‘No,’ said Romian, looking down at his daughter from astride the snorting Pooka. ‘You are not coming.’
Lyca looked down at herself in the flickering torchlight. She was so ready for this. The hair on her forearms was almost five inches now, her canines could rip through meat with ease and her muzzle was at least three inches from her face. At least.
‘Daddy,’ she said, primly. ‘Let me come. Please.’
Romian Silverbane eyed his daughter critically. The gossamer fur of wulfbann nobility was gradually covering her form, it was true, but you could still clearly see her youth beneath it: she still had noticeably dual breasts; her nose was still too flat and her legs – whilst admittedly shapely and crooked at the knee – would not be able to power her into a deadly pounce on to her enemies. Romian coldly estimated they would send her only twenty feet. Twenty-five at a push.
Plus, she was wearing a cloak. Nothing in the millionfold said ‘whelp’ like a woman – girl - who still needed to protect her vanishing modesties with such an embarrassingly human raiment.
He sighed inwardly. Of all the werewolf aristocracy, the Silverbane’s were without question the most prestigious, tracing their lineage back to a time when there had been naught but chaos beneath Brackenbough’s wild branches; the time of the Long Storm when the winds had howled endlessly and there was much savagery and bloodlust as even the trees themselves had been at a perpetual war for survival.
From this primordial murk had risen the first Alphathane’s – totems of lycanthropic leadership and the highest ranking werewolves of all time. It was they, and only they who were permitted to head the Ride: a nightly procession of military power involving the strongest heads of the clans – the Crimcur’s; the Rendarrls; the Baylune’s and the Fanglym - in a strong arm procession across their territories which was part-carnival and part-incursion.
Romian was the 420th Alphathane to hold the title and he guarded its honour fiercely. He had fathered a litter of eight daughters and, unlike his predecessors, including his warlike sire Grawford Silverbane, Romian had not ordered them to be thrown into the Harp with rocks around their necks at birth but had instead broken an epoch-old tradition and raised them as he would have if they had been male.
There had been mutterings and whinings, to be sure; that Romian Silverbane was a mangelick of a wulfbann who had brought irreparable damage and dishonour on all lycanthropes with this feeble heresy, and that he was not fit to hold the title of Alphathane.
Romian had ignored these scorns and set about training his daughters with all the spite and spleen he could muster; shirking no discomfort and brooking no argument. The result had been impressive, even to the naysayers: seven vicious and fiercely loyal she-wolves who surrounded and served their sire with fanatical zeal. He named them the Vix-Husken and they were his most personal guard, accompanying him at all times; instantly recognisable with their snowy white fur – a gift from their long-dead mother, who had been murdered long ago by a silver arrow fired by their mortal enemies, the Equuioux; savage tribal halfbreeds who roamed the upper north-western gullies and passes of Brackenbough.
So it was that seven of Romian’s children had defied all prejudices and secured their place in history. Which left Lyca.
What am I to do with you, child, Romian thought, as his scrawny youngest seemed to shrink sulkily into her blue robe. The Alphathane knew that the runt of the litter is nearly always the youngest, but he was a patient creature and willing to believe in the power of the millionfold that it would bless her with the strength to rise above her own shortcomings.
There was still time. All the time in the world.
‘Lyca,’ he said, softly. ‘Lyca, look at me.’
Lyca raised her head and locked eyes with her father. The old wolf was stirred when he saw them – they were the eyes of his beloved mate Freja staring back at him from across the starfold, a glowing pale jade that were in stark contrast to the molten umber that her sisters had all inherited from their father.
Romian laughed at her defiance. ‘You trying to outstare me now, girl?’
His youngest held her insolent gaze for a moment longer, then capitulated. ‘My thane,’ she demurred, bowing her head.
‘Rak,’ barked Romian, only partly testily. ‘Get up. You are my blood; you don’t need to fawn.’
He stroked the thick, black fur on his face thoughtfully, weighing the weight of what he had just said. She was his flesh; she had as much right to all the respect and privilege her sisters commanded.
He needed time to think. The Ride would help with that. He promised himself he would address the problem when he returned – it was a matter which had been delayed for far too long. Lyca would become a Huskar or she would not – there was no middle ground.
Digging his heels into his gargantuan black mount, Romian wheeled about. ‘Retire to your chambers,’ he commanded. ‘We will see resolution of your fate when I return. Prepare yourself.’
He barked a command and the Pooka whinnied a throaty bellow, surging its master forwards to the mansion courtyard where the other clan-leaders awaited.
Lyca stood for a moment, listening as the echoes of her father’s clattering departure faded. There was a faint haze of brimstone left hanging in the air from the Pooka’s smouldering flanks and she wafted it away from her face sadly before turning towards the stairs that led to her quarters in the lofts of the house.
Shafts of the new moon pooled through the open, mullioned windows onto the marble staircase as she ascended. It was late August and the slow summer heat was beginning to be tempered by a warning breath of chill that heralded Autumn’s near-at-hand presence.
Lyca loved this time of year. It fitted with her mood – one of gradual change, a hardening from sloth and carefree to a colder, more visceral outlook. She hunched her cloak a little closer around her shoulders as she climbed, one arm absently resting on the diminishing shelf of her bosom.
Unlike the firstblood wulfbann’s, who only changed their form during a full moon, werewolves of Lyca’s generation and countless generations before her were born human – completely unfettered with any distinguishing traits of lycanthropy. As time passed and they grew older, they swiftly began to mutate into adult werewolves: firstly, their canines would sharpen, followed by a rapid and permanent swath of thick fur which sprouted across their bodies. Their limbs would wither to wiry sinews and the legs would bend and drop closer to the ground by the knee, drawing in like coiled springs to facilitate the legendary lope of a wulfbann warrior.
The culmination of this mutative puberty was usually around what would have been for a human 17 or 18 years of age(in werewolf terms it put the subject closer to around 200 in terms of maturity)and one of the final aspects to change in the females were the breasts, shrinking back into the torso to be replaced by the six discreet, hardened teats of a she-wolf.
Lyca was what one might call a ‘late-bloomer’. She still owned a depressingly firm rack which seemed to show little signs of dissipation. They were always there, wobbling and bouncing in a constant mockery of her sloth. She hated them.
