Chapter 2 of Wolf's Passage

by Sharon Gerald

**a fantasy novel written purely for sport.

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Chapter 2

Robert startled Miranda by suddenly falling back from his lead to ride alongside her. She struggled to slow down with him, a real shift from struggling to keep up. She groaned as she sat back on her mare and looked his way. The effort was uncomfortable. Every effort was uncomfortable. She was on a larger mare that she did not know and was not at ease with. Her own horse, she'd been told, was too tired to continue through the night. Cleo was resting with other weary creatures and would be brought to Miranda later. In truth, Miranda was the tired one. She wouldn’t begrudge her old friend a respite, but her own bottom certainly felt the brunt of whatever harsh traveling they'd done. She ached and felt all the more irritable for the brief nap allowed to her before setting out on this insane journey through the night. But time was of the essence. She understood that better than anyone. And she traveled alone with Robert. His life was truly in her hands, placed there voluntarily by his own choice. For that she should feel flattered. But then she’d never been very good at what she should feel. He was ignoring her. He had been ignoring her for hours at any rate. Now he was slowing down perhaps to rest the horses and perhaps just to give himself time to feel annoyed by her presence. What kind of start to a marriage was that? And what was this trick he did where he went into absolute emotional stasis? She was bonded to him. She could sense his life essence anywhere in the world that he went. She was supposed to be able to read his emotions as well, but they were a mystery. His mind had been very busy, but she could not guess what he’d been thinking. He, by all appearances, felt nothing about it. Until she caught a flash of annoyance just before they began to slow.

“Can you calm down? Please?” “Calm down?” What was he talking about? She hadn’t said a thing. She had left him to his thinking. “You’re hysterical.” “I am not. I’m not anything. I’m perfectly calm.” “This is your calm? Is this what I have to look forward to? Every possible human emotion whirling around inside you at absolute lightening speed day in and day out? You’re feeling neglected. Who has time to feel neglected on the way to war? You're impossible.” He held the reins in one hand as the other scratched his head and pushed the hair back from his face. He was tired but unwilling to admit it, and he let his guard down enough that it was clear he had a fair share of confusion mixed in with his irritation. He did not ask for or count on a wife he didn’t even know was his showing up today, let alone one bonded to him through irrevocable magic and bearing bad news for his troops and his kingdom. He could be excused for not knowing what to do with her or what he was supposed to say to her. “I just wanted to talk. I’m sorry if I bothered you.” “What do you want to talk about?” “I don’t know.” There was something in his tone that made her feel like an irksome child, and she resented that. She could literally feel him rolling his eyes. That didn’t help. She nudged her horse forward so that she was now in the lead, leaving him to trail behind. He could watch her back for a few hours wondering what she thought of him. Perhaps vaguely it occurred to her that he was a king and she was supposed to defer to him, but she didn’t care. She had the terrible feeling that she had cheated herself out of the chance to marry someone who might actually care about her by tying herself to him, and king or not, she didn’t have to like it.

It took her a moment to realize he was laughing out loud at her. This made her so angry that when he ducked to miss a branch suddenly in his face she wondered briefly if she had somehow tried to hit him with it. She didn’t know how she could have, even through magical means. She had cast no charm. Just the glimpse she got of his near miss was enough to make her feel better, though, and suddenly she was the one laughing as she settled back to a slower pace beside him. “Miranda,” he said after a pause to brush at a scratch on his arm. “It is good to see you again. You have to know I mean that. We were friends once, and I’ve thought of you often. But…” “Don’t say it.” “You wanted to talk. There are things we should say.” She shook her head. It was dark, but they could see each other and the trail in front of them clearly. The moon helped some, and Miranda helped some with her spells. “Don’t say what you can’t mean. There is nothing either of us can do. No one knows a magic to reverse this. We will be together for life whether either of us wants it.” “I’m a king at war. There are places I have to go where I can’t take you. We may be bound for life, but we will have to find a way around the need for constant cohabitation. It can’t happen. I’m going to send you back to the Daughters where you’ll be safe before the invaders reach our border. I’ll come to you as soon as I can. It’s the only way this will work.” She breathed in and out. She focused on keeping her emotions under control. For a minute there, she thought he was going to hurt her feelings, but there was little point in that when the man clearly didn’t know what he was talking about. “No.” She paused to make sure he heard, and when she felt him fighting to clamp down on his anger, she continued. “I will not be sent away. You will need me, and we both know the magic of the bonds means there is a limit to the length of time we can be apart before we start to deteriorate or even die from the trauma of our spirits fighting to find each other. How long do you think you would last in battle in a weakened state? A few days? A few weeks? How strong are you?”

