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By Jane Lindskold, Teresa Nielsen Hayden
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2007 Jane Lindskold
All rights reserved.
FIREKEEPER STOOD, feet planted slightly apart, head held high, and looked from her past into her future.
She was a woman of indeterminate age, certainly no longer a child, but beyond that certain estimation placing her age would have been a challenge. Life lived in all the tempers changing seasons could hold had browned fair skin and faded brown hair, but her eyes were bright, her teeth white and strong.
Her attire showed hard use. She was clad in worn leather trousers laced below the knee, and a battered cotton shirt that might once have been dyed pale green. Her feet were bare. A long hunting knife from whose hilt a garnet shone a muted dark red was belted at her waist. A bow was slung over her shoulder, along with a quiver containing a handful of arrows.
Dozens of scars, silvery white against the tanned skin, again testified to a hard life, yet there was a quickness to Firekeeper's motions, a fluidity and power that spoke of youth and youth's vigor. This contrasted vividly with something in her dark, dark eyes, something that hinted at challenges and sorrows young bones and muscles should not have known, but that had scarred as deeply as any tooth or claw.
"Blind Seer, how many years have gone by since you and I crossed the Iron Mountains into the east?"
Firekeeper spoke a language most humans would not have even realized was being spoken, much less understood, and the one to whom she spoke was no human but rather a grey wolf the size of a small pony, albeit much leaner in build. Blind Seer did not look at Firekeeper when she spoke, his piercingly blue eyes focused, as were her own, on some middle distance.
"Six springs into spring again," came the wolf's reply. "Six rounding of does' sides and budding of new antlers on proud bucks, six springs where fat puppies stumbled from the dens in which their mothers had hidden them to face the proud inspection of their packs. Six, if you count this spring, and this I do most sincerely."
Firekeeper huffed agreement through her nose, a movement of air that spoke volumes to the wolf.
"Is it spring, then, that makes me restless?"
"Don't blame spring, sweet Firekeeper. Spring has done nothing but be spring. You know who is to blame, who has been whispering in your ear. I have heard what you say in your dreams, and although you have not told me, I know who has returned to haunt you."
"I have always had nightmares," Firekeeper replied, not quite admitting to the truth of the wolf's statement.
"Always," Blind Seer agreed. "As long as I have known you, as long as any of my pack have known you — and we took you in and made you our own when you were but a small child — as long ago as that and maybe before, you have had nightmares, but this is something different, and you know it and I know it. Will you deny what is as plain as sunlight on a cloudless day?"
Firekeeper sighed and buried her hand in the thick fur of Blind Seer's scruff. "I cannot, nor will I, at least not to you. Three nights running and three more before that, the Meddler has come into my dreams. He talks most seriously, and the matters he raises are grave and seem to make sense, but I fear to be guided by him."
Blind Seer's hackles rose. Firekeeper felt the stiff guard hairs of his coat prickle against her skin.
"The Meddler earned that name for a reason, dear heart," the wolf said in a rumbling growl. "He also earned the ill reputation that goes with that name, as we know all too well. His meddling has caused considerable trouble, not just for us, although we have seen our share, but — if we are to believe the tales Harjeedian tells — for generations so long past that even their bones have returned to the soil."
Firekeeper nodded agreement that held the faintest trace of reluctance. The wolf tilted back his head to gaze upon her face.
"Will you tell me what the Meddler has said when he comes into your dreams?"
Firekeeper hesitated, knowing her delay was a trifle longer than would be polite. Had she been speaking with a human, her delay might have been taken as weighing the wisdom of speaking seriously about dreams. However, the wolf — who knew her mood from her scent — was not to be so easily fooled. She felt her skin heat with a blush.
In response to that blush, Firekeeper was aware of the rumble of Blind Seer's growl, inaudible to her ears but felt through her fingertips. Blind Seer had heard the sweet edge of the Meddler's tongue, and he knew the Meddler had an intense interest in Firekeeper. This interest might have flattered Blind Seer, for wolves are not immune to more highly prizing that which another desires, but the bond between Firekeeper and Blind Seer was sufficiently unique that the wolf was threatened rather than flattered.
But while Firekeeper did not precisely return the Meddler's interest, still she experienced her own peculiar fascination with him. The fascination was not — or so she told herself — that which a female feels for a mate. How could it be? The Meddler was not even alive. His body had been slain centuries before Firekeeper had been born, but his spirit, entrapped in a prison constructed for that purpose, had persisted.
Firekeeper told herself that she was interested in the Meddler because he possessed knowledge that no one else did. But Blind Seer read her scent — so much more honest than her thoughts — and was threatened by a potential rival.
