I snorted, turning away to look down into the dark street. I posted the chair by the window to observe the comings and goings of the populace. Very little of either occurred. Nothing moved, for in the aftermath of the battles and riots, the citizens kept close to home and hearth. Only the criminal element and the royal Federates stirred in the street below. Neither seemed interested in The Royal Crown. After the five soldiers took away their prisoner, I had seen none since. As I watched, a cur slunk out of an ally, sniffed along the doorway of a merchant’s stall, then moved on.
“Let’s get drunk,” he suggested.
I looked down into my mug of ale. I had grown to like the stuff. If the Kel’Hallan beauty had indeed summoned Brutal’s troops, we would need our wits about us.
Regretfully, I shook my head. “No. Not now.”
Rygel sighed, looking bored. I could see he felt energetic now that he had food in his belly. His eyes looked brighter, his disposition sunny, his smile less tremulous. Yet I knew his sudden surge would last perhaps an hour. Then he would lapse into a deep restful sleep.
He suddenly eyed me with speculation. “How did you get your name?”
I shrugged. “My parents, of course.”
“Not Raine, fool. Why did the Khalidians call you The Wolf?”
“Why is that important?”
“Just humor me, all right?”
I sat back from my window view and propped my boots on the table. Rygel watched me with ill-concealed impatience as I took a long draught of my ale. I swirled it about in my mouth, allowing my tongue to saver its rich flavor. I swallowed it and took another, again swirling and savoring. Rygel’s glare all but split my head in twain.
At length, I gave up the pretense and shrugged. “I don’t know. Why do you ask?”
“Because there is something decidedly wolfish about you.”
“In looking at you I’m reminded of an old legend.”
“I am a legend.”
“Right.” He tried to wither me with a look. “A legend in your own mind.”
“Get serious, will you? I am.”
I drank more ale. Despite the knowledge I shouldn’t get drunk, I felt I was well on my way. I found an intense disliking for the turn Rygel’s conversation was taking. My belly felt fluttery, as though a family of rabid squirrels set up housekeeping in my stomach. The ale I’d drunk and the food I’d eaten made me feel slightly queasy. Fervently wishing he’d change the subject, I knew any hope of that was well-nigh impossible. When Rygel got his teeth into an issue, he was worse than any old terrier.
Why should his choice of conversation subject bother me so? It should not, but something deep inside my soul told me Rygel trespassed in territory I had long since marked no trespassing. When it came to wolves and me in the same sentence, I wanted no part of it. Gods above and below, those damn wolves….
“Long ago in Khassart,” Rygel resumed slowly, his tawny eyes fastened squarely on me. “I heard tales of men who could turn themselves into wolves.”
I rolled my eyes, exasperated. “I repeat…so? Your country has magic. You said you can turn me into a toad, I imagine you can turn yourself into anything you want, including a wolf.”
“I can, but that’s not my point. These men were not wizards, not magicians, not a one of them had magic in their blood.”
I opened my mouth to protest, but his raised hand forestalled me. “Wait, Raine, please. I feel this is important.”
It wasn’t his impatience that convinced me to allow him to have his way. Rather the powerful lack of it stopped me cold. For the first time since I’d met him, his catlike eyes held nothing but a strong, yet quiet sincerity. I shut my mouth, cut my eyes from his and drank more ale. For some odd reason, it no longer tasted very good.
“These men were not all from Khassart,” he resumed. “I’d heard this legend in other realms that knew next to nothing about magic. The man-wolf creature is extremely rare, yet every culture speaks of the legend. Another odd thing I noticed, no matter the country or the language or the culture, the creature is always named gai’tan, the werewolf.”
Deep within me, something stirred in recognition. Like a faint scent wafting on a summer breeze. Or the ghost of a ghost of a ghost. Distantly, I heard the dim howling of wolves under the light of a full moon.
The squirrels in my gut reproduced and repopulated into my heart and lungs. My pulse pounded in my ears. My breath snagged in my throat and refused to travel any further. I tasted fear on my tongue. Gods above and below –
Frantically drawing air into my lungs, I tried to raise some scorn. Yet even to my own ears, my voice rang false. “Werewolves? I suppose they could turn themselves into wolves only at a full moon and murdered little children in their beds?”
Rygel smiled. “Not at all. A gai’tan is a man born with the soul of a wolf. Therefore, he is both: man and wolf, in one body. No murder involved.”
“There are no such things as werewolves.”
“The first time I saw you, I saw a wolf. Not a man.”
I forced an eye roll. “Your brain was also fried by tros. As an argument, that is rather pathetic. You need to do better than that.”
“I know what I saw.”
I twirled my finger in the air around my right ear. “You’re crazier than privy-bound rat.”
Rygel smiled, a calm understanding smile. It was one of those I-know-more-than-you smarmy smiles. I clenched my fist to prevent it from erasing that irritating smile from his face.
