The Price of Survival S1. E9.

Season Content Notes: attempted genocide (off screen), child murders (off screen), prejudice, violence, abuse references

Elisabeti went into labor in the middle of the human army camp. She and the other wolves were crowded into a fenced area. It had been used as a pasture for horses before their arrival. The army had been generous with tents, at least. Or, the materials to make them. In the rush to get the pregnant wolves to safety, there had been no room in those first few carts for the people who could support the pregnant women. A few midwives would be arriving the next day, which did Elisabeti no good.

The other pregnant wolves crowded around, trying to give her what comfort and support they could. The fighting wolves who traveled with them as guards had healed enough to wear their human skins. They, not one of them a parent, were pressed into help. One had rounded up whatever cloth he could find and was boiling it to swaddle the newborn. Another had, he said, been going to the speak with the soldiers. He hoped they might know a human midwife or give them more supplies.

The last crouched awkwardly by Elisabeti’s side, waiting. One of the pregnant wolves, who had given birth in human skin before, did her best to instruct he and Elisabeti in what to expect. In howl-song.

She was most definitely not a singer.

The contractions were spaced well apart, and all the wolves wondered what they should hope for — the longer the labor, the more danger for both mother and cub. But if the labor lasted long enough, the midwives would arrive. Surely that would be better than a group of pregnant wolves trapped in fur and three unmarried fighters doing what little they could?

Elisabeti labored through the night and into the morning. The wolf guard who went to the humans came back empty-handed. The human guards had agreed to carry his request to the camp commander. But he claimed to have no supplies to spare and would not send one of his few medics to help a wolf. The clothes were as clean as they could be. Their fuel being spent profligately to keep the water hot for cleaning. Most of the other pregnant wolves were thinking how grateful they were to be birthing in fur. Those few who had experience with human births were worried — the contractions were increasing, but Elisabeti’s water had not yet broken.

By noon, one of the pregnant wolves — her name was the silver of moonlight and the scent of witch hazel — left the crowded tent to find a long, thin stick. It was a risk, she knew, even if she could explain to the guards what needed to be done. But Elisabeti weakened the babe would weaken with her. They were almost out of time.

With a combination of wolfish body language and her very basic howls, she got one of their wolf guards to strip the bark from the stick and scrub it with the hot water. But at that point, they hit a wall. She couldn’t get them to understand what was needed. Or perhaps they didn’t want to understand. She would have tried explaining to Elisabeti, but the woman was wracked by constant contractions and barely clinging to consciousness.

Finally, finally, one of the guards realized (or perhaps accepted) what she was trying to say. Hesitantly, fearfully, he squatted down in front of Elisabeti, poked the stick up between her legs and into her birth canal. He winced several times, started to pull away. But the wolf whose name was the silver of moonlight and the scent of witch hazel growled at him each time. It had taken long enough and too long; she would not let him stop now. Finally, the stick reached far enough and met resistance. After a moment, he gave one firm push. He was rewarded with a sudden gush of liquid pouring down Elisabeti’s legs, over his hand and arm, and splashing into his face.(1)

The babe came quickly after that, before Elisabeti lost the ability to push. The other pregnant wolves licked Elisabeti clean and ate the afterbirth. By wolf custom, this would bring them luck in their own births. More importantly, it brought her comfort and relief. The fighters did a competent job of cleaning and swaddling the babe and lay them on Elisabeti’s stomach. She was so exhausted she could barely move but managed, with much encouragement and a wolf under each arm, to hold her child to the breast and still the quiet cries. So quiet were the babe’s cries that the wolves fur puffed on end to hear them. A babe so tired they could barely cry was a babe who nearly died in the birthing.

Thankfully, Elisabeti had little bleeding. She relaxed as the fighters washed her with the hot water and the babe suckled at her breast. With rest and food, she should recover.

Late that evening, the cart carrying the midwives arrived. Too late to help with the birth, they bustled in and took over support for the new mother, letting the other wolves rest and recover from their long vigil.

Shortly after, Aswathi came. He had looked for Elisabeti at the pasture gate, where she had met him each time he arrived with another cartload of wolves. When she wasn’t there, he sought her out, fearing what might have happened. The midwives would not let him close, but he saw that she was sleeping peacefully with the babe still on her chest. He saw also how little the wolves had. He had known many of them still traveled in fur, and few brought bags or baggage but had not realized what it meant.

He had little himself — he received his pay packet once a week and sent most of it to his parents. But he had a little. What he had, he gave to the midwives. “Get what she needs,” he said. “If there is any leftover, use it for the others.”

They did not know what to make of this human man who was so interested in their packmate. But he had been friendly and polite to them on their long journey that day. He even distracted the wounded from their pains with many silly stories of his mule. So they decided he meant well and thanked him. There would be extra food for the new mother and more fuel to heat water for the next birth.

Having done what he could, Aswathi bedded in the back of his cart so he would be rested for another long day tomorrow.


Lot of changes for everyone to navigate. Hopefully they are through the worst of it, right?

 

Next week we’ll be starting Meadowsweet (season 1)

Think of it as Firefly meets noncon ‘why choose’ romance. (Sort of.)

Anonymous post to the Galactic Reddit AITA

I’m the captain of a small trading ship, and I have a problem.

I have a ridiculously high sex drive thanks to that damn parasite from Verda, and I can’t afford surgery to remove it. I tried to control it, but I nearly destroyed my crew a dozen times before I found something that worked:

A sex slave.

I buy a slave from people who are going to work her to death, give her good quarters, good food, and a percentage of each trading run. All I expect is that she be available for sex, mostly with me, sometimes with the crew. A lot.

I’ve had 3 so far. Two saved enough to buy themselves free and got a nice set up on the world of their choice. The third kept trying to escape so I ditched her at our next plantfall with the clothes on her back.

We’re on our way to a so-called ‘Personnel Processing Platform’ to buy the next one.

Am I the Asshole?

(Content notes and trigger warnings out the ass on this one, for obvious reasons.)

(1) For those curious, it is actually medical practice in the US (and presumably much of the world) to poke a long stick up there and break the water if it doesn’t break on it’s own. Obstetric nurses use a plastic stick with a small hook on the end, but anything long, thin, and rounded or blunt should work just as well. Or a sharp end if used carefully enough, but I wouldn’t want to try that myself.

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The Price of Survival, S1 E1
The Price of Survival, S1 E8

Continue to:
Bound by His Oath, S1 E1
How NOT to Save the World, S1 E1

The Price of Survival (S1 E8)

Season Content Notes: attempted genocide (off screen), child murders (off screen), prejudice, violence, abuse references

After three days, Lubomir was cautiously pleased with the army’s advance. Cyneburg had remained nearby and continued answering his questions and carrying messages. The other wolves — and he knew there were other wolves nearby — stayed out of sight and (mostly) out of hearing.

Even as he thought this, a howl rolled in, at first far away and barely heard, but growing closer and louder as each new wolf took up the call. Finally, it rose less than a bow-shot from Lubomir’s tent.

A few minutes later, Cyneburg walked up to Lubomir’s tent, accompanied by two guards. “General.”

“Wolf.”

“As of sun-high, your forces hold the pass. Our fighters pulled back but remained close long enough to be sure your soldiers could hold against Caldelon. Then pulled back to the nearest village to await orders.”

“Excellent. What of the mountain trails?”

“No word yet.”

Lubomir nodded and let himself fall into thought. When he said nothing further, Cyneburg turned to leave, not waiting to be dismissed.

“A moment, wolf.”

