strands of his night-visions into a coherent whole.
"Not madness, then. I...I have dreams too." There was a catch in her voice as though she were afraid, as though she had let slip too much. She would not meet his eyes. Ulfhedre felt her distress and reached up to rest a comforting hand alongside her cheek.
He looked up her, at the thin, strong-featured face with its heavy mane of brown-black hair. Light eyes, clear and colourless as water, stared back at him from beneath thick brows that met above the nose, and in those eyes was a sadness born of loss or too long loneliness, a sadness so familiar it had become almost unnoticed and therefore unconcealed. His weirdling daughter, dark where all the pack were brindled-fair, reflective where they were passionate, solitary, outcast...maimed.
"No. Not madness," he whispered. "Death. First ending."
She began a denial. He reached for her hand and gripped it, intense.
"A challenge has been made."
"Who," she asked, troubled.
Ulfhedre snarled, and for a long, terrible moment the wild animal glared out from behind his eyes, poised to spring and tear. Then the man was back, as if shutters had descended between the outside world and whatever it was that laired within him, unseen and unsuspected.
...sneering as he poured scorn on her. 'Little two-legs!' he called her. 'Soot-hair!' and when she tried to fight back he slipped into wolf-shape and growled, snapping at her calves until she ran screaming, hurt and afraid, his yapping laughter following her in her shame and frustration, while the elders of the pack shook their heads in sorrow and perplexity...
"My brother?" She looked away and made as if to trim the lamp, a half-move stopped as soon as started, nervous. She rubbed her palms against her thighs as if to dry them. Her hands shook slightly. A small muscle ticked in her cheek.
He nodded. "He's strong, too. I barely beat him this time. Next time he'll kill me."
He gave a short bark of humourless laughter. "I grow old. Feeble. The pack becomes restless. None of them dare challenge; most do not want to. But they see me weaken and Vargulf is strong. He is grown dangerous, daughter. Vargulf was always proud. But now pride turns to ambition, a lust for power. He says he has true-dreamed...perhaps he has. He preaches the rise of the wolfen, the killing of humans." He glared at her, intense. "He is mad, daughter, with a terrible madness. A human madness."
Averyl frowned. "Dangerous time for that. There's a madness abroad among us humans, too, born of cold and claustrophobia. And fear." She ignored his flash of scornful anger at her use of the words 'us humans' and pressed on.
"The humans deny your existence, but they know. They've always known. And feared you. Denying what they fear, as if that were enough - to disbelieve. That's been your protection until now. They left you alone as long as you left them. But now..." She knew the answer to her question even as she asked it.
"Animals have been killed. Wolves?"
He shook his head, ashamed. "No."
The dog twisted and screamed, yellow flames licking along its body. The smell of charring flesh and hair stung her nostrils and the crackle of devouring flames filled her ears...
Both species were good at killing. But there were many humans. The wolfen were now all too few.
"Not alone. The pack begins to believe his boastings. Food is always scarce in winter and penned animals are easy hunting. Humans are talked of as prey. There will be killing, little cub, if he is not stopped."
"What can I do," Averyl demanded, harsh with repressed emotion. "This means nothing to me now. I am no longer... I am cast out. I can't return. You know it! Here...
He gave a scornful laugh. "Yes? Here?"
"I am a stranger and outcast in both worlds. But here, at least, I am whole!"
"Are you?" Ulfhedre's voice was gentle, but the question cut her like a blade, leaving her open and defenceless.
"No!" It came out as a sob.
"Come back, Averyl. Come back to Wolfwind and the cry of hunting owls. Come back to the twilight. Back to the forests. Back to autumn mists that float like cobwebs under painted woods." He stared around at the plain furnishings of her small, bare room, contemptuous. "Leave these human things, these...makings!"
Averyl faced her father, furious. "How can I?"
He stared at her, fierce with sudden anger. "You have felt it, haven't you, child? Felt the ancient magic, fierce and feral? It sleeps in you, child, but it sleeps uneasily, stirring, fretful. You know it!" His voice lashed her, rising almost to howling pitch. "You say you have dreams? Dreams? Something runs at night with the wolf-packs, daughter! Many have seen it. Something that slips back over the walls of the town like a ghost in the dawn-light. Something that looks like a wolf, a black wolf, its coat the colour of your hair, its eyes ice-clear like yours!"
