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.