She turned back and waited. He spent several more minutes examining the map table and moving pieces around on it. When he was satisfied, he turned back to Cyneburg. “A messenger arrived this morning. Must have been urgent, as he rode through the night.” He grabbed a message pouch off his desk.

Cyneburg resisted the temptation to grab it from his hands and waited for him to hand it to her. Bringing it to her nose, she caught a hint of Navin’s scent. Relief nearly brought tears to her eyes. She tore open the pouch and opened the message within, forgetting the general completely.

She read it once quickly, looking for the name of the new pack leader and Navin’s signature with his new rank mark: the Queen (she stuck a mental tongue out at her soul-brother) and Navin now ranked as second. A wise move by the new Pack Mother.

Then she read the letter again, slowly. Twice.

When she finished, she looked up at the general. “Well?” he asked.

“Forgive me, General. There is… much here.

“Navin Wolf did not just surrender to your Queen, General. He stepped down as Pack Leader, naming your Queen as his successor.”

“I see.” His eyes narrowed.

“Forgive me, General, but I doubt you do. Until she dies or chooses otherwise, the Long Valley pack, and every wolf in it, answers directly to Pack Mother Alfhard Haredin.”

Lubomir bit back an exclamation and waited for the wolf-woman to continue.

“The Pack Mother orders that we continue to obey you until the evacuation is completed and otherwise that Navin’s seconds retain their rank and manage pack matters within the limits she sets.

“There are other matters here for the Pack, but there will be a party of wolves traveling to the palace within the week to answer the Pack Mother’s summons.”

Lubomir considered the wolf-woman, disturbed. It should be — it was — a good thing that the Queen had gained the allegiance of the wolves and not just their grudging surrender. But it disturbed him that they would change their loyalty so quickly. How much was their loyalty to the Queen actually worth?

So wondered the Queen’s general, who had started his years in service as a palace guard shortly before the coup attempt against Alfhard’s father. But Lubomir knew better than to say anything. He would put his concerns in a letter. No, he decided, two letters. One to the Queen, and one to General Revazi. Revazi, he knew, would be watchful of the Queen’s safety.

For now, Lubomir only said, “Very well. I will pass them through with an escort.”

He turned back to his map. “I am sure you will want to carry this news, but before you do, I have another task for you.

“I have been impressed with your… people’s ability as messengers. Once the valley is secure, I’ll want to start integrating some wolf messengers into my forces. A dozen to start. I’d prefer volunteers, but I’ll take conscripts. Have them report to me… Let’s say a week from today. We should have things largely secure by them.”

“Of course, general. You’ll want messenger-scouts, I assume. Wolves with at least enough training to defend themselves.”

“I’d rather fully trained fighters. With the pass secured, you should have at least a dozen — several dozen! to spare.”

Cyneburg swallowed a growl. “Yes, General, but they may not–”

“Just send them wolf, the best you can manage.”

She didn’t wait to be dismissed.

It was rare for all the pack’s seconds to gather together in person. Especially for a pack as large as Long Valley, a pack leader needed their seconds widely scattered to address problems as they came up.

But they had known a message from Navin Wolf could be expected soon. Some things they did not dare sing on the wind.

Cyneburg left the army camp and let her brother’s skin sweep over her. As they had planned, the wolf whose name was the feel of racing paws and the crack of lightning carefully picked up the message pouch and moved swiftly to a village a few hours steady trot from the army camp. Close enough the wolf could return quickly if needed, far enough the army was unlikely to notice him or his fellows gathering.

When the wolf arrived, there were six waiting, two wearing wolf skins, the others human. They had taken the back room of an abandoned house. The front rooms were guarded by the most trusted assistant each of them had.

The wolf greeted each of them in turn and slid back into Cyneburg’s skin. “I hope the day comes when I never need to deal with that man again,” she growled.

“That bad?” Edmund asked. He was sitting in a tipped-backed chair with his eyes closed, looking ready to take a nap.

“He demands we supply him with a dozen wolves — fully trained fighters! — to serve as his messengers.”

The five who were not pretending to be half asleep looked at each other and expressed their disbelief and distaste.

“Cyneburg, did you not tell him?” Kazimiera asked. Messenger-scouts split their time. They trained in the subtleties of howl-song with the singers and in combat. The fighters… trained in fighting.

“He would not listen.” One of the wolves flattened her ears and chuffed a dismissal. “Yes, if he wants to be a fool, let him.

“More importantly, we have word from Navin.”

“Navin.”

“Yes, Navin. He gave neck to the human Queen.” Cyneburg stopped as the others all started talking at once.

Quiet yipped the other wolf, whose name was the feel of sun-warmed grass and scent of green. He stood, man unfolding out of wolf. “Give us the word Cyneburg, then we can discuss it.”

So Cyneburg read out the contents of the letter.

When she finished, there was a moment of silence.

“So. Navin represents us at court and tries to win over the humans. For now, the rest of us are left with a great deal of autonomy as long as we keep the general happy. But the Queen has plans, and we must fit ourselves into them.” Kazimiera growled.

The wolf become man said, “Cyneburg, Navin put you at the border because you are one of our best fighters. You are not a diplomat.”

“You think you need to tell me that, Andre?” Cyneburg growled.

“No,” Andre replied. “I will volunteer as one of this general’s messengers and take your place as liaison. The high places are evacuated, and I am free to take on other tasks.”

After a moment of thought, all the others signaled agreement.

“I’ll join one of the wagons going to this new… place.” Cyneburg decided. “We need someone there, anyway, and it will get me as far away from this general as possible.”

“The rest of us,” Edmund said, “can continue as we have been.”

“I do not like this,” Kazimiera muttered.

Prasanna, quiet until now, stood up and murmured. “We are lucky to have asshole generals to worry about. To fret over how to deal with a human Pack Leader and who to send as messengers for the humans.

“We are lucky.”

“How often do you tell yourself that?”

Prasanna sighed. “Every day, every hour. Sometimes every minute.

“Most of the time, I believe it.”


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The Price of Survival, S1 E1
The Price of Survival, S1 E7

Continue to:
The Price of Survival, S1 E9

The Price of Survival (S1, E7)

Season Content Notes: attempted genocide (off screen), child murders (off screen), prejudice, violence, abuse references

Navin followed the human Pack Mother out and paused. He had a message to send but first, he needed time to think. Both about how best to send the queen and Pack Mother’s message and who to have join him in the human palace.

Not willing to go back to the suite, he asked his sister if she could find some garden or other outside area. She, as tired of walls as he, agreed. She followed the scent of growing things to a walled garden path with flowering bushes and a few grassy areas. Scattered throughout were a few large trees, older than the palace.

Tired of people gawking, the wolf moved carefully, avoiding notice as much as possible until she reached one of those trees. It was only a moment for her to release their body and allow Navin to emerge. He climbed the great tree and found a thick low branch that he could stretch out on.

His sister relaxed in the scent of green things and the stir of the slight breeze that made it over the wall. Of course, the wolves he most wanted at his back here were those who had been his seconds, now the other seconds to the human pack mother. He had named them seconds for a reason. But there were others he knew and trusted.

Navin was just about ready to climb down and find pen and paper when he heard footsteps below the tree.

A quiet voice asked, “Are you hiding from the Wolf?”

On the ground peering up at him, was a young girl, less than 10 years old. She was the first child Navin had seen since the massacre, and he blinked away the mist that covered his eyes.

“No.” He coughed to clear his throat. “No, I needed a quiet place to think.”

