Ember Dione maMarin
Wolves call; men answer.
It is the way of the world.
He struck like a viper, fast, biting. His fist whipped toward her head. Dion was already ducking, parrying the blow aside. The heel of her lean, scarred left hand hit his ribs like a small shovel, lifting him on his toes. She twisted to stomp the back of his knees, but in the instant in which her hip aligned with his, his arm snaked around her ribs and he jerked. Her leverage disappeared. The wolf in her snarled. Her violet eyes glinted. As he started the flip, she snapped a vicious kick to the back of his head that had Batayon’s narrow jaw clicking shut and his ears ringing to wake the seventh moon. She grabbed his thigh and arm and wrenched out. He recountered. Both slammed down.
He missed her wrist; she missed his temple with her ridgehand as he scrambled away to face her. They came back together in a blur of hands and knees, elbows and feet. He took an impossibly close side kick like a hammer, grunted, dropped his elbow on her ankle, saw the bones of her face tighten for an instant, grabbed the slender joint, and twisted. Dion whipped like a top, midair. Her rotating kick caught him on the shoulder as he ducked. She broke free, went to one knee, back-kicked instinctively to force distance, and whirled to face him again. Batayon slowly grinned. When they came together this time, it was his spinning ax kick that clubbed down across her shoulder, even as she rode the blow. She ducked; he twisted; they broke apart and danced in broken rhythm, setting and discarding patterns of movement to tease each other into attack. A feint, a side kick, a glancing blow . . . Neither one spoke; they simply fought with silent intensity. Batayon was breathing hard, and there was something increasingly feral in Dion’s expression. He saw an opening, shot a kick, and it brushed her side, touching cloth, not ribs. She dropped under and swept, but he felt it coming and threw himself forward. She could not avoid the tackle. She had time to grasp one of his sweat-hot wrists and, with the speed of a dozen wolves, partially redirect his momentum, but she was still flipped in the tangle.
When they broke free again, she was down on one knee, right hand pressed to her belly, her face twisted in pain.
Batayon saw it just before he threw his spinning crescent kick. He halted abruptly midstrike. “Dion—”
She exploded up, caught him off-balance, threw him with her left arm under his leg, the other at his neck, and followed him down. Her knee dropped like a rock on the joint of his pelvis. Strike! It was the voice of a wolf in her head. Her left hand was an eagle’s claw digging for his brachial artery, her right fingers curled on his throat.
Batayon froze. Dion’s teeth were bared. Her breath was quick—too quick for a woman who thought only in human terms. Batayon’s pulse pounded in his temple. Sweat trickled down his neck. He didn’t move. Didn’t flinch. Didn’t try to shift away. If he moved at all, Dion’s wolf-honed instincts would close those half-curled fingers and tear his throat like fangs.
The prey is down. Make the kill. The blood lust of the gray mental voices tightened Dion’s muscles like wire. The trickle of moisture that slid around Batayon’s ear toward his pulsing carotid artery was a fascination for her dilated gaze.
Batayon’s world narrowed to that pair of wolf-blinded eyes. There was a hint of yellow around her violet pupils, as if the eyes were no longer completely hers, but partly belonged to the wolves.
Tear. Slash. Taste the blood in your teeth.
He started to suck in a breath, but her hands became steel on his neck. Slowly, carefully, like hauling in a ketch with a thread, he took air into starved lungs. For months, Dion had been running with the wild wolves, not with the partner wolf who knew humans. She was too close, too full of the Gray Ones. They gnawed the inside of her skull as she poised, they licked her lips with her tongue, tensed with her muscles, snarled in her throat. It was not Dion who hung above him; it was the wolf pack in the distance. Batayon knew all this—was slammed with the realization in that fractional time before her hand tightened, before her nails dug fatally into his flesh, before the wolf in her was loosed. With that flash of knowledge, he recentered himself with the same lightning speed.
His brown eyes projected the calm he forced himself to feel. He let the tension leech from his muscles so that the change from resistance to no threat was fast, silent, soothing.
Dion felt the challenge in his body fade. Felt the intensity of the moment shift. Felt the hammer of his pulse steady beneath her fingers where her left hand had clawed for his artery. She sucked in a breath. The wolves in her head—ten, twelve of the wild ones—blurred her vision between the man on the training mat and the indigenous eerin that had been downed by the wolves barely two kilometers away. The two kays of distance were not a barrier to Dion. Even across that space, the gray mental voices frayed the edge of her thoughts as one of the wolves latched onto a haunch of the dying animal.
Speed. Tear. Yank back.
Dion’s hand tightened around Batayon’s throat.
Batayon did not move. He forced himself to watch her with that smooth, calm expression.
She dragged in another breath. She could partly see him now, his brown-gray hair damp and curled, his brown eyes steady as he waited for her to regain control. Control. Woman. Not wolf. But she could feel the bodies, the iron-hard muscles, as the wolves leaped and dodged the eerin’s desperately tossing horn. Fur ruffed on broken branches, icy mud squidged up between toes, musk and blood odors clogged her nose. Lupine hunger-lust leaked through her mental shield like a sieve, and her chest knotted as a Gray One slashed the distant eerin’s flank. Batayon did not move. Dion forced herself to focus, to see the man, not the prey. Forced herself to strengthen the mental wall until she closed off the taste of dirty hair and raw muscle that came to her with the packsong. She licked her teeth and reaffirmed the tiny serrations of human enamel, not the curved fangs of the wolves. She flexed her hand and felt thumbs, not dewclaws, let her legs feel the weight of her knee on Batayon’s pelvis. Withdraw. She formed the word mentally. Wolves growled in her mind. She shuddered, but pulled back. Control, she snarled to herself.
