Chapter 3 of Wolf's Passage

by Sharon Gerald

**a fantasy novel written purely for sport.

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. To view a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-ncsa/3.0/ or send a letter to Creative Commons, 171 Second Street, Suite 300, San Francisco, California, 94105, USA.

Chapter 3

Miranda wasn’t sure how long she slept. Maybe it was minutes, or maybe it was hours. She only knew it was still dark when she woke. She felt her hands sliding down. They landed on Robert's thighs where she gripped to get her balance. He reached with one hand to grab both of hers and move them again to a point closer to his rib cage. She had the feeling this was not the first time they'd been through this maneuver, and she wondered why he was so tense and annoyed over it. This time she moved her hands deliberately down his body. This time she thought she understood his reaction. Her whole body flushed with embarrassment. He felt her moment of recognition and her embarrassment. Now she could feel his laughter. “As ever, Captain,” he said, “the joke is on me.” The laughter was infectious, disrupting the tension of the moment with something much more lighthearted.. It was, for Miranda, a glimpse of the old days of playing in the palace. She wanted more of that laughter, more easing of the tensions of the night. She was also more than a little curious. When she’d only leaned her head against his back, after all, she’d been shaken by the idea that this was her first time to touch a grown man. There were no men at all in the House of the South Crown, and the men who’d overseen her military training had certainly never touched her any closer than it would take to hand her things or show her how to adjust her weapons. Some of the adolescent Daughter soldiers developed infatuations with their trainers, but Miranda never did. It was as well she had not. They'd shown no interest in her, keeping well clear of her almost as if they’d been ordered to do so. But then they wouldn’t have required orders to know to keep away from her. She’d always

been marked as belonging to Robert even when no one knew the degree to which that was true. He claimed her as a member of his household, not just as a member of his own House of Daughters, but of his actual household. This meant any man wishing to pay her attentions would have been required to appeal directly to the king for permission. There could not have been a more effective means of keeping her ignorant of men. All that considered, until this moment, she realized, she’d never put much thought into the physical manhood of anyone in particular, not even Robert. Now there he was. There it was. In a few hours, one complete day and night would have passed since she’d been shocked into the realization that she was bonded in marriage to him and had taken off in search of him. It seemed more like it had been a year. But for some reason it was only just occurring to her that they were married. Married in that way she had no experience in even thinking about. Much. She was both horrified and fascinated by the idea. She flattened her hands against him, wondering how this would all work, and the strangest mix of emotions she thought it was possible for anyone to feel shot through him. There was affection and amusement. There was also worry and fear and regret. There was his ever-present resolve. Then there was something else. Some kind of longing that she didn’t even have a word for. “As much as I appreciate the attention, it’s time for you to behave, little girl.” She jerked her hands back and buried her face against him in embarrassment. She wanted to ask him so many things, but she was mortified to even begin. She almost didn’t want him to know just how innocent of the ways of men and women she was, but it would be impossible to hide that from him. She was nineteen, well beyond the age at which most girls learned these things. Had she not been a Daughter, she would have been considered marriageable several years earlier. It was only the greater responsibility of the greater powers that meant Daughters were not considered to have come into any kind of maturity until later. Perhaps if the young Daughters were not so sheltered from normal human existence this could be different, though. And Miranda was more

sheltered than most. Other Daughters went home to normal families for regular holidays throughout their training. As a member of the household of a king who was never in residence at the South Palace during her holidays, she never had a home to return to. She simply never left the sequestered little world of her House. The only traveling she’d ever done away from there had been to go to the military training camp. There, in Robert’s territory, it was almost as if her naiveté had been watched over by armed guards. No wonder he still thought of her as a little girl. He was probably even repulsed by the idea of her touching him. She felt a jabbing pain at that thought and felt even more foolish because she did not know why it would pain her. Robert patted his hand against her knee where it lay beside him with something akin to exasperation. “Don’t you dare get your feelings hurt. Even I have more sensitivities than to want my wife to discover her womanhood on the back of a horse while we’re running from one danger to another.” “Oh.” She did understand what he was saying, but her heart just kept sinking at the thought that he had to say it out loud for her to understand. She sank from embarrassed to whatever the feeling one hundred times worse than embarrassed was. She sank so far her own feelings drowned out her awareness of Robert's feelings. She did, however, hear his sigh. Loud and clear. “I’m sorry that your life is going to be so hard now. This is what my life is. If I knew how to spare you from it, I would.” “I…it doesn’t matter.” For once he seemed not to have control of his emotions as frustrations of one sort or another rushed through him. He brought the horses to an abrupt halt and swung himself to the ground so quickly he had to catch Miranda before she fell with him. He settled her in place on the stallion and handed her the reins. He kept the mare’s lead in his own hand. “The trail narrows ahead. I’ll walk

