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Shady Stoat

Joined: 02 Oct 2005
Posts: 2950
Location: England

Posted: Sun Nov 06, 2005 12:44 am    Post subject: Shadows of the Mind - Ch.1-4  

Shadows of the Mind
By Shady Stoat

Chapter One

Every community holds its little secrets – its own private lies. The Town of Great Lake, however, wore its deception proudly. A myriad stars shone their reflection into the ‘Great Lake’ that the original settlers had built around. Maybe it had been great once; now it was little more than a slow-moving pond – a holiday retreat for the waters of the fast-moving river that fed into and out of it.

The rest of the town also failed to live up to its grandiose title, for the main part. Wooden shacks littered the circumference of the waterway. Cows and sheep grazed and drank, grazed and drank their lives away. Once a week, the traders came into town, bringing bustle and excitement with them, only to disappear at sunset, taking it all away for six more days.

Further away from the waterway, though, were the places where the wealthier citizens lived. Homes built to more than one storey, with more than just nails and wood. From Mayor to midwife, beast master to banker, the people of import lived away from the smells of cow dung and rotting fish and midden piles.

Keli, youngest daughter of the herbalist and the schoolteacher, resided in one of the grandest houses. Its gardens were full of lavender, sage, thyme, chamomile; bitter tangs of aloe wafted through the air, warring for dominance with the sweet wild mint. Even poppies lifted their heads as the seasons permitted. Inside the walls, her parents housed not only the rest of her siblings, but a surrogate family of servants and casual labourers. Many people came and went from the house as the years went by. Not her, though. She was given all she could want, allowed to do anything she wished – as long as she did not wish to leave the grounds of the house.

Right now, she was sleeping in her attic room. Her dreams were not those of a sleepy backwater. They were savage and wild, invading her head with the brightness of blood, the scent of death. Monstrous black nightmares played and replayed, and each time they were the same. Each time she was helpless to stop them, helpless to change the outcome. All she could do was watch and suffer.

The moon shone in through the window, lighting up a beam diagonally across her bed and the edge of her cheek. The covers were tangled and her brow was furrowed with crease-lines of a deep and unchecked anxiety. She whimpered softly in her sleep, mouth working as if it wanted to find voice to shout for help. Even subconsciously, though, she held back from crying out. Some things became habit, even in dreams.

The nightmares held her under for nearly another hour. Only the moonlight shining into her eyes allowed her to escape from the inky depths of her terror. She woke, gasping and swathed in sweat. There was the usual moment of disorientation, as her mind tried frantically to work out where the dream ended and the reality began.

“I’m here,” she murmured, gripping the bedclothes as if to reassure herself. “This is real.”

It was too early to get up, but Keli could not bear the idea of going back to sleep again. The dreams were coming every night now. New or old, they were always horrible – and they were always true. Even though she couldn’t prove it, the knowledge ran deep inside her, way beyond the rational part of her mind. It was all true and there was nothing she could do about it.


The first vision. Keli remembered it all too clearly.

She was five. Back then she had shared a room with her big brother, Jakob (who, at the ripe old age of seven, thought that Keli was nothing more than a baby). She had woken up screaming, wetting the bed with terror. She hadn’t shut up, even when Jak had shaken her hard. He got scared enough to run to their parents. Not that he needed to; the entire household was crowded around her bed within two minutes.

“The lady in the hole,” she had sobbed, hysterically. “The lady in the hole. In the dark… she’s all alone. Please! It’s so cold. It’s so cold!”

Her father had dosed her with poppy juice and extract of maudlim root. She hadn’t been able to stop trembling even as the sedative threatened to take her back down again. At five, how could she describe the things that terrified her most? The feeling of small, damp creatures squirming inside her body; the wet smell of decay; the knowledge of being trapped, living, inside a prison of death?

It was just a bad dream, they said. Mother came and read stories to Keli as she lay in bed the following night, until she drifted off again.

The nightmare had come back. Five days of screaming in the night, of fighting against the next period of sleep. Still they haunted her, until her father took her to Uncle Esau’s farm ‘for a change of scenery’.

It had taken half an hour for her to find the covered well. Driven by an impulse she couldn’t understand, she had removed the stones on the well-cover, one by one, panting and fever-eyed. The slab itself had been too heavy for her, but she had tried until she bled. Finally, her father found her, still pushing at the well-cover, crying about ‘the lady in the hole.’

The mysterious disappearance of Uncle Esau’s first wife had been solved on that day. It was the same day that people had started to whisper and stare as she passed them. “Devil-child,” they called her, and “Evil eye.” When she had predicted the sheep-plague, two years later, it had only increased the villagers’ hostility towards her. The gypsy caravan, which had travelled through and kidnapped three of the townsfolk’s’ children, made muttering turn to shouting and threats of violence.


Since then, two things had happened. The first was that Keli was no longer allowed to go out into the town. The second was that she stopped telling people about her dreams.

It was so unfair, though! She just saw the disasters, she didn’t cause them! How could people think that a plague was her fault? How could they blame it on her that someone had killed their wife and buried her in the swampy mud of a disused well? If she told people about her visions, then they called her the devil. If she didn’t tell them… and the vision came true anyway… then she just felt like one.

Keli sighed. It still wasn’t time to get up, but what else was there to do? She lit a candle and started to get dressed. As she turned, she caught a glimpse of her reflection in the mirror. In the wavering candle-light, she looked even paler than usual. Dark smudges under her eyes didn’t make her look any better. She was small and thin – the runt of the family – and, at fifteen, it looked unlikely that she would ever be taller than five foot nothing. She had mid-brown hair which lay depressingly straight across her shoulders, a nose that crooked slightly to the left and a mouth that seemed far too big to fit on such a narrow face. The eyes, at least, were an interesting shade of green with gold flecks, but that added to the ‘evil eye’ gossip, so it was nothing to be proud of after all. Sighing, she turned away.

It was going to be a busy day around the house today. Some dignitary or other from the city had landed in Great Lake, and all the more influential townspeople were expected to offer their hospitality and get acquainted. Today was her family’s turn. It promised to be a supreme bore, but it had its advantages. The busier she was, the less she could think about…

With a shake of her head, she dismissed the thought and headed down to the kitchens.


One disadvantage of never leaving the house was that you were always available for those dirty little chores that no-one else was inclined to do. All day long, Keli pounded dough, scrubbed doorsteps, sewed patches, shovelled hay, picked herbs, filled tubs with steaming water for baths and conveyed messages from one member of the household to another.

Still, it wasn’t enough. Her mind kept straying back to the most recent vision.

Each night it is the same, and yet different. There is always the cage, swinging from a hook, high in the ceiling. The aroma of incense burns her nostrils, almost but not quite hiding the more primitive stench beneath. There is no telling how big the room was, in the dim candlelight, but it feels huge. Huge and cold.

From the shadows, it begins. A low, repetitive chant; dozens of voices, all intoning words that she strains, and fails, to make sense of. A double drum beat accompanies the voices, the horrible punctuation of a thudding heart. Then, a knife at the edges of the darkness, cutting the rope which holds the cage.

