“The Wolves of Evanheir: Pt 9—Warrior Queen”
“Here! On the Plain of Eibhlin!” The mental shout from the scouting wolf almost knocked Asthore off of Ivy as they reviewed the mustered guard on the palace grounds. The youngster was the first to spot Anwir’s host. His initial excitement, however, was soon quashed by Llyr’s gentle but sharp command to report more details. Asthore listened, her head cocked to one side. The Captain of the Guards looked at her with some concern.
“They look ready and able, Captain,” she said as she recovered herself. With a mental “ear” still listening to the wolf king’s organizing his own band, she used her new information to send a messenger to the generals to meet the challengers. She did not bother to explain how she had come by these details. Most believed that Kunsgnos had divined it.
The queen sent her own message to the black wolf. “Llyr, remember your promise to me that you and the pack will stay clear of battles. You are no real match for our weapons or trained war horses, and I do not want any of you hurt or killed!”
“We will do as you ask, my queen, and scout the enemy for you. If they should come into the mountains, there are some ways we might hinder them, but I will not risk the pack in a foolish confrontation.” As agreeable as this seemed, she could read his chagrin in the tone of his reply. The pack had made clear its wish to deal with Bridniclir and Anwir after hearing Asthore’s revelations of the witch’s curse.
“My armies are moving to meet them. They will try to hold them as close to the Plain of Eibhlin as possible. It is as open as anywhere in Evanheir, and I hope the few who live there have managed to get away.”
“My scouts have seen most of your people fleeing the advancing army,” said Llyr. “There have been no casualties yet.”
“Thank you. Please keep me informed. We seem to be able to channel our thoughts to speak with one or more. This is a valuable tool for us!” Asthore complemented the pack as a whole then, and sent them her well wishes. With that she called to her personal guard and galloped out to join her generals and her army. Despite the objections of the entire Queen’s Council, the fiery young queen had made it clear that she at least would be present and visible to her soldiers.
Beyond the mountains on the brightening plain Bridniclir turned to Anwir and smiled a wicked smile. “Your former queen is herself foolishly coming to meet us with her paltry army,” she gloated. “We should be able to deal with all of our problems at once.”
“Do not underestimate the people of Evanheir, my lady, or that redheaded firebrand. She may still be young and the tenderhearted healer I left for you, but I doubt the steel in her spirit has weakened.”
“I will show you what I can do with steel, you simpering fool,” the sorceress sneered. “I am growing tired of you and your weaknesses.” With that she uttered a single word and, with a wave of a wicked hand, Anwir and the horse on which he sat were instantly changed to stone, a granite statue to fools. “And that is what can happen when you give me your blood and your spirit,” she laughed.
“Rhychdir,” she turned to her general, “send your troops on to the city. Ignore the farms and villages except as you need food and water for the men and horses. I am going to take a smaller group through the mountains. Gather outside the city; have the quartermasters make camp as if for a siege, but keep the men at the ready with their horses. I will send word when I am ready for our planned assault on the palace.”
Aod and three of his packmates watched from the edge of the forest as Bridniclir ordered her army to move. He felt the remorse from Asthore with his report on the demise of Anwir, but knew even as he heard the dead king’s assessment that Queen Asthore did indeed possess that steely spirit. The wolf was proud to be of her pack. They melted farther into the shadows of the mountain as the dark witch rode in with her troop.
The news of Anwir’s death did cause Asthore a moment’s grief, but she grieved for his foolishness, and more for the fact that her children would have to deal with these and other disparaging details of their father’s life. It had taken her some doing to help them try to understand his absence. She hoped that they were grown and confident enough to deal with his villainy and his death.
Her human and her wolf scouts were reporting on the movements of the enemy, and the army of Evanheir was prepared to meet them in the field and at the palace if necessary. General Farrell, her most capable commander, was hurrying his troops toward the Plain of Eibhlin, hoping to hold the opposing force there. Asthore, deciding she wanted to be close to the wolves and to have some vantage point, rode into the mountains.
Llyr had gone into Edan’s cave seeking a quiet place where he could monitor the many messages he was receiving and to plan. He felt Bridniclir’s dark malevolence approaching from the south, seemingly heading directly for the cave that had saved his people from her ancient curse. Asthore, her shining spirit rising up the mountainside like the sun, was ascending toward him, as well. He growled in his frustration to lead an attack on the sorceress despite the odds against him, but he held to his frustrating promise to the queen. Knowing that this showdown was inevitable, and hoping to do what he could to help, he called most of his pack to him.