“Search the inner-most rooms of your soul and you’ll know I’m right.”
“Search this.” I used a gesture more commonly used slaves and not by the landed gentry.
Rygel laughed. “Face it, you know I’m right.”
“You’re a lunatic.”
I shook my head in negation, trying hard to make Rygel’s words in my mind be as foolish as they sounded spoken aloud. A man and a wolf who shared one body? Nonsense. That was impossible…wasn’t it? Of course it was. The sudden high heat in my blood, the sudden sweat I felt trickling down over my ribs came from the horrid summer temperature. Of course it did.
Rygel’s soft voice, so quiet that I should have been able to ignore it, caught my attention more than had he shouted. I couldn’t help it. I looked up.
“You know something.”
I studied my lap. Words came to mind and immediately passed through to vanish, disappear, unspoken. What do I say? What could I say? That my soul recognized the legend when I had never before heard of it? That I felt a very odd kinship with the wolves who haunted my sleep every night? Dare I speak thus he would think me mad. Maybe I was mad. I had to be mad.
I rubbed my hand down my face, feeling the stiff bristles of my new grown beard. I hated beards. “Wolves have haunted me ever since I can remember.”
He straightened in his chair. “Haunted? How so?”
“In dreams. I hear them howling. But lately -“
I couldn’t go on. This was crazy. Utter lunacy.
The eagerness in his eyes, his half-smiling face, the new sharp attention he riveted on me gave me some measure of courage.
I swallowed a large gulp of ale. “But lately I’ve heard them when awake.”
“The moment you and I met.”
Rygel nodded, as though he had expected that. “And?”
“When Lionel summoned me to the palace.”
“I guessing that these are some kind of premonitions, no?”
“No,” I snapped, standing up. “They’re just the insane dreams of a mad killer. They don’t mean a bloody thing.”
I paced away from the table and leaned against the wall next to the window, my back to him. Staring sightlessly down into the dark, empty street below, I clamped down on my anger. “I’m not this – gai’tan – creature, Rygel. They called me The Wolf because I can kill as efficiently as any furry predator. No more than that.”
“Whatever you say.”
His mild response failed to quiet my anger. He did not intend to let this matter drop that serene tone told me. You bloody well better, Rygel me lad, I thought. You might have all the power of the universe at your fingertips, but I can still break both your legs.
“Denying it won’t help matters,” he said.
“I am not a werewolf.”
“You are gai’tan.”
“And you are so full of shit you squeak going into a turn.”
“Try it. Turn yourself into a wolf.”
“Your mother was a wolf.”
“Drop it before I drop you out this damn window.”
“All right, all right. No need to get angry.”
I see plenty of reason to be angry, I thought, but took a deep breath to wash away my irritation. It helped, barely.
“I have an idea,” he exclaimed.
“Usa’a’mah, save us,” I muttered.
“We need a ceremony.”
I kept my back to him, wishing he would just shut up and go to sleep. “Whatever for?”
His excitement grew; I heard it in his voice. “In my land, men who grow as close as kin brothers, as we have done, hold a ceremony. Become ehlu’braud, the Brothers of Blood.”
In spite of myself, I was interested. I turned around at last. “This is common in your country?”
“Not very. Only those who share what we have shared should be ehlu’braud. We each saved the other. Without one, both would have perished. That is why we need a ceremony. A ceremony that will make us brothers in the eyes of the gods.”
“So what do we need for this ceremony?”
“Wine. I bet Leoda has the right kind.”
Before I could stop him, Rygel dashed out the door, his feet clumping down the stairs. I slowly returned to my chair at the table and took another deep draught of my ale.
Me? Become brother to a man I had known scarcely a week? Forced to agree, I realized that Rygel and I shared a bond that few men could ever hope to share with anyone. He risked all, all he had to give, for me, not once but twice. He saved my life, me, Raine the Wolf, a virtual stranger to him, a runaway slave. I risked my life to save him from the slavery of tros addiction. What two men could ever claim that?
I had sisters, but no brothers. When I was small, I always wanted a brother. A brother with whom I could ride and wrestle. A brother with whom I could quarrel and laugh. A brother with whom I could share the possibilities of manhood and the mysteries of women. A brother I might name my son after. A brother who loved me unconditionally, whether I be prince or pauper, wealthy or poor, slave or freeman. The memories of my childhood before slavery flooded me, swamping my soul with pain and grief. The more I thought about it, the more intrigued I grew. I finished my scanty meal, pondering the implications.
Rygel burst back in a few minutes later, his right hand clasping the neck of a wineskin. A very old wineskin. I eyed it dubiously.
“Why that stuff? It must be vinegar by now.”
“It’s called mead. Brewed in Khassart.”
“A wine made from honey. You’ll like it. Trust me.”
