|Chapter One........................The Chase
She could hear footfalls in the leaves, running. Panting, struggling to breathe. Looking down from the rocks she watched as the man burst from the trees and started across the open field. He didn’t look back, but ran on. Arms pumping, feet slapping the earth, she could tell he was breathing hard, but through his nose, not his mouth. Behind him a silver wolf cleared the trees and was pounding across the dirt.
“Damn” she thought, as she took off to intersect; angling so she would clear the rocks in front of the runner.
“Where the hell did it come from?” he wondered. He hadn’t seen any tracks till the wolf jumped him. He could feel the blood running down his back. He knew, if he stopped or looked behind, he was dead.
He jumped the small outcropping and skidded to a halt as a huge blue cat jumped over him and met the wolf in mid lunge. He turned to watch and slipped off the rock striking his head. “Noooo.” He screamed and blackness took him.
The wolf was easy. She was faster and stronger. She stood back and watched as it bled into the ground, then shifted and walked to the unconscious man. Three bloody gashes marred his back from shoulder to waist. She took his arm pulling him across her shoulders, careful not to touch his back, and carried him back to her camp on top of the ridge, fashioning in her thoughts the story she would tell him when he woke up.
She laid him, face down, on her bed and moved around the camp, setting a pot on the fire, changing her clothes. She took cloths and medicines from a bag and dressed his back. As she laid the strips of purple cloth across the bloody gashes, they glowed and then melted into the flesh. Pink new skin began to form as she gently washed away the blood and grime. He would have scars, but they would be light. She touched a finger to his wrist, closed her eyes and her skin changed from a soft pearly blue to a buff tan about two shades lighter than his. Her markings remained but faded into the background. She looked down at her arm and shrugged in satisfaction, it would do.
She turned him over then, satisfied that there would be little pain and examined him a little more closely, now that the severest of his injuries were tended to.
She judged him to be less than forty, mid-thirties maybe. A little taller than her, six feet four or so, he had a long lean look of someone who spent a lot of time running and hunting. His skin was a deep caramel tan, and there were several other scars scattered across his chest, one arm and down one thigh. His hair was a golden blonde and rested on his shoulders and as she pulled up an eyelid to check his pupils, she saw the irises were forest green, like new moss. Satisfied he suffered no more injuries, other than a bruise on his forehead; she sat beside him and bathed his face with a wet cloth. He opened eyes and looked at her. He looked around, and then closed his eyes again.
“I am dead.” He mumbled. “Only explanation, I am dead.”
She laughed softly at him. “No you are definitely not dead.”
“But the wolf,” he said. ”and a big cat, bigger than anything I’ve ever seen before….and…and where the hell did you come from.”
She stood and walked over to the fire, “Are you hungry?” she asked. She ladled soup into a bowl and brought it back to him.
He stared up at her, “My name is Keto Shayden Zorlan, you are?”
“Neelakeyodasmir.” She answered.
“Ok” he said, taking the bowl from her hands. He noticed her skin was slightly lighter than his own and if he looked closely, he could see darker markings on her hands and face. “Were you hunting?” he asked.
“You could say that.” She said and sat beside him with her own bowl of food.
“It’s good” he said, gesturing at the bowl.
“I know.”She said as she stood and went to a pack on the far side of the camp. She took out several skins and furs and laid them beside the fire. Removing a flask and several vials she came back and sat beside him. She handed him the flask, “Water.” She said and as he drank, she took the bowl from his hands, put some liquid from a vial on the tips of her fingers and applied it to the bruise on his forehead.
“Your name again” he asked.
“Shorter.” He said, holding his hand up and gesturing with his thumb and forefinger “I will never get that right.”
“Neela.” She answered. “You can call me Neela. Where are you from Keto? I didn’t see any towns nearby.”
“I am from the other side of Luka Forest, on the Medar Trail. I was tracking a cat that killed some livestock. Maybe I found it, or it found me.”
“I doubt it.” She replied and got up to put the dishes and things away.
“Had to be that one that killed the wolf,” he looked around, “It is dead…right?”
