Dances With Wizards

 

Part One

 

It's almost night.

I reach into the front of the plain tunic I put on at the start of my journey and take out my medallion. It's cold to the touch - a result of the chill winter breeze, no doubt. The hawk symbol on the front is carved in thick bronze - marking me as a journeyman sorcerer.

This journey is the one that's going to get me promoted to the silver.

Of course, that doesn't mean I understand the point of this errand.

"Take this to the Wizards' Council in the eastern mountains," was what our council told me. "It's very important that you get it there as soon as you can."

And they handed me a wooden door handle.

I still don't understand. I take out the plain, unmagical thing, holding it up next to my medallion. At the time, I'd almost believed it was a joke, but they still sent me off without even so much as a snicker. It doesn't make much sense to me.

But this is my journey, and I'll still complete it.

It's the middle of winter, and that makes a journey like mine a little bit more difficult than it might have been during the spring, summer, or even autumn. There's snow to deal with, for one thing, and it's cold enough so that I have to dress and pack warmly. My tunic is heavy, and I was given a warm cloak to wear. Still, in the early morning and late at night, the cold air tends to bite.

It's time to stop for the night.

It doesn't take more than a few minutes for me to find a place where I can set up camp. The woods I'm traveling through aren't too dense to provide more than a few clearings that would suit me. I'm not trying to hide and I'm not in a hurry, so I build a fire and lay out my things.

I come from a wealthy family, so I'm not really used to camping out on my own. But I've been in training as a sorcerer for seven years, and survival is one of the first things they teach you. I learned how to set up a decent camp, though I've never actually done it before this.

Perfect time to see if I've learned anything.

I light the fire and dig into my bag for the rations I brought along.

I've been traveling all day - and this isn't the first day. At the base of the western mountains, the Council of Sorcerers keeps track of everyone in the brotherhood. We all find ways to report back when it's necessary, and there are times we have to return for one reason or another. I lived in that place while I went through my training, so it's become like home to me. This is the first time I've ever been completely alone, but I'm finding that I don't mind it. There's a sort of peaceful feeling in the crackling of the fire and the night sounds made by various animals - mostly crunching noises, letting me know that there are creatures walking through the snow.

I think I might want to make more journeys in the future. Especially through the woods. I traveled through the bare flatlands between the mountains and the woodlands earlier in my journey, and I didn't find it nearly as interesting. I get the feeling it's more dangerous here, too.

But I'm prepared for that.

The food I was cooking suddenly falls off my makeshift tray and into the fire with a loud hiss.

"Oh no!" I crouch beside where it fell, dismayed. There's no way I'm going to be able to save any of that. Nice going, Quatre - there's some of your rations down the drain.

I make a face, sigh, and reach for more food.

"Hello the camp!" a voice suddenly calls from the shadows surrounding my clearing. "I'm looking for a place to stay for the night. I have food and fresh water to offer in return."

Huh. Maybe I'm not so unlucky…

"Come on in," I reply quickly, before he decides to leave instead.

The mysterious stranger enters the clearing, setting down a heavy bag at the opposite end of the fire from me. His eyes are dark and slanted, and his hair is pulled back tightly. The expression on his face is almost severe. "Thank you for your hospitality," he says, somewhat formally.

I smile, liking the look of him despite that tense feeling he radiates. "It's no trouble. The clearing isn't mine, after all, and I won't lose any warmth by sharing the fire." My smile turns rueful. "I just dropped my dinner in there, so I have to admit, your offer of food was tempting."

As if on cue, my stomach growls.

He smiles - very, very slightly. "Very well." His fingers move to unlace the ties on his bag. "I'm called Wufei," he offers.

I nod. "My name is Quatre." I notice the strange pouch hanging by his waist. "Are you a wizard, by any chance?"

He hands me a generous portion of his dry rations. "Yes."

What an opportunity! To actually meet one of the others, and on my first journey… My smile widens. "I'm a sorcerer, actually."

