The first time the Prophecy came to Valaria, way back when, she jumped right into the middle of a bonfire and howled it out as loud as she could. She wasn't burned, but it did turn her hair, and when she was in wolf form, her fur, bright red. That may be one of the reasons she never gave up; every time she looked at her reflection, she got another reminder. Of course, most of the prophets didn't just give up; they tended to have mysterious accidents, but Valaria was too tough and too smart for that; the only assassin that ever caught up with her was Time.
--Leod the Storyteller of Freepost
I dreamed again of the wizard's tower; I watched as he cut the girl's throat, and then I was on him, crushing his body with my hands. Suddenly everything froze, and I found myself looking into the girl's eyes; she held her hands to her ruined throat and stared at me in confusion and horror as her life ran away. I realized that I knew her name: Tayma. I started to reach out to her and found that I still held the necromancer; I hurled his body out the window, and suddenly I was falling...
I awoke to the smell of pipe tobacco cutting through the perpetual charcoal haze of the smithy; Perrin's pipe threw just enough light to show a short, broad shape in his usual chair. I considered ignoring him, but wasn't given the chance.
"We need to talk," he said. "About a few things, I guess. I went looking for you and found a girl in your bed, and you here. What's that about?"
I sat up reluctantly, found a candle and started fumbling with my tinderbox.
"It turns out that Chalice was the girl Stragus was obsessed with, back before I liberated her. Seeing him gave her nightmares."
"And she came to you for protection? That explains half of it." Perrin drew on his pipe, and his eyes were momentarily visible.
"She's been one of Jikadell's girls for about six years, Perrin. She's planning to be celibate for a long time, maybe forever. She doesn't quite hate men, but she is afraid of them; it's a lucky miracle that she trusts me." I struck a spark, and the candle flared; Perrin waited quietly. "And while I understand that, and while I would never do anything to hurt her..." I held up the candle and looked at Perrin across the flame. "My ability to deal with the situation calmly pretty much stops at my collar."
Perrin smiled broadly and bit his pipe to hold back the laughter. "Thought something like that." He took another long pull on the pipe. "What did you think of the wolf girl?"
"Light? Or Willow... I should give her the name she prefers. Interesting. She seems to live with the pack full time."
"She does. We started seeing her about eight years ago; I checked my records last night, and a girl named Willow went missing during a dragon storm at about the same time from a village a few miles north of Lechmore. I think she has been living as a wolf ever since."
"I thought her speech sounded a bit strange. Lack of practice?"
Perrin nodded. "Seems likely. Smart girl, though. Did you notice how she directed her words?"
"She told me to watch Stragus, and you to heal him."
He nodded again. "She picked you as the leader, and me as a magician. Just by looking us all over. Interesting, no?"
"But I'm not the leader, you are."
Perrin stared at me across the bowl of his pipe for a long moment. "I'm beginning to think you may have some residual head injury we didn't catch."
I didn't blink. "If you're saying what I think you are, I wouldn't make the claim, and you know it."
Perrin laughed. "All right, boy. I'm an organizer; people follow my instructions. And I'm a teacher; I'm YOUR teacher. But you're a leader. People will follow your orders. It makes a difference. And the wolf knew it."
I scowled. "Thank you, I think."
Perrin chuckled. "It's the truth, and as much a curse as a blessing. Which brings up the reason I went looking for you..."
"Stragus. I don't really know him, other than that idiot duel with you. But I know his father, and I know what the wolf said. He is YOUR problem. Don't let him out of your sight, and do whatever it takes to keep him out of trouble, including slitting his throat. Understood?"
I started to gather my things. "Can I take him with to hunt Ghost and Philo?"
Perrin shook his head. "He shouldn't march today, which means you're stuck here with him. You can both get lost in the woods tomorrow."
"You're sure I can't take him with? They're already two days overdue."
"Stay close today; don't tire him out. Take him fishing a couple of miles upriver or something. Besides... There's something going on tonight that I want you to be here for."
Perrin ignored my puzzled expression; I tucked my blanket under my arm and went off to finish my night's sleep in the doorway of the room where we had left Stragus. I woke up before he did, which made me wonder how long the wolves had run him before they left him with us. I resisted an urge to kick him, then thumped the doorframe and called, "Stragus!" He snapped to a sitting position and I threw him one of the tunics I used in the smithy. He pulled it on past his blinking eyes, and started to complain.