He watched her as she moved around the camp; he had never seen anyone like her before. She moved with economical movements, no wasted energy. Yet every move she made was fluid, graceful. Her hair was one long braid that hung down her back almost to her knees. He was trying to figure out the color, it seemed to change as he stared at it. The closest he could come was molten silver. It had that shimmery evasive color that silver has when in a molten state. He figured she was almost as tall as him and muscular. Absently he thought that sparring with her would be interesting, really interesting. She was barefooted and wore a shirt and leather pants. The fabric of the shirt looked like silk, but then it didn’t. It looked softer, the color of a ripe peach. He had a good look at her eyes when she was dressing his forehead, again, he was confused. They were purple and he knew he had never met anyone with eyes that color before.
“Yes.” She said, bringing him back out of his observations. “The wolf is dead.”
“..and the cat?”
“Damn” he sighed and sunk back on the bed. “I’ll track it, tomorrow…first thing.” Before he could finish the thought, he was asleep.
She walked over and sat down on the pallet she had made beside the fire. This could be difficult. She hadn’t seen any cats in the area, sign, but no cats. Two days ago she had come across tracks of a frostsaber. She hadn’t actually seen one in years. They mostly stayed in the ice bound mountains of Winterdale. She had never heard of one killing near people, but did not rule it out. Frostsabers were one of the largest of predators, males tended to be eight feet or more at the shoulder, and a thousand pounds plus. They were the perfect killing machine. Winterdale was populated with several large prides that shared the territory with kanga bears, ice wrens( a type of dragon kin), and moran drakes ( a large vulture type bird). She reached in a bag and pulled out a large book and turned the pages till she found the maps she wanted.
Savolia, Keto was from Savolia. She knew the town, but had never spent much time there. They were farmers, herders, and blacksmiths. Some of their jewelry was exceptional. She had bought supplies and moved on, as she usually did. It was never her habit to spend much time in a settlement. To stay in any town would mean she would have to “blend”. She didn’t like to. She liked what and who she was, but had a hard time explaining it to others. Well tomorrow or so, Keto would be on his way and she wouldn’t have to worry about it.
She lay down, watching the man across the firelight, pulled the furs up around her, and went to sleep. She dreamed of running through the forest, chasing a deer. The deer turned and had eyes the color of new moss and hair the color of gold; she sighed in her sleep and turned over.
When Keto woke the next morning, the camp was gone. The woman, Neela, sat on a flat rock across from him. She brought him a cup and a bowl.
“Your clothes,” she said “are there,” she pointed to a pile at his feet “ I cleaned the blood off. The shirt had to be burnt, you have a new one. Eat. We’ll leave when you’re done.”
He started to eat; it was some type of grain; cooked, soft and sweet. The cup held a dark blend of coffee. “Thank you” he told her “for all this and for saving my life.”
She shrugged and stepped around him to sit behind him. “I need to check your back, any pain?”
“A bit.” He admitted, “but it’s not bad. I thought it was much worse.”
“It was,” She agreed, “but I got medication on it quickly, you should be fine.”
She sat there and ran her fingers along the healing flesh. “Looks good.” She said. “There will be scars, but they won’t be bad, obvious, but not bad.”
He flexed his shoulders, “Feels ok.” He said and handed her the dishes as he stood to get dressed. While he was getting dressed, she packed away the remaining bedding and dishes. She stood with a pack slung across her back. He glanced at her, and then looked again, then around the camp site. He was trying to figure out how she got all that in that tiny bag.
“Magicweave bag” she said, “Don’t give yourself a headache. Undetectable, bottomless, I could pack an entire town in it. Gift from a friend of mine.”
“Right.” He answered and picked up his own bag that she had retrieved the day before. “Weightless too?”
“Almost.” She laughed and led the way off the ridge.
The sun was high in the sky when they stopped by a brook at the edge of a clearing. Neela had him take off his shirt and let her check his back. There were red marks where his pack had rubbed across the healing flesh. She handed him his bow and quiver and stuck his bag inside her own.
He watched as the blue speckled bag swallowed his and didn’t seem to gain an inch. “Gotta get one of those.” He sighed.
She handed him some dried fruit, meat, a hunk of soft bread, and a flask of water. “Trust me.” She said biting into her own bread, “you couldn’t afford one.”
“So your friend just gave it to you?”
“Not exactly. I got the materials, she made it for me.”