I sighed. I hated it when he said that.
Rygel set the skin down on the table and began fussing with cups, parchment and a tallow candle. Suddenly he stopped, staring at me.
“Um,” he began slowly. “I didn’t even ask if you wanted to be my brother.”
His face colored a faint pink with embarrassment, and I immediately read the thoughts behind his amber eyes. He feared I would reject him. The hurt of such a rejection would wound beyond all healing, I sensed, for we did indeed share an uncommon bond.
I wanted to smile at his worry, turn it into a jest. My instinct told me that such a jest would break his heart rather than soothe his concern. He would laugh and smile, and the mead would disappear into his cup and he would never speak of it again.
Instead, I locked gazes with him and spoke quietly and sincerely. “I’d be honored.”
Satisfied and happy, he finished his table arrangements, setting out cups and pouring the mead. Rummaging through his packs until he found a length of leather strapping, he set that beside the wineskin. Then he blew out all but the one tallow candle. Setting his dagger beside the candle, he looked at me.
“I expect so. What’s that for?” I nodded toward the dagger as I rose from my chair.
“We need blood.”
I quirked a brow at him, inviting further explanation, and he shrugged as though everyone knew but me. “We cut each other. If the gods approve of our brotherhood, our blood is shared and we are blood brothers. If not.” He jerked his head in a yea-no gesture. “Then we bleed a bit.”
I sat opposite him at the table, eyeing the knife. While I had faced countless daggers in the hands of enemies, been cut, stabbed and sliced nearly as often, I’ve never used a weapon in cold blood, much less on someone I cared for as much as I did Rygel. To my surprise, the idea bothered me a great deal. I hoped I could do it.
Rygel poured mead into the cups and lifted the dagger.
“We cut our wrists, then tie them together,” he explained. “Some of our mixed blood drops into the wine. And we drink.”
“I have to chant a pryesr to the gods, but yes, that’s all.”
I allowed him to take my left wrist and cut a three-inch gash lengthwise down my inner arm. He quickly handed the dagger to me and exposed his own wrist. Ignoring my blood dripping onto the table, I lay the razor edge against his skin. Without allowing myself to think, I held my breath and rapidly slashed. Praying I did not cut him too deep, I set the dagger down.
To his credit, he winced neither in pain nor at the sight of his blood welling from the deep cut.
“Perfect,” he approved.
Once more taking my arm, he set our bleeding wrists together, forearms touching, and reached for the strap. With his left hand and his teeth, he tied the leather around our arms nearly tight enough to slow the bleeding yet not so tight as to cut off circulation entirely. Blood continued to run down our arms and drip onto the table.
Rygel caught a few drops of our mingled blood into each cup. Oddly enough, I felt little pain from the deep wound. Only the tight strap bit into my flesh and caused minor discomfort.
“Close your eyes,” he commanded.
I obeyed. The candlelight flickered dimly behind my closed lids. I heard Rygel begin an odd lilting chant, the words in a language I had never heard before, not even in his curses. His voice rose and fell softly, the cadence relaxing, soothing. My heart beat slowly in rhythm to the chant and a calm lethargy filled me. For a moment, I felt as though I would fall soundly asleep. Or perhaps I would fall into a trance.
A sudden sensation in my arm jolted me and I nearly opened my eyes. A half pain and half burning ache spread from my hand to my elbow, growing in strength and ferocity as Rygel’s chant continued. Something told me that to move or open my eyes would break the spell, if a spell it were indeed.
I forced myself to remain calm, and I focused instead on Rygel’s voice. The lethargy returned slowly, the trance reasserting itself. My pulse quickened and slowed in rhythm to his pryesr, the throbbing in my arm building into a sharp crescendo.
Then as suddenly as it began, the pain and Rygel’s voice stopped at the same instant. For a moment my head spun, vertigo making me woozy. My body lurched as though my heart stumbled, causing a tidal wave in my blood. When the feeling passed, it left behind a slightly nauseous belly, a headache, and an odd feeling that I was no longer the same man.
I heard Rygel draw a sharp intake of breath, and let it out on a long sigh. “’Tis done,” he said. “The gods have approved.”
I slowly opened my eyes. In the dim light of the candle, Rygel looked pale and drawn, exhaustion lining his face and eyes. He worked the strap, his fingers fumbling tiredly with the knot. I gently pulled his fingers away and untied the strap myself. I flexed my stiff fingers, discovering the slash in my wrist was gone. Without a trace. The cut left not even a scar.
I took Rygel’s arm and turned it over. He could not heal himself from his injuries the day before. However, his arm now was as clean as mine.
“Now we drink.” He pushed a cup toward me and lifted his own with a faint grin.
I raised it, returning his smile. “A toast?”
“To us, braud,” he said. “My brother.”
We clinked cups and drank deep.
“Turn yourself into a wolf.”