“You cannot run forever, traitor,” the Master hissed into 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, praying that he would leave. She’d flee far away from any lands known by the cult that had drawn her in. Surely there was somewhere still untainted by them.
Pale violet light intensified around the Master, brightened into a blur. When it faded, a wolverine stood there in place of the man. He nosed around in the brush, but failed to find the wolf, her russet fur thickly caked with dark river mud to hide her by sight and scent; if she stayed absolutely still, barely even breathing, he wouldn’t hear her—she hoped.
It worked. The wolverine snarled in frustrated anger, and loped off.
For some time she held still, shivering, hardly able to believe that she’d successfully evaded him—at least for the moment. Finally, she wriggled out from under the bush and bolted through the woods in the opposite direction. Away from her life as a human, full of the thirst for knowledge that had led her into such a trap; away from her life as part of the moon-centred cult that had promised to quench that thirst.
They had. Far too well. Over two decades she’d spent with them, and she’d learned far more than she wanted to about subjects she’d never have chosen.
She ran, tireless while the great topaz-yellow moon Talir was bright in the sky, resting when the moon set. The other four 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 hid from them, slinking 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 alternately slept and ate. With the return of Talir’s light, nervous about being found, 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 scant signs of civilization.
On a hill, under an enormous oak, she finally rested. Bathed in the cool light of her moon, 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 a hand, and the light pooled in it like water so she could drink it. 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 from them.
She considered the hilltop 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. “Earth-lord. 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; 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 earth-lord said patiently. “She is concerned for you, as is the nature of mothers.”
“She is?” It had never occurred to Neoma that the moons were even particularly aware of her kind, let alone that they would care. But if Talir cared what happened to her, did that mean that violet Lirit cared what happened to the Master who had persecuted Neoma mercilessly? Having one moon concerned for her wellbeing and another angry at her sounded like an uncomfortable position.
“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 earth-lord 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. Few have had the courage to protest, fewer still to stand by it, and you alone have had the courage to escape. Talir guided you here, to the heart of my domain, and 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 immediately. “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 earth-lord 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.