Name: Kaliska Vargrin, also known as Feather
Build: Muscularly slender
General appearance: A round, sometimes luminous face; large, wide eyes that are typical of her homeland, but their golden orange shade marks her as wolfkin; a delicate nose, upswept and lightly spattered with freckles; full, bow-shaped red lips; long black hair that falls nearly to her kness, often worn tied back in two or more braids and adorned with a variety of feathers and bells (if the occasion permits it); pale skinned, but is often tan because of the amount of time she spends outdoors; rarely wears dresses or skirts, preferring jerkins and breeches of soft leather or dark woolens and her leather boots (when she is forced to wear shoes).
Weapons: katana and wakizashi; short bow; hands and feet; teeth and nails. The latter of teeth and nails are her currently used ones; the others have had past use and will be used again at a later time.
Father: Altin Vargrin, retired soldier in the Arafellin army, 62, Jakanda
Mother: Peninah Vargrin, potter, 60, Jakanda
Brothers: Karsen Vargrin, soldier, 43, married to Estalyn Lourel (1 boy, 2 girls); Jakanda
Damsin Vargrin, farmer, 40, married to Cinthia Jerrod (3 boys); Highpoint
Olwyn Vargrin, soldier, 38 (unmarried), Shol Arbela
Idaerd Vargrin, blacksmith, 34, married to Niriel Serafain (2 boys, 2 girls), Jakan.
The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again. In one Age, called the Third Age by some, an Age yet to come, an Age long past, a wind rose above the Spine of the World. The wind was not the beginning. There are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time. But it was a beginning.
Westward the wind blew, down through the Niamh Passes, carrying with it the cool promise of the long winter to come. It played in the streets of Fal Moran, reminding the city's inhabitants that autumn had arrived. It chilled the men who labored to put up storm shutters against the coming snows and encouraged the women to finish mending the cloaks that they had put off over the summer. The children frolicked, knowing that soon another frigid winter would have them bound indoors. Soldiers practicing their forms and formations thanked the Creator for the wind, which carried away the sweat on their brows as they prayed for one more day of peace.
Still the wind did not pause in its travels, blowing through Fal Sion, then across the border into the Arafellin city of Highpoint. As it rushed across the dreary land that separated Highpoint from Jakanda, it blew through a sparse thicket of trees that lay between two sheep farms. It swirled the multicolored leaves that were strewn on the ground as it also narrowed a pair of golden eyes against it. The owner of those eyes, a hulking grey wolf known as Talon, ignored everything else carried in the wind and concentrated on one thing he felt in the air. It was not a scent per se, more like a feeling that beckoned from the distant past as well as the far-flung future. His ears pricked up as voices and chimes now lilted upon the wind as it rushed past. He ran back farther into the trees, wanting to wait and see if he had felt that tickle correctly.
No sooner had he disappeared into the thicket than a pair of humans crested the horizon. Although one stood nearly head and shoulders above the other, the resemblance between them was unmistakable. The taller was male, with his long black hair tied back into twin braids that hung down past his wide shoulders. Those braids were trimmed with tiny silver bells that matched the thin threads of silver in his hair. He moved with the grace of a fighter, the matching sword hilts that peeked up behind his back looking as natural on him as his modest clothing. The smaller was female, with a pair of dark eyes that dominated her small face. She was smiling up at her companion with a look that spoke of admiration and love. Her hair was also tied back into a pair of braids, but the silvery bells looked more striking in its black, nearly blue, sheen.
"I'm so glad you came, Kars," she said. "Ever since you moved to Shol Arbela, we hardly get to see you."
The man, Karsen, grinned. "Well, then you'll be happy to hear that we're moving back to Jakanda, won't you?"
Her mouth popped open in surprise, then she slapped his arm playfully. "And you waited until now to tell me?!? That's great news!"
He nodded. "Well, with Father getting ready to retire, and Mother as well, it seemed like a good idea. Besides, no doubt you'll be leaving home soon, too, won't you Kali?"
