Monday, June 5, 2017

A Raven's Wolf - An Independence Pack Story - Chapter One

Story: A Raven's Wolf
Chapter: One
Word Count: 4585

I've been holding this project in my head for quite some time and really wanted to push myself to get it out there and into the world. This is one of the earlier stories in the Independence Pack series, exploring some shifter dynamics in the past. The history of shifters, or in this case they call themselves the Kind, has always been interesting to me. Let's delve into the past and see how the War for Independence started on an entirely different front.

Summary: Raven shifter Connor is living a life of deliberate separation from the powerful workings of shifter society and the influence of his father. Having foresworn his connection the The Rookery he thinks he has a semblance of freedom. However, one night his past catches up to him with word of Mathieu Beaufort, a wolf his father had helped kidnap on behalf of the Royal Park during the Seven Years War. For the sake of their childhood friendship Connor decides to warn him that he is about to be swept up again into the world of shifter power struggles and intrigue. 

It was the first time in a month that Mathieu had caught the smell of anything but ocean. Well, ocean and the scent of humans and cargo and sickness. The gale they’d been swept in for the past several days had sent many below into the passenger hold. He’d taken to wearing his scarf up over his nose. It wasn’t much better, the damp and salt making the wool musty, but it was better than human refuse by a long shot. A gull cried and Mathieu breathed deeply. It was ice and chimney smoke. They had reached land. A memory stirred in Mathieu’s mind. This place smelled more like his childhood home. And that was precisely where he did not want to go.
He waited, listening to the muffled sounds on the deck. He was a stowaway and there was no sense in being caught now. The Royal Pack may have no presence on this ship, but any human might remember a young man in aristocratic clothes. Besides, there were others that could report, a bird in the air or something that swam in the water. Mr. Finn was a canny Rogue, if a bird like that could maintain neutrality with the Rookery he knew a thing or two for getting around the pack. No doubt he would update him soon. Mathieu trusted that and it calmed the flutter in his chest.
He leaned back against a wooden crate and looked up, staring at the dark underside of the planks overhead. Footsteps hammered and the unintelligible din of the humans above board gave no indication of where they’d arrived. The hatch opened and Mathieu ducked his head, covering his lantern.
“It’s only me,” came the deep, crackling voice of the old sea bird. Mathieu relaxed, opening the lantern again. Mr. Finn came into view, his face weathered and middle-aged. His eyes were golden-brown, like the animal beneath his skin, and his mouth was turned down in concern.
“Where have we landed?” Mathieu asked.
“We’ve come into Boston harbor. Captain doesn’t want to risk getting blown into any of the sandbanks once you get down near the Chesapeake. We’ll be laid up here a few days at least if we go south at all.”
Mathieu frowned, biting his lip. “What are the odds he goes south?”
“I’d say pretty good, he can pick up a shipment from the West Indies, molasses or some such thing and then catch the trade wind back home.”
“How many days, exactly?”
“I couldn’t tell you, boy, it could be one, two, three, a whole week.” Mr. Finn shrugged, sitting down on one of the barrels tied together with a rope. 
“That means several days after that down the coast,” Mathieu said, thinking aloud. He pushed his blond hair out of his eyes and thought through the dilemma. Odds were they’d discovered he was missing from the Pack halls that evening. Even if they could charter a ship the next day the Pack would be a few days behind if they were caught in the same gale. Getting stopped here would lose any advantage that he’d had. Word could possibly arrive from London before they even made way again. “I need to disembark here.”
Mr. Finn looked at him, tilting his head. “Laddie, you are hundreds of land miles from Great Bridge, Virginia. And it’s the middle of winter.”
“I was born here,” Mathieu said. It was the truth. He could remember the bone chilling winters even further north from where they now stood, weathering it in his father’s house where other members of the French North American Pack would come to speak business. Before the war with the British Pack anyway.
“Aye, but you have also been living in a palace of one of the largest cities in the world since you were little more than a pup,” Mr. Finn said as Connor began gathering up his belongings and stuffing them into the bag he’d bought from a sailor at the dockside. 
“I wasn’t that young, I was sixteen.”
“Living in Montreal, one of only two places that can even begin to be considered cities in Canada, lad.” Mr. Finn sighed. “Cages can make all of us lose some of our instincts.” Mathieu paused, looking down at the item in his hand. It was a little bit of carved wood in the shape of a wolf. It was the one thing he’d brought from his rooms at the castle. He put it into the pocket of his coat. A cage indeed. A cage he knew all about and did not intend to go back to alive.