Wufei glances up, but doesn't reply.

I suppose that's not an uncommon reaction. Wizards and sorcerers haven't always gotten along well together. From what I've studied of our history, neither side was very gracious about it. And both had held those who practiced different types of magic in contempt for the most part. The differences were really superficial from what I could see. Wizards used incantations to summon up spirits that would do their bidding. Sorcerers used power within themselves to work magic.

The end results were very similar.

Still, I'd always been interested in different types of magic. "You could have lit a fire yourself with magic, couldn't you?" I ask him, hoping to spark up a conversation.

"Of course. " Wufei sniffs, as if disdainful of the idea that he might not have been able to. "But I prefer not to waste my energy. Besides, you had a fire already going. I figured if you were willing to share, it would be more practical to just have one."

"That makes sense," I agree. "I didn't use magic to light this one anyway. Same reasoning."

He seems to approve of that. "If we were to be attacked, we might need all the strength we could muster."

"Exactly." I beamed, pleased that I'd gotten him to open up.

There's a moment of companionable silence after that.

I've never been a fan of silence, though. "Where are you headed?"

"Back to the council." He shrugs slightly. "I was on a journey. They needed me to pick up a message from some village in the west. I'm on my way back with it."

"That's where I'm going, too." I jump to the next logical conclusion. "Why don't we travel together?"

Wufei looks at me for a moment. "It's practical," he concedes. "If you're trained as a sorcerer, I'm going to assume you won't be a hindrance."

I decide to take that as a compliment. "Thanks."

He grunts and focuses on cooking the food. At least he doesn't get distracted as easily as I do. I think it would have put a definite irritating feel to the evening if I lost more food to t he fire.

In a moment, I'm busy with what actually turns out to be surprisingly tasty food. "This is really good," I say honestly, amazed that he managed to make such a meal with just dry rations to work with. "You're a pretty good cook."

He frowns. "Thank you. But cooking isn't a skill that's valued high where I come from."

"Really?" That's interesting. "Don't you care about what you're eating?"

"If it's healthy, then it's best to eat it. If not, then it's not." Wufei shrugged. "I was taught to cook during my training, as I'm sure you were as well."

I nod. "Yes I was. But I'm not exactly the greatest cook. I can force down the food I make, but I'd hate to push it on someone else."

Another hint of a smile. "Well, we won't starve then."

"I think we'll get by."

Another moment o f silence and then, surprisingly enough, he offers more talk. "You're traveling to the Wizards' Council. What exactly is your business there?"

"I'm on a journey, like you." I fold my sleeping roll into a square and sit on it to keep it warm. "I was asked to deliver something to them."

Wufei raises an eyebrow. "If it's not too impolite, can I ask what?"

I'd been hoping he wouldn't, but I take out the door handle and show it to him.

He glances at it, then up at me. "Are you serious?"

"I don't know any more than you do." I put it away. "They told me it was very important, so I guess it must be. I didn't ask for an explanation."

"Of course not." Wufei seems almost incredulous at the very idea. "It's not your place to question your betters. What they ask of you is their business."

I nod. "I didn't want to seem rude, so I didn't say anything."

He seems satisfied. "It's not so strange. They do strange things sometimes. I'm waiting for the day when I'll achieve that state of understanding."

I grin ruefully. Understanding? Right… "I think," I tell him, still grinning, "that I personally have a long way to go."

--oOo--

The snow is thick but so fresh we sink into it as we walk, our steps a soft whisper among the quiet woods. Thick pine scents the wood, the air is fresh and chill. It's a beautiful winter's day, and with luck, a good day to hunt.

We walk in near-silence, Solo stopping every few moments to test the air with his nose. With luck we might surprise a deer as they scratch for the grass hidden under the snow, preferably a hunger weary-stag--

If not the rabbits are always plentiful.

