“What do you think they’re talking about?” Ammarich asked.
At this unexpected question from his older brother, Asteel raised his heavy head slightly, narrowed his eyes and pricked up his ears. He turned his attention toward the bear and the duck.
The two wolves were lying low, crouched down in a clump of thick bunchgrass under several large shade trees. Until this moment they’d been as motionless as statues or, more to the point, as wolves intently focused on unwary prey. In this instance, however, the pair’s gaze was aimed not at a likely dinner or a threatening adversary, but rather at two of their comrades: Eirwen, the great white polar bear, and his friend Fridis, the eider duck. They were sitting on a small open hillock, engrossed in a conversation that the wolves could not overhear, no matter how hard they tried.
The watchers’ vision was unimpaired by obstacles. Ammarich and Asteel enjoyed a clear view of the verdant open grasslands beyond and, in the far distance, all the way to the vast snow-tipped mountain range that separated the Kingdom of Aeronbed from the Empire of Vigmar. It was late afternoon on a calm and untroubled day; a wisp of a breeze blew gently off the plains toward them.
Ammarich waited impatiently for a responce. Asteel, despite his attempts to get a good look, seemed to be ignoring his question.
“You hear me, brother?” Ammarich said, a little more sharply and with greater urgency. “What do you think?” Even as he repeated his query, the older wolf was not sure why he was being so persistent. It was a rhetorical question at best, and he could hardly expect Asteel to have the slightest notion.
His brother continued to stare straight ahead, sphinxlike. Neither twitch of muscle nor blink of eyelid revealed that he’d even heard the question. After a long while, without the slightest movement of his head, Asteel’s eyes caught those of Ammarich. His look betrayed just enough contempt to say, Why are you bothering to ask me this, brother? Do you think I’m stupid?
Ammarich caught the glance and its meaning. “I know, I know,” he acknowledged, sighing. “That was a pointless question. Forget I even asked.”
Asteel, however, wouldn’t let the matter drop. “Why are we here, Ammarich?” he groused. “Our friends are neither lost nor in need of protection. Haven’t we better things to do with our time?”
A large family of quails strolled across their line of sight not far from them. They stooped to feed feverishly on whatever they could find, apparently oblivious of the wolves’ presence. The chubby birds reminded Asteel that not only was he irritated by this apparently useless spying, he was also quite hungry. He hadn’t eaten in hours; his stomach rumbled and then he began to salivate. Ammarich, to Asteel’s annoyance, seemed completely indifferent to both the birds’ presence and his bodily needs.
Although Ammarich had ignored the complaint, Asteel persisted. He repeated his quite reasonable objections, adding some growls for reinforcement.
His brother was forced to come up with a response. “Has it never occurred to you,” Ammarich said, “that the sudden arrival of Eirwen and Fridis in Vigmar was rather unusual, even unprecedented? In point of fact, I would say it was extraordinary. One day the pair were not there, the next they were among us, traipsing across the plains as if they’d been in the Empire for a lifetime. It was uncommon strange, if you ask me.”
“Unprecedented? Uncommon strange?” Asteel laughed. “Brother, your vocabulary is growing by leaps and bounds!” But then the wolf went on more seriously. “You couldn’t be bothered to answer my question, but let me try to answer yours” — Asteel glanced toward the duck and bear — “although my reply is likely to satisfy you no more than your non-answer did me. To put it most simply, I try not to trouble myself with questions I cannot answer or matters that don’t concern me. I could make it my business to follow strange scents down dead-end trails, but what would be the point? We wolves need our sleep and fresh minds for more important things — like my missed lunch, for example.”
Ammarich tried to object, but his younger brother, on a roll now, could not be stopped. “And I’d put it to you, brother, that we have a war to win and real foes to defeat. I do not count Erwin and Fridis among our enemies. They have proven themselves as stout and true as any ally — both of them.”
Again Ammarich opened his mouth to speak, but Asteel waved a derisive paw at him. “Nevertheless, if you’re really so worried, why not put the matter to Adarix? Or speak to Alberic. Our young brother was the first of us to spot the pair, was he not?”
