This begins a series of ten chapters (maybe more) that is a fantasy/fairy tale short story.
“The Wolves of Evanheir: Pt 1—Peaceable Kingdom”
Asthore was queen of Evanheir, sixth of the Twelve Kingdoms of Tabrimon. The king, however, had been gone for almost two decades, off on a sorceress’s quest, the wizards told her, and gone for good. No one in the kingdom missed him, for he was as fickle and foolhardy and easily led as his quest would indicate. The young prince had been an infant when his father left, his sister too young herself to really remember. Both were now almost grown. Princess Meghan was in a far kingdom practicing the diplomatic skills her mother had taught by example and the healing arts she had learned from that same gentle hand. It seemed her brother, young Prince Regan, had come by magics of his own and soon would leave his mother’s side to learn the wisdom of the greatest wizards of the Twelve Kingdoms. The queen was proud, but in the long nights she was dreading the greater loneliness to come.
Evanheir was a good place in the high mountains of the north. Valleys were fertile and crops were good. Industry flourished with hardworking people and sensible policies. As in all places, however, there were the poor, the elderly, children and youngsters who had lost their way or their parents or both, the ill and infirm. Queen Asthore had not chosen to rule. She was a caring healer who had been thrust into the role of leadership. Despite this, she was known by her people as fair of face and faculties alike, generous, kind, and sensible. Detractors scoffed at her dreams of better lives for her people. They were usually shouted down or ignored completely.
Friends and advisors had tried to convince the queen to find a new mate, a consort who might take some of the burdens of governing. Once or twice she had found someone with whom she knew moments of laughter, youthful vigor, possible futures. None lasted. Her dreams or her spirit were too large, her independence too real. Suitors seemed always to expect her to walk behind.
Although Evanheir, like most of the Twelve Kingdoms, was generally peaceful and enjoyed little crime or violence, it was still a matter of grave concern to her counselors that Queen Asthore frequently went out alone among the people. When she did so after dark, they often chastised her for risking not only her safety but for putting the kingdom at risk. Asthore was not to be cowed or bowed. Even as a little girl she had been independent and unafraid. Curiosity was her teacher; experience her lessons. Wisdom came in hard knocks, but she wore each bruise as a badge of honor. Her parents had looked for her some mornings only to have to follow tracks in the snow to discover her high in the mountains astride her favorite horse, plunging through drifts, her laughter echoing across the valleys. It seemed, too, that the animals of the forest and mountain loved her, and she walked with the great elk or the mountain lion as with the fickle squirrels and flittering birds, and the wolves seemed to be her special guardians, keeping watch over her as she roamed the forest. She would tell her mother and father that she had more to fear in the alleys of Evanheir than in her mountains, and even then she was not really afraid. As queen she seldom had those times alone among the pines and was more often alone among the crowds of court.
One night she stood on her balcony in the quicksilver light of a full moon and reminisced about those treks in the wilds. It had been a trying day, arguing about providing education and training and support for some of her most needy subjects instead of merely creating bread lines and warming shelters. Meghan had sent word that she would not be returning for another month. Regan was off with friends for a long weekend to practice his growing skills. Asthore looked wistfully into the mountain shadows thrown into such stark contrast by the incandescent moon. As if on cue, high up and deep in the woods of the mountain into which the very castle was built, one throaty voice began a howl that rose into the night sky. Soon others joined the lone singer, a pack in full chorus, and Asthore could tell their song was one of lamentation and not the glory of the hunt or merely the joy of singing the moon. Her heart, already pained by her children’s absence and the day’s frustrating arguments, was a dam quickly burst, and empathetic tears coursed down her cheeks. The pack sang its grief and, one by one, the voices subsided until the night was again silent. Evanheir’s tender queen dried her tears and sought her bed. She dreamt that night of pain and wolves and bloody snow and was not refreshed when morning came.
This day was much like the one before. The same problems were presented; the same solutions argued. At least her advisors promised this time to consider alternatives, to look for ways to improve conditions for those in need and means for them to help themselves and not merely stopgap measures that were not really solutions. Nevertheless, it made for another long and tiring day. Asthore found herself again on her balcony, trying to feel the heart of her kingdom and discover there the answers she needed for her people and for herself.
The quiet of her contemplation was interrupted by a barely heard cry. One sharp yelp. The queen listened closely. There. Again. Then came the low beginning from what she was sure the first voice as the night before. It rose from the guttural to the high, siren complaint as wolfsong does, but this time the singer was not joined by the pack. It continued by itself, but briefly and weakly, and then it stopped as if cut off. Then a sharp yip and silence.
Asthore needed to get out of the palace. That mournful, painful cry and her own compassion drove her. Calling to no one, she dragged out a trunk and found the warm breeches, tunic, and boots she had not worn in so long. Her pouch of herbs and special elixirs was there, as well. Wrapping her hunting cloak around her shoulders, she padded in her soft, oiled riding boots down the marble halls and stairs to the stables. The hostler started to protest the intrusion and someone waking him in the middle of the night, but was almost at a loss when he realized who was saddling the queen’s mare. Asthore saw him gathering his wits then to tell her she was foolish to go out at night, especially alone, and gave him such a look that froze him sheepishly in place. He stood there, shuffling from one foot to the other, until she was out the gate and off into the moonlit night. Then he merely shrugged his shoulders and returned to his fireside cot, muttering all the while about the foolishness of women and royalty, and royal women in particular.
Not completely sure herself about this midnight escapade, Asthore knew approximately the direction she should go up the mountain, and the trails still passable would determine some of her path. Mostly she felt driven to see if she could help. The desperation and defeat in that wolfsong had spoken to her most caring nature and pleaded with her for help as no one had for some time.