‘Well, well. If it isn’t our dear sister Two-Tits…’
Lyca looked up at the source of this scorn to see her seven siblings – Mistra, Huin, Rapacia, Vanya, Borea and Luna - descending the stairs towards her. They were led by Sidhe, the eldest and whose teeth bared at Lyca in malicious good humour.
Lyca snorted. ‘Bog off, dogbreath, she muttered.
Sidhe was on her in an instant, slamming her fangs together in front of her younger sister’s face in an unpleasant clanging of bone. Her beautifully manicured white claws clamped around Lyca’s throat and hoisted her bodily against the staircase wall.
‘So.’ the elder she-wolf purred as Lyca scrabbled ineffectually at her sibling’s iron grip. ‘Two-Tit’s has grown a pair, has she?’
Her six other sisters erupted in howling gale of sycophantic laughter at this sally. Lyca’s eyelids began to flutter. The world began to slip away…
Sidhe held on for just long enough to scare her – then let her go. Lyca crumpled in a rasping, rattling heap on the stairs as all seven of them loomed above her like preening goddesses.
Sidhe looked down her muzzle and shook her luxuriant white-furred head in mock sympathy.
‘Fie,’ she sighed. ‘What abortive sorrow allowed you to find your way into this world, hmm? Look at you, dear sister. You’re beyond pathetic.’
Vanya licked her lips and flecked her long tongue in an arcing bend of drool which landed on Lyca’s brow in a sickly gossamer thread.
‘Gods, sister,’ she sneered in toadying agreement. ‘You’re so right, as ever. It’s only by the holy grace of our illustrious Father that she’s even allowed to stay under this roof. He’s disgusted with her, privately – he just can’t lose face in front of the other clans by reneging on his resolve… Look at me, you insolent bitch!’
She brought her right leg up in a whistling hoof that impacted on Lyca’s side, driving the wind out of her lungs in a pitiful choke. The others took this as their cue and launched into a sustained and vicious rainstorm of claw and foot upon Lyca’s unprotected form.
For what seemed like an eternity this assault continued, broken only by hysterical fits of giggling from the other Huskar. Lyca had given up on trying to defend herself and was hunched awkwardly on one side on the staircase in a miserable half-foetal position. Rivulets of dark blood wound down the steps from her broken nose, and her eyes were starting to swell shut. The flame of awareness was very close to being snuffed out, when…
‘Enough.’ Sidhe held up a terminating hand and the barrage ceased with drilled precision – almost. Luna, who was only a couple of years older than Lyca and not long out of the fluff of girlhood herself, launched one final devastating hook-kick at Lyca’s face. A silverbolt of white light erupted in the stricken girl’s vision, carried on the tails of a sickening ringing thump which pushed an awful curtain of pain right through her head to what felt like the staircase wall behind her.
Luna danced back, grinning and shaking her paws like a pugilist who’d just scored an epic knockout against a terrible foe rather than a cowardly sucker-strike on one who was practically unconscious on the floor.
She looked up in crawling approval at Sidhe. The elder Huskar smiled and clapped gently. ‘Bravo, young one. Out dear sister will not forget such a chastising blow in a hurry!’
Lyca pulled herself in a bloody trail up the staircase wall. ‘Yeah,’ she panted, raggedly. ‘Bravo, Luna. I remember when you used to come crying to me because Rapacia and Borea had beaten you up again. I remember when you could barely bend your legs without falling over your own hindquarters trying to perfect a simple ten-foot jump. I remember you whining like a little bitch because you’d soiled your pretty white fur again and no one would help you. And now I see you’ve grown into a full-fledged, brave and puissant little coward….’
‘Shut up!!’ screamed Luna. ‘Bitch! I am a Vix-Huskar! I’m more than you’ll ever be! I will ride under the moon with Father and the clan’s with honour and respect! I will become a Queen one day! I will…’
‘Luna,’ sighed Sidhe. ‘Shut up.’
Like a good lapdog, the younger sister obediently quit yapping, favouring the prone Lyca with a smouldering glare of hatred instead.
Sidhe squatted down beside Lyca, regarding her with an imperious, sorrowing look. ‘You know this can all end,’ she said, softly. ‘It doesn’t have to be this way. We do not wish you ill will, sister. But you do not belong with the Husken. Your place is elsewhere – somewhere far away from Stoneholt.’
She grabbed Lyca firmly under the jaw and fixed her with a glowing gaze. ‘Look around you. Can you not see the dismay and disappointment you are bringing on house Silverbane? Your house? Father only tolerates you because he has an unbridled… affection for broken things.’(Sidhe stopped short of saying ‘weakness’ – although, to her, it was nothing less.)
She continued: ‘You know how this must go. There is only one resolve to this quandary. Take yourself away. Tonight. We will not hinder you.’
She released her grip on Lyca’s battered jaw, pushing her away and pointedly wiping the smirch of blood from her paw on Lyca’s now-darkened blue robe. ‘Get yourself lost in Brackenbough and never return, Lyca. You will not blight our house any longer. Take your feeble hide off into the trees and die in whatever cowardly way you see fit. Perhaps then you will know, in your dying moments, what it means to sacrifice as a Vix-Husken. For that will be as close as you will ever know.’
Lyca turned her head painfully and locked eyes with her elder sister. Her breathing was coming under control and the tide of blood from her snout had already dammed: whilst she might not have had the fecundity of her sisters, she was still a werewolf and as such was still capable of the legendary physical healing power of her kind.
‘You won’t win, Sidhe,’ she breathed, spitting out a loosened fang which was already being replaced. ‘Our Father is cunning beyond your reckoning. He will not allow you to machinate and supplant him. Do you really think to claim the title of Alphathane for yourself?’
Sidhe regarded her in silence for a moment, before smiling and running a dextrous long tongue over her muzzle. ‘I am Vix-Husken, Lyca,’ she said. ‘I will serve this family until my last breath. Whatever it takes.’
She stood slowly on her muscular legs. ‘Get you gone. Or we will not be responsible. And take this as token of our gratitude.’