“Aye, brother, Alberic was the first, and I did ask him. Actually, he agrees with me. He too thinks their abrupt appearance rather curious. Both Adarix and he had many questions for them at the time. The bear and duck were full of great stories but, in all truth, not much proven fact. There was nothing of substance, nothing you could put a paw on. They would have questioned them further, and Adarix fully intended to do so. But with the swift turn of events that followed their arrival in the capital, any questions about their origin — and so many others — were forgotten. Before you could blink an eye, Lord Eirwen was our new lord and commander. I need hardly say, no one cared about such concerns after that.”
Asteel grunted. “That’s not how I remember things.”
“You heard me.”
“So how do you remember it?”
“Of course, what you say is true enough, and I can’t quarrel with your account. But that was just the beginning. You forgot to mention what happened next.”
“And that was?”
Asteel snorted. Was his brother playing him for a fool? “Adarix’s intention to kill Lord Eirwen and your own counsel against the idea. How could you forget that small detail? We were all sitting outside Utgard, as I recall. Night was falling, and Alberic was with Eirwen.”
“Much has happened since then.”
“Nothing that would cause an honorable wolf to distrust the white bear.”
Ammarich chose not to respond.
“So, which one is it, brother?” Asteel pressed. “A faulty memory or renewed doubts?”
“Renewed doubts,” Ammarich replied flatly.
They both turned back to look at the bear and the duck, who were still talking quietly.
“So you never spoke to Adarix directly?” Asteel asked after a short while. “That is, about your, er, renewed worry?”
“No, I did not. What was the point? The bear was presumed dead and Adarix had to live with his guilt. Guilt ... Hah! I wish I had spoken to him, for it’s too late now.”
The two wolves lapsed into silence once more. They kept their eyes fixed on Eirwen and Fridis, as if by simply watching the pair they might come up with an answer to Ammarich’s question.
At length Asteel asked, “So you want to reopen the matter?”
Ammarich did not answer right away. What was his purpose, after all? Of course he recalled Adarix’s plan to do away with Eirwen before they entered the Forest of Utgard. But the scheme had withered like grapes on the vine after a frost. Once the pack had made its way through the forest and entered Aeronbed, Ammarich had heard no more talk of it.
After Utgard, the opportunity to ask Adarix more about the pair had never arisen. And later, Eirwen’s apparent death had created a surprising reversal in his brother’s attitude toward him, cementing Adarix’s shame that he had misjudged the bear’s motives. Now, to Ammarich’s way of thinking, his startling resurrection had elevated Eirwen into some kind of demigod while simultaneously reducing the stature of the wolf commander.
It appeared that Adarix had ceased to be the ruthless leader of old. Once all-powerful, he was no longer to be feared, at least by his older brother. The wolf commander seemed to have become a mere acolyte of the remarkable bear. Ammarich found this new order of things discomfiting, to say the least.
On top of this unsettling development, it was Fridis’s behavior that the oldest of the wolf brothers found most troubling. The duck was demonstrating a disturbing interest in the Blakvul jewels and their history. In his view, she had no right to interfere in such matters. Fridis was a stranger to Vigmar and she was certainly not a wolf. Curiosity? Yes, that would be appropriate, for every creature has a right to be curious. However, anything to do with those jewels — in the past, present or future — was the prerogative of the eldest brother of the Prebenvar clan.
No matter who else might claim them, the gemstones were the property of the wolf pack, and Ammarich alone was their lawful guardian. The only snag was that, over time, the gems had been well and truly lost: no one knew where they were. At least, that was the generally accepted wisdom among Vigmar’s creatures — those who cared about such matters, that is.
Since Fridis had revealed her interest in the gems, Ammarich had begun to pay more attention to the duck and the bear. He reflected carefully on everything he had heard and witnessed since the two strangers arrived, trying to make some sense of it all. At the same time, he could not share his concerns with anyone else. For the most part, his fellow creatures were completely besotted with Fridis and Eirwen, who — at least on the surface — seemed to be genuinely good, thoughtful, noble creatures.
Moreover (and quite reasonably), the others’ attention was focused on the next moves in the struggle. During a war, no one wanted to waste time on myths and ancient history. Even Ammarich, who as the eldest brother saw matters concerning the jewels as his particular responsibility, had limited time for the gemstones. In the past he had paid little attention to the mystery, sparing the stones only the most cursory of thoughts. But now Fridis’s recent mention of them had whetted Ammarich’s appetite for knowledge, and that appetite had grown apace.