Before any could arrive at the sanctuary cave, Llyr seemed to feel another presence with him. The air shimmered and grew light until standing before him in the middle of the chamber was a tall man of wolfish features. His head was a mane of black streaked with silver like the coat Llyr wore. Pointed ears twitched back and forth as if listening closely to the sounds of the cave and the world beyond. He turned golden eyes on the black wolf.
“Llyr, King in the Mountains, grandson of my grandson of my grandson for long ages, I am Edan. The time has come at last, and you must hear me well.”
“Edan! Grandfather! How is this possible?” stammered Llyr.
“Magic calls to magic, my son. Time runs on and the spell winds down to its inevitable conclusion. The day is here that my clan will once again walk among our fellow men or truly become the wolves we appear to be. It is up to you and the pack, and the queen whose heart has opened the way for you.”
“What does this have to do with Asthore?”
“She knows the prophetic incantation of the spell’s ending and kept it from you in an attempt to spare you in the coming battle. Hear this, Llyr:”
“They will answer the call where their lord once stood.
They will hear the heart that is true and good.
They will acknowledge the power they cannot refuse.
They will honor the promise they dare not lose.
They will again be men as they are called by blood.
They will again be men as they are called by love.”
“You promised her that you would stay out of the fight, but it is she you must protect!”
“But Edan, my lord, how can we fight against Bridniclir’s magic and the army she brings with her? We have no weapons but stealth and tooth and claw! We are outnumbered almost ten to one even with the small force she brings up the mountain. I know each one of us would give his or her life for Asthore. We have loved her since she walked these forests as a young girl, and now that she knows us, too, we feel that we belong with her.”
“Think, Llyr. You know these woods and rocks better than any other creature. Wolf you may be, but you have a wolf’s cunning and the reason of a man. The men and horses the witch brings have their own fear of you. Even Bridniclir is unsure of what you have become. As for her magic, yes, she is powerful, but she is coming to a more powerful place as she learned so very long ago. Still, you must do what you can to protect Asthore. She has opened her mind and heart to you. She is the key to all that is possible. It may be that there is even more. Trust her. Trust your own heart, too.”
“We will do as you say, Grandfather. Let us hope it is enough.”
“Peace is my hope for you, King Llyr of the Mountains. Good fortune to you.”
With that the insubstantial presence of the ancient wolf-man dimmed and faded into the emptiness of his cave once more. Llyr felt his wolves approaching, quick behind them the cold darkness of the witch’s soulless spirit, and the warm light of Asthore’s flaming heart.
* * * * * *
“The Wolves of Evanheir: Pt 10—Wolf King”
On the plain below the mountain the two armies threw themselves at one another in thunderous charges and the lightning clash of steel on steel. The air was filled with clouds of arrows. Screams of agony from wounded soldiers and horses pierced the rising fog of dust. Blood ran into the clear streams soon turned red on their course to the sea. Asthore was aware of the noise of the battle and grew even more resolved as she thought of her countrymen and women fighting and dying for their land and their homes. Somehow they would prevail against Anwir’s forces, especially the sorceress who had been the bane of her existence all these years.
After so many joyful adventures in her snowy mountains, this ride with her guards on the well-known paths made her heart ache. Glimpses of her escort of wolves now and then gave her some sense of security, but she did not like to think of what might happen with these new friends and their mountain home, either. As large as these great beasts were—half again the size of their more common brothers and sisters—Llyr’s pack was even more stealthy, and she was sure no one of her guard realized they were being shadowed by the pack. Now and then one of the horses shied from a cross breeze scented with wolf, but the riders were paying attention to their track and looking for more human intruders.
The queen intended to make the area of Edan’s cave her temporary headquarters yet still keep the cave itself secret from her men, but she needed to be close to Llyr, to take comfort in his strength and the ready information from the scouting pack. The vantage point of the high rocks also gave her a clear view of the distant plain even if it was many miles away. It would be like watching a chess match from high in a stadium.
Up the other side of the mountain came the growing shadow that was Bridniclir’s malevolent darkness. She felt the presence of the young queen, and something else she knew but could not name. Confident in her power, the witch pressed her troop hard through the drifts and over the icy trail. Now and again she heard a horse whinny in fear and a rider curse and assumed it was the unfamiliar mountain path, but these incidents were also often accompanied by the smell of blood and death that was too close to be the battle raging below. Still, she gave her mortal allies no real thought. Ahead was the battle for which she had prepared for centuries.