Sidhe and the rest of her sisters turned their backs on her, as if it to leave. Lyca knew what was coming and tried to move, but her legs were a furlong behind the reset of her regeneration. As it was, she managed one scrabbling step before they folded under her and left her in a betrayed heap as all seven of her sisters lifted their tails and urinated on her with full force.
Lyca slammed the door to her chambers shut, siphoning off the last of her humiliation and disgust on the unyielding and uncomplaining 800 year old oaken portal.
It had taken her nearly an hour to climb the 1400 steps up to her isolated nest in a nearly forgotten south-western corner of Stoneholt’s sprawling footprint, broken as her journey was by periodic episodes of weeping, howling, occasional violence, slumped dejection and, on at least two occasions, a flat and unafraid desire to throw herself over the bannister into a whistling freefall that would only be interrupted by the explosive annihilation of her body on the tower stairwell floor.
That she had not proceeded with this latterly action had caused something of a gyroscopic shift in her. Whether it was fear of the complete lackadaisical way in which she had entertained thoughts of her suicide or just plain terror at how easily the notion had come to her, she had henceforth nulled any further emotional outbursts and climbed the last 200 or so steps in brooding neutrality.
When she reached her chambers, however – the only room at the end of a short passageway that was lit by nothing but the moonlight – a bloody surge had boiled up inside her again and followed her like flies around midden into her room. So she had let fly.
On the door.
The impact had not even created an echo in the tower walls. Such was the impregnable armour of Stoneholt, built to weather the constant tides of the tumultuous and unstable landscape upon which it was built, it had no more effect than a flea landing on the back of a rockhopper.
She sighed. Even her ancestral home hated her and would not allow her this one moment to offload.
Lyca shrugged off her soiled blue robe and shuffled across the floor of her chambers. A pallid moonglow was partitioned on the ancient flagstones, shining with silent grace through her open window.
All was quiet on this side of the manor house. Had she been in a more northerly part of the building(where her ever-loving siblings were luxuriously quartered), she would have been able to lean out of a gold-mullioned window into the faint, lambent torchglow rippling up from the main courtyard below. She would have heard the soul-shaking rumble of pooka hooves as the Ride departed for the evening; observed with fluttering heart the dazzling, noble colours of the other Clans’ flowing riding-capes as they they twisted in the evening breeze in shimmering shades of vermillion, emerald, crimson, teal and sapphire. She would have felt wanted.
But she saw none of those things. Instead, she was hustled and swept up like so much shit into this empty attic and left to rot. Her window(in the singular; she did not have the twelve-strong panoramic frames of her sisters’ rooms) looked out onto the black, silent trunks of Brackenbouugh, marching off endlessly into the distance, broken only by feeble beams of moonlight that seemed to spotlight the forest floor like a mute stageplay of sorrow.
Lyca leaned out of her window and craned her neck up at the distant starfold, couched and glimmering between the towering treetops that rose over a mile above her head. A keen breeze ruffled her short fur, cleansing the foul stench of urine that had soaked into it from her sisters’ obscene denoument earlier.
The young werewolf closed her eyes for a moment and let her short muzzle hang open, channeling the sweet wind with its warning breath of winter over her tongue.
Maybe Sidhe’s right, she thought. I don’t belong here. I’m stuck between two worlds and it doesn’t look like swinging the way I want it to any time soon.
But then… what do I want?
Lyca twisted around on the window-sill and, resting her chin on her paws, stared out thoughtfully through the dark sentinels of the treeline that bordered their estate. The upkeep of keeping them in check had not been so thorough on this side of the building and the ancient groves were starting to re-encroach their old territory, creeping back up to the walls of Stoneholt…
What’s the time, Mr.Wolf? She smiled at the thought of the old children’s game that she and her sisters had played, not far from here when they were all still just mangelicks, laughing and biting each other playfully under the watchful eye of their mother, who was then still many years from her unfortunate end on the point of a silver quarrel. Freja would sit on one of the many benches that lined the feet of Stoneholt’s walls in the gossamer moonlight of a summer’s evening and play wistful, far-ranging melodies on her threnodyn – a delicate wooden instrument that was a cross between a harpsichord and an accordion.
Lyca’s mental eye narrowed at the memory that even then Sidhe had been starting to display the domineering, bullying and snooty attitude she would later uphold. She had just passed her induction as the senior sibling into the Vix-Husken chain of command back then and already it was going to her head; she had been quick to order her younger sisters into unpleasant dares and trials but, noticeably, had not, or rarely, got involved herself. Except on one memorable occasion…
Sidhe had lured them all around to the western side of the estate. Even back then, that side of their land had been known as the Brambles for the forest had almost fully retaken the grass and byways that meandered below the old walls, creating a thick, choking green bower that always smelt of honeysuckle and sap. It retained a dark, cloying atmosphere that almost blotted out the moonlight completely. One could feel the low-frequency throb of Brackenbough’s wild, dark soul twisting lazily on the insides when walking in its shady, forgotten pathways – and it was not entirely benevolent, or even pleasant.
Most of Stoneholt’s contingency of wulfbann’s avoided the Brambles on principle – it was a haunted patch full of eerie groans and whisperings. Strange flashes of light and unearthly noises were often seen and heard there and even for a forest as enchanted as Brackennbough undoubtedly was, there was a drifting aura of menace in these manifestations, felt like distant wood smoke on a winter’s night, which made even the solidly pragmatic and fearless wulfbann uneasy. They were creatures of corporeal power – the magicks and sorceries that drifted and crackled in the forest’s inner stomach made their muzzles twitch and their hackles rise and that which walked alone under the Brambles, so close to their own sanctum, was a trial none of them wanted to bother with. So it was left well alone.
Until now. Or then.
Here they all came, seven drifts of pale fur approaching the Brambles on an unusually moonless night.
The six younger wolves were on their periphery. To the untrained eye they still resembled human teenagers, although as they drew closer one could pick out several details that showed they were undergoing that startling change into full-blood lycanthropes. Their legs were starting to bend in an unnatural crook at the knee into the clockspring haunches of adult werewolves; a gauzy white fuzz covered their taut-skinned bodies like a mistral fog. Their noses were moistening and stretching, and their ears were starting elongate at the tips, giving them an almost elven look.