That much of the vision never varies. Keli watches from above, an invisible spirit, unseen and impotent. She sees the captive within the cage. Sometimes it screams, other times it cringes silently with its back pressed against the bars, or makes the cage rock with its blows of defiance. Sometimes it is male, sometimes female, sometimes old, sometimes a mere child.

Tonight it is a male, fourteen years old, perhaps fifteen. His hair is the colour of desert sand and bruises discolour the freckly tan of his face. He crawls from one barred wall to the next, crying out for help to someone who will never come. Keli does nothing. She cannot help, she can only watch in the knowledge that this face, along with all the others, will be seared into her memory for ever. The faces change but the agony goes on.

There is always the sickening thud as the rope breaks and the cage hits the ground. There is no attempt by whoever wields the knife to slow the descent, and the captive lands, dazed and bruised. He is given no chance to recover. Figures in cold, white robes come forth. They open the cage door and the victim is dragged out by many hands. Throughout it all, the drum increases the tempo, thud-thud thud-thud thud-thud. It is the sound of panic, the sound of no escape. Every night Keli hears it and thinks that tonight, maybe tonight, it just might drive her crazy!

The boy kicks and screams, but his voice is hoarse and broken by now. The hooded figures bring forth ropes and tie him to a stone table. She has seen this makeshift altar so often now that the position of every rune is carved, not only into the stone, but into her memory. One is etched more often than all the others. At first glance it appears confusing; eye above flames. After many repetitions of this vision, though, Keli understands it completely. It says: ‘We find you and YOU WILL BURN!’

The knives come out from the recesses of each cloak. The boy’s eyes are wide open in terror. Only one knife makes the incision, though. With a single sweep, it lays open a wide gash across his stomach. The surrounding figures chant, softly, almost reverentially. Each of their knives is dipped into the boy’s blood as he struggles against the ropes. They draw the knives back until each blade is close to one hooded face and then, as one, the tormentors spit on the blades and let them clatter to the floor.

The boy flails on the altar, heaving his torso into an inverted ‘U’ in his efforts to somehow escape his fate. The ropes hold as they always do. The stone slab is getting slippery with the boy’s blood and still the cloaked onlookers stand, watching.

Only when the boy has exhausted himself does the lead figure reach into his robes again. He pulls out a stone, about the size of a fist. It is opaque and coloured a dull red with black veins running through it. In a single, fluid movement, his hand descends and slips the stone into the rip in the boy’s belly.

Who would have thought that a broken voice could let forth such a howl? Keli struggles not to watch, but she has to. The stone glows through the boy’s skin. Blackened flesh begins to appear around the lips of the wound and the smell of scorching fills the air. He writhes, beyond intelligence, beyond anything but the feel of his guts being eaten away by hot fire. Blood wells from the wounds on his wrists and ankles and still the glow spreads. To chest, to groin, a blackened hole shows tattered entrails and, in the heart of it all, the gem pulsing. The drums, still beating even now, are a tattoo of sound, each beat beginning before the echoes of the last have died away.

Past the hips it burns. Up to the shoulders. His screams are more like gurgles now, but still he communicates his agony. The noise cuts off abruptly as his trachea sears shut. The end is very near now and still the minions watch. Who are these people that can cause such suffering and do nothing, even to shorten it?

Finally, blessedly, the boy’s eyes glaze, either in death or unconsciousness. He is free of the torment, in a way that Keli cannot be. She watches as the gem burns burns burns its way through dead tissue. Finally, there is nothing left but ash and the gem. It glows so brightly now that the area around the altar is lit with a dark red aura. The leader of the cloaked ones picks up the gem and holds it reverentially aloft…

…the dream begins again.


By the time evening came around, Keli was physically and mentally exhausted. It didn’t help that the rest of her family kept stealing sidelong glances at her, their silent message all too clear: ‘Don’t say anything, don’t do anything, don’t even breathe if you can help it!’

She was a freak. She knew it, they knew it. Not that it helped being reminded of the fact every other minute!

The night was about to get worse. After hours of preparation, their visitors arrived – not just the official and his wife, as had been expected, but his complete entourage of servants, relatives and other hangers-on. Within minutes, everyone was bustling around, adding ingredients to the stock, finding more table spaces and stabling more horses than they comfortably had room for.

Keli glanced at the newcomer as she hastened through the entrance hall. He was tall, bull-chested and stocky, making him appear almost a giant. Sleek black hair was pulled into an unfashionably tight braid; that, and his bushy eyebrows that met in the middle, gave the impression of someone who was used to getting his own way.

As Keli headed up the stairs, the man confirmed her opinion. He turned to her father and spoke.

“Have someone take my bags to my room, man,” he grumbled in a deep baritone.

“Your… your room?” asked the herbalist, nonplussed.

“My wife and I will be staying here overnight.” The man spoke as if deliberately issuing a challenge. “If your servants cannot see to our needs, mine will have to stay here too. Otherwise, I shall send them back to your Town’s fine inn for the night.”

He spoke the word ‘fine’ with a hint of a sneer. Keli’s father drew himself upright, as if to protest, but his wife emerged from the kitchen.

“We are honoured, Lord,” she said, laying a hand on her husband’s shoulder, as if in warning.

Keli watched from the stairs, trying to make some sense of this, but her mother’s voice cut through her reverie.

“Keli. Bring in Lord Garth’s belongings. Take them to the Gable room and light the fire there. Go on, now.”

‘Anything to get me out of the way,’ she thought, as she trudged off. If she hadn’t been so wrapped up in self-pity, she might have noticed the intense look that Lord Garth gave her.

The baggage was easy enough to locate. Three heavy cases were fastened to the roof of the Lord’s carriage. Each one weighed enough to warrant its own journey to the guest room. By the time Keli had completed her task, her arms felt as if they were halfway out of their sockets. Then she turned her attention to lighting the hearth fire and airing the bed linen.

It was done far too soon. She slumped into an armchair, dreading the moment when she would have to go downstairs and join in. It was always this way. Sometimes she felt like it would have been better if they just kept her locked in the attic room and admitted to no-one that she was alive. Anything was better than the tense watchfulness of a family with secrets to hide.

Ah well, there was no putting it off. She rose and turned toward the doorway, only to pause again.

Unless… well, it was only good manners to unpack for their guests, wasn’t it? They would be tired and worse the wear for drink by the time they were ready to see their room. She would simply be doing them a kindness.

Pleased by that logic, Keli smiled for the first time that day. It was simple work to fold and hang the clothes, admiring their finery as she went. For a girl who was used to wearing the hand-me-downs of five elder siblings, each garment produced a mixture of admiration and envy. Not that the clothes were to her taste – someone seemed to have a decided penchant for hues of black, grey and bottle-green. Lord Garth obviously didn’t get to many parties, she thought with a grin.

She undid the clasps of the second case and froze. Lying on top of the many perfumes and a collection of the frilliest ladies underwear she had ever seen was a book. It leered at her, daring her to touch it.