With a groan, she rolled her eyes. "Don't you start in on me, too," she complained. "I don't care that I'm almost twenty-two and there is nary a suitor in sight. I don't want to get married right now, Kars. Is that so wrong?"
"At your age, Mam had been married three years and -"
"And already had you and Damsin," she finished for him with a sigh. "I'm aware of that, thank you very much. I just...." Kaliska trailed off, eyes peering in the distance. "I'm not ready for domestic life yet. There's so much out there that I haven't seen yet, and if I get married, when will I ever get that chance?"
Karsen studied his sister for a long moment, his dark eyes serious. He knew in his heart how unhappy she would be, settling down and raising a family. It had never seemed a part of her makeup to nurture. That wasn't to say she wasn't still kind-hearted; Light knew she helped take care of Idaerd's children, and she'd never met an animal she couldn't befriend, but this was different. Maybe Estalyn's right, he thought. Maybe we spoiled her too much growing up. But he couldn't image how they might've treated her any differently. Even as an infant, Kaliska had had a mind of her own, and as the baby and only girl of the family, they had all let her be her own person.
"They say that Illian has called the Hunt," she said, startling him out of his reverie. "Can you image the adventure, the excitement of it all?" Her eyes glittered vibrantly. "Light, I'd love to join them."
Swallowing tightly, Karsen asked, "You're not planning to, are you?"
With a grunt and an eyeroll, Kaliska snapped, "No, and don't you go telling Mam I'm thinking about it either. She won't let me out of the house if she's worried I'll run away."
Her brother nodded and exhaled in silent relief. Although he and his brothers had taken turns showing her how to defend herself with a sword and with her hands, he knew bloody well that she wasn't ready for a true fight. The thought of her spitted across some cutpurse's blade made him shudder. "I'll not say anything." Wanting to deflect her attention away from Illian, he added, "Did you know that Cindi's brother will be here today?" When she gave him an uninterested shrug, he added, "He's also bringing his Aes Sedai."
Whirling at him, Kaliska studied his face to see if he was pulling her leg. "An Aes Sedai? Really?" Grinning, she bounced with excitement. "I wonder if she has any news about Li." She and her cousin Lialyn had spent many summers together in their youth, a pair of tomboys who roughhoused worse than their brothers. They had drifted apart as they'd gotten older. Li's father, a captain in the army, had fallen with the citadel of Shol Jin, allowing the citizens of the city to escape before the Blight's hordes had destroyed it. Only a year after that, Li had gone off to the White Tower, and Kaliska had remained in Jakanda, content to practice with her swords and bow.
"I don't know, but we should probably be getting back soon." Kaliska nodded in agreement, but continued to walk through the trees. She stepped on a branch, and the sudden snapping noise frightened a pheasant. With a laugh, she watched it dart away. A long tail feather drifted back down and she jumped up to grab it ahead of her brother. "Aha! MY good luck for the next five years, not yours!" He did not protest, but instead tried grabbing the feather away from her. She ran and dodged his attempts, and finally he got his arms around her waist and began to tickle her. With a helpless scream of laughter, she squirmed but refused to give up her prize.
A low rumble caught their ears at the same time, and they froze. From out of the undergrowth, an enormous grey wolf walked forward on stiff legs as he growled. Karsen immediately let go of Kaliska and pushed her behind him. As he made to draw his swords, her hand on his forearm stopped him. Slowly, Kaliska walked around him, shaking off his hand as he tried to pull her back. The wolf's golden eyes fixed on her dark ones, and as she approached his hackles smoothed out and the growling ceased. With calm movements, she knelt beside the creature, finding her eyes now level with his. He sniffed at her hair, backed away, and gave her what almost seemed to be a grin. Then he turned and ran back off.