He touched the fabric; it was soft, but warm, almost living. “What’s it made of?”
She swallowed her bread and drank some water. “Nubichin leather, magicweave cloth, ubtomiun oil and runeweave thread. Oh and a good dose of magic, so I’m told”
“I’ll take your word for it.”
“Good, cause I am not a mage and couldn’t give you the details if I wanted.” She paused. “I needed it. I travel a lot.” She finished her food, dug in the pack and got out a towel and some clothing. “I am going to wash.”
He sat where he was and watched her go down to the stream. She took off her outer clothes and knelt beside the water. She didn’t seem to feel self conscious, having him watch, so he did. She was wearing a skimpy top and her skin on her back was covered with swirls of slightly darker color. The unbound hair acted almost like a veil, moving in the breeze, exposing here and there a glimpse of tawny flesh. He was lost in the obvious beauty of the woman in the distance and without even realizing it he fell for her, totally and completely. If she had asked him to jump off a mountain, he would have; reveling in his choice all the way to the ground.
She washed her skin and hair, careful all the time to keep the color on, sometimes the chameleon part was a pain; but she liked this area for now and didn’t feel like leaving. There were some herbs she needed to restock on and some minerals she wanted to get. Standing, she redressed then sat on a large stone and brushed out her hair, looking up as he walked around in front of her.
“May I?” he asked and reached out towards her hair.
She shrugged and he touched her hair beside her face.
“I just wanted to see if it felt the way it looks.” He drew back his hand. “Thank you.”
She shook herself and braided the heavy hair and went back to pick up the pack.
“We haven’t seen any tracks.” She observed.
“I know.” He countered. “I must have got off the trail when I had the run in with the wolf.”
“Probably. What do you want to do?”
“I’m going to circle around the other side of the swamp. If I got sidetracked, that’s probably where I need to go.”
She reached in the pack and pulled out a long intricately carved staff. “I really don’t have any place else to be, and you shouldn’t be carrying a pack till your back heals.”
She didn’t want to leave him on the chance that he was hunting a frostsaber or worse, another shapeshifter or a werecat.
They walked all afternoon, circling the swamps and trying to stay dry. The mist had different ideas though. It rolled off the damp land and seeped into their skin and clothing, by dusk they were both wet and cold.
Neela finally stopped on an island in the middle of a shallow, soggy lake. She started a fire by pouring a liquid from a vial she took from her pack over some dripping wood. Igniting immediately, the flames sparkled and changed colors from red to blue and back again as Keto watched.
“Neat.” He said, reaching into her pack and taking out things to make a meal. He held his hands over the flames. Heat warmed him and he sighed. “Another magic thing?” he asked.
“Just chemicals” she replied from where she was setting up a shelter; he turned towards her and gasped.
“Wow” was all he said.
“You didn’t really think I slept on the ground all the time?” she asked.
He walked over to her, then moving a flap, stepped into the shelter. It was large, more than enough room to sleep in, read, or eat. He stepped back out and looked at it again. “I don’t understand, is it made like your bag?”
“Almost” she replied. “Karilyn made the fabric for me. There is a tailor in Chamos who can do outstanding work with this type of fabric. It helps that he also deals in magic so he can make it like you see.”
He was sitting at her feet, staring at his hands. “You talk like this is normal for you, the magic. I have heard of some of it, but I haven’t been exposed to the closeness. It fascinates me, you fascinate me.” He looked up into her purple eyes. “What are you?”
She shrugged her shoulders. “Does it matter?”
He considered for a moment before he answered. “Yes. I think it does.”
“Fine.” She said. “I’m a shapeshifter.” As she said it she let her true self come through.
He didn’t move, but reached out and touched her hand. It was a soft shimmery blue. “What else?” he asked.
“The cat that killed the wolf was me. “
She watched his face. “Show me the cat.” He said.
She shifted and then he did jump, just a bit. Then he walked over and touched her face. He walked around and looked at the sleek blue of her pelt and the dark blue markings across her shoulders and back. “Beautiful.” He whispered.
She shifted into a horse. Again she kept her true colors; but then she changed to black and then to brown, so he could see. Then she became an eagle, with silver blue plumage and a twelve foot wing span, and then she was just Neela again.
