Cold wind pushed its way past the tightly closed shutters of Alick’s dismal den. The fire crackled, throwing odd shadows on the wall. Only two people were in the room. The taller was Onri, his dark eyes glittering in the dim light. Alick sat motionless in his high, black chair, eyes focused on a point beyond the walls. The younger man impatiently shifted his weight, watching his mentor in agitation. The wizard’s spirit was far and wide, searching for something. Far away, the Wolf was running west.
Suddenly the chest of the wizard swelled out in a calm breath. He expelled the air, eyes clearing. He registered Onri’s impatient glare complacently, rising and pouring himself a goblet of wine, which he drained before settling down in his chair and regarding his apprentice again.
“Dylan has found the Scholar, I believe,” he began slowly. “I cannot find him anywhere in Carrock, but I have discovered where Tabea is hiding.”
“So, will you disenchant her?” the beau asked eagerly. The wizard shook his head.
“No, because she first has to consent to becoming your woman and you know she won’t do that.”
“Even if freedom from enchantment is the prize?”
“Even then.” The wizard sighed. “Women are a lot more complicated than you think, especially when they are loyal to their men. If they are crazy, loose like your girls, then it is no problem to control them, but once they decide they will spend their whole life with someone and that someone promises the same to them ... it becomes very difficult. But now,” the philosophical tone left his voice, “we must prepare for his arrival. Stay away from the Pullenys. We must capture them in their human forms when my birthday arrives. That is the only day when I have no power whatsoever, but it is also the only day when Dylan à Carrock will venture to challenge me. I will be ready for him and so will you. Don’t let the women distract you, Onri, or else it will be your death.” He fell silent, brooding over his plans. And far away, the Wolf ran on.
The large black Cat was lying on the porch, quietly waiting. Three days since full moon. She was already sensing a change beginning in her. It was the same yearning she’d felt shortly before the freedom of full moon. She remembered joking and laughing with Stev and his family that night. They had all rested late into the day. Rest — that was all she’d done that month. No action, no challenges by Alick, nothing but watch the farm in silence. Sometimes the tall young man would talk to her in her own tongue. He’d told her that night of the full moon, that in six days she should be on the promontory with a package of clothes that Prisca would take with her and leave there in the morning. Then for once, she’d be human — fully human again. It would be wonderful!
The thunder of a horse’s hooves cut through her reverie. She instantly knew that it was a very light steed. She calmly rose and slipped into the bushes. Hidden among them, she watched a small white and brown beast quickly canter up to the farm. The rider was a dainty person sitting in side-saddle position. She was dressed in white with a large feathered hat on her head. Golden hair was carefully tucked up under it and her eyes were hidden by the broad brim. She slowed her horse with a light tug of her reigns. Tabea noticed fine lace gloves on her hands. The blue eyes slowly filled with a jealous disdain. The great Cat rose silently and paced after the beast, crouched as if ready to spring. The young woman halted her steed in front of the house, oblivious to the beast behind her, but the horse sensed Tabea’s presence, slightly dancing around. Suddenly it whinnied, rearing up. The girl showed her superb riding skills, staying in the saddle. The sound brought Stev rushing around the house and Prisca flying through the door, Mother Pulleny on her heels. The young man reached up and grabbed the bridle, making a soft whickering sound. In an instant the horse had calmed while the large Cat sat on her haunches, curiously eyeing the stranger. Stev shot a reproachful glance at her.
“I’m sorry the Cat surprised your horse,” he apologized to the girl. “She is actually quite harmless, unless she get suspicious of someone.” He paused a bit at a loss for words. “I’m Stev Pulleny.”
“My name is Alisande,” the girl answered primly. Tabea pricked her ears. “I was looking for Dylan à Carrock.”
“Uh — he’s not here now,” the young man told her. “He’s out and away.” Alisande nodded and slipped off her mount. It surprised him to find that she just barely reached to his shoulder. Something about her suddenly captivated him and he felt very awkward. His mother saved him from having to fumble for some words by stepping forward.
“Perhaps you would like to rest here, Lady Alisande?” she offered with a curtsey.
“I — I guess that would be all right,” the girl stammered, tearing her gaze away from the young man. The big Cat nosed up to him and nudged his leg. The girl looked down and screamed.
“Don’t worry, she won’t hurt you,” Prisca cried, running and putting her hands around the beast’s neck, as if to protect her from the other woman. “Tabea is nice unless she gets mad, right?” A soft purring came from the large throat and the big tongue came out to give the little girl an affectionate lick. Alisande put a hand to her chest, as if to calm her pounding heart.
“Prisca is right,” the young man said, the only one who really understood that Tabea wanted to speak to him. “I’ll be in in a minute.” The Cat freed herself from the girl’s embrace and padded behind the house, the young man following. Finally she turned and faced him. He sat down on a low pile of wood.
“Okay, what’s all this about?” he demanded.
“She’s Dylan’s foster sister,” Tabea meowed. “He told me about her when he’d returned at the beginning of the year.”
“His father seems to have adopted her, Stev. I hope that her being here is okay. I’m afraid that it might be something that Alick had in mind. You know about the Lady Roanna, don’t you?”
“I knew that she was Alick’s sister, yes, but what does this Alisande have to do with it?”
“She might or might not have something to do with ‘it,’ but let’s be careful. Don’t mention what I told you and don’t tell her who I am, okay?”
“Okay. Let’s go in the house.” He got up and she followed him, her sleek fur glistening in the morning sun. Deep in the woods the Wolf was moving at high speed towards his destination. It would not be long now.