“Oh.” She traced the bark of the tree with a finger. “I wanted to see the Wolf, but my tutor said I wasn’t allowed to leave our rooms because it’s too dangerous while he’s here. She says the Queen will send him away soon, and then I won’t get to see him.”

“So you snuck out to try to see the Wolf?” Navin asked, finding himself amused in spite of his grief. “You shouldn’t disobey your tutor like that.”

“She’s so stuffy. Always going on about how a lady should act and not letting me do anything fun.

“Besides, it’s not like anything can happen here. The Queen’s guards are everywhere.” She sighed. “If you aren’t hiding from the Wolf, I guess he isn’t here, though.”

Not sure what to say to that, Navin asked, “Why do you want to see the Wolf? Most people are afraid of him.”

She looked down, then glanced around, making sure there was no one else near. “It’s a secret. I need to tell him something.”

In the distance, a clock bell tolled. The council would meet again soon. Navin, clothes or no clothes, would need to be there if he was to cement himself in the position his Pack Mother had set for him.

With a sigh, he rolled off the tree limb and landed — not as lightly as he might have wished — on his feet.

To the guards, who had not seen him enter the garden, it looked as if he had appeared out of nowhere.

Shouts and challenges rang out, and guards came racing across the garden, polearms at the ready.

The child jumped and, to Navin’s surprise, crowded close to him to stay away from the guards.

Exasperated, Navin crossed his arms and leaned against the tree. Ignoring the guards, he murmured. “Unfortunately, we didn’t have a chance to introduce ourselves. And we are out of time for the telling of secrets. But you might let your tutor know that I don’t eat children, and the Queen will not be sending me anywhere anytime soon.”

The child’s eyes grew wide, and Navin smiled down at her.

By this time, the guards had them surrounded. The leader, a junior lieutenant Risko who neither recognized the Wolf, nor heard of his new rank, was yelling demands. He was interrupted by a shriek from the palace door, loud enough that Navin nearly winced. The girl did wince.

“Chelsey!”

“I take it that’s the tutor?”

Chelsey nodded and tried to squeeze between Navin and the tree.

“Nothing for it; you’ll have to stand up and face her.”

By now, the guard leader had decided that Navin wasn’t a threat, but he was not happy with being ignored. He got right up in Navin’s face.

Navin’s sister was done with the yelling. She took advantage of his distraction to push forward. Fur rippled across his face, and she lunged forward, growling at the guard, who stumbled back.

The other guards surged forward as Navin regained control. He grabbed Chelsey, climbed back up the tree, and made sure she had a good grip on the branch. Now he was angry. They had meant to attack him, but in a melee, anything can happen. They endangered a child. He took a running leap off the branch, landing in a roll behind the guards. Then he took them down.

Three palace guards against a soldier who had fought in the front lines and was not nearly as unarmed as they assumed. In the first ten seconds, he had one of their polearms, after that the only challenge was not killing them.

Of course, by then, more guards were pouring out of the palace, followed by Revazi. Navin and his sister were riding the battle high but wise enough to wait and see what these new guards and the general would do.

Revazi, somewhat to Navin’s surprise, kept the guards back and sent for the Queen. While they waited for the Queen, Navin kept his back to the tree, the beat-up guards slowly picked themselves up, and the new guards keeping their distance. Chelsey climbed down from the tree, and again she sheltered behind Navin.

“Why are you afraid of them?” he asked, keeping his voice down and his eyes on the guards.

The tutor had not stopped shrieking, but the guards were keeping her back. Chelsey swallowed and said, even more quietly than Navin, “My father was a guard.” A pause. “You killed him. Thank you.”

The Queen was coming, her presence a ripple through the surrounding crowd. But not even the Pack Mother could distract Navin and his sister from what they had just heard. Moving as one, they dropped the human weapon and knelt down in front of the child. “You are welcome.” He offered her his hand, saying. “I will always help if you need it. You are under my protection.”

To the astonishment of everyone watching, the child threw herself into his arms.

He held her, still ignoring the Queen and Pack Mother, who watched with a mix of amusement and impatience. Then, blinking away tears, he gave her a nudge and said, “But… you still need to listen to your tutor.” He gestured toward the now hyperventilating woman. With a sigh, Chelsey nodded and turned to walk away.

Then, finally realizing the Queen was there, she squeaked and sank into her best curtsy.

“Sir Wolf,” said Queen Alfhard, Pack Mother to the Long Valley pack, and very upset woman. “When I said I needed you to be my boogeyman, this was not what I had in mind.”

Biting back his own sigh, Navin turned to face the Queen and gave her his neck.

But inside him, his soul sang with his sister’s. Here, too, were children who needed protecting.

He would not fail again.

 

In the end, the whole thing was sorted out to the Queen’s satisfaction, if not necessarily anyone else’s. After all, Navin Wolf had demonstrated, in an extremely public fashion, his capability in a fight. More importantly, he had demonstrated that he would put himself in danger to protect the child of one of her courtiers. And (once again) that he submitted to her rule.

When the Queen was satisfied, she dismissed everyone, with pointed looked at both Navin and Revazi. It would be best for both of them to keep their heads down for a while.

Unfortunately, Navin realized he had one more duty to fulfill. He made himself walk over to the general and say, “I walked from the palace, across the garden, and not one of the guards here noticed. Nor did they see me up in that tree for over an hour.”

“I am well aware,” Revazi growled. “Do you have a point… Navin?”

“You and the Queen are lucky wolves don’t make a habit of assassinations.”

Revazi inhaled sharply, his eyes widening.

Navin said nothing more, just nodded to the general and walked inside.

He knew the general heard what he hadn’t said. Caldelon does.

The Price of Survival (S. 1, E. 6), She did what?

Season Content Notes: attempted genocide (off screen), child deaths (off screen), prejudice, violence

While Alfhard’s advisors were yelling, swearing, and banging the table, one of the waiting pages brought the extra chair over and placed it in the space left for it.

Navin studied the Queen and Pack Mother a moment, then tilted his head again in submission and took the seat she had arranged.

To both of their surprise, it was Revazi who fell quiet first — possibly recalling the Queen’s earlier warning. Both Navin and Alfhard sat silent until the rest of the council ran themselves out. Yevgenia, the royal secretary, was the last to stop. Not surprising, as she had lost a son and a sister in the war. Alfhard had some sympathy for her but had no intention of allowing that to sway her course.

When silence had held in the council chamber for a full minute, Alfhard said, “Sir Wolf?”

“Caldelon did not war for the valley. They likely will not contest you for it. They wanted to destroy… the Long Valley wolves.

“With the pack out of their reach, they may make peace. If they do attack, I would look for assassins rather than armies.

“But if the pack’s escape gives them time to lay claim to the valley before the… the army can, who could say?”

“Lubomir will have received his orders by now. He will be moving by tomorrow,” General Revazi said. “As long as there will be no… trouble from the wolves, he will hold the passes.”

“Will that be enough?” Yevgenia asked the general. “The wolves,” she glared at Navin, who pretended not to notice, “did the most damage when they came over the mountains.”

Revazi growled, opened his mouth, then looked at Alfhard, who watched him closely. “I… do not know. Wolf?” He might have meant to use Navin’s surname. Or not.

Navin’s smile was full of teeth. “I don’t think we need to stand on formality, general. Not with how… close you became to my cousin. Use my name.”

Tension sang in the council room for a long moment, then Navin sat back.

“Caldelon tried to send raiding parties over the mountain trails but didn’t have the mountain knowledge to overcome our guards. They gave that up within a year. Then they threw numbers at us until they overwhelmed us in the passes. They never had the numbers to hold a pass, just force through raiding parties.”

