“Wolf!” Aralorn exclaimed, surprise making her voice louder than she meant it to be.
echoed an archer on the walls, whose gaze was drawn by Aralorn’s unfortunate exclamation. The astonishment in his voice didn’t slow his speed in drawing his bow.
Lambshold had acquired its name from the fine sheep raised here, making wolves highly unpopular in her father’s keep.
Aralorn threw herself on top of him, keeping herself between him and the archer, knocking Wolf off his feet in the process.
“Aralorn!” called Falhart behind her. “Get out of the way.”
She envisioned the large knife her brother had tucked in his belt sheath.
“Hart, don’t let them . . .
—Damn it, Wolf, stop it, that hurt—don’t let them shoot him.”
“Hold your arrows! He’s my sister’s pet.” Falhart bellowed. In a much quieter voice, he added, “I think.”
“Do you hear that, Wolf?” said Aralorn, an involuntary grin pulling at the corners of her mouth. “You’re my pet. Now, don’t forget it.”
With a lithe twist, Wolf managed to get all four legs under him and threw her to one side, flat on her back. Placing one heavy paw on her shoulder to hold her in place, he began to industriously clean her face.
“All right, all right, I surrender—ish . . . Wolf, stop it.” She covered her face with her arms. Sometimes he took too much joy in fulfilling his role as a wolf.
Aralorn turned to look up at the woman who approached. Wolf stepped aside, letting Aralorn get to her feet to greet her father’s wife.
Irrenna was elegant more than beautiful, but it would take a keen eye to tell the difference. There was more gray in her hair than there had been when Aralorn left. If Irrenna wasn’t as tall as her children, she was still a full head taller than Aralorn. Her laughing blue eyes and glorious smile were dulled by grief, but her welcome was warm, and her arms closed tightly around Aralorn. “Welcome home, daughter. Peace be with you.”
“And you,” replied Aralorn, hugging her back. “I could wish it were happier news that brought me here.”
“As do I. Come up now. I ordered a bath to be prepared in your room. Hart, carry your sister’s bags.”
Futilely, Aralorn tried to keep her saddlebags on her shoulder, but Falhart twisted them out of her hands as he said in prissy tones, “A Lady never carries her own baggage.”
She rolled her eyes at him before starting up the stairs into the keep.
“Dogs stay out of the keep,” reminded Irrenna firmly when Wolf followed close on Aralorn’s heels.
“He’s not a dog, Irrenna,” replied Aralorn. “He’s a wolf. If he stays out, someone’s going to shoot him.”
Irrenna stopped and took a better look at the animal at Aralorn’s side. He gazed mutely back, wagging his tail gently and trying to look harmless. He didn’t quite make it in Aralorn’s estimation, but apparently Irrenna wasn’t so discerning because she hesitated.
“If you shut him out now, he’ll only find a way in later.” Aralorn let a note of apology creep into her voice.
Irrenna shook her head. “You get to explain to your brothers why your pet gets to come in while theirs have to stay in the kennels.”
Aralorn smiled. “I’ll tell them he eats people when I’m not around to stop him.”
Irrenna looked at Wolf, who tilted his head winsomely and wagged his tail. “You might have to come up with a better story than that,” Irrenna said.
Hart frowned; but then, her brother had seen Wolf when he wasn’t acting like a lapdog.
Having heard the acceptance in Irrenna’s voice, Wolf ignored Hart and leapt silently up the stairs to wait for them at the door to the keep.
Aralorn stepped into the great hall and closed her eyes, taking a deep breath. She could pick out the earthy smell impregnating the old stone walls that no amount of cleaning could eradicate entirely, wood smoke from the fires, rushes sweetened with dried herbs and flowers, and some ineffable smell that no place else had.
“Aralorn?” asked her brother softly.
She opened her eyes and smiled at him, shaking her head. “Sorry. I’m just a bit tired.”
Falhart frowned, but followed Irrenna through the main hall, leaving Aralorn to fall in behind.
The cream-colored stone walls were hung with tapestries to keep out the chill. Most of the hangings were generations old, but several new ones hung in prominent places. Someone, she noticed, had a fine hand at the loom—she wondered if it was one of her sisters.
