There was time, but it wasn’t real. There were sleepy days and vibrant nights, changes in seasons with patterns they had to follow. He and his brothers grew bigger and stronger; other changes befell their parents as seasons faded past. But that was just what was. It was always now, and there was no counting of days, minutes…even years. That was how it was and how it had always been, and made it somewhat puzzling (when he very rarely paused to think on it) how liberating it seemed.
But maybe liberation was simply the natural state of things. They were free, and life was good. What else was there to think about?
Their youth in the forest was spent in idyllic play, being roughhoused and chased by mother and father in games that they only understood later were teaching them to hunt, to fight, to avoid danger and, above all, survive. It was a good forest; so long as they learned their lessons well and weren’t stupid, survival was never out of reach. It was never taken for given, but the struggle toward it was always enough to keep them fit and alert, never so much that it ground them down.
He had two brothers, and was the middle of the three. They had no names, but they didn’t need them. They knew who they were.
The oldest by a hair grew to be tall and lean of build, with a light coat that glistened golden when the sun struck it just right; he was the jokester, always playing around, even when the others were tired of it. His antics earned him no end of warning growls and more than a few bites for his temerity. As he grew, though, he middle one came to understand that his older brother was every bit as serious as any of the family, only in his own way. Just like their parents, his games hid lessons, and he insisted upon them because he wanted them to learn, because he wanted them to thrive.
They were harsh lessons, sometimes. The golden brother once let him be chased nearly to exhaustion by an infuriated bear whose cubs he had inadvertently wandered near, waiting until it was nearly too late to leap in as a distraction, howling for the rest of the family and allowing him to escape. He had tried to bite his elder brother in earnest after that, once he regained his energy and equilibrium, but that one time, the golden brother had bitten him right back, growling a warning. That was the day he began to understand why his brother’s games could be so rough, why he would allow them to be hurt sometimes. He had antagonized that bear through his own inattention; inattention was death. Better that he learn that sharp lesson with his brother keeping pace through the trees nearby, making sure it never went too far, than when he was alone, when it truly mattered and there would be no one to save him.
He began paying attention to the golden brother’s jokes after that, to the way he insisted on play-fighting long after they were tired of it. The practice and exercise honed them. Though the oldest brother was oldest only by insignificant minutes, he had a wisdom to him, an understanding with which he was gifted. Rather than simply living his own way, as the best wolf he could, he did his best to teach his brothers what he understood. Even if that meant hounding them until they were thoroughly sick of him. Even if it meant letting them come to grief while he watched from a safe distance, so they did not come to more grief than they could survive when he was not there to protect them.
The youngest brother was as dark as the eldest was bright, and never grew to be as large as either of them. He was quiet, too, always serious. Not to the point that he would not play and gambol with the family when it was appropriate, but in many ways he was the opposite of the golden brother. Often he would be utterly still, just watching, even when there seemed to be nothing to watch. It was as if he was always on the hunt, investigating every smell, sight and sound he encountered—but calmly, quietly, without the eager inquisitiveness of a pup.
He seemed determined to understand everything about the world, about the way it all fit together, and apparently his endless quest met with success. As he grew alongside them, there was a precision to his movements that neither his brothers nor their parents ever achieved. Every step, every lunge, everything he did was calculated flawlessly. By the time they were grown, even though he was the smallest, he always seemed to win at wrestling unless the others ganged up on him, and sometimes, even then. He knew how to move his body in precise ways they never grasped.
For all that, there were things that seemed oddly puzzling to him. Other things he grasped quickly; he seemed to understand the purpose of their older brother’s games and jokes long before the middle brother, perhaps from the very beginning. And yet, more normal, casual interactions were baffling to him as a puppy. By the time they grew to maturity, he had mostly figured such things out, but when they were pups it seemed, sometimes, that he didn’t understand what was meant when the family communicated with him. Sometimes, he didn’t even seem to recognize who they were. It was a strange counterpoint to the eerie precision with which he approached every aspect of his life. Then again, perhaps it was his difficulty understanding that spurred him to always seek comprehension.
They were different, and had their disagreements, but they were brothers. They were family. They loved unconditionally, trusted completely, and none of it was ever in question. It just was.
And it was good.
