Winter's Wolves

by Wendy N. Wagner

Chapter Two: Message in Blood

The hill giant stepped over the smashed remains of the trees. It wore a vest and skirt made of filthy hides, and a necklace of raccoon skulls dangled between its two drooping and half-covered breasts. Its hair hung in clumpy strands the color of dirt, damp and clinging to its jowled cheeks.

A dozen of the canvas and wood tent cabins stood between Jendara and the giant, and two men raced out of one of the structures, loaded up with gear and screaming. One of them shoved Jendara aside and barreled down the hill. Jendara ignored the other. Off to her right, Grotnir ran with Nola, headed toward the end of camp where the mule screams were coming from. She couldn't see his horse anywhere.

The giant bellowed something in its ugly language and swung a tree limb at the nearest tent cabin. The structure crumpled on impact.

What hill giants lack in intelligence, they make up for in brute strength.

Jendara unslung her bow and narrowed her eyes. A giant. She had only seen one once: While traveling on the mainland with her father, they'd seen one attack a shepherd and his flock. Her father had driven the giant away with only a hunting spear and a handaxe. Jendara had been maybe six or seven, but she'd never forgotten the ugly, stinking mass of the thing, or the pain that filled the shepherd's eyes as he struggled to breathe with lungs and ribs crushed by the creature. That shepherd was the first man she had watched die.

The giant wrenched a broken tree trunk from the ground and flung it. Jendara threw herself aside. The log crashed down in the logging road, just inches from where she'd been standing.

She felt the hot stirring of anger in her chest. She growled and readied her bow again.

She let fly her arrow. It sank fletching deep in the giant's floppy dug, and the creature shrieked. Then the giant ripped the arrow free and cast it aside. Jendara reached for another. She had to choose a better target—the creature's torso was just too fat for her arrows to hit a major organ.

The ground rumbled beneath her feet. A herd of mules thundered down the hill, straight toward Jendara.

A hand closed on her arm and she flew up in the air, her bow clattering to the ground.

"Get on!" Lugh bellowed. She scrabbled for a grip on the saddle and managed to get onto the horse's back even as it bolted away from the stampeding mules, racing leftward up a switchback Jendara hadn't noticed before.

Lugh slowed the horse. A couple of good-sized hemlocks stood between them and the camp, but Jendara could still hear the giant's laughter, low and rumbling and ugly. She sat up straight in the saddle. The black horse tossed its head, and she recognized it as Irlu's.

"We've got to stop this thing before it brings down the whole camp. Do you know where Irlu is?"

Lugh patted the horse's neck. "I saw her bringing wounded out of the biggest tent—must have been the folks the wolf hurt when it came through camp. Want to bet the giant and the wolf are working together?"

"I'll keep my money, thank you."

Lugh only laughed and urged the horse back toward the camp. Jendara gripped Lugh's shoulder tight with her left hand and drew her sword with the other. The giant stood in the middle of camp, fallen and shattered tent cabins all around it. The horse leaped over a toppled tree.

Then it suddenly reared up, hooves flailing. Something white burst up out of a fallen tent, snarling and roaring. The horse screamed as frost covered its hooves and coated its front legs. Jendara lost her grip on Lugh's shoulder and slid off the horse's back. She had the presence of mind to roll to her right, but she hit the ground hard. She pushed herself to sit up. Her ribs hurt, and her sword had fallen someplace. She felt naked without it.

The horse dropped to all fours and spun around. The white wolf lunged forward, but the horse lashed out with a rear leg and clipped the wolf in the muzzle. The creature toppled backward, but caught itself and shook its shaggy white head. Its glacial blue eyes fixed on the horse.

Jendara's sword lay just inches from the big white wolf. She eyed the distance between the creature and the sword. There was no way she could grab it and attack before the beast saw her.

A splintered door smashed down in front of her. She kicked the broken slab of wood away and jumped to her feet, but the wolf was gone.

Jendara ran to grab her sword. "Where is it?" she shouted. "Lugh, do you see the wolf?"

He stroked the horse's neck. It was calm now that the wolf had vanished. "I'm more worried about the giant."

"Forget the giant," Grotnir growled, appearing at Jendara's elbow. "Irlu and I have gotten most of the injured onto a logging skid. Let's grab the last of them and get these people down to Big Cascade before anyone else is hurt."

"What about the mules?" Jendara shouted, remembering the stampede. She sheathed her sword.

"Nola's rounding them up!" Grotnir beckoned her toward the biggest of the tent cabins.

Before she could move, part of the big tent's wooden frame collapsed. Flames whooshed suddenly up the back wall. The giant stumbled backward, shielding its face from the heat.

"Irlu!" Grotnir grabbed Jendara's arm. "She's in there!"

They ran into the smoky haze. On this side of the tent, the doorframe still stood, but black smoke billowed out the open door. Jendara covered her mouth and nose with her shirt. A deep whump shook the wall, and another section collapsed.

Jendara grabbed the back of Grotnir's cloak. "You can't go in there!"

He tried to shake her off. "I've got to get her out!"

Flames lapped across the sagging tent roof. Jendara threw her arms around Grotnir and heaved him away from the doorway. He wrenched at her fingers, but she stuck fast.

A hunched figure burst out of the doorway, enshrouded in smoldering wool.

"Irlu!" Grotnir shouted.

