“His pack is yours.”
Silver-Fur-Shining and Claw both sit together under her tree. It has been near a season, and still the growing shapeshifter struggles to believe all that has happened in that time. Shadow himself is away hunting along with most of the pack. For all intents and purposes, Silver and Claw are alone under the tree. It is early- earlier than dawn.
“As are his pups,” Silver replies dryly. “Should he manage to father any.”
“What have you against him, my heart?” Claw-Scars-Many asks quietly. “You can’t still be angry he beat you. Not after so long.”
She gives him a withering glare, as best as she can manage, then drops her head and lets out a wolfish sigh. “That is not it.”
“What is it, then?” Claw’s voice has an unusual needling tone to it. “Is it the pups that bother you? So it was fine to make pups with me, but with Shadow it feels wrong? Are you incapable of fulfilling your part of the duel’s terms?”
Silver almost laughs, but instead a snarl curls her lips back from her teeth. Her temper flares. He really doesn’t understand!
“No! There’s… it is not anything to do with Shadow-With-Teeth, Claw!”
She stands, turns and pads away, refusing to stare him down. To Silver’s astonishment, he follows her. She snaps at him half-heartedly, anger slow to cool.
The old dire wolf doesn’t even blink. “What is it, then?” he asks. “Who are you angry with?”
Silver settles down again, in the morning sun, tail swishing more like a cat’s than a wolf’s, staring at nothing as she thinks. For his part, Claw-Scars-Many settles by her side, waiting for her to come to terms with whatever it is that seems to be haunting her.
“Myself,” Silver answers quietly. “I am angry with myself.”
Her eyes meet his for a moment. “I do not know,” she replies levelly. “And if I did, I do not know that I would care to share it.”
Claw looks as if he is about to say something, but suddenly Chase-The-Wind pops up, between his bulk and Silver’s. To the parents’ further surprise, he speaks. Chase has always been a quiet pup. In fact, he’d been quiet since Shadow-With-Teeth beat Silver.
“It’s about the dreams,” he says softly. “Mom is talking about the dreams she has.”
There’s a pause. Claw-Scars-Many’s eyes narrow and his hackles rise slightly. Silver pretends that she can’t see it happening so later she can snap at him for snapping at her.
“Dreams of what?” Claw asks suddenly, seriously, eyes boring into Silver’s own. “Is this true?”
“Yes,” she snaps sharply. “Yes, it is true. I’ve been having dreams of dragons, flying high above the world. Dreams of caves and mountains where they dwell, dreams of the deepest depths of the world where they roll and fight and mate without end. Dreams of their wings and their teeth, their fiery breath and their immense tails. What of it? A dream is but a dream.”
“Chase, leave us,” Claw growls, voice low. Chase doesn’t move, instead looking up at Silver. “Chase?”
The little dire wolf nuzzles at Silver’s side, and she stares down at him. Suddenly she understands.
“No,” she growls back quietly. “No, let him come with. I need you to watch over the pack while I’m gone, Claw.”
For a moment, Claw meets her eyes and she’s sure he will object, that he will tell Shadow of her plan, that he will say something to contradict it, or ask what she means. Then she sees that flash of understanding mischief in his eyes she’d come to recognize and enjoy as it developed.
“I understand,” he says lightly. “I didn’t think I’d be able to come with you. The rest of the pack will miss you, little pup, as will I. Remember that you owe us, when you return. Owe all of us, not just Shadow-With-Teeth. Forget about him. He beat you in combat through trickery. When he follows you- and follow you he will- give him a cuff for me.”
“I will,” Silver replies, and at the time she means it more than ever. “I will not forget your kindness, dear heart.”
“It breaks tradition,” Claw murmurs. “But it broke tradition to take you in. Go, now, before the rest of the pack returns from the hunt and your opportunity is lost.”
Silver nods, and turns. Chase pauses a moment, as if uncertain, staring back at his father. Then he follows after Silver. After a time, the plains swallow their forms as they disappear into the horizon.
The ground is yielding, as grass gives way to dirt. Soft enough that Silver leaves tracks, and Chase leaves prints. Her pup isn’t as curious as she thought he would be. At first she’s sure he will be a nuisance. She can’t move as quickly as she’d like, it’s an extra scent for Shadow to track, and she can hunt as well or better than he can. The sun is rising. It is morning now.
