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"Father, the wolves are looking after a baby."
Daniel Sandburg, Warden of Cascade Forest, stared at his son. "What do you mean, Jacob?"
"The pack's alpha bitch has a litter just old enough to leave the den, and there is a human baby crawling around with them. It looks to be... two, perhaps three years old. I saw them from across the river, where it runs through the gorge, but there was no doubt in my mind; the child was playing with the cubs, not being attacked by them."
Daniel frowned. "Nobody in the village has lost a child to the Forest for many years," he said slowly, "and there have been no gypsies or any vagabonds passing through these past months. The only missing child is your sister's son, and his body has almost certainly been swept out to sea. Where has this child come from?"
It didn't occur to him to doubt his son's word. Jacob had been his father's unofficial assistant since he was seven years old, had become an Assistant Warden on his sixteenth birthday - the day he had officially left childhood behind - and had a particular interest in the wolf pack that Lord Banks welcomed in his Forest of Cascade.
Daniel often thought how lucky they were to have Lord Banks as Master. As Warden, he was well aware that a wolf pack kept the other animals strong and healthy, for it killed the sick, the weaklings, the ones too old to survive the rigors of the winter snows, as well as many of the small creatures that damaged young growth throughout the Forest if their numbers grew too great. But many landowners, he knew, considered wolves to be vermin that killed some of the deer that they themselves wanted to hunt, and then they wondered at the rich growth in Lord Banks' land, the size of deer his hunts brought down, the plumpness of the turkeys served at his table. A few had learned from Lord Banks' advice, and no longer ordered their Wardens to kill any four-legged carnivores or birds of prey on sight. Their Forests were beginning to flourish too - but there were still some who muttered of enchantment, of spells bought from wizards, finding it easier to believe in magic than good husbandry and a balance in nature.
"It is not good for a child to be reared by the beasts," Daniel said slowly. "No matter how well the wolves care for their young, a human child belongs with his own kind. Come - we will go and bring this child home."
His words were true, although he did not add the other thought that was in his mind, that this child might save the sanity of his widowed daughter Naomi, whose grief for her two-year-old son, accidentally swept away in a sudden spate a few weeks earlier, threatened to destroy her. Because Blair's body had never been found, it might be easy to convince her that this foundling was her lost son, found and rescued by a nursing wolf bitch.
And so it proved. Although Jacob at least was well aware that this child was not in fact his nephew, Naomi welcomed the wolf-child, readily accepting him as her lost son, and Jacob soon became as fond of the boy as he had been of the child who had drowned.
Blair grew into a strapping, intelligent boy who quickly learned everything that Master Hughes, the teacher at the local school, knew, and was in addition interested in everything. And when, more than occasionally, he slipped off into the Forest, why, it was nothing that his uncle Jacob had not done. And when the wolf pack accepted him, when he joined it for a few hours, it said to Jacob - who knew he did it, but carefully did not mention Blair's visits to the wolves to the rest of his family - that they remembered the child who had once been fostered by them.
When Blair was sixteen and declared a man, he told his family that he wanted to go to the nearby city of Cascade to study. He had long shown a curiosity about distant places, listening intently to the tales of the packmen, some of whom had traveled far, far, in the year that passed between their visits, and who brought with them jewels unfamiliar to the eyes of the people of Cascade Forest, trinkets of a white metal that was not found closer than forty or fifty days' travel distant, knives whose hilts were carved with unusual designs, cloth woven in equally strange designs, and sometimes in colors for which the people of the Forest had no dyes.
Daniel asked Lord Banks to give the lad a recommendation to the University of Rainier, knowing that without one, it would not be easy for a Forest man to get a place there. Knowing, too, that even with it, Blair might find himself scorned as a country bumpkin by many of his fellow students. Blair smiled and nodded when his grandfather warned him of that, for he was no fool. He was aware of the difficulties he would face, but he had a hunger for learning that demanded satisfaction - and as a child of the Forest, he had a self-possession, an ability to be alone without being lonely, that would make it relatively easy for him to ignore as irrelevant what his fellow students said of him.
Lord Banks gave Blair the recommendation. He also, without the young man's knowledge, contacted his own youngest son Simon, who - with his own way to make in the world - had risen to be a Chief among the Watchmen of the City. He asked Simon to keep a discreet eye on his Warden's grandson, for he remembered from his own youth how difficult it was for someone going to the City for the first time not to be fooled by the smooth-tongued tricksters who lived there, seeking out trusting innocents to cozen them into wagering their money unwisely and then leave them more experienced in the ways of the world, but destitute.
As it happened, Simon discovered - and was happy to discover - that Blair was wiser than his years, and those who sought to trick him out of his money found to their amazement that they were most often the ones who lost. Blair financed himself through his years of study on the money he won from the weasels who thought to devour him. Most of them never learned that he was cleverer than they, and in spite of their continual failure, they continued trying to trick him through the years he spent in study; and when, after an unprecedentedly short five years, he obtained his Mastery in the study of criminal behavior, they little knew how much he had learned from watching them.
During those years, Simon continued to watch over his progress, for he saw that the young man could be a useful addition to the City Watch. So, the day after the final ceremony that saw Blair become a Master, Simon contacted him and offered him a position as adviser to the Watchmen.
Blair did not have to think twice about the offer. It was a good post for a man as young as he, and he accepted it gratefully. There were larger cities further away, he knew; a few years of experience here and he would be able to seek a position in one of them if he so wished.
He soon proved his worth, and after a few months, Simon sent word to his father that the youth he had recommended nearly six years earlier was a credit to his village. Lord Banks in turn told Daniel Sandburg. The discovery that Lord Banks was so impressed by his grandson - in convincing Naomi that the child was her lost son, Daniel had also convinced himself - left the Warden speechless with pride.
Oh, the Sandburgs had known he was making a success of his life, they just hadn't realized how successful he was. Blair had sent messages to his family as often as possible during his years at Rainier, though he had rarely been able to make the journey home during those years, and also when he began to work with the Watchmen. But he was a modest young man, not given to telling even his family of his successes in case it should sound as if he was boasting.
Of all his duties, Blair liked least the occasions when he had to attend a ball given by one of the rich men of Cascade. One or two of the Watch always went, apparently as invited guests, but in reality to provide security, and all of them, save one or two whose voices retained too-strong traces of their working origins, took turns at this duty. Some few of them enjoyed the duty, though most did not.
On this occasion, Blair knew he was going to find the ball more than usually unpleasant.
Steven Ellison had, for fully ten years, considered himself to be the heir of a rich father although he was the second son - his older brother had gone a-journeying to distant parts, and there had been no word from him for all those years. Steven, although he had not wished for it, had long thought his brother dead. But now James had returned, lean and tanned brown by a sun warmer than it ever shone in Cascade, with scars on his body and with eyes that told of things he had seen that haunted his sleep, and William Ellison had chosen to mark his older son's return with the biggest celebration anyone could remember.
Midway through the evening, Blair sought the privy, not so much to relieve his bladder as to relieve his ears and nose. The sound of so many chattering voices, the smell of so many over-perfumed bodies, were combining to give him an unaccustomed headache. From the privy he wandered into the garden, assuring himself that a quick check of the grounds was within the scope of his duties.
As he approached the ornamental pool, he realized that he was not the only person to seek out the relative peace of the garden on this warm autumn evening. A man sat on the bench overlooking the pool, and as Blair approached him, he realized that it was the guest of honor.
He hesitated, thinking to give the man a little more of the quietness he had so obviously sought. Then James Ellison looked around and saw him, and smiled a little hesitantly, as if remembering instilled manners that he had not used for years.
Blair took the smile as an invitation, and moved forward. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to intrude."
James shook his head. "I noticed you earlier, although I do not think I was told your name. You seemed different from everyone else, although I'm not sure why."
"Blair Sandburg. I'm not, strictly speaking, a guest here; I work with the Watch. There are always some of us in attendance at a gathering like this."
James quirked an eyebrow. "I didn't notice anyone else who seemed different. Only you."
Blair smiled. "It could be that I'm the only one whose childhood was spent in the country, rather than the town."
James shook his head. "No, it's more than that. I think... You remind me of one of the men I knew in foreign parts."
"A good friend?"
"Yes... No. Not a friend - not exactly. More of a teacher, although... I liked him, and I think he was fond of me, but he always told me that he was not the friend I needed. That in my homeland I would find someone... " He sighed. "And so, although I was happy there, I came home again. I no longer fit here, however, if I ever did, though realizing it comes as no surprise to me. I am not ungrateful to my father for... this... but I find the crowded rooms stifling. The smell of perfumed bodies was sickening me, and the noise of so many chattering voices was overwhelming. There were only some forty people in the village where I lived."
Blair nodded. "Which is exactly why I came out into the garden, telling myself that a check of it came within my duty. I, too, was finding the noise and the smells overwhelming. But I cannot stay out here too long. Chief Banks expects me to spend most of my time mingling with the guests."
James nodded. "I, too, must go back. Whoever heard of a party where the main guest retreated to the garden for much of it? But I expect to spend tomorrow nursing a pounding head." He sighed. "Speaking here with you, Watchman Sandburg - this will be for me the highlight of the evening."