Winter. You follow on Thunder.” She knew that issuing commands even for simple things was part of his routine, that men and women everywhere scurried along to fulfill his commands without question. For the better part of a decade, he had been the ultimate authority in the land, and with the fall of the High Kingdom and the breakup of the Unified Lands, there was no one to whom he answered in all the world. She was not accustomed to jumping upon command, however. It wasn’t the way of the Daughters to make demands upon others. It was the way of military officers to make demands, but Miranda had been spared even that. Her status as a Daughter meant the men who came to train her were a little in awe of her. Her position as a member of the king’s household meant they hardly dared speak to her. Their instructions had been issued more as advice than orders. At the time she’d resented that she was not treated as everyone else. Now she resented that Robert was treating her as everyone else. She’d found it uncomfortable enough to ride Winter on her own for lengthy periods. Thunder was larger still and a good bit more willful. She had no desire to be left by herself with him, so she hefted herself off and slid with an appalling lack of dignity to the ground. She handed his reins to Robert, snatched at Winter’s lead and started walking forward with the mare. “I do not wish to follow behind on Thunder, thank you. And I’d appreciate being asked these things. I’m not one of your…” Ah, there was a catch here. She forced herself to swallow the rest of the sentence. “You’re not one of my what, Captain? Please, enlighten me.” She glanced ruefully at the military band on her arm. “Of course I am one of your troops to command, but not right now. We aren’t in a military situation right now. I’m a little more complicated than…” His laugh cut her off. “Indeed.” She turned to glare at him, but instead her attention was caught by the woman tied to the grey mare. Something wasn’t right. While Miranda had paid little attention to the scratchy, chirpy,

whistling sounds of the forest as they were happening, she was now aware that there were none of those sounds at the moment whereas there had been through most of the night. Their prisoner did not appear to be moving, but neither did she appear to be resting quite as stiffly against the horse as she had been earlier. Miranda touched her amulet and reset the entrapment spell. Instantly, the woman stiffened. Perhaps this was only a matter of the imagination, but Miranda was certain the woman had freed herself but for whatever reason had not done anything to reveal this. A cold stab of fear ran up Miranda’s spine. She had assumed her trap was set for hours as long as she remained close by. She had not paid enough attention. Her negligence could have spelt her doom and Robert’s along with her. Still, for some reason their prisoner chose to spare them. How puzzling. “What is it?” Robert now walked beside her, the two horses and the prisoner following behind, and the trail not nearly as narrow as he claimed only minutes earlier. “I’m not sure.” She glanced back at the prisoner. “You accepted my reading of her life essence earlier. Did you also check her markings?” “Of course. She’s marked with the falcon. She is, as you said, someone who once had oaths to Luther and the High Kingdom.” Miranda touched the wolf, the mark of the South King, on her own arm. “I wonder…” She paused, uncertain of how to say what she meant. She reached across to touch the marks on Robert’s arm. He too bore a wolf from the time of his oath to his own father. He bore a falcon from a childhood ceremony in which he’d been sworn to service to the high king. He was also marked with a lily, to indicate that he had sworn faithfulness to the Daughters of his own House. She dropped his arm when she started thinking about the feel of his skin beneath her fingertips and she realized she was being familiar with him despite his warning, a gesture that amused him, though this time he did not laugh out loud. He took her hand in his, laced their fingers together and waited for her to continue.

