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.
“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.
The Price of Survival S1, E2