Kolli pushed through the curtained doorway and wrinkled her nose at the acrid stench. The shop was narrow, dirty, and its oiled paper windows let in only a muddy light. Pelts of a dozen beasts hung from the rafters, turning the interior into a maze of hides.
"A good morning to you," called a rough voice from behind the skins. "What can I do for you today?"
"I'm looking for Morl," said Kolli. She saw heavy boots and thick legs approaching from under the screen of pelts.
"I'm Morl." A last skin was pushed aside, and the bearded face of a broad-shouldered man poked through. He didn't see her at first, a smile frozen on his thick lips as he looked left and right.
Morl's bearded face turned down, and the smile faded as he surveyed Kolli's ragged clothing. "Who are you?"
"Dason sent me."
Morl rubbed at his rheumy eyes with one sausage-fingered hand. "Dason? Well then, why'd he send you?"
"He said you were having some trouble with..."
Morl turned and walked away through the swinging pelts. "Go back and tell Dason to send someone old enough to lace his own clothes."
Kolli pushed through the skins after him. "I'm fourteen and I'm plenty..."
"Girl, you aren't big enough to make a good breakfast. Go and get your older brother."
"I've worked with Dason on..."
Morl turned back to her. "This is not taking change from some beggar's tray. Tell Dason to send someone else."
"Will you let me finish a sentence!" Kolli shouted. "I don't have an older brother. And Dason isn't going to send anyone else because you aren't offering enough to hire anyone else." She planted her hands on her narrow hips. "And you don't need anyone else. I'm the one you want."
Morl's brow furrowed. "Are you now?" He walked around and sat behind a stout table that was covered in scraps of loose fur and spotted with dark stains.
"Yes," she said.
"Did Dason tell you what the job is?"
"Doesn't matter," said Kolli. "I'm the one to do it." She came to the edge of the table and leaned over it, her hands on the rough wood. "What do you need stolen?"
"Careful there," said Morl. "You'll not be wanting to put your delicate little hands in anything nasty."
Kolli flicked her eyes at the discolored table, but she didn't move her hands. "What do you want stolen?" she repeated.
"What I need is a secret."
"How can I steal it if you won't tell me what it is?"
Morl waved a beefy hand. "I don't mean that, girl. I mean it's information I'm after. Somebody else's secret that I need stolen."
"Whose secret?" she asked.
"Kalenth Ush," said Morl, lowering his brow as he said it.
Kolli frowned. "The trader from Keldon? The one that lives out in the woods?"
Morl nodded. "The very one." His thick lips turned up in a smirk. "You're not so sure of yourself now, are you?"
"I've never worked outside of the city," said Kolli. She hesitated for a second. There had been stories of terrible things happening outside the city. In just the last few days, several people had disappeared. "I'll manage. What is it you want to know?"
The big man leaned across the table until his craggy face was almost touching Kolli's. "I need to know where Kalenth Ush is getting silver wolf hides."
Kolli frowned. "I would suppose he's trapping silver wolves. You don't think so?"
"Not here," Morl said with a shake of his head. "I never heard of a silver wolf within a hundred leagues of this place. But Ush keeps turning up with the things." He leaned back, picked up a scrap of fur, and rubbed it between his fingers. "There's nothing else like silver wolf fur: soft, warm, takes well to dye. And there's no animal in the world so tough to take: big as a man, mean, and only comes out at night."
"I don't get it," said Kolli. "What's the difference where this Keldon gets his furs?"
Morl snorted. "When silver wolf is plentiful, every other fur turns cheap. Why buy rabbit or common timber wolf if you can get silver wolf? Things keep up like they're going, and every trapper, tanner, and fur trader in town will be out of business."
"I'll find out where he gets the furs," said Kolli. "You have my word."
"Well," said Morl, "I can't say as I find that very reassuring. Run along, girl, but be careful how you play your games with Ush. He's not much nicer than a wolf himself."
Kolli knew every crooked alley and bird-spattered rooftop of the city, but the woods were a mystery to her. Compared to the densely packed houses and tangled streets, the thick boles of the ancient trees provided scarce cover. Kolli hugged herself tight against the rough trunk of an oak, hoping that her colorless clothing would blend in with the lichen-spotted bark. A dozen steps away along a dusty path was the home of Kalenth Ush.
The peaked roofs of several ramshackle buildings showed over a tall fence of sharp-topped poles. There was a narrow gate on the side of the fence facing the road, but it was closed. A length of cloud-gray fur that flapped from a tall staff like the banner of an army served as the only advertisement of the Keldon's business. A trail of smoke rose from one of the buildings and brought the scent of burning pine to Kolli's nose. Ush was home.