He didn't blame me, at least. I would have beaten him senseless and thrown him into the river if he had done that. He directed his complaints at every deity he had ever heard of, every dragon ever spawned, and a small but select group of wolves. He complained while I collected hardtack and jerky from Jasmine's pantry; he complained while I collected various minor gear from the smithy; he complained as we walked through the woods to a spot that had both decent fishing and decent lounging. Then he took a short nap while I taught a few small fish not to try to steal jerky from my hook.
Stragus woke up, stretched, and started to complain some more; I threw a fish into his face. That took him enough off guard to silence him for a moment; I decided I needed to wedge in a few words of my own.
"You are looking at this from the wrong perspective, " I said. "Your old life was gone beyond recovery the moment you shifted. Dead. Over. Poof."
"But the dragonstorm..."
"Dragonstorm my eye. It was a warp storm. The dragons don't cause the storms, they don't follow the storms, they don't LIKE the storms. Your father and Clytemnestra and Black Bane and all of the other necromancers release the warp that drives the storms. Complain to them if you like, but not too loudly; every one of them (with the possible exception of your father, but I wouldn't push it) would cut your throat and suck out your soul in a heartbeat. Don't think about the life that you lost, thing about the fact that you WERE one day away from being a soulless corpse, and now you have a chance at a real life."
Stragus scowled. "Life as a homeless pauper? You can have it."
I sighed. I considered saying many things; I also considered cutting his throat and throwing his body into the river. Finally, I said, "You're not homeless, and you're not a pauper. Where do you think you slept last night? Where do you think those clothes came from? And you're entitled to a share of the stuff I brought back from the caravan that held you. You're a trained warrior, and you're literate, so you shouldn't have any trouble making a living, once we get across the ridge to the west side of the valley.
"We're going across the ridge?" Stragus asked.
"Soon. Perrin says it's my party, and I have a few loose ends to tie up here before we go."
"What's to stop me from going home right now?"
"Your father might suck out your soul, for one thing. And unless he kept you under lock and key, Clytemnestra would be after you again in a matter of days, and then you would tell her how you were rescued... In other words, if you cross the river, we all end up dead. So you don't cross the river."
Stragus stared at me. "So I'm a prisoner."
"No, you're an idiot. And if you try to prove it, we will stop you." He growled a bit at that, but I continued. "Stragus, you've been a parasite, a nuisance, and an embarrassment your entire life. The only reason I bothered with you was I had this feeling that, if you got a chance, you might turn into a worthwhile person. And I even put my life on the line to give you that chance. Don't waste it."
Stragus glared at me, but made no answer other than to retrieve the fish from his lap and toss it in my direction. I retrieved the fish, bit off its head and flicked out the entrails, then did my best to pretend it was delicious. Stragus turned slightly green; it was actually pretty good compared to some things I had eaten.
I have occasionally wondered where that conversation might have gone if it had been allowed to continue; I'll never know. I was just finishing my fish when Chalice came running up. I heard her call out, and a feeling of doom came over me.
"They're back!" Chalice said breathlessly. "Whiskey and Philo and Ghost just came back to Ferrypoint!"
She hadn't noticed Stragus yet; he certainly noticed HER. It may have taken him a moment to see through the died hair and skin, but he should have known her voice. I offered Chalice some water; she drank greedily, and then we both noticed that Stragus was on his feet.
"YOU!" he bellowed, and I clenched my teeth. "You are MINE!" Chalice took one look and ducked behind me; she was trembling so violently she could barely stand.
"I'm not sure what you're talking about, Stragus, but it doesn't matter any more." I said. "Chalice is a free person, just as much as you are."
Stragus's eyes bulged. "I bought her from the temple, after she disappeared. I posted the rewards. She's MINE!"
I blinked, then blinked again. "You OPTIONED a runaway slave? That's sick, Stragus, even for a Haskalad. Got a real good deal, too, right?"
That stopped him for a moment. "Yes. What of it? She still belongs to me; I paid for her."
I shook my head. "Past life, Stragus. Your current society doesn't practice slavery. And the lady doesn't want anything to do with you."