Keli felt the blood drain from her face. She felt faint and nauseous. For a moment, she wondered if this was all part of the dream; if she would wake up at any moment. Moments passed, though, and the book was still there.

Its title was simple: Holy Book of Itharien.

The symbol directly underneath it was that of an eye above flames.

… you will burn …

It was real. It was happening.

… you will burn …

People were dying. This book was killing them. These people… these guests in her house… they were all part of the nightmare.

… you will burn …

“Keli! Supper is ready!”

Keli jumped as if she had been bitten. Her mother’s voice was harsh and anxious. It came from another reality entirely. A reality that she could no longer depend on.

Nevertheless, what else could she do but obey?

Somehow she forced herself to move. Her legs felt like they belonged to someone else and she had to consciously remind herself to breathe. Confusion lay in every direction. If only she could have some peace – some time to decide what was real, and what she could do about it!

The moment that she walked into the dining hall, she knew she would be allowed no such luxury. Lord Garth’s gaze was locked on to her in a distinctly calculating way. His wife, a doughy-skinned women of generous proportions, looked at her with obvious contempt.

Keli’s stomach was knotted with tension, but all she could think to do was sit down and act as if she hadn’t noticed anything amiss.

Mealtimes at the table were usually a noisy affair. People grabbed food quickly to get their share, they bickered, joked and gossiped between mouthfuls. Tonight, the tension was a tangible force, like pressure before a storm. Nobody made a move to eat or converse as Keli took the only remaining seat, directly across the table from Lord Garth.

“They call you ‘Evil Eye’, girl,” he said, as if commenting on the weather.

Keli stared at him, stupidly.

“I asked you a question!”

She flinched as he barked the words at her. Even then, some rebellious part of her brain was thinking, ‘no you didn’t, you made a statement’, but she knew better than to say it out loud. Instead, she tried:

“Not the people who know me well, Lord.”

The man snorted, cramming a roll of bread into his mouth as if scared it would otherwise be taken from him.

“And who knows you well, eh?” He sprayed crumbs across the table as he talked. “Nobody. But they shall know you, Miss. They shall come to know you very well indeed.”

Her mother’s voice cut in, sharp and shrill. “What is that supposed to mean?”

‘She’s frightened,” thought Keli in astonishment. ‘They’re all frightened of this man. Why?”

Lord Garth turned the ponderous force of his glare upon Keli’s mother.

“Madam. You know my task in the city. As Lord Justice, I intend to carry out my duties most thoroughly. All citizens will go through Trial, and Trial shall show us the truth. Only the guilty need fear.”

He turned back to his original prey. From the cold satisfaction of his sneer, Keli held no illusions as to what the outcome of this ‘Trial’ would mean for her.


… you will burn …

She had to get out of here!


The meal dragged on for twenty minutes more before Keli could find an excuse to get away. Lord Garth never let up in that time; not once. He wrung the conversation out of her, like moisture from wet laundry. Always seeking, always taunting, telling her of the Trial in terms that left her filled with dread and yet still ignorant.

Finally, her father sent her to the wine cellar to refresh the supplies. It was an excuse to get her out of there and she knew it. Still, she was so grateful she could have cried.

Getting up quickly, she left the room and crossed the hall towards the cellar door. At the last minute, she ducked towards the stairs and ran lightly up them. There was maybe a quarter of an hour before she was missed. Keli knew she would have to act quickly. Who knew when, or even if, the next opportunity would come to escape?

She had no backpack, but Liam, her eldest brother, did. It took her no time at all to find and remove it from his room. This was no time to shrink from such a little thing as theft.

She scanned her attic room, moving quickly to take her few valuables. Other than a change of clothes, there really was very little. A skinning knife which she had won from Jakob in a shooting match. Her precious bow and quiver, which she had used well enough to win the knife. A flatcake, compliments of her greedy sister’s food cache. A flint, some candles, a sachet of lavender, another of tea. Her mother’s stash of emergency silver coins. Not much to base a new life on, but it was all she had.

Even those hasty preparations had taken longer than she had hoped. There was no more time, she had to go now! It was too risky to go out of the front door, past the dining hall. Anyone could see her. No, she could climb out through the window and slip away unnoticed.

Being small and wiry sometimes had its advantages. The ivy held as she climbed down it and the mortar beneath barely flaked. Keli jumped the last few feet and landed lightly.

Now that she was out of the house, she faced the next problem. Which way should she run? She could disappear in Shift City, but it lay twenty miles to the North. The villages to the South were much closer, but who could hide in a hamlet full of strangers? Of course, if she followed the road in either direction, she was going to make an easy target for anyone who chose to follow. Maybe it would be better to head cross-country for a while, and take the risk of getting lost.

As she stood there, trying to decide, a shuffling figure rounded the corner of the house. She froze, hardly daring to breathe as it shambled towards her – and past, heading for the stables.

Keli had to bite her lip to keep from screaming. As the boy (one of Lord Garth’s servants, by the look of him) had passed her, she had caught a glimpse of his face. A tanned face bedecked with freckles and framed by hair the colour of bleached sand.

‘It can’t be,” she thought, disbelievingly. ‘He’s dead – I saw him die in my dream!’

She watched his retreating back in disbelief. The boy was halfway to the stable before the thought occurred to her: If he wasn’t dead yet, then she had to be looking at the future. He would be caged… tied… cut… burned… and he knew nothing about it.

Indecision warred in her. Should she just run… or could she afford to give a warning to the servant of her enemy?

Chapter Two

Keli wavered, undecided. The servant was heading into the distance.

She had to warn him! He’d never believe her - he’d think she was mad. She had to get out of here, go to the City, find help from there, maybe. Yes, that’s what she’d do.

She turned North, took a couple of steps… and then, without quite knowing why, she ran after the boy.

He must have heard her coming, but he didn’t turn around until she touched his shoulder.

There was something wrong with him. Even at first glance, Keli could tell that much. The boy’s gaze drifted straight past her, fixing on nothing. He looked as though he was answering a call from very far away.

“Listen,” Keli shook the boy, urgently. “Those people – your masters – they’re going to kill you. Do you understand?”

For a moment, she thought he must be deaf. Then his eyes flickered briefly over her face and his features settled into a puzzled frown.

Keli was starting to get worried now, but she gave it one more try.

“You can run away. You can come with me. Do you understand? If you stay here, they’ll kill you. I’ve seen it.”

Now she seemed to have the boy’s attention. He stared at her, his mouth beginning to work.

“Seen… it…?” he whispered.

“Yes. Yes, I’ve seen it. Now come on!”

It was as if she had released a demon. He wrenched himself free of her grip, pushing her violently back into the dirt.

“Not dead!” he screamed. “Not dead! NOT DEAD NOT DEAD!”

The corners of the boy’s mouth were foaming. He crouched, snarling at her, like a man-turned-beast.

“Shh!” Keli didn’t know whether to be more terrified of him, or the noise that he was making. “Please, hush, I’m sorry…”

It was already too late. Footsteps pounded from the house, the stable, the gardens. In a matter of moments, she was surrounded. The Lord Justice broke through to the front of the ranks.

