Kaveri checked the last of the food hanging from the ceiling of Neoma’s house—she rather suspected that it was always going to be Neoma’s house to Kieran and the forest-spirits, which seemed appropriate enough, given that virtually everything in and about it had been crafted by her hands.
There was little left of the dried meat and fish and herbs, as there had been of the roots and grains in their carefully clay-sealed pits nearby. That was all right, though: they wouldn’t be here much longer anyway. That thought filled her both with anticipation of new sights and new people, but also a faint sense of loss: after over a year and a half here, including two full winters, this felt more like a home to Kaveri than Galimont after more than twice that long. It didn’t matter that it was a different forest and a different family around her—one with extremely variable levels of useful skills here in the wilderness.
Snug and comfortable inside through bad weather, with the people she loved safe around her, and quite enough to eat given their irregular need for food, and the endless knowledge and support of the forest-spirits… even the winter had been exhilarating, with a whole welcoming forest to play in. And to teach her family about. The winter had, to Tyrel and Madoc and Mirren, been more of a challenge and an education. At least the brothers had some foundation in how to live off the land, to which she and Kieran had added on the way to Galimont. Poor Mirren had been alternately enchanted and anxious all winter, though time spent in her cat form, curled up in one lap or another by the fire, had helped her stress levels considerably.
All agreed, though, that given the nature of their existence, it was useful to know. It was something to build on if they separated again and any of them came back here alone, and these skills could provide a comfortable secure camp during moondark if necessary.
And five people, largely alone save forest-spirits and an earth-lord, couldn’t help but talk a great deal through the dark hours of winter, and learn a great deal about each other that somehow hadn’t come out even in the years before that.
Kaveri ducked past the layered moonspun curtains across the doorway and stepped back out into the fresh clean spring evening air. For the moment, all three relevant moons were bright enough to allow them to change freely and need limited food or sleep. There were things to do, tidying up and packing and deciding what to bring along by way of food, even choosing where to go, but the mild weather had moods high: amarog and fox, bobcat and wildcat, were playing, chasing each other around the hilltop. Kaveri stopped there to watch, smiling. A lifetime ago, she never would have believed that Tyrel and Madoc could possibly act, well, silly. Of course, in that other life, everything had been different, all of them constrained by roles not of their choosing.
In this one, everything was about their own choices.
Right now, her own choices were between practicality and fun.
She looked up at Lirit, waning but still half full, and asked to change.
On four feet, she scampered into the melee, and the others included her in the mad game without missing a beat.
The gradual paling of the sky caught them all off-guard: there was no changing back now. They spent the day drowsing in the spring sun, too thin to do them any harm through fur, using each other as pillows and, when the breeze picked up for a while, Kieran as a windbreak. Judicious group hunting provided a couple of male rabbits to share, about all they needed in this form and with Talir waxing.
Part of me wants things to always be like this, Kaveri thought contentedly, nuzzling Mirren affectionately when the wildcat curled up again with her head on Kaveri’s fluffy striped tail. No pressure, no danger, no one to save, just peace. Part of me knows that I’d get bored, and that even though we can’t see it, there are places out there like the plague village and like Galimont, even like the Valley of Umako, that could use a little outside help, and there are things to see, things to learn.
Maybe I should just try to be grateful that we do have a home after all, a place we can always come back to.
One we should always come back to.
An idea that had been nagging at her somewhere in the back of her mind began to crystallize. She mulled over it while waiting for Lirit to rise, as always the last up of the five though she’d also be the last to set—it was just as well, given the complexities of multiple moon phases and their direct impact on them, that at least they rose at consistent times, or their children would be half-mad trying to calculate the math!
This time, Kieran wasn’t the only one in no hurry to change to human form. Kaveri, though, did so as soon as she could.
“We need to talk,” she said, and the other four obligingly changed and joined her in a circle on the young grass.
“That wasn’t quite the plan for the day, but who’s arguing?” Tyrel laughed, cupping a hand to catch a drink of yellow light. “What do we need to talk about?”