“You wonder what?” They were walking slowly but steadily at a pace that would give the horses a chance to rest. It felt awkward but good to move her legs after all of the time riding. “We know that Luther was the first to break faith with the Daughters and that the consequences of this were grave. Not only did he leave the High Kingdom open to attack, he also left the Daughters vulnerable to turning against their own people.” “Yes. If the High King had not banished the Daughters, his troubles would not still be ours today. I’m well aware.” “But they didn’t all go bad, did they? The Daughters of the Broken House, I mean. Some died in the siege or went to the next life with bonded husbands. Some escaped. Some took up other oaths. Some, we might assume, must still be living in hiding.” “I suppose,” Robert sighed. “But I’m not sure what you mean. Some of those Daughters would not have gone bad. True enough. But what does that have to do with the one we hold prisoner now? Surely you aren’t suggesting there could be an innocent reason a Broken Daughter would have stalked us through the forest within the boundaries of the South Kingdom?” “I suppose not, but…” “But nothing. You said yourself that we assume less than her worst at our peril.” “What if they can be saved?” “Saved?” Robert was now filled with dread, and Miranda knew it was at the thought that she might try something terribly inadvisable. “These Broken Daughters. It isn’t really their fault they are the way they are. The king lost his mind, by all accounts. He cut them off. He was the one who broke faith. He left them without an oath to fulfill and susceptible to darker influences. If they went astray, it was because they were weak, not bad. What if there is a way to redeem them? What if they can be brought back?” He shook his head and squeezed her hand. “No. It doesn’t work that way. As you say, not all

went bad. That means they did have a choice. They carved their own fate. They could even now be working to rid the land of intruders. Instead they are colluding with the enemy against their own people. There is no redemption for that.” “I’m not so sure.” “I am.” “If only…” Miranda let her thoughts wander off without bothering to finish what she’d started to say. Arguing the point with him would do no good, and there was no answer to what she’d been thinking. “There is no if. The House of Luther has ended. There were no royal survivors in the siege. There is no one to lay claim to the original oaths of these women. If there is a new high king when the invaders are pushed back, he will be of a new line. The Daughters of the High Kingdom are lost, perhaps forever.” “Not forever.” It was unthinkable to consider that. She couldn’t believe he’d even said it. This would mean true unity was never achievable again, and that simply could not be. “It is a possibility we must recognize.” “No.” She ran her thumb across the back of his hand and turned to look once more at their prisoner who was still secure in her entrapment. “When the lands are reunited, you will be the new high king. There will be children of the old Daughters as yet untrained and without oaths. They will revive the House of the High King.” “You always did love your fairy tales,” Robert sighed. “I will never be High King, and the chance that there are trainable and redeemable children of the Broken Daughters is remote at best. Even so, who would train them? I know you are a creature of faith, but even for you, there are too many leaps of faith involved in this story.” “You’re the last king standing, Robert. Who else would be high king?” He shrugged. “The East and West Kingdoms hang on.”

“By a thread. They’ve lost most of their territories. Their people know no peace. Your people continue to live as in the old days but for the fact that their sons and daughters go off to defend the borders. You are the only king who could stake a claim to the High Throne that would garner any respect.” In truth, the day they might have opportunity to crown a new high king seemed so far away there was no reason to project who the man might be, but this line of thought kept Robert from worrying over what she’d do with their prisoner should her sympathies grow. The diversion worked. For a moment. He chuckled lightly to himself. “Who would have guessed I had such an ambitious little companion in you?” She smiled but could not keep her mind from straying to the prisoner. There had to be a way to find out more about these Broken Daughters. There would be information in the libraries compiled from older ages of war, but Miranda had been such a serious student of books that she had hardly left a volume untouched. She could think of no precedent for attempting to redeem lost Daughters. No one alive in the South Country could be much help. They had no direct experience with the Broken Ones. The possibility that there were some out there had been only an idea until Miranda captured one. “Miranda?” “Hmmm?” “I’ve been wondering about something. Our prisoner could track you because the Daughters of the High Kingdom had magic that reached into all corners of the Unified Lands. She could have sensed a Daughter of any house. I understand that much. What I don’t understand is how you knew she was there. Should you have been able to sense her when she was cloaked?” “Oh.” Miranda’s eyes widened. Why had she not thought of this herself? “I don’t know.” Of course she should not have been able to sense the other woman, but she couldn’t say this. Robert was such a worrier. She needed time to sort this question out in her own mind before she stirred him up with the possibilities. She looked back at the woman again. Her physical traits were not particularly distinct. She had dark hair of the sort that could be from any of the lands. “Perhaps

