Rose Estes

Master Wolf

Chapter 1

The big male wolf lolled lazily in the deep recesses of the forest, enjoying the warmth of the late afternoon. Moss lay thick on the ground in this hidden spot, a tiny grotto etched out of the limestone that wove through the dense roanwood forest like the spine of a partially submerged dragon. With the exception of the male wolf TamTur and his constant companion, the man named Mika-oba, the residents of the forest-the Wolf Nomads-did not know of this grotto.

'Quit your teasing, woman, or I shall have TamTur eat you and be done with you once and for all,' growled Mika-oba as he scowled ferociously at the plump, blue-eyed female who had accompanied him to the grotto but refused to come close enough to grasp.

'Oh, Mika,' Cilia giggled, 'I am not afraid of Tam. He wouldn't hurt me. He likes me too much. And so do you. You wouldn't really let him eat me, would you?'

Celia's full red lips pouted prettily as she looked up at Mika from under the mass of tawny locks that framed her dimpled face.

'Don't be too sure of it,' Mika said sternly, even as he felt himself beginning to waver, as always. 'Tam obeys me in everything. He will do as I command. Do you wish to disobey me and find out who is right? Come here, now. The time for games is over.'

'You don't play fair,' Celia said with a tiny moue. 'Even though I do not believe that Tam would hurt me, you'd probably set him on me just to scare me.' But even as she flirted with the big, muscular man, whom she had known since childhood, she felt a familiar tingle of fear mixed with excitement and longing, and wondered what he would do if she ever really angered him.

He was really quite handsome, Celia thought as she walked slowly toward him, studying him through her thick fringed lashes. He was tall for a Wolf Nomad, at least six feet, and his well-developed body was a dark bronzed tan, even in winter when the sun seldom showed its face. His eyes were grey and his nose was long and slender. His mouth was well shaped and frequently curved up at one side as though he was enjoying a joke no one else shared. His lips, as Celia knew well, were soft and knew the secrets of her soul, not to mention her body.

'Oh, Mika,' she sighed, abandoning herself to his embrace. Mika folded her soft figure in his arms and buried his face in her perfumed hair.

'One of these days, Celia, you will push me too far and I really will let Tam eat you,' he murmured. 'Or maybe I'll just do it myself.'

Celia's reply, if any, was lost as Mika kissed her, and then there was no sound but the soft drone of insects and their own deep, languorous breathing.

Then, slowly, Mika became aware of another sound, a muffled shouting. Mika tried to ignore the voices, but they grew louder and carried with them the shrill edge of alarm. He sat up, dropping Celia abruptly onto the moss.

'Mika!' Celia complained crossly.

'Quiet,' Mika commanded, listening intently. More voices could now be heard coming from all directions.

'Mika, where are you going?' cried Celia. But Mika was already gone, sprinting through the forest with TamTur at his heels.

The cries of alarm grew louder as he raced toward the camp, the detritus of leaves and moss thick beneath his feet. He darted nimbly between the huge roanwood trees, leaping fallen trunks with ease, flashing in and out of the few stray beams of sunlight that managed to creep through the dense leafy branches high above his head.

As he passed the outlying border of the camp, he saw that the women's cook fires were deserted and that no one, save one small babe, lying forgotten on a deerskin, was to be seen.

A babble of voices could be heard emanating from the Far Fringe, an outlying strip of land where the great forest halted at the edge of the open plains.

Mika hurried toward the Far Fringe, his heart thumping in his chest, wondering what disaster could have happened that would so affect the camp.

Indeed, it seemed that the entire camp, several hundred men, women, and children, had gathered at the Far Fringe and were milling about, their voices raised in loud unintelligible cacophony. And everywhere, there were wolves of all sizes. Stirred by the commotion, they were racing around the mob of humans, adding their yips and howls to the uproar.

Mika forced his way through the crowd until he had reached the very center of the throng and was able to look down at the awful object of their attention that lay on the ground.

It was a man, or what remained of one. He was dressed in a soft, beige kidskin tunic, richly embroidered with cobalt-blue and gold threads and beaded with turquoise, a uniform that identified him as a member of the Trader's Guild, the powerful and exclusive organization that controlled the traffic of merchandise over the whole of Greyhawk. Such men were normally inviolate, safe from attack by all who would benefit from their commerce.

Mika-oba ran a shrewd hunter's eye over the man, leaving the ministration of water and healing herbs to others already bent to their tasks. But as Mika took in the multitude of wounds punched in the man's flesh and saw the quantity of skin hanging in strips from his body, he knew with certainty that no amount of medicine would keep the man alive.

The man writhed weakly, and garbled words poured from his torn lips, a meaningless stream of gibberish. A lesser man would already be dead, but the trader continued to struggle, still driven by whatever terrible compulsion had carried him this far.

Curiosity prompted Mika-oba to move closer, to hear what the man was trying to say, wondering what could have caused him to travel when his wounds dictated that he pray to the gods and ready himself for the death that was so obviously near.

Mika's face grew somber and a shudder ran through him as he realized the torment the man must have experienced as he escaped his attackers and sought help. Mika knew without a shadow of a doubt that he himself would never be able to endure such pain, and he made a strong mental note to actively avoid placing himself in any position that might allow such a thing to occur.

'Oh, Mika, isn't it terrible?' whispered Celia who appeared suddenly at his side, gazing up at him, her long curved lashes thick with sparkling tears.

'Don't look, Celia,' he said, pressing her soft hair against his bare chest.

'But, Mika, what could have happened to him? Who could have done this? Maybe it was an army of orcs and they're coming this way. We'll all be killed! Oh, Mika, I'm frightened!' Celia wailed as a shiver of terror caused her to squeeze Mika even more tightly.

Mika cleared his throat, feeling Enor, Celia's father and the chief of the Wolf Nomads, staring at them with stern disapproval, and he regretfully separated himself from Celia and her fears.

'I'm sure it's nothing,' Mika said calmly, knowing that the last great army of orcs had been driven from the plains long before his father's time. 'Probably just bandits.'

'Orcs!' cried Celia, determined to be frightened. 'Or maybe goblins, thousands and thousands of them! We'll all be murdered!'

'It was probably no more than one or two robbers, scum from the dungeons of Yecha,' Mika said firmly.

'Hill giants,' squeaked Celia, closing her eyes and shivering with fear.

People were turning toward Celia, starting to listen. Mika-oba glared at her, knowing all too well how persistent she could be once she seized on an idea.

'Hush your yammering, Celia,' he growled. 'I'll find out what happened. I'm sure there's some simple explanation.'

Steeling himself against the unpleasant task, although in honesty he had never minded blood so long as it was not his own, Mika-oba sank to one knee and picked up the man's hand. Stripped of nails and skin and pale with

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