His anger gave way to concern, and the night grew eerily still around them. The only sounds were of them and their mounts and the rustling of a breeze so slight it was almost imperceptible. The absence of animal noises was quite disturbing. They were in deep forest, well away from any main roads or populated areas. “You don’t have to go all the way back to your own House. There are Houses of Daughters that are not as far from where I will be. You will be safe in any of them. I won’t send you so far away that I can’t come to you if I realize I need you, but you will do what I say. How strong will I be if you get yourself killed? How long will I last then? I was brought up by a Daughter, remember? I know as well as you do that the magic lasts beyond a single lifetime. Bonded husbands follow their wives to the next life almost immediately. What will happen to our people then? Who will defend our borders?” Miranda shrugged as much because she knew he already understood that she didn’t have an answer as anything. He had no son as of yet. If anything happened to him, the uncertainty that would rip through the South would more than likely be its final undoing. Now she had to keep herself alive to keep him alive, which was somehow more pressure than only staying alive for her own sake. The full consequences of what she’d done in tying a king to her would take some time to process. That didn’t mean she had to accept that he knew any better than she what to do. “I’m trained for battle. I’ll be fine. I’m well able to protect myself.” “You’re not ready. None of you Daughter soldiers are. Military training for Daughters was an experiment. We aren’t ready to put it to practice. We may never be. You just aren’t cut out for fighting.” She shifted on her horse and had to lean over to reassure it when her sudden movement seemed to have startled the animal. “Of course we…” “No. You’re pacifists. You’ve taken oaths not to kill. We were mistaken to even attempt to train you. It won’t work.” “But as a line of defense, you have nothing stronger. You must use us. That was always the

plan. The High Kingdom has fallen. The North has fallen. The magical houses in the East and West have weakened considerably. The Daughters of the South are your best hope to hold our borders. We’re your only hope.” His frustration was so palpable it seemed to claw right into her. “It’s true that you are our best line of defense. Your charms can protect our borders and our soldiers. We would have fallen already had the South Crown not remained loyal to the Daughters and vice versa. But this is real war we’re talking about. Not the games you used to play in the palace and not the simulations you’ve been put through to practice. You are not ready for this. You are not prepared for bloody and dirty and cruel. You will be unable to watch people killing and dying without stepping in to interfere. There’s a point at which a good defense means you are going to have to let us kill them. You won’t be able to do it. Protection of life is too ingrained in you. You’ll get yourself killed and the rest of us along with you.” Both his voice and his mood said he’d harbored these thoughts for a long time, too long for them to be entirely about her. He might be loyal to the Daughters, but he had his qualms about them too. Maybe he had a point about the differences between their approaches to war, but would it not be a better victory if no one died, and the enemy was simply forced to fall back when it became evident that they could not move forward? Of course that would not solve the problem of how to regain the lost lands and reunite the High Kingdom, but it would save the South, and that is what the Daughter soldiers were meant to accomplish. “You feel this way, yet you’ve approved of the training program? You’ve approved of me receiving the training? You may not have known how connected we were, but you have known for years that I would one day end up in battle with you.” He let out a long breath. “I allowed it. That doesn’t mean I ever approved of it.” Miranda fell silent, but she knew her mood spoke for her. She had expected his resistance to the idea of having her forced on him as a wife. She had not anticipated that he would baulk at her going to