"I'm flattered. But please, call me Blair. And I'm not actually a Watchman - I am a Master in the study of law, and work with the Watch as an adviser."
James looked at him for a moment. "You are young to be a Master."
Blair smiled. "I have always enjoyed learning. I never forget anything I have learned, and I have always been able to use what I know, unlike some savants who know much but cannot - or will not - make use of their knowledge."
"You are not satisfied with your life, are you?"
"As satisfied with mine as you are with yours," Blair replied, wondering even as he spoke where that realization had originated.
"Which is to say, not at all," James muttered
"Oh, I'm content that what I'm doing is valuable. I just feel that I should be doing more," Blair said, "though what more I could do, I do not know."
James sighed, rose, and turned back towards the house. "My father wishes me to take my place in his business. I have no idea how to say to him that I am not interested - not without alienating him."
"Your brother already knows the work, does he not?"
"Yes. Knows it and loves it."
"Then say to your father that your brother is the one who has spent his youth learning the business, and that you do not wish to see him pushed aside in favor of a man who has spent his most formative years in travel, and knows nothing of the commercial transactions involved if things are to remain successful.
"What would you really like to do?"
James shook his head. "Where I lived... with the man who was my teacher... I helped to protect the tribe. It was a very satisfying position. But I doubt that my father would wish to see his son join the Watch." They were close to the door now. Light and sound spilled out, and he flinched.
"My Chief is the son - admittedly the youngest son - of Lord Banks. If the son of a Lord is not ashamed to join the Watch, the son of a successful businessman can surely do the same." Blair was silent for a moment, and then said, "Tonight is not the time to tell him, or even perhaps tomorrow. But when you do, if he is not pleased with your decision, I live in the Prospect area of the town; I am well known there, anyone can direct you to my house, and it is big enough for two. Or you can find me through the Watch."
"I will remember. Thank you."
Blair had made his offer of a home sincerely enough, but with little expectation that James would need to take him up on it. His personal experience had been of a loving and supportive family, and although he had heard of parents who rejected children who displeased them, he did not think that a man who would celebrate the return of a long-lost son with the ostentation William Ellison had displayed would be one such parent.
He was therefore quite surprised when he answered the knock on his door a few days later as he was getting ready to go to bed. When he opened the door, it was to find James Ellison standing there, dressed in worn clothes, with a small bundle in one hand, his body slumped in a position that bespoke both weariness and utter hopelessness.
"I'm sorry. I know it's late. But you said... And I didn't know where else to go... If you will give me a space on your floor for tonight, I can be gone in the morning."
"Come in," Blair said quietly. "Yes, I said to come here at need, and I meant it. And unless you are anxious to shake the dust of Cascade from your feet immediately, there is a bed that is yours for as long as you need it."
Inside, he pushed his guest into a comfortable chair, and set water to boil. Then he said quietly, "I take it your father was not pleased?"
"That... is putting it mildly. He was far from pleased. The short version is that he allowed me to shirk my duty to the business once, but now that I have returned, if I am not willing to become a cypher, modeling myself on him, I am a wastrel who is no longer welcome in his house.
"What I have here - " he indicated the bundle he had put down at his side, " - is what I had when I returned to Cascade. My brother... he at least followed me, offered me what help he could immediately give - some money - but I want nothing that came from my father or his business. Though at least I refused politely, making it sound as if I thought only to keep him out of trouble in case our father learned what he had done. Besides, I think it was perhaps guilt speaking, not affection. I think Steven is not sorry that I have been disowned - or it might be more true to say, not sorry that I have disowned myself."
"Have you had time to think what you might want to do?"
"What can I do, here in Cascade, that will not cause a scandal?"
The water boiled. As Blair went to make a relaxing herbal brew, he was thinking. It was true, William's so-public announcement of his older son's return was still the talk of Cascade's rich.
After a moment's reflection, Blair said, "The scandal will not fall on your head. If anyone asks, you realized that after so many years away it is not right that you should supplant the brother who has been his father's apprentice and knows the business, as you do not. So you have chosen, rather, to use the skills that your years of travel had given you. But... exactly what skills are those?" He handed James a mug of steaming tea.
"Nothing, I fear, that would be of any great use here. I can see and hear, feel, smell things most men cannot. I told you, I was for a while a guardian for a jungle village - my duty to warn the people of the approach of an enemy, to let them know if game was near. I helped the shaman identify illness. What use are those abilities here? A town like this does not need a guardian."
"More use than you might think," Blair said, suddenly enthusiastic, "and even a town such as this needs guardians. We spoke of the Watch that night. The Watch is always short of good men; it doesn't employ just anyone. A man of your abilities would be of great benefit to the town."
"You... believe me? My own father did not."
"Why should I not believe? It would be easily disproved if you were claiming abilities you do not have. Besides, I know such abilities exist. I myself have a better than normal sense of smell and exceptionally good hearing, and Chief Banks has made use of that before now. Why do you think I was in the garden that night? I told you then, I needed to rest my ears and my nose. And now that you have told me - I think you, too, were there, not just because you found the number of people in the house overwhelming, but to rest ears, nose and eyes? You did mention the stink of perfume and the noise of so many voices."
"Yes." James hesitated. "It will sound strange, but when you approached me that night - just by being there, you seemed to help me, to ease the headache that so much stimulus had already given me."
"Together, we could accomplish much. And while a Watchman may not be the best-paid man in the city, neither is he the poorest paid, and his status is reasonably high. I think you'll find more of your father's acquaintances than you expect respecting you for choosing to make your own way and leaving your brother as your father's heir."
And so it came about that James Ellison joined the Cascade Watch, and was partnered to Adviser Master Blair Sandburg. And if it galled William Ellison that his disowned older son still lived and worked in Cascade, he refused to let anyone, even his younger son, know it.
A few days after joining the Watch, James offered to find himself a house, saying that he had trespassed on Blair's good nature long enough. Blair immediately told him to forget it - that he enjoyed the company. James nodded. He had not wanted to leave this peaceful house where he found himself able to relax, in a way he had not been able to since he left the jungle village where he had lived for so long, in the comfortable company of his partner. It was almost like being in Incacha's presence again. His senses were eased, and he could use them effortlessly and painlessly.
Blair, too, found that his senses of smell and hearing were eased by his partner's presence, and he was more relaxed, off duty, than he could ever remember being except when, as a child, he slipped away into the forest to play with the wolves, preferring their company to that of the other children, since there were none in the small village where he grew up close to his own age. The two or three years between him and the children nearest him in age - an age gap meaningless to an adult - was a whole generation of difference to the children.
Although he had always considered the wolf pack to be his family just as much as the Sandburgs were, he hadn't really thought about them for a long time, he realized one evening as he and James sat in an undemanding silence sipping their after-dinner mead, and he felt a sudden sadness. He had been home a few times, but never for more than a day or two at a time, and he had spent all of that time with his mother and grandfather, his uncle and his uncle's wife. Now that he did think about them, he realized that although many of the wolves in the pack would recognize him, some of the older ones would be gone by now, and the young ones, those born in the last few seasons, would not know him, and he would have to prove himself to them if he ever returned to the Forest. He could go home again... but his automatic place with the wolves, a place he had always taken for granted, was a part of his childhood that had gone forever.
Soon he would have to move and get out the journal where he was keeping a record of everything he and James did. He was sure that there had to be more people in the world with heightened senses, and if there was a record somewhere, it might be of help to them. Added to that, it was in his mind that if he could write another thesis based on the use of his senses and James', to help solve crimes, he could become a Grand Master. But he was in no hurry to accomplish that.
Chief Simon Banks had initially been somewhat doubtful about allowing James to join the Watch - but Master Sandburg was persuasive, and in confidence had told him about James' abilities. If his ability to hear well was of benefit to the Watch, Blair pointed out, then James' additional abilities would be of even more use. Finally, Simon agreed.
Within a six-month, Simon knew that the team of Sandburg and Ellison was his best; and the other Watchmen, far from being jealous of their success, were proud that Cascade had so few unsolved crimes.
It was nearly midsummer when a message arrived from Daniel Sandburg, asking Blair to come home for a few days. The message hinted at trouble, and Blair immediately took it to Simon, who read it, glanced at his Adviser, then read it again, a deepening frown on his face.
"There's something wrong in the Forest," he said at last.
Blair nodded. "That's how I read it."
Simon read it once more. "I see my father's hand in this," he said at last. "I think he doesn't want to ask for help directly, but he would be grateful to get it. But why should he be reluctant to ask for help, if he needs it?"
"It could be that he's afraid of causing a panic if he openly admits that there's a problem. But if his Chief Warden asks his grandson to return home for a visit, what is there in that to cause a panic? And who would see any cause for concern if that grandson were to be accompanied by his partner? Even the members of the Watch have furlough time, and James has been long enough in the Watch now to be eligible for some time off."
"James is willing to accompany you?"
Blair smiled. "His father has virtually - although not publicly - disowned him and his nearest friends are now the people with whom he works - especially the partner whose home he shares. Where else would he spend his furlough time if not with his good friend's family?"
"Are there any outstanding crimes you are dealing with?"