"Are you out of your bloody mind?" Karsen shouted as she rose. When she didn't respond, he shook her by the shoulders. "Kaliska, look at me!" She did, but her mind was obviously somewhere else. "Wolves may be our allies against Shadowspawn, but they're still wild animals and not pets. Do you understand me?" She could only shake her head in agreement, as if she'd somehow lost her voice. "Right, well...let's get back to Damsen's. It's almost lunchtime, and everyone should be there already."
Kaliska took one final look back in the direction where the wolf had gone, then looked down at the pheasant feather in her hand. She couldn't shake the feeling that he had somehow marked her with that quill just as she couldn't be rid the image of the wolf as a pup pulling a raven down out of the air, his teeth gnashing off one of the bird's feet while the other clawed at his muzzle.
Back at her brother Damsin's farm, something of a family reunion was going on. All four of her brothers and their families were there, as well as her parents. True to Karsen's word, her sister-in-law had a brother there, too, who was indeed a Warder. Normally, she would've pestered him and his Aes Sedai mercilessly with questions, but today her mind was preoccupied with what had happened. Honestly, she couldn't explain it to herself, let alone to Karsen. She had just known that the wolf would not harm them. And still, even hours later, she felt as if she could still sense him watching her. She wished she understood what that meant.
For the next three days while she and her parents stayed with Damsin and Cinthia, Kaliska went back out away from the farm when she could. She never spied that wolf, nor any other, while she went, but she always felt as if she could sense them out there, just beyond the edge of her sight and her hearing. By the time they left to go back to their home in Jakanda, Kaliska had mostly convinced herself that the connection she'd briefly felt was nothing but her imagination.
Autumn lasted for only three weeks once Kaliska returned to Jakanda, and the subsequent winter months were long, hard, and difficult. While the bitter winds dipped the temperature to dangerous levels, she found herself harried and trapped. Even on days when flesh wouldn't freeze just by going outdoors, Kaliska had little interest in visiting her friends or family. Nothing about the walled city appealed to her anymore, and a deep restlessness rippled through her. She bristled against everyone, and after only four weeks into winter she kept herself mostly cloistered up in her room.
One evening, her parents sat around the fire puzzling over the abrupt change in their daughter while she hid up in her quarters. "I just don't understand it, Altin. She wasn't even this moody when she first started her flows. What happened?"
Altin Vargrin shrugged and put his arm around his wife. "Penny, you know how much I love her, but she won't talk to me anymore than she will you, or even Karsen. You saw how she snapped at him last week when he came over for her nameday."
Peninah nodded, her dark eyes welling with tears for a moment. "That rice dish has been her favorite since she was six, and suddenly it smelled rotten? And when did she take such a liking to venison? Light, you remember what a time we had getting her to eat any meat a few years ago. And now it's like she never wants to see another turnip or carrot. I just don't understand."
"I didn't mean to hurt your feelings Mama," a soft voice said from above their couch. They looked up the stairs and spied Kaliska huddled against the banister. Her eyes were sad as she gazed at them from behind her barricade. When Penny and Altin slid apart from each other, she slinked slowly down the steps, her eyes downcast. Kali sat between her parents as she had as a child, and when her mother enfolded her with her arms, she began to cry. Penny rocked her back and forth while Altin stroked her hair.
When the tears finally tapered off, she sat up and stared into the fire, damp cheeks glistening in the soft light. "I wish I knew what was wrong, Mama. I can't even sleep."
"Bad dreams?" her mother asked, knowing that she'd heard the girl whimpering and growling alternately in her fitful slumber.
"Sometimes." She sniffled, then looked up at her mother's face. "But it's not just the dreams. It's the noise. It's like...like I can hear a mouse running across the frosted grass in the city square, but to me it's as loud as a horse clapping across the cobblestones. My head hurts so bad all the time, between the sound and the smells, and I can't relax. I just feel so miserable, and I'm sorry I've been taking it out on you."
Altin took her hand as he leaned over to kiss her forehead. "Baby, it's okay. Why didn't you tell us before though?"
She shrugged. "I don't know. I guess I thought it would go away on its own. But it's only getting worse instead of better. And I thought maybe....Oh, I don't know. I guess I worried you wouldn't believe me. That you'd think I was trying to trick you or something."