“That was difficult for you, wasn’t it?” he asked.
“You have no idea.” She agreed.
“You truly can become anything? How about people?”
“I have never tried people. I’ve heard it is possible, but difficult and dangerous.”
He just sat back down and was shaking his head.
“True shapeshifters are pretty rare.” She told him “I only know a few. We are a pretty solitary bunch, as well as territorial. Most of us hunt and we have to be careful not to upset the natural balance of things.”
It surprised her that he seemed to be so comfortable with her natural self. Later as they sat inside the tent and ate, he asked more questions. Some she could answer, some she couldn’t. They had a lot in common. He loved to read as much as she did. They both like to create things from the cast offs of the old world. They hunted, liked to sing and dance, both eat and cook. They talked late into the night as the magic fire burned outside the door.
In the morning, he woke to find her standing outside the door looking towards the rising sun. The light emphasized the swirls of darker blue across her forehead and down her cheeks. He leaned on his heels for a moment and watched her. Then stepping out, he set about helping her make their morning meal.
“So now what?” he asked.
“Well,” she started, ”I am fairly sure a cat is not going to stay in this area. There are better hunting spots. This place makes me itch, which means another shapeshifter, were or normal cat wouldn’t like it either.Where were you headed before you got sidetracked?” she asked him.
“Denar, by way of the Tillon Mountains” he told her.
“Ok, but that is a roundabout way of getting there” she answered.
“I know, but there is a tribe there called the Kalid. My teacher said they do some of the finest work in metal, leather, and glass he has ever seen. I was hoping to get some training from one of their artists.”
“I know them” she answered. “What they can do with leather, stone or metal has no equal. Their crafts are always in demand so they are a pretty wealthy society.”
“Sounds like they could also be prey, to the wrong type of predator.”
“You’d be surprised.” She said. “They have no crime, if I remember correctly Senda showed me about three hundred years of history, no crime, not one in three hundred years.”
“That is hard to believe.’
“Hard, but true. They are a peaceful loving people. You would be more apt to die from being fondled than killed in an attack. I have known Senda for a long time. I am sure she can help you find someone to teach you what you want to know. Do you feel strongly about hunting that cat?”
“Not really,” he answered. “I don’t need the meat or fur. It’s not injured so it wouldn’t be any more dangerous than normal.”
“Good, then I can take you to Senda’s town and you can decide what you want to do. Now,” she smiled; “you get a riding lesson.”
“I know how to ride.” He replied.
“This?” and the great eagle was standing there. Then she was back. “I need to give you a few instructions. I don’t usually do this, and if you dare say giddy up or up, up, and away, I will bite you….hard.”
He couldn’t help it, he laughed and she noticed the sound was deep, resonating and completely natural.
She told him how to sit, to lie across her if needed and how to cover up when the air got cold.
“It will be very cold, as we cross the plains, I fly very high and the air will be thin. My form protects me, but you have to use these robes and keep your face covered. Your breath will warm as it passes through the furs and will help keep your lungs from freezing. Finally, this is a piece I always wear.”
She showed him a thick silver medallion on a sturdy chain. “It stays when I change, you can feel it under the feathers around my neck, if you have any problems at all, yank hard and I will land. Sit with the pack behind you, if we do this again we’ll have to come up with something better, but for now, this should do.”
She dug into the blue pack then and took out the book of maps she had been looking at the night before. She showed him where they were going and where she planned on landing for food and rest and then shifted into the eagle.
He strapped the pack the way she showed him, running leather straps around her wings and across her chest. Then he stood back. “Check it.” He said, and she gently raised and rotated the wings. She lay down on the ground so he could put his feet in the loops they made and leapt on her back. He passed a wide leather belt around his waist and fastened it to the harness she was wearing to make sure he didn’t slip, then pulling the robes around him and using them to lie on; he whispered; “Okay, let’s go.”
It was nothing like he expected. He could see for miles, trees like grass below him, and rivers on the horizon. She was right, even over the plains, she moved fast enough, the wind was uncomfortable. He pulled the heavy robes around him and tucked them under his legs. He saw other birds but they were so far away he couldn’t tell what they were. He saw a herd of malorbeasts, grazing in a valley. He was familiar with the animals and at times had hunted them. They were enormous, gentle and all though they were good meat and leather, it felt a bit like stalking one of the cows they kept at home.