His sister nudged him. They would taste the general’s blood soon enough, but they had a duty to the human Packmother.

“Tell your Lubomir that Cyneburg, who was second, will know who can show him the mountain trails and how we defended them.”

The general nodded curtly, and the discussion turned to supplies.

Alfhard dismissed the council some four hours later. The council had made decisions and handed out assignments both for Long Valley and the army that would occupy it. They had hammered out a compromise for the distribution of the land. (The land belonged to the Queen, but both the land itself and the mines would be assigned new patents of nobility and some of the army’s officers appointed as marcher lords.) The Queen had committed to financing citizens and peasants moving to the new lands. The transport of the wolves from the quartering base to their new home had been arranged. As well as supplies the Queen would set aside for the wolves to allow them to rebuild the abandoned villages. That was plenty for one afternoon. They all knew they’d be back again the next morning.

Navin said little, but what he did say surprised several of the councilors. Despite his appearance yesterday, many of them did not expect him to be as calm, well-spoken, or intelligent as he was.

Most of the councilors left quickly once dismissed. Partly to avoid the wolf but also ready for the garderobe, a softer seat, and food (mostly in that order).

Navin remained behind, watching Alfhard. Who watched him back. When most of the others were gone and the room quiet, he asked, “Why?”

She didn’t pretend to misunderstand him. “Many reasons. But the simple one is — I intend that I and my dynasty will survive.”

He waited.

“I told you that I needed your knowledge of the wolves — which is true. But that knowledge is no good to me if you must wait for me to ask a question rather than telling me outright I am making a mistake. So now you have the rank to speak to me at any time, whether I send for you or not.

“You need rank of your own to prevent General Revazi from causing… problems. I may need to remove him, but would prefer to avoid it. And I can’t have him interfering with you or any tasks I set you.

“You have given me the obedience of your — our — wolves. I need to earn their loyalty.

“I need my scheming, power-hungry, ambitious nobility to know that I have not just your surrender, but your loyalty.

“I need those loyal to me, noble and common, to stop seeing you as a boogeyman. Or to start seeing you as my boogeyman.

“And I need everyone, loyal or not, to get used to you wolves being here, being part of society.”

She sighed, “You will not yet understand noble society, Sir Wolf, though you will learn it soon. When you made me Pack Mother, gave me the personal loyalty of your pack, you became a threat to everyone who would like to see my power lessened — or me overthrown.”

Navin understood immediately. Their survival was bound together because the pack would destroy any who harmed their leader outside of proper challenge. (Possibly even then. There had been no challenge for leadership in living memory. The pack had better traditions now.) And any possible usurper would soon know that.

The long term, he would think about later. In the short term…

He licked his lips. “Majesty, you have sent messengers to your army. What message did you send to the pack?”

“None. They knew you came to surrender, so they should obey the orders of my officers…” she trailed off. “That was a mistake, wasn’t it?”

“Not yet, but it will become one soon.”

“So. This is why I need you.”

“I am lessoned.” He bent his head as the wolves did to acknowledge one who bested them.

“Who has authority in your absence?”

“My… those who were my seconds, if your general tells them I survived, will continue to act in my name until they learn you are Pack Mother. Then it will be expected that you confirm them as your seconds or appoint new.”

Alfhard smiled. Appointing Navin Wolf to her council satisfied human custom. Now she had the answer for how to work within wolf custom. “How many seconds can a pack leader have?”

“However many they feel they need.”

“Good.” She nodded. “You are my second then. And those who were your seconds retain their rank for now.

“You may use a royal courier to send word to the pack. Have some wolves you trust come here, I wish you to have guards and messengers you can trust. And my court to get used to seeing wolves beside yourself.

“The counselor’s seat comes with a stipend. Use it to provide for yourself and your attendants.”

She got up and swept from the room. “And get a shirt.”


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The Price of Survival, S1 E1
The Price of Survival, S1 E5

Continue to:
The Price of Survival, S1 E7

The Price of Survival (S1. E5.)

Season Content Notes: attempted genocide (off screen), child murders (off screen),prejudice, violence

Aswathi was not a happy man as he stood by his cart and waited for the new ‘cargo’ he was to carry. He had been hauling for the army for two years, he and his mule, Stubborn. It was good steady work, paid well, and mostly kept him out of the city. All good things, as far as he was concerned.

He’d arrived late the night before with another load of food and fodder, to find the world (or at least the army) had turned upside down. And he would now be carting /wolves/.

He’d been told to expect children, pregnant, and injured wolves, two wolf-guards, and a squad of army-guards. Transport to the same base he’d been carting supplies from. Why? Who knew? Not him.

Stubborn, unlike his person, was quite happy to stand and eat some of the surviving grass with no worries for the future. A sunny day, food, no work, and no predators are a mule’s idea of heaven.

Stubborn’s heaven was abruptly shattered as an army squad escorted a group of wolves and a single — very pregnant — woman through the lines and right up to Aswathi’s cart.

Elisabeti barely noticed the carter trying desperately to calm his mule. She was focused on helping the other wolves into the cart. The army humans, of course, just watched her and made the occasional joke. There had been supposed to be two warriors traveling with them as well, but something had gone wrong somewhere — no one told her what, of course — and their guards were now among the injured.

Thankfully, most of the wolves were able to hop in on their own, injured or not. But one had a damaged rear leg that made jumping… difficult. And of course, there were the other two wolves who were expected to give birth in the next month. They weren’t nearly as mobile as they used to be.

Not that she was either. When she finally got the others in, she had to turn and look for someone — some human — to help her in.

The wolves didn’t feel safe around the army, which is why all of them but Elisabeti were traveling as wolves. She didn’t have a choice. Having chosen nearly 9 months ago to spend her pregnancy human, it was far past too late to change her mind.

Luckily for her, by then Aswathi had the mule calm enough (for the moment). Stubborn did not like all these predators suddenly crowded in behind him. And he liked the idea of needing to work nearly as little. But he trusted his person and would do a great deal for the promise of an apple to snack on. So Aswathi saw the wolf-woman ask the soldiers for help and be just… ignored.

Aswathi didn’t like wolves. Was, in fact, near as frightened of them as Stubborn. But he knew what his father would say if he ever learned Aswathi had failed in his duty or turned away someone needing help for no reason but fear.

So he took a deep breath and approached her. “Ma’am? You can sit on the bench with me. It’s easier to climb onto than the cart bed and we can keep each other company.”

Elisabeti was taken aback by the offer from the strange human. And one who was afraid of her in a way the army-men weren’t. But she gratefully accepted and did her best to settle comfortably on the narrow driving bench.

“Thank you. I am called Elisabeti.”

Aswathi made sure everything was secure and chirruped to Stubborn, who took off at a fast walk. If he hoped to leave the predators behind, he was disappointed. But Aswathi was just relieved to have an easy start to the trip.

Neither of them said anything for a while, but the quiet meant Aswathi (and Stubborn) could hear every whine, scratch, and even occasional growl or snap from the cart. Desperate for a distraction he asked the first thing that came to mind — “Why aren’t you a wolf?”

Elisabeti started and turned to look at him. “Oh… you don’t know about us, do you? I can’t. Not until the baby is born.”

“Why no– oh.” Aswathi’s brain caught up with his mouth and he paled. “The baby can’t…”

“Not until around 3 months. Most of us can only get pregnant in one form. I’m lucky, I could choose. My wolf and I… we chose this, and now it’s too late to change our minds.”

