Monday, July 3, 2017

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

Story: A Raven's Wolf
Chapter: Three
Word Count: 4336

Story 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. 

Chapter Summary: Connor is having some trouble tracking Mathieu through the forests, as he went off the road. Mathieu remembers his mother and the last time he was in North America.


A storm was coming in. Mathieu could feel it.
He’d gone off the road several times in an attempt to confuse any pursuers. If the snow was coming inland there was the possibility that any impatient messengers would find another way to get the news to shore. The Pack wouldn’t take kindly to his escape. When the Royal Pack got word to North America… Mathieu shivered and it wasn’t just from the cold.
The snow began to fall in earnest, white flakes clinging to naked branches and melting on Mathieu’s exposed skin. The cold sneaked into the folds of his clothes. The cold gripped and touched him like a lover wanting him to lay down and accept its embrace. Wrapping his arms around himself he trudged on, not wanting to answer a call that would lead to death. When his feet went numb he knew he had a problem He sniffed, searching the air for some hint of human habitation that could grant him shelter from the cold. The Change would have to be a last resort.
No scent of fresh wood smoke hung on the air. No hint of livestock. He was too far from town. He was in that in-between that humans tried to tame, but were not always successful. The sorts of places where those like himself thrived. He scented the air again. It might be wild, but even other Kind weren’t out this far in the winter.
Wait. He sniffed again. An old smell, faint, of lye soap. He began to follow it, tripping over rocks and branches that had become hidden under the white blanket of snow. One foot in front of the other, he traveled deeper into the forest.
The little cabin was deep in a copse of sapling trees, their white bark and reaching limbs making them look like skeletal hands reaching toward the sky. Mathieu pushed through, approaching the door that hung half off its wooden hinges. The roof had fallen in at the front, the wood sticking when he tried to push it through. He walked around, finding a window with a loose shutter. The wood crumbled beneath his fingers. The window had no glass, so he was able to slip in through the empty frame. He took a few steps onto the bare dirt floor and let his human eyes adjust to the darkness.  An earthenware bowl and a cracked bottle had been left behind on a slat shelf on one wall. A little bit of a tattered cloth was pinned to a log with an iron nail. A fire scar and the remains of a chair were near the fallen roof, evidence that someone else had taken shelter here before. Mathieu couldn’t see what lay beyond the sagging, broken roof.
Mathieu gathered what dry wood he could find and piled it in the same fire scar, pulling the flint from his bag. Soon the crackling fire eased the cold from his limbs. He sat as close as he could, opposite of the window he’d used for ingress. If anyone saw his fire and wanted to join him, he would have opportunity to refuse. Reaching inside his satchel again, he lifted out the pistol he’d stolen from the Alpha’s arsenal. It was heavy and brought the cold back into his brittle fingers. He ran his thumb over the etched wolf in the brass work. It was his family’s mark, his father’s pistol. He’d not had time to steal powder or ball so perhaps the sight of it would be enough. Even if it hadn’t been before.
***
March 1763
“Mother, what’s wrong?” asked Mathieu, walking up to the house with the small deer. Winter had been hard on all of them, even the game thin and starving. Mathieu himself could feel the bones of his ribs against his skin. There just hadn’t been enough food for his growing teenage body. His mother stood in the cleared space in front of their cabin, no shawl or cloak, watching the eastern sky. “Mother?” he said again, stopping beside her.
“Don’t you see them, Mathieu?”
“See who?”
“The British Pack is coming, they’ll send their pet birds after us first.” She raised one of her pale hands, pointing at a few dark spots floating above the trees in the distance.
“They might be normal birds,” Mathieu said, furrowing his brow. “Mother, why don’t we go inside and eat.” He lay a hand on her arm, gently gripping her, guiding her back inside. Her pale blue eyes didn’t waver until he’d closed the door behind them, blocking her view of the sky.
“This fight will never end, as Packs grow we need more territory. Your father’s territory was always going to be tempting.” Mathieu directed her to a chair near the fire, hoping she would warm up. She coughed, a heaving, wet sound in her human lungs. Whatever it was, it followed her even when she Changed. They couldn’t run into the wilderness, she needed medicine, rest.
