Kieran’s nuzzling roused Kaveri; she yawned, stretched, and followed him outside into the late twilight.
“There’s a pit on the far side of the hill from the spring that won’t contaminate the water,” Hickory told her.
Kaveri thanked her and vanished briefly around the hill; Kieran sat by the firepit and watched Hickory spoon vegetable-herb-and-squirrel soup into one of Neoma’s pottery bowls. All shaped by Neoma’s hands, glazed green with wood-ash to make them non-porous, and burned black around the rim from being fired upside-down in an open pit—one more way she’d been determined to be as self-sufficient as possible. When Kaveri returned, Hickory handed it to her along with a carved wooden spoon.
“Thank you,” Kaveri said. “It’s a lot of extra work for you, when I’m the only one who needs it right now, but I appreciate it.”
Hickory chuckled. “Not so much work, and it’s worth it. We can’t have you going hungry. If the two of you are spending the winter here, we’ll have to hurry to gather things that won’t spoil for the moondark times. The fur and leather long since broke down, and I’m not sure what we can arrange before it snows, but between you I’m sure you can weave enough to make up for that. I helped Neoma live through even her first winters here while we were still looking for solutions, so we can manage. I think you know more about surviving on what the forest offers than she did at first.”
“Maybe,” Kaveri said. “But I wouldn’t have had the first clue where to begin making pottery. Different histories, different skills. Possibly different solutions, though I still know what’s available here less well than I know what my home Forest offers.”
As Talir’s almost-full light finally broke over the top of the hill, Kieran changed to human-form and sat up to give Hickory a hug, which she returned.
“It’s been a long time,” he said. “I’m sorry it was so long. I needed to be away, to find who I am. I did not mean to be gone as long as I have been, though. I was… distracted.”
Hickory smiled. “I expected as much. Things you made of moonlight were still here and intact, and Valeyan said those would disappear back into moonlight if you died.”
Had he been in his amarog form, Kieran was sure his ears would have swivelled and perked forward. “What of my mother? Or anything she made?”
At that, Hickory sighed. “Valeyan also says it is a complex subject that involves intent and contact and other factors. He believes she lives, but things she made have long since returned to moonlight and I have not seen her. Talir will not answer as to where she might be, but Valeyan thinks she would not be so calm if Neoma were in any danger or distress. I don’t know. I miss her, I hope she comes home one day, but there is nothing we can do save wait and hope. Time is largely irrelevant to her and you and us, so I suppose waiting isn’t as bad as it could be.”
“I just wish I knew.”
“We all do. Valeyan included. But then, we’ve been wishing we knew about you, too, and here you are at last, so there’s always hope. Now. We’ve heard at least briefly what you’ve been doing the past few years, but not before that, and there are many years between the time you left here and the time you met up with Kaveri and her friends. What were you doing?”
“I haven’t gotten everything right, but I’ve seen a lot and learned a lot and helped some people get out of cages they couldn’t get open from inside.”
That was the question he was dreading. “No. Humans, sometimes. But Kaveri, and the three others who are coming, they weren’t the first.”
Kaveri blinked, violet eyes widening. “There are others?”
“No. There were others.” He realized he was hunching forward, an instinctive but impossible attempt to put himself submissively at a lower level than Hickory, and made himself stop even though it didn’t make the feeling go away. “I made mistakes. Orian was sacrificed with an obsidian knife to a mad fire-spirit by the cult worshipping it. Apparently obsidian is less earth than fire. I killed it, barely, and almost died, but at least it couldn’t hurt anyone else. Seyla died when we went through the ice crossing a river, hoping to lose some very frightened humans who saw her change, although I should have known better than to risk it. Sometimes around moondark it’s harder to think things through instead of reacting on instinct. There were a pair together who died by their own choice, they could not adjust, and another alone. I… I learned, some people are much too strongly rooted in their lives to be able to accept losing everything familiar, even if they think they want to.” He raised his eyes, though not quite to the level of Hickory’s. Or Kaveri’s; he’d never told them any of this. “I tried to help them. I tried to keep them safe.”
It wasn’t Hickory who answered, but Valeyan, who was simply there, leaning against the ancient oak up the slope from them. “Talir knows,” he said gently. “And I know you, I have complete faith that you did all you could. Their paths were theirs, and there are limits on what anyone can do for another. Mistakes happen, even gods make them, and without mistakes, we learn nothing. I think your current pack has no complaints.”
