The Northern Territories of Denari were wild and desolate. Rolling plains met with shrubby woodlands under the guardianship of banks of Kaba trees that perforated the skyline. Settlements were few and far between and even farmers deserted their fields on the plains in the winter months, for nothing could grow under the sporadic blankets of snow and biting frost. There was no sign of human life save for the occasional deserted hovel. This was wolf territory.
After leaving the tavern Kaio, Rachel and Thais had marched for two days over the rolling hills, their eyes and ears alert for signs of the Shadow Pack. At night there was always one who would sit awake for some time, listening to the howls in the distance and guarding their chosen tree for the night before they grew tired and nudged one of their companions awake to take over. The howls only bothered the children at night. During the day they saw little sign of the pack, save for the occasional paw prints in the snow, or a bloody patch where an unfortunate rabbit had met its end.
However, though they saw little sign of the pack, the children knew the ever-present threat they posed. Few travellers managed to avoid the beasts when passing through the territory. They were not loyal to the Kudai and of the packs Denari homed, the shadow pack were one of the more aggressive groups. A scarce supply of food in the winter months and regular run ins with the stock farmers had left them aggressive and willing to attack human wanderers. Where others of their kin displayed a sentience of a kind, the Shadow Pack were feral.
Long ago, when the first Kudai had come to the shores of the Agea led by the high king Aurus, the wolves had saved the settlers from a troop of greymen hundreds strong. In those dark days every forest in the Agea had teemed with the greymen. The courage of the wolves and their alliance was rewarded by Aius, who had watched his favourites flounder on the shores of the turbulent Agea, and sewed within these beasts souls worthy of the Lands of the Dead. Their descendents were dotted across the continent now, many of them in alliance with the human occupants of the lands. The wolves of the King’s Guard were animals such as these, the great great great offspring of courageous animals blessed by the King of the Gods himself.
The Shadow Pack however, were not. They were dangerous.
In the distance the howls of the pack drifted across the windy plains, reaching the pointed ears of a child high up a tree, her hands clasped tightly about her bow. The girl was shaking, though the cold could not be blamed for this bout of anxiety. Quick breaths escaped Thais’ mouth while her wide eyes chased phantom creatures across the plain at the base of the tree. She was on watch, which suited her fine.
Thais darted her eyes onto the writhing form of Rachel, who was stirring under her wall of wool and fur to glance out with thick tired eyes. The moment she saw Thais the flame-haired girl dragged herself up and yawned.
“’Tis my turn now Thais, find yourself a comfortable perch and get some rest,” the elder girl ordered gently. The princess though, shook her head.
“No, get you to sleep Rachel, I won’t be able to sleep tonight.”
In the distance a howl made the fair girl go rigid and she clasped her bow tighter still. She would not open her eyes till the eerie sound had carried over her into the valley beyond. When she opened her eyes she saw Rachel staring at her puzzled.
“They terrify you don’t they?” she asked evenly, no trace of mocking in her lovely voice. Stiffly Thais nodded her head.
“I wish I wasn’t afraid of anything,” the youngster whispered. “I wish I could be like my father Gallus the Great. Yes, they terrify me, more than you could know.”
“Tell me, please,” Rachel urged kindly, her green eyes expressing only understanding and compassion. Thais met her friend’s gaze and smiled wryly.
“Not much to tell,” she replied with a shrug of her shoulders. “It’s a memory I don’t really want to think about right now. Not here. I have a good reason for being scared of them. They should be feared.”
A small laugh escaped Rachel’s lips, which promptly stopped when a disembodied howl lilted toward the tree from a nearby shrub line. Without hesitating Thais cocked an arrow in her bow and pressed the polished wood into the corner of her mouth. Her fingers trembled, but her aim was steady. The howl dissipated and the danger had passed.
“We should be quiet now Rachel,” the princess whispered, easing the tension in her bow and returning her arrow to her quiver. “They stalk us on the wind. Go back to sleep, I’ll stay on guard.”
A small smile passed between the girls, before Rachel nodded and curled herself into a ball in the hollow of the tree the children had designated as their home for the night. Before the moon had moved an inch across the sky she was asleep once more leaving Thais alone with her fear and the howls on the wind.
Tirelessly the rigid girl watched the moon sink and the sun rise. Only once the sky had turned into an orangey-blue glow did the girl deem it safe to descend. She hadn’t heard a howl since the moon had fallen and she was sure the midnight prowlers were safely asleep in their dens. A morning’s march was all they needed to pass out of the territory and onto the Lower Ring Road where settlements and farms had driven the wolves out.