After a time in the silence, she almost forgets he is there. Chase is very quiet and meek, never offering his opinion about anything.
It isn’t until they reach a path, a patch of ground cleared and leveled most regularly, that they stop. It stretches on from left to right, as far as the eye can see. To their left Silver can just barely make out a haze that might be a human den. To the right, the path seems to move on without end. No such haze mars it.
“Humans,” Chase remarks suddenly. “I can smell them.”
Silver considers this, then nods.
“All along the road. I can too,” she replies in a soft growl. “We should keep moving and avoid this path.”
Chase-The-Wind shakes his head though, looking up at her and tilting it to one side. “No.”
“No?” she asks, taken aback. She’s more curious than anything else, more out of that stunned curiosity than any intention to listen to what he says, she stares down at him. He doesn’t meet her eyes. It isn’t a challenge, then.
“We’ve never been in this part of the plain. Humans will know where to go and what to do to reach the mountains,” Chase answers slowly. “All we need to do is ask.”
“Humans are…” Silver starts, and then stops, because she realizes she doesn’t know. It’d been seasons since she’d seen one. “…Different,” she finishes lamely. “Foreign. They do not reason like we do.”
“When times were hard and food was scarce, you bargained with them once,” Chase points out. “Traded protection for some of their cattle. Do you remember?”
“Yes,” Silver replies warily. “I do remember.”
“Good,” Chase says simply. “I hear them approaching and have scent of two horses.”
He steps out onto the path, and Silver-Fur-Shining steps out with him a moment later, tense, hackles raised. The horses are to the left, towards the city.
They’d been downwind of the horses, so the creatures hadn’t caught their approach. When they step out, the animals rear, and the humans on their backs- are they truly humans? They are covered in metal scales, like the beast on the plain so long ago!- shout at one another in their own language. A language Silver barely remembers.
“Stop! I bid thee stop and desist, bewildered one!” the first of the humans is male, both in voice and in scent. He is expressing frustration with his horse. Silver is sure about that, and she flicks an ear toward the second human as it too begins to speak.
“It is little use, Kathan, see there by the road! Two wolves, have ever you seen the like of their size? Dire wolves, methinks! Draw steel!”
Silver narrows her eyes at the last. She isn’t sure what steel is, but her natural cynicism is sure it won’t be a gift. Still, she holds her ground. Chase gives her a wondering look, as if confused as to why she doesn’t talk with them. She had gone to negotiate with the humans alone last time.
She had taken her human shape, just once. Out of plain sight, as well. There seems to be little chance of that this time. She should have warned her curious son about it before.
She takes a deep, calming breath. The humans aren’t attacking at present. It will give her the time she needs. The flame in her heart flares again as she calls it, stirring for the first time in seasons. Silver lets it wash over her, turning back through ages of growth, shrinking, yet reaching out at the same time for that form, that human woman whose features she almost does not recognize, so much have they aged with her. Her eyes are silver, her hair is long and wild, her fingernails and toenails likewise grown unruly in her mind.
Silver takes that shape, becomes the girl she was and the girl she was meant to be all at once, letting the two conflicting images coincide and become one until she is that one, a tall, full human woman standing there, blinking in the chill morning air, her fur- hair- shining with dew as her body had been earlier in the day. It is similar to being doused in icy water.
For a moment, all Silver can do is stand there and shiver. The humans hold position on their panicked horses, and after they manage to get their steeds under control, they can only stare at her.
Silver, for her part, offers a weak smile. She lets out a startled yip as Chase noses at her bare back and side curiously.
“Mother?” he asks. “You are mother?”
“Yes,” she replies as best she can. To the men ahead, she tries a wave. The unfamiliar motion is nevertheless ingrained in her head. “No matter what happens, stay here Chase. I will talk to them.”
Chase leans back on his haunches then, unreadable. She can only hope that it means he will listen to her.