Irlu threw herself on the ground, rolling hard to smother any flames. She sat up and coughed hard, fighting for air. Jendara and Grotnir hurried to help her to her feet and away from the flaming tent.

"We've got to get out of here," Jendara warned Grotnir. "Where's the logging skid?" She couldn't see a thing. Her eyes stung with the black smoke choking the air.

"The road," he grunted. They staggered forward until their boots squelched in the road's deep mud.

Irlu sagged against Grotnir's side for a second, sucking up air. "A barrel of cooking oil," she croaked. "Exploded. I tried to get to the last man, but there were flames everywhere."

"Don't talk," Grotnir said. "You've breathed a lot of smoke."

Jendara blinked around herself. There was no sign of Lugh or Irlu's horse—and no sign of the logging skid, either. "I don't see Nola or the skid."

A black horse burst out of the smoke, riderless. Jendara's stomach sank. "Where's Lugh?"

A gust of wind stirred the smoke, and Jendara caught a glimpse of white at the edge of camp. She ran toward it. She could make out a voice—a rough, horrible voice, speaking a language she couldn't understand. The consonants clacked like rocks tumbling together, but the voice wasn't a giant's deep boom. She remembered what Grotnir had said about the wolves speaking.

The smoke eddied around Jendara, obscuring the world around her. She stumbled and fell into the mud, then pushed herself up to her hands and knees and looked back at what had tripped her: the still figure of a dark-haired woman in a brown coat, her cheek pink and blistered.

Nola. She'd come back to help her friends, and now she lay here in the mud.

The skull-and-crossbones tattoos on the backs of Jendara's hands—symbols of the pirate goddess she'd once revered—burned with rage. She reached for the axe in her belt. That wolf was going to pay. The giant may have crushed the camp, but the white wolf had to be the brains behind the attack.

Snarling, she jumped to her feet and ran toward the sound of the wolf's voice. The wall of smoke dissipated and she saw the white shape again, now moving into the dark forest beyond a broken corral, the giant close behind. The wolf turned to look at her. Its lip curled.

"Tell the Blackravens I took their partner." The creature made a noise in the back of its throat that might have been a laugh. "If they want him, they'll have to find him."

The giant's sides jiggled in merriment. It raised one hand and wiggled the fingers in a mocking wave. The other hand rested on Lugh's back, bent over the giantess's shoulder. His body was limp.

"Give him to me!" Jendara bellowed.

The wolf smiled broader. "Don't forget the message." It slipped into the trees without another sound.

Jendara ran forward—straight into the sudden swing of the giant's club. She managed to sidestep the full force of the blow, but it still caught her on the edge of her ribcage, spinning her around. She crumpled into the mud, her vision gray and bleary. She tried to sit up and saw a dazzling constellation of stars.

Someone knelt beside her and touched her shoulder. "Jendara?" Irlu's voice was raspy with smoke.

Anger pushed the pain out of Jendara's head. She sat up. "It thinks Lugh is one of you. A Blackraven. It wants you to come after him."

Grotnir squatted to meet Irlu's eyes. "So that's what this is about. It's the wolf the last patrol didn't finish."

"They wrecked this whole camp just to draw us in," Irlu growled.

"Fine." Grotnir spat on the ground. "If it wants Blackravens, we'll give it Blackravens.."

Jendara grabed his shoulder and pulled herself up. She felt terrible. Her head hurt, and her ribs screamed from the double insult of the giant's club and the fall from the horse. But at least she could think clearly. "This is a trap."

Irlu swiped soot from her face. "Of course it is. But I'll be serving on patrol with Caul for a whole year. Am I supposed to look him in the eye and say I let his brother get kidnapped by a white wolf and didn't go after him?"

Jendara nodded, then regretted the motion. "I'm going with you."

Grotnir's fist closed on her shoulder. "You're a brave one, but you're no Blackraven. Go down to Big Cascade and warn the townsfolk."

She knocked his hand away. "I promised Lugh's father I'd take care of him. I can't turn my back on him now."

Grotnir's lips pursed, but at last he nodded.

"Besides," Jendara added. "That wolf tried to turn me into a messenger girl." She grinned. "I'm going to teach it a lesson."

Irlu stood and moved toward the forest. "If you two are coming, then hurry up." Then she slipped into the trees as silently as the white wolf had.

Jendara had to admire the dark-haired tracker. The white wolf had killed two of her fellow border guards. Irlu was injured and didn't even know Lugh. But she hadn't hesitated to go after him.

Jendara tapped the handle of her belt axe. It had been her father's, once; he had used it to fight off that giant. If his spirit could see her holding it now, he would certainly approve.

Jendara followed Irlu into the forest. That wolf had no idea who it was dealing with.

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Coming Next Week: The icy conclusion of Wendy N. Wagner's "Winter's Wolves"!

Wendy N. Wagner is the author of the Pathfinder Tales novel Skinwalkers and the web fiction story "Mother Bears," both starring Jendara. Her short fiction has appeared in anthologies such as Armored and The Way of the Wizard, and in many online magazines. Wendy lives with her family in Portland, Oregon, where she also teaches writing for youth. An avid gardener and board gamer, she can be found online at

Illustration by Ian Llanas

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Liberty's Edge

Good action and characterization. I am hoping to see more of this next week.


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