she has roots in the South. Maybe she was born to a Daughter of the South Crown.” Robert’s eyebrows drew together, and his emotions gave way to some pervasive need to simply calculate. “Possibly,” he said. “Her eyes are green.” Miranda turned to observe the woman again. Her eyes were closed now where they had been open earlier. She had not noticed their color. “Your eyes are green,” Robert pointed out. Miranda only nodded. “Unusual in the South, but common among the Daughters of the High Crown.” “What are you talking about?” She tried unsuccessfully to pull her hand away from his. Something in his tone was making her extremely nervous. “Plenty of Daughters of the South Crown have green eyes.” “How many do you know?” “I…” She tried to think and drew a blank. Her heart was pounding so fast she could barely think. Because she’d been orphaned since infancy anything at all that might hint at her heritage put her into an emotional frenzy. “I don’t know. But this is absurd. I was the child of peasant farmers of the South who died of illness. Your mother took me in out of sympathy for my mother who appealed to kindness in her dying breath. That is all, the whole of the mystery of my origins, no matter the stories I concocted of my parentage as a child.” And what stories she had told. Spurred on by Robert’s habit of calling her Princess, she’d been the favorite princess of all the lands and indeed all the worlds known throughout the skies by the time she finished telling of her birth. Those were simply childhood fantasies, however. They offered no answers now. “You’ve been many things, Princess. A peasant farmer is not one of them.” The use of his pet childhood name for her grated, considering she was already confused and upset, but he found great sport in it despite the underlying tension in his own line of thought.

“Nor is a princess.” “Ah, but you were always that.” Miranda just shook her head, choosing not to go into this. He’d teased her mercilessly over the privileges she’d known as a child. She’d been brought into the queen’s own chambers as an infant to be a servant to the queen but instead she’d been treated more like a real child of the palace. “Your mother was not a Daughter of the South Crown, but neither was she a peasant. She could have well been a Daughter of another house, possibly even of the High Crown. The queen, I think, keeps more secrets where you’re concerned than we’ve known.” “My mother could have been a peasant. Why would the queen lie about this?” “She said your mother came to the House of the South Crown heavy with child and claiming to be a peasant woman whose husband was dead. This may be true. That doesn’t mean your mother was who she claimed.” “Why would she lie? What makes you think she did?” “How many peasant women have you known to have given birth to magical children? Daughters come from Daughters, do they not? And as their bloodlines are marked with power, they tend to come from well placed families.” Miranda simply shook her head. It wasn’t as if she’d never contemplated these things before, but she saw no benefit in looking for answers where there were none. “She could have married beneath her station.” “Then why did she not go to her own family to give birth? Even if they had renounced her marriage, they would have taken in her child.” “Perhaps she was not of a noble family. Perhaps she wasn’t magical at all. Sometimes the Graces fall away from generations and then come up again later.” “Not with ferocity.” “What do you mean?” Miranda frowned as she tried once again to understand why Robert had