Through the shock of her father's words came half-remembered dreams.
The cold bite of snow underfoot, the ruffle of wind in fur, the hot sweetness of blood; of running through the forests, the trees wheeling past in slow procession as if she were the only fixed thing on the vast and turning earth, held immobile in the rush of its passing by the silver disc of the moon, and the sky full of stars, thunder and magic...
When she had such dreams she woke tired and sorrowful, her muscles bruised and aching; and once she had found leaf-mould scattered on the rug by the side of the bed, and melted snow upon the window sill, though the shutters were closed. Panic overwhelmed her.
"True-dreaming!" he said. "Or else no dream at all!"
"No!" she said, and wept, burying her face in her hands, the long fourth fingers folded over, hidden.
When she looked up again her father had gone, leaving behind him only the faint smell of wolf and a scattering of pine-needles.
Before she slept that night she heard the howling. In response shrill voices rose from the houses close to hers, edged with fear and anger. Someone somewhere babbled prayers as if mere words could drive away the wildness, and elsewhere someone sobbed. Averyl felt a strange contempt. The howling held no danger; that she knew, then wondered how she knew. She slept at last, as the crying continued endlessly, a mindless wailing, alien...human.
In the darkness of her dreams the memories ebbed and flowed like brackish water.
She was five years old. The cubs were playing stalk-and-catch, tumbling and rolling in the autumn leaves, to young as yet to shape-shift. All but one were sturdy, flaxon-haired and golden-eyed, and so they were the norm. And being so, the other - thin and dark with pale ice-water eyes - they made the outsider, alien. And the teasing started, gentle at first but escalating as the object of their unthinking infant cruelty stared at them in hurt bewilderment. And growing childish anger. Until a stinging slap became the catalyst that loosed her fury. Rage became power and power became uncontrollable change and wolfish jaws tore suddenly at her tormentor.
With the first taste of blood her anger fled and along with it her wolf-shape. She looked at the red ruin of her playmate's arm, flung up to ward his throat; the hurt and panic in his eyes at the nearness of his death. The fierce, wild instincts still roared in her head like the shouts of a stranger, mad and incoherent. She reached out to her playmates for help and explanation but they flinched away, leaving her alone, as she would always be alone. Bereft, her cry of terror at what she had become became a howl of revocation that echoed up and out and down through all the years...
She turned beneath the covers, the pillow damp with tears beneath her cheek, and growled a little, softly, in her sleep.
She walked among the shadows of the town and everywhere she went eyes watched her, questioning, afraid. She smelled old burning on the air and somewhere, always at the periphery of her vision, fire danced, crackling. Beneath her feet the snow was slick with scarlet ice like frozen blood. Bones gleamed in the violet shadows of the drifts.
Hooded as she was she did not see the black-robed priest until his hands caught hers and stopped her, fierce. The murmur of a crowd surrounded her. The priest's eyes were drunken, bright and full of panic, and he grinned a crazy grin that stank of corn-liquor and vomit. In the square the dog screamed and burned.
"I'm human," Averyl said like a prayer. He shook his head and grinned again. His teeth were blunt and yellow. He reached out a finger, dirt beneath the nail, and touched her just between the eyes where her brows met in a solid bar. When his finger withdrew it was tipped with red wetness, though she felt no pain. He raised his arms and his robes flapped like great, black-feathered wings, stained and dusty with dried blood. He was Death, the Nighthawk, and the terror in his eyes was enough to kill her where she stood.
His face, as pale and hollowed as a skull, pushed close to hers as the mob groaned and shifted restlessly in fear and anticipation. About his clothes hung the acrid stench of burning and reflected in his eyes were bright, consuming flames. Her cloak was torn away and she stood, undisguised, as naked and as tender as if skinned. Different. Flames crackled closer.
"I'm human," Averyl whispered, and again, "I'm human."
"No. Not human. No," he said, and heat flared all around her.
