From the author: From time out of mind, the villagers had kept their pact with the forest wolves, until that fragile bond was broken and only a young, untrained guardian could save them.
As Bijara waited outside the bronzewood meeting-hall door, listening to the voices inside fall silent, it seemed the world held its breath with her. The new moon shone palely on the little village of Meata as it huddled around the river, a thread of light in the vast, brooding forest. Down by the pier, boats sighed under their cargo of furs and carved amber, then fell quiet for an instant. The wolves had ceased their howling this past week, as if there were not enough of a moon to be worth singing to. They prowled Bijara's dreams, waiting and hungering, pressing in on her like the trees pressed up against the village walls.
What would the Elders do with her? Would they sell her downriver, as the Master threatened when she'd been caught listening at the Guardian's window instead of tending to her proper tasks? Or would they work her so hard she'd never have a moment to think about the Meata wolves or anything else? Why had the Guardian herself taken an interest in a mere bond-girl?
Bijara took a deep breath and squared her shoulders. At sixteen, she was almost as tall as a man, with broad cheekbones and sandy hair so different from the dark, wiry villagers. When she first came to Meata, half-starved and still numb from the loss of her family, the place seemed like any other forest trading town, safe enough on the surface, but in truth living only at the sufferance of the wolves. Then she'd emerged from her grief enough to realize that these wolves might howl as fiercely as they had in the south, but they never breached the flimsy town walls, not even in the full of the moon. Strangers who dared to travel through the nearby forest were always safe. People said it was Guardian's magic that kept the wolves away, they said--
Suddenly the meeting hall door opened, spilling out firelight and the smell of spiced wine. Bijara caught a glimpse of the Elders inside. Although she'd scrubbed the hall many times since the town bought her bond, she'd never been allowed inside when it was in use.
Akheer, Guardian of Meata, stepped across the wide river-stone threshold and let the door fall closed behind her. Starlight glimmered on her intricate silver braids and narrow, hawkish nose. She sniffed twice, caught Bijara's elbow in an iron grip, and pulled her down the street. Mutely Bijara followed, wondering if the Elders had given the old Guardian the task of punishing her.
As she stumbled along, Bijara remembered all the nights she'd stolen a moment at Akheer's window during the candidates' class, hoping for some clue to the Guardian's magic. There must be something she could learn, something she could use against the wolves...
Finally, three nights ago, the words came to her--"The first thing to remember about fighting wolves is that there is no defense, only defeat."
Fighting wolves? Bijara's feet had stuck to the spot, the basket of herbs and onions for the Master's table forgotten. The twilit village at her back, full of dinner time bustle, receded to stillness.
Akheer had continued lecturing the in her dry, steady voice. "Every wolfish talent--their reflexes, their muscles, the curve of their eyeteeth--is designed to overcome a retreating prey. You cannot win free against them."
"So what are we supposed to do?" That was the smith's son, folding his muscular arms across his chest. "Stand there and let them slaughter us? It's all very well to say 'I'm a holy Guardian', but even here in Meata, nothing will keep us safe when the moon's full."
"No," the old woman replied. "You must attack before they do --end the conflict before it begins, convince the wolf you are already the victor. The Guardian's oath means only that it will be you, and not some innocent traveller, who faces the pack."
"With all respect," a stocky, crow-headed girl said in a voice which clearly indicated she thought the old woman daft, "how can we be expected to fight wolves without bare hands--and why this silly rule about never using steel, when our knives are as sharp as anyone's--"
Her eyes lit on Bijara, standing at the window. "It's that bond-girl! She's been eavesdropping!"
Bijara's next awareness was of the gnarled old woman not two inches from her nose. "Call the Master. I must speak with the Elders about this."
Now, three nights later, Bijara stumbled along at the Guardian's side and vowed that somehow, no matter how she was punished, she'd never give up, not until she'd learned the secret of fighting wolves.