Stragus glared at me for another moment, then charged. I let him tackle me; I thought that was the surest way to get clear of Chalice. I rolled to my feet, found I was facing a werewolf, and that feeling of doom doubled itself.
I remembered those triple blow salvos he had thrown at me during our cudgel duel, and did my best to just stay out of his reach until he wore himself out. I did a diving roll which got me the spear I had been using as a fishing pole, and then stepped right into a three blow combination that left me bleeding badly.
It was a strange experience; Stragus raked me with his claws, and time all but stopped. Stragus's follow through and the second claw rake took hours, but I didn't seem to be able to move at all; I was too busy thinking. I was pretty sure I could still take Stragus down, but then where would I be? If I killed him, it would be pure waste; if I just beat him senseless, I was fairly certain any chance of ever redeeming him would be lost. The second claw ripped into me, and I watched the third strike of the salvo plow through the air toward me. I realized what I had to do, the third blow fell, time reasserted itself, and we disengaged for a moment.
I kept trying to stay out of Stragus's way while he got tired, but I started talking as I dodged.
"You can't do this, Stragus. Like it or not, all shifters are family. And you don't treat family this way. You don't treat MY family this way. Now change back, and STOP."
Stragus made one more attempt at a combination, then rocked back on tired feet and thought about it. It was a near thing, but he looked at Chalice, then snarled and charged; he got a spear butt in the belly for his troubles. His next attempt earned him a nice roundhouse crack against the side of his head, which staggered him. I took a breath to start preaching again, and got another set of claw marks for my troubles.
I got angry. I faked a roundhouse cut to the belly; Stragus bought it, and I snapped the spear butt into his forehead like a giant blunt arrow. He staggered backwards and would have fallen, but came up against a tree. I swept his feet out from under him and laid the spear point against his breast.
"You don't want this life? Fine. Say the word and I will chase you right to the void. Or you can stop being an idiot, change back, and behave yourself. Your choice." Stragus's claws quivered for a moment, and I tensed; I wasn't nearly as much in control of the situation as I was claiming. And then Stragus was shifting back into his original form; I stood up and took a long, slow breath.
Stragus stood up unsteadily; I snagged his shredded tunic with the spear and flung it at him; he looked at me with distaste. "Tie the rags around your waist. I'm not the one who destroyed it." He snarled, but did as he was told.
Chalice approached me; I realized what she wanted and shook my head. "Heal him first," I said. She glared at me. "I don't care HOW you feel about him. Lady help us all, he is my responsibility. And I don't accept healing while my people are hurt." Chalice continued to glare. "Please, Chalice. You don't have to touch him; you don't have to forgive him. But I CAN'T let you heal me until you have dealt with him." Chalice nodded, and threw some healing at Stragus; I gathered up my gear, and we all started back.
By the time we got to Ferrypoint, Chalice had used all of the healing magic she had. I was no longer bleeding, though my clothing was torn and bloodstained, while Stragus was nearly naked and sported two black and swollen eyes. The gathering in front of Jasmine's store started to call out greetings, then stopped and stared.
"We FELL." I said. "In a HOLE."
Several confused glances were exchanged; Perrin nearly bit his pipe in half before he said, "I know that hole. Keep meaning to do something about it." Then he clamped the pipe in his teeth again, closed his eyes, and quivered with suppressed laughter. The rest of us got down to having a reunion.
Ghost was openly hostile to Stragus; Stragus had tried to lead their group as soon as they were across the river. Ghost had repeated my instructions as he had been told to do, and Stragus had taken off on his own. After that, Philo and Ghost had been hampered by Philo's inability to walk very far in bare feet. Ghost was contemptuous, and Philo was defiant; Chalice and Jasmine tried very hard not to laugh as they told their story; Whiskey and Perrin listened quietly, and 'Bacco just laughed whenever he felt like it. When they were done, Ghost threw a last scowl at Stragus, who surprised us all by responding with a quiet, "I'm sorry."
Ghost wanted to know how I had survived, and was less than satisfied by my answer. "I ran out of enemies before I ran out of blood. I miscalculated. I'll try to make sure I die, next time." Ghost still wasn't satisfied, but he did smile.