She spoke softly to her horse: “All right, Ivy, let’s go see if we can make a new friend. Up, girl.”
* * * * * *
“The Wolves of Evanheir: Pt 2—King in the Mountains”
The poor mare’s heart was as large and loyal as her rider’s, but by the time the sun peaked over the eastern mountains, horse and rider were tired and cold and almost spent. They had crossed and backtracked for hours, stepping gingerly along icy snowpack, over rocks and deadfall, both attentive to every sound. The queen had scanned the snow for tracks until her eyes were red and dry. The tree line was nearing. Asthore doubted the wolf she had heard would be in the open of one of the mountain’s stark bowls above the forest. She knew that soon she would have to turn Ivy back to the stables, and the truant queen dreaded the questions and accusations she herself would face.
Suddenly she felt her weary horse start beneath the saddle. With a snort Ivy pricked up her ears and sidestepped left as though she was afraid. “Easy, girl,” Asthore’s calm voice belied her own quickened heart. The queen searched eagerly for some sign that their quest had succeeded.
There. A hunter’s blaze on the bark of a stump pine. Below it, boot prints. Asthore dismounted to look closer. Holding Ivy’s reins she waded through a knee-high drift and found behind a boulder the trail that had eluded them through the night. A lone hunter had foolishly hiked almost to the summit, probably seeking one of the mountain sheep that danced tantalizingly along the high escarpments. It was a daring adventure typically too risky for the reward.
The queen could see in the brightening day the path the hunter had taken up the mountain, a stealthy zigzag along the lee sides of trees and rocks where the snow was not as deep. About thirty yards from that broken path was another, headed pell-mell down the mountainside. This time, however, he was not alone. On either side of the hunter’s flailing tracks were the tell tale prints of a chasing pack! Now and then Asthore could see splashes of red in the hunter’s trail.
For a moment the queen debated following the hunter to see if she could help him. Obviously he was wounded, and the pack was at his heels. Then she wondered why he was being chased and why he was hurt. The wolves were protected in her mountains. Their packs maintained the delicate balance among the elk and sheep, the small varmints and the big cats, and they added a bit of protection for the kingdom itself. They attacked humans only to protect themselves. Asthore sniffed. Looks like he may have gotten what he deserved.
After loosely tying Ivy’s reins to a low branch and leaving her with a handful of oats and some water in the leather bucket from the saddle bags, Asthore slung her healer’s pouch over her shoulder and once more waded through the snow in search of answers for why the pack and the lone wolf had sung to her the last two nights. She followed the trampled and stained path another fifty yards or so until she came upon a line of massive boulders that formed a natural windbreak and amphitheatre. Sensing that what she sought was there, she stopped to listen. She heard only her heartbeat and the wind blowing softly in her face and gently through the branches above her.
Moving slowly and carefully around the side of the rocks, still following the hunter’s path, she came into view of the open space. The hunter had done the same, stealthily approaching, stopping to look. It was a large arena. The snow was not deep, and what was there had been packed down by many animals. On the far side, a good forty or fifty yards from where she stood, Asthore could make out two black wolves lying side by side. She could tell something was wrong. Their poses seemed unnatural.
With no thought but to help, the gentle queen walked boldly toward the two great beasts. She had not gone far until she could see that both had arrows protruding from their sides. Asthore’s breath caught in her throat and her hand went to her mouth. She looked closer and slowly approached. Only one, the big male, was still breathing shallowly. As tears streamed down her cheeks, she knelt by his side. A low growl began in the majestic animal’s throat and his eyes opened. With obvious effort he raised his head and looked directly at the queen.
“Shhh,” she soothed. “Peace, my friend. Let me see if I can help.”
Asthore stifled a startled scream and almost fainted when, in her mind, she heard, “See to my mate first.”
“Do not be afraid, my queen. You are known to us. We called you. I am Llyr, King in the Mountains. Two days ago a youngster from the city surprised us at a gathering of the pack. He shot my mate, Cuini, as she stood on the speaker’s rock. When I leapt down to shield her, I took the second arrow he had for her. The pack chased him off. How is she?”
“What magic is this that you speak to me?”
“I will explain. First see to Cuini, please! I do not hear her.”
Asthore stood and moved around Llyr, then kneeling again, held her gloveless hand to Cuini’s cold chest. She bent to put her ear to the she-wolf’s muzzle. Turning to Llyr, she said, “It is as you probably know already. Your queen is gone, Llyr. You have my sympathies.”
“Thank you. I did know, but I had hope. Soon I will join her.”
“May I examine you, Llyr? Maybe I can help you.”
“Do as you wish, but the arrow is deep.”
Laying her hand on the wolf-king’s side, next to the still oozing wound, Asthore felt his heartbeat. It was slow and painful, she could tell. Closing her eyes, she felt with her healer’s sense along the arrow’s shaft. It had gone deep, and it had broken a rib, but that deflection had kept it from going deeper. A sudden movement, even a soft blow to the arrow and it would penetrate that great heart and slay the black king.
“I think I can save you, Llyr, if you will allow me to try.”
“No, my queen. This should be my end with Cuini gone.”
Asthore could feel the beast’s anguish at his loss even through the pain of his wound. Her sympathy and empathy were breaking her heart, as well.
“You should not let yourself be defeated, Llyr. Surely there is more for you to do with your life!” She pleaded.
“Thank you, Asthore, for your care and concern. Cuini and I were mated long ago and have enjoyed our lives together in the mountains of Evanheir. I don’t know if I can go on without her.”
“You must!” This new voice in her mind made Asthore jump to her feet and turn to the open arena behind her. There stood a dozen wolves, the pack now returned to see to their leaders. Standing just ahead of the others the obvious speaker, an almost pure white wolf, looked at Llyr and then lifted his head to Asthore.