At the low stone wall which bordered the her compound, Akheer came to a sudden halt and pulled Bijara around to face her. "Listen, girl. I want to train you as my successor. But I won't have you unwilling. You can either come with me now, or go back to digging turnips."
"You aren't--I'm not--being punished?"
"Not unless you propose to stand out here all night jabbering!"
Speechless, Bijara followed the old woman inside.
The next morning, Bijara wondered if she'd only exchanged one form of bond-service for another. In Akheer's house, pots still needed scrubbing and potatoes needed peeling. In addition, the old Guardian set her to making herbal medicines. After Bijara laid the evening fire, she brought Akheer a cup of joint-pain tea. The old woman held it in both hands, as if its virtue could seep directly into her swollen knuckles.
After she'd finished the tea, Akheer showed Bijara the path-stones, which glowed mysteriously when a traveller had passed their counterparts along the forest trails, and the amulet she always wore, by whose power she could locate the wolves, even in the deepest darkness. Bijara reached out her hands to the smooth- carved stone, hardly daring to believe it was real, that it might be hers to use.
Akheer tucked the amulet back inside her woolen vest. "It will only work for a Guardian, and you've much to learn before you take the Oath. Now tell me, what was so interesting the other night?"
"You were talking about--the wolves." Bijara kept very still, silent except for the thunder of her heart. If the Guardian guessed her true purpose...
Akheer nodded, her eyes glittering like dew on berries in her wrinkled face.
"But you said fighting them," Bijara blurted out. "I thought--I thought the wolves never attacked here."
"You come from the south, where the wolves are lawless. Do you know why? Because men hunt them with steel, hacking away at anything weaker, with no sense of decency, until all that's left is a pile of dead bodies, wolves and men. But here in Meata it's different. Here we abide by the Pact. The wolves will attack, oh yes, but only in their own place and season. In forest, when the moon's full. We protect those men foolish enough to be abroad then, but we use only our natural weapons. And so we do fight the wolves, but we do it to protect them, for if steel is ever turned against them--"
"Can you fight a wolf with your bare hands?" Bijara interrupted.
Akheer's eyes went flat black. "And kill them if need be. It's a bloody business, and I wish I could promise you'd never have to do it. I know you will. Hopefully, not often. But you must always be prepared to."
Bloody... Bijara's senses swam with desire. Wolf blood on her hands... Wolf bodies strewn in the drifted snow, even as she'd found her father and brothers, a death for each death... She reeled with it, praying that if Akheer saw the fire in her heart, she would think it devotion.
The winter forest brought too many memories, memories that not even months of intensive training could dissolve. Bijara followed Akheer through the snow, stepping exactly in each footprint. They wore bells tonight, jingles that carried through the night.
Since the summer evening when Akheer had dragged her home from the meeting hall, Bijara had studied wolf lore until she recited it in her sleep, drilled for hours at basic fighting techniques --kicks, leverages, chops, punches. She'd trained until she was so tired and sore that only her tattered pride kept her on her feet. She might still lack the old Guardian's timing and balance, but her strength and reaction speed were even better. Now, at last, she was ready to test her new skills.
Akheer paused to catch her breath, and Bijara glanced up at the moon, so round it looked pregnant. Bijara said, "Here, let me lead."
"You ought not to--tire yourself--on your first time," Akheer said, but she let Bijara pass her. "It always takes--energy--to face the wolves."
"There must be some easier way of knowing if they'll attack," Bijara said, breaking through the snow crust in big, gobbling steps.
"This is easy, child. The path-stones were clear, so there are no travellers to watch for. Only Mikkel the nutgather, who went out this afternoon." Akheer held up the amulet. "We're close."
Bijara kept her eyes on the snow-layered trail. If the nutgather were somewhere out here, he would certainly draw the wolves to him. She saw herself closing with a huge gray wolf, saw him falling at her feet, blood streaming from his gouged-out eyes... She wanted to run, to make it happen faster.