She takes a few tentative steps forward, while Chase stays where he is. The men have yet to ‘draw steel’, she thinks. They do keep their hands near their sides. It is men she was warned about by Claw-Scars-Many. Her love had often told her of their hidden fangs. Weak and defenseless they may seem, but some bear impenetrable scales and perhaps deadly claws hidden in those scales. Silver, wary of that, stares the one called ‘Kathan’ down.
For a moment, no one moves. Even the horses still. Then, Kathan turns his head to his friend slightly, whispering something that surely the whole forest can hear.
“Leo. We are dealing with a witch and her mate,” Kathan hisses.
The one known as ‘Leo’ is still staring at Silver, and when she notices this, she smiles again, trying her best to hide her uncertainty.
He shakes his head. “I think not, brother. It is obvious to me that she is a wizard, not a witch. Wizards only may take shapes as they please. Ho there, wizard. Which king do you serve?”
Silver thinks on this. She recalls her answer before and brings it up now. “I have… no king.”
Her speech is halting and broken from so long as a wolf.
Leo seems speechless, but Kathan picks up the slack. “So you serve only yourself?”
Silver chews on this one as well, taking a moment, eyes fixed on Kathan. “I serve the pack.”
“The pack,” Kathan says, voice flat. “Leo, she is not a wizard.”
Leo’s lips are pursed, tight with sudden anger. “A skinsnake, then. I wonder only how she took such a fine form; truly no maidens have gone missing that I recall.”
He draws his hand up from his side, and with it pulls out a long metal thing, something that brings out Silver’s memory with the ring of metal on tanned, dried skin. Its edge gleams in the sunlight rising.
A long knife… A sword?
Chase growls from beside and behind her, snarling. But he still does not move.
Silver takes a deep breath, stills Chase’s vocalization with a quick glare, and turns her eyes to Leo. “I am not here to harm you. I seek only passage.”
“And passage you shall have,” Leo replies levelly. “I shall give you passage to the underworld, snake.”
With that, he urges his horse into a trot.
Or begins to. It is Kathan’s hand on his shoulder that stops him. “She is what the druids call ‘a shifting flame’, brother.”
Leo shrugs him off, but stops his mount. He’s still staring at Silver, and does not put his long metal claw back in its sheath. “What have those old men put in your head now?” he asks sharply. “She is a skinsnake, nothing more.”
“No,” Kathan insists. “She is a shifting flame. The druids told me. Skinsnakes do not speak, you know that much to be true, Leo. She is not a wizard, for she serves no king. This girl is a shifting flame, and you would be doing the druids a disservice by slaying her.”
Leo’s eyes flick to Kathan, then, and back to Silver, who continues to stare him down. Finally, after a few more tense moments, he replaces his sword in its sheath. “Where are you bound, wench?”
Silver blinks, at that. She’d not expected Kathan’s interference. Over Chase’s growls, she answers. “My pup and I are headed to mountains. We seek the fastest route hence. Will you provide us safe passage?”
Kathan interrupts Leo as he opens his mouth. “Yes. Will you see the druids along the way? They will be eager to meet you as well.”
The shifting flame shrugs her shoulders and nods after only a moment. She isn’t sure if she should like seeing a few doddering old humans, but she is more than simply curious now. Perhaps they could help her find a dragon.
“Then we will do this thing. We will guide you and your… pup… to the town and the druids, and from there you may make your way to the mountains,” Kathan says lightly. “So long as your wolf does not make our horses fuss overmuch, it should be as safe a journey as any. We were merely out for a ride at any rate.”
Leo looks like he wants to say something more, but if he does, he does not get the chance to speak it. Nor does he say anything more as they wheel their horses and urge them into a slow trot down the path back towards the haze, back towards the city.
Silver-Fur-Shining shapeshifts once more into her great wolf form, and after conferring with Chase-The-Wind but a moment, follows with him after the humans who have become their guides.
For a time at least, things seem to be going right.
©2012 Sam Oliver (Eris)
Hey guys, long time no see. Well okay, I’ve been around, but not AROUND around, y’know? Well, here’s the next part of The Shifting Flames. Long awaited, now finished. Enjoy! Let’s see if I can’t get the next part of Mesdan’s story done too. I MAKE NO PROMISES! :3
Well, no promises I can’t keep.