Being able to hike all day, without tiring or needing a drink or a break, was certainly new and interesting; with the much-lightened packs as well, they travelled a long way by full dark. Tyrel wondered at first why Kieran had chosen to be an amarog all day, but he soon realized that on four feet, Kieran was trotting along effortlessly, completely unhindered by uneven ground or underbrush.
Darkness was no hindrance, either; colours shifted, tinted more and more noticeably with pale yellow, but there was no loss of detail at all. They could have kept travelling all night as well, he thought.
Kieran bounded off into the woods, and returned a short time later, drawing their attention with a short bark; he padded off in a different direction, glancing back to be sure they were following.
He led them to a clearing where a huge tree had fallen, taking several smaller trees down with its weight. New, young trees were edging into the clearing, but hadn’t yet grown enough to block the sky.
Kieran leaped up on top of the large tree and stretched out, attention on the darkening sky.
“I guess we’re stopping for a while,” Tyrel said, dropping his pack and looking around for a good place to sit, finally choosing a dead sapling that was braced above the ground. Kaveri simply sat on the grass, legs crossed, facing him. “Do you suppose life is going to change at some point to something other than just walking? To Banvard, away from Banvard, away from Dunnval…”
“It will,” Kieran said. Tyrel glanced back, and found him now human-form, reclining on the biggest tree. “It will take us perhaps two more days to reach a great river, the Valdet, and beyond it lie lands unlike either the Forest or the forts and towns. They will care nothing for where you are from. From there, you can choose what you wish to do. You have time before you to learn any skills you choose, try any life you would like to experience. Crafter, farmer, thief, hunter. Even priest—there are gods who will willingly accept you if you will commit to enough time and will live by their values. I have done so, and there is much to learn from it.”
“How old are you?” Tyrel asked.
Kieran shrugged. “I do not know. Something over a century. Kaveri, you should now be able to change. Lirit is last to rise, of course, but I think it won’t be long. Do you recall what I told Tyrel, of how to change?”
“Look at Lirit, and ask,” Kaveri said. Tyrel thought she showed every sign of eager anticipation, no nervousness at all to match his own mixed feelings about this.
Kieran nodded. “Exactly. In time, you will not need to see them to change, but it is the easiest way.”
“Is it my imagination,” Tyrel said, “or was Talir actually paying attention to what I was doing last night?”
“If you felt she was, then very likely so,” Kieran said calmly. “Talir cares very deeply for her children. She does not watch at all times, as far as I am aware, but at times when you need her, she will do what she can. The moons are bound by the Laws, like all the gods, and beyond that, it would not be a healthy thing for any mother to constantly intervene to rescue her children from every small mishap. Never doubt, though, that she will love you always and be there for you always. Kaveri, I am sorry I do not know Lirit, but I have no reason to believe she loves her children any less.”
“I could feel it last night,” Kaveri said softly. “An absolutely incredible sense of… of welcome and joy and love, as long as the moonlight was on me.”
“I believe I am going to make my way in the direction of Valeyan’s domain,” Kieran said thoughtfully. “He may have some insight into why Sanur and Lirit have taken an interest. I know the moons have had varied feelings about how the others, the ones my mother fled from, have behaved. Perhaps some of those feelings are changing. That is a very long way to the east, however.”
Tyrel could feel it, the instant Talir edged over the trees and her light touched him; the rush of strength and pleasure was unlike anything else, and he knew utterly that had he been offered a chance to undo the mingling of blood and be human again, he would never have accepted it, since it would mean never feeling this again.
A sharp nip on his hand made him yelp and look down.
A raccoon with glowing violet eyes regarded him mischievously.
On the ground nearby, bronze and gold and lapis lazuli glinted, abandoned.
The raccoon nipped at him again, harder; it hurt, but the yellow moonlight healed it almost instantly. Tyrel hesitated, unsure of the best response.
“You may be best able to avoid her as a fox,” Kieran said, amused.