Before either cavalcade reached their inevitable rendezvous, outriders from both sides began to clash. Asthore did not have a large force with her because she thought hers was merely a guarding detail. It soon became apparent to her, however, that they were encountering a larger force, and she hurried her band of soldiers to reach the vantage point of the high rocks. She was beginning to see individual skirmishes and realized that her wolves were doing more now than merely flanking her movements and reporting the enemy’s position. If not for Ivy’s surefooted progress, at one point she would have lost her seat when a charging rider wearing Anwir’s colors raced to intercept her and was met first by a brindled wolf that seemed to appear from the base of a massive pine.
The wolf leapt at the rider to tear him from his saddle, but the warhorse scented the wolf and reared before the beast could reach the knight. Armor-plated greaves offered no purchase for the wolf’s massive jaws, and it slid ineffectually to the side. The trained horse danced on its hind legs, pirouetted its great bulk, and two steel-shod hooves came fatally down on the wolf’s head. Asthore cried out in anguish at the scene, but knew that her four-footed soldier had saved her life. She vowed that it had not died in vain, as she pledged in her heart to all who fought for Evanheir that day.
Putting her heels to her laboring mare, Asthore broke into the clearing of the great amphitheatre, and her guard formed a protective shield wall before her. On the rocks above, the wolf pack assembled and howled its defiance to the approaching enemy. Horses shied, riders cursed and looked with wonder over their shoulders at the enormous wolves behind them, but all held their ground. On came Bridniclir and the soldiers of the dead king.
Asthore’s guard couched lances, fronted shields, and met what was a relatively feeble charge as the enemy riders tried to attack from the snow-packed trail below them. Uphill, and without the speed of a full charge, they were easily stymied or completely repelled, but still men and horses fell in agony as the horror-stricken queen looked on. The wolves, too, had raced from their high perch and, leaping from rocks, unseated riders or hamstrung horses, but they also suffered in their combat.
Bridniclir had hung back as her soldiers attacked. She had dismounted and in a small clearing now turning black with a sorcerous fog, chanted an incantation of power. This was the moment for which she had waited. All she had to do was unleash her spell and it would level this rock-strewn wolf’s lair and destroy everyone before her. She had no care that those who fought for her would suffer the same fate as her enemies. Raising her voice and her hands, she flung the invisible force at Asthore, the focal point of the battle.
Below in the palace, high in his tower, Kunsgnos had watched in a magical eye both the battle on the plain and the forays up the mountainside. He had, many years before, denounced the use of his power as any kind of offensive weapon, but many times he had used his knowledge and skills to defend against others who sought to do harm to Evanheir and any creature that dwelled in the kingdom. As Bridniclir had grown in her evil strength, so had Kunsgnos become stronger and held the land under his aegis.
When the witch unleashed her blast of destruction, Kunsgnos sent his guarding strength to form a barrier before his queen and her soldiers and Edan’s cave. No sooner had he projected that shield but he also felt a similar force come from the cave itself and recognized the imprimatur of the wolf kings, both Edan and Llyr. Those two, spirit and beast, had felt Asthore’s need. The ancient spirit knew that this was the long awaited time of release or eternal imprisonment. The living beast felt his love for Asthore become a power that joined with his ancestor’s desire for vengeance and the mage’s desire for peace. Their combined powers met the destroying wave of evil.
The earth of that mountain stronghold and the air around it seemed to explode as these magics met. Boulders three times the size of horse and rider were heaved skyward. Towering pines were felled like matchsticks. The concussive noise itself shook loose an avalanche of snow that roared down the mountainside. Within the cave Llyr was thrown violently to the floor of the chamber and pierced with shards of granite. In the amphitheatre and around it, all were hammered to the ground and then tossed like leaves into the air, crushed beneath the falling rocks and trees, impaled by branches, lances, swords, and arrows.
Some of Asthore’s men and nearby wolves had thrown themselves toward her as best they could to try and protect her from Bridniclir’s blast and the upheaval of the mountain. Most suffered for their bravery. The queen was not spared.
Asthore had been flung from her horse and slammed against the protective wall of the arena. She bled from a head wound and from the projected rocks and splinters of wood. When those near her could stand, they discovered the queen unconscious and suffering most from a gaping wound in her side. The wolves howled their anger and frustration.
