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.”

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, 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.