“You cannot run forever, traitor!” The snarl carried clearly through the midnight woods. “You may be crafty enough to escape us for the moment, but we will track you down, heretic. And you will die as you were reborn, in pain and in loss and in sorrow.”
The red wolf huddled under her bush, trembling, her russet fur thickly caked with river mud in hopes of masking scent and sight alike. If she stayed absolutely still, barely even breathing, just maybe they’d give up. Her only hope lay in flight, far and fast. Surely there was somewhere still untainted by the cult that had drawn her in. There must be lands unknown to them.
She’d been told for decades that trying to leave was sacrilegious ingratitude. She knew of no one who had ever been successful, and those who failed were executed horribly in the name of the moons. Hoping for a different outcome was, her scholarly training insisted, a sign of madness. She knew that.
Yet a new assignment meant several days travel alone with two others of her own status and their superior of the past several decades. On the road, she at least had a chance—and any chance was worth it, no matter how mad.
The world at night was as clear to her as it was by day, though distinctly tinted with pale yellow—except for the children of the other four moons, each luminous with the light of their own mother but the light of the others shying away. Which made it easy for her to watch them as they searched.
One of her erstwhile equals, a tall woman with dark sepia skin and black hair, could only beat through the bushes with a stick, her camel other-form of scant help in searching. The black and white bear worried her far more—his sense of smell, she knew, was highly acute in that form. Worst of all, to them she in turn should be highlighted by Talir’s yellow light against a background of lilac-violet or cat’s-eye greenish-gold. How could they fail to find her? Why had they not done so already?
Violet light brightened around Gernot, the man who had been effectively her master for so long. When it faded, a wolverine stood there in place of the man, shimmering still with violet moonlight. He nosed around in the brush, but though the panda had tracked her to the riverbank, they’d somehow, by some miracle, lost her there. Though they were close enough that she wished she could stop even the noisy thumping of her heart, they moved in the wrong direction.
Every muscle tight with fear, she forced herself to stay where she was.
Though it took what felt like an eternity, the wolverine finally snarled in frustrated anger and changed back to human form. The other two responded immediately to his barked command, abandoning the search, the panda becoming a slender pale-skinned dark-haired man.
“We will find you, heretic!” Gernot bellowed into the forest, startling any wildlife not already aware of the disruption. “You cannot hide from the moons!” He stormed back in the direction of the road. It would take them a while to get there and discover whether their campsite and wagon, gear and horses, were still there.
For some time the red wolf held still, shivering, listening to the sounds of the forest drift back towards the normal background of crickets and night birds, small rustlings in the dead leaves and the booming of frogs in the river. What if he returned to catch her breaking cover once she believed herself safe? She had already had extraordinary good fortune, but that was a poor thing on which to bet her life.
At last, she wriggled out from under the bush and bolted through the woods in the opposite direction.
As she crossed a narrow track, certainly nothing she could call a road, stepping into the moonlight was like stepping from icy wind into a fire’s warmth. The muscle-aching fatigue from hiding faded away instantly, replaced by a surge of energy and wellbeing.
With it came something she could only call love.
Three words, the barest whisper in her mind. It would have been easy to convince herself that she’d finally gone mad and imagined it. Run, daughter! Quickly!
She ran, tireless while Talir was bright in the sky, hiding when the great topaz-yellow moon set. The four younger moons danced through their own cycles, but they were of no immediate relevance; one moon alone ruled her life. The forest changed around her, and opened into increasing stretches dominated by shrubby growth in expanses cleared and cultivated by humans; she slunk by in the night, just another animal if any caught a glimpse, and finally she reached more woodland, though the trees were different, the scents were different. Talir waned, Neoma’s need for rest and food increasing as she did. Two days before the dark of the moon, unwilling to venture into the open without her moonlady’s strength to support her, Neoma hunted a deer large enough to feed her for several meals and dragged it to an overgrown gully where she could hide. For the day and night and day in which Talir hid her face, she slept, rousing only to eat. With the return of Talir’s light, unwilling to linger, again she ran.
Forest became rocky upland where humans grazed sheep, and in the low parts the ground was sodden year-round, which made it like stepping between worlds repeatedly. It evened out to grassland spotted with human towns and human farm villages, but the grassland grew less even, more hilly, and then she realized that for days, she’d been surrounded only by lushly-forested hills with only intermittent signs of civilization.
On a hill, under an enormous oak, she finally rested. Bathed in cool yellow light, she willed herself back to her human form for the first time in weeks, and stretched towards Talir, revelling in the feel of the light on her bare skin. She cupped her hands, and the light pooled in them like water so she could drink it, though not without a murmured thanks to Talir for her generosity. This was the one good thing that the cult had given her: the mingling of blood passed on this transformation from mortal to something else, from mundane flesh to the child of the moons.
Here, surely, she would be safe.
