Kieran tried his best not to fret and fuss at Kaveri to move more quickly.
After all, they’d fled Galimont as soon as he was reasonably sure that Tyrel and Madoc had cleaning up well in hand and that Mirren was stable and adjusting well. Going so quickly to Sanur might have helped; that was something he’d have to remember. In his experience, those with strong ties to their human lives adapted much less successfully, but for all Mirren’s love of her city, other things mattered to her as well, and he hoped that would be enough. Had he seen anything that worried him, or had he doubted the ability of the brothers to help her, responsibility would have won no matter how badly he’d wanted out of Galimont; if anything, he believed that the situation with Mirren would go a long way towards helping Tyrel with his own lingering mixed feelings. As it was, even the few days of extra delay to get past moondark for both of them had felt like a long time.
With only him and Kaveri, they were slowed sometimes by the mismatched moon cycles, but they made much better time than they could have with the others. She couldn’t possibly keep up with him in her raccoon form, but she didn’t really need to: Foresters had been running long distances, barefoot or with thin-soled sandals on particularly rough terrain, for as far back as Forester lore went. With an extremely minimal moonlight-woven pack holding nothing she would be reluctant to abandon at need, the two of them could move at what he had to admit in his calmer moments was quite a respectable speed.
At least they were out of the city and he was back in his proper form and they were moving in the right direction. Kaveri was, he thought, just as relieved to be back outside. He did check with her that she had no problem with him spending so much time on four feet, but then, after four years of living together and pretending to be married, with a decade of travelling together before that, they could enjoy each other’s company without needing to talk. Avoiding any further human settlements needed no discussion; they’d taken much longer a detour already than they’d expected, in Galimont. He’d delayed their travels often enough before that, in the interests of teaching them about the world and themselves, but hadn’t counted on such an extended stay.
They’d left with both Talir and Lirit waxing, and made what Kieran estimated as eight or nine days’ journey for humans in six days even before the strengthening moonlight banished any need at all for food or sleep. With both full the same night, they had several days on either side in which they covered a great deal of ground very quickly. Kieran could feel his tail flagging high with anticipation every time he looked at the lush green hills looming ahead of them, as every instinct howled to him that home was right there.
Unfortunately, Talir’s shorter cycle meant Kieran began to feel the effects long before Kaveri did, slowing them to a human pace and finally forcing them to camp long enough for him to drowse through the moondark fatigue.
That made Kieran fret. Human-type reasoning and concepts were never first nature for him, always became harder to hold onto around moondark or during extended periods without changing to human, and worse when those were combined.
As soon as he was past the worst of it, he insisted on getting back into motion.
When Lirit’s darkness came around a few days later, he relentlessly reined in the bone-deep certainty that they were so close, so very close, refusing to push Kaveri no matter how difficult it was to restrain himself. Kaveri, however, knew. She yielded to the exhaustion only to the degree that she absolutely had to; as soon as she felt able to be on her feet again, she abandoned the small rough camp they’d created. Kieran helpfully slung her small pack over his own back and matched his pace to hers, reminding himself frequently that at least they were moving.
The hills finally stopped being shapes in the distance and turned the relatively flat sporadically-cultivated young woodland around them into deeper hills and wilder forest, less influenced by human hands. There were roads still, but narrower tracks with less traffic even during the day.
“Kieran!” a female voice squealed in delight, from among the morning-sun-dappled trees. Kieran dropped Kaveri’s pack, spun in that direction.
Heartbeats later, he found himself in the heart of a tangle of bare grey-brown skin and wild leaf-green hair, all trying to hug him at once, hands scritching around his ears and digging into the thick fur of his ruff.
Anything else he was vanished for the moment, and he was only Neoma’s fostered amarog cub, surrounded by the forest-spirits who had helped her raise him. He licked excitedly at faces and anything else accessible, nuzzling and whining happily, vaguely aware that his tail was waving so ecstatically that his entire back end was moving with it.
He heard Kaveri try to smother a giggle, but didn’t care. He probably did look less than dignified at the moment, but so what?
“You haven’t been home at all since you left,” Vetch chided. “We’ve missed you!”
“Indeed we have,” Valeyan agreed—not in Kieran’s own language, but the one Kaveri had accepted as her own after her capture. He was, after all, a god, if a regional one. His forest-spirits would always understand him, and could speak the language of anyone within their domain, which was going to somewhat simplify the language complications Kieran could otherwise foresee when the other three caught up. Valeyan strode over to the tangle of brown and green and frosted-dark to lay a hand on Kieran’s head. “It is good to see you well, Kieran.” Kieran nuzzled into his hand, tail still beating at the air.
“You are welcome here, daughter of Lirit,” he added. “As are the other son of Talir and the children of Sanur, when they join you.”
“Thank you, Earth-lord,” Kaveri said softly. “We’ll treat your lands with respect, and the welcome is very much appreciated. Kieran considers this home, and we’ve been looking forward to seeing it.”
He chuckled. “We consider this his home, as well, and all Neoma’s bloodline, for all time. Kieran can show you where.” He stepped back into the deeper underbrush, towards a large old tree; briefly, his shape overlapped with that of the tree, then he was gone.
“We’ve been looking after it,” Chipmunk said. “Maintaining it as much as we can. Hickory is there a lot of the time. She’ll be so glad to see you.”
