Beginnings 5

Neoma set the last neatly-tied bundle of fresh herbs in her deep narrow basket, and reached for the basket’s lid, lying on the ground next to her.

Before she could settle it in place, it was yanked out of her hand.

Neoma sighed, watching the half-grown amarog cub dance backwards a couple of steps, powerful jaws locked onto the basket lid; his tail was up and his shoulders down, inviting her to chase him to get it back.

“Kieran, give that back!”

His only response, though she knew he understood the often-used phrase, was to growl and shake the basket lid ferociously, his tail still flagged high and waving wildly.

It was only willow, no matter how skilful she’d become at weaving it. Under that kind of abuse, it fragmented.

Kieran dropped the piece he still held, his tail drooping. He nosed at the pieces, whined, and gave her an apologetic look.

Neoma smiled and beckoned to him. Ears back, he slunk over and nudged his head hopefully under her hand.

He out-massed her already, in either form, and wasn’t done growing yet, yet to him she was mother and alpha, and her disapproval was the worst thing he could imagine.

She rubbed him affectionately behind his ears. “Silly cub. You’re very hard on baskets. And leather. And just about everything else.”

He whined again, but her tone set his tail waving again, if less madly, and his ears came back up to normal position.

“Obviously I need to make you more toys.” She dug her fingers into the heavy, dark, silver-tipped fur of his ruff. “Well, I guess I’m going to the village without a top for this basket.” She shoved him away and got up, slinging the leather strap over her shoulder and across her chest to support the basket against her back. She’d just have to be careful of the angle of it, so nothing would fall out.

She hadn’t gone three strides before he fell into step beside her, his head level with her hip. Amarog cubs, Maple had told her, stayed with their parents or the previous litter constantly, learning and absorbing and mimicking. It had taken her a little time to get used to his constant presence, and she worried that the time she spent in human form was interfering with his development, but she didn’t think that spending all her time as a wolf was going to be ideal, either. She’d just have to hope that his odd upbringing wouldn’t keep him from being able to have a normal adult life.

While they were still in the forest, he wandered off a few times to check interesting scents or investigate a sound or a flicker of motion. When they reached the cleared, cultivated land around the village, though, he came back to her heel and stayed there, all senses alert. He didn’t like the village, maybe a faint memory of his first time there, but she’d given up on trying to convince him to wait at the forest’s edge with Hickory. He’d even dare her scolding, and bear it in unhappy confusion, rather than be left behind.

She followed the track between freshly-ploughed fields with the long easy strides of a wolf. They saw a pair of farmers nearby out working on a field, the team of powerful oxen pulling the wooden plough through the rich thick loam steadily in straight neat lines. Others were visible farther away. Even market day had to take second place to readying the fields for their crops.

Nearer the village there were more people, who for the most part pretended not to see her, every line of their bodies speaking to her of discomfort. A few gave her wary, courteous nods in passing, at least acknowledging the presence of their odd and ageless neighbour who lived in the woods with the forest-spirits that they never even saw. No one came too close to her, nervous about the half-grown amarog padding along at her side with no collar, no sign of control that they could understand. It was ridiculous, really: she could never have held him by force, even at this age, and it was only going to become more insane an idea as he reached his full growth. The bond of the pack, of obedience to his mother and alpha, was infinitely stronger.

She reached the village proper, with its smooth broad roads of dirt packed over gravel, sloped slightly to send water into the ditches on either side, which carried it to the fields. They passed between houses and the few necessary local businesses—the one general store, the smithy—in the direction of the noise and bustle of the village square.

The market was predominantly frequented by locals, and there was little actual coin exchanged. Barter was overwhelmingly more practical here. Neoma found her usual corner, took a blanket woven of moonlight out of her basket and spread it on the ground, and settled herself there. Kieran flopped beside her, keeping a wary eye on passers-by but otherwise relaxing. The basket’s contents weren’t bulky, and didn’t cover a great deal of space once arranged on the blanket in front of her.

A few locals stopped to buy bundles of cooking herbs and dyes, watching Kieran cautiously though he made no movement towards them. They paid her in the kinds of things she otherwise had no access to. At the moment, since Talir was waning and there was nothing in particular she needed otherwise, that was mostly foodstuffs.

The healer, as he always did, found her before long. Unlike the others, he offered Kieran a hand to sniff, which he politely did—though Neoma knew he was amused at being treated rather like one of the village dogs. At least the healer wasn’t afraid.

There wasn’t a great deal they could talk about, but he did make an effort to be friendly, so she always returned it. He mentioned things that might be in short supply in the village soon. She advised him of an area where her friends were protecting an aging grey vixen and what would be her final litter of kits, with her mate recently dead, following her sister with whom she’d shared den and mate all their lives.

He knew her well enough to have an excellent idea what she would most like in trade: this time, the book he offered was the diary of a merchant’s son, describing the places they’d been and the customs there.

Once he left, she leaned against Kieran to flip through it while waiting to sell the last of her goods. The word wolf caught her eye, and she paused.

“Listen, Kieran: this says there’s a place in the north-west where they believe wolves to be the ideal model of family life, and they try to follow it, both within individual families and by extension into the society as a whole.”

Kieran thumped the ground with his tail and nuzzled her lovingly.

“However, the original tribe has grown to such a size that they’ve created multiple castes. The lowest caste are referred to as dogs, which are often of mixed blood or have managed to get themselves demoted from one of the others. Grey wolves are considered the spirit of the warrior caste, red wolves are the spirit of the farmers and craftspeople, and amarogs are considered to be the spirit of the wealthy, educated, and powerful.”

Kieran snorted air through his nose, more in reaction to her tone than from any genuine comprehension of the abstract concepts. Neoma chuckled and rubbed him behind his ears.

“It’s rather mad, when they’re all human. At least their ancestors had the wisdom to know a stable and supportive family when they saw it, however.” She reached over for a loaf of bread she’d bartered for earlier, and pulled her knife from her belt to cut off a chunk for Kieran, then a slice for herself. She and Hickory had built an oven, and it was no great trick to grind wild grains, but she had to admit that nothing she produced had quite the savour or texture of the bread made by some of the villagers.

Sometime later, Neoma packed up her new book and the other things she’d traded for, and left the village with Kieran frisking around her, exuberant in his relief over being out of the village and back in their own home.

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