war with him when that was what she’d been meant to do with or without the issue of marriage bonds. “Even if it were a workable plan,” he sighed, “you’re little more than a child. Now is not the time to start testing you.” She shot him a look that should have mortally wounded his certainty on this point. “I’m no younger than any who first enter combat. I’m in fact older than most men or women.” “You aren’t most. You may amuse yourself by claiming to be a serving girl, but you’ve known only the South Palace and the House of the South Crown as home. There is no more privileged young lady in the land. It was a great joke to me the day I had you named a captain. It was supposed to be a joke for long years to come. You have nothing in your background to prepare you…” She held up a hand to silence him. Something was wrong, something outside of her irritation with him. They were not alone. She was sure of that, but she could not yet tell who or what had joined them. They were cloaked and shielded. They were leaving no tracks. No mortal man could follow them. “I need a personal stop,” she said. “Now. At the first good clearing we go off the trail.” He nodded, and she was grateful that he did not notice her fear. He was a little too amused and smug at the delicacy of her lady-like constitution to have caught on that they were stopping for another reason. She schooled herself not to react as the sense of another presence grew stronger. Soon they did veer off into a small clearing where she hesitated just long enough that he seemed to think she needed help coming off the larger horse. She let him help her. The act, and his amusement at needing to do it for someone who had just been boasting of her preparation for battle, distracted him. Once her feet were on the ground, however, she straightened her clothes and put a hand to the amulet at her neck. “There is a spring not far into the woods that way,” she said. “Take the horses while I take care of myself.” She waited for him to go just out of sight before she crouched behind a tree and tried to orient

herself to what she was sensing. It took only seconds to locate the presence. It stood maybe ten or so paces from her, and it had also come to a halt. She couldn’t see anything, though, and this did nothing to ease her suspicions. This was a situation better solved by a group of magical women all at the experience level of the queen herself, not one freshly of age Daughter of Peace and her mortal man. If she failed…it didn’t bear thinking about. Nothing of good intent emanated from the life essence that stalked her. It wanted Robert, no doubt, but it could sense her, not him. Otherwise, the presence would have moved on with him. No one should be able to sense a cloaked Daughter. Even another Daughter should only be able to sense someone from her own House. No one from Miranda’s House would follow her like this. She was dealing with someone more dangerous than she dared consider. Yet she had very little time to think it through. She had to act before Robert returned. Drawing in a deep breath, she clutched her amulet and prayed to the Mothers of Old and all of the Graces known to them as she cast first the spell to de-shield, then the spell to entrap, and then the spell to de-cloak all in rapid succession. She realized as soon as it was done both that her eyes were closed and that she was shaking. If she had failed, she was dead and Robert along with her. She was so petrified that she could not force her eyes open to meet her fate. She thought she may have even been hit with an entrapment spell herself she was so incapable of movement. But somehow she knew only her own cowardice held her in place. “What is this? Who is this?” Robert was alive. He had to be alive to talk, didn’t he? That probably meant she was alive as well. Miranda slowly released her breath and opened her eyes. A woman stood nearby transfixed in a state of surprise. She had tried to react, but had been too slow. Miranda won after all. How she could only attribute to the will of the Mothers. Robert paced around the woman, curiosity and worry both vying for the upper hand on his

emotions. “Anyone you know?” He walked closer to Miranda and put a hand on her arm, his only acknowledgement that he understood she’d been deeply afraid. She shook her head. “She isn’t one of ours. She is not of the South Kingdom.” “How is that possible?” How indeed? The magic of the Daughters came from the Earth Mothers of Old. It was tied directly to the land. It could not be performed outside of the lands to which the Daughters had taken oaths of loyalty. This was to assure that it was used for blessings and protections only. It was never to be used aggressively. Terrible things happened when this first law of magic was defied, such terrible things that no one really knew the extent of them. They were myths and legends, not known facts, not things anyone in living memory understood. Nonetheless, there was only one answer regarding who this woman could be. Up until this point the possibility that she might exist had been only a rumor. The fact that she was very much real was the worst possible news for the Southlands. “She’s a remnant of the High Kingdom. A Broken Daughter.” Robert whistled as his spirit instantly tightened, not with fear, but with that iron-clad resolve Miranda was coming to know better than she wanted. “This is how they are hiding whole armies then? They have recruited women whose loyalties were broken when Luther and the High Kingdom fell?” The inflection in his voice said it was a question, but it was really a statement. He understood. He also understood that he was dealing with something armies of men could not defeat. She thought it best to leave him to think this through on his own. “We can’t leave her alive.” Miranda flinched at this. “As you suspected, I must oppose you on that. I cannot kill her. You would die trying. And I cannot use my magic to aid you in her killing.” He shrugged, having already worked this much out. It only underscored their previous

