Back at Wolf Haven, a few days after the hunt, Aleckster sat in the solar with his mother, just the two of them. Lounging in her chair, taking long drags from a pipe made of glass, Gemma puffed out long streams of smoke. The pungent odor reminded Aleckster of a skunk. Perhaps now that he was a man, she might let him try it.
I don’t need her permission anymore, he reminded himself. I can do as I please.
From outside Castle Ironwood the blue, star-crusted twilight augmented by the rose pink light of the red and white moons shone, bathing the solar in its glow. Beyond the walls of the city, or perhaps within, the long whir of howling wolves carried all the way to the castle.
“I wish they’d stop!” Gemma complained. “They keep me up at night.”
Aleckster found no sympathy in her misery, not in this aspect. She might hear them howling from afar, but in his spirit their calls roared with ear-splitting volume.
“They’re hungry,” Aleckster said. “One of them found prey and are calling the others to chase. It’s just like us when we blow a horn in battle to call cavalry into formation.”
“They’re glorified pack dogs,” his mother spat. “Everyone in the province thinks them to be these proud, majestic beasts because they’re the sigil of our House.”
“They stick together,” Aleckster countered. “They look after each other. Father says they’re a symbol of unity.”
“If you revere them so much then why did you bring one home as your trophy?”
Guilt welled up inside Aleckster at the thought. Fixed to a plaque and mounted to the wall, the snarling head of the alpha wolf hung next to countless trophies. Engraved on a small brass plate, an inscription read,
Aleckster Balewyn ~ the Lone Wolf
There it would stay, for generations to come, for all the descendants of House Balewyn to look at and marvel. They would see a symbol of bravery and hunting prowess. Aleckster saw a reminder of murder. He killed his wolf brother for the right to lead, and now the pack was without an alpha.
While holding himself responsible for his actions, a part of him blamed the red moon. Something about its light set his blood boiling hot with rage and animal instinct. No surprise in hindsight as a pattern emerged in all this. Wolf dreams came with the rising of the blue moon, primal instincts with the red. The white moon tamed the fire and quieted the noise of the other two, but stirred up strange emotions. His awareness of all wolves, not just his own pack, extended so far as to encompass the land for miles. During the cycle of the white moon, Aleckster longed for the Forest.
“I want to go visit Oakheart,” he announced.
Gemma smiled at the sentiment, not realizing he dodged having to answer her question.
“I think that’s a splendid idea. We don’t spend nearly enough time with my side of the family. If your father wasn’t so insistent on my being here…”
Aleckster stopped listening. He hated hearing her complain, and anymore, that’s all she did. Your father won’t let me do this. Your father won’t let me do that. He doesn’t care that I’m miserable here, that I miss my brothers and sisters. It’s his fault I don’t know my own nieces and nephews. On and on she went.
Perhaps his mother and father loved each other once, but nowadays they showed nothing but contempt for one another.
They don’t even share a bed anymore.
Gemma slept in her solar most of the time, propped up in her chair or laid out across the couch. After Aleckster was born, the physician said Gemma could bear no more children. Bound and determined to raise a daughter, she surprised everyone with the birth of Jessa, a healthy baby girl. The pregnancy nearly killed Gemma, however. As years went by, the distance between her and her husband widened like a chasm. Their bitterness and resentment towards each other made the whole family unhappy, but they were too focused on their own pain to see what they inflicted on everyone else.
Aleckster endured her company because she was his mother and he loved her. Despite her faults, the woman birthed him and cared for him. She had only ever done her best to give her children whatever they needed to succeed. Still, her negativity felt like the emotional equivalent of poison. The longer he stayed away from her, the better his mood. Too long, and he missed her company. Not long enough, and their words came to conflicts.
Aleckster erupted with anger. It came out like a loud bark. In the distance, the wolves all let out a few short barks before their next series of howls. Bewildered at how his mood affected them, the shock of it made him forget at once about the fight.
“Did I say something wrong?” she demanded.
“All you do is complain,” Aleckster whined. “Let’s talk about something that makes you happy. Something that puts you in a good mood.”
“This puts me in a good mood,” she sneered, holding up the glass pipe with the greenleaf ashes still clinging to the bowl. Bursting into laughter at her own wit, she doubled over, going into a fit. A quicksand pit opened in Aleckster’s heart, forcing him to sink. Defeated, knowing an honest, critical conversation with his mother stood among the unlikeliest of possibilities to ever transpire.