Mathieu left her indoors as he went back out to clean the deer. He considered his options to ease his mother’s fears. The methodical actions of butchery helped keep his human mind in control as the more animal part of him screamed to run. He couldn’t leave her, he’d promised Father he would care for her! Tomorrow he would go out, see what was happening to the east. Perhaps go to town and fetch more medicine. Ask for news from any of the Kind he could find.
When he went back inside with his decision, Mother was already asleep, her pale hair falling over her face. Mathieu picked her up and tucked her into bed.
“Don’t worry, Mother, I’ll protect you. I promised. Father is doing his best and I’m sure he’ll come back to us soon.” The resentment he used to feel for his father had faded over the past few months. He’d been fourteen when he’d been sent away, and eager to fight the British Pack. Many of the other boys his age were getting to fight. Now, he understood the reason later. His Father didn’t trust he wouldn’t lose heart should anything happen to his family. Mathieu thought it was a weakness at first consideration, but as he sat by the nearby lake wondering what excitement was happening miles away, he came to the realization. His father sent them away because he understood his limitations. He was leading the only way he knew how and he didn’t want them on the front. Father always taught him the importance of knowing the possible. The whispers made their way through the voices of animals and half-Kind quickly demonstrated the wisdom of the Beaufort leader’s choice. The British wolves had not come with a negotiation in mind. They were here to take all of North America.
After hanging the meat near the fire, Mathieu curled up on a pallet near the door. He’d taken to sleeping there to comfort Mother. If anyone was going to come through that door they would need to go through him. Later, they ate in silence, Mother looking to the door throughout their meal. Mathieu waited until he was sure she was asleep, before going back to his own spot near the door.
Waking the next morning, he found that snow had covered the forest. Muffling the sounds that usually echoed through the glens of the mountains. When he opened the door, some of the snow slid inside as if it too wanted the warmth.
“Where are you going?” Mother pushed herself up in the bed, her eyes worried.
“I just need some air, I won’t be gone long.”
“Be careful.” Her pale eyebrows drew low, her lips pressed together. Mathieu nodded and stepped out the door, pulling it closed behind him. His fingers rested on the wood. It was cold, lacking any of the warmth the interior held. Hesitation settled in his stomach. He shook his head, he was being foolish, it was just a little bit of exploring. Pulling off his clothes, he tucked them into the wood shed and he let the Change ripple through his skin. He dashed into the snowy forest, a ghost against the ground.
Branches crackled from the warming ice clinging to their branches. A clump of snow dropped with a ‘whumpf’ in his path, Mathieu dodging the later drips. He slowed to a lope and circled around, looking up at the branches for what might have sent the snow tumbling. Heart pounding it took a moment for the sounds of the forest to be heard above his heaving breaths. It had been so long since he’d gotten to run.
A few sparrows tittered in the nearby trees, a cloud of them rising into the sky to chase after a dark shape. Mathieu moved, looking through the evergreen boughs to see what it was that got them so flustered. A hawk? A raven? Animal or Kind? Mathieu slowed, going farther and farther and keeping himself in the shadows beneath the trees.
It was a raven, ducking and diving in circles to try and avoid the angry, small songbirds. It didn’t take long, after all, none of them had nests to protect this time of year. No need to gather so much attention from a predator. The raven folded its wings and moved under the canopy. He flew into a large fir and disappeared from Mathieu’s sight. A call. A caw and then a cluck. Mathieu listened to the complicated series of noises, trying to discern the meaning. There was no way to translate it into human words except a nuanced version of ‘I’m here’. He crept forward, keeping a large trunked pine between himself and the raven’s fir.
When an answer came, Mathieu ducked deeper behind the tree, scrambling backwards into a juniper shrub. The needles poked at him, but it was dense, concealing him from view. The two ravens continued to chat, the whoosh of another pair of wings settling into the fir of the first. Mathieu scolded himself. Ravens talked, even the animal ones. He was being foolish. It was probably nothing. There was more noise further up the mountain and one of the ravens darted off.