The most obvious physical transformation, however, lay in their eyes. Not only were their pupils widening and swelling into full and permanent night-vision but they had all acquired the salan dorach or eyes of the dark. Their corneas all glittered like fireflies, drinking in the shadowed parkland and allowing them to see as clearly as a human would on a summer afternoon.
The younger brethren were all clad in loose-fitting, sable tunics that wound around the chest and groin. Not for any lingering concessions to humanic modesty, more as a traditional flag to their level of indoctrination. Soon, though, they would shed those uncomfortable raiments forever and feel the chill and sting of Brackenbough’s breeze on their pale fur, unfettered.
The darkness made the haunted grove look especially uninviting, and it was something of a relief when Sidhe held up her arm and brought the nervous company to a halt about fifty yards from its perimeter.
Lyca tracked her wide-eyed gaze upwards from the tangled, choking roots up, up, up to the spidery treetops which waved and turned in the breeze in a sinuous and creepy arabesque above them. Already they could see the grove reacting to their presence – dim, spectral flashes of light could be seen between the lichens and vine-stalks, blooming like distant ethereal lightening.
Stay away, they seemed to say.. You don’t want to see what makes us. You don’t want to see the lights. Go away, little wolf. Back to your mother in her moonlight. Go away or you’ll become like us. Like us forever in here. Goawaaaaaaay…
A smirched and crumbling archway marked the entrance to the grove. Once, long ago, this had been a sunken garden with many exotic and well-manicured night-blooms with which the ladies of the Alphathane’s court could wander between, howling softly in harmony together. It had stretched for over a mile down Stoneholt’s western walls, eventually rejoining the main estate parkland via an elegantly wrought stone staircase which criss-crossed back on itself up a steep earthwork to a guardhouse folly which gave onto wide, brushed gravel driveways which marched in front of the main manor house.
Now, however, it was swamped and decrepit. Hardly any of its features were still visible above the encroaching foliage, except for one noticeable exception – a towering, three-tiered onyx fountain, whose impressive spiked spire was clearly visible from outside the perimeter of the Brambles; a wicked finger pointing to the starfold above the undulating treetops..
The fountain itself had long-since dried up of any display of water, but its troughs and bowls still stood resolute in its wide, square allotment. By some long-forgotten enchantment worked into its glimmering black masonry, it still stood relatively unstrangled by tendril or bark. Its architect was as lost as the flowers that had once grown around it, but they had clearly had some nous of arcana which they had weaved into its construction, allowing it to remain defiant to the enchanted fingers that threatened to crush its surroundings.
It also had one other function.
‘Okay,’ said Sidhe. ‘You all know what to do.’
She held out her cupped paws: ‘Roll the bones.’
The six sisters responded urgently by dislocating their lower jaws and frantically grinding their fangs. This was a timed contest; the last wolf to loosen a fang and spit it into Sidhe’s grasp would be the one to play Running In The Dark – a daring foray played time out of mind by young werewolves as a test of resolve.
Its rules were simple: the winner(or loser)of rolling the bones had to venture into the Brambles – alone. Once past the gate they were to find their way through the ancient floral mausoleum to the game’s waypoint – the towering fountain just inside its perimeter. Upon reaching this location, the ‘runner’ had to howl at the top of their lungs to denote they’d reached their goal, before making their way out again.
Borea was first to win. A sickening, blistering crunch heralded her victory and she’d expertly gobbed the bloody tooth into Sidhe’s waiting grip.
SIdhe winked at her as she demurely stepped back from the circle and watched the remainder of the contest. The noise was awful – it sounded like a cacophony of dead fireworks being reanimated in each of the sibling’s mouths.
Mistra was next, yelping in juvenile delight as her fang unmoored itself from her gums. Unfortunately, she spat the trophy out with such zeal that a long comet of bloody phlegm trailed behind it. It spattered unpleasantly on the embroidered silver-and-black sash that was looped around Sishe’s waist – her colours of Huskar indoctrination that she had received only that night from Romian.
The elder sister barked in outrage. ‘RAK!’ You stupid little whelp – watch what you’re doing! This is brand-new!’
Mistra said nothing, merely shrank back from the circle in fearful misery. Sidhe could be genuinely terrifying when she was angry.
Sidhe glared at her a moment longer, a dull umber glow flickering in the depths of her eyes, then returned her attention to the remaining group.
The game was rapidly coming to a head. Almost simultaneously, Rapacia and Vanya disgorged their fangs into Sidhe’s palm, prompting a short and vicious scuffle between the two sister’s as to who shot first. This was abruptly terminated with a lightening cuff to both of their foreheads from the eldest wolf, and both girls succumbed to a bruised sulk, observing the final furlong of the game.
Now, only Luna and Lyca remained.
Both sisters locked eyes and champed faster than ever Thin runnels of bloody drool hung lazily from either sides of their mouths and the horrific noise of their sawing fangs was, if anything, intensified by its desperation.
Lyca was close. Very close. She could feel her target, near the front of her upper jaw, and was frantically trying to hoy it away. Only a miniscule thread of tissue was stopping her from victory – which she’d never had in this game, or any other callous trial that Sidhe had inflicted upon them – and by gods, she was ABOUT TO WIN HERE IT COMES HERE IT COOOOMES…
Luna spat in her face.
Her concentration was abruptly broken as she instinctively turned her head away and gasped in revulsion. As she did so, she heard a crack.
It wasn’t in her head.
Luna ejected her tooth with a squeal of victory into SIdhe’s hand. ‘I win! I WIN! You lose, smelly sis! You lose, you lose, you lose!!
Lyca wiped the bloody phlegm from her face and appealed to Sidhe: ‘Sister! Please! You saw that! She cheated!’
Her heart sank as she saw that Sidhe’s attention had(conveniently, she thought)suddenly been distracted by an uninspiring patch of rhododendrons at the edge of the treeline to their right.
Romian’s newest Huskar looked down at the bony offering imperiously, blinking as if coming out of a sudden reverie. ‘Hmm? Oh – well done, Luna. You win.’