Kaio was the last to wake and drag himself out of the tree. His bad morning tempers were well known to his female friends, who left him to his grumpiness while they armed themselves with their bows and arrows; there was breakfast to catch. Where little survived the harshness of the Northern Territories, small game such as rabbits were always in quick supply and after years of camping in the plains near the city the children had become expert rabbit hunters.
While Rachel chased the little beasts away from their bolt holes Thais lay in wake with an arrow cocked and aimed at the rise. The moment the rabbits darted across the top of the hill they found themselves suddenly ambushed. After four repetitions of this the girls had caught three rabbits, which would serve to offer the children a hearty meal to prepare them for a long day’s walking.
Kaio, who had left the girls to the hunt had found an opening to a cave to build a fire in. Thais and Rachel found him by the flume of smoke he cast into the heavens.
“At last,” the boy called to the girls, his smile failing to mask his true moodiness. Rachel rolled her eyes and threw their catch to her cousin.
“Your turn to skin these,” she ordered, casting the boy a severe look to stave any complaints he might have. Glaring, Kaio climbed to his feet and wrenched the rabbits from the cave floor, pulling out a knife as he went. Rachel grinned at his foul mood and then turned to see why Thais had not followed her into the cave.
“Something the matter Thais?” the red-haired girl asked curiously. The princess had paused, one foot not yet placed on the floor from where she had stopped mid-stride to stare at the cave with a peculiar expression on her face. Upon drawing attention from Rachel the shorter girl shook her head quickly and came to sit by the fire, her back to the depths of the cave.
“No,” she lied uneasily. “Nothing the matter.”
With both her friends out of sorts Rachel took to carving the ends of three long sticks into spikes so that they might serve as spits above the fire to roast their breakfast. Pinpricks darted over Thais’ neck, forcing her to pull her cloak hood over her head while casting the darkness in the cave a fierce glower.
Weak worthless memories, she admonished herself. They can’t harm you here.
“Thais, help with these won’t you or we’ll be here all morning,” Kaio grumbled, throwing a rabbit at his friend’s feet. With a withering expression Thais lifted the small creature from the floor and took out her short knife from a sheath in her boot. She avoided looking into the creatures dead eyes while she worked, pulling the fur from the rabbit and throwing it to rest with the others. They might find a use for those later. Warm mittens could be worked from rabbit fur if skinned well enough. With the princess’ help the rabbits were ready in no time and loaded onto the spits Rachel had expertly prepared.
With a spit in hand the children sat side by side enjoying the warmth of the fire while their food roasted above it. They spoke little, each too hungry and tired to join in an amiable conversation. None of them had slept well these last two nights, clinging on to branches high up trees listening the prowlers of the night. Nightmares had haunted what little sleep had been had and each child was ratty as a consequence.
“Why do you keep looking over your shoulder Thais?” Kaio broke the silence through a mouthful of meat. A growl of a memory long ago snaked through Thais’ ears, but she resisted the urge to turn around and check the cave once more in the face of Kaio’s arrogance.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she replied softly, refusing to enter into an argument of jibes with the boy so early in the day.
“Yes you do,” Kaio countered deftly. “Has the lack of sleep left you hearing things princess?”
“Kaio don’t,” Rachel warned, knowing what worried their friend so and wanting to save her from the embarrassment of revealing it to her snake-tongued cousin.
“I hear nothing,” Thais insisted rather more loudly than she had intended and then, needlessly she added, “Except your yowling and that bothers me more than it worries me.”
“Oh Lord,” Rachel grumbled rolling her eyes and she turned from her friends. She had no desire to hear them.
“My yowling is not as loud as your twitching,” the boy countered sounding a little hurt. “What are you afraid of? The darkness?”
“I am not scared of the dark,” Thais growled.
“Then what has offended you so back there in the gloom? The rocks? Do you want me to go and duel them?”
“Why don’t you duel yourself and leave us a moment’s peace Kaio?” the princess hotly replied, before she climbed to her feet and stalked from the cave mouth.
“Thais where are you going?” Rachel called after her.
“Away from him!” was the only response she received before the small wild girl disappeared from view round the corner of the hillock. After watching her leave Rachel turned two narrowed eyes at Kaio, but said nothing, as she could see her cousin felt bad about causing their friend to leave.
