A gentle touch roused Tyrel. He opened his eyes, and discovered in confusion that there was no one near him. There was only pale yellow light, flowing over him like brilliant water, all at once comforting as warm sun, refreshing as cool water, filling him with strength and pleasure and joy. The pain in his leg had vanished, along with any trace of fatigue or discomfort. He looked up, and saw Talir just above the level of the tree-tops, the source of the light bathing the little clearing.
A quiet bark drew his gaze downward. The amarog was sitting next to him, tail curled neatly around its feet, eyes glowing. Moonlight shimmered like a reflection on water, and it was no longer an amarog sitting there, it was a tall, lean, dark man.
“You have been staring at our mother for quite a long time,” he said, his tone distinctly amused, his accent unfamiliar. “Perhaps, if you are feeling better, you could wake Kaveri and we can talk?”
“A long time?” Tyrel echoed in confusion, glancing at Talir… who was well above the treetops. “It didn’t feel like long.”
Kaveri had curled up beside him, half-wrapped in a blanket. Tyrel laid a hand on her shoulder and said her name, then gave her a gentle shake.
She stirred, stretched and yawned, then sat up, combing her hair back out of her eyes with her fingers. Thrall chains and cuffs glinted in the moonlight; Tyrel found his thoughts turning to how badly Kaveri probably wanted to be rid of them, and how they could achieve that.
“Now,” the no-longer-amarog said gravely. “My name is Kieran. Your brother is not dead in any common sense of the word, and he will return to you when Sanur rises full, none the worse for it. What we are… long ago, the moons created the first of us, not born but passed by blood. Their children grew corrupted, and one fled the rest. She was my mother. The others found her, and I have not seen her since.”
“Is there anyone else like you?” Kaveri said softly.
“Only you, now. I grew up far from here. Since I left there… I have for the most part been more careful than these past few days. I have learned to stay out of sight during the day when wandering through areas where there are no amarogs, to keep from attracting attention. You startled me. I had intended only to scare you into going elsewhere. I should not have allowed it to become a fight. In fact, you should never have known I was there. I let instinct win. I am sorry.”
“That’s what happened to Madoc?” Kaveri said alertly. “On the way to Banvard?”
“Yes,” Tyrel said. “When we got there, the Chief was not impressed about having someone not human in his fort. That’s why he attacked us. The ghosts were really draining me, but not him. Your spirit-protection herbs, in the oil, made our weapons work on the ghosts. I have no idea if the amulets helped or not. Madoc got us home.”
“Sanur was bright still, you were lucky,” Kieran said. “Much closer to the dark of the moon, and he would not have recovered so well.”
“I’m not sure I won’t decide it was a good thing,” Tyrel said slowly, finally voicing the thought that had been stirring somewhere deep in his mind. “I wasn’t much looking forward to a lifetime of being Chief, but leaving was such an enormous decision I couldn’t bring myself to do it.”
“It’s a blessing for me,” Kaveri said. “I’m out from behind walls and in the Forest.”
“We need to do something about those cuffs,” Tyrel added, and wondered about the glance Kaveri threw at Kieran.
“When we can,” she said. “They aren’t much in my way. But I’d very much like that, thank you.”
“What you need to know,” Kieran said, “is that you are very much Talir’s son. While she is bright, you will not need to eat or sleep, her light will give you everything. Closer to new, you will need to do both, and you will be very tired for a day or so around moon-dark. In the moonlight, you will be able to change to another form, although I do not know what it is. It is an easy thing in bright moonlight, less comfortable in less moonlight, and not possible during the day or at moon-dark. You will not age, or fall ill, though you do need to have a care for sunlight too long or intense, the sunburn will be very bad. Talir’s light will heal anything—though a severe injury may need more of it, and a bad sunburn will take a great deal. If you die by anything that comes from earth—metal, stone, bone, wood—you will go to Talir until the next full moon. However, you can die permanently if it is by something that is not of earth. Most humans will feel uneasy, at best, if they learn any part of what you are, so it’s best to keep it to yourself, even though that limits how long you can remain in any place—a few years, a decade. There are forever new places to see, new things to learn.” He left Tyrel pondering that, and picked up Kaveri’s butterfly knife. “Kaveri, the choice is yours. It would make it very difficult to go back to your own people, but you could never be chained again.” He offered her the knife.
