Of all my children, Soletus stands out the most. What became Soletus and I all stemmed from the way my father raised me. He determined I was too young for him to handle without his wife. So I was passed to my brother. He got the bright idea to teach my sister responsibility by making her my parent. She was practically a child herself and was grieving for our late mother. And you might think that arrangement should’ve worked in some way because she was sympatric to my own grief. However, I was a boy. I should be the man I wasn’t and not the baby I was. She closed me off. My father only stepped in to force me in the Brotherhood when he felt I was old enough. By that time, no one was my authority, especially him. So when Soletus was born, I promised him as long as he needed me, I would be there. I would never disown him. He would always be my son.
-Excerpt from Confessions of the Wolf by Oeric’Sheldmartin
Kiao finally understood why warders complained of body aches when they first started overnight training. She felt like she was glued to a saddle for days. She had been on the road one complete day and the evening before that. Each time she slept and was woken up by a father driven to find his son. She didn’t know how he could do it. She could barely keep her eyes open. Not only from how little she slept but also from daylight stabbing her eyes. The wolf in front of her walked at a dogged pace unbothered by much of anything in front of him.
Kiao rubbed a hand over her legs massaging what she could reach through her trousers. And since she was dressed like a young man, she didn’t have to worry about looking proper so much if they came across another traveler. The few they did pass, were staring at the traveler’s cowl she wore. She could hide herself as a woman, but not a chanter. The only way she could get away with it was wear her mute choker but she was afraid to take it on the road for fear of losing it.
Oeric agreed it better if she didn’t. A traveling chanter priest with a pet wolf would be ignored for the most part than a young woman alone and a pet wolf. He did try his best to look like a pet carrying her things. He even wore packs hanging at his sides. Problem was he acted the part too well. He had a swagger that shepherd’s didn’t like.
Most gave Oeric nasty looks as they moved their flocks out of the road. Kiao reassured them that he wasn’t going to do anything to their sheep or goats while he acted mute and watched their dogs. They would bark or try to sniff him and he answered with curling his lips and a deep chested growl. They would shrink back and curl their tails between their legs and scurry away from him. He repeated the action three times since they started. It worked until they came down from a hill and saw a large lumbering cart coming towards them.
Given that it was covered in canvas with ridiculous bright writing stretched along the side, it was a merchant’s cart carrying newly stocked supply of goods. And what better to protect it was two very large robust looking obsidian hounds flanking it. Kiao groaned and said to Oeric.
“First Warden, I think we should just pull over and let them pass,” she said.
All she got in return was his ears swiveling back in a sign that he heard her. He kept going as if he didn’t though.
“Maybe this isn’t going to end in a mess,” she muttered and squared her shoulders, keeping her gaze ahead and a friendly smile on her face. The dog however wasn’t that cordial and started rapidly barking and charged towards Oeric. The other one joined in but hung back. Soletus’s father trotted a bit closer to Kiao. Clearly, his intention was just to pass by with his head and tail high. However, the dog decided it wanted to be the dominate one and lunged for his throat. In one smooth graceful motion, Oeric sprung up and over the dog and twisted in the air so that he landed on his feet behind the dog facing it.
He looked sharply at the young man riding beside the older fellow driving. “Get ahold of your dog,” he snapped.
Not only were the two elves on the cart surprised but also the dogs. The one attacking became so perplexed it edged away and then closer sniffing him. It gave time for the youngest on the wagon to hope down and pull the dog back by his collar. Soletus father pressed on without a thanks.
“I’m sorry about that,” said Kiao as she road by and bowed to them. “Many blessings to you. May Dias protect you on the roads.”
She then spurred her horse forward and had it match his pace.
“First Warden, at this rate we are going to have a mob after us. Talking animals aren’t a common sight.”
“This part of the province is used to Brotherhood. Many common elves don’t use their consorts let alone the abilities given to them. However, it’s familiar enough,” he said.
Kiao had to take his word for it.
They went on again with a comfortable silence falling between them. The young woman decided to observe the countryside. If there was anything good about the trip, it was the fact she got to see rolling hills covered in pasture land. There were farm houses on distant and close knolls. And she never had seen so many sheep in her life. All clustered together with a shepherd trailing behind them.