"We don't think that, honey," her mother said with a smile. "But will you do us a favor?" Kaliska nodded. "Do you mind if we have someone look at you? Cindi's brother and his Aes Sedai are just over in Highpoint, and I think it might be a good idea to have her check you out."
Kaliska's eyes narrowed for a moment, understanding what they thought. Perhaps she, too, could channel. Li had shown some odd symptoms before she'd been dragged off to the White Tower, ones that involved strange fevers and headaches and dizziness. Even as she nodded her assent, she knew full well that she would run away rather than be locked away in Tar Valon for Light knew how many years to come.
In the end, it may little difference. Venya Sedai barely had to step into the room with her to determine she wasn't a channeler. "Don't you need to do some tests or something?" Kaliska asked with a frown. Not that she had wanted to be an Aes Sedai herself, not by a long shot, but if it would cure these cursed pains in her head and rid her of dreams that made no sense, it might be worth it.
"Quite certain," the sister had replied with a mysterious smile that was part comforting and part concerned. "Now, if you will sit still for a moment, I can check to see if anything else might be wrong." Kaliska swallowed as Venya's hands rested lightly on her head. A chill as deep as any Danu wind she had felt slid through her veins as she gasped. But the Aes Sedai stepped away with a pensive frown on her face. "I can find nothing wrong with you, Kaliska. I'm sorry, but whatever the problem is, it doesn't appear to be physical."
"Are you telling me that it's all in my bloody head?" the girl snarled.
"Hardly," replied Venya Sedai coolly, putting up a restraining hand to stay the sharp tongue of her Warder. "Simply that you are not ill. Whatever may be wrong with you is something that my talents cannot find, let alone cure." She sighed. "I'm sorry, child. I don't know what to tell you."
Though the pair shut the door to her room behind them as they left, Kaliska managed to catch much of what they whispered between them as they walked back down the stairs. "...can't know for sure, Cris. I don't...cause for alarm."
"But we...with Damon, at least. He could....and one or two others."
Kaliska strained to hear more, but they had moved too far away. Still, she pressed her forehead against her oaken door and wondered what it was they were not saying. Who, for one, was Damon? Another channeler? A healer, perhaps? Or did he also have this mystery affliction? She wished she knew. But she had no interest in running off to Tar Valon to find out. Instead, she crawled into her bed and curled up under its blankets, her dark eyes wide and unblinking as she stared into her fireplace.
Many short days and long, sleepless nights were spent in a similar manner. Even when she managed to sleep, Kaliska awoke the next day feeling exhausted and terrified. Her dreams felt watched, as though someone was standing behind her, causing her to jerk herself awake only to find her room empty. Those were the better dreams. In the others, she was out hunting with her brothers, only none of them looked like her brothers though she couldn't say why once she awoke. And when they caught whatever they hunted - sometimes deer, sometimes boar, sometimes even Trollocs - they attacked not with bows or blades but with hands and teeth. The overwhelming taste of blood would wake her with a scream, unable to rid herself of the memory of the coppery residue left in her mouth. Often she found bruises and scratches on her body after these dreams, though she kept them to herself as much as she could so her parents wouldn't worry more than they already did.
The morning she came to with a yellow-green welt along the left side of her face, though, she could no longer hide. No matter how much she reassured her father or how insistent she was to her mother that she'd fallen out of bed and smacked her face on the bedside table, they could not be dissuaded. Whatever was wrong could not be helped here, nor could it be cured in Tar Valon if Venya Sedai was to be understood. The next break in the winter cold that came, Kaliska found herself packed off to her brother Damsin's farm again.