“Oh.”

They were quiet a bit longer, then it was Elisabeti who broke the silence. “Do you know where we are going?”

Aswathi shrugged. “Today we are going to an army depot. We got a late start, so we won’t get there till after dark. After that, I don’t know. They’ll have another load of supplies for me to load up and take to the front, but no one told me what they were… where you are going. I don’t think they’ll keep you at the depot long, though. There isn’t a lot of room there.”

And it was Elisabeti’s turn to say, “… Oh.”

“Do you know… I was told there would be children?”

Elisabeti’s face turned grey and she swayed in the seat. Worried, Aswathi grabbed for her, holding her in place. To his surprise, she didn’t shy away. Instead, she clung to him. “You don’t know? They didn’t tell you?”

“Tell me what?”

Elisabeti grasped for words. For clear thinking. Should she say anything? What if he — or the guards riding on either side of them — weren’t supposed to know?

But that was ridiculous. There was no way to keep it secret, and the Packfather wasn’t a fool.

“There are no children. Caldelon killed them all.” She swallowed and rubbed her stomach. “That’s why they are sending us away, why we’re willing to risk being separated from the pack.” She closed her eyes. “Why the Packfather surrendered.”

Aswathi dropped the reins in shock. Stubborn grumbled and turned to stare at him. After a moment he fumbled to pick them up again and Stubborn resumed following the road. “Do… did you have…”

She smiled sadly. “No. No. I had waited, you see. I had… but my nieces and nephews, my friends’ children… and these past weeks, knowing that if we couldn’t do something, it would be my baby next.” She glanced back into the cart where the other pregnant wolves had crowded forward to press themselves near her. She buried her hand in the fur and warmth. “It would be all of our babies next.”

Again, there was silence. Aswathi had no idea what he could say, what could anyone say? And Elisabeti was lost in her thoughts and memories for a time.

Finally, one of the other wolves chuffed and nudged her hand. She wiped her tears and laughed a little. “Indira reminds me of my manners.

“Thank you, human.” She paused and raised her voice, looking to the guards as well. “Our thanks to all of you. We know you do not like us, fear us, or hate us. But you take us and our cubs to safety, and we are grateful.”

Aswathi flushed, and the guards looked down and muttered something indecipherable before announcing they would ride ahead to check the bridge.

Blinking back tears of his own, Aswathi smiled. “You remind me of my own manners. I am Aswathi, and the glue-pot-to-be there is Stubborn.

“Unfortunately, you don’t get one of us without the other, which is how he got his name.” Shoving aside his fear, he looked over his shoulder to include the other wolves in his story. “You see…”

He launched into the story of a young mule who would not stop following him everywhere. It was a silly story, and he made it sillier with every telling. More silly than ever now. He was rewarded with Elisabeti’s watery chuckles at several points and read gratitude again in her eyes.


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The Price of Survival, S1 E4

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The Price of Survival, S1 E6

The Price of Survival (S1 E4), Pause Before the Storm

Season Content Notes: attempted genocide (off screen), child deaths (off screen), prejudice, violence

Navin and his sister spent most of the day as wolf. The wolf was more patient than the human, less upset by waiting. More than willing to doze and see what happened. Especially after the forced march from Long Valley to the capital and the stress of their surrender and near-death.

A servant brought food sometime around midday, walking into the suite without so much as a ‘by-your-leave’. He walked out even more quickly when he saw the wolf curled up on the bedding. At least he remembered to leave the food behind.

Navin thought that perhaps terrifying the servants was not a good idea, but the wolf snorted. If the Pack Mother wished to keep them here (which the wolf was just as happy with, mind) then the humans would need to get used to them. Both of them.

By then, having slept nearly a full day through – their audience with Alfhard had begun shortly after midday – they were not tired enough to return to sleep. The wolf – who’s name was warmth in a blizzard and sharp teeth to guard – worried at Navin. Navin had never been as good at relaxing as his soul-sister. Going from holding responsibility for the lives of their pack and fighting a two-front war, to having nothing to do and no responsibilities was a bit jarring even for the wolf.

Unwilling to let Navin come to the fore again when he would only fret himself into harm, she investigated the space they had been given. When she found a corner where bright summer sun spilled in through a window, she dragged one of the pillows over to it and curled up. It was nice to sit in the warm sun without any cares. (We don’t deserve it, Navin whispered) The wolf snorted at him. Who needed to deserve a warm patch of sunlight? Sooner or later they would be summoned by the human pack leader. (The queen.) Until then, they need only wait. In the sun.

 

After sending Navin to rest, Alfhard had held emergency meetings with various courtiers and councilors. She needed to clear away all the things on her schedule that absolutely had to be dealt with in the next week. By evening she had dealt with or postponed everything she could.

With that done, she decided she couldn’t put it off any longer. First thing the next morning, she sent for General Revazi.

What followed was one of the more painful interviews of her time as queen. She had known Revazi all her life. He had served under her father as subcommander and she had been delighted to promote him to general shortly after her reign began. She could no longer afford his prejudice against the wolves. Especially not if his prejudice left him blind or indifferent to her soldiers butchering people, by the ancestors!

He was not happy with the choice she gave him, but he wasn’t foolish enough to argue. He also wasn’t ready to retire. So she got his pledge to speak no more ill of the wolves, to treat them as he would any of her subjects, and to clear her army of those guilty of that… that butchery.

He wasn’t lying when he said that he hadn’t known. She believed that. Rightly, as the case may be. The general had been very careful to speak nothing but the truth. But Alfhard had been queen long enough to learn how truth could be shaded.

He hadn’t known.

She would wait. She would see the results of his investigation. Alfhard hoped her suspicions were wrong.

She needed to meet with her council. There was much to be done. To prepare for the wolves arrival. To prepare for a possible attack by Caldelon. To prepare her people for dealing with the wolves.

But she could steal some time now. Her messenger had set out for Lubomir’s headquarters at the front. Everything else could wait. Not long, but a bit.

She needed to think. There were some decisions she would make for herself, with no help — or interference — from the council.

Her rule was secure, though she lacked an heir. But no ruler was ever so secure they couldn’t be overthrown. It had been the personal loyalty of a few score guards and servants who had saved her father (and her mother, brother, and herself) when some of those the lords attempted a coup. Her father made sure she learned the lesson — the strength of ruler’s seat rested in the love and loyalty of the commons first.

Navin had given her the wolves personal loyalty. To them, she wouldn’t be a distant monarch whose power was disbursed through ministers, councilors, and feudal lords. She would be Pack Mother.

Her own people — her human people — would want to see the wolves subjugated. She could do that. Or she could raise the wolves up.

This, she decided, was a time for boldness.

 

Before lunch with the court, she sent a pair of messengers.

After lunch, she went to meet with her council. As she had ordered, an extra chair stood against the wall in the council room. Navin Wolf followed a page into the room just as the last of the councilors had arrived.

He was bare-chested, which shocked several of the councilors. He would not wear his tunic again until he had added the embroidery that said he had retired as Pack-Father. Of course, none there knew that a wolf’s tunics carried the record of their life and deeds. That to wear it with the symbols of the Pack Father would be the same as to wear a copy of the monarch’s crown.

It amused him even as it stung his recent wounds.

Still, the time to rest had done him good. The cracks in his mask were gone, and he faced Alfhard and her council as calm and confident as when he’d first walked into the throne room.

Alfhard gave him a brief nod and he bent his head to the side, acknowledging her as Pack Leader. She decided to tackle the biggest problem first.