“We’re going to stop and rest soon,” announced Oeric suddenly. “Go down the road until I meet you again. I’ll be right back,” and with that, he leapt into the grass on the side of the road and crossed into an unfenced field.
She was alone.
“Of course. I don’t need you here,” she said and then complained to her horse. “How is being a wolf supposed to be a good idea? He’s attracting more attention than if he was just a man.”
The horse twisted his ears towards her offering nothing. Kiao summoned Emmery to be extra eyes and another person to complain too.
“I would give anything to stay at an inn tonight. I’m so tired of the rocks,” she said to Emmery. “My back isn’t going to be able take this anymore. I mean, a short nap in the soft grass or on moss is fine. Not this sleeping a full night under the stars. How does Mien do this? Heck, how does anyone?”
Kiao sighed stopping herself. There was no need to complain. She was actually helping someone and getting to her bond partner. Then again, there just had to be an easier more comfortable way.
“Maybe tonight we can find a nice farmer who wouldn’t mind letting them sleep in a storage building or something. Well, if Oeric changes back. That clearly wasn’t going to happen though.”
And her presumption was reinforced when Oeric returned. In his jaws was a rabbit and he gestured for her to follow into a cluster of trees off the road. The grass had been cleared out and what remained was more hard ground and a recently used fire pit.
Oeric dropped the rabbit and licked his jaw. “Keep your guard up; travelers often share fires in this part of the province. Most of them are benign but they’ll be one out there with malicious intent and take advantage of lone girl.”
“I can’t say I look very girl like,” returned Kiao and dismounted her horse.
“You going to confuse people with you long hair into staring at you and figure it out.”
The cowl made her hot and she enjoyed the wind in her hair. “I’ll braid like Soletus and tuck it if it makes you feel better,” she said. “Still, I don’t look very feminine.”
He let out a snort and stated, “The wool you pulled over other’s eyes is getting rather thin.”
He then bowed forward in a stretch and then extended his hind legs before sliding down on his stomach and crossed his paws. Kiao frowned at the sight and tried to focus on setting up camp but there were things nagging her about his current state.
“Doesn’t being in that body affect your mind the longer you’re in it,” she asked.
Being able to borrow the body of one’s consort wasn’t common but not rare either. However, it came with a price. The line between elf and consort wasn’t thick. An elf could become animal like. If an elf was unstable, the line could be nonexistence. Oeric was a great example of that and had to wait for his mind to come back in not so far past.
“I’ve no reason to slip into Lykkon’s mind. That only happens when I feel threatened,” he reassured.
“So all those times you lost yourself, you were threatened,” she asked not hiding her doubt.
Even for a wolf, she could see that perceptive light in his gaze. “Does my being like this make you uncomfortable?”
She spun on her toes and confronted him with her bedroll in her arms. “Indeed it does. You’ve a history of being unruly. While I can handle Mien’s brand of unrestrained behavior, I doubt I can handle someone who walks around as a large powerful predator with lots of pointy teeth.”
Oeric let out a long yawn, showing all those teeth before sprawling on his side. “That shouldn’t be a problem. You’re a chanter and one who can force her voice easily. Soletus is able to throw me out of that state then you can.”
She planted her fists on her hips. “A pound of prevention is worth more than an ounce of cure!”
“Agreed but, haste is of the essence and my being like this is for what’s best.”
“But you’re relying on me to do something I’ve never done before,” she said hoping to force that point in his skull.
“You are very capable. One thing a first warden needs to do is assess his men’s skill sets. You are the best equipped person to deal with me. And don’t get me wrong, I don’t want expose you to that side of me, but you’ve a strong enough will to stop me.”
“Shouldn’t it matter that I’m uncomfortable with this arrangement?”
“Being so means you’re aware of the stakes. That means you will be alert. Besides, I’ve formed adequate strength and control for me to do this now.”
Kiao stared at him hard.
“I spent a good bit of my personal time off a couple years ago to practice. I would like to be able to fight both as wolf and elf again. You overcome, Sister. I figured the best way to help show my son something to be proud of, I can at least be as strong a person as he is.”
She was stunned at hearing that. “I’m surprised you’ve taken my words to heart.”
“I trust your wisdom,” he said.
“Odd thing to say from someone as old as you.”
“Old! You say that if I’m starting to silver. How old do you think I am?”