The plain fact that the trader felt confident enough to build outside the city walls said a lot about the man inside the fence. The woods around the city weren't known for their kindness. Bandits, giant spiders, and sword-clawed grizzly bears were all common under the dark trees, and basilisks were not unknown.
Kolli had not much fear of the bandits-- she'd lived her life among such as them--but the animals.... It was all she could do to keep from running back to the city when the reddened sun fell to the horizon. A few minutes later, she heard the horns of the city guardsmen. Then came the distant groan of timbers and clanking of heavy chains as the gates closed for the night.
She waited until the sky had gone a bruised purple and the night birds had started their songs before she released her grip on the tree and moved toward the Keldon's compound. Rubbing her stiff arms, Kolli stepped through the narrow band of woods and hurried across the dusty road. She pressed her face to the rough-hewn palisade and searched for some seam wide enough to look through, but Ush had chinked the gaps with mud.
Kolli's thin fingers slid over the wood, finding every knot and crack. Her arms pulled, and her soft boots left the ground. She climbed easily. It took only a few seconds before Kolli's face peered between two pointed poles at the top of the wall.
The largest building was the closest. Smoke came from a hole in the center of its roof, and Kolli could hear the cracking of cedar knots in the fire pit. Small sheds lined the back of the compound. Each shed was surrounded by its own stout fence. The gates on two fences hung open, but the others were barred with thick lengths of wood. A small pen just below Kolli held a heap of scythed grass and a trio of mangy sheep.
She wrinkled her nose in thought. What did Ush keep in the sheds? They weren't large enough for cattle, and there was none of the noise and offal that came with poultry. Surely the palisade itself provided all the protection his animals might need from the creatures of the forest. So the sheds weren't strong to protect what was in them. Maybe they were strong to keep what was in them from getting out.
A smile spread slowly over Kolli's face as she looked at the sheds. She dropped from the wall and trotted back toward town to see if the city's walls were as easy to breach as those of Kalenth Ush.
"Raising silver wolves!" shouted Morl.
Kolli nodded. "He's keeping them in sheds out there. He's even got sheep to feed them."
The fur trader ran a hand across his shaggy hair. "Raising them. I'd not have believed it. How could you ever manage them? For that matter, how did he ever catch them and bring them here?" He stopped and looked sharply at Kolli. "You saw these wolves?"
"I saw the sheds."
"Sheds! Sheds could be anything. I'm not paying you to find out if the man has sheds."
"If he's not raising wolves out there," Kolli said calmly, "then how do you explain the news I got from the city guard?"
"What news?" asked Morl.
"You've heard about the missing merchants and woodsmen?"
"I have, and it's surely the work of bandits."
"That's what everyone's been saying. But last night, some men on horseback were attacked by a beast."
"A hellcat, they'll attack anything."
Kolli smiled. "By a beast that looks like a giant timber wolf."
"Giant timber wolf," Morl said slowly. "Yes, I supposed that's how someone around here might describe a silver wolf. There's more difference than just size between them, though; silver wolves have hands like a man and hell's own meanness."
"Some of Ush's pens were empty," said Kolli. "I figure some of these wolves escaped and are taking care of travelers."
A thoughtful look came to Morl's deep-set eyes. "Perhaps I'll rig a few traps. Couldn't hurt my business to offer a silver wolf pelt of my own."
"Good idea," said Kolli. "Now, if you'll just pay me, I'll be on my way."
Morl's hand was halfway to his pouch when he stopped and asked, "Supposing you're wrong?"
"I'm not wrong."
"I don't know that. Besides, even if Ush did have silver wolves in those pens, they might have all been killed or gotten loose by now." He shook his head. "No, I need to know what Ush has in those pens now."
"I've done what you asked," said Kolli. "If you want more, you'll have to take it up with Dason."
"An extra silver."
"Done," said Morl. "But only if he's got silver wolves in those pens. No wolves, and I give you nothing."
Kolli remembered the heavy wooden bars across the doors of three of the sheds. Whatever was in there, it was something that Ush didn't want to get loose. And if she was very clever, she might keep Dason from finding out about the extra payment.
"Done," she said.
She was careful to climb the fence at a spot as far as possible from both the sheep and the wolf pens. Kolli let herself drop to the weed-choked ground inside the fence and sat still for several minutes, waiting to see if there was any response from the house.
No lamp showed from inside the ragged building, only the reddish glow of the fire pit. For the moment the night was clear and dark, but Kolli had just an hour to complete her work. Already the radiant spark of the lesser moon was nigh in the black sky; soon the greater moon would join it, and the night would be too bright for Kolli's comfort. She had to move now. She planned her steps carefully, moving from the fence toward the first shed in the line with quick, light steps.