“How soon after they learn I have taken Long Valley are we going to find ourselves at war with Caldelon?”

Her advisors started arguing among themselves – would Caldelon back down, knowing that their two realms were on near equal terms? Or would they try to press their claim? Or perhaps seek some diplomatic gambit?

The wolf remained silent, but something in his face had her thinking he was restraining himself.

“As you can see, Sir Wolf, my councilors do not stand on formality. If you have something to say, say it.”

There was one moment of stunned silence as her councilors realized she had just named Navin Wolf as one of their number.

Then chaos erupted.


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The Price of Survival, S1 E1
The Price of Survival, S1 E3

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The Price of Survival, S1 E5

The Price of Survival (S1, E3): Bargain Between Enemies

Season Content Notes: attempted genocide (off screen), child murders (off screen), prejudice, violence

While Navin and his soul-sister settled into sleep, the wolf whose name was the feel of racing paws and the crack of lightning crept through the human city. Had Navin and his soul-sister known the wolf was there, they would have been angry. This wolf and his soul-sister, who human’s called Cyneburg, had no right to risk themselves and disobey Navin’s orders. But the wolf whose name was the feel of racing paws and the crack of lightning had needed to know, and his soul-sister had put human reasoning behind animal intuition. They had followed in secret, had hidden well, had heard and understood the howl Navin had thought none would ever know of.

It had taken everything the wolf had in him, and the strong support of his soul-sister, not to lift his voice in response. Only death could have stopped Navin from singing out after a battle such as this day. That same instinct urged this wolf to return the cry, to add his piece to the story the howl started, but could not finish.

Navin was not a singer, not one of those who could fill a howl with almost as much meaning and texture as human speech. But nor was he a cub just finding his voice. So this wolf and his soul-sister had learned much from Navin’s howl. Learned that he lived, of course. That he expected to continue living. That he no longer marked himself as pack-father and so must have given throat. (To who? The howl did not say. Perhaps could not say. Some human, it must be. Cyneburg murmured that there was only one human it could be, but the wolf would make no assumptions and Cyneburg accepted her soul-brother’s caution.) Most importantly, that Navin had won everything he had hoped to from his battle and perhaps more besides. That there was a new grief upon him. A small grief in comparison to that they all had carried these last weeks, but a sharp one none the less.

Cyneburg wanted to worry at that new grief, but the wolf kept her focused on the moment. If she needed to waste time worrying at something they knew nothing about, she could do it when they were free of the city. Then they would have miles of woods to run through.

To the wolf’s relief, though, getting out of the city was even easier than getting in. He had long known humans were scent-blind but it never ceased to surprise him how close he could come — even from downwind! — and not be detected. Though they made up for that during the day with their vision. Their ability to see ‘red’ (which the wolf had seen through Cyneburg’s eyes but never understood) was a baffling marvel that could reveal the best-hidden hunter if they weren’t careful.

But the wolf had Cyneburg to guide him when he might have put a foot wrong. Before long they were free of the city and running through the fields and hedgerows. Not easy passage, no, but also no humans around to see them and any that did would think them a normal wolf. So, not safe, but safe enough.

It was a long run to the border, three times what normal wolves would travel in a day. But a wolf soul-bounded to a human partook of the human’s endurance. A wolf’s steady lope combined with a human’s ability to just keep going meant that they arrived at the border late the next morning. Exhausted and in desperate need of food, but there.

He was close to the road when he started to smell the human war camp. He started to move to slip around the camp and into Long Valley, but Cyneburg stopped him. He could feel her thinking, fears, concerns, needs.

They could sneak around the human war camp and cross into Long Valley unseen. They had done it before. But it was a risk. Cyneburg thought it was a risk they couldn’t afford.

The wolf didn’t agree — or rather, thought showing themselves to the humans was more of a risk. But… humans were sneakier than wolves. Would these humans think they meant to violate the surrender Navin had given at such risk?

Perhaps. Perhaps.

So he gave way and allowed Cyneburg to stand once again on two feet.

It was near the end of a long, boring guard shift when a strange woman, dressed wolf-style, in undyed leathers and wool, including a heavily embroidered tunic, stepped into sight. The guards, too surprised to be alarmed, called a challenge.

They were more surprised when Cyneburg walked right up to their post and asked they take her to the war leader in charge of the camp.

They knew of course — everyone knew — that The Wolf had gone to the capital to officially surrender. There were bets around the campfires about how soon after that he’d lose his head. But everyone also knew he’d gone alone. There should be no other wolves on this side of the border.

General Lubomir was equally surprised when his rear area guards brought the wolf-woman to him. Lubomir had a fair bit of experience with the wolves, and somewhat less contempt for them than many in the camp that day. But he was used to wolves being silent. They didn’t lie. They might be deceptive on the battlefield, but face-to-face they didn’t lie. Usually, they just said nothing.

This one talked.

“The Queen accepted our surrender from Navin Wolf. I’m sure your own messengers will be bringing word soon, but horses…” she shrugged, not impressed with the human’s preferred travel companion. “But before he left Navin told us his plans so we could be prepared. We will be evacuating Long Valley, General, leaving it for your Queen to do with as she wishes. And we will go wherever she chooses to send us. But Caldelon attacks us also. Where ever your queen sends us, we will be making a fighting retreat. We need to be making preparations as soon as possible, not waiting on your queen’s messenger and scrambling at the last moment.”

This one, Lubomir reflected, did not stop talking. His eyes skimmed the map spread out on his council table.

“And if I do not wait for the Queen’s messenger?”

The wolf-woman snarled. “If you think to wipe us out before–”

“Peace, wolf!” he shook his head, “I mean no such thing!” He rubbed a hand across his balding head, exasperated.

Cybeburg — for that, of course, was who the wolf-woman was — eyed him warily.

“You have rank among the wolves?” He demanded.

She hesitated then nodded. “Under Navin Wolf, I was a Second. None of us know, though–”

“Yes, yes, everything is about to get turned upside down. For you especially, but I expect for all of us. Look you, wolf. If your… people… will accept your word and follow your lead, I will accept your word that her majesty has accepted Navin Wolf’s surrender of Long Valley.

“I’m not interested in pushing Caldelon back out of Long Valley after you make a fighting retreat. Instead, I’ll bring my soldiers in now. You hand over control of the western passes to us. It’s less fighting for us in the long run and you can evacuate without needing to fight your way out.”

Cyneburg studied him a long moment, then turned and walked out of his tent. The guards started, but Lubomir, thoughtful, waved them back. Standing just outside the general’s tent, Cyneburg tipped her head back and howled. The sound echoed across the camp long and ululating. When she finished there was silence for a moment, then a few quick yips from disturbingly close to the border side of the camp. A few moments after that, more voices copying the wolf-woman’s howl rolled out into the valley.

Cyneburg turned back to the general. “Give us an hour to spread the word, General. Then your path will be clear.

“Just… keep your soldiers out of our communities. The roads, the fields, the mines, the passes, take as you wish. Leave us our homes and what safety is left to us until the queen’s orders come.”

She knew — all the wolves knew — that their individual safety might disappear the moment the queen’s word arrived. But that was an evil for tomorrow — or perhaps later today.

“Agreed, wolf. My people will escort you to the border so you can begin organizing your evacuation.” He thought a moment. “We send several wagons back for supplies every day. When there are no wounded, they go back empty. If it works within her majesty’s orders, you can use some of them to transport your children and elderly away from Long Valley.”

“Thank you, General.” He noted the pain that flashed across her face but dismissed it. Not his concern.