When she landed in the evening, he almost didn’t want to stop; his stomach disagreed. He slid to the ground and before he could get out of the heavy furs, she was human again. She sat the pack on a rock and started pulling things out.
“You really don’t feel the cold?” he asked.
“Not when I’m shifted” she answered, “Plus my body temperature is about ten degrees higher than yours.” She sat a box on the ground, opened it and moved some stuff around and blue flames came out of it. She took a tiny square, unfolded it and it became a metal grid which she laid across the top of the flames. Taking a heavy piece of leather, she unrolled it, removing a piece of meat that she sliced into two thick steaks. In the background, sitting on the rock; Keto watched her.
“You used this earlier, what is it?” he asked.
She stood up and looked at him. “It’s too dry.” She waved her hand at the surroundings. “I didn’t want to risk an open fire.”
“I’ve never seen anything quite like that.”
“It’s a simple chemical fire. It will burn as long as it is exposed to air. When I close it up, it will go out.”
“How hot does it get?”
“I can do minor smelting and crafting with it. The chemicals are easy to find or cheap to buy.”
“Tell me more about your life.” He said as he handed her the things to make their meal. He had watched her when she pulled things out for their lunch, so he dug in and pulled out other things for their meal. She put on a pot for coffee and the pan for the meat. He sliced some cheese, bread and fruit. They set up the shelter and laid out the furs for the night.
“Maybe you had better tell me some of your history first.” She replied and handed him a cup as she sat beside him.
“What do you want to know?”
She shrugged. “What you believe, what you’ve been taught, what you dream about, how you live.”
“Not much, right?” He held the steaming cup in his hand. He was familiar with the brew, but in his village; it was costly. “I had good teachers when I was young, they taught me all the usual; math, history, geography, languages. I had one who even taught physics, though he said we had little use of it here, and he seemed glad for that. Still he taught us about heat and cold and motion and how things work. He said our machinery used to be more complicated; but there was such a depletion of minerals and supplies that people decided not to do things in that particular way anymore. They went back to a simpler way, natural way he called it. He explained all about the energy from the sun, the wind, the water and how to use it all. He’s also the one that told me that people used to have mountains of what he called garbage. Things they just threw away and it damaged the land, so laws were passed that’s why we use every scrap of everything. I guess it never was important to me, till he took us to Old City.” Keto shivered. “I still dream about it sometimes. Have you ever been there?”
“Yes,” she said “I have. I still go through occasionally. There is a massive library there; sometimes I go there to study.”
“We didn’t see anything like that. Just the empty buildings, old machinery, and decay everywhere. Miles of it, as far as you could see; and streets of stone, carvings. I always wondered what life was like then.”
“That’s what most people see.” She said then took the map book out of the pack “I copied this in the library. It took me a month. I’ve never taken anything, but I copy, a lot.” She slid the book back inside the pack and laid her hands across the fabric. “Karilyn, the mage who made this, learned most of what she knows from Old City. She started going when she found she could call fire and rain, but couldn’t control it. There is so much knowledge there. Of course I don’t bother with the magic stuff, it’s not my thing; but there is a lot of medical information and I deal in herbs a lot.” She gestured to his back. “It’s where I got the recipe for these bandages.”
“So you’ve explored the city?”
“Maybe a tenth. It’s massive. I can’t imagine how long it would take. I’ve never met anyone who claims to have explored the entire thing. I have met some who say there are others like it, on other continents across the sea. I’ve never been there though.”
She handed him a plate with his food and a knife to cut the meat with. “I’ve heard there is one far to the north, near the Tindal Crater. It is bigger than Old City and some say better preserved because of the cold. Someday I might travel that way, just to see.”
They sat in silence for several minutes eating and drinking. Then setting the dishes aside, she looked at him again. “That’s education. Not too shabby. How about religion, fantasy, literacy, art, music, anything else?”