“None,” Kaveri said without hesitation. “Tyrel and Madoc tripping over you saved all three of us. Tyrel would be Chief by now and it would be eating him from inside, and Madoc would be miserable watching him suffer and being unable to help, and I’d still be a thrall. And we’ve done some good for other people, and you’ve managed to keep us all alive and intact long enough for all of us to feel safe splitting up for a few months. Long enough for the cubs to know how to hunt and be able to watch over a cub from the next litter.”
The analogy to an amarog pack made Hickory laugh merrily and Valeyan chuckle, and Kieran had to smile. As analogies went, it wasn’t a bad one. The first two years of life were the most precarious for an amarog cub; any who survived to the birth of the next litter had very good odds of living long enough to help their younger siblings through the same dangerous phase and later, if they chose, could disperse. Tyrel and Madoc and Kaveri were, by this point, reasonably self-sufficient; only Orian had lived this long previously. He’d had no reservations about Mirren’s safety with Tyrel and Madoc.
“This is the first time any of the other moons have involved themselves, though.” Kieran looked at Valeyan. “Only Talir did, before Lirit choosing Kaveri and Sanur choosing Madoc and then Mirren. That’s a large and important change. Part of why we came back here was hope that you might know why. You know more about us than any of your kin, I think, probably more than anyone but the moons themselves. If something is changing, or has changed, knowing might make it easier to handle it in a way the moons would like us to.”
“The other four sisters were uncertain,” Valeyan said, “though they approved of Talir’s support of Neoma. Each had different goals in the creation of your kind, and each has had her own reaction to what has occurred since. I do not know Sanur’s reasoning, she does not explain herself, I think not even to her sisters. Lirit always hoped her children would act as caretakers and guardians of the wilderness, and I believe she saw common ground there. Meyar and Sahen remain less convinced at present, though it is not impossible that should another join you whom they favour, that they will choose that one.”
“Are they hoping for more?”
“I think that at this time, they are concerned less with how many of you there are, and more with how happy you are and how you choose to use the gifts you have. None expect you to devote yourselves forever more to the service of others. Remember, though, that Talir’s hope was simply that you would help where you could, using your unique abilities and your experience and skills.”
“Then she must be horrified, from what we’ve heard of that other group,” Kaveri said.
Valeyan nodded. “Indeed.”
“What was Sanur’s goal?”
“Perhaps her sisters know, but I do not. Really, it matters little. Be who you are, and all will be well. You do not need to try to choose your path by what you think will please your mothers. You are free to make your own decisions, always.” It was a familiar effect, the doubled impression of the earth-lord and the great tree, and the earth-lord no longer being present. Except that he was, of course, since he was as much the tree and the ground beneath them and the plants Kaveri and Hickory were cutting up as he was any humanoid avatar.
“I think,” Hickory said after a moment, “I would like to hear everything you’ve been doing.”
“While you’re talking,” Kaveri said to Kieran, “bedding would be nice, and you have much more moonlight available than I do.”
Kieran obligingly began to weave blankets for her from Talir’s yellow light, while he told them about his adventures. A scholar he stayed with for some years, a mutually beneficial research project, on Kieran’s side learning more about how humans interacted to create cultures, on Derius’ side learning about how terrain and flora and fauna and weather interacted to create wilderness. A ten-year promise to follow the normally lifelong vows pledged within a religious community that followed a god of healing, and she’d accepted that and welcomed him; at the end, he’d been tempted to stay longer, but there was always more to see, and he’d left with her invitation to return.
Around them, other forest-spirits drifted in and out, bringing firewood or food, sometimes lingering to listen for a while. That it would all be passed on and shared between them, he had no doubt.
“I did have an amarog pack, too,” he told Hickory. “I met a young male who had left his parents to make room for the younger ones, and we found a territory together. Two or three years later, a female wandered through who had just left her pack, and she settled down with us. I stayed to help with the first three litters, one in the first and two each in the others, and they all survived, and when the oldest left, I went with her while she found a mate and a territory. I stayed until their first was old enough to help. By then I was bored and restless, and I went looking for something different to do.”
He’d been to a great many places; even just sharing the most significant parts, it took a long time. He kept part of his attention on Talir, reluctant to be stuck in human form for the day, and shortly before she set, he changed back to amarog.
Hickory was right about being ready for winter. Neoma’s house was sturdy and insulated very well, keeping the interior comfortably warm with only a small fire under the vent that allowed smoke to escape, though it blocked moonlight as thoroughly as sunlight and wind, rain and snow.
There should be, roughly, four of Talir’s full cycles, perhaps three of Lirit’s, that could truly be considered winter. That really wasn’t long, and winter worried him very little. Especially with time for plans and preparations, it shouldn’t be dangerous, never more than perhaps uncomfortable at moments.
There was time, though. Winter was still some way off.