The moment she was out of the Jakanda citadel, Kaliska immediately felt more relaxed. The rumble of humanity drifted away into nothingness, and the only sounds to be heard were the wind and the melting snows dripping off of the trees. The only thing she found unusual was the sudden nervousness displayed by Traveller. Normally the horse maintained a steady demeanor, but on this day he pranced nervously and no amount of calm words or gentle pats could ease his mind. In fact, they seemed to make him more tense. His reactions made Kaliska inexplicably sad. She had always had such a good rapport with animals, with Traveller especially, and she'd hoped that the ride would ease her own mind. Instead, she was grateful to arrive at Damsin's house when she did, unable to stop wondering if it was what had gone wrong with her that had made the steed so edgy.
Days after her arrival, winter fell across Arafel again, trapping her once again inside. At least here, she could joke around with her nephews and help Cinthia out around the house. With the sheep securely inside their fences, Damsin spent a lot of time with Kali, just talking and trying to make her comfortable so the severity of her problems would not return. And at first, they did not, and Kaliska enjoyed the time with her brother. Of all of her siblings, Damsin had been the one she was least close to, and spending so much time with him opened up their relationship. For once, he wasn't talking to her like she should still be tied to their mother's apron strings, and she found that she respected his choice to farm rather than soldier more than she'd ever expected to.
But as the deep freeze deepened outside, it began to take a toll on the wildlife. Damsin had to move his sheep into several barns as predators began to scour the countryside for food. Kaliska had tried to help at first, but the sheep liked her even less than Traveller now did, often scattering the moment they caught her scent. Instead, she helped Cindi keep the fires burning and the soup and tea ready for whenever Damsin or the boys would have to venture outdoors.
She had gotten out of bed early one morning, awoken by a particularly odd dream, and frowned. Something to do with a feather, but what? She stared out the window, into the darkness that laid heavily across the land, thinking. Then, with a puzzled laugh, she slid out of bed and into her heavy slippers. She slid on her woolen robe and then hurried across to the room's wardrobe. It was the same room in which she'd stayed while visiting here for Cindi's birthday gathering, and she felt certain she had left what she'd been looking for would still be in there. After rummaging around the drawers, which held both her own clothes and a variety of quilts, her fingers finally brushed against the gentle whisper of it. She lifted the pheasant feather out and examined it, remembering how she'd declared to Karsin that she'd have her five years of good luck. "Some luck," she said to the quill, her soprano voice quivering in frustration.
With a lingering look at the bed, Kaliska sighed, knowing she wouldn't be able to sleep anymore. She rose and tucked the feather into the pocket of her robe. Quietly, so as not to disturb anyone else in the house, she shuffled out of the room where she was staying and into the kitchen. Right then, she wanted a nice pot of tea. The fireplace still had hot embers, and she quickly built up the flames and set a kettle to boil over it. As she stared absently into the fire, she traced her finger along the edge of the feather. Why, after several months, had she dreamt of it?
A howl went up outside, making her jump with a little screech. Light, that had sounded close! A second voice answered, this one practically right outside their door. Soon a chorus of cries echoed around the house. Kaliska slid down into a chair, her dark eyes wide as she thought she could see them all, in the snow, circling in around the barn. The bleating of the sheep sped up her pulse as their scent, warm and sweet, filled her nostrils. They were panicked and hitting at the door of the barn. Again a howl went up among the pack, and the answers sent the sheep over the edge. The door broke open and out they stampeded, into the shivering darkness, towards the waiting jaws of the wolves.
The leader of the pack, a grizzled veteran, picked out their prey, and with swift efficiency, the pack ran the female away from the rest of the sheep. Oh, they could kill it at any time - such a creature was built only to be food, not for its own defense - but he wanted it farther away from the farm, where the two-legs inside might force them to abandon their catch. When he was satisfied they were far enough away, he snapped at the hind legs of the sheep, breaking its right one. That was the signal, and the pack descended upon it. Even with the scent of the humans now off in the distance, he was certain they would not trouble themselves with this lone creature. And he was right.