It was probably a territorial dispute, something simple and normal. He should continue down towards the village and see what news there was to be had. It was only ten miles overland, in his animal form he could make that in a few hours. Mother’s worries had just spilled over to him. She’d gotten more concerned since Father had not made his way back in three months. Mathieu just needed to go to town and everything would be fine. At least, he hoped that it would be all right.
He’d traveled another hour when a raven called again, not far away. Mathieu didn’t even flick an ear at first. Another raven croak.
A wolf’s howl in return.
Mathieu stumbled, his momentum pushing him into a tree. The snow fell onto him, burying him in the cold wet. He lay still, listening. He didn’t smell a thing! How was that possible? The wolf wasn’t close, that howl had been in the distance. The raven though, that was in the trees nearby. The raven gave the high pitched call he heard when they saw a hunter of any sort. The gathering. A call to a kill. Here it is, the raven’s calls said. Here what is? Who were they?
Picking himself up, Mathieu shook his fur. He had to get back to Mother. Whether they were animal or Kind, he couldn’t stay there anymore. He took one step, but felt his back foot give way. No! He’d hurt it when he’d hit the tree! He moved as quickly as he could regardless, putting the pain out of his mind as best he could. How many miles away were they? Were they after him? Mathieu broke into a run, pain shooting through his hind leg from his injuries. The sounds of the forests faded away, his mind closing in on the distant smell of wood smoke. He had to tell Mother.
***
Connor leaned against the wall of the tavern, watching the people come and go. He poked at the thin piece of chicken he’d been served, considering his options. He’d lost the trail. Mathieu was nowhere along this road.
He’d been hoping to cut him off before he reached the Stanley Pack, but how? He wasn’t entirely sure. The why of it all he didn’t even want to consider. Mathieu… His stomach rumbled and he picked up the thin chicken and stuffed it into his mouth, chewing thoughtfully.
Scanning the room once again he caught sight of an older man in one corner watching him. Connor turned away, observing him out of the corner of his eye. The man moved his head, a tilting, sideways glance. A bird, then. When he lifted his hand and brushed over his wrist, revealing bare skin, Connor understood. Another exile. Picking up the last bit of meat from his plate, Connor slid out of his seat and headed towards the old bird.
“Hello,” Connor said when he reached the older man. “Do you want another ale?”
“From a raven? Now that’s a gamble.”
“This from a gull that has wandered suspiciously far from lake or sea?” Connor raised a hand to get the barmaid’s attention. “You have my curiosity I suppose, do you have any news?”
“I always have news, the question is, do I feel like sharing it?”
Connor frowned. “I see.” He brushed back his own sleeve to show that he lacked the golden band of the Rookery. The gull raised an eyebrow. “Do you feel like sharing your news?”
“To someone who’s going to get himself pinioned when Lord Quirke catches up to him? I don’t see the point. There’s no way one such as you was allowed to exile himself.”
Connor sighed, the old bird wasn’t wrong. He shrugged. Seabirds always considered themselves clever riddlers. They liked games too, especially if they could get someone else to play. “Fine, I see how it is. I was just wondering if you’d seen a wolf.” He turned away, finding Mathieu might require taking to wing after all.
“Does a raven seek a wolf searching for a kill?”
Connor shook his head. “No, for a… for someone to hunt beside.” He’d butchered the quote, he could see it in the puzzled expression on the other man’s face. He examined Connor for another moment.
“How old are you, boy?”
“Twenty.”
“From London?”
“Yes and no.”
“Why are you looking for a wolf? They don’t take kindly to Rookery exiles.”
“This one is Rogue.”
“Hunting him for the Pack are you?”
“Hardly.”
“I have seen a wolf, a white one. Ah, like the one you are looking for, eh?”
Connor frowned. “You already knew that. How?”
“I brought the wolf here.” The man chuckled at Connor’s expression. “I see you didn’t expect that. I have no loyalty to the Royal Pack, why do you think I was asked to leave?” He waved is wrist through the air, the golden band that represented both membership and protection obvious in its absence.
Curiosity tugged at Connor, but he needed to stay focused. Mathieu could be anywhere. “Headed north or south?”