Rather than argue, he kissed her goodnight and went to his bedroom to look out past the city. Dark from his window, save for the dozens of fiery flickers of torchlight, the city of Wolf Haven tried its best to sleep. On his balcony, a powerful telescope stood upright on a long-legged stand. A small piece of thick parchment dangled from a frayed piece of rough-spun twine. Facing towards him, in big, bold letters:
Aleckster grinned at the sentiment. These devices were rare and expensive. He and Charlie shared an immense collection of gadgets from all over the world. The Gnomes of Eterna discovered new uses for glass lenses every day. The trading companies in the Eastlands bought the ones they thought nobility would want, and marked up the price to an outrageous extent.
But when your father is Lord of the Eastlands, your pockets are deep.
Turning the card over on the other side, he saw a short jagged script. Charlie left him a small note of congratulations.
The knobs on the side change the magnification. Move them gently. Don’t try peep in on the whores at the brothels. I already tried. They keep the windows closed. I’m proud of you. You did well, and you deserve this.
Check the wardrobe.
Aleckster plucked the twine free, and positioned himself to look into the peep hole at the end. He wiggled it around at the sky, turning knobs in attempt to see something far away. He saw nothing save for a round gray blur at the end of a dark tunnel. He tried to catch a star in his line of sight, but kept running into the moon. It shone dim, mottled, and pink. Suddenly, he pulled a knob down causing one lens to eject itself and another to fall into its place.
The surface of the red moon appeared rocky and barren. Deep valleys and towering peaks ran in endless waves in all directions. The telescope gave him a view he imagined from very high in the sky, looking down. It gave him vertigo and he stepped away for a second, rubbing his eyes.
Once he figured out what Charlie meant by magnification, he started on the first one in the sequence. With this, he could spy upon the guards walking the ramparts atop the wall. Back and forth they swayed, paced, stood their ground, or marched. Aleckster loved the walls. Wyatt took him one time to shoot a longbow. Much as it hurt Aleckster’s pride to admit, his skinny arms were not strong enough to handle a long bow. Not yet. But with a short bow, he excelled.
“The wardrobe,” he said aloud.
Remembering the note, he turned from his balcony and walked across the room to the oak cabinets. Tugging them open, he gasped when he saw. Half of his shelves had been removed to make room for a suit of leather armor not unlike the one he ruined. He recognized it at once, having seen his brother wear it half a hundred times growing up.
Worn, having seen years of use, it still maintained evidence of fine making. Hanging from the breastplate, Aleckster spied two cards dangling from twine. One attached to the armor, and the other to a necklace. He reached for it first, taking the silver chain off the hanger with care. He let it fall into his hand and reached for the card.
It’s to keep you safe. Love, Jessa.
He eyed the pendant and found himself looking at a wolf head made of silver. In its eyes, two emerald chips. On the back of the pendant, an arcane rune had been engraved. None in House Balewyn possessed magical blood. The Church and the Circle retained only a small presence in the Eastlands. One might find a few temples here and there, and a handful of Sages assigned as postmaster to important cities, but nothing like the Highlands or the Capital.
Despite lacking the gift to perform, the only time Jessa Balewyn consented to study of any kind, she wanted to learn about magic. Her restless wanderlust set her to exploring every square inch of the castle. One day, she climbed the staircases to the northwest tower and found her way into the rookery. Here, she found an old man dressed in dingy blue robes trimmed in frayed silver thread. With a bald, shiny head save for the wiry shocks of gray hair around the sides and back, a massive hooked nose, missing tooth, and rough, whiskery jowls quivering with frustration, a man named Donovan Finch entered her life.
A thousand times he tried to chase her away with scolding and harsh words. Threats to tell her Lord Father about her mischief. Knowing full well Donovan must obey her word as the Lord’s daughter, she decided to make it her personal mission to become his shadow. Asking questions about letters he wrote, ravens he sent and received. Eventually, the two of them became friends, and she, his little helper. He answered all of her questions about magic if he knew the answer, and gave her books to learn herself.
“I wish you wouldn’t let her fill her head with useless nonsense, Terrance!”