The ten adult students who ringed the wide mat watched the two teachers silently, and she knew that most did not understand what they saw. Batayon said nothing as she gave up the depth of her grip on his throat and artery. She did not quite let him go. Instead, she turned her head to look at the students on one side, then the other. Their attention was riveted as they tried to grasp the intensity that even now was evaporating. Her voice was more of a growl than a human tone, but her words were clear. “If you are weak, become strong. If you are strong, seem weak. Either one will get you the kill.”
No one mistook the predator that glinted in her eyes.
She released Batayon suddenly, as if she could not continue touching him without also completing the strike. Calmly, he rolled to his feet. Dion rose fluidly with him, and they saluted each other to complete the ritual. Batayon gestured for the students to resume their exercises, guided by the other teacher. As they walked from the main training room, a few students watched Dion surreptitiously, and Batayon hid his amusement as one man was caught unawares by a partner’s ridgehand to the neck.
The brown-haired teacher turned and snagged a towel to wipe some of the sweat from his brow as he walked with her. “I enjoyed that, Dione,” he said. He used her formal name deliberately, as if that would give her another human structure to cling to.
Dion gave him a crooked grin. “As did I, Batayon—a bit too much.”
He pitched his voice so that only she would hear. “You’re close to the wolves, Dione—closer than I’d heard. It makes for interesting sparring.”
Her lips tightened, as aware as he was of what neither one said. She dipped a towel in the water basin and pressed the cold cloth to her neck, while Batayon slung his over his shoulder and wondered absently why women—especially scouts like Dione—never dripped with sweat like men. Dion chuckled suddenly, and he followed her gaze to a young man trying to throw another student. The victim student used the wrench-out that Dion had shown with Batayon, but the attacker was more successful. He managed an uppercut to his partner’s gut as the other man missed the reverse. The vic- tim student suddenly found himself on the floor, whoofing for his air.
“It seems we taught them something,” Batayon commented.
“You’ll have to show them the counter now, or you’ll have cracked ribs by the dozen.”
He grinned. “They already know the counter. If they’ve forgotten it, they deserve every bruise they acquire. Pain is an excellent teacher.”
Dion’s eyes went carefully blank. “You can learn too many lessons that way.”
“And learn some not at all,” he said meaningfully.
She looked up sharply. Batayon met her gaze, and the silent message passed. Feel pain, face pain, beat pain. The words of one of her old Randonnen teachers echoed in Batayon’s brown eyes. She smiled crookedly. “I hear you,” she said without rancor.
He studied her as she gazed out at the class. Her complexion was slightly flushed with the exertion. Her braided black hair was fuzzy where the shorter strands had come loose, and she tightened its length almost absently with hands that still wanted to tremble. Her body was not wiry, but slender and lithe from a dozen years of riding and running trail, and the fading claw marks on the left side of her face were a coarse reminder of the other savage scars that had cut more deeply, giving her a limp she could not hide. She might have the speed of the wolves in her arms, but she had lost much of her own physical strength, and half her sparring movements had been to redirect, not oppose or attack Bata- yon. Had she been whole, the strength of the wolves would have added to, not replaced, her own, and he suspected she would have thrown him much sooner, much harder, and with much more damage. She had lived in danger too long to fully pull back the intent of her strikes when the wolves entered her head. As it was, considering the rumors about her, he was lucky to have gotten her to spar at all.
There were always rumors about the wolfwalkers. They could hear with the ears of the wolves, see in the dark, smell danger before it struck. They fought like wilderness rearing up against order, not like a human who touched the wild. It was said that, with each passing decade, wolfwalkers lost more of their humanity. Batayon nodded to himself as he studied Dion’s stance. Sometimes myth was true.
Ember Dione maMarin—or Dion to her friends—had moved beyond rumor into living legend. She had been trained since early childhood as a healer, and she had achieved her master rating a year before she bonded with the wolf Gray Hishn. Since then, her reputation as a healer and wolfwalker had somehow achieved its own life. Now she was a tracker who could follow a tree sprit through the very air, a scout who could ghost through any forest, a wolfwalker who could Call any wolf to her side, a healer whose patients were not touched by death. She was a woman who had fought a dozen raiders to try to save her mate, and a mother who had fought a thousand lepa with her bare hands to try to save her son. She was the Gray Wolf of Ramaj Randonnen, the Heart of Ramaj Ariye. And if he believed the songsters, she could dance steel with the best of the swordsmen, shoot rapids like a war bolt, and climb even the sheer north face of Dountuell by herself, on a windy day, over the ice—barefoot. Batayon snorted to himself. Aye, she was a rock climber, a fighter, a kayaker, a scout, but so were almost all Randonnens who had grown up in that county’s northern peaks. With white-rough water in every glass-steep canyon and the lure of some of the best climbing in all nine of the human counties, every Randonnen with half a heart became a mountaineer. And one couldn’t get to the climbing peaks without learning to fend for oneself in the forest, which meant swimming and kayaking, tracking and foraging, archery and knifework. Although in Dion’s case, her father and her twin brother were as much to blame for her scouting skills as was her home county. She had followed her twin, Rhom, like a puppy, using his bow for hunting and his sword for fighting, until her father had brought her a bow of her own and smithed her her own steel blades. By the time she bonded with the wolf cub Gray Hishn, Dion had already had the scouting experience of a two-decade wolfwalker. Since then, she had run trail for the Ariyens for almost fifteen years, honing her skills until she was a veritable ghost among the trees.From the Paperback edition.
Excerpted from Silver Moons, Black Steel by Tara K. Harper. Copyright © 2001 by Tara K. Harper. Excerpted by permission of Random House Audio, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.