by Dawn Elliot
Kerin was no expert at forest travel, and the deep, green secrets of the Pavin Weald were likely to remain secret from him, though not from his hosts, who lived there and treated the forest as a holy place. His hosts thought him amusing as he stumbled and crunched his way along the trails. He accepted the laughter with good humor. Humor was certainly better than hostility. When the Queen sent him into the forests to act as her envoy, hostility from the forest people had been a real concern.
Now though, they teased him and fussed over his scrapes and bumps. They’d fed him and offered their terrible fermented herb beer, and he ate and drank it all. He was an envoy, after all, and it was his calling to find a place wherever he traveled, whether palace or wattle-and-daub hut.
Now the firelight flickered on the pale faces and golden hair of the suspicious forest folk, and Kerin could see, farther back in the shadows, the silvery gleam of inhuman eyes. The rhy-wolves, come to see the stranger amid their human kinfolk.
“Tell us a story,” someone said beyond the light. Other voices took up the request. Kerin could feel the seriousness below the light coaxing. The people here had no written language; they passed on knowledge and wisdom through story and song.
Kerin sat up and set aside his clay mug–secretly grateful to be distracted from the greenish, foamy drink–and smiled at his hosts. He scanned the small crowd: elders and little children, men and women, and the great, intelligent wolves circling in the shadows of the fires.
Though he had not met one, Kerin knew the rhy-wolves were as much a part of the village as the elders who’d come to greet him. As he looked around, he could begin to get a sense of the pattern here, the connections and tensions among the group, a web spun of love, envy, fears, dreams, and hopes. Kerin could feel how this place held together, and what he saw with his empathic talent was the rhydan were woven into the fabric of this place as tightly as any human.
He had been sent by the Queen to strengthen the ties between Aldis and its most secretive citizens. Kerin realized if he was to do his job and fulfill his duties as one of the Queen’s Finest, he must draw the rhy-wolves in as well. He knew just the story, with a few alterations, of course.
“Once upon a time, long ago, there was a young girl. Beloved of her family and town, she wore a red hood–a gift from her grandmother,” Kerin began. “One day, she decided to visit her grandmother, who lived deep in the holy forest. So she set out with a basket of food, with her beloved wolf companion at her side….”