Ice Wolves (Elementals, Book 1), page 1
My magic, who transformed me.
About the Author
Also by Amie Kaufman
RAYNA WAS CONFIDENTLY LEADING THEM in the wrong direction. Anders hurried through the crowd after her, ducking as a woman nearly sideswiped him with a basket of glistening fish. The stink washed over him like a cloud, and then he swerved away, leaving it behind as they ran through a stone arch.
She was already turning the corner and running out across Helstustrat, nipping in front of a pair of chestnut ponies that were hauling a wagon full of barrels over the cobblestones. Anders jogged from one foot to the other, waiting as they rumbled past, then took off after his twin sister again. “Rayna!”
She could hear him—he knew that when she flashed a quick grin over her shoulder, white teeth gleaming in her brown face. But she didn’t slow down, her thick black braid bouncing as she jogged. He was stuck trying to catch up again. This always happened.
“Rayna,” he tried, one final time, just as they rounded the corner to see the roadblock ahead, manned by guards clad in gray woolen uniforms. Without breaking stride, Rayna whirled back the way they’d come, grabbing Anders by the arm and yanking him with her around the corner. His heart thumping at the close shave, he leaned back against the cool stone wall.
“Guards,” she said, tugging her coat straight.
“I know! They’re on every street on the north side of the city,” he told her. “Checking everyone who comes through.”
Her gaze flicked back toward the corner. “Was there another dragon sighting? Or are they just doing extra patrols before the Ulfar Trials?”
“There was a dragon in the sky just last night,” he replied. “I heard them talking about it in the tavern when we were climbing down from the roof first thing.” He didn’t point out that Rayna had missed that information because she’d been too busy telling him their plans for the day. “They said they saw it breathe fire and everything.”
That silenced even Rayna for a moment. Dragons had been gone from Holbard for ten years now, but lately they had been seen in the sky overhead. Anders and Rayna had seen one themselves six months before, on the night of the last equinox celebrations.
It had breathed pure white fire as it circled above the city, then vanished into the darkness. An hour later, a set of stables in the north of the city was ablaze with the ferocious, white-and-gold dragonsfire that was almost impossible to put out, leaping from place to place faster and fiercer than normal flames.
By the time the buildings had been reduced to ashes, the dragon was gone, and with it the son of the family that lived above the stables. Dragons always took children, the stories said. The weak, the sick, and the defenseless.
“Maybe the guards think the dragon from last night could still be spying in the city, hiding in human form,” Anders said. “Or planning to start a fire.”
Rayna snorted. “What, and they think if they ask people, they’re just going to admit they knew where a dragon was but decided not to tell anyone?”
He nodded, lowering his voice to do his best impression of an upstanding citizen. “Yes, Guard, in fact I hide scorch dragons on my roof, because I want to be roasted alive and I don’t believe in public safety. I feel a little bit guilty about it, and I’ve been meaning to confess to somebody, but I wasn’t sure who would want to know.”
“At least you’d be warm.” She giggled, kicking at a slushy, melting pile of snow.
He returned to his own voice, her giggle helping chase away his own nerves, as he had hoped it would. “You never know if you don’t ask.” But though he smiled along with her, even the words put a twitch between his shoulder blades. Scorch dragons. They were the one thing every person in Holbard knew to fear, whether they were locals or traders from across the sea. There were new rumors every day that dragons were near the city again. Rumors they’d burned a farmhouse to the ground just last week, the farmer’s family still inside.
“How far south do we have to go to dodge the guards?” Rayna asked, jolting him from that thought. It went without saying that they’d avoid them. Guards asked questions like “Where are your parents?” and other inconvenient things related to adult supervision.
“At least ten streets,” he replied. “A couple of them were in wolf form, and I think they smell it if you’re worried.”
“Ten streets? That doubles the distance to Trellig Square! Anders, if you knew we were going the wrong way, why didn’t you stop me?” She was all indignation, hands on hips.
“Well, I—” But he gave up before he started. Maybe he should have tried harder. It sort of was his fault they’d come so far the wrong way. “I’m sorry,” he settled on. But she was already moving again, heading south.
“We’ll go over the rooftops.”
He was tall and gangly to her short and strong—though the twins shared the same black curls and warm brown skin, in almost every other way they were different. So being taller, Anders boosted Rayna up until she could grab the guttering and haul herself onto the nearest roof. Then he scrambled onto a barrel and climbed after her.
When he straightened up, he could see the rooftop meadows of Holbard spread out before them. Each square of grass was at least twenty houses long and twenty wide, rising and falling with the pitch and slope of the roofs.
The rooftops were covered in bright patches of wild-flowers, red fentills tucked down in the gullies, yellow-and-white flameflowers bobbing in the breeze on the slopes, as well as the occasional herb garden, where someone had a window big enough to climb out and tend to their plants.
