Maniye the wolf ghosted through the tall grass beneath a Plains half-moon bellied out like a pale orange sail. A moon in foreign skies, but all moons were the same moon; the Wolf’s moon.
Her nose and ears told her where the others were, as they wove their own tracks between the stiff, saw-edged blades. Spear Catcher was closest, padding along a little behind her, wanting to make himself useful. On her other side, keeping level, was Tiamesh, a young woman a little too eager to win a hunter’s name. The rest – some half dozen of her Iron Wolves – were spread out to left and right, approaching the camp from downwind. The scent of lion came to them, raw and harsh in the nostrils, but no tang of wolf crept out to trouble the Lions.
The night air of the Plains was full of unfamiliar sounds: insects; birds; distantly she heard a high whickering sound that might be the Laughing Men. She hoped not. She was going to be busy enough with the Lion raiders.
She had come south from the Crown of the World – from the lands where she had become something Other to those she had been born amongst. She had been Tiger; she had been Wolf: the world had cared for neither, and both her father’s and her mother’s people had done their best to kill her. Their best had not been good enough.
A new soul had made its den within her, which was neither Tiger or Wolf or Bear or Hyena but something of all of them, and the world had looked at her differently. She had become like something out of the stories. A hero to some, a Champion; a wonder, a thing foretold. It made her a threat, also. When the young and the disaffected came to her and sought to join her warband – a warband she did not know she had, until they invented it for her – she knew she would have to lead them somewhere. Otherwise she would become a rival. Tiger, Wolf or Bear, nobody wished to share territory with somebody who was strong and would not bow her head.
And so she had gone south, following the invitation of a man who had been her travelling companion, and then her betrayer, and at last a friend of sorts. She had answered the call of the young southerner, Asmander, and travelled downriver on the boats of the Horse Society to their great village of villages, that they called Where the Fords Meet. Asmander himself had gone further south still, to his ‘prince’, as he called the man, because for Maniye to bring her warband into the southern lands unbidden might be misinterpreted. They were the Iron Wolves, after all. In the south, apparently, they were legend.
Maniye wore no iron. Her people were the outcasts and the misfits and the discontented. In the north they had been looked upon as nothing but trouble. Perhaps to southern eyes there would be a glamour about them.
Asmander had promised to send word back – but his word had fallen into the paws of the Lion. Up ahead she could see the light of the Lion’s fire. Their camp was a rock, an angled slab of stone that rose from a sea of grass like an island. The wind had given Maniye a gift: her approach brought her towards the shadow side, rather than the flat face where the Lions had set their fire. This close, she could hear the Lions speaking, the voices of their boisterous young men.
Now she paused, sinking down into the grass so that she could just see the jut of the rock like a curve of starless dark, limned by the leaping dance of the unseen flames. Spear Catcher crept beside her; he was an old man, but he moved as silently as any she’d known; a man with his own ghosts, certainly, but they were none of them free of those.
She Stepped back onto human hands and feet. A small girl – still a small girl despite it all – skin the colour of tanned leather, hair cut short and ragged about her ears. She wore a cuirass of bronze scales, a knife of the same metal at her belt. Nobody from any land would look on her and say Champion at first sight.
And yet there was something that this new soul had brought her. Hesprec, the Serpent priestess, had claimed this girl had a promise to her. A promise of great things, she had said.
Spear Catcher shook off his wolf shape too – with him it was just like that, a twitch of the hackles becoming a shudder of the shoulders, as though he was shaking himself dry. He had walked the Crown of the World for more than forty years, had Spear Catcher, and yet here he was in her company; there his hearthwife was, back at Where the Fords Meet, neither of them with the folly of youth in their eyes but neither with anything to keep them in the north.
‘Where are the Twins?’ Maniye whispered.
‘No sign. In trouble.’ Spear Catcher was almost bald, his face grooved and lined by age, and grooved even deeper by the puckered scar across his cheek and ear that had burdened him with his name. ‘I’ll scout for them.’
‘Hold.’ She had a sense of movement around them, as though the Champion was keeping watch and listening on her behalf. The rest of her raiding party had stopped, holding their places in the concealing grass.
Then there was a flurry of motion above them: Maniye had her knife out, and Spear Catcher his hatchet, both about to strike. When the raven that swooped on them turned into a man, he almost became a dead one.