He sneered down at her, noting the backpack on her shoulders. “Ah. The Evil Eye. She runs, and so proves her guilt. At least we shall be spared the formality of a trial this way.”

He turned to a couple of his servants. “Take her and chain her. In the morning, she will be purified.”

Keli heard her mother sobbing as she was dragged away.


It was hopeless. The cellar was pitch dark, and even if Keli could have pierced the gloom, there was no escape. She sat, chained, in stone cellars that had no windows and only one door. The walls were solid stone and very little heat leaked down under the house. It was so cold that Keli wondered if she might not freeze to death before the morning.

Would that be any worse than burning?

The commotion had continued for hours after her capture. She had heard her parents, on the other side of the door. They had been protesting, demanding to see her, talk to her. The fact that they were trying to negotiate obviously meant that the cellar keys were no longer in their possession. This Lord Justice seemed to have virtually unlimited power, now that he was here.

There had been shouting, entreaties, threats. Then the sounds of a scuffle, and her father roaring in pain.

After that, it had gone quiet.

Keli cautiously touched her left shoulder. Pain bloomed. It was swollen, wrenched when they had dragged her here. Given a couple of days, it would probably subside – but then, she didn’t have a couple of days, did she?

Dread knotted her stomach again, and she tried to think of something else. Here in the dark, though, her thoughts returned continually to the question:

‘What are they going to do to me?’

Would it be public, or would they put her in a cage and take her to – to that place? Maybe it would be both; a show to satisfy the crowd, before they carted her off to the stone slab. Would she have to wait long? None of the faces in her dreams had looked starving. What did that prove, though? Just that the prisoners had been fed regularly. If they put her in a different prison, was there any chance she could escape? If so, where could she go? Why were they doing this? What was going to happen to the crazy boy now? Was it her fault? If she had left, would his fate have been any better – any different? Would they now end up in the same place, and would she be forced to witness her vision becoming a reality?

Her heart was thudding so hard that it hurt. There were no answers, only more questions. To circle them around and around in her head would only drive her crazy. She wanted to go to sleep, but that was no escape. The nightmares would only follow her – only this time, it might be her own face that she saw!

She shuddered, a motion that turned into a fit of shivering. It was so cold in here. How long until morning now? It must have been hours since her capture. Everyone would be in bed, if not asleep.

Tears trickled down her face. “Please god, get me out of here,” she whispered, eyes raised to the darkness.

A key turned in the lock. Keli froze, feeling an almost superstitious awe. Then dread returned. Was it morning already?

Pale grey light crept in as the door opened. There was a figure standing outlined on the top step. For a moment, Keli could only blink blindly. Then, as she made out the shape in the doorway, she knew immediately who it was.

The crazy boy had come for her.

He crept down the stairs, hunched as if he expected to be beaten at any moment. He refused eye contact with her. Instead, he bent to the locks on her chains and clicked them open. Keli opened her mouth to speak, but the boy thrust a small hard object into one of her hands, then clenched it so hard that she gasped in pain.

“Go now,” he said, staring intensely at the floor. “Not dead.”

Keli couldn’t help but groan as she got back on her feet. Everything ached and her muscles had stiffened with the cold.

“Where’s my backpack?” she whispered. “I need my weapons. I need supplies.”

The boy pointed at her hand. “Go. Find. Go now.”

“It’s not enough. Where did they put my backpack. Please!”

“Not dead. Go.” As Keli hesitated, the boy’s mouth began to curl and twitch again.

Desperate as she was, Keli knew there was nothing to be gained here.

“All right, go now,” she said, soothingly as she hobbled to the stairs as fast as she could.

All hope of finding her equipment died as soon as she entered the main body of the house again. The windows showed that it was still dark outside, but it could only be an hour until the roosters announced the dawn. Then the servants would rise and she would be recaptured. For that matter, some of them could be around already. She would have to go carefully.

Her family home had never seemed as big. Each corner, each doorway was a new source of anxiety for her. Every time the candles flickered, she had to force herself not to scream. She headed towards the back door, only to have to alter her plans as the sounds of the early risers drifted from the kitchen. Ducking from shadow to shadow, she made her way along the main corridor and into the entrance hall. About twenty feet stood between her and the front door.

One step. Another. Pause to listen. Edge closer now… closer… one more step…

At last, there was one small piece of luck. A thick coat of fur and hide hung by the door. At a guess, Keli would say it belonged to the wife of the chief justice. It was a hideous purple colour, but at least it would keep her warm enough. Now all she had to do was worry about hunger, thirst and predators in the wild.

There was a creak from the floorboards upstairs. Keli tensed. It could just have been the house settling, or somebody could be getting up.

She had to go. Right now. As it was, there was barely enough time for her to cover her tracks before pursuit began.

Abandoning caution, she ran lightly to the door, grabbed the coat and lifted the latch as quietly as she could. The door opened with a cold rush of air. Keli stepped outside and carefully closed it behind her.

There was only one chance now. She had to run North, then get off the path as quickly as possible. Maybe she could make it to the City in two or three days.

Grimly ignoring the slimness of her chances, she began to jog stiffly out of Great Lake…


It was noon, or thereabouts. A pale Autumn warmth spread over the land. The sun was out, but it failed to warm, playing hide-and-seek behind grey clouds. It was going to rain soon. Keli could feel it.

She had been off the path for hours now. As she had left Great Lake, she had felt strangely euphoric. For better or for worse, she was free now; and there was nothing like escaping certain death to lift the spirits. The river had been running alongside the City road, so she had risked a five minute delay to wash the grime from her face and drink her fill. Water had never tasted so good.

Since then, though, the euphoria had evaporated. She had left the road and headed into farmland. At this time of year, though, the harvest had already been gathered and the fields were nothing more than grass or bare stubble. Add to that the fact that she was wearing a purple coat and she had a long way to go before she ceased to become obvious.

The ground was muddy from recent downpours. It made walking difficult. One thing was becoming apparent - a childhood of staying at home had left her ill-prepared for a cross-country hike. Soon, all she could think about was how much her legs ached and how her shoulder throbbed. It was too soon to rest, though. Much too soon.

She thrust her left hand into the pocket of the coat, hoping to relieve the tension in her injured shoulder. There was a small, bumpy object in there. It was only then that Keli remembered about the mad boy’s mysterious gift.

Wondering, she pulled it out of her pocket and looked at it for the first time.

She recognised it immediately. It was a portrait talisman. When she had been much younger, there had been a stall of such things at the market every week. They were minor ensorcellments, usually sold alongside such things as baby charms and love potions. All quite popular a decade ago, but a lot less common these days. As far as she knew, that stallholder no longer traded at Great Lake.

Portrait talismans were quite simple. A scene was set up, and a carver hollowed the main lines of it out of a circle of wood. Then a little hedge-witchery was applied and the buyer could take it home and hang it like a wind chime. When the sunlight shone directly through the carving, the rays illuminated and magnified the scene on a wall behind it in a glorious plethora of colours. They were supposed to be more accurate than hiring an artist to do the work, and not much more expensive.