Their raised voices drew Asthore from her stupor and she gasped in pain. Despite this, her first words were to ask about her troop and the wolves.
“How have we fared?” she thought to Aod when she saw the blood striped white wolf standing before her. “What of Bridniclir?”
“Lady, you must be still,” countered Aod. “I will see about the state of the battles, but we must find you aid!”
“If Bridniclir is able to continue, we must prepare again to fight her!” Asthore yelled and gasped with the effort speak and to rise. Even her concern could not put color back in her cheeks, however. The captain of her guard, his helmet gone, his left arm missing at the elbow, knelt beside her and, through gritted teeth admonished her to lie still.
“Be calm. Help is coming. The black witch is gone,” he said. “Whatever power she threw at us, despite the damage it did, recoiled back on her as if it had hit an invisible wall and she simply disappeared like she had been erased from the world. She is no more. Those of her soldiers who survived here have seemingly come out of an enchantment, as well, and have laid down their arms and begged for clemency. My lady, the captain tells me that Anwir was killed by the witch before the battle began.”
A spasm of pain wracked her body, and in her agony Asthore called, “Llyr! Llyr, my king! Where are you?” Feebly at first, but soon more clearly she heard him answer.
“Lady, I am coming,” and he limped toward her from around a boulder.
The soldiers, suddenly aware of the wolves in their midst, gasped at the realization, but remembering what they had witnessed during the battle, accepted their presence then as allies. A few who had managed to stand still started to object as the black wolf drew toward their queen, but she raised a bloody hand to forestall them.
“You promised me that you would stay out of this, Llyr, you and the pack!”
“We could not, my queen. We were commanded by Edan himself to help you defeat Bridniclir, and to protect you. Although she is gone, it seems, you have not escaped harm. I can tell it is grave with you.”
The wolf king struggled to stay upright, but he came to stand beside Asthore. She saw that he, too, was bleeding badly from scores wounds, and reached up to caress his muzzle and pull on an ear.
“If Evanheir is safe, and you and those of the pack who survived, I have achieved my purpose.”
Her eyes flickered as she fought to remain conscious. Llyr moved closer. Although his own wounds were already beginning to close with the wolves’ miraculous healing power, as he bent to examine Asthore’s horrific injury, some of his blood dripped into the purpling gash. He drew back in mortification when he saw this. Then he and the assembled company were astonished to see her wound begin to close on its own accord! In moments, too, the color returned to her cheeks and her breathing became stronger.
“Oh, Llyr, so many have died, my people and our pack mates. My heart aches for them all! You should not have risked so much for us.”
“We did it for ourselves as well as for you, our queen.”
Asthore raised herself, but gingerly, and draped an arm around him. “Oh, Llyr, my king. You have my heart, King in the Mountains. How I have come to love you! You have saved the kingdom and me.”
This confession and recognition opened Llyr’s eyes and his heart. “Yes, Asthore. You have my love, as well, and the love of all the pack. You truly are our queen; my queen.”
Once again the ravaged mountainside swam in glimmering magic. Bridniclir was dead, and now her ancient spell was releasing, as well. The wolves cried out as they realized their bodies were changing. The soldiers around them gasped in witness to the transformations. Where once were the ferocious wolves that had fought beside them, now there were appearing men and women. The varied coats of deep fur were receding, ears and noses shortening, claws and paws becoming fingers and hands. As the transformations became more complete, some of the soldiers had wits enough to find capes and tattered saddle blankets to offer as covering for the now unclothed wolf pack.
Asthore watched in fascination as Llyr’s heavy mane of silver-streaked sable became the hair on a noble head with golden eyes that flashed at her in love and with humor at her sudden embarrassment. Her captain, his mangled arm in tourniquet and sling now, handed Llyr his own cape of office and the king draped it around himself. All the wolf’s wounds had healed, and for the first time, he rose on two unsteady legs. Drawing to his full height, he stood a head above the tallest of Asthore’s soldiers, the conditioning of years living and hunting the mountain obvious in his physique. The others of the pack also presented imposing figures even in their slapdash clothing. Asthore looked on them all, the former wolves and her brave soldiers, with a full heart.
She stood, her strength returned with the wolf’s blood cure, and put her arm through Llyr’s. With a smile she addressed them.
“You and those on the plain below have saved our kingdom. We need to go and do what we can for those who have suffered most, including those who were slaves to Bridniclir. The kingdom must be put to right, and all Twelve Kingdoms of Tabrimon must hear of The Wolves of Evanheir!”