Excerpt: Highland Wolves

Wolf Given

Ulrich’s nose twitched.

Something wasn’t right about the forest, but he could not place his nose upon whatever was off. There were no strange smells; everything was what he would expect of a forest. Trees, water, animals, there were some sweet berry patches not too far off. A deer had died and was rotting several yards away. Smoke, ever so faintly.

Ah. That was it. He could smell smoke, but no humans. Usually where there was smoke, it was humans. Why could he not smell them? His nose twitched again as he tried to pick out any s, hardly aware he was doing so.

The wind picked up, disheveling his neatly trimmed black hair, playing with his dark gray cape. Autumn leaves rustled beneath his boots as he finally walked on, falling around him as the breeze knocked the few remaining leaves from their branches.

There was a distinct chill in the air, but he liked the bite. He was from a mountain pack, where heavy snow and bitter cold was a way of life. These lowlanders only thought they knew what the words snow and cold meant; they would not last a day in his homelands.

He felt a twist in his gut at the thought of home. Everyone had told him the homesickness would ease, but it hadn’t. Four and a half years in the lowlands, and all he wanted was to return home. Unconsciously, he reached up to touch his collar again.

When he realized what he was doing, he dropped his hand with a sigh and made himself focus on his work.

A member of the King’s Special Guard had died here, and it was his duty to figure out why and how. It was mostly a formality, really. He had been told to try, but not too hard, for the dead soldier in question was no great loss. That he was dead was more of a relief, really. His family was pitching a fit though, and it never paid to ignore the fits of the wealthy and powerful.

Money and a desire to repay troublesome debts had put the dead soldier in the Special Guard, and a the need to see those debts settled had caused those waiting for repayment to send Ulrich out to find the missing soldier.

Though his instinct had been to refuse and foist the assignment on one of the men under his command, Ulrich had not been able to let go of his own curiosity. They had known of the bastard’s death only because someone had returned the soldier’s wolf skin and collar to his family.

He had never known anyone in the lowlands to hold to such an old-fashioned tradition as returning the skin of a dead wolf to its pack. Usually, they just returned the collar. It was far easier and less barbaric, according to the soft and lazy folk of the lowlands.

His nose twitched as he caught a hint of…something for the span of a heartbeat. So quickly gone again, he half-thought he’d imagined it. Six weeks of hard travel and exhausting investigation had led him this far, to the dark, black woods where folks had last seen ‘the unpleasant black wolf’ headed.

Ulrich sighed, and wondered irritably why the bastard could not have simply gotten himself killed by a bear or some such. No, he had to get himself killed by someone who seemed to have honor, which meant he’d probably died in a fight or doing something he damn well knew he shouldn’t have been doing.

Realizing he was stroking his collar again, Ulrich snatched his hand away and glowered at his surroundings. He could smell the faintest hints of the bastard, so he had definitely been here…but Ulrich still could not smell any humans, for all the scent of smoke was getting stronger.

Sighing, he continued walking, enjoying the cold and the forest itself even if it wasn’t quite the same as the forest of his homeland. Four and a half more months, he reminded himself, and he could return home. Then he could resume his studies, maybe finally start looking into the matter of a mate. He’d slogged through four and a half years of duty to his King, he could make it a few more months.

Walking on, he kept alert for any sign that he was not simply wasting his time here—or the slightest indication that he had tried hard enough, could call it a wash and return to the city. So far, he could see no sign of either. Damn it.

Then the sound of childish laughter caught his ears. He froze, wondering if it was simply wishful thinking, but then it came again.

Following the sound as best he could in the forest, he abruptly found himself on a well-worn footpath. Taking it, he continued to follow the sound of laughter, and as he drew ever closer to it, he began to hear voices as well. There were three in total—the laughing child, an old woman, and a man of modest years.