How had crazy boy got hold of one? And why had it been so important to give it to her?

She tried holding it up to the sunlight, but the talisman had nothing to reflect against. Sighing, she decided that it would have to wait. There were more important things to do now – like staying alive.

She trudged on. Evening came – and with it, a new problem. The land was turning from farmstead into wetland. Marshy ponds lay in her way, forcing her to detour around them repeatedly. The last of the sun’s rays shone orange against the glittering water. There were the sounds of birds calling their evening songs, and a heron took flight as she approached. It would have been quite beautiful if she had been in an explorer’s frame of mind.

As it was, she was fighting exhaustion and her boots were soaked through. Small insects were flying around her like a plague, using her as their next meal; and, talking of meals, she was hungry! She hadn’t eaten more than a handful of berries in twenty four hours. There was no telling when she might rest… or eat… or even drink again. The swampy waters had a layer of scum around their edges which certainly didn’t look appetising. Then there was the added fact that, apart from the birds and the insects, there didn’t appear to be any wildlife around or in the ponds. If she was literally dying from thirst, then she would drink here. For now, though, it seemed like a poor way to prolong her escape attempt.

Hungry. Thirsty. Tired. Sore. Wet. As the last of the light faded, this became Keli’s litany of pain. Finally, it became too dark to stumble on. Safe or not, she was finished for the night. She found a small, rocky patch where the ground rose above the marsh and attempted to curl into a comfortable position. Despite her exhaustion, she found it difficult to get to sleep. The night crawlers and the insects bothered her. Her feet were freezing and sodden. Her stomach rumbled and her mouth was dry. Eventually, though, she dozed, fitfully.

The sun was up before she opened her eyes again. For once, she had no memory of her dreams. It was hard to be thankful, though, as her thirst had increased tenfold in the night. It drove the other concerns to one side. She forced herself to get up, through the barrage of aches and pains. It was time to make a concerted effort and find clean water.

She limped forward a few steps, then stopped, staring. In the muddy ground before her, there were prints. They were deep, they looked recent and they were made by paws. Whatever had made them was big, and it seemed to have tracked its way in a circle around her sleeping place.

Keli shivered apprehensively. They didn’t look like the tracks of a normal beast. If she had to venture a guess… she’d say that a Were had passed by her in the night. It hadn’t killed her - must have already eaten - but that didn’t mean she was safe. It might come back at any time.

‘How much worse is this going to get?’ she asked herself, bleakly. There was no answer.

By mid-morning, Keli had turned roughly North again. She was circling the edges of the wetlands, but she didn’t dare stray any further East. At this point, Shift City might be her only chance of surviving this. Her throat was raw and she could taste copper in the back of it. The journey was no longer about finding food or drink, or comfort or safety. It was merely about putting one foot in front of the other and trying not to fall over.

Then she heard it, a little way off. A trickling sound rose above the buzzing of the insects.

Water! It had to be water. Clear, sparkling, drinkable, heavenly water! She turned and began to run, so hastily that she tripped into the dirt and had to crawl/clamber her way upright again. She was filthy, her hair was caked with mud and her coat was ruined, but she didn’t care. In a few steps, she would be able to quench the fire in her parched throat.

The ground rose in a gentle but steady slope. In the distance, at the top of the hill, she could see a line of trees. Less than twenty meters away from where she stood, however, was the source of her desire. A natural spring, bubbling from the hillside. It ran only a short distance before disappearing into the boggy ground below, but a short distance was more than enough.

Keli staggered forward, panting with anticipation. She was barely a meter away when something landed by her feet. She looked down with glazed eyes. It took her a moment to register what the item was. A dagger, with a strangely serrated blade.

Keli stared blankly around. She couldn’t see anything but countryside. Where had the knife come from?

At this point, she hardly cared. Her body was screaming for water. She took a step forward… and heard a growl.

“This is our place now,” rumbled a low voice. “You’re not welcome here. Go.”

Keli followed the direction of the voice with her eyes. Hard as she stared, there appeared to be nothing there. From the way the hairs on the back of her neck were rising, however, she had a feeling that she was outnumbered.

This was bad…

Chapter Three:

Keli froze. Would the creature (or creatures) really kill her? Just for taking a drink? Was there any chance that they would understand if she explained? She was so thirsty. She had to try!

She took a single step forward, in the direction of the voice.

“Please,” she pleaded, in a voice that was little more than a cracked whisper. “Please. I only want a drink. Just a drink. Then I’ll go. Please!”

“You have no right!” the voice snarled. “You banished us to the wilds. Well, here we are, in the lands that we have claimed by right of force, and we owe you NOTHING!”

The last word was spoken with such a roar that Keli jumped backwards, stumbling and falling to the ground. Her heart tightened with fear as another voice spoke from just behind her.

“Let her drink, Malkai. Look at her, she’s only a cub.”

“Aye, and if we allow her to grow up, what will she turn into then, Renau? Another stinking ape, bearing arms and hunting us down!”

Keli’s head was spinning. She knew she ought to get up, but somehow it felt like too great an effort. Her head hung low as the voices continued to argue around her.

“This cub has done no harm to you. To any of you! Would you have us become nothing more than apes ourselves? Child-killers and betrayers and spreaders of venom? Is that how low we have sunk?”

Malkai’s voice rose to a roar. “We are at war and I am your leader! Obey me in this!”

A third voice broke into the argument. It was lighter and less rough, but it lacked the warmth of Renau’s timbre and the authority of Malkai’s.

“A truly great leader will hear every voice before he acts. Hear mine now.”

“Speak, then,” growled Malkai.

“Both of you are correct. Although this ape-child has done us no harm, we are at war. Even in war, though, trade is possible. The child wants to drink and rest. We want… a way in.”

Silence followed that remark. Keli barely noticed. All she could think about was the stream, and how wet the water looked.

“A way in,” repeated the leader. “It would still be a risk, and yet… Very well. Renau – you seem so fond of the cub. She is in your charge, for now. I have other matters to attend.”

There was the sound of running. Keli felt a breeze on either side of her as invisible forms flew past her. Four, or maybe five of them. A few moments later, a wooden bowl, slopped full of water, was thrust through the lank curtains of her hair.

“Drink this,” ordered Renau’s voice. “Slowly.”

Keli tried to obey, but once the delicious liquid was soaking her mouth, she couldn’t help herself. Gulp after gulp of icy water ran down her throat, making her feel as giddy as if she were drinking pure rum. A moment later, she moaned as her stomach began to cramp.

“I told you. Slowly.”

Keli looked up… and promptly dropped the rest of the water in her lap. She had known almost beyond doubt that she was talking to Weres. Yet to see one appear from nothing, less than a foot away, was more than unnerving.

The creature half-knelt, half crouched before her. Keli saw a lanky and powerful form, with visible ropes of musculature threaded along its body. Well-spaced pads and thick claw-nails made its feet look like a cross between lupine and human. As her eyes travelled up, she saw that storm-grey fur grew from mid-thigh to the hip-bones. Its torso was covered by a tunic of bound leather, stained and scratched as if it had been worn for a long time. The tunic ended at the shoulders, displaying another network of rippling muscles and shoulder fur. There was no mistaking the hands for human. Although there were five digits, they were more like claws than fingers. Long, sharp claws that made Keli shiver to look at them.