The seabird laughed, a noise that mimicked the raucous calls of his kind near the sea. “Your intuition is sharp. I let him off in Boston, but it wasn’t where he was going.” He reached into his pocket and slid a piece of paper towards Connor over the table. Connor looked at it, but didn’t reach for it. A trap? “I know you probably don’t remember me, Connor Quirke, but I was on that ship when you and that boy were taken back to London. I hope you find him.”
“I intend to.” Connor said, feeling a little nervous that this exile knew who he was, but Connor couldn’t recall a single feature of the seabird’s face. Perhaps it wasn’t all that surprising. He’d made himself sick in the hull staying by Mathieu’s side.
“Look to the southern skies,” the seabird said, reaching out to push the paper a little closer to Connor. Connor took it, slipping it into his pocket, not entirely confident he could trust him. “The wolves always underestimate bird Kind.”
“Indeed,” agreed Connor, “May I ask your name?”
“Finn.”
“Thank you.” Finn smiled. Connor nodded and got up, walking out into the night. He found a space near a window, enough light to look at the paper he was given.
North Carolina. Connor smiled. He’d been right. Mathieu was going to the Stanleys to see if they would take him in. However, if he’d guessed as much… Father would likely suspect something similar. Mathieu needed to know if he was walking into a trap. The Stanley leader may have been shamed after his actions, but he was hardly disloyal. Connor would need to travel quickly. He was going to have to take to wing.
Walking quickly through town, he made his way to the edges of the woods, shivering in the growing cold. As he reached for his neckcloth, he paused, closing his eyes against the anxiety that rose in his stomach. His heartbeat quickened at the thought of going out into the cold in his feathers. No one is making you do this, he told himself, you can come back whenever you need to. This wasn’t like before. The quarry may be the same, but everything else had changed. His fingers shook as he undressed, getting ready for the Change, tucking his clothing in his cloak deep in the shrubs. He could come back for it later.
Mind clearing he let his other form wash over him, the world twisting and changing until he saw it through his raven eyes. With a flap of his wings, Connor lifted into the dusky sky, wanting to make as many miles as he could before it grew too dark. If Mathieu was indeed heading south, he would be taking shelter along the human roads. He’d never traveled this space overland and would need the direction it provided. If Finn had lied, it would be faster to discover the truth this way.
After all, flying was faster than the swiftest on land.
***
Mathieu could feel the hollowness in his stomach. He needed to go to a human settlement. With no weapons to speak of in his human form, it was impossible to hunt on the move. As a boy he’d never bothered to learn the more patient forms of human hunting, snares and the like. Such skills were hardly necessary when hunting as a wolf worked just as well. Mathieu’s stomach growled, spurring him on towards the human settlement he could smell. It was a town, hopefully one large enough for an inn. Warm hearths, a bed, and food. It was all that he wanted.
The deer herd had cut a path through the snow, but their spindly legs didn’t make much headway for his human ones. He trudged through the snow, the drifts coming up to his knees. His feet were cold, but the wool was holding the worst of the dampness at bay. The snow melted through his breeches. He tucked his hands deep into his pockets, trying to keep his bare fingers warm. The Change could wait.
Each difficult step took him closer to the town up ahead. Mathieu let his mind drift. He’d forgotten how much a forest could speak after so long in the heart of one of the largest cities in the known world. The small palace where the Royal Pack lived had never been completely silent, and even when things grew quiet within the walls, London spoke outside them. Ships came in on the Thames, their sailors shouting and calling. People did business at all times of night. Carriages and horses moved over the cobbled streets. Here, in this forest in Connecticut, the sound spoke of the non-human. Some of the sounds he knew he could not begin to hear over his footsteps and heartbeat, like the movement of water in the trees. However, the few winter birds spoke around him, telling each other where a few more seeds could be found. A squirrel chattered in the distance, scolding a potential thief away from its midden. He could even hear wolves in the far distance. Not Kind, natural wolves, speaking of simpler troubles that wolf Kind could only aspire towards. Mathieu’s own movement added to the symphony of tales that the forest spoke about.