“It’s a risk I’ve got to take. If they happen to come aboard and smell me? You know what would happen.” Mr. Finn nodded, absentmindedly rubbing at his arm where a long white scar ran from wrist to elbow. 
“Aye, I know. I’ll get you onto the dock tonight.”
There were still a few people around the docks, but they were only humans. Mathieu couldn’t see anything animal in any of them. He hooked his satchel over his shoulder, looking up at the wooden dock. It was a little bit above his head, but he could make it with a good jump.
“I could watch over you until you get to the edge of town if that’s where you’re headed. Although, I would suggest the place I told you about,” said Mr. Finn, leaning on the oars of the boat. Mathieu timed the bobbing and grabbed hold of the edge of the dock, clambering up. Not the most graceful movement, but it did the job on the wood that was quickly getting covered in frost.
“No, I don’t want you to get any more involved. You’ve done so much for me already.” Mathieu said, getting to his feet and dusting off the knees of his breeches. He lay a hand on his chest. “I am very grateful for all that you’ve done.” He bowed his head, making Mr. Finn chuckle.
“Be careful with all that aristocratic breeding, laddie, you’ll either give yourself away to the Pack or the humans will want something from you.” He did a long pull on the oars, sending him adrift from the dock. “Good luck, Beaufort.”
Mathieu watched him for a moment and then turned to walk toward town. The hollow sounds of the dock beneath his feet soon gave way to the solid sound of packed soil, hardened from so many feet going over them. He took a deep breath, trying to steady himself, the stillness of the land felt strange after so many weeks at sea. In fact, standing upright was a blessing. He began to walk towards town, keeping his senses alert. It was often hard to find the scent of his own kind under the smell of humans and their activities, but it didn’t hurt to try. There were certainly Kind in the town, after all, the place Mr. Finn had told him about was a Kind run establishment. Would it really be that much trouble? Would he even be noteworthy enough to have to hide? He shivered into his jacket. Snow was starting to fall.
Perhaps it would be a good plan to get the lay of the land before striking out for Virginia. He wagered he had at least a night or two before word could arrive from across the Atlantic about his escape. Mathieu began to walk a little faster, a storm had dropped on land, the moisture in the air clinging to his hair and clothes.
Connor stepped into the close warmth of the Sly Fox Tavern. He ran a hand through his black hair, squeezing drops of water onto the floor. The wet was already turning to frost outside. He resisted the urge to shake, fluffing the feathers hidden beneath his human skin. There would be time for that later. He walked towards a table near the back, the oil cloth of his sailor’s clothes leaving a trail of rain and seawater on the floorboards of the Boston establishment. He wasn’t the only water-logged seaman who had come indoors seeking warm food and a place to escape the biting damp of early spring in the American colonies. It had taken until dusk to load the cargo, packing it alongside what had been picked up in the West Indies, what had started as mist had turned into a deluge. The crispness to the air even threatened snow. Connor dropped gratefully into the chair and scanned the room.
It was a small place, the room fitting about twenty to thirty patrons. Tables were scattered around with a counter opposite from the front door. Mr. Smith, the proprietor, was pouring ale from a pewter jug, chatting with one of the sailors who handed him a coin. Fires crackled in hearths on either end of the room. The general din of so many voices talking made it feel fuller than it was. Tobacco smoke drifted over heads.
Noone of consequence as far as he could tell. Absentmindedly, Connor reached for his right wrist. The Rookery band had been gone for years, but its ghost remained. 
“I was beginning to wonder if you had drowned in the sea.” Connor looked up and smiled. A young woman stood there, her red hair tucked up under a cap. Her apron was slightly stained and she had a pitcher of ale in one hand. Patience dropped down into the seat beside him. Not all the Kind had the look of the animal that dwelled beneath the surface, especially half-humans like Patience. However, with her long, sharp nose and lithe limbs she hinted at the fox within. 
“Fair guess. I’m not good at swimming,” Connor said.
Patience smiled. “I would expect not. My second guess was that you went back home.”
“London was never home.”
“I meant New York. Albany was it?”
“More like a loft in a barn twenty miles from the place in the middle of nowhere. No thanks,” Connor said, shrugging, the lie had grown easier the more he told it. Patience’s sister came by to drop a mug for him and beckon her sister back to work. Patience waved her off.
“Well, there are no rooms available, but you can sleep in front of the fire in the kitchen. You’ll have to thank Mother for that.” Connor looked across the room at the middle-aged woman whose auburn hair matched her daughter’s. She smiled at something her husband said as he handed her a tray of food. Connor felt a twinge of jealousy for the normalcy of it all. A fox who married a human didn’t suffer scrutiny. He would never get away with such a thing. Not that he wanted it. Connor looked back to Patience. He doubted anyone in the Pack or otherwise knew anything about her existence at all. Miss Patience Smith, half-blood, had all the freedom in the world. 