never been satisfied with the story of her birth. “How many young women of the South Crown could have overpowered a Broken Daughter of the High Crown without sustaining a single injury? You are exceptionally powerful, Princess. Exceptionally powerful Daughters are not born to women for whom the Graces have fallen away. Your mother could have only been one in whom the Old Powers were strong. Yet she was unknown in the House of the South Crown, if my mother can be believed. I think more and more she was of a powerful house outside our borders.” Miranda dropped her hand away from his and picked up her pace. He only walked faster to keep up with her. “That’s only a way of saying she was of the House of the High Crown. There were never such powerful houses in the North, and there is none as powerful as my own in the East or West. But it matters not. So what if my mother was a Broken Daughter of the High Crown? She died in childbirth, and I bear the mark of the wolf. The High Kingdom has nothing to do with me. I serve only one king.” “And how do you serve him?” Robert was amused again, at Miranda’s expense. The only way she wanted to serve him at the moment was to hit him. “Leave me alone.” “That’s the spirit. Other men can now sigh with relief that you serve only the wolf king.” Miranda jerked at Winter’s lead when she sped up to a jog. She just wanted a little space away from Robert. He was upsetting her, and she did not want him looking at her while she got her foul mood under control. He, however, had other ideas and easily kept pace with her. “If you cry, I’m going to banish you to a goat farm on the southernmost island in my provinces even if it does mean I commit suicide by doing so.” Miranda jogged a little faster. She didn’t understand why he would say such things when his heart reflected affection. “Ah, Princess, we have a job ahead toughening you up, don’t we?”

She started to cry, and she hated herself for it. She blamed her lack of rest and her sore muscles along with the dire nature of their situation. She certainly wasn’t crying over the way a man she hadn’t seen in so long she barely knew him was talking to her. “Blame me.” She slowed down and glanced at Robert as she brushed at her cheeks. “What?” “You aren’t prepared for the things you’ll have to face now, and that is largely my doing. It is perhaps wholly my doing.” “What do you mean?” “I may have teased you over being pampered and spoiled, and it may have been my mother who started you down this path, but for your entire adolescence, you were pampered and sheltered at my insistence. I never intended that you would have a grown-up life outside the South Palace.” She slowed nearly to a halt, her confusions shifting in nature to something she did not understand. “You never intended that I would have a life outside the South Palace?” “Never.” “And what, pray tell, did you intend my place to be at your palace?” Her confusion quickly unfolded into resentment, and his concerns welled up with guilt and regret. “I don’t know.” “You would never have married me without the bonds.” He sighed and a kind of pain she didn’t think he even recognized shot through him. “I couldn’t have. My life does not belong only to me. I would have owed it to my people to marry for political gain, especially in these times of war.” “You would have kept me in your home as a servant while you married another?” He shook his head, but nothing about his guilt lessened. “I don’t know. You’re no servant. You never have been. As a Daughter in service to the South Palace, you would have had a life of privilege, though.”

Miranda closed her eyes and let out a slow groan. “Did you mean to keep me as a concubine?” He laughed, but it was a strained sound, and even without it she could tell she had wounded him in some way with the question. “You were a child the last time I saw you. You’re barely more than a child now. Believe me when I say I never thought of you as a concubine.” “You don’t think of me in that way?” He bent his head in a gesture that said he knew there was no good answer to this question. So many tensions of so many natures flitted through him that Miranda could not identify them. After a long pause, he said, “Whether we meant this or not, you are my wife now. Sooner or later, there’s no doubt your innocence will be at risk.” “Oh.” She turned her head but couldn’t stop the flush of both embarrassment and pleasure that washed through her. She could feel both affection and amusement fighting against Robert’s guilt and regret. “There’s no hurry,” he said. “We can’t exactly afford distractions right now, and you have a lot of growing up to do if we’re going to survive.” “Robert?” “Hmmm?” “What would you have done if you had married another and brought me to the South Palace only as a servant, and then you discovered that you wanted me in the way a man should want a wife?” He breathed in, and every feeling inside him seemed to pause with his breath. “Miranda?” “Yes?” “If I kiss you, will you be quiet for a while?” Suddenly, her heart was beating faster again. “Maybe.” He brought them to a halt and wrapped an arm around her, pulling her close. He held her in a possessive way, but he kissed her in a tender way. The kiss was not quite a lover’s kiss, but it was more than a friend’s kiss. It was a good bit more than that.

And still he was a man who could not afford distractions, not even from a wife. Especially not from a wife. Miranda pulled back. She took his hand in hers and slowly, silently started walking forward.

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