Copyright © 2011 Ally Blue
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
A dozen nomads attacked the Carwin Pack patrol at sunset in a part of the Char ruins where the ancient buildings leaned against each other like old women drunk on apple wine.
The patrol killed them all. When they were stacking the bodies to burn, Lynx found Rabbit’s knife strapped to a dead man’s thigh.
All his breath ran out like he’d been kicked in the stomach. Rabbit had vanished without a trace almost seven years ago, during a routine patrol in a section of Char at least a half day’s walk from here.
Lynx took the knife and the leather sheath—also Rabbit’s—and shoved them both in his satchel. Straightening up, he turned in a slow circle to get a good look at the area. Why, he couldn’t say. It wasn’t like he really expected Rabbit to pop out from behind a vine-covered pile of rotted wood and metal and say ha, only fooling, here I am. Still…
He looked. He saw nothing, not even in the deep black shadows between the buildings where only rats, roaches and spiders ever ventured. Darkness hid nothing from him. If anyone had been there, he would’ve seen.
“Lynx? What’s up?”
Lynx glanced over his shoulder at Owl. “Nothing. Just checking the perimeter.”
Owl nodded, large pale eyes swiveling this way and that, making him look eerily like his namesake. “Everything okay?”
“Yeah. I don’t see any more of these guys hiding nearby.”
“Good. Wolf says he doesn’t smell anyone either.” Owl focused on Lynx’s face with a stern frown. “You took something off one of the bodies. What was it?”
Lynx didn’t want to show Owl. He wanted to keep his discovery to himself. But that was ridiculous, and selfish. The rest of the Pack had lost a Brother when Rabbit disappeared every bit as much as he had.
Opening his bag, Lynx pulled out the knife and sheath and held them in his outstretched palms.
Words weren’t necessary. Owl paled when he saw the weapon. His eyes closed, his jaw going tight. He opened his eyes again and stared straight into Lynx’s. “Thank you, Brother.”
Lynx nodded. He put the knife away, and they didn’t speak of it again.
They finished their planned sweep of the most ancient part of Char and headed home two days later. Lynx was glad. He didn’t like the way the back of his neck itched here as if someone he couldn’t see was watching him.
Back in Carwin, the Pack gathered at sunrise the day after the patrol returned to hang Rabbit’s knife in the Memory Tree. Since he’d found it, Lynx was given the honor. He jumped, grabbed hold of one of the wide lower branches, pulled himself up and shimmied as close to the end as he could, to where a green bottle made of something thin, light and flexible dangled from a leather strip. Bear had found the bottle in Char during one of their first patrols together, and had kept it in his trunk.
It was all they had left of him. He’d been gone five years now. Gone into the wilderness with Dragon, the exile from the west, looking for a place where they could be together.
Lynx smiled, thinking of Bear’s face when he’d found that bottle. He’d been so excited to hold a little piece of the vanished old world in his hands. Lynx hoped he’d gotten what he wanted, and that he and Dragon were safe and happy somewhere.
Untying Rabbit’s sheathed knife from his thigh, Lynx peered at the branches arching around him. Knives, necklaces and other things dangled among the bright green of the spring leaves, memorials to Pack Brothers lost over the years. They hadn’t hung a memory of Rabbit before now, because Rabbit hadn’t left anything behind except clothing. Now that they had something more permanent for the tree, Lynx almost wished they didn’t. At least before, he could hold on to the faint hope that Rabbit was still alive.
None of them could hope such a thing any longer. A nomad wouldn’t have Rabbit’s weapon unless he was dead.
His throat tight, Lynx secured the leather strip looped through Rabbit’s knife sheath to the branch beside Bear’s strange old bottle. He ran his fingertips over the knife’s handle, where Rabbit’s hand had worn the deerskin wrapping smooth. “May the Great Mother hold you always.”
“And the Mother protect us all,” the men on the ground murmured in answer.
Lynx looked down at them. Twenty-nine men. Some he’d called Brother most of his life, a few he’d helped initiate from the trainees into full Brotherhood less than six moon-cycles ago. All of them his Pack. His family. Every one of them understood what the loss of a Pack Brother meant, whether they’d personally known Rabbit or not.
He thanked the Mother for each of them. How did others survive the pain of losing someone they loved without a Pack to comfort them?
“Goodbye, Rabbit.” He touched the knife one more time, swung his leg over the branch and dropped to the ground.
That night, he lay pressed tight between Wolf and Kitten and pretended the c**k inside him and the one rubbing hard and hot against his own were both Rabbit’s. He wasn’t sure why, exactly. Neither of the Brothers sandwiching him were remotely like Rabbit—especially Wolf, nearly as big and solid as Bear against his back—and he’d never been given to flights of imagination before. But years ago, Rabbit had always been the one to lie with him after patrol and f**k away the tension Char left behind. Sometimes he missed that. Tonight, for some reason, he missed Rabbit’s touch with an intensity that surprised him.