"I will tell you," Firekeeper said at last, "but dreams are strange, and sometimes I have trouble recalling their logic."
"Some trouble," Blind Seer agreed, "but not too much trouble, else you would not be so restless. Tell what you can. I will listen."
Firekeeper sat next to the wolf, flinging her arm over his shoulders. He, in turn, settled onto his haunches. Blind Seer was large enough that in this attitude Firekeeper's head now leaned against his own. She sat this way for several long breaths, taking comfort from their proximity.
"The Meddler says," she began, the words tumbling out like water spilling over a beaver's dam, "at great length, supporting his case with many cogent arguments, that I must seek the source of the Fire Plague."
"The source of the Fire Plague?" Blind Seer asked. "What purpose would be served in finding the source of the Fire Plague?"
"Not just the source," Firekeeper amended. "The source and, with the source, the cure."
"Why does the Meddler care?" Blind Seer said. "If anyone is immune to the Fire Plague, it is he. Nor did he take particular care to warn us of the Fire Plague when we crossed to where we would be vulnerable to it. Why should he care now?"
"I asked the Meddler why he didn't warn us," Firekeeper said, glad to prove that she did not listen to the Meddler with unquestioning obedience. "He claims that he did not know the Fire Plague still lived in the Old World. He says that such things fade and die. Over a hundred years have passed since the Fire Plague first appeared — and he was already entrapped then, and so only knew of it in the abstract. The Meddler claims he did not know for certain where the Setting Sun gateway would take us. Nor did he worry unduly that it might take us to the Old World. He thought the Fire Plague likely dead or aged beyond ability to harm us. Remember, he knew nothing of how the Old World had fared since his imprisonment. He had difficulty enough contacting the New."
"Perhaps this is true," Blind Seer admitted grudgingly. "After all, even for one such as him, knowing what is happening across a great ocean might be difficult."
"The Meddler says that such knowing is perhaps not quite impossible," Firekeeper said, "but close enough to impossible."
"I am pleased that the Meddler does not claim his knowing what happens far away is impossible," Blind Seer said, "for I have seen him at home in places I would have termed impossible if I had not been there myself. I would trust him less than I do were he to claim something impossible."
"And you do not trust him very much," Firekeeper said.
"Less even than that," Blind Seer replied. "Has the Meddler told you why it is so important that the source of the Fire Plague be found — beyond, of course, that this is the way to find a cure. Why is a cure necessary all of a sudden?"
"Did you enjoy your experience when you were seized with the Plague?"
The blue-eyed wolf stiffened, even seemed to stop breathing. What had happened to him when the Fire Plague had seized hold of him and nearly killed him was a matter Blind Seer steadfastly refused to discuss. Like Firekeeper's perverse interest in the Meddler, it was one of several things that had driven a wedge between the pair, although to any watching them woman and wolf would seem as close as ever.
"The Fire Plague is not something to enjoy," Blind Seer finally replied, "only to survive."
"I would go a bit further," Firekeeper said, "and say the Fire Plague is something I would wish upon no one — not even an enemy. How then can we wish it upon our friends?"
"I do not."
"The Meddler says that if a cure is not found, then we are as good as wishing the Fire Plague upon our friends. Thus far we have been fortunate. The Plague has not reappeared in the New World, but we know now that those who were born in the New World are not immune. How long will our luck hold? How long before the Fire Plague crosses as we have crossed?"
"We have taken care," Blind Seer protested, "that none actively ill return from the Old World to the New until the sickness has run its course."
"Someday we will judge wrong," Firekeeper said. "Even if we do not, what of those who wish to come from the New World to the Nexus Islands? You know as well as I do that our allies have held those islands thus far only through constant vigilance. How long before weariness or boredom or even betrayal leads to a disaster? We cannot recruit further support from the Old World. If we are to hold the Nexus Islands, we must bring reinforcements from the New World."
"We can bring those who lack the magical talents upon which the Fire Plague feeds."
Firekeeper pulled back so she could look Blind Seer in the face — the locking of her gaze with his own a gesture of challenge among wolves as it was not among humans.
"And can we be sure to know in advance who possesses magical talents and who does not? It seems to me that there are those in whom the talents are so deeply buried that even they do not know the talents are there."
Blind Seer glowered at her, blue eyes narrowing to slits, ears pinning back, and fangs revealed in a snarl. He held that threat for a moment, but Firekeeper did not break his gaze. After a long moment the wolf shook himself calm.