“You’re not that young either.”
He was at that indeterminate age elves got after 100. Mature looking but not quite middle-aged but certainly close to it. He was also mature enough to no take offense to her retort and chuckled at her. Something she was positive he didn’t do without being sardonic as well.
His bout of amusement didn’t last and he sat up becoming serious again. “Do you know how to skin?”
“Yes. Brother Oli would take me to the kitchens and have me dissect different animals before the staff cooked them. It was to teach me how to use a scalpel and get me used to dealing with flesh and blood.”
Oeric’s ears went askew and he looked disturbed.
“Sometimes I do have to cut to help people,” she said and went to work on with a knife that he gave her. He watched her work silently. When she was done, she though they had a fine specimen of a rabbit. However, the cooking process was more complicated than eating travel cakes.
She never cooked before in her entire life. Making the campfire was easy. Trying to make sure everything wasn’t burned and cooked thoroughly was a concept she didn’t understand. The entire time she was sure that Oeric was laughing at her from the way his tongue lolled out the side of his muzzle.
She managed to make a spit and roast the rabbit without it turning into charcoal. She didn’t know why she imagined as a wolf, Oeric would eat raw meat. It was good he didn’t but she wasn’t sure about him crunching on the softer bones. After he was done, he sprawled out again. Still not turning back.
“Don’t we need to set watch or something,” she said.
“I’ll watch for a little bit, don’t worry about it.”
It was hard for her not to worry about it from what he stated earlier. She kept worrying about it so much that she felt every hair on her arms. It felt like there were bugs on her. Eventually, her eyelids became too heavy for her restlessness to fight. She slept until she was greeted to morning by something cold press against her cheek. She swatted it way with her hand brushing against fur. Then felt something wet and warm swipe her hand and face. She woke up to a black nose in her face.
“Wake up, Sister,” was all Oeric told her. He was his stoic again not to mention in a hurry to leave.
Once again, he took his place silently in front of her. She was on high alert of any more dogs. Luckily there wasn’t, however, traffic increased on the road. They were joined by other riders. There was also a three parties on foot to town. Oeric deftly wove around them, pressing forwards until his hind end dropped to the ground and he landed on his side. A couple of people were around him stopped and looked over at him as he yelped. Kiao jumped from her saddle and rushed over.
“What’s wrong,” she said taking hold of him and felt rigid muscle under his fur.
“Get these packs off,” he rasped.
Kiao released the buckles of his strap in time for warm fur to be replaced with the cold cloth of a shirt. Elves who had paused to watch, jumped back and made warding signs with their hands. Oeric’s eyes were wide and animal like.
“What happened,” she said stroking his back too keep him focused. She didn’t want him to loose himself and attack someone.
“Just a spasm,” he told her through clenched teeth.
“You said you were well enough for this,” she exclaimed.
“I am. It’s the pace I sat.”
Kiao gave him an external scan, his face was flushed, the vein in his neck pumping blood meaning his heart rate was very rapid. Though, his heavy breathing was a sign of distress. However, each breath became longer and he stopped perspiring, with the glassy wild look receding. He shifted positions so that he sat on the ground with his legs stretched out in front of him.
“How far are we away from town,” she asked.
“Not that far. Should be there in a couple of miles,” he said and pointed down the road In the distance were two watch towers rising up and a wall stretching into the trees in the distance.
“Then, you’ll ride and I’ll walk,” she told him. “Maybe we can find a room at an inn. I’ll treat you there.”
“We don’t have a lot of time sister,” he said.
“Well, Dias will give us the time we need because you pushed yourself too far.”
He didn’t protest any further and stood slowly with all his weight on one side. He adjusted the stirrups and then settled on the saddle. Color didn’t return to his face and he returned to being mute. Kiao bet he woke up in pain. Kiao plodded on trying to walk as fast as she could. She wasn’t at all a warden and she was going to make herself tired. However, Oeric needed rest and they attracted too much attention. Some were now whispering. She waved to them as if nothing had happened and let the train of travelers go ahead.
“Were coming to the last point of civilization,” spoke Oeric. “We’ll gather a few supplies while we’re here.”
“Where are we?”
“Wateree, it’s a port town. Many people live along and some on the lake.”
Kiao looked behind her unsure she heard him correctly. “They live on water?”