Solo stops suddenly. I, musing on these thoughts, am caught unaware and blunder into him.

Clumsy! He chides me with a stern look.

My tail sinks between my legs and I do my best to look contrite. My lack of attention has cost us more than one meal.

Solo turns from me to sniff the air again. He pauses in his task and I am emboldened to turn my nose to the breeze.

What could be the matter? Prey? Another pack? That could be good or bad.

It has been two moons now since we left our pack. It was time. The three females had mates and there was no chance of the two us winning one. We were unsatisfied with the share given us of the kills so moved on to find better prospects. Since then we've been run out of three different packs territories, twice by wolves, once by humans.

I'm content to just explore but Solo is weary of this. I think he wants a mate.

There has to be a bitch somewhere that will have him. He's a bit scrawny as wolves go, but he's got more spirit then many a male wolf with twice his size. He's good in a hunt and--

Solo bunts me with his head, recalling me sharply to the moment. If you don't pay attention, he threatens …

Then what? I demand with cocked ear. What have you smelled?

If you would pay better attention you might know, Solo tells me, nipping me. It's meant as a reprimand, and I don't tug away. In our small pack of two, he is in charge. I'm not aggressive enough to take the challenge, besides I'm rather fond of him. He is a wiser hunter than I am, and it does me no harm to follow another's lead.

Follow me. Solo lopes off.

I hasten after him, determined not to be left behind. As we climb to the top of the ridge, Solo pauses, sniffing the air, before plunging down into the valley.

I pause a moment on the ridge.

At last I can smell what Solo detected. Smoke, very faint, mixed with something not smoke. Something--

I bound ahead and ambush Solo. What is that?

Reckless! He snaps at me.

I am undeterred. What? What is it?

Now is not the time for this, he growls low in his throat so the sound won't carry. It's then I realise.

You don't know what it is?

Come on, he turns to the trail. We'd best get out of here.

Incredulous, I bound up to him then away again. We're not going to leave without finding out what it is?

It is fire, Solo snaps. Nothing good comes with fire.

So that is men I smelled? I return to the ridge top where the scent is smelt more clearly. It is man and it is something different …

Something familiar…

Something that is part of me…

What are you doing? Solo plants himself in front of me as I start down the hill. You foolish cub! You are not thinking of following the scent--

I laugh at him and dance around him. Silly Solo, doesn't he know that I have nothing to fear from a scent such as that? I am meant to follow it.

He tries to pull me back but I elude him. I am faster than him, for all he's taller, and I outdistance him easily, happily chasing the marvelous scent.

I slow once I am closer, threading through the tall pine trees with care. Although confident, I do not want to be careless. I test the air frequently, creeping ever nearer my target.

This is madness, Solo tells me, his posture indicating his unease. This is not good.

Then go, I tell him. If this upsets you flee. I will not esteem you the worse for it.

Idiot. He playfully wrestles me into the soft snow. I would not leave you. You are my hunt-brother, are you not?

I escape from him and shake the snow from my fur. Then follow, I command with a flick of my tail.

It is not so long now, and the crackle of flame is clearly heard. Solo is right, two humans sit around the fire. Their talk is carried to us, the soft sound they make having no meaning. I sit and cock my head at the campfire. What is so odd about that?

Well? Solo demands with an impatient nudge. Are you satisfied?

The fire crackles away, and one of the humans stirs something over the fire. A delicious aroma is carried to me--

Stew--I love a good stew. I remember when Sister Helen took me to a country inn. She told me I could eat as much as I liked. The stew was so good I managed three bowls--I sigh happily at the memory.

But--to be in the Inn I walked among humans--I was a human--I am a human!

Solo stares as I bound away suddenly, tearing away from the campfire and its occupants.

Silly cub--you frightened me! He scolds once he catches up. What do you mean by acting so unpredictably?

I paw at the snow at the base of the tree. I remember an oak tree, I tell him. An oak tree--I marked it.