Alisande had taken off her hat and gloves and was uncomfortably sitting at the kitchen table. A ray of sunshine from the window lit her pinned up hair like a shimmering head covering of gold. Her cheeks were reddened and her healthy, youthful beauty struck Stev like an enchantment, ensnaring him stronger than a thousand steel ropes. What was so capturing to the young man was registered with cool rationality by Tabea, who padded over to a sunny spot under the window and laid down, eyes half-closed, but always watching the stranger.
“Have you come a long way, m’lady?” Mother Pulleny asked, putting a rough cup full of fresh milk in front of her.
“Yes, I have — from Enfurt.”
“That’s a long way,” Stev commented, sitting down across from her. “What would make you travel so far?”
“My — my foster father Colyn à Carrock died,” she answered in a trembling voice. “It was so sudden. I — the only thing I could do was to find Dylan. It had to be Lady Roanna. I never liked her too much.” The young man glanced at the Cat. The big head just barely nodded.
“Where did she go?” he asked.
“Back to Carrock. She gave me these silly clothes and the horse. We traveled almost to the castle. Shortly before we got there I fled. I think she’ll be able to find me here quickly.” The gray eyes looked liquid. “Please help me. I don’t want to go to that crazy wizard and I know the lady can’t stand me. She said that some man named Onri had asked for my hand.” A quiet hissing came from the Cat at the mention of the beau’s name. Alisande looked at her, shocked.
“Onri is hated by all creatures around here, almost as much as Alick himself is,” Mother Pulleny explained gently.
“We’ll help you, Lady Alisande,” Stev told her. “What could we do first?” She looked at her flashy garments and smiled shyly.
“Would you have some decent clothes?” she asked timidly.
“Tabea?” The Cat purred her consent to letting the girl have some of her clothes.
“That’s that then,” the young man laughed. “Mom will get you some.” Tabea rose and slipped out the door. A few moments later there were sounds of careful footfalls on the roof. The Cat turned her sensitive nose and ears to the road and waited. And the Wolf ran on.
The wait wasn’t too long. Evening was just beginning when about fifteen mounted men rode up to the Pullenys’ farm. None noticed the motionless beast sitting on the roof of the porch.
“Stev Pulleny!” the leader thundered. The young man came around the house, carrying an axe.
“Ah, Phillip, has Alick enlisted your help again?” he asked, raising his eyebrows.
“I don’t like this either, but there was a slave girl who escaped the Lady Roanna’s entourage. Alick wants her found, or else I’ll lose my head and so will these men.” He raised his gloved hands apologetically. “I hope you haven’t seen her.”
“I have,” the young man admitted staunchly. “She’s here and you can tell Alick that. You can also tell him that she’s under my protection and that of Dylan à Carrock, being his foster sister.”
“What? Who told you that?”
“She did — and so did Tabea, for that matter. She won’t be leaving here until Dylan has his rightful place again, Phillip. Tell your wizard that.”
“Hey, Sir Phillip,” a soldier with a scarred face snapped, “are we going to let this brat tell us what to do? It’s fifteen to one!”
“Shut up!” the leader shot back. “This young man happens to be my friend and I respect his protection and territory.”
“Well, I don’t. I’m getting that girl and the money.” He made to dismount, drawing his gun. In the same instant a black blur shot from the roof, bowling him over. The Cat was now sitting on his chest, forepaws on his shoulders, breathing down on his face. His eyes widened.
“Aiiee! The hell-cat!” he screamed trying to push the beast off. “Get it off me, get it off me!”
“Tabea!” The Cat retreated, hissing. The blue eyes were livid, the fangs and claws bared. This was the one thing they feared as much as the Wolf.
“I’m sorry to have to threaten you, Phillip,” Stev said quietly, “but if you and your men don’t leave within ten seconds, I’ll let the Cat go.” The rider smiled confidently and winked.
“Okay, Stev.” He made a sign with his right hand. I’ll be back tonight. Then he raised it over his head and signaled his riders. They turned and left the place, shaking. And the Wolf was now nearing his destination, no more than forty miles away.
Roanna stood by the fireplace of her room, watching the leaping flames dully. Alick faced the window, staring at the coming night.
“Good timing in killing him,” he remarked sarcastically. “And a good thing to lose that fool girl, too. Now they will know about it.”
“I couldn’t stand the old fool anymore,” she snapped. “And that girl was so cute. I wish I could have kept her.” The wizard turned around.
“He never knew who you were, did he?”
“No, unless someone else told him.” Alick nodded to himself and looked back out the window.
“Time is growing preciously short, sister,” he hissed. “My birthday is one day away and Dylan is closing in on us. I believe the end is near.”
“Don’t say that, my lord,” she answered, taking a seat by the fire. “You still have some tricks up your sleeve, don’t you?” He looked at the sky with a melancholy attitude.
“I can’t find him, Roanna, no matter how hard I try. It’s like trying to look into a cloudy lake. You can’t see the bottom. I sense that even the Word has turned against us. Where did I step over the line? What border have I broken? I’ve adhered to all the laws written in the books. I never did anything to call this wrath down on me.” He lowered his head. “I’m afraid, for the first time in my life, deathly afraid. For the first time a mere man will have power over me. But I won’t let that happen.” His head snapped up, the dark eyes burning with hate. “I will kill him first.” With that he turned and stalked from the room, leaving the Lady Roanna to stare into the flames and ponder his words.