“I’d be honored to stay with your family.”
She smiled and blushed. Connor watched her face, had he said something strange? He turned over his words in his mind to think of how he could have embarrassed her. She glanced over her shoulder. “I better get back to work or Father will have my hide.”
“You would look good on the ruff of some nobleman’s cloak,” Connor joked, the corner of his mouth quirking into a smile. 
Patience rolled her eyes  and swatted him on the arm as she stood. “Be careful with the flattery, I may not bring you any dinner.”
“What kind of hostess would you be if you did that, Miss Smith?” 
“The kind that teaches young men where they belong,” she said, sharing his smile before walking back towards a table that called out for more ale. Connor leaned back in his seat and focused on his own drink.
Each entrance and exit brought damp and cold. Connor watched each new patron, considering what he would do next. Before the most recent jaunt with the whaling ship to Greenland he’d been exploring the Ohio River valley. It had been tempting to leave his human form behind for good. He wouldn’t have been the only one, there was an entire flock that had formed near the edge of one of the gigantic lakes. Ravens, crows, falcons, hawks, more others than he could name. Their human forms matched people from all over, blown across oceans or born from the humans nearby. He knew he couldn’t stay though. They were birds without affiliations. Father may have sent him away, but Connor doubted that Liam Quirke was finished with his only son. Connor leaned back in the chair and took a long draw from the mug. Civilization had its benefits as well. 
The little bell above the door chimed again, as a young man stepped inside with his satchel over his shoulder. He shook the snow from his shoulders, an entire body shift. Connor blinked, he didn’t recognize him and this was no human. The man’s face was wrapped in a scarf, his face shifting as though he smelled something foul. His clothes matched what many wore, but they were just a hair too fine. They didn’t fit him well either, as though they belonged to someone else. There was something in the way he sat. Not a colonial then, from abroad. A wolf. They had a bearing that other predators didn’t hold and Connor would know one in the dark. His father had brought the Rookery closer to the Royal Pack than it had ever been. The Rookery knew Royal Wolves. Why would one be here?
Connor looked over towards Patience. She was chatting with her mother, but then she caught his eye. She came over with the bowl of stew she had promised. “See I’m not such a bad hostess after all,” she teased.
“Do you know that wolf over there?” Connor asked. She looked.
“Near the door.” Her nostrils flared, she was smelling for him. 
“The one with the fair hair? Never seen him before.”
“Do you want me to go ask what brings him here?”
“No, I can do it.” said Connor. Patience shrugged and went back to her business. Connor continued to watch him for a moment. Whoever he was, he was trying not to be noticed. His own sense of smell didn’t match mammals, so he couldn’t be sure. When he’d been young he’d known a vulture who could sniff out anything, but birds with those senses were few and far between. The wolf didn’t seem to have seen him, but he was definitely on the watch. For what? Who? No way was he going to approach a Royal Wolf without a little more information. He focuses on his food, watching him out of the corner of his eye.
Connor nearly choked on his stew, he cleared his throat. “MacPhearson.”
“I haven’t seen you in nearly six months, where have you been hiding!?” said MacPhearson, plopping down right beside him. The golden band of the Rookery shone on his right wrist as he leaned forward to snatch the last piece of bread off  the edge of the soup bowl. He clapped Connor on the shoulder while he chewed. Connor watched him, he hadn’t expected the fellow bird here. Sam MacPhearson was twenty-five to Connor’s eighteen. Despite the difference in age, Connor knew the show of geniality was just that, a performance. MacPhearson wanted something. There was always a request included. He knew all about Connor’s position.
“I’ve been about. What can I do for you?”
“There’s some snooping about to be done.”
“I mean, not this time. I’ve just arrived back, I need to acclimate.” 
MacPhearson snorted at that, leaning back in his chair to catch Patience’s sister Minnie by the elbow. “Get me a bowl of that, Dearie,” he said, pointing to Connor’s food.
“You got coin?” she said.
“Ah, so the foxes of the Sly Fox are living up to their reputation!” Minnie frowned.
“I’ll cover it, Minnie,” said Connor, looking around for Patience. She was over near the door, talking to someone. He wondered if it was the wolf.
“I think it’ll be worth you while, Quirke.”
“How much gold?”