Wolf came with a low groan, then wrapped one huge hand around both Lynx’s and Kitten’s c**ks, stroking them together. Kitten trembled and mewled like his namesake, his nimble little tongue lapping the sweat from Lynx’s neck. Lynx let his release wash over him, his legs tangled with Kitten’s and his fingers digging into the hard muscle of Kitten’s ass. Kitten’s c**k pulsed against his, their mingled seed flowing warm and wet over his shaft, his belly and Wolf’s hand.
As was his habit, Wolf pulled out of Lynx’s body, patted his hip, rolled over and went to sleep without another word. In the faint moonlight leaking through the window of the building where the Pack slept in one big huddled group, Lynx caught the flash of Kitten’s wide blue eyes. He laid a warm hand on Lynx’s cheek. “Are you all right, Brother?”
“Yeah.” Lynx smiled at Kitten’s worried expression. Just like the animal the Seer had named him after, the young man was small, sweet, cute and fond of cuddling. But in the two years since he’d been initiated into full Brotherhood, many enemies had learned not to judge a warrior’s skill in battle by his size or his looks. Kitten was fierce and deadly with a knife. Lynx brushed a strand of damp black hair away from the round, pale face. “I miss Rabbit.”
Kitten had never known Rabbit, not really, even though he’d been a boy in the training camp when Rabbit was still alive and safe in the Carwin Pack. But he was Pack, and Pack took care of their own. He wound his hand into Lynx’s braids and planted a gentle kiss on his mouth. “He walks with the Mother now.”
Lynx shut his eyes, savoring the warmth of Kitten’s slight body against his.
For years, the nomad gangs had been growing bolder. The Pack sent more and more frequent patrols into the heart of the Char ruins, but the attacks on outlying Carwin farms continued to increase. Just over a moon-cycle after Lynx found Rabbit’s knife on the dead nomad, an entire family was slaughtered and a field of crops burned within sight of Carwin’s walls. After that, the Carwin Tribal Council called an emergency meeting with the Pack leaders to decide what to do about the growing threat to the tribe’s safety.
“We’ve not spared any of them,” Owl insisted, not for the first time, standing before Mother Rose and the council along with Lynx and Wolf. “Every one of the Mother-damned bastards we’ve come across on patrol, we’ve killed.”
“So you’ve said. Repeatedly.” Councilor Tolly eyed Owl with dark suspicion from beneath his heavy brows.
Lynx fought back the urge to bare his teeth at the fat old man. “With respect, Councilor, Brother Owl’s telling the truth. Just in the past two patrols, we’ve killed at least thirty of them.” His fingers twitched toward his knife. “They’re starting to hit us in larger numbers, you know. Maybe you’d like to help us fight, if you can remember how.”
The ten members of the council stirred uncomfortably around the long wooden table in the center of the council room. Dust motes agitated by the movement turned in a sunbeam falling across the table from one of the large open windows.
Owl laid a hand on Lynx’s shoulder and squeezed, meaning be still, Brother. Still fuming, Lynx subsided. This was why Owl led the Pack. He was a warrior without equal, but he also had the patience to deal with the council. Lynx didn’t. Sometimes he wished he could go back in time to when he, Bear and Rabbit used to sneak into the council building and steal wine from the storage rooms or hide in this very chamber and listen to things they weren’t supposed to hear.
A frown creased Mother Rose’s brow. “You are killing more of the nomads each time you patrol inside Char, yet they’re still attacking you in greater numbers each time, and also growing so bold as to murder our people within sight of our walls. Why?”
“We don’t know, Mother.” Owl glanced at Lynx and beyond to Wolf, standing solid and silent as a stone at Lynx’s other side. “But I think we can all agree that the situation has become quite severe.”
She nodded, one long snowy braid falling over her shoulder. “Brother, where are they coming from?”
Lynx, Owl and Wolf exchanged another glance, and Lynx’s pulse sped up. That was the real question, wasn’t it?
“We’re not sure.” Owl’s long fingers flexed, straightened and dropped from Lynx’s shoulder. “But we’ve talked about it—Lynx, Wolf and I—and we believe they may have a nest inside Char.”
All the councilors started talking at once. Mother Rose stood and shushed them with a sharp gesture. She stared straight at Owl, her dark eyes calm but intense. “I see. So these gangs may not be quite as nomadic as we’d always believed.”
Her shoulders hunched, as if the terror of that knowledge was a physical weight. “Your recommendations, Brother Owl?”