For hours he listened, until the thunk of metal into wood met his ears. Methodical, a person chopping wood. He looked up. Farmhouses. A road up ahead. He hurried, pushing his way out of a particularly dense bit of shrubbery to stumble onto the muddy road. Relief flooded his chest. The town nestled further down the road was the adequate size that there would be some kind of lodging for travelers. He could remain anonymous here. It had been a week since he landed. Whispers could have made it to the Kind on this side of the Atlantic by now. Reaching up, he pulled his hat lower onto his face. A Rookery bird would have to fly close indeed to catch sight of him.
As he walked, a cart rolled in from a path down from one of the farms. “Do you need a ride, stranger?” he asked.
“It would be most appreciated. My horse fouled  and well, the poor beast…” Humans were good at filling in the details. “I’ve been walking for some time. Is there a tavern or other lodging in town?” Mathieu took the offered arm to pull him up onto the buckboard. With a slap of the reins the horses continued along the path, flicking their ears in his direction, but not complaining outright.
“Curtis’s should have space for you. It’s been a quiet week around here, with all the new snow. Wherever you’re traveling to must be important.”
“Sick uncle in New Jersey.” The lies came easier and easier.
The farmer didn’t inquire about the state of the false uncle, but changed to topics of little importance. Mathieu listened politely, learning that he’d reach Woodbury, Connecticut. He sighed, trying to picture the map of the colonies in his head. At the rate he was going he wouldn’t reach North Carolina for a month, possibly more if the weather slowed him down any further. Perhaps he should make his way to the coast, try and find another ship. He shivered, pulling his coat tighter around his body. He would figure that out when he wasn’t feeling half dead from cold. As the cart bumped towards town, he listened to the small talk, adding a few words here and there. Mostly, he watched the skies. It would be birds first. They were always the first sign.
His pulse quickened when he noticed a raven grooming on a fence post on the edge of town. The bird didn’t mean anything, necessarily. He watched it and it looked back. Even normal ravens do that, he reminded himself, turning back to the farmer as he mentioned something else. Even if it was Kind, he didn’t have a choice but to resupply. He could take a Rookery bird, he was sure of it. The only trouble would be if they brought other Kind in tow.
***
Connor dropped off the roof and slipped around to the side of the inn. It had taken two days of following the various roads and trying to see through the branches of the winter forest, but Mathieu was unmistakeable. He’d caught up with him.
If only it hadn’t been for those pesky sparrows! They’d forced him into the open, and he still wasn’t sure if he’d given a convincing show of being a normal bird when Mathieu saw him. Damn it all, why hadn’t he looked away!? Seeing him face to face had been something he’d thought about from time to time. He hadn’t been able to turn his gaze until it was too late. Mathieu had been in town for two days, long enough for Connor to investigate him a little better. He was resupplying for a longer journey. He’d returned to the inn for the night.
Connor had continued to watch, trying to find the best way to approach him to tell him that he was unlikely to be successful in traveling south. He’d been thinking about it all day as he’d followed Mathieu around the town.
The window he’d left cracked that morning was still open and he was able to nudge his way inside. He would do it tonight, or possibly in the morning when Mathieu went down to the tavern for breakfast.
He landed on the floor and shifted, getting up quickly to close the window against the chill. He pulled on the ill fitting shirt he’d stolen from a farmhouse when the family had been working in the barn. The clothes were for a young man about an inch taller than him and much broader in the shoulder. It made everything baggy, but it was the best he had at the moment. Connor wandered over to the flickering taper candle that was almost burned out. He replaced it, the wax hot on the tip of his fingers.
The unexpected knock on his door smeared the wax onto his palm. He winced. “Who is it?” he said.
“Extra coals for the room.” Connor grabbed his breeches. It must just be one of the inn keeper’s sons.
“Just a moment.” Connor said, hooking his breeches closed. He was still indecent, but not quite as scandalous. He unlatched the door and pulled at the knob.
The fist came at his face so quickly, he didn’t even process it until pain bloomed across his jaw. He fell backwards, knocking his hip into the edge of the bed frame and landing hard facedown on the floor.

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