The days passed, they learned and grew. They hunted and played, and were together. One day became another; one season faded into the next. It went on, and the wolves were alive. They changed, but slowly; their parents very gradually grew less powerful, even as they came into their prime. But still they lived on, together.
One day into the next, and the next…
Ingvar had awakened from enough vivid dreams, especially lately, to know the sensation.
His eyes opened and his senses returned, and for the first few seconds he didn’t know what was what. He was a man, lying on his back on hard stone, looking up at the clear night sky. He was also a wolf, drifting off to sleep in the chilly dawn after a vigorous night’s hunt with his brothers.
He blinked his eyes, then again, and the sensations began to separate, one vivid set of memories dissipating. It took a few more seconds for him to truly remember himself.
Then, he tried to sit bolt upright, and succeeded only in spasming weakly.
“Easy,” Raichlin’s voice said soothingly. The Ranger stepped around in front of him, reaching out slowly to take him by the shoulders. Ingvar recognized the maneuver—keep in view, make no sudden moves, as if he were dealing with an excitable animal—but was still too confused to take offense. He simply allowed the man to help him carefully to a sitting position. “There we go. It’s disorienting, I know, but don’t worry—it passes quickly. We have something brewing that’ll help, and then some food.”
“No brewing,” Joe’s voice said off to Ingvar’s left. “No more brews.” He looked over to find the Kid, his hat and duster lying neatly beside him, sitting upright with his arms around his knees, staring out over the dark valley with a fixed expression. Not upset…not anything, really. His face was simply blank, immobile.
Ingvar could relate.
He took a few deep breaths, re-familiarizing himself with the sensation of his lungs, and acquainted himself with his surroundings.
They were still on the ledge, the cave behind them. Rather than the arcane camp stove, though, there was now a proper fire. Freshly baked biscuits sat cooling on a rock next to it; three plump grouses were spitted over the flames, just beginning to turn golden brown. Liesl appeared with a steaming cup of something thick and sweet-smelling, which she handed to him. There was another mug of it on the ground beside Joe, untouched.
Their third companion was on Ingvar’s right, just now being helped upright by Tabitha. Darling looked more unsettled than Ingvar had ever seen him, than he had ever expected to see him. Eyes wide and limbs moving weakly and without coordination, he had to lean physically on the Ranger as she eased him up. The expression on his face was…hollow. Shocked.
Strange how, after all this time, the sight of Darling finally rocked fully off his equilibrium didn’t give Ingvar any satisfaction. If anything, it only added to his own unease. Even though his games were annoying, his older brother never—
Ingvar shook himself bodily, trying to chase away the vestiges of the dream. They didn’t go, however. He felt clearer already, the confusion of is first awakening receding, but those visions lingered, firmly and unsettlingly fixed in his memory.
Also, he finally observed, there was another person at their campsite.
Mary sat in front of them, at the very edge of the flat outcropping, watching them calmly.
“It’s sipping chocolate,” Raichlin said, and it took Ingvar a moment to realize he was referring to the drink. The Ranger knelt, picked up the mug beside Joe, and held it out to him. “Nothing mystical or alchemical this time, I promise. Just hot, thick, and sweet. It’s a bit of a luxury, but we’ve found that a dose of chocolate is pretty much the best possible thing for regaining your mental footing after a vision quest. It’s also damnably hard to carry on a hike into the wilderness; melts something awful. That stuff can be transported in powdered form, though. Go on, have a sip.”
Ingvar obeyed. He didn’t have much of a sweet tooth, but he had to admit it really did hit the spot. Joe finally accepted his cup again and took a tentative sip. Darling gulped down half of his in one go.
She let them make some progress on their revitalizing drinks before starting.
“You see, now, what I meant. There are some things that simply cannot be told; they have to be understood before they will be listened to. All your life, Brother Ingvar, especially after you committed yourself to the path of the Huntsman, you have held up the wolf pack as the ideal of behavior. The pack’s hierarchy is the basis of everything they do, of the entire Shaathist philosophy. The strong and the weak; the male and the female. The order of all activity, designed after their most sacred animal.”
She paused, shaking her head slowly. “Except…wolves don’t do that.”
Joe cleared his throat. “That… Was any of that real?”
“Anything you can experience is real, Joseph,” she said calmly.
“Well, I must still be out of it,” he growled. “I actually asked that question an’ didn’t see that answer comin’.”