Language was less of an issue than it had been: Mirren was rapidly picking up the language Tyrel and Madoc had grown up speaking and that Kaveri had learned as an adolescent when she began to help her uncle with trading. Mirren insisted that the increased energy and the decreased distractions of anything from headaches to colds made her thoughts clearer and her memory better, and Kaveri could think of no reason to doubt her—she’d been younger and had changed under very different circumstances, but it did sound plausible. Combined with their knowledge of Mirren’s language, communication was getting easier all the time, though frequently it was in a mixture of the two. They’d even begun to learn the one spoken here by the villagers, which wasn’t entirely unlike Mirren’s. Kieran had suggested, more than once, that languages were one of the most useful things they could work on collecting.
“I had an idea,” Kaveri said. “We’re a family, but we’re different people with different interests, and we have a lot of time ahead of us, as long as we’re reasonably careful. We aren’t necessarily always going to want to stay close together, and we aren’t necessarily going to be happy if we feel like we have to. But I don’t want us to lose each other, either. The world’s a big place. So I suggest this. It takes almost twelve years for all five moons to be full on the same night, right?” She looked to Kieran for confirmation, and he nodded silently. “No matter what, we make sure that on that night, every time, we’re all right here.”
“That could limit how far we can travel,” Tyrel pointed out. “Even trying to move fast, it takes time to cover distance.”
“That’s true. And possibly back, if someone’s in the middle of something.” Kaveri sighed. “Maybe not so feasible.”
“I think it’s a good idea,” Kieran said thoughtfully. “We just need a little help. Typically, the moonladies return us to a place near where we died, but they don’t hold strictly to it. They didn’t send Kaveri and Mirren and Madoc to the Chief Magistrate’s estate, most recently. Perhaps if they agreed…”
Valeyan stepped into view next to the great oak, chuckling. “Give your mothers a moment to discuss this, hm? If they take too active a role, they will break the Laws we follow, but I think this should not be so large a thing. I believe they wish to encourage you in both freedom and mutual support, and this would do that.”
“I’m really not sure I can deliberately kill myself in cold blood,” Mirren sighed. “Well, I’m not likely to want to be alone soon either. Please tell me this isn’t the start of going five different directions.”
“It’s not,” Tyrel said. “But it doesn’t hurt to have an emergency plan in place, just in case.”
“They agree,” Valeyan said. “It is important to be certain you can always come together again. They will return you to the world here on the night of five full moons, and perhaps on the next send you back where you were, if you choose. The condition, of course, is that reaching them is your own responsibility.”
“That sounds perfect,” Kieran said. Kaveri was sure it was a relief for him on a completely different level: he wouldn’t lose them like he’d lost his mother. “I can think of one other thing that might be of use to us. You said that anything I make of moonlight will vanish when I truly die?”
Valeyan nodded. “It will. You are moonlight yourselves. What you make is, in a sense, a part of you and always connected to you, though it will fade in time without contact. Less so if you ask your mothers to allow it to linger. They may choose to do so without being asked, though I believe that either way, they cannot maintain it indefinitely without being renewed. For the same reason, scents and anything produced by your bodies will exist only for a limited time.”
“Then if we each make something distinctive and leave it here, you can be certain we live, and if we come here, we can, as well.”
“No time like now,” Madoc said. “Sanur and Lirit aren’t going to get any brighter soon. Basically just a banner, I suppose? You can do things other than cloth but the rest of us can’t yet.”
They experimented with that, and in the end, each produced a length of fabric, roughly arm-length and about half that width. Each was in the colour of their respective moon’s light, but each was marked. On pale yellow, Kieran’s bore a single huge life-sized dark paw-print; Tyrel’s had a darker shape that might have been the markings down a cross fox’s spine and across his shoulders or might have been a stylized dagger. On greengold, Madoc’s had diagonal dark parallel lines like claw-slashes, and Mirren’s had tabby striping all over. And Kaveri’s on violet bore raccoon-tail banding.
“We can hang these inside,” Kaveri said. “Up where nothing will use them for nesting. Then, if someone isn’t here someday… at least we’ll know.”
“In theory,” Kieran said, but left it at that. “So. I know everyone’s growing restless. I am, too. Where shall we go? There’s more out there I haven’t yet seen than that I have. Shall we simply pick a direction and start walking and see what we come to?”
Well, that does it for this little interlude! Back to the action! A princess who needs some help, a dancer, a couple of big fight scenes, and then some, in the adventure coming up next! Thank for reading, and feel free to let me know what you think! ~Steph