He dismissed her and allowed himself a brief moment of thought to the future.

With the wolves surrender, he might finally have a chance at testing an idle fantasy of his. Her majesty was not one to waste a resource, and whatever their other failings, if he could create a scouting group that combined dragoons and wolves…

It would be good to return to peace footing and have time to experiment with the best weapons mixes and armor types without risking his soldiers’ lives. With wolves added to the mix… Another wolf voice, further away now, took up the cry. Ah! Messengers…

Cyneburg knew the general cared nothing for the wolves. That was alright. There were no children to ride in the wagons the human had offered. But there were three bitches who expected to give birth within the month. And many others less far along. Wind and road witness it, if the general would guard their backs, those mothers and their cubs might survive.


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The Price of Survival, S1 E1
The Price of Survival, S1 E2

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The Price of Survival, S1 E4

The Price of Survival (S1, E2): Gut Decisions

Season Content Notes: attempted genocide (off screen), child murders (off screen), prejudice, violence

It was only for the cubs-to-be that the wolf endured the touch of death on their skin as long as she had. Her brother understood human things and promised her that so long as they didn’t fight the human Pack Mother the new cubs would be safe. The wolf had already failed their cubs once.

So she had not listened to her brother’s words or the words of the human Pack Mother. She could when she wished to, but with the knife resting on their skin she burrowed down into her brother’s hold fighting her instinct to attack or flee.

Finally, the knife moved, their bonds were cut, and her brother released her.

She felt his relief, but also his fear that the human Pack Mother was only playing with them, as a cat played with its food.

She burst from her brother’s skin, endured the disorienting feel of fur growing and bones shifting.

Immediately she backed away from the human Pack Leader, giving a warning snap toward the blade the human still held, but keeping her head and tail down, her ears soft. She could kill every human in this room, though she might die in the doing. But the cubs. Even without Navin’s reminder, she would never have forgotten the cubs.

Backing up, she stepped over Navin’s human things. That upset the protector-humans for some reason. She would have simply moved away, the human things meant nothing to her. But Navin’s shirt. That human thing meant much to her brother. Still, Navin urged her to leave it be, to not anger the humans. She pawed it once and moved off to the side. She was far enough back from the human Pack Mother to feel safe and her brother assured her that the others would not attack without the Pack Mother’s permission.

The sideways move brought her closer to some of the humans. For the first time, she caught the scent of death and wolf. It was old that scent, but it lingered. She knew that scent.

Without moving, she and her brother looked closer at the humans they had dismissed. Looked and saw–

The human Pack Mother was speaking, “Do you understand me, wolf?”

Rage and grief rode them, but both knew their duty. The wolf looked back to the human Pack Mother while her brother did his best to soothe them both.

The wolf cocked her head a moment, then tried to imitate the human ‘nodding’. It was an odd movement, but the humans here wouldn’t understand her otherwise. “Come here.” the human commanded.

With Navin’s encouragement, she moved closer, staying clear of Navin’s human things that so upset these other humans. She didn’t like going back to the reach of that knife. Not when she knew she could not defend herself. But it needed to be done.

She walked until she stood before the human Pack Mother. Then, slowly, laid herself down and, holding tight to her brother, stretched out her neck as he had done only a few minutes since.

Thankfully, the human Pack Mother kept the blade away. Instead, she demanded to see Navin once more.

Immediately, the wolf retreated, and Navin rose up through her skin. These were human matters, and she was happy to leave them to him.

Once again in his own skin, Navin knelt again with his hands behind his back. It might be that the queen was toying with him, but he was beginning to think not. Not toying, testing. And he and his sister must jump through her hoops for as long as she demanded. No matter what.

Alfhard studied the man before her, not sure what to make of him. She had, more through their desperation than her skills at war, conquered the wolves. But to conquer is not to rule. If Navin was any measure, she did not understand them enough to rule them effectively, save that as with all people, they would do anything for their children.

Even as a wolf, Navin had, in the end, offered his throat.

“Stand.”

He did, with the same calm gaze that was all the expression she had seen from him.

“Very well, Pack Father–”

He shook his head, startling her into silence.

Only Navin knew how hard it was to maintain that calm face, but he knew it well. “I have given you throat, majesty. You are Pack Mother now. I am only a wolf.”

That stunned her, she had nearly as much control as Navin, but the shock showed on her face. “Why?”

“If I died with no clear successor there would be chaos and Caldelon would pick us off in the confusion.” Now it was he who took comfort from his sister. She had no name a human throat could voice, but through their soul-bond, he called to her and she came. She wrapped herself around him, crooning to ease his pain and grief. “I could not allow that.”

How much must it have cost him, Alfhard wondered, to offer up not just his life, but everything he was? She held his gaze steadily as she said, “Return Sir Wolf’s honors to him. He has more than proved his right to them today.”

For a moment, she had the satisfaction of seeing his eyes widen in surprise, then he bowed to her and when he looked up again he once more wore his mask.

But before Navin had even finished his bow, one of Alfhard’s general’s protested, “Majesty, no.” He approached the dais and Navin’s nostril’s flared, as he caught again the scent of death and wolf his sister had noticed before. “Majesty, if you will not kill this beast that is your right, but he is a monster, not a man. And if you do not wish his death on your hands I beg you allow me to challenge him and kill him myself.”

Alfhard was surprised by the wolf’s sudden stillness. He seemed for the moment to barely breathe. Curious, she asked, “Sir Wolf?”

Somehow, in that instant, he changed. Not physically, beyond his eyes changing again to that bright gold. But suddenly she had no doubt that she was in the presence of /the Wolf/. The general recognized it as well, stepping back and reaching for his sword.

His movements slow and controlled, Navin leaned forward and spat on the floor where the general had been standing. “This man who calls me monster wears my cousin’s skin across his back,” Navin growled. “He still lives only because he is yours.”

“General.” Alfhard turned to the man who had held charge of her forces for three years. “The Wolf has been accused of being many things. But never have I heard it said he was a liar. I believe you told me that your cloak was a gift from some of your soldiers.” Ashen, the man nodded. “Go start an investigation into this. Now. And leave your cloak.”

The man’s fingers fumbled as he undid the catch and let his cloak fall to the floor. Then he turned and fled the room.

Then the Wolf was gone. It was only a man standing before her. And somewhat to her relief, even his mask was beginning to crack around the edges. He crouched down and ran a hand over the fur pelt that lined the cloak. “Thank you, Majesty.” He made himself stand and for the first time met Alfhard’s gaze. “Her human name was Lila Greyfur. We found what was left of her body in one of your soldier’s camps. It was not the first such. Nor the last.

“It would mean much to her family if this could be returned to them.”

“I will see to it myself.”

He dropped his eyes then, tired, so tired. He had at last completed all his duties.

He accepted his tunic from one of her people and held it close, but did not move to put it on. “By your leave Majesty, I would return to Long Valley and do what I can to hold off Caldelon until the rest of the pack can be moved to safety.”

Navin’s sister didn’t agree with his plans, but she understood how guilt drove her brother. She would not add to his pain by fighting against what he needed.

To Alfhard, it sounded like a sensible plan, but she hesitated. Her thoughts of how she did not know enough to truly rule the wolves echoed. But so did something in his voice, in those cracks at the edge of his mask.

He came here expecting to die.

“No, Sir Wolf.” She heard herself say. “I need someone with your experience and knowledge too much to let you race off to your death. You will remain here and advise me on matters involving your– /our/ pack.”