He nodded his head. “The Lower Branch flows into a lake that we will be crossing by ferry.”
Kiao didn’t know what to expected when the crested the hill she saw something she wasn’t used too, the main streets was clustered. Not only with people on horses and carts but buildings squished all together along the street that snaked downwards. She could hear carts set their brakes to keep from going too fast down the incline with short rolling hills. At the very bottom of the town was the largest body of water that Kiao had ever seen. Vast blue water stretched out before them. The opposite bank was in view but far away.
“That’s Lake Warbler,” he told her.
There was an impressive amount of watercraft both big and small. It was as much as a crowded road as the streets they traveled. She sniffed the air. It smelled earthy there in the aquatic sense as well as there was the heavy aroma of food. Kiao could see street venders selling food all around as they got closer to the waters. There were fish delicacies all around that they couldn’t get in Grace’s Hope. Kiao couldn’t help but lick her lips.
“This all smells delicious,” she said.
“I know of a small place that’s much better than all these. We can go there after we find rooms,” said Oeric.
Kiao wanted to search the vender for some kind of trinket that she could buy for Mien. He was always getting things for her so it was fair that she find something for him. However, it was hard to glance at the shops when she had to navigate through the packed streets. There was just cart after cart jammed with goods and moving nowhere. Their drivers were frowning standing with their arms cross. Some of them met her gaze filled with distain. The atmosphere was tense and the people she heard speaking, sounded terse.
“What’s going on, everyone’s grumpy,” she said.
His gaze was ahead of her. “Over there,” he pointed.
In the center of town was jammed with a company of military topknots in gray and red uniforms. Around them was a line of merchants. It didn’t matter if they had a donkey with a small stash of pelts or a wagon full of crated goods drawn by two tall draft horses they were being searched.
Oeric spoke again. “They’ve stopped all trade from moving in a trading hub, wonderful. Finding a room is going to be difficult.”
They walked by the soldiers and Kiao could feel them staring. Oeric noticed them too.
“Keep going and ignore them. If we look at them too long, they’ll stop us, and I’m in no mood to deal with military self-importance right now,” he said.
Kiao did as she was told and she studied building signs and pointed out any inns she saw. The first one they stopped at had no rooms and was told to go to the Copper Kettle. When they arrived, Kiao didn’t like it. It was a tavern and it smelled like a brewery the moment they stepped in. However, the ale didn’t help when every table was full of irritated elves complaining. Their voices made her uncomfortable. It didn’t help that the moment they walked in, soldiers stared at them.
“Did they drop an entire unit here,” she whispered and they were greeted by a flustered looking elf.
“If you need a room, I’ve one, with a single bed,” he said before Oeric could ask. “Two golden leafs take it or leave it.”
Kiao glances around the dark and dusty inn. The inn was worth half that in silver for one room with a single bed. She took a step to walk way.
“We’ll take it,” said Oeric.
She whorled around and gaped at him as if he had lost his mind.
“Meals are extra,” said the innkeeper.
Oeric crossed his arms. “Now that’s gouging.”
“Military only pay quarter price. I gotta make up for the loss I’m taken feeding this bunch.”
“Fine, one night stay, we’ll be leaving to cross the river tomorrow.”
“Can’t. The ferry is closed by the power of the Seat. Don’t even know what’s going on. Stopped all trade and travelers. It won’t open till the day after tomorrow.”
Oeric sighed and reached for his purse. “Fine, two nights only, no meals, and a tub. How much is it?”
“Six silver leafs and quarter.”
Oeric winced and hesitated opening his coin purse in his hands.
“Take it or leave it.”
“I say leave it, “said Kiao.
The inn keeper looked at her. “Lad, there ain’t a room open and unless there a boarding house. But you’ve all travel up and down the Lower Branch stalled there are no other rooms.”
Oeric started to dig through his purse giving it a few good hefty shakes and paid him the coin. They were giving a room key, Oeric gathered they’re things and Kiao took their horse to the stable. Once again, she felt like she was being watched. She turned a full circle around her. There was no on in the streets as paying attention to her. She tossed up the hood of her cowl. She hurried back to the inn. When she entered the room, she went straight for the window to see the view.