She trained her lambent gaze on Lyca and her expression hardened. ‘And you lose. Now, get in there and be quick about it.’
Lyca began to protest. ‘But… but she…’
‘Shut up, Lyca!’ shrieked Luna, abruptly. ‘You lost! Deal with it!’
Sidhe concurred: ‘Quite right. Don’t be such a sore loser, Lyca – Luna can’t be held responsible for your shortcomings. You just don’t win things, and that is a fact you will just have to get used to.’
With that, she unceremoniously grabbed Lyca by the scruff and, before the youngest sister had a chance to further protest, flung her like a short-haired missile through the tumbled stone archway and into the inky belly of the Brambles.
She landed in an ungainly heap at the foot of the cracked staircase that led up to the entrance to the dead world that made up the Brambles.
For a moment, Lyca lay in the spindly earth and spidery branches that had drifted to the floor, huffing out dust and leaves in a dirt-devil of disgust and betrayal around her bleeding mouth. Then, slowly, she pulled herself into a crouch and took stock of her surroundings.
The first thing she heard was nothing at all. The silence that surrounded her was so heavy it was almost deafening. She could hear the lumbering march of her own blood as it pulsed past her ears.
A long, vine-choked avenue stretched away before her, shrinking into the distance. This was broken up every one hundred yards or so by either a stone ottoman or a small one-tier fountain. Broken was the only word for them – they were snarled and dessicated by centuries of growth and seemed to be being pulled apart at the seams, stone by agonising stone.
The darkness did not phase Lyca – like all her kind she had superlative night-vision, despite her young years. The gloomy promenade appeared to her in minute detail, outlined in a sharp, green tint. She could see the faded contours of her family’s crest outlined at the base of the nearest ottoman; swathes of treebeard hung across the pathway, stirring eerily in a silent breeze like spectral drapes and beyond, further back at the limit of her vision, Lyca could see(or thought she could see)… things that scuttled and loped back and forth across the pathway.
Lyca turned and looked back up the stairs she had just so ignominiously been cast down. High above, at their head, she could see, limned in moonlight, a cluster of distant heads.
A hectoring, echoing voice floated down to her. ‘What are you waiting for, little one? Daddy to come and save you? Get on with it! And don’t come back!’
A rasping intonation followed this statement, prompting Lyca to turn and quickly dance away; thus her sister’s final mocking phlegm landed only in the memory of her scrabbling footsteps. She was gone.
Sidhe was bored. It had been over an hour since they had thrown Lyca into the Brambles and the anticipation of hearing her come yelping out of the darkness with her tail between her legs had long since cooled when it became clear that this was not going to happen.
Undeterred, she had turned her attention to her remaining sisters and formed them up to practice their sparring. This had some merits as it promised some interesting variations in bloodletting: the eldest Huskar already knew who would be the likeliest victor in any given match, but it was entertaining to pitch them against each other.
Sidhe liked to pretend it was all in the spirit of hardening them to prepare for their entry into the Husken ranks when they finally flowered. This was a half-truth – in reality, she just enjoyed watching as they ripped and rent each other.
There was undoubtedly, however, a certain cold competitiveness Sidhe had in observing them clash: in her manipulative mind, she was keeping a close watch on which sister consistently emerged as the strongest. That sister would then be promoted to betathane, and would serve as Sidhe’s second-in-command when their time of flowering arrived.
She had her favourites whom she liked to pitch up: Vanya and Borea were clearly the greater aggressors; however Borea and Mistra showed a fair degree of tactical technicality. Rapacia and Huin were both bruisers who took a clear and great delight in steamrolling their opponents with little or no regard for evasive or tactical pugilism whilst Luna and Lyca, as the junior wulfbann, rarely fought their older siblings unless Sidhe was feeling particularly vicious and wished to display a burst of sadism on one or the other.
Right now, it was between Vanya and Huin. The latter was breathing heavily, her respirations cycling in a rattling, growling rhythm: the result of a textbook strike to the throat from Vanya some moments earlier.
Sidhe appraised Huin’s opponent, as she slid around inside of a piledriving left paw from Huin and uncoiled an explosive counter-kick to her increasingly irate sister’s ribcage. Vanya was an excellent fighter – she was calm, measured and calculating. She didn’t make silly mistakes. She never over-reached. She always stayed perfectly balanced, paying mindful attention to her foot-placing at all times which allowed her to slither, twist and endlessly counter Huin’s wild-card blows.
She was everything that a good Husken should be: cunning, taciturn, explosively aggressive when needed yet able to stay as cold as the moonlight. In short, she should have been the perfect choice for Sidhe when it came to selecting a potential lieutenant.
Which was exactly why Sidhe didn’t like her. She was too clever by half; when she did speak, it was in soft, measured tones similar to her own. Too much…
Too much like her. And that could prove problematic if dear sister ever took it upon herself to raise her rank before Sidhe deemed it acceptable. She would have to be watched closely….
Huin crashed heavily to the grass again, falling in the penumbra of Vanya’s shadow. The former had vaulted off of Huin’s chest and described an elegant cartwheel-kick that had detonated under Huin’s jaw.
Vanya landed gracefully a few feet away, paws neatly clasped behind her back. Sidhe acknowledged her victory with a slow, none-too-mocking clap: ‘A palpable hit, Vanya. But you must take care not to overindulge on theatrics like that in a real fight, lest you wish your marrow to be drained by a Sacker. Fancy-pants acrobatics are all very well when your opponent has a head and brain to be stunned with mummer’s moves. If you were to attempt that kind of flummery with a Drathian minion, all it would do would be to enrage it into a counter that you would find extremely painful and possibly lethal to extricate yourself from…’
She was about to continue her smug lecturing, when Rapacia stopped her: ‘Sidhe,’ she said. ‘Look at this.’
All eyes turned to where Rapacia was pointing. Lyca was emerging from the Brambles’ archway.
She was clearly out of breath, and had in her paws a dark length of vine or rope. Even at the distance the group were at, they could clearly see this appendage vibrating and dipping as whatever was affixed to the other end, which was still in shadow, clearly displayed a reluctance to be brought forth and revealed.