She accepted it, toying with it. “I can’t go back to my people anyway,” she said finally. “I’ve had to change too much in order to survive in an alien environment. They would accept me home, but the past couple of years happened and can’t unhappen, and I don’t think I can feel like one of them anymore. That isn’t where I belong now. They’ve already grieved for me. Better to let it be.” She unfolded the knife, took a deep breath, and sliced into her lower arm just above her wrist, flinching but nonetheless making it deep enough for red blood to show. She handed the knife back to Kieran, who gravely echoed the motion and, swiftly, clasped her hand tightly, bringing the two cuts together. After only a few heartbeats, he let go. There was no sign of damage to his arm save the faintly-shining topaz blood.
Kaveri watched in fascination as the dark blood dripping from her arm gradually paled and turned to the violet of wild lilac flowers.
“Lirit?” Kieran said thoughtfully. “And Sanur claimed your brother. I had believed only Talir had taken an interest in us.”
“Do we need to stay here?” Tyrel asked. “Will Madoc come back to the same place?”
“I do not know Sanur,” Kieran said slowly. “Or what she will do. Talir has never returned me to a place of danger. Most often, she returns me as near as she safely can to where I was. This time, she left me close to you instead. I think we need to ask. What earthborn cares for this domain?”
“What what?” Tyrel asked blankly.
“You mean the Grandmother?” Kaveri asked. “She looks after the Forest.”
Kieran nodded. “Is there a way to call her that she prefers?”
“We don’t often see her. Tradition says that she’ll come to someone who calls her in sincere need and sincere respect.”
Kieran nodded again, and raised his voice. “Earthborn?” he called. “Grandmother? I am Talir’s son, and Valeyan calls me friend. Will you do us the very great honour of speaking with us?”
For a very long moment, there was silence in the clearing. Even the wind stilled.
A woman stepped out of the pines surrounding them. She was very tall with ample curves, large full breasts and wide hips, covered only by the long grey hair that fell to her knees. Her skin was deep red-brown, and her eyes gleamed like diamonds. Though definitely not young, there was equally nothing frail about her: she was as ageless as a rock or an enormous tree.
“I know you, Kieran,” she greeted him gravely. “Valeyan sent out word about Neoma and her bloodline, long ago in human terms but barely yesterday in ours. You are welcome here. What do you seek, son of Talir?”
“Sanur has a new son, who has just gone to her for the first time, without even knowing what he is. We are concerned about leaving this place, in case she returns him here where he died. But there are others who might come who mean harm to these two, Talir’s newest son and Lirit’s daughter, and it might mean more blood spilled if we remain.”
Another pause. “Sanur will see to it that he comes to you wherever you are, and she thanks you for your concern for her son. I am very glad you are free, granddaughter.” Without another word, she walked towards the nearest trees.
“Thank you, Grandmother,” Kaveri murmured, and Tyrel saw a tear trace a line down her cheek.
“Thank you, earthborn,” Kieran said. “If there is anything I can do…”
“You have done it,” she replied. “You killed some of those who harass and enslave the Forest’s wild children. Perhaps it will be a reminder that they are not welcome in the Forest.” She glanced back, as though aware of Tyrel’s sudden intense discomfort. “You are Talir’s son, foster-son of one Forester, a loyal brother to another, and you have protected and freed a third. You are welcome.” She vanished into the trees.
“You talk to gods often?” Tyrel asked shakily.
Kieran shrugged. “What one earthborn asks, the others will normally grant. My mother, when she fled, lived a long time in the wilds and helped the nature-spirits of the domain to protect it, at times in ways they could not. The earthborn there loved her very much. The earthborn are, I think, for the most part easy to talk to, and often inclined to be helpful if you show courtesy. Though there are exceptions. The moons do not speak, which I think is a sad thing.”
“You always talk about your mother as if she’s dead,” Kaveri said gently. “Is she?”
“She did not return to our home, though I was there a long time after. I have not found any hint of her since. I don’t know how she can be, but I think she must be dead. Still, I do have hope.” He shrugged. “So. Kaveri, Lirit is waxing and strong but it will take a little time for that blood to work entirely through your body. Tyrel, however… you have had time, and you have more than enough moonlight to change.”
“Look at Talir, and ask for what you want.”
Puzzled, Tyrel fixed his gaze on Talir again, and tried to frame what he was asking for as some kind of clear request, although he wasn’t entirely certain what he was asking for.
The oddest sensation tickled through his mind, like laughter but without any sound.
That was followed by an even odder sensation, a sort of tingling that started somewhere deep inside and spread outwards. The pale yellow light brightened… no, it was him, he realized, he could see through his own hand because it was made of nothing but light.
Before he had time for more than a brief flash of fear, the strange feelings faded away.