You think you can pick up a scent under this amount of snow? And when have you been in this part of the woods anyway? Our former territory is west of here.

I was not always as you know me, I tell him.

Is that so, silly cubling? He pounces me to the ground. We wrestle for a bit and I manage to get a few good nips in. Solo rolls us over against the tree and in the resulting tussle our tails dislodge quite a bit of snow.

Mean. I whine, as I discover I have come off the worst in our contest. Solo has my neck.

But he isn't paying attention.

I pull myself loose and discover him staring at the base of the tree. It is indeed marked--a symbol implanted into the trunk. It is my mark.

How did you know of that? Solo's tail is down, he does not like these developments. He wishes us away on the other side of the ridge, the scent never followed.

I put it there, I tell Solo. In order to help me find my things.

What things?

My human things. Solo, I am not a wolf.

My hunt brother looks at me. Another of your pranks?

I'm serious.

Oh? Solo laughs. If you are a human, pray tell me why you appear as my hunt- brother and not as one of the tailless ones.

I close my eyes.

It's a little like trying to remember the tune of a song. At first nothing comes up but a blank but then you get a bit of it, and then another bit comes and--

I smile as I feel the familiar touch of my hair against my face. "Man, does it feel good to be able to stretch!" I do so vigorously, noting that I am now taller than Solo--considerably so.

My wolf-friend stares at me, watching with wide eyes these developments. I smirk at him.

"If this is one of my pranks, you must admit it's one of my better ones."

A sudden gust of wind shakes the trees then and I am struck that there are more intelligent things I could do then stand naked in a snow filled wood.

"Why did I have to remember I was a human in the middle of winter? Why couldn't I have picked a nice summer afternoon, or even a day with less wind?" I moaned as I dislodged my carefully hidden pack from the oak's branches.

Not understanding the human words but guessing my discomfort Solo snickered. I was pleased to note that even as a human I could still read his body-language. The scent nuances were beyond my human-nose, but I could still get the basic meaning of what he said. And what he was saying now was that having a built in fur coat was pretty handy.

"Careful," I warned him as I gratefully pulled on my tunic. "I might decide to borrow yours and then where would you be?"

The idea of a hairless wolf seemed to amuse him. He was still snuffling when I leaped out of the tree.

"Let's see--I know it's here somewhere--ah hah!" I pulled out my hairbrush triumphantly. "Almost ready for decent society!"

Solo snorts. A wayward cub like you? He seems to say. As if.

I grin as I discover that my hair is not horrendously knotted--hardly even tangled at all. I suppose all the grooming I did as a wolf had some effect. Plaiting it is a little more tricky, as I've lost the knack of it. Won't take me too long to relearn it, I suppose as I tie it back.

Solo watches me gravely. You will go to the fire, won't you?

I nod and kneel to him. I run my hand along his jaw, and resting it against his ear. What I have to say is important and there must be no misunderstanding--

//Being a wolf was great// I tell him, mind to mind. //But I am on a journey to learn many things. Now I have learned about wolves it is time to turn my mind to other things.//

//I will miss you, pack-brother// he tells me gravely. //We shared many hunts.//

//I will never forget you, never// I tell him. //I will always consider you my hunt-brother.//

//Always?//

//Always// I promise.

//You do not wish to become as the humans and hunt the pack?//

//Never// I reply firmly. //My ways are not those of most humans.//

Solo raised a shaggy eyebrow. //Then I will accompany you, hunt-brother, on your walks.//

I am touched. And no, not in the head, thank-you very much. I wipe away a tear, and smile at Solo. //I am honored but I cannot accept. Men are tricky, I cannot promise you safety.// With a sigh I break the contact. "Farewell," I tell him. "I hope you find a good pack and a nice bitch."

And I turn my footsteps towards the fire.

--oOo--

Politics.

I bring the sword up in a swift, harsh cut.

Estates.

I stab viciously to follow up.