"Nothing that can't wait, but I think we should delay until the end of the week before leaving. Your father and my grandfather have been careful with their request for help. We should be as careful with our answer. Not even the Watch Adviser would go on furlough in the middle of a week."
"You're right, Sandburg. I was allowing my concern for my birthplace to affect my thinking."
"Don't think I don't share that concern," Blair murmured.
In the three days until the end of the week, Simon did some hard thinking, and on the last day, he called Blair and James into his office.
"I've decided to go with you," he said. "I have to admit that I'm curious about this problem - too curious to wait until your return to hear about it. I'm due furlough time, and I haven't been home for too long. My wife never cared for the country, and I... Well, I sacrificed a lot to try to keep her happy, but it was never enough. She never realized that even the son of a Lord has to make his own way in life, if he is the youngest son and has too much pride to live off the family." The sharp ears of both men caught the trace of bitterness Simon sought to disguise with a calm, matter-of-fact tone, though only James fully realized that the bitterness was caused only by Simon's realization that nothing he did would ever have been good enough for her. He and Simon had that one thing in common, that one thing that Blair did not share; both from rich families, but both had chosen to make their own way in life, earn their own living. The difference between them was that Simon's father respected the choice his youngest son had made. "Now that she has repudiated our marriage and returned to her parents' home, there's nothing to prevent me from visiting my father," Simon continued. "I've confided in Chief Taggert, and he's willing to cover for me for as long as necessary."
"It'll be good to have you along," Blair said, and meant it.
It had sometimes occurred to Simon that Blair only understood and respected rank and privilege that went with ability, that he had no understanding at all that anyone could expect privilege as an automatic consequence of wealth or high birth. And if Simon was honest with himself, he was oddly pleased that Blair afforded him respect based on his work with the Watch - he had experienced too often the fawning obsequiousness of people who looked only at his birth and not at his ability. Oh, he had on occasion found it expedient to use his birth as a weapon, but it had always made him feel dirty.
And he found himself looking forward to the coming trip. There might be a problem in Cascade Forest, even a serious problem, but it would be good, and challenging, to be working with his two best Watchmen to resolve that problem.
Although in Cascade itself the Watch had little normal use for them, there were horses available for the Watchmen, and Simon arranged for them to have the use of three of these for their upcoming trip. He and James rode well, having been accustomed to horses from an early age. Blair, however, rode only adequately, having learned the skill after he joined the Watch, and usually the horses he rode moved uneasily, as if they found his inexperience unsettling. Bearing this in mind, Simon had chosen three steady beasts, two of them sturdy animals about seven years old that had stamina but no great speed, beasts that were able to carry his weight and James' easily, while the third was a placid, well-schooled fourteen-year-old that when necessary could surprise everyone with its speed. It gave Blair a mount that was well within his ability to handle without looking as if Simon doubted that ability, and one that was unlikely to play up simply because Blair was on its back.
They set out on a warm, sunny morning, traveling at an easy trot that the horses could keep up indefinitely. In this territory, it was James who was the odd one out. By the time they had covered half a dozen miles, they were in the kind of landscape that Blair and Simon knew well, and they studied it as they went, almost automatically noting the healthy growth of windbreak trees, the fertility of the fields, the plumpness of the cattle, the liveliness of the calves and the many other subtle clues that showed the condition of the land.
As they rode out of the more open farming land and into the Forest of Cascade, the main difference was in the number of trees, for here and there they passed huge clearings that were being farmed. Strong and high fences surrounded these clearings, protecting the crops from the deer that would regard fields of growing crops as a tasty meal, and the animals and poultry from the wolves and foxes that might regard them as an easily caught dinner. Here, too, Simon and Blair registered the welfare of the ground, both recognizing that it was in very good heart.
It was mid-afternoon when they reached a fork in the track they were following. James, in the lead, hesitated, not sure which road to take. Both Blair and Simon reined in their horses beside him.
"My father insists that his chaplain holds his rest-day service early," Simon said, "so that his religious observance does not interfere with the main part of the day. If you come to the big house tomorrow, about mid-morning, the service will be long past and we can discuss what my father tells me, and Warden Sandburg tells you."
"Right," Blair said. He grinned at James as Simon nudged his horse on. "We go the other way, James."
It was a short mile to the village. As they entered it, James dropped behind Blair to allow his partner an undisturbed greeting from his family.
Blair stopped beside an ivy-covered house that was a little larger than most of the others, dismounted a little stiffly and took two or three steps towards the door, without securing the reins, since the Watch's horses were all trained to stand when their riders left them.
"Blair!" A woman who was probably in her early forties rushed out of the house.
As Blair hugged her enthusiastically, two men came out of the house and joined mother and son. James watched slightly enviously as they greeted his friend. Even when he returned from foreign parts, though his father had thrown a magnificent ball in his honor, he had not been conscious of love; and love was very obvious here.
After a minute or two, Blair broke away from his family and turned to James. He held out his hand, and James dismounted, to be drawn forward by the younger man. "This is my partner in the Watch, James Ellison," he said.
James found himself greeted with an enthusiasm that he knew was genuine as Blair introduced his mother Naomi, his uncle Jacob and his grandfather Daniel. Then Jacob said, "I'll see to your horses," and Daniel urged Blair and James into the house. There was a younger woman, about twenty-five years old, inside the house, tending a pot hung over the fire.
"Sara!" Blair exclaimed, and moved to give her a quick hug.
"Welcome home, Blair," she said.
Blair stepped back and looked carefully at her. "Sara! Congratulations! When is the baby due?"
Sara smiled. "In four months. You're very perceptive." Her belly was barely showing the swelling of pregnancy.
"I'll make a point of being here for the celebrations." Then Blair turned to his friend. "James, this is Sara, my Uncle Jacob's wife. Sara, my partner James Ellison."
James moved forward, his hand held out. "Hello, Sara."
She took it briefly, then returned her attention to the pot she was tending.
Daniel chuckled. "She's right, Blair, you're very perceptive."
"We've put a bed for James in your room, if that's all right," Naomi said, "but if he prefers privacy, he can sleep in my room and I will sleep down here."
"I wouldn't dream of taking your room," James said.
Blair nodded. "James and I share a house," he said. "Sharing a room is no problem."
Jacob came back into the house, bringing the bags that had been strapped to their saddles, and Blair immediately turned to him. "Congratulations, Uncle!"
Jacob grinned a little self-consciously. "I haven't got used to the idea yet. After close on five years of marriage, I'd almost begun to think we weren't going to have children."
"Our family has never had many children," Daniel said.
Blair grinned as he picked up his bag, and James promptly reached for his. "All that matters is that you're finally giving me a cousin," he said. "This way, James. Let's get settled in before dinner." He led the way up a flight of narrow stairs.
The bedroom was small - the two beds nearly filled it - but there was a welcoming feel to it that was echoed in Blair's home in Cascade. James was not sure exactly what provided that welcome, but it reminded him of the happiness he had known in the jungle village where he had spent several years, and it contrasted sharply with the cold formality of the Ellison house, a formality that had always made him feel his human presence in the house was an intrusion.
Blair dropped his bag onto one bed. "We'll be a little cramped - " he began.
"Blair, I lived in quarters as cramped as this in the jungle," James said, "and without a bed that looks as comfortable as this one." He put his own bag on the second bed.
"It's just... Sometimes I remember your family is rich and you grew up in a big house."
"And this house knows far more happiness than my father's ever did," James replied so quietly that if the other man had not possessed sharper-than-usual hearing he would not have been able to make out the words.
Blair looked at him. James had never before indicated so clearly how miserable his childhood had been. He took the two steps that separated them and pulled James into his arms. James hesitated for the briefest of seconds, then returned the embrace almost desperately.
They clung together for a long minute, then James pulled back reluctantly. Blair let him go, but hovered protectively as the bigger man sat on the edge of the bed, staring at the floor.
"Was there no love in your house?" Blair asked softly.
James shook his head. "Very little. My mother died a few weeks after my brother was born. Sally - his wet nurse, who also acted as our housekeeper - tried to be a mother to us, but my father discouraged any display of affection from her. I overheard him once telling her that she was merely an employee and that it was not fitting for his sons to regard her as anything but that. We were not allowed to play with her son."
"And your father?" Blair asked.
"The word 'love' is not in his vocabulary. Didn't you realize that when he threw me out? That ball he gave... At the time I thought it was indeed to welcome me home, but by the evening of the next day I knew I was an excuse for it, not a reason. What he was really doing was displaying his wealth to the rich of Cascade."
Blair sat beside his friend as James continued, "At the time I first left home, I don't think I even knew the word 'love' existed. I certainly didn't know what it meant. I learned its meaning when I was in the jungle, when I saw the people I lived with interacting. But only one of them ever gave me more than respect, and that respect was because of what I did for them. I was not, after all, one of them. Only Incacha offered me more.
"And then I came home, and met you. Blair, do you know exactly what you gave me? How much I... " His voice broke.
Blair slipped an arm around his shoulders. "Ah, James," he murmured.
After a moment, James continued. "They don't even know me, and your family has given me a welcome warmer than any I received in my father's house."