The armies were now resting while greater minds determined the new path ahead. As a senior member of the brotherhood, Ammarich should have been part of the council session, but his mind took him elsewhere, so he made his excuses and did not bother to attend. The respite allowed time for darker thoughts to simmer in his brain, for the waters of his former neglect to dissipate, leaving behind an evil sludge of an idea to obscure his better instincts.
Ammarich reflected on everything that had occurred since Eirwen and Fridis arrived on the scene. First had come the Emperor’s sudden and unwarranted decision to make Eirwen Vigmar’s new champion. That was followed by the duck’s miraculous recovery from near death — or at least, that was how he’d heard it told. Next was Eirwen’s sorcerer-like ability to get through the impassable barrier surrounding the Forest of Utgard. That event, and the magic light it had generated, Ammarich had himself witnessed, although from a distance.
In the euphoria that followed their entry into the forest and the sweetness of life there, none of the other wolves had thought about the incident again. They had become like cubs, giving little consideration to anything but their immediate pleasure. Except Ammarich himself. Why had he not felt that wonderful bliss? His explanation at the time had seemed reasonable enough: for the pack to make its way through the forest safely and unhindered, someone had to hold on to some sense of reason. Otherwise, the whole lot — wolves, wolfhound and bear — would still be in Utgard today, wandering around aimlessly, never to be heard of again in the outside world.
But that was then. Now Ammarich felt differently. Although a clear answer had yet to form in his mind, the wolf was beginning to wonder whether he was destined for some greater purpose. Although he was the eldest brother, he had relinquished his natural spot as leader of the pack, happy to accord it to Adarix, the second-born of the litter. Adarix had been acknowledged by one and all to be more than cut out for the role. His fighting skills and commanding presence were renowned; indeed, in the annals of wolfkind there was no other example of such dominance.
Ammarich had quickly understood that he could never best Adarix in one-on-one combat, and he knew instinctively not to pick a fight that he could never win. He had accepted his place in the pack without complaint, understanding that its strength and success were of prime importance. He loved his brother. In fact, he loved all his brothers. And he was comfortable — more than comfortable — in his role as the respected eldest, wise counselor and keeper of the family lore.
Ammarich took all his responsibilities very seriously. Where others might accept things blindly or with little consideration, he would think through every implication. Regarding Eirwen and Fridis, he had taken it upon himself to consider the potential consequences for the pack if his fears proved to be true.
Something — or rather someone — was nudging him, intruding on his momentous thoughts. In his reverie he had forgotten what was going on right in front of him. Asteel was poking him in the shoulder with his muzzle. “It looks as if they’re making a move,” his brother said under his breath.
Eirwen and Fridis had risen and begun to meander away in the direction of the mountains. Ammarich could see the bear pointing south and saying something to the little duck. The wolf was greatly frustrated by his inability to make out their words. He knew that it was in moments like this — when creatures are completely relaxed — that the truth usually comes out.
“Do you think we can get any closer?” Ammarich asked, indicating a point further down the slope.
“Doubt it. I’d say if we dare to move a paw, the game will be up as quick as a flash. We were lucky to find such a sheltered spot; anywhere else and we’d be completely exposed.” Asteel had soured on the whole business. The hours were creeping by, he was stiff from inactivity and his hunger was growing. He saw little to be gained from perpetuating the charade. “I’m going back to camp,” the wolf declared suddenly. “I’m so hungry, I could eat a — ” He stopped in mid-sentence. “Isn’t there a feast planned for tonight? Why don’t you come along. I’ll save a place for you, brother.”
It seemed as if Ammarich had not heard him. The older wolf kept staring into the distance, following the movements of his quarry. Then he shook himself and said, “Perhaps. You go on. I’ll stay a while yet.”
For several seconds Asteel looked at Ammarich as if considering some riposte. At last, without a word, he edged backward, deeper into the bushes, so as not to reveal his brother’s presence.
Ammarich kept observing Eirwen and Fridis until the sun had sunk low in the sky. When the encroaching shadows enshrouded the bear and the duck, the wolf concluded there was nothing to be gained from maintaining his vigil. He had watched and pondered enough for one day.
Just as his brother had done, Ammarich retreated into the bushes and back to the welcoming society of the wolf pack.