One of them caught up Kaveri’s pack to carry, and they urged the two of them onward, off the rough road and directly into the forest itself. Though Kaveri was at home in woodland, and as quiet and quick as any human could be, no human could ever match the forest-spirits in their own domain. Some of the wild things spooked and fled; others lingered to watch them inquisitively.
The sun climbed and the sky brightened, though they were safe enough in the shade of the trees.
Kieran bounded over a stream and frisked out of the trees into the light bathing a hill that was largely open ground, crowned by an ancient massive oak; Kaveri followed, splashing through the chill water of the stream since it was too wide to jump, and stepped out onto the grass behind him, more cautious but also curious.
Partway up the slope, partway around the hill, Kieran led her, to what looked almost like a shoulder of the hill, a dome of earth overgrown with grass, though it had a doorway shielded by an alcove that broke the wind; a short way in front of that, a broad ring of flat rocks surrounded a shallow pit. At least half a score more forest-spirits were here waiting, and he saw another flit out of the shadows to join them, but the others hung back to allow one to greet him first.
“Kieran!” Hickory dropped to one knee, arms open; Kieran ran to her, licking her face and wriggling more wildly than ever as she hugged him tightly. She was, after all, his mother’s dearest friend, who had helped to raise him, and faint far-off memories were of her cradling him to nurse. She had, with others, held him against the desperate need to go to his mother while she was screaming. After Talir refused to cooperate, refused to heal Neoma to endure more and gathered her to her, it was Hickory who collected his mother’s spilled blood from the ground that would not absorb it, and used it to change him, and supported him through learning a new form and a new way to experience the world. Though neither alpha nor mother, she wasn’t far from it.
After a moment, the others ran out of patience and piled on him all over again.
Eventually, the tangle sorted itself out, and the various forest-spirits drifted off into the forest; Hickory remained, and when she sat down in the shade of the great oak Kieran flopped next to her with his head on her leg, tail thumping the ground happily.
“I’m Hickory,” she said to Kaveri, stroking Kieran’s head and ears and digging her fingers into his neck ruff. “I’m glad Kieran hasn’t been alone.”
“My friends and I haven’t been around all that long,” Kaveri confessed, joining her. “I lost count but I think maybe a dozen or fifteen years? I suppose that is a long journey, but we got distracted at times, once for four years, and we stopped through each winter. The others are coming soon, but they wanted to make sure that everything will work out right in the city we were just in. If at all possible, they’ll be here in time for Talir and Lirit and Sanur to share a full moon next summer. They’re too smart to leave shelter in the winter, so it will likely be spring by the time they get back on the road.”
“Tell me? About yourself and your friends?”
There was no reason not to, so Kaveri obligingly did. Not the half-truth they told humans who just wouldn’t understand, but all of it.
That Hickory had made no mentioned of Neoma was a very bad sign. Had she been here, alerting her and waiting on her would have been priorities. Sadly, Kieran resigned himself to still not knowing whether she was even alive, though how she could have died remained as much a mystery as where she was if she lived.
He saw forest-spirits flitting around, leaving gifts of autumn fruit and nuts and the like—someone had been observant enough to realize that at Lirit’s current phase, Kaveri would need to eat. Hickory held up a hand to pause Kaveri’s tale and went inside briefly, returning with a pottery platter and a larger deeper pot and one of Neoma’s knives, and settled herself to sorting the bounty into things readily eaten raw, on the platter, and things best cooked, into the pot, while she listened.
Kieran, also listening, remembered the first days after leaving Dunnval very well indeed.
It would be hard to forget Tyrel’s expression when he’d realized just what everyone else in that part of the world thought of the parasitic forts and amoral cities. Kieran had feared that Tyrel would bog down in guilt and shame, even after Madoc’s return; the reckless self-endangerment had alarmed Kieran more than a little, and he was grateful that it had subsided before long. He remained certain that Tyrel’s need to be there when Madoc returned, the mutual dependence of the brothers, a sense of responsibility for Kaveri, and a drive to atone, had combined to keep Tyrel around long enough to adjust to his new reality.
Kaveri, nibbling on the berries and nuts and fruits, did finish at least a summary of their stay in Galimont and what they’d accomplished and why the other three had remained, before fatigue began to catch up with her visibly.
“Rest until moonrise,” Hickory said sympathetically. “You can be entirely safe from the sun inside.”
“I wish I could refuse that offer,” Kaveri said ruefully. “A few more days and it wouldn’t matter so much.”
Kieran went inside Neoma’s house with her just to make sure she got settled comfortably. Neoma’s bed, wood notched and lashed together, with a webwork of cord that could support blankets and furs, was in sorry condition, but a considerable pile of freshly-gathered long grass and clean leaves and the like waited, still smelling strongly of sun and fresh air.
“I’m fine,” Kaveri reassured him, sitting down on the nest. “Who could argue with hospitality like this? I’ve had much worse beds. You’re home. Go enjoy it.”
He nuzzled her affectionately.
“I just wish,” she said softly, “we’d found your mother here waiting for us.”
He sighed. So did he, but realistically, if she were alive and had intended to come back here, she would have done it in the years between the time he’d changed and the time he’d left. He gave Kaveri a last gentle bump with his head, and went back outside.
It wasn’t all that long until moonrise, but then, she needed less sleep than a human. It should work out well. Meanwhile, if he were going to find some meat to add to her meal, he needed to re-learn his territory and any changes in it.