The raccoon who was Kaveri made a staccato chittering sound and danced back a couple of steps before going up on her hind legs, braced on her long striped tail.
“Why’s it so easy for her?” Tyrel demanded.
“Because she accepts it and is enjoying it for what it is, perhaps, rather than seeking to control it?”
That felt uncomfortably possible. Tyrel looked up at Talir, and asked.
It was disconcerting all over again to be facing a raccoon who was, in fact, probably his equal in mass, though much lower to the ground and wider. She hopped excitedly in place, stiff-legged, and scurried off, short legs pumping with surprising speed. Tyrel tried not to think about how, only to decide to go after her, and even more to his astonishment, his own body responded smoothly, bounding off the tree in pursuit.
Kaveri, never breaking stride, went under a fallen tree that was close to the ground; there was no way he’d get under it. Before he could make a decision to stop, he was gathering himself for a leap that arced neatly up and over the obstacle, and landing on the far side.
They chased each other around and around the clearing, under and over the fallen trees. Without really thinking about it, they largely avoided Kieran, until a particularly enthusiastic and uncontrolled lunge on Tyrel’s part plus Kaveri dropping off her perch left Tyrel in mid-jump directly at Kieran.
Kieran rolled off the large tree and was an amarog before he hit the ground. Tyrel landed in front of him in a tangled heap; strong jaws closed on the back of his neck gently, picked him up, and lowered him slowly so he could get his feet under him.
Kieran looked intimidatingly large at any time, but to a fox, he was a giant, out-massing him many times over. Still, it was hard to feel fear of an amarog who had his tail high and waving and his chest against the grass, ears forward, clearly wanting to play.
Kaveri jumped off a fallen tree onto Kieran’s back, startling him into yelping and spinning around in an attempt to catch her as she slithered to the ground. She scurried around and stayed behind him, with the result that he kept going in circles.
Tyrel caught Kieran’s tail in his teeth, dug all four paws into the ground, and held on, though Kieran nearly pulled him right off his feet. Kaveri halted and went up on her back feet to seize a double handful of dense silver-tipped black fur on either side of Kieran’s face, licked his nose with a quick pink tongue, and scampered off.
They played, heedless of minor injuries that always healed in moments, tireless in the life-giving light of the moons.
And paying no attention at all to the time. Before they knew it, the moons had set, and there would be no returning to two feet.
Tyrel sat next to the packs, wondering what they were going to do. Stay here for the day? He didn’t want to leave everything behind.
Kieran padded over, tilted his head to one side thoughtfully. When Kaveri joined them, he nudged her gently, then grabbed the straps of one pack in his teeth and flipped it up onto his back. He moved a few steps, making it very clear that it was negligible weight, then brought it back. With one paw, he pinned it to the ground, nudged the covering flap out of the way to expose the buckles, and looked expectantly at Kaveri.
Small clever raccoon paws unfastened the buckles of that pack.
With a bit of trial and effort, they got most of it put together in a single pack—they had to leave the rest of the food behind in order to do it, though. Kieran slung it into place on his back, shook himself to settle it securely, and looked at them.
A fox, Tyrel discovered, could dart through forest cover far more easily than he ever expected. His vision wasn’t as good, but his ears and nose more than made up for that—as long as he didn’t spend too much time analyzing the source of the incoming information. Any attempt to do so fractured it into an incomprehensible jumble of smells and sounds.
It was, he decided… fun. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d done anything that was purely untainted fun.
Sometime after dark, Kieran stopped, let the pack fall, and changed.
“We’ve made very good time. If we continue through the night, we will reach the river before sunrise, and once we cross that, I think you can trust that your past will no longer follow you. Shall we go on?”
Kaveri stood up on her hind legs, chittered, and nodded emphatically.
Tyrel echoed the nod. This business of constantly travelling with no goal beyond getting away, while it had enjoyable aspects, needed to end. He wanted, needed, some kind of foundation to his life again.
“All right,” Kieran said, and they got back on the move again.