The room was right above the entrance to the inn and had a clear view of the river. Oeric manifested beside her. He gave her enough personal room so he wasn’t standing on top of her. They watched the large town below them for a moment in silence together. She then heard him let out a sigh from his chest.
“It’ll take all day clearing all these people out when the ferry opens again,” he told her. Then left the window and went to the small square desk where he spread out their map. “If we can’t cross then, we need to figure out a place we can cross.”
She examined how he shifted weight entirely on his good hip.
“Are you still in any pain?”
He swayed his head. “No, but I’m plenty hungry. Let’s get our meal for today.”
“You should rest.”
“And I can’t rest on an empty belly,” he said opening the door for her.
Kiao followed, wondering where he was going to take her. She pulled up her cowl and used it as a shield when they went passed the soldiers. She didn’t understand why they were attracting attention.
The two of them went back towards the mass of people and then turned down a lane going away from all the craziness. They walked down a lane lined with greenery and the back of buildings. It opened up into a circle food stands. Oeric led her to place to the right where there was a woman with a waterfall of wavy black and a colorful bird sitting on her shoulders. Her skin was a warm umber covered in darker pigmented freckles from her face to her pointed elf ears with dark tip. It was a Kanu woman.
“Hello,” she greeted with a warm smile and gestured to the stools in front of her counter. “Sit, sit.”
Kiao always loved seeing the Kanu. They were a beautiful people in her eyes. Most though lived in the Shale, but a few would venture out wanting nothing to do with the rocky wasteland. They felt that their people had paid enough penitence for their transgression.
“Sheldmartin! It’s been a long time,” greeted the Kanu woman as they settle down on stools in front of her stand. “Where’s your band? I’ve enough for two hungry bands today. Rather they eat it than the top-knots.”
“I’m on a personal mission, Holly,” he said.
Kiao studied the bird in awe. It was nothing she had ever seen in her life. It was red and orange with a crest going down the length of it head and a tail that reminded her of a peacock’s. In the center of its forehead was a round golden spot. It was a consort. The creature stared at her through large blue eyes before it fluttered off of Holly’s shoulder to hers
“Ah, Pea has made a new friend,” she laughed.
“What type of bird is Pea supposed to be mirroring,” asked Kiao. “I’m Kiao, by the way.”
“A chanter,” said the woman beaming. “I’ll have lucky today. And Pea is something of an old bird called a phoenix. My gran used to tell me stories about them. She even had a painted carving one.”
“That’s very interesting.”
“Many Kanu today, we make our consorts mimic the creatures of the old country. But you didn’t come here to talk. You come here to eat. My daughters and I make two huge pots soup. We’ve river crab or snake fish.”
Kiao never had either.
“We’ll both get river crab and can I get extra dumplings in mine,” said Oeric.
“Of course,” said the kanu woman with a wide grin.
Oeric returned it with a slight one of his own. He got comfortable and made small talk with her. She talked about her daughters and he talked about Cordea, Fern, Soletus, and Saedee. Kiao listened to them until she was served one of the best dishes she ever eaten. It tasted earthy with a hint of a fish flavor and various spices. What brought the dish together were the round dumplings that had a hint of sweetness to them.
All in all, it was a warm and filling dinner in a nice pleasant corner of town. The crowd came in the circle of stands until after they finished eating. It of course was more soldiers. A group of them caught her attention as Oeric was paying Holly.
They scanned the area until the one in front spotted them. He tapped his fellow soldier in the chest who was looking the other direction. He pointed at them and motioned for the three other’s behind him to follow him. The fifth person with them wasn’t a soldier. He was a common elf wearing the nice clothes of someone who sat behind a desk.
Kiao reached for Oeric as he looked up for his purse and saw them. He let out a sigh, gave the woman two extra coins, and waited for them to be approached. Kiao noted they were all very armed with long swords and belt knives.
Oeric had his two short whip canes strapped at his side but he let his arms hang while the soldiers rested a hand on their hilts.
“I can’t say this is unexpected. Is there a problem,” he asked when they got close.
“Is that him,” one of the soldiers asked a man who was behind him.
“Yes, there is no denying, that’s the man I saw. Saw him with my own eyes turning from a wolf to an elf.”
The soldier stepped forward in front of Oeric and announced as loudly as he could, “By order of the Seat of Asteria, you are under arrest for the murder Nambra’Titmouse.”