Out in the cold morning air Thais stalked to a rocky outcrop and dropped down, chewing on her rabbit meat angrily. Only once she bit her tongue did the youngster calm down and approach her breakfast with a more respectful approach.
Stupid boy, she cursed in her mind. What does he know?
In the distance the Shield Mountains loomed snowy above the foothills of the Northern Territories. They were nearly upon those hills, yet the mountains seemed so far a target Thais couldn’t allow herself to get her hopes up. There were still many painful miles to cover and the time was passing ever more quickly. Just over two weeks since leaving the city, how many more days could she afford before her father came looking for her? The White Sea, if she could reach the White Sea before then, then Gallus would not be able to see her in the ether. She would be gone from his sight and he would not track her so easily.
All around her on her hillock paw prints littered the floor; tracks of animals well-used to pacing these hills. The sight of them sent a tremble through the girl, who wrapped her cloak more tightly about herself. Wolves, how she hated them.
“Thais!” the shriek carried over the hilltops brining the princess to her feet within moments. The girl stood stock still, her eyes wide and her breathing laboured. Phantom fangs and dark shapes drifted before her eyes while she stood on the windy hilltop. No further sound came.
Thais gulped at her dry throat and with trembling fingers reached out to take hold of her long bow, which lay slung across her skinny shoulders. The girl stepped forward hesitantly, bringing the bow to her front and hugging it closely. Frantic yelping whipped around her face, brought to her on a gust of wind from far below. The sounds of a battle danced in the cold air, before leaving the breezy silence of the hills once more.
“Where are you?”
The boy sounded muffled and pained. Thais’ heart started thumping quicker and more powerfully. She stepped forward with more determination, her trembling fingers taking hold of her bow with much more vigour. As she strode forward towards the bluff she reached into her quiver and took hold of a feathered arrow. Thais forced herself into a run and reached the top of the hill within moments.
“Thais!” came Rachel’s cry the moment she saw the princess atop the hill. “Help us!”
Writhing, snarling, howling black shadows swarmed over Rachel and Kaio as they crouched back to back, their weapons thrashing from side to side to keep the phantoms at bay. The air was thick with the stench the creatures had brought with them and Thais nearly pulled back as it hit her in the face. Her stomach turned, but the girl grinded her teeth together and forced away her nausea so that she might raise her bow. The foul beasts down below had not yet noticed the archer upon the bluff.
With trembling hands Thais cocked an arrow and pulled it sharply into the corner of her mouth. She stared down the length of the shaft with her right eye. The blurry phantoms were moving too quickly. Sweat trickled into the girl’s eyes.
The arrow was released and landed with a sharp thud in the ground at Kaio’s side. Incredulously, the boy looked up at the girl archer and conveyed to her his displeasure in a very rude expletive.
“Damn it Thais!” he added. “Hit them! Not us.”
Up on the bluff Thais shook her head sharply, trying to shake from her mind the memories those spectres had set into motion. Down below, the tumbling, howling creatures had spotted the archer and one of them split off from the group to pursue this new target.
Thais quickly cocked another arrow and pulled it once more tightly into the corner of her mouth. Her arms trembled under the strain. The snarling teeth filled Thais’ vision and quickly she released her arrow.
The wolf fell to the ground. It was dead.
A blood-curdling howl filled the sky as the others realised what had happened and as one they launched themselves up the hill towards the girl. She had time to unload one more arrow, wounding one of the creatures in the leg before the others were upon her.
As the wolves fell upon Thais in rabid fury the girl pulled her elven swords from her sheaths. She was too slow however, as one of the forerunners leapt up, its filthy paws forcing Thais’ shoulders to the ground. Thais grimaced into the bloodthirsty face of the wolf and loosely aimed a blow with her right hand sword at its head. The blow failed to cut the creature, but the surprise attack did cause it to release the child, who scrambled to her feet and lifted her left sword to force back the attack of another phantom.
She was surrounded by the pack, watching as they tumbled over one another, circling her in fiendish fury. They howled into the night, sending a chill through Thais’ very bones. Their cruel murderous eyes filled her vision and for a moment she was overcome with fear.
“Thais!” a voice cried through her reverie. “Fight them you fool! Use your swords.”