"You are my friend. That's all they need to know."
A voice called, "Blair, dinner's ready."
"Thank you, Mother," Blair called back. "We'll just be a minute."
"We shouldn't be late," James said, visibly re-establishing his self-control.
"Will you be all right?"
James nodded. Blair said quietly, "This conversation isn't finished." He rummaged in his bag and pulled out a brush, and dragged it through his hair, which was somewhat windblown after the ride, forcing it into neatness. "Right, then, let's eat - and then we should find out what my grandfather has to say."
The meal consisted of a venison stew that was thick with vegetables, accompanied by bread still warm from the oven. Both men were hungry after their ride, something that was obvious to the family from the speed with which they emptied their plates. Sara was quick to ladle them both a second plateful. James muttered something about greed, and Daniel chuckled. "The women of this family have always been happy to see their menfolk enjoying their food," he said. "And indeed, 'tis a compliment to Sara that you eat her stew so hungrily."
James glanced at him and nodded, accepting the generous hospitality, but determined to ask Blair if it meant the family would go hungry after they left.
As he finished this second plateful, Sara rose to offer him a third helping, but he held up a negating hand. "No, no. I thank you, but to eat more would be gluttony, though 'tis tempting. I can't remember when I last had a stew so tasty."
The meal finished with a herbal tea and small honey cakes Jim found almost too sweet, but that Blair devoured as hungrily as if he had not already consumed two big platefuls of stew.
He noticed James watching him, and grinned, slightly shamefacedly. "I love these," he explained, unnecessarily. "And Mother always makes them for me every time I come home. I tell her she doesn't need to bribe me, that I'd visit even without them, even though my duties mean I can't visit as often as I'd like." He smiled over at his mother. "But I'm not sorry she does."
"So why don't you make them for yourself?" James asked. "It's not as if you aren't a good cook."
Blair shook his head. "I've tried, but I can never get them quite right, and Mother won't tell me her secret ingredient. Oh - perhaps you can taste what it is?"
James chuckled, then said seriously, "I'd suspect the secret ingredient is love."
As the women began to clear the table, Blair turned to his grandfather. "All right; why did you send for me?"
"We have a problem," Daniel replied.
"Grandfather, I realized that - which is why Chief Banks also came with us. He is undoubtedly talking to his father about it right about now. What is the problem?"
Daniel sighed. "I hesitate to say it's the wolves. I'm reluctant to believe it could be the wolves. We've lived at peace with them for many seasons. Until this year, not once in all the time I have lived and worked here, not once since Lord Banks inherited the Forest from his father and decreed that the wolves had their place in the welfare of the Forest, have the wolves attacked men. However, since the last snowfall, eight men and a woman have died, their bodies slashed by the teeth of wild animals, some of the flesh torn from their bodies as if consumed. People are afraid to leave their houses at night, or to travel far even in daylight. They are demanding that Lord Banks destroy the wolf pack, for only the wolves, they say, have the strength and size to attack and kill men."
"Who all have died?" Blair asked.
"The first three were packmen - two of them new to the Forest, so you would not know them, but the third was Packman Gaines. This was to have been his last season on the road."
"I am sorry. I learned much from him."
"The other six... Goodman Sarris was the fourth man to die, and his daughter the fifth victim. She wandered the Forest after his death, seeking the wolves that killed him. Well, she found them - or they found her - and she died under their teeth."
"I did not know them well," Blair commented.
"Nobody did. Goodman Sarris was ever a man who kept to himself. The next one was a vagabond, not even one of the gypsies; we never knew his name. Two of the farmers had offered him several days' work, with a bed in the barn, but he refused. He preferred to beg, it seemed. He would not even chop some wood for the second of them in return for a meal, or so I was told. It was his mistake; he died that night. The next one was Goodman Reeves, then Farmer Wilkenson. The most recent was Master Abbott - again, you wouldn't know him. He replaced Master Hughes as the village teacher last year."
"Apart from Packman Gaines, I didn't know any of them well," Blair said. He sounded a little relieved, James decided, and was not surprised.
"It is not the wolves," Jacob said.
Blair nodded. "I would agree," he said quietly.
"Blair, you have good reason to love the wolves, but - "
"Grandfather, wolves do not need to attack men. Even in the lean days of late winter, there is food for them. A half-starved deer is easy prey, and newly-dead carrion is a gift for them. You, who work in the Forest, know that even better than I do, who have never worked here. And at this time of year Lord Banks does not entertain guests to a hunt. There are too many deer calves or half-fledged game birds that would die if their mothers were killed. You or Lord Banks might bring down a badly injured beast for the pot, but apart from that, the wolves have no competition. There is plenty of prey easier for them to kill than a man, even a traveler on his own."
"That is what I have been saying," Jacob agreed. "Their habits have not changed since you left the Forest, Blair. When I watch them, they still are bringing in coneys or ground-dwelling birds, pheasants or partridges or turkeys, or even dragging in an occasional part-grown deer for the alpha bitch, which is still nursing her this-year's litter, though the cubs are close to being weaned. I have seen nothing that says they are attacking men."
"The attacks have been made by animals. Of that I have no doubt," Daniel said. "Lord Banks says he does not think it is the wolves. I do not want to think it is the wolves. But what other animals could it be? They are the largest hunters in the Forest." He looked at his son. "If not the wolves, Jacob, what is doing the killing?"
"I do not know," Jacob replied. "But I still maintain that the wolves are not the killers. And you know that Lord Banks is envied by many who do not have his understanding of nature."
"I know he has occasionally commented on the envy of fellow landowners who want to discredit his methods. But he has no proof that they would ever do more than comment. And I still say the killing has been done by animals."
Blair passed a contemplative hand across his mouth and chin. "We are meeting Chief Banks tomorrow morning," he said at last. "When we have discussed with him what you have said, and what his father has told him, we might have a clearer picture of what is happening."
"Warden Sandburg," James said, "is there any pattern to these killings?"
Daniel frowned. "None that we could detect," he said. "Why?"
"I spent some time living in a jungle village many weeks' journey from here," James said. "And there was a similar problem there for a while. Men were being killed, apparently by animals. But the village shaman detected a pattern, and predicted when the next attack would be. We set a trap - a brave youth went out as a target - and we caught the killer. She was a shape-changer, a woman from a neighboring village who, when the moon was full, took on the shape of a jaguar - a big cat-like beast that was native to the area - and went hunting men."
Daniel shook his head. "All I can say is that the first attack was when there was still snow on the ground, and there were paw-marks near - but from the marks, I thought - and Jacob insisted - that at worst a wolf might have found the body, sniffed at it and left it. There was no other attack for a full month. Since then, however, there have been eight deaths, the most recent being on the day before I sent for Blair. The only pattern is that the killer is getting bolder, the attacks closer together. I expect to hear of another death very soon."
It had been a long day for James and Blair, and they excused themselves soon thereafter and retired to their room. As they got ready for bed, James said, "You're sure it's not the wolves."
"I'm sure, but I would like to visit the pack as soon as possible."
"Isn't that dangerous?"
"I used to play with the wolves when I was a child."
"When I was two years old, I was swept away in a flooded river and it was thought that I drowned. It seems that the wolves found me, and I spent several days with them before my uncle saw me and brought me home. It was three or four years before I saw them again, but the wolves accepted me then as part of the pack. It's again been some years since I last visited them, and I will be a stranger to the younger ones, but many will still recognize me. And... My family does not know this, but I can communicate with the wolves." He gave a wry grin. "There aren't many things I don't tell my people, but I think it would worry my mother if she knew."
James nodded his understanding of the comment, but wondered how Blair managed to communicate with the Forest animals. He decided that to ask could be considered an intrusion, but he could not keep from asking, as they got into bed, "Was your father the older brother or the younger?"
"Neither," Blair said. "Naomi is Jacob's older sister. I don't know the whole story. I only know that her husband died before I was born. She returned home when he died and resumed using her own name. She never told me what her married name was, or anything about my father or his family. I suspect they didn't even know she was pregnant, that she doesn't want them to know I exist. From something Jacob said once, I think my father was a man quick to anger, whose automatic reaction to anything he regarded as opposition or disagreement was a blow. Having no father was not a hardship for me, not with Grandfather and Uncle Jacob there."
"Yes, I can see that." He yawned. "This is a very comfortable bed," he continued, already half asleep. "Good night, Blair."
"Good night, my friend. Sleep well."
Blair waited for some minutes, until he was sure James was fast asleep, then he got out of bed again and moved silently to the window. It was already open a little way, and he pushed it fully open.
Not too far away, a wolf howled, and howled again. He listened, and nodded. Yes, they knew he was back. I will see you tomorrow, my brother, he thought as he returned to his bed. Tempting though it was to slip out this night to visit the wolves, he considered it best to wait and see what Simon had to say in the morning.
Wolves were, after all, patient animals, measuring time by the seasons rather than the day. Another twenty-four hours would make very little difference.
He rolled onto his side and slept.
When Blair and James arrived at the big house next morning, a groom took immediate charge of their horses. As they turned towards the door, it opened, and Simon stood there waiting for them.
"You are both most welcome in my father's house," he said. "If you will come with me - my father is waiting."