The pens were filthy. The heavy railings were almost as tall as the palisade around the compound, and gnawed and gouged all the way to the top. The sheds showed signs of frequent patches and reinforcement. The wood of the doors was thicker than Kolli's palm. Scraps of light-colored fur were stuck on the rough wood.
At the third shed, she heard a muffled noise. The sound came again--a soft whine.
"I just have to see it," Kolli told herself. "I only have to look in, count the beasts, and get out of this fearful place."
She pressed her face against the rough boards at a spot where there was a finger-width gap. It took some time before her eyes adapted to the almost total darkness in the shed, and even more time before she could interpret what she saw. It was a man. He was tied hand and foot to the opposite wall of the shed. His mouth was covered by a strip of untapped hide. The ragged clothes that hung in ribbons from his body might once have been the garments of a well-to-do traveler. He was staring right at Kolli.
She gave a soft cry, and stepped back from the shed. The man tried to speak, his words an animal whine under the gag. Kolli went back to the shed and whispered, "I'll get you out. Don't worry."
A hand clamped around her neck and lifted her from the ground. She clawed at the hand and kicked with her feet, but found only air. Slowly, she was turned to face a fierce visage with eyes blacker than the night, and a smile filled with long, sharp teeth.
"Worry," said Kalenth Ush.
"I won't tell anyone," said Kolli. The leather straps from which she hung were chafing her wrists, and she couldn't quite turn her head far enough to see what Ush was doing. The fire was only a few feet away, and the room was lit red by the flames. On a small table was a heap of gold and silver -- undoubtedly taken from the pockets of the missing travelers, as well as from Ush's trade in silver wolf hide.
Kolli swung her legs, trying to turn her body toward the Keldon. "Really. I've had trouble with the guard. They wouldn't believe me even if I did tell them."
Ush stepped back into view. The man was so tall that his head almost brushed the ceiling. Despite the coolness of the night, his face was bathed in sweat. "Tell them what?" he asked in a voice full of guttural Keldon accent. When Kolli didn't answer, he gave a grunt of disgust. "You have seen it all, but you still don't know. Do you?"
"It's you that's killing the travelers."
"Is it? And why would I do that?"
"You're stealing their money, then feeding the travelers to your silver wolves," said Kolli.
The Keldon snorted. "You foolish southerners don't even know what a silver wolf really is." He stepped closer and ran a rough-nailed finger down Kolli's cheek.
She did not flinch; she would not allow herself to flinch.
"What do you know of the skin trade?" asked Ush.
"Nothing. I know nothing. Let me go and I won't say a thing about what I've seen."
He ignored her offer. "In this work, there is always a tradeoff. With an older animal, you get the largest pelt. But not the finest pelt." Again, his hand reached out to Kolli's cheek. "The softest pelts come only from the young."
Quite slowly, quite deliberately, he leaned toward Kolli and pulled her jerkin away from her shoulder. Then he bit her. Hard. She cried out; she couldn't help it. The Keldon's trader's mouth seemed hot as a furnace against her skin.
He leaned back, smiling at her over bloody lips.
Kolli took a hard grip on the leather thongs, then she pulled her feet up and planted both heels square in the trader's smiling face. As he staggered away, Kolli whipped herself back and forth until she was able to throw her feet through the smoke hole in the center of the roof. A cloud of embers came up with her, swarming around like an army of fireflies. The heat from the flames below was terrible, searing her legs and back. But relieved of her weight, the leather straps at her wrists grew looser, and she struggled free. Her head swung toward the fire.
Ush screamed something Kolli couldn't understand and stepped into the fire pit in his effort to grab at her. Sparks and smoke surrounded her as Kolli pulled herself completely through the smoke hole and rolled away across the roof. She felt broiled from head to mid-thigh. Her breeches were scorched, and she could smell the sickening odor of her own charred hair.
The door crashed open, and Kalenth Ush rushed into the yard. Orange sparks and smoke followed in his wake. He was beating at his smoking legs and screaming in some foreign tongue.
Kolli blinked away smoky tears, crawled to the edge of the roof, and sprang toward the palisade. Her palms were torn by a hundred splinters as she caught the top of the fence. For a terrible moment her feet could find no purchase, but then she was up and over the sharpened logs. She hit the ground hard, stood, and ran doubled over, with hand against her aching ribs.
It was almost a mile through the dark woods to reach the city walls. Even if she reached them, she'd have to find a way past the guards -- the story she'd used the night before was not likely to work again. The sky was turning grey. Any moment now the misty orb of the greater moon would clear the horizon. Kolli had feared it rising before; now she only hoped it would give her enough light to see the path.