Nobles.

One more angry swipe, and the ridiculous straw figure crashes to the ground.

I sheath the sword.

"Oh no-o-o!" The servant in charge of maintaining the training grounds has spotted the disemboweled dummy. "Why can't you train without destroying them?" he wails, mourning the bundle of junk.

I ignore him and walk out of the area.

"Who does he think he is?" the offended servant fumes, behind me.

"Shh!" another admonishes. "Her Ladyship's bodyguard can do as he wishes." There's a nervous tone in that voice. "Don't make him angry."

I'd take more satisfaction in that if I actually cared.

I'm not actually a bodyguard - I'm a mercenary. Relena - the Lady I "guard" - wasn't the one who hired me, and she has no idea what I was hired for. I've been sent out to work for Relena's "advisor", who calls herself Dorothy - whether that's her real name or not, it doesn't make a difference. Her objective is to prevent the three major orders of magic from forging an alliance. Currently, she's using an ability of Relena's to find out who I need to kill for her.

The girl pounces on me the moment I enter the estate again. "Where have you been?"

I turn. "What?"

Dorothy frowns, but doesn't seem bothered. "I've been looking everywhere for you, Heero." She comes nearer and lowers her voice. "Relena has lapsed into a trance. She'll be having a vision shortly, so I'll need you to come with me."

I move to follow her.

Relena is a seer. She's also an idealistic, trusting politician with her heart set on total peace. From what I can see, it was ridiculously easy for Dorothy to gain her trust, brainwash her into 'forgetting' her visions, and make use of the ability herself.

And I just kill.

We enter the room a moment later. Relena is sitting in a plain but straight- backed chair. She's a pretty girl, for those who have an eye for it - blonde hair and large eyes, slender and regal and foolish at the same time. At the moment, her body is perfectly still, as if she doesn't even breathe, but she is sitting up very tall, head raised. Her eyes are closed and her lips parted, like a sleeping girl in a fairy tale waiting for a prince.

What she'll get is a demon.

"We've returned, my Lady." Dorothy smiles a little, facing the entranced girl. I hang back and lean against the doorframe - partly to keep free of the area where the vision's taking place and partly to make certain we're not interrupted. "Have you Seen anything yet?"

Relena's head rolls around on her shoulders, and her mouth opens wide, but she doesn't speak. It feels like there's a breeze in the tower room, but nothing's being moved by it. I stand where I am. I've seen enough of her visions, but even with the first one I didn't flinch.

I've dealt with magic before. And I will again.

Besides, I'm told that a person would need a soul to feel afraid. I've killed mine many times over.

At the center of the storm, Relena's head continues tossing wildly. The first time, I wondered if it would snap her neck. But it never has. Her fingers grip the arms of the chair she sits in, and all at once her eyes shoot open. They glow a perfect, flawless white.

Dorothy takes the girl's face between her hands. "What do you see?" she demands.

"They come." It's Relena's voice, but at the same time, it isn't. "They come with your destruction."

It must have been something Dorothy expected, because she leans forward, eyes intent. "At last," she breathes. "She Sees them, at last." Then she addresses Relena again. "Tell me who they are, and where I can find them."

"They come from the north and west. The Sorcerer, the Wizard, the Druid. And…" Her 'voice' shudders, and her body quakes, as if rejecting the vision.

"And…?" Dorothy repeats. "Tell me!"

"Two more!" Relena's head tilts back, so far that an ordinary person would be amazed that her neck didn't break in half from the strain. "There will be two more! They will kill you! Kill you!" Her 'voice' is nearly a shriek.

"Enough!" Dorothy snaps. "Tell me who they are!"

Strangely enough, Relena's head twists toward me at that point. "A beast," she says, in a strange tone. "And a man who is lost. With… the magic users."

"Good enough." Dorothy frowns. "We'll get them all once we find out where they are. Tell me their location."

"Traveling." Relena's back arches. "From the western mountains… to the eastern."