"True. Such does happen. What if we recruit one or more of the maimalodalum to help inspect our candidates in advance? The maimalodalum have the ability to sense magic — even magic that is very faint. They could review potential candidates, and turn away those who would be endangered."
"There are few maimalodalum," Firekeeper said, "and those few are isolated on Misheemnekuru, and do not wish their presence to be known to the world. It is possible we might recruit one or even two, but this would only be a stopgap. In the end, we would still need a cure — or expose our allies to the Fire Plague."
"And the Meddler assures you that to find a cure, you must find the source of the Fire Plague. How does he know that? It seems to me that when the Meddler wishes to do so, he knows a great deal — and when it is convenient, he claims ignorance. Which do we believe, his ignorance or his wisdom?"
"I believe neither," Firekeeper said, "but I can see the sense in what he says. Surely nothing comes from nothing. If you want to stop a stream you must block its source. If the does are killed there will be no more fawns. So it will be with the Fire Plague ... I hope."
"So he has convinced you to go hunting for the source of the Fire Plague?"
"He is trying to do so."
"A hunt that would take you into the Old World."
"I think so."
"Where you speak none of the languages."
Firekeeper raised her chin in defiance.
"Where there are no Royal Beasts to help you."
Firekeeper held her silence.
"Where, if we are to believe those we met on the Nexus Islands, there are places where magic is — if possible — hated even more fiercely than it is in our homeland. And you will go there, searching for a cure to the very disease or curse or whatever it is that broke the power of magic, that broke the power that was used to dominate and destroy humans and Beasts alike in the Old World and the New."
Firekeeper inclined her head in the smallest of nods.
"Yes. That is what I am considering doing. Will you come with me?"
Blind Seer huffed his breath out in a long sigh. "Of course. Where else would I be but at your side?"
DERIAN CARTER COULDN'T MAKE HIMSELF GO HOME. Sitting in the front room of the stable master's house — what had become his house on the Nexus Islands — he tried to explain how he felt to the young woman seated across the room from him.
"Isende, look at me," Derian said, a pleading note in his voice. "Look at what the Plague — what querinalo — has done to me."
"I am looking at you," she replied. Isende tucked a lock of hair behind one ear as if to emphasize that nothing was blocking her vision. "I see a tall young man with broad shoulders, red hair, and very nice eyes."
"Red hair that grows like a mane," Derian said, reaching up and tugging. "By all my ancestors, I have a forelock! My ears are pointed and hairy and I can wriggle them. My eyes — those 'nice eyes' used to be hazel. Now they're brown — and the irises are weird. They blot out more of the whites. My finger and toenails are hard now. I need a farrier's kit to clip them."
"And you can eat grass," Isende said, "and talk to horses. Derian, the moon has shown all aspects of her face five or six times since you had querinalo. I thought you were adjusting to what happened to you. You went to see your friend when she had her baby. When are you going to visit your family? I know you miss them. I've seen the fat letters that go out with just about every post. Spring is going to open up the ports to shipping. With the gate, you're less than a moonspan from the harbor at u-Bishinti. If you left now, you could be home to Hawk Haven by midsummer at the latest. If you delay too long, winter will close the ports again."
"You have no idea how my people feel about magic," Derian replied. "I mean, your people dislike how magic was used and abused by the Old Country rulers, but you don't hate magic for itself. Magic is one of your deities. You see her face when you look up at the moon. It's not that way at home. Having a talent wasn't too bad, especially since my talent was one of those that could pretty much be concealed. After all, I am a livery stable owner's son. When I think about it, I'm not even sure I knew I had a talent until people started pointing out the obvious to me."
"I grew up," Isende said, her tones dreamy, "with people thinking I was a freak. Looking a bit different didn't matter much in Gak, because so many different peoples fled there during the chaos, and after a few generations there were some odd combinations. So having this weird hair that is brown underneath and sort of golden on top wasn't too much different. Lots of people had skin like mine, browner than yours, but not as brown as the Liglim have, but even in Gak I was a freak nonetheless, and for the same reason you think you are. Magic. My brother and I could sense what each other was feeling, almost read each other's minds in a way. When we were really little, if one of us got cut, the other would get a red mark in the same area."
"That's what one of our nurses told us, anyhow," Isende said. "By the time I have really clear memories, that wasn't happening anymore, but there were times Tiniel fell down and I swore I could feel my own knees aching. If he was scared, I knew it. If he was unhappy, I wanted to cry."
Excerpted from Wolf's Blood by Jane Lindskold, Teresa Nielsen Hayden. Copyright © 2007 Jane Lindskold. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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