They heard the man before they saw him. He'd heard their bells in the snowy silence, and called out. Bijara spotted him, propped against a fallen tree, a dark, amorphous shape in his rabbit-fur parka. he started to plunge ahead, but Akheer grabbed her sleeve and pointed.
Bijara saw them then--silver eyes set in shadow, ringing the little clearing. She thought she heard them growl, low and sullen.
Ours, they seemed to warn. He's ours.
Mine, she answered. You're mine.
Akheer pulled her into the clearing and knelt at the nutgather's side.
Bijara looked down at him with a shock. She'd thought he was old, driven to nutgathering by feebleness, but he was young, the age of her next-older brother when the wolves came howling at their gates for the last time. The snow-reflected moonlight was so bright, she could see his boyish beard and round, cold-roughened cheeks. He winced as Akheer ran her hands over his outstretched leg.
"Bad sprain," Akheer muttered.
He nodded and hauled himself straighter. Bijara thought, He could have hobbled back, except for the wolves.
She looked up. The wolves melted from the shadows--gray, black, one almost white. As they inched forward, they carried their heads low, ears invisible against their necks.
"Which is the leader?" Akheer's voice rang out over the toneless rumble of their warning.
"The white one."
"Good. When do you take him?"
"I break the distance when he forms the point," Bijara recited.
The other wolves halted, as if frozen to the snow. The white male kept coming. Bijara's heartbeat grew so quiet she didn't seem to have one. She saw the wolf's pale eyes, ringed with black and set slantwise in his tapered skull, saw the individual hairs standing up along his spine. She heard his breath lashing through his nostrils, and the pounding of his heart, far louder than her own. She took a deep, lunging step towards him, then another, her eyes seeking the vulnerable target areas.
The wolf paused, a snow-crusted paw upraised. One ear flicked forward. He raised his head and whined. Bijara's chin dipped towards her chest, her breath rumbling through her throat like a barely audible growl.
"Loup's love, girl, back off!" Akheer hissed. "You've already won. Don't force him--"
Bijara heard her, dimly. She could no longer feel her body, half-crouched in battle stance. Her awareness telescoped down to the animal before her.
Mine, pounded through her brain to the beating of his heart. You're mine.
The wolf broke first, zig-zagging towards her side.
He'll hamstring me! Bijara whirled and caught him on the side of his head with a snap kick. The wolf yelped, rolled, and scrambled back to his feet. His pack-mates surged forward.
Bijara slammed into the unyielding frozen earth as a heavy furred body crashed into her. Curved teeth sank into her jacket sleeve, searching for her flesh. Over the wolf's shoulder she saw Akheer whirling like a dark tornado, so lithe and quick the wolves seemed to slide off her.
Even as she plunged her fingers into the stippled gray fur, Bijara was filled with the sense of disjointed time. A thousand times before, she dreamed she'd been with her father when the wolves struck. Her blood had ran hot and slick down her chest as the beast tore at her throat. The frozen air had burned her lungs --but it had been only in her dreams.
The wolf shifted its grip upwards, towards her unprotected neck, and its hind feet scrabbled at her belly. Bijara rolled with it, bringing her knees up and into the wolf's abdomen. The teeth loosened momentarily and she shoved one hand down the animal's throat.
The wolf sputtered frantically, jaws open wide, and threw itself backwards. There was a chorus of yips from the others and suddenly Bijara was alone in the snow.
It took her a moment to realize the attack had ended. Slowly she pulled herself to her feet. She knew she was hurt, but she couldn't feel the pain yet.
Mikkel crouched over a dark lump. "No, no..."
Bijara forgot her savaged shoulder and the torn skin on her hands and wrists. She threw herself down beside him on the dark-stained snow.
"Akheer, no..." she whispered. She put her arms around the fragile, wool-wrapped body.
"She took on three of them..." Mikkel murmured.