‘Help… help me,’ Lyca panted. ‘I can’t get him up the… stairs. He’s… he’s too… too strong.’
Before any of the other wolves could question her predicament further, there was a harsh, grating bellow that sounded like geese gargling grated glass. An enormous, tall shape smashed through the old archway, sending masonry flying in all directions. The wulfbann sisters, with the exception of Sidhe, screamed and covered their heads as huge chunks of ancient stone streaked past them with all the dread efficiency of a trebuchet shot.
Sidhe contemptuously blew away some of the vaporised stone from her face and spat at the sight of the revealed: ‘Gods,’ she muttered, disgustedly. ’Centaurs.’
And so it was. Towering over fifteen feet tall, the young colt dipped and plunged dangerously at the end of his would-be tether. Russet-brown, velvet skin stretched taut over a many-marbled torso which bunched and heaved like angry snakes, narrowing down to piebald withers and fetlocks which jack-knifed out four gleaming hooves the size of serving-plates. Protruding from either side of his chiselled head were curling ebony horns which tapered to wicked-looking tips. His bellow sounded again, crashing on the eardrums terribly in its gravelly intensity, and every so often he would snort through enormous flared nostrils and a spectre of bluish-green flame would ignite under his flat nose with a hollow rasp before vanishing.
Borea was the first to venture comment: ‘Gods, Lyca. What in the nine Hells do you think you’re doing? Is this some kind of sick joke? Where did you find this stinking nag?’
Lyca struggled as the prancing creature nearly lifted her off of the ground in its torment before winding the vine – it was a vine, they could see it clearly had growth sprouting from its sides – around her paw to steady herself.
‘I found him by the fountain,’ she said, tightly. ‘He was trapped near the treeline; this chaynevine had wound itself around his throat. I think he must have been foraging in the undergrowth and got caught up in it when he tried to free himself...’
As if to underline this account, the centaur gave a particularly distressed whinny and clawed at the offending plant with a long-fingered hand.
It was to no avail – chaynevine was one of the worst genus of enchanted plant to fall prey to. It would lurk in more docile weeds and shrubs, completely camouflaged by means of a chameleonic gene which rendered it all but invisible until the last moment when it would snap out with incalculable speed and constrict itself around whatever unfortunate had disturbed it, usually by the throat.
Vanya paced lightly around the centaur, keeping prudently clear of its flailing limbs and studied him in the round: ‘Hmm,’ she mused. ‘He’s not more than twenty hands. A young one. He must not have been forewarned by his sires. Youthful inexperience – and it’s cost him dearly.’
She looked past the irate beast and gazed towards the treeline: ‘I wonder where they are? It’s not like centaurs to wander far from their brood; they’re very familial creatures…’
As if in response to her musings a low, humming call drifted towards the group from somewhere beyond their vision in the dark woods that bordered Stoneholt’s perimeter.
The young centaur pivoted towards the sound and gave a desperate, honking and pitiful response.
It was Mistra who spotted them first. ‘There,’ she said, disinterestedly. ‘Over to the left. See them?’
Lyca craned her neck over her shoulder and strained her eyes to where Mistra was indicating. At first she could see nothing except the inky sentinels of the nearest tree-trunks – then a slight movement caught her eye…
And then her breath.
The adult centaurs were staggering. The stallion-sire was almost as tall as the gables of Stoneholt, and his broad, equine flanks were the colour of smoke and the size of a battle-caravan. The mare-sire, whilst slightly smaller and a golden palomino hue, still dwarfed all of the wolves by a good twenty feet. Long, plaited horse-hair tumbled from their heads in anchor-rope thick braids of black and ash-white, framing gimlet eyes that glowed in the darkness like distant lanterns.
Luna sneered. ‘Look at them. They’re pathetic. Why are they just standing there, like dumb-bums? Why don’t they come and get their stupid horse-boy? I wish they would – he smells of poo and dead things.’
‘They won’t,’ said Vanya, curtly. ‘If you’d bothered to do your reading, Luna, you’d know that they’re incredibly shy, for all their size. They don’t want to come closer because they’re wary of what we might do to their offspring. Why on earth did you drag him all the way out here, Lyca? He belongs with his family.’
Lyca unwound the vine around her paw as the stricken centaur suddenly collapsed onto its knees, breathing raggedly. Its mottled torso was slick with sweat and a sour stench was wafting from its body.
‘Look at him, Van,’ Lyca panted. ‘He was dying. If I’d left him there, that vine would’ve condemned him to an agonising death.’
She shook the chaynevine in her hand which rattled its leaves in a reptilian hiss. ‘I thought “I’ll just take the root out of the ground. He can do the rest.” But as soon as I pulled the thing free, it snapped round my wrist and wouldn’t let go…’
‘Little fool,’ sneered Sidhe. ‘Surely you must know that chanynevine is also known as blindbane? Even if you pull it free from its roots, it will continue to attack whatever it senses nearby. It is indomitable – only a select few things have the blessing to release its hold once attached. You’re stuck with it now… and him. Although I doubt he is long for this world.’
She jerked her head towards the ailing young beast who had ceased struggling now. His human torso was slumped awkwardly back across his broad withers, tree-like arms dangling by his sides. A line of frothy, black drool hung from the corner of his wide mough and his huge, almond-hued eyes were rolled up unpleasantly in his sockets.
Huin stepped forward and unabashedly launched glittering comet of phlegm at the centaur’s face. The beast didn’t react as it landed on his craggy cheek, except for a nystagmus twitch of one eyelid. His laboured breaths had faded to a distant susurrus, like waves upon a stony shore.
Huin sighed. ‘Psssh. He’s screwed. Can we go now? I’m beyond bored of this.’
Luna piped up: ‘Yeah, Sidhe. Can we? Please. He stinks – and I wanna see Mama before the sun rises. Let smelly sis sit here with her smelly horse-boy and his scaredey-horse mummy and daddy…’
Lyca rounded on her younger sister and exploded: ’Shut up, you little bitch! You don’t know anything! Run back to Mama, like the pathetic little whelp you are! I’ve had it with your whining!’