A few minutes later, the path dipped down a sharp hill, which in turn spilled into a small valley. At the center of it was a tidy little cottage. He could smell the smoke coming from the chimney, the wildflowers sprinkled through the lush grass, the brook running near the house…but not the people.

They saw him, and the laughter stopped.

Ulrich drew to a halt as the old woman and little girl suddenly fled into the house. The man, who seemed to be right around his own twenty-five years, retrieved a bow and arrow he’d left near the front of the cottage. He nocked an arrow and stood waiting.

Horribly confused, for he was no threat and had not thought he was giving an impression of threat, Ulrich slowed his steps and drew cautiously forward. “I am sorry if I have caused some offense,” he said as he drew close enough to speak without shouting. “I did not intend such; I am merely searching for something. Please, there is no reason to be alarmed. I am of the King’s—”

“Yes, I know,” the man replied, not lowering his bow. “You wear the same damn uniform.”

Ulrich would have responded to that, but he was too jarred for a moment even to think. The man’s accent was pure highland. Thick and rolling, a hint of husky melody. Beautiful. He’d not heard another speak in the sounds of his home for months, not since the others had either gone home or elsewhere to serve out the remainder of their duty. Few highlanders bestirred themselves to do their duty to the King so deep into the lowlands, and he was the only one who had elected to serve it at the castle proper.

The man was not a wolf, however. He did not wear a collar, and he did not smell li…

He realized with a jolt he still could not smell any of the humans at all.

In the next moment, he finally saw why—around the man’s neck was a silver chain, from which hung a talisman. He would know that sort of talisman anywhere, for they often were used to prey upon his kind. It was why, despite their usefulness for many things, the talisman was called a Wolfsbane Charm. No one and nothing, not even the great wolves, could smell any person or thing to which the talisman was attached.

Only a very talented mage could make them, however.

Like falling dominos, another realization fell in his mind. “You’re a wild mage.”

The man tensed, but did not quite let fly the arrow he still held nocked.

Eagerness caused Ulrich to move forward despite the danger. “You’re from the highlands,” he said, breaking into a smile, feeling the strangeness of an expression he had not felt like using in a long time.

“Back off, soldier of the King,” the man snarled. “Being from the mountains won’t keep me from killing you.”

Reality returned like a slap to the face, and his momentary joy went out like a snuffed candle. He backed up again. “My apologies,” he said, frowning again. “Might I ask why you’re being so hostile? I promise you, I intend no harm. I’m of the King’s Special Guard. My honor is my life.”

The man let out a sharp bark of laughter. “Just like the other one? I know enough about men in uniforms to know not a one of you has honor – even a highlander. Or maybe especially a highlander. Has the Pack Schwarzenberg gotten so soft and pathetic they would dance to the King’s tune?

Ulrich snarled in immediate rage, that his pack would be so unjustly maligned. He lunged forward to meet the insult as he should—and howled in pain as he met with a barrier he had neither smelled nor sensed.

He sat up slowly, gasping in pain, vision blurry for a few moments. “Damn it,” he said. “That was uncalled for. What have I done to give the indication I would hurt you?”

“Didn’t you just try to hurt me?” The man asked coolly.

“You insulted my pack,” Ulrich snarled. “I have done nothing to you, save draw close to ask for assistance. You accuse me of lacking honor, but clearly you possess none yourself. I am sorry that I attempted to ask for assistance, and will trouble you no further.”

Turning away, he slowly limped his way back up the hill. He stumbled twice, not certain he would regain his feet the second time. He did, however, and stubbornly did not look back to see what the three humans were up to below.

Let them shoot him in the back if they were so inclined; maybe that was what had become of the poor bastard whose skin had been returned to the castle.

Ignoring the hurt that had come from being so callously treated by someone who should have called him brother—the man had even known his pack by his collar—he focused on overcoming the physical pain of meeting a magic ward at full force, slowly dragging himself to where he felt safe enough to camp for the night.

Then he finally allowed himself to pass out.