Everything looked much, much too large, and the woodland he’d thought was quiet was anything but.
“Fox,” Kaveri chuckled. “How appropriate.”
Tyrel tried to ask what she was talking about, but it came out as a yip.
“Red fox,” Kieran clarified. “Though not in fact quite red. I believe that is normally referred to as a cross fox, that mix of tawny and black. It will take some practice to grow accustomed to it. Try not to think too much about anything you do, simply do it.”
He was standing on top of a pile of his own clothing, Tyrel realized, and jumped off. In mid-bounce, he got confused by too many feet and the weight of a tail, and stumbled.
Kieran’s hands, which seemed entirely too big to be real, gently untangled him and set him back on his feet. “It will take practice. Have patience. Move around and it will begin to feel more familiar.”
Tyrel looked down, still disoriented by the sight of his own hand replaced by a slender dark-furred paw. How did animals walk?
Something tugged his tail; he yipped and whipped around, realized his ears had flattened and his feet had sorted themselves out without his direction.
“Stop over-thinking,” Kieran reproved him. “The reflexes are there. Allow them to work.”
“Why do your clothes stay, but Madoc’s and Tyrel’s didn’t?” Kaveri asked suddenly.
“Because my clothes are made of moonlight, which is what your body now is, as well.” Kieran cupped a hand, and the yellow light pooled within it like water. With his other hand, he drew it out, stretching it, and it formed a long length of fabric. “It is far more convenient. Cloth and soft things like rope are not so hard, though with practice you can be more precise and alter the colour. Other things are possible, but more difficult.” He ran the length of cloth through his hands again, and it darkened and possibly expanded. He handed it to Kaveri, who wrapped it behind her back, crossed it at the front over her breasts, and tied it behind her neck. “I think that we are in no danger of attack immediately, and we can safely stay here until you are ready to move on. You might consider what you truly need to bring along and what you can leave.” He gathered more moonlight, weaving it into what gradually took shape as a shirt.
Tyrel kept working on this. It had been a long time since he’d felt so little control over his own body, after a lifetime of driving himself to be always faster, always more accurate. Throw in the sense of sheer unreality about this, and he had to keep forcing aside an uncharacteristic impulse to run and hide. Even more, he desperately wanted Madoc with him—his brothers absence made him feel like he’d lost part of himself. And yet, the moonlight’s caress was a constant comfort, more real than anything he’d ever experienced before, a flood of not just endless strength but something he could only call encouragement.
“Talir will set very soon,” Kieran said. “You need to decide which form to spend the day in, since you will be unable to change again until moonrise. There are clothes there for you, with your pack.” He cupped his hands, drank moonlight from them, eyes half-closed in pleasure, then his outline fluxed in the light from human back to amarog.
Being a fox all day, without Talir’s support… not something that currently appealed to Tyrel at all. He looked up at Talir, and wordlessly implored her to change him back.
It still felt very peculiar, he wasn’t sure how he’d ever get used to the feeling, but when it passed he was human again. With great relief, he reached for the clothes Kieran had made.
They felt almost like real fabric, not leather but more like the cotton that was commonly used in the towns. All of it was a darker shade of Talir’s light, an amber-brown, and most of it was lightweight and cool against his skin. There were even boots, low ones of the same soft stuff, but with the soles much thicker; not rigid, and so lacking in any support, but heavy enough to protect against most damage.
Kieran was watching him. Tyrel told him, “Thanks,” and the amarog dipped his head in acknowledgement.
“So, let’s see what we need and what we don’t,” he said, sitting down across from Kaveri and reaching for the nearest pack.
Together, they unpacked everything, sorting it into piles on spread blankets. Clothing they decided to discard. They checked with Kieran on the usefulness of some things, and tossed hygiene supplies and cloaks into the pile with the clothes. Having established that they would have no need to eat for a few days, Kaveri set the remaining bread and cheese aside to leave to the wildlife since they’d be inedible before they got used. They debated about the rest of the food, and kept the jerky, tea, and honey, adding the oats and lentils to Kaveri’s pile to distribute. Weaponry and jewellery and keepsakes went back into the packs, along with the cooking supplies and the food they’d decided to keep.
Tyrel lifted one pack. “Well, that’s certainly smaller and lighter.” He looked at the sky. The moons were out of sight, the sky was growing distinctly lighter. “Are you tired?”
Kaveri shook her head. “Not at all.”
“Kieran? What about moving on now?”
Kieran got to his feet, stretched lazily, and padded over to wait for them.
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