Then her bones caught fire.
Kolli fell into the brush. She wanted to scream, but her throat was burning, too, burning white-hot. She could feel each vertebra in her backbone being twisted. Her muscles flowed over her melting bones like ice before a furnace wind. Her tunic and breeches shredded against her twisting flesh. Then the fire ended, and Kolli lay panting on the trail in the cool night air.
She tried to stand, but her knees bent the wrong direction. In the cold light of the moon, she saw that her arms were covered in silver fur, and each finger of her hand ended in a curving claw. Trembling, she lifted one clawed hand to her face and felt at the muzzle that jutted from where her mouth had been. She screamed. It came out as a howl.
Another howl sounded through the woods. It should have been the wordless call of a beast, but it wasn't. Kolli understood every chilling note of that howl. Kalenth Ush was coming.
Kolli found that her hind legs were too short to do more than an awkward shuffle. All fours was more comfortable. It took her a few strides to get the rhythm, and then she was running faster than she ever had before, running so fast that the trees around her were nothing but a blur.
Ush was still following. She could hear him on the trail behind her. He was growing closer with every long stride. Kolli turned a corner and caught sight of the torches burning on top of the the city walls. She had no idea of what she would do when she reached them, but anything had to be better than being caught by Ush.
The ground underneath her exploded in a spray of leaves and dirt. For the second time that night, Kolli rose into the air, this time in a stout net of rope. The net swung only inches around the ground, held up by a heavy hawser. As Kolli bounded and twisted in the net, a cheer sounded from the treetops about her. She twisted her head back and saw Morl climbing down the trunk of a heavy oak.
Kolli tried to talk. Tried to tell him who she was, what had happened. All that emerged from her snout was a series of whines and growls.
"You're about the scrawniest silver wolf I ever did see," Morl said as he walked around the net. From a sheath across his back, Morl pulled a wide-bladed sword. "But small pelts are usually the best." He raised the sword over Kolli.
A grey shape sprang out of the woods and sent Morl sprawling. The sword flew from his hands, falling into the leaves under the net. Morl screamed.
Kolli reached through the net and clawed at the ground, trying to get a grip on the sword. Her transformed fingers were more suited to slashing than gripping, but at last she had it.
One blow, and the net fell to the ground. It took several more hacks for Kolli to cut herself free. Lurching across the clearing, unsteady on her hind legs, she went after Kalenth Ush.
Morl was on the ground in the midst of a black circle of blood. Ush leaned over him, worrying the dead man's neck like a dog shaking a squirrel. He turned toward Kolli and howled, bloody foam spraying between his fangs.
Kolli swung the sword in both hands. Ush dodged easily. A backhanded blow from one of his clawed hands sent Kolli flying. She rolled into a rocky stream. Cold water matted her fur.
Ush stood on the bank, his shaggy form silhouetted against the rising moon. Kolli saw cold moonlight reflected from his silver eyes. With a snarl, he came for her.
It was Kolli's turn to dodge. As Ush hit the water beside her, she lashed out and caught his side with her new claws. His painful cry was rewarding. Kolli jumped away, looking for an opening.
Ush was faster than she thought. The pool of water exploded into spray. Claws tore into her shoulders, and she was hurled down. With one hairy arm, Ush held her in the stream. He opened his long jaws, exposing teeth as curved and sharp as the instruments in Morl's leather shop.
Kolli's clumsy fingers searched across the stream bottom, looking for a stone. What she found was the sword.
Her desperate swing struck Kalenth Ush's furry neck like an ax biting into a tree and stuck there. The silver wolf fell away screaming.
Kolli struggled to her feet and stepped back, then dropped to all fours and bounded into the trees before turning to look. Ush pulled at the sword, but the hilt was slick with gushing blood. His short arms could not get a grip. He snarled one last time and fell.
She was slow to approach his body. Only when the blood had stopped flowing and her new nose detected the odor of death did Kolli step forward. She pulled the sword back and forth to work it free. Then she struck over and over, until the silver wolf's snarling head rolled among the leaves.
The first light of morning brought the fiery pain of transformation. This time, Kolli welcomed it. When it was over, she was happy to find that all the wounds she had received in the night were gone. But that joy was nothing compared to finding her own face back where it belonged.
She looked at the still form of Kalenth Ush among the ferns at the side of the bubbling stream. Would this thing end with his death, or would she again become a monster when the moon rose? Kolli didn't know, and she was too tired to worry about it.
She stood up and started to walk, not toward the city, but back toward Kalenth Ush's compound. There were prisoners to set free. She might need their help if she ever had to explain the death of two of the city's best-known fur traders.
And there was a pile of gold in Ush's house. Kolli would set that free as well.