So I had only the one, and not even that if I'd had the sense to back off when she told me to. Bijara felt the slight, fluttering breath. She laid her head against Akheer's chest and heard the old woman's heartbeat falter and grow steady. Through the blood-damp wool, she touched the severed tendons behind one knee. There'd be no infection, thanks to Akheer's herbal remedies, but no medicine known could make her whole again.
Bijara jerked upright, unable to breathe with the wolf stench filling her head. Her eyes swam with the reflected moonlight. Mikkel patted her good shoulder. "Not your fault, girl. You did well for your first time. A fine Guardian you'll make us."
Light woke Bijara, light from the full moon which no curtains could screen completely, light from the path-stones which Akheer insisted she keep at her bedside. The house was silent except for the old woman's snoring. Bijara swore under her breath and sat up. Then eagerness swept all traces of sleep from her brain. This time she'd go to the wolves alone. She smiled as she pulled on her warmest clothing.
She knew from the pattern in the stones where to search along the trader's paths. The night seemed dense and still, her bells jarringly loud. But not loud enough to drown the whinny of a frantic horse.
"I'm here!" Bijara shouted, and broke into a run. Around a sharp bend, hidden by a knot of thick-boled ashleaf, a lone rider wheeled his spotted mare to face her. Costly moon-metal glinted on the horse's bridle and the hilt of the man's long, slightly curved sword.
"Crom's bloody ass, girl! What the hell are you doing out here?"
"I'm the Guardian! Put away that sword!"
Bijara scanned the sides of the trail. She spotted four wolves, one a lanky, gray-muzzled bitch. The leader, black as a moonless night, towered above the others. They hadn't made up their minds to attack yet, and her arrival confused them.
The mare whinnied again, dancing on her hind feet, and Bijara jumped clear. "Now I've got to protect you, too!" the man cried.
"No, you don't," Bijara replied with all the authority she could muster. She'd noted his arrogant bearing and costly fur cloak. He'd see her as nothing more than a little village girl, no one to take orders from.
"Don't you know about the Meata Guardian? You have nothing to fear as long as I'm here. Now put away your sword, as the Pact commands, and let me do what I'm trained for!"
In those few moments, the wolves had tightened their circle, the coal-black leader moving to point. Bijara stepped towards him. She'd run out of time. She searched her heart for the heedless rage which had swept away all fear last time, and was surprised to find herself truly frightened. This wolf was so much bigger than the others, his bared fangs like pearly sabers. She forced herself into another step, lowering her body-center in preparation for quick movement.
The mare screamed again and grazed Bijara with her shoulder as her rider spurred her forward. Bijara stumbled and caught herself on her hands in the snow. She looked up to see the upraised sword as a blur of silver through the night.
The black wolf swerved like an inky shadow, twice as fast as the white one she'd faced before. He landed, recovered, and leapt, all in one motion. The power in him! Bijara thought.
The mare made a gurgling sound as she crumbled sideways into the snow, her throat torn out. The swordsman fell with her, cursing Bijara and the wolf with equal fervor. He struggled to jump free, but one leg twisted under the horse's body.
Bijara fumed at the waste of the mare's life. Now they were right back where they started, before the man embarked upon his foolishness. She steeled herself to face the black wolf.
And her heart quailed within her. Where once his eyes had shimmered like bits of moonshine, they glowed now like embers, lit from within by their own unnatural luminescence. An eerie reddish aura rippled over its body.
The wolf seemed to hunch in upon itself and then to swell in size. Bijara could almost hear the rasping of ligament over bone as its body stretched and elongated. The proportions were all wrong--head too narrow, forequarters too massive, an unholy marriage of weasel and bull.
Then it lifted its misshapen head and the moonlight reflected off the red blood trickling down one shoulder. The man's sword had touched the natural wolf, and before her stood something quite different, something out of a nightmare--no, something she had once seen in a priest's book of demons.
What had Akheer said? "If steel is ever turned against them..."
She tried to warn me, Bijara thought. To tell me why it was so important that we protect the Meata wolves.