Her voice is starting to fade. I glance at Dorothy, but she has her attention focussed entirely on the girl in front of her.

"Be more specific!"

"The woodlands to the north… ah!" Relena starts to convulse, inhuman grunts escaping her.

"Damnit!" Dorothy straightens, then turns toward me again. "Did you understand what she said? Is that enough information to track them down?"

I push myself up. "It'll do. When?"

"Relena will tell you when she sends you out herself." Dorothy smiles, watching as the girl's body finally ceases jerking and goes limp. "Here, my Lady," she says, in a concerned tone, "drink this." She holds out the mug she had prepared, pressing it to Relena's lips.

The girl drinks obediently, not awake enough to resist. Then she goes limp again, dead to the world for the moment.

"They're not to be killed this time," Dorothy tells me, putting the mug aside. "I want all three - or five, as it sounded - brought to me alive, willing or not. And whatever you do, you can't let them reach the eastern mountains."

I don't ask for her reasons. "Done."

She smiles. "Aren't you ever curious about anything, Heero?"

"Facts are insignificant if they won't help me," I reply. "I have my orders. If I need to know anything else, you would have told me already."

"True enough." She faces me completely. "The three magic users, at least, will have powers at their disposal. I understand you've been trained to handle that. Do you have magical abilities as well?"

"I have myself," I tell her. "That'll be adequate."

"I'm impressed." She seems about to say more, but we're interrupted by Relena, who suddenly decides to stir awake.

"Oh… dear." Her voice is muggy. "I must've dozed off." She looks up. "Dorothy, Heero - I don't remember you being here. How long have I been asleep?"

"Not long, my Lady," Dorothy assures her. "We only just arrived. You had just sent me to fetch Heero - don't you remember?"

"No." Relena sounds confused. "I don't." She turns her puzzled gaze on me, and smiles. "Did you have something to tell me?"

I glance at Dorothy. Better to let her do the talking.

"We've discovered something that might interest you, my Lady," Dorothy interjects smoothly. "You remember how you wanted a sorcerer to help you in your upcoming campaign? Of course you do. We've located one who just might be open to such a venture."

"Wonderful, Dorothy!" Relena's smile widens as she turns to regard her advisor. "Thank you so much for your searching. Is he here?"

"No, my Lady," Dorothy says, in an apologetic tone. "We'd have to send for him, of course. And he'd need the best protection when traveling to your estate… I wonder… just who could we send?"

"We can send Heero, of course." Relena turns toward me again. "Would you mind, Heero? Please go and ask this sorcerer to join us. I'll give you a message with my seal telling him all about our ideals."

"No need for that, my Lady," Dorothy says. "I'm certain he knows what the situation is. You can explain the details to him in person when he arrives."

Relena brightens. "Yes, of course. Thank you again, Dorothy."

"When should I leave?" I interrupt. I don't use titles. Neither of them has protested it yet.

"You can leave at your earliest convenience, please." Relena sounds like she's asking me rather than ordering me. "Tomorrow morning, perhaps?"

I bow and leave the room without another word.

Tomorrow morning.

I estimate that I'll have the magic-users back at this estate before a month's time.

--oOo--

My tail was low as I returned to the woods.

He may be a foolish cub, but Duo was my friend, and had been my constant companion since--well, I couldn't remember when exactly he'd wandered into our pack. It would be lonely without him.

I ploughed resolutely through the snowdrifts. I did not know how it went with humans, but it was probably best for Duo to be in a pack of his own kind--

I stopped. If humans were anything like the pack--if they were passing through they might be wary of admitting another to their ranks to share their kills. If they were planning on settling they might be stringently territorial in order to pass the word about their claim to the land.

Either way--Duo who was a nice enough cub, if somewhat distractible, would need another set of teeth at his back. I decided to retrace my steps to the humans' bonfire, and watch the proceedings until I had determined whether or not Duo needed my aid.