She tried to ignore the red carnations strewn through the hall: spots of bright color like drops of fresh blood. Red and black ribbons and drapes were hung carefully from hooks set in the walls, silently reminding her of the reason she had returned to Lambshold. The joy of seeing Hart and Irrenna again faded.
This was not her home. Her big, laughing, cunning, larger-than-life father was dead, and she had no place here anymore. Wolf’s mouth closed gently around her palm. A gesture of affection on the part of the wolf, he said, when she asked him about it once. She closed her fingers on his lower jaw, comforted by the familiar pressure of his teeth on her hand.
The hall, like the courtyard, was subdued, with only a minimal number of servants scurrying about. On the far end of the room, the black curtains were drawn across the alcove where her father’s body would be lying. Wolf’s teeth briefly applied heavier pressure, and she relaxed her hand, realizing she’d tightened her grip too much.
At the bottom of the stairs, Irrenna stopped. “You go on up. I’ll let the rest of the family know that you’re here. Your old dresses are still in good condition, but if they don’t fit, send a maid to me, and I’ll see what can be done. Falhart, when you have taken Aralorn’s bags up, please attend me in the mourning room.”
“Of course, thank you.” Aralorn continued up the stairs as if she had never refused to wear the dresses fashion dictated a Rethian lady confine herself to—but she couldn’t resist adding dryly, “Close your mouth, Hart. You look like a fish out of water.”
He laughed and caught her easily, ruffling her hair as he passed. He drew his hand back quickly. “Ish, Aralorn, you need to wash your hair while you’re at it.”
“What?” she exclaimed, opening the door to her old room. “And kill off all the lice I’ve been growing for so long?”
Hart handed her bags to her with a grin. “Still smart-mouthed, I see.” When Aralorn tossed her bags into a heap on the floor, he added, “And tidy as well.”
She bowed, as if accepting his praise.
He laughed softly. “Irrenna will probably be sending something up for lunch, in case you don’t want to eat with the crowd that will be gathering shortly in the great hall. I’ll see that someone carries hot water up here as well.”
“Falhart,” said Aralorn, as he started to turn away. “Thank you.”
He grinned and flipped her a studied gesture of acknowledgment (general to sublieutenant or lower), then strode lightly down the hall.
Aralorn stepped into the room and, with a grand sweep of her arm, invited Wolf to follow. As she closed the door, she glanced around the bedchamber and saw that Falhart was closer to the mark than she’d expected. Her room wasn’t exactly as she’d left it—the coverlet was drawn neatly across the bed, and the hearth rug was new—but it was obvious that it had been left largely as it had been the last time she’d slept here. Given the size of Lambshold and the number of people in her family, it was quite a statement.
“So,” commented the distinctive gravel-on-velvet voice that was Wolf’s legacy from the night he destroyed a tower of the ae’Magi’s keep, “tell me. Why haven’t you come here in ten years?”
Aralorn turned to find that Wolf had assumed his human shape. He was taller than average, though not as tall as Falhart. There was some of the wolf’s leanness to his natural form, but his identity was more apparent in the balanced power of his movements. He was dressed in black silk and linen, a color he affected because it was one his father had not worn. His yellow eyes were a startling contrast to the silver player’s mask he wore over his scarred face.
It wasn’t actually a player’s mask, of course: No acting troupe would have used a material as costly as silver. The finely wrought lips on its exaggerated, elegant features were curled into a grimace of rage. She frowned; the mask was a bad sign.
Aralorn wasn’t certain if he’d chosen the mask out of irony or if there was a deeper meaning behind it, and she hadn’t thought it important enough to ask. He used the mask to hide the scars he’d gotten when he’d damaged his voice—and to put a barrier between himself and the real world.
It was her vexation with his mask rather than a reluctance to answer his question that prompted her to ignore his query and ask one of her own. “Why did you leave me again?”
She knew why; she just wondered if he did. Ever since he’d first come to stay with her, even back when she’d thought he really was a wolf, whenever they grew too close, he would leave. Sometimes it was for a day or two, sometimes for a month or a season. But this time it had hurt more, because she thought they had worked past all of that—until she awoke alone one morning in the bed she’d shared with him.