The girl lunged forward as though on command, her swords forcing the animals to dart out of the way. A large wolf growled and leapt from behind, but in time Thais spun around lifting her right sword while her left protected her back from the rest of the pack. The wolf landed heavily upon her arm knocking the girl to the ground. It lay snarling and whining on the floor, crushing Thais beneath its heavy form. She was pinned to it, the tip of her bloody blade sticking out from between the wolf’s broken ribs. The princess struggled and tried to pull away from the snapping jaws, but she herself was trapped and tried to protect herself with her right sword.
All around her the howls of the wolves filled the air. Thais wriggled and squirmed, gagging on the putrid smell of the dying wolf.
“Get off me you horrible beast!” the girl cried out furiously, kicking the wolf in the back to try and pry herself out from under it. It was fighting to stand up, but she still clung to her sword, which was still sticking out from its chest. The girl could hold onto it no longer however, and after a might lurch the wolf pulled the sword from the girl’s hand and scrambled to its feet. It took a few steps towards Thais before stumbling onto the ground once more.
The princess darted backwards, her eyes darting around for the rest of the pack. They seemed to have disappeared with the wind leaving Thais with the sole concern of reclaiming her blade from the dying creature. She climbed to her feet and carefully approached the dark wolf. Its eyes were closed and it was lying on its side. Thais could see the bloody ivory handle of her sword sticking out of its torso.
Wind rattled through her hair and battered her ears as she crept forward carefully, keeping a careful eye on the wolf’s fangs. It had stopped moving. Quickly the girl darted forward and took hold of her lost sword. She pulled firmly, falling back onto the ground, as it held firm. Panting, the girl finally pulled the sword loose.
The wolf, not as dead as it had seemed, howled in agony and lunged.
“Agh!” Thais shrieked as the foul creature’s fangs sank into her left arm. She stared into the wolf’s cold black eyes before bringing the hilt of her right sword down onto its skull with a deafening crack. Blood trickled from the wolf’s ears and its eyes rolled back into its head.
Crying in pain Thais managed to pull her mangled arm from the dead wolf’s jaws. She stared in horror at the deep gushing cuts in her forearm and felt faint.
“Thais!” Rachel was upon her and looked with wide eyes at the blood dripping from her friend’s arm onto the snow. She and Kaio seemed unharmed.
“We must fly!” Kaio cried from below. He had watched the wolves retreat to a safe distance, where they had been massing once more. They were ready to strike again. Forcing herself to ignore the pain ripping up her nerves Thais charged after her friends at a sprint towards a hillock in the near distance, atop which stood a crumbling tower of sorts. Around them the howls of the angry pack drifted over the plains, haunting their frenzied steps. Dark clouds descended on the hilltops, chasing away the young sun. Snow was coming.
The prowlers stalked their steps, chasing them to the foot of the hillock where promptly the howls faded from the hills. Thais turned at the base of the tower and watched the dark shapes drift away. Whatever sanctity they had found, it would serve them well against the beasts of the plains. With difficulty the children climbed the crumbling rock falls to the first floor of the dilapidated tower. Elven in design and inscribed by their runes, it had since been drafted into service by the Denarien humans, though left in disrepair many centuries ago.
“This is a sacred place,” Thais informed her friends, who stood arrows cocked at the narrow arrow-slits. They turned to her, brows knitted in worry. “It’s one of their holy places, I can feel it.”
“How?” Kaio asked curiously, though the expression on Thais’ face released the tension in his bow and return his arrow to his quiver.
“I can’t explain it, except that when I’m at one of their sacred shrines I feel a deep calm within me. We’re safe here, I know it.”
“Do you know which shrine this is?” Rachel asked, similar interest in her face to that of her cousin. Thais looked to the runes, which she could barely translate and wrinkled her brow.
“I’m not sure,” she finally mumbled. “These here speak of the Helendal, but that’s where Titua was built. Perhaps it’s a lesser shrine of the Helendal. We aren’t too far from the city after all. Ow.” Wincing Thais remembered the injury to her arm and she brought it to her chest to stave the trickle of blood from the wound.
“Here,” Rachel insisted, coming forward with her pack hanging from one arm. “Let me dress that for you Thais, that beast carries all manner of disease in its mouth I’m sure.”
Thais nodded grimly and dropped down onto a fallen slab of rock to allow Rachel access to her wounded arm. While her friend peeled back the layers of clothing she winced.
“Your bedside manner leaves much to be desired,” Thais grumbled fondly. “You’re looking at it as though it’s about to fall off.” Rachel grimaced.
“Maybe it’s not as bad as that, but you really ought see a proper healer Thais, these wounds are deep.”