Owl launched straight into the plan they’d discussed through many long nights since coming to the unwelcome realization of why the gangs never seemed to diminish. “Obviously, we can’t do anything until we know where they are. So we think the best thing to do is send in a small group—three Brothers—to find them. Nothing but that. Just find the nest. Once we know where they are, we can take the Pack in and wipe them out.”
“It’s a stupid idea.” Councilor Tolly turned to Mother Rose with an irritated expression. “Rose, you can’t allow this. They’ll be caught for sure.”
She pinned him with a withering look. “You will address me as Mother Rose, Councilor. Remember yourself.”
He cringed. Lynx bit the insides of his cheeks to keep back the threatening laughter. Normally, he felt sorry for anyone caught on the wrong side of Mother Rose’s intimidating glare. But not this time. Councilor Tolly needed to be taken down a few notches.
The councilor bowed his head. “Your pardon, Mother.”
Mother Rose turned her attention back to Owl. “I assume you have reasons to believe you won’t be caught?”
Lynx heard the worry behind her words. He and his Brothers shared that worry, and it had nothing to do with any of the Pack becoming a meal for the cannibalistic nomads. Carwin was a well-built, secure city—it had to be to survive on the outskirts of the dangerous Char ruins—but it wasn’t impregnable, and the Pack knew all of its secrets. No one knew what the nomad gangs were willing to do to extract information from a prisoner, since they’d never bothered taking prisoners in the past. And even the strongest Pack Brother was only human.
“Yes, Mother.” Owl curled a finger around the dangling end of the leather tie securing his knife sheath to his thigh, the only outward sign of the nervousness Lynx knew he felt. “The three of us have discussed it at length. We believe our best option is to enter nomad territory under cover of darkness, avoiding any contact with the gangs. They’re active at night, but they tend to gather in groups in one spot and stay there. They tend to have a fire and make a lot of noise. That means they’re not only easier to spot at night, but also that it’s easier to avoid being seen by them, as long as we keep our group small. That’s why we’ve decided to go in with only three men.”
“We’ve chosen Brother Lynx to lead the mission and Brothers Fox and Kitten to accompany him,” Wolf added. “We believe these three have the best chance of getting in and out without being captured.”
“And if you are captured, Brother Lynx? What then?” Councilor Tolly frowned at Lynx, thick fingers picking at a knothole in the wood of the table. “I don’t like it. The future of our entire tribe could be at stake here. I think this plan is too risky to hang the fate of Carwin on it.”
“It’s risky, yes.” Owl darted a sidelong glance at Lynx, who gave him a faint, humorless smile in return. The plan had been Lynx’s idea, and the two of them had argued about it before asking Wolf for a third opinion. “But the old methods of dealing with the gangs are no longer working. If we want these attacks to stop, we’re going to have to take the risk to find out where the nomads are holed up and how to root them out. As the Pack leaders, the three of us believe the plan we’ve presented to you is the best way to do that.”
Mother Rose nodded. “Very well. I believe your plan to be a good one and am inclined to approve it. Councilor Tolly, your objection has already been noted. Are there any others?”
Councilor Marigold stood, thin shoulders hunched. “I agree with Councilor Tolly. This is too risky. The Pack all know the city’s weaknesses too well. If the gangs learn about them, they can march right into our city and take it.”
“Not if we fight them. We’re not completely helpless ourselves, and we’ll have most of the Pack here to protect us.” Councilor Leland rested both elbows on the table and steepled his fingers. “Maybe this will spur some action on getting repairs made to the wall. I say let Brother Lynx put this plan into motion. They say they believe they won’t be caught. I trust their judgment.”
No one else spoke up, but most heads around the table nodded. Mother Rose surveyed her council without hurry before turning back to Owl, Lynx and Wolf. “Very well, Brothers. Since only two councilors dissent, your plan is approved. You may go as soon as you are ready. Inform me before you set out.”
“Yes, Mother.” Owl bowed. “Thank you.”
She nodded. Her solemn gaze fixed on Lynx. “Be safe, Brother. May the Great Mother go with you.”
He bowed. “Thank you, Mother.”
The three of them left the council chamber. Outside in the morning sunshine, they thumped each other on the back and grinned and called it a victory, because it was. Still, the hard, fiery knot in Lynx’s gut didn’t feel like the usual pre-patrol anticipation.
Something besides nomads lay in wait in the ruins. He felt it deep in his bones. Had felt it ever since he took Rabbit’s knife from the dead man in Char. Whatever it was, he both wanted it and dreaded it.
Walking back to the Pack compound with his Brothers, he tipped his face up to catch the full force of the eastern sun. Mother, help me.