The face was, curiously, not as wolfen as she would have expected. Although its ears were pointed and covered in fur, its eyes were a deep and very human shade of brown. There was also something about the delicate tracery of fur down its cheeks that made Keli think this wolf was female, although she couldn’t have said why.

The facial bone structure was peculiar, but it looked more like one of the primitive cave-dwellers from the land of bedtime stories than the face of a wolf. Its jawline was pushed out, accented, and the nose sloped flatly into it, while the eyes were recessed under heavy brows. The teeth, however, were too large and too sharp to be anything like a human’s.

Keli had heard of them, of course. Everyone had. This was the first time, though, that she had been face to face with one. She could smell the old-blood scent of predator on the thing that faced her, and it left her paralysed.

“Are you hungry?” The beast tilted her head as she asked the question.

Keli tried to focus on the question, but all of her energy seemed to have been spent. The cramps had left her nauseous and her head was spinning. Sitting on the ground, in a patch of water and mud, she was shivering from something much more than just the cold. Her breath shuddered as she tried to get air into her lungs. There were tears running down her face, from a maelstrom of emotions that were too huge to fit into her head.

“Are you all right, little one?” Renau’s voice was full of concern, and for some reason, this made Keli cry harder than ever. Then, in the midst of it all, the rain that had been threatening since yesterday, fell. It splashed down in great, heavy droplets, soaking Keli in seconds.

‘Water!’ she thought, hysterically, as her sobs turned to cackles. ‘All the water I can drink!’

She couldn’t breathe. She merely rolled helplessly on the hillside, clutching her stomach. Tears squirted from her eyes, joining with the rest of the water that she’d spilled.

“Come,” came the rumble of Renau’s voice. “You need shelter – and sleep.”

The werewolf half-carried, half-dragged her away from the mud of the hillside and the grey rains continued to pour.


Keli opened her eyes. The nightmares had come again, leaving her fuzz-brained and disoriented. She wasn’t in her bed and this was not her room. Where…?

Oh. Now she remembered. She had no home any more, and this was where the werewolves had taken her.

She looked around. Either night-time was rolling in fast, or the storm had sucked the majority of the light from the sky. She was in an enclosed area, maybe eight feet by five. Branches were twined into a makeshift roof above her. The walls appeared to have been improvised from the crook of a fallen tree, hollowed out by a combination of rot and lightning damage. Rain dripped into the shelter and ran in tiny rivulets on either side of her. She was lying on a dry pile of bracken, with what looked like the hide of a bear covering her. There was a smell of leaf-rot and… hot meat!

Suddenly, her surroundings ceased to matter. The potential dangers ceased to matter. Her nose was beckoning her on and her stomach was screaming at her to follow. She disentangled herself from the rough bedding and crawled towards the shelter’s opening.

Even the pelting rain didn’t deter her. The delicious aroma was coming from a similar shelter, across the way. She held her arms above her head and staggered forth, shielding herself.

Nevertheless, Keli was soaked by the time she ducked into the second hut. It was much larger than the first and a stone-rimmed fire was burning in the centre of it. Above the fire, there was a spit, roasting a portion of what smelled like lamb. A wooden pallet held other cuts of the sheep, fire-blackened on the outside, pink and bloody at the core. Four of the wolves sat around the flames, regarding her with unfathomable eyes. She thought one of them might be Renau, but there was no way of telling for sure.

Again, necessity drove her to a bravery she would never otherwise have contemplated. She stepped fully into the stuffy heat of the shelter and crouched down by the fire.

“I’m hungry,” she said, in as small a voice as she could manage.

The darkest of the creatures growled, but nodded to another, smaller wolf. This one reached over and plucked a joint from the pallet. He lobbed it to Keli, who caught the greasy meat and bit into it eagerly.

“Renau,” grumbled the dark wolf, and Keli recognised the voice of Malkai, the leader. “She has trespassed enough. Take her back. Lay out our terms.”

Without a word, Renau rose and took Keli by the arm. She tried not to flinch as the creature touched her.

‘This one is on my side,’ she thought, trying to eat and keep up with the wolf. ‘She won’t hurt me.’

The thought gave her no comfort. From what she knew about any of the Weres, they were violent, bestial creatures; a danger to livestock and to anyone else who got in their way. Their dealings with magic only enhanced their ability – and their will - to destroy. She only had to take a look at Malkai and the way he acted, to see that he would have been just as happy to see her dead. She was only alive because… because…

Why was she still alive? Somebody had said something about a trade, hadn’t they? Keli wished she could remember – it was all so fuzzy!

Renau gave her a gentle push through the doorway to her original shelter. She stumbled, and sat back down on the bear-hide, conscious again of her dripping clothes and greasy fingers.

“You are rested?” asked the wolf. “You are well?”

“I’m… is there anything else to drink?” stammered Keli.

The Were sloped out silently, returning less than a minute later with another bowl of water. Keli took it gratefully and began to sip.

“Malkai will not let you stay here.”

Keli simply nodded, wiping her mouth.

“If you choose not to bargain with us, even now, you will probably be allowed to leave,” continued Renau, crouching beside her. “I do not think our leader will do you harm, for all his bitter speeches.”

Keli couldn’t stop herself. “What bargain? I can’t bargain – I have nothing! What do you want from me?”

Renau held up a long, clawed finger. Keli forced herself to stop and listen.

“We wish to enter the city. You can help us to do that.”

“You mean Shift City? That’s impossible!”

“Is it?”

“You’re… you’re not… well… human.”

Renau inclined her head. “You think a great City holds nothing but humans? You think that the apes alone hold the keys to civilisation? When Malkai talks of us being driven out, where do you think we were driven from, little cub?”

Keli’s eyes widened. “You lived in the city? How?”

“We have no time for that,” growled Renau, impatiently. “We, and many others, lived in Shift City, alongside the humans. They threw us from our dens and forced us into the wilds. Nor were we the only ones. Any being who does not match species with your own is no longer welcome there. So be it. When the apes start pounding their chests and calling for war, it is best to leave them to their killing.”

“Then why do you want to go back?”

“Not all of us,” answered the wolf. “Just one. Our young look almost like you, unless they are forced to open their mouths to speak. Cloaks can hide the differences in our bodies. Hoods can hide our ears. There are things we cannot hide. Our teeth. Our way of speaking. They mark us out as different.”

She continued. “The city limits are guarded against our sorcery, and sentries man every entry point. We need a human who can answer for us. Travel to the city with Shakal, get her through the gates and we will consider it a bargain well made.”

“What’s going to happen if I get her inside?” asked Keli, nervously.

“Malkai must decide whether to reveal that information to you. I cannot. However, if you choose to help us, we can give you provisions for your travel. Food, water, maybe a travelling cloak and a weapon. Other trappings, such as we have. You will leave in the morning, once Shakal has prepared for her journey. If you refuse, you must leave now, and travel far enough by nightfall that you no longer encroach on our territory. Malkai will not be gentle if you linger.”