Thanks to the street children of Holbard, wherever there was only an alleyway between two stretches of grass, rather than a wide street, a plank of wood was almost always propped in place to serve as a bridge. You could travel half the city up here without ever needing to set foot on the ground.
Anders and Rayna ran across the grass together, climbing over the tops of the sloped roofs. It only took them a few minutes to find Trellig Square, which wasn’t as big as the larger town squares in fancier neighborhoods, or down by the docks, but was always guaranteed to be packed with shoppers.
Below them they could see at least a hundred people doing their shopping at nearly twenty different stalls all squeezed in together, selling everything from flowers to eggs, secondhand clothes to hot sausages in bread.
On a rooftop on the opposite side of the square they saw Jerro, a dark-haired, dark-eyed boy of about their age, with pasty white skin hidden under a layer of dirt. He was a notorious pickpocket, and ran with a couple of his brothers, who looked like smaller versions of himself. Today, he studied Anders and Rayna for a long moment and then turned away, apparently confident the twins weren’t a threat.
Down in the square,
The twins flopped down on their fronts, propping their chins up on their elbows as the harmonica fell silent and the show began. They couldn’t hear the voices of the performers from up here, but they could still tell which story it was. The troupe was performing the last great battle, the time ten years before—when Anders and Rayna had been toddlers—when the dragons had attacked Holbard, and the Wolf Guard had defended the city.
A bunch of little wooden human puppets jumped and danced across the stage, going about their business, blissfully ignorant of what was coming next. They were beautifully made—from creamy white polished pine through to darkest mahogany, they were as varied as the citizens of Holbard who stood watching the show.
Anders heard the gasps from the audience below when red dragon puppets suddenly appeared, swooping low over the little people puppets, who scattered and ran about the stage, bobbing up and down on their sticks. One swooped to pick up the smallest puppet, kidnapping a child.
“How are they going to show—” Rayna began, but she got no further. Somehow a dragon puppet breathed fire—not a cascade of white-and-gold fabric, or some silly trick, but real fire. The flames raced along the fabric of the people puppets’ clothes, curling around each seam and enveloping the tiny figures until there was nothing left.
“How do they make it white?” Rayna whispered. “And with those gold sparks? It looks like real dragonsfire.”
“It’s a kind of salt, I think,” he whispered back. “And iron filings for the gold sparks. This is the best battle show we’ve seen.”
The puppets who hadn’t been reduced to ashes ran around the stage even more frantically. Anders and Rayna leaned over the edge of the roof in anticipation. They’d seen one tribe of shapeshifting elementals, the scorch dragons, making their attack, and now it was time for the other—the ice wolves, the heroes of the battle.
Another set of human puppets popped up on the stage, all clad in gray, and Rayna pointed. “There’s the Wolf Guard, watch!”
Beneath the wooden box the puppeteers worked some trick, and in the blink of an eye the Wolf Guard puppets turned themselves inside out—and on the inside of the puppets was sewn their wolf form! Now they were no longer guards in gray uniforms, but actual wolves, howling and creating spears of ice to drive out the dragons. The high-pitched noise was audible even above the gasps of the crowd.
“Those are some fancy puppets,” Anders said as a pair of Wolf Guards—real, living ones, one just like the pine puppet and the other like the mahogany—walked through the square on patrol, and nodded their approval as a dragon puppet came crashing down, defeated. Another dropped the tiny, kidnapped child puppet, and Anders winced. He wasn’t sure making a dragon drop a child from a great height counted as “rescue,” but he probably wasn’t meant to be thinking about that.
“Sure are fancy,” Rayna agreed. “But fancy puppets won’t feed me dinner.”
When Anders looked over, she was pulling her fishing rod from inside her coat, screwing the sections together until the handle was complete, and taking up position at the edge of the building. There was a sausage seller right below them, a wizened little man, only his gray hair and thick green coat visible from Anders’s vantage point. Rayna lowered the hook, and when he wasn’t looking, she carefully snagged one of his sausages.
Below them the crowd was still gasping over the end of the puppet show and handing up copper coins for the performers, arguing about how the dragon puppet had been made to breathe fire.
Rayna reeled the line back in quickly and carefully, swinging it around toward Anders, who unhooked the sausage. He rolled over onto his back and made it swim up and down like they’d just caught a fish, or like it was one of the puppets below.
“Don’t play with your food,” she laughed, looking down to see about getting another. It had been a genius idea of hers to use the fishing line. Nobody ever looked up for a thief.
Well, it wasn’t as true these days that nobody ever looked up, not with rumors about dragons in the skies again, but it was still better than thieving on the ground. They’d have to do that tomorrow, to get their hands on some coins.