To her great satisfaction, Luna recoiled in shock and surprise, momentarily cowed and fearful of this unprecedented eruption from ‘smelly sis’. Luna’s lower jaw clacked uncomfortably for a second – then she turned, and with a rising wail that swelled like a clarion, took off across the parkland, dropping into a shameful four-limbed lope as she did so.
Mistra snapped her fangs at Lyca. ‘Nice one, Lyca. Now we’re all going to get it because of you! Sidhe, please – can we just go?’
SIdhe didn’t answer immediately. Instead she tracked her umber gaze over the tableaux before her: the centaur, her sisters, the distant sire’s pawing at the edge of the wood anxiously, their owl-like gaze never leaving the remaining wulfbann.. Seemed to be weighing things up in her mind.
Finally, she drew closure with one soft word: ‘March.’
She turned on one heel and began striding purposefully back towards Stoneholt. The other wolves melted in gratefully behind her… all except for two.
One was Lyca. She moved closer to the dying centaur she had so intrinsically become linked to. She placed one paw on his shivering arm, feeling the normally titanic surge of blood pulsing through his veins now reduced to a torpid flutter.
The other was Vanya. She had not moved since completing her assessment of the hybrid. Now she stood stock-still, eyes narrowed. Were it not for the measured cycle of her breathing, Vanya could have been a flawless statue of her own memory, petrified in wondering countenance for ever.
Lyca looked at her remaining sibling. ‘Van,’ she pleaded. ‘Please. You know what to do. How can we finish this? Sidhe was talking about things that can release the vine-hold – what are they?’
Vanya didn’t answer, but continued to stare at the beast and her sister, entwined, pondering.
For one awful moment, Lyca thought she was going to turn and follow the rapidly diminishing spectres of her other sisters, who were almost rounding the corner of the house, far away.
Suddenly, however, she seemed to reach a decision. ‘Wrap the vine around your wrist again,’ she said, briskly. ‘And hold fast. This is going to hurt him.’
Moving swiftly towards the pair, Vanya grimaced as she pulled a clough of her own fur from her belly and began rubbing it briskly between her paws. As she did so, she then blew sharply on it.
There was a hollow crackle and, to Lyca’s astonishment, a wraith of acrid-smelling smoke drifted from between Vanya’s entwined fingers.
Vanya opened her paws. Lyca’s eyes grew even bigger as she could see winking embers of burnt wulfbann-fur clinging to her sister’s palms like distant fire-diamonds.
‘What in the nine Hells…’ she breathed. ‘I didn’t know you were a mage. How did you…?’
Vanya cut her off. ‘Be silent. We must be quick – this charge will not last long. Hold him now.’
With that, she leapt lightly onto the centaur’s back. The beast gave a reflexive jerk of his fetlocks but did not stir.
Vanya reached for the vine around his throat. The strange enchantment on her paws suddenly flared, hissing like a cauldron.
Vanya took a deep breath – and grabbed vine with both paws.
The result was horrifically instantaneous. The chanynevine squealed and shuddered grotesquely. Lyca was dragged to her knees with a neck-snapping jerk, burrowing into the soft earth which fountained around her legs as she was hauled across the ground towards the centaur by the enraged enchanted lichen.
The centaur erupted back into its labours to free itself, a ghastly choking sound emitting from its throat as the lichen began enforcing its merciless constrictions even harder around its victim.
‘Hold on!’ bellowed Vanya. ‘Don’t let go! I have it!’
She dug her paws deeper into the constricting vine that was holding the beast by the throat. A dun-hued, foul-smelling smoke that reeked of old leaves and dead bracken jetted out in all directions, spitting and rasping.
For a moment, Lyca lost sight of her sister in this awful genie-cloud, then her visage re-emerged. She had the chaynevine wrapped around her fingers in a sizzling cats-cradle that described a glowing web of red and orange where her powerful enchantment was working its will – but she had it free from the beast’s throat.
‘Quickly, Lyca,’ she shouted, tightly. ‘I have released its hold but only for a moment. Come up here!’
Lyca puller herself to her feet and, with a supreme effort of will, leapt up onto the centaur’s broad shoulders to stand next to her sister.
Vanya held up the spitting, crackling weave that was looped about her paws. ‘Bite!’ she gasped. ‘Quickly!’
Lyca hesitated for a fraction of a second – then snapped her fledgling fangs down.
As her teeth made contact with the vine, an unpleasant feeling jerked through her brain. It was almost as if, for a split-second, there were roots covering every part of her mind, gripping her subconscious in unyielding venom. She felt the hot embers of Vanya’s spell flare painfully on the roof of her mouth, flashing down her throat in choking stars – then it was gone.
The vine was dead.
Slowly, almost reluctantly, it slid from around the centaur’s throat and hung moribund about its chest like some weird looped necklace.
Lyca and Vanya both slumped shakily against the centaur’s powerful shoulders. Both were breathing hard.
Lyca feebly shook her forearm, disentangling the last of the fetid lichen’s coils from her. ‘Thanks,’ she panted. ‘For… whatever that was. Gods – you’re hurt!’
She motioned to her sisters paws. They were blackened and raw; a faint, malodorous discharge was still wisping from them combined with an intermittent ticking sound like a cooling engine.
Vanya brushed her off. ‘It is nothing. Come – let’s get off his back; give him some room to recover.’
Lyca nodded and gently pushed off from the centaur’s shoulders, dismounting lightly. Vanya did likewise.
As they did so, the young colt was already regaining his strength, displaying an impressive constitution. He held a club-sized palm to his face and then, with scrabbling hooves, pulled himself up to his full height.
The low, hooting call of his family sounded again from where they retained their anxious vigil at the treeline. Lyca looked on in amazement as the stallion-sire reared up in relieved impatience, pawing at the air with his massive hooves and creating strange vortices before him.
Before either of the wolves could say anything else, with a final ragged grunt the young colt took off at a frightening clip towards them, the instant thunder of his hooves diminishing like fading heartbeats in their chests.
Once he reached his brood they came together in a crashing embrace, whinnying and snorting to each other in a strange, musical language that sounded as if it were being played in reverse.