They glanced at each other. The last thing either man had expected was for Lord Banks to speak with them.
"We were right," Simon continued as he led them up an ornate staircase. "There is fear in the Forest and my father is afraid that... But let him tell you himself."
Blair nodded. "And we have heard the opinions of my grandfather and my uncle."
Lord Banks was sitting with another man at a small table, around which were three other chairs; a decanter and five glasses sat on it. The second man bore enough resemblance to Simon that it was easy to guess that this was his oldest brother David, the heir to the Forest. Both rose as they entered and moved forward, hands extended.
Lord Banks was a big man, though not quite as tall as either of his sons. He had to be close to seventy years of age, but he carried his years well. There was no trace of gray in his hair, and his body was still muscular. It was clear that here was a man who had not allowed wealth and position to go to his head. His heir looked as fit.
"Master Sandburg," Lord Banks said, "you have more than justified your grandfather's faith in your ability. Watchman Ellison. May I say how much I respect your decision to allow your brother to inherit your father's business."
"Thank you, sir," James said. He glanced at Simon, who grinned, but shook his head.
"No, I wasn't the source of that information."
Lord Banks smiled as David shook the hands of both visitors with a murmured word of welcome, then he said, "Your father made little secret of his mystification at your decision. He still cannot understand how you could reject the wealth working with him would have given you."
"Wealth is worth nothing if it costs you your soul," James said quietly. "As it is - I may not have as much money as I would have had working for him, but I am rich in the respect and friendship of the people I work with, and I know those are genuine, not false coin offered in the hope of gain."
Lord Banks nodded his understanding. "We sent for Master Sandburg because he belongs to the Forest. I am gratified, but not surprised, that you chose to accompany him. Simon tells me that you are his best men." He turned back to the table. "Wine?"
"Thank you," James said.
Blair nodded. "Yes, thank you." He rarely drank wine, normally preferring mead or ale, but he understood the significance of the offer, and that to refuse would be more than impolite. Lord Banks was treating them as his son's friends, virtually as equals, not just as two of the town Watch that he hoped to employ.
As Lord Banks poured the wine, Simon indicated the seats. They sat, and accepted their glasses. "To your good health, gentlemen," Lord Banks said.
"And to yours," James replied.
"And to a successful solution to your problem," Blair said seriously.
They sipped the wine, which James recognized as an excellent vintage, then Lord Banks said, "Master Sandburg, what did your grandfather tell you?"
"That there have been nine deaths in four months, apparently at the teeth of the wolves. My grandfather is reluctant to believe the wolves responsible, but cannot think of any other possible cause. My uncle frankly does not believe the wolves are the killers, and from my knowledge of them, I am inclined to agree with him."
"I, too, agree with him," Lord Banks said. "The first killing, in the hungry days of winter's end, perhaps, but if so, why did they not devour the body? Yes, there were the pawmarks in the snow, but as Jacob said, it was more as if a wolf found the body, then turned away. As for the others - there is no shortage of prey for them now, and wolves do not kill indiscriminately."
Blair smiled. "You understand their ways well, my lord."
"However, if the problem were only whether or not the wolves have turned to killing, we would not have needed the secrecy with which we surrounded the message to you. Even your grandfather, Master Sandburg, does not know of this. At most, he thinks I suspect an envious neighbor, and believes only that I am concerned to discover the truth about the killings. What I am about to say is not for discussion by anyone who is not in this room."
James and Blair glanced at each other. "Understood," Blair said.
"I have long been known to hold certain views that many of my peers consider... shall we say, radical."
Blair nodded. Many landowners would never have considered giving him the chance to improve his status that Lord Banks had done.
"Last harvest time, I was visited by a certain... gentleman, by name Garrett Kincaid. He sought my support in what was a grandiose, but totally impractical, to say nothing of impracticable, plot to overthrow the present government of the land and replace it with his version of the law - a government that would, of course, be led by him. I grant that some of his arguments made a degree of sense, but his views on many things were considered old-fashioned even in my grandfather's day.
"He wanted me to give him shelter and to provide him with enough land to build a military camp, and in exchange he offered me a position in his dream government. I am not the total fool he obviously took me to be. I understood well enough that the only position I would ultimately have been given would be at the bottom of a six-foot deep hole.
"I listened politely to all he had to say, and expressed regret that I would not be able to help him. He left, and not graciously. Since I would not help him, and only pretended to uphold the concept of equality of opportunity, I would, he said, be one of the first to be taught of the changes that his fine new world would provide." He looked at his heir. "David."
David Banks picked up the story. "Two or three days later, I was returning home from a visit to one of our outlying farmers when I met our friend Kincaid. He pretended that it was an accident, but it was clear to me that he had been watching and waiting. It was also clear that he had no idea of the relationship between my father and myself. He assumed that any man in my position, nearly fifty years of age and with a father who - shall we say - is obviously healthy and shows no sign of dying in the immediate future, must automatically want to see his father dead. He hinted very unsubtly that if I were to support him and his Patriot Party, I could find myself Lord Banks much sooner than I might otherwise expect. I told him I had no wish to become Lord Banks any quicker than necessary, that I would be perfectly happy if my son were the next Lord Banks, and that I did not agree with the policies of his party as I understood them. And I rode off, leaving him watching me."
Lord Banks continued. "Since then, there have been some... incidents. Animals stolen, one or two barns full of winter feed burned. It was fairly quiet over the winter, and I hoped he had gone elsewhere, but since then - nine men have died. I'm sure Kincaid is responsible, wherever he is operating from. I have tried to discover that, tried to keep the people of the Forest safe, but I have failed; and so I am asking you for help.
"I don't know how he is making it look like the work of animals or even why - since I think he's obviously saying to me, 'You should have supported me,' and I half expect to hear from him soon, offering to stop these problems for me if I give him what he wants. But I could clearly see that what he wants is not the equality of opportunity I espouse. He wants to return to an era of strict control over the many and a privileged few - all yes-men of his racial type - with himself as the controlling voice, and his 'equality' is only for that favored few. But of course while he preaches equality, he will find followers who, for whatever reason, resent the present system, claiming that it has never given them 'a fair chance,' and looking for the easy gift of something that they have been persuaded will give them what they don't have the character to work for. And then, on Kincaid's death, since his 'government' would all be his puppets, there would be nobody left in power capable of taking charge. There would be chaos.
"No, no matter what he does, I can never agree to support the kind of oppression that his beliefs would engender."
"And you would know if he and - I suppose - some followers were camping somewhere in the Forest?" James asked.
"Yes. My father always drove the gypsies away, calling them shiftless thieves, and indeed he sometimes had trouble when their travels brought them near; but I have always permitted them to camp on my land and have had no trouble at all. I gave their chief one or two ground rules the year I became Lord. I allow them to hunt small game and take firewood within reason, and if they say the venison in their stew pots is braxy - " Seeing the slightly puzzled look on James' face, he explained, "A beast they've found already dead. If they say that, I accept their word for it, as long as they don't have venison too frequently. I also told the farmers I was happy if they gave the gypsies seasonal work - something my father had refused them, and it made life hard indeed for the farmers at planting and harvest, when a few extra hands are more than valuable. If there were strangers hiding in the Forest, the gypsies would know - and they would let me know. Migrant they may be, but they are loyal to their friends, and they now consider themselves part of this community."
"So it's clear that these killers are living elsewhere, moving in, committing their crime, and moving out again before the crime has even been discovered," Simon said. "That says to me they may even be living in Cascade, but are being careful not to let their presence be suspected."
Blair nodded. "I would agree. There are places in Cascade where men who are less than law-abiding can hide, and as long as they don't commit any crimes in Cascade, the Watch would be none the wiser. From what you said, I don't think this Kincaid wants to draw the attention of the law to his activities just yet. Otherwise why would he want to set up a camp in the middle of Cascade Forest? But if his camp was here, in the Forest - that would be an ideal base for attacks on Cascade, Seattle, Tacoma... and an ideal retreat if he chose to attack towns two or three days' ride further away." He fell silent for a moment, then said, "Could someone - my grandfather or uncle, perhaps - show us where these various killings happened? Or at least the most recent one?"
"Then the sooner we begin, the sooner we might learn something."
"I will come with you," Simon said. "I might sit at a desk directing the Watch, but I have spent my time on the streets. I have not forgotten the skills I learned then."
As it happened, although Daniel Sandburg was still in the Forest when they arrived back at the village, Jacob had returned home just minutes earlier carrying an injured eaglet, which he was getting settled into a cage. It was a youngster that, he judged, had probably been over-ambitious in trying out its wings.
"It was on the ground, unable to lift itself into the air again, and just barely defending itself against a fox," he told the three men as they joined him. "There was no sign of the adult birds. It's got one or two bites, lost some feathers - nothing major. The fox ran when it saw me. Well, this won't be the first injured youngster my sister has cared for, and it undoubtedly won't be the last."
They took the horses to the shed that served as a stable while they waited for the eaglet to be safely caged, checking that there was hay and fresh water for them. Then when they rejoined Jacob, Blair said, "Uncle, this is Chief Banks, who came back from Cascade with me."