“Ok, “ he got up got the pot and refilled their cups. He was still a little chilled from the flight and pulled a robe across his shoulders. “Religion…my parents are pretty liberal. They taught me that if it harms….its wrong. Taught me that I am a part of everything around me and I better be willing to deal with the consequences of how I dealt with my surroundings. I enjoy music, like to dance, have read almost every book I have ever touched, I like to make things out of the old metals and things I find lying in the forests. I cook, clean, sew, and someday hope to have a family of my own. My bothers are all married and have children. I am the youngest and just finished my last bit of school.”
He was leaning against the pack now, buried down inside the fur. “I’m sorry.” He said “I am just….so …tired.”
He started to lean over and she caught him and lowered him down. She covered up the stove, the fire went out and for a moment they were in darkness. Then she took a vial out of the pack and shook it hard, a soft blue light illuminated the tents walls. She put stuff away and lay down beside him. A short time later, darkness once again descended on the sleeping couple.
Keto was just waking up, he had heard Neela moving around; but it felt so nice under the warm furs, he really didn’t want to move. Finally the smell of fresh coffee drove him out.
“Good morning.” She said as she handed him a cup through the flap of the tent.
He nodded, sat up and took the cup. After a long luxurious sip, he walked out and sat on a stone and smiled, “Good morning, damn this is good. You mind if I ask where you get it.”
“Not at all.” She said, sitting across from him, she was stirring something in a pot. “A small village in the northern Boman Mountains, they grow it on the mountain side; its old volcanic soil, which is why it has that unbelievable flavor and smell.”
“Depends on your definition of expensive. I give them medicines, herbs and supplies they don’t have, they give me coffee, spices and nubichin leather. Which is the only place I’ve ever seen it. I give the leather to Karilyn, she makes things to sell and I get whatever I need, like the bag.”
“Neat bit of trading.”
“We get what we need.”
He got up then and went to get more coffee, “I could get addicted to this.” He sighed.
“Coffee is not addictive.” She smiled at him.
He held the cup to his mouth, sighed and looked at her, “Speak for yourself.” He came back and sat down. “So tell me more about the Kalid.”
She dished out the food from the pot and roughly chopped some fruit into it, she handed a bowl to him. “They are a smaller race, three maybe four thousand individuals. There may be others, in other places, you understand, I am only talking about this one clan.”
“Uh huh.” He answered his mouth full.
“The leader Senda, the one I mentioned last night. I’ve met her before. She’s very wise, not much older than me, mother of three, last time I saw her.” She drank some coffee and continued. “Kalid are matriarchal. The leader is always a woman. Woman own the homes, men own the property. They pretty much share hunting, cooking, and taking care of the children. They are pretty intelligent, though not technical, education is important. They stay pretty much to themselves and are self sufficient. “
“They sound like an interesting people.”
“They are, they are also very private. You might be approached by one of the females; you need to handle anything like that very delicately.”
“Got it.” He said. “Be polite.”
She smiled a little then and started to put things away. “Polite will be the least of your worries.”
He finished his food and got another cup of coffee, “Tell me.” He said. “I really don’t want to start a war.”
“Women make the first moves in the Kalid society. Men don’t approach at all. If a woman finds you attractive, she might ask you.”
“Ask me what?”
“To be her mate, unattached men are always available.”
“Unattached, great.” He finished his coffee. “For this visit, I am attached.”
He grinned at her, “Yes I am, to you.”
“Me? And what makes you think I would claim you?”
“Come on,” he smiled, in a sing-song voice he crooned “You know you want me, can’t resist me, gotta have me.”
“Whoa, back the hell up. What makes you think I don’t already have someone waiting for me?”
“If you had someone, and this is how I know you don’t; he’d be here, with you….not waiting somewhere. So that’s settled, if any lovely lady asks, I am very sorry, but I belong to you.” He turned away chuckling. She threw a fur she had pulled out of the pack at him
“Fine.” She smiled at his back. “You do know what my claiming you will mean?”
“Nope, I don’t; but I am sure you’re gonna tell me.”
“Get your ass on the bird.” She said and shifted. He slung the pack up between her wings, and then walked around in front of her face as he pulled the heavy fur around himself. He reached up and ran his fingers down her face and across her beak to her mouth.
“I AM yours.” He whispered. Then walking back, he grabbed the leather, stepped up on the wing she offered and sat on her back. “Let’s go.” He told her and she rose into the air.