Averyl came awake with a low cry of fear, sweat trickling down her ribs. The room seemed very warm and the banked embers of her fire glowed redly still. She slipped out of bed and crossed to the window, pushing the heavy wooden shutters open. The moon was full and high, cut by scudding clouds, and everything seemed dipped in silver, dream-like and frozen. From the forests came the scent of pine. Her father's voice whispered in her head. 'something runs with the wolf-packs, daughter...something that looks like a wolf...' And the howling came again, cold and clear, as lonely as dying.
Averyl lit the lamps and looked around her at the wooden walls of the room she made her home. She stared at the rugs she had spent hours weaving, tracing their patterns as if they held some meaning lost to her, some human meaning; at carved and polished bowls and plates; bundles of dried meats and herbs that swung from ceiling beams; rough chairs and table; all strange, the reality of their presence, the memory of her own work on them overlaid with unreality. She felt almost as if she had never seen them before. It was as if they all belonged to someone else, perhaps the shadowy doppelgänger that gazed back at her from the silvered mirror in the corner of the room, afraid and lonely, grief and dispossession in its human eyes. She stretched out a hand towards the reflection as if taking leave of it, and at that moment the moon slipped out from behind a cloud. The figure in the mirror was washed with sudden argent light, outlined with a corona of backlit hair, transformed. Its eyes flashed in the dark like wildfire.
Outside the air was like crystal, and the howling rang in her ears like bells. She closed the door behaind her and walked away from the warm lights of the house, towards the shadowed, moon-drenched forests, towards the howling, her bare feet leaving quick, crisp footprints in the recent snow. She did not look back.
Back to the twilight and silver moon...in a world of warm blood-smells and soft snowfall, pine and bitter aloes on the wind, ran something that was not a wolf...
As she walked her old life seemed to slip away from her, human hopes and aspirations sloughing off like the coverings they were. She opened herself up, abandoning her human consciouness to intuition, instinct. She did not know the why of what she did, knew only that she did it. The half-felt wolf-dreams padded all around her, guiding her the way she way she was to go.
A quietness spread through the thronged bodies of the pack as Averyl walked into their midst out of the indigo shadows of the woods. A jostling took place to give her passage into the clearing where Vargulf and Ulfhedre circled, growling. The snow beneath their feet was churned crimson. Ulfhedre was almost spent, head hanging low, his old body too slow to avoid Vargulf's short, snapping lunges. Vargulf was unmarked, toying with his father, who fought on in dogged, hopeless desperation. Alerted by the silence, both turned and watched her come, dark and silent, a deeper shadow in the shadows of the trees.
"Brother," she said at the dream's prompting, quiet and low.
Around her the pack stirred uneasily.
Vargulf reared up and shifted, towering over her, flesh sliding on his bones like wax. His narrow jaws parted in a fierce grin.
"Well, well," he said. "Little weakling sister. Have you come to watch our father die?" He padded towards her, stopped with his face inches from hers, and snarled suddenly. Hot breath, coppery with blood, blew into her face and he laughed as she flinched and shook, his tongue licking around his teeth.
"Still afraid." He cupped her chin, his index finger tracing the faint ridges of her scars. There was a look almost of sadness in his eyes. "Such a pity, little human. You shouldn't have come back. Not for this." He turned and moved back towards Ulfhedre, lying on his side, exhausted.
Vargulf stopped. He wheeled to face her, questioning.
There was a ripple of amazement and laughter around the pack. Vargulf tipped back his head and howled with delight. "You?" he cried. "You challenge?"
"It is my right. I challenge for leadership."
He laughed again.
From behind him Ulfhedre said, "She has the right." There was a murmur of amused assent from around the clearing where the wolfen waited, amber and green eyes glowing in the flames of the heartfire.
Vargulf's voice turned ugly. "But you are human!"
"I am wolfen!"
Vargulf snarled again in anger and frustration. "Don't make a fool of yourself," he said. "Or of me. Or perhaps you'll never see your human friends again. Wolfen or not you cannot challenge. Challenge has already been given."
"When there are two challengers, their dispute takes precedence," the dream said, padding closer, angry.
Yellow eyes blazed at her. "Madness!" he snarled. "I won't dispute with you! I will be leader. I have dreamed it. Killing you first serves no purpose. Go back to your weakling humans, little soot-hair! I have a death to give" He turned back towards Ulfhedre.