Aleckster winced, thinking about his mother’s reaction to it all. One day she threw a spell book Donovan gave Jessa to read into the fire. The poor postmaster was so devastated he cried. He wrote it by hand over the course of decades. Jessa cried too, but not before she came swinging her fists at Gemma, who slapped her in the mouth hard enough to knock her down. Their father had to intervene.
Even now, in the presence of heartfelt gifts from his siblings, Gemma’s toxicity followed Aleckster around like a wafting cloud, impossible to chase away. Growling in frustration under his breath, another outbreak of barks interrupted the night. Fierce, clamorous belts echoed through the trees. It sounded violent. Like a fight.
He shut the noise out, not wanting to deal with the wolves right now. Right now, he wanted to enjoy his gifts.
The arcane rune engraved into the back of the silver wolf pendant bore no likeness Aleckster recognized. He read one of the textbooks called The Rudiments given to the youngest acolytes in the Circle. It was the most boring thing he’d ever read in his life. What more, magic did not live inside his spirit, a gift one is either born with or not. He didn’t see the point investing in knowledge yielding no benefit.
“I don’t know what you mean, or what you do,” Aleckster said, speaking to the rune as if it were animate. “I’ll have to ask Jessa in the morning.”
Sometimes Aleckster spoke aloud to himself to break the monotony of silence. Every now and then, he went off on a tangent and got caught by someone in the castle. They gave him looks of pity and estrangement, writing it off as another one of his odd behaviors.
The chain was long enough that it slipped over his head with ease, dangling down to the middle of his chest. Moving past the necklace, he set his eyes on the armor and plucked up the second card.
I was about your size when I got new ones, so they should fit. You might have to loosen or tighten the straps here and there. It’s good armor. Not as nice as yours, but just as good.
His father gave him a gift too, a few days earlier. During his coronation, when he presented his trophy before the people and hung it on the wall, his father surprised him with a short sword fresh from the forge. Aleckster removed the blade from its wooden scabbard wrapped in green leather, capped in silver. Disappointed at its length, he laid it flat across his forearm for reference. It protruded a few inches longer than his forearm from elbow to fingertips.
Aleckster wanted to give it a name, but his father laughed. Fond of history, especially war stories, the two of them loved to read about heroes of old and their deeds done in valor with legendary swords. Many Houses in the Eastlands possessed swords forged of Elven steel, but not House Balewyn. A century ago, Lord Morris Balewyn fell ill. Emboldened by his alleged inability to perform his duties, bandits ran amok across the country. He called upon his banner men to uphold justice and gave to them all the Elven steel he possessed.
Each sword had a name and a story dating as far back as the days when men first settled the land. Gifts from the Elves given to mortal men for one reason or another, they remained coveted and rare. The sword he held in his hand was far from Elven steel. Even by the standards of men, it looked like ordinary castle steel. The lowliest of soldiers in his father’s army carried standard issue short swords like this one.
“What’s the matter?” his father asked. “Don’t you like it?”
“I thought it would look more like your sword, or Charlie’s,” Aleckster admitted.
“This is the sword you learn with, son,” his father said. “You are going to cross blades with Wyatt again and again. Someday, you’re going to beat this sword to death. When it’s all nicked and bent, you’ll toss this one away, forget it ever existed, and then get another one just like it.
“Someday Wyatt is going to have taught you everything he knows. On that day, after you’d gone through dozens of swords, he will commission a fine blade like mine for you. The faster you beat this one down, the sooner you’ll get a new one. The more you do that, the better a swordsman you’ll become.”
Aleckster smiled, understanding what his father meant. Thinking back, unable to recall the details, he couldn’t remember any significance to Charlie’s first blade either. Terrance probably gave him one just like it.
“Thank you, Father. I do like it.”
He went to give his father a hug and nearly stabbed him in the arm with the blade.
“Sorry!” Aleckster winced apologetically and put the blade back into the scabbard. After positioning it awkwardly on his belt, he came in again for the embrace. Close, firm, and brief, they separated and then called for the feast to begin.
Aleckster did not bring back a stag or boar, but his father paid to have two dozen chickens roasted instead. Charlie gave him a hard time about this.
“Do you remember the size of venison steaks we ate after my hunt?” Charlie boasted. “So succulent and bloody when you sliced into it?”
“It wasn’t that good,” Aleckster countered.
“Better than these dried up birds,” Charlie chuckled. All the while, he gnawed on the biggest chicken leg he could get his hands on. Aleckster rolled his eyes.