There would be no use cursing Feeds on Rags, even if Maniye could raise her voice; he would only forget the words a moment later. He was no youth either – ten years Maniye’s senior at least, though he acted like a mad boy half the time. He was the only person who had ever lied about his name to Maniye, which seemed a terrible thing to her, but perhaps was standard behaviour back in the Eyrie where he had grown up. Half his face was painted with curving, sharp-edged tattoos, a turbulent night from which his left eye stared like a berserk moon. He was grinning, of course; he was almost always grinning. Whenever he stopped, Maniye started worrying.
‘Speak,’ she whispered.
Feeds on Rags – or the man who claimed that name – bobbed his head animatedly. ‘Found our missing messenger. Keeping him warm by the fire, they are.’
‘They’re eating him?’ Spear Catcher growled.
‘Not till they’re finished with what they found in his baskets,’ the Raven man told them, and not for the first time Maniye wished he knew how to get to the point the straight way. ‘Happy with their guest’s generosity.’
Maniye was about to question that, but a more urgent thought occurred to her. ‘Where’s Sathewe? Don’t tell me you left her there?’
‘Wouldn’t come,’ Feeds on Rags told her, his expression shifting to exaggerated misery. ‘Was going to prise the prisoner from—’
Maniye cut him off with a hiss. Feeds on Rags and the Coyote girl Sathewe worked as a team, mostly on the basis that they could cause more trouble together than either could alone. Neither of them had the common sense of a baby. It was only in this way that they were twins, yet the name had stuck.
‘Go find her,’ Maniye spat at the Raven. ‘Get her out, or you’ll have her death on you.’
For a second she saw the real man behind the bluster: the man who realized he had got it wrong yet again. He Stepped in a frenzy of flapping wings, lifting into the night.
Maniye opened her mouth, but Feeds on Rags was back with them almost instantly, both eyes wide.
‘More friends!’ blurted from his human mouth, and over her questions he gabbled, ‘Not Lions – from behind.’
Maniye bared her teeth, knowing what he meant instantly: that someone had pulled the same trick on her as she had been blithely using against the Lions. Had she been in the Crown of the World it would never have worked. Here, there were too many strange smells.
Spear Catcher was Stepped and gone instantly, rounding up the raiders without being asked, so that by the time the newcomers made themselves known, Maniye had all her Iron Wolves at her back.
The newcomers slunk out of the grass and out of the darkness. For a moment she thought they were the Laughing Men after all, but these were different – familiar, almost. There was more than a little wolf about them.
They had large ears, eyes that were so dark as to be bottomless, and their hides were mottled, looking muddy in the moonlight. There were more than a dozen of them, and they made a loose crescent before the wolves, jaws hanging open and panting a little. The presence of the Lions was like a stone at the back of Maniye’s mind.
Plains Dogs; she knew them. A tribe of the Wolf fallen from favour, driven from the Crown of the World in the old days, to find a new totem and a new way of life.
The leader of the Dogs Stepped then: she saw a man with skin more copper-red than hers, less so than the Lions or the Laughing Men. There was something of the north in his high cheekbones and his piercing eyes, but his hair was long and gleaming dark, bound into a hundred little plaits. He wore a cuirass and skirt of layered leather and there was a sickle-bladed weapon in his hand.
He hunched closer, then closer still, eyes flicking between her and the fire-lined rock that rose behind her. She Stepped for him, met him halfway, knife in hand and ready to fight.
‘Lion-hunter,’ he said very softly. When she nodded, his eyes skittered across the crouching forms of her wolves and he told her, ‘Find other prey, little foreign girl.’
‘We claim one of the Horse whom they have taken,’ she said.
He shrugged, a fluid gesture. ‘You are far from home, small hunter. These are not your wars.’
True enough. The feuding of the Plains tribes was a knot that all of history had been tying. ‘Take all the Lions you wish, but I shall have what I’ve come for,’ she said.
He grinned at that. ‘Or we shall take you and the Lions both. Do you think we cannot do it?’
‘I think you cannot,’ she said, quite seriously. He must have seen the Champion in her even before she Stepped, for the mockery was already draining from him.
She brought the Champion to her. Maybe the Lions would see, but she needed to bring this dog to heel before he started a fight that would raise all the Plains. She Stepped, bulking out until she was huge as a bear, yet with the sleek hunting lines of a tiger and the muzzle of a wolf. When she called the Champion’s soul to the fore she was a monstrous hunting beast from an age before human feet ever graced these lands, a killer out of deep time. The Plains Dog, who had been looking down on her, was craning his neck back. He would not be calling her ‘little’ again. When she had Stepped, he was between her forepaws, almost between her jaws.