Simon grinned. "Sandburg, Jacob and I were boys together, though it's many years since we last met." He gripped the Assistant Warden's hand. "It's good to see you again, though I could wish the circumstances were different. Nine deaths... "
"Aye, Simon. We should have called for help sooner, but - " He shrugged. "We kept hoping that this one would be the last, that we could track down the animal responsible. Much of my father's time this past six weeks has been spent trying to track the killer, but with no success. He would have killed the wolves if your father had agreed, although it would have been reluctantly - "
"It is not the wolves," Blair said again.
"You're preaching to the converted, lad," Jacob reminded him.
"Aye," Blair said. "You love the wolves as much as I do."
"Though I don't think I know them as well as you," Jacob said. "I never spoke of it, but I know how you used to play with the pack when you were a child."
"You do?" There was a sudden tension in Blair's body that James, at least, noted, although Jacob showed no sign of registering it.
"I followed you once or twice to make sure you were safe," Jacob admitted, "and a nerve-racking day or two I had of it, too. But I stopped worrying, and stopped following you, once I realized that the wolves remembered the child they had saved. I never told your mother."
Relaxing again, Blair nodded. "My thanks for that."
Jacob grinned. "She was over-solicitous, and I know how it fretted you at times."
Blair shrugged. "I understood why, but I don't deny that sometimes it was almost suffocating. One of the reasons I chose to leave, really, although I love her dearly. And I know I owe you and grandfather a lot for keeping her from stopping me. But we are not here to speak of the past. Can you show us where the most recent death, at least, occurred? Preferably one or two others as well, but certainly the most recent."
The Sandburgs did have a horse, an animal acquired two or three years previously when Daniel injured a leg and had been unable to walk any distance for several weeks. Indeed, his leg still had a weakness, and always would. Daniel had taken the horse that morning, as he often did, so they set off on foot, the three men of the Cascade Watch reluctant to ride when Jacob had to walk. The spot was a little less than a mile from the village, at the side of a well-used track that led deeper into the woods.
"Where does this track go?" James asked.
"A river about two miles away," Jacob said.
"My father allows the villagers to fish there," Simon put in.
Jacob nodded. "Master Abbott was either on his way to the river or on his way home from it," he said. "His fishing gear lay beside him, but if he had been fishing, he had caught nothing."
James wandered around the area, studying the ground. After a minute, Blair joined him. Jacob looked at Simon.
"Watchman Ellison is an excellent tracker," Simon said.
As the two men rejoined their companions, James said, "I could see nothing. If I had to give an opinion, I would guess the attacker used the track."
"Which an animal would not do," Simon commented.
"An animal might follow a man-made track, especially at night, or if it was following prey that was using the track," Jacob said slowly.
"But wolves would spread out, some of them running parallel to their prey, not all chasing down a track following it," Blair said. "Then once that prey was pulled down, they would all converge on it. There's no sign of anything coming out of the trees. And in honesty, it would take no distance for wolves to pull down a man - even a fit man running hard."
"And I could see no sign on the track that anyone was running," James said. "Granted, the ground is baked hard, with very little dust - which is not a condition conducive to producing clear tracks - but I can make out some footmarks, and they are all of people who were walking."
"They might be more recent than a week ago," Simon suggested. It was a technique he often used, forcing the men of the Watch to give their reasons for their observations.
James glanced at Jacob. "Have many people been this way since Master Abbott died?" he asked.
"No," Jacob replied. "Only my father and I, whose job it is, are going far from the village these days."
James looked back at Simon. "So these footmarks are at least a week old, made at latest on the day Master Abbott died. I would say he was taken completely by surprise when he was attacked." He studied the ground again. "I do not see any animal tracks. Whatever the apparent evidence, I think Master Abbott was attacked by a man, possibly more than one."
"The injuries he suffered were inflicted by teeth," Jacob said.
"Teeth - or a weapon made to leave injuries that looked as if they were inflicted by teeth?"
It was getting late; although as far north as they were, darkness was slow to fall in the summer, and the hours of darkness few. They had had a full day and all were aware of hunger. They returned to the Sandburgs' house and Simon quickly saddled his horse and mounted.
"I'll come back first thing in the morning," he said, "and you can show us one or two more of the murder sites."
Jacob nodded, and Simon rode off.
In bed that night, Blair waited until he was sure James was asleep, then he got up quietly, pulled on breeches and a jerkin and climbed silently out of the window, his feet easily remembering the holds he had learned years previously when as a child he had often slipped out at night to join the wolves.
As Blair's head disappeared from view, James sat up. He, too, got out of bed and slipped on the clothes he had taken off less than half an hour previously. He moved silently to the window, in time to see Blair vanishing into the shadows at the edge of the trees.
James leaned out of the window, studying the ivy in the half-light of an hour past sunset. It had held Blair's weight easily enough, but he was somewhat heavier. Well, he could but try. The alternative of going through the house and out of the door was unthinkable. There was too much chance of disturbing one of the older Sandburgs, and he did not think Blair would want them to know of this nocturnal trip.
The ivy turned out to be stronger than he had feared and he climbed down steadily. Once on the ground, he focused his hearing and heard nothing - but he was hardly surprised. He had often noticed that Blair moved very lightly and quietly. He headed for where his friend had disappeared into the trees.
Smell would work where hearing failed. He sniffed, detected the familiar scent of his partner and moved easily after him.
The scent was getting stronger. After only a couple of hundred yards, James saw a small clearing ahead of him. Blair stood in it, naked, slipping his clothes carefully out of sight under an overhanging bush. Then James watched, fascinated, as Blair changed shape, dropping onto all fours, his body rapidly sprouting hair, until inside a minute a wolf stood there.
A werewolf? Blair was a werewolf?
The wolf that was Blair bounded off at a speed James knew he had no chance of matching. With a reluctant sigh, he turned and went back to the house.
Blair ran fast through the trees, tail held high, reveling in the freedom. He had never risked changing shape in Cascade, and not until now did he realize how much he had missed the joy of running, of covering the ground at a speed so much faster than any man could achieve.
Ahead of him he heard howling, and he paused for a moment, to throw up his head and howl a reply, and then he ran on.
Before long he reached a clearing where the wolves were gathered. He allowed his tail to droop submissively as he trotted to the wolf he instantly recognized as the dominant male. When he reached him, he dropped to the ground and rolled onto his back, offering his vulnerable throat and stomach in total submission, making it clear that he was not challenging the alpha wolf in any way.
Moments later, he knew that he had been recognized and accepted back into the pack. Getting to his feet again, he shook himself, then set about getting to know - and be known by - the younger wolves, the ones he had never met.
The sun was at least an hour above the horizon before Blair returned to the house. He paused for a moment at the edge of the trees, listening intently, but heard nothing to indicate that anyone was moving in the house. He slipped over the open ground to the wall and climbed quickly up the ivy, pausing before he entered the window to check that James was still asleep, then pulled off his clothes and slipped into bed.
"Your family don't know you're a werewolf, do they?" James asked quietly.
Blair was silent for a long moment. "You followed me?"
"Until you changed shape. I was afraid that you - a man alone in the Forest - might be attacked, but I knew I couldn't follow and keep up with a wolf."
"I did tell you I needed to see the wolves, and that I could communicate with them."
Blair was silent for a moment. Then he said, "Actually, I'm not a werewolf - strictly speaking."
"When Jacob found me in the wolf pack, I was - I appeared to be - a two-year-old playing with a litter of cubs. Naomi had lost her two-year-old son Blair to a drowning accident less than a month previously; his body was never found. Daniel thought to persuade her that I was Blair, and she accepted me as Blair, as did Daniel - I know that from something I overheard one day. Though I think Jacob always knew that I wasn't. What he didn't know... "
"Yes?" James asked, his voice quietly encouraging, when it began to seem as if Blair wasn't going to continue.
"What he didn't know, couldn't know, was that I really was one of the cubs." His voice was flat, emotionless. "I was born a wolf, and around the time the litter was ready to leave the den, I changed shape and became a boy of the same stage of development as I was as a cub. But I stuck in that shape. I didn't know how to change back to my 'proper' shape. None of the other wolves could do it - I don't know why I could. When I was about five, I found the wolves again, and they seemed to know me. After I'd slipped away to visit them a few times, I suddenly realized how the shape-changing thing worked, and then I always took on wolf shape when I spent time with the pack. But then I went to Cascade, and forgot - or, rather, chose not to remember - that I am really a wolf. So, now you know." There was a quiet acceptance in his voice, as if he had already accepted that James would reject him. "I would... appreciate it if you could pretend everything was normal until we return to Cascade. The Sandburgs have been good to me, and they are my family as much as the wolves are. I was afraid for a moment today that if he had followed me when I was a child, Jacob knew, but he obviously stopped following me before I got the trick of the shape-changing. I would not like to see them hurt by the knowledge of what I am."
James got out of bed and crossed to sit on Blair's bed. "What you are is a good and loyal friend," he said quietly.
Blair looked at him for a moment, as if assessing his truthfulness, then he sat up quickly and threw his arms around the other man. James returned the embrace unhesitatingly.
They clung together for a long time, the one needing, and the other giving, reassurance.
