The next day, after a blessedly rock-free sleep, Tal and Aira arrived in a part of the forest, unlike anything they’d seen previously. The trees were just as thick around them, but the ground they walked on was somehow tamer. Aira found herself stumbling over roots and rocks less. In fact, she realized, she didn’t see any on the path. And, moreover, the ground had become a path in truth. Perhaps even a road. As they continued, large paving stones dotted the path until finally, they were all Tal and Aira were walking on.
The smells in the air changed. Where before, Aira could smell the leaves of the trees and small animals. Now she smelled something musty and slightly burnt. Like the smell of cookfires and fur. She glanced at Tal and noticed a slight smile on his face. He seemed to feel her eyes on him because he looked over her and nodded.
“Good guess,” he said, “I do believe we are here. Look in the trees on either side of us. Do you see them?”
Aira felt her heart flutter, and her stomach jump as she looked. There, in the shadow of the trees, were figures carrying crossbows and spears. Some even had purple and teal glowing lights around their hands, obviously readying Nightforce to use against Tal and Aira should they prove hostile. Aira gulped and tightened the grip on her crossbow but resisted the urge to summon her Nightforce to her hands. She would not want to be the reason these figures attacked, though she would be prepared. Glancing over at Tal, she was surprised to see his smile fading and his eyes narrowing.
“What’s wrong?” she whispered, betting that he would be able to hear her. He was part werewolf after all.
He shook his head at her and motioned her to stay with him. Then he eased the sword in its scabbard, his stance becoming more guarded and somehow more athletic. Did he think they would attack?
Suddenly, a tall man appeared next to them and began walking alongside Tal. “Greetings, travelers. What brings you here?”
Tal flicked his green-black eyes down at the man, taking in the long dagger held ready in one hand and the purple glow of Nightforce cloaking the other. “I was summoned by the Alpha. I have traveled from Lartnek to meet with your leader.”
“Hmm.” the man sighed, tucking a strand of black hair behind his pointed ear, “I don’t suppose you have the summons on you? To verify that you are who you say you are?”
“I can share the memory of when we received the summons, but no. I do not have a physical copy.” Tal smelled disgruntled.
“Then I must insist you wait here while I bring the news of your arrival to our Alpha. We have had some trouble with outsiders recently. I would not wish to harm you if you are speaking the truth. Could I learn your names? So that I can bring them to the Alpha?”
“I am Tal from Lartnek. This is Aira. She is a fellow werewolf and has come at my behest to help me on this journey.”
The werewolf nodded and gestured to a small clearing ahead full of moss-covered stumps. “Please, take your ease. I will return promptly.”
Tal groaned as he lowered himself onto one of the stumps, slamming his sword back into its sheath. Aira suppressed a smile, and she sat too, setting her crossbow on her lap and raising an eyebrow at Tal.
“Not quite the reception you were expecting?”
“No. I expected our missive had reached the Wolves far before we got here. We did walk most of the way. I hope it wasn’t intercepted.”
“Is there some group that wouldn’t want you to come?”
“Not that I’m aware. Can’t be too careful, though. And besides, if someone did intercept the messenger… well, who knows if they left him alive.”
Aira looked down. She hadn’t thought of that. The past few days, she had been so wrapped up in her own survival, she really didn’t consider the survival of others. Before this week, she hadn’t really thought about needing to stay alive at all. That was a given. But now, on the run and this diplomatic mission, she was embroiled in more complicated situations than any other time in her entire life.
The leaves rustled behind her, and she whirled, bringing her crossbow up. How she had gotten to her feet, she could not remember, but now she was up and face to face with a young werewolf, wrapped in soft brown robes tied with a green sash.
“Aira. Settle.” Tal said gruffly, “I’m sorry, youngling.”
She shot Tal a glare, “What is he doing creeping around us?”
The werewolf bowed deeply, pressing his palms into his thighs, “I’m sorry if I have offended you, Warrior. I was curious about the visitors and came to see. I thought I might help with a tour if you are admitted.”
His speech was very formal, and he kept his eyes averted, even after he rose. Aira frowned and looked at Tal, but he did not seem put off. In fact, he did not make direct eye contact with the boy either.
“Could we know your name? My name is Tal, and this is my traveling companion, Aira. She is a werewolf like yourself.”
“I am J’ander. I am pleased to make your acquaintance. Are you not a werewolf, Warrior Tal? You smell like one, but then again not.”
Tal smiled, “Only half. My mother was a werewolf. My father was a Draconian.”
“That would explain it. How long have you known Warrior Tal, Warrior Aira?” J’ander asked, turning back to Aira.
“A few days, now, I suppose.” she sat back down, crossing one leg over the other, ‘J’ander, why do you keep calling Tal and me, Warrior?”
He blinked, looking between them, “You carry weapons and you wear trousers. If the weapons didn’t mark you Warrior, your dress does. Is this not your way?”
“My trousers mark me as a warrior?” she looked at Tal, “No. No, in my city only men wear trousers and women usually wear dresses.”
“Are all of your men warriors? That seems a waste. Not all men are strong enough to fight and protect the Pack. Why would they all need trouser?” J’ander shook his head. “I do not understand. If a woman wants to protect the Pack, why should she have to wear a dress?”
Thankfully the werewolf that had escorted them to the clearing returned just as she opened her mouth to try and answer J’ander. She really did not know how to explain to this youngling that in Nefti, women wore dresses and men trousers regardless of their occupation. It wasn’t job-related.
“Tal of Lartnek and Aira. The Alpha will see you now. J’ander, since you are here, please lead our guests to the Alpha’s tent. Then find yourself back at your chores. Your mothers will not be pleased to see you neglecting your duties.”
“Yes, Thane,” J’ander bowed again, “Please follow me. I will take you to the Alpha.”