I passed Duo along the way. Apparently, he was still remembering how to walk on two legs--not made easier by the deepening snowdrifts. I would have loved to have teased him about his difficulty navigating these obstacles, but that would have defeated the purpose of going to the fire.

The smell of human was almost unbearable as I reached the fire. I growled low in my throat as I crept closer--it was hard to ignore the feeling that this was a mistake, that I should not be trying to get as far from the humans as possible--even further from the fire--

Two lone males. That should be good--females made things cagey.

I shifted my position until I was downwind and well hidden, although allowing myself a good vantage point. The humans were seated round the fire, eating something from the fire--I didn't know the scent.

I picked up Duo's scent in the breeze and settled down to my watch. It was somewhat reassuring that his scent hadn't changed--that he was still the same, even though he was a human. Scent is very important for a wolf.

"Is there room by your fire for a weary traveler?"

Although I'd noticed Duo's arrival, the two humans by the fire started. Evidently they'd been caught unawares.

Not necessarily a good thing. The dark haired one's posture was defensive as he stood. "And who might you be?"

I was rather astonished that I could understand the human words. Understanding Duo was not such a surprise--we'd traveled together so long so as to be more or less in tune to the other's thoughts. But--Duo had spoken so clearly into my mind before--had that had some effect?

Duo laughed, swinging into view with a posture that said 'I'm harmless.' The two seemed to relax as he continued. "A wanderer, like yourselves, I see. I smelled your fire and hoped you'd let me join you." As the black haired one still hesitated, Duo smiled at the other, the sunlight-haired one. "It's been a long time since I've talked with any people," he said, wistfully.

Ah. So he too had noticed that in contrast to his companion, the lighter furred one was open in posture, more welcoming.

And he had to snicker at Duo's insinuation he'd been alone. That showed cunning, while not actual deceit. He waited the outcome of Duo's ploy.

"There's more than enough room--and I don't mind sharing what food I've got- -Wufei?"

The blond deferred to the black haired one--obviously the dominant male. He was still inclined to hesitate.

"I don't think its wise for us to associate with civilians. I apologise for my abruptness, but we are both magic users on our journeys--the challenges we face may be unsafe for any unprepared people. "

Duo laughed.

This was not a good idea, as it immediately attracted the ire of the somewhat dour pack leader. "I see nothing humorous in this situation," he said.

Duo shrugged. "I just find it amusing that you should be worried about me. I'm a magic user too."

"Really?" The blond human was on his feet instantly. "What kind? You're not a sorcerer--"

"Druid," Duo said.

"Druid!"

I bristled instantly. The tone with which Wufei said that word, even if I didn’t fully understand it, made my fur rise.

"All the more reason for us not to welcome you," Wufei muttered.

The blond had a very different reaction. "A druid? That's fascinating--and you're on your testing journey too? Sit down--let me get you something to eat--"

The blond had gone against the will of his leader. I waited tensely for the outburst, but all that happened was that the dark haired human sat down grumbling to himself.

Interesting. Perhaps the blond was the dominant male?

He was now bustling round, settling Duo like a mother wolf. I shook my head and decided to creep closer, to see if their scent might solve this puzzle.

"I only just left on my journey," the blond announced. "My name's Quatre."

"Duo." My friend shook his hand. Maybe this was how humans exchanged scents?

The dark-haired human did not offer his hand, remaining aloof. "I heard that no druid has managed to complete their testing journey in the last twenty years."

"That's partly right," Duo said. "But our testing journeys are different than yours. A druid's journey ends when he dies, and not before then--we don't believe you can ever stop learning. This stew is really nice."

"That's an interesting philosophy," Quatre said. "Wufei made it. Would you like some more?"

"But, if you don't end your journey, how do you earn your ranks?" Wufei asked.

"The elders keep an eye on us, rule us, that kind of thing. When they want to retire they chose another to take their place. Apart from that, there is no rank divide. We're all druids."