At last Blair said, a little unsteadily, "I don't think I ever imagined someone knowing what I am accepting me. I know I'm loved here, but even so, I never dared let the family know the truth. That's another part of why I left."
"Would it be very selfish of me to say I'm glad you did?" James asked.
They drew a little apart to look at each other. Then James leaned forward and quietly kissed Blair's forehead.
Blair drew in a long, deep breath, and laid his head back against James' shoulder, silently absorbing the total acceptance his friend was giving him.
After some minutes, James reluctantly broke the peaceful mood, asking, "Did the wolves tell you anything?"
"Yes." Resolutely, Blair pulled himself away from the so-welcome comfort of the embrace, deliberately returning his mind to duty. "We were right; the killers are men, armed with weapons that leave injuries similar to those a wolf's teeth would leave. Wolves don't think of numbers the way men do, but there are 'the number of cubs in a litter in their pack,' they said. That would be more than three, though probably not more than five or six of them at most.
"Until now the wolves haven't interfered - the affairs of men are not their concern. They checked the first body, and have stayed at a distance ever since, aware that they might be blamed. Even here, where they are not hunted, wolves have few reasons to trust Man. However, I told them that some men are blaming them for the killing, anyway, and that one day those men might go hunting them unless we can prove that it is being done by a small, rabid pack of men. They have promised to watch and let me know if this pack of killers comes into the Forest." He stretched. "Oof. My muscles are sore, as they have not been for a long time."
"You use different muscles as a wolf? Or, more like, you use your muscles differently?"
Blair nodded. "I think I must." He looked directly at his friend. "James... You really are all right with this?"
"Yes. Remember, I've seen shape-changing before, when I was traveling. If a person is good and kind, loyal and trustworthy, his nature will not change with his shape. If he is cruel, he does not need to change his shape to express that cruelty."
They could hear the first movements of someone in the kitchen, and with a wry smile exchanged as both men thought of their sleepless night, they dressed quickly and went out to the yard, where they washed quickly at the pump. Then they went in again, to beg some warm water from Sara so that they could shave.
Simon arrived just as they were finishing breakfast.
It was further to the sites of the killings Jacob planned to show them, so Jacob took to horseback. His riding would never win any awards for style. One hand clutching the saddle, he bumped in it even more awkwardly than Blair as they cantered down the road on their way to the nearest of the sites they were to visit.
Jacob turned up a faint track that wound through the trees. "Here," he said as he reined in his horse some hundred yards along it. "Goodman Sarris died here."
It was James who dismounted, dropping the reins, leaving the horse to stand obediently. James looked around carefully, his nose twitching as he studied the ground, and he knew that Blair, too, was using his sense of smell, although he had not dismounted.
He could detect nothing, and straightened, shaking his head. "How long ago did Goodman Sarris die?" he asked.
"Early May," Jacob replied.
"Too long ago," James said. "There is nothing left to see. The plants have grown since then, and any disturbance has been hidden. The most useful ones might be the one or two immediately before Master Abbott."
"That is where I'm taking you," Jacob said. "But since we had to pass here, it seemed logical to stop."
"So there were several deaths in much the same area?" Simon asked.
"Yes. Most, though not all. Master Abbott was one of the few who died elsewhere."
"Master Abbott died on a main track, Goodman Sarris on what appears to be a seldom-used one?" The tone of James' voice made it a question.
"This is the most direct route from his house to the village," Jacob replied, "and only his family ever used it. Since there were no closer relatives, his dead wife's family inherited. Her youngest brother lives there now, else the track would be completely overgrown."
Jacob led them back to the main track they had been following.
"So, Uncle," Blair asked, "everyone who was attacked died on or beside a track?"
"Yes. I can safely say yes, because I think we've found all the bodies. Nobody has disappeared mysteriously."
"And yet not everyone traveling through the Forest is following the tracks," Blair said.
"No... As you well know, your grandfather and I are often in the Forest far from a track." He sounded thoughtful as he continued, almost as if putting his thoughts into words. "The gypsies roam widely. Villagers gathering windblow or fir cones for kindling leave the tracks, and depending on how much or how little strong wind there has been, sometimes travel quite far. Though they have been reluctant to go into the Forest these last weeks."
"Which makes it strange that all the deaths, even the first when nobody was being wary, have been on tracks." James picked up Blair's thought smoothly. "That alone says to me that the killers are not willing to move far from the tracks. That whatever the injuries may be, the killers are men."
They carried on and visited the places where the bodies of Goodman Reeves and Farmer Wilkenson had been found. Although their deaths were separated by nearly two weeks, they had died at almost exactly the same place, and Jacob said quietly, "I never really thought them guilty of the killing, but this is what finally decided me that the killers were not the wolves. Animals have their regular routes, yes, but wolves that chase their prey, killing two men on the same ten-yard stretch of track? I think not. A big cat might wait in ambush and then creep forward and pounce, but we don't have any of the big cats in the Forest, and even they are unlikely to lie in wait at the same place on different days.
"The vagabond who was killed before them - his body was found another quarter mile that way." He pointed.
"What of the first deaths? Where were they?" James asked.
"The first was not far inside the Forest, on the road that leads to Cascade. The next was on the same road, but nearer the village. Neither had reached the village. Packman Gaines was killed between the village and one of the closer farms - the Newmans. Mistress Newman was pregnant again. She miscarried four times in the last three years, and this time she was determined to carry the child to term. So, she was living as an invalid, and it seemed to be effective - she was halfway through her seventh month. She wanted to see what Packman Gaines had to offer, so he agreed to visit her at her home. When he failed to arrive, Farmer Newman went in search of him, and found his body. It was still warm.
"The shock sent Mistress Newman into labor, but the pregnancy was far enough advanced that the child did survive, although it was touch and go for the first month." He made a face. "She does fall pregnant very easily. It's to be hoped that now she knows the way of it, she'll manage to carry another two or three to term, or that is going to be one spoiled brat that everyone else in the Forest detests."
James grunted as he dismounted again and quartered the ground, but with as little success as he had had at the other sites. Eventually he returned to his horse and remounted. "I doubt we'll find anything," he said. "Too many people coming to retrieve the body, too long a time passed since the killings." He looked at Simon. "In honesty, sir, I'm not sure that we'll discover anything unless there's another killing - and we don't want to see another killing."
They headed back towards the village, Simon turning off on his road while the other three carried on homewards, each deep in his own thoughts.
They were just finishing dinner when a sweating, panting horse galloped up to the door. It stopped and stood, breathing hard, its head drooping. Although it was only a couple of miles from Lord Banks' house, the animal had been ridden hard enough that it was exhausted. David Banks slid from its back, and Daniel Sandburg met him at the door.
"What's wrong?" he asked, knowing that there had to be something seriously wrong for the heir to the estate to so misuse an animal.
"My brother," David gasped. "His horse returned to the stable riderless some quarter of an hour ago. I came at once to ask your help to look for him, knowing that if he had been thrown, I'd see him as I came."
"And there was no sign of him?" James guessed.
James and Blair glanced at each other.
"All right, sir," Blair said quietly. "Stay here. In any case, your horse is in no condition to start back just yet. James and I will follow Simon's route to your house. It could be that when he was thrown, he was stunned, and wandered away from the track while still half dazed. If that is the case, if we find where he was thrown, we can work from there."
They hurried to the 'stable' and saddled their horses. As they set off at a smart canter, James said, "Kincaid?"
Blair nodded. "I'd think so. Who better to target than the Lord's son? I imagine some demand might follow - 'Give us what we want or... '"
"Or another mauled body is found, the message being, 'This is the price for defying us'."
They fell silent as they continued down the track to the fork. As they turned up the other road, they pulled their horses back to a trot, both men scenting the air as they went, while James studied the ground.
"Here!" he said suddenly.
They stopped and dismounted. James went to the side of the track and examined a tree more carefully. "An old trick, but still effective," he growled as he indicated a mark on the trunk. "A cord at chest height stretched across the track." He returned to the middle of the track and pointed. "Signs of a scuffle. Simon may have been winded when he hit the ground, but he fought."
Blair grunted. "I can detect the smell of at least three men," he said.
"Agreed. One pulled the cord taut just as Simon reached here, the other two attacked him as soon as he fell." He looked around again. "They dragged him off that way. They were on foot," he added.
"We can both follow the scent easily enough," Blair commented, "but the horses could give us away." He thought for a moment. "Take the horses back - and my clothes. I'll follow the trail. Once I know where Simon is being held, and assess how much immediate danger he is in, I can either try to rescue him right away, or come and get you to help rescue him. You remember the place where you saw me changing shape?"
"Listen for a wolf howling three times, and when you do, bring my clothes to there."
Blair grinned. "I'll be perfectly safe," he said confidently.
"I'm not so sure. If Kincaid or his men see a wolf, they're likely to shoot at it."
"They might, but I think they're cowards. I think they're more likely to run."
He stripped off his clothes and handed them to James, who rolled them up carefully. Then Blair walked into the shelter of the trees so as not to disturb the horses by letting them see a wolf, and changed shape without fuss. He lifted his head, sniffed the air, and trotted off into the trees.