She might not need him to tell her why he’d left, but she did intend to discuss it with him. She needed to tell him, if he didn’t already know, that the change in their relationship meant that some other things would also have to change. No more disappearing without a word. Anger would distract her from the bleak knowledge that her father was gone, so she waited for Wolf to explain himself.
she would yell at him.
He caught up her bags in a graceful motion and took them to the wardrobe without speaking. He closed the door, and, with his back to her, said softly, “I—”
He was interrupted by a brisk knock at the door.
“Later,” he said, then with a subtle flare of shape and color, he flowed into his lupine form. She thought he sounded relieved.
Aralorn opened the door to four sturdy men bringing in steaming buckets of water and a woman bearing a tray laden with food.
Watching them pour water into her old copper tub in the corner of the room, she rethought the wisdom of pushing Wolf. He was a secretive person, and she didn’t want to push him away or make him feel that there was a price to pay for staying. She didn’t want to lose him just because she needed to yell at someone before she collapsed in a puddle of grief. She stuffed both anger and grief down to pull out later. She wasn’t entirely successful, judging by the lump in the pit of her stomach—but the tub offered an opportunity to find another way to relieve her emotions.
When the heavy screen had been placed in front of the tub to reduce the cold drafts, she dismissed the servants.
She stepped behind the screen and began stripping rapidly out of her travel-stained clothing. Perhaps it would be best if she answered his question; it would give him a graceful way out of answering hers. Now, what had he asked?
“It seemed best,” she said with playful obscurity, stepping into the tub.
“What seemed best?” From the sound of his voice, Wolf had moved from where she’d last seen him, curled before the fire with his eyes closed—a pose that seemed to reassure the servants, who had eyed him uneasily.
“That I leave here and not come back.”
“Best for whom?”
He is closer now,
she thought, smiling to herself.
Sinking farther down in the luxuriously large bathing tub, she rested her head on the wide rim. Should she give him the short answer or the long one? She laughed soundlessly, then schooled her voice to a bland tone. “Let me tell you a story.”
“Of course,” he replied dryly.
This time Aralorn laughed aloud, a great deal of her usual equanimity restored by the hot water and the macabre voice of her love. She chose to forget, if only for a while, the reason that she was here, in her old bedchamber. “Once,” she began in her best storyteller manner, “and not so long ago, there was a lord’s son who, for all that he was still but a young man, had already won a reputation for unusual cunning in war. Additional notoriety came to him from a source no one had reckoned upon.”
At last, with a bare touch of amusement, he said, “Which was?”
“’Twas a night in midwinter with a full moon in the air when a servant heard a thunderous knocking on the keep door. A man clothed in a close-woven wool cloak stood before him, carrying a covered basket. ‘Take this to the lord’s son,’ he said, thrusting the basket at the servant. As the servant closed his hand on the handle, the man in the cloak stepped away from the door and leapt into the air, shaping himself into a hawk.” She splashed her toes, enjoying the feeling of the water washing away dried sweat. Bathing in a tub wasn’t quite as good as the Sianim bath-houses, but it was a lot more private. “The servant took it to the lord’s son and described the unusual messenger who had delivered it. The young man removed the cover from the basket, revealing a girl-child with the peculiar gray-green eyes common to the race of shapeshifters. Next to her, tucked between a blanket and the rough weave of the basket, was a note. He read it, then threw it into the fire.
“Taking the baby into his own hands, he held her up until she was at a height with him. ‘This,’ he announced, ‘is my daughter.’
“He introduced the baby to her three-year-old brother and her grandfather. Her grandfather was not pleased to find out his son had been meeting a woman in the woods; but then, her grandfather was not best pleased with anything and, as it happened, died of apoplexy when he was served watered wine at a neighbor’s banquet only a few months later, and so had little influence in his granddaughter’s life.
“The young man, now lord, decided he needed a wife to care for his children and to bear heirs for the estate. Presently, he found one, several years younger than himself. She looked at the trembling waifs and promptly took them under her wing. The children were delighted, and so was the lord—so much so that in due time there were twelve additional siblings to play with.”