The Amount of Cunning Required

Title: The Amount of Cunning Required
Time Period: February 24, 135 A.E.
Characters Appearing:

  • Keeps-to-the-Shade (magpie)
  • Ylva

Summary: Keeps-to-the-Shade is sought out for her skills.

Black and white, she is nearly invisible in the setting of white snow and black trees, ones grown wild at the unkempt borders of Dornie.

Ice shudders off a thin branch under the slight weight of the magpie, her beak opened wide around her prize, a brown snail in its cracked shell. Eating on her own is difficult in the colder months, and often she will peck tolerable scraps out of Cruikshank's palm, even when they're bickering. But only if Keeps-to-the-Shade can't help it. She hops onto clean snow with another shimmer of spilling ice, fine as dust, and sets about feasting, the cracking of delicate shell almost noisy in the otherwise quiet corner of woods. Every now and then, she twitches her head up, wary of predators and prepared to abandon hard-won meal if necessary.

It's an early morning, with the sun knifing pale through the trees, over the mountains, throwing all the shadows into length and thinness. Despite the season, she is not the only bird in the forest, and the chirping twitters of her peers twinkle through the trees.

She's not the only animal in the forest, either. The silence that settles over her thicket makes her aware of another's presence long before she sees it winding through the trees, parallel to the sun's rays, perhaps to keep the light out of its eyes and its vision as clear as the skies above the forest's icy canopy.

That bad news is that it's a wolf. The good news is that it isn't hunting; if it was, it would take more care not to be noticed by the rabbits huddling for cover under a thick tangle of blackberry bushes, or the squirrels sitting high in the tallest branches, as still and stiff as the knots of wood. There's blood on its muzzle, evidence of a recent kill if not a full belly, and it moves like creeping frost, breath pouring from its nostrils.

The silence has her going still, the last shred of slimy bug-flesh snapped in her beak, and by the time the sound of stinking animal breathing registers, Shade is moving. Her wings beat powerful to support her launch upwards, noisy but effective in reaching a perch — a branch that's been snapped beneath a great weight of snow sometime prior to the last evening, splinted and bent in the middle, and she sits upon the sturdier, thicker arm towards the trunk of the black wooded tree.

But she doesn't fly away. Wolves do not swarm this close to the city, not alone, and not when she knows, deep down, that it is not true wolf. She hops to turn and look, bowed in observation and eyes glittering like miniscule flecks of glass.

The crackle-snap of the magpie's flight draws the wolf's attention in her direction, its ears pricked and yellow eyes bright. At a distance, it does not have to crane its neck to pick her out of the branches, only lift its head and stare at Shade's tree long enough to catch the sunlight reflecting off her iridescent feathers.

The next breath the wolf takes through its nose informs it that there is no immediate need to canvass the area more than it already has. It smells no men here.

Are you Keeps-to-the-Shade? it— she asks instead.

For a moment, Shade stays quite still, tempted to flutter away in the pretense that she was any ordinary bird. But there would be no fun in that at all, either, nor would she learn the reasons why a she-wolf knows her name and sought her out.

So she stays.

You may call me Shade, if you like. There's a certain amount of condescending in there, as if canines might not be awfully bright.

I do, replies the wolf. It takes less of my time.

She sits, then, shifting her weight back onto her haunches, and Keeps-to-the-Shade can see an ugly wound nestled between two ribs on her chest, though the fur is clean and the skin still somewhere between healing and scarring. I've been told that there is no bird in these woods more clever than you. Do you think you might be able to help me out?

A rustle of feathers, follows, a prideful kind of twitch that isn't quite preening so much as letting inky black and reflective blue show. Ever moving, Shade edges sideways along the branch, but keeping in the wolf's view as beady eyes study the canine, its posture and its injury. Whoever told you isn't wrong, wolf, she says, even as she thinks briefly of the shadowy goshawk.

No, she still is.

But if they told you I'm very kind, they might have been exaggerating.

Kindness is the highest form of wisdom, the wolf agrees, but also the worst currency. I don't expect you to lift feather for me without being promised something in return. I'll let you name your price if you think you're capable of the task.

She turns her eyes away, looking out through the trees at the open field beyond the woodland where a small herd of red deer graze in the mist. Of course, if you decide that you can't— I won't hold it against you. I'm certain I can find another with the amount of cunning required.

Lift off is silent, but her wings aren't noiseless — all the same, she cuts a smooth path through the air within snapping distance of the wolf's maw, her flight noisy in canine ear before she lifts up again, landing in bramble with a shiver of icy twigs that sway beneath her slight weight. Her tail closes like a fan as she looks back at the stranger.

Then tell me task, is a little snippish.

Wolves don't smile, not even this one, but there's a brief pause in which the wolf contains her amusement so that when she speaks again, her tone stays somber. Duncan Rowntree killed two mountain folk at Horseshoe Pass for kidnapping his niece, she says. One of the dead was wearing a necklace that has great personal value to me. I would take it back myself, but I can think of no way into Eilean Donan without being seen by the guard.

The name goes recognised, if only thanks to a lack of inquiry that follows, beak opening and closing in contemplative clicks. And then, Shade laughs — it isn't true laughter, the way humans do, physical and breathing and compulsive, but psychic amusement rustles like bells in trees. Is that all? Steal a trinket?

If what I'm asking of you is so simple, then what you'll want in return must not be very great either. The wolf licks some of the blood from her whiskers, showing long, pink-stained teeth with tufts of fur from her last meal still stuck between them. So tell me, Shade: What am I to do for you?

Now, now. I am small. You are not small. What's easy for me is not easy for you, and the price is in proportion to that, wolf.

Shade hops to face the wolf again, with another queasy sway of whip-thin twigs. A token for a token. Hunt me something good to eat, and have it warm and waiting when I return. I'll also need to know what this bit of shine looks like, and also your name.

It's strung on a cord of leather, the wolf says of the 'shine', which makes it sound like the necklace does not glisten or gleam at all, a raven's skull, two wooden beads and sleek black feathers each. The next breath she exhales washes over the magpie, displacing carefully preened plumage. My name is Ylva.

There's a twitch to bow, almost, as steaming exhale streams by, silent in her consideration before she says, That's an interesting sounding token, Ylva. But she doesn't inquire more — if she works quickly and so desires, she can place it in Fletcher's hands first and see what he can make of it.

Give me today to find it, and tomorrow to get it. I'll meet you here, when the sun is heighest, and we'll have our exchange. She clicks her beak. Nothing with feathers, please.

Nothing with feathers, Ylva concedes.