James sighed, thrust the roll of clothes under his shirt and fastened his belt tightly around it. He remounted, caught the dangling reins of Blair's horse, and turned to take the horses back to the village. He did not expect the Sandburgs to greet the information that Blair had gone off to track Simon's kidnappers, especially so late in the day, with any sort of approval. He wasn't totally happy about it himself, but he had a suspicion that Blair would not in fact be alone. As he trotted back, he was mentally rehearsing the story he would tell.
He found David Banks in the stable grooming his horse, which looked to have recovered from its mad gallop and was munching some hay while being brushed. David looked at him as he unsaddled his charges. "Where's Blair?"
"He's gone off after Simon's kidnappers," James said quietly. "If you will come into the house, it'll save me from telling the story twice. But - just between you and me - we think Kincaid has your brother."
They went into the house together, to be greeted by an anxious, "Where's Blair?" from Naomi, but it was clear to James that her question had preceded those of her father and brother by the narrowest of margins. Sara was nowhere to be seen, but sounds from the back of the house indicated that she was working there.
"Not far from where the road forks, we found signs that someone had fastened a cord across the track, at chest level of a man on horseback," he said. "And on the ground, the signs of a scuffle. Someone went to a great deal of bother to kidnap Simon. The trail they left was quite clear. We felt, however, that following them with the horses might betray our presence to whoever is holding Simon, so it was obvious that one of us had to come back here with them, while the other followed the trail."
"And you let Blair go?" Naomi asked sharply. "He's still so young, so trusting, so - "
James looked at her, remembering Jacob's description of her as over-solicitous, and interrupted her smoothly. "Although we are partners, Blair is my senior in the Watch. He is more experienced and better qualified than I, and he knows Cascade Forest as I do not. He felt that he was the logical one of us to follow Simon's trail, and I agreed, for his argument made sense. He's a grown man, Mistress Sandburg, not a child to be shielded from anything that might be a danger. Helping to track down criminals is his job, and I for one would not shame him by suggesting that he was not able to do his job simply because he is still relatively young. Trusting? Aye, he always looks to see the best in people if he can, but he knows how evil some men can be. You can't live in a town, work with the Watch, and not know that."
She looked at him, and then dropped her eyes to gaze at the floor. It was clear to him that only the courtesy due to a guest was keeping her silent.
"James is right," Jacob said. "You would shame Blair by treating him as if he was still a child."
She raised her head at that, and glared at her brother. "I lost him once, when he was carried away by the river," she said. "I mourned his death for a month and more before we found him again. I couldn't bear it if I lost him again."
"Mistress Sandburg," James said quietly, "I, too, am reluctant to see Blair risk his safety, but I can also see that trying to fence him in with restrictions to ensure that safety would alienate him. He is a man, with a man's pride. He loves you very much and I know he is reluctant to hurt you, but he has his own life to live. If you want to keep him, you must let him travel his own road - and if that road leads him to take certain risks that he sees as unavoidable, he will be happier knowing that he is taking them, if not with your approval, at least without your disapproval. Knowing that you accept that he is a man, not a child."
There was silence for a moment, then Daniel said, "He's right, Naomi. I found it hard to keep quiet at the restrictions you put on him at times, but he's your son, not mine. Many boys would have rebelled at those restrictions. Blair accepted them - when he was a child. We gave him a good childhood, taught him right and wrong. But it's his life now, and you must let him live it. And James is correct - the way to keep Blair, to ensure that he comes home often to see us, is to let him go, even if it does mean you are sometimes afraid for him."
David said quietly, "Ms. Sandburg, my father felt as you do when Simon left home to make a life for himself in Cascade, but he gave Simon his blessing, and Simon is happier for knowing that our father accepts the risks he must sometimes take."
She drew a long, shuddering breath. "All I can say is... I'll try." She looked from one to the other of the four men, then rose and stumbled from the room.
"I'd better get home and let my father know what's happened," David said, breaking a slightly embarrassed silence. "If Blair arrives with more news, will you let us know as soon as possible?"
"Of course," James said, hiding his relief that David did not want to wait. It was going to be difficult enough hiding from Daniel and Jacob that Blair was going to arrive home naked, and that he, James, had possession of his friend's clothes.
He accompanied David to the stable, and after David had ridden away, he turned into the woods instead of going back to the house. He would wait for Blair at the clearing.
Maintaining a not-too-fast, even pace, Blair trotted through the trees, finding it easy to follow the trail even though it was possibly two hours old. He could travel for miles like this, but he didn't think he would have to. Kincaid and his men - he was sure they had to be Kincaid's men - probably had a small camp not too far inside the Forest. The trail, having swung in a wide curve, was now heading towards Cascade.
A wolf came out from among the trees and joined him. He recognized it instantly, of course, one of the older wolves that remembered him from before he left for Cascade.
I was coming for you, it told him. The rabid men are here. We are watching.
They have a captive. Alive?
Alive and not yet hurt. He is afraid, but hiding his fear well. Why did they not kill him, as they killed the others?
I don't know, Blair answered. But I can guess, he thought to himself. Ransom. It was something that he could understand, having lived most of his life as a human and having been a keen observer of human ways for all of that time. It was not, however, something that the pack would understand at all.
Side by side, he and his gray brother trotted along, headed for Kincaid's camp.
The camp was surrounded by wolves. They were lying quiet, watchful, and Blair knew that the humans were completely unaware of their presence. He padded over to the alpha wolf, leaving the gray brother to join the watching circle.
These men must be stopped, he said.
Agreed, the alpha replied. It will be easier than I thought at first. It seems to me that the leader of this pack is the rabid one. The others are all born to be followers who will never challenge him for his position.
Some men are like that, Blair said. They draw these born followers to them although they are not good leaders. Their captive, however, is the leader of my human pack and he is a good leader.
The alpha watched the men for a minute. Then he said, There is only one thing to be done when a wolf is rabid. He must die. We do not usually attack men, but the rabid one must die.
Yes, Blair said, realizing, possibly for the first time, that in his wolf form he was more bloodthirsty than he was in his human shape. We should be careful. These men might have weapons, and seek to use them to hurt us.
You are happy to let us deal with these men? You do not want the men of the Forest to pass judgment?
The wolves have been wronged by these creatures even more than the men of the Forest. You have the right to deal with them.
The alpha gave a soft yelp which Blair heard being passed around the circle of wolves, and then the pack gathered around them.
It is time to deal with these men who have tried to blame us for the killing they have done, the alpha said. A whimper of agreement sounded. I have spoken with our brother here, and we are agreed; their leader is rabid, and must die. The others are only followers, with no wish to lead. I will challenge their leader. The followers - all of you who want to chase them out of the Forest may do so, but do not leave the Forest. He looked at Blair. Your human leader does not know you are a wolf? No? Then you will bite through the ropes holding him, and lead him to safety.
I will do that.
Then we attack - now! The alpha threw up his head and howled. The other wolves joined in, and for a minute the chorus of howls was deafening. Then the wolves ran at the camp.
Kincaid's men, already unnerved, shrank back. Then the nerve of one of them broke, and he turned and ran. The others promptly followed. One - Blair presumed it was Kincaid - stood his ground for some seconds, then, finding himself alone, tried to follow as well, but found his retreat cut off by a huge, snarling wolf. He backed away from it and the wolf sprang...
Blair padded over to Simon and gently nibbled at the ropes holding the big man's wrists, careful not to bite the flesh. He was aware of Simon's apprehension, but equally aware that Simon somehow realized that this was a rescue. He only half registered the scream that was the last sound Garrett Kincaid would ever make.
As Blair finished biting through the rope, the big alpha wolf trotted over to them, looking as if it would dearly like to spit the taste of Kincaid out of its mouth. It stood for a moment looking at Simon, who returned its gaze resolutely, and then said quietly, "Thank you."
Blair repeated Simon's words for the pack leader, which gave a little Yip! of acknowledgement, then turned and, followed by the older members of the pack, those that had chosen not to follow Kincaid's men, disappeared among the trees, leaving Blair standing beside Simon.
Blair caught Simon's sleeve in his teeth and pulled him gently forward. He could tell that Simon was puzzled by his behavior and smiled to himself as the big human followed him. Simon would be able to dine out on this story for months.
He led his friend back to the Banks' house, glad of the long summer twilight that made it easier for Simon to see his way, then turned and ran off into the trees. The direct route to his own home was much shorter than the road, and he soon reached the clearing where he had arranged to meet James. His partner was there already, waiting for him. He concentrated for a moment, and changed shape, then he walked briskly forward.
"Simon?" James asked anxiously.
"Safely home," Blair replied as he pulled on his clothes. "Kincaid is dead, and his followers are well on their way back to Cascade by now. This is the one death the wolves can claim responsibility for. I think, when Kincaid's camp is examined, we will find the weapons they used to simulate the marks of teeth. Officially, I arrived in time to see the wolves chasing these men away, and one of the wolves leading Simon to safety, and decided not to interfere. You and I can check out Kincaid's camp tomorrow."
Side by side, the two men returned to the Sandburg house in the slow darkening of the summer night, content that the problem that had brought them here was resolved.