With that single statement, Navin knew, the queen and Pack Mother had won an instant advocate and ally in his sister-wolf. She was so relieved and happy with this forced reprieve that she crowded close, her fur once again flickering over his face. Perhaps he had reached some emotional equivalent of being punch drunk because something about the whole thing tickled his humor and he surprised himself by laughing for the first time since the cubs were killed.

“Very well, your majesty. I put my life in your hands. I cannot very well complain when you do not wish to let go your prize.

“My sister, for one, is grateful to you.”

Alfhard was stunned once again by Navin’s response. “Your… sister?” she finally asked, watching the strange dance of fur across his skin fade away. The mask slide across his face. “My wolf, majesty. She is my soul-sister.”

“Your wolf… is female.” Alfhard paused. “I see I have even more to learn than I realized.” She smiled and waved forward one of the pages. “Get Sir Wolf settled in one of the guest rooms and tell the Seneschal I want permanent quarters arranged for him as soon as possible.”

He bowed and followed the page out with the same calm confidence he had entered. But she thought she had begun to see what lay under that confidence. She looked forward to learning more.

The small suite the page led Navin to was comfortable, and there were no locks on the doors. Once the page left, he opened one of the windows and looked out across the grounds. A few minutes later, a single howl rolled across the land. Of course, there was no answer.

It took the wolf some time to get the bed arranged to her satisfaction. Especially since Navin wouldn’t let her shred the pillows. Eventually, she settled down with a sigh. Against all expectation, they had survived the day. Now Navin would need to learn how to live again. The wolf? She fell asleep to happy thoughts of ripping the general’s throat out.


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The Price of Survival, S1 E1

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The Price of Survival, S1 E3

The Price of Survival, Season 1 Episode 1 — Choice of Desperation

Navin Wolf, Pack Father of the Long Valley Wolves strode into the court of Queen Alfhard as if he owned it. Looking neither at the gaping courtiers surrounding him nor the soldiers who escorted him. He looked only at Alfhard. She would have called his stare a challenge, except he did not meet her eyes.

When he reached the foot of the dais he stopped and waited. Alfhard studied him for a moment. He was smaller than she expected. Slight, with a hint of fat in his cheeks and belt. But hard, for all that.

Her examination didn’t bother Navin, he’d expected it. But the wolf within him paced fretfully. They knew what was to come, Navin and his wolf. And neither of them liked it.

The herald belatedly announced him, and his purpose, “… come to offer surrender on behalf of the Long Valley Wolves and all of their pack.”

Alfhard had known, of course, that the offer of surrender was coming. But she had expected a messenger, not the Wolf himself. That he put himself in her hands without even a promise of safe conduct spoke of either great trust or desperation. Possibly both.

“And what are your conditions, Pack Father?” she asked.

Though no one else saw it, his eyes flickered, flashing golden for a moment before returning to their human brown. It startled Alfhard, who had heard all her life of the wolves but had never met one before. She was sure it meant something but didn’t know what.

“One condition only, Majesty,” he replied, the strain in his voice belying the calm on his face. “The life of my people.”

She knew then that he was desperate. But why? He was losing the war, yes, but still had the position and forces to demand real concessions.

She accepted as Navin had known she would. In some ways, she had no choice. To reject his surrender under such easy terms would anger her soldiers, who died daily in the war, and their families who wanted them home. At her signal, the Lieutenant who headed the Wolf’s escort stepped forward.

“Surrender your weapons,” the soldier demanded. Navin unbuckled his sword belt and let it fall to the floor.

“Surrender your armor.” The brigantine took longer to remove but was discarded likewise.

“Surrender your honors.” His tunic this time, bedecked and embroidered with all the markings and honors of his life. This he folded and crouched down to place on the floor.

“Surrender yourself.” His wolf-sister tried to rise at this, but he silenced her with a memory of dead cubs. He knelt and put his arms behind his back. Rough hands grabbed him and bound his wrists together. Navin had known they would not offer him parole. Not to the Wolf.

A hand shoved between his shoulders and he bent over until his forehead touched the floor.

Alfhard walked to the edge of the dais and rested her foot on his neck. She considered him for a moment. Considered the questions she needed answers to, and dismissed her court.

Some of them wasted no time in leaving, eager to be as far away from the infamous Wolf as possible. Even in apparent captivity. Others tried to linger, looking over their shoulders, stretching ears.

But finally, the doors closed, leaving only her trusted advisors and guards.

“Why?”

“Caldelon presses us from the east. Either one of you we could standoff, but both would overwhelm us eventually.” He paused and she was astonished to see fur grow out of his skin a wave, disappearing almost as fast as it appeared. “Two months ago they sent a raid. Targetted. Our cubs are dead.”

A murmur of shock spread through the room.

It took Alfhard a moment to wrap her mind around the enormity of it. For all the atrocities by both sides in their long war, to deliberately target children, to somehow kill all the children… the life of his people. Not the condition that she would not kill them, but that she would protect them as he could not.

“I understand your condition now.”

He did not reply, focused only on keeping his breathing steady, his wolf sister calm. There was still time for this to go very badly.

“There is a valley north of here. It is smaller than Long Valley but should be large enough. The villages there were destroyed in an avalanche two years ago and the survivors refuse to return, believing it cursed. Caldelon will not be able to reach your people there. I will send messengers before the day is over.”

For Navin, the relief was beyond words. He relaxed at last. Alfhard was known for her trustworthiness. If she said it, it would be so. He could go to his death in peace.

“Thank you, your majesty.”

As if his thoughts had triggered it, there was a scrape of steel. “You asked for life for your people. But your life is mine to do as I will.”

Hugging his wolf-sister to himself he tilted his head to the side, exposing his throat. And waited.

Alfhard took the dagger her guard had offered her and rested the edge against Navin’s throat. But she hesitated. She had not expected him to beg. Not the Wolf. But she had expected… something. Some resistance or defiance. “You give me your throat?”

“I did not expect to survive this day.” There was a tightness in his voice. His voice, she noted, was the secret to reading him. “Better your blade than the noose.”

She did not know what to do. This was not the brutal monster Wolf who had terrorized her soldiers and even sometimes civilians these last ten years. There was none of the rage, the volatility she would have expected of any wolf, never mind this one.

“How can one prevent a wolf from changing?”

“You can’t.” There was a hint of a whine in his voice, and she felt her guard tense. Fur was again appearing and disappearing in patches on his skin. “At best you can make it… unwise. This,” he flexed his wrists against the ties that bound them. “I would dislocate my shoulders and probably break my arms if I tried to change now.” He stopped, breathing harshly. “A collar. Not for every wolf. For me, yes, for me. I am a small man, but my wolf is large. I would strangle myself. If I could force the change I would still be dangerous for a few minutes, but would be dead before long.”

He said nothing further, just panted like a man after a long run. Or a dog. He began to twitch, little twinges and muscle spasms.

“Majesty,” again his voice contained that trace of a whine. “It is not the way of a wolf to wait for death. If you would take your cut, do it soon.” It might have been fear, that whine. But she didn’t think so. It was strain. The strain of controlling the wolf within him.

Somehow, that was what decided her. Not his words, but that little trace of a whine.

She moved the dagger away from his neck and sliced through the leather ties on his wrists. He froze, even the constantly shifting patches of fur stopped.

“Show me your wolf.”


As someone who is aphantasic, character description does not come naturally to me. This time I have given myself permission not to worry about it. Picture the characters however you choose — but I reserve the right to give them canon descriptions later.

Continue to:
The Price of Survival S1, E2