The thing which had been a wolf lowered its head again, sniffing the man pinned beneath the dead horse, and did not growl. The rest of the pack rolled their eyes and whimpered, tails pinned to their bellies.
Suddenly Bijara knew that the wolf still lived, hidden inside the monster and as helpless as the swordsman behind her. Unless it were stopped now, the malevolent spirit would spread like wildfire through the pack, devouring them from within, turning them to its own purposes.
The wolves would be forever beyond her reach.
"Out, foul demon! The wolf is mine!" Bijara screamed. Slowly the red-eyed thing swung its skull around to her. Faintly glowing slaver dripped from its gaping jaws. Its hindquarters bunched for a leap.
Bijara darted forward a moment before the demon wolf launched itself into the air. Her boot toe collided with the underside of its jaw, ripped through the soft tissue of its throat, and snapped the massive skull up and back. The thing rolled in the air, twisting like a cat, and landed.
Akheer's teachings flowed through Bijara as if she'd always known how to fight wolves. She leaped forward as it silently hurled itself at her again, jammed its heavy body in midair, then whirled, using her smaller turning radius to catch it with a knife-hand chop just below the base of its skull.
The wolf thing yelped and fell, scrabbling in the snow. Trying to rise again. Bijara straddled it just behind its shoulders, and pinned it to the ground with her weight. She reached around and caught its lower jaw, jerked it around and up--up--until she felt the joints lock. A hard jerk would break the wolf's neck.
One eye rolled back towards her as she gathered her strength for the final effort. An eye at once beseeching and scornful.
Free me, pleaded the wolf.
Kill it for all I care! laughed the demon.
Carefully, Bijara loosened the grip of her knees and allowed the wolf's body to roll slightly. She kept her leverage tight, turning until both eyes met hers.
"I will kill it," she said. "Slowly. Painfully. And you will die with it."
Bijara stared at the wolf beneath her as the red light flickered once and then died. Pale, moon-reflecting eyes stared back at her. This time they held no pleading, only quiet acceptance as the wolf waited for its life to end at the hands of its sworn enemy.
I'll kill you... when I choose...
Quickly she released its head and jumped free. The wolf lay panting on the snow for a few moments, then jerked to its feet. Limping, it followed the others into the shadows without a backward glance.
Bijara ran her fingers over the amulet's seductively smooth surface. She felt it singing in her blood, singing of visions and power. All hers for a word.
She laid the stone in Akheer's lap and stood up, wiping her hands on her thighs. "I cannot take the Oath."
"The trader told me how you fought the wolf. And spared it. I wasn't wrong about you, girl."
"You only say that because you think you won't have time to train another. Because you can't--go out next full moon. I can do that for you, for a while. I can teach the drills for you, but I can't--can't--"
"Can't what?" The old woman pulled herself straighter on her padded chair.
"Can't vow to protect them. Don't you see what I've been hiding from you all these months? I only stayed because I wanted to learn how to kill the wolves."
"Why didn't you?"
"Give the wolf to that thing?"
Slowly Akheer smiled. "I was right about you all along. Do you think mere duty can give a Guardian the strength to face the pack, season after season? Do you think any of those feather-brained village louts has one tenth of your passion?"
"But I hate--I've sworn--"
"And whoever said that hate was not a suitable basis for fighting demons?" Unsmiling, the old woman held the amulet out again.
Bijara felt the pulse of warmth as it touched her bare skin. It sat in the palm of her hand, glowing with an inner fire. Her inner fire. She clenched her fingers around it and walked through the door, to the snow-drifted yard. Oblivious to the cold, she stood at the low stone wall, looking towards the forest.
Behind her half-closed eyes, she saw them, lithe and deadly sparks of silver light. Haunting the forest. Skimming the darkness.
Mine, she thought. You're mine.
# # #
This story originally appeared in SWORD & SORCERESS VII, ed. Marion Zimmer Bradley, DAW 1990.