Adrian Tchaikovsky’s The Tiger and the Wolf—available February 11 in the UK from Tor UK—is set in the bleak northern crown of the world, where war is coming.
Maniye’s father is the Wolf clan’s chieftain, but she’s an outcast. Her mother was queen of the Tiger and these tribes have been enemies for generations. Maniye also hides a deadly secret. All can shift into their clan’s animal form, but Maniye can take on tiger and wolf shapes. She refuses to disown half her soul, so escapes, rescuing a prisoner of the Wolf clan in the process. The killer Broken Axe is set on their trail, to drag them back for retribution.
Maniye’s father plots to rule the north and controlling his daughter is crucial to his schemes. However, other tribes also prepare for strife. Strangers from the far south appear too, seeking allies in their own conflict. It’s a season for omens as priests foresee danger, and a darkness falling across the land. Some say a great war is coming, overshadowing even Wolf ambitions. A time of testing and broken laws is near, but what spark will set the world ablaze?
The sound of the chase confirmed he’d been right: they were heading his way. No doubt the quarry was flagging by now, but still keeping ahead of the pack. Akrit was not as young or swift as he once had been, but strength came in many forms, and raw speed did not decide success in a hunt like this.
A big, broad-shouldered man was Akrit Stone River: weather-beaten skin like old tanned leather and his hair starting to grey. He had led the Winter Runner tribe of the Wolf for twenty years, and each one of those years had made his people stronger, extended their reach, brought more hearths into the Wolf’s Shadow. If he showed weakness though, some challenger would step from the pack to face him. On days like this, he knew they were all waiting for it.
Akrit was sure that he could beat any of them if ever that day came. But he was not as sure as he had been five years ago.
If I had a son . . . and that was a weakness of his body, even if it was not one that slowed him in either the chase or the fight. If he had a son, then he would be unassailable. But just a daughter . . . Am I less of a man? A daughter’s better than nothing, isn’t it?
He scowled, thinking of that. A daughter, maybe. His daughter? He recognized little enough of himself in her. The fear that had grown in him, as the girl had grown, was that she was too much her dead mother’s child.
There is still time. Aside from the girl’s mother he had taken three wives, but none of them had borne him anything but excuses. This year, perhaps, he would find a fourth. There must be a woman born within the Jaws of the Wolf who is strong enough to take my seed.
As he crouched there, listening to the music of the chase, he thought of his daughter’s dead mother, the one woman who had been that strong.
I should have kept her. I shouldn’t have had her killed like that. But, once she had given him what he wanted, she had become too dangerous. A daughter had seemed ideal: from her a girl would serve his purposes better than a boy, and he had been young then, with plenty of time to sire a few sons to be true heirs. Who could have known that he would get no other issue in all those years since? Just that sullen, close-featured girl.
He could hear a shift in the baying as the chase neared—telling him exactly who had taken the lead, and who had exhausted their strength and fallen back. The quarry was giving them fair sport, that was plain: a good omen. The Wolf appreciated a good run.
Ten years before, Akrit Stone River would himself have been in the pack, keeping a moderate, confident pace, taking his turn to snap at the heels of the stag and then fall back. Nobody would have berated him that he was not at the fore when the quarry was brought to bear.
Now, though . . . now he was ten years older.
He heard the eager throats of his warriors as the quarry started to weary, imagined them coursing, a river of grey bodies between the trees with the stag’s heels flashing before them. There was Smiles Without Teeth, Akrit’s war leader and a man who would be his most dangerous challenger if he were not so loyal and devoid of ambition. There, too, was Bleeding Arrow’s high call, jaws closing on air—no, a hoof delivered to the snout as he got too close. Then Amiyen Shatters Oak was next at the fore, the fiercest of his huntswomen. She was near as old as Akrit but still as strong as ever, and if she had been a man she would have challenged him long ago. Impossible to take to wife, though, and that was a shame. Surely she would have made a good mother of many sons.
Too fierce to share a tent with, Akrit decided. No pairing could survive the conflicting ambitions of two strong hunters. So it was that Amiyen bore sons for another man, who tended her hearth while she went hunting.
He braced himself, hearing the chase draw near. All this struggle for a few more moments of life, and still I knew which way you would come. The land spoke to him, its rises and falls, its skeins of little lakes and streams, its hard ground and its soft, the very pattern of the trees showing him where the quarry would turn, where he would leap, where the pack would turn him aside.
And the Wolf is with me for another year. He ran forward and Stepped onto all fours, his burly human frame flowing into the wolf that was his soul, his second skin. Bones, flesh, clothes and all, turning into the grey hide of the beast. Now he was building up speed, claws catching at the turf, bolting from the undergrowth almost under the hooves of the fleeing stag.
The quarry reared, panicked and turned aside, just as Akrit knew it would. Smiles Without Teeth took the chance to lunge for its haunches, tearing a gash with his claws but failing to catch hold, and the deer was off again, staggering slightly, and Akrit had shouldered his way to the front of the pack, fresh and strong and laughing at them.
