Beginnings 4

Neoma lurked in the forest between Hickory and Chipmunk, watching the human village in the valley below them. From here, though they could see little detail, they had a reasonable view of the cluster of a score or so buildings that made up the core of the village. The communal pens that held livestock were on the far side; most of the animals were outside their shelters, enjoying the end of the cold snap and the break in the spring rains. Cultivated land spread out on all sides in small to medium patches, some approximately rectangular, some odder shapes worked into the natural contours of the land.

Irregularly, over the decades Neoma had lived here, Valeyan or the forest-spirits had turned to her as an intermediary with the villagers. Sometimes, she visited the marketplace to sell what she could provide—herbs for medicine or cooking or dyes from odd parts of the deep forest were the most popular—and to buy what she couldn’t make for herself.

That meant that she had some idea of the layout of the village, which would be helpful come moonrise.

She kept her attention on human comings and goings, rather than on the glorious streaks of red and rose and glowing gold and copper in the western sky beyond the village.

“It won’t be in one of the livestock barns,” Neoma said, keeping her voice low—her companions would be able to hear her. “That would panic the livestock. My guess is that they’ll have it in someone’s outbuilding, a storage shed or something of the kind.”

Vetch and Maple had seen a quartet of humans, with six powerful-looking dogs dragging a kind of sled, approach the village from the direction of a neighbouring earthborn’s domain. On the sled had been a covered cage, and from inside they’d heard the terrified whimpering of a wolf cub. They’d immediately gone looking for help.

Whatever might be permissible in other domains, Valeyan would not tolerate wild creatures being caged. Once Talir rose, Neoma intended to find that cub and rescue it, whether the humans who had imprisoned it consented or not.

But what was happening? There was much more activity than normal, an argument, she thought—voices were rising, carried by the breeze, though the words were indistinct.

Maple eased himself silently into the space between her and Chipmunk—Neoma started slightly, unable to grow entirely accustomed to her inability to hear or smell the forest-spirits coming. As naked as all his kind, his grey-brown skin blended with the gathering shadows, as he tossed back a hip-length lock of deep green hair impatiently.

“There’s a disagreement,” he murmured. “The strangers are on one side, with a very few of the villagers. A number of the villagers oppose them, and others are watching but not involved. I could not get near enough to hear what it’s about. I think the villager who speaks the most is their healer, though.”

Now that was interesting. The healer had been born here, had left only long enough for training, and had returned; when Neoma visited the market, he invariably bought whatever healing herbs she had. She rather liked him, and had never heard him say anything disrespectful of her friends. Why was he arguing with the strangers?

Moments later, the healer strode out of the village towards the forest. The wind tossed his dark cloak around him, which made it hard to see, but Neoma thought he was carrying a wrapped bundle in both arms. He wasn’t coming in their direction, so they circled around to where they could intercept his path. Many of the villagers, more cautious, emerged from the village but stayed farther back. A few of the strongest, including the smith, were keeping a very close eye on a quartet Neoma had never seen, who were dressed in leather and fur and protesting quite vocally.

“What’s he doing?” Hickory whispered, puzzled.

Neoma shrugged. “Let’s find out.” She left the shelter of the trees and walked out to meet the healer. One thing she’d bought was a pair of good, sturdy leather boots, and she’d grown much better over time at weaving clothing for herself from moonlight, so at least she’d look presentable in front of what looked to be most of the village.

The healer, a man with the usual local traits of brown hair, tanned brown skin, middling height, and sturdy build, paused to wait for her, struggling to keep his grip on the bundle he carried, which seemed to be trying to squirm away from him. From here, Neoma could hear plaintive whimpering. He’d brought the wolf cub? It couldn’t be anything else, though it was enveloped in a blanket, probably against injury—the cub’s, or his own.

As soon as she was close enough, he offered her the bundle of cub and blanket. “Here. This little one has been through enough. You can look after it better, I think.”

Neoma, awkwardly, wrapped both arms around the struggling bundle. “Where did they get him?”

The healer shook his head, expression sorrowful. “West of here. They killed the adults and brought the pelts with them. This one they thought they could train as if it were a dog, or sell as a novelty. That isn’t right.”

A novelty? Neoma looked down at the cub, which was still whimpering softly, though less urgently. Wolves weren’t so uncommon as all that.

The cub’s fur was a very dark grey, each hair frosted at the very tip with a much paler grey; she’d thought from the weight that it must be half-grown, but it had the short muzzle and rounded ears of a very young cub. This was neither one of the small red forest wolves, nor the somewhat larger grey wolves who thrived in thinner forest and open ground. This was an amarog cub, one of the much rarer, larger wolves who preferred broken or mountainous terrain. She’d heard they were both more intelligent and longer-lived than other wolves, as well, though she’d never encountered one in person before. She’d certainly never heard of their being any threat to humans or to human livestock.

Hunters had killed a mated pair of amarogs for their pelts? They must have been lucky enough to find a young pair raising their first cub, without other pack members, because surely four humans could never slaughter a full-strength amarog pack.

“The hunters?” she asked, harshly.

The healer’s expression was grim. “We’ll see to them. It’s too important to us to live in peace with the forest, we’ll tolerate nothing that breaks the rules, even if it wasn’t done here. But that’s for us to do. What we can’t do is give the little one the life he should have.”

“We’ll look after him,” Neoma promised. “He’ll grow up free.”

“As he should.”

“Thank you.” She shifted the cub’s weight, and turned around to walk back up the hill to her friends. Talir had risen, the thin light from the yellow crescent washing over her skin and creating a very faint glow. That must look interesting to the villagers and hunters, she thought in some amusement.

Hickory, Maple, and Chipmunk met her just inside the trees—shy of humans as they were, it would have been difficult for any of them to even step out into view of so many.

“It’s an amarog cub, I think,” Neoma told them.

Maple deftly took the cub from her, unwrapping it; the cub stopped whining and sniffed at him curiously. “Yes,” he agreed. “And far too young to be weaned, let alone away from his family. Amarog cubs are born every second year, and stay with their parents for at least a full four years to learn. Hickory or Chipmunk can nurse him until he’s weaned, but he’s going to need a foster mother who can teach him.”

Neoma sighed, as Maple handed the cub to Hickory—the cub began to whine again, sniffing around with renewed urgency, until Hickory helped him seize one breast; then he settled down to suckling, probably too hungry to care about the unfamiliar logistics. Neoma had seen the female forest-spirits nurse any number of creatures who needed it, and mostly found it fascinating that they could, on no notice, and despite the very different needs of different species.

“I’m not even a real wolf myself.”

“A true red wolf or grey wolf couldn’t teach an amarog enough,” Chipmunk said. “They’re far too smart. If you truly want him to do well, you should expect to have him with you for at least the next four years or so, until he’s fully adult.”

Neoma watched the nursing cub, and shrugged. “Well, four years isn’t so long. And since his own parents were stolen from him, we’ll do what we can for him.”

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