The forest-spirit joined her moments after Neoma roused at moonrise and changed to human, and she looked pleased.
“I think I found a good solution, as far as digging. Come and see?”
Neoma tied off the last wrapping around her leg, and followed her to the hole.
Hickory held up a flattish, curved, pale, vaguely triangular object. “It’s the shoulder-bone of a deer,” she explained. “I know where one died and I thought these might still be intact. They both were, so there’s one for each of us. We cleaned them up as much as we could, so they wouldn’t be so slippery to hold.” She held it out to Neoma, who took it. It was large and substantial enough for the wide end to make quite a reasonable shovel blade, and the narrower end should be a serviceable handle. Certainly far better than anything else available.
“These will work perfectly,” Neoma said. “You’re brilliant.”
Hickory shook her head. “No. I only know the forest and what’s available. So, now we can make it as deep as you wanted, and make it large enough to be comfortable.”
“We can,” Neoma agreed.
Later that night, Neoma made a long thin cord out of the moonlight, and anchored it to the ground in the centre of the hole with a rock; then she and Hickory used that as a guide so they could mark out the boundaries of a substantial circle. Neoma would have settled for a smaller one, but Hickory insisted that they make it bigger so she wouldn’t feel crowded inside.
It took them two more nights to finish excavating the circle to a comfortable depth across its full width.
“Tomorrow night,” Neoma said, before Hickory left, “we need to think about what to do for a frame. I don’t want to kill or harm living trees, but flexibility would be useful.”
“I’ll think,” Hickory promised.
Hickory’s solution, after further discussion, was to find saplings that had minimal hope of survival where they were—ones that had sprouted in conditions that would never be able to sustain them, or that were growing too close to their own kind. She assured Neoma that Valeyan would not see taking them as destruction, so long as she allowed Hickory to choose which ones.
That left the issue of how to fell them.
Talir’s darker nights came, and with Hickory’s help, Neoma set snares for rabbits and fished in the river, sleeping through the days in the hammock she made out of moonlight. She spent as much time as possible in experimentation, and devised tools from the stone that Hickory found for her, based on abstract information she remembered reading about. Her first efforts were inefficient and ineffective; later efforts were only inelegant, but she thought they would accomplish the current job, and given time, she could improve on them. A wedge, chipped carefully to an edge, and a mallet that was an oval stone bound with lengths of raw rabbit-hide to a short sturdy length of oak; an axe and an adze, with similar broad wedge-shaped stone heads, both bound to handles of antler, the axe parallel to the handle and the adze across it, with notches in the stone and wood both to keep them secure.
Hickory sat with her while she worked, quiet while Neoma was concentrating, but at other times she told stories about what was happening in Valeyan’s domain—about the animals, for the most part, the old stag who was king here, the grey foxes, the raccoons, the mated pair of golden eagles raising a fledgling. Neoma, at first unenthusiastic about the subject, quickly grew more interested, and began to look forward to hearing each night about what else Hickory had heard. Some of the stories were about the other forest-spirits, female and male, and what they were doing. Neoma listened always for any hint that other strangers had come here, but there were none; she began to relax, and share with Hickory some of her own stories of life as a human, though she avoided the more recent years.
When Talir brightened again, Neoma and Hickory were ready. They felled the saplings, dragged them back to the foundation of Neoma’s house, stripped them of branches and bark. The first two they set up directly opposite each other, bent over and lashed together into an arch with sinew; gradually they filled in enough of the frame that it would be able to support the rest.
It was every bit as much hard labour as Neoma had expected, but there was something oddly satisfying in it. Her parents had provided the home where she’d grown up, where she’d always been the odd one, loved but not understood; the cult had provided her home after that, where she’d again been the odd one, understood but not respected. This home would be her own, and she thought that Valeyan would judge her only by her impact on his domain. It would have been lonely work, and all the more difficult, without Hickory’s presence, cheerful or thoughtful but always near. Strange that, having never had a true friend in her life, she’d found one in a forest-spirit when she’d thought all she wanted was to be alone.
The branches, along with others Hickory brought from trees that could safely spare them, they wove into a lighter framework, around the outside of the poles. Strips of bark from the saplings and from recently dead trees were woven through that, covering as much surface as they could. Talir brightened to full, and began to darken again before they finished.
“We’ll be done soon,” Hickory said. “And it will have plenty of time to dry before winter comes. You’ll sleep safe and warm.”
“Where will you be?”
“Oh, I’ll be around, don’t worry about that.”
Having done so much, they decided to rest until Talir came back around to bright again. Hickory took Neoma through the woods to places she never would have found alone in either form, and showed her the dens of the foxes and the nest of the eagles, the owl pellets that betrayed daytime perches and the emptied nut shells that marked where the owl’s prey had fed. Neoma drank it all in, fascinated, and the more she saw, the more she wanted to see. Hickory, who gave every sign of enjoying Neoma’s pleasure, obligingly found more to show her.
They finally decided that Talir was bright enough for the next step.
Hickory held out a hand to stop Neoma from picking up one of the rather rough but serviceable baskets she’d constructed. “Wait. I already asked for help. What we need will be much closer than you think.”
“What? There are no clay deposits right near my house. We already checked. There’s no sand, either. It’s all loam over rock.”
Hickory only smiled, and turned in a slow circle. “I think right about… there, the ground feels different.” She walked over to the spot, and dug a hand into the earth. “Clay,” she said in satisfaction. A few feet away, she checked again. “Sand—very fine, as you asked. Thank you, Valeyan, you’ve saved us the worst of the effort.”
“You’re welcome,” Valeyan said, from the direction of the oak—his voice was deep, Neoma noticed this time, almost a rumbling. The voice of the earth itself. She spun around, almost bowed her head, then reminded herself that he’d told her not to.
“Thank you, earth-lord. I would not have asked…”
He smiled. “I know. As miracles go, however, this isn’t such a large one. I’ve only saved you finding and transporting the heavier materials, not the rest of the work involved.”
“That’s still a wonderful gift. So is having Hickory’s help.”
That made him laugh, softly, wind-through-branches. “Yes, but I can’t take credit for that one. It wasn’t my idea. I only gave consent when she asked me.” Another laugh, at Neoma’s astonishment, but it didn’t sound mocking at all; then he vanished again, back into the land he was part of.
Neoma turned to look at Hickory, who was intently kneading two handfuls of earth together. “You said he sent you.”
“Well, I did ask him, and he did tell me that I could offer whatever reasonable help I chose.” Hickory blushed greenish-bronze. “I noticed you when you first came into this domain, and was curious. And when I heard you talking to Valeyan the first night, I thought that you could use a local guide. And, well, I was curious about you.” She looked up anxiously. “You aren’t angry, are you? I wasn’t sure that I could explain at first, and then I didn’t think to.”
Neoma shook her head. “Why would I be angry that you’re here because you want to, rather than because you were assigned to be?” She grinned. “And curiosity is something I understand.”
Hickory smiled. “I’m glad. I’d go away if you said to, but I don’t want to.”
“Then don’t. So, we need lots of grass we can mix in with this. Where would be best to collect it?”