Anders sometimes worried about the stealing, but Rayna always shrugged. “There’s no other way,” she’d say. “We’ll take care of us, and they can take care of them.”
Rayna was frowning as the sausage seller handed off the last of his wares to a customer and began packing up his stall, and she dismantled her rod, wandering over to peer down into the alleyway behind their rooftop.
“Pssst,” she called, waving Anders across to join her a minute later. “Look at that window.”
With a sinking feeling he crossed over, then leaned out to take a look. He was pretty sure he knew where this was heading. There was a little window down there, half open. “Rayna, no way,” he tried.
“Pffft, your legs are long enough,” she said. “And just think what might be inside.”
“A person!” he said. “A person might be inside!”
She waved a hand in dismissal. “A window that small, no way does it lead to a main room. It’ll be the bathroom, or the pantry. Nobody’ll see you.”
There were a dozen more arguments about why this was a bad idea, but Anders didn’t bother making them. He knew how it would end, no matter what he said. So instead, sighing, he handed his coat to her, then lowered himself off the edge of the roof.
He ended up dangling by his hands, his feet feeling around for the window ledge as Rayna gave instructions, and he began to worry he’d have to let go. It was going to hurt, if he landed on the cobblestones.
Just as he was really starting to panic, he finally found the little ledge, getting both his feet onto it. He balanced carefully as he walked his hands down the stone wall, until eventually he was low enough that he could feed himself in through the window.
He landed lightly in what turned out to be the pantry, arms windmilling as he tried to avoid tipping over into the shelves lining the small room. He stabilized and breathed out in relief.
That relief lasted about ten seconds, before he heard the sound of the front door opening. The breeze it created pushed through the rooms, and when it reached Anders in the pantry, it slammed shut the little window above him. He whirled around, reaching up to push it open again, but his heart was sinking even as he turned.
Sure enough, the lock had clicked into place. And he didn’t have the key.
He stared at his lost escape route in horror. Why did these things always happen to him?
Footsteps approached, and he spun back, searching the tiny space for a good spot to hide. After a couple of seconds of desperate consideration, he crammed himself behind a brown glazed pot almost as big as he was.
He grabbed the lid off the pot, the brine of pickled vegetables wafting up to tickle his nose, and balanced it on top of his head where he crouched. It was dark in the pantry, and if he was lucky his warm brown skin would blend in with the pots around him. Though in his experience, Anders was rarely lucky.
The footsteps stopped just outside the pantry door, which was still ajar. Through it, he could see a woman who looked like she wanted to stand out as much as he wanted to blend in. She wore a truly magnificent hat adorned with piles of expensive flowers. Her dress was large and purple, designed to take up lots of space, and she wore matching purple powder on her brown cheeks. She was clearly wealthy, and she had a haughty tilt to her chin as she leaned in to inspect herself in the hall mirror and adjust the hat.
“That Dama Barro,” she said to herself, indignant. “And Dama Chardi. I’ll show them whose sweetcakes are flat. We’ll just see who’s laughing at the next contest, won’t we?”
Anders stared at her. Was she talking to herself? How long was she going to take? And how was he going to get out of here? If she caught him, she’d report him to the Wolf Guard for sure.
Just as he was trying to remind himself to breathe slowly, there came a knock at the front door.
The woman and her hat bustled away to answer, and a moment later he heard Rayna’s cheerful voice, though he couldn’t make out her words. One thing you could say about Rayna was that she always jumped in headfirst, whether or not she had a plan.
Suddenly, the woman’s voice grew nearer again. “I told you, I really don’t want—”
Rayna didn’t let her get another word in edgewise, and suddenly Anders realized she’d forced her way into the house. “As I said, we’re offering a free sausage to every house, today only, as a sample of our wares. I think you’ll find we sell the finest sausages in the city of Holbard, Dama! Perhaps in all of Vallen!”
He watched as Rayna strode past the pantry door, followed by the woman, who was clearly trying to get her out of the house. They looked in that moment as though they could be related—if Rayna wasn’t in a shabby dress, and the woman wasn’t in fancy clothes, they could be mother and daughter. This could be his and Rayna’s home.
Suddenly he realized that his moment of daydreaming had distracted him from the fact that the woman wasn’t between him and the front door anymore. He dumped the lid he was balancing on his head and climbed out from behind the jar.
He took a deep breath, then hurried out of the pantry, sneaking toward the front door.
“Hey!” The woman’s voice sounded sharply behind him! He ran for the door.
“Enjoy your sausage,” Rayna shouted as she followed close on his heels. She threw him his coat as they ran through the square, squeezing past the crowd and pushing their way into an alley on the other side. They were out of sight before the woman made it out her front door.
“Whew,” said Rayna. “That was close. What did you get?”
“Get?” he echoed, pulling on his coat. “What do you mean?”
AMIE KAUFMAN SERIES:
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