The last the two sisters’ saw of them was as they retreated into the darkness of the trees; the stallion-sire draping one enormous arm companionably around his son’s shoulders. The mare-sire tarried a moment however, staring back at them.
Lyca could not speak their tongue, any more than they could hers but as she locked eyes with the mare-sire’s glittering emerald gaze she felt something pass between them – a maternal, feminine buzz that seemed to say: thank you.
Then, she wheeled about on her hind hooves, pirouetting in the air and cantering after her family. They were gone in the next instant, with only the low whoop of an eagle-owl to mark their passing.
Wolf-fur, thought Lyca, as she gazed from her window at the silent patch of treeline where they’d seen the family all those years ago. That’s what it was. That was one of the essences that released the vine’s hold. What Sidhe would never have told me. So, why did Vanya? And why in the nine Hell’s didn’t she teach me how to perform that trick?
Her sister had never spoken of that night since. Lyca had imagined they would become close after that, but it had been quite the opposite. She had grown into the same pugnacious, uppity bully that the rest of her sister’s had and attacked Lyca with just as much spite and gusto. There seemed to be no kindred recollection of how she’d once advised her sister on a lesson in life.
Lyca’s mind was made up. She would not tarry any longer. Her place was not within these walls. Her destiny lay elsewhere.
With vulpine grace, she hopped up onto the sill of her window and crouched there for a moment, feeling the breeze eddy past her into the darkness of her room behind. It felt like it was blowing everything she’d suffered back into Stoneholt’s cold, unfeeling stomach.
Let it rot there, she thought, coldly. It won’t feel it.
Turning, she reached down between her bunched thighs… and pitched forward.
Her claws bit into the ancient stone walls and, with muscles flexing in powerful sockets, Lyca Silverbane began slowly to crawl face-first down the outside wall, toe and finger claws gripping the weathered sandstone with flawless acumen.
How long had her kind had this ability? She couldn’t honestly recall – nor could she know for certain whether it had been bestowed or simply evolved over the epochs. The only other vaguely humanoid creatures in Brackenbough with this inverted, cat-like talent were the vampires(although since they had evolved the power of flight they seldom used it, deeming it uncouth and vulgar - not to mention a grind on one’s talons, dear).
Regardless, it was a feat as natural to her as her impeccable nocturnal vision. Her feet and paws naturally slid toward the next available handhold with instinctive aplomb until, within a few moments, she was within ten feet of the foot of the wall.
Lyca grinned to herself. A-a-a-a-nd...
Steadying herself with her front claws, she bunched her forearms, tucked in her legs and performed a lithe half-spring dismount from the wall to land on the soft grass in a ready crouch.
When she stood up, her mother was waiting for her.
Lyca blinked. There was no doubt. Standing about fifteen feet away was the willowy, opaque form of Freja Silverbane. She was clad in an ethereal, silken shift that undulated on some unseen, spectral breeze. Her head was shrouded in a pooled hood from beneath which her eyes shone a milky jade.
‘Lyca,’ came a velvet whisper which sounded more in her head than in her ears. ‘My child.’
Lyca stepped closer. She did not feel afraid, strangely – perhaps because it truly felt like the spirit of her dear mother with all its gentle love and warmth, but also something more. An affinity with things on other planes. An understanding.
She knew then. As she approached the gossamer phantom of her dead mother, Lyca realised that all was truly behind her now and yet never more open ahead. She was above and beyond.
She was a wolf higher. Reborn.
The ghost of Freja shimmered in evanescence, white runnels of light racing up and down her like sunlight on a millpond.
‘Good,´ she whispered. ‘You feel it, don’t you?’
Lyca nodded as she came to a halt, face to face with her mother’s essence: ‘Yes, mama. I feel it all. The trees. The grass. Your heart. Your mind. It’s all in me. All as one.’
Her mother nodded. ‘And you must go to them. They are waiting for you to turn the tide, my darling.’
‘”They”?’ asked Lyca. ‘Who are they?’
Freja’s spectre smiled, somewhat sadly but didn’t answer. Her vision began to melt away –not as an abrupt dematerialisation, but more a gentle vortex that twisted ever longer and higher into nothing.
‘The tide, Lyca.’ came her fading voice. ‘Turn the tiiiiiii…’
She was gone.
In her place, stood a form Lyca never thought in a million years she would see again.
He had grown. Life had been hard on him in the intervening years. Huge runnels of long-healed scars now criss-crossed his powerful torso and one almond eye was a milky, dead sphere in his craggy head.
But there was no mistaking the centaur.
Across his thick neck ran a raw track of red – the chanynevine had left its poisonous hold indelibly, it would seem. All this would have been curious enough, but for the fact that the evil vine was still there.
Literally still there.
It was still as dead as a tomb-door, that much had not changed… but it had not rotted. Long years had given it a sickly, mustard hue and its ancient leaves still rubbed and rattled against each other to produce a moribund facsimile of its former death-hiss.
But that was not what was truly bizarre. It no longer hung in ghastly coils around the centaur’s neck – rather it was looped and knotted under his armpits and across his barrel-chest, meeting in a complex weave just under his breastbone.
There was no doubt about it. It was a bridle.
The centaur scraped the dark grasses with one mighty hoof. Two tongues of bluish-green flame licked from his huge nostrils, taking Lyca back what felt like a lifetime.
The mighty creature gave a stuttering whinny. Lyca started.
‘… Did… did you just say…?’ she stammered.
He dipped and shook his whole upper body, and ducked his head. The whinny came again.
‘… L… L-l-lca’ he growled. ‘L… lca. L-h-h-hyca’
He extended down one huge palm. She took it.
With the grace of a tango-dancer, she was lifted into the air, traversed his body and gently deposited upon his broad back. The sour stench of frightened youth that had pricked her nostrils all those years ago was long gone, replaced by a glowing, powerfully masculine aroma that smelt of warm blood and grasses.
Lyca took one last look at Stoneholt. She couldn’t reconcile with it. It was truly as dead to her as the stone that made it.
She took the vine-fashioned bridle in her paws, and dug her heels in. The wind and thunder were hers.
Author Notes: A new tale of Brackenbough! Part II will be coming soon - for now, enjoy and any constructive criticism welcomed as always. :O)