Connor sighed. “Give me the details and I’ll think on it.” MacPhearson reached into his pocket and drew out a folded piece of paper. It was worn and a little dirty. It curled up, no doubt stuffed in a messenger’s case. The Rookery was running messages again. Peculiar. Connor shoved it into his own pocket, his mind half on the wolf that had been by the door. Patience had moved on, the fair haired wolf was gone. “So, MacPhearson, is the Pack planning anything?”
“Why so curious about that all of a sudden? I thought you’d sworn off the wolves, isn’t that why you’re in trouble with your daddy?” 
“Oh, I’d forgotten,” Connor said, the words rolling off his tongue along with the disdain. MacPhearson glared at him, the show of good humor fading. “I figured they might be willing to pay me, only for North American work mind.”
“Don’t you miss the stink of England?”
“All right, if I hear anything I’ll send it your way.”
“Good, now if you’ll excuse me. I need to go talk to Mr. Smith.” Connor got up from the table, even though he wasn’t quite done with his food. MacPhearson’s appearance was an unpleasant reminder of why he’d spent the summer in the wilds. No politics. No games. No need for coin. He walked right past the tavern keeper and went into the kitchens. Mrs. Smith would no doubt let him stay by her fire in the relative quiet of the kitchen as long as he brought her a good story.
Mathieu didn’t want to admit it, but he had lost his nerve. He’d not been in the tavern five minutes when the feeling he’d been caught arrived. When the young woman stepped up, he hadn’t been able to find his words at first. Luckily, the false name came to his lips easily. 
The weather grew colder, snow falling in earnest now. There had been others there, the girl for one. And feathers. It was the scent of feathers making him quicken his step. A bird, maybe more. The Rookery had ruined his family, he wouldn’t let it happen again. His fingers wrapped around the wooden wolf in his pocket. Yes, it had been the Rookery that took him too. 
He shrugged deeper into his coat, it was not enough. He would need shelter or he would need to Change. Where would it be safe? He walked down the path, feeling the ground harden underneath his shoes. There was a human inn up ahead, no hint of scent own kind regardless of species. It was worth a try. 
A few men lingered near the door, cooling their skin from the heat pouring out of the door. The fire roared and the scent of the crisp snow gave way to human sweat, tobacco, meat and even gunpowder. The last scent made sense immediately. There was a crowd of red-coated soldiers inside, only a few men in plain clothes.
“No room sailor, my apologies,” said a harried looking man, no doubt the innkeeper, as he walked past with a tray filled with food. Regardless of his words, Mathieu stepped closer to a man near the counter who hastily scribbled into a ledger.
“As my brother said, there are no rooms. This rabble was quartered here a month ago,” said that man.
“Sure are a lot of them,” Mathieu said.
“Locusts, the lot of them. That’s just between you and me mind.”
“Of course.”
“Where are you from?”
“MontrĂ©al, although recently I’ve been abroad.” The man looked him up and down.
“Canada, huh? How long are you in town for?”
“Not long, as there doesn’t seem to be any place to stay,” replied Mathieu, leaning on the counter. He breathed, trying to parse the different scents. It was next to impossible, the only commonality was male. Not so different than his rooms back in the pack hall. 
“We have a stable. For a few coins we’ll even throw in a blanket.”
“I would be obliged.”
“Go ahead and sit down, we’ll bring you some supper.”
“I’ll just wait right here and eat in the stables, been living shoulder to shoulder for too long.” It was a reasonable enough lie.
“Sure Mister…?”
“Beeman. Matthew Beeman.” He reached into his pocket and dropped a few coins.  With a gesture, Mathieu was on his way to the stables.
The stable was an addition, a small building pressed up against the side of the inn. The building held the warmth of a dozen horses or so. The animals lifted their heads when he entered, their nostrils flaring. “It’s all right.” he said, holding his hands open. Horses could be reasonable. A bay stallion stomped his hoof a few times, tail flicking. Most of the horses went back to their feed, a few others watching his steps as he found the ladder to the hayloft. The straw poked through the blanket, but it was dry. He picked at the meal, not hungry. Now that he had a place to rest on dry land he felt the exhaustion claim him. He curled up, letting sleep take him, readying himself to explore Boston in the light of day. To learn the truth of what had brought so many soldiers here.
Connor wrapped himself in a blanket, the fire was warm and the inn had quieted. The night became deeper, Connor getting up to draw the curtains over the windows. Their shutters may be closed, but Connor hated the idea of a wide-eyed owl peering inside. Especially if that owl was Kind. 
Soft footsteps sounded behind him and he turned, quickly, startling Patience as she stepped into the room. She clutched the shawl she had wrapped over her shift a little tighter. “Connor, can I sit with you for a little while?” Her red hair was braided, laying across her left shoulder, bright against the pale yellow of the shawl. Connor quickly looked away.
