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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