"I'm on my journey now to become a sorcerer, not a novice sorcerer," Quatre said. "After this journey, I'll be accepted among the ranks of sorcerers. After that is the rank of Master Sorcerer, which is extremely hard to get."

"That sounds more like the wizard's school," Wufei said. "We have five ranks of wizard, and seven half-ranks."

None of this made much sense at all. I sighed, hoping humans didn't always gab this much. Trying to follow their conversation made my head hurt.

"Don't be too generous with the food," Wufei warned the others. "We don't have that much in the way of rations."

That was obviously directed at Duo. I bristled. The dark-haired male was obviously attempting to establish superiority over Duo, and I knew my friend was mild tempered enough that he wouldn't try to resist it.

Well if he wouldn't, I would.

With a growl and a sudden leap I was inside the camp circle. I snarled at the dark-haired human, taking up the classic 'challenge' posture. Ready for attack, I deliberately met the dark-haired wizard's surprised eyes.

You want to bully Duo? You have to get past me first, I snarled.

"What the--" Wufei drew something from the inside of his tunic and waved it at me. There was a crackling sound then--

"Solo!" Duo yelled, crashing into me.

We rolled a bit, and then there was this almighty flash.

"Hell," said Duo.

I dimly became aware that Wufei and Quatre were conversing in highly excited tones behind us. I was more interested in the fact that the snow drift we'd landed in was now a puddle … and that the tree branches above us were still burning.

"Were you trying to kill him?"

"How was I supposed to know he was going to dive in front of it? I was aiming it at the wolf!"

"Solo? Are you all right?" Duo was more concerned with me.

I barked in the affirmative, standing up and shaking. The area where I'd been standing was scorched, there was no snow and the crisp smell of smoke lingered on the air.

I was somewhat impressed.

"Solo? You mean this thing is yours?"

I growled at him. Was he suggesting I was Duo's property? That was an insult to any wolf.

"Not mine exactly. A friend of mine, sure," Duo said hastily.

"You set him on us?"

Incredible! I snarled at the black-haired human again. That human is just asking for a good nip--

Stop that! Duo swatted me. "I had no idea Solo was here," he said. "He must have heard our conversation and thought you were threatening me--he's rather protective of those he considers pack."

"And he considers you pack?" Quatre asked, kneeling down by Duo's side, and looking at me with interested, though not frightened, eyes. I wagged my tail briefly, keeping a watch on Wufei. "How long have you been in these woods for?"

"Uh … I can't actually remember," Duo laughed, embarrassed. "It's easy to lose track of time up here. I've been studying wolves and--"

"This one adopted you? I don't believe you."

Wufei again. This time I bared my teeth.

"Ignore him," Duo told me. "This isn't like the pack. Humans don't have set ranks--well not in this situation at least. We travel as equals."

I was sceptical.

"He can understand you?" Quatre asked.

"Pretty much. Wolves interact through gesture and tone and smell--he can still pick up the first two things."

"How do we know you're not making this up? I think you made the wolf attack- -"

"His name is Solo--"

"Stop bickering!" Quatre commanded. "Wufei, I've got a well developed sense of empathy, I know that neither Duo nor Solo intended to harm us. Duo--what is, uh, Solo doing?"

I'd walked right up to Quatre, deliberately making eye-contact then rolled over onto my back, so that my throat was unguarded.

"He's, uh, decided that you are the pack leader and he's giving you his throat--its kind of like throwing himself at your mercy and saying that he'd like to be part of your pack."

"You're not serious," Wufei groaned.

"Uh--what do I do?"

"Make eye contact with him--then, Uh--I don't know. Our old pack leader would bite here--"

Quatre shut his eyes. A moment later I felt a gentle pressure against my thoughts--much like Duo had done. The sense of being welcome was strong--

I sat up, wagging my tail.

I had joined the human pack.

 

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