Keli looked out into the pouring rain. She had maybe three hours left before the light gave up for good. It was enough to cover some distance, even if she had to squelch non-stop through muddy ground. If she decided to leave, she would be no worse off than she had been this morning – but no better off, either. Was it better to strike a blind bargain with the werewolves and travel on in the morning, well-fed and refreshed? Could she afford to trust them?

She really didn’t know…
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Shady Stoat

Joined: 02 Oct 2005
Posts: 2950
Location: England

Posted: Sun Nov 06, 2005 2:11 pm    Post subject:  

Chapter Four:

The werewolf waited.

“I… I’ll try,” said Keli, at last.

Renau nodded her head, and rose to leave.

“But…” stammered Keli. Renau turned to look back at her. “But what if I can’t do it? What if there’s no way in?”

The wolf considered the pale girl for a moment.

“There will be a way in. It simply remains to be seen whether you and Shakal can find it.”

A moment later, she was gone.

Keli stared blankly outside at the pouring rain. Even now, she didn’t know if she’d done the right thing. These creatures were strangers to her. How could she know their motivations? How could she be sure that what they asked of her was even possible?

What choice did she have?

She huddled miserably into the damp leather of her hideous purple coat. The wolves had sounded so serious, talking of death and war and banishment. What did they want in Shift City? Could it be something they had left behind? Did they want to pass information, or use their magic to lay waste to the city? If she helped them in, would she be responsible for what happened afterward?

Malkai would never tell her why Shakal was going back. He’d kill her first; and if she had said ‘no’, he would probably have killed her as well. Even if he hadn’t, she wouldn’t have been able to survive for long, without any belongings or money. Her own people had taken everything away from her – and all she’d been able to salvage was one horrible overcoat… and a portrait talisman.

She felt in her pocket again. It was still there. Drawing it out, she looked at the trinket. She thought of the boy who had pressed it into her hand, and of the dream she had tried to warn him about.

Keli shook her head, suddenly angry. Useless thing! She threw it out of the shelter and into the muddy ground outside. It lay there, barely visible in the rain.

She wriggled under the bear-hide, flopping onto her side and trying to relax. It was no good. She felt wide awake, pumped up with anxiety and undirected bitterness. Her body, still hungry and cold, was not about to rest again. Her boots were soaked through and, whereas before she had been too tired to notice, now she could think of little else.

Sighing heavily, she turned again. Before she could settle, though, someone appeared in the entrance to the shelter.

Even in the storm-laden light, it was impossible to mistake this wolf for any of the other that she’d seen. It was much smaller in comparison – maybe only a couple of inches taller than Keli herself. Its fur was a very pale grey, and its bone structure was much less pronounced. The ears, the claws, the human/wolf feet all proclaimed it to be a Were, but there was no telltale fur running across the cheekbones.

Keli knew who it was at once. Shakal.

Her first reaction was resentment. Couldn’t they leave her alone, even for one night? Before she had done more than open her mouth, however, she spied the tray of food that the young wolf held.

“They said to bring you this,” said the wolf, searching Keli’s face with her eyes. “Meat. Drink. Something to warm you.”

As Keli watched, the wolf crouched and offered her the plate of steaming meat. Unsure of what was being offered, the girl took the largest cut of lamb that she could, and juggled the hot joint between her fingers as it cooled. She was somewhat relieved to see that Shakal simply placed the rest of the tray beside her.

The Were then poured a clear liquid from a leather-bound bottle into one of the wooden bowls. It looked like water, but Keli could tell, from the smell of it, that it was some sort of spirit. She looked at it doubtfully, not having ever developed a taste for strong alcohol.

“You’re wet,” said Shakal. “Drink it. Then you can change into some dry clothes.”

“B-but I haven’t…”

“I will take your garments to the fire to dry. We have things for you to wear in the meantime.” The wolf’s voice was unfathomable, neither friendly nor antagonistic.

Keli hesitated. The alcohol could be a lure. Maybe it was poisoned, or maybe they were hoping that she would drink too much and…

…and what? She was already at their mercy. She had nothing to steal, nothing that they could possibly consider worth such subtle subterfuges. Realising she was acting ridiculously, she picked up the glass and took a large gulp. A moment later, she was coughing and spluttering. Her throat burned and her eyes watered.

“Slowly,” said Shakal, sounding amused now. “It is meant to warm you, not leave you unfit for travelling tomorrow. I will go and get you something to wear.”

She stood up, fluidly, heading out into the rain again.

Keli wiped her eyes and took a couple of deep, wheezing breaths. The liquor, she was sure, was stronger than anything that her father had kept. Still, there was a pleasant feeling of heat, spreading through her chest and stomach. She took another, smaller sip, then applied herself to gnawing on the next piece of meat.

By the time Shakal came back, she was comfortably full and feeling mellow. The wolf stood patiently, waiting for Keli’s clothes. Feeling more than a little self-conscious, Keli huddled under the bear-skin as she wrestled off her boots, socks, coat and tunic. Then, more reluctantly still, she passed over her trousers and her blouse.

The Were seemed not to notice Keli’s hesitation. She merely handed over a bundle of clothes in return. A linen shirt and a pair of leggings, both much too big and, by the look of them, built around werewolf proportions. A fur-lined cloak in dark green, with a thick, deep hood. Finally, a pair of overlarge moccasins, made from rabbit fur.

As Keli was squirming awkwardly into the replacement clothing, Shakal held a small item out to her.

“Is this yours?” asked the wolf.

She looked. It was the portrait talisman, stained with mud.

Keli nodded, reluctantly.

“You dropped it. Who are they?”

“Who are who?” Keli frowned.

“The people in the picture. Who are they?”

“I don’t know. It was a… somebody gave it to me,” stammered the girl. “I don’t even know what it shows.”

Shakal looked quizzically at her. Then, without another word, two long claws held the talisman aloft. The wolf raised her other hand and caressed the wood softly. A glow lit the lines in the wood, soft at first but growing stronger as the seconds passed.

Keli stared, agog, as faint lines of colour began to wash against the twined-branch ceiling. She began to make out three distinct shapes which became clearer as she watched. The images were broken by the gaps in the branches, but it soon became obvious what she was looking at.

A woman, maybe thirty years old. Pretty, with a smiling face. On each side of her, enclosed by a hug, was a little boy. A boy with a freckled face, pale sandy hair and a cockeyed grin. Two boys, mirror images.


…not dead…

…Go. Find. Not dead…

Keli felt sick. She’d warned the wrong one – and he’d already known everything that she had told him. He’d been telling her to save his brother. Little had he known that she would be so hard pressed just to save herself!

She held her hand out for the talisman, feeling close to tears again. Right now, everything seemed to be swinging her from one emotional extreme to the other. Perhaps in the morning, things would become easier.

“I’d like to get some sleep now,” she said in an uneven voice.

Shakal gave her one last inscrutable look.

“As you wish.” She took Keli’s clothes, leaving the tray of meat and drink behind, and left.