"False dreamer! Not while my challenge stands. If you do, you forfeit all rights to the pack. Pack-law!" There was another ripple of agreement, stronger this time.
Vargulf gave a great howling cry of fury. In the branches there was a clatter of wings as birds took flight in panic; then, the forest hushed as if in anticipation. He turned to face her, hackles up and lips skinned back from his teeth. He was almost incoherent with rage. Shaking, he pulled himself back under control and stared at her, killing-cold.
"Enough!" he said. "You invoke pack-law? Very well. You want to challenge me, little two-legs. Fight me, then."
Averyl felt her belly turn to water, her unthought purpose faltering as her human self swept back in abrogation of the dream. Her death was veiled by possibilities within the shaping of the true-dream. Now, suddenly, it was as close and real...
Skeletal, black-feathered, cold, its eyes like polished stone. There was a smell of dust and ashes. Death, the Nighthawk, close enough to reach a bony talon out and stop her heart...
Close and real as the gleaming fangs that grinned mercilessly at her from her brother's face. Frozen with terror, she appealed to a tenderness she knew to be wholly lacking.
"Fight me, little soot-hair," Vargulf said. "Or I'll kill you where you stand and scatter your bones like a rabbit's."
She looked at him, wide-eyed.
"Believe it," he said. "Wolves have no pity." His body jack-knifed and bulked suddenly as he dropped to all fours in wolf shape and leaped. Averyl yelped as his teeth tore at her thigh. Pain scalded her nerves. She stared down at her blood on the snow, hot scarlet on white. The dreaming flooded in.
She was eight years old again, humiliated and hurt and angry as only a child can be, unable to change as he did, clumsy, vulnerable, blunt-toothed and clawless, the pack laughing and scornful as her brother worried at her, tormenting... 'Soot-hair! Little two-legs!' And her father's face, filled with contempt and guilt...
Reality snapped back with a shock like a bite. But the dream stayed with her, shadow-like; or more as though it was itself reality and she the shadow, the dreamed and not the dreamer. In this dream she would not run. That she could deny him.
She glared at Vargulf, dizzy. Her senses were hyper-sensitive suddenly - she could smell her warm, salt blood, hear the slide and shift of snow in the branches, the soft whisper of owl-wings in the night, see each individual brindled hair in Vargulf's coat as he crouched, snarling, ready to spring again. The air seemed tinged with blood. A terrible tension coiled and expanded within her, pulsing with each beat of her heart as the dreaming pushed closer, closer in with every surge of blood.
The eyes of her reflection in the mirror flashed with wildfire. 'Something runs with the wolf-packs...its eyes ice-blue like yours...No, not human. No...'
The last of her rationality slipped away as an older, simpler urge and instinct woke, stretching, in the deeps of her unconscious. Vargulf loped past her again, a casual sideways snap of his jaws opening another stinging wound in her leg. He was playing to the crowd, and suddenly confusion turned to fury within her. The world spun and greyed down to the concentrated focus of hunting-vision, all but her brother fading into unimportance around her. Hardly conscious of what she was doing, she reached deep into the dream, into the source of that inner tension, where a small, white-hot kernel of power glowed. It had always been there, she realised dimly with the final vestiges of human reasoning, banked, waiting, an ember of dangerous promise. Only her fear had smothered it. Not the fear of her brother. Not the fear of failure and the pack's derision. Only the fear of herself and her own wild nature had kept the power unrealised. But now she fanned it into life, abandoning herself wholly to the dream, and Vargulf's yellow eyes narrowed as she turned to him. He hesitated, wondering, expectant.
The power flowed like silver fire through her veins, fuelled by years of anger and loss. The night tugged at her, singing to her, 'let go, shadow-dancer, shape-shifter...let go...' as the moonsong danced in her blood and her senses whirled like drunkenness. She was growling deep in the back of her throat and the wild magic beat and stormed within her. She threw back her head as a crisis-point was reached within her, reached and passed, and the night was lit with an incandescent flame of beauty, terror and madness.
"Oh!" She cried out once, quietly, unbelieving, and she changed.
She watched through wolfen eyes as Vargulf circled. He padded forward, hands outstretched. She shifted backwards, balancing, adjusting. She felt...alive! As if her life before had been a sort of death, and now she was new-born. she reached out powerful, dark-furred arms and took her brother's hands, alert and wary with the fear of him. the wonder in his face became a savage joy. he grinned, his yellow eyes alight.
