Snowshadow took one last look as both Antrandis and Winter disappeared into the forest. She turned and padded off through the underbrush, keeping the tract of ruined forest a stone’s throw to her right as she made her way down the arm of the valley. Dipping her head under low branches and fluidly leaping over fallen tree trunks, her mind strayed from the search for Silvast to her beloved. She could feel his thoughts as he and the valkyrie spoke. She slowed her pace back to a comfortable walk, winding her way among the trees, her fur concealing her in the dappled shadows, allowing her to pass like a ghost in the forest.
She did not feel concern or surprise in the sudden development. Instead she felt comforted that Winter had finally come out of her self-imposed exile. Winter had been her family in this life, protective, caring and a true friend that could be relied upon. In her past life, before the fall of the world, Winter had been an ally determined by the Host, a sword at her side set to follow her into battle and act as a liaison. Sian knew the valkyrie well, her love and desire while passionate, was not a threat. Her confusion proving that her feelings toward the Sian of old still remained.
The night before, she had already decided that Winter was to join their circle of intimacy, to have a stake in their collective happiness. She had already wanted to rekindle her relationship with Winter. To show the valkyrie that her feelings still remained now she was whole, upon her return to Meliandra five years earlier. But Winter had kept herself at a distance. Sian did not feel at ease with the concept of excluding one of the two remaining women who were so instrumental in her gradual transformation and happiness. The possibility of losing either, as she and Antrandis had another in the past was something more than she could bear.
Her bond with Antrandis was far beyond the trappings of the flesh, what he had allowed was unprecedented. Out on the slopes near the pass of Healdsmeare in the middle of winter, he had let the winds blow as they will, allowing her to forge a bond with him that went unexpectedly beyond that of a master and familiar. Even now, after more than eight thousand years and with her relatively newfound knowledge, she believed that he must have been truly free or out of his mind to allow. They maintained their individuality, but at the same time they were connected in such a way that if they allowed their consciousness to float and waver, they could mistakenly feel as one.
She laughed to herself, a gentle throaty rumble coming from her as she walked through a shaft of sunlight, the white of her coat flashing as she passed. She remembered a recent occasion where she woke to see herself from his eyes, his consciousness straying and occupied elsewhere while he met with the Three. The Goddesses, Lumos, Silvan and Auryl, all of which considered him their son.
Her steps faltered somewhat, the discussion unfolding between Antrandis and Winter demanding more of her attention. Moments earlier she had experienced the gentle remnants of a kiss, and now a talk of ‘voices’ and an internal struggle. Snowshadow came to a stop, resting back on her haunches as she leafed through Antrandis’s thoughts as he allowed. She looked back up towards the distant ridge, resisting the urge to return to their side.
She knew Winter was divulging her innermost thoughts and insecurities to Antrandis because of their past, and with her there Winter would refuse to talk. But, Winter’s view of being a broken tool, and her sole purpose to be an implement of her master’s will? Snowshadow laid down, resting her head on her forepaws. Thinking back to the restored memories of her past life, the power and certainty that radiated off Winter’s presence as she served the Host of the Underworld, the shepherd of the dead. In essence, that was what she was, a tool to the Host’s will, but unlike now she had no freedoms, no capacity to foster emotions and a sense of self beyond her role as the most powerful valkyrie in service. Her purpose was all she had, a singular vision of self. Until recently, the restrictive punishment that the goddess had placed upon Winter had served a similar purpose, it defined her actions and narrowed her purpose.
Almost losing her train of thought as she pondered Winter’s predicament, she was brought back to the present to the faint sound of snapping twigs and occasional yelps and whines from nearby. Her ears pricked as she listened. Within the blink of an eye she had scaled the nearest tree, her large paws and claws making short work of the climb, before settling on a thick branch a number of yards above the forest floor. She listened again carefully, quickly picking out the direction, her luminous emerald-silver eyes gazing with intent, searching for movement among the trees. Within a few short moments she was rewarded. A mixture of grey, black and russet forms were descending into the valley, parallel to her own descent. Snowshadow’s eyes narrowed as she continued to watch.
Wary, she stood and quickly launched herself from her branch to the next tree. Rapidly settling herself after securing a better vantage, she took stock of the movement among the tree trunks. Wolves. As the light breeze changed direction she could make out their scent. Snowshadow tilted her head slightly, there had to be more than half a dozen packs. She continued to watch, it was unheard of for competing wolf packs to band together, the head females were far too territorial. Unless. A sudden cry, a howl, split the air nearby. Snowshadow immediately shifted her head in response, her eyes quickly darting to the origin of the call. She focused on the trees, the ground below them and patiently waited. Three large wolves came into view, one predominant, larger than the other two. Of greys, blacks and copper toned fur, this she-wolf was dominant. One with the power and thrall to command multiple packs to work together, a dire wolf. To each side were the other two, large examples of their kind, pelts of varying shades of greys and whites, but lacking in presence compared to the one they escorted.
Snowshadow tested the air, she remained downwind and undetectable. She settled in, watching intently as the dire wolf and her escorts wound their way among the trees, coming closer. Her nose twitched as she tested the air again, the female drawing closer. That scent, it had an edge of familiarity that she just could not place. She could now make out the colour of the she-wolf’s eyes. A rich golden brown, webbed with green. A gorgeous example. As she lay along the branch observing the movements of the wolves and their leader she could feel that Antrandis was alone, Winter had already taken to the air.
She concentrated, projecting her voice telepathically, ‘My love, have you found anything?’
‘I have, the teleport site, alone it is nothing much, but with… Wolves? There are wolves all around you?’
‘Yes, wolves, three or four score. A dire wolf is leading them.’
‘Winter and I came across some wolf tracks, two or three animals, one large two smaller, whoever arrived the night of the eclipse is being tailed. I sent Winter ahead to scout the old ruins.’
‘The dire wolf. She.’
Antrandis interrupted her, ‘You must get ahead of them. Head for the river as quickly as you can. I won’t be far behind. I just need a few more moments here. Go, now.’ his words final and resolute.
Snowshadow twitched her ears as she looked down at the dire wolf and her two escorts. She eyed the large female, breathing in her distinct scent again as she held her last look. Quickly glancing at an adjacent tree, she leapt. Her powerful hind legs propelling her across the distance before her claws bit into the trunk. Clawing her way onto another favourable branch, she repeated the process. Standing, with impeccable balance on a branch she looked back, the wolves once again obscured by the trees. She stepped off, falling softly to the ground, her large paws soaking up the drop without effort. Again, Snowshadow glanced around, unmoving except for her ears. Satisfied, she started to move, putting distance between herself and the wolves, flowing through the landscape as she ran. The valley floor and river her target.
As the great snow leopard melted from sight, she slowly came around the side of a large tree. Her fur of greys, blacks and copper tones being gently tousled by the building breeze. She sniffed at the ground where the snow cat had landed. She looked up, retracing the movement of where she had seen the white flash among the trees, her brown and green webbed eyes lingering on the direction that had been taken. She turned, feeling her escorts come along either side, noting their questioning looks, ignoring them she walked on ahead, continuing to make her way towards the valley floor.