His people – they had Stepped, some of them, with bows and spears, and others had fallen back, or rushed forward until their nerve failed. The leader of the Dogs just crouched there, looking up, and there was a wonder in his face that she had seen from others. He was a man who could look on the Champion without fear; a man with a large soul.
He stood slowly, shaking his head. ‘Oh, we would be honoured if you would hunt the Lion with us.’
Then there was a high girl’s cry from up on the rock – Sathewe! The Coyote girl’s luck had run out again, as it so often did.
Maniye met the Plains Dog leader’s gaze and dipped her head in agreement. Then he had Stepped and was dashing off through the grass, his people following.
She turned and took in the looming height of the rock, letting moon and fire tell its secrets to her: four man-heights tall and rounded, no easy handholds for human fingers.
‘Go after them; Spear Catcher is leader,’ she told her raiders. They could not follow the way that she would go.
She looked up at the rock. At its apex, at its edge, there was a bulge that she had already marked. There would be the Lion’s lookout, supposedly watching the moon-touched grasslands for just such an attack as this. His attention was back towards the fire, though, watching his fellows having a good time. And the Lion were roaring, just as Feeds had predicted. The Horse messenger’s baggage had plainly contained something to keep them entertained. Maniye had an idea what that was.
But now to make her entrance. She rolled her shoulders, stretched her spine, and then Stepped into her mother’s shape, into the tiger that was the lion’s cousin. No lion could climb as she could climb; only the leopard, so she had heard, and she had never seen one, nor met the Leopard’s secretive and darkauspiced people.
The rock was old: she dug her claws into its history, the marks of the rains that came to the Plains once or twice a year, the gouges of horn and claw, the cracks where the mice and the lizards hid. The rock’s past was a ladder that she climbed, flowing up the stone face of it like a shadow.
Of course, it was possible to be too good at this, she thought. A little embarrassing to arrive on her own. The Champion would no doubt impress the Lion greatly, so much so that their leader might fancy her pelt for a cloak. She doubted she could hold them all off alone.
These were all young men, this band of Lions. That was their way, she heard: each Lion village had many strong women hunters, and a few men who ruled them and grew fat off their labours. Excess sons and nephews and cousins were thrown out to bedevil the rest of the Plains, wandering until they either met their dooms or went home for a reckoning with their ageing uncles. It seemed a wasteful way to live, to Maniye, but then she knew the stories the Plains people told about the terrible savages at the Crown of the World. Everyone was everyone else’s monster.
Besides, was she not taking her own band of unwanted hunters out to find their fates? Her mentor Broken Axe had done the same, when he was young. It was just that the Lions had made the practice a deeper part of their story.
It turned out one of the Lions was still alert, just not the sentry she was creeping up towards. A human yell turned into a deep, full-throated roar that she virtually felt through the rock itself. The yelping and yipping of the Plains Dogs rose in reply, and then she heard Spear Catcher’s spine-chilling howl, all the bitter frustration of an ageing man with little to show for his years, caught in a wolf’s clear voice.
The lookout above her started. Already on four feet, he turned and roared his own defiance, and she slithered up the last few yards of stone and fell upon him.
He must have caught her movement from the corner of his eye, because he rounded on her even as she struck. For a moment she was just swatting at him: a little tiger in the fireshadow of a heavy-set lion. Then the Champion shouldered its way forward impatiently, and she thrust herself up on her hind legs like a bear, one set of claws scooping the startled Lion out of the way and off the rock entirely.
She bellowed. The voice of the Champion was a cry out of time, like no beast ever heard by human ears.
There were a dozen of the enemy there, half of them burly men in skins and leather and stiff linen armour, the rest already taken to their fighting forms, shoulders bristling with newgrown manes, baring their long fangs at her. And though they shied from her at first sight, they were ready for the fight at the second. Enemies of the Lion often called them cowards, willing to fight only when they knew they could win. Yet these homeless youths looked like they would dare anything; they had nothing left to lose.
She lumbered forwards, using the slope of the rock to pick up speed. She saw the long-boned man in their midst, a noose about his neck to keep him human – that was the Horse messenger. Only in the moment before her charge hit home did she locate Sathewe – the skinny Coyote girl coralled against the fire by one of the Lions, but not restrained, in no immediate danger.
While the handful in front of her retreated, another leapt at her flank, raking at her with his claws. He connected with her thick hide and the bronze beneath kept him from drawing blood. His weight dragged at her, though, and she rolled to that side, forcing him to leap clear. The Lions in front of her took that as an opportunity, but she was ready for them, meeting them with jaws agape and bellowing, sending them twisting away.