Once he had eaten his fill, he trotted away as the remainder of the wolves fell on the sheep. Closer he ventured to the farm and, more importantly, the house, though he did not know the words for these places. From behind the glass he saw a pale face peering back out at him, her hands pressed against the window. In one hand, she clutched a feather. He chuffed in pleasure - this had been the right place. He stared back at her and, with his thoughts, said, When the thaws come, we will return. Then he turned and ran back into the shadowy morning.
Kaliska had no idea how long she stood, staring out of the window, but she finally became aware of her brother shaking her. She blinked, then looked up into his worried face. "Are they gone?" she asked, already knowing the answer.
"Yes." His eyes slid over to meet his wife's, and she nodded. "Kali, what happened?"
She licked her lips, ignoring the faint coppery taste that seemed to coat them, and said, "I woke up and came down to make some tea. While I was waiting for the water to boil, these wolves started howling outside. Then I...." The words froze in her throat as she realized she'd be about to say, I saw the sheep brake through the door and we chased them down like we were meant to. The room swam for a moment and she nearly fell, but Damsin grabbed her and eased her down into a chair. "The sheep - did you get them back inside?"
Her brother was slow to answer. "All but three of them. One I know the wolves got - their tracks were everywhere. I don't know about the other two, but no doubt they'll soon be breakfast for something out there." He hesitated, then said, "Do you remember howling, Kal?"
Her eyes flew open wide as she stared up at him. "Me?" He nodded, and she paled. "No, I don't remember that. I...I really howled?"
"It was what woke us," Cinthia said gently, kneeling down beside her chair. "We worried that perhaps one of them had gotten into the house. But when we came downstairs, we found you at the window, howling along with the wolves."
A deep shudder wracked her body for a moment, and Cinthia held her. What is happening to me? Light preserve me, and Creator have mercy on me, she prayed silently. But she did not expect to be answered. All too well she remembered seeing what they saw, what he saw, the one called Talon. Had this been her problem all along? That she was becoming an animal? "I think I'd like to go back to bed," she whispered, and Cindi helped back to her room. Kaliska climbed back into the bed, shivering uncontrollably and clutching her pheasant feather in her hand. Eventually she fell asleep, only to dream of running across the endless snows, playing with the members of her pack, drinking in their scents as they marked each other.
It was well after midday when she awoke. For a moment, she could not remember where she was. When the sleepy fog cleared from her mind, she frowned at the mundane, human smells that clung to her room. She threw off her covers and went to brush out her tangled hair. She bent over, letting her hair fall down to the floor as she worked the brush though it. Once she had it cleared, she tossed it her head as she straightened, encouraging the loosened strands to fall out. Then she turned to the mirror to try and pair it down the middle and nearly screamed at her reflection. She blinked once, twice, then rubbed her eyes. But no matter how much she rubbed them nor how close she got to the mirror did the change go away.
Her eyes were no longer their normal dark brown. Instead, they had turned a bright burnished orange. They were the eyes of a wolf.
She refused to come back out of her room after that, no matter how hard anyone tried coaxing her. She would only open the door far enough to allow food trays to be handed in or out. Where she had loved soups and breads before, now she could stomach only the meat, and then only if it had not been overly cooked. She did not trust herself to be around anyone, especially her nephews, the youngest of whom was only eight. No, she would sit in solitude, waiting for spring to come and for Talon to call.
Two months later, she got her wish. She left letters in the room for her parents and for each of her brothers, begging them not to worry after her safety and telling them that she was no longer safe to be around. As she did not understand what had happened to her, she could not explain to them either. She could only hope that they wouldn't try and follow after her. With only the simple clothes on her back, a cloak, a hunting knife and the pheasant feather tied into the intricate belled braid she'd woven, she slipped out through her window one early Aine morning, looking back only once to say goodbye to her old life.
Talon greeted her at the copse where they had first met. With him were the other five members of his pack. Kaliska looked at them curiously, certain there had been at least three more when they had attacked the farm that winter. The Twisted Ones were out hunting your kind when we found them, Talon told her with sadness. Thorn, Stalker and Starshine fell, but not before we scattered them.