She considered her surroundings thoughtfully. Other than the oak, there were no substantial trees on this hilltop, which meant the moonlight could pour down unhindered. Not far below was the edge of the heavy forest. When she’d become what she was, she’d gained the other form of a forest wolf, one of the small red wolves that preferred dense cover over great open spaces, and the forest here would be ideal. This wasn’t the highest bit of land in sight, but it could be a wonderful place to build a home, if she could find water nearby.
The rich green grass and wildflowers of early summer carpeted the ground, softening it, but she still watched warily for stones to stumble over or plants with barbs or thorns as she explored. The moonlight would heal any damage quickly, but a naked human in the wilderness was vulnerable to any amount of discomfort before that happened.
Lower on the hill, she came across a stream that gurgled, bright and clear, over a bed of small round pebbles and water-plants that she knew were harmless. She followed it upstream, and discovered that it bubbled up from the ground, halfway up the slope, before wending its way down along the easiest, slanted route.
Perfect. With water and a good location, she could build herself a house here, and it was unlikely that anyone would find her before she was prepared to be found.
Since the moon was lowering, she finished her circuit of the hill, then went back to the top. There, she changed back to wolf, and curled up to sleep for the day. When moonrise came, she could start work.
Talir’s touch roused her; to her astonishment, she realized that for the first time in a very long time, she’d slept deeply, not starting awake at every sound, every breeze. That seemed like a good omen for her future here. She planted all four feet firmly and stretched, taking pleasure in the strength and flexibility of her own body; only then did she change to human. Hands cupped, she drank from Talir’s light, and felt it all over her, almost tangible, yet melting in through her skin to bring her energy and sate her hunger.
She looked around her thoughtfully, contemplating options as to how to build a shelter. Comfortable though she was in wolf-form, she had no intention of living indefinitely that way, and a wolf too preferred to have shelter from rain and snow. Alone, even in the light of the full moon she could hardly construct anything elaborate. Enhanced strength and endurance had limits and she was only a little over five feet tall, with the build of a scholar, not a mason. On top of that, she had no tools, beyond what she might be able to create for herself from stone or antler or bone. Perhaps hides over a frame of wood…
“Daughter of Talir.”
Neoma spun around, heartbeat accelerating instantly, her hands curving into claws. Instinct and recent experience told her to change to wolf-form and flee; reason and emotional fatigue suggested that she wait to see if she really needed to do so.
The man leaning casually against the trunk of the enormous oak was some two feet taller than her, and he had the kind of muscular frame that looked all in proportion to the height. His skin was the reddish-brown of rich fertile soil, his long braided hair the near-black of river mud, his features far too perfect to be human. The eyes that regarded her had all the brilliance of diamond, though. No man, this; he could only be one of the gods of the earth, each part of and guardian of a region. This was the soul of this area, the living essence of the ground beneath her, drawn together temporarily into a humanoid avatar to speak to her.
Neoma bowed her head respectfully. “Earthborn. Am I intruding here?”
“That depends on your reason for being here.”
“Sanctuary. Safety. Peace.”
“So your mother tells me.”
“My mother?” Neoma said in confusion. She hadn’t seen the weaver who’d given birth to her since following the lure of promised knowledge, and she was long dead. What her parents had thought of the disappearance of their odd daughter, the one who wanted answers to everything, she would never know.
“Talir,” the earthborn said patiently. “She is concerned for you, as is the nature of mothers.”
“She is?” For decades, she’d been told, constantly, that she was unworthy, that to attract Talir’s attention could only be bad, that she must be meek and obedient and allow the worthy chosen to relay the will of the moonladies. It had never entirely been consistent with her own experience, but she had concluded that it was more likely that the five lunar sisters were generally uninterested in her kind and anything they did.
But what of that whisper, the night she’d fled?
“Neoma, raise your eyes. Talir’s daughter need never bow to anyone.” He sounded mildly exasperated, but not upset; Neoma cautiously looked up, and found the earthborn regarding her with patient good humour. “Yes, she is. And as is also sometimes in the nature of mothers, the moons are not pleased with what the others have done with the gifts they have been given. It saddens them that their children are taught to fear them. Few have had the courage to protest, fewer still to make the effort at escape, and you alone have been successful. Talir helped you, and guided you here, to the heart of my domain, and has asked me, as a favour, to allow you to settle here. So. Do you intend any act that will disrupt the balance of my lands? That will disturb the natural order here?”
Neoma shook her head, trying to focus on the immediate. “I only intend to create a shelter of some kind,” she said honestly. “I eat little or nothing for a good part of Talir’s cycle, and I know both what plants are safe for food and how to hunt responsibly. I have no desire to make any more of an impact here than absolutely necessary.”
Slowly, the earthborn nodded. “I believe you. And you are welcome here. My name is Valeyan. Anywhere within my domain that you call my name, I will hear you. I will do all I can to keep those who seek you from finding you here.” He smiled, gently. “You are safe.”
He was there, and then he was overlapping the space where the trunk of the huge oak was, and then he wasn’t there at all. Not in that form, at least. It was oddly comforting, knowing that the very ground beneath her was aware of and welcomed her.