Even Ingvar had to crack the faintest smile at that. Darling was just staring, wide-eyed, into his mug.
“Over twelve centuries ago,” Mary said, shifting slightly and fixing her serene gaze upon Ingvar, “Angthinor the Wise came to the city in the mountains that would come to be called Shaathvar, bringing a new faith. He sought to make a path of the way of the Huntsman. Where they had always been solitary spirits, he formed a cult. A true religion, which Shaath had never had before. And the center of his new faith was the wolf.
“To show the people the ways of the pack, he brought a pack to the city. You know the story, Ingvar?”
“Of course,” he said, somewhat surprised to find his own voice working. He paused, clearing his throat, and continued. “Angthinor journeyed into the mountains to find a pack who would answer his call, to teach their ways to humanity. He ran with them for a full turn of the seasons, until the wild wolves agreed to come back with him. There he set aside a sacred space within Shaathvar’s walls were they could live, free, yet available to the people.”
“That sacred patch of parkland has been extensively renovated,” said Mary. Ingvar was struck by how sad she looked. “At the time…it was basically a zoo. And Angthinor’s means of gathering those wolves was simply to trap them. He brought them from various places around the Stalrange, put them in a barred enclosure for people to gawk at.”
Ingvar started to rise. “You—”
“Sit.” Her voice was calm and soft, but he found himself obeying before realizing he intended to. Mary sighed quietly before going on. “You see, Ingvar? This shows the falsehood behind the truth on which you have built your life. It is no sign of weakness that you resist it—you have to. That is simply the way minds are constructed. Had I simply told you…it would have meant nothing. But you know, now. You have seen it, lived it.
“A wolf pack usually consists of a breeding pair and their offspring. The pack is a family. They relate to one another just the way families do: through love, and trust. All this about dominance and submission, about the strong and the weak, the smaller female obeying the larger male… It comes from Angthinor’s wolves, from a dozen random wolves gathered from a dozen places and stuck together inside an alien city. Members of any social species, wolves, humans, or otherwise, if abducted and enclosed with a bunch of strangers under hostile conditions, will tend to organize themselves that way. At least at first.”
“He…so…” Ingvar felt himself floundering, and hated it. “It was a long time ago. Even if he made a mistake…”
“Ingvar,” she said, and he hated the gentleness in her tone. “Angthinor was a Huntsman of Shaath. A true Huntsman, of the old path; he walked with Shaath and knew the wilds. He truly had run with wolves, and knew their ways. I watched these events unfold from a distance; I confess I badly underestimated the seriousness and the importance of what was happening. You must understand how peculiar it all was, at that time. No, Ingvar. Angthinor knew exactly what he was doing. I cannot speak for his motivations or his inner thoughts, but he acted very deliberately.
“Many things can be said of the Shaathist way; many bad, and some very good. But it is no way of the wild. It’s built upon an idea forced on wild creatures by the cleverness of one man. The Huntsman of today, in their way, are some of the most domesticated people in the world.”
Ingvar stood in a single motion. Mary gaze up at him solemnly, which he ignored. Turning his back on her, on Joe and Darling and the Rangers, he strode away from the firelight, into the dark mountain forest.
“That was harsher than it needed to be,” Darling said after a painfully long silence. He lifted his eyes to meet Mary’s, and seemed finally to have collected himself. He was calm, anyway, his gaze sharper than usual. “Which, I suppose, means it was exactly the effect you were going for.”
“A man like Ingvar is not to be coddled,” she said simply. “It is a deeply painful thing he has just absorbed. When he’s had time to come to grips, he will appreciate having been treated as a man. As if he could handle it.”
“Um…” Joe peered into the darkness in the direction Ingvar had gone, then back at the three Rangers sitting around the campfire behind them. “Should somebody maybe go after him? I mean, it’s the woods, at night…”
“He’s a Huntsman of Shaath,” Darling said quietly, shifting around to turn his back on Mary and scoot closer to the flames. “The woods are his home. Exactly where he needs to be right now, I should think.”
Joe sighed, and finished of his chocolate, setting the empty mug down beside him. He glanced once more at Mary, finding nothing there but a small black crow perched on the very edge of the precipice, gazing out into the night. With a soft sigh, he got up and stepped over to rejoin the others by the fire.
