Gareth was not like his cousins who followed the orders of their distant clan lord. He had come to the estate of Count Wolfram out of duty and personal interest, not out of love for his fellow wolf.
While Marrok and his wife needed little convincing to stay with their lord after the eclipse had passed, Gareth had not intended to do so. He and his pack were not unlike the guild men who disliked the idea of sheltering within the confines of a castle. The humans had a home as did his pack–a place among the grassy plains, full of blue skies and open air.
But he knew he could not leave. Over the last half-year he had come to question the world he had previously understood. He had observed the explosion in numbers of the Unthings along the river. He had puzzled over their increased aggression towards other creatures. And then he witnessed the transformation of this current clan leader from shadow beast back to man.
Gareth knew some wolves were destined for normal lives. Then there were those set apart for a greater purpose. The Count was one–clearly unrivaled in magic power.
The wolves who had seen the terrible potential of their lord all understood that a new order was being shaped. As this Count Wolfram reclaimed the wood witch as his mate, the younger clan members thought it lovely. But he and the others knew the real truth. Their pairing–devised by their clan years ago–did not come out of a sense of altruism or romance. It had been born of necessity. The clan would not allow itself to face extinction ever again.
And now within the woman’s womb mixed the blood of lost races. He, like the wolves, stood by and waited for her to give birth. They waited to plan for a future where wolves would no longer need the kindness of others in order to survive in this changing world.
Gareth knew his place. Until the witch gave birth, the wolves would keep watch.
They did not ignore the brutal murders of the townspeople of Winchester. They investigated in their own way, choosing to observe this part of the world’s pattern. This time it would be humans, not wolves, who were being savagely trashed.
He did not need to be persuaded to return with a small patrol to the town to the south. Gareth placed his wolves into one of the discreet patrols exploring the land outside the Wolfram estate. They waited in the woods that surrounded Crossroads.
His light-colored eyes observed that ravens did not circle over this human town. Instead they and the other creatures kept a respectful distance from the towers where guards stood.
For many hours, he studied those towers and the guards inside them. The towers were positioned to allow those within them to see who approached via the Great Highway. But for days and weeks, neither guild men, lions, nor wolves had seen visitors approaching this place. Why the guards remained at full strength made little sense until he realized the men were not so much watching the outside as the inside.
The younger ones took hold of that idea. They asked him eagerly if they might sneak inside this town. But Gareth refused. He knew very well that as wolves or men they could not exactly stay hidden for long in a foreign place.
And so Gareth turned his attention to those ravens perched in the trees. He knew the stories of when ravens and wolves traveled together. The practice had lapsed when the wolves’ numbers had collapsed. But Gareth believed in tales.
He made a small noise, calling them to him. They did nothing until he threw a bone out to draw their attention. Finally a bird perched upon a branch close to him but well out of his jaw’s reach.
The tree branch creaked under the weight of this bird. Gareth was careful not to approach too close to the bird or his sharp beak. He was aware that the bird would be a certain menace if cornered. In a low voice, Gareth growled his greetings.
To his surprise, the bird answered in an elven tongue. “A bone is not a good offer. Wolf, what do you wish for in exchange?”
The elves had said that ravens were intelligent and shrewd. This one flipped its head to the side waiting for his response.
The wolf grinned, delighted by the direction of this conversation. “We share a meal with you if you answer this: Why do you not fly inside the town? Surely there is something to scavenge?”
The bird croaked out its response. “No. We cannot easily cross inside. Why should we go where there is little to find when bodies come out one by one? We wait for them instead.”
The wolves muttered among themselves as they thought through the implications of such a response. Gareth turned around and nodded his head at one of his pack. The younger male brought a rabbit forward and tossed at the raven’s feet as an offering.
Food made the ravens careless and noisy. The wolves repeated their offers of food as the birds answered more questions. Eventually Gareth coaxed them into revealing that while daylight had returned, few people roamed the streets save the guards and the red cloaks who ordered them around.
“They view us as evil,” the birds cackled. “Because we defile the dead by eating them. But we perform the service just the same.”
And they continued to flirt with the wolves, revealing that none left the town save the undertaker who buried the dead.
But as helpful as the ravens might be they slyly hopped away when asked where the undertaker took those bodies. They feared the wolves would steal away their carrion.
It would take another day before the wolves spotted him, emerging from the town sometime before dawn. The smell of rotting flesh preceded him and his helper, spreading over the woods and announcing the contents of the cart his poor horse pulled.
The ravens moved, loudly taking to the air to circle around the man and his cart. Gareth frowned at their foolishness. Unlike the birds, he and only one other wolf would track the undertaker.
The humans moved south for half an hour before they disappeared down a grassy road.
Gareth quietly watched as they pulled the cart to the remains of what might have been a watermill. There they began to stack bodies into its rubbled foundations, occasionally scattering a vial of shimmering powder over the corpses before shoveling more dirt into the hole.
When the humans finished their work, the undertaker’s companion threw additional objects into the mass grave. Gareth could only count the items and guess at their shapes. He could not fathom the meaning of the ritual this follower performed.
But he saw the man raise his gaze to the trees where the ravens were watching. A wrinkled smile played around his lips as he kicked the dirt, as if he invited them to feast.
A premonition of trouble came to Gareth as he saw the men leave and the ravens performed what nature called them to do.
He slinked back to where the rest of the troop was waiting and urged them to hurry home.
AUTHOR TALK: The Details on Gareth