Recalling the feast, the present joy and merriment in his mind spread across miles in an instant. Residual emotions flowed into the wolves and quieted them. Whether sitting upon rock or grass, or sipping water from a stream, the wolves hushed. The night grew still and tranquil and Aleckster wondered.
Am I controlling them by the way I feel?
He closed his eyes and focused his mind. Skin prickling with the sensation of a thousand gentle breezes blowing across countless coats of fur, Aleckster fell into a state of deep relaxation. The dull drone of primal thoughts slowed his breath as the collective consciousness of the pack buzzed inside his head. So disconnected from himself, he collapsed on the floor, no longer able to stand upright.
Catching his balance, he managed to break his fall without hurting himself. The sensations and connection extinguished like a blown-out candle wick. Dizzy and disoriented, a wave of nausea swelled from within his stomach. He started to salivate, but continued to take short, quick breaths to keep from throwing up. The feelings passed, and he let out a sigh of relief before lying down on the floor.
Yawning, his body exhausted from staying up late, he fought to keep his eyes open. While he found a way to block his connection to the wolves during the day, nighttime proved itself a different story. More vivid than ever before, Aleckster remained aware of his dreams. He walked an ethereal expanse, drifting from wolf to wolf. At will, he could enter them to see through their eyes, hear through their and ears, to even think their thoughts. Some of them were aware of his presence, and others none the wiser.
“Old magic,” he said aloud. He sat up, mouth in an open frown, pondering the idea.
Further south than Oakheart, but due west, was the city of Faewater. The borders of Oakheart ended a few miles from the edge of the Forest of the Elves, but the city of Faewater hugged a river fed from the northeast end of the Forest. It curved out in a miles-long bend before slithering back inside.
House Faewater and the inhabitants of its city claimed drinking the water from the river sometimes awakened Old Magic within one’s spirit. A small conclave sanctioned by the Circle studied there. If any individual in the Eastlands discovered themselves to have the gift of magic, Faewater is where they went.
They claimed all magic came from Elves. Ages ago, they used their song magic to quicken the spirits of men, granting the ability to convert and manipulate spirit energy. Over some people, however, they sang songs to give them abilities separate and unique from the laws of arcane magic. Some in Faewater claimed they could move things with their minds, or project images into the imaginations of others. Aleckster recalled rumors of some individuals with the gift to communicate and bond with animals.
Society took a skeptical disdain against magic. They called it superstitious nonsense, and dismissed it, or unnatural, and vilified it. Most people claimed the people of Faewater strange or crazy. Now, after all Aleckster experienced, he wondered.
A loud smack from outside startled him. Jumping up from his place on the floor, he moved to his balcony and looked down. It sounded like something heavy fell to the stone pavement below. But he couldn’t see anything.
Yawning again, he decided to turn in for the night. He blew out his candle and climbed into bed. Making himself comfortable beneath the sheets, Aleckster stared wide-eyed at the ceiling. Anxiety and dread of being at the mercy of his dreams kept him awake a little longer. To his relief, his fatigue won out, and he finally drifted off to sleep.
* * *
He dreamed, but for the first time in a while, it was not a wolf dream. He dreamed Charlie bought him a horse. Excited to go for a ride, the two of them prepared for a day on the countryside. To his surprise, both his father and mother came to see them off.
“Be careful, boys,” their father said.
“Goodbye, Aleckster,” his mother added. Her tone set him on edge. Neither sweet nor solemn, but some queer mingling of the two, a feeling of foreboding washed over him.
“Goodbye, Aleckster,” she repeated.
* * *
“Aleckster. Aleckster, wake up. Aleckster!”
He opened his eyes and sat up in bed. The morning sun poured through his windows. He forgot to close the curtains again. Squinting, he turned to his door where his brother stood. Pale and red all at once, his puffy face wore an expression of anguish.
“What’s wrong?” Aleckster demanded, worried. He’d never seen his brother so upset before. Charlie opened his mouth to speak, making obvious attempts to prevent himself from weeping.
“It’s Mother,” he managed. “She jumped from the balcony in her solar.”
“I don’t understand,” Aleckster said, lying. He knew what Charlie would say next, but refused to believe it. If he didn’t say it aloud, it wasn’t real.
“She’s dead, Aleckster. She’s gone.”