“These’ll be ready before too much longer,” Tabitha noted, reaching out to pointlessly adjust the spit on which one of the grouses was cooking. “Could you keep an eye, turn ’em if they start getting too brown on one side? We need to check on something inside the waystation, now that you guys are back up.”
She rose, as did the other two Rangers, and they filed through the skins into the cave mouth without another word.
“Admirably discreet people,” Darling noted. “Right to the point of giving us no hint what to expect from this…experience.”
“Would you have done it, if they had?” Joe asked quietly.
“Yes,” he said immediately. “In a heartbeat. I didn’t drag myself up into the mountains expecting not to face challenges or learn things. I just don’t like having shit like that sprung on me.”
Joe nodded slowly, staring into the flames.
The smell was tantalizing, and served to remind them how long it had been since they’d eaten, but neither made a move toward the birds.
Joe finally drew in a deep breath and let it out. “Okay, I… There’s probably never going to be a better time to bring this up. Is…Ingvar…a man, or a woman?”
“He’s a man,” Darling said immediately, still watching the fire dance. “He had the misfortune to be born physically female. These things happen, I understand.”
“Huh,” Joe mused. “So…how does that work, exactly?”
Darling shrugged. “People get born wrong all the time. Missing limbs, harelipped, blind… And in subtler ways. I’ve worked very closely with a woman who I’m pretty sure is mentally incapable of love or empathy. That’s a dangerous one; my cult has rules about people like that. Eserion’s service didn’t prepare me for this, though. So don’t let me act like I’m some kind of expert here; anything I know is because I set out to research it, and that because I put my foot right in my mouth the first time I met Ingvar.”
“Well,” Joe said, “you did the research, at least.”
“Heh.” Darling shook his head. “You’ve already done better than I did, with regard to the way you treat him.”
“Treating people with basic respect is so easy, I can’t for the life a’ me figure why so many people seem to have such trouble with it. Having done this reading,” said the Kid more hesitantly, “would you mind…”
“Sharing?” Darling glanced at him, then nodded, smiling ruefully. “Well, as I said, there’s no Eserite doctrine about this. We just let people alone, to do and be whatever seems best to them.”
“I can see the wisdom in that,” Joe agreed, nodding.
“In other cults, though, there’s specific lore on it,” Darling continued. “The Shaathists, as we’ve recently been reminded, have a doctrinal divide over the matter; whether Ingvar would be treated as a man or woman pretty much depends on what lodge he’s in. The Avenists are split over it, too. There are priestesses of Avei who were born male, but the Silver Legions won’t take anyone not born a woman.”
“What makes the difference?” Joe asked.
Darling shook his head. “It’s a matter the Avenists don’t much care to discuss with outsiders; that was as far as I got in a Nemitite library. Actually, I could probably have garnered more answers from an actual priestess of Avei, but their opinion wasn’t my focus. I learned more of use from the writings of the Izarites and Vidians.”
“I guess I can see how both of those would have opinions on this,” Joe said, nodding slowly.
“I dunno how much you know of Izarite doctrine; they have pretty firm ideas about masculinity and femininity. That’s a big part of why Avenists are always mad at them. Izara’s faith is a very forgiving one, though; they’ll accept people by whatever identity they choose to express. It’s even more interesting in the cult of Vidius. They actually have a whole doctrine about this; people like Ingvar are considered twin spirits, and revered as being touched by the god of duality. To the point that some have tried to fake the condition to advance in the cult.”
“Tried to?” Joe asked, raising his eyebrows. “How, exactly, would you catch someone at that?”
Darling grinned into the fire. “A deity is the ultimate fact-checker. Below a certain point you can get away with a lot, but if you start rising in a cult’s ranks, sooner or later the god is going to notice you.” He paused, frowning. “I actually wonder what that says about Avei and… Well, that’s a whole other matter and I shouldn’t even have brought it up.” He shook himself slightly. “This day’s work has really rocked me off my keel.”
“I can relate,” Joe said fervently, turning to stare at the grouse as they dripped sizzling fat into the flames. “I… Well. Much as I’m lookin’ forward to those bein’ done…”
“Yes?” Darling prompted after he trailed off, turning to regard him with a raised eyebrow.
Joe grimaced. “I’ve got this powerful hankering for rare venison, and right now I find that very disturbing.”