Uncertain of what to do next, Kaliska knelt down on the damp ground. Talon approached her and again sniffed her hair. As he did, she pressed her face against his shoulder and breathed in his scent, musky and strong. He stepped back and nuzzled her face. With a laugh, she patted the side of his head, and the other wolves approached. The ritual was repeated five more times as she met Stormcloud, Talon's mate; Journey and Whiskers, the pack's other two males; and Snow, the other female. Open your mind to us, as freely as you can. It will make it easier on you.
Kaliska nodded, unsure of how to follow his advice. She closed her eyes where she knelt, and she pictured herself within a glass cage, unable to communicate with the others as she wished. Then came the scent of her companions, nearly overwhelming in its comfort, as the walls around her melted away. She could sense the thoughts of the others now, not just Talon's, and found them to be as curious over her as she was. How? she asked, knowing they understood her question.
Stormcloud surprised her by answering. It is said that men and wolves have an old connection, one nearly as old as Time itself. Kaliska got a brief image of a multi-hued serpent writhing in the sky, its teeth sunken into its own tail, when Time was mentioned. Then, Kaliska saw images of men and wolves, side by side, chasing down deer and bear and huge woolly creatures the likes of which she'd never seen. There was a bond, an understanding, between the two, which carried down through centuries of mutual respect and sharing. Until a shadow fell onto the land, and man put up a wooden fence to keep the wolves out. Slowly, the bond between the two dissolved, until now only the rarest of men found the connection again with the wolves.
She opened her eyes and found the wolves huddled closely around her. Stormcloud sat on her haunches before Kaliska, her odd blue eyes meeting the young woman's orange ones. Though she understood now a little more of what had happened to her, Kaliska still struggled to put into words what she wanted to ask. Stormcloud grunted and one of the other wolves - Journey, she thought - tugged on her braid with her teeth. Her eyes watered and she started to speak, then realized they already knew what she had meant to ask as an image of her crystalized in her mind. In it, she was half-woman, and half-wolf. The two halves melted into one image, the one they had of her now. Worry less, our young Feather, and soon you will understand all.
Slowly, forcing herself to stop picking away at the mystery of it all with her mind, Kaliska nodded and she sensed their approval, both in their scents and their minds. She stood, brushing off her knees absently and looking around. We should leave before my old pack comes searching for me.
Talon didn't answer, simply ran off to the south, the pack following behind him. Not wanting to be left behind, Kaliska ran along behind them. They ran much of the day, though they paused often enough for their two-legged member who had little stamina for such things. As they ran, each wolf caressed her mind with theirs, teaching her of themselves and their history. Kaliska, whom they thought of as Feather, marveled at how Time for them did not mean the same thing as it had to her. They saw far into the past, yes, but also far into the future, as well. More than anyone or anything she'd met before, the wolves grasped the nature of the Wheel that was Time, a collective memory spanning across the Ages and the turns of the Wheel.
She was also amazed at how much empty land stretched between clusters of human civilization. The wolves had little interest in spending time in human-infested land, and the longer she spent with the pack, the more Kaliska agreed with them. At first she had tried speaking to a farmer or two on their trip south, wanting to trade some deer skins she had salvaged for different foods (she still had a craving for sweets, especially pies), but their rude behavior to her had taught her to stay away. She could smell their distaste at seeing such a 'wild woman' out roaming their lands and their distrust that she was a thief made her sad. Eventually she did steal some sewing supplies from a camped caravan near the road that went to Tar Valon; if she could not trade the hides she would simply use them herself.
The pack did not venture too far south that spring or summer, letting its newest member acclimatize herself to their life. As her ability to speak with them grew, she found her ability to speak to people waning. The language of words, she found, seemed woefully inadequate - too many chances to be misunderstood or ignored. Palaver of the mind, however, was a constant flux of understanding, and the wolves knew her more intimately than any of her brothers ever had. Sometimes she would think of her family, but eventually the guilt and longing such thoughts brought eased as she grew into her new family. Stormcloud in particular had a strong maternal instinct towards her, and when rogue wolves would come near their pack, it was she who always led the charge to protect their two-legged member. But most strange wolves that were met regarded the young Feather with suspicious curiosity, accepting her in their presence because Talon did, and knowing that she could sense them as easily as they could her.