We spent the rest of the afternoon figuring out who was going to sleep where, and generally outfitting Philo and Stragus. The booty from the caravan helped; Jamine's generosity helped more. Evening came, and Perrin had 'Bacco and me close up the smithy and clear all of the debris, and much of the usual equipment, out of the area between the door and the forge; it made the place look empty.
It was fully dark by the time we had finished; I started to leave, but Perrin sat down on the anvil and shook his head to indicate I should wait. The side door opened, and in came Jasmine, Chalice, Whisky, Ghost, Philo, Stragus, and Pepper. Pepper had Brindle the cat in her arms. Perrin directed Philo, Stragus, Ghost, and Pepper to sit against the main door; 'Bacco and Whisky stood to Perrin's left, Jasmine and Chalice to his right. I realized what was happening and caught Perrin's eye, then looked at Chalice, then back again.
"Chalice is a Valarian?" I asked quietly.
Perrin actually looked a bit embarrassed. "We... sort of needed something to do, a few nights ago... when we thought you were getting yourself killed. It seemed right, somehow." He shrugged, and took a long pull on his pipe. "Everyone ready?" No one answered; he pointed at me with his pipe stem and said, "You. Kneel. There." The pipe indicated the center of the room; I knelt facing Perrin and the anvil.
Perrin cleared his throat and started. "We believe in the blood," he chanted, and then the four beside him joined in. "Born of ancient dragons, purified by vision, sanctified by rending, exalted by storms."
My turn: "Blood of the shifter, blood of the mortal, blood of the earth."
Six of us: "Blood unifies all." A pause. "We defy the warp and those who embrace it."
Me, again: "Tox bringers, land killers, the ones who poison magic."
Six: "Upon their bones, we remake the world; we rejoin the circle; we purify the land."
Perrin stood and put his hand on my shoulder. "Quill," he said. "By virtue of the trust that has been placed upon me, in the name of Elethay, and in the memory of Valaria and of all who have died for the cause, I name you a Champion of the Order of the Red Wolf." He shook my hand, lifted me to my feet, and then clapped me on the back hard enough to take my breath away. "'Bacco! Where did you hide that keg?"
And that took care of the formalities. Gifts, of a sort, started to appear: the greatsword I had left with Perrin before going south; the dagger I had given to Ghost before I attacked the caravan; a stack of eleven coins and an apology for tardiness from Whisky. 'Bacco produced a self lighting magic torch that had belonged to the dead necromancer; he said he thought it was mine by right, but wanted to save it for this occasion. Brindle spent most of the evening on my shoulder, trying to dip her tail into my beer. Whisky and Perrin were amazingly jovial, Jasmine and Ghost were exactly who they always were.
Chalice approached to offer her congratulations with a strange look in her eyes, and a lopsided smile. "I go two more words than you did," she said with mock smugness. "In memory of Valaria, and Quill..." I blinked a few times, and then Chalice's eyes filled with tears and she hugged me fiercely. "I am so glad we were wrong."
And then there was Pepper. She caught me at a quiet moment, pulled my sleeve for attention, and said quietly, "Can I ask a favor, Mister Quill?"
Mister Quill? I blinked at that. "Certainly, Pepper. What do you want?"
"Take me with you, when you go west?"
I blinked again. "Why, Pepper?"
"I'm not strong, like Whisky, or 'Bacco. I can't DO anything here, except breed more Vermites. I can't do anything to make the world better. But you can, and you will. And I thought that if I could make YOUR world a little better, well, that would be something. I can cook, and I can sew, and I'm good with leather..."
"But..." She was getting ready to cry, shifting from a forlorn hope to none at all.
"I didn't say, No, Pepper. I said, Stop." Pepper's eyes grew wide. "One condition: ask your brothers for permission, first." Pepper's face fell again; I shook my head. "I said, Ask for, not, Get. It's rude not to ask, but if they refuse, they're being rude themselves and we can ignore them." Pepper blinked a few times, then grinned enormously and scampered off. I looked up to see Chalice looking at me; she rolled her eyes and smiled.
The party eventually ended. Later, as I wrapped myself in my blanket and tried to sleep, I realized that I had put my life on the line for Philo and Stragus, and my payment was that I got to listen to them snore. I smiled; I could live with that.