With narrowed eyes Thais looked at her ragged arm and soon regretted it. Rachel was right, that wolf had done her more damage than she had thought. Tensing her hand sent ripples of agony snaking up the girl’s arm, but at least she discovered the wolf hadn’t permanently ripped her muscles. The arm would heal over time.
“And how am I going to seek out a healer when every village in the kingdom has been ordered to arrest me the moment I show my face?” the royal girl sighed, her expression letting Rachel know she did not intend to sound ungrateful for the suggestion.
“You had better think of a way Thais, because if this arm is not properly treated you might lose it. You’ve heard the story of our Uncle Silas.”
Thais shuddered at the thought of Uncle ‘One Arm’ and quickly she nodded.
“Perhaps you’re right. Kaio, come away from the window, the wolves won’t follow us here. Let’s stay a while and help them forget we ever came to this place. See there in the distance? That’s Farrier’s Dell. ‘Tis a small enough village, perhaps we might stop in there without drawing too much attention.”
The three children huddled close to one another under their furs, too fearful of drawing attention to their hiding place by lighting a fire. They listened keenly to the wild, hearing only the howling of the wind rather than those of the vengeful wolves.
“Thais.” By the tone of his voice the girl could tell Kaio was trying his utmost hardest to be tactful, which made her heart swell with fondness for the boy. When he showed compassion he showed a weaker side he was usually too proud to put on display. “Just why are you so scared of wolves?”
The girl sighed and looked from the boy’s curious green eyes to her hands, still crusted in her own blood and that of the wolf’s. Where she had prepared to refuse him Thais was surprised to find herself revealing the memory.
“When I was six my father took me on a hunt,” she explained quietly. Rachel and Kaio listened intently. “My mother hadn’t been dead very long and in those days he used to take me into the wilds quite a lot, this is before the days where I did so myself. He’d fallen asleep after a hearty lunch. We’d caught a stag I think and he’d eaten so much he fell asleep straight away. I was bored and went in search of something to do. You can imagine how happy I was when I came across a pair of wolf cubs playing in the mouth of a cave; similar to the one we just ate in. The cubs were very young, only a few weeks old and curious enough to play with me. I was too little to know that where a cub is to be found, its mother is never far behind.”
A bitter gust of wind made the children drag their furs more tightly about their shoulders. Thais stared up at the darkening sky, where heavy clouds were ready to deposit a fresh blanket of snow onto the frozen ground. The next part of the memory she had relived a hundred times in her dreams.
“I didn’t know she was upon me until I heard this terrible growl right behind my head. I can’t even remember turning around, all of a sudden I was lying underneath this enormous wolf. She flattened me to the ground and I couldn’t move! It’s her eyes I remember the most. I know they say wolves up in these parts aren’t like the wolves in the guard. I know people say they’re stupid, but her eyes weren’t stupid. She knew exactly what she was doing. She knew I didn’t pose a threat to her cubs, but she still pinned me to the ground. I don’t know how long we stared at each other…her growl was making my chest rumble it was so loud and try as I might, I just couldn’t pull my gaze away from hers.”
Thais drifted off into silence and stared back through time to the most frightening moment of the whole ordeal. Kaio and Rachel glanced to one another before the more tactful of the two reached out and gently placed her hand on the princess’ shoulder.
“What happened then Thais? How did you get away?”
“My father,” Thais merely responded and she shut her eyes. “You should have seen his face! I never knew he could feel fear. I mean you know my father, don’t you?” Thais suddenly accused and she looked into Kaio’s eyes. “Can you imagine him? He was terrified! More scared than he’s ever been in his life I wager and I had done that to him!”
Thais paused and fought the memory from her mind, where only a few days ago Gallus had looked afraid once more, only this time a wolf had not been moments from biting off her head, he had been sat at his desk, a scroll in hand.
“From that moment I’ve never liked wolves; not even the wolves of the guard. If Gallus the Great is scared of them, then they should be feared! When I’m queen I’m going to ban them from the Green Palace.”
Rachel chuckled while Kaio forced a small smile. In truth he was amazed, amazed that Thais, the very embodiment of bravery and fearlessness could in truth be afraid of something so real as a wolf. He looked upon her in a similar manner to the way she looked upon her father. Never had he seen the girl so full of fear and it left him feeling confused. He couldn’t tease her about it. He would put it away until an age where he might better deal with his feelings.