Then the Plains Dogs and her Wolves were in the camp, and the knot confronting her disintegrated into individual beasts seeking individual fights. Maniye took a moment to catch her breath, and a starved-thin coyote scampered up to her on stick legs, the curve of the animal’s panting mouth contriving to suggest laughter – Sathewe, no doubt already spinning a tale out of the adventure.
She made her way towards the Horse prisoner, and those ahead of her looked elsewhere to easier targets. Around her she could watch sidelong as Lion fought Dog. The Plains Dogs were a third the size of a grown lion: they fought two, three on one to even the odds, Stepping between human and animal from moment to moment, each taking a turn to nip at the enemy’s heels and to strike with a blade. She saw instantly that they would not have had the numbers to be anything more than a nuisance on their own, despite their leader’s bravado – a quick run through the camp and then away before the Lions could band together to tear into them.
Or perhaps not: the Lions were slower than she had expected, some still by the fire, and one or two – still human – looking almost bewildered. A litter of clay jars at their feet betrayed them: the Horse messenger had not been taken for the word he was bringing. The Sun River Kingdom of the south had many treasures, so she was told, but amongst the most prized was their beer.
The fighting was swift and savage, but quarter was given. There were times and places when the Plains people killed each other without qualm, but today those who ran were left to run.
A Lion challenged her – perhaps he was the leader, for he was the biggest beast there, his mane dark enough to be black in the firelight. He swatted at her muzzle, then tried to hook his paws about her head so he could bite. He was perhaps not used to meeting a bigger predator than himself. She took the sting of his claws – dangerously close to her eye – then reared up out of his reach, slamming her forepaws down at him in a move she had learned from the Bear Loud Thunder. He flinched out of the way, saving his bones, but she caught him with a sideways swipe anyway, drawing stark lines across his pelt.
Across the fire, Spear Catcher was bowled over by a beast twice his size and she saw the savage jaws lunge in at him. A moment later the biter recoiled, shaking his heavy head. The Lion’s teeth were bronze, but Spear Catcher was a true Iron Wolf. Then the young she-wolf Tiamesh had leapt onto the Lion’s back, biting furiously at his shoulder before springing away. Spear Catcher got back to his feet. Everything about his stance said, I’m too old for this.
One of the Lion was dead – had taken human shape to shout a warning or a command, perhaps, and an arrow had found his eye. One of the Dogs was down as well, still kicking, but curled into a brindled ball about his guts in a way that told Maniye he was unlikely to be kicking for long. For the rest, the Lions were already deserting their camp site, leaping down from the rock to lose themselves in the night and the sea of grass.
She Stepped beside the Horse man and cut the rope about his neck, then the bonds that held his hands behind him.
The leader of the Plains Dogs came trotting up, eventually, to find her with her raiders. Maniye’s people had got away without anything worse than scratches, and Tiamesh had a torn ear that she was holding a wad of wool to. At Maniye’s back, Sathewe and Feeds on Rags were whispering together, plotting mischief as always.
‘Champion.’ In his human form the Dog leader was grinning. ‘Come guest with us.’
‘I think your home is far from here.’
‘Even so, you are welcome.’
‘We are guests of the Horse,’ she told him. ‘We must return their man. Some day, perhaps, we will be your guests.’ There was a certain way of talking that they had in the south – especially further south along the river. Maniye was trying to master it, though the words felt awkward in her mouth.
The Dog leader took that with good grace. It had not escaped Maniye that, had things been different, she could have been trying to recover the Horse man from him, rather than the Lions. They called her north savage and harsh, but here in the Plains everyone seemed to be at war with everyone all the time. Except the Horse, who warred with no one and always had friends, like Maniye’s Wolves, to fight on their behalf.
‘You are a sign,’ the Dog told her softly.
She frowned. ‘What manner of sign?’
He shrugged. ‘Our wise women say to me, watch for signs in your travels. Here before me, I see what no man has seen in all the days. Is that not a sign?’
‘A sign of what?’ she pressed. She was remembering what Loud Thunder, the Bear, had said before she left. His Motherchief had been seeking signs, too. Hesprec of the Serpent had travelled all the north in search of them. Why was the world so taken up with portents?
‘The wise women say bad things are coming.’ He shrugged. ‘Who knows how wise they are? But I will tell them I have seen you. Perhaps they will know what you mean.’ He spoke as if she was something he had dreamt, and with enough sincerity that for a moment she felt unreal to herself.