They had no words between them, but he heard their thoughts in the snarls and panting as the pack fell in behind him. Smiles Without Teeth was chuckling, Bleeding Arrow was angry at being out-thought—but then out-thinking Bleeding Arrow was no great feat. Amiyen Shatters Oak was pushing herself harder. She wanted to show that if any woman had been allowed to challenge for leadership, then it would have been her.
The joy of the chase, and feeling the pattern of the pack shift to accommodate him, whether they liked it or not, was taking hold of him. Even Bleeding Arrow was moving to his will, falling out towards the flank to head off the quarry’s inevitable questing there, bringing the stag back in line – and now they were forcing the beast into the denser forest, where their own lithe forms would slip more easily between the trees.
A good spread of antlers on that head, Akrit noted approvingly. If the quarry fulfilled his part then this would be a good year, with that fine tribute to place between the jaws of the Wolf. No need for a priest to read omens as fine as that.
One of the many lessons a warrior must learn was held in the great span of those antlers: Do not let your strength become your weakness. How proud was the stag of that broad spread of points, how he must have strutted before his women, and yet in the chase they were a weight that slowed him down, an encumbrance constantly in danger of being caught by briars or branches.
Akrit gauged his moment, then spurred himself forwards, snapping at the flanks of the stag, driving him sideways to where Smiles Without Teeth was waiting to rip his fangs across the beast’s path. The quarry turned more quickly than Akrit would have expected, but the pack was closing in on him from all sides, offering a set of jaws wherever the stag turned: the only path left was deeper into the forest, to where the trees grew close.
There was a glade there that Akrit knew well, its bracken and moss long fed on old blood. The pack was already spreading, those hunters who had been hanging at the back regaining their strength were now drifting out to the side, and with a swift burst of speed began to move ahead.
The stag burst into the glade, ready to gain some ground over the open space, but the pack was already there before him, and he wheeled, rearing high, those mighty antlers clashing with the trees overhead: brought to bay at last.
The encircling wolves snapped and bared their teeth at one another, excitement running high between them, but they were waiting for Akrit’s move. He had them for another year at least.
The stag lowered his antlers, threatening them with those jagged tines, wheeling round and round, trying to hold all quarters against the grey tide. Akrit waited for his opening, bunching himself to spring. There was still a very real chance of getting this wrong if he was too impatient—
And there went Dirhathli, a boy out on his first hunt, unable to restrain himself, trying to earn a name. The antlers flashed, and the boy yelped and fell back, twisting to lick at his side, and then Stepping entirely from thin wolf to thin boy, holding his wound and crying out in pain. No hunter’s name for you, Akrit thought sourly. Or, if you’re unlucky, you’ll earn such a name as to make you regret this hunt all your life.
Another two of the pack made abortive lunges at the quarry, more to drive it back to the centre of the glade than to harm it. They were still waiting for Akrit.
Then the quarry Stepped, and a moment later there was just a long-limbed man crouching in the centre of the clearing, one leg bloodied where Smiles Without Teeth had gashed him, his face twisted in fear.
A shudder went through the circling wolves, one of disgust and horror.
‘Please,’ said the quarry, hands held out in supplication, and Akrit felt a stab of anger, and fear too, for this was surely a bad omen unless he could turn matters around somehow.
He growled deep in his throat and Stepped too, a man amongst wolves, aware of the pack’s eyes on him.
‘Running Deer, this is no proper tribute. You know how this is done.’
‘Please . . .’ The man’s chest was heaving with the exertion of the chase. ‘I can’t . . .’
‘You know what this price buys your people,’ Akrit told him sharply. ‘You know what your cowardice will cost them. I give you one chance to face death as you should, Running Deer.’
‘No!’ the trembling man cried out. ‘My name—’
‘You are Running Deer from the moment you were chosen as tribute,’ Akrit shouted at him, incensed that this wretched creature should flout the traditions of the hunt. ‘Your family I will see torn apart. I shall feast on them myself. Your village shall give its children and women as thralls. I offer you this one last chance to avoid that. You know the rules of tribute.’
But the man—such a proud stag, and yet such a wretched human being—only begged and pleaded, and at last Akrit tired of him.
He gave the signal, and the pack descended. For himself, he would not sully his fangs, and none would blame him for not lowering himself. There would be no trophy of antlers for the Wolf, and no doubt Kalameshli Takes Iron would have dire warnings for the year to come. All of the hunters would have to be cleansed of the dead man’s ghost. The entire tribute hunt had become a travesty.
Akrit had an ambivalent relationship with omens. He was quick to make use of them, but well aware that they were a knife with two edges. So far, in his rule of the Winter Runners tribe, he had been able to ride out whatever the fates had in store for him, turning each year’s predictions to his advantage. The priest, Kalameshli Takes Iron, was his friend of old and their partnership a long-standing and close one, but a year’s forecast of bad omens might change that.
Akrit walked away from the kill, because there was no glory to be found there. He was already trying to think how this day might be seen as anything other than a disaster.
Excerpted from The Tiger and the Wolf © Adrian Tchaikovsky 2016