At last, little soot-hair," he said. "At last you are yourself. And beautiful." He laughed. "Ah, sister. All these dead years you've wasted!"
He laughed again and kissed her hard, then, as she faltered, racked between fear and joy, ripped her ear and flung her hard away, becoming wolf and streaking in to worry at her side. Sharp teeth slashed her to the bone. She broke away and went to wolf herself, and then, as wolves, they fought, and the world turned to blood and tearing...
...until at last she missed a feint and Vargulf arrowed in and clamped his jaws around her throat. Breath stopped.
Death stalked her, thunder-footed, dressed in dark and scarlet twilight, and dust that smelled like blood breathed from its feathers, filling lungs with choking emptiness...
As wolf she could not win. And with that last, lost thought the human in her woke. Both wolf and human now, she knew that this her brother could not do - to be both at a time - and knew that she had won. Wild magic flared in bright negation and a rage for life.
She broke free, gasping, leaving skin and fur behind, and shifted to the transitional form. Taken by surprise, Vargulf twisted, halfway transformed himself, realising what she was doing, and lunged for her throat again. But he was too slow and unbalanced, and his teeth snapped shut on air. With wolf-born strength and the dexterity of human hands, Averyl seized him, turned him as he growled and tore at her restraining arms, wept, and snapped his spine.
He bucked and flopped in her arms, his face blank with shock, while she went to her knees and cried, tears burning wolfish eyes that were not meant to weep.
Staggering, Averyl padded back across the clearing, still transitional. The pack watched her, shocked, waiting. Her fur was jewelled with blood and the dark tracks of tears marked her cheeks. Ulfhedre staggered to his feet and gazed up at her. He was shivering. Averyl crouched and looked into his pain-bright, questioning eyes. With a last effort he shifted from wolf-form long enough to speak.
"We didn't know, Averyl. All our fault. the pack... It had never happened so early before. Should have been there... Our pride and stupidity. Not your weakness. You were the strongest of us all. All that wasted time. Forgive us."
She nodded and a great shadow passed from his face like the sweep of raven wings. His human form reverted to the great, gaunt wolf he was. He licked her once and shut his eyes.
"Farewell, my father," she said, "Run fast and free."
He offered his throat to her jaws.
The pack raised their heads and lifted one soft low note - the death howl. Averyl stared down at Ulfhedre's body. The wound in his throat seemed hardly enough by itself to have caused such a change, from life to death, but when Averyl put her ear to his chest it was already empty, cold and silent. She stood, wincing, and shifted back to fully human form, the taste of her father's blood in her mouth. Her body felt awkward, weak and clumsy, and the return to human senses was like blindness, the power of the dream slipped away. The Wolfwind cut at her wounds, clean and sharp and cold as a surgeon's knife, cutting away the human tissue of her life, all the old scars going with it. From the distant town, as if from another world, there came the sound of voices raised in fear and anger. She wondered briefly what human drama was being enacted there and a momentary stab of regret and loss cut through her, more painful than the wounds from Vargulf's teeth. She realised it was morning. A weak sun, surrounded by a halo of ice particles, glimmered palely through the high clouds above the trees as if all its previous warmth were turned to cold, its beams now freezing where they struck. Snow-flakes glistened on her mane like tears.
She crossed to where her brother lay, his breathing harsh and quick. Blood bubbled at one nostril.
"Death comes on swift wings, little sister," he said. "But you've lost too. Your innocence. Your safety. there's no returning. You walk the wild way now. Your blood sings the old song of night and winter storms. Your wolf-soul is awake, little cub. Don't be afraid of it. And don't regret. You were never really human..."
His eyes were open, their amber depths dimmed and glassy. As she watched they spun and shifted focus until they looked away, far away, gazing out of life and through the walls of the world into the infinite forests of death, pine-scented, moonlit and filled with wolfsong. The pack - her pack - gave another long death-cry. He looked as if he were merely sleeping, and all his dreams were good ones.
"Dream well, my brother," Averyl said, and closed his eyes with gentle fingers.
The Wolfwind howled in the trees.
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