“Would your father mind?”
“Papa is dead asleep. You act like you’ve never seen a girl in her shift!” She pulled over a chair. Connor didn’t answer, mammals rarely understood state of undress. “So,” she said, “Are you really a Rogue?”
Connor looked back, leaning casually on the sideboard beneath the window. “Where did you hear such a thing?”
“Mama says trouble might be coming. The wolves are agitated. Rogues seem terribly romantic.” She smiled, twisting her fingers in her hair. Connor sighed. Patience may only be a few years younger, but she’d been lucky that she didn’t have to know.
“I’m not a Rogue, but, well, being in exile isn’t exactly romantic either. To go Rogue means to cut yourself off from your pack, skulk, herd, whatever else we call ourselves. Birds… well, we don’t really go Rogue.” Patience watched his face for a moment, then turned to look at the fire.
“What was it like? With the Royal Pack? You never talk about it.” Connor watched her for a moment, opening his mouth, but not sure where to start. He doubted she wanted to really hear what he thought. She wanted the stories the wolves spread about their palaces and the power they wielded amongst the humans. Perhaps their grand stories of defeating the lions or how the current Pack gained power. She didn’t want to know the truth.
“Patience, leave Connor be. He needs some rest,” Mrs. Smith interrupted, walking into the kitchen. Patience nodded, standing up and giving Connor a small smile on the way out. Mrs. Smith took over her daughter’s chair, her own red hair loose, graying at the temples. “My daughter is fond of you.”
“She’s a nice girl.”
“Connor, I adore you like a son, but please don’t have any designs on her.” He looked up, surprise painted across his face.
“Designs?” he said, pondering the word for a moment. The flush blossomed crossed the bridge of his nose. “Ah, courtship. I promise you I have no intentions towards Patience whatsoever!” The words tumbled out of his mouth, the very idea made him uncomfortable. Mrs. Smith watched him for a moment, then leaned back in her chair. Her sharp gaze didn’t leave him. Connor could feel it even when he walked past her to put another log on the fire.
“I believe you,” she said, when he returned to his pile of blankets, sitting cross-legged on the makeshift net. “I would not believe many many males that made such an assertion, but I’ve known you a long time.”
“Why did you tell Patience I was Rogue when you knew it wasn’t true?”
Mrs. Smith smiled, crossing her arms. “I was trying to discourage my daughter in her attempted courtship of you.” Connor looked down at his hands.
“I did not mean to encourage her.”
“I know that. You are too charming sometimes and then outright strange at others.” she said. Connor sighed. “Anyhow, Patience told me you were very distracted by a wolf this evening.”
“Not distracted, just curious. He looked familiar.”
“Royal Wolf, then. There has been some poking about now that the human army has taken an interest in human antics.”
Connor shook his head. “If he was who I thought… I do not think he would be helping them.” Connor paused, wondering if he should even say anything. “Do you remember… during the war between the French Pack and the Royal Pack? I, well…”
“Tell me.”
“Do you remember Mathieu Beaufort? When they brought him in?”
“You think Mathieu Beaufort, son of the traitor, was sitting in my tavern?” she said, eyebrows lifting.
“You know that’s not how it was.”
“That’s how everyone remembers it. you were only thirteen, your probably don’t remember any of it properly.” Connor opened his mouth, but she quickly began to speak again. “Anyhow, wouldn’t he still be in the bosom of the London house?”
“I don’t know, perhaps my mind was playing nostalgic tricks. I am tired from my travels.” he said. He could feel the discomfort in every part of his body. Why had he said anything at all? To put a stop on the conversation he lay down, wrapping the blankets around him. He knew he was too old for such a display, but he didn’t care. Mrs. Smith stood up, leaning down to put a hand on his dark hair.
“I know you don’t want to hear, but your mother, my friend, would want me to tell you this. You have a lot in common with your father at times, and that is not necessarily a judgment,” she said. Her fingers left his hair. “I will keep an eye out for Mathieu Beaufort, for your feelings for him if for no other reason.
“My feelings?” Connor said, leaning up on one elbow. Her face was illuminated by the candle.
“The stories do have some truth to them, about ravens and wolves.” Connor stared at her, but she turned away, leaving him alone. He lay back down, staring at the play of the light from the fire on the hearthstone. Those were just children’s stories. Father never paid them much mind. Connor tried to put the thought aside and get some sleep.
He wanted to believe it was just nostalgia talking. He hadn’t seen Mathieu Beaufort in seven years, why would he appear here now?

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