Keli lay down and, trying not to think at all, eventually drifted into sleep.


Tonight the dream is different.

Keli stands in the doorway of a golden room. The air is peaceful and still, but lit with ethereal beams of sunlight, streaking down from slats in the roof. Before her feet is a mosaic floor with black and gold tiles, slightly sunken where a path has been worn into them. Silver cat statues, with gems of jade for eyes, stand like guardians all around the hall. Three doors, all thick studded wood, lead out of the hall in various directions.

There is an ascent of five broad steps at the far end of the room. A large chair, carved exquisitely into the shape of a cat, makes a magnificent centrepiece to the raised dais. An obscure figure lounges gracefully on the seat.

In her dream, Keli stares, straining to make out the identity of the figure on the throne. Try as she might, she can only see blurs and shadows. A suggestion of a presence, nothing more. She starts to draw closer, fascinated beyond reason by this stranger. Her feet tread the well-worn path through the black and gold tiles.

She is barely halfway to the figure when the doors crash open behind her. Turning, she sees dark-armoured troops invading the golden hall. Rank upon rank, they arrive, toppling the cat statues, shouting commands, drawing their swords and snarling like…

… like apes.

Keli is shoved and buffeted. She drags herself, like a shipwreck survivor, to the safer shores at the edge of the room. The shadowy figure on the chair makes no movement, but others pile in from the three doorways. Some she can see clearly, others are shrouded like the figure on the throne.

They all hold weapons. Keli, no fighter herself, can tell at a glance that these defenders are not warriors. The soldiers penetrate their tissue-like defences, cutting them down where they stand.

Blood pools everywhere. The statues lie horizontally, soaking in red. The dark liquid seeps between the tiles, lending a macabre counterpoint to the gold and the black. Everywhere Keli looks, she sees the wounded and the dying and those for whom it is already too late.

She looks up at the throne, dimly amazed to find the figure still seated. As she watches, it rises from the chair, turns toward her and beckons. Then it begins to walk to the exit.

Keli tries to follow, but she is slipping, slipping in the blood. She falls, seemingly forever, and still the figure retreats from her…


“Wake up. You must get ready to go.”

Keli opened her eyes, trying to distinguish between dream and reality. Renau was shaking her awake, and it was barely dawn. She was lying in a sweat-damp pile of bracken and, suddenly, she felt too enclosed.

“All right,” she said, hiding her anxiety behind sharpness. “I’m awake. Where are my clothes?”

Renau pointed. At the foot of the bear-skin were all the garments she had given up the night before.

“Get dressed. Come to the fire if you want to eat. The others are out hunting.”

Keli watched Renau as she slipped out. The sky outside was dull grey and orange, but at least it seemed to have stopped raining. She went through the process of putting her smoke-scented clothes back on. Everything was warm and completely dry. For a moment, she hesitated over the coat she had stolen. Then she laid it back down and donned the cloak that Shakal had given her. Hopefully, the wolves wouldn’t mind, and it was far more suited to travel than the coat had been.

Her outfit was not the only thing that the Were had left her. She now had a knife and a belt; a pack containing smoked pork and two full waterskins; a belt pouch, containing a sharpening stone, a flint and a tinderbox, and a second pouch with twelve gold coins and a scattering of silver.

Keli’s eyes widened as she beheld the money. This was very good pay for getting one wolf into a city. Maybe she should have been more suspicious. Was it possible that this was too easy?

No. Better not to start on that circle of doubt again. She had thrown in her lot with the wolves, now she had to see it through. Squeezing her final boot on, she made her way over to the campfire and breakfast.


Renau had been true to her word. The only wolves near the fire were herself and Shakal. Shakal was dressed in a grey hooded cloak, similar to her own, and simple cotton travelling clothes. Wrapped and hooded, she would probably pass for human – as long as nobody looked too closely at the pair of them. Keli could taste the anxiety in the back of her throat.

She sat down awkwardly by the fire. The Weres watched in silence as she ate. It was like being stalked by predators and it made her nervous. She jammed the meat into her mouth as fast as she could and washed it down with water.

The moment that she had finished, the two werewolves had risen.

“Good luck,” was all that Renau had said. Shakal had touched brows with her briefly. Then she had simply turned and wandered down the slope. After a moment or two, Keli had followed her.

They strode on across the muddy land without speaking. The farmlands and the swamp seemed mostly behind them now. Instead there was the gentle rise and fall of the more hilly country, closer to the city. Sparse woodland came and went, with brown and yellow leaves beginning to fall. Winter was not yet here, but Summer was dead and gone.

Keli’s toes were tender; not blistered yet, but rubbed red from unaccustomed walking. She hoped it wasn’t far to the city, but she had little idea by now. Shakal would know, but Shakal was showing no signs of breaking the silence.

Another thing that bothered Keli was the vision from the night before. It had changed. She couldn’t remember the last time she had dreamed of something other than the chamber of sacrifice. Nor could she ever remember having had a premonition so vague, so undefined.

Maybe they had just been the sort of sleep-images that normal people had. No – there had been nights when she had slumbered through a perfectly mundane dream. This wasn’t like that at all.

Was it going to happen to her, then? Would she ever see the golden chamber, or was it just another nightmare that she was incapable of preventing? Who was the person on the throne? Why did they want her to follow them? Was it a message or a warning, past or future?

The sun rose and warmed the land and still Keli pounded the questions around in her head. Finally, she could stand it no longer. She had to have some answers, even if they were not the ones she sought.

“Shakal! Wait!”

The wolf, ranging ahead of her, turned around.

Keli closed the distance. “Why are you going to the city?”

“Did the others not tell you?”


“Then I probably should not either.”

Shakal didn’t sound unfriendly, merely dismissive. Keli felt anger beginning to simmer again.

“If you want me to help you…”

“You traded, did you not? You will help me because you agreed, not because of anything you want to know, here and now.”

“How do you know? How can you trust me if I can’t trust you?” The words blurted themselves out before Keli could stop them. She flinched, almost expecting a blow.

Instead, Shakal barked out a laugh. “Do you think we would trust you if we had any choice? Humans! They break their word like others break bread – only twice as often.”

“I’m not like that!” Keli said, stung. “I wouldn’t…”

“You just did.”

“I was only saying…” Keli sighed and threw her hands in the air. “Alright, you win, I’ll help you anyway. Is there anything you can tell me?”

“What do you want to know?” asked the wolf, evenly.

“The war. I don’t know anything about it.”

“Have you ever heard of Itharien?”

Keli froze. The holy book. The eye above flames!

…you will burn…

“I see you have.” Shakal tilted her head, curiously. “What do you know of this?”

Keli shivered, despite the sun shining down from its noonday zenith. The image of Lord Garth and his dough-faced wife invaded her memory again. She wanted answers – but suddenly she wanted to talk as well; to have the simple relief of telling someone all of her troubles.

Caution warred with need. Shakal could betray her. Just because she was a wolf, it didn’t make her any more noble than the humans she referred to so disdainfully. Either of them could hurt the other – but didn’t trust have to begin somewhere?
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