Once the heat of summer began to fade, the pack began a long trek south, knowing that Feather would not be able to survive a harsh northern winter outdoors, no matter how well supplied she was with leather and furs. They came down out of the Black Hills into the open lands of the Caralain Grass. By now, Feather had grown used to the long-distance runs. Before she had left her home she'd been a soft young woman. Now, however, she was hard and lean, a bundle of muscle that enjoyed the constant movement. By the time the leaves began to fall from their trees, Feather no longer worried about the parents and brothers she had left behind, thinking only of the coming winter months and how she could best help her pack eat. They had gotten further south without detection than Talon had expected; humans this far south were much less tolerant of their kind than those in the north. But the south was also isolated, keeping the pack from hearing of danger before they could smell it for themselves. And so it was that they did not sense the trap until it was sprung.
The Braem Wood seemed at first as though it might meet most of their needs. Game was plentiful, and would remain so even through the coldest of the lean months. No large predators such as bears or cougars hunted here. Talon led them deep into the heart of the Wood, unaware that a more dangerous predator stalked them, widely enough around them to encircle their group without them catching their scent.
The attack, when it hit, came fast and hard. A late season thunderstorm roared in the night, the lightening flashes blinding in their intensity. When the smell of smoke came to the pack, they all assumed some of the trees had been struck and ran south to get away from it. The smoke covered up, however, the odor of the three men who had lit the fires, and the booming thunder masked their congratulatory words as the smoggy wind hurried their prey into the direction of their comrades.
Talon urged them to keep running, taking the lead while Journey and Snow kept watch at the rear. Feather ran in the middle of the pack, her wide eyes glittering in fear. While she had been accepted by the pack as one of their own, she did not feel secure enough in her position with them that they would not leave her behind if it came to their survival. Her twin braids trailed out behind her as she ran, the spattering rain making her footing unsteadier than her companions' in the mud. A faint twang caught her ears, but before she could register it as a bowstring something punched her in the back of shoulder. With a cry she fell forward, unable to catch herself before her head hit the ground. She heard growling and yelps of pain and humans shouting before the fiery pain in her back forced consciousness to flee.
When she awoke, Feather found it was dark and herself locked in a small cage. She could not stand up within it, only raise up to her knees before her head brushed its top. Around the cage were a motley troop of humans that paid her little attention as she tried talking to them. Her eyes searched the campsite, wondering how long she had been out and how far they had carried her like this when she spied the pelts. Four pelts laid across a rack near the bonfire, stretched as they dried. Tears spilled out of Feather's eyes as she stared at them, knowing that Talon, Stormcloud, Snow and Whiskers had gone from this world. Journey's jet black fur was nowhere to be seen. Unable to help herself, she tilted her head back and howled, a siren's call of pure rage and sadness. She threw herself against the bars that held her, not caring what these two-legs might do to her if she got free. All she wanted was the chance to rip their throats out.
A prick stabbed the bottom of her foot, and she whipped her head around to see a woman withdrawing a tiny blade from the cage. Feather tried to claw at her, but dizziness overtook her. Before the darkness called her away for the longest of times, she heard the woman say, "That should do it. The hallucinations she'll have should push her over the edge. When she wakes back up, she won't even remember she was ever human."
Unfortunately for the young woman once known as Kaliska, this proclamation turned out to be true. Wracked with nightmares beyond anything she'd ever experienced before, the human fled to the deepest recesses of her mind, leaving only Feather, the wolf, in charge. No longer did she think of herself as a woman from Arafel who could somehow communicate with her lupine brethren. Now she pictured only a mottled she-wolf when she thought of self, one that hated humans beyond its own understanding.
And when those humans got careless, she would fight her way free. Light help them when she did.