argument on the use of Daughters of Peace in war. “How long can you keep her magically entrapped here? I can send guards for her as soon as we reach the camp.” “The bonds will begin to weaken when I’ve left the vicinity. You know this. I can’t guarantee she will not escape or be rescued by the time anyone could come back. I certainly can’t guarantee the bond would hold long enough to prevent her killing off a mortal guard. She might do it too. If her oaths are broken, we assume less than the worst of her at our own peril.” He folded his arms across his chest and kept his eyes on the woman in question. “She can be neutralized?” “I lack the strength on my own to strip her powers.” “That isn’t what I asked.” “With enough Daughters working together, yes. She can be neutralized. It would have to be done by a very powerful House like my own, but it could be done.” How they could safely deliver her to the House of the South Crown was another question. It would take many days traveling with a prisoner to go that far. That was not even accounting for the fact that they could not detour south when Robert had a war to prepare in the opposite direction. And who could guess what else was stalking them? “Congratulations, then, Captain. You have a military duty after all. You’ve just taken your first prisoner of war.” “I’m not sure what you expect me to do about that, Sir. I’m only a joke.” Now that the immediate crisis was over, she couldn’t make herself face the looming problem ahead. All she could think about was that she’d missed her chance to be indignant over his mockery of her. How dare he call her title a joke? She had earned it. He lifted an eyebrow in the midst of otherwise impassive features. “That’s certainly the way to prove your maturity and readiness for the job at hand.”

She stomped away from him to disappear for a moment into the trees. She may not have needed to stop originally for personal reasons, but she did now. His laughter echoed behind her, continuing to mock her. She wiped at her cheek when she felt one tear falling and was unable to hold back others. Didn’t he know how much danger they were in? Didn’t he know this wasn’t the time to make fun of her? She took her time, calling the horses to her before she returned to the clearing. It may have been immature, but she waited to return to him until his laughter subsided, and he’d worked his way through to at least a slight pang of regret. “How do you suppose she got here? Would she have had a horse?” He knew the answer to this as well as she did, but it was a casual question that offered a chance to ignore her state of emotional disrepair and move on with just discussing unemotional details. “We’ll never find it. It may be cloaked yet, and by the time the charm wears off we’ll need to have moved on. We can’t trust any animal loyal to her to stay with us anyway. We’ll have to put her on Winter with me.” He ran a hand down Winter’s side and nodded. “We’ll put her on your mare, yes. But you will ride with me.” Miranda stared down at her own feet as her heart flipped over and seemed to drop to the ground. Why was she suddenly more willing to spend the next hours or days or weeks in close proximity with a known enemy than with the man who was supposedly her bonded-for-life-and-eternity husband? “I’ll have more control of her if I ride with her.” “And I’ll have more control of you if you ride with me.” She lifted her eyes trying to understand what the tinge of wary affection in his fairly dark tone was all about. He ran a hand down her arm in a gesture that reminded her of the touch he’d just given the horse, as if he was checking her for travel-readiness. “We don’t know what we’re dealing with here. We don’t know how long you’ll be able to keep her overpowered, or how long it will be before

more of her kind come looking for her. If she gets away on that horse, I’m not taking the chance that she has you as a prisoner.” “But…” Robert was if nothing else a logical man, a master of strategy, yet there was little logic in this thinking. If their prisoner were to overpower her entrapment enough to escape, they would both be dead. “Your danger is my danger, remember? I don’t want you any closer to her than you have to be. You’ll ride with me.” Miranda nodded and tried not to sigh too heavily. They’d been married for one day, and so far she only brought him worse and worse news. This was possibly the closest she would come for a long time to him actually wanting her around. He busied himself securing their prisoner to the horse they would now have to pull along with them. Now more than ever they could not afford to linger in one place for very long, but everything in Miranda ached, and she would have been grateful to collapse where she stood. Somehow she had to keep going. She even had to manage to be calm and unobtrusive about the fact that she would be pressed right up against the husband who was already sick of her presence. He handed her the rope he’d tied to Winter to give her a longer lead while he climbed onto the grey stallion Thunder, admittedly a more powerful ride for carrying two. He leaned over and seemed to pull her behind him and take over Winter’s lead in one motion. He waited for her to settle in her seat and wrap her arms around his waist to steady herself before he urged the horses forward. “Lean your head against me and relax,” he said. “We have a long ride ahead. You should make yourself as comfortable as possible while you dwell on what an abysmal husband I’ll be.” She buried her head against him. “That’s not…” She didn’t quite know what to say. She was overcome with embarrassment. She didn’t know how she was going to survive this bonded marriage business. It was hard enough becoming accustomed to being near the man without him knowing everything that crossed through her heart. It wasn’t so much that she thought he would be bad to her

anyway. She simply feared how quickly and how thoroughly her whole life had changed. Surely he had to understand that. Surely he was going through something similar. “Shhh,” he said. “Rest as much as you can. No doubt I’ll live down to all of your expectations. I’m not the same boy you knew, but there’s nothing you can do about that now. If we live long enough, there’ll be plenty of time to argue the point later.” Miranda froze up with dread at his words, and she knew he probably thought it was because she was imaging how awful he would be. In reality, it was because the enormity of his responsibilities and some small comprehension of how little left over he had for himself or for her were starting to sink in. He was a king at war, after all. He didn’t have time for a wife or her expectations. Perhaps she was young and spoiled, but she understood the selfishness involved in wanting a husband who was hers alone. Unfortunately, understanding was not enough to keep her from feeling disappointed by what couldn’t be. She felt the strength of him even through his clothing. She was trembling, and she did not know if she was still reacting to the worst fear she’d ever experienced in her first true brush with danger, or if she was this nervous about her proximity to her own husband. He seemed to think she was still in shock. He said nothing, but she could feel his concern and his offer of his own presence as comfort. Her head leaned into the solid muscle of a solid man, and despite the dangers they faced, despite the fact that she was the one with the magical powers, she did feel protected. She was nineteen and someone’s wife. The last time she’d had any physical contact with a male was the day Robert held her while she cried when she knew she was about to be taken from him. “Don’t worry,” he’d said that day. “We’ll see each other again one day, my little wife. You’ll be all grown up and the finest lady in all the land. We’ll sit by the fire in the palace library, and you’ll tell me about everything you’ve learned while you’ve been away. And all the young nobles will come calling, but I’ll chase them away and make sure that everyone knows the most beautiful girl in the

kingdom is mine.” Even in her childish gloom, she’d understood he’d been playing a part. It was certainly supposed to have been only a part. He was her hero prince, and he’d made her out to be the beautiful princess in the story. The pretend story told by an indulgent young man to a child. He was a real prince, after all, with much more pressing things to do. And she was no princess, even if he’d called her that many times. She was just an orphan girl his mother took in, a servant. Nothing about what they’d done that day, including the bonds they’d made, was supposed to be real. He’d merely been humoring her, distracting her from her tears. Yet for no comprehensible reason, the bonds did turn out to be real. She had seen her Robert again, but they might never return alive to the South Palace, much less to beautiful days of talking leisurely by the library fire. She had to catch herself when the trail dipped and she was jostled on the back of the horse. She grabbed hold of Robert and straightened up before resting her head against him again. His stomach where her hands pressed in was as solid hard as his back. He had been doing tough physical labor for a very long time to be that muscular. Robert did not command his troops from a distance, and he did not command them to things he would not do himself. His life truly transformed after the deaths of his brother and father. He was right. He was not the same person she’d known. He was her husband now, but she did not know him at all. All the years she’d been living under his protection in what he so mockingly called privileged conditions, he’d been living a life so hard and dangerous she could not fathom what it might have been like. While Miranda and his mother lived sequestered among the Daughters, he left the South Palace to live among his troops. Because of this, he won their trust in ways his father never managed, and he became wildly popular with his people. Could a man who was trusted by so many be trusted with one young woman’s heart? Perhaps not. He belonged to all, not to one woman. With that thought, Miranda understood that as long as she

was with him, which would by necessity be for the rest of her days, she might never see the luxury of a real home again. This moment was perhaps be the best she had to hope for. Rest may have perpetually become something that happened in transit with her head leaned against Robert’s back while they rode on through the night with a dangerous prisoner in tow. It was for that she cried. He showed little awareness that she was crying, but something about his steady, solid presence next to her seemed to gradually absorb her fears and sorrows. In return, he offered not comfort or regret or pity, but rather that hard resolve that seemed to be his emotional signature. Strangely, what could have easily come across as cold-heartedness began to have a calming effect. He chose not to humiliate her by reacting to her tears, and that was somehow the right thing. She felt her own emotions synchronizing with his, taking on the same even rhythms, which might be seen as dulling herself down, but it was more like steadying herself so that the two of them together could simply make it through the night alive. Soon, she felt her eyelids drooping, and she gave herself over to exhaustion, to trusting